Let me tell you a little known fact about the Sun. It can be all too easy to see him from our humble perspective, a giant light roaming the sky by day, a constant by whom we live and plan our lives. We can even be tempted to put our thinking hats on, to use our knowledge grown over the centuries to chart his course, to determine his size, to craft telescopes that can not only look closer but also to use thermal imaging to look at the different hot spots which flare across the surface of this orb of burning gas.
But the truth is that just as we can see him, he can see us – and from his perspective, well from his perspective he’s an artist. He crafts the red hues of the dawn. He brings the lakes and oceans of the world to life, causing them to shimmer and sparkle. He gives the glow of life to the green of each leaf and petal of each and every plant and tree in our world. He doesn’t just light up the world, but he casts the shadows which stretch and shrink across it, he pierces through clouds to give us golden beams, throwing his rays through the multitude of raindrops and the spray of waterfalls in order to paint rainbows of hope.
As far as we are concerned, he drifts across the sky to leave us in the night. But he is always there, painting the canvass before him as it spins on its way through the solar system. Yet even in the night, this artist lends his brush to his friend the moon who emulates his work though with a different palette of silvers and blues rather than his golds and reds. The truth is, the Sun delights in his masterpieces which are forever changing, always living and moving.
However, there are moments which even from his throne in the heavens strike him as magical. One of those moments, my friend, you would not believe because we humans from our perspectives have dismissed even the mere possibility of its occurrence. Even if we were to accept the possibility, we wouldn’t dare to believe in its actuality. Yet make no mistake, for it is this unbelieved moment which is the Sun’s favourite – rare as it is.
The Sun chooses his brush and times his particular explosion of a gas spot on his face just so. If we were to watch at that precise moment, it would seem as if a wayward strand of hair had fluttered on his cheek but from that movement, seemingly small though in reality larger than Europe and Africa combined, is unleashed rays which shall stream as solar surf through the ocean of space before crashing against the atmosphere of the earth. The rays bend on impact, redirected to their allotted canvass. They wash through the sky, staining it as clear a blue as you’ve ever seen, and caress a mountain range. The snow capped mountains shine as crowns upon rocky giants dressed in vibrant garments of the finest green forests. The shadows cast by the peaks shroud some of these forests in darker greens, the contrast highlighting the life and fertility of the whole scene. This scene, should we ever see it, would seem to us to be magnificent, but to the Sun it’s simply lovely.
The magic is in the details.
Surveying this scene you may well have overlooked a small clearing, a space in and amidst the trees where the woodland creatures will congregate to drink from the winding stream which shall someday make its way as a tributary to one of the great rainforest rivers offering up the basin’s love to the ocean. With patience, one can watch a variety of deer and mountain goats wander through to the clearing to bow their heads to lap at the cool water as it burbles and trickles down from the mountains. Occasionally you would get to observe wolves coming too, either to drink or to hunt. At the right time of year you may even get to watch the bears appear to playfully paw at the jumping salmon migrating to their traditional spawning pools upstream. Magnificent, we declare, before retreating to civilisation and our lives. We would be sure to tell all our friends of the wonders we had seen and yet for the Sun these scenes are lovely. He smiles upon them, glad that he has painted vistas which will always be remembered.
For the Sun though, his favourite of moments – quite rare, even to his gaze – comes when he has washed the skies with blue, has crowned the rocky giants and painted the forest with his mottled rays and shadows. His treasured moment comes only when his rays are reflected by a gleaming sword entering the clearing. The golden flash arcs along this living blade and as it’s bearer steps into the clearing, the light seems to somehow fill and inhabit each and every sinew of its four legs. It swells up within it chest and shimmers with a radiance proper to a lake on a clear summers day. The Sun delights in painting the golden mane which flutters as a banner down its neck, he highlights every gently swishing hair of its tail. The sorrel hide cloaks the beast which would be too truly a majestic stead even for the greatest heroes of renown. With a gentle nickering chuckle, the unicorn raises his head to the sky to greet his old friend the Sun. Bursting with joy, the Sun enthusiastically bathes the clearing with his purest brush-strokes; revelling in the glory of the flickering firegolds of the horn, whilst using it to sweep the ground beneath his hooves with a javelin shadow. The portrait silhouette melts into the rushing blues of the water as the unicorn lowers his head down to drink, the tip of his horn dipping into the water and seemingly bending in the diffracted light. Tossing his mane back, the Unicorn basks in the loving warmth of the Sun’s rays before strolling out of the clearing. It is this, this moment which is the Sun’s favourite to illuminate and illustrate. With a contented sigh, he draws the shadows of dusk over the mountains, draping the clearing with a final curtain for the day, and turning his gaze to fill the sky with ambers tinged with purple, he cherishes the moment and savours it as a memory to guard until the next time. When the next time will be, he doesn’t know. This is a rare moment even for him after all.
