Awake, Woke and Ready

Advent, the season leading us up to Christmas, is a time of waiting, of expectation, of moving towards.  A time when we are called to be awake and watchful.  As the well-known chorale, echoing Isaiah, urges us, “’Sleepers wake!  For night is flying.’  The watchmen on the heights are crying, ‘Awake, Jerusalem, at last!’”

Does that mean being woke?  Surely not.  To be called ‘woke’ is an insult hurled by those who think that someone is trying to be ‘right on’ as regards all the social issues trending at the present time.  Surely it has nothing to do with us Christians and our journey from darkness into light.

African American writer Bonnie Greer tells us that “….woke is, of course, African American jargon which goes back further than recent years.  Further than political correctness.  And its meaning is quite beautiful. 

“It means being awake to not only the possibility of escape from inhuman conditions, but of being awoke to the Divine.  To transcendence.  It is also about being awake to nature, to the sky and the trees and the air.

“Those of the enslaved who could, escaped using a series of safe houses known as the Underground Railroad.  One of the ways to chart the route north and therefore to freedom, was to keep the constellation Polaris in your eye and in your mind.  Escaped slaves, travelling along the route, had to move at night.  To get out of the South and to freedom they were told to stay awake – to be woke – and to ‘follow the Drinking Gourd’.  This is another term for the Big Dipper, that large asterism which consists of seven stars of the constellation Ursa Major.  Four define a bowl, three define a handle: the drinking gourd.  Within it is Polaris, the North Star, the pointer to freedom.

“I can remember being told by elders to ‘stay woke’, i.e. watch how I proceeded through the world, how I treated people; how I was treated.  I had to remember who I was; where I came from and what that all meant in the scheme of things.” (The New European #232, 18-24 February 2021)

That sounds a pretty good reason to be woke.

Chris Dawson

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The Power of Silence

The teams stood either side of the centre circle, the match officials at one end of the circle and a lone trumpeter next to a giant poppy at the other.  The referee blew his whistle and the trumpeter sounded the last post.  The crowd of five thousand stood in silence for a further two minutes.  Not a sound.  Just the bright moon above us.  The referee blew his whistle and the silence was broken.  That’s how it was at Stockport County before last Saturday evening’s match.

The next day, Remembrance Sunday, we stood at the St. George’s First World War memorial to stand in silence.  We stood there, a still point, as the traffic rushed by on the A6, hurried and noisy, a reminder of how  frenzied our everyday life can be.

In both cases, standing in silence was a powerful, collective, symbolic statement and a time of reflection.  But how comfortable are we with silence at other times in our lives? 

We may associate silence with coercion and punishment: school detentions, an angry parent not speaking for days on end, a group of friends ostracising us by not talking to us, solitary confinement.  In silence too we encounter ourselves, our uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, what is troubling us.  Such encounters encourage us to keep talking, to keep doing, to distract ourselves.  Yet if we sit and breathe for a moment, we can experience the positive power of silence and stillness.  We can learn gradually to become still.  To be with who we are. Like all things it takes practice, repeated, gentle practice.

We come from silence and to silence we return.  It is part of our natural state, but one that it is easy for us to neglect.  The composer Leonard Bernstein reminds us that being still and silent refreshes and enables us:  “Stillness is our most intense mode of action.  It is in our moments of deep quiet that is born every idea, emotion and drive which we eventually honour with the name of action.”  In silence we might also discover the power in the reminder to “Be still and know that I am God”.

Chris Dawson

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Random Remembrance

Richard, my Godson was a UN Military Observer in Bosnia in the 1990s.  In 2008 Richard was summoned to the International Criminal Court in the Hague to give evidence at the trial for war crimes of three Croatian generals. 

He writes of his first day on the job, ‘When I was driven across the front line into Bosnian Serb territory surrounding the enclave of Sarajevo, I was shocked to see how primitive the “confrontation” or “front line” was.  The trenches were hand dug and reinforced with tree trunks and we entered make-shift wooden huts with slits in.  There were remnants of stoves, campfires, military ammunition boxes, empty bottles of slivovica and beer, and dirty plates with leftovers.  A Bosnian Serb soldier, ammunition belt slung across his chest, invited us into the trench just 50 metres from the (visible to the naked eye) Bosnian Muslim army trench on the Sarajevo side.  “But there’s no one here?” I observed, wondering if I should duck and stay low in case the other side started shooting at us.  “No, no,” said the soldier.  “They went home to rest.  We were fighting this morning.  They will be back later.  They are our cousins, our family, Muslims, Serbs, Croats.  It’s politics.  It’s all just politics.”….One minute they were trying to kill each other, the next they literally waved at each other and asked how friends and family were doing inside and outside of the Sarajevo enclave.  It reminded me of the Christmas Day truce in World War One when  German soldiers climbed out of their trenches to toast, meet and play football with French and British soldiers.’

