Tuesday, 26 December 2017

Almost good and the imperative of confession

I decided to type this in the 'large' option of font, because I've been finding the last few posts a bit fiddling and small to read  so I thought maybe you have too. It might just be my elderly eyesight. It might be that you have the sense to enlarge the page view. Whatever — I thought I'd go a bit bigger. If it feels as though I'm shouting at you, let me know and I'll subside again for the next post.

In my lived-faith-practice, I notice the Spirit often speaks into my heart by emerging themes. Generally what happens is I notice something seriously objectionable in what somebody else is doing. Then I notice that by a curious coincidence another person in my circle of acquaintance is doing the exact same type of offending behaviour. 

Of course, in another life than my own, 'behaviour' is exactly what it is; external manifestation — the part of the iceberg that's sticking up above the surface of the ocean. I make a judgement on what they do with very little idea of what's underneath, what the behaviour is emerging from in terms of stuff they're living through, dealing with, what is triggering all this obnoxiousness, why it is they can't contain it and it has to overflow into evident ordure that reaches my nose.

Then I take it into my prayer, bringing it to Jesus and inviting the cleansing and blessing of his shalom into the person exhibiting the problem.

Without fail, before I even get the garbage I'm dragging halfway to the throne of grace, once I get within earshot the Lord says to me, "Oh yeah? And what about you?" 

And at that point I have to stop ignoring the precise same behaviour showing up in my own life, look at where and what it's coming from, voluntarily open it up for him to look at and clean out, invite his healing and shalom and almighty bleach spray and fresh air into my own dark and mildewed corners — what we call 'confession'.

And the thing that keeps showing up in my life right now at the present time in a phenomenon I call 'almost good'.

When I was a child my father spent much of his life overseas developing the export market for Eveready Batteries, and when he came home from his trips around the world he'd bring gifts and souvenirs, including vinyl discs of music currently trending in Europe, Japan, Africa or wherever he'd recently been. Singles. The Chipmunk Song caught his fancy, and on the flip side of it was David Seville's Almost Good. So this song was part of my childhood. I liked it, but particularly I was intrigued by the concept it presented — that alongside 'good' and 'bad' there was another possible category of 'almost good'. The notion stuck. 

In recent times I've been brought up again and again — in other people's lives —against the evident reality that mediocrity doesn't know itself. People who feel inadequate, aren't doing a good job, are letting things slide and allowing something good and worthwhile to dissolve and crumble on their watch. It's not that they don't mean well, it's not that they are refusing the task, it's not that they aren't standing in the gap. It's more that they are making an almighty effing mess of it, by procrastination, by half measures, by falling down on the job, by being neither conscientious nor meticulous in carrying out what their responsibilities require of them. 

Most destructive of all, is that they cannot afford to look at this and acknowledge it for the single and simple reason that to do so would damage their fragile self-image which low self esteem already renders crumbly. They look at people doing a good job and don't see the difference. Presented with the evidence that they are making  a pig's ear of their responsibilities they a) lie about it and b) blame someone else and c) talk big and lofty about their rĂ´le in it in such a way as to make someone else look bad. That faux-concern for someone else's 'weaknesses'; those dark hints about Problems that they are Dealing With (caused by someone else that they are having to mop up) that Explain Everything. Yeah, right. Mediocrity doesn't — can't afford to — recognise itself. Because steeping in the shame that acknowledgement brings is so very extremely painful. That's why. 

So as usual as I drag this lot the the Throne of Grace I tune in to the usual, "Oh, yes? Thanks. What about you?" And I recognise I have to deal with similar issues.

I see the places where in my relationships I adroitly project and displace blame for my own inability to handle interactions. I see the times where I present a butter-wouldn't-melt-in-my mouth account of situations I'm part of that would all be going so amazingly well if it wasn't for Someone Else. I see the ways I conveniently downplay my contribution to a failing situation and inflate outrage over what They Did To Me. In my work, I detect the grandiosity about my own achievement and its corresponding shadow of disappointment in my failure to get all the way there, to be and to do the best I am capable of, to prepare sufficiently and carry out the task with compassion and grace and imagination.

But the thing is — never fails to intrigue me — in this examination of conscience and exposure under the steady Christlight of the Spirit, there is no increase of wretchedness and shame or guilt; only liberation and even excitement at new insight, refocusing on constructive ways forward, peace and healing. 

This is the primary way you can tell the difference between the conviction of the Holy Spirit and the accusation of the brethren that comes from the corrupt source. The Spirit's convicting doesn't make you feel bad and it doesn't make things worse. It brings compassion and understanding, toward other people and also toward oneself; it deals with the accumulation of festering detritus in the dark corners; it improves everything.

