Sunday, 25 September 2011

In the house of Rimmon

I wonder if you remember the story of Naaman the Leper from the Old Testament of the Bible?  If you don’t, or you haven’t ever read it, it’s in 2 Kings 5, and you can read it here.

It’s a wonderful story, every twist and turn of it full of food for thought to keep your mind occupied on your desert island or alone in your monastic cell even better than algebraic equations or seeing how many words you can get out of antidisestablishmentarianism.  It’s a preacher’s story – you could run a 6 month’s team preach on it and still be going good.  A treasure trove of wisdom and wonder is the story of Naaman – the only difficulty is knowing which jewel to pick up first.

And in recent days it’s been returning very insistently to my mind.  That is to say, one particular verse has.  Naaman the Leper came from Aram.  He was not a Jew and he did not follow the Jewish religion.  But, through the ministry of the prophet Elisha, the God of Israel healed Naaman of his leprosy, and Naaman concluded that he had encountered the true God, and wanted to worship Him.  So he did, but he had this one lingering problem, which he expressed like this to Elisha:

But may the Lord forgive your servant for this one thing: When my master enters the temple of Rimmon to bow down and he is leaning on my arm and I bow there also— when I bow down in the temple of Rimmon, may the Lord forgive your servant for this. (2 Kings 5:18)

And Elisha responded, “Go in peace,” which I take as meaning, “Yes, that’s okay, Naaman.”  One wonders how many grisly martyrdoms might have been avoided if everyone had taken such a practical approach, but that’s not why the incident has kept returning to my mind.

I do very little these days that a person could convincingly describe as “ministry”, but I do have a small connection with an older lady, that causes my heart and mind some disquiet, because of the nature of our conversations.  She can be lonely and, though never demanding or intrusive, she looks forward to my visits.  But when the conversation goes as I want it to go – staying on safe territory, discussing topics of general interest, exchanging pleasantries and enjoying each other’s company – a kind of hungry vibe comes from her.  And she really comes alive, relaxes and enjoys herself when we can engage in one of the following topics of conversation:
  1.    Slagging off someone (anyone will do) we both know.
  2.  Comparing all the younger generation of the present day unfavourably with her own generation when young.
  3. Comparing her neighbours unfavourably with herself.

I find this very awkward.  Her political views – strongly held and deeply felt – are almost diametrically opposed to my own, and very often her conversation strays into areas which lead her to not only emphatically assert her own views but vigorously and contemptuously attack the views I hold; and she looks for my affirmation of her assertions.

Sometimes, she just wants to pour contempt on me.  For example, I recently made the error of confiding in her about a painful incident that had happened to me some while ago, when I was asked to stop attending a Christian study group because some of the members had complained about me to its leaders – not, they said when I apologised for giving any offense, because I had said or done anything wrong but because I was more knowledgeable about the subject than they felt comfortable with.  This is the kind of thing that happens to me so I wasn’t amazed – but it felt sad and embarrassing nonetheless.

My old lady, entering into the spirit of things with some zeal, said yes, she knew just what they meant!  Experts!  She said there had been girls like that when she was a girl at school – no cleverer than her, no better than her, but always so darned vocal about everything – know-it-alls!  Experts! Ha! Just exactly the same!  

Er . . . right . . .okay . . . 

You gotta laugh really, haven’t you?

Sometimes, the only way to tempt her off topic is to introduce another subject of conversation that will allow her to rip into some other poor soul and disembowel their character for a change.  Outrage and indignation looking for a nest like mother cuckoos desperate to deposit their eggs.  Someone is going to get pitched over the edge and it matters not who.

If I won’t play ball, if I stay silent, or stand up for whoever’s up for assassination today, or argue, things deteriorate badly.  We part barely friends, she is miserable and uncomfortable – and I am her main friend.  But if I let it happen – if I feed her fires of outrage and contempt with anecdotes of things or people that have upset me, or examples of the shortcomings of the modern world – she has a really nice time.

Friends, it is mighty difficult; and hear me – I do not come out of this well.  Nobody hears or sees our conversations; except Jesus.  He goes with me, and He listens and He watches, and I have more than half an idea He is no way impressed by the way I conduct myself as I duck and weave and try to salvage what I can of the wreckage of one character and lifestyle after another.  It feels like betrayal after betrayal, every visit.   But the circumstances are such that I must not sever the connection; it would be cruel.

And the story of Naaman in the house of Rimmon came back to me when I was thinking about it.  I know to whom my heart’s fealty is given, and what He expects of me.   But the circumstances of my life include this particular duty, which involves me being linked arm in arm with the worshipper of a different god.  And when that person bends from the upright, linked together, down I go too.

