…A Place You’ve Never Been

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All my life, my heart has yearned for a thing I cannot name – Andre Breton

I might start a series of posts on beautiful and moving foreign words that have no exact equivalent in the English language. There are times when you hear a word in a foreign language and it captures some sense, some feeling that no English word can quite touch. Something beautiful about that. So I might do that.

At any rate, today I write a post, at least, about a foreign word that has no exact equivalent in the English language. A German word. Fernweh.

Fernweh. To be homesick for a place you’ve never been.

That aching longing to find yourself, to find your place, somewhere else, somewhere far from wherever you are. The deep seated sense that you truly belong somewhere far away.  The corresponding English terms ‘travel bug’ and ‘itchy feet’ don’t capture it. To be homesick for a place you’ve never been. To be farsick.

It’s a feeling I’ve known well. The reason I wanted to write about fernweh is that it taps into something that moves deep in my soul. I was never one to feel homesick but to feel farsick, to feel my place lies somewhere on the other side of the horizon, to yearn to find it there. Captivated by the breadth and wonder of the world and need to be in it. For a long time, on days off, I’d drive into the countryside, wanting to keep driving through the wild green hills and never stop. But I always felt like there was a rope tied around my waist that’d always pull me back. Whenever I went to the airport to drop off or pick someone up I’d feel this deep sadness because I wanted to hop on a plane and fly somewhere far away.

It was over a decade ago that I walked over the border from Egypt to Israel, caught a taxi to Eilat then hopped on a bus for a 4-5 hr trip to Jerusalem. 10 days in Israel but I didn’t know where I’d sleep that night, where the bus was meant to stop, or even that I hadn’t yet considered these things. My only plan was to spend the night in the Old City, which, finding my way down a dark and quiet Souq Khan el Zeit Street to a hostel tucked away within some medieval building, I did. The next 10 days were about delightfully getting lost within the winding lanes of the Old City, hopping between backpacker hostels, and further afield in Israel and Palestine. So much of the history of the world lives and breathes in that place. The possibilities for exploration and discovery were near endless within this little patch of the world alone, not to mention roads beyond. I saw in my heart’s eye Turkey and Europe and beyond. One morning I rose while still dark, made my instant espresso and climbed to the top of the 700 year old building where I was staying, one of the tallest in the old city, to see the sunrise and hear the muezzin calls competing with the church bells. It was the morning I nearly didn’t come home.


What is it, this feeling? It’s the like-oppositeness of homesickness. The person suffering homesickness and the one suffering from farsickness both yearn for the same thing: belonging. Their place. The homesick person, however, wants to find it in security, in what’s safe, familiar, known whereas the farsick person feels their place, their belonging, is always somewhere they’ve never yet been, in something they cannot name. Opened to the mystery, wonder and possibilities that the wider world holds, the heart is captivated. There’s something in our heart that loves security. But there’s also something that stirs us to abandon ourselves to mystery, adventure, and boundless horizons. That knows we’re made for that.

And yet I did come home. There were obvious reasons – limited funds, obligations, of course… but more. The knowledge that the thing I cannot name, the place I’ve never been… I wouldn’t find it out there. I mean I would… but then it’d slip from my grasp. Hold onto the horizon for (not very) long and it turns into the familiar and secure. The very nature of longing for the far off means I can never have it. Moby Dick’s Ishmael pontificates on this better than me. Hence, I quote:

Round the world! There is much in that sound to inspire proud feelings; but whereto does all that circumnavigation conduct? Only through numberless perils to the very point whence we started, where those we left behind secure, were all the time before us.
Were this world an endless plain, and by sailing eastward we could for ever reach new distances, and discover sights more sweet and strange than any Cyclades or Islands of King Solomon, then were there promise in the voyage. But in pursuit of those far mysteries we dream of, or in tormented chase of that demon phantom that, some time or other, swims before all human hearts; while chasing such over this round globe, they either lead us on in barren mazes or midway leave us whelmed.