Richard’s great uncle, my father, was a teenager in those trenches.  Wounded at the first Battle of the Somme in 1916, he recovered and fought at Vimy Ridge in 1917. Wounded again, he was invalided out, sent home and spent the rest of the war as an instructor.  He seldom spoke of his experiences and had nightmares for the rest of his life. 

The red poppy, a symbol of remembrance of those who have died fighting for their country, was first adopted by The (Royal) British Legion in November, 1921.  It raises about £50 million a year.  “Wearing a poppy is a show of support for the service and sacrifice of our armed forces, veterans and their families”, (Royal British Legion website).  The white poppy was first distributed in 1933 by the Co-operative Women’s Guild.  In 1936 the newly formed, Peace Pledge Union (PPU) began to distribute it.  The PPU emerged from an initiative by ‘Dick’ Shepard, Canon of St. Paul’s Cathedral.  The white poppy symbolises remembrance for all victims of war throughout the world, civilian or military.  It also  symbolises a commitment to promoting peace.  Sales of the white poppy in 2020 raised £44,926.

Chris Dawson

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Hallowed Evening

It was during my student days in a deeply Catholic Ireland that I was introduced to the celebration of Halloween.  We never celebrated it at home.  We celebrated Bonfire Night, with fireworks and the burning of a home made guy.  It’s not surprising that the Irish did not celebrate the burning of a fellow Catholic, Guido Fawkes, one of the conspirators in the failed Gunpowder Plot.

All sorts of things get thrown into celebrations and their origins get blurred.  Commercialism takes over too.  Folklore and religion have also remained closer in the Celtic countries.  Folk tales, myths and religion side by side and often intermixed.  Strictly, Halloween is the day before All Saints Day, or All Hallows’ Day, when we remember and give thanks for all the Christian saints and martyrs.  A day later, we celebrate All Souls’ Day when we remember all our loved ones who have died.

It may be that All Souls’ Day has contributed to the modern practice of Trick or Treating, an activity apparently imported from the United States.  Back in the Middle Ages poor people and children went out souling.  They visited the homes of richer neighbours and, in return for a soul cake (a shortbread biscuit with sweet spices), sang and prayed for the donors’ souls and for those of their dead friends and relatives.  According to Wikepedia, this practice continued into the 1930s and even later in Sheffield and Cheshire. 

Christianity has been very good at taking celebrations and adapting them.  This time of the year feels like a threshold time and was celebrated by the ancient Gaelic festival of Samhain.  For them it marked the end of the harvest and the beginning of winter, a time of moving from light into darkness.  Christianity has reversed this.  Having given thanks for those who have lived and died, we move towards Advent  the coming of the light in the darkness. I like to think that in offering our message of the eternal light shining in the darkness, we can be fairly relaxed about what Halloween has become.

Chris Dawson 

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Not Always as They Seem

How we perceive things creates our world.  But things are not always as we imagine.  A brown field site can be the most prolific nesting site for nightingales and a piece of green belt of little value to agriculture or nature.  Yet it is received wisdom that brown field sites should be built on first.

Peter Hall gave us a wonderful example of the fallibility of our perceptions in his Bible study and sermon a couple of Sundays ago.  He reminded us that there are two creation stories in Genesis, which expand, balance and even seemingly contradict one another.  Had I remembered that?  No!  He also explained the play on the Hebrew words ‘Adam’, the name given to the first human, and ‘Adamah’, the word for the red earth from which Adam is created.  There is no female form of the name Adam in Hebrew, but if there were, it would be Adamah.  Such are the subtleties contained in the creation story.

When God decides to make a ‘helper’ for the single human, it is not as a subordinate. The Hebrew word implies someone who may be an equal or, even at times, superior to the one being helped.  This aspect of the two creation stories depicts a close, loving and supportive relationship, rather than the superiority of man over woman.

So it is with nature.  We have interpreted the Biblical creation stories as putting us at the top of the tree, just below God and therefore in charge, in a position to control and exploit  the natural world.  To have dominion over things – whether people or the natural world – actually implies stewardship.  When a ruler was unable to look after his large kingdom, he appointed someone to ‘have dominion’ over it, to take care of it on his behalf.

“Did you know, Grandad, that back in the day women couldn’t vote and had to fight to be able to?”, said my 10 year old grandson.