I ask His help, I ask Him to go with me, I try my very hardest with it, but I also have to say: “when I bow down in the temple of Rimmon, may the Lord forgive your servant for this.

And He says “Go in peace.”

It’s not just me that gets into this kind of bind.  As sour as bile in the mouth was the lingering after-taste of the execution of Troy Davis, that vile and heart-breaking cruel piece of work: and it left me wondering, how must Barack Obama feel?  For at the end, in desperation, the people appealed to him.  He had the power, you see, not to pardon, but to order a re-trial.  And from the White House there was only silence.  But from what I’ve seen so far of Barack Obama, I would guess that had circumstances been different he would have been out on the streets carrying a placard saying “I am Troy Davis”.  Don’t you think?

But he has a job to do, and his compatriots are not making the ride an easy one.  If he wants to do what he came into power to accomplish, for the poor and disenfranchised of America, he could not afford to blow all his credits on one act of mercy.  Much as Pontius Pilate could afford to do nothing but wash his hands of Jesus, Barack Obama was in the house of Rimmon fix.   Or maybe he didn’t even want to.  But I am hoping it was the Rimmon clinch that stood in his way.

May the Lord forgive Your servants for this one thing: When our masters enter the temple of Rimmon to bow down and they are leaning on our arms so that we have to bow there also— when we bow down in the temple of Rimmon, may the Lord forgive Your servants for this.

May God grant that in time we may find a better way of proceeding; but in the meantime, flawed and shamed as we are, how our souls hunger to hear His “Go in peace.”

Thursday, 22 September 2011

A numb day.

Trying to sort through the numbness and outrage of Troy Davis’s execution yesterday and find some peace about it all.

At first I was just overwhelmed with horror by what happened.

After the four-hours-plus stop on the execution made at five to seven (it was due to be carried out at seven), the Supreme Court set the process in motion again.  Strapped to the gurney ready for the lethal chemicals to be poured into his veins, Troy Davis was given an opportunity to speak his last words.

He spoke first to the representatives of the MacPhail family who had come to witness his execution.  He told them he was sorry for their loss, but that he wanted them to know he had not been responsible for Mark MacPhail’s death – he had not even had a gun with him on that night.  For their own sake and that of others he urged them to dig deeper and keep looking, because he was the wrong man.

Then he spoke to his family and friends, exhorting them to keep working, keep praying and keep the faith.

And he spoke last to those standing by ready to take his life, saying ‘God have mercy on your souls,’ and ‘God bless your souls’.  And then they put him to death.

I waited and watched until Democracy Now (whose Amy Goodman covered the occasion with such compassion and sensitivity) went off air, by then about 4.30am English time, and eventually managed to still my mind enough to grab a little sleep before the sun rose.

But when I woke again this morning, none of the turmoil had gone away.  I could hardly believe what we had witnessed.  Particularly my mind balked at the idea that we have constructed a human community in which a man in the prime of life should be taken away, despite the conviction of hundreds and thousands of us watching that his guilt had by no means been proven beyond doubt, and that all of us should be required to sit nicely and be good, causing no trouble while someone dripped poison into his veins until he died.  What?   It seemed intensely oppressive and cruel.

But as I thought on it a different perspective came to mind, and I realised that what I had been watching was not people cowed and obedient, but people dignified and free.  This is what non-violent protest is.  These people were not intimidated, but sure in their cause and conviction and unswerving in their quiet determination.  I think it was Ben Jealous who said last night that this will not go away; this will not end here – this is the beginning.  Christians certainly understand how that works.

But my main emotion through this beautiful autumn day has been terrible aching sadness.  As I felt the soft breeze in my hair and smelled the garden herbs and delighted in the sunshine, it hurt like a wound in me that these simple wonders of life should have been denied Troy Davis, not only finally last night, but for so long.

There's night and day, brother, both sweet things; sun, moon, and stars, brother, all sweet things; there's likewise a wind on the heath. Life is very sweet, brother; who would wish to die? (George Lavengro)

I think Troy must have been twenty years old when he went to prison for the crime that with his last breath he continued to insist he did not commit.  For twenty-two years he has lived without the wonderful freedoms that make life so sweet.  Between us, we threw a life away.

Sitting here in bed at the end of the day, in the lamplight, listening to the owls calling in the garden, or hanging out the washing to dry in the warm breeze, or sitting by the ocean on a summer day, walking through the woods in the Fall,  I shall think of Troy Davis, and how we took that away from him, when life was neither ours to give nor to take away. 

