You scratch my back

orangutans-grooming-didi-higginbothamA court in Argentina has ruled that an orangutan has rights. Commentators say that this is the first time an ape has been so blessed.

Utter nonsense. They just don’t get it, do they? It’s not the first time at all.

There are apes somewhere near you. There are apes somewhere near me. No, I’m not referring to the locals of Ashby or Swad: Twycross Zoo actually. In a manner of speaking, they’re inside my skin. I am an ape. You are an ape. He/she/it is an ape. We are apes …

Orangs are apes, just like us. They are primates just like us. Moreover, they are intelligent primates who value solitude—in which they are perhaps more discerning than some of us.

When will humans realize that we are not the centre of the universe? We are a recent development in terms of cosmic history, we will not be around in the present form for ever, and it looks as if we might well be wiped out soon (again, in cosmic terms). We are creatures of this earth. Dust thou art and to dust thou shalt return.

As a square is a rectangle, so a human is a primate, an ape, a mammal, a vertebrate, a chordate. There is nothing new about this classification, and if there are theologians who don’t accept it, then all I can say is that they’re wrong.

Orangs are capable of acts of kindness, mutual care and compassion. They grieve. They think. They ponder. They reflect. Perhaps they are more than human. We sometimes act as if we’re less than human.

On this rock …

Blackpool-rock-ePeter, the denier, the dissembler, the man who means well, the man who cocks up time after time. The man who sometimes gets a bit above himself and has to be given a slap. Homer Simpson in fact. You. Me.

Cut us in two and we have humanity written all the way through us.

Cut us in two and we bleed. Some of the things that help us to stop bleeding are platelets. These are not blood cells, but are broken-off pieces of huge cells (megakaryocytes) that lie in wait to be summoned to wherever they are needed to plug the holes in the pipes. Biological Radweld. We are broken off bits of the Divine. To be sure, we have other things in us too that are maybe not so Divine, but we are all sons and daughters of the Divine.

Platelets bind together when they recognize damaged blood vessels. They aid blood clotting to stop blood seeping out of damaged vessels. Blood is life force, so pushing this silly simile a bit further, we stop the life force seeping out by plugging bleeding hearts, easing burdens, bringing delight. Blood brings iron, oxygen and nutrients. Blood disposes of waste products.

On this rock. Not the rock of perfection, superiority, excellence and aloofness, but the rock of humanity with its tendency to wander off like a supermarket trolley, and its ability to act as plugger of holes, mender of fences and bringer of jollity.

O admirabile commercium.

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.

Scars, octopuses and trouts

450px-Finger_with_granulation_tissueA sort of homily for Proper 17, Year C

Sirach 10:12-18. Psalm 112. Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16. Luke 14:1, 7-14

Being proud of someone else is one sort of pride. This can be a selfless pride. I am proud of my children. I hope this is selfless. Then there is being proud, standing over, putting oneself above. We talk about the ‘proud flesh’ of a healing wound. In the healing process, granulation tissue ‘stands proud’ of surrounding tissue and gradually forms a scar. Scar tissue is functionally useless.

You might say that people who are proud in this sense are functionally useless. Hubris: overweening pride, pride before a fall. Hubris kills.

A Pharisee and a tax-gatherer prayed in the temple. The Pharisee prayed, ‘God, I thank you that I’m not like other men.’ The tax-gatherer said, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner.’

It’s tempting to say ‘Lord, thank you that I’m not like that Pharisee.’

When the Titanic set sail, someone reportedly said ‘Even God couldn’t sink this ship.’

Pride test

Do you long for attention? Do you make a scene? Are you needy and clingy? Have you learnt to look pathetic?
Are you a begrudger? ‘They didn’t deserve that!’ ‘That’s not fair!’ ‘I could do better than them.’ Maybe you could, but you don’t!
Do you always have to win? Some people even cheat at Scrabble.
Do you tell porkies? Do you tell lies to make yourself look bigger than you are, or to belittle someone else? It’s all pride.
Do you refuse to admit it when you’re wrong? And when you’re caught, do you try to wriggle out of it? You blame something else, bring on the waterworks, blame the drink, or the tiredness or whatever?
Do you pick fights? Is this because you stand up to bullies? Or is it because you are a bully and must win?
Do you push in when you’re in a queue: ‘I’m very important, I have important things to do. The rest of you can wait.’
Do you get upset when people don’t recognize your worth?
Do you believe that dreadful advert where the lady says ‘Because I’m worth it’? No, you’re not!
Do you feel you’re basically a good person, but others are not?

