Monday, 29 March 2010

The Curate's Egg I

Egg of the Day

It is not late in the day; it is fairly and squarely lunch time (if you are not of the view that 'lunch is for wimps'), and already my head hurts. In life, a man needs a spitoon, and today's post is that spitoon. Hoik-Petooee ... ding.

1. I have been fully exposed to the popular press of you wimmin  - oh my word; what are you doing to yourselves? I didn't realise to what level the female psyche obsesses about weight. Guess what ... no, really - Beyonce lost four pounds last week. I can lose more weight than that by vacating my olfactory canals with a digit. Four pounds - and it reaches the glossy gleaming pages of Grazia. Natalie Cassidy apologised to the world for looking a little more cuddly than last edition - and why might this terrible circumstance be? She is pregnant. Oh my word ... saying sorry for wrapping the miracle of life in an ounce or two of love ... I ask you! Peculiar Spice (or is that Posh, I forget) is now so thin that all can see is her pout hovering 5'9" off of the ground, in the vicinity of a floating handbag and some whacky oversized sunglasses. If you are  to be anyone these days in Sleb Land then you will have sweated your giblets to near-death and produced a 'Lose Fat Fast' DVD  - immaciation for in un-initiated. Ladies, STOP!
Speaking as a blokey, and with some idea what causes the male red-cells to course more nimbly, I can tell you this: what you look like in the transient delapidating shell that you call a skin is as NOTHING when compared to the light that shines within it. God knows - you only have to look at most fellas to determine that four pounds to a man is largely his wallet and car-keys. It is all to do with who you are and not what you look like - though if in the event you are taller lying down than you are standing up, fear only for your health, not for how the world through the Sleb Land lens regards you. Enough said ... ?
 2. A controversial statement now - but if I don't make it, I will pop. Ladies of the Priestly Charism: stop apologising. God chose you, the Spirit ordained you, and the rest can ... well, converse with their own consciences elsewhere. I sense that in some circles that I have been party to in passing recently that you wonderful women are the only ones beating yourselves over the head. Enough said ... ?

3. I am tired. We are now in Holy Week (and if there are any Christians reading this that didn't know that, please go and stand in the corner), and the work-load is reaching its climax. I am a person who feels every cut of the scourge and each nail - and I rarely get through the Liturgy of Good Friday without weeping. This year, with so much stuff to do, I think that Good Friday might just overwhelm me - not good given that I am preaching. The crushing weight of the Passion has been given an extra dimension today. I officiated at the funeral of a very nice man earlier, and as I walked to the flower garden, I saw the vast array of flowers for a little girl of four years old who had died. That is as close as I got to that tragedy, and yet I am winded by it. I saw her radiant face on a card and she was overflowing with life. I bet that she was overflowing with life as she breathed her last and I pray that her smile is still as bright somewhere else. Life can be crap at times - and my prayers for the rest of this week will be with that poor family whose name I will never know.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

There is a Redeemer, and it ain't me

These words, the lasting legacy of one Charles Hampton, speak to all baby vicars about the way we aspire to live our lives, how we meet that aspiration, and what the aspiration looks like in the first place.

The snippet from the most excellent Calvin and Hobbes makes the inner monolgue's case in clearest terms. We are all, broadly, ordained from former careers - careers that in many circumstances are driven by success, promotion, the 'bottom line', and the abject fear of failure. 

To enter ministry is to take on a kind of topsy-turvy role in this mortal life. We all want to do well, we all abhor failure even more,  and yet for priests - what this looks like is something of a conundrum. Yes, we are to a greater or lesser extent lured by the redeemer-complex of ministry. 

Perhaps it is just me, of course. I want to be the best darned priest that ever put on a cassock, and am fast discovering that to be this figure is to be condemned to immediate failure - not because it is not possible in itself, but because to crave that is to defeat it. To be 'best' is not be found in wanting to be 'best'. Neither is it to be found in wilfull mediocrity or plain ole' crap-ness. It is perhaps more a case of being the wrong question  - oh my head!