Some things affect you so profoundly that they get into the very core of you and change the points, make the way you see things different forever.  I felt that happening as I sat in vigil last night, keeping watch through the English night with the silent crowd in Georgia, holding their candles as they stood behind the rank of riot police, or huddled together in prayer in the group of family and friends just outside the prison – felt the seismic shift in my soul connecting to a deep place in all humanity.  As people around the world stood in solidarity, watching, praying . . . hoping with sudden wild possibility . . . then stunned and grieving . . . I knew that life would never be the same again.  History will be different because more than a million people begged for clemency, and the public servants used the trust vested in them to say “No.”

I shall not forget that night.  Never.  I am not the kind of person who forgets.  In time the wound in my soul will silver to a scar, but it will always be there – because, as the campaigners said, you are – we are – I am Troy Davis.  Every single one of us.  Even Annaliese Macphail, who said “I think I finally will have peace of mind. When it is over I can close that book and I know Mark can rest in peace, too.”

I wonder.  The world is not the same as it was yesterday afternoon.


Goodnight brother.

Go forth upon thy journey from this world,
O Christian Soul;
in the peace of him in whom thou hast believed,
in the name of God the Father who created thee,
in the name of Jesus Christ who suffered for thee,
in the name of the Holy Spirit who strengthened thee.
May angels and archangels
and all the armies of the heavenly host
come to meet thee;
may Christ be thy Pilot and give thee safe crossing,
may all the saints of God welcome thee,
may thy portion this day be in gladness and peace,
thy dwelling in Paradise.
Go forth upon thy journey, O Christian Soul.

Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful . . . For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
Luke 6:36 & 38

…In the same way as you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
Matthew 7:2 NIV

Why do you call me, 'Lord, Lord,' and do not do what I say?
Luke 6:46 NIV

The one who hears my words and does not put them into practice is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. The moment the torrent struck that house, it collapsed and its destruction was complete.
Luke 6:49 NIV

"Such incredibly flawed eyewitness testimony should never be the basis for an execution," said Stephen Marsh, Troy Davis’s attorney, in the days before Troy’s execution: "To execute someone under these circumstances would be unconscionable."

They sow the wind and reap the whirlwind.
Hosea 8:7

Rest in peace, Troy Davis. 
After being halted five minutes before it was due to begin, for the Supreme Court to deliberate a further four hours, this execution was finally carried out at 10.53pm Georgia time, and Troy's time of death was 11.08pm on Wednesday 21st September 2011.
In his last words Troy showed immense courage, faith and grace.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

All my soul is weeping

The execution of Troy Davis has been scheduled to go ahead at 7 o'clock this evening in Jackson, Georgia, USA.  You can read up to date news here.

This despite a massive outcry against the judgement all around the world.  No murder weapon has been found or any forensic evidence linking Troy Davis to the crime.   7 of the 9 key witnesses recanted their statements.  Witnesses have said their statements were made under pressure from police.  One of the jurors originally turning in a verdict of guilty says she has since changed her mind.  Hundreds of thousands of people have signed the petitions urging the boards of justice to reconsider.  Public figures who have supported the conclusion that there is too much doubt in this case for a death sentence to be warranted include Pope Benedict, Jimmy Carter, Desmond Tutu, William Sessions (former director of the FBI) and 51 members of the US congress.  Amnesty International's US branch describe this as an 'outrageous affront to justice'.  Testimony has been heard that a different man privately confessed to the crime.  Ten people have come forward in accusation of a different man.

Troy Davis has been on Death Row for 20 years, and numerous appeals have been heard.  He has always maintained he did not commit this crime.  On Monday, the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles heard three hours of testimony to the mounting evidence of doubt, but declined to grant him clemency.  

Last time his execution date was fixed, the execution was stopped 2 hours before its due time.

Unless the US Supreme Court intervenes today, Troy Davis's execution by lethal injection is expected to go ahead at 7pm local time in Jackson, Georgia.   I have put the clock at the top above this post so you can see the time in Jackson.

Whatever your thoughts and views on this case, please uphold Troy Davis in prayer today.  And please pray also for the family of the policeman whose shooting is the crime for which Troy is to be executed.  Despite all the doubts and contradictions, the family of the policeman who was killed have called for Troy Davis's execution.  Having seen a member of their own family die, they want this man dead as well.  May God have mercy on their souls.

