Sunday, November 30, 2008

Still Poorly


You can print this off and colour it in

Went to work on Monday and Tuesday. Got up on Wednesday and thought:

"What on earth do you think you are doing?" rang work and returned to bed where I have been pretty well since. The doctor has signed me off for a week.

Fed up now!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

I am

Apparently...
Fat,

A Wanker,
A Cunt,
A Jobsworth,
Stupid,
Spiteful,
Violent,
A Bully,
A Pervert,
A Twat,
'Roider,
Meat-head,
A Fuck,
A Fucker,
A Fuckhead,
Ignorant,
Heartless,
Moron,
A Dickhead,
Scum,
Worthless,
A Tosser,
A Prick,

Please feel free to add any I've missed. Folks will be coming out drinking for about their only time each year. Dragged away from children and partners to get drunk with their colleages. They don't meet doorstaff often, they don't know how to handle their drinks or themselves in public.
I'll get most of these hurled at me in the next few weeks. I may even make a bingo game out of it.
Prizes for avoiding any of them and still actually dealing with the public.
Prizes for hearing a new one.

Silent Retreat: The Final Episode


I have deliberately slept in as late as possible, missing both the early church service and silent prayer. (I feel I did enough of that in the night.) I don't usually opt out where something is optional but feel that health-giving sleep is what I needed most.

I join the others for Matins. Some of the full time students are there too, in their long robes. Again the service is uplifting and atmospheric and again I don't sing. It pains me. I watch how the full time students are integrated into the worshipping life of the community and feel slightly resentful. Us part-timers stand out in our civvies, muffled up in our performance outerwear and scarves against the cold, not always fully on the ball with the liturgy. The full-timers belong. We don't.

At breakfast the brothers are in silence because we are in silence. It strikes me how noisy the sound of forty or so sets of cutlery on crockery are and I conduct an experiment to see whether it is possible to eat without clattering. It is and I conclude that this may be a passive-aggressive act on the part of the brothers, who must now be close to formulating their break-out strategy. I resolve not to catch Annie's eye. Annie is a giggler.

Annie, however, is having her own issues. With great synchrenicity, or possibly the Grace of God, Annie, who works in mental health chaplaincy, has found herself seated next to the brother who suffers from dementia.

"Are you Amy?"

"No, my name's Annie."

"Ah! The mother of our Lord. And are you a nun?"

"No, I just had my hood up because it was cold in church."

"Are we in silence today?"

"Yes, I'm afraid we are."

"And what's your name dear?"

"Annie."

"Are you a nun?"

I have two bowls of porridge. A cereal killer.

The other Mike has his arm in a sling and has a broken elbow. Something about wet leaves in the dark. He looks to be in pain. He is clearly a much better person than me because he has made no fuss whereas I, with a cold - possibly man-flu, don't feel I have had anything like enough sympathy.

We have four guided sessions over the day. Our tutor is using the Gospel of Matthew and is looking at signs of the servant. Each session has a fifteen minute input and then we are encouraged to walk in the grounds in prayer and contemplation, or use the library, find a quiet space or go back to bed. I opt for the grounds. I am the only one. The others aren't stupid. It is a wonderful Autumn day but so cold. Even in my Estonian jacket - and they know about cold there - I am soon freezing. I hear the sounds of children and follow the path down to a field where four teams of lads aged about 8/9 are playing soccer. These are real matches and very much part of a traditional British Saturday morning. The lads all have proper kit and there are plenty of parents standing on the touchline, their breath steaming around them. I watch for a while at the same time as trying to empty my mind. It is not a good combination so devoid of any spiritual insights other than the beauty of the Yorkshire countryside I head back to the guest house and take the final meditative option, bed.

I do not sleep. I lay quietly and empty my mind. This is not something I am very good at, but I do manage to lay there, wide awake and receptive. I have no deep experiences but I do have a strong sense of peace.

We begin to emerge from our places of contemplation. I am surprised that so many of us had gone for the bed option. No I'm not really. Danny makes me a cup of tea and I am amused again at how funny we all are when we try to communicate in sign langauge. This is silly.

"No sugar." I say.
"You'll go to Hell." he replies.
"What, for not having sugar or for speaking?"
"For having a tattooed penis. Neil said so."
Ah, Neil. I do feel bad that I have not been able to make my peace with him before his sudden and flouncy exit from my blog.

We return to silence.

During the second session I am very much taken by what our tutor has to say. She is talking about Jesus and the temptations in the wilderness from Mat. 3. These temptations are the temptations of ministry. We need to know our own areas of temptation so that our ministries do no founder. The temptations of Jesus were the issues which could have been the backdrop for his own self-agrandisement: he needed to know what his areas of weakness were as he began his ministry. We need to know ours.

Very thought provoking and not an approach I had taken before.

Lunch is the most wonderful comfort food. Huge sausages in a casserole of thick gravy and winter veg, with mashed potatos followed by banana custard. I think I have died and gone to Heaven.

"Are you Amy?

"No, my name's Annie."

"Are you a nun?"

"No, sorry."

Sorry?

Session three. Well, I must confess that I went to bed and missed it. I told Dr. Bob first. I knocked on his door. He mimed "come in". Strangely I didn't see that from the other side of the door. When he opened his door I noticed that he had a spacious twin room. How did that happen? He must be very important!

"I could have a party." he whispered "If we weren't in silence."

"Going to bed. Not well." I croak.

He smiles sympathetically.

Session four has us looking at Mat. 4 where Jesus goes through Galilee preaching and healing. Such is our gifting we are told. To be reconcilers we have first to be reconciled and healed ourselves. As we allow the grace of God into our lives we ask for healing from our own jaggednesses so that we may more effectively share that grace with others. We do a breathing exercise. We imagine taking in God's grace at every inhalation.

What am I exhaling?

I am slipping into the rhythm of the weekend now: Evensong and a eucharist and, obsessed by the fear of infecting everyone else, I intincture. I notice Mike, standing next to me, does the same. Probably too late now Mate. There is an elderly African monk. I don't know his name and this is the first time I have seen him all weekend. His arrival is announced well before he appears by the shuffling of his carpet slippers. On every occasion I have seen him he is always fifteen minutes late to the service. Is it beyond anyone's wit to suggest he sets off fiteen minutes before the others? Then it is the evening meal. I have never before eaten a meal wearing a coat and scarf.

