Popular Posts

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

"Wise men still seek him": notes toward an address for a children's Christmas eve service

(This informal chat to the kids follows their nativity play: 'Amahl and the Night Visitors')

An example of cultural hybridization
You know what I first knew was different about Christmas in this country when I moved here? (Take responses: "It's hot" "No snow", etc.)

Yeah, and suddenly all the Christmas stories and songs and pictures I grew up with, you know, about snow and ice and snowmen and freezing weather seemed out of place. And Sleigh Rides like in Jingle Bells? Not even people in Alaska ride sleighs anymore? Who is this Fanny Brice and what does 'upsot' mean anyway?

It's not a sleigh-ride, but it's not hypothermia either.

So I began to notice and question why people celebrate the way they do. You know the one thing I love about Christmas in Australia? (Take responses--warm weather, swimming, BBQ's)

Think of them as little festive nuggets of joy.

Barbecue on Xmas day! No roast turkey for us, it's too hot! Instead is cooking outside and lots of fresh fruit and Pavlova, and salads, eh?

Fruitcake antipodian style.
But you guys do BBQs in a special way, like no where else in the world--you know what that is? Here in Aus. when you go to a BBQ, everybody brings meat along for the grill. This is UNHEARD OF in the US and the UK. If you're invited to someone's house for a BBQ over there, you're their GUEST, so you don't bring food. It's up to the host to feed YOU, not the other way around.

Think about what that means about being an Australian. It means everybody has to pitch in if there's going to be a good time. I think it means Australians are basically generous--did you know we give more to charity, for example, than the US, which is heaps bigger? True.

So you could say Australians have Christmas in their heart all year round, because we're a giving, sharing nation. Why DO we give gifts at Christmas anyway? (Take responses--wise men, birthday of Jesus, etc.)

Just like in the play you've just done, gifts are given in honour of a special child. But really there was nothing special about the BABY Jesus, no more special than any of you special Unitarian kiddos. What was special about Jesus is what he did with his grown-up life, which was also marked by giving to others, doing good to others, and especially to those who needed it most--the poor, the homeless, the sick.

See, there's that spirit of giving again...

You're all gonna be getting a lot of nice stuff tomorrow morning, yeah? And that's great, it makes the day seem like no other day in the year, when other people think of us, of our likes and wants, and needs, and treat us SUPER-special.

But unless we also treat others the same way, the real meaning of the day, Jesus' special life's work, is lost. So that's why I want you to help us out now.

I've asked everyone today to bring some special christmas treats, but they're not for us. Instead, we're going to collect them up and take them to the Hutt St. homeless shelter, where people will look on things like fruitcakes, and chocolates, and shortbread as the rare and wonderful things they are.

So, while the music plays, could the Three Kings, and Amahl, and all the other characters, go about the church and collect all these treats up, and pile them on this them cloth here?

(A large swaddling cloth is set on the floor, two bedsheets or tablecloths overlapped in the shape of a star.)

(Music: Rob and Susan on flute and guitar, play "We Three Kings")

(Once the the offertory is complete, the corners of the cloths are tied together, the  bundle is swaddled and is laid in a large basket, during which is read the nativity  Luke 2:7-12:

"And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them at the inn...."

All rise and sing "Silent Night".


The very best of the holiday season to you and yours,


Monday, November 14, 2011

Sticking my neck out: some notes toward a personal theology

What do you stand for?

“Unitarians don’t stand; we move.” This means all of the following is a flow, an evolving process.

On Ultimate Reality: I think the human race is happily evolving past the notion of a personal, supernatural God up in heaven, who can be button-holed, addressed, persuaded to intervene, and is able to suspend the laws of nature. In fact, the word “God” is so loaded with antiquated and patently false baggage, that many Unitarians find it unhelpful. This does NOT mean, however, that there is no higher level of being that we can experience and draw nourishment from. I prefer the term ‘numinous’ to describe that which lies beyond that which can perceive and readily talk about. I may not be able to apprehend it, wrestle it to the ground, and pin it down in scientific language, but I’m reasonably sure it has something to do with truth, beauty, and love. Having a sense of the numinous is the chief aim of worship, and indispensable for living a fully human life. And it is natural, not supernatural.

On church community: Officially, we call ourselves a church, and we meet in a ‘meeting house’. This is neither an error nor a contradiction. A ‘church’ is not bricks-and-mortar; a church is an inclusive spiritual community of the self-selected, who share a common spiritual orientation to, and mission in, the wider world. The notion of ‘church’ comes to us through the Christian tradition, and is modelled on the way in which a certain Galilean prophet drew people together in common purpose—excluding no-one who came seeking wholeness through such fellowship. It differed radically at the time from the notion of ‘temple’, with its ethno-centricity and high barriers to membership. Our ‘meeting house’ is just that, a democratized, de-mystified space largely free of the iconography usually found in temples and churches, where our community can be together.

On the Unitarian ethos of freedom, reason, and tolerance: We are the only denomination whose name bespeaks a theological orientation, yet we have no set theology. The chief defining impulse of our movement is freedom—we would be free of coercive creeds, free of any authority outside our own best, considered judgement. That considered judgement weighs both the dictates of reason and moral conscience; we are a thinking, reflective person’s church, rightly sceptical of dogma. Tolerance is a necessary concomitant to freedom: as we would be free, we would defend the right of others to be free, even (and especially) if we don’t happen to agree with them. It is a necessary concomitant, because we recognize the need for the nourishment of a loving community. By and large, this effort is successful, since our fellowship includes both theist and atheist, liberal Christian and Buddhist, Jew and new-age eco-spiritualists. We draw on the teachings the other major world faiths, as well as science, the humanities, and the arts. We are a non-creedal church that embraces diversity.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Dyer's Hand

"My nature is subdued
To what it works in, like the Dyer's hand..."

--Shakespeare, Sonnett 111

Thirty-odd years ago, I once worked for about a year, off-and-on, as a proofreader for a printing house. I mean print as in moveable, lead type.

What else do you do with a BA in English?

On a daily basis, I focussed my attention on fonts, leadings, justifications, type sizes, and getting all these exactly to the spec the client wanted. As the weeks rolled past, I noticed I was noticing the world in a different way, as through a filter. The filter I saw the world through  highlighted all the qualities of all print that came into my field of vision. I noticed that the type on my cereal box was in Garamond, probably 11 point, with a 10 point leading.  That the city fathers of Baltimore had in their wisdom chosen Helvetica as the most easily recognizable typeface for street signs (it isn't). And I began to fall hopelessly in love with Book Antiqua Italic.

