Little Weed

scaulbandbWatch with Mother on Wednesday afternoons in the 1950s and 60s (the BBC) was Bill and Ben the Flowerpot Men. It was set in the garden shed down at the bottom of the garden. When the gardener went for lunch, Bill and Ben came to life spouting curious gobbledegook like ‘Babap ickle Weed’ and ‘flobble-op’ (like church and university committees). Bill and Ben seemed strangely attracted to Little Weed that grew between them, though perhaps it’s better not to delve too deeply into the nature of the relationship. Maybe weed is not unrelated to the Flowerpot Men’s speech patterns.

Little Weed in the form of tobacco officially gets short shrift here in Ireland, for there is unalloyed joy at 10 years of the ban on smoking in the workplace. This includes pubs. Yes, pubs. Wikipedia tells me that the republic was the first state in the world to introduce such a ban.

We are told that as a result, the death rate from lung cancer is falling. Wonderful. But since we all die of something, the death rates from other things must be rising. Mind you, treatment for heart disease has come on so much that folk who used to die of heart disease now die of something else—cancer probably—so maybe not. The success of cardiologists must have caused deaths from cancer to rise.

While I’m on this little scherzo, I don’t understand all the fuss about fat in food. I am fat. I like fried eggs. Low fat food is chock full of sugar, so if you don’t get heart disease from too much fat, you’ll get kidney disease and have your feet chopped off because of the diabetes from too much sugar. And then you’ll die of cancer.

There’s another way of dealing with the tobacco problem, and it’s quite simple. If everyone were forced to smoke, lots of people would die from cancer, but all those who were genetically resistant to developing lung cancer would survive and reproduce. So then everyone would be resistant. The tobacco industry would have nothing to worry about, and the government could take more and more revenue from tax on tobacco. Problem solved. Simples.

I like salt too. I don’t like food police. There’s a lot of them about.

The Water of Life

The-Water-Of-Life-65Just back from a week in Gran Canaria. Terrific. Never been before. Hired a car. Mega-scary road from La Aldea to Agaete. Lots of twisty corners and places where all I could see to the left was sky. I am not exaggerating, It’s as well that I didn’t know when I set off what I know now. I never used to suffer from what people call vertigo when I was younger, but something happened in early middle age.

I took the trusty Kindle with me. I was looking through Aesop and Grimm and Andersen for some stories for school Assemblies, and came across The Water of Life (Grimm). It might or might not be suitable for Assembly (stories tend to need shortening) but, ye Gods, it’s spot on for life in general and parochial life in particular. It quite bowled me over. It begins thus.

Once upon a time in a land far away there reigned a king who had three sons. The king fell ill. His sons were grieved at their father’s sickness; and as they were walking in the palace garden, an old man met them and asked them of their woes. The princes told their tale. ‘His Majesty must drink of the ‘Water of Life’ said the man. ‘Were he to have but a sip of it he would be well again. But it is hard and dangerous work to collect it.’
The eldest son thought to himself ‘If I bring my father this water, he will make me sole heir to his kingdom.’ He went to the sick king and begged that he might go in search of the Water of Life. ‘No,’ said the King. ‘My life is not worth the great danger of the journey.’ But the prince persisted and eventually the King let him go.
After a time the prince came to a deep valley, overhung with rocks and woods; and looking around, he saw an ugly dwarf who said, ’Prince, whither so fast?’ ’What is that to thee, thou ugly dandyprat?’ said the prince haughtily, and rode on.
The dwarf did not take kindly to the prince’s behaviour, and laid a spell upon him. As he rode on, the mountain pass became narrower and narrower until at last the prince could go no further, and neither was there room for him to turn his horse and return whence he came. So there he remained on his high horse, unable to go forward, unable to turn back, and unable to dismount. He remained spellbound. Thus it is with proud and silly people who think themselves above everyone else, and will neither seek nor take advice.

