Wednesday, 30 November 2011

When we walk in darkness

“I’ve had plenty of opportunities to be depressed – I just haven’t taken them!”

The statement above was posted on a friend’s Face book page and it caused a lot of heated comment and condemnation, especially as it was reportedly said by a pastor. I have to admit that I agreed with the consensus, which was that such a comment was offensive and tasteless, not to mention possibly very damaging. It made me think both about how we can hurt people by making sweeping statements about very personal issues that we have little or no experience of, and it made me think about mental illness itself.
I also considered the statement in the light of Advent. The link between mental illness and Advent may seem remote, but Advent comes at the darkest period of the year and it involves a waiting, a belief that even if we walk in darkness, there may be light and there may be hope. Having suffered myself from mental illness, I know that it was not in any way an “opportunity” that I wanted to grasp. After the birth of my second son, a few days before Christmas, I developed severe post natal depression. Post natal depression has been described as crawling into a pit of blackness and being unable to find your way out; it’s not the sort of thing you sign up for!
Postnatal depression can progress rapidly from “the baby blues”, to acute depression, to borderline and then even full blown psychosis. I never reached the full blown stage, but I did reach a point where my thoughts began to seem like voices outside my control. When I became ill, and it is an illness, I realised something that I never had before. Before I had thought that the worst things to lose would be things like my job or my physical health. I had not considered the prospect of losing my sanity. I had worried about losing family or friends, but not of losing my identity or sense of who I was. It was as if I had walked out on myself. It was truly the most terrifying experience.
Advent is the promise of God with us. Christ came to the earth and experienced human life among the plain and impoverished, was born in unsavoury conditions, in exile, threatened by danger and persecution. To be human is to suffer; to be born is to die. It is not a pretty story any more than our lives are always pretty stories. So many human beings  walk in darkness.
Where was Christ during that black Advent and Christmas? Well, I think he was there in the love and support of my family and of my wonderful husband who did all the practical things and also managed to walk with me – and being alongside someone who is hopelessly and irrationally ill – suffering from an illness that you cannot see, is no easy task. Fortunately, perhaps because I received understanding , not  the sort of condemnation which would make my guilt worse, there was light at the end of my particular blackness.
Just as God came to suffer alongside us, to give us his light and to be with us, so we are called to be with others and to walk alongside them, to be Christ to them, especially when they are in dark places that we dread, or fear, or do not fully understand.

World Aids Day

Tomorrow is World Aids Day. In the video below, Rowan Williams reflects on the sexual violence and the role of sexual violence in the spread of AIDS in Africa.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Grassroots God



I started thinking about Christmas in July this year, so a bit of a head start there! The above video (ht Blue Eyed Ennis) speaks to me about a grassroots God, one who chose to come not to the rich and powerful but to the poorest and most marginalised  and who starts in our hearts and works outwards to transform our lives.  John  1: 14 can apparently be translated as "The Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us." The wonderful, almost casual image of "pitching a tent" speaks to me  of a God who is resourceful, in our midst, on the move, dynamic and not static.The idea of God with us, and the way that God dwells with us and in us, is one of the key message of Advent and one that takes some time to ponder.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Rip! Rip! Rip!