Isn't she beautiful?
 A little of that filter has stayed with me all these years.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that you'd better watch what you do with your attention.

The more attentively your mind engages in a cognitive practice, over and over, the more the neural pathways change, and you physcially become what you do, like the dyer's hand becoming the colour of its trade. Dip your mind routinely into an action, and presto, it's blue (or something)!

Add caption

Regular readers of this blog will have noted that it's been almost a month since my last blog, ('and these are my sins')....I have been giving my attention to a new kind of work. Regular readers will note that the subtitle has changed to include a new, contractually correct job title. I am not yet a 'Minister' so it would be incorrect to call me "The Rev. Rob". I am not yet a Minister because no organisation--denominational or congregational-- has ordained me as one. 'Reverend' is not a title you can give yourself, obviously, as you must be revered by somebody else. (Healthy minds do, of course, have a measure of reverence for themselves, but that's in another sense of the word.)

The management committee of my congregation, after much deliberation and consultation, decided that the title 'Pastor' would be more politic, and I have to say I rather prefer it, with its bucolic overtones of shepherding flocks. It's especially apt as I do have a bit of experience raising sheep.

But that's pretty much where the aptness ends. Unitarians are many things, but they ain't sheep, and can't be herded into a homogenous mass like a mob of docile Merinos. No, though I am not A minister, what I DO is minister--that is, serve the needs of the congregation by writing and leading worship, providing spiritual direction, and providing pastoral care and concern. I'm not a minister, but that is what I do.

Anyone confused yet?

The nomenclature of job titles is as robustly defended, stratified, and contested in church organisations (actually, organisms) every bit as much as in the military. Unitarian congregational polity, however, is something of a modern-day wonder. It makes each church a kind of anarcho-syndicalist collective, subject only to its own rules and processes. This means my congregation could decide to call me the "Grand Imperial Fifth 'Dan' Muckety Muck and Poobah" had they so desired (thankfully they're far too sensible a lot for that). In the end, the work--that which I give my attention to on a daily basis--would be identical.

And the thing is, the title is something I wear to work in, but I can actually feel the work changing me a little already, three weeks into the year's contract. I don't quite have the words to describe it yet, but stay tuned...

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

How can you mend a broken heart?

What made it especially hard was that my parents really, really loved her.

She was their type: working class, down-to-earth, out-going, happy and uncomplicated. In fact, I felt at the time that my stocks as a good son rose because I was with her, and that they would in fact rather have had her as a daughter than me as a son.

At the time, I was wayward, had no clear path or purpose. And I must have seemed to my folks a kind of broody would-be intellectual, without any real outlet, of course. Pretentious too: I used to carry around a paperback edition of whatever poet or philosopher or playwright I was reading at the time, stuck ostentatiously into the side pocket of jacket in winter, or the hip pocket of my jeans in summer.

After years of being inseparable, still wayward, I felt my way was diverging from hers. I was young, and it was my life, dammit, and I wasn't going to be held back from what I was sure were far horizons. So I left one fine day.

It was the first serious relationship for both of us, and spanned most of our university years. In leaving this lovely young woman, who had done nothing injurious to me, not ever, I created a wound in the very core of her being that I know for a fact has never really healed. And that was 30 years ago.

There can be no sundering unless there was first a union.

Fate is not without a sense of ironic justice. In fact, I often think it is intent on mocking our attempts at directing our lives. For as badly as I did to her, the same was done to me 10 years later. But with a twist: I was left with a small, innocent, girl-child to raise. And so those far horizons I was chasing narrowed to the necessary confines of her needs.

"I'll see your broken heart, raise you a heart to love and shape," says Fate. Any gambler will tell you: the house always wins.

I remember being out in the garden one night as a late summer evening closed in, my little girl sleeping peacefully in her room above, and I suddenly got it. "Okay, " I said. "O-kay." It was more than poetic justice. Life had offered me an opportunity to heal through loving a tender, fragile little girl, and thus to undo the sort of heartlessness in me that so wounded someone else's tender little girl a decade before.

Her heart would stay broken, of course. As with a vase, even if you put it back together so it holds water and flowers, it's still broken, and always will be broken on some level.

My heart has stayed broken too, even though the little girl is now about to be 25 and is far more well-adjusted than I have any right to expect. Raising her taught me, long after I should already have known, what love actually was.

That's still going to leave a mark....

There is a way to mend a broken heart yourself, even if you don't have a child to show you how. I've thought a lot about this over the years, and I can see no practical alternative to forgiveness. What else do you do, seethe and cry forever? Is it really better to keep the anger and hatred locked away and take them out and polish them in the wee hours, savouring the bitterness? Do you really want that flinching reflex every time anything--a street, a song, a particular tree-- reminds you of the one who hurt you? Do you really never want to trust anyone ever again?

Folk wisdom has it that these held resentments become tumours. I don't know. But it is magical thinking to hope that all the scented baths, incense, chanting, yoga classes and elaborate distraction in the world is going chase it completely out of your being, as in an exorcism. And in the end, the only person who can suffer from holding onto the hurt is you.

One of the most fragile bones in the body, but less fragile than the organ below and to the left.

People talk about 'healing', but my experience is that one never actually erases the big jolts. Hearts can be mended, stitched, re-assembled, patched and painted. They can knit back together like bone tissue, but an x-ray will always shown the old breaks, clear as day. Broken bones can be left to nature, with only a slight intervention to set them properly. But you wouldn't want to leave the mending of broken hearts to human nature, though, with its 2-million-year-old fight-or-flight reflex, as well as the clever, neocortical facility for denial. Broken hearts require the hard, daily manual labour of forgiveness. This is not given to us, but has to be acquired and can only be learned through practice.

What can you do to begin to piece your heart back together, into some sort of working order? What are the mechanics of forgiveness?

1. Work to comprehend the motives of the person who hurt you. This involves acknowledging that few people are actually intentionally malicious, who actually undertake to injure others, but instead behave (as we all do) from complex motives and compulsions. Jung had it that in seeking to adjust to the world, we develop a 'persona'--the shiny shop-window we put forth to be socially accepted. But forming this necessary social mask, we also 'enshadow'  those compulsions and needs which are less socially acceptable. This 'shadow' side can be so obscured as to be invisible, even to the owner. And even those who are aware of their own shadow are not necessarily able to govern the sway of its heavy inertia.