The rest of the story—you can guess I expect—the second son sets out on the quest when his elder brother fails to return. The same happens to him. Then the youngest son, the simpleton, sets off. When he encounters the dwarf, he tells him of his quest and the reason for it, and seeks the dwarf’s advice. He listens, thanks the dwarf and goes on his way. He finds the Water of Life, and on his way home asks that his brothers be freed—which freedom is granted. His brothers repay this generosity by stealing the Water, taking it to the King and claiming the credit. But the dwarf works his magic so that in time the two elder brothers are found out and forced to flee into exile, leaving the youngest prince to rule prudently with all his power.

You may know the story. You may have pondered its wisdom and its Scriptural resonances (and Indiana Jones resonances). I come across this story fresh. It’s on my precious list, along with The Snow Queen (‘melt this heart of ice’), and the Venite (‘Today if ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts’).

Maybe I’m just a sentimental old fool.

Boxes and coffins

Too many synods have this effect

He’s been at too many synods

I’m in big trouble. One of my wardens sidled up to me just before a recent funeral, whispering into my ear out of the side of his mouth (as they do in County Laois) ‘People complain that you call the coffin “a box”.’

Guilty as charged.

I don’t think I’ve ever done a funeral without saying to the assembled worthies something like: ‘One day we’re all going to end up in a box like that [pointing at same], and we never know when. How do you want to be remembered? What do you want to see when you are forced to look into the mirror and see yourself as you really are? Now’s the time to live the rest of your life so that when that day comes you leave behind as few regrets and as little unfinished business as possible.’ A colleague calls it an altar call.

Anyhoo, back to the plot. Having heard the complaint and lodged it in my frontal cortex, a funny thing happens. Up to the pulpit, burble, burble, burble, and then out comes the word ‘box’. Just as usual. The thing that I don’t want to do is the very thing that I do. Ah well, I’m in good company. Is it a form of Tourette’s do you think?

Our house was bottom left somewhere

Our house was centre left somewhere

I like the word box. It’s earthy. Box is what it is. You can take the lad out of the North but you can’t take the North out of the lad. I’m not a Yorkshireman, though many have called me so (they probably think all flat vowels signify Yorkshire whereas the Yorkshire accent is merely lazy, and no vowel is flatter than a Cumbrian vowel). That having been said, I must have been infected by Yorkshire to some extent since down at the bottom of the garden ‘when aa were a lad’ flowed the River Eden. This, one of the few substantial English rivers that flows north, emerges into daylight in Yorkshire, then travels the rest of its 70-odd miles through Westmorland and Cumberland, to the briny Solway.

It must have been this river that brought me one of the rare bits of Yarkshire wisdom. On Ilkley moor baht’at.

Wheear ‘ast tha bin sin’ ah saw thee? On Ilkla Mooar baht ‘at.
Tha’s been a cooartin’ Mary Jane, On Ilkla …
Tha’s bahn’ to catch thy deeath o’ cowd, On Ilkla …
Then us’ll ha’ to bury thee, On Ilkla …
Then t’worms’ll come an’ eyt thee up, On Ilkla …
Then t’ducks’ll come an’ eyt up t’worms, On Ilkla …
Then us’ll go an’ eyt up t’ducks, On Ilkla …
Then us’ll all ha’ etten thee, On Ilkla …
That’s wheear we get us ooan back, On Ilkla …

The salient points of this literary epic, be they noted, dear reader, are these: live, sex, die, box (implied), reused. We live, we reproduce, we die, we’re in the box, we’re in the food chain and round and round we go. Our molecules go back to chaos then to kosmos once more. The great cycle of life. The resurrection of the dead.

I’ll stick to box, I think. If people don’t like it, it’s their problem.

Salt, light, snow, ice

monaco-glacier-spitsbergen-norwayA Homily for the fourth Sunday before Lent

Isaiah 58:1-9a. Psalm 112. 1 Corinthians 2:1-12. Matthew 5:13-20

Chips are no good without salt. Salt enhances flavour. We can help others bring out their flavour—to let their light shine. The divine light is in all of us, like a pilot light on a gas stove, and we salty people can help others to turn up the dial so that the stove is aflame with warmth and light.