This evening I read in the The Huffington Post  that each school in the UK is to receive a copy of the King James bible with a introduction written by Michael Gove. Let me make it clear that I have no problem with every school having a King James bible, students from all faith backgrounds and none should be encouraged to read the King James, a text which contains much beautiful language, thought and poetry. The bible is a key part of our cultural heritage and it is tragic that there is such ignorance of it and the ideas it contains. I always tell students that if they want to do well in Literature, they should read the bible. My main problem with the proposal lay not with the bible itself but with the nauseating prospect of such a beautiful, challenging and life altering text being sullied by  an introduction by Michael Gove.
Some critics have complained that Gove is promoting religious values at the expense of multi culturalism through this proposal. Others have asked whether he will also write an introduction to the origin of the species (please, don't encourage the man...) and put that on display in schools. But while the multiculturalists, Darwinists and Richard Dawkins bleat and complain, I'd like to jump on the band wagon and say that I really object to the likes of Mr Gove using this sacred text to convince blue rinse brigade Tories and outraged Daily Mail readers that he will tackle moral decline, instil right thinking in our youngsters and generally drag us back to the nineteen fifties. I hate to think what Mr Gove will pontificate about in his introduction to the bible, but I am pretty sure it will utterly destroy any sense of  awe, mystery or radical thought and reduce it to some sort of right wing formula.
In fact it brought to mind this sketch from Dead Poets society in which one J.Evans Pritchard advocates the use of a graph to measure poetry. If a copy of Mr Gove's bible falls into my hands,  my fingers might just be itching to rip out the introduction and leave the pure unadulterated text - because, to modify the quote at the end of this clip, "No matter what anyone tells you, the bible can change the world."

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Do dogs have souls? (part sixteen)

For those sceptics amongst you who have not come to the blindingly obvious conclusion that dogs do have souls, here is more evidence. A dog in China is staunchly keeping watch by his master's grave and it is reported that even attempts to starve him into abandoning the grave have not worked. Perhaps the most famous example of this kind of dogged devotion (I know...I'm sorry...) is the story of Greyfriar's Bobby, a Skye terrier who kept up a fourteen year vigil. There are some doubting Thomas stories circulating on the web claiming the whole Bobby thing was a bit of a hoax and that the dog spent a lot of his time in local restaurants ( well - a dog has to eat, doesn't he?)
 Hmmmm...I wonder if Bessie would show this sort of loyalty?

Sunday, 20 November 2011

From the Cloister to the World

 "I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed", wrote John Milton in  his essay Areopagitica in1634. I guess quite a few people know this quote, fewer may realise that Milton was expressing fairly controversial views about the use of the printing press- a technology that was his generation's equivalent to the Internet. It is hard for us to grasp now just how revolutionary the advent of printing was. A single Renaissance printing press could produce 3,600 pages per day compared to just a few produced laboriously by hand. Moreover, the printing press gave freedom of expression to those who might not previously have had a voice and it enabled people to access literature in their mother tongue, in particular that  radical and subversive book - the Bible. Milton saw the potential for printing as a means to allow freedom of thought and  disseminate "virtue" more widely. He acknowledged that wrong and dangerous ideas would be expressed, but he had a staunch belief that this was preferable to curtailing access to knowledge and communication.

  This is not going to be a post about press freedom, or The News of the World hacking scandals because that is more about responsibility and self regulation than censorship,  rather I want to think about the role of the Internet. This vehicle for communication does, it is true, contain many pitfalls and have negative aspects, but it can also be a force for good. Like many things in life, it is not the Internet itself, but how it is used in human hands that makes the difference. One of the blogs in which I love to read is the I-Benedictine blog run by the nuns of East Hendred. In the introduction to the blog, they write:
" We prefer to call ourselves cloistered rather than enclosed because the word “enclosed” may suggest a closed mind. We have a special interest in using contemporary technology to reach out to people who would never otherwise come to the monastery." And reach out they do. I commend to you two recent posts, the first is  Vacare Deo  which reflects on making space for God in our everyday lives and the second a short but  meaningful reflection on anxiety. This is online ministry in a very real sense. Perhaps it is because the nuns are apart from the world that they have so much to offer to the world and they truly use modern technology as a vehicle to bless others.
If Milton were writing today, I am sure he would praise their far from fugitive virtue.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Food as a moral issue

