Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Midweek Musing: seeds blowing on the Wind

This Sunday I was worshipping with the folk of Augustine United Reformed Church again, preaching as their minister Rev Fiona Bennett led our praying and singing and listening together. We were in Fringe Festival formation, raked seating and black curtains. I had two friends from my former congregation in Adelaide there, and spending the day in their company was a golden reprieve in some gloomy, difficult, times of late.

The Augustine congregation had been away together the previous day, contemplating their past and present and future; listening for where the Wind is blowing, looking for where life is growing, struggling, needing loving care.

So, because of this, and their congregational emblem of the dandelion, as a slant-wise take on the parable of the mustard seed, the reflection went a little something like this. Throughout, I sang a refrain from a song by Trish Watts in the book, Sanctuary, co-authored with Gabrielle Lord).

Parables. Seeds scattered in search of fertile hearts and minds for understanding. On Jesus’ breath are carried seeds that will fall generously with great risk and great hope. On his breath are carried seeds seeming too small to notice, but which will grow beyond expectation, give life beyond imagining. On his breath are carried seeds that will compete with the seeds of harmful plants; seeds that may themselves appear threatening as they grow wildly, but which surprise and delight as they challenge and confront.

Jesus speaks, and the seeds fly on his breath.

It reminds me of other stories: of God speaking and the seeds of creation blowing on the dancing, hovering Wind.

So the seeds fall, and we cannot tell where they will land, take root, or perhaps, lay waiting to be discovered. A story.
In the tomb of one of the kings of ancient Egypt, a handful of wheat lay hidden for five thousand years, until the tomb was disturbed, and the wheat discovered.
Remarkable. More remarkable, someone decided to plant the grains. In time, to the amazement of all, the grains came to life and grew more wheat.

Seeds grow, and sometimes we cannot tell which life, which plant, is the gift, especially when what grows is not what we expected. Another story.

A man who took great pride in the lawn at the front of his house, decided to cultivate a lawn in the rear. In this patch of lawn, however found a large crop of dandelions disturbing it. He tried every method he knew to get rid of them. But still they plagued him.
Eventually, he wrote to the Department of Agriculture. He detailed all the things he had tried, and closed his letter asking – ‘What shall I do now?’
In due course, he received this reply: ‘We suggest you learn to love them.’

He began by talking to the dandelions each day. Cordial, friendly. The dandelions maintained a sullen silence, still smarting from the war he had waged against them, suspicious of his motives.
But he persisted, and in time, the dandelions began to relax, returned the man’s smiles. Soon, the man and the dandelions were good friends.
The lawn was left for the front plot. And how attractive the garden that grew around the back!

I discovered as I pondered the parable of the mustard seed, that mustard was also considered something of a weed in the ancient Jewish community. Wild and untamed, the mustard bush upset the Jewish preference for order as a sign of God and holiness. They still cooked with it, but they didn’t grow it in their own fields, according to my friend and scholar, provoker of the Gospels, Richard Swanson.

So when we find seeds long hidden, how do we respond? We could respond with disdain and dismissal – too old, too dry, too whatever, to still have potential. Or we could respond with hopeful profligacy, giving new life the chance to grow.

And when we encounter mustard bushes or dandelions, do we see a weed inhibiting order, or the potential for generous welcome, for beauty, in the wild and unexpected?

There is a profligacy in the way God scatters seeds, scatters potential, throwing open the welcome to all, moving beyond a tamed, well-ordered structure of relationship. It is important to remember, however, that God does not abandon that way of being in relationship: recall the parable of the sower. The farmer still plants seeds in the grooves of the set aside field. But that isn’t the only place the seeds are allowed to fall.

The seeds are carried over to the edges, onto paths, into the weeds and wildflowers of open countryside. And the weeds, in another parable, are left alone – some may turn out to be welcome and welcoming, helpful and life-giving themselves – our dandelions and mustard bushes.

For it is God’s way to welcome the foreign seeds that blow in on the wind, that grow up alongside the ‘good’ seed. Consider Ruth, blown in from Moab; her descendants include King David, in whose line Jesus is placed in the story. What seems foreign at first, what seems wild, out of order, unruly or unholy, may indeed be the seed of life and hope.

What does the wind blow in our direction?