2. See your own role in your heart-break. Two are required for this dark tango, one of whom is you. Were you naive? Too unguarded? Careless? In what ways did you set yourself up for this? Were there warning signs you ignored? This is not, I stress, to commit the age-old churlishness of blaming the victim, but merely to discern why we have become a victim. Unless you were a child at the time of the injury, you must bear the responsibility of protecting yourself, yet still remaining open to others. Forgiving yourself for your part in it, you may be more able to move toward genuine forgiveness toward the other.

3. Pray for the heart-breaker. Whether or not you believe there is a God who hears, needs to be told, and can be persuaded by human intercession, you can still undertake a deliberate practice of wishing the heartbreaker well. This may be the hardest part, the bending of your own emotional reflexes toward understanding and compassion, based on the above two steps. It's much more than cheek-turning passivity, it's more like seeing that the blow came from, must have come from, a place in the other that knows no other way to express itself, under the circumstances. What may help in this effort, is a serious personal moral inventory of all the times you yourself have injured the heart of another. If you would have others understand your motives (and who wouldn't), it follows that you must do likewise .

4. If it's appropriate (and only if), undertake to do acts of kindness toward the heart-breaker. Again, this is not to change them, but to change you. Their responses are irrelevant. There is a kind of wonderful bio-feedback in us that ensures that we can become what we do, that outward actions create appropriate inner states of feeling.

5. Let go of the desire to see the heart-breaker acknowledge guilt, responsibility, or even awareness of the hurt they caused. With the best will and all the compassion in the world, you will probably never be able to engineer this. How often we fantasize about a scene in which the one who hurt you wakes up to themselves, gasps in a remorse of conscience, and abjectly begs your forgiveness. Understand: this will probably never happen, satisfying though it might be to imagine.

6. Be patient and steadfast. Forgiveness is not easy, and so the only effective process of mending the heart is not for sissies. It may require years and never feel complete. It's taken me decades and still doesn't. Nevertheless...

I probably don't need to cite all the biblical references on the subject of forgiveness; they are many and legion. I only point out that the pesky Galilean also didn't say it was easy, just completely necessary if we're to evolve our natures and live in a world worth living in, not awash with vengeful, wounded souls. When asked how much we should forgive, he said, extrapolating Jewish law, "Not seven times, but seventy times seven."

By which, I think he meant: a whole lot.

In my most hopeful moments, I imagine a world where all of the people who loved us and that we have loved in our lives are able to come together in warmth and fellowship, shriven, forgiven, and forgiving, and remain a part of each other lives--lives we were at one time so deeply inter-pentrated with, and whose absence feels like a missing limb.

This is a dream of heaven, I know. And pity it is that the two women I spoke of at the beginning of this entry will almost certainly never read it, such is the alienating bitterness that comes from heartbreak and heartbreaking.

But if they did, I'd say this: "I forgive you. Please forgive me."

And to take us out....the bonus track. The Leisure Society's poignant "Our Hearts Burn Like Damp Matches".  Lyrics below the clip.

Take a walk through scattered trees

To the place where no one dreams
Serve my sentence and be done
All human life here is scarred
Posture slipped and ill-attired
We should all be redesigned
Hollow words sit silent in my mouth
Reasoned voices idle on the ground

Our hearts burn like damp matches
Turn then attack us, burst and then break
Embers plucked from the ashes
Glow to attract us, lure us away

Every day arrives too late
Every morning seems the same
Stale regrets and dull routine
Know at last your weathered soul
Know your tethers clung with soil
And the reasons for it all

Trust in me and I will trust in you
Hold me close and I will hold you too

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Familiar, if not trite, but do yourself a favour and read it again...


IF you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream - and not make dreams your master;
If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;

If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: 'Hold on!'

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings - nor lose the common touch,
if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;

If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And - which is more - you'll be a Man, my son!

--Rudyard Kipling


As a bonus, here's Harvey Keitel reading it:

Until that closing line, this could be from the mouth of Marcus Aurelius or Francis Bacon (the writer not the painter). This oft quoted piece by a bully old Victorian repays re-reading time and again, but not without a few difficulties.

It makes the entry requirements for mere manhood seem staggeringly high. I mean, find me a guy with all these qualities, and I'll marry him, and I'm not normally that way inclined. It calls for courage, perseverance, rock-ribbed robustness, and an ability to discern a perfectly balanced approach to the world, one's fellow man, and oneself. Good luck with that.

Plus, what kind of man is it that gambles all he has on one game of chance?

"He who risks nothing, is nothing," the French saying goes. And, be honest guys, who has not known the thrill of the "awful daring of a moment's surrender, which an age of prudence can never retract" as Eliot put it? We've all taken risks--partners, jobs, investments--without a crystal ball to foretell the outcome. How much we venture on faith! And that requires a certain daring.

But these are quibbles.

What this is is a piece to read after you've survived a difficult time, seen it through with your values and character more ore less intact, and afforded yourself the luxury of a faint smile, knowing you comported yourself well in the face of the tempest. It says, "Stay steady, old boy, stay cool, stay true to yourself, and this too shall pass." If you lose yourself, you lose the lot.

This doesn't mean that life, and our fellow lost souls, won't grind you down, little by little, over time. This is the fate of us all. But let the grindstone of this tough and perplexing world we neither made nor willed, grind us like an old knife, sharper, keener, more scalpel-like, the better to finely pare away reality from illusion, good from ill, truth from falsehood. Pare it all down until what remains comprises something resembling the furnishings of a just and dignified life.

What passes for the outward signs of manhood--wealth, children, achievements, sexual conquest--is often counterfeit. Wealth may be ignobly obtained, achievements equivocal, sexual conquest a fool's paradise, and as for children....anyone can make a child. It takes a man to raise a child to responsible, compassionate adulthoood.

It impossible to read this poem without seeing the soul of your own father rising like vapour through the words. I often think of mine and what he would make of me, of the work I'm undertaking, of the man I have or haven't become. Now there was a guy as solid and steady as the earth underfoot.  His son, rather less so.

But reading this Kipling poem stiffens my resolve to reach down and find what of him is in me. It does that to me every single time.

For more on this poem, visit http://www.allthingsif.org/

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Minister as Narcissist

It was one of those newspaper articles you read in the blur of airplanes and transit lounges, and I wish I could have saved it to nail down the reference. Never mind--my subsequent research has also revealed the same depressing fact: public ministry is a profession with one of the highest incidence of narcissists among its members.

Who's the holiest of them all?
To add insult to injury, would you like to know the only other profession that comes close? Yes. It's acting. Followed by teaching, medicine, law-enforcement.

