You want it darker? I’m ready, my lord

Leonard Cohen, tenant of the Tower of Song, born with the gift of a golden voice wanted it even darker on his last album. Darkness is keenly felt by many, particularly at this time of year when the darkness reinforces experiences of isolation and grief. The fairy lights that bedeck so many houses is an act of defiance against the darkness. Nowadays these artificial lights double up as Halloween and Christmas lights, intended to brighten our winter days and to jolly up the darkness.

But there is a sense in which we need it to be darker. Advent is a season to be rescued from the light-hearted. It is a time of year to get serious about the darkness that is part of our lives in our relationships, in our despair, in our anxiety, in our jealousy. It is a time to get real about the suffering so many endure, the millions forced from their homes, the many who suffer the consequences of economic austerity.

Those for whom this is too serious, those who are afraid of the dark, do us no favours when they say “lighten up”. Their merriment is like the fairy lights which don’t diminish the darkness but only pollute the night sky. We need it darker to realise that we are not all sweetness and light wherever, whatever and whoever we are.

Vincent van Gogh lived through some dark times. He wrote to his brother Theo: “I am so angry with myself because I cannot do what I should like to do, and at such a moment one feels as if one were lying bound hand and foot at the bottom of a deep dark well, utterly helpless”. Like Leonard, Vincent did dark. And yet, in another letter to Theo, he wrote:

“It is true that I am often in the greatest misery, but still there is within me a calm, pure harmony and music. In the poorest huts, in the dirtiest corner, I see drawings and pictures. And with irresistible force my mind is drawn towards these things. Believe me that sometimes I laugh heartily because people suspect me of all kinds of malignity and absurdity, of which not a hair of my head is guilty — I, who am really no one but a friend of nature, of study, of work, and especially of people.”

In his darkness he saw the most beautiful stars, some of which he painted and gifted to us. (Do see Loving Vincent if you get the chance.)


In ancient times the stars were guides to the wise and inspiration to the faithful. These days it’s Cowell-made stars that draw us. Stellar constellations are lost on most of us, mainly because we can no longer see them. The light in which we trust is artificial. We need it darker for a time.

PS You may be interested in Jenny Bridgman’s Advent blog exploring Dark Spaces

a most inspiring award

Well, blow me down. I’ve received a nomination for  a Very Inspiring Blogger Award from Ivon from his Teacher as Transformer blog.

Isn’t that lovely? And isn’t the award a great way of building community? Now, I’ve got to nominate 15 other blogs and their authors as “Very Inspiring”, by which I mean that their blogs are inspirational to me. I know it’s not going to change their life, but it’s proof to them that they are making sense – to me, at least. (And it is reassuring to know that we are making sense to others).

And it’s going to get their oxytocin levels going! Dr Love – aka Paul Zak (can I change my name?) has researched the “moral molecule”, the chemical in the blood called oxytocin. It turns out that “being treated decently causes people’s oxytocin levels to go up, which in turn prompts them to behave more decently, while experimental subjects given an artificial oxytocin boost – by means of an inhaler – behave more generously and trustingly. And it’s not solely because of its effects on humans that oxytocin is known as “the cuddle hormone”: for example, male meadow voles, normally roguishly promiscuous in their interactions with female meadow voles, become passionately monogamous when their oxytocin levels are raised in the lab”.

So, let’s hear it for the male voles, and for social networking. Zak recommends, according to Oliver Burkeman writing in the Guardian

we should all be doing more to boost oxytocin in benign ways. He recommends a minimum of eight hugs a day (pets count, too); massage and even soppy movies seem to work: he has done the blood tests. Interactions on Twitter and Facebook seem to lead to oxytocin spikes, offering a powerful retort to the argument that social media is killing real human interaction: in hormonal terms, it appears, the body processes it as an entirely real kind of interaction

Get pressing that like button! William James claimed that “the deepest craving of human nature is the need to be appreciated”, and a Harvard psychologist speaks of the importance of having a praise-criticism ratio of at least 5:1. Does anyone ever complain that they are praised too much?

Award ceremonies contain suspense, appreciation and thanks. Awards are prized and hard to come by – when we think of the Oscars, Olympics and such like. But there are everyday awards that are not so hard to come by, but are equally prized and create community. I had my own New Year ceremony which you can read about here. But there are awards to be made in our everyday world. These awards are not made with fanfares or fine words, but may consist of a “thank you” or simply a smile.

I’m not going to think too hard about the awards I am going to make today, but among them are my nominations for a Very Inspiring Blogger Award. (I am only including blogs which have recent posts).