The night falls, and clocks tick along as we humans lay in our beds dreaming of work the following morning. We talk to our friends late into the night using our cleverness and science to send messages vast distances instantaneously, and yet for all our cleverness and knowledge all we can imagine as great or wondrous is only really considered pleasant and pleasing in the eyes of the Sun who anonymously paints our world for us, day by day. You would do well, my friend, to listen to what I have to tell you – the Sun is an artist and if we remember that, then we can start to see glimpses of the beauty of this life of ours all around us. As for the secret of the unicorn in the clearing, that is one scene which we are all to easy to disbelieve. If only we could share in that moment with the Sun, we would see something rare and precious; something truly beautiful and we would share in a joy which burns as bright and enduringly as the Sun himself.
I wrote this for a friend over a year ago and just rediscovered it so I thought I would share – I hope you enjoy it!
“It may be that Christians, notwithstanding corporate worship, common prayer, and all their fellowship in service, may still be left to their loneliness. The final break-through to fellowship does not occur, because, though they have fellowship with one another as believers and as devout people, they do not have fellowship as the undevout, as sinners. The pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner. So everybody must conceal his son from himself and from the fellowship. We dare not to be sinners. Many Christians are unthinkingly horrified when a real sinner is suddenly discovered among the righteous. So we remain alone with our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy. The fact is that we are sinners!
– Bonhoeffer, Life Together.
This last week has been filled with induction sessions to Cranmer Hall. One of those sessions was to introduce us to the importance of discipleship, and to explain how discipleship groups work at Cranmer. During the session we reflected in small groups on a couple of quotes, including this one from Bonhoeffer.
It was fascinating to hear the variety and depth of interpretations and meanings that people drew out of this piece. Reflecting on this relationship between “the devout” and “the sinners” my mind wandered through my imagination to describe it metaphorically.
The picture which came to mind was of campfires.
Jesus is the light of the world, a light which shines in the darkness.
In turn we are told to be the lights of the world, shining like stars.
Often, we gather around one another and look in – content to be warm by the campfire.
There’s nothing wrong with this. In fact if we are finding that our spiritual lives are getting tired, or that our light is growing dim then being refuelled by the fire is a good thing in order that we might shine brighter.
The problem is not with gathering as a community of light.
But Jesus is a light who shines in the darkness…
… and the darkness shall not overcome it.
Light shines in darkness, as the stars hang on the empty canvass of space.
The light is not dependent on the darkness to be light, but it finds its truest realisation when it uncovers that which has not been seen; both revealing what is in the darkness, and bringing into the darkness something quite different.
It can be easy to think of it as “us and them”, devout and sinners, light and dark. The truth is that it’s not as simple as encouraging the righteous to go and evangelise to those in the dark and bring them into the light- though we should do this.
The more complex, and I would suggest richer, reality is that this contrast of light and darkness can be found within ourselves. “If we say that we have no sin then we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us”.
None of us are pure light, none of us are purely good. Infact all of us have our own hidden sins, our secrets and inner darknesses. Though outwardly we may have fellowship, inwardly we can remain trapped in loneliness, as Bonhoeffer aptly observed. To hide this darkness means to restrict where the light can shine, or else the darkness will be seen.
Growth, then, means to allow the light of Christ to expose our sins first to ourselves and then to confess them before God and, where appropriate, with our brothers and sisters in Christ.
The hoped for transformation and renewal of our hearts, bodies, minds and even our lives is therefore nothing less than an invasion of our darkness by light. A single flame stands in the dark as a trained swordsman in a ramshackle fort of bandits.