For Ishmael the world is an empty ocean that can’t hold the wonder we chase after. I know my heart is made for mystery, wonder and boundless horizons and yet I can’t find enough of those things in all this world. The wonders of nature, cultures and histories tantalise and awaken a deep stirring within me; they excite and lead me on in the pursuit. But I’m still yearning afterwards. Led ever on in endless chase or left behind. For Ishmael it’s ‘coz the mystery we seek is just a ‘demon phantom’ that’s in our hearts but that doesn’t exist in the real world and here I disagree. The tantalising magic of the far off is real. Anyone who’s experienced it knows that. Thing is it’s just a taste. It’s tantalising of my soulish tongue reveals but isn’t finally the thing I seek. What I really long for is heralded by, even I think is the source of but not finally in any of that.
I long for the infinite.

Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand… Have you ever given orders to the morning, or shown the dawn its place..? Job 38

In the beginning you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. Psalm 102

Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. Psalm 73

In the Bible I read that the infinite my heart longs for, far from being a demon phantom leading nowhere, is real. My heart has this habit of wanting to reduce God to something less than the world; smaller, narrower, restrictive. But God is revealed as the Infinite Majestic, rich in mystery, wonder, grandeur – untamed, wild, boundless. Far from being a narrow concept within the world, the Infinite One has formed the world and set up its horizons, its height and depths; the one from whom the universe’s magic derives and to whom it points. It’s we, it’s me, who has insisted on the idea of God as tame, domesticated and mean-spirited and then been disappointed in him.

The Christian life is the call to find your place in abandoning yourself to the mystery, adventure and boundlessness of God. And here’s the paradox, and the difficulty of believing; I don’t leave aside all I know and search and journey to the ends of the earth to grasp the ungraspable. Instead it’s the Infinite God who has traversed the greatest distances to draw close to me, to us, in our ordinary ‘here and now’. And not only the ordinary but the downright low and humiliating. ‘Don’t you know me after all this time?’ Jesus says to his bewildered students in John 14. ‘Whoever has seen me has seen the Father’. The next morning he was publicly tortured and executed on a cross to bring us to God. The cross reveals the Infinite One as inherently self giving, self emptying. The Infinite drawn close in the grubbiest that the ‘here and now’ has to offer.

With faltering, paltry steps I more and more come to understand that the mystery and wonder of the infinite is found in the ordinary here and now when I abandon myself to God in trust – learning to share in his self giving, self emptying. The thought of travel still stirs my heart – to wander and wonder in Paris, Italy, Germany; Iran, Turkey, India and on and on. And one day I might. I still enjoy tasting the richness of many cultures wherever I am. But the more I learn, step by step, to actually abandon myself to trust God in ways I’d kept myself from by my habit of escaping elsewhere – I find myself stepping into something not always thrilling, new or comfortable but something somehow joyful and inexplicably grand.


The Heart of Darkness

There comes a time in everyone’s life when you realise that the world really is as dark as you feared.

If you’re new with us, this post will make more sense if you read my previous post first. See you soon.

The world really is a dark and scary place. We all know this of course. You know that many countries around the world know only war or oppression or famine. You know that horrible things happen to people away from the public eye. But when it touches you it’s like you never realised it before. My previous post was my reflections of what it feels like to be touched by it.

But today I want to expand a little on something I said in my previous post:

Jesus stepping into the meaninglessness destroying the world  to make something meaningful out of it.

Because I also want to reflect on what it’s felt like to have faith in a loving God whilst living in a world that’s intent on blowing itself to hell.

When Mum got sick it was like I’d been looking at the world through a filter. A rose-coloured filter that was suddenly and violently ripped off. I remember driving to the hospital, stopped at traffic lights. Across the intersection I was looking at the entrance to Brisbane’s South Bank Parklands. A very attractive set of parks and gardens along the Brisbane River. The sun was bright and the day was just the perfect temperature. Healthy attractive people were jogging, people strolled along, sipping coffee with family and friends. The perfect day to be out enjoying the beauty.


That was the filter. But now it was ripped off to expose what I had always known but now felt in my heart and intestines in a visceral way. I saw clearly what had always been there.

Death. Everywhere.

It’s not that I realised there was and never had been anything good or beautiful in the world. There is and always has been, and they are precious to me. It’s that all of it, every single one, is being poisoned  and brought to nothing by death. Hiding behind every blossoming plant and the glorious sunlight, working quietly and unceasingly within every life. Corrupting every good thing and bringing it to nothing, to dust. To air. And in my own life too.

