Musings from The North

We were duped. Sold a pup. The wool was pulled over our eyes. Or to be more specific, the tartan.

That was my reaction this week when, for the first time in many years, I watched the movie Braveheart. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve watched the film in the 24 years since I sat awestruck in the Odeon Cinema on Renfield Street, Glasgow. But for my daughter, it was the first time.

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Braveheart was released in 1995

And what a film it is. It has everything: gory battles, not one but two captivating love stories, an evil king, a valiant protagonist who is a cross between a warrior, a poet and a freedom fighter, and of course, the great ideal of Freedom.

I realised watching it this time around just how much the film actually means to me. You see, the story it tells – the real story, not the made up bits – of the battles the Scots of the 13th and 14th centuries had to face in order to claim an identity of their own from an over-reaching English aristocracy, have been interwoven with my life since I was in Primary School.

My life is soaked in this story. I grew up in Renfrewshire, the birth place of the real William Wallace (no more a Highlander than Mel Gibson himself). At both Primary and Secondary School we studied the story of the Scottish Wars of Independence. I read books about this period given to me by my grandparents. And then, as I reached the mid-point of my undergraduate degree at Glasgow University, came the movie and my trip to Renfield Street on more than one occasion in the summer of 1995.

There is no question that the movie was – and some would still say, is – a phenomenon. It took at least $213 million at the Box Office worldwide. It’s the staple fair of the home movie platforms even today, hence why I was watching it. Sitting amongst 1000 Glaswegians as they roared Wallace’s army on at the Battle of Stirling Bridge remains to this day the most ‘interactive’ cinematic experience I’ve ever had.

Yet my personal connection is deeper still. Just before the movie came out, I was a budding journalist, and trying my hand at writing, both for the Glasgow University Guardian and other publications. And so, it came to pass that my best friend – a budding, and now professional, photographer – and I had found ourselves, aged 18, in a press pen on the slopes leading up to Stirling Castle as we covered the World Premiere of Braveheart. That night, I interviewed the actors, celebrities and hangers on, as they made their way to the premiere after-party in the castle itself. Amongst those on the guest list, and who I interviewed that night, were Catherine Zeta Jones, Patsy Kensit, Mel Gibson, a host of lesser stars, and a certain Mr Alex Salmond.

Alex Salmond Braveheart
Alex Salmond at the Braveheart Premiere. I’m just out of shot over his right shoulder (mercifully)

As I watched the movie with my eldest daughter this week all of these memories came flooding back. I still think it’s a great movie. What’s changed however is the feeling it gives me. Don’t get me wrong, it still gives me goosebumps at certain points. In the end, I’m as patriotic as the next Scot. Yet now it leaves me feeling somewhat queasy about just what the movie has represented for many Scots.

For a generation of Scots brought up with the same stories as me, Braveheart was both a climax and a catalyst for what has ultimately become the Yes Movement, and the rejuvenated SNP. Say what you will about Alex Salmond, but he was not at that movie premier by accident.

Almost 6 years ago in December 2013, reflecting on the upcoming Scottish Independence Referendum, I wrote the following in my first blog, Musings from the Island Line:

I believe that many Scots feel like they should vote Yes because they are essentially Patriotic. They are drawn to the grand claims and romantic language which Nationalism uses. But I have a message for my fellow Scots: it’s ok to vote No. You won’t lose your identity, and you’re no less a Scot than those who plan to vote Yes. Moreover, it’s a fundamentally wise decision to choose to maintain our Union with Wales, England and Northern Ireland.

It’s this Nationalism that has been so nourished by the activism of the Braveheart Generation. The potent combination of an historic romanticism and a common, identifiable enemy is an ephemeral phenomenon, but a very real one at work in the Yes Movement, and the SNP which is interwoven with it.

Although any self-aware Independence activist will frame their rationale within a narrative of civic nationalism and social justice – aspirations for the most part that I do not doubt – the symbolism, heart and emotion of the Scottish Independence movement is as firmly rooted in Scottish history, real and imagined as can be. It’s only necessary to be around one of the many Yes Marches or rallies to catch a glimpse of this reality:

Yes March May 2019

And as we experience the chronic travails of Brexit, it seems to me that a striking parallel has emerged. Although the SNP and the current leadership of the Conservative Party would each claim to have very little in common, both are supporting a political programme which is fundamentally about a retrenchment back into what they hold as their primary identity – whether British (by which they mean, English to all intents and purposes) or Scottish. It is in drawing a tighter net around the political identity to match what each regards as The Nation, that they see a way to ‘take back control’. To both camps – the SNP and Conservative leaderships – the unilateral nation-state is the silver bullet. In this reality, each is looking backwards, either to a mytholigised 19th, or even 14th, century.