"Are you Amy?"

"Yes."

"Are you a nun?"

"Yes."

I go to bed at 8.00pm and listen to Classic F.M. I engineer one personalised sunset. I am gone.

I have not reset my alarm and my own personalised sunrise sees me having missed silent prayers again.

Bugger.

I am wooly headed with the uninterrupted sleep.

The Community Eucharist is a site to behold: all the Brothers, all the full time students, robed and acting as acolytes and all us part timers. We have incense, candles and chanting. We also have a fabulous sermon from Fr. Oswin. (If I become a monk I might choose Oswin. Isn't it a great name?)

I remember something Fr. George said on the first night. The community has an honourable history of resisting apartheid in the old South Africa and one of the brothers was imprisoned by the authorities. When he contacted the community he was at pains to reassure them that he was well:

"Its just like being at home but the food is better."

Hows that for British phlegm?

I am freezing cold and I notice how many of the brothers are wearing sandles. I'm clearly not cut out for the monastic life. Can I still call myself Oswin? I suddenly realise I have not coughed or sneezed so far today.

At the end of the service the silence is suspended and yet no-one rushes to speak. Over lunch before departure in the college refectory with the full timers and our first years who have been on a teaching weekend and kept apart from us lest we communicate, conversations begin. I comment to Dr. Bob that one of the advantages of the silence has been not listening to Barry's flow-of-consciousness lame jokes. Quick as a flash Barry replies:

"You wait all year for Jack to lose his voice and he goes and does it on a silent weekend. Where's the justice?"

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Silent Retreat 3


If you are going to be ill, a silent retreat is the place to do it. We are not in the college but in the religious community: this is the community which brought the world Trevor Huddleston and Desmond Tutu, and I have a strong admiration for the work of these men. Daphne arrives next and she gets 10 out of 10 as a trainee vicar for supplying tea and sympathy and the suggestion that I should go to bed until formal procedings start. My cell is eight feet by seven and contains a bed, a chair, a chest, a washbasin, a desk and a window. My bed is seductive with smooth, soft sheets and a yeilding mattress and I succumb to its charms. (Steady on!) It is a quick nap and I soon find myself in the common room with Stuart, both plugged into our i-pods and sitting in comfy chairs. We look, Hilda subsequently tells us as she sets out a succulent chocolate cake, like two old men in an old people's home with our hearing aids in.

The others arrive in dribs and drabs and our little birthday party is a success with Karen and Dr. Bob pleased with the convivialities. I am now feeling dreadful again and have taken to carrying my own box of tissues around. I am now borderline obsessive/compulsive over the use of tissues and hand washing.

"Stick with Shan, she's a nurse" Sue advises.

"Yes but when I was asked to sit with an old lady in church who looked ill," Shan confides, "I thought she had dozed off (it was the vicar, after all) only she had actually collapsed. Still, I got her to hospital in time."

Evensong is one of those amazingly spiritual occasions: religion through theatre. The church is vast and airy and, as dusk falls, incredibly atmospheric with its subdued candle-lit shimmer. Our hosts, the brothers - an ecclectic mix of lay and ordained Anglican men, mainly on the old side of completely indeterminate in term of age - conduct their worship in plainsong and the liturgy is chanted with the beauty that only a lifetime's commitment and confidence can bring to its rhythms and choreography. I am, as ever, moved only saddened that I have no voice to join in with the chanting and feel somehow cheated of this contribution to worship which I always enjoy.

My joints now all ache, particularly my lower back.

Dinner is with the brothers. We are in informal silence (apart from my caughing and sneezing)as we listen to Fr. John read to us from the life of St. Bernard. I catch a glimpse of the continuity of the monastic order's practice down the ages.

However the reading is unutterably dull. Fr. John is my personal tutor and his Belfast lilt goes someway towards making the life of St. Bernard marginally more interesting.

"When does the poor chap get his meal?" I wonder. I sidle up to him later and thank him for his reading which I claim to have enjoyed.

"Did you really? I didn't. I much preferred the biography of Kate Adie which we read last week." Kate Adie is a national treasure

We have one taught session this evening: Fr. George on Benedictine spirituality. In and amongst he told us a little of the history of The Community of the Resurrection and he talked about the joys and challenges of living in community.

Compline is optional. Mike and I opt out. We have forty minutes before formal silence to catch up as we are taught at different sites. No siting up until two in the morning putting the world to rights on this weekend for us then.

At 10.00 I go to bed. By 10.02 I am asleep. At 11.05 I am wide awake. My teeth now ache and I am shivering. I have a lamp which can be set to mimic sunset and sunrise as an aid to natural sleep. I set it again to do the sunset thing. And Again. And again until I am worried that so many sunsets in such a short period will cause a rupture in the fabric of the universe and then where should we be?

I dream of the BVM only I know it isn't her, but a woman in a cunning disguise. There are two clues to this. 1) she wears blue, everyone knows that, not a pink sari and 2) she doesn't usually travel on a zebra. I don't normally have religious dreams and I know this is linked to my strong objection to the nasty Victorian plaster cast of the BVM on the common-room mantlepiece which I always make a point of turning to the wall. I have nothing against the BVM as such (well not much. Actually, how long have you got?) But I do object to mawkish Victorian iconography. The community is, you will have realised, a tad Anglo-Catholic.

On the way to the shower in the morning, Cathy, wearing a nice line in bedsocks I feel - not every woman could carry them off as well as that, slips me a long strip of paracetamol. A fistful of dullars.

"There you go, Chuck." (She is from Liverpool. You can take the girl out of Liverpool but you can't take Liverpool......) Anyway. I have now had so many paracetamol that the brothers have me down on suicide watch.

Things can only get better.

I text my beloved to tell her I have a very heavy cold and awful symptoms. She replies "Don't come home."

Maybe not then.

Silent Retreat 2


When I got up on Friday morning I was worried I might die. When I went to bed on Friday evening I was worried I might not. This is the day I attend the silent retreat after work: I have to get through the school day first and I know I am not well. Men and colds eh? Still, I have a light timetable today and I can hang around the staffroom catching up on administrative tasks. Later that morning I am forcibly ejected from the staffroom by my compassionate colleagues for "sneezing with menaces".

