Tag Archives: sorrow

How to avoid being party to a huge, vile, cruel injustice.

Of course I know, really I know, that the slow process of changing minds and warming hearts cannot be hurried. It is a matter of example and quiet words and funny stories. Sometimes, however, the bossy little girl who still lives within me gets the upper hand – and she finds the  warming hearts and telling funny stories unbearably slow. So, just for her, and based on this week’s news and eves-droppings, public and private, are some useful rules for living.

Never fear asking the idiot question. Others may be unsure of what is going on too. They may be afraid to ask. You will do everybody a favour by being the one prepared to look an idiot.

Never ever be afraid to stop a meeting by pointing out just what it is doing.  Stay polite to individuals, but point out in graphic detail just where they are going and what hurt they are causing. There are worse things than a whole room full of people looking at you in disgust. Yes, honestly, there are.

Justice and truth always matter more than pleasing people. There is no real comfort without them.

You do not need everybody to like you.

Never sign a joint report without knowing what is in the rest of it. There may be a can you are unwilling to carry.

There are always ways of avoiding being a party to joint responsibility for evil actions. They may be painful, but there you go.

Dear readers, follow these rules, and you will never, ever find yourself in the position the current members of the English House of Bishops finds itself today (all bar one member, we are led to understand).

That position is the most painful I can imagine, and I am more glad than I can tell you that I have no part of it on my conscience.


Turning off King Lear

Slowly it dawns on me that my friends who are outside the church tend to think that Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services are in the nature of theatrical performances, something to which I go so that I can enjoy them.

It is certainly true that I would not miss them unless I really had to.  Also, that they are highly theatrical. They are not so much a matter of intellectual as visceral impact. On Thursday, the beauty and the seriousness of remembering that first giving of the body and the blood. The foot washing, graciousness given and received, an assurance of acceptance, of essential equality, an embracing care. Then as the mood changes, a kind of desperation, an anger, in the stripping of the church of every nice thing, every beautiful thing. Then the procession of the sacrament to Gethsemane, where Jesus prepares himself to be faithful to the bitter end, and faces just how bitter that end will be. The clergy and servers arrive and prostrate themselves. Somehow this is unbearably moving, the more so as some of the brightest and best people I know are lying face down in humility and adoration before a young man in an agony of fear.

And the wait, the long wait until midnight, often in tears again, in silence, separate yet together, as the church slowly chills, waiting until the last of the sacrament is consumed and Jesus, so invariably there until now, is suddenly not, and there is no comfort, no hope and we all leave, in silence and utter loneliness.

And the next day, that Friday we dare to call good, when we sit and remember just how low human kind can sink, and what brutality they can perpetrate, and how many suffer, and how God suffers in them. And we ask ourselves how far, and what, we are doing to stop the suffering, and the answer is not comforting. It is the bleakest day of the year.

My outside-church friends think I go to it as the kind of catharsis one gets form watching King Lear. There is a degree of truth in that, in so far as a great deal of planning goes on to ensure that people CAN get to experience all that.  And also because something like washing the feet of upwards of a hundred people takes a bit of managing in the bowls, warm water and towels department if things are not to go on past midnight after all.

But the difference is this. King Lear never lived, and Cordelia never died. If Lear gets too much you can bring it down to size by choosing to remember this. But Jesus was real and he did die. And today, out there, people are still tortured, and Syria is a bloody mess, and little girls are shot to daring to make their voices heard and wanting an education, and sitting thinking about it all is really really hard.

And you cannot turn any of it off by reminding yourself it is make-believe.


Birth and copulation and death

First death. Both of the smaller lambs died. They appeared to be making splendid progress, and then, suddenly, between one feed and the next, they were dead. Not both on the same day, but a week apart. Probably an infectious disease, but that is only speculation as to why. I rather pour my heart into lambs, devoting myself to seeing they thrive, and the deaths hit me hard.

But if you live as I do with many animals, you become accustomed to deaths. I don;t think the pain of it is any less, but you learn how to deal most effectively with the pain. You have any number of strategies in place to keep yourself going until the sorrow, until the sharp ache, fades away a bit. And so I answered kind friends with, ‘Yes, I’ll be fine,’ which is not at all the same thing as ‘No, I don’t feel it.’

And there are funny things to lighten the load. I surprised my gander. I have always wondered if he knew about copulation. Then one day I walked around the corner and found him enjoying lawful congress with his own wife. He was mortified, and fell slowly off sideways. Not from a sense of sexual shame, but because he had had to let his defences down – he had made himself and her vulnerable to attack, since a gander can in fact only think about one thing at a time, especially if the one thing is sex. But this year I do have a little hope for the hatching of eggs.