“Yes, Tay, amazing isn’t it.  And it wasn’t till my mum, your great grandma was 13 years old that women were allowed to vote.  What’s more, from 1662 onwards, women who got married in church promised to obey their husbands and that lasted until 1928, the same year as women got the vote, when a new prayer book came out.”

 “No!” 

“And you wouldn’t have seen many women at football matches either.”

That was the conversation we had coming home from the match at Stockport County last Saturday, where we had been sitting next to a mother and her daughter and son.  Both mother and daughter were wearing the hijab.

Chris Dawson

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Invisibility

It was after I had been talking to my sister about our home village that Miss Worcester came to mind.  Some people in the village were less visible than others, either because they chose to be, or because, to be honest we didn’t take much notice of them.  Miss Worcester was one of the latter.  She lived in a house at the edge of the village, a house which, after she died was left empty and gradually collapsed.  We only saw her when, dressed all in black, she emerged in her wheelchair – a sort of hand driven tricycle.  By cranking a handle in front of her, she drove a chain, which turned the wheelchair’s wheels. What an effort it must have been to get up the initial incline into the village.  Not that I thought about that then.

Miss Worcester came to mind after I’d been given an article which asked the question, ‘Who is invisible to you?’.  I began to wonder about who else had been ‘invisible’ at other stages of my life, other children at school, those who said little, didn’t answer the teachers’ questions, didn’t mix or play out with the rest of us. How did they feel? Did they long to be noticed.  Did they feel ignored?

I realised that at every stage of my life, there had been people who were ‘invisible’ to me, people I had ignored or overlooked.  Sometimes, perhaps, because they were too scary,  not my kind of people, or caused me embarrassment.  For much of the time it was because I was just too busy getting on with my own life.  Head down and lost in my world.

And what about now?  Yes, Covid has brought otherwise ignored or taken for granted people to the fore – nurses, care workers, shop assistants and shelf stackers.  But what about our everyday encounters?  Do we look up, make eye contact, smile even and say a word to those we pass or interact with? Do we engage the Big Issue seller in conversation, or, more challengingly, stop and bend to chat to the person begging in the street? Do we remember that ‘I am because you are’?  That it is through these encounters that God’s love is expressed and both of our existences affirmed.

Chris Dawson

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There is a Season

Our four year old granddaughter was upset.  Her older sister had gone back to school.  The next door neighbours had moved and with them their son, who was just the right age for a playmate and the family that had moved in had older children.  Life had changed and it wasn’t fair!

Schools went back a few weeks ago to a new term and the start of a new school year.  It was a time for youngsters to get back with friends, or to move on to High School, where much would be new and unfamiliar.  A new journey, new surroundings, new subjects, new teachers, new friendships and challenges.

This last week it was the turn of university students gearing up for the start of term, a new year and new experiences, some students returning, others setting out for the first term of their university career, many living away from home for the first time.  For parents too, it has presented a major time of change, with familiar rhythms, routines and relationships all shifting. 

A recent radio programme explored bringing up a family of triplets, two girls and a boy, with the joys and challenges of having events in the children’s lives happening simultaneously.  It also reflected the closeness of the bond between the children as well as between them and their parents.  The final episode told of how, when they left school, having grown up so close, they parted and went in different directions, two to universities and one into the world of work. 

Traditionally January, with its New Year celebrations, is a time of renewal.  But Autumn too is a new start.  As nature shows, it’s a time of letting go and new beginnings.  Letting go and letting be allows room for new things to come in:  “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven…” (Ecclesiastes 3:1)

Chris Dawson 

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Remembering

At Saturday teatime the prefects came round each table and gave us our Saturday Sixpences.  It was a custom from sometime back in the past that ensured everyone had some pocket money.  You could put your sixpence (the equivalent of today’s 2½p) in the Sunday morning chapel collection, spend it on a Mars bar, or pay for the Saturday night feature film put on by the school during the winter months.

Our secondary school careers started only a matter of ten years after the second World War had ended, so films featuring the War were common.  The Colditz Story showed us how the clever British POWs outwitted the German guards and camp staff by putting on a show, while the escapees climbed and crawled through the previously created escape route.  ‘My wife’s gone to the West Indies.’  ‘Jamaica?’  ‘No she went of her own accord!’  Such were the jokes accompanied by raucous laughter, that covered the escape. 

In The Dam Busters, tension built up as the scientists experimented with the idea of the ‘bouncing’ bomb and then put it into practice, destroying the Möhne and Edersee dams and flooding the Ruhr and Eder valleys with much loss of life.  The march, composed by Eric Coates, was certainly stirring and it has made its way into our hymn book. 