"You've got to be nice to me today." I say to my Yr 9 class. "I'm not well."
"Hahahaha. As if." trills Hayley.
However they are a lovely class and we have a good time and get plenty of work done.

My Yr 11s were just as accommodating but we are disadvantaged by my classroom's proximity to the school's bus lane. From 2.20 to 2.40 we live on the edge and the strange accoustics don't give us any warning.
Woosh! Out of nowhere a cream coloured tornado flies past the window.
"BUS" shouts Matthew.
Two minutes later the bus has turned round and wooshes past again.
"BUS" shouts Matthew.

When I was a student-teacher we learnt about the development of cognitive thinking in children via the writings of a Frenchman called Piaget. His three year old daughter was having trouble distinguishing between "slug", "same slug" and "different slug" in the garden. I have managed to apply this principle to Matthew. He now shouts "BUS." and two minutes later "SAME BUS." Matthew is 15.
One feels tax-payers money isn't being entirely wasted on the education of children in the catchment area.

We are studying teaching on Love and Forgiveness as found in the New Testament.
"Give me one of the four Greek words for Love".
"Shagos"
"Two things, Katie. One, put your hand up and two, I think you mean Eros."
"Which one's that then?"
"Erotic love."
"That's what I meant."
"Oh, that'll work then. Every time you answer a question at GCSE, just put an asterisk and then a footnote that says: I meant to put the right answer."
"There's no need to be sarcastic."
"Oh, I think there is. Anyway, you're supposed to be being nice to me today 'coz I'm ill. I only came in today because I'm committed to you lot."

Stunned silence

Nathan: "Really?"
Chris: "Did you?"
Belinda: "Ah, Sir. Bless."
Matthew: "BUS"
Me: "Somebody hit him."

As I climb into the car for my short hop to the college, I feel upbeat and very, very ill.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Silent Retreat 1


Dr. Bob and I have left our student cohort and have been fast-tracked this term and moved from Yr.1 into Yr.3. This is because we are on a two year course as I am a Theology graduate and Dr. Bob is a Doctor of.....something or other scientific. Dr. Bob is the cleverest person I have ever met and yet he is also one of the most self-effacing: "I am a worm and no man". I have no idea why he hangs out with me because I tease him mercilessly which he now believes is his sole function in life. Mind you, anyone who watches the Catholic Channel when unable to sleep and then gets hooked... I think he said something about "hot nun totty", but as that would be so out of character I may have misheard him.

We are currently studying Church History. I hated church history all those years ago and time has not improved my mood. It is deathly. Dr. Bob has been known to snore but he is too generous of spirit to actually voice criticism: "Well, he obviosly knows his stuff...." Whereas I want to say something acerbic about his failure to carry the rest of us in the slipstream of his enthusiasm. (Actually, there are several hes. Some are better than others.) However, Yr. 2 are not having a lot of fun on a module on pastoral care either. Listening skills have been reduced to the level of party games. Hilda was very scathing and I don't think I can repeat what Cathy said. (And she works in a Christian bookshop! Shame on you girl!)

Still, I have a cunning plan, as Baldrick would say. I worship at the shrine of St. Ipod. This is a strategy I learnt from some of my pupils - and boy are they in trouble now that I am wise to it!. You have to sit sideways on to the lecturer and at the far end of the row. You feed the earplug wires up the back of your shirt and through the loop at the top and feed the obscured ear's earpiece wire behind the ear and over the top. You can then appear to rest your head studiously on that hand and no one knows.

Aren't teenagers inventive?

I survive church history with the help of Elgar, Vaughan-Williams, Holst and Butterworth (what with me being patriotic). My pupils have been known to attempt to survive my lessons with help from Satan's Tattoo or Up Yours Mother-f***er (asterisks just in case Neil still drops by).

Tommorow the original team are on a silent retreat for the weekend. Yes, THE (whole) WEEKEND!!!. There is a lot of discussion about whether any of us can sustain silence for a weekend. Still, we can text. I have a heavy cold. My intention is to spend the whole weekend in bed with a good novel and Classic F.M. Radio. Maintain silence? You just try me. It is just possible, though, that this may not be within the spirit of the weekend. We are also told we may not bring alcohol. This is something of a blow as it is both Karen and Dr. Bob's birthdays and I have ten bottles of wine in the boot of the car even as we speak. Get thee behind me Satan - about Sunday lunchtime ideally.

This priestly business is fraught.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Jacket Fillers

In certain teams you get settled staff. 6 of the same 8 people, week in week out. Someone doesn't work sundays and someone only does the Fridays and Saturdays. You get settled into a routine and you know how each other works. Everyone on the team may not be the best at everything but you work around that and use each ones' skills to the best advantage in the team.
In some places with an unsettled team or just a bigger team you get to rely on jacket fillers more and more. When one of the team has a stag do and all but 3 of the team go away for the full weekend, you're left with a very ropey looking gaggle of muppets and a full venue of the usual scrotes to keep in drink and out of trouble.

You phone the company bosses and beg for a couple more than you really need. This gets you on paper one more than you really need. In reality it leaves you about 3 short. Some folks you may have worked with before and you'll know what they're up to. Not all good, not all bad but it gives you some idea of where you're going to put them and how close you have to keep them. Then you'll get the randoms. You have to size them up in 30 seconds, give them the walk 'round before doors open and stick them somewhere and hope they stick. You never know. I've had randoms turn up and be top flight drunk spotters and trouble solvers. The kind you'd want back if you can get hold of them.

Then you get those with no clue. Sleeping in the staff room toilets, texting a good four fifths of the shift or just chatting with new ladies in a new town who don't know to avoid the filth ridden loins of the doorwhore from out of town.

I have places to put folks who I don't trust. We've a wonderful well lit, tedious smoking area to monitor, usually taken in turns by the regular team but perfect for a new muppet. We also have front of house watching the punters pay their way in and stamp them out. Well covered by camera, nowhere to wander off to and within shouting distance of my cold front doorstep.