Lord Jesus Christ, Your eyes see into the hearts of us all and your compassion is boundless.  As you died on the cross for the sins of others, may your love reach out in mercy to all involved in this execution planned for today.  May this outrage, this protest, this wound in the side of justice be the crack through which Your light may shine to illumine the world.  Have mercy, have mercy Lord!  Look upon your child Troy as he waits in his prison, compose his heart and bring him peace.  Pour your love into him, find him there, draw him close to you, be his hope, his life, his comfort.  Look on Your broken world that you meant to be so beautiful, and forgive our stupidity, our sick thirst for vengeance and our blind cruelty and violence.
Oh Lord Jesus, Son of the Living God, lift us up, take away our hearts of stone and give us the hearts of flesh you meant for us to have.  From this valley of dry bones that our civilisation has become, raise up Your troops of peace and light and love.  Shed Your tears on our world today Lord Jesus and soften our hardened hearts.  Please, Jesus, loving Jesus, take this situation into Your hands and transform it by the power of Your grace.  Amen. Amen. Amen  

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Internazionale della famiglia / Familiale internationale

I am not a well girl today.  Oh.  Maybe you will not immediately recognise that turn of phrase if you were not brought up as I was on these stories.  It’s never too late.  Try them now.

Yesterday I just about struggled through the church PCC meeting (this is not fanatical dedication to the cause, they need me to take the minutes) then floated home in a weird bruised state of hot cold hot and collapsed into bed with a mountain of tissues at my side (well – torn off bits if kitchen roll in truth) and a hot water bottle.  The rector says I have man-flu; he is (as rectors must be) right.

So this morning I have blown my nose a lot and my sinuses are full of concrete and my eyes are running like taps.  Lovely.

But don’t feel sorry for me.  I’m having a good week.  I had an email from the Abbot of Ampleforth this week – raises a cheery if somewhat snotty and bleared smile – glorious with the courtesy, restraint, humility and kindness of the monastic world.  Read it a thousand times and responded at far too great length.  Where the hey is Ampleforth I hear you ask.  It is the Benedictine monastery that actually exists in the place where my fictional St Alcuins is sited.  In Yorkshire, the land of the blessed, where my heart often (and my body occasionally as finances permit) goes on pilgrimage.

Also yesterday I (think I) managed to place an order for an astonishing number of bottles of this stuff.  I actually had to leave the store to go to where someone else was waiting for me and needed me to be there, before the order went through – because they aren’t meant to take orders like that if it’s not in the Food Online catalogue, but the intelligent handsome darling marvellous superman at M&S, that last bastion of all things English and soothing, made an exception for me.  Thank you, that man. 
I’m not going to drink all that stuff myself though – it’s for the book launch party for The Hardest Thing To Do, happening on October 15th, 7-9pm at our church (you’re all invited but you have to let me know if you’re coming cos we all want enough to eat).  Dress code is strictly medieval.  We also looked into groovy handmade wholewheat medievally pies etc, but when the prices were revealed unto us we reverted to the M&S Food OnlineCatalogue (yeah, feast your eyes on that, it’s going to be a good party!).  But the great thing about the drink is that it tastes just like homebrew – and very similar I think to how medieval ale would have tasted but – get this – it’s alcohol-free!  Result!

Anyway at this party we’re going to roister a bit singing along to songs like this and this, and Julian the storyteller from our church is going to tell a story or two, and my girls and their dad will sing some medieval songs and Rosie will play her huge harp – and we’ll sit on straw bales and wooden benches and have candlelight and put all the normal chairs away.  It’s going to be fab fab fab!  And I get to read a bit of my story and hopefully sell lots and lots of copies else I’ll never be able to pay the Badger back for all the money it’s costing!  Our house is stacked with boxes of eco-friendly paper cups and napkins, bio-degradable palm-leaf plates, wooden spoonery and books by Penelope Wilcock.  Have to go and sort out the straw bales next.

The other thing about this week is that the Badger is away in Congo Brazzaville, teaching booksellers about business practice for MAI (in French!).  I would put a link to MAI so you could read about it but, embarrassingly, I can't remember what it stands for - I just know it's a bunch of impressive Christian people in Oxford who go to poor places and help things go better for them in book-linked kind of ways - helping writers and publishers, or improving literacy skills or whatever (Oh!  Alice Yaxley found it for me - here they are!).  And Hebe and Alice have gone to the English Cemetery in Florence to stay with the adorable Sister JuliaBolton Holloway to work with the Roma on the restoration of the cemetery, with the idea of Hebe passing on some of her considerable letter-cutting skills.

So I’ve added in my sidebar the clocks that tell me the time where they are.  Interestingly, in Congo Brazzaville it’s just the same as here – but it Italy it’s an hour different.  How weird is that?  And I added the time in Duluth in Minnesota where Julie Faraway is, just for fun and so I won't get muddled and Skype her in the middle of the night. 

Anyway, waving to you and off to get my morning cup of Lemsip and give the cats their First Breakfast (they have a kind of hobbit system going).