And the nominations are (in no particular order and chosen from those who post regularly):

  1. Spirit 21 – Shelina Zahra Janmohamed
  2. Inspired Beeing – Cat Jaffee
  3. The Painted Prayerbook – jan Richardson
  4. Growing up with God – Rachael Elizabeth
  5. Simon Marsh
  6. shinystuff – Jan Dean
  7. Beyond the Edge – Viv McWaters
  8. Another Angle – Stephen Cherry
  9. Lost in the North – Dave Mock
  10. Plaza – Oliver Herbert
  11. People Reading
  12. Do not dance UK – Jose Campos
  13.  On the plus side – Lynn Walsh
  14. Christopher Burkett
  15. The Six Doyles – Katherine Doyle

The rules for accepting the nominations are:

  1. Link back to the person who nominated you
  2. Post the award image to your page
  3. Tell seven facts about yourself
  4. Nominate 15 other blogs
  5. Let them know they are nominated

So here’s the award

And here are seven facts about myself:

  1. I’m part of a lovely family – Jeanette, Adam, Oliver and Leo and their loved ones
  2. I was ordained in Sheffield in 1974
  3. I am still listening to Leonard Cohen and Paul Simon after all these years
  4. I love the beach – Patara and the beaches of Wirral and North Wales
  5. I’m intrigued by ideas of leadership and ministry (nominating here Dee Hock and Meg Wheatley for Very Inspiring Author awards).
  6. I follow the ups and downs of the Foxes – Leicester City – my home town team
  7. I recommended a book by Jay Griffiths to someone yesterday – A Sideways Look at Time

Thank you Ivon for nominating me and for inspiring me to today’s awards and community building. You would have been on that list.

More like the voice of angels

I am not sure why angel voices are those of women or of boys when the named angels are Michael, Raphael and Gabriel. But if I am not very much mistaken, the voice of the Webb Sisters is absolutely heavenly as it bears the gravelly voice of Leonard Cohen to the heights of beauty. For me this voice of the angel from John Tavener’s Eternity’s Sunrise sounds like it’s from the very heart of heavenI wonder if this is how angels sound. They seem to have all the time in the world.Friends Christopher Burkett and Jayne Shepherd have shared this story illustrating the power of words – surely the touch of an angel. (I wonder why Church of England bishops can’t sound and look like this).

For the record, the Webb Sisters sing (and pray) on Leonard Cohen’s new album Old IdeasWith Raphael (angel of healing) they sing Come Healing.

O gather up the brokenness
and bring it to me now
the fragrance of those promises
you never dared to vow
The splinters that you carry
the cross you left behind
come healing of the body
come healing of the mind
And let the heavens hear it
the penitential hymn
come healing of the spirit
come healing of the limb
Behold the gates of mercy
in arbitrary space
and none of us deserving
the cruelty of the grace
O solitude of longing
where love haas been confined
come healing of the body
come healing of the mind
O see the darkness yielding
that tore the light apart
come healing of the reason
come healing of the heart
O troubled dust concealing
an undivided love
the heart beneath is teaching
to the broken heart above
O let the ehavens falter
and let the earth proclaim:
come healing of the Altar
come healing of the name
O longing of the branches
to lift the little bud
o longing of the arteries
to purify the blood
And let the heavens hear it
the penitential hymn
come healing of the spirit
come healing of the limb

>Excuse the repetition


Seams like repetition
a photo of a baseball from thesussman

I can’t remember where I saw it, but … I can’t remember where I saw it. It was a blog post reminding me that repetition is no bad thing, but, I am sorry that I can’t remember where. My repeating myself may be boring.

But repetition may be of a totally different order. Repetition may be re-petition, signifying the return to a subject (any subject) petitioning them to be …. subject and agent. Repeating a subject is re-petitioning that subject for fresh meaning, or insight, or a bit more give. Young children often pester grandparents and parents to repeat the same story. They want to re-petition the story, re-questing the comfort, excitement, romance …… Couples repeat the story of how they first met. Communities and families re-mind themselves of who they are by re-petitioning their past stories to yield something to re-store their memory and identity. I want to repeat reading some books (East of Eden, Wild), some films (Dogville), some music (always Paul Simon or Leonard Cohen) because I am confident that they will reveal new things for me.

But the repetitive strain of meaninglessness that saps our vitality I can well do without – or is there some special grace (or love) which allows people to cheerfully and tirelessly repeat the same routine and tasks time and time again?

Repetition is fundamental to prayer. Repetitive rhythms (the prayer wheel), rosaries, postures and words are all reminders of our re-petitioning. Some give themselves to re-petitioning God through one line prayers for their whole lives. The Jesus Prayer – “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner” – is a one line prayer repeated over and over again. For some it is a life long re-petition. It is lifted from the story of the Pharisee and the Publican. According to the 19th century Russian spiritual writer, Theophan the Recluse, the prayer’s repetition begins as something on the lips and external to us, travels inwards by focusing the mind till it becomes the heart of who we are.