Where do we find seeds, lying in wait in the dark? Might it be a person waiting for a community, an occupation, an invitation to nurture and offer their gifts as nourishment for others? Might it be an idea waiting for a champion, circumstances, light and water to nurture its growth and flourishing?

What will we do, on finding these seeds? Assume they have lain dormant too long so they’re no good for anything? Or will we find some good soil, water the seeds with love and hope, give them a chance at life?

And where do we plant seeds? Only in soil that is proven to yield harvest, that is toiled and rested, bounded off from the wilds? Or do we scatter seeds – scatter love and joy and peace and hope – wide with God-like generosity, open to the unexpected, the wild and untamed?

How are we cultivating our own soil, the fields and gardens of potential in anticipation of seeds flung or found, blown in on the Wind? Do we expect that new life will grow here in this place, among these people, in our own hearts?

That Wind, that Sacred Spirit breath of God will blow we know not where – will carry seeds to us from unexpected places, and from us to places we may never know.

In these parables of Matthew 13, Jesus celebrates and affirms the generosity of God, the wildness of God’s love, and the mysterious unfolding of God’s Way – the realm or kingdom of God – here, among us, and wherever the Wind may carry its seeds.


Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Fanning the Fringe finish line

In the title track on my album, In His House, I claim that I am Shakespeare's biggest fan. Bold claim, I know. Especially given my below par familiarity with the history plays. However. As Kat's friend in Ten Things I Hate About You (that classic re-imagining of The Taming of the Shrew) claims: we're involved.

My friend Heather said as much to Reed, Teddy and Austin (left to right either side of me, above) of the Reduced Shakespeare Company as I indulged in a rare fangirl moment. I usually don't seek autographs or those minuscule utterly forgettable (for the artist) gushing congratulations after a show. But we had been front row. Steve had played 'Dale' in the show. I had been one of the rain makers (squirting a water pistol at the actors during the storm scene). And I had laughed, and appreciated allusions and echoes and the skilful weaving together of Shakespeare's works into something new – something he himself was wont to do. I was bubbling with joy. So I gleefully shook their hands, said you're fantastic, thank you, well done; and when Heather said, Sarah and Shakespeare are involved, you know, and Reed and Teddy and Austin looked intrigued, I handed them a flier for In His House and said, this is the result of my involvement with Shakespeare.

I've seen that – has it been on twitter? Will you tweet it to me, please? 

Oh, in that moment I forgot that I am a professional, experienced performer in my own right – and squealed inwardly like a five year old meeting Mickey Mouse.

Because I'm not very well known, beyond a certain circle. Because I struggle to get people to like, share, buy, engage with my work. Because the current season of developing my craft, my threefold vocation here in Scotland has been bloody hard work, even with the many rich rewarding moments and connections and opportunities it has yielded.

To not be dismissed out of hand. To be seen. Never underestimate the power of affirmation for each other, however experienced we might be. To be an artist is to make yourself vulnerable before an audience, in one way or another. To risk rejection, censure, being unseen and unwelcome and unheard. This is why I have tried to capture something of my responses to shows I have seen in the Fringe Festival and let the artists know of what I have written. So that they may know the value of their vulnerability, their craft, the stories they have embodied and told. That they may know they were seen, heard, welcomed, by this member of their audience.

Huh. This post went in a direction I was not expecting. I was intending to tell you all about my Shakespeare fan-girling finish to the Fringe Festival (how's that for alliteration?). Because Shakespeare's Long Lost First Play (abridged) was not my only mad, chaotic, hilarious encounter with Shakespeare yesterday.

Steve had tickets to Shit-faced Shakespeare, so late in the evening, as the fireworks were exploding over the castle, we entered the belly of the upside down purple cow in George Square for what we were promised would be a train wreck of a version of Measure for Measure. The actress playing Isabella was the designated drunk last night, and my was she entertaining. Difficulty walking straight, distracted attention, breaking the fourth wall to talk to the audience, addressing the actors by their own names, and almost derailing the play every time she stepped out from behind the curtain. The whole cast coped incredibly well, not only with their drunken colleague - more about that in a minute - but with her disfunctional microphone. Had it been on the booze as well? The adjustments on the run, which included lifting her dress up for replacing the microphone, only added to the farcical nature of this production. It seemed to give Isabella the idea of lifting her skirt, though, as she repeated the gesture several times throughout the rest of the show! Back to the rest of the cast. Their ability to improvise in response to her breaking of character, adjustments to scripted dialogue, and rarely losing their poise and focus through it all was as impressive as their obvious acting prowess in the moments they could briefly enter the story uninterrupted.

