Just behind Kettlewell in the splendour of Upper Wharfedale, a path meanders up Dowber Gill Beck in the shadow of Great Whernside towards Providence Pot.
Not far from the head of the gill and just before Providence Pot, a tree stands in the middle of the path, not quite barring the way, but certainly giving options.
I like to think of it as the tree of wisdom stumbled across on life’s way.
There’s no need to stop. The path continues either side. The route continues towards the destination, there’s no heavy branched demand, no legal obligation. Wisdom just grows freely, mysteriously, in our midst.
However, it might cause us to pause and ponder, is it better to go left or right? There’s trampled ground either side. The pause may be no more than a flickering thought, not enough to stop us walking, but a glimmer along the way.
On a sunny day, it is a perfect place to stop, to rest and have a picnic under its shady branches; or when it’s pouring, a moment of relief from relentless rain. Either way, shelter is offered and noticed. We are not so self-sufficient; help is needed and it is there to be found and it feels good.
On another more reflective outing, ‘Why has the tree grown up here? Did it grow before the path? Or has it managed despite all the footfall, to establish itself, growing healthy and strong? Some philosophical musings about beginnings and life and why we might be concerned about such questions at all begin to shape the journey.
And then one day, to stop and take a step back. To cross the beck and quietly stare and wonder at the beauty of this simple tree. That it is there at all, so magnificent in its creation; to know that there is something growing, when there might be nothing at all. Created, creative, of God. And that is enough: enough to value and treasure all that is and all that will be, the creation and one another, whoever we are.
‘So, your family’s from Greece then? When did you come to this country?’
‘Actually, we’ve traced our family back to the 1600’s in Wales so far, I’m not aware I’m from Greece at all.’
So goes the conversation year in year out wherever I find myself speaking to people for the first time. It’s a perfectly reasonable conversation given my surname, but it does demonstrate how we are marked out and determined by names.
Sometimes not for the good.
Names are descriptors, they describe someone or something, but they are not the thing or person – names are a mechanism by which we can understand, separate-out, prize and disown. As descriptors of people, names should uphold the dignity, beauty and sanctity of the person, utterly unique and precious before God:
‘I have called you by name, you are mine.’ (Isaiah 43. 1)
Unfortunately, in my line of work, I meet many people who have been called names and described by others in ways which belittle and harm. Tell someone for long enough that they’re stupid, or not liked, or not wanted, or perhaps forget to use their name at all, and they will begin to believe the projected identity on a deep and personally destructive level. They may carry the negative name or description in their hearts for the rest of their life.
When we look back at history and study some of the most destructive acts of human violence and aggression, what is scarily noticeable is that before the ‘act’ of physical violence takes place, there is an increase in the negative use of language and naming, sometimes for several years beforehand. Names and metaphors are used to single individuals out and then whole groups of peoples are listed and described by the same names. Then, when violence is committed against them, it is easier to justify because those committing the violence and those looking on, have become desensitized to the beauty of the individual through the aggressive and negative naming that has taken place.
Surely, we can’t let such a process happen in our country. The UN tells us that there are more displaced peoples around the world than at any other point in history, over 65 million. The numbers are staggering and the political solutions are complex and challenging. Xenophobia in Europe is increasing.
We must not become desensitized to the potential beauty of the person in each individual. People are not first and foremost migrants, immigrants, refugees; they have been called into being through the glory of God. We must all be very careful with the language we use.
Generalized and thoughtless, words can mask truth, corrode and poison; they become the allies of indifference and violence.
Carefully chosen and lovingly fashioned, words can be the guardians of dignity, grace and healing; they can shape and nurture the soul of an individual; of a nation.
As we celebrate the Queen’s 90th birthday we should not forget that her favourite vehicle is a Land Rover Defender. A good choice. I wonder if it’s because she associates it with the title Defender of the Faith which she inherited at her coronation.
The Queen, as we all know, has an incredibly strong Christian faith, but I’ve never detected that she feels the need to ‘defend’ it in a defensive sort of way. It’s a strange title, Defender of the Faith. She certainly delights in the protection God affords her and she quite naturally wants to share that understanding with others.
Despite the record of the history books, it’s not very Christian to defend God because, to be quite honest, God does not need our defensive capabilities. Jesus was clear about that. He was never happy when his disciples clubbed up together in order to protect him. It’s almost as if Jesus says, ‘Instead of defending me, go into the world and protect those who do not know they are free and loved by God.’
It is a common human trait to be defensive, to protect in order to keep difference and strangeness at bay and to secure the uniqueness of something we prize. And of course, we might say positively that something like democracy as it applies to the freedom of the individual is a prize and principle worth defending. This is the odd contradiction at the heart of the democratic principle because we can use our vote to insure ourselves against the imposition of difference which, unfortunately, contravenes the very ideal we are making use of.
I am very proud of the Christian heritage that has helped form the democracy we share in our country. To defend it is not a gesture of building walls and shouting keep out; it is rather to protect the principle for all peoples, so that it might grow far beyond our ability to hold onto it. How we allow this may well be the deeper significance of the forthcoming referendum – and there is no easy answer.
As the ‘defender’ of the faith, the Queen shares the Christian principle that all are free under the authority of God and that freedom can only be upheld if it is based upon the love of neighbour – if I am to be free, then you must be also whoever you are, such is our place before God.
This democratic principle is very different from individualism through which I might defend my own rights over and beyond yours. It is rather based upon a Christian humanism that sees the outworking of God’s grace and love in each person – something clearly revealed in Jesus Christ. To defend such outworking may sometimes require me to actively put others before myself, to share what I have in order to uphold the dignity, the freedom, of those without. This may well be costly, but it prevents freedom from becoming a commodity sold to the highest bidder. It is to defend democracy on behalf of others, rather than be defensive about it in order to secure my own needs.
These Dales, O Lord, rise and fall before your presence;
And wild winds defend the splendour of your glory -
The seasons herald your Son.
Waters wash wild across millstone rocks;
As trenchant rains sweep in -
Grace flows abundant.
Drab cloths of cloud drape the sodden hills;
As drear dampens the hopeful heart, still -
The beck bustles onward.
Fierce frost breaks the dull persistent cloud;
Pierces the murk and dying days -
As stars win out the night.
The sound of the curlew floats lone upon the wind;
The lamb cries -
And all is heard.
Stonewalls crisscross the land, signs of covenant;
Holy and strong -
True and merciful.
The rising sun bathes the fells in deepening warmth;
The hum and buzz of life awakens -
And love survives.
The meadows glow afresh, clothed in yellow;
A festival of colour -
Dappled in glory.
Amen, we say. Amen. Ay and Amen.