I wonder. Does genuine and sincere re-petitioning result in us taking the person, the thing, the story to heart? Is that how we come to care so much that we can bear the repetition?

a thousand kisses deep


For lovers of Leonard Cohen, a “thousand kisses deep” is an amazing poem/song (song is here) measuring the relationship between lovers. What if it was used as a different sort of measure? Our knowledge of one another is superficially assessed within twenty seconds. Apparently – and worryingly – we are only right 70% of the time. 70% may sound first class but for the 30% misjudged, denied jobs, shut out that statistic can be disastrous.

Us clergy, ministers, community developers and planners come and go. Sensibly we audit our place before forming opinions – but the data is skewed by preconceptions and historic artefacts of superficial excavation. What if we went a thousand kisses deep?

Down into the passions, convictions, emotions of successive generation and regeneration we would go. On our cheeks the hot breath of passion and the tears of betrayal. Lips caressing disconsolate children, the embrace of neighbours in the face of disaster, the kiss for a bereaved friend for whom there are no words. Seamly and unseemly: love denied and love made – our findings from a thousand kisses deep. Mining, owning, knowing.

Ricky Yates helpfully reminds us of the great store we set by outward appearance, and our use of image consultants. We remember Hyacinth Bucket (Bouquet) in long-running TV comedy Keeping up Appearances. For her, attraction was but a surface veneer – with relationships barely a peck deep. But, as Ricky says, the Lord doesn’t look on the outside, but on the inside (Mark 7:15) – a thousand kisses deep, at least!


Everyone seems very excited about the prospect of Hallelujah being the Christmas number 1 – with X Factor winner Alexandra – or is Hallelujah going to be number 1 and 2. It is if the campaign of the facebook Jeff Buckley for Xmas No 1 (backed by Edith Bowman and Colin Murray) works.

It is indeed a beautiful song. Opinion seems to be going with John Cale’s version and Jeff Buckley’s being the best, but I like Allison Crowe’s as well. Leonard’s own version too is brilliant but has taken on a life of its own.

What is not clear is what the song means. For me, it’s definitely not a straight “praise” song inspite of all the “Hallelujahs”. That it seemed such an appropriate end to the X Factor series – and an appropriate “victory song” for Alexandra to sing back up what I see Leonard Cohen alluding to. Using Old Testament references to David, Bathsehba and Delilah, Cohen puts the praise response of Hallelujah on the lips and loin of pleasure – as well the hearts and minds of worship, and that when we come face to face with God we will have to trust that he will accept our “broken hallelujahs”.

Here are the lyrics anyway – see what you think.

Leonard Cohen and his band of angels

At last we see Leonard Cohen – a brilliant concert at the NEC in Birmingham. Jeanette and I both commented on his music being a strong thread through our lives.

Fantastic band of musicians, The audience was spell bound at the end by the singing of the “sublime” Webb Sisters (pictured above) singing “If it be your will”. Here it is – beautiful.

The concert led me to think of this all as a sign of heaven – I mean the band playing together, round one another, giving way to one another, respecting one another – producing harmony in spite of the underlying knowledge shared by LC that there is no such thing as “our perfect offering“.

And on the other hand, I am preparing for our “patronal festival” – church dedicated to St Andrew – and wonder why we use individuals so much as our “icons” of God, instead of community, band, group, family and Trinity. In that case, I wonder what communities (or what sort of communities)become the windows for seeing God’s love. Is it the local church, the communities of reconciliation? Is it the bands of artists who play together, the teams of scientists who work together and the local Christians who pray together?

How about this:

I am so often accused of gloominess and melancholy. And I think I’m probably the most cheerful man around. I don’t consider myself a pessimist at all. I think of a pessimist as someone who is waiting for it to rain. And I feel completely soaked to the skin. … I think those descriptions of me are quite inappropriate to the gravity of the predicament that faces us all. I’ve always been free from hope. It’s never been one of my great solaces. I feel that more and more we’re invited to make ourselves strong and cheerful. …. I think that it was Ben Johnson, I have studied all the theologies and all the philosophies, but cheerfulness keeps breaking through.

Leonard Cohen quoted in “The Joking Troubadour of Gloom” – Telegraph 26th April 1993

>Leonard Cohen’s anthem


There’s a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in. That’s a line from Leonard Cohen’s anthem – play the video while reading the rest of this. He advises “forget your perfect offering”.

That sounds pretty sound advice to me because there is no perfect offering. I have just returned from a a training event led by Bishop Stephen Platten who is Chairman of the Liturgical Commission. One of the exercises we chose to do together was to devise a liturgy to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the NHS. We decided that there had to be opportunity to confess how the NHS had not lived up to its ideals and that we needed to avoid triumphalism. It’s only when we admit there are problems that we can improve – institutionally and personally. Forget our perfect offering. There is a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in.

I wonder if God designed us as “seconds” – cracks included. Without the cracks what use would be the light of the world?