The darkness shall not overcome the light, nor shall ‘the gates of hell’ prevail against the steady march of the kingdom as we find ourselves claimed by the Lord of Life to be his beloved children.
Let us not live in loneliness, sin and darkness.
Let us live in fellowship, freedom and light – to the glory of the name of Jesus.
For those of you who don’t know, I’ve just spent the last two years working as a Pastoral Support Worker at the London School of Theology while studying for a masters in Theology part time. This followed three years of studying for my Bachelors of Arts in Theology.
Whilst there, a sense of calling which I have avoided most of my life became increasingly hard to ignore. Having grown up as the son of a Vicar people had always assumed that I would be a Vicar like my Dad (with more than a joke or two made about some day being the Archbishop of Canterbury!). I had always disagreed. That was not to be my life – I would be my own person thank you very much.
My philosophy ever since I had to choose my options of my GCSEs has been to study what I’ve found interesting and enjoyable and I would hopefully find myself qualified for a job I would find interesting and enjoyable.
This led to choosing my sixth form in order to do Philosophy and Ethics.
In turn I then chose to study theology at the London School of Theology. I wanted to engage with scripture and the philosophies of faith from a believing Christian perspective, but I didn’t want to go to a denominational college as I was aware that I was, then, Anglican by virtue primarily of having grown up with it. The London School of Theology is both interdenominational and international and intercultural. This broadened my horizons on many levels. A story for another time would be my experiences of my first year where I began to recognise that I with my growing and developing theological understandings fit best into the Anglican system of beliefs (despite my baptist roommate passionately explaining his various perspectives until 4am on several occasions; and vice versa!).
During my time there I underwent a lot of personal transformation, much of which was a direct result of the Gospel which was ministered to me continuously through studies, friendships, the community, prayer and worship.
As a result of many conversations with different people I spoke to my Dad to ask what the process was of exploring the possibility of ordination. He pointed me towards the Bishop’s Officer for Ordinands and Initial Training (formerly the Diocesan Director of Ordinands; DDO). At his recommendation I spent probably the best part of a year, if not more, having conversations with a vocations adviser.
It was these conversations which really guided my reflections on my faith, abilities and sense of calling. There were a couple of moments in particular which spiritually resonated with me and gave me the confidence to knock on the door and see what would happen.
A few more chats with the DDO, a couple of interviews with examining chaplains and a Bishop and I was off to the Bishop’s Advisory Panel in May of this year. For those who don’t know, this is a residential few days of a variety of activities. There’s presentations and group discussions, and there’s a series of interviews. These are the Pastoral, the Educational and the Vocational. Over the course of the few days (I keep thinking of it as a weekend but it was a mid-week thing) they assess you against the nine selection criteria and write a report which advises your Bishop on whether or not they recommend you for training. It was both an intense but oddly comfortable experience which raised about as many doubts as it settled nerves.
I had a visit to speak with the Bishop a couple of weeks later and he was satisfied to send me for training.
A few more interviews and a busy summer of studying and paperwork and here I am! Sitting in my office in my house in Durham (which I’ll be sharing with some fellow ordinands) getting ready for the induction days which start tomorrow!
I am now here and about to spend a couple of years at Cranmer Hall training for Ordination and ministry in the Church of England. It’s an exciting place to be emotionally and spiritually. I imagine that I have no idea what I’ve let myself in for! One of my lecturers at the London School of Theology gave me this small poster of encouragement a year or so ago and I’ve placed it on my door here as a reminder and encouragement to myself to fix my eyes on Christ as I find myself pursuing this path of obedience to the Lord who has called me to follow him.
I look forward to blogging more often, reflecting on the topics we study and, where appropriate, of my experiences here in this next chapter of my own pilgrim journey seeking after God! I also have some side projects in mind which will hopefully be appearing in the near future!
May the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your Spirit,
Paul wrote to the Corinthians, in more than 140 characters, the following:
But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised.14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised.16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either.17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.