It's not fool-proof, especially when you get some serious fools. Some are better off being told "to wander 'round, look busy and not stop walking". They may be chocolate fireguards but the punters need never know.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Sunday Sermon: The Parable of the Talents - a parable about time.


It was my birthday a couple of weeks ago and my mother said to me: “How old are you now?” “What? Am I adopted? Were you not there?” You’d have thought that she of all people would have remembered, wouldn’t you? But then sometimes I have to stop and think too: “How old am I now?” The passing of time is a big mystery to me. “Haven’t you grown?” I hear myself saying to kids I last saw when they were three - fifteen years ago.

Where does it go? Why does time pass so slowly when we are young and so rapidly when we are old? And above all—when loved ones leave us, when they die, where are they, if they are not in time? Is it just me?

Centuries ago the psalmist uttered with poignant accuracy,
“. . . our years come to an end like a sigh.”

Or as my mother said equally poignantly: “It’s all right for you; We're in the departure lounge.”

But even though we may identify with the words of the Psalmist - or, indeed, my mother, the question of how the ancients viewed time remains. Their perception must have been different from ours, surely? When the prophets say that the day of the Lord “is at hand,” do they mean that the end is immanent? Since we know that the end of time has not yet arrived, we assume that their religious zeal led them in the wrong direction, or that they were speaking more apocryphally or they must have understood time more loosely.

The prophet Zephaniah warns those who think that God is indifferent to their idolatrous practices, that the day of the Lord for them will be full of darkness, not of light, and that time will have no mercy on their plans:

Though they build houses,
they shall not inhabit them;
though they plant vineyards,
they shall not drink wine
from them.


There is no promise here is there? Only a warning. For this prophet, the day of the Lord is at hand and the retribution of those who move away from God is “near and hastening fast.” Are there any applications for us here I wonder?

When St. Paul writes to the young church in Thessalonica, he seems to have a similar conviction: that the day of the Lord is at hand; but for him this is a prospect filled with promise.

“For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep (as in alive or dead) we may live with him.” He says.

Early in his preaching mission, Paul was convinced that the return of Christ was very near, that it would happen within his lifetime. The people of the church in Thessalonica, believing that the day of the Lord was approaching, were falling into doubt and despair because some from that small community were dying before the promised return of the Lord had occurred. So Paul is trying here to encourage them by reminding them that they are “children of light,” and for those who live in the light, even death is not to be feared. It is as if time does not matter.

Because apocalyptic literature is not easily understood by people who live comfortable lives in Britain, talk of the last days has more or less disappeared from our thinking. There is a tendency among fundamentalist Christians to dwell on a violent end for the faithless, and for some kind of apocalyptic rapture for the faithful. But what comes through with clarity in Paul’s writings is a reminder that no one knows the end of time, that it comes like a thief in the night, and that what we need is to be prepared: by living with awareness, with faith, with compassion and with love.

It is this quality of preparedness that we can also gather from the difficult parable of the talents: Jesus was good at telling difficult stories. No doubt they were as hard to hear standing in a group in Palestine as they are from our seats today. I have always felt a certain sympathy for the battered one-talent man who hides his unexpected gift in this strange parable and who was deprived of the gift once it had been given, just because he was shy, or reserved, or cautious.

So, before leaving on a journey, a rich man gives incredible sums to three servants: to the first, five talents, to the second two and to the third one talent (which alone equalled the wages of an ordinary worker for 20 years). Without further instructions he departs and the first two servants doubled their gifts, while the one-talent man dug a hole and hid his. Upon returning the master asks what happened to his money and after identical recitations about doubling the gift, each of the first two is called “a good and faithful servant,” placed in charge of even more possessions and welcomed into the joy of the master.

The one-talent man must be despondent, and he begins immediately with his excuse, “Master, I knew you were a hard man harvesting where you did not plant and gathering where you did not sow, so out of fear I went and buried my talent.” He invokes fear as his defence. This man is a victim of his own fear and cautiousness.

After the predictions of the end time in Ch. 24 and the threats of severe judgments awaiting the unfaithful at Jesus’ return, Matthew is urging his community not to be timid and fearful, but to take risks. The paradox of biblical revelation is that the merciful, gracious and compassionate God who liberates us from slavery is also the God who will judge us on the use of our gifts. Let’s be clear too: we aren’t talking about good works here, we are talking about obedient discipleship.

Unless we belong to a parish facing extinction or financial ruin, or unless we take seriously the statistics about declining membership and revenue, the cost of being a Christian and a Lutheran may seem minimal. If we happen to be among the talented, the question of importance to consider is what we do with these gifts? Do we spend them for the good of others? Do we try to correct systemic wrongs by putting these gifts to work so that they multiply and double in value? Or do we hide our talents, resentful towards the Creator who blessed others more than ourselves, and offer nothing to those who surround us?

Certainly in Jesus' day a “talent” was a significantly valued coin. Nevertheless, we need to forget that. Nowadays, of course, a “talent” is an ability or skill, but despite what I just said, we need to forget that too. Jesus isn't talking about wealth in terms of cash or natural ability. What then? Well, perhaps we should be thinking about it more in terms of our Christian calling and the use of time.

Those early Christians often gave their lives for God: during turbulent times they faced arrest and execution. That’s confusing for us, because the chance of our being martyred and landing up in the Church Calendar or depicted in a stained-glass window is pretty slim. But we are, nevertheless, called by Jesus to give ourselves up in selfless love for God and in selfless service of others.

The fault of the person who did not use the gift he was given was that he was entirely passive. That person was so frightened that he would lose what he had been given that he was paralyzed by an awful fear.

There is a type of fear that is tranquil. There's safety in inertia but when we risk stepping out in obedient discipleship into the misery of our neighbour, we step into danger, if only the danger of doing something for others and thus exposing ourselves to rejection or loss.

Christians often seem paralyzed by the idea of “evangelism" for instance. We are prepared to inflict our politics, our views as to what constitutes good music or T.V. and even our recipes on others, but not our faith. We come up with all sorts of excuses to justify our apathy or take cover under the cloak of not being a fundamentalist. We act as if it's unfortunate that Jesus commanded us to go into the world and proclaim the Good News. We don't want to admit that our own Christian faith rests on generations of people who have passed on the Gospel.