And birth: while I was at work, Bernadette safely delivered herself of a huge tup lamb. When I saw the size of him I was astonished that he had survived birth, but Bernadette was always a most calm and sensible sheep. Her son is not. He has a regrettable tendency to get on the other side of the fence to her and to be unable to get back. After three occasions, I have finally evolved a strategy which enables them to be reunited, and will, I believe, in future enable the whole thing to be done in about twenty minutes. To date the record is and hour and a half, most of it with me moving as fast as my legs and lungs allow. I have not had occasion to use the new treadmill yet.

Watching the innocent die.

The terrible capacity of the human heart and mind to destructive urges is well know to Christians. It is something we are asked to acquaint ourselves with. On Good Friday we sit and watch a wholly innocent man die. And we ask ourselves – how do we add to these things? What do we do which leads to the death of the innocent? We examine, in painful detail, just how we add to the suffering of the world, because we believe that by causing suffering, we cause God to suffer.

And we also sit and see just how painful suffering can be. There is no glamour, no light relief in the thing. We do not imagine there is anything fun about it, any desirable element, any excuse. It is not a pleasant exercise, but it is a necessary one. Because from time to time there is a great deal of suffering in the world.

All of this gives a terrible, but in a way familiar, place to sit when we look at the hundred or so deaths one man can create in Norway. On the one hand, we can begin to imagine, only begin, mind you, just what it is like to be a parent whose child is missing; a parent whose child very probably drowned in pain and terror. On the other, we can begin to imagine, only begin, to think of what impulses of cruelty, of self-conviction, could drive somebody to think for one flicker of a second that it was perfectly fine to carry out mass-murder.

How did you solve the murder, Father Brown?’ That is, in different forms, the question G. K. Chesterton’s famous detective gets asked. The answer is always more or less the same, too. ‘Because I know what it is to be a murderer, a thief, a liar.’ Father Brown is, in fact, a kind, generous and honest man, but deep in him, and deep in all of us, lie impulses to dark things. When we are twisted by dark desires or by the imbalance of our minds humans can spill over into terrible acts.

The sheer scale of this, the closeness of this to our own culture, gives an especial horror to this. Where is God? Well, once again, he is helplessly suffering. Once again, we sit and watch him suffer and can do so little to help.

But what we can do, matters. We can turn, resolutely, from all thoughts of the kind which lead to this tragedy. The best thing we can do to make the world a less evil place is to start by resolutely learning to like our fellow people, and taking steps to learn to understand and sympathise with those for whom we have no natural warmth. Hatred generally dissolves with understanding and care. And if, gentle reader, you think that path is in any way easy, or a soft option, try and live it for a dozen or so years, and report back.

Equal agony for all?

Proper middle class people have teeth that are all their own. I however am a cleaner, and I do not. Today I went to the dentist to have three teeth extracted. Two on one side of my jaw, one on the other. One on each side was reduced to a mere root, which had been crowned and then lost the crown. The third was a tooth whose gum had receded, and whose life expectancy was short.

I react very badly to adrenaline in local anaesthetic, so the anaesthetic is without it, which makes it generally less efficient. The nice girl was running a bit late. She numbed my gums at both sides, and drilled a filling out and re-stuffed it. She was a bit horrified that my last dental visit was only a year ago, because rather a lot had not been done.

Then she scraped a bit at the gums at both sides and asked if I felt it. I did. She added more anaesthetic. Then I made light and hilarious conversation about my portfolio of jobs, while the anaesthetic took hold. Then she scraped at my gums – it was no better. I apologised. She added more anaesthetic. I made light conversation about publishers. She laughed a lot.

She scraped at my gums. It really did seem less bad, and I said I could not feel a thing. This was not wholly true. She started on the extraction of the duo on my left side. I let out a squawk. She stopped. I apologised. She added more local anaesthetic. She then started on the right side, on the grounds things were better there. They were worse. I stood it for some time and then stopped her. I apologised. She added more local anaesthetic.

She went back to the left side. It was bad, it was really bad. I stopped her. By now my appointment has run seriously over time. I apologised. I spat out a lot of blood. I got a new tissue. She explained I had now reached the limit of anaesthetic allowed. She could give me antibiotics, because probably the problem was infection at the root, combined with the lack of adrenaline in the mix.

By now, both sides of my mouth felt seriously battered despite the anaesthetic. I said she should at least get out the loose tooth, and try the left root. She took out the tooth in seconds. It was not a great experience, but at least the tooth came fast. The root on that side was hollow, the crown having come out post and all. This gave a bit of grip, and although the whole thing was bad, it was reasonably fast.

We paused. We re-grouped. I spat out a lot of blood. I rinsed and spat a lot of bloody mouth wash out as well. She and I both hoped that the anaesthetic on the right side was helping a bit more. She started on it. I bore it for a bit. I stopped her. She repeated her offer to give antibiotics and to have me back. The trouble was that I now had a battered and disturbed root, over a suspected abscess. I would then need to come back and endure the whole thing again. It was not appealing.