20 But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. 22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.
I was at primary school that day. Eight years old in a small rural school in Devon, in the United Kingdom. I remember walking out of class to the corridor where the parents would wait to collect us children. Some of my friend’s joined their parents and left, while others hung around whilst the mums were chatting. I remember my mum walking in the door and walking over to me but something seemed off. My memory of this bit is a bit hazy. I think I wanted to tell her something or other about my day. One of the other mums asked if Mum was alright and she said something about a terror attack. I don’t remember the exact words, but I remember that it seemed weird enough that the other mums didn’t know what to make of it and didn’t believe her.
I was eight and this was just a normal day becoming a bit strange. I think that Mum must have tried to explain what was happening, but I didn’t really know what to make of it. But here’s where my memory becomes clearer. We walked into the house and I dumped my bag at the bottom of the stairs before walking into the living room to see my Dad sitting on the sofa, watching the television with the blue screen in the corner. As I looked at the television I saw for the first time that now iconic image of the twin towers, with smoke billowing from the towers. I don’t have particularly strong memories of watching what happened, but I distinctly remember the atmosphere of a significance which was too real for me to deny but which was also too great for me to really understand. The main moments of memories which I remember are my parents reactions to the hankies which were waved out of the windows, and that moment when the first tower fell.
15 years on and the repercussions of that day echo on throughout the world. The response has shaped international politics, particularly in the middle east, in such a way that it has become commonplace for analysts, writers and pundits to discuss policy and narratives as taking place in a post-9/11 world. Culturally, even internationally, it became one of those rare “Where were you when..” moments.
Each year since, but particularly this year as the 15th anniversary, it’s natural that people will remember and acknowledge the events of that day.
Remembrance is an important thing.
Yet it can also be a complicated one, and the fact is that the remembering of 9/11 today is in that transitioning phase between a shared recollection of the majority of people and the establishing of how the significance and legacy of that moment will be explained and shared with those who have either been born after it, or who were too young to remember it. This year is the first american election where among the people voting, in part, on foreign policy there will be voters who do not personally remember 9/11.
This means that those who were there that day, as a survivor, a firefighter, a medic, a news reporter, a bystander or relatives who lost loved ones should consider starting, if they haven’t already, sharing their stories and writing them down. Records are important so that when the intuitive emotional understanding of an event fades, people can still engage with and learn from it.
One hundred years ago Europe was in the midst of the first world war. The last combat veteran of that war, one Claude Choules who served in the British Royal Navy, died five years ago on the 5th of May 2011. That war is well documented, but is surprisingly poorly understood by the general public – particularly the younger generations. In part this is because the emotional understanding of the subsequent world war of 1939-1945 and the tangible impact of the death toll on the population where seemingly every town, village,and farm lost family members. To an extent, this experience relegated and absorbed the horrors of the first world war into the horrors of the second in the public consciousness. Perhaps not at first, but as the years roll by and the stories are handed down to those who were born 10, 30, 50 years later there has been a peculiar union between the historical realities and the legends which have grown up about them.
Alan Bennett’s play The History Boys encapsulates this beautifully in the line: “This is history. Distance yourselves. Our perspective on the past alters. Looking back, immediately in front of us is dead ground. We don’t see it, and because we don’t see it this means there is no period so remote as the recent past.”
This is not to undermine the historical records we have, in fact precisely the opposite! With the world wars, the legends and the cultural consciousness of the significance of these events has inspired and prompted books, films, plays, lectures and art which have in turn enabled the education and remembrance of those events.
In reflecting on remembering 9/11 and the exploration of the recent past as it consolidates into history, my mind is drawn to Luke’s Gospel.
The purpose of John’s Gospel is so that the reader might believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (20:31).
However the intention of Luke’s gospel, whilst chronicling the same events, is subtly different. Luke begins,
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things which have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.
Luke’s gospel was not written as Jesus was exercising his ministry, and the account of the crucifixion and resurrection are not the equivalent of an ancient diary entry. Instead it was likely written sometime between 80-100AD.* That is, it was written some years later as the church grew and there were more and more believers who had not encountered Jesus during their own lives, and more than this, as there were more and more believers who didn’t know many (or any) of the eyewitnesses personally. This is important, because as Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians, “if Christ has not been raised [from the dead], our preaching is useless and so is your faith.”