We add flavour to the world by acts of charity. Care for the needy, poor and oppressed: ‘share your bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless; clothe the naked when you see them’. Your many unrecorded acts of kindness and generosity are grains of salt.

We add flavour to the world by refraining from oppression, revenge and malice. These make us hard-hearted. A friend reported one of our churches to Laois County Council because sometimes only one of the exterior doors is unlocked for services. The fire officer recommended that the others be left unlocked, but fitted with a device so that they may be opened only from the inside. I use this story to ask about the doors to our hearts. Are they open to the message that we purport to profess week in, week out? Or are they shut, excluding the breeze of freshness and renewal as we stay locked into old resentments and fixed false beliefs? In the Venite we are warned against hard-heartedness that corrodes us. It’s a cancer of the spirit. It kills. ‘Hatred devours the wicked. They grind their teeth and their hopes turn to ashes.’

All this takes humility: the realization that ‘I’ am not the only person in the world, and that what ‘I’ want is no more important than what anyone else wants. No showing off. Paul writes: ‘I did not come … in lofty words or wisdom … I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling.’

Humility like this keeps the focus away from self. Indeed, any pretence of the perfect image will stop the light that’s inside from shining out to others. It’s only through our imperfections, our cracks, that the light is able to get out. Put a tea-light into a flower-pot. You won’t see it unless the pot has a crack in it.

Now, another use for salt. We use it to lower the freezing point so that ice melts. There’s salt in tears. We know this, because when we’ve cried and the tears have evaporated, there’s a salty deposit left on our cheeks. So let me tell you a story, and I’m sorry for carving up the work of Hans Andersen, but it’s a long story in its original form.

Once upon a time there lived a wicked goblin who built a magic mirror. Anything that was beautiful or good was reflected in it as ugly and bad. One day, as the goblin was flying through the clouds, he dropped the mirror. It shattered into millions of pieces. A few pieces fell in a small town where two friends named Kay and Gerda lived.

They were neighbours and friends. As they were playing, Kay felt something sharp in his eyes and his chest. Shards of the broken mirror went into Kay’s eyes, and another into his heart. From then on, Kay made fun of everything beautiful and delightful. He no longer saw Gerda as his friend, but sneered at her. His heart turned to ice. Gerda didn’t understand.

As Kay was playing alone in the snow, a large and splendid sledge drew up. Its driver, a most beautiful woman, invited Kay to join her. She was draped in a white flowing gown. On her head was a crown of ice. Her hair was like icicles. ‘Who are you?’ asked Kay. ‘The Snow Queen’ she replied, her face glinting like a diamond in the snow. Kay got int, the Snow Queen tugged at the reins, and off they went up into the clouds, taking Kay to a distant land.

Gerda missed Kay and never stopped loving him. She waited for his return. He did not come. She set off in search. She took her boat and went off on the river. Hearing Gerda’s, a fairy sent her garden flowers to search for Kay, but they returned empty-handed.

Gerda sat under a tree and wept. A crow flew down and told her about a princess who had married a boy. Gerda wondered if that was Kay and urged the crow to lead her to the princess’s palace. She sighed with relief when she saw him, because it wasn’t Kay.

Gerda came to a forest where she met a robber girl and her reindeer. Hearing Gerda’s sad tale, the reindeer said he had seen the Snow Queen flying away with a boy to Spitsbergen near the North Pole. Gerda and the reindeer set off. It was a dangerous journey.

At the Snow Queen’s palace, they found it guarded by snowflakes that prevented their approach. The only thing that overcame them was Gerda’s praying the Lord’s Prayer. Her breath took the shape of angels, who pushed aside the snowflakes and allowed Gerda to enter.

Gerda found Kay alone. He was almost immobile on the frozen lake, which the Snow Queen calls the ‘Mirror of Reason where her throne sits. The Snow Queen had set him a task: if he is able to form the word ‘eternity’ with letters made of ice, the Snow Queen will release him from her power. Try as he might, he is unable.