Looking back over my journal I found an entry early on where I described a potential artwork I kept imagining – an installation sculpture. I’ll never be able to make it and I’m sure I subconsciously ripped it off stuff that’s been done before anyway. But you’d set up a room, or even several rooms like a house, lived in, with furniture, family photos etc. But you can’t enter the rooms because it’s filled with a bulbous black mass, overwhelming everything. Swallowing every space of the place up. Nothing left untouched. Evil. Death. It didn’t occur to me at the time how much like cancer itself my image of death and evil was. Because cancer certainly is a form of evil, but evil is also, actually, a type of cancer. It’s the world just doing what the world does but doing it in rebellion to its original purpose and design; and in the process destroying itself. That is the Bible’s depiction of evil and it’s true to experience.

Near the end, when God felt absent, I reflected that for the first time I really understood why some people are atheists. I’ve never really grasped why someone might think an acceptance of science must preclude an acceptance of anything else. But there is a reason someone might not believe in God: in the face of a cruel, unjust and painful world for so many people, the world simply feels meaningless. Certainly at that moment, at the bottom of the pit it does.

But I didn’t go the way of atheism. Wasn’t tempted to. Because atheism is only engaging with half the data. It’s true that often this world feels meaningless… but at the same time it also feels meaningful. Deeply, vibrantly, vitally meaningful. More accurately – the world and life feels like it has a deep meaning and purpose which is being consumed and destroyed by meaninglessness one day at a time. The horror of our lives and the lives of our loved ones being cut short isn’t that we know our lives are just pointless. In that case who would care? It’s that we know our lives have a point. We have a deep, deep sense that they’re meant for something. They’re meant to be good. It wasn’t that my mum’s life was meaningless that made me want to kick and yell and throw chairs and scream helplessly into the night. It was that her life had real meaning and beauty and purpose; her love, her strength and courage, her selflessness towards those in her life, her thoughtfulness of others… and cancer came and ripped all of it – all of it – out of her hands for no other purpose than to throw it all in the river and watch it wash away to nothing. It’s a nightmare.

And so, does the meaningless win? Everywhere you look is beauty and life and purpose…and all of it infected with the corruption and decay of death. Everywhere is darkness. Where’s God? I was forced to stare into the darkness and it’s in the darkest spot, the very stroke of midnight, that you see him.

The very heart of the Christian story, it’s climax and centre is God revealing himself to humanity. And the heart of the Christian story is dark. Very dark. Because it’s the story of God entering the world as one of us – Jesus – to overcome the darkness, to destroy it. But not, like some hero in a fable, by swooping in on horseback and slaying the dragon. God destroyed the darkness by entering into it. He overcame suffering and death by submitting to them, suffering and dying. By reaching out in love to suffering people and being arrested, humiliated and tortured to death by the people he came to save.

At the heart of evil in the world is humanity doing what it does… but doing it in rebellion to its original purpose and design, to honour God; and in the process destroying itself and the world. That found fullest expression the day humanity gleefully executed God and stood around gloating as they watched him slowly die. But it’s in that act that Jesus overcame the darkness. Because in that act he was stepping in for us all in our rebellion against God and taking the punishment for it. It was all being punished and destroyed in his body and buried with him. And then he rose to life and left it there. And that is the way to a new life without the corruption of death and evil in it.

Every good and beautiful thing in this world is infected with the rot of death. Every single one ripped from our hands to be thrown away and leaving us empty. All except one. The one you see when you look at the heart of the darkness, the mob killing of Jesus:


God repaying our hatred with costly, sacrificial love God giving himself for us, laying himself down at the greatest cost to bring us new life.  God overcoming darkness not from a safe distance but by willingly stepping into in and taking it onto himself for our good.

I don’t have answers for why the world went dark and in the pit I have to admit I don’t like it. But I saw God’s beautiful grace in darkness, the one beautiful thing worth living for. In destroying evil and death ‘from the inside out’ as it were, Jesus has overcome the meaninglessness destroying everything and he has made it meaningful again. Nothing else good in this world can carry the weight of our hopes but grace carries the hopes of all the good and beautiful things in this world. Shortly before she died I gave mum a photo I’d taken over a decade earlier when travelling in Jerusalem. I gave it to her as a reminder that because Jesus died things won’t be like this forever for those who put their trust in his grace. It was a photo of an empty tomb. Almost certainly not, as it turns out, THE empty tomb. But a reminder none the less. She had me blow it up to poster size and put it on her wall.