Of these professions listed, I have now been in three of the top four. I am gripped by a sudden urge to cut my throat (if only that such histrionics were not a symptom of narcissism itself, which they are).

Without going into the clinical details of traits and behaviours (which are easily available via a google search), public ministry's congregational setting provides a perfect environment for narcissism to thrive. The congregational setting provides a warehouse of what is called 'narcissistic supply'--needy souls looking for something outside their own inner resources to give their lives shape and meaning and balance. The lonely, the vulnerable, the searching, the depressed and demoralized. Gone are the days when church was an indispensable social institution and a church-going a matter of tradition and family life. Now, it's mostly those who are in a position to feed a narcissist, if it happens to be their fate to walk into a church led by a real charmer.

Oh, very well....I will fix you.
Ministers in the Christian tradition will argue that that's just as it should be--the reality of broken humanity that creates the pre-conditions for loving community, God's kingdom on earth. What you give these seekers, they'll say, is God through the more knowable Jesus. But that's not quite true, because all the congregants will know of God or Jesus is mediated chiefly through the minister, his/her pious tone and churchy timbre in reading scripture, his/her homilies where the medium and the message become easily conflated. Their exalted and special status, which even the most stubborn skeptics readily defer to. Robed like wizards, they enchant and become an object of veneration themselves. A quantum of lost souls comes with the job, and their immediate experience of church is the person of the minister.

Our Unitarian preaching tradition is the most autobiographical, and thus arguably the most vulnerable to the self-aggrandizing enchantment of the narcissist. We do not locate religious authority solely in the Bible, which all might read for themselves, We prefer to locate it in the individual conscience. However, the reality is that if people were that self-sufficient, they would not turn up weekly for the consolation or inspiration that emanates from the pulpit. On the contrary, they rely on ministers to discern for them. And since we feel free to draw from any source, that means only those sources we know. Thus, our worship can become a week-in, week-out installment of "meet my mind." What is required of the congregants is compliant respect for, or at least respectful attention to, whatever the robed figure at the holy end lays out.

I've seen this in action. Ministers who tweet pithy feel-good, new-age vacuity in order to receive 'likes' about how wonderfully spiritual they are. Ministers who pretend to encyclopedic knowledge on arcane issues of faith, when all they've done is sex-up a wikipedia entry for nods of veneration at how wise they are. Ministers who use their personal charm and charisma to create acolytes and disciples, rather than autonomous, adult human beings. Is it any wonder that sexual and financial misdemeanors result from clergy who have lost all sense of themselves as mere human beings, whose regular supply of mono-focal attention and adulation has reinforced their need for specialness?   Not surprisingly, most shatter or lash out when challenged or confronted.

I suppose this rehearses the old trope that people's selection of professions buttress their personal deficiencies. You know--psychiatrists are mad, doctors are the biggest hypochondriacs, teachers are rather dumb, and ministers need to be ministered to. But, really what do ministers get out of a profession with low pay and long and unsociable hours, other than status and attention and (usually) uncritical veneration? Narcissism stems from a terror of abandonment, and the attentive numbers in the congregational setting can create the illusion that the minister is essential and central and indispensable. And so the narcissist minister actually preys on the congregations needs. The end-game is domination rather than mutual, cooperative relationship. Charm, usually thought essential to ministry, cannot free; it enslaves.
An excessive investment in self comes at the expense of investment in others.
Of course it is not true to say that all ministers are narcissists, any more than all actors are. A friend on a  recent film shoot, however, noted the difference in behaviour between two well-known Australian actors-- Hugo Weaving and David Wenham. Weaving came to the relatively low-budget shoot alone, kept a low profile, learned his lines and hit his marks, even learned the names of the un-famous, journeyman actors he did scenes with, as well as the grips and hands. Wenham, on the other hand, came to the same remote location shoot with an entourage--bodyguards, a personal assistant, and a makeup artist/stylist--kept aloof, learned no names, and disappeared into his trailer whenever he was not required. Now, which little bunny is well-adjusted, and who would you rather work with? Says it all, really.

I have also known ministers who are clearly in it for the humble service rather than the self-aggrandizing. These tend to be the less flashy, and interestingly, the most unaffectedly devout, those whose pastoral care rather than pulpit performance (and it is a performance) was at the center of their ministry. The quiet achievers of the denomination, and there are many. Maybe it is true, as a recent study showed, that genuine believers (in the traditional sense) are just nicer people.

Now, of course, I can only spot this, because I've got this. It's not some anomaly that I've been in three professions which all virtually guarantee that I can be king of the company if I want to be. And, from what I've read, the self-aware narcissist is not automatically exempt from his narcissism. What would be required to undo these reflexes is fearless and searching personal inventory through on-going reflection, and trying to have the values I would wish to have brought to the forefront of my thoughts regularly. It's a process, in short, of spiritual practice.

All spiritual practice aims to transcend the narrow prison of the self, and there are many paths of practice--through prayer and meditation certainly, through ritual, through music and art, and also through genuine, self-effacing service to the needs of others. This last one is the transcendence offered and modelled by Jesus, that pesky Galilean, that first leader of the loving community we call 'church', whose undoubted charisma was sublimated to his larger work of binding up a broken world. It is still perhaps the only viable, if remote, alternative to the world we have.

If religion is about anything at all, it is about transformation of people like you and me into the people we would wish to be. The word 'minister', after all, means 'servant'. And so, for this narcissist, the choice of ministry is an aspiration to become a better man.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Assuming virtue

Why do we profane the covenant of our fathers by breaking faith with one another?  --Malachi 2:10

I was privileged to hear, during my time at theological school, an excellent address by the Rev. Richard Kydd, who revealed a startling bit of the school's history. Luther King House, as it's called, was so named out of respect for Dr. Martin Luther King. This was thought appropriate especially since Dr. King was a Baptist minister, and the college was originally a Baptist college before adopting the partnership model and therewith incorporating other 'free' churches into a happy mix. (This is not the startling bit.)

Dr. King's portrait hangs in the entry way. But a former Head of the College, whose name escapes me, fought vehemently against having the portrait hung (despite the College's name). But why?
Inspirational leader or ladies' man? Apparently you cannot be both.
It seems this person had read Dr. King's biography. In it, he discovered that Dr. King had, shall we say, a thing for the ladies. The biographer referred to Dr. King's "compulsive sexual athleticism" in some detail. This was apparently too much for the Head; he did not want Dr. King the all-too-human-man to be unduly venerated, therefore.