I can't handle scripture properly, my prayer life is like a third-hand teabag, my sensitivity lacks a radar, I am grumpy and find it difficult to tolerate fools, I never fully mastered New Testament Greek, my Bible isn't threadbare and full of insightful pencil-comments, I feel like I care far more for liturgy than I do for the 'least of these my children', and yes - I confess here - I am a stinking fraud.

So, with me and the moth-eaten hemp sacking that is the cloth with which God seems determined to work with, I am left to ponder why. Why oh why oh why oh why? So no, the redeemer I am not - but what in the name of Christ am I?

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Every body needs an arse

I am currently languishing in a bucolic evironment just south of Hemel Hemstead. I am here with others like me (well, they are my peer group of Curates - that is as far as the brush-tarring ought to go) to embark on a course devoted to Developing Servant Leaders - for that is what we meant to be, dear readers.

Among the wide array of break-out chats, navel gazing, theological ponderance, helpful debate, input, caffiene and bonhomie that fills our time here, we were directed to extract from Scripture those ways in which Jesus embodied servant leadership. It was a wholly helpful exercise, but the passage from the Letter of the Ephesians that featured on that list got me thinking. It spoke of the many parts of the body as metaphor for the different ways that we can be members of the same body of the church. It says that some are called (and gifted) to be teachers, some pastors, some healers and so on. My first instinct was - 'that is all well and good, but what about an arse like me?'

This isn't false modesty - I do not have time for that affected clap-trap - but I am broadly least among the pious, educated, articulate, reverent, 'good with God' curates - and that is how I feel. They are all far better at doing that stuff than I am, truly.

However, there are times when the Good Lord slaps one across the chops with a wet haddock, in a bid to make a point. No sooner had I thunk the thought about me being an arse did the very thought jump into my mind that actually, every body needs an arse. I presented this notion to the group, who tittered generously, and even enagaged with it. They even took the wet haddock that was plastered across my mush by His Godness and worked with it - with n'er a smirk or a flinch. Never let it be said that Christians are not resilient.

The point is this - and I am being serious in all of this, so stop sniggering - that it makes no difference how we percieve ourselves within the context of the Church or the Body of Christ on Earth; we all have a place, an important place. With this in mind, and in the certain belief that you are pondering the viability of my hypothesis - how would life be if you lost one lung? Then ask how life would be if you lost one bum.

Monday, 22 March 2010

On being a bloke IV

I have recieved some kind comments from those who have read this piffle, and who recognise the difficulties that I do in fitting in to a church that is largely composed of all other types and brands of people, and not us. There is something of the 'sheep and goats' to it - but us fellas feel a little like the only goat in an entire field, nay county, of sheep. This is problematic both for us, and how we fit in, and for those called to cater for needs of all people. 

It is fair to say, and accurate, that the majority of churches are largely devoid of fellas - certainly if we broaden that to males between 20 and 50. This is not a universal state of affairs by any means, but almost a mathematical certainty in those churches of a more sacramental 'bent'. This is a worry - it was a worry to me as a member of the laity, and no less a worry now that I am ordained. Sadly, being male (while utterly out of our control) brings with it the reverse stigma in a lot of ways that women have had to contend with for generations. Those of us who are 'pro-women', rejoice in the equalised 'voice' that is emerging, but we geezers ponder a factor that is perhaps less visible. It is almost a factor for immediate apology being a proud bloke in a church. I have never in my life sought to limit the ministry of any person, male or female, but neither can or will I be sorry for being man. It's a tension that is hard to resolve. For me to stand up and be a proud fella puts me in danger of accusation (or so it feels). Being proud of who I am does not make me sexist - but I do fear for how my generation of gentleman feels - especially those of us at 'our end' where the 'anti' camp is at its most vociferous. Some have assumed, quite wrongly, that because I and another of my closest friends is carflick, that we are by default anti-women. Nope, not us ....