As it stands, the world is dark. The aesthetically pleasing culture and society and life we surround ourselves with is just a thin veneer over what’s really going on. And I hate it and want to kick and yell and get angry and sad. And I do. But when I look at the grace God showed in Jesus dying on the cross I see the one most beautiful and meaningful thing that will bring meaning and beauty to everything being swallowed by meaninglessness and death for those who trust in him. I see the one thing worth holding onto and living for and trusting in.

And I trust him.


And then, the Bomb

The bomb. In modern times it’s become something of a symbol. Of terror. Of despair. It’s becoming an increasingly frequent horror to hear of another terror related bomb detonating somewhere, causing irreversible grief and loss to the innocent. The word ‘symbol’ though doesn’t quite fit, as symbols are by definition images, pictures of something; whereas bombs – real bombs in the real world, rather than in James Bond movies – are invisible. The real horror of the bomb is that you don’t know it’s there. Not until, in an instant, it isn’t there anymore. And then it’s too late.  The Boston Marathon bomb of 2013 is the one that I personally always recall to mind. An innocent community event turned into chaos instantly.


Cancer is a bomb.

3 months ago everything was fine. Then, out of nowhere, my mum was diagnosed with cancer of the duodenum which was quickly upgraded to terminal. This form of cancer is rare and also unusually aggressive. It moved fast.

A bomb is, in its essence, a mess. It’s the instantaneous turning of any order, beauty and structure within its radius into random chaos, the very process of which wreaks destruction and death. Assassins don’t tend to use bombs (I presume) because assassins have specific targets. They are trying to do something particular. They are trying to be precise. Bombs are not precise. They don’t have specific targets. They aren’t trying to do anything to anyone in particular. Who is caught within the bomb’s radius is random. And who in that radius is killed and who is maimed and how they are killed or maimed is random. The mess itself is the point. Recently a bomb detonated in a marketplace in the Philippines. For some reason some ordinary men, women and children were walking through the blast radius at the moment of detonation and others weren’t. Had the bomb detonated even minutes earlier or later the people whose lives were ripped apart forever would’ve been different. The bomber doesn’t care. Chaos for chaos’ sake. Death for death’s sake.

And cancer is, in its essence, simply a mess. Cancer is nothing more than the turning of the order, beauty and structure of a person’s body into random chaos. Chaos that wreaks destruction and death. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason for where this bomb will go off. My mum was incredibly healthy. No reason why her life was swiftly cut short by a very rare and unusually aggressive form of the disease. No reason why it devastates a body the way it does. Shrapnel could’ve just as easily not hit the liver as hit it. And the anarchy explodes outward beyond the person and shrapnel maims everyone nearby, but not necessarily all in the same way. Cancer is a mess that starts as a tiny point and spreads outward with unstoppable force like an explosion. It might explode a lot more slowly than a bomb, but that doesn’t mean you can outrun it. It’s still inescapable.

When I was younger I found conspiracy theories kind of interesting. But when I read up on some I was struck more by the conspiracy theorists themselves than their theories. For the conspiracy theorist, the conspiracy isn’t just something they think happened in the world. It expands into an over-arching narrative to explain the world in its entirety. The conspiracy theory becomes a meta-narrative of the force of evil in this world, a force that has a sinister plan and purpose for the world as a whole and is working secretly and non-stop to fulfill it. But what the conspiracy theorist has failed to understand about evil and which I have now experienced is this: evil has no plan or purpose for the world other than to rip it open. Evil doesn’t seek to make the world into anything. It simply wants to demolish. Why? Well, why not?  ‘The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy…’ (John 10:10) Chaos for chaos’ sake. Or is Bashar al-Assad and ISIS and whoever else bombing Syria into a crater because they have some goal and desire for the country? Evil is evil for evil’s sake.

In the end, what’s scary about a bomb isn’t that it’s loud and explosive. It’s that it’s pointless and indiscriminate and yet completely irreversible. And what struck me as mum’s life drew to a close was the horror of how pointless but irreversible this tragedy seemed to be.

And God?