We knew all about marching and drill.  We dressed in uniforms and did it twice a week.  We had a Regimental Sergeant Major permanently on our staff.  Field Marshall Viscount Montgomery of Alamein was chair of Governors.  Our housemaster had been a tank commander under him and most of the rest of the staff had fought in the War.

So what has all this got to do with anything? The answer is ‘remembering’.  This past two weeks we have been doing a lot of remembering at St. George’s, both of beloved individuals and of historic events, through Heritage Day and Battle of Britain Memorial Day.  When we remember we ‘re-create’.  We don’t merely recall.  We re-create and reconnect emotionally with people and events.  It may mean that we look back with nostalgia, or that we go forward with gratitude.  It may mean that we simply re-affirm things and stay where we are.  At best it will mean that we reflect, re-assess and renew our resolve to live out the message of the Gospel.

Chris Dawson

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Going for Inner Gold

The Olympics and the Paralympics are over.  Medals have been won and the athletes are  back home.  The party’s over, but the pilgrimages continue.   

It may seem strange to use the word ‘pilgrimage’, a journey with a sense of purpose, to a destination that is of significance to us, a journey that takes time, and on the way tests us, gives us opportunities for greater self-awareness and a sense of achievement and fulfilment. 

Perhaps sport is not our thing.  We didn’t like it at school and haven’t bothered with it since.  We may wonder what the point is of going round and round a track on a cycle or making a horse prance around a ring, of riding a skateboard up and down a set of slopes, or ploughing up and down a fifty metre pool?  Yet, in that search for gold, many life lessons will have been offered on the way.  The athletes will have suffered slips and falls – sometimes literally.  It’s easy for us to forget that they are, like us, human beings on a journey. 

Two bouts of Covid within 18 months put gold medal winning swimmer Tom Dean out of action.  He had to recover, start again and rebuild his strength and fitness before he could compete.  American sprinter Alysson Felix values the bronze medal she won in Tokyo above all the golds and silvers she had won in previous Olympics. In the light of recovery from life-saving surgery during pregnancy, she says that she doesn’t really rank her medals, “but this one is just so different.”  Polish javelin thrower Maria Andrejczyk  missed out on a medal in 2016 by two centimetres.  She won silver in Tokyo having suffered serious injury and a diagnosis of bone cancer on the way.  Hearing about a sick child needing to raise funds for treatment in the US, she offered her medal for auction.  The funds were raised.  “This silver can save lives instead of collecting dust in a closet…The true value of a medal always remains in the heart.”

So, like all these athletes, “…let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us…” and, in our case, “ looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith…” (Hebrews 12:1-2)

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A Fanfare for the Makers

Worcester Cathedral stands above a gentle bend in the River Severn, its square tower rising above a belt of trees.  On a calm August day, people walk along the tow path, some ambling, some clearly exercising.  A hundred or more white swans paddle up and down this section of the river, some singly, but mostly in large groups, all hoping a passer by will throw food to them.  More often than not the screaming gulls beat them to the feast.

It is a very English scene.  Tranquil, with a hint of Autumn in the air.  The Cathedral too is peaceful, lofty and full of light, its stone easy on the eye, neutral coloured with tinges of green and  pinky red.  Huge windows are filled with brightly coloured stained glass.  Light streams in from the clerestory above the nave arches.  The woodworkers’ and carvers’ arts are reflected in the choir and clergy stalls. 

The Cathedral was built at intervals between the years 1084 and 1504, its architecture reflecting every style of English architecture developed over those 500 or so years, from Norman to Perpendicular Gothic, with all the features of that steady development.  Yes, but who built the cathedral?  We know the names of those responsible for each stage of the design, but not the craftsmen.  The Cathedral walls are covered in memorials to the ‘good and the great’, but none of them to stonemasons.

The choir assembles in the cloisters beyond the south door and processes up the main aisle to take their places in the ornate choir stalls.  The sound of their singing lingers with the echo. The sound of Evensong on the late afternoon air.  A sound heard since the Reformation.  A sound that is spiritually uplifting and inspiring.  A sound that ultimately passes into the ether and is gone.

“The History of Worcester Cathedral is the history of England”, says the Cathedral website.   Yes the Cathedral reflects the religious and political history of England.  Benedictine monks walked the cloisters until Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, King John, of Magna Carta fame, is buried here and the Battle of Worcester brought an end to the Civil War.  Yet what of those who built the Cathedral?  Were they, like the porcelain artists in the factory round the corner, forbidden to sign their work?  Or, hidden high up on a finely cut stone will we find a mason’s initials or low down under a seat, the initials of a master carver?

(The title for this piece is borrowed from Louis Macneice’s poem of that name in which he celebrates the meaning of making.)

Chris Dawson

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