Gerda runs to Kay and flings her arms around him. He is like a statue. Gerda weeps. Her tears drop on to Kay’s chest. Slowly, slowly the warm tears seep into his heart. Tears of love melt Kay’s heart of ice. Kay bursts into tears, washing out the splinters from his eyes. Gerda embraces Kay, who comes out of his trance. Kay is saved by the power of love. He looks at the lake of ice and sees the letters have arranged themselves to spell ‘eternity’.

Gerda and Kay and the reindeer leave the ice palace for home. They find it just the same as it was when they left. But they have changed!

Gerda’s grandmother reads a passage from the Bible: ‘Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the Kingdom of Heaven’.

Speed these lagging footsteps,
melt this heart of ice,
as I scan the marvels
of thy sacrifice.   (William Walsham How)

Lighten our darkness

forty_hours_2009I’m a sucker for candles—it must be my inner child. As many as possible all the time. Candles on the Altar, candles on the credence table, candles in the hand. Advent Sunday, Christingle, Christmas, Candlemas, Tenebrae, Easter … whenever. At a confirmation in one of my former churches a strange smell assailed the nostrils, and it wasn’t the incense. An acolyte was taking Matthew 5:16 literally. His cotta caught fire from a neighbouring candle. It livened things up.

This morning we had lots of candles and sprinklings and baptism of twins. A great day for a baptism: the old man carried the child, but the child governed the old man. Simeon’s inner child: he may have gone off to die, but I wonder if he also meant that he now understood the importance of childlikeness, without which the Kingdom is not ours, we are told? He had seen the only thing that matters.

There was a radioactivity leak at Sellafield/Windscale/Calder Hall in the 1950s. I lived 40 miles east, so when the wind whistled from the west, the radioactivity was blown into my cells. Like the child in the Ready Brek advert, I glow in the dark. It’s handy at night and keeps electricity bills down.

There are other people who glow, but for a different reason: they are so filled with goodness that their faces glow and their eyes twinkle. Like Moses and Jesus coming down from the mountains.

Apart from these shining examples, bioluminescence is seen in fireflies and glow-worms, but mostly in aquatic creatures. Moses again: ‘See, with the staff that is in my hand I will strike the water that is in the Nile, and it shall be turned to blood. The fish in the river shall die, the river itself shall stink, and the Egyptians shall be unable to drink water from the Nile.’ The first plague (Exodus 7:14-25) was a bloom caused by dinoflagellates, single-cell algae. It adds up.

There’s squid and jellyfish and sharks and seed shrimps. All sorts of things produce light, sometimes to attract, sometimes to trick, sometimes to warn—reasons concerned with eating, or not being eaten, or reproducing (which three things just about sum up life).

hqdefaultBut by far the most impressive manifestation of bioluminescence is the way that single organisms like sea squirts come together to form a huge great bioluminescent pyrosome (fire body). Look at this: a 30 foot tube made by a colony of millions of minute sea squirts acting together. This is intelligence. Isn’t it truly wonderful?

Just think what we could do if we worked together like this.

Read Frank Schätzing’s The Swarm. Nothing is impossible. Be afraid, be very afraid.

Anger and apathy

475px-The_ScreamCorrupt police, whistleblowers persecuted, financial crime unpunished, cronyism, laws that are obligatory for us but merely aspirational for the rich and famous. Maybe all this doesn’t affect you personally.

Dealing with jobsworths in utility companies, banks, and councils. Wondering why you have to make an appointment in your busy life to sign a piece of paper that could have been posted to you. Maybe at work you’re harassed to do more, to achieve more, to sell more, to recruit more. Maybe you have to deal with managers who dump on you because they’re concerned only for themselves. Maybe some of this is more your experience.

Maybe you work for an institution that appointed you to do a job that cost you a great deal of distress, which, when the institution changed the rules, you see was for nothing. You’re left drained, disheartened, feeling foolish and hopeless—that is, de-sperate. There’s a memorable episode in the US House of Cards in which Kevin Spacey’s ‘wife’, a self-obsessed businesswoman, asks her underling to sack employees, and after it’s done, then sacks the underling. Maybe you understand what that must have felt like.