Luke’s Gospel, with its focus on eyewitnesses (which are often referred or alluded to within the text) is an attempt to present the reality of who Jesus is, what he did and also of what happened to him. This helps Christians to remember Jesus. To remember the pain of the Cross that resulted in his death. To remember the despair of the disciples as they grieved. To remember the hope of the resurrection and the promise that in darkness and pain and suffering that we are not alone, but are accompanied by Christ; and that as he joins with us in our sufferings and our death, we will share with him in his Life, in his joy and in his relationship with the Father, sustained and nourished by the Holy Spirit.
It seems fitting that this day of remembering 9/11 is a Sunday.
As we remember and wrestle with the terrible events of that day, and as we try to explain it to those who came after that day, we would do well to remember that in the darkness and the horrors of human experience we are not abandoned. We have a Lord who does not shy away from despair or flinch in the face of death, but who squares up to it and takes it upon his shoulders along side us. As well as looking back to what has happened, let’s take stock of where we are and how we let this define us as we move forwards, with a sense of hope.
*there are discussions about the extent to which it was continuing to be edited and revised into the second century but 80-100AD is fine for the purposes of this post.
Something that most people I meet learn sooner or later is that I am deaf.
That’s right, my hearing is not great.
Many people don’t realise, partly because, in case you haven’t noticed, my hair is quite long and covers my ears! (Though I didn’t grow it to hide that I’m deaf; I wanted to be like Aragorn).
I was born with bilateral sensorineural hearing loss, ie. I’m partially deaf in both ears. In fact one of my earlier memories is of going to the hospital with my parents to get my first hearing aids when I was around four years old. I took my favourite toy, a small toy of the Disney character Goofy, with me and the audiologist who gave me my hearing aids gave Goofy a hearing aid too! Rather than having an earmold he had a small piece of elastic which went through the tubing to hold it onto his ear. This helped to normalise having hearing aids.
Growing up as a child with hearing problems meant I had regular trips to the hospital. Just as small children grow and go through a million pairs of shoes, as I grew I needed new earmolds which would fit. When earmolds get too small, or worn down through lots of use, the seal in the ear isn’t good enough and you start to get feedback – a loud annoying whistley squeaky noise! These trips to the hospital would often have long waiting times and that would be a day off of school. I didn’t miss any long chunks off of school, just a day here and there every few months. It was years before I ever had a school year with full attendance.
My parents were great. They have fought for me to have all the appropriate support I’ve needed for school. From liaising with the teacher for the deaf (an external person that supports deaf children and visits them in their schools) to help me have radio aids (a device which works kind of like a walkie-talkie; the teacher wears a microphone, often around their neck, and the student wears a receiver which plus into their hearing aids so that they can hear the teacher directly through the radio aid rather than being unable to hear them over the sound of the rest of the class) to investing in a caption reader which could display subtitles for films on VCR.
However, as great as my parents were and as much as they loved me,
I was still different from my classmates.
In fact, films are a great example of one of the struggles I experienced as a child growing up. With subtitles they were fine. But without… well even today I rarely hear or follow all the dialogue in a film at the cinema (I saw Suicide Squad yesterday and loved it, but am looking forward to watching it with subtitles in future to pick up the several bits I missed). This means that where possible I often ask if it’s possible to put subtitles on. However many people, and particularly children, who aren’t used to it complain that it’s annoying and don’t want to have subtitles on. On those occasions it would often feel embarrassing or awkward. As if either I could ask so that I could join in and enjoy the film but risk spoiling it for others, or let them enjoy it without creating a fuss and probably miss out on dialogue and the ensuing in-jokes that form when a group watches a film together.
It wasn’t just films that being deaf made harder, but also general group conversations. I would routinely be unable to hear something and when I’d ask someone to repeat what they, or someone else, had said they’d often reply with “Don’t worry, it doesn’t matter”. This would happen in class, on the playground, on the bus, and even today in pubs.
In these ways and others, being deaf has often been an isolating experience.
I think that as I was growing up I generally handled it pretty well. However I do remember a couple of occasions where it would really get to me.
I remember sitting with my parents in the living room and crying my eyes out and telling them that I wish wish wished that I wasn’t born deaf!