Neither will admit this. Each will talk about the bright, modern, technological, welcoming, inclusive societies they want to build. And I do not doubt the sincerity on either side. But it nevertheless remains that in order to do so they are going back to the future, so to speak, and building their vision on the concept of the nation. Nations are important: I have confessed that I myself am patriotic. But there is a better way, and it’s closer to home than we realise – a renewed United Kingdom.

You see, the United Kingdom is not a nation. It’s a voluntary arrangement of shared government between multiple nations. There is no such thing as the British Nation, but there is a British State. And this state should serve the people of the UK. It needs massive reform: but within it lies the possibility of a new kind of politics, one which truly unifies beyond borders whilst honouring and retaining the identities which mean so much to us.
If it’s possible to completely deconstruct the Union through Scottish independence and build a harmonious future, then it’s even more achievable to renew and re-build this Union which has made us who we are. Equally, if it’s possible to extract ourselves from the European Union in order to reassert the UK’s ‘place in the world’, it’s just as possible to build a new kind of United Kingdom.

So what we need now is a political vision which can transcend nationalism, authoritarianism, narrow sectionalism and self-interest. We need a political vision which cultivates flourishing, confident communities that cross national boundaries whilst even at the same time recognising them, in order to advance social justice and the common good. What we need, is a truly United Kingdom.

Honesty is the Best Policy

Train Conductor

Billy Graham once told the story that Albert Einstein was traveling from Princeton on a train when the conductor came down the aisle, checking tickets. When he came to Einstein, Einstein reached in his shirt pocket. He couldn’t find his ticket, so he reached in his trouser pockets. It wasn’t there, so he looked in his briefcase but couldn’t find it. Then he looked in the seat beside him. He still couldn’t find it.

The conductor said, ‘Dr. Einstein, I know who you are.  We all know who you are. I’m sure you bought a ticket. Don’t worry about it.’

Einstein nodded appreciatively and the conductor continued down the aisle. As he was ready to move to the next carriage, he turned around and saw the great physicist down on his hands and knees looking under his seat for his ticket.

The conductor rushed back and said, ‘Dr. Einstein, please don’t worry, I know who you are. No problem. You don’t need a ticket.’

Einstein looked at him and said, ‘Young man, I too, know who I am. What I don’t know is where I’m going.’

This story makes me think about the importance of honesty. How embarrassing for Einstein to have to admit to a train carriage full of passengers that he didn’t know where he was going! But, on reflection, this was the wisest choice. It would have been worse for Einstein to carry on in his journey, and pass his station for want of the gumption to admit before others that he was at a loss as to his destination.

Honesty is difficult sometimes. Giving our honest view to one another can be embarrassing or even painful. Furthermore, honesty and truth are not necessarily the same thing – we can all be honestly wrong.  But honesty is the midwife of truth. We won’t get to truth if we can’t be honest with each other, if we can’t sift through our perceptions in order to arrive at the truth together. Sometimes this means facing things is tough.

But if it can be difficult, why be honest? Shouldn’t we just tell people what we think they want to hear? Or isn’t it better just to keep our understanding to ourselves? What’s the problem with a little white lie?

The answer is that our approach to honesty is an active ingredient in our lives and in our relationships.

It’s the yeast from which our character is formed.

On the other hand, dishonesty can be like a cancer deep within, eating away at us and our ability to have healthy relationships with one another. It spawns a web of lies that we ourselves become entangled in. It ties us up in knots.

Alternatively, honesty nurtures trust, which is the building block of healthy relationships. Without trust our relationships can’t flourish to be everything that they should be.

It’s for these reasons that Thomas Jefferson called honesty “The first chapter in the Book of Wisdom”.

Thomas Jefferson

Importantly, it’s when we find the strength to be honest and to seek truth together that transformation becomes possible. Many of us are aware of 12 Steps programmes like Alcoholics Anonymous. The first step in AA is “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.” In this recognition, in bringing a difficult truth out into the light, the possibility of positive change is born.

Equally, naming truths in a way that respects and values people can be a powerful way to tackle injustice, particularly when we do this on behalf of others. Without the bravery of men and women throughout history to call out uncomfortable truths, particularly to those in power, our world would be a poorer and uglier place. In the words of the renowned campaigner against South African apartheid, Archbishop Desmond Tutu;

“If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

At its best, the habit of honesty is cathartic, empowering, courageous and relational. It is a prerequisite for truth, and in the words of Jesus, it is the truth that sets us free.