I’ve spoken a number of times from the Bible on suffering, but nothing prepares you for when you experience it personally. People always depict the life of having faith in God as a walk through the countryside, with some ups and downs in the path, or being gently carried along a beach. They never depict it as finding yourself in the crater of a bomb blast. Trusting God is hard. So hard. Hard when the Bible asks hard questions about why there’s suffering in the world but gives no ultimate answer. Hard when suffering is unfair. Hard when all the evidence the world gives you seems to point in the opposite direction to that of a loving God who’s in control of things.  Hard when prayers are met with silence or even what feels like mockery.

Early on I would confront God in the hospital chapel. Was just a quiet space for it really. I was grappling with what exactly I was trusting in. No circumstances indicating God’s love. No explanations for how this all fit into something good. No reassuring feeling of divine presence. What I had in my mind however was a picture of the cross, Jesus dying on a cross. God choosing to step out of safety and into the darkness and chaos of this world, to suffer in it in order to overcome it. Jesus stepping into the meaninglessness destroying the world  to make something meaningful out of it. It isn’t any explanation of why evil is here but when I considered Jesus doing that I asked myself, ‘Can I trust him?’ I answered ‘Yes’.

Not that trusting Jesus removed any grief. From that point on we were all still living in the bomb blast. Awful fear and anxiety. Guilt. Loss. Helplessness. Feeling nauseous. Seething anger with no one to aim it at. The fraying of relationships. People saying ‘helpful’ things. The anguish of seeing the toll on someone you love steadily increasing. The world feeling cold and empty. Every consolation you hoped and prayed for – a decent amount of time with Mum at least, the chance to say a proper goodbye, the end to at least come quickly – ripped away one by one, feeling like a cruel joke. Nothing left not maimed by shrapnel. More angry questions at God left unanswered. More silence after prayer. And now moving ahead with a massive hole left in everything.

I want to write much more about faith in darkness and Jesus in the darkness soon. This post has been much more about the darkness itself, I know. And I know that cancer isn’t the only darkness in people’s lives. I’m just sick of a Christian culture that thinks it can down play the reality of evil and suffering in faith, bring about nice answers or a sense of uplift. One day I walked into a Christian bookstore looking for just a little thing I could buy to help me remember as I looked at it the truth of God in the message of Jesus. But all I found filling the whole place was treacle like this:







Bible verses certainly. But verses ripped out of their contexts of chaos and pain and disorder and draped in an anesthetising image able to give only a general feeling of uplift when times are generally good. When life turns dark it evaporates like a fog. Never a mention of Jesus dying on the cross, which is the heart of the matter.

It’s not real. At some point, for everyone, life turns into a disaster zone. At some point everyone faces death. And nothing, nothing, can prepare you for every vain hope and survival strategy you’ve developed over however many years crumbling to nothing in an instant. At that point, either Jesus died and rose, or bust.






Life as a Clay Rembrandt

There are days I don’t feel like much. I’ve never been much possessed of a sense of my own strength or ability or beauty. I have days of introspection and self doubt. But it was in such a period recently that I stumbled upon Paul’s words in his second letter to the church of Corinth, ‘But we have this treasure in jars of clay…’ (2 Corinthians 4:7) They’re words I’ve kept on returning to.

There’s a painting of Paul I love; a Rembrandt. It’s a beautiful piece. It might be my favourite painting. Paul the Apostle sits at his writing desk penning part of the New Testament. Pen arm slung over the back of his chair, he seems to be contemplating what to write down next.

De apostel Paulus aan zijn schrijftafel

Saint Paul at his Writing-Desk Wikipedia

The composition is perfect, the play of soft light and shadow is masterful as is, above all, Rembrandt’s sensitivity to capture the heart and soul of someone in their face and posture. Rembrandt’s love affair with brown doesn’t always pull off but here it’s just right. But a confession: although I always thought of it as a lovely picture itself I didn’t, until recently, really think it quite worked as a picture of Paul. Paul the intrepid traveler, crossing dangerous terrain and seas to spread the message of Jesus, shipwrecked, attacked, jailed is, in my mind,  a fiery, steely eyed bull dog of a man who fought hard. Here though he looks, to be honest, like he’s just about had it. Maybe Rembrandt foisted his own particular glumness onto him.

But as I’ve chewed over those words of his I’ve wondered if it hasn’t actually been me who’s brought my own assumptions and laid them over Paul. There would’ve been plenty of days Paul would’ve felt just like this. He doesn’t describe himself as a bull dog but as a clay jar.