So, what to do - how do I live as a proud man in a church that doesn't cater for us. I am speaking as one who does the catering too - what to do, indeed! I would go so far as to say that modern day non-charismatic non-Alpha (yes, there are two or three humans who are 'not interested' [please stop sending me unsolicited propaganda]) church life is about as interesting to the typical geezer as the BNP tick-box is to most voters. It just isn't. Sorry! But what to do. I want to cater for all people, not just the well-populated 50+ female band, love them as I do. I know God loves us, but I haven't worked out how I can help build a church where we feel that we have a place.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

How to make a monk explode

The esteemed Bish (as in +Alan, as in Blog) visited us Aylesbury folkses last night to talk about St. Benedict. During the course of his presentation (which must have been half-decent because I have remembered this much at least), he posed the thorny question which sits as the lifetime conundrum for all clergy ...

...How do you make a monk explode?

He prefaced his answer by explaining that to make a chameleon explode you would have to plonk it on a tartan carpet. Clearly, a monk would not explode if placed upon a tartan ten-gauge - but rather as a result of the following scenario. Imagine the monastary bell tolling, calling the brethren to prayer. Bro Gardener is in the middle of planting a row of best Savoys, and has but one to plonk in the ground. Does he fulfill his community role or does he abandon the poor cabbage in favour of some Psalm-bashing? The correct answer is 'prefer nothing to Jesus', dump the rabbit food - one pureed monk-type.

Uncharacteristically for me, I went from a given presentation and engaged with it at home, and I opened my hitherto un-opened Rule of St. Benedict. It makes so much sense in so many ways and speaks to me of the considerable tension that I embody - the tension that priesthood makes manifest in the correct balance of 'being' and 'doing'.  

I am conspicuously a 'doing' type of fella, and find 'being' tough. So, in order to make this Farv explode, ask him spend time 'being' in Church when a million emails, half a million sermons, a website and a partridge in a pear tree need attending to, and that require him to ride his Dell like a medieval lady of the night. Pop; splat. The church loses and the emails get ...erm, 'follow-up flagged'!

Seriously, there were a couple of things from the presentation that have left their imprint (two more than the whole of my last year at college [my fault, not college's]) - the first being 'prefer nothing to Jesus', and the second '....he should so regulate everything that the strong may desire to carry more, and the weak are not afraid' (referring to the Abbot). With a comprehensive course on Leadership just around the corner and a considerable management experience behind me, I recieve this wisdom in the spirit of an 'Epiphany moment' - bloody marvellous.

Now all I need to do is igonore the copious 'dry-slaps' that naughty monks are required to recieve upon their hides. St. Benedict was a sod for a 'car-park chat', wasn't he ... !?

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Toilet Habits

Earlier today, when I was enthroned and in mid ... thought, I looked up at the windowsill in my Necessarium and pondered. To the left of this little missive, you will see a picture of the reading material that sits in my Chapel of Ease in perpetuity. 

I contend, dear reader, that my bookstack is proof enough of my blokishness if nothing else is. 

You will notice that the Lord Clarkson features prominently in my selection if those books best able to accompany the natural processes, and you may even note that my own writing style is somewhat influenced by the Man of Cars. Every house needs a small shelf purely for rant-reads and factoids. More especially, that small assortment of literary delectations finds its rightful place in none less the Little Curate's Room (the room that is small, not the Curate - take that how you like). I am aware that the Good Lord watches over all that I do, and alarming as that is, I think that a prayerful moment whilst adorning the Porcelain Trumpet is, well, wrong. 

So, friends, welcome to my 6' x 4' Blokery - a place where I can absorb the Vernacular of others (and those who get paid for it). All these editions were purchased in High Street Stores, so I needn't feel embarassed by having a book called 'Do Ants have Arseholes' or 'Is it just me or is Everything Shit' (the book called 'Do Bats have Bollocks' seems to have vanished - it will emerge covered in crayon soon enough). But, before you think that this is simply a Fellows-esque swear-a-thon, you will not have failed to notice the full back catalogue of David Attenborough - though in truth they are only there because they are too big for the other shelves. Former bookstacks in former Domiciles of the China Telephone have been the entire works of Calvin and Hobbes, with some Gary Larson and Garfield mixed in! 

So, readers - what books adorn your Temples of Relief? Any responses that include 'The Bible' will be treated as foul lies and calumnies.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

It's all abaht faaaaaamlee

The thing about blokes is that they cherish their mothers above most other things (except their cars, of course). Think Grant and Phil Mitchell and that horrid little woman they call 'muvva' in Eastenders, and you will know that I mean. 