Food and food econony is definitely in the headlines at the moment; how we feed ourselves , the nation and the world is making the news much more frequently. Radio 4 promoted the toast sandwich this week, an apparently "healthy" snack consisting of a thin slice of toast between two pieces of bread. The fact that this repast was Mrs. Beeton's answer to Victorian austerity was a stark reminder that the kind of squeeze on food bills that the average Briton is facing bears no real comparison to the food poverty of the past, or to that faced in so many other parts of the world. During the Second World War, the food writer MFK Fisher recommended that people should breakfast on piles of toast or a large bowl of porridge, explaining that "You can be lavish because the meal is inexpensive."  It is the same principle as the toast sandwich.
Food shortages and the rising cost of food worldwide provides a grim backdrop to the growing need for practising thrift and avoiding wastefulness. Children still regularly die of starvation and in many parts of the world families struggle to feed their children. This is nothing new, the poor always have and always will be with us and most of us -  I include myself - are quite good at ignoring the fact.
 It is, therefore, positive that we are beginning to be more aware of how we manage food as a resource and that this is being highlighted as an important social, political and moral issue.  We still  need to seriously rethink some of our attitudes to food, for example there have been moves to try to reduce the scandalous waste in British households by axing over cautious "Best before" labels on food and encouraging supermarkets to be more ethical in the way they source and manage food.
An event that took place today in Trafalgar Square , the biblically named Feeding the 5000, aimed to highlight the  practice of supermarkets discarding "imperfect" vegetables by cooking and serving a free lunch made of wonky carrots and other weirdly shaped foodstuffs. The thought that a rather delicious free lunch would otherwise have ended up as landfill, something which happens every day and which damages the environment as well as wasting good food, really should make us stop and think! Just because we are able to afford to waste food - and  a lot of people in Britain still are in that position - does not make it alright to waste food. The reading  this week shows us that we will be judged on the extent to which we have tried to to meet both physical and spiritual needs of others. It is also clear that when we are told :"I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me", it is simply not going to be good enough to say that we were too busy enjoying our riches, building our careers, stuffing our faces, or generally looking after ourselves to notice...

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Canterbury and the Covenant

It has been a relatively long time since I composed a blog post about the Anglican Covenant. The reason for this, dear reader, is that I have grown  bored and weary. I don't mean that the intricacies of the Covenant  it self have  bored me - although to be honest it is not the most riveting document I have ever read. It is more that I have become increasingly  dull and dispirited watching the inevitable squabbling that it has  generated. Watching the reactions and voting in various dioceses and provinces around the world, it has become clear that the optimistically named "Covenant" it is not going to be wholeheartedly embraced by the majority of Anglicans. Hard line conservatives are just as likely to reject it for being "toothless" as liberals are for being "restricting". I have come to doubt the certainty of both sides; as I implied when I wrote this recipe for fudge there is no knowing what the thing will actually work out like until we have it - and that in itself seems to me a good reasons to say "No".
 The only reason that I am blogging about the whole sorry matter today (when I could be doing more exciting things like watching paint dry) is that my attention was caught by a few posts that I read about it. Lay Anglica  reports that there are attempts to rush the Covenant through Synod in 2012 and that pressure will be brought to bear to ensure its acceptance. I don't know if this is true, but it would not surprise me. One thing that is clear is that for the Church of England to reject the Covenant would be a disaster in terms of the position and reputation of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Covenant is Rowan William's baby,  for it to be rejected on home territory would undoubtedly be a humiliating defeat. It might look worse than disloyalty and  I suspect it might appear a green light for mutiny in some quarters.