Clay is wonderful stuff. I remember at uni discovering the joy of working with it. It’s a warm and intimate material. It can be shaped into whatever you want. I have a friend who makes really lovely and meaningful objects with clay. I like it.


But clay isn’t fancy. Part of the joy of working with clay is its messy tactility – for the childlike part of you that never quite got over playing in the mud. Clay isn’t that far removed from soil, really. Maybe Paul had in mind God’s creation of humanity from dirt in Genesis 2:7, ‘Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground…’ It certainly isn’t gold or diamonds. It’s easy to come by and cheap. As I pondered all this and thought of buying a little clay jar to sit on my desk as a reminder of it all it struck me that my house and garden are full of clay vessels. A shelf in a kitchen cupboard is packed with mugs. All sorts. There’s a few lovely hand made gifts but most are mass produced $2 gear. On the other side of the kitchen are a couple of shelves of multiple sets of plates. Outside, my little cactus sits in a tiny black pot and a stack of dead plants sit in bigger ones. They’re all used for ordinary, every day tasks.

And it breaks. My goodness, just last night I pulled another mug out of the dishwasher to discover a crack up the inside. Why?! What’s next, my beloved Picasso mug? Is there no hope? As I get older that brittle fragility begins to resonate more.


Beloved Picasso Mug

Mainly, what’s really important about most clay vessels isn’t they themselves but what they hold. As Paul looks at himself; pretty ordinary, not impressive by the standards of the church he’s writing to, starting to crack with age and normal mortality and just tired, he isn’t despondent. In fact he’s alarmingly confident. I’m trying to learn what Paul knew. Within a culture that finds the value of a person in what they’re able to achieve, a humanist worldview proclaiming ‘Yes you can! And you need to…’ and worst, a proud heart that wants all this to be true, what I am learning to hold onto is the truth that the clay pot isn’t the treasure itself… but there’s treasure within.

 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ. (2 Corinthians 4:6)

The message of Jesus – that God is known in Jesus Christ as he hung and died on a cross – that’s treasure. The message of forgiveness and new life for everyone who trusts in Jesus’ death in their place. It’s that message which is light shining in darkness. That message which brings life to the dead and hope to the hopeless. Not my skills and ability. Not my health or strength. Not my personality.

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.

That, and that alone, drove Paul on when he no doubt felt like a Rembrandt painting. Not his abilities, skills or traits. But that he had a message in his heart through which God gave him life that can’t be crushed and through which God gives life to others. And so he spoke it. And so must I.

on why you’re an art lover

You like art. You do. You like poetry as well.

I’ve known hundreds of people who claim not to like art. I’ve met even more who say they hate poetry (I was one of them for years). But I’ve never met anyone who, after often complaining about contemporary art and claiming that it’s pointless and weird, has never been faced with a particular piece (never contemporary) that has illumined some facet of life, that has with beauty and truth reflected something, often something quite ordinary of the world with particular insight, that’s caused them to say – ‘I like this. This is art.’

I am convinced and becoming more so that people like art and poetry and more, want to like art and poetry, and that art and poetry, like song, have tremendous power to resonate deeply with people and cause them to slow down and reflect and contemplate the world and themselves. Yet faced with an arts culture that has become disconnected from the realities of everyday life and so disconnected from most people who don’t find themselves in a somewhat fringe subculture, art has become to most people the weird and irrelevant pastime of society’s oddballs and poetry is no more than a rather pathetic and soft relic of a thankfully bygone era. Thankfully this never happened with music (although something must’ve gone wrong to bring us to the point where we have One Direction). Music remains a fundamental part of any culture, and of deep importance to anyone I’ve ever met. But once art and poetry were no different.

A number of things have caused me to be thinking about this stuff and move in this direction, and you should read the posts by Glen on this: Art on Fire: a Naples Tantrum and Definitely not for Burning…

See art is sick. It’s not dead, but the West is killing it. And I don’t mean all the haters are killing it – the ‘Art World’ is. What we think of as Art is not what art has been for centuries and across cultures. I’m realising the same is true of poetry.