I can’t imagine how it would have felt to be my parents. By some genetic lottery their son was born disabled. They could love him and support him with everything they had, and it would help, but at the end of the day when I was crying and upset they were powerless to change the simple fact that my ears would never hear properly. As I say, I can’t imagine how it would feel to be a parent in that situation. But what I can say is that they were the best I could have asked for in that situation. They never treated me as if my disability were any cause to think less of me, because for them I was and am their son who they love.
One day we were at church and we were singing a hymn with the words on a screen using an Over Head Projector and I leaned over to my Mum and commented that it was hard to see it today. Within a couple of weeks I’d been to the opticians and had my first pair of glasses. In and of itself, having to wear glasses is no great hardship, but knowing that you can’t see or hear without some form of assistance was often a fairly sobering reality which I would privately have to wrestle with.
Growing up I went to several Christian summer camps. Week long residentials packed with fun activities and bible teaching to encourage children and teens in their faith. When I was in my early teens I was given the opportunity to sign up to go on a couple of weekend residentials to do similar things with other deaf people my age. I remember talking to my parents about this and looking through the promotional leaflets. It looked good. There would be rock climbing and high ropes courses and other activities I knew I’d enjoy. Yet the idea of going on a residential for Deaf people didn’t sit easily with me. In part, I suppose, because whilst I’m deaf I’ve never learnt sign language. Why would I? I personally never needed to in order to communicate. Part of me felt awkward about the idea of spending time with people who would be signing when I couldn’t sign. But another part of me knew that it wasn’t just that. Not long before this opportunity I’d been to the same place for a weekend residential but on that occasion it had been with other teens whose parents were clergy (my father has been curate and then a vicar all my life). It had been good to do the activities I enjoy doing, but I’d come away from that weekend realising that apart from our parents having the same career I had nothing in common with the other people on that particular residential. Why, then, would I automatically have something in common with other people who are deaf?
I decided I didn’t want to go, and my parents were supportive of that.
On a personal level it was probably around then that my attitude towards being deaf became defined more concretely in my mind.
I am a person who is deaf. I am not a deaf person.
Life carried on. I continued to grow up with deafness being a reality and a part of my daily ritual. I put my hearing aid in when I wake up, and I take it out when I go to bed. I have hospital check ups and I get new earmolds and I get new packs of batteries. It has crossed my mind on more than one occasion that should there ever be some form of national tragedy or emergency then my hearing will be limited to however long my supply of batteries lasts (not a major worry but a valid consideration).
During this time I had glue ear in my right ear. This is a build up of liquid in the eardrum which dampens the amount of noise which the ear can hear. I had surgery insert grommits to try and fix it, but had a really bad infection which could be smelt from a distance at school. I then had surgery to remove the grommits and the consultants decided to see if I would grow out of it. Nearly ten years later, it’s still an issue. The affect on my right ear is such that I no longer wear a hearing aid in my right ear because it doesn’t make enough of a difference to my hearing to be worth it.
I eventually ended up studying for my degree in Theology and sharing a room brought to light new ways in which my deafness affects me. I used an alarm clock with a vibrating pad under my pillow to wake me up, because I wouldn’t necessarily hear an alarm. There was about a week where my hearing aid wasn’t working and my roommate made the most of sneaking into the room and playfully insulting me behind my back, gradually getting louder until I jumped out of my skin when I suddenly realised he was right behind me – and had been for a while!
It was whilst I was in my final year of my degree that I had a problem with my eyes.
Towards the end of November I found that I was increasing the zoom on the monitor of my computer to read it properly. I set my phone to the largest font size and tried to do the reading for an essay that was due before the Christmas vacation. But my eyes were getting worse. I was getting a fuzzy pixelisation on the edge of my vision.
I spoke to my former roommate and he agreed to drive me to the local A&E to get them to have a look. They saw me and then sent me straight to Moorfields eye hospital in central London. I went and was met by a couple of my cousins who went with me. I was seen quickly (it was a Sunday which helped). They said it was something or another (pseudopapilledema). I had a note and got an extension for my essay.
At this point I could barely read.
I went home to my parents for Christmas and went to the opticians to get an up to date prescription to help as best as possible. She had a good look at my eyes and wasn’t convinced by the diagnosis. She thought it might be optic disc drusen. Any which way, I was referred to my local hospital who saw me quickly. Between Christmas and the new year I was supposed to be doing my essay to hand in when I got back to university at the end of the first week of January. During that time I had several appointments and visits to the consultant. I had photos of the back of my eyes. I had an ultrasound on my eyes (a bizarre sensation) and then it concluded with an MRI scan to check that there wasn’t a tumour in my brain pressing on the optic nerve causing the issues with my eye sight.