Of course we are not to force our faith on others. Of course we are not to say that we are going to heaven and they are going to hell. That is God's business.

Yet we have been given the grace to witness the faith within us to others, and that may be in showing kindness, providing hospitality or standing out against the prevailing culture or attitudes of the day and hopefully, by telling and showing the love of Jesus at one and the same time.

As we embrace the world in obedient discipleship we commit ourselves to witness in word and deed in our daily life and work, at home, at school, in our hobbies and with our friends and neighbours.

When this passage in the 25th chapter of Matthew is read in conjunction with the parable that follows it, that of the great judgment, we realize that doing good to those who are neglected by our society is what the wise use and multiplication of the talents means. So in this reading of the parable, and in the Old Testament, Psalm and Epistle, we may be permitted to look at the gift of time as a talent, and when we say with the psalmist that our years come to end like a sigh, let it be the sigh of satisfaction for a job well done.

Well done, good and trustworthy servant; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your Lord. AMEN

Friday, November 14, 2008

Donovan: Goodbye to a lovely lad.


Donovan with Tasha and Amy at the prom.

Today’s assembly is an opportunity for us to say goodbye to Donovan. Because as a school we are a community, the death of one person touches us all and the grief and suffering of Donovan's younger brothers and sisters and his cousins should also touch us. Many of you knew Donovan well and had come through your schooling with him from the earliest days. I am taking the assembly today because I was Donovan's form tutor and taught him for three years for his GCSE RE course. I found him to be a warm and friendly student and it is gratifying for a teacher to be greeted with a smile and a quip on the corridors, to be engaged in friendly banter or to have a student stay back for a quick chat after registration or a lesson.

It is possible that some of you were not aware until he died that Donovan suffered from Diabetes and on your chairs this morning is a simple information sheet highlighting the current campaign of Diabetes U.K. under the heading “The Silent Assassin”. Please do read it carefully. Two Million Britons live with Diabetes and many more remain undiagnosed. The Silent Assassin campaign aims to increase awareness of diabetes with the message ‘diabetes is serious’ – highlighting that diabetes can cause heart disease, stroke, amputation, kidney failure and blindness.

I spent some time on Tuesday talking to the priest who is conducting Donovan’s funeral. I don’t know how many of you have been to a funeral before but It will be a very emotional occasion and possibly quite a distressing one and I would only say to those of you who were planning on going that I’d like you to think very seriously before you decide. I am hoping that this morning will be the opportunity for many of you to feel that you have said an appropriate goodbye.

On Monday in form time you were asked if anyone felt that they wanted to say anything about Donovan this morning, and I recognise that this is a difficult time and some of you may feel too upset to do that. But this isn’t a funeral and I wanted this to be a celebration of Donovan’s life and I wanted to create a safe space for you to express your thoughts and feelings if you wanted to. If you have things written down about Donovan that you don’t feel able to say out loud, as you leave this morning there will be a basket for you to put those thoughts in. There will also be a collection for Diabetes U.K.

Let’s just have a moment’s silence to gather our thoughts.

A poem: Remember Me

To the living, I am gone.
To the sorrowful, I will never return.
To the angry, I was cheated.
But to the happy, I am at peace.
And to the faithful, I have never left.
I cannot speak, but I can listen.
I cannot be seen, but I can be heard.
So as you stand upon the shore
gazing at the beautiful sea, remember me.
As you look in awe at a mighty forest
and in its grand majesty, remember me.
Remember me in your hearts and
in your thoughts, remember the memories of the
times we laughed, the times we cried.
For if you always think of me
I will never have gone.

Now is the time when those of you who wish can share those memories or just sit quietly. I am going to ask Kayleigh to add a flower to the vase for every memory that is shared.

We’re going to listen to one of Donovan’s favourite tracks now.

Amy has a poem to read: Death is nothing at all

Death is nothing at all,
I have only slipped away into the next room.

I am I, and you are you.
Whatever we were to each other, that we still are.

Call me by my old familiar name, speak to me
In the easy way that you always used.

Put no difference in your tone,
Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow.
Laugh as we always laughed
At the little jokes we enjoyed together.

Play, smile, think of me, pray for me.
Let my name be ever the household word
That it always was.
Let it be spoken without effect,
Without the trace of shadow on it.

Life means all that it ever meant.
It is the same as it ever was;
There is unbroken continuity.
Why should I be out of mind
Because I am out of sight?

I am waiting for you, for an interval,
Somewhere very near,
Just around the corner.

All is well.

We’re going to move off now: to Period 1, the common room or if you’re free and wish to stay on here for a while, that’s fine. Before we do Danny, Kayleigh and I are going to read a poem that invites you to light a candle in remembrance of Donovan as you leave:

Candles

D: The first candle represents our grief.
The pain of losing you is intense
It reminds us of the depth of our love for you.

K: The second candle represents our courage.
To confront our sorrow,
To comfort each other,
To change our lives.

J: This third candle and those that follow, we light in your memory as we say goodbye.
For the times we laughed,
The times we cried,
The times we were angry with each other,
The silly things you did,
The caring and joy you gave us.

..................................................................................

I delivered that assembly on Wednesday, and others to different year groups on Thursday and this morning. Many students stayed back for a while to light candles, to talk or to sit quietly. Many were visibly upset.

Today was Donovan's funeral. He was 16. Over thirty pupils from school joined family and other friends for the service at the crematorium. They were a credit to their families and to the school and acted with incredible maturity and sensitivity.

Please pray for Donovan's family, particularly his younger brother Brandon who is also a pupil of mine.