That's why confession is imperative. Blaming other people never helps. "Let your light shine", Jesus said. If I clean up my own act so the light in me is no longer dusty and swamped, light can enter the picture — and that light alters the picture; it introduces the change I want to see. That's what Gandhi-ji said, isn't it? "Be the change you want to see in the world." That's the badger.

Sunday, 17 December 2017

Voices of dominance and submission

Things come and go in one's life, don't they? It's that way with me, at least. My awareness intensifies and then fades. It reminds me of sheep in the fog, where you know they're there but don't really see them, until suddenly one emerges and is right in front of you — they were there all along, but you see them now. Though sometimes you hear one cough.

So it is with elements of interpersonal relationship, or the spiritual patterns and dynamics underlying life — they are there but buried until your attention is attracted by something at the very edge of your field of perception — something coughs — and you turn and it stands forth and you see.

Spiritual path involves a lifelong process of clearing and simplifying, lifting out reality from all that buries and obscures it, allowing what is real to emerge and truth to appear. This develops peace, even at the same time as it usually provokes resistance and opposition. When you make truth appear, things start snarling and upheaving. Still you press on.

Back in the day, my first washing machine was a twin-tub (yours too?). How they worked was by twin compartments, one being a spin-dryer, the other a large tank for washing. The washtub had flattish rotary vanes built into one wall to agitate the water. You put in the water with a hose provided — either your own hot water from the get-go or else it had its own incorporated heater, which took awhile. You chucked in the soap as it filled. It drained off into your sink using the same hose, I think — I can't clearly remember now.  Must have done.

Anyway, there you were with a big tub of soapy water with your washing in, and at some point you turned on the rotary vanes and the whole lot started churning round and round. Then came the phenomenon I call "socks in the washing". Sometimes there'd be a thing you inadvertently put in that should not be there — a non-dye-fast garment rapidly turning everything blue/purple/pink, or a pair of cashmere socks that should have been handwashed. As the washing churned around, if you were watchful you could spot the item you wanted to remove and snatch it out as it went by.

And again, this is the same with interpersonal dynamics, the things that catch your attention as life churns around. Every now and then something comes to the fore and you get the chance to pluck it out of the mix — if you don't it submerges again, but it continues to work its alchemy, staining your whole life airforce blue. If you see what I mean.

And something I'm becoming aware of, as I watch the sheep loom in and out of the fog and the socks emerge and disappear in the churning washing of my life, is (or should that be are?) the voices of dominance and submission.

I notice the ones who like to say "No!" in a strident tone (just as an integral part of their regular conversation), the ones whose transactions are bully-or-be-bullied, the ones who put you down once they gain confidence, the ones who shut you down or shut you out, who scold you and humiliate you, who get you where they want you, who turn away in scorn from you, the ones who understand conversation as thesis-antithesis-synthesis. Or proposal-antagonism-struggle-loss/victory. I notice the authoritarian note in the voice and the corresponding meekness of uncertainty, in the same person.

In myself, I notice the desire to say, "I started it / lead it / thought of it / said it first."

I don't like it in myself, the harsh voice of dominance, laying down the way-it-is, sounding impatient. I don't like it when I catch in others the meekness of submission, when someone rolls over and shows you their jugular vein as a plea for mercy because they think you're winning, because your knowledge/skill/power is superior. 

There's something jangly in these interactions, commonplace as they are. Seeing them offers the chance to subtract some socks from the washing.

And then, also: "I'd go a little further up the mountain, if I were you," advises the inner sage. "Say less, be a little less mixed in. Watch more. Volunteer your opinion less. Walk the quiet tracks."

"The ancient masters were subtle, mysterious, profound, responsive.
The depth of their knowledge is unfathomable,
all we can do is describe their appearance.
Watchful, like men crossing a winter stream.
Alert, like men aware of danger.
Courteous, like visiting guests.
Yielding, like ice about to melt.
Simple, like uncarved blocks of wood.
Hollow, like caves.
Opaque, like muddy pools.

Who can wait quietly while the mud settles?
Who can remain still until the moment of action?
Observers of the Tao do not seek fulfilment.
Not seeking fulfilment, they are not swayed by desire for change."

(Tao Te Ching Ch 15, tr. Gia-fu Feng and Jane English) 

Monday, 11 December 2017

Winter's day


We have it.

Some of us are hiding from it.


We are ready for it.


We have a fire in it.

All is calm, all is bright — here. God help and succour the refugees sheltering in the Calais woods, the lives scourged by war, the increasing numbers of homeless poor driven into destitution by bad political governance. 