My optician’s suggestion proved to be correct. I had optic disc drusen.
The good news, I didn’t have a tumour and wasn’t about to die.
The bad news, there’s no cure and I may be disqualified from driving. First there would be more tests.
Briefly, optic disc drusen is essentially a condition where you end up with a couple of dead cells which end up in the optic nerve which in turn creates pressure on the surface of the optic nerve which affects the way that light enters the nerve and so creates visual disturbances.* Occasionally these dead cells can move within the nerve and that causes a change in pressure, which causes a fluctuation in the visual disturbance. The main risk for me personally is that these disturbances will affect enough of my peripheral vision to prohibit me from driving.
Before I had the relevant tests which concluded that my eyes aregood enough to drive, I had to finish off the essay. By the time I’d had all the tests, my vision was starting to normalise and I could read again. I wrote the vast majority of the essay between the MRI and receiving the results. I returned to university and submitted the essay, glad to be rid of it. It would have been easy to write it off as a casualty of circumstance, but actually that essay got the highest mark of my degree.
The final year of my degree was also an emotional struggle because during February my grandfather passed away. This was difficult not just for myself, but for the entire family.
However, throughout my final year, complete with the stress of my medical issues and the bereavement, I managed to lift my grade average up from my second year by an entire grade boundary; resulting in a First Class Honours degree in Theology.
I have issues with my ears.
I have issues with my eyes.
However through the love and support of my parents, my family and by friends I have grown to identify as Samuel.
I don’t place my value and my identity in my disabilities or the events which have happened to me.
I personally do not consider myself as a disabled person.
More than that, I do not consider myself a Victim.
All too often in today’s cultural discourse it seems that opinions and even arguments are considered more valid by virtue of an appeal to authority. This authority doesn’t necessarily equate to authority in the sense of an expert in a relevant field with a doctorate, with years of professional experience, or as an eyewitness to an event. Instead it often correlates to a person who shares experience, circumstance or heritage with another person or topic. This association is primarily categorical rather than genuninely relevant.
In essence, a lot of today’s cultural (or perhaps I should say internet) discourse plays the game of identity politics; a game where the trump card is ‘victimhood’.
This rhetoric leads to the disingenuous idea that:
to speak about feminism you must be female
to speak about racism you must be a person of colour
to speak about homophobia you must be gay, lesbian or bisexual
to speak about transphobia you must be a transperson
to speak about Islam you must be a muslim
to speak about obesity you must be fat
to speak about class you must be poor
to speak about disability you must be disabled
All of these are predicated upon the notion that a categorical association with a ‘community’ which is perceived to be oppressed or marginalised somehow lends a social currency to an individual which makes them more credible than someone who is not associated with that community.
This culture encourages us to focus on that which gives us credibility, which means that the most credible people are those who are minorities and then it’s their allies.
This means that to be credible you need ‘ an angle’.
Or in other words, to focus on a distinguishing characteristic or trait to gain a voice in the conversation.
There are two issues with this.
It reduces people to the sum of their parts, rather than treating them as authentic person in their own right.
It is exclusive and polarises rather than promoting tolerance and productive dialogue.
How can I say that identity politics reduces people to the sum of their parts? That it is intolerant?
I am deaf. I have just shared some of the struggles and experiences I have had in relation to that part of my identity. I do not deny that I am deaf. It is my daily reality. But I am more than my deafness.
Those who are black are black. They have their own experiences and struggles and whenever they look in the mirror they will still be black. But they may not support #BlackLivesMatter or the might be politically conservative. They may well be black but to define their ideological affiliation with the colour of their skin is to diminish them as independent human beings. They are more than their race.
Women are women. They have their own stories and relationships and make their own choices about their lives. They may not identify as a feminist. They may not believe in the patriarchy or they may be pro-life. They may run for president of the united states or enter STEM based careers or they may be nurses or mothers. They are more than their vaginas.