So I feel quite cheerful really, if Rather Ill.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Underneath it all

Dag Hammarskjöld.  Now there was an interesting, inspiring and truly exceptional man.  Do you know the writings of Dag Hammarskjöld?  He wrote a kind of journal called Markings, a self-searching record of a life of integrity characterised by profound faith in God, personal humility, but also by self-doubt and a considerable degree of inner anguish.  The dark nights of the Nordic spirit were his in abundance.  He had that kind of realism and excruciating honesty that any depressive recognises immediately.

Here are three quotations from Markings that I copied into my commonplace book when I was a teenager:

“ ‘Better than most people.’ Sometimes he says: ‘That, at least, you are.’ But more often: ‘Why should you be? Either you are what you can be, or you are not – like other people.’ ”

(That’s what I mean about personal humility.  Dag Hammarskjöld was Secretary General to the United Nations).

“He is one of those who has had the wilderness for a pillow, and called a star his brother.  Alone.  But loneliness can be a communion.”

(Anyone who says “loneliness can be a communion” is speaking with absolute accuracy but has my mind that is still the mind of a mother – though my children are all grown – and a pastor – though I no longer am one – automatically responding “Uh-oh!”)

“Cry.  Cry if you must.  But do not complain.  For the Path chose you.  And in the end you will say Thank You.”

(What a world of struggle and courage in those words).

Looking for them in the commonplace book of my teenage years, which was begun by my great-grandmother for jotting down recipes and uplifting doggerel from journals, in the aged sepia ink of her copperplate hand, and continued by me in copperplate learned for the purpose, I came across this quotation from Anouilh:

“Rien n’est vrai que ce qu’on ne dit pas” (“Nothing is true but the things we don’t say”), and I would regard that as a shrewd observation and in much the same bracket as some of Hammarskjöld’s insights.

What took me back to Hammarskjöld was not his immense humility and integrity but his anguish and self-doubt – his darkness. Because I cannot identify with his nobility of achievement, but in his groping for light I find a brother.

Some things have unsettled me lately in my thinking.  At church last Sunday, the reading and preaching were all about forgiveness – and during the week following while doing my exercises when in the tedium many buried things come to mind, I had to recognise that there have been some injustices I still have not forgiven; not that before God I wish them upheld, I do not, let them be, let them die, but that they still rankle, I want them put right.  But what struck me at the time was that (I think we heard the gospel from the Good News Bible) the bar had been lowered.  “How often should I forgive?” always answered in my childhood hearing of the King James Bible as “seventy times seven” had withered away to “seventy-seven times”.  Oh.  Well, the end of forgiveness is suddenly in sight for certain specific individuals in my life then, and I don’t think that’s what the Lord had in mind!  And I felt unsettled by my cynicism, and wandering attention in the sermon.

The next thing that unsettled me was news from East Africa, that aid sent was not reaching the poor, with the inevitable corollary of a request for more money.  I haven’t sent much money to the starving poor of East Africa, only a very modest donation and a sprinkling of miniscule ones – but I feel somewhat ashamed to admit that the news that our donations were not benefiting the poor did not move me to send more money – rather the reverse.  I found myself thinking “Surely, at some point, the baton has to be handed to the people of East Africa?  And if all they will do is fight and torture and kill and oppress, well there will be massive suffering, won’t there?”  Africa.  The habit of blaming white Caucasians for everything has begun to sound like the whinging of teenagers complaining about their parents, in my ears.  I expect I’m wrong.  I usually am.  But those who are willing to utilise what resources they have to take responsibility for themselves generally do better than those who do not, in my view.  And in the agenda for creating a better and happier world, war is the very first thing to cross off the list.  Oh Africa, stand  up for your own.  Again, I sounded to myself cynical – and possibly mean and racist with it.  But it’s still what I thought.

The third thing in my thinking that unsettled me followed the reading of a blog by a Arab-jewish American woman travelling by air on the 9th September.  She was arrested on suspicion of terrorism, held in a cell, questioned and invasively searched, before receiving an apology and being released.  Evidently the “suspicious behaviour” for which she had been arrested was no more than paranoia on the part of the person who had reported her.  You can read all about it on her blog post here.  She felt, naturally, traumatised – and her sense of trauma and alienation within her own culture was intensified by the sense that this unjustified and highly unpleasant sequence of events had come about simply because of what she looks like.  Which felt awful for her, of course. 

My attention was drawn to that blog post by a (white, male, American) friend who posted a link to it on Facebook, asking “Is this what we have become?”  He felt shocked, I think, at the institutional racism and suspicion of mind he perceived to have become embedded in American culture.  I do see his point.  But.  The thing is, if people who look like that lady have acquired a habit of blowing up buses and trains in European cities and plotting terrorist attacks and sending suicide bombers to wound and kill folks sitting peacefully in cafés or setting off for work in the morning, then surely those people that look like her must bear some responsibility when the people who look like the ones that the people who look like her have made the focus of terrorist attacks get more than a little jumpy?  And that’s setting aside the twin towers bombing, for which the conspiracy theory evidence has entirely convinced me – see here and here and here.