That for me is the startling bit--not Dr. King's sexual proclivities (these are well-known and were helpfully documented by quite illegal FBI invasions of privacy), but the presumption that a man of the cloth's personal misdemeanors and weaknesses necessarily invalidates or eclipses the massive good he quite clearly did.

My Moravian ministerial colleague Jane Hutchings posted this roll-call of biblical inadequates on her facebook status today:

"Jacob was a cheater, Peter had a temper, David had an affair, Noah got drunk, Jonah ran from God, Paul was a murderer, Gideon was insecure, Miriam was a gossiper, Martha was a worrier, Thomas was a doubter, Sara was impatient, Elijah was moody, Moses stuttered, Zaccheus was short, Abraham was old, and Lazarus was dead...."

She could have added that even Jesus could be a right pain the a*se at times.

Hey! What are you, anti-businesss?
 Her point I think is that the Judeo-Christian tradition mercifully does not require people to be perfect in order to be called to spiritual leadership. She adds: "God doesn't call the perfect, he perfects the called." 

Leaving aside for a moment the dubious theology that there is a personal God that actually calls (i.e. tells you in clear terms that you are destined to be his special agent in the world), I think there is something in this that's important to consider, both for leaders of spiritual communities and for the people in those communities.

Much of the contempt (or at least unease) many people have with clergy comes at least in part from the litany of abuses of trust (sexual and otherwise) committed by the clergy, reported as a sensational side-show in the information age of the last 25 years or so. Wrapped up with this is the outrage at the seeming hypocrisy of the cloth itself, which suggests you to be better than you are, perhaps better than 'ordinary' mortals. Furthermore, it's in the (self)interest of the clergy to foster (or at least not challenge) the impression of 'holier than thou'.

Father Jack, clerical id.

Unitarian theology, which I claim is essentially rational humanist, would find the notion that clergy ARE to any degree above human fallibility to be totally anathema. In his address, Richard bravely and refreshingly confessed that he himself is right in there with Dr. King too in terms of fallibility. Even more refreshingly, he said that, if we're honest, all of us are too.

Does this mean that anything goes, therefore, and there are no standards of behaviour clergy must aim for? Richard quoted a Greek interjection from St. Paul that translates as: "Not on your Nelly!" Though nothing can put us outside the love of God (this is his theology remember), nothing should put us outside of human forgiveness.

We are all of us broken creatures, and any moral authority we would hope to project must come from a candid acceptance of our all-too-human weaknesses, coupled with a genuine professional practice which aims higher.

As Emerson said, you need to aim above the mark to hit the mark-- a parable drawn from archery. And the mark, for me, is that of the Greek tragic hero--a good but not perfect person, whose suffering is brought on by those very imperfections. We will all be laid low at one time or another by our faults; even Dr. King's reputation is not unsullied, and he was a far better man than I by any measurement. What I strive daily for is the strength to lift my sights above my manifold and deeply ingrained faults, toward 'the better angels of my nature'.

We might think of this spiritual practice as living "as if". We are no more tolerant than our fellows, but may try to live 'as if' we were. We are not more loving than our fellows, but may try to live 'as if' we are. We are not more honest than our fellows, but may try to live 'as if' we are.

When considering an action (or often as not, a re-action), I try to imagine a guy who is smarter, wiser, more compassionate than me, and ask myself "Well, what would HE do?".

Shakespeare, as always, said it best. From Hamlet--

Assume a virtue, if you have it not.

That monster, custom, who all sense doth eat,
Of habits devil, is angel yet in this,
That to the use of actions fair and good
He likewise gives a frock or livery,
That aptly is put on. Refrain to-night,
And that shall lend a kind of easiness
To the next abstinence: the next more easy;
For use almost can change the stamp of nature,
And either beat the devil, or throw him out
With wondrous potency.

Wondrous potent, indeed, and wondrous simple, this practice. It requires mindfulness, as well as a clear-eyed familiarity with the devils that live in each and every one of us. Clergy included. Recognizing this common humanity, we may be the less inclined to 'break faith' with one another.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

"By their fruits shall you know them"

As the UK spirals into an anarchy of seemingly organised and systematic youth criminality, you wonder where the on earth these little rapscallions got their values.

Why would they want more phones?

Where did they get the idea that greed is okay when you can get away with it?

(Oh, right...Lehman brothers, the looting of the economy by the banks...every single advertisement for status objects.)

Where did they get the idea that self-righteous revenge on bystanders is justifiable?

(Oh, um , yes...two illegal wars after 9/11, waged on those innocent of the offense.)

Where did they get the idea that violence is wicked-good fun?

(Ah. Yes, well. Every movie, TV show and video game ever marketed to them by adults.)

Where did they get the idea that governmental authority has forsaken them?

(Oh my yes...end of student benefit, introduction of University fees...zero employment prospects...)

Where did they get the idea that high-end STUFF is the ideal?

(Ah. Well,...rampant consumerism...massive rich/poor divide...status culture.)

I think I'm sensing a ---gasp!---context here...


Now before you start writing outraged comments about how these lawless youth need to be held accountable for their actions, let me say I agree with you. Yes they should. Under no circumstances is violence, theft, and lawlessness excusable.

But it is understandable, in the same way violent revolution (such as the Arab spring) is understandable. It is a well-established sociological axiom that countries with greater social equality (meaning not just economic equality, but equality of opportunity, class equality) have fewer incidents of this sort of spectacle. Conversely, countries with a large divide between those at the top and those at the bottom experience more such nightmares.

Simultaneously, young'uns at the bottom are steeped from an early age in a culture of consumer envy, violent entertainments, and role models who support, encourage and revel in violent reprisal, be it in foreign wars or the criminal justice system. It is a combustible combination. At the end of a long, hot, muggy British summer, where you can't even buy a cheap fan 'cause they're all sold out of the shops, when school's been out for weeks, all it took was the shooting of a Tottenham youth by police to spark it off. Sure, what followed was opportunism, not necessarily political protest, but it didn't come out of nothing. Nothing comes from nothing.

You can't start a fire without a spark

It is far easier to urge violent reprisal on the symptoms than look for the systemic causes--cultural, social, political--that condition such sad events as we've seen. But that's the only way to make it go away for good. You can try to swat and kill every single mosquito, OR you can drain the swamp that breeds them. Your choice--but cracking some head sure feels better, doesn't it? It's also easier to direct your rage down the social scale (as witness the recent demonization of "chavs"). The real thieves who robbed you good and proper are still working in the finance industry--but what can you do about that, tough guy?

There's an old story about Diogenes (who famously carried a lamp through Athens day and night, looking, he said, for an honest man). Once, he heard a youth curse openly in public, and he strode up and slapped the youth's father.