I told her to press on. If I needed a break I would stop her. Now, remember this is a solid root, and there is little to grip. There followed a desperate struggle. She struggled to grip the root and pull it out. I struggled to stay and the chair. I remembered a friend, a final year medical student, who has sometimes she says, to hold down agonised children. I decided that if she could hold down children, it ought, in theory, to be possible to hold down myself. Tears ran down my cheeks. In the end, I stopped my dentist. I made a lot of bad jokes very fast, about anything, including I think sawn-off legs. I asked how much longer. She said the root was now loose and she could, she thought, get it out in a very short time. I prised myself back against the chair. She got the damned pliers back in my mouth. There was a brief and worse agony, and then, surprisingly, there was no dentist in my mouth.

She asked me to spit and rinse, and warned me there was quite a lot of blood. I cannot say this surprised me. Then between us, we got the blood off my face and my hands. She remarked that most people would have quit, but I just kept making jokes – I replied the alternatives were too terrible to contemplate. I did not add they involved screaming loudly and hurling myself at the door. She added sorrowfully that she was usually good at extractions. I am a compassionate person and did not add any of the answers which sprang readily to mind.

There was a waiting room of potential patients, and were I a really nice person, I might not have made the joke I did while paying at the desk, because some of the patients looked as if they were the nervous kind who are liable not to realise it is wholly painless to visit the dentist nowadays. My excuse must be that by the time I got outside, I was barely capable of walking. I bought an ice-cream, for sugar and cold, and handed in a prescription for antibiotics, and went and sat in the car till I felt better.

Driving home I mused on the fact that instead of feeling pain as my jaw returned to life, I was actually feeling less pain gradually as levels of insult faded. Now I am home and in pyjamas. I propose a quiet evening of editing and the dogs will not get much of a walk at all. I am sorry for this – but on the whole I feel they will have suffered less than either me or my dentist.

The responsibility of each and every one of us

‘Disgraceful’ hardly covers the behaviour of the two English archbishops reported in The Guardian.’ Today I am ashamed to be an Anglican and ashamed to be a Christian. The shouting matches and arm-twisting described have no place in the selection of bishops – and no place in deliberations over the role of gay clergy in the church.

This kind of ungodly, and I use the word advisedly, failure in decent behaviour can only happen because the selection of English bishops happens behind closed doors. It happens because the Church places too much confidence in the wisdom of bishops and senior clergy and too little in the laity – it is a symptom is a symptom of failing to believe the the Holy Spirit is present to the whole Church. Too many members of the clergy tacitly, or even overtly, beginning to believe that clergy are are not merely Christian leaders who have the very special role of being responsible for the Sacraments in the church, but that they are ‘really’ Christians and ‘really’ understand the mind of Christ in a way lay church people cannot. Of course this idea then feeds upon historical periods when it was still seen as acceptable that serious people chose other like-minded serious people for all positions of responsibility. So in England, it is somehow, bizarrely, acceptable to appoint bishops behind closed doors.

Before we north of the border become too smug, considering our duly-elected bishops, we need to consider why this kind of thing happens.
There is a kind of viscous circle in the church.. The lay part of many congregations fails to grow up. They fail to study. Many know little of the contents of the Bible, and even less about the current state of scholarship concerning it. Too many lay leaders in congregations take the astonishing position that they will only lead worship of a kind they personally find enjoyable. Too many congregations contain many only too happy to bully other members of the laity or their own clergy. I could go on, but won’t. It all adds up to failing to take the quest of following Christ at all seriously.

Oh yes, of course there are many conscientious committed lay Christians, and I live in hope some might even count myself among them. That is not the point.. The point is that for all the struggles of my generation, and of the ones who have come after mine, Christian maturity is in many congregations a rarity. I don’t blame the clergy, or even the laity, or rather I don’t blame one more than the other. I do know that unless and until the overwhelming majority of Christians step boldly up to the mark, we will see utterly shaming and disgraceful scenes like that reported being repeated at different levels all over the church. It is not the job of archbishops to discern the will of God and enforce it – it it the job of each and every one of us, working together, disagreeing without bullying, struggling without squabbling, and learning each from the other. No secrets, nothing kept by ‘adults’ from ‘children’ (because we are all learning to be adults in Christ) no collusion, but frank, kind open debate on all things, and each man and woman seeing the face of Christ in each and every face before them. Simples!

A wandering guineafowl was my father

On getting home this evening all the guinea fowl had gone to bed in the open barn. At first I thought they had all vanished, again. But no, they had just decided it would be safer to move home. This seems to be a guinea fowl thing and the worst of their habit. However they usual shed is reasonably warm and perfectly safe, so fearing foxes, I decided to move them. Big mistake – five now where they should be, safe and warm. One on the stable roof, safe but not warm, and one totally missing, and possibly not going to turn up tomorrow. IF I manage to relocate the missing one and reunite the flock, they are spending a couple of days indoors. They I am once again clipping flight feathers. Then a couple of days to calm them and centre them. Then, maybe, freedom again.

