Pentecost: A Time for Telling Stories

I haven’t written here for far too long. Life has been crowded, anxious, a hamster-wheel slalom. But today is Pentecost, a day when the wind should howl and the fire burn bright. Two thousand years ago and the Spirit moved and all who were present heard God speak in their own language. Nowadays? Now speaking is easy. What we don’t do is listen.

We don’t listen because we don’t want to hear. To listen is to be receptive to the humanity in another, the humanity in those we’ve been taught to despise. Far easier to rob the Other of their humanity, and that’s why so often the language used is animalistic, demonic, militaristic. There aren’t groups of immigrants approaching our borders, there are ‘hordes’, there are ‘swarms’. We weaponise language so we don’t have to listen.

Violence comes later. It starts with the words we use, and the words we refuse to hear.

So maybe Pentecost is a time for telling stories. Technology can help us translate and disseminate, but we still need to make space to hear the stories and the voices of those who are on our margins. In hearing we see humanity, similarities, and behind them all catch a glimpse of the divine. When the Spirit moved, unity and diversity began to dance and pilgrims from around the world began to understand each other anew.

And because the Spirit is an artist, we need to celebrate the way in which words and image and music and sculpture can help us hear other languages, other perspectives, other stories, all told through the unique language and grammar of each medium; art is a better vehicle for Pentecost than Google Translate. It can grow empathy, issue challenge, demand justice; embody truth and raise up a platform. And when the Spirit’s fire falls we can gather round it, tell our stories and see ourselves and the Image of God reflected back in each other’s eyes.

Dispatches from the Ploughshares Factory: Tattoos

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A recent edition of the Kind World podcast told the story of Dave Ente and Dave Cutlip, a couple of tattoo artists from Maryland in the US. Operating out of Southside Tattoo, Dave and Dave offer to transform racist or gang-related tattoos into designs that reflect a better future for people who want to start a new life. In the podcast, Dave tells the story of redesigning swastikas and Confederate flags for people who’ve left prison, left gangs, left lives of prejudice and violence. The emails he receives are known as ‘redemption requests’, messages from around the world looking for change, the transformation of their tattoos symbolising the changes they’re trying to make in their lives.

Tattoos can be art, and art can be violent, and when the podcast starts with a screwed-up description of a ‘messianic’ Hitler covering someone’s entire back, you can see the scale of the challenge that faces the two Daves, but also that facing those who want to move away from a legacy and a history of hatred. Art can be violent, but it can be transformed into something more beautiful. Sure, the hateful tattoos could simply be covered up, or removed, but the act of transformation has a symbolic purpose, a rite of passage. And in offering a welcome environment, the Daves befriend people who have left behind family, gangs, institutions because hey, it’s hard to change when you’re also battling loneliness.

By coincidence, I heard this podcast on the same commute that I listened to an episode of Shane Blackshear’s Seminary Dropout in which Shane interviewed Michael Beck, a pastor who has started a number of ‘fresh expression’ churches, including one in a tattoo studio. In the interview, Michael talks of how tattoos are sometimes seen as sacraments, an expression of something deeper reflected in the design etched onto an individual’s skin. And I can’t help but think of that in the light of the work done by Dave and Dave, in all the swastikas turned into roses, in the ink that beats swords of art into ploughshares. Redemption can be found in the strangest of places; grace can be written in the tattooist’s ink; hope can be found in art that transforms.

Creativity as a Courier of Shalom

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Any project takes a while to coalesce; ideas weave together, webs of facts and stories and ideas. As they converse and embrace and debate, a voice emerges, sounding different to how you originally imagined. Still, this voice will be louder, and stronger, and more confident.

This blog was born out of one idea: that creativity, in all its forms, is a gift and a blessing from God. Because of that, we can see how art, and design, and crafts bless the world in turn, through beauty and challenge, imagination and justice, prophecy and protest, vision and healing and lament. Writing the last few formative posts, that’s becoming clearer to me: creativity can lead to an act of creation, and that can echo the Creator. In some small way we can recreate and remix and reimagine and re-enchant the world around us. The Spirit gifts us to do that.