Before the Age of Reason there was no separate discipline called ‘Art’. There were no movements, individual styles, progressive ideas; no ‘geniuses’, self-expression or avant-garde. Across ancient and medieval societies art was inscribed on the daily and ritual life of the people, was often religious and sought to connect the ordinary life of people with what they saw as the spiritual reality of their world. I have to say as a Christian I’m pretty wary of how this has often been done, even in the history of the Church, where the created object becomes the object of worship rather than the living God, or God is recast and denigrated in the image of the artist. But I don’t think idolatry must necessarily be the outcome of visual art. I’m interested in thinking that question through more.

The same, it seems, is true of poetry. I didn’t realise that poetry had been a major element of the Church’s life and worship for most of the past 2,000 years. I did know, however, that much of the Old Testament is written in poetry and have had the joy recently of being able to sink my teeth into it (check out Robert Alter’s translations). Poetry causes us to think deeply. Its rhythmic cadence and structural play, acheived through differing cultural conventions, give language a power that for that ancient society enabled them to slow down, contemplate and understand the profound spirituality that pervaded their world and ours – that the creation in which they lived and were a part, with its ordered movements and cycles,  that every moment of their lives rooted in the dust and the salt air and turning of the seasons was and is in the hands of a soveriegn and providential God. In an age gorged on instant gratification and an insatiable lust for faster and faster download speed this is a great need.

Sadly most of us have had our view of poetry shaped by those fluffy, willowy Romantics with their clouds for brains into something of a caricature. I mean, why would I do something productive when I could sit under a tree and wax lyrical about how I feel about a flower? Because it’s stupid.

Seems it was the ascendancy of Rationalism that spelled the doom of poetry as it had existed for centuries across cultures. Faced with the sterilisation of a world viewed only through the lens of reason yet no longer believing in a spiritual dimension the Romantics of the 19th century looked to the arts for something ‘more’ (this is what happened to art as well). But here art and poetry became ends in themselves and concerned with something higher than the everyday world which was seen as purely rational. Here began the ‘high arts’, now the pastimes of the bougeious elite who could afford to sit around feeling ‘arty’ rather than disciplines, which like music was and has remained,were inextricably intertwined with everyday life which was itself closely connected with spirituality.

In a fragmented and dislocated society which has lost any notion of a central axis, this wouldn’t be a bad thing to rediscover.

John Donne: A Hymn to God the Father

This poem struck me when I first read it, and many times since. It captures the Christian’s heart so simply and beautifully and has been my prayer. I won’t go on about it – I just wanted to share it.

Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun,
Which is my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt thou forgive that sin, through which I run,
And do run still: though still I do deplore?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For I have more.

Wilt thou forgive that sin which I have won
Others to sin? and, made my sin their door?
Wilt thou forgive that sin which I did shun
A year, or two, but wallowed in a score?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For I have more.

I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
But swear by thy self, that at my death thy son
Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore;
And having done that, thou hast done,
I fear no more.


a good friday to you

By George Herbert1593–1633

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
               Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
               From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
               If I lack’d any thing.
“A guest,” I answer’d, “worthy to be here”;
               Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, ungrateful? ah my dear,
               I cannot look on thee.”
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
               “Who made the eyes but I?”
“Truth, Lord, but I have marr’d them; let my shame
               Go where it doth deserve.”
“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”
               “My dear, then I will serve.”
“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”
               So I did sit and eat.
How incredible that love should shine so brightly on so dark a day. When we think of love it’s usually so sunny and carefree – love sweeps us up and chases the clouds away, makes it all better etc. But real love has a cost, and had a cost, which I still cannot fathom.
This poem by George Herbert doesn’t dwell on the events of that dark day, but on the outcome. How is that so many of us take for granted the idea that if God does in fact live up in heaven we should be able to assume that we can have access to him and his help and love, despite never acknowledging his presence except when it suits us. we wouldn’t treat another like this, and wouldn’t expect a warm reception if we did. But we do with God, if we don’t completely reject him altogether.
And here the wonder-full love of God, that Jesus should take the blame. That by placing my trust in him I could come in to God’s house and eat with him… many say this demeans us. The fact that someone so incredible should pour such incredible, costly love onto me begs to differ.
There’s much more I could say about this delightful poem, perhaps another time. Today I want to simply remember such love that calls me, yes even me, to come in and eat, to turn away from my broken past and know him.

I need not deny my guilt and shame to try to live without it… I take it to him, and he has done away with it.

What about you? Does Good Friday mean anything to you?