I must, must get to the spring with a male and a female. Then I can hatch some under calm and helpful hens, who can, I hope teach them a less nomadic way of thought.

And for non-biblically trained readers, the original phrase is ‘A wandering Aramean was my father’ and it is the start of a rehearsal of the story of the exile in Egypt, god’s rescue of his people from there, and their being placed in a land flowing with milk and honey. Then the first fruits are offered. I wish the guineas had less enthusiasm for wilderness wanderings.

Dead and gone, lady

Today an era came to an end. The last of Eve’s daughters, and her daughters’ daughters died.
Eve was my first ever sheep – born 18 years ago, a lamb rejected by her mother, who survived many lambhood illnesses to live to ten years old and die surrounded by her flock. I kept her first ewe lamb to be her friend and companion, and she was called Polly Esther. Polly moved here with her daughters Cotton Wool and Cassandra, and last year Cotton got cast in the field and died. This year, I came home one day to find that Cassie could not stand. There followed an emergency call-out of the vet, followed by treatment and hope, always the most painful aspect of serious illness.
Cassie improved, but her back legs remained unable to support her weight. She stayed in a small pen eating hay and comforted by the presence of her foster-lamb Martha. Then on Saturday I found Polly in the field, unable to stand. I will cut the miserable business short. Today the swift merciful end had to be ordered. The last of Eve’s line ended.
But I still have Martha – who is baaing inconsolably for her mother. She cannot be let out yet for fear she wriggles under the fence to seek for her Mum. Death never seems to get easier. All around me are healthy sheep, and the two Martha and I want are dead and gone, lady, dead and gone.
But in the countryside, death is never the end of the story. Presently the shepherd will arrive with another ewe lamb, probably one that has been bottle-fed and is tame, and she will become a companion and playmate for Martha.

Women are images of God.

So, a man who has shot three people has finally taken his own life, and 100 people on Facebook are applauding his actions in punishing his cheating girlfriend – according to Today.

Why be surprised? After all, about two women a week are killed by domestic violence. Let me put that another way. We live in a society where, every week, two men think it is perfectly all right to murder women they used to claim they loved. To ‘punish’ them for the way they dress, who they speak to, not having dinner on the table at the right time or some other trivia. So shooting the poor lass, murdering her partner and seriously injuring some other bloke doing his job is par for the course, actually. I mean, who would not want to stay in a relationship with an abusive man as long as he apologises for his violence at intervals?

And I fear that domestic violence is the unacceptable end of a continuum of an attitude to women which finds clergy and laity of the C of E promising to leave the church if they cannot be promised a system for appointing bishops which is untouched by female authority at any point whatever – if at no point a woman has any command over them at all. Oh yes, these men would not of course beat up a woman. They are not violent, they are not (in that way) cruel. And that is really true, I am not being ironic. If any of them read this, they will be very angry to see themselves in any way bracketed with Raoul Moat. I can understand why. All the same, and at risk of hurting people I do actually like individually, I think they are part of the same problem, part of the same continuum.

It boils down to this. Either women are are really people, in just the same why as men are, or they are not. If they are, then they deserve respect and to be heard in every area and on all issues. If they are not, they do not. People are made in the image of God, and they can carry parts of his authority for him. Those who are not people, cannot. End of.

And although I do not want to hurt otherwise nice people, it is time for them to come to terms with the fact that women are people too. End of.

Biodiversity and Morgue Row

Today is biodiversity day. I have been contemplating the wonderful diversity of plant life in the Ayrshire hedgerows and roadsides. We have blackthorn, hawthorn, and apple, the latter cut into hedging as well as allowed to be bushes and trees. We have water avens, and marsh marigold, primroses, bluebells, and bushels of cow parsley or Queen Anne’s Lace, as my father knew it. We have stitchwort and campion. In and through it we have a myriad of bees and hoppers and flies. In consequence, we also have swallows and finches and warblers. Each tier a joy.

As I drive to work on Tuesday and Thursday I go through a particularly delicious and rich stretch. The narrow lanes at this time of year burst with colour. Until I get to Morgue Row. In Morgue Row some tidy-minded farmer has decided the weeds must go. He has, and I suspect it has taken years, knocked most of the diversity out of the place, but until a few days ago the cow parsley was flowering bonnily. Now there are tortured remains, and agonised twisted shapes. He has sprayed each and every inch of the wayside with weed-killer. It makes me wretched to pass it.

Biodiversity is not something for others, biodiversity lives or dies on our own roadside.