Once again I felt so unsettled at my thinking – it felt so cynical.

And then, I have struggled again with questions of diet.  I’ve been low on zinc (won’t go into the whys and wherefores right here) and recognised with sadness that the strict veganism I had embraced didn’t seem to deliver all the nutrients I needed in bio-available form.  Which meant adding in again a little of lamb/fish/egg.  This caused a tidal wave of sadness – I love the gentle creatures, and hate the idea of them being put to death (a whole life, a whole life thrown away) for me to eat a meal, the sea plundered, the grain that could have gone to the poor re-channelled into animal husbandry.  And then our cats have been out killing.  I wanted us to have these cats because of our HSP twitchiness and tendency to neurosis.  I felt we’d (as a household) become too fixated on neatness and tidiness and everything being done in order and just as we like it.  I thought that needed breaking open a bit in the way only animals and children can do.  We’d got a bit lifeless and that needed redressing.  Well they’ve done that a treat, but they have also brought death with them.  A couple of mornings ago Alice came down to find a mother and baby mouse both slaughtered together in our living room.   I cannot begin to tell you how that made me feel.  She laid them side by side out in the garden.

And all this set me off asking, what is God like, and what does God think?  Attracted by rumours of kindness and mercy and forgiveness and understanding and love, desiring peace and gentleness, compassion and order, I am drawn to the Gospel.  And, knowing Jesus, and sensing the great warmth of his wisdom and goodness, I take shelter in His sacred heart. 

But, what is God like, that integral to His great design are tsunamis, walls of terror sweeping away homes and families in an instant?  And that a sheep should be taken from its contentment in the pasture and a fish from the wild freedom of the ocean, forever, for me to eat lunch?  If I had to watch one of my children led away, finally, so lunch could be provided for some great Beast somewhere, what sorrow!  (And please don't tell me animals don't know, can't feel, are a lower form of life etc etc - I know animals; I have watched them, I have seen what they feel and what they are, seen their terror and their loyalty, their resignation and fear and love, seen them responding to the Holy Spirit of God).

But life feeds on life and death is integral to everything.  As the old funeral service from the Book of Common Prayer said, “In the midst of life we are in death”.  This is true even for vegans, whose bicycle tyres crush the little creeps and squiggling things unawares in the passage of their travel even if they do not drive cars with their myriad of greenfly bodies perished on the windscreens and the fenders.  Even Jains, sweeping the path before them lest they tread on an ant probably maim the ant with the brush and it would have been better off dead.

And God made it this way, if He made it at all, which I believe He did.  I conclude that I do not understand God.  That when the Lord saith "my  thought are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” that’s spot on.

But God is I am that I am, which means in short “reality”.  What God is and does is the absolute essence of single necessity – no two ways about it.  God’s reality is the imperative of the way things are and have to be – there is no other kind of reality than God’s reality – that's what being “God” is all about.  His way is just the way things are.

But my understanding stutters and fails before it.

And, the levels to which God calls me are places I cannot go – too high for me and too steep.  I think about martyrs and people who do great things – stop slavery and run homes for AIDS orphans and sleep with the families of Palestinians to try to halt Jewish bombing of their homes.  Things like that.   If I tell you that I haven’t even got round to cleaning our windows in three years and my husband (willingly and gladly) cooked his own dinner last night, perhaps you will have some idea of the extent to which I am falling short of saving the world.

What is God like?  I cannot imagine.  What does God think of me?  I am terrified to contemplate it.   But one day I will die and find out.  And I don’t need God to tell me all the things I’ve done wrong, or point out to me my laziness and self-centredness, my cynicism, complacency and apathy; I’ve already noticed a lot of it for myself.  But I feel like I’m doing my best.  I feel stretched already.  If war and terrors, starvation and turmoil and torture and looting one day befall us, then I’ll do my best again.  In the meantime (how feeble) I try to eat organic and reuse/recycle (not great on repairing), I try to care for and shelter from sorrow and hardship the people God gave into my care, I live without debt and give just a little of my time and resources to the work of the Gospel, I try to steward my home and body and income in the light of His love.  Up to a point.  I waste a lot and make a lot of gigantic mistakes as well.

But, what is God like?  What does He want of me?  What’s at the heart, at the underneath, of it all?  I can’t tell.  However hard I strain my eyes to see, all I can do is glimpse great mystery. 

