‘Arm them against the gray impersonal powers’

The Orkney poet George Mackay Brown was helped out of his alcohol-soaked obscurity by the other famous twentieth-century Orkney poet Edwin Muir.

George Mackay Brown attended Newbattle Abbey College, south of Edinburgh, a college for mature students, while Muir was warden. Muir’s recognition and encouragement changed Brown’s life. After Muir’s death, Brown wrote a play about him and puts these words, concerning the students, in Muir’s mouth:

Never be hard on them. Never let them feel they’re wasting their time. My time as well. The whole treasury of literature is there for them to ransack. Open their minds to the old wisdom, goodness, beauty. Arm them against the gray impersonal powers. They press in on every side. More and more.

George Mackay Brown in Richard Harries Haunted by Christ, SPCK 2019

‘Open their minds to the old wisdom, goodness, beauty’ … an astonishingly uncommon sentiment today.

Local businesses, and daily bread

Something to be proud of

I did some copywriting work once for a charity called ‘Feed the Hungry’ (FTH). I enjoyed reading up on their philosophy. If I’m stating it right, they believed every community had God-given ways of sustaining themselves. FTH’s job was to catalyze the community to find and start deploying that source of ‘daily bread’. Then FTH would move on, job done. Even the poorest communities, they believed, could find, under God, a way of sustaining themselves.

Their theology is an expansion upon the prayer Jesus taught us: ‘Give us today our daily bread’.

Maybe these ideas don’t just apply to the poorest communities. The rich world is pockmarked with towns that have lost their old source of daily bread.

For example, in the town I grew up in, the biggest industry was making asbestos conveyor belts for the coal-mining industry. We had a school trip there once, to give us some ideas of the working life, which for some of us was just a few months away. This may be news to some, but the market for asbestos conveyor belts isn’t what it was.

What has replaced local industry? Government jobs and chain-store jobs. What’s been lost? Local pride. My home town also used to manufacture cast-iron drain-hole covers, and as a kid I would point it out if I found one in some distant street somewhere. We were famous! Our drain-hole covers were the finest, or perhaps the cheapest, but they were something.

A council in the NW of the UK (Preston maybe?) has pushed against the trend by trying to spend its council money locally. They get a local start-up to supply school dinners (for example), instead of hiring one of the established national providers. Like FTH, this council is trying to catalyse new initiatives that eventually might sustain themselves.

Economists grumble that everyone did what that council is doing, it would on balance be less efficient. That council are arguably wasting tax-payers’ money by not choosing the cheapest provider. But the extra inefficiencies may be worth it. I wonder if part of ‘daily bread’ is growing local businesses? And if it is worth some effort to catalyse that? That daily bread is not just about sustaining an individual but sustaining a community? That that can be an aim of prayers and faith? I wonder if a return to proud local businesses (even if they manufacture lowly drain-hole covers for a grateful nation) might be one way to dispel the powerlessness that many feel?

Slow mission and the arts

Wonderful wastefulness

We are made in the image of a creative God and our creativity can bring him glory.

The arts are also an asset in mission work:

The arts are personal – they are heart-to-heart. Artistic expression and response prevent the Christian faith being reduced to formulas, programmes, or clichés.

The arts are intimate. Our complex selves respond not just to facts or emotion, but also to the sense of beauty or ugliness. The creative arts add extra dimensions to a person’s encounter with God.

The arts are daily bread. Humans hunger for stories and beauty just as they hunger for bread or God. Christian arts can enlighten a dulled world, sustain Christians in trials, and spark hope in hopeless situations.

The arts seed further creativity. The best art stirs people to reflect and create fresh art. In this way Christian art reproduces itself and extends the interaction between the risen Christ and the human species.

The arts bind communities together. Collective sung worship, or aesthetically pleasing buildings or rituals, for example, can unite people in communal devotion to God. We know ourselves to be part of something
greater than our own individual faith.

The arts can find soft places in hard hearts. Among the multiple reasons that Jesus told stories was, first, because everyone enjoys a
story, and second, because a story can start someone on a journey towards God even when that person is not willing at that time to seek him.

The arts are ‘wasteful’. Art is not usually economically justified. Rather, like when an expensive bottle of pure nard (grown only in the Himalayas) was poured on Jesus, the arts are an expression of unfettered love.

I first wrote this as part of a 52-week world prayer guide which I have been working on through 2018 and 2019. You can find out more about this project, and sign up for the full blessing, at Lausanne.org/pray