 

 

 

 

A Humble Meal

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How does Hairy Crab sound to you as an appetizer? Or Sea Slug? A bite of Toad on a Stick maybe? Anyone for Upturned Turtle Soup?

These are all dishes that I was honoured to eat when I would travel to mainland China in a former job. I say ‘honoured’ because these were all dishes that I was invited to partake in as an honoured guest.

Chinese culture places a great deal of weight in hierarchy and respect, and the guest with the most hierarchical seniority is placed literally in the place of honour, particularly when it comes to dining. I have to say that, as lovely as the intent was, I could sometimes have done without the honour when it came to being the first person to tuck into whichever delicacy was the order of the day!

This idea may seem alien to us, but as codified and defined as this Chinese culture of honour is, we have our own, more informal equivalent in British culture. Often, we give the place of honour to the person who appears like they have their life together most; the businessman in a sharp suit, or the young woman wearing haute couture, the local celebrity or dignitary. This ‘honouring’ might play itself out in who we choose to speak to on public transport, who we sit next to on a park bench, or how we receive someone who comes through the door of one of our projects. This is something we all do at times; it’s our in-built, human default.

In our work at Oasis Community Housing we strive for a higher standard. Out of our value of Worth comes a viewpoint that all people are equally valuable, regardless of what appearances or social standing suggests. From this belief comes the practice of humility both in how we view ourselves and others.

In the Bible, James the brother of Jesus implores the early Church to outwork this view of humility, saying;

“If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” (James 2, v 3-4).

And the practice of humility is not only a standard for how we should treat others. It’s also a healthy lens through which we can understand ourselves. Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who served the poorest of the poor ‘untouchables’ for decades in India, and yet rubbed shoulders with Kings and Presidents said:

“If you are humble nothing will touch you, neither praise nor disgrace, because you know what you are.” 

It’s pride which gets in the way of this humility. It’s pride which, in the words of C.S. Lewis,

“…has been the chief cause of misery in every nation and every family since the world began.”

When we recognise pride in anyone, it is often the least attractive form of the human condition. It’s why so many were drawn to Nelson Mandela, and why so many are put off by President Trump today. Pride says ‘it’s my contribution and mine only which matters’. Humility says,

‘I am not the answer in myself’.

As an organisation with a Christian ethos, we try to remember that Jesus washed his follower’s feet – a grimy, lowly task normally reserved for the person of least status in any gathering. This humility, this service, is the kind of leadership that each of us should aspire to.

It’s a service that I was humbled to  see illustrated literally and powerfully recently by one of our volunteers, Liz, in Basis Sunderland:

Washing the disciple's feet

This standard of behaviour is something that, as the Chief Executive of OCH, I have often fallen well short of. Pride (in my case often manifesting as stubbornness) can get the better of all of us from time to time. Thankfully, humility is the antidote to pride, a medicine which banishes the symptoms. And humility becomes comes alive in the service of others. As Rev Martin Luther King Jr said:

“Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”

 

Brexit & Standing in Awe

As the axiom goes, we should always “Walk a mile in another person’s shoes. Because then you’ll be a mile away and you’ll have their shoes”. At least, I’m sure it’s something along those lines.

Perhaps Father Gregory Boyle expresses the sentiment better when he says,

“…the ultimate measure of health in any community might well reside in our ability to stand in awe at what folks have to carry, rather in judgement at how they carry it”.

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In a time when our country seems riven with judgement, disagreement and even hatred over Brexit, the message of forgiveness can itself be hard to bear. If you’re like me, my reserves of understanding and graciousness have rarely ran so low.

Much of our time at Oasis Community Housing is spent walking in the shoes of the people that we serve: whether-in-one to one sessions, group work, training, doing interviews and case studies, or just lending a listening ear for someone who needs to be heard. We seek to understand.

As we do so, we hear tales of abandonment and trauma, of abuse and hopelessness, of wilful ignorance and neglect. In these circumstances, it’s hard not to become angry, particularly with those who have perpetrated such cruelty on the person who sits in front of us. If we’re honest with ourselves, there are times when we also feel angry or hurt by the behaviour of those we’re serving, whether towards others or towards us.

And there is a place for this. There is nothing wrong with righteous anger against injustice. Equally, we should not be required to accept or tolerate hurtful behaviour which is directed at us, even when it’s coming from a place of brokenness.

But we also know that when we hold onto anger, over time it corrodes and destroys. And then we become the victim, the broken, the abandoned.