Well, dear readers, I have 'a mother of note'. too As it is a good day for it (and as I sit here praying that her card arrived in time), I thought to myself - Cloake, you have a blogette, so use it! 

My mum is flippin' excellent. She is one of my closest friends, one of my keenest fans, my harshest critic, a drinking partner, a guiding light, a fabulous cook (and teacher of the art, just ask my own family), a shoulder to cry on, a sounding board, among my chiefest motivators, my counsellor, my psychiatrist, my frequent TableTable dinner dinner date date, a like mind on real ale, a lover of aircraft like me, and fellow admirer of Top Gear, a good carflick girl and most importantly - always 'just there' when and if I need her. She takes no payment from me, save for the odd pint, she asks for nothing in return. She is always glad when I descend on her hospitality (often with no notice) and will always feed me a meal that is special, whatever time of day or night. She makes me feel important, and she has always made me feel like I am worthwhile, even in the many times when I have majorly cocked up. 

Lest we forget my blokishness, I ought to confess to how I repay her. I rarely phone, I have forgotten her birthday and Mother's Day on more than one occasion. I have not written to her in over 700 years. I drink her gin and rarely replenish it, I eat her food and can't remember the last time that I cooked for her. I use her house like a doss-house,  all the while reserving the right to lecture her about the way she chooses to 'keep house'. 

So mum, if you do indeed read this - Happy Mother's Day. With all my blokey heart I love you, and I know that you have made me what and who I am. I know I can, but I take you for granted and for that I am both deeply grateful yet eternally sorry, and while I can never in this life repay you the debt I owe you, I hope I can be half the parent to my kids that you have been to me and my baby brother and sister. If I achieve that much, then I will have lived a good life.

Thank you x

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Lent Course 2010 [Blog] - Part IV

Jesus and Surprise

sur·prise  (sr-prz)
tr.v. sur·prised, sur·pris·ing, sur·pris·es
1. To encounter suddenly or unexpectedly; take or catch unawares.
2. To attack or capture suddenly and without warning.
3. To cause to feel wonder, astonishment, or amazement, as at something unanticipated.
a. To cause (someone) to do or say something unintended.
b. To elicit or detect through surprise.
1. The act of surprising or the condition of being surprised.
2. Something, such as an unexpected encounter, event, or gift, that surprises.
It seems to me, on the face of it (pardon the pun), that Jesus was very level-headed - not given to 'peaks and troughs' of emotion. I am also aware that this could be an editorial consequence of much compression, the passage  of time before accounts were consigned to paper, or just because no-one was really that bothered. However, as I think on this more, I wonder if this is a fair appraisal. In terms of the emotion 'surprise', I wonder if it provided something of the tension that must have existed within him given his divine status and concomitant human status. The 'God bit' must have foreseen everything - no surprises. Equally, the 'human bit' must have been regularly surprised by the reponse of others to him. 

Anyway, to proceed within the framework now established, I will reflect on surprise as an emotion:

  • Is a sense of surprise manifest in my own life - or is it quelled by cynicism or idealism?
  • How do I deal with surprises, be they positive or negative?
  • Am I capable of surprising other people?
  • How does a sense of surprise fit into a Christian way of thinking - with our heritage of miracles and the vastly unexpected being recalled throughout our year?
This all said, just try finding the word 'surprise' in any text that refers to Jesus. There aren't any! However, Matthew 8:10 reports that Jesus was 'astonished' by the faith of the Centurion - not quite surprise, but close!  
But ... I wonder if Jesus was a little surprised by the reaction of his parents when he toddled to the temple when he was twelve years old, to add another possibility. Aren't all kids surprised when something that they do, thinking it to be quite correct, is recieved as folly by the folks at home! Yes, I have to concede that 'surprise' for Jesus is hard to pin down, but clues still exist. Still, when you are the master of 'surprises' yourself, you are perhaps less likely to be surprised - on this I must ponder.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

When hate hates hate

The Bucks Herald, our local paper, headlined with the possbility that the English Defence League were planning a visit to Aylesbury