“It is yours to create, it is God’s to sustain. Don’t stop creating, and building and making. Keep going. You’ve come too far.”

That’s a tweet from Pastor Jonathan Martin. It’s applicable to all sorts of callings and vocations, but our churches sometimes look askance at the arts – new songs are suspect, challenge is uncommercial and everyone knows that God speaks Latin or King James English. There are those in the pews who have art burning within them that can be used to beautify the Kingdom, and yet that art never gets created – the space isn’t made, permission isn’t given.

But it is yours to create.

If God’s put that gift within you, pray for his Spirit to release it into the world.

It is God’s to sustain.

God is a creator and a sustainer. And when art and songs and dance and sculpture, software and technology and architecture and food are out there, their impact expands and mutates and collides with other creations to make something new in their wake.

Don’t stop creating and building and making.

Don’t stop, because your gift is a blessing, and you’re blessed to be a blessing. And that blessing can help grow a different Kingdom, roses blooming through cracks in parking lots. Envision and embody and engineer and incarnate the better world whispered to you by the Spirit. Create out of your best dreams, create out of your most vivid scars. Create out of Bethlehem, create out of Calvary.

Because creativity isn’t just an act of imagination, it can be an act of worship, a source of healing, a courier of shalom. You can draw a link between creativity and justice, be that through a protest song or an origami microscope. Creativity can imagine a better world and tell its story and communicate its vision, but it can also help that vision to break through, be pulled through into reality in the wake of a Kingdom come.

Keep going. You’ve come too far.

Keep pushing forward, through the rejection, through the misunderstandings, through the writer’s block and the negative reviews and the troll’s lurking under Twitter’s bridges. Keep going. What you create can mean something, can change something, can make something more beautiful, can help the Spirit shine through.

Keep going.

Keep going.

Keep going.

Enchanting the World Through Cosplay

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I was eating lunch outside Derby Comic Con a couple of weeks ago, sun shining on a college car park as conventioneers and Stormtroopers. In a doorway stands a young woman dressed as Harley Quinn from DC Comics. Suddenly, an ecstatic squeal rings out; another, much shorter Harley, probably about seven years old looks at the young woman and shouts “YOU’RE SO COOL!”

“You’re so cool too!” replies older Harley, making the little girl’s day. And meanwhile, just around the corner, a toddler is giving the biggest hug ever to someone dressed as Olaf the Snowman from Disney’s Frozen.

Cosplay has seen a massive growth over the last couple of decades, expanding alongside geek culture from being a niche hobby to becoming, well, a niche hobby that’s a lot more recognised. On its surface we see people dressing as characters from movies and comics and anime, a Halloween fancy dress party that’s broken its boundaries, but dig deeper and cosplay reveals itself to be so much more.

In some ways cosplay is creativity in its purest form – no-one needs to dress up as Batman – but it fires the imagination, it encourages problem-solving, it promotes the development of skills – dressmaking and textiles and model making and make-up and prop design. Cosplay’s about learning through creativity – learning in community, or developing self-taught skills through trial and error. Say what you want about its immediate practical application but the world’s a little smarter because someone figured out how to make a replica Ghostbusters proton pack.

But it’s not just about the nuts and bolts, the needle and thread of it all. Adam Savage, in a TED Talk covering his love of cosplay, talks about clothing as a narrative, an expression of the story we want to tell about ourselves. Cosplay is a step beyond that – it’s a way of interacting with our wider narratives, the modern myths and stories we tell each other and watch on flickering screens, communicating our love for these characters and their adventures. And then those stories are brought to life, momentarily; the world is re-enchanted. Walk past a member of the 501st Legion in a car park outside a convention and, for a second, you’re transported to Tatooine or Coruscant; you laugh but you’re a bit intimidated, and then you laugh some more.

Some might deride this as escapism, but as Tolkien once said “Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape?” It’s easy to get imprisoned by the world – to watch dreams fade, to imperceptibly transition to being an anonymous work unit, to lock away the attic the stories you wrote and the doodles you drew.