One point for each yes. I scored 362.

Octopus_tool_useHumility

Humus = earth. Humble people are earthed in the reality of being human. We are creatures of this earth. Octopuses can assemble coconut shells to make a ‘house’. And humans think invertebrates are stupid! I know a zoologist who worked with octopuses, and she was quite certain that they were clever. I tell you, invertebrates will be around long after humans are gone. 

Pride versus humility

Pride covets others’ success. Humility says ‘I’m delighted for you’ and means it.
Pride is about being selfish. Humility is about being selfless.
Pride is about getting glory. Humility is about giving glory.
Pride is about independence. Humility is about dependence.
Pride says to itself, ‘My will be done.’ Humility says to the Lord, ‘Thy will be done.’
Pride leads to dishonour. Humility leads to honour.
Proud people make terrible spouses, parents, friends, colleagues, bosses, church members. Humble people, by the grace of God, can be a good spouses, parents, friends, colleagues, bosses, church members.
Are you going to start high and end low, or are you going to start low and end high?

Forget me me me. Take stock of your gifts and skills and faults. Accept them, be earthed, then focus on the Divine. Never mind competing with others. Make the best of what comes your way and pass it on.

When’s the last time you were on your knees? Some say, ‘I never get on my knees.’ When was the last time you acknowledged your pride to someone else? ‘I would, but what will other people think?’ Never mind other people. As Evagrios said, the worst demon of all is that which incites us to seek the approval of others.

cantankerous-old-troutLook at the news. Syria. Egypt. People gouge out a child’s eyes in China. People abuse children. Politicians screw their people. However much we may be horrified at the behaviour of those in the news, it hurts to acknowledge that it is but an extreme version of our own. It all comes down to supposing that ‘my’ wishes are more important than anyone else’s.

I need to remember that when I’m sitting at traffic lights, cursing some old trout in the car in front who seems to be waiting for a particular shade of green.

This is the sin of the world.

You pet a dog, the dog wags its tail and thinks you must be a god. You pet a cat, and the cat purrs, shuts its eyes and thinks it must be a god. What about you? How do you think?

If you should ask me what are the ways of God, I would tell you that the first is humility, the second is humility, and the third is humility. St Augustine.

Registering intersex

What sex would you say the baptismal candidate was?

What sex would you say the baptismal candidate was?

Very soon in Germany it will be possible to register a child as being of indeterminate gender—neither male nor female, but indeterminate.

Off you go to the Register Office. You have to say whether the little darling is male or female. No problem usually. But occasionally it’s fraught: the little darling’s gender is ambiguous because the anatomy of the nether regions is neither one thing nor the other. Usually, surgery is soon done to ‘regularize’ the situation. Making the baby look like a female is the easiest thing to do for the obvious reason that it’s easier to chop things off than stick things on. (This can lead to psychological problems later when, for example, the person grows up feeling like a male, yet having no dangly bits.)

Being neither one thing nor the other, or having bits of both, means intersex. This is a natural phenomenon. It’s not something the baby chooses, and certainly not something parents choose. They are, doubtless, in shock and perplexity. But the fact is that sometimes, more often than we recognize or admit, nature goes awry.

I know, I’ve blogged about this stuff before, here and here. The German initiative means I’m doing it again. There will be some delicious issues for the institutional church. It’s full of rules. If we say marriage is between man and woman, then we have to define man and woman. If we say ordinands have to be heterosexual, then we have to lay down criteria of maleness and femaleness. If only men may be ordained, how will manhood be assessed? Is it an absence of some things or a presence of others? If it’s a chromosomal thing, then what will assessors do about chromosomal anomalies? It seems to me that none of the church’s rules can be enforced. If it’s not possible to enforce them, there’s no point having them.

You may say I’m being silly. Perhaps you think that the institutional church is on the way out, and that what the churches say or do is irrelevant. You might be right. But if you think that the church could be, should be, and basically is, a force for good in the world, then it does matter. The trouble is that the churches generally are run by people who seem blind to what biology has to tell us about the human condition, and who tend to look backwards rather than forwards. A biological Galileo saga in the making.

Biologically, legal recognition of intersex is long overdue.

Click here for more about the development of sexuality.