Speaking of the role of the Archbishop of Canterbury, this recent post from Tobias Haller is also worth a quick glance. In it the author questions the need for the four Instruments of Communion and says that we do not find our "identity" in them at all. He opines that to claim to find our identity in the Instruments is " slightly blasphemous" as our identity should be found in Christ alone (isn't that the title of a hymn..?) The instruments of Communion, Haller tells us, " are all relatively recent entities not only in Christianity but even among Anglicans." But...hang on a minute, isn't the Archbishop himself one of the Instruments of Communion? Yes, Haller concedes, admitting that the office is " one that has been around since the sixth century"  but emphasising that it "didn't really operate as a voice in the Communion until 1785-89, with the first Lambeth Conference being in 1867. "
  Haller says the role is not “foundational or essential or definitional to Anglicanism" and he regards the Covenant as wanting to make some substantial changes in the "deep structures"  of Anglicanism without there being much apparent awareness of the implications.  Haller is not the first to focus on the  role of the ABC, and Lambeth Palace will be aware that Canterbury has its critics and those with their vested interests waiting in the wings. A rejection of the Covenant in England would be a nasty own goal.
I think we might see concerted efforts to get the Covenant through Synod at all costs. It simply can't afford to fail here. I shall be watching events Synodical with some interest again, it might be depressing, I don't think it will be dull.
(Since writing this post it has been announced that Birmingham and Truro have  both resoundingly rejected the Anglican Covenant. )

Monday, 14 November 2011

Reading or revising the parables

I have been wondering recently how wide our scope is for interpreting and reinterpreting scripture.

This weekend I was visiting family and so attended a different church. The sermon was on the parable of the talents, one of those parables which can be rather troubling. The exegesis that I am familiar with concerning the talents is that it is a warning against not using one's gifts to the glory of God, not making the most of the  talents in every sense that we have been given. However, in Sunday's sermon, it was suggested to us that the master, far from representing God, was in fact an embodiment of the Pharisees, a heartless and oppressive taskmaster who unjustly set the third servant up to fail and cruelly condemned him for his understandable fear of failure.God, we were told, does not set people up to fail or condemn them for being afraid and Jesus intended to rebuke the Pharisees through this parable.
Now, I certainly agree that God does not set people up to fail or that he condemns us for fear and I do not like to see scripture preached in ways that are damaging or insensitive - but I was not sure that I felt comfortable with such a major reworking of the traditional understanding of this parable.  I do not agree that the third servant  was set up to fail simply because he was given  one talent because  I believe this was quite a high measurement , apparently one talent of silver was worth nine man years of skilled work and burying that in the ground does seem a collosal waste! Furthermore, the beginning of the reading tells us that it is a  about the Kingdom of Heaven, "Again it (the Kingdom of Heaven) will be like a man going on  a journey" and one of the constant themes is that finding the Kingdom of Heaven requires risk, like a man buying a field to find a pearl, and taking care over the small things which matter, like a woman working yeast throughout the "dough" of daily life, or someone planting a tiny seed which grows into a flourishing tree.  I think the message of the parable is not just that the lazy servant failed but that his attitude was such that he did not try and he did not risk and he did not search to find a purpose for his life or his talents and for that he was rebuked.
  To be honest the parable of the talents is not my favourite. I too find it challenging and difficult - but then there is nothing wrong with challenge or difficulty. As a literature teacher I am aware that alternative readings can have validity, it is good to bring different perspectives, I do certainly do not think scripture always means one thing and one thing only. At the same time, we have to consider the motives behind any reading and I don't want to see messages reduced to safe dimensions but losing their force and power. I wondered if the interpretation I heard  wasn't a running away from the challenge that this parable offers into safe territory - the sort of safe territory that the third servant sought when he buried his talents instead of risking them courageously?
What do people think?

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Remembrance and reconciliation

  Reconciliation
When you are standing at your hero’s grave,
Or near some homeless village where he died,
Remember, through your heart’s rekindling pride,
The German soldiers who were loyal and brave.

Men fought like brutes; and hideous things were done;
And you have nourished hatred, harsh and blind.
But in that Golgotha perhaps you’ll find
The mothers of the men who killed your son.

Siegfried Sassoon November 1918

This year’s Remembrance Day has attracted particular attention because of the symmetry of the date – 11.11.11. It marks the 93rd anniversary of the end of the First World War and dates back to the armistice at the end of that war marking the cessation of hostilities on the Western Front at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.
One of the things that moves me about Siegfried Sassoon’s poem “Reconciliation” is quite simply its date. Written in November 1918, presumably to mark the armistice, it recognises the difficulty of achieving genuine reconciliation when events are near and feelings still raw, yet it still asks the reader to forgive. The poem courageously articulates what may have been unpalatable truths – that the German soldiers too were “loyal and brave”, that just because someone is your hero does not make them the only hero,  that men on both sides, “fought like brutes” ( and that even heroes are forced into atrocity in war), and that our jingoistic hatred is “blind.” Sassoon does recognise that grief is a personal “Golgotha” but gently suggests that in our grief we might meet our enemies and recognise them as fellow victims and sufferers and so overcome our hatred. It is a courageous poem, one that recognises that  it is not until we have understood and forgiven that we have really laid down arms.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

What makes you happy?



Some interesting responses from the participants of Question Time when asked "What makes you happy?" I've blogged on this subject before and think it is a question well worth asking ourselves, as the bible says, "Where your treasure lies, there will your heart lie also."  Most of the participants gave fairly conventional answers such as their partner or children and interestingly nobody admitted that it was actually amassing obscene amounts of wealth or power or over indulging in alchohol, food or bodily pleasures - but then they wouldn't would they?
The two responses which stood out most were the first and the last. Benjamin Zephaniah (wonderful man) spoke of just breathing and not expecting too much from life and Peter Hitchens said his faith in God brought him happiness (I am not personally keen on Hitchens, but it was a thought provoking answer.)
Happiness is  subjective  in many ways and different to different people. I don't know what your answer is, it might even be a cigar named Hamlet...

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Diagnosing Martin Luther

 Monday, as a commenter on this blog pointed out, was not just Halloween but also Reformation Day- the anniversary of the day that Martin Luther nailed his  articles on the door of Wittenberg church, an act which would have far reaching consequences bringing a level of schism and division not seen before or since and in the light of which our current divisions and conflicts will (I hope) appear  more as a blip on the graph of religious history than a seismic shift. I first studied the Reformation properly during A level History and it was  fascinating to see not only the far reaching consequences that ideas can have but also  the journey that individuals go on before those ideas are realised. Luther, for example, was reportedly a very tortured soul who punished himself excessively over his shortcomings ; it was arguably the physical, mental and spiritual exhaustion this caused that brought him to a place where, reading scripture, he rediscovered and articulated more fully to others the idea of salvation through grace rather than works.
While reading through various blog posts this week, my attention was caught by this article called Beating myself up over religion from the BBC "Ouch! (disability) blog. In it the author, who is a Jew, but also describes his Roman Catholic mother experiencing the same reaction, writes,

"While the thread uniting every religion is the belief in revering the deity, improving yourself, and behaving in a proper manner, the dogma and doctrine can easily lead a person with an anxiety disorder to believe that anything less than perfection makes you an utter failure."

The author describes suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and finding that religious belief simply imposed more rituals, as well as the fear that he had to do everything "exactly right" and that the effect of religious faith was intense "worry and anguish".  I immediately thought of Martin Luther and wondered if he too suffered from OCD or something similar?  How many saints and mystics could be described as completely sane and balanced? I once read that many periods  of mystical and extreme behaviour were then followed by periods of practical work and service. How far was this because those individuals, having wrestled their spiritual angels and demons, then found themselves free? I do not want to be too reverential about  mental illness. I have suffered from it myself and would not wish a mental health condition, or even the dark night of the soul, upon anyone. And yet sometimes to struggle spiritually leads us to insight. William Blake said that "The road of excess leads to the palace of Wisdom, and Luther's early spiritual obssessions were a form of excess that led to wisdom.
 I suspect that Luther might in this day and age be prescribed medication, counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy, no doubt enormously alleviating his problems, but perhaps preventing that journey that led him to rearticulate so powerfully something that  was always there in scripture - that we are not perfect, just forgiven.

Signs and blunders

Some more amusing signs and notices here from the wonderful Ship of Fools to cheer up your weekend:)