It is strange attending Shakespeare shows without my Shakespeare buddies in Adelaide, Mel and my mum, with whom I usually see anything Shakespeare. It is a wonderful gift to have found more Shakespeare loving friends on this side of the world, with whom to appreciate these irreverent, creative, mad homages to the bard of our idolatry. For such shows are produced with love for the gift of Shakespeare's genius, words and characters; are something of a tribute from his fans. And I am certain they follow a tradition authentic to Shakespeare's own love of humour, chaos, and reinvention in the telling of stories of humans who are, from time to time, a little bit ridiculous.

And so, to finish, for your enjoyment, here are Reed and Austin visiting the Folger Library seeking authentication of their found manuscript:

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Saturday, 27 August 2016

Les Misérables. Captivate Theatre. Wow.

I am now going to attempt the impossible. To convey to you something of the profound experience that was Captivate Theatre's production of Les Misérables.

We sat front row, I was on the aisle, my feet touching the steps to the stage. I felt the stage move as Javert and Valjean fought and the students sang 'Red and Black', as the fighters sweep past me, catching me up with them, to the barricade.

I cannot adequately express what I feel in response to this performance. We sat outside in the sunshine, in silence, in wonder, for a while afterwards, revelling in the moment.

In no particular order, here are the moments I remember, to which I want to hold on.

Alex Gavin as Gavroche owned the stage, owned Javert in the moment of uncovering him as a spy, having watched him intently, the only other character on stage, as he sang 'Stars' (I hope I've got that last moment right). The staging of Gavroche's death was brilliant: Gavroche himself behind the barricade, his singing of his dying lines full of courage, defiance, cheek. We could not see Gavroche, but we could see every fighter on the barricade, listening, watching, agonising, grieving.

Samuel Stevenson and Megan Gardiner as Marius and Cosette watched each other through one of their songs, in which Eponine and Valjean also sing their story line. Gardiner gave the often two-dimensional Cosette depth, and her voice. Her voice. Stevenson's 'Empty chairs at empty tables' was full of grief, loss, the gratitude for life mixed with the guilt of the survivor, in a fraternal commitment to remember.

The Thénardiers (Eoin Mullan & Sally Cairns) did not disappoint with the vulgarity and comedy and everything their characters should be. Comic timing, the costuming and make up fabulous, just right. And their guests were so wonderfully in the moment, so as to not steal the spotlight, but rather build the scene with vitality, as they joked with one another, talked to their friend the bottle, and swung a maid over a shoulder.

The use of effects on the microphones, to strip back or add depth and resonance worked well. Fantine's singing to Valjean in his dying moment had an ethereal quality that supported the moment. And her rising from her death bed, the soul departing earth, as young Cosette entered the stage, looking to her castle on the cloud / the departing Fantine - magic.

Éponine's (Anna Macleod) 'On my own'. Just right with the mix of almost spoken, emotion-laden acting and floating, dreamlike wistfulness at the love that will never be requited.

Enjolras, played by Matthew Wilson – I would follow him into battle. Grantaire - there was a moment, when Marius was singing about Cosette, to the annoyance of Enjolras and the amusement of the others, when Peter Goddard as Grantaire says, 'sit down Marius'. For me, this was one of the moments that made what was happening on stage feel like it was not happening on stage, but that we were there, in that place, as the story was unfolding.

Every single character was present in every single moment, their emotions responding to the dynamics between them all. Oh, they were aware of the audience, but they were immersed in the story with their whole being, each one; and we were thus drawn in. A strong, committed, generous ensemble performance.

Mark Scott's Javert was one of the best I can remember seeing. Even with the counterpoint between Javert and Valjean by Fantine's hospital bed cut from this version, Scott played Javert's loss of self in the face of Valjean's mercy so that I understood it. His line, 'in saving my life, he killed me even so', made sense; as did, for the only time I can recall, his suicide. He was playing that descent into madness long before we saw it in his despairing pull at his hair. Scott's final note, Javert singing 'home' ...

I've been putting off speaking of Keir Ogilvy's Valjean directly, for fear of overbearing superfluity. In 'Bring him home' we witnessed a man praying; I don't recall any other actor giving me that experience. Ogilvy's singing of that was some of his best singing for me. It reminded me of Colm Wilkinson's Valjean.

With no make up or costuming or props, only within himself, his presence, his carriage, Ogilvy conveyed Valjean at the different ages. He was, by the end, an older man, though Ogilvy can't be far into his twenties, if that. I loved the love with which he sang, yes, command me to live, I will obey, to Cosette.

He carried the weight of Valjean's 19 years in prison, his striving to be the better man the priest challenged him to be, with what, I suppose, could be called gravitas. (The priest, by the way, whose actor is not named in the program, had a wonderful poise and presence about him, too, that I very much enjoyed.)

Valjean is my favourite thing about Les Misérables, the story. Ogilvy was my favourite thing about this production. I cannot tell you how much joy it gave me to witness his embodiment of this profound and complex character. To hear him sing.

I cannot express how much joy it gave me to experience this production of Les Misérables. I was, in all honesty, captivated, from beginning to end.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

'I covet your prayers.' No, I do not think you do.

I have been pondering a phrase I have seen a few times recently: 'I covet your prayers.' Every time I see it, I ask myself, 'are we supposed to not covet, according to the commandments?' And I wonder, what do you mean?

The commandment, tenth in that list Moses received on the mountain (Exodus 20:17) is:
You shall not covet your neighbour's house; you shall not covet your neighbour's wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour. (NRSV)

In other words, you shall not covet that which does not belong to you. So there's no danger of a woman coveting her neighbour's husband, because men don't 'belong' to women ... sorry, that's another blog post.

The Hebrew translated as 'covet' here, means to desire and try to obtain. The English word 'covet' carries the meaning of yearning to possess. The prohibition really is about property. Respect the property of your neighbour, avoid jealousy, greed, theft, deception, which are all things that flow from desiring and trying to obtain that which does not belong to you.

When someone 'covets' my prayers, then, perhaps they are desiring and hoping to obtain my prayers. But my prayers are not my 'property'; my prayers are available for offering on your behalf. Even so, can you really 'possess' my prayers? It would seem, then, that there is a semantic inadequacy about this language choice.

We use language to communicate. To say what we mean, however, is only half the equation in communication. To say something that will be received with the meaning we intend – now that is the aim. There is no denying that when someone uses 'covet' language, it carries more baggage than a desire and hoping to obtain prayers that are perfectly ok to desire and hope to obtain (though not 'possess'). So long has 'covet' been used in a negative sense, yearning to possess something that belongs to someone else, that to use it to express a request for the positive gaining of prayerful support and solidarity seems incongruent with its received meaning over time. It would also seem, then, that there is an overlooking of the cultural meaning received on hearing 'covet', when this word is chosen. 

I would like to encourage those who request prayers in the manner of 'coveting' prayer, to choose different language. I do not think you are saying what you mean; or at least, meaning what you are heard to say. 

Friday, 19 August 2016

Words spoken, music woven

In a pub at the bottom of a narrow cobbled lane in Edinburgh, a lane whose existence I'd only discovered days ago because friends live there and I was invited for tea - such is the nature of hidden lanes in Edinburgh - Lou and I took our places on low bar stools directly in front of two microphone stands. That narrow space at the far end of the bar was filling quickly for the Harry and Chris Show, on the Free Fringe program (free to get in, but not free to get out!).

Harry and Chris. Simple Times. It's the name of the CD I bought at the end of the show, and a song. It aptly describes that hour in the pub, the whole afternoon really. Lunch in the sun and show in a pub, with a good friend for company. Simple times.

Amidst the turmoil of uncertainty and potential ground shifting beneath my feet, this afternoon retreat replenished my soul.
To listen to a friend's story.
To have my story heard.
To explore the questions and challenges we share
as artists pioneering with and beyond the church. To
pause for art, for words spoken to entertain, to engage,
to embody the simple and profound of our humanity.
To laugh. To smile the appreciation of deep within this
artists' heart, this poet's soul, this human being. Mmm.
To sigh acceptance for the gift as the music weaves
its thread between the words, highlights the silent spaces,
connects all gathered through our voices singing
together. Humanity. Poetry. Simple Times indeed.

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Throwback Thursday: still crying.

Still. Even with plans to close down one detention centre, we are allowing the power of fear to diminish our power to love.