It is strange, but it is only now that I feel emotional.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Don't look now

After the unusually hectic halloween this post is not about that. It's not about the things you find in the toilets when checking, it's not the over-amorous couples whose hands keep disappearing.
It is instead the affect of alcohol on certain ladies at a certain point in the night. Usually after most of the customers have headed home for the night there will be some strange characters left. These ladies will have come in with friends, gotten merry and then by misadventure or desertion have ended up on their own. These ladies then decide it's time to find male company and will resort to any measures. That even includes draping them over all the internal doorstaff, one after another as they deflect the undesired attentions by swapping posts inside. They attempt to seduce the male punters left in the building. All the nice-ones and 'catches' have been caught leaving the intoxicated and defective filling in time 'til the music goes off.
This leaves these ladies, to dance on and on. Rubbing themselves, rubbing their clothes, rubbing up against people, rubbing against pillars. If you're working inside you'll clock them, avoid them and breathe a sigh of relief when they shuffle off.
Before this happens, when a colleague radios in or taps you on the shoulder and says "don't look now..." you know they'll be doing something so horrific that you'll actually have to eject them. I don't want to see some one 'getting their rat out' or fumbling a hand job on the dancefloor or draping themselves over one of the bars looking like a promo-girl from the 80's and scaring what custom is left out of the building.
When told not to look now, you just have to and then bleach your mind later.

Face to Faith


Thinking about Adam and Eve's sex life in the Garden of Eden can be spiritually enriching, says Theo Hobson

I am very interested in the sex life of Adam and Eve - on strictly theological grounds, you understand! There is a unique form of eroticism here, in the image of the original couple innocently enjoying all the sensual delights of the Garden of Eden. Is it impious to ponder this? Is there a risk of introducing a pornographic element into the opening chapters of the Judaeo-Christian story? Or is the idea of prelapsarian (before-the-Fall) sex actually an important evangelical tool?

My interest in this question was aroused by Paradise Lost, the best known work of John Milton, who was born 400 years ago. For some strange reason, Milton is seen as a "puritan", in nervous denial about carnal matters. Anyone who has actually read Paradise Lost will laugh at this - I know of no sexier text in English literature. I don't understand why it wasn't banned.

The poem is about Adam and Eve in paradise, and Satan's dastardly plot to get them thrown out. There are extensive descriptions of their happy life before the fall - including their love life. Yes, they do it. We're not talking about coy, Jane Austen-type hinting: two sex scenes are clearly narrated, in a manner designed to excite the reader's sensual faculties.

I advise new readers to go straight to Book Four, where the core action starts. Satan spies on the happy pair as they relax after another blissful day of gardening. As they sit together, Eve, "half embracing leaned / On our first father, half her swelling breast / Naked met his under the flowing gold / Of her loose tresses hid ... " They kiss, and Satan is filled with such envious rage at the sight of "these two / Imparadised in one another's arms" that he flies off, unable to watch. But we keep watching, as they retire to their "blissful bower", say a prayer of thanks to God, and then ... well, read it for yourself. There's another sex scene in Book Eight, by the way: Adam excitedly recounts his first thrilling encounter with Eve.

Milton was not being particularly original in supposing that Adam and Eve had sex in Eden - the daring thing was to depict it so vividly. St Augustine had long ago admitted the likelihood of their innocent sex life. But he warned us against trying to imagine it. For, as fallen beings, we cannot grasp the purity of Edenic sex - we turn it dirty. "How can it be presented to human fantasy except in the likeness of the turbid lust we have tried and not of the tranquil volition we conjecture?"

CS Lewis was inclined to agree with Augustine; he thought that Milton had crossed over into dubious territory: "the poet seems to hope that when he writes 'half her swelling breast / Naked met his' we shall be able, without further assistance, to supply for Adam an experience both very like and totally unlike anything that a fallen man could possibly enjoy!"

But surely this is exactly the point, that the reader will be ambiguously excited by the pure sex. She will (if sufficiently pious) yearn for the innocence, and she also will (if sufficiently human) turn it into soft porn.

In a sense this is sacrilegious: Milton allows Adam and Eve to become sex objects. Yet it is in a good cause: the reader's acknowledgment of the gulf between them and us, which is to say our fallenness. Milton wants us to try to imagine the impossible innocence of Eden, and to admit our inability. For us, sexuality cannot be fully innocent: it is tied up with hedonistic desire, dangerous fantasy. So there is something simultaneously frustrating and exciting about imagining prelapsarian sex. And this tension is spiritually enriching.

Satan, by the way, is incapable of sex; he can only desire. He can't get no satisfaction. He is the ultimate masturbator. Humanity, in its pristine state, is therefore defined by successful, pleasurable sex. Indeed Adam and Eve's sex is better than we can entirely imagine. Milton's genius in this poem is to dare to foreground sex, to make it so theologically loaded.

Taken from The Guardian

• Theo Hobson's book Milton's Vision is published by Continuum

Friday, November 7, 2008

Just Because......



I am a great fan of BBC Radio 4's "The News Quiz". After listening to tonight's broadcast I was looking at the home page and came upon these:

A selection of newspaper cuttings sent in by listeners.

Police reveal that a woman arrested for shoplifting had a whole salami in her knickers. When asked why, she said it was because she was missing her Italian boyfriend. (Reuters via The Manchester Evenings News)

Irish police are being handicapped in a search for a stolen van, because they cannot issue a description. It's a special branch vehicle, and they don't want the public to know what it looks like. (The Guardian)

After being charged £20 for a £10 overdraft, 30 year old Michael Howard of Leeds changed his name by deed poll to Yorkshire Bank PLC Are Fascist Bastards. The bank has now asked him to close his account, and Mr. Bastards has asked them to repay the 69p balance, by cheque, made out in his new name. (The Guardian)

Would the congregation please note that the bowl at the back of the church labelled 'for the sick' is for monetary donations only. (Churchtown Parish Magazine)

6.10pm: Pride and Prejudice. Mr. Bennett's estranged cousin, Mr.Collins, writes to announce his imminent visit to Longbourne - the house he will inherit on Mr.Bennett's death. Mrs. Bennett rallies the residents to stop him setting up a minicab service. (Hampstead and Highgate Express)

There must, for instance, be something very strange in a man who , if left a lone in a room with a tea cosy, doesn't try it on. (Glasgow Evening News)

A young girl who was blown out to sea on a set of inflatable teeth was rescued by a man on an inflatable lobster. A coastguard spokesman commented, "this sort of thing is all too common". (The Times)

At the height of the gale, the harbourmaster radioed a coastguard on the spot and asked him to estimate the wind speed. He replied that he was sorry, but he didn't have a gauge. However, if it was any help, the wind had just blown his Land Rover off the cliff. (Aberdeen Evening Express)

Mrs Irene Graham of Thorpe Avenue, Boscombe, delighted the audience with her reminiscence of the German prisoner of war who was sent each week to do her garden. He was repatriated at the end of 1945, she recalled. "He'd always seemed a nice friendly chap, but when the crocuses came up in the middle of our lawn in February 1946, they spelt out Heil Hitler". (Bournemouth Evening Echo)

Commenting on a complaint from a Mr.Arthur Purdey about a large gas bill, a spokesman for North West gas said "We agree it was rather high for the time of year. It's possible Mr.Purdey has been charged for the gas used up during the explosion that blew his house to pieces". (Bangkok Post)

Thank You Radio 4. You keep me sane.

