Beasts of the Northern Wild

Stranded whalesLike so many people I was really moved by the pictures of sperm whales washed up on beaches at Skegness and Hunstanton this last week. One picture (left) moved me profoundly –  the two enormous whales, captured as though nestled into one another in a final embrace, their huge levered mouths open as though at the end of a final long exhalation, their small grey eyes caught in a kind of eternal look of surprise. And all around them ordinary people picking around their sheer size, looking utterly insignificant by comparison.

Huge numbers of people travelled out to see these amazing beasts. Some were similarly moved and awed by the spectacle. Others took the inevitable selfie. Jeremy Vine tweeted his disbelief wondering what the world has come to when out immediate reaction to such an awe inspiring sight is to trophy the event by taking a photo of ourselves in it. Perhaps he is right. But I am left wondering what drew people out onto the sands to cry, to wonder, to experience the spectacle of two dead beasts.

I suggest three reasons

  1. Transcendence.

We experience a kind of transcendence when we are confronted by an experience so strange, so overwhelming, even mysterious. This is fascinating when any number of documentaries or online material can give us access to footage or imagery of a sperm whale. But there is of course nothing like experiencing the real thing. Witnessing these beasts in all their utter size and scale is a zoological equivalent of going to space, or standing on a mountain with the Milky Way streaking above our heads. These are transcendent experiences. And for all science’s ability to explain them and tell us what these are, we still experience them as something akin to a spiritual experience.

  1. (Re)Connection

These monsters of the deep remind us that we are connected to the rest of creation in an incredibly integral way. That connection, intrinsic to generations of humanity has been stretched and stretched by the powerful forces at work in the world over the last few hundred years. Perhaps the tide is turning with movements emphasizing the disconnecting practices of our supermarkets, tourism, and our urban way of life. However, for vast numbers of our majority city dwelling population it is not just whales that are a mystery in our experience, it is the local beach, the farm where our milk comes from, the bees that pollinate our fruit trees. When people cry at the sight of whales dead on a beach they express the unfelt grief of a society for a relationship with nature that has been utterly broken.

  1. The deep

The whale has a long cultural and literary history. Whales capture our imagination, they symbolise something profound for us. They stand for everything overwhelming, beyond us, frightening, dangerous. And they emerge mysteriously and fleetingly from that chaotic swirl of the sea, which despite our progress, remain very much that uncharted and undiscovered territory which we have yet to truly master. Old maps used drift off into uncharted areas ‘where there be monsters’. Nothing has really changed.  The sea, the deep, is still a place of darkness and mystery which from time to time throws up reminders of our frailty and finitude.

And the thing is that the deep, its chaos, its darkness, its propensity for producing forces that are beyond us, is critical for our thriving as human beings. Our thirst for control, for bringing everything ‘down to size’, in our grip, under our command, is ultimately unhealthy. There is an appropriate smallness to our place in the universe, the forgetting of which has the propensity to make us very unpleasant indeed. The famous whale story of the Bible is the book of Jonah where the ‘great fish’ is provided by God to save Jonah, thrown from his ship of convenience, as he sinks into the chaos of the sea. Three nights in the dark and skanky belly of this great beast is exactly what Jonah needs to reset his own particular version of hubris and renew his relationship with God.

Whether you believe in the literal truth of Jonah’s whale or not, the lesson of Jonah is that our growth as human beings sometimes requires precisely those places that we would rather not connect with at all. The darkness. The deep. The belly of a whale. But connect we must if we are to kick the habit of growing too big for ourselves, grasping too much false control.

The whales of Skegness and Hunstanton of course were very real indeed. They were super-real. Almost supernatural. But perhaps that is a rather apt word to use. In their unnatural dying, on the sands of an English beach, they offer us a needed reminder of the depths of life, physical, spiritual and eternal, we are rapidly losing touch with.


Jugglers and troubadours – St Francis and the Fresh Expression movement


Over Christmas and New Year I finally found the time to read a book which has been on my shelf for some time, GK Chesterton’s biography of Francis of Assisi. I have been drawn to Francis’ story for some time, instinctively sensing a connection between his ministry and the needs and concerns of our own time and of the church.

One aspect of his life and legacy has struck me in particular – the relationship between the growing Franciscan movement and the institutional church of the time. The stories of how Francis imagined and positioned his new missional order of monks are hugely insightful for those leading missional movements within the traditional denominations of the western church.

When Francis first drew a small group together under his leadership, they were three unlikely comrades, living in a hut attached to a derelict church in Assisi. He called the group the Jongleurs de Dieu. Jugglers of God. Or perhaps jesters, acrobats, tumblers of God. Jongleurs were travelling entertainers, circus-like performers whose playful skills were in deliberate contrast to those they were very often partnered with, the troubadours. Before Francis’ vision and call, he had a group of his young friends has been well known in Assisi for calling themselves troubadours. Troubadours, who emerged from southern France, travelled about singing romantic songs and offering a critical satirical, but essentially serious, commentary on love and romance. In shifting from troubadour to jongleur Francis was consciously signaling a liberation from the consciously solemn expressions of love and valor to something more playful, yet still consistent and true. The name Jongleurs de Dieu represented an openness to an expression of faith and service that was open ended, passionate without being weighed down by the heaviness of honour, almost frivolous in its riskiness, prodigal in its commitment to the provision and grace of God.

It is perhaps easy to imagine Francis’ reimagining of himself as a conscious critique of the church’s solemnity and order. However, Francis appears not to have seen it like this at all. His choice of the image of jongleur suggest something quite different. For where troubadours and jongleurs travelled together it was the jongleur who was the secondary partner, the servant in the duo of performers. Francis deliberately positions his movement, even at this embryonic phase, as a servant to the traditional church. His vision of a movement of committed disciples freed from the some of the strictures of life and institution, possessing nothing, giving everything, amidst the people not separate from them, was to act as an essentially servant-hearted movement in partnership with the traditional church. Francis himself has no vision of glory or growth, at least in the sense that we might use it. His was a vision of renewal forged from humility and service to the poor and the ordinary person, so often alienated from the language, culture and structures of the institutions. And his was a vision of church renewal not empire building, or church critiquing. He was not interested in creating a sect, in the way that the Fraticelli, a movement that grew after Francis death, sought to be. He was not interested in creating a perfect vision of the sort of church that was needed, or that ought to be. His vision was of imitating Christ, not imagining the ideal church.

I believe this is a hugely refreshing vision for our own time. God is once again creating jongleur de Dieu, people with a vision to be foolish in the eyes of many and create new kinds of community amongst the poor, the dispossessed and the marginalized. But too often the language and discourse becomes sectarian. A language that starts imagining such communities or movements in contrast to the church they have emerged from. A discourse that begins to battle for supremacy on the field of the perfect of church. As one such jongleur I firmly believe we are called to refrain from critique and stick to our call to playful, risky, frivolous and passionate imitators of Christ in new contexts. And to do so in such a way that we do not set ourselves up as paragons of the new Jerusalem, but humble servants of it and within it. The centre of the church has consistently been renewed from the edge, Francis being only one such example. However, it has also failed on numerous occasions to allow the new life at the edge fully invigorate the centre, either by the centre throwing it out, or the edge spinning off and creating its own distinct centre.  Francis consciously worked for a renewing movement that if it critiqued did so by example. A movement that continued to dance with its rather stiff partner toward a new vision for the whole church.