If he ever found one, history does not record it.
By their fruits shall you know them. Looking for causes as to why this happened? Look in the mirror, and look hard.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

It's okay to not like things

"If everybody in the world liked vanilla ice cream, it'd be a pretty dull world." --my mom

A popular Unitarian self-identifying motto is "Many beliefs, one faith." Seems like a paradox (and how we love those!) but it really isn't when you realize that the words 'belief' and 'faith' refer to very different things. The two are easily confused.

Without boring you with the etymology of the words themselves, belief might be said to refer to an opinion one holds that one cannot readily prove, but which one nevertheless takes to be an accurate representation of the truth. Faith, on the other and, refers to that which you put (or can put) your trust in. Think of 'fidelity'--loyalty, like that of a faithful dog. It's about personal commitment.

Unitarians are often asked "what is it you believe?" but since we have no denominational creed, the question doesn't really apply. The truth is that there are many beliefs alive within the denomination--liberal Christianity, paganism, theism, deism, humanism, and on and on.

A better question might be "In what do you place your faith?"

For me, it's this: we have faith that a church of diverse beliefs can work. It can work because it's a reflection of the infinite diversity of the universe we live in, and that seems to work pretty well. Hence, our core principle of tolerance, which only has meaning when you defend the right of others to believe whatever accords with their best judgement.

The problems arise when we want others to believe as we do. Why would we want that? One reason may be that we are not secure in our own beliefs, and so feel the need constantly to defend them. One hardly needs to recognize that the most heavily defended nations, for example, are often the most belligerent. (Q: Which nation has the largest defence budget, and which nation has only recently started three illegal wars? Hint: it's the same nation).

But beliefs are inherently insecure, or they wouldn't be beliefs--they'd be self-evidently true. We get easily hung up on the idea that truth means accuracy. But it can also mean, simply, honesty--a testimony of the truth as you experience it. Your experience is not mine, and never will be.

So tolerance can become easily unstuck in our human insecurities and our desire for certainty. Tolerance is a goal: we are not tolerant, but try to behave as if we were. Just as no nation is really democratic, but tries to function as if it were as best it can.

As a Unitarian, then, I am continually in the presence of beliefs I don't, myself, hold. Our faith, I claim, insists that this can work. But how?

For me, they key is civility, which is about how you carry your social self, given the fact of unconquerable, unending, universal diversity, of people and their ideas that actually offend you. Which leads me to this song I found on the wonderful inter-webs:

It's okay to not like things
It's okay...
But don't be a *jerk* about it. (*language changed to protect the innocent*)

It's okay to not like things...
Just don't be a jerk about the things you don't like.

This is such a simple, necessary concept I'm going to teach it, complete with its catchy tune, to the children during service as soon as I can.

The cultivation of civility has gone by the board in this age of anonymous trolling, in this age where bitchy, sharp-witted screenwriters make their dough by getting their characters to always say the things you wish you'd have thought of and said yourself. The kind of stuff we mutter under our breath when someone cuts us off in traffic. We live in a culture of the verbal smack-down.

You might say this is truth-as-honesty, but I wonder if it's faithful to any spirit of community. This is a world where the otherness of others is more and more a part of our everyday life--a smaller world in rapid change, with mobile populations, and a global media arena. We cannot avoid diversity of belief in the world or in a church.

But in our churches, at least, civility should be the norm, for where else will it germinate, if not there? Civility is not supported by our culture at large, so we need to think about how we can cultivate it within our congregational life.

A story on how this might work from the great spiritual teacher GI Gurdjieff:

In the spiritual community that GI Gurdjieff led in France, lived an old man who was the personification of difficulty – irritable, messy, fighting with everyone, and unwilling to clean up or help at all. No one got along with him. Finally after many frustrating months of trying to stay with the group, the old man left for Paris.

Gurdjieff followed him and tried to convince him to return, but it had been too hard, and the man said no.

At last Gurdjieff offered the man a very big monthly stipend if he returned. How could he refuse?

When he returned everyone was aghast, and on hearing that he was being paid (while they were being charged a lot to be there), the community was up in arms.

Gurdjieff called them together and after hearing their complaints laughed and explained: “This man is like yeast for bread.” He said, “Without him here you would never really learn about anger, irritability, patience and compassion. That is why you pay me and I hire him.”

In reflecting on this rather idealistic idea of social inclusion, many point to the example of Jesus, for whom no one was beyond the bounds of loving community (except hypocrites, but that's another blog). But Jesus' ministry is not like ours in one crucial way--his was mobile. He could pick up and move like a Bedouin whenever things got tricky. Churches, however, tend to be in fixed locations with bricks-and-mortar, and a duty of care to those attending. Perhaps, then, our tolerance needs to have some reasonable limits, when those with different beliefs become so strident as to ruin the party for everybody.

But our civility can be as boundless as the love Jesus incarnates. Because it really is okay for us mere mortals to not like things--we can't help that. But we CAN help being jerks about the things we don't like.

Best of all--civility costs us nothing at all.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Book of Louis

"Bless me father, for I have sinned...I have conducted church services without reference to the Bible."

"This is a most grievous sin, young man. It's going to cost you 5 'Hail Marys' and a recitation of Dante's Paradiso."

Church services may serve multiple purposes--community-building, moral compass-pointing, personal reflection, and many others you could name.

But at the most fundamental level, if I don't have an experience (however brief) of the numinous, I feel I would have done better to stay home and read a good book. The numinous is not to be confused with the supernatural, for the numinous is as natural as breathing and as close as your jugular vein. You don't need to be in church to experience it, but church creates a space to do so, and to do it with others.

As in a play, when the entire audience experiences the collective lurch in the gut when fate clicks forcefully into place, or a truth of human character is bravely revealed, or a line is uttered that just makes you aware that you're actually here now in the moment, to experience this collectively amplifies the effect. Actors know this when playing to a small, spread-out house, when the very same line or event that elicited a gasp from an audience of critical mass, lands like a dead carp. The emotion has been described, but not lived.

A feeling of the numinous can't be managed, prescribed, engineered, or otherwise willed into being. Creating them is art, not science. Different people manage to achieve it by totally different means, and fail to by identical means. As a practitioner, one gets the hang of it after a while, but it is not your poodle. There's more going one than just the words you've decided to say and how you've decided to say them, more than just 'all about you'.