American visitors might enjoy the first section of the most recent broadcast - or indeed the whole thing - on the BBC's Listen again facility.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Sunday Sermon: Halloween/All Saint's Day



Today is the feast of All Saints when we remember those who have gone before us.

Most of us are reasonably familiar with the calendar of the Church year. Fewer of us (and I include myself here) may be familiar with the saints’ calendar. While most of the saints have a feast day of their own, it is rare that they get a mention in Church for the simple reason that the regular Sunday service nearly always takes precedence and that’s a pity, because there is so much we can learn from the lives of the saints. Some were great scholars; others illiterate. Some were ancient; others modern. But what is particularly striking about this calendar is that it is quite unpredictable: ninth-century saint follows twentieth century saint; European and Near Eastern; young and old come and go in random order.

Just this month, for instance, ancient Willibrord, (don’t ask, I have no idea) whose feast is kept on the seventh of November hobnobs with Reformation-era Richard Hooker who is remembered on November the third, and medieval Margaret of Scotland who is remembered on November the sixteenth.

In I John Ch 3 - my nominal text for this morning - St. John refers to his readers as “Children of God” and my mind has been very much focussed on children over the last day or two: I was browsing through some blogs (in an act of task avoidance) and I came across this comment on the blog of a friend of mine, a Priest in Newcastle. It was a short post headed GO AWAY:

“It's Wednesday October 29th. 8.30 p.m. I've already had 3 trick or treaters ringing my door bell. The dogs are up the wall. Bloody Americans!!!”

Short and to the point I thought, and typically acerbic.

But I wonder how many of us share that feeling at this time of year. I have to confess I do, but then I am “Bah Humbug” personified.

Some of the responses subsequently posted on his blog were very interesting though:

• You'll be going in costume, then?

• Hey, stop whining, look up Wikipedia, it was YOUR idea in the first place!! Bloody Brits!

Got any candy, mate?

• People who get to wear silly clothes all the year round as part of their job have no sense of fun!

• Thanks for reminding me to turn off the lights early or to spend the night out on the town.

• Those were American children who rang your doorbell?
Yes, it is quite a treat for them. All the way from the US of A to be told 'get knotted' by an English cleric. What a holiday treat!

• If the US wants to run the show, dominate the world media and film industry, impose their form of politics on everybody at gunpoint, bring everybody else's economy down with their own, decide trading rules and bore the rest of the world silly with its endless elections, then it is going to have to accept that it is going to be blamed for everything - including Halloween!

Someone got out of bed on the wrong side there I thought.

(At this point I conducted a little survey amongst the congregation about Halloween customs: total blank stares from the Hungarians, Finns, Latvians, Germans, South Africans and Zimbabweans)

Halloween is October 31, and All Saints' is November 1, though many congregations celebrate All Saints' on the following Sunday as we are today.

So, Halloween: it does seem to need defending against those who regard it as terrible. Certainly there can be excesses, but it is surely only a bit of fun (unless you are the sort of Christian who will not allow your children to read Harry Potter on the basis that it opens them up to witchcraft and worse – demonic possession). So you probably knew the name Halloween means All Hallows' Eve, or All Saints' Eve. What you may not have known is what one American commentator was at pains to tell our friendly cleric from Newcastle, that many popular Halloween customs date back to the pre-Christian Druids of Britain.

However, these customs come to us through the filter of many Christian centuries and we mustn’t forget that Christ has conquered the powers of darkness, and the old gods and customs have been abandoned with their belief systems. Your daughter dresses up as a witch and goes scrounging sweets from indulgent neighbours? She is not the handmaiden of Beelzebub. The last time my daughter Claire went on the sweetie trail she dressed as a mouse: I’m not entirely sure where that features in the iconography of evil but let’s be clear: the once fearful aspects of this season have become playful and where once adults shuddered in fear, now even the smallest child can have fun. They walk through their neighbourhoods in the evening dressed in outlandish costumes, they collect sweets or money, and they return home again. The whole business is treated as a delightful joke. Behind the scary masks and costumes are laughing children. Inside neighbours houses, some even decorated to look spooky, are friendly, generous people and the occasional miserable git who won’t enter into the spirit of the occasion (like my friend in Newcastle).

As it happened, no-one called at our house: I had to eat all the chocolate myself.

Shame.

(At this point I produced Claire's strap-on red and black wings from a previous occasion and asked for a volunteer. Four year old Aisha from Zimbabwe was out of the traps like a greyhound. "There" I say to the congregation" Is that a devil or a butterfly?"

"I'm a butterfly" said with great conviction. Out of the mouths of babies.....)


It's our Christian confidence that makes Halloween a light-hearted time. In the same way that many who are not Christians share the joy of Christmas each year because the light of Jesus is abundant, so many who are not Christian share our confidence that the old associations of Halloween have been rendered meaningless. They might not be able to articulate the theology but they know that Halloween is pre-Christian: it has been baptized, if you like. It has become All Saints' Eve in more than name alone: both occasions address the same themes, though they do so in different ways. Both occasions are concerned with the idea of life beyond the grave. All Saints' approaches these themes with triumphant joy and expectation. Halloween deals with them through mischievous humour.

The child who goes forth with a trick-or-treat bag takes a sane, healthy, and adventuresome risk, and at some level finds that the universe can be a safe place. The trick-or-treater discovers that the world is a comedy where terrible things have been defeated and remain only as a laughingstock. It's a great therapy for fear. There's nothing evil about it.