There are those whose sexuality and/or gender identity gets them labelled as LGBT+. Each one has their own story of how they discovered and engaged that aspect of their identity. Each one has their own story of how their families and friends responded to them; positively or negatively. Their romantic patterns of behaviour will be as varied as any one who’s sexuality is heteronormative, with a single partner or many. Their political and religious views cannot be determined by orientation. They are more than their sexuality.
This is not to preclude the importance or significance of those who are oppressed speaking up against injustice.
As a Christian I cannot lose sight of the numerous times scripture tells us that God watches over the stranger and sustains the orphans and the widows whilst frustrating the plans of the wicked.
I also cannot lose sight of the fact that when God himself walked the earth as Jesus Christ of Nazareth that he ate with and embraced sinners. It was the tax collectors (the capitalists), the lepers (the disabled), the prostitutes and adulterers (sluts and LGBT), the gentiles (people of colour and migrants) and the fishermen (the white males).
The Lord of creation, the God of the righteous, embraced the whole of humanity with all of our discrimination and labels and prejudices and died on the cross for both the oppressed and the oppressor. In his resurrection, Jesus establishes an eternal reconciliation between God and his creation, between humanity and himself; within this reconciliation we see the embodiment of a peace which affirms the differences of those which have now been, and will be, irrevocably joined together.
In the face of this hope to play the game of identity politics is to prioritise the marginalisation and reduction of individuals, rather than to honour and engage with them as whole persons.
I am many things.
I am a Christian.
I am a metalhead.
I have struggled.
I am a theologian.
I have long hair.
I am deaf.
I am white.
I am adventurous.
I am young.
I am english.
I have imagination.
I am Samuel.
I am not a Victim.
*I am not a doctor, it’s a bit more complicated than this but in essence this is how it works.
Each user can follow almost any other user and the tweets and content shared by those users are aggregated into their twitter feed.
This means that the possible combinations of people to follow may as well be infinite.
However, for twitter users the content in our feeds often forms one of our primary sources of information about the online world. It’s where we hear about our favourite bands releasing a new album, it’s where we discover breaking news from the Olympics or of terror attacks. People share blogs, memes and YouTube videos. More than this, we ‘like’ and retweet the content we like to share it with those who follow us.
Generally people follow accounts which produce or share content that they like, value and are interested in.
However this can create what’s often called ‘echo chambers’ – twitter feeds where the information which we receive about the world generally conforms to our own (often unnoticed) biases.
A clear example of this would be the experiences of Trump and Clinton supporters. It’s relatively common to see tweets asking if anyone has actually met someone who supports the opposite candidate to the one they support. This happens simply because people who are pro-Trump generally follow accounts which are favourable to Trump and those who are pro-Hillary generally follow accounts which are favourable to Hillary.
I personally have been aware that my twitter feed has rarely challenged my ideas or provided alternate points of view. In essence, I was in my own echo chamber.
To fix this i spent a few days actively looking for accounts to follow who I would disagree with. I followed news organisations like Vice, Salon and Huffington Post. I followed politicians from other political parties, leaders and activists of movements I don’t personally support. My experience of Twitter has actually improved since.
But this got me thinking.
I can try to expand the variety of sources which appear in my Timeline but equally I don’t want to follow so many accounts that accounts I particularly value get drowned out and lost.
This means that at the end of the day, my twitter feed remains my twitter feed. I can try and reduce the echo, but I’m still in my own chamber.
But what if we could be let into each others echo chambers?
The accounts that I follow are public information, anyone can click on my profile to see who I’m following.
Wouldn’t it be cool to have the option to see the twitter feed that I see? Or anyone’s for that matter. To be able to look at the twitter feed that a person of a different ideological, religious, or political perspective has would help us to see the blogs, news articles, videos and other content that inform an opinion which is different to our own.
We may still disagree with those things, but we may also find things which we haven’t seen because it doesn’t conform to our individual biases.
So Twitter, my suggestion is this: please let us view other people’s twitter feeds (while hiding private accounts they’re following). A simple button at the top of the list of accounts a user follows could take us to their feed. This would would help us discover new accounts and content which in turn could help advance the conversations which happen on the platform.
I for one would find that fascinating and think it could help each of us to escape our echo chambers.