The world is not short of people to tell and advise me.  I’ve heard it from the Catholics, the Anglicans, the Methodists and the Plain people, and been led by the nose along the paths of each of those groups, and what did I find? Inconsistencies and hypocrisies and all the usual human fallibility that you could have told me before I began would be there. 

So I content myself now with just being me – not upholding this group or that group that by dress and declaration pronounced itself to be “set apart and holy unto the Lord”, because I found on closer inspection they were not so, they just (like that woman arrested on the plane) looked like something.   Not by beards and hats and bonnets and braces and aprons, not by incense and candles and processions and mitres, not by stained glass and choirs or committees and conferences is the Peaceable Kingdom built.  And all these people were eager to tell me what God is like, and their version of God always looked like them – a partial and puzzling incomplete fragment of the whole.

I do not know how to follow Him because I cannot see Him properly.  I do not know how to serve Him because I cannot hear Him properly.  His thoughts are not my thoughts and His ways are not my ways, and it's hardly consoling to realise that.  It comforts me a bit to perceive that Dag Hammarskjöld seemed to share something of the same problem.  Similar, anyway.

P.S. Donna (see comments section) remarked that this reminded her of this post from just over a year ago, and I went and re-read it and thought she was right, it has relevance.

Thursday, 15 September 2011


There’s this catalogue that’s started turning up at my house.  I didn’t send for it.  It just began to arrive.  I guess I must have overlooked checking a box on an internet order somewhere to say “NO! Do NOT pass my name on to all your associates in the retail business.”

So it’s just started coming through the letter-box (do you say ‘mail-slot' in America?), and it’s called Prelude.

Now it may be the bag you're into, but it looks a bit sinister to me.  I find it disturbing that somebody somewhere thought that I would be just the woman for Prelude.  The ladies in it are warmly dressed in their snug winter coats and their sensible boots and flatties.  Their trousers are either the sort with flared bums or ankle-swingers.  They are smiling bravely, and their hair is tinted to hide the grey.  They have strings of pearls and sturdy handbags with chains.  They are dressed becomingly in teal and grey.  Cripes, look at this lady!

Is this me?  Prelude to what?  A nursing home?  Death?  I thought I had a few years looking like this to go yet.  And, by the way, did you know that this is a villanelle? 

Anyway, it got me thinking.

Last week in a funeral service, someone read this familiar poem by Ezra Pound.

And recently (the last couple of years) I have had the sense of needing to get ready, doing a big overhaul of my being in preparation – sorting out diet and exercise, checking all body systems like you do with a car, eliminating toxins from my liver and the lumen of my gut, from as many cells as can be reached with herbs and clays and body wisdom, abstaining from ‘foods’ that are not in fact food but illnesses waiting to happen, searching through every level to make sure there are no hidden grudges and resentments, no pockets of necrosis in body, mind or soul.  Getting ready, because this is the Prelude. 

I believe it was Victor Hugo who remarked that forty is the old age of youth and fifty is the youth of old age, and I think I agree with him.

Something I notice is the urgent need to just be and think and be and think and be.  No projects, no agendas, no action plan.  A huge irresistible longing and yearning to just be.  It was like this when I was a teenager.  I spent hours just thinking, every day.  Maybe drawing or writing or listening to music or reading, or just spending time in nature and loving the beauty of hills and clouds, falling leaves and stirring wind, brown streamwater eddying in sensuous ripples on its meandering way.   Alive.  Loving being alive, and that being entirely enough.

And now, after the years of raising family and attempting a career of sorts that never really happened, it comes back again with force.

It’s September (I expect you know this already; if not, you are further on than me!), and we are coming up to Michaelmas, which is also a prelude time.  Right here in the Indian summer days stands Michael the Archangel, warrior and guardian, sword in hand, pointing down the year to the days of darkness in which the Infant Light will be born, and urging us to get ready, for winter is coming.  “Prepare!” says the archangel, “Now!  Before the darkness comes and the cold and the days of death!”

Mid-fifties must be around September, I guess, in terms of a life-span; the prelude to its winter, when everything dries up and freezes and falls, and the world becomes monochrome and hushed.

In my early twenties, I came across this translation of Virgil’s words: “Here’s Death, twitching my ear: ‘Live!’ he says, ‘for I’m coming!’”

How glorious the Christian vision of Heaven, and what dread wonder to contemplate entering the presence of the Great Mystery, beholding His incomparable beauty face to face.  But meanwhile sunlight warm and golden bathes the beautiful autumn days, and there are russet apples crisp and sweet straight from the tree, and the joy of seeing my daughters grown women now, wise and kind, and a grandchild still with the purity of the Light World clinging to him.  And the small lanes of England green with moss and fragrant with herbs, and the great tides of the ocean, with white birds riding the windcurrents and screaming their wild cry.  And my husband of only five years, whose handclasp brings comfort and alignment.