Now, Lord, send them some summer, some manner of joy,
Heaven after hence-going, that here have such default!
And have pity on the rich that relieve no prisoners
From the good things you hast given, the ungrateful many;
But, God, in thy goodness, give them grace to amend.
But poor people, thy prisoners, Lord, in the pit of mischief,
Comfort those creatures that suffer many cares,
Through dearth or drought, all their days here,
Woe in winter-time, for want of clothing,
And in summer-time, seldom a full supper.
Comfort thy care-stricken, Christ, in thy kingdom.

(from Piers Plowman)

Saturday, 9 December 2017


Dawn French has made a really groovy diary — it’s for your appointments, your aspirations, your innermost thoughts; and it has her wise observations on life intermingled, plus delightful illustrations of the quick-charcoal-sketch variety.

It would make a great present. I looked at it a long time online, enjoying it. But I’m not going to buy a copy for myself, and here’s why.

I’ve started journals a couple of times and never get very far with them, because I don’t find myself all that riveting, and I don’t harbour stuff that needs dealing with. One of the exercises Dawn invites readers to do, is write a letter on a specially provided tear-off page. This would be a letter you’ve always meant to send but never actually written, something important. Once written, you file it in a flap on the inside back cover, to give yourself time to consider well before sending.

I rarely write letters, and hardly ever write one of the Important sort. But if I need to, if the time seems right, I just do it. I did exactly that recently, trying my best to express myself kindly and humbly while at the same time bringing an end to a relationship gone sour.

Another exercise is to stick in a head and shoulders photo of yourself, then write below it what you see, and what you feel about that person.

I do sometimes keep a photo of myself in case it’s needed for the bio accompanying an article or something, or to show the hairdresser how I had my hair before when I go back for a trim — but I don’t really know what I think about me, how I come across, or what sort of person I am. I prefer myself lived in than looked at. 

And then, there’s the business of innermost thoughts. A friend once invited me to read their journal, and I was surprised by how boring it was, that person being in real life interesting and good company. Kind of lame. I’d rather not leave that sort of record behind.

Some journals are fascinating, of course — take Thomas Merton's, for example. But wise and inspiring though he certainly was, I still think he'd have done better to refrain from committing to paper his thoughts and feelings about his abbot James Fox, with whom he had such a troubled relationship. Merton being so loveable and so spiritually brave, readers naturally incline to sympathise with his perspective; but I can't help seeing that Fox had a point — yes, he surely did. 

As a teenager I did for a couple of years keep a diary, meticulously and in depth. All written in my left hand (I am very right-handed) and in the lettering style of a young child. The journal of a soul. Perhaps peculiar, but these outpourings meant a great deal to me, and a friend who was doing the same used to read my entries avidly, as I did hers. However I knew I had gone a little too far one Sunday evening when I allowed another friend to read an entry. In typical teenage fashion I asked, “Does that seem odd to you?
The reply — “I don't think it's odd that you wrote it, but I think it's odd that you're letting me read it” — struck home, and summed up exactly the problem I now have with diaries. I just don't want to be that exposed.

As a young child — five? six? — in a moment of fury I wrote in large, emphatic letters on a scrap of paper, “I hate *****” (my sister).
In 2010, the best part of fifty years after I wrote that, my father died. I have a preference for following the old gypsy tradition and burning the vardo with all its treasures and secrets still inside; I’d have called House Clearance and asked them to take what they wanted and dump the rest. My sister is not of the same mind, preferring to sort everything meticulously and conscientiously  — it is for her, I think, an expression of respect and love, as it would be for many people. It took her a long time. Some years after my father’s death — last year? the year before? — I received from my sister a bundle of papers relating to me, that my father had kept. It included some childish early writing done at school, a sentimental story about a dog (that I thought Wonderful and Amazing at the time of writing when I was seven) and a page saying what I wanted to be when I grew up (a poet). It also included that scrap of paper saying “I hate *****”, carefully curated by my father for nearly fifty years, carefully sorted and re-delivered to me by my sister. I have no idea why anybody would do that, but it tells me this: it is never advisable to commit to paper my thoughts and feelings about another person, unless they would comfort or encourage that individual if discovered. So that rules out journalling, doesn’t it? Because if you are writing with a reader in mind, sensitive to their feelings about what you have said, it won’t be an honest record, will it?

So when it comes to innermost thoughts and feelings, yes, I do share them — verbally, with a small group of people I absolutely trust — the negative and the positive alike. I will have left my true record in the memories of people who loved me and understood me well, and I think that’s as far as I want it to go. Which is why, however lovely an artefact a journal may be — and here’s another one I looked at a long time (but didn’t buy) — they are not for me.