Children are not embarrassed to struggle with the great division between good and evil, life and death, heaven and hell. Ask any child what the core theme of Harry Potter is and they will tell you without hesitation that it a story about good triumphing over evil. They are new to this fight, and want to prove themselves heroic. So the Halloween wisdom of children comes down to this: there are monsters under the bed, but we can face our fears, and by grace and struggle be set free from them. The Halloween children have caught a glimpse of the Gospel. Their hearts are filled with faith and fun. It is our role as parents and friends to build on those foundations and help them see the applications to the gospel.

This feast of All Saints' is the sunny side of Halloween. Today is joy while Halloween was comedy. The saints we honour today, a vast, innumerable crowd including our own loved ones, are but graduates of the school of grace and struggle in which our trick-or-treaters have just enrolled. It is our role to ensure that our little trick or treaters go on to complete the course and graduate as saints in their turn.

Some of these saints are a hard act to follow, of course. Too often saints are depicted as people who are so extraordinary that we could never identify with them. Their commitment to God and virtue is unwavering, their trust in divine providence unshakable, and their unselfish service of others puts everything that we do to shame. But let’s also remember the ones we never hear about because their lives were unremarkable: they did not live in dramatic times or do amazing works. Are they any less saints because they got on quietly with a life of unfussy commitment to God and service to their peers without drawing attention to themselves? There are far more of those in Heaven than the big names we might think of who may have had a good post-mortem publicity machine or friends in high places.

I don’t know at this point why I am referring to “they” and “them” as if they were other than us or apart from us, because we, of course, are saints too, from the same mould.

Do you think of yourself in those terms? If not, perhaps you should start now.
What makes us the saints we are? The renowned Episcopal preacher Barbara Taylor offers a list of upsetting characteristics, including “immoderate faith, intemperate hope and inordinate love.” That’s us she’s talking about: “immoderate faith, intemperate hope and inordinate love.” We put on these characteristics like the outlandish costumes of Halloween.

So, in spite of their variety and age and culture, the saints learned to become vulnerable, to be fully human, and to take chances on others, even when it may seem to go against common sense or one’s own self interest. And like it or not, each of us will also be given plenty of opportunity to experience this vulnerability in our own lives – at work, at home, among friends, and sometimes at church as well as we express our own prophetic ministries.

We will not always be good. We will not always get it right the first time. We will fail. We will have plenty of reason to witness to and accept our own vulnerability. But then we are in good company. After all, what words other than “vulnerable” and “committed” can we use to describe a God willing to become one of us with all the messiness of our self doubts, and strings of failures, and hurts, and even death?

Trick-or-treaters venturing forth on Halloween night provide us with a map for the journey, one drawn in the bright colours of childhood trust, courage, and humour.

The strap-on wings went home with Aisha: I didn't have the heart to reclaim them. As to whether Claire will be so accommodating is quite another matter....

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Face To Faith


Barack Obama may be able to repair the damage done by the Christian Right says Dr. Judith Maltby

The Guardian, 1st Nov 2008

As the most gripping US presidential election since 1968 enters its final few days, I have been talking with people in the downstate Illinois college town where I attended primary school and university, and left nearly 30 years ago to live in the UK. It was here that I voted for the first time in 1976 for Jimmy Carter.

Carter was a puzzle to me then, though I have come to admire him. He spoke openly about his Christian faith - major American politicians on the national stage did not do that in the 1960s and 1970s. It wasn't that talking about faith and politics was an alien activity to me; it was bread and butter at our dinner table in a hybrid form of Anglo-Catholicism mixed with left-of-centre Democrat. But making an explicit connection between the two in public discourse wasn't done - in the same way prayers belonged in church and the home, and not in the public schools.

Despite British stereotypes, there are plenty of American Christians whose faith informs their progressive political convictions and who believe it is the separation of church and state that ensures a healthy relationship between the two, at least in the American polity. Perhaps the biggest irony of American politics of the last 30 years was that it was the liberal Jimmy Carter who woke the dragon of the Christian right; a Dr Frankenstein whose creation crushed the most devout and theologically literate president of the modern era.

The damage done by the Christian right needs no retelling here. A comment made by a friend in Illinois is that if you are a Christian, but not a conservative evangelical fundamentalist who has trouble distinguishing The Flintstones from the Book of Genesis, you hardly, if ever, describe yourself as a Christian. You are a Lutheran, a Roman Catholic, a Methodist, an Episcopalian, and so forth. The Christian right has taken possession of the word - we aren't just yet to that point in Britain.

The other memory as I walk around this leafy college town, which would almost certainly have voted for Obama even if it wasn't in his home state, is a novel I read as an undergraduate, Irving Wallace's The Man, published in 1964 and made into a film in 1972. It tells the story of the first black president of the United States. In a country still marred by segregation and Jim Crow legislation, such a thing was only imaginable, even in fiction, by killing off the president and the speaker of the house in an improbable accident coupled with a vice-president too ill to take office. The succession fell to the president pro tempore of the Senate, a black senator from the midwest. (Let me translate: a modern English equivalent would be a novel about the first female Archbishop of Canterbury. A bishop of a small and poor diocese, she emerges as one of the few unscathed survivors after the ceiling has collapsed on a House of Bishops meeting. The novel would be entitled The Woman.) Wallace's improbable chain of catastrophes was the only way that the idea of an African-American in the White House was conceivable well beyond the 1970s.

Yet here we are, possibly on the verge of seeing the first black president of the US. If Barack Obama takes possession of the Oval Office in January it will not be through a string of unlikely disasters but through the testing, in a grinding campaign, of a candidate who has fired the middle and progressive ground in American politics as no one has in decades. That is clear from listening to people, both town and gown, in the heartland of the midwest. He will also be the most theologically literate Christian in that office since Jimmy Carter. At such a transformational moment, perhaps Lutherans, Roman Catholics, Methodists, even the much-maligned (in certain Church of England circles) Episcopalians, can wrestle the word Christian back from the Christian right.

• Dr Judith Maltby is chaplain and fellow of Corpus Christi College and reader in church history at the University of Oxford

Godless Money

Godless Money?



And you were thinking of voting for these people?

I am appalled. Talk about scraping the barrel. How low can you stoop?

And you were going to vote for these people?

Seriously?