Tuesday 28th July 2020
Thank you for your letter which was fairly wide ranging, including geopolitics, Olympic branding, government regulations, fitness training, 007 film production; and all that for starters! If you fancy a fish and chip supper once in a while, go for it. I recall from one letter that you like salt and vinegar with your chips, but of course, our main purpose is to focus on some aspects of our faith and current life experiences.
When I recently saw TOKYO 2020 written in that format but with the year beneath, it struck me that if there had been an extra zero, the Olympic rings would have effectively been included. In Japanese, it looks quite different. At the weekend somebody mentioned the countdown clock at Tokyo station which, in late March, had been showing just over a hundred days, but then it changed to 485 - I think that was the number. Perhaps because of your reference to the Olympics, when I started reading your piece on the James Bond feature, I was imagining a more eminent companion in the abseiling scene. Then in the next paragraph, your analogy with seals had a dual connotation for me - the one intended and that of the United States crack team - so too much lateral thinking can really put us in the clouds. I must say that I had similar thoughts to yours when hearing the announcement about other state agents and similarly, with regard to your comments on the 'it' in 'Go for it!'
On Sunday we watched Songs of Praise and as you may have seen, it featured Gormley's sculptures on Crosby beach. Those images, of shallows and the deep, seemed linked to our previous letters and had you asked me a week ago about the Oceans sacred song, I would not have been aware, but having heard it this weekend, I can now say that I found it very moving. The words you quoted, and indeed all of them, summarise exactly what I feel and this prompted me to read again the Footprints (in the sand) poem. That testimony of tender assurance is pertinent as well, perhaps especially to anybody who is undergoing a period of sorrow and suffering.
During the past week we have seen on two occasions, the rarity of a thrush in our garden; at least, we are assuming that it is the same bird. Because of it I selected from the shelf, a lovely book of poems by Thomas Hardy. On the page facing each poem, there is a picture which appears to be not a photograph of a place, but rather, a copy of a watercolour or of a line drawing - for instance, Hardy's birthplace, Puddletown Church and a path beside the River Frome. I was thinking of The Darkling Thrush, but for the first time ever, read it in combination with his other poem, The Caged Thrush Freed and Home Again. Of course, the former starts with the person leaning on the gate and from my reading, it is the person's perception of the thrush's song as it pierces through the gloom: "Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew And I was unaware." By contrast, the second one seems to me to depict the bird's perception of us and our supposed sagacity, with the repeated lines: "Men know but little more than we, How happy days are made to be." Such precision and depth in the work is amazing.
Your article for the magazine shows similar insight. Yes, we all make our plans and most of us do the best we can. Yet it sometimes takes a major event or a particular encounter with someone to make us take stock of how limited our time is, to enable us to appreciate the moments and how we use them. Undoubtedly, our lives are an opportunity to develop our relationship with God as we know at heart that, sooner or later, He will take us home. When I heard a dancer talking about his experience of the movement and the rhythm of the process, he said that it was not so much that he was dancing, but rather that he was being danced. There are many activities where we can be carried into it, somehow feeling in the zone. Perhaps because of the one I was in, it seemed to me that the dancer's words could be transposed to the context of life as a whole: That it's not so much about living as 'being lived', in the sense of being guided by God.
Turning for a moment to the gym attendance theme, I once asked a regular attender about it. The reply was that it was like banging your head against a brick wall - lovely when you stop! That was sufficient to tell me not even to consider it; there must be better ways of keeping fit. This week with regard to cycling initiatives, I noted one reference to incentive payments for GPs which I think already happens in respect of certain screenings for preventative purposes. Unfortunately there is always a tension when personal interest and clinical judgement are set next to each other. Whether it is called a bonus or an incentive payment, and in all organisations where it occurs, the tendency is towards a culture focused on the targets imposed, rather than on the professional judgement required towards the subject. Moves towards authoritarianism seem to be the direction of travel in many aspects of society at the moment.
You made a few references to change and it is a subject that I struggle with sometimes, especially in society at large. I think it was Newman who proposed that change is part of life and to be perfect is to have changed often. However, it seems to me that not every change is heading towards improvement. You mentioned in a previous letter, behaviours which can be either constructive or destructive. So far, I have not changed my mind on one fundamental issue - how easy it is to destroy something, yet how difficult to construct something else in its place, especially if that construction was never even thought about concisely when the tearing down commenced. It is true that our opinions may seem outdated and irrelevant, but this must be tested. It is interesting when such a view is expressed, that there can be an unwillingness to say more about the alternative perspective held. I identify with the emotional effects when the source is someone close, such as from within the church. Sometimes I wonder if many church leaders - I'm not referring to you - are merely following the latest fashion, which as sure as day follows night, will not last in the long term. Whenever I note an apparent 'reactive spasm' in response to a shouty demand or its online equivalent, I am on the alert.
Your words reminded me of Niebuhr's Serenity prayer - to accept the things we cannot change, have the courage to change those we can and have the wisdom to know the difference. It is a long while since I read any of his writings, but on the political front, I think he was a strong advocate of democracy, while cautioning about the effects of power, even when it is within a Christian context. He recognised human nature in all its aspects and at societal level, the dangers of idealised concepts of society which have never been successful in practice.
Before I round off, I want to thank you, Mark, for inviting me to participate in this exchange of letters. As always, your contributions demonstrate insight and genuine care which have led me to use some of my time well. At the very least, I have considered various issues that might not otherwise have crossed my mind and the very act of trying to form some sort of legible set of words has helped me to understand better, even if my words were incomprehensible from your angle! It has been enjoyable and worthwhile and I have identified areas that I need to work on. Maybe on a Sunday afternoon I shall re-read the whole set of letters together, to see if there is any notable theme or perhaps, some inconsistencies. I may even find that I am, so to speak, meeting myself coming back! Anyhow, thanks again and if you do have more free time now, make sure you devote some to yourself and to your family.
Fond farewell to you and all,