Anger is hard-wired in to the amygdala and limbic system of the brain. We need it, or used to, for survival. Suppressing it, however socially acceptable, is bad for the organism. I internalize it. I pretend to myself I can deal with it. Then after a couple of days I get collywobbles and pains and what feel like panic attacks. Slowly, it dawns on me that this is not indigestion or oesophageal reflux, neither is it psychiatric illness. It’s anger.

Some people get rid of their anger by thumping. I wish I were more like them. There’s no point explaining to those responsible why you’re angry, for the likelihood is that they’re so keen on saving face or backside (interchangeable?) that their response is merely to hide behind legalities and protocols.

What can the pastor advise about dealing with anger? I spent a good bit of time with a 12 year old lad who had an abusive father. He knew the fate that awaited him for having lost some trivial item. He was beside himself. I said ‘I know how you’re feeling.’ And he – to his great credit – said ‘no you don’t, how can you? you’re not me’. That taught me a thing or two. Saying ‘Jesus understands’ is likely to result in your admission to A & E. Rightly so. Getting people to talk about it is an absolute must. To scream and shout, to curse until there is no more energy left. To sink into apathy.

Apathy. A useful state, however painful it is to arrive there. A lack of emotion. All passion spent. No longer are you foolish enough to expect others to imagine how their decisions might affect you. From apathy you begin to pick up again, knowing better what you’re dealing with. Maybe you become intent on revenge. They say it’s a dish best served cold. The trouble is that seeking revenge makes you hard-hearted and bitter as it eats away like cancer. It is cancer of the spirit. But it’s easy to understand why films about revenge – Shawshank – are so popular.

Perhaps you’ll learn from the experience and move on. Maybe you’ll distinguish between anger on behalf of others, and anger on behalf of self, that is, injured amour propre. If it’s the latter, maybe you’ll see that you’ve fallen victim to the demon that incites us to seek approval from others, and you’re angry with yourself. Maybe you’ll see that those others’ opinions are not worth having. If so, you’ll come out of it wiser, determined to continue to let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no’, despite the duplicity and thoughtlessness of others.

But it is never easy.

Less religion, more maths

01The Education Minister says schools should teach less religion and more reading.

In my humble opinion, schoolseven primary schoolsshould teach more mathematics too. I don’t mean sums, I mean mathematics. Children will become familiar with logic, conceptual thinking, problem solving and truth. Nothing is truer than mathematics. Mathematics leads to architecture, music and biology, as Donald Duck found out.

Why should schools teach religion at all? You could say it inculcates tribal attitudes and behaviour that can be profoundly unChristianindeed, inhuman. It encourages parents to think that since school does it, they don’t need to, either at home or by church commitment. It encourages a view of God as a cross between a sky pixie and an irascible parent who needs to be placated and evaded. It’s used to tell children that they should be nice, clean, tidy, adhere to notions of respectability and generally do what adults tell them. It can lead to a kind-of spiritual infantilization and emasculation that soon fails them.

What should I be saying at school Assemblies? Should I teach the doctrine of the Holy Undivided and Indivisible Trinity (mathematical concepts of simplicity there), or the difference between substance and essence (chemistry here)? maybe I should be exploring with them the feminine part of the Divine, Sofia, Mary redemptrix (plenty biology there). What about how Greek ideas and fairy tales shaped the Gospels?

What I do try to say is that the Divine light is in ‘here’ in everyone, that ‘we’ is more important than ‘me’ (ants), that we light the way for others when we let the light shine out of ourselves (fireflies), and that we all benefit from a bit of quietness (dormancy and metamorphosis). And also, of course, that whereas human team captains can’t avoid being swayed by personal considerations, there is one captain who shows us the way. I try to explore with them what they think God-ness might be like. I ask them to consider when being ‘nice’ is inappropriate and when they should fight for justice.

I doubt that’s what parents or teachers want. But I plod on trying, for the sake of the staff, not to let the pupils see how much I squirm with embarrassment at some of the words of the silly songs.

After the example of an esteemed colleague, I’ve started reading stories. Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant was a smasher.


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