The time will come to leave all this behind, and when it does may the day find me ready and alert.  But I have loved my days of blessed and beautiful Earth, loved every blade of grass and evening breeze, loved to bury my face in the living warm flank of a breathing animal, and smell the sweetness of its furry vitality.  Out of the body of God came all this, and I love it so.  The smell of summer dust and the sighing of the wind in great trees, the massing of cloud ships across the valley sky.

In these prelude days, let me take time, let me drink it in, let me really savour the earthy wonder of being alive. 

But the catalogue’s going straight in the bin

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Oh. I have a category.

I love our church – St Johns.  The worship feels perfect, the music is sublime, the people are friendly, the preaching is excellent, the pastor is everything a pastor should be.  It is the most welcoming, friendly place, full of loving kindness.  A house of the peaceable kingdom.

That’s the context.

But if I go to worship on a typical Sunday morning, I’m okay for the first ten minutes.  After that my energy steadily drains away, until I have to grit my teeth just to be able to stay there.  I have to hold the Badger’s hand so I can use some of his energy.  I’d like to walk there, but morning worship leaves me feeling like a gibbering wreck, far too exhausted to walk home.

I’m the PCC secretary and am supposed to check my intray each week, but it took me ages to find the vestry because by the end of worship I would just be focused on how quick I could get out.  I'm all right if I go to the small, peaceful 8am service, because there are fewer stimuli and interactions.

Normal everyday things are difficult for me.  Some days, I can make a phone call – most days not.  Travelling by bus is difficult because the whole journey I am rehearsing and re-rehearsing getting off the bus: "Look that fat lady is overflowing into the aisle but if I have to say ‘Excuse me' and squeeze past it’ll make her feel dreadful about being fat . . . and that old lady has her shopping trolley blocking the door, but if I have to climb over it she might feel criticised . . . and now there are students getting on and oh my goodness they are going to stand in the aisle of the bus – how will I get off?  What will I do?  What if I ring the bell and the bus stops and someone else gets off and then the driver leaves because he doesn’t realise I’m trying to get by the fat lady and the trolley and the students?  What will I do then?  Everyone will see.  I might have to shout for the driver to stop.  No.  I couldn’t shout.  What will I do then?  Oh dear . . .”

All the way home.

I just about managed being a minister.  It felt quite safe inside the pulpit, a long way away from the people.  And I had a role to be in.  Though visiting was terrible.   I spent my entire life dreading visiting.  It was as bad as phone calls.  Most of the time I couldn’t do it.  And the expectations and the conflicts of any average church community felt beyond what I could cope with.  It was such a relief to give it up.

But I can’t do a regular job either.  On the occasions I have tried, I just fall very ill, of non-specific mystery diseases. I passed through school in a nightmare of terror and inadequacy, in the bottom class for everything.
When I went to college I missed my first tutorials because I couldn’t leave my room for three days.

I am okay in the supermarket if I have someone with me whose energy is sustaining.  Otherwise it drains me impossibly.

Some of the time I can drive.  Not always.  And never on big roads – motorways I cannot do.  My nervous system shuts down totally and I do extremely dangerous things.

Someone once asked me to pick up an acquaintance from the airport, and was bewildered by my point-blank refusal.  I couldn’t drive into an airport.
I could regale you all day with stories of the things I can’t do – and it isn’t just me, several members of the family are severely like this, others mildly so.  You wouldn’t know it if you met us, because we are (mostly) friendly and polite.  But every social occasion is almost impossible, because after twenty minutes, exhaustion sets in.  When we have guests at home (hardly ever) we do it in relays by agreement.

In my second marriage, I moved into my new husband’s cottage out in Beckley.  But I had to drive ten miles back to my flat in Hastings every day to use the bathroom, because in the company of unfamiliar people my body systems close down completely.  All of them.

At one time I used to go to an exercise class, that would begin with a relaxation.  I dreaded it because each week the lady would tell us that every day we must each have some me-time - time just to relax and be quiet - even if it was only ten minutes.  The very idea used to freak me out, I could hardly bear her to say it.  Ten minutes?  Ten minutes?  I need hours and hours and hours alone every day!  Just in silence.  No music, just quietness.

Variously diagnosed as difficult, aloof, anti-social, shy – or, if it gets to the doctor stage, depressive and anxious, the members of my family make it through by relying on each other and learning to hide how things are with us.
But recently someone said to me: “You’re an HSP. Do the test online.”
I did the test (scored 24).  I got the book.  What a relief.  There are other people like me.  I have a category.