In this the year of the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, much is rightly being said about the impact that the poetic sensibilities of the translators had upon the ears, hearts, and minds of those who either read or (more commonly at the time) heard it read in church. Some of the free-verse and blank verse poetry in it is unmatched in its power to create a sense of transcendent truth, as with this from Ecclesiastes Chapter 3 (to cite but one well-known example):

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

Cadence, parallelism, repetition, and a sense that it's gathering momentum as it moves--lots of tools from the poetry toolkit, used to wonderful effect. Even if we don't like the content, that doesn't mean it isn't any good.

In the beginning was the word...indeed.
Use of the Bible in church services brings with an easy authority, some of which is to do with its provenance and reputation and status in the Western canon, but much of it too is to do with the effortlessly convincing feel of the poetry. Poetic language is its own form of discourse, a discourse that engages acceptance of the listener through the beautiful arrangement of sounds, like music.
This very naturalness of authority is also a very reason not to use the Bible so much.

I tend to use a lot more secular poetry in church services. In it, Beauty is still a means of creating a sense of transcendent Truth, but it's freer of the baggage of millenia. One poet I use from time to time is Louis MacNeice, a very secular man, (though the son of an Anglican bishop), classical scholar, academic, radio producer, father, husband, lover and betrayer, an extraordinary talent wrapped in a familiar, flawed form--more like us than Ecclesiastes. Take this for example:


If we could get the hang of it entirely
It would take too long;
All we know is the splash of words in passing
And falling twigs of song,
And when we try to eavesdrop on the great
Presences it is rarely
That by a stroke of luck we can appropriate
Even a phrase entirely.

If we could find our happiness entirely
In somebody else’s arms
We should not fear the spears of the spring nor the city’s
Yammering fire alarms
But, as it is, the spears each year go through
Our flesh and almost hourly
Bell or siren banishes the blue
Eyes of Love entirely.

And if the world were black or white entirely
And all the charts were plain
Instead of a mad weir of tigerish waters,
A prism of delight and pain,
We might be surer where we wished to go
Or again we might be merely
Bored but in brute reality there is no
Road that is right entirely.

I've recently added this to a clutch of his work that I'm calling the Book of Louis. It compares favourably with more well-known poems on the same theme like Frost's "The Road Not Taken". But more to the point, you get the sense that this is a man who has lived speaking to us (as we are) from the heart. There is always in his work and abiding sense of acceptance that the world is not perfect and cannot be made so, that our lives are heavily compromised affairs, and anyone that tries to sell you another view is on the grift. But beyond this world-weariness, there is the voice that speaks in the poetry, that finds the deeper harmonies in a complex world.

Finding the deeper harmonies in the secular, through the discourse of poetry...this I like, and I feel is fitting for church services in an increasingly post-Christian world.

For I feel somehow that if a 9 to 5 man like Louis can find this mature poise, reconciling life as we live it with the deeper realities, so can I.

I recommend him to you.

Here's himself reading the lovely love poem "Meeting Point"

Monday, June 27, 2011

"'Only connect', was the whole of his sermon" --E.M. Forster

It's not often I use video in this blog other than for purposes of ornament. This video is the entire subject of this entry. I present it here without comment, and look forward to reader reactions.

I'll give it a week, then write my responses below.



Okay, so it's been more than a week. What do you want at these prices?

Most responses so far (from Facebook) have tended to focus on an assumption of the tragic loss of an innocent, Edenic state of being. I do not know for certain that that happened in this instance, but the history of such encounters would suggest you can bet the rent that this tribe did not remain isolated.

The myth of a golden age, where indigenous cultures flourished untouched by any outside (thus necessarily corrupting) influence, is one of those common-sense human presumptions that crumbles under examination. There never was such a time or such a culture. Movement, contact, and assimilation have been the constants in all human history, unless you assume that indigenous tribes grew up out of the ground like indigenous plant life.

The DNA record clearly shows common ancestry in sub-saharan Africa, movement up the fertile valleys into Europe and Asia, and then branching and splitting separating, until the tribal journey began to fold back on itself and certain human relatives, separated since time out of mind, encountered one another for the first time in their experience. At which point they either cooperated, negotiated or fought for dominance.

There is hardly one square kilometer or habitable or arable or grazable land on the planet that has not been acquired, conquered, inherited, or brokered as a result of such encounters. The isolation tribes like the one in the film find themselves in, is as a result of following herds or food-gathering or fight and flight. They are far and away the exception.

However, just because history has always been thus is no excuse for not trying to come up with better ways of managing such encounters. Because, for me, the real issue in the film is power. The Europeans have it (in the form of knowledge, technology, and resources), and the tribe does not (apart from perhaps a better knowledge of the immediate area). It is thus the Europeans who have the greater leverage in mystifying and controlling the tribe, and thus in a far better position to determine the outcome of the exchange.

What helps this seem normal, natural, and right is that we buy into the infantilization of the tribe by ascribing the romantic 'noble savage' status to them. By assuming they want to be and should be left alone, that this is what is best for them. So, I imagine, is typhus, which is natural in that part of the world. Which is NOT to say that we have a right to 'civilize them' for their own good. However, given the massive power imbalance at work, it is the Europeans who are in better position to consider carefully what the best course of action might be, given the inevitability of human contact, the utter impossibility of utter isolation forever. Noblesse oblige...emphasis on the latter term.

Witness how white Europeans managed the encounter with the indigenous Australians and you get a good idea of how NOT to exercise power. In a landmark announcement today, the City of Sydney finally called a spade a shovel, and finally called for the phrase 'white settlement' to be replaced by the more accurate term 'invasion'.

That this has taken over two hundred years to be uttered (and not without the predictable apoplexy among of those privileged by the invasion), is as deeply dispiriting as anything I can think of, but at least it's a step in the right direction. The past cannot be undone of course, but the scenario played out in the film will continue to be played out in the developing world, perhaps in far less picturesquely romantic circumstances, among those without power or agency in negotiations that will determine their futures and the futures of their offspring for centuries.

Compassionately ascribing full dignity and agency to the socially marginalised, the dispossessed, and the powerless, was the ministry of one Yeshuah bin-Yoseph, otherwise called Jesus. That was 2000 years ago, and how's that working out for ya?

Let's hope that if we are contacted by an alien race, they will have evolved beyond our practices. Otherwise, we're screwed.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Domesticity: Appeasing the Household Gods

The ancients were said to observe two kinds of gods: those worshipped in the temple and those worshipped in the home.

These latter were thought to protect the home and its members, and were represented by small icons or objects in shrines. But just as often, the household gods were located in actual domestic objects--the hearth, the doorway, the window, the roof timbers, a cooking pot. (Sounds like the title of a Magritte painting.) These homely gods were propitiated by small offerings of food and drink, or were invited to share the family meal.