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There has been a lot of talk about Northern Ireland in the Brexit debate, and you may know the story of Gordon Wilson. Gordon became famous in 1987 when he and his daughter were caught up in the IRA bombing of the war memorial in Enniskillen on Remembrance Day. 60 people were badly injured that day, and 11 killed, including Gordon’s daughter Marie. The following day, Gordon gave an interview to the BBC which went around the world, recounting their last moments together under the rubble:

“She held my hand tightly and gripped me as hard as she could. She said, ‘Daddy, I love you very much’. Those were her exact words to me and those were the last words I ever heard her say.”

“But I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge. Dirty sort of talk is not going to bring her back to life. She was a great wee lassie. She loved her profession. She was a pet. She’s dead. She’s in heaven and we shall meet again. I will pray for these men tonight and every night.”

What a horrendous situation to be in. Placed in a similar scenario, as a father, I think I would be consumed by rage. But Gordon Wilson chose another path. The outcome to his response of forgiveness was a genuinely seminal moment of change in the Northern Irish Troubles. His words reverberated around the islands of Ireland and Great Britain, and then around the world. I still remember watching them on the evening news as a ten year-old and being astounded by his grace. In retrospect, they made a huge contribution to the Northern Irish peace process.

It strikes me that Jesus also spent 33 years walking in the shoes of human experience, and he understood what it is to be hurt more than most. As a Christian, when I think of Forgiveness, I often think of his words to the assembled crowd as he hung on the Cross; “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” What a revolutionary statement. One that changes everything.

Forgiveness is one of the most powerful forces in the universe – both in eternity and in the here and now. Just as unforgiveness and anger can tear it apart, Forgiveness can transform our world for the good. It may be an unpopular message right now, but our country – we – need forgiveness more than ever. 

Standing in the Right Place

“The strategy of Jesus is not centred on taking the right stand on issues, but in standing in the right place – with the outcast and those relegated to the margins”

– Father Gregory Boyle, Homeboy Industries

Three weeks ago I stood in the early morning rain outside of a crematorium in the North East of England with a small knot of friends in quiet prayer and reflection. Together we were taking part in a small act of solidarity, and of gentle protest against an event which felt more 19th than 21st Century.

We were there to mark the passing of a man called Peter, and of what was intended to pass as a committal. Whilst it didn’t define him – indeed the details were unknown to most people until the very end – Peter had been homeless in the last years of his life. He had died the week before in a local hospital, without family or anyone able or willing to take responsibility for funeral costs.

Despite our best efforts to gain permission to enter the crematorium to hold our quiet vigil, we were standing outside because hospital protocol denied us and any other friends unable or unwilling to pay the thousands of pounds required for a funeral the right to join the undertakers and the hospital chaplain beside Peter’s coffin at the end.

As a concession to our determination to be there, the authorities had reluctantly allowed one of our group – and one only – to stand with the coffin for the three or four minutes that it took to load and dispatch it. They were not happy about this. Fears of funerals on the cheap and uncertainty about the beliefs of the deceased had been hinted at in the days before as we made our case for being allowed to attend. Arguments about tough spending choices and a prioritisation for care for the living were made.

And yet our presence inside the crematorium building for 15 or 20 minutes would have made no difference whatsoever to the cost of what happened there that morning. As it happens, Peter’s friends knew that he was a Christian, and so a simple Christian burial would have been possible. But regardless of whether his faith had been known or not, whether Christian, Muslim, Atheist, Agnostic or other, there was no need to leave him alone, or to allow his passing to be unmarked.

In a not entirely unkind attempt to outline what was set to happen that morning and to perhaps dampen our conviction about being there in places that the lashing rain had not yet reached, the undertaker explained that this was “more of a disposal than a funeral”.

More of a disposal than a funeral. What has our society become? How do we now value human dignity to such a poor extent that the end of someone’s life is regarded as a disposal if they don’t have the financial means to provide otherwise?

Yes, care for the living should be our priority. But how did we get to the point where our choice was either care for the living or dignity and recognition for those who have passed? We have to aim for better than that.

And in truth, our society had let Peter down long before this last indignity. That he had been sleeping rough under bridges and in abandoned buildings for the last nine months of his life was an even bigger affront to the inherent worth of his humanity, created in the image of God like every one of us.

There is a plaque on the base of the Statue of Liberty in New York harbour which contains a sonnet that I have reflected on in the weeks since the events that I describe here. The second verse reads:

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

That the current President of the United States is actually intent on building a wall to keep out these huddled masses tells us a great deal about the state the world in 2018.

In our work at Oasis Aquila Housing we are determined to be a place of hope, both for our staff who see untold horrors on a day to day basis, and of course for those whom we serve, whether they are seeking safety from domestic violence, are sleeping on the streets, are stuck in a cycle if joblessness or have suddenly found themselves homeless.

As it happens, we are a charity with a Christian ethos. But we serve anyone who needs us because we recognise the inherent worth of all people.

In a statement which has reverberated through the ages, Jesus said “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”

And so, the question that all of us are left with as we mull our response to what society has become is this: where will we stand?

 

Never Give Up

I don’t like the word Homeless. It reduces people to a deficit. It identifies them in terms of something that they lack. Of course, it has a purpose. Like the advert, it does what it says on the tin, describing a circumstance in which someone can find themselves. Increasingly it describes a phenomenon that, no matter where you live, is visible. Homelessness is a societal issue, and it has common – often political – causes and consequences. But at its heart it is a deeply personal problem, unique to the person it is affecting in a given moment: there are as many sides to homelessness as there are people who are homeless.

As the prevalence and awareness of homelessness grows in our towns, cities and our national conversation, every month brings a shocking new statistic. In November 2017 it was revealed that the number of homeless people in the UK had risen to 300,000, larger than the population of Newcastle. In January we learned that the Government’s rough sleeper count showed that 4,751 people were sleeping rough on a given night, a 15% increase since the previous year.

But the danger of these overwhelming statistics, in an echo of Stalin’s famous phrase, is that they mask the tragedies and travails of individuals affected by homelessness.

More importantly, they also mask the potential of people who find themselves homeless. Homeless people are just that: people. How easy it is to take a wide berth round that woman in the sleeping bag, in the doorway on the High Street. How natural to write off the man swaying and slurring in the corner of the shopping mall. And how common to think, that these portrayals of homelessness are the archetype. The fact is, they’re not. Most people experiencing homelessness are families shunted from temporary solution to temporary solution. But one common thread we must hold onto regardless is the humanity of the person affected.

At Oasis Aquila Housing, our vision is for everyone to be part of a community where they are included, belong and have what they need to reach their God-given potential. And we regularly see impossible situations transformed for good.

This week two of our team were at a speed networking event in a job centre near one of our Basis drop-in projects. Our team had 8 minutes with each department telling all of the staff there about Basis and the work we do. At the end an adviser approached them and said she had a man in last week who she’d seen two years previously. Two years ago Andrew* was sleeping rough, desperate and suicidal. She said he was a complete mess: emotionally, mentally and physically. She signed him on and sent him to Basis. When she saw him last week she didn’t recognise him until she pulled up his notes. It turned out that in the period since he’d last been in he’d been to Basis, had a shower, used the laundry, got clothes and food, and was supported into accommodation and employment. He was only at the job centre as he was between temporary contracts and was due to start a new job in a couple of days. The adviser couldn’t believe the difference in him and was very keen to stress that Basis had saved his life.

The credit for this transformation goes first and foremost to Andrew, the man at the heart of the story. It also goes to show that no-one should be written-off, that our hopefulness is well-placed, and that our perseverance matters.

Next time you come across a person affected by homelessness, think of Andrew, and what’s possible when we focus not on what we lack but what we have, not on what separates us but what we have in common.

 

*Not his real name

Bright as the Stars

It’s been a challenging week. More than that, with the events in Manchester, it’s been a tragic week. Our thoughts and our prayers have been with those who have lost loved ones, those whose loved ones have been injured, and everyone who has been affected by a senseless act of violence.

On Thursday, people all around the country will stop at 11am for a minute’s silence in response to the Manchester attack. It’s right that we should do this, even as we feel powerless and overwhelmed by the mounting tragedies around us: Manchester, Westminster, Paris, Stockholm, Mosul, Aleppo, Yemen – the list seems endless.

In my work leading a Homelessness charity, I regularly encounter people who have been pulled under by the riptides of tragedy. Indeed the rest of the staff encounter difficult and moving situations that our service users are facing far more than I do, and yet carry on.

And I still have hope. For me, my faith in Jesus reminds me that all things – no matter how dark – can be redeemed.

MLK

One of my heroes is Rev Martin Luther King Jr. In 1968, at the height of the struggle for freedom and equality for African-Americans – a struggle for which he had been imprisoned, beaten, humiliated, slandered, and which would ultimately cost him his life – King said the following in a speech in Memphis, Tennessee. He described an imagined conversation that he might have with God in which he could choose any point in history to live;

“…Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty and say, “If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the twentieth century, I will be happy.” Now that’s a strange statement to make because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land. Confusion all around. That’s a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars.”

 The world is still messed up. Our circumstances may be difficult. But we can see the stars brighter than ever. And I’m glad I’m living in 2017.