Cosplay can be a momentary escape from that. It gives the shy the chance to be extrovert, it gives reserved the chance to pose, it makes fixed identities malleable, it embodies the fundamental transformation of comic books – the ordinary throwing on a costume and, for a while at least, being extraordinary. The picture above? It was taken when a little boy got lost at a comic convention. He knew he’d be okay though, because Wonder Woman and the Flash were there to keep an eye on him.

Meanwhile, outside Derby Comic Con, a toddler is leading a member of the 501st around by his hand. The grey of the car park seems a little lighter; the colours of cosplay brighten up the world.

Witness: Life Jackets

So many flee with so little; the clothes on their back, possibly their phone, totemic house keys dreaming of a return one day. Money exchanges hands, a deal of desperate hope, and, eventually, the escape route leads to a dangerous boat, a crowded raft. Maybe, or maybe not, the deal will include a life jacket.

Ai Weiwei’s installation in Berlin

The refugee crisis is a human disaster, a situation that no-one seems able to rectify but that leads to frightening, vicious levels of dehumanisation and rage. Open a newspaper and refugees have their humanity erased – words like ‘swarms’ and ‘hordes’ turn them into rapacious locusts, faceless invaders. Their stories are subsumed in the maelstrom of our own prejudices, reverberating around tabloid echo chambers.

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Ai Weiwei;s installation in Vienna

The Chinese artist in exile, Ai Weiwei, courted controversy in 2016 by installing art created from thousands of refugee life jackets in Vienna and Berlin. Each life jacket represents an individual – a life, a story, a human being – but the sheer number reminds us of the scale of the crisis and its human cost. A life jacket symbolizes safety, rescue, but it also represents the danger faced by refugees. So many don’t make it. So many don’t survive.

Some do, however; they find themselves in vast refugee camps awaiting resettlement. Some are housed in towns and cities, an alien environment, sometimes hostile, but nevertheless an environment in which they need to make a home, lay down roots. That requires a welcome. That requires a job.

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Thistle Farms, a US-based social enterprise of women who have survived prostitution, addiction and trafficking, are working with female refugees in Greece to turn life jackets into welcome mats.  The fabric from the jackets is woven into mats which are then sold to give the women and their families financial independence. A symbol of safety becomes a symbol of welcome; through the project, women connect with those around them and the generations that went before, learning skills that used to be practiced by their mothers and grandmothers.

The jackets are also a symbol of fear and trauma, a reminder of frightening and heartbreaking circumstances that provoke visceral reactions. But in order to create, the jackets must first be destroyed, and so the creation of the mats becomes healing, cathartic. This may not be the life that any of these women would choose, but maybe the mats become symbols of hope, symbols of the future.

There are so many stories out there – so many lives torn apart, so many lives lost. These life jackets become a witness to those lives. In the cacophony surrounding refugees, we need to heed that witness.

Outsider Art: James Hampton

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James Hampton was a janitor and a veteran of the Second World War. The son of a Baptist preacher a quiet man who kept himself to himself. He lived in Washington DC until his death in 1964, and upon his passing his family and neighbours learned of a project Hampton had been working on for fourteen years. Inside a rented garage, they discovered a throne Hampton had made for Jesus to sit on in the event of the Second Coming. This wasn’t a professional job; it was made from old furniture, tin foil, coffee cans, vases and light bulbs. This wasn’t a traditional throne, not a million pound, gold plated project, but a piece of outsider art. And yet somehow that represents the upside-down Kingdom of God better than many things that have the ‘correct’ branding and marketing.

We don’t know much about Hampton, not really. He seems to have spent much of his later life building The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nation’s Millennium General Assembly. He seems to have considered himself on a mission from God, a Bezalel of the outsiders who toiled away on his ‘special projects’ and wrote in strange encrypted notebooks.

He served in WWII (enlisted on September 11th, if I’ve interpreted his records correctly), spending time in a non-combatant unit in the Pacific theatre until the end of the War. He’d have been broadly present at the birth of the atomic age, when Hiroshima and Nagaski and so many of their inhabitants were turned to ash and ruins; then he’d’ve returned home to face segregation as an African-American in the era of Jim Crow. In 1964, he was admitted to the Veteran’s Hospital in Washington DC with stomach cancer.

And yet, written above the throne he built out of trash were the words “Fear Not”, an expression of faith in the middle of trinkets and scrap, turning junk into something more beautiful.

No, The *Other* Font

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Letterers are some of the unsung heroes of the comic book world. It’s easy to miss, but the fonts and design of those speech bubbles are essential to guiding us through a story, to providing sound effects in an essentially silent medium, integrating art and language to tell a story. Lettering is the difference between a silent movie and the talkies, at least in comic book terms.

It’s also an art that moves with technology – letterers used to work by hand, now most use digital tools. Comic books used to have everyone speaking in upper case, due to the printing process, and while that’s still a tradition, some companies, notably Marvel, have shifted to using lower case. Each letterer, each project, will have its own style, its own aesthetic, even its own font.

What it won’t tend to have, however, is Comic Sans.

It’s now a cliché to hate Comic Sans. People are enraged by its very existence. It’s seen as patronising, infantile, ugly. Despite the name, Comic Sans isn’t a comic book font. It was inspired by the lettering in Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns (two of the essential texts of comic books), but doesn’t have any of their prestige. Most designers would rather be punched in the head by Batman than use Comic Sans.

There’s a twist here, of course. In February 2017, Lauren Hudgins wrote an article for The Establishment entitled ‘Hating Comic Sans is Ableist’.  That’s because the irregular shapes of Comic Sans makes it easier for it to be read by some people with dyslexia. Regardless of whether the font is artistically painful, it’s also an accessibility aid. That raises an important point – the design of fonts, the use of lettering, is a justice issue. And the things we mock without thinking are often things that other people find enabling and empowering.

The whole point of this blog is about faith reflections on the arts, and so it’s worth looking at how this affects our churches. How many of us give out church newsletters every week? How many of us use electronic presentations for hymns or sermon notes? And when we produce all this, do we give much thought to the fonts we use, the colour of the paper? Graphic design is an unsung art when it comes to enabling worship as well.

So if you’re the editor of your church newsletter, think about the advice given by Disability and Jesus and using a sans serif font, 12 point, bold so that people with limited vision can better access the resources you produce. Follow the example of the Good News Group and pick up some accessible Bibles. Look at ways in which the design and placement of written materials can be more accessible and enabling. Fonts aren’t just for baptisms.

Singing When You Don’t Feel Safe

Dr. Vincent Harding was a leader in the Civil Rights movement, a man who had boots on the ground during a time of great injustice, when faith involved things like not responding to physical abuse from racist police, when singing became an act of defiance against a violent world. A couple of years ago, NPR broadcast an interview with Harding that stopped me in my tracks.

It was summer, 1964, and James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were in Mississippi as part of a voter registration drive among African Americans. One night they never returned home; this was KKK country and the bodies of the three students were found a day or so later.

The news reached Harding and a gathering of hundreds of other activists, whereupon a choice presented itself: risk falling foul of further lynch mobs or head home to safety. And as those gathered were making hundreds of life-or-death decisions, they started to sing.

Someone’s missing Lord, kum ba yah…

We all need you Lord, kum ba yah…

The way Dr. Harding tells it, the moment sounds sacred, a simple song becoming a profound intercession, an act of worship that takes place not as a corporate singalong but as a prayer, a cry to God to make himself known…. And this came through a song as simple and as often derided as ‘Kumbayah’.

Paul, writing to the church in Ephesus, exhorted his friends to “Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.” That’s easy to do when church is bursting at the seams and the music is cranked up to 11 and when struggle is far away or even imaginary. It’s a different story to sing in the eye of the storm.

But we can still sing in the darkness; sing as communities with shared experiences and fears and griefs and threats, and maybe those moments are when our faith and our worship are at their most honest. In the midst of grief and fear and with the enemy at the gate our easy words and ivory-towered theologies fall silent and all we can do is sing to each other and to the Immanuel God who stands alongside us. There’s something powerful about singing when we don’t feel safe.

I’ve said it before: our churches don’t always make enough space for lament, and we often feel pushed to pretend that ecstatic elation is our default setting, no matter what’s going on the other side of the stained glass window. Maybe the memories of Dr. Harding and the words of St. Paul remind us that worship can be found when there’s no other choice than to sing to each other; when hope and horror can be expressed through the words of a Kumbayah.

The Spirituality of Defensive Architecture

Urban spaces are more complex than we give them credit for. I guess we’ve all had the experience of wondering why a public bench is so uncomfortable, or why we’re stumbling over humps in the pavement. The answer, quite often, is that someone’s trying to manipulate our behaviour.

“Defensive Architecture” or “Aggressive Design” is embedded in the world around us. It’seems not difficult to find photos of nasty looking spikes embedded in a doorway to deter rough sleepers, raising questions of how compassionate the design of our public spaces should be.

In one sense it sounds ridiculous to say that spaces can have a moral quality like compassion. But we build our cities, our civil structures, our open structures. They are designed and created and funded by us, and so spikes in a pavement can sometimes say as much about a society as our greatest cathedral. Sidewalk or sanctuary, there can be something intimately spiritual about public design.

There’s a command, way back in Leviticus, that talks about landowners not harvesting the edges of their fields – the produce there was to be left for the destitute and refugees. Now that’s predominantly an economic command, but there’s something symbolic about it – it reflects God’s heart for the poor and the marginalised, it forces an interaction between haves and have nots (the outcome of the Book of Ruth ties in to this passage) and it forces us to consider how we ‘re using the spaces around us.

This consideration is vital because, as Matthew 25 implies, it’s the things we do for God when we’re not actually thinking about God that can be the real test of our character. How we create spaces for ourselves is evidence of how we feel about other people.

So yeah, homeless spikes send a message. But so does a lack of funding for hostels, or demonising food banks, and a thousand other things beyond rough sleeping – public toilets, wheelchair access, transport networks, benches, all of these have a moral dimension. They all take our spiritual temperature.

There’s an opportunity here for Christians though. Think about all the land owned by our churches: do we need a revolution in ecclesiastical design? Are there ways in which we can transform our public spaces, develop missional architecture, reflect God’s heart for the world around through surrounding our sanctuaries with community gardens or libraries or art galleries or debt counselling, not to replace the heart of our faith, but to recognise that it expands into every corner of human experience. God cares about what we do with the edges of our fields; he cares about our church car parks too.

How do we respond to that?

Repair the Broken Things

My new favourite TV show is tucked away on BBC2 in the early evening. The Repair Shop is a fly-on-the-wall show set in a maker/fixer space. People will bring along eccentric but broken possessions, like accordions and jewellery boxes and garden gnomes, only for them to be repaired and restored by the end of the show.

Now, I like The Repair Shop because I’m a bit geeky but have the technical aptitude of a banana. It’s interesting to watch people who can take apart a silent music box and make it sing again. But seeing the reactions of people to their restored heirlooms, the emotional weight and memories tied up with old toys and artwork, puts another slant on the programme. Fixing broken things is a sort of resurrection.

That sounds a bit pretentious; maybe it is. But think about all those technical and practical skills that are represented in our churches. Think about how repairing a friend’s car or their shower or their lawnmower can help support them through a financial crisis. Think about how the fixer movement helps challenge consumerism and conserve resources. There’s a whole world of stories and opportunities bound up in the idea of taking something that’s seemingly dead and destroyed and making it live again.

We have hundreds upon hundreds of conversations about what the church should look like in the 21st century, we debate strategies and ecclesiology, we realise we’ve become divorced from our communities and spend good amounts of time analysing the break-up. But all these things should, at their heart, reflect hope and grace and resurrection. A broken clock that’s suddenly made to work again is a suitable metaphor for this, so why not embrace that metaphor?

There are lots of skills sitting in our pews, gifts from God that may remain unused because they don’t fit the template. That’s when we need to get radical – why not get a bunch of churches working together to facilitate a fixer space?  Why not draft plumbers and electricians and craftspeople into serving our communities?  Why not embody resurrection, revival and restoration in all their forms?

Let’s get to the point where carrying a set of tools is seen as just as much a part of worship as carrying a guitar; let’s release the skills and craftsmanship of our people to serve those around us and, in doing so, bringing hope and new life into every situation we can.

(This is related to a post I wrote years ago, which can still be found here.)