The domovoi, the brownie, the teraphim--all could be kickin' it in Vegas, or living large in Rio,
but for them, there's no place like home...
In a long chorus down the ages, from pre-history, through animism and totemism, through the elaborate pantheons of Greece and Rome, right down into present-day Shinto practice, the domestic gods sing a homing song to all who would be pater (or indeed mater) familias, to attend not only to the heavens but to the earth, to the needful work of home-making, with all the attendant maintenance of external boundaries, internal systems, and its emblematic role as ornament, the visible incarnation of a 'good' life.

I've spent the past nine months more or less at the temple, in the role of votary. Now it's time to propitiate the long-neglected gods of the household, and assume the role of--what other word is there?--husbandry.

There's an old saying that a clean-n-tidy home is the sign of a wasted life. And how often have I guffawed in agreement--citing the silly neurosis of the bourgeois obsession with having everything just so. And how I have thought ruefully about the years that have slipped into the void on the back of DIY projects in homes others now live in. Or the eons of vacuuming, dusting, and cleaning, when things just get dirty all over again. Years that could (and maybe should) have been spent learning any one of a million useful, self-improving skills, or engaging in charitable actions. If the middle classes channelled all that domestic energy and time into the temples of wisdom and/or justice, I used to say, think how much better the world might be.

DIY? Or D.I.E?
 In fact, I often catch myself dreaming of a life, post-parenthood, in a decent flat with regular maid service, the better to free the hands and attention for 'higher things'.

But the older I get, the less certain of anything I become. And as I potter about the place, doing odd, needful jobs--mending the fence, moving furniture, cleaning the pool, cooking one of my signature dishes---I remember that doing the needful things with mindfulness and love can fill ones days in a way that doesn't feel wasted. Granted it's not a trip to Disneyland, but then, neither does a trip to a holy-of-holies ever live up to the expectation. Most things are more gorgeous in the promise than in the reality.

And reality also has sacredness, even its mundane and domestic face. The household gods don't really ask all that much, just acknowledgement. When you forget about them, things start to fall apart, reminding you that you need the gods of the hearth to get on with living a life rather than dreaming of a different one.

Uh-oh. Someone's been away at the fair too long...
How do I know there's real joy in this sort of worship too? As I was getting some tools out of the shed yesterday to do a little, needful job, I found I was singing quietly to myself a catch of an Irish ballad my father used to sing as he noodled about the house, doing the thousand-and-one jobs he seemed always to be doing, as happily as a puppy tumbling over itself with a favorite ball.

And I remembered, as I sang his song, that the animistic tradition of the household gods was said to originate in ancestor worship. I think I read in JG Frazier's The Golden Bough that the 'house spirits' are always friendly, attached as they were to particular families, with whom they has been known to reside for centuries, threshing the corn, cleaning the house, and performing similar household tasks. Their favorite gratification was milk and honey. Then I remembered my father's insatiable sweet-tooth for anything sweet and creamy, and I burst into tears.

I can still hear him telling me to be careful around such things, every single time.
For here I was and am, replaying his husbandry long after he has departed, doing the needful things that keep a household--and the family within it--going, and he is still with me, consubstantial in my domesticity. It was his strong (and I see now, everlasting) arms I can thank for the life I have, and all the joy in it, and for those who now depend upon me. I honour him, propitiate this household ancestor/god if you will, by attending to the needful things. Knowing this is a rare joy.

The temple will still be there when I return to it.

"Leaning on the everlasting arms" sung by the remarkably affecting voice of Iris deMent to take us out...forget the picture, just listen.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Minding the Gap

It's a curious existential moment when you see a beloved old friend after a gap of many years.

There's a kind of time lapse effect that happens in my brain, at least, when the vision of my old friend before me is overlaid on the loved memory-image I've carried around in the intervening years. Your mind, well mine at least, spends some time simultaneously entertaining two hypotheses of what must be there  beyond the image in my retina. And during that time, your mind (mine again) does what it does between frames of an animated cartoon--fills in the action. I see them age, in time-lapse, before me. It creates a sharp, tender shock.

Where a person ends and where his friend begins is never entirely clear. Relationship is alchemy.

It is at such moment when you realize that this life is made precious chiefly by those with whom we are privileged to share it. This privilege is only partly earned; it is mostly, I think, a gift.

Yesterday was the occasion of the retirement of one who has been my oldest, continuing, deep friendship in the UK. Those assembled were an old crowd of friends who started working together, when we were a generation younger. We built careers together, created and raised children, travelled together, and shared the myriad tiny triumphs and the inevitable personal failures that make up the rich pattern of any normal life. The pub rang all evening with the rich laughter of remembering. Wine flowed, and we broke bread. And that communion was not the end of the sacramental dimension of the evening.

Every meal shared in joy and generosity is a communion.

Many were with partners different from those we began with, and many who would have been there, had moved on to other climes and lives, as I have done. And so I thought it fitting, when toasting-time was ripe, to lift one "To absent friends."

"Absent friends". How that phrase stuck with me as I rode the train home to Manchester, which is soon to my home no longer, in a few days. Travelling, moving, and self-imposed exiles are often called "the curse of the Celt", and I've got it in spades. There as a lot of love in the room last night, but the truth is I have been a absent friend to these, and to more than these, and last night's reunion brought that home. Absence made a lot of hearts grow fonder, and the occasion and the wine helped too.

An awareness of what is missing

As every psychologist knows, memory has a in-built prestige-enhancing function, a mechanism by which the terrors fade, the joys remain and are morphed into a personal hagiography. We remember our kids talking earlier, the travels more joyous and not at all dull or difficult, and perhaps even the role we played in people's lives more central or essential. But we can remember things in no other way, at least not without professional help and careful reconstruction. What I remember feels real, so that's how I take it.

The memories I've hoarded from our shared past, along with a steamer trunk of hard-copy photographs, are  no substitute for being there, and the wide gaps of time since we were dissevered, I from them, serve to remind that NOW is ever the only time we really actually live in. The rest is a story.

Don't misunderstand--last night was a rare joy. But I also got the sense during the prolonged hugs goodbye that more of us than just me wanted to have a good hard sob about where the years had gone, and how now as retirement, and the only possible end of retirement, begins to loom for us all, that we want another crack at doing over and doing BETTER the friendships that had so sustained us during a time in our lives when we were young and had the whole future--that which we now grow old in--ahead of us.

Listen to this is you can: