Here is another song by Sydney Carter, who also wrote Lord of the Dance.

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CANDLELIGHT

I am the candle light

I do not say there is a God

I only say hello.

Out of the nothingness

I have improbably come

and back again I go.

I am no messenger;

the thing I actually am

is all I ever show.

my fire is physical;

I have a body made of wax,

and soon it will be gone.

I am a miracle.

like you I contradict the night

and then I travel on.

 

Carter believed that in everything that comes into existence, God says, “Let there be light”. For him creation was never in the past tense. Dogma does not help people to live but only attention to what is being created in them and around them.

This tiny song celebrates the light of existence as communicating no message, because any message would be inadequate to express the miracle of existence. Being light is more important than any theory of light, being alive than any theory about life.

All creation is de nihilo, from nothingness, and as such improbable. And impermanent. Existence requires matter which does not last forever in the same form.

Every existence is a miracle which stands out from the nothingness, and does not return to nothingness, but moves on.

This morning I presided at the funeral of a stillborn child. I did not read this poem, but it was in my mind as I spoke of the perfection, individuality and brevity of the child’s earthly life, and his travelling on to God, who recreates us beyond death. I urged his family to appreciate him as a miracle, and as a contradiction of the night that seemed to have enveloped him.

I also urged them to see themselves as brief miracles, however long they might live, and to be themselves with joy and courage.

Because it is the 14th of February, I had asked the family to bring Valentine Cards for the child, expressing their love for him. They did so, and I read them out. This did not deny the fragility of life, or the dignity of mourning, but simply affirmed that our brief existence is encompassed by love.

Alleluia.

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Here’s another song by Sydney Carter (see foregoing blog)

Come holy harlequin
Shake the world and shock that hypocrite.
Rock, love, carry it away
Turn it upside down.
Let the people laugh and shout
Let them in and let them out.
Rock, love, carry it away
Turn it upside down.

Come holy harlequin
Shake that steeple, rock that synagogue.
Rock, love, carry it away
Turn it upside down.
Shock the scribe and pharisee
Shatter their monopoly.
Rock, love, carry it away
Turn it upside down.

Come holy harlequin
Shake that graveyard, split that sepulchre.
Rock, love, carry it away
Turn it upside down.
Crack that clock that’s killing me
Knock it to eternity.
Rock, love, carry it away
Turn it upside down.

Leap holy harlequin
Slap that stick and show your liberty.
Rock love carry it away
Turn it upside down.
Caper with your Columbine
Turn the water into wine.
Rock, love, carry it away
Turn it upside down.

Rock, love, carry it away
Lift the world up by your levity.
Rock, love carry it away
Turn it upside down.
Let the dead begin to live
Be forgiven and forgive.
Rock, love, carry it away
Turn it upside down.

Here he’s using two dancing characters from the Commedia del Arte tradition to stand for the Christ and his partners. In face of all that is solemn,static, religious and safe, the harlequin brings ecstasy, movement, holiness and adventure. If people respond they are not coralled into an institution but into a relationship which lets them come and go. Scribe and pharisee are symbols of authoritarianism whether religious or secular.

But the dance relationship also disrupts the march of time of which there is never enough. By its pattern and rhythm it links participants to the pulse of creation rather than the clock that kills. The slapstick comedy of harlequin is linked to his sexual partnership with Columbine which in turn is linked by Carter to the wedding at Cana blessed by Christ the bridegroom of the people.

Finally Harlequin/Christ brings levity, which is of course humour, fun, dance and sex, but also lightness, the capacity to rise above dullness and death to restore life.

Sydney Carter became so aware of this integration of the ordinary and the holy, the human and the divine,that he was able to represent it vividly without departing from language and music that everyone can understand.

 

 

I’ve been rediscovering the songs of Sydney Carter and printing some of the lyrics in this blog. He often re-interprets incidents from the Bible, as here:

1 Said Judas to Mary, “Now what will you do
with your ointment so rich and so rare?”
“I’ll pour it all over the feet of the Lord
and I’ll wipe it away with my hair,” she said,
“wipe it away with my hair.”

2 “Oh Mary, Oh Mary, oh think of the poor —
this ointment, it could have been sold,
and think of the blankets and think of the bread
you could buy with the silver and gold,” he said,
“buy with the silver and gold.”

3 “Tomorrow, tomorrow I’ll think of the poor
Tomorrow,” she said, “not today;
for dearer than all of the poor in the world
is my love who is going away,” she said,
“my love who is going away.”

4 Said Jesus to Mary, “Your love is so deep
today you may do as you will.
Tomorrow you say I am going away,
but my body I leave with you still,” he said,
“my body I leave with you still.”

5 “The poor of the world are my body,’ he said,
“to the end of the world they shall be,
the bread and the justice you give to the poor
you will find you have given to me,” he said,
“you’ll find you have given to me.”

6 “My body will hang on the cross of the world
tomorrow,” he said, “not today,
and Martha and Mary will find me again
and wash all the sorrow away,” he said,
“wash all the sorrow away.”

It’s worth noting that in fact Carter is dealing with three bible stories here: the story of a sinful woman in Luke 7; the story of the anointing of Jesus by a woman at Bethany in Matthew 26; and the story of the last judgement in Matthew 25; weaving one new story from the three. This creativity with the Bible continues the habit of the four gospellers in weaving sometimes very different new stories from their common tradition. A story about Jesus is never a true story till you have made it your own.

The use of the folk ballad format of a dialogue allows for brief and vivid characterisation: the penny pinching Judas, envious of the relationship of Mary and Jesus, is rendered irrelevant first of all by Mary and then by Jesus. The human richness of love outweighs all calculation, especially when it is dealing with the grief of separation, so that the poured out ointment is also linked to the anointing of Jesus corpse. These powerful elements are all aready present in the two bible stories about anointing.

It is Carter’s genius to use the parable of the last judgement, where the King reveals that those who have done something for the needy and the outcast have done it for him. Carter links this truth to the image of Christ’s body: the body he leaves to his disciples’ care is the poor, in whom he hangs on the cross of the world. There they can find him and wash his sorrow away.

All this goes beyond orthodoxy. In the bible Christ’s body is identified with the church, which of course Carter knew. He was suggesting that the church’s identity with the body of Christ is only true when it identifies with the poor. The pathos of insisting that Jesus hangs on the cross of the world, is also not orthodox, suggesting that his crucifixion continues, and that the world, as in John’s gospel, is utterly opposed to the way of God.

The whole episode however is created with such a light touch, that the ordinary sinful disciple is helped to rediscover her own love for Jesus and to enter the mystery of his crucifixion while remaining committed to the poor of our world. If this is heresy, let’s have more of it!

This is a continuation of my previous blog on the poet, composer, and theologian Sydney Carter. Here’s one of his greatest songs:

It was on a Friday morning that they took me from the cell
and I saw they had a carpenter to crucify as well.
You can blame it on to Pilate, you can blame it on the Jews,
You can blame it on the Devil, it’s God I accuse.

It’s God they ought to crucify instead of you and me
I said to the carpenter, a-hanging on the tree.

You can blame it on to Adam, you can blame it on to Eve,
You can blame it on the apple, but that I can’t believe
It was God that made the Devil and the woman and the man,
And there wouldn’t be an apple if it wasn’t in the plan.

Now Barabbas was a killer and they let Barabbas go.
But you are being crucified for nothing that I know
But your God is up in heaven and He doesn’t do a thing
With a million angels watching, and they never move a wing.

To hell with Jehovah, to the carpenter I said.
I wish that a carpenter had made the world instead.
Goodbye and good luck to you, our ways will soon divide,
Remember me in heaven, as the man you hung beside.

The Church of England priest, Canon Paul Ostreicher, once wrote about the struggle he had with the BBC to get this song performed on a religious programme. I think that even now a song that consigns God to hell might raise a few hackles. Of course, knowledgeable people will say, it’s ironical, since we know what the speaker doesn’t, that Jesus is (the Son of) God. Well yes, but by focusing on the thief crucified with Jesus, Carter reminds us that crucifixion is a vicious and disgusting imperialist punishment and that whatever other reasons can be alleged for Jesus being on the cross, the evil of human beings is the primary one, and one for which a creator God cannot escape responsibilty: “there wouldn’t be an apple if it wasn’t in the plan.” The second verse is a beautiful deconstruction of classical Christian theology of the so-called “fall”, and a true appreciation of the tragi-comic narrative in Genesis 3.

The third verse reminds the reader of the kangaroo court that condemmed Jesus and the complicity of Pontius Pilate in this injustice. The speaker clearly thinks that his crime has not merited this horrific penalty. Surely if there is a God, he would at least intervene for Jesus!

The repeated refrain clearly challenges the classic view of a God who permits this kind of thing for his own obscure purposes. The speaker wants a different world and a different God:

“I wish that a carpenter had made the world instead”

In context this is a profound theological statement. It requires the kind of response made by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Only a suffering God can help” and at greater length by Jürgen Moltmann in his book “The Crucified God.” But these are both academic theologians whereas Carter’s speaker is an ordinary, perhaps slightly criminal man, speaking his truth to power under the most desperate circumstances. He keeps his humour enough to reckon that he won’t accompany the carpenter to heaven.

Before it is anything else, the crucifixion of Jesus and the others is a crime and no amount of fancy theological moves should allow it to be transformed into something wondrous without dealing with the obvious truths that Carter’s speaker mentions, as indeed Carter does in his best-known song, Lord of the Dance:

I danced on a Friday when the sky turned black / it’s hard to dance with the Devil on your back

They buried my body and they thought I’d gone/ but I am the dance and I still go on

Carter hints at a difficult identity between the dancing Jesus and the dance that creates the universe, an identity which can be shared by all Jesus’ human brothers and sisters, including himself:

Coming and going by the dance, I see 
That what I am not is a part of me. 
Dancing is all that I can ever trust, 
The dance is all I am, the rest is dust. 
I will believe my bones and live by what 
Will go on dancing when my bones are not. 

This may not be orthodox, but it’s not daft.

Your holy hearsay is not evidence.
Give me the good news in the present tense.

What happened nineteen hundred years ago
May not have happened.
How am I to know?
So shut your Bibles up and show me how
The Christ you talk about
Is living now.

The reason the text is all funny is I can’t edit out the way wikiquote has edited it. Even as it is however, both Christian believers and non-believers will recognise that it is challenging to any orthodoxy, and perhaps offensive to all kinds of fundamentalism. Its author is Sydney Carter, who also wrote “Lord of the Dance” and “One More Step” which generations of children learned in primary school. Carter wrote magnificently for them, but was not mainly a writer of songs for children. He was a typically English Christian socialist radical, in the tradition of George Ball, George Fox and William Blake with skills learned in the folk music revolution of the 60’ and 70’ from Seeger, Carthy and others.

Here is his tribute to the Quaker founder, George Fox:

  • There’s a light that is shining in the heart of a man,
    it’s the light that was shining when the world began.
    There’s a light that is shining in the Turk and the Jew
    and a light that is shining, friend, in me and in you.
  • “With a book and a steeple, with a bell and a key
    they would bind it forever, but they can’t,” said he.
    “Oh, the book it will perish and the steeple will fall,
    but the light will be shining at the end of it all.”
  • “If we give you a pistol, will you fight for the Lord?”
    “But you can’t kill the Devil with a gun or a sword!”
    “Will you swear on the Bible?” “I will not!” said he,
    “For the truth is more holy than the book, to me.”
  • There’s an ocean of darkness and I drown in the night
    till I come through the darkness to the ocean of light,
    for the light is forever and the light it is free,
    “And I walk in the glory of the light,” said he.

Like Fox, Carter refused to be bound by Scripture and Creed although declaring himself an unorthodox Christian who found that Jesus was the one who matched the light in his soul and in his experience of the world. Light for him was light for life, truth was truth for living, anything unrelated to the human struggle to live was mere holy hearsay to him. This recognition that faith begins with the human beings who invent the Gods and that its usefulness needs to be tested in ordinary living, seems to me fundamental to any honest theology, requiring both modesty and humour in its expression.

His commitment to social justice was equally practical. He imagined the snug believers hearing the holy family tapping on the window on Christmas day looking for shelter:

“No we haven’t got a manger/ no we haven’t got a stable

We are Christian men and women/ always willing, never able”

He was especially convinced of the presence of Christ is the needy neighbour, the starving, the homeless, the sick:

“when I needed a neighbour, were you there, were you there

And the creed and the colour and the name won’t matter, were you there?”

Above all, perhaps, he believed in what he called the “the dance”, the creative pattern at the heart of reality. At a time when physicists have reached for musical metaphors to express their view of the quantum universe, Carter’s “dance” is close to science as well as theology. Of course, as he admitted, although his famous song is about Jesus, he had a statue of Shiva, Lord of he Dance, in his house.

“I see Christ as the incarnation of the piper who is calling us. He dances that shape and pattern which is at the heart of our reality. By Christ I mean not only Jesus; in other times and places, other planets, there may be other Lords of the Dance. But Jesus is the one I know of first and best. I sing of the dancing pattern in the life and words of Jesus.”

As a lover of Scripture, I ought to be opposed to Carter’s carelessness about the Bible, and as a minister of an orthodox church, opposed to his dismissal of creeds. In fact, over many years, his songs have helped me understand both. I intend to write more specifically about his work in subsequent blogs.


Europe, 20 June 2016 Brexit. Markus Grolik/Cartoon Movement/Hollandse


Of course I stayed in London for the VOTE the great moment when Theresa’s Treachery was overcome by a huge majority. Well, yes, I know she was trying to LEAVE but why do we need permission to do whatever we want? We are a mighty NATION with grateful allies in our former EMPIRE who will be happy to see us rise up again. True, we don’t want them coming here, fuzzy -wuzzys as they are, but if they just stay where they are and trade with us to their own disadvantage, that’ll prove the commonwealth is better than Brussels.

Someone in the crowd said, “Why are you cheering if you’re a leaver, when they’ve just voted against a scheme for leaving?”

“We don’t want tied up with lots of rules,” I explained to this nitwit, “We just want out. What bit of OUT NOW don’t you understand?”

Then someone said there was a party for LEAVERS at Rees-Mog’s house, so we went along, but were stopped at the door by his bouncer, big tasty chap with a uniform.

“What you want?” He asked.

“We’re leavers, pal, and we heard there was a party here an’…”

“Not for you, scotty,” he told me rudely, “You’re not this class, so be so good as to piss off.”

Now I don’t take that language from anybody, so I said a few well- chosen words and swung at him with my right fist. Smack! Something big and overwhelming hit me on the nose and I landed badly on the kerb. My loyal friends tried to get me on my feet but my nose was bleeding and my head was dizzy. Somebody called an ambulance, an’ the Polis arrived too, rejecting our claims of assault, and advising us to move on. The ambulance took me to A&E where I passed out. When I came to I was in a bed with a black lady looking at me.

“Good morning,” she said, I’m glad you’ve come round, because you’ve been disturbing the ward with speeches about all the people you don’t like. I’m the ward doctor, born in Africa, now a citizen of Poland, so I can tell you that you’re facing your worst nightmare: you’re about to get an injection from a black Polish lesbian….”

As she came towards me with the syringe, I must have passed out again, but later in the day managed to get on the train back to Scotland, and the bus home. The house seemed a wee bit quiet, no sign of the missus, but note for me left on the table.

“My recent absences, which you probably have not noticed, were so that I could meet with my dear Mr. Ibrahim Mohammed, whom you call Mr. Ali, the owner of our corner shop. He has recently bought a new shop and house in Perth, and has done me the honour of asking me to share it with him, which I am very pleased to do. I don’t suppose you will miss me much except for the services I supplied. I want to take back control of my life. Goodbye.”


Europe, 20 June 2016 Brexit. Markus Grolik/Cartoon Movement/Hollandse




Women who think they can tell you what to do! Posh women who never did any hard work in their lives supporting the EU while ordinary workers are unemployed! Now don’t think I’m against equality. There’s things women are good at, like having babies and making the supper. It’s just they should stick to these things and being nurses of course, and no’ get mixed up in politics. I mean, are we really any better by having women MP’s? Yes, I voted Tory, and that meant Theresa May, but you have to suffer for your political convictions and anyway I thought Boris would take over, a proper bloke you can imagine having a beer with. Be honest now, can you imagine having a beer wi’ Theresa? Be like having a night out wi’ Anna Soubry! Yeah, Soubry, that’s the woman who was getting up my nose….

She’s one of these educated women who think they know it all. Elected a Tory but a traitor to the party and the nation. Because she’s a REMOANER! Always going on about it. And that’s where my old pal Alisdair comes in. I hadn’t seen him since he got arrested for making “obscene gestures with a flute” at this year’s Orange Walk in Glasgow. Apparently his defence that the flute sustained no damage did not impress the Sheriff and he had tae sweep the street outside the Catholic Chapel for a whole week. Anyway he phones and tells me he’s organising a protest outside parliament and would I like tae join it. Thinking of the expense I was initially reluctant, but when he mentioned the Soubry as a target, I changed my mind rapido. That’s how I came to be part of a democratic protest by loyal working men of BRITAIN against the traitor scum who want to keep us in Europe.

So yeah, Soubry, I mean, what sort of name is that? Scots? English? Welsh? Northern Irish? I don’t think so. FRENCH or BELGIAN I’d say. So no wonder she wants to stick with her people in Europe. Nothing wrong with that, but then why doesn’t she mince off back home and leave us in peace?

So there I am in London – the missus said with a tear in her eye she would sacrifice her happiness for a couple of days for the sake of the NATION – where today we stood up for the cause with courage in the face of a deadly bunch of female MP’s. Now I’m not confident about shouting. My voice tends to sound funny like a peacock being strangled, but Alisdair, who’s a huge portly guy, really tasty, and his mates, they don’t hesitate when they see the whites of the enemy’s eyes, meaning the Soubry, they’re straight in with NAZI SCUM and TRAITOR COW along with appropriate fist pumping and facial distortion. YES, you could see the Soubry catch that lot, smile nervously and try to ignore it. And that’s when I found my voice and joined in the patriotic chant, only to find myself face to face with a TV camera. Boosted by my heroic comrades I ignored it and continued shouting until the Soubry retreated into Parliament with Police protection.

Later as we toasted our success in the pub with a few bevvies, the TV news came on and there’s a fat, red-faced, man with his belly sticking out his shirt, shouting abuse at a small middle aged woman. Suddenly the whole pub seemed to be looking at me. Look, Alisdair says, its yersel’ bigman, standing up tae oppression and taking back control! All the other boys were slapping my back and congratulating me, but I wasnae so sure, because if the Polis decides there’s a crime, whose face is in the video? But much more important, IF THE MISSUS HAS WATCHED THE NEWS, WHO’LL PROTECT ME WHEN I GET HAME?