I have trawled the intergalactic information super-highway for the image that was pasted across that edition of the paper, because it was an alarming picture of some very large gentlemen, stood in a rather menacing arrangement, fists clenched, wearing black balaclavas. They were donning their badges, a kind of replica of the flag of St George - and I could not escape the parallel that the image drew to one that I had seen of the Ku Klux Klan once before. Whether they had intended that parallel or not, I can only speculate, but the similarities rang out to my eyes. Sadly, I could not find that picture - you would surely know what I mean! Other imagery does little to break away that similarity, and it seems that a shaven head and an angry teeth-born sneer is the look of choice for this organistion. 

Now, I am one who will defend free speech. However, with any right there is a responsibility, and I am also aware that the spoken word makes up a mere fraction of all our communication. The image that I have offered here does not show a man who is interested in speaking freely. He is concealed and hidden - an irony given that the burka is a bete noir for these gentlemen (sorry, if there are any women, your feminity is lost in the pictures that I saw, often because of the concealment or the snarling). This man doesn't want to speak to anyone, he wants to finger-point and jeer. He wants to intimidate and frighten. This is odd to me, given that they seek to end such behaviour from other extremists. 

Extremism lacks any kind of generosity, as far as I can tell. We have an Islamic extremism that has a heritage now for murder and blindness of argument. But, lest we feel unrepresented as English people (is claiming to be English almost becoming a sign of xenophobia these days, or is it just me), we have our Defenders, the EDL, racing to our aid. And what are they using to counter hatred? More hatred. Inspired. So, let me get this straight - in a world where hatred is killing the innocent, we inject just a little more hatred into an already fragile and injured world. Is it me .......

As a Christian, I preach and live by the scruples of love. If someone means me harm, I don't race them to land the first blow. I might talk to them, or I might draw away from them. Either way, I can only respect one who has a view but who has the courage to be open with it. How easy it must be to hide in a mask and preach hatred. It is cowardice. For all I know, just writing this could mean I wake to a burning cross in my front garden (or worse), but at least you know who I am. 

And for the record EDL - what you do is not in my name or in the name of my children. You are not solving a problem, you are adding to it - and with you there are some who are just along for the destructive ride. The world is more dangerous with you than without. 

Monday, 8 March 2010

Lent Course 2010 [Blog] - Part III

Jesus Christ and Fear

Fear is, to a greater or lesser extent, who we are. We are creatures who know a little or a lot about fear, be that in positive or negative ways: jealousy (fear and love), protectiveness (fear for the safety of those whom we love), paranoia (a psychosis of fear) - among others. Fear seems to me to be as intrinsic to our human condition as an appetite for the next meal. Whilst fear is a vast factor in the lives of some, I recognise that it is a marginal concern for others - but there nonetheless. I have to believe, then, that Jesus must have known and embodied fear as we all do. Yes, being God must proffer a whole panoply of reassurances in the face of the mortal life - I cannot believe that fear was not an aspect of the life of Jesus. To me at least, anyone who does not know fear is not affirmed in the truth of their situation, let's say! We all have insurance polcies for one thing or another (or fourteen in my case, I am horrified to discover), and what greater exploiter of fear is the insurance policy?

In order to gather my own thoughts, I ponder the following:

  • What is fear and how is it manifest in my own life?

  • How does it moderate my behaviour, especially towards others?

  • How does my fear affect other people?

  • Is fear an appropriate response for a Christian in the face of our Christian hope in Christ?

  • Can fear be positive, and if so, how?
I guess the next step is to ask the specific question of Jesus: did he experience fear, when and if so, how?

For me, the clear answer is that yes, Jesus did know and experience fear. In the account of the agony in the garden of Gethsemane described in Matthew 26: 36-46, we recieve an account of a very human brand of fear. I will justify this view (obvious as it might be to me, though not taking that for granted of you, dear readers) by working throught the account:

Imagine having a certain knowledge that within hours you will face your own death; not just a death but a terrible and agonising death (I am confident in my guess that the Roman authorities were not known for thair humanitarian murder). If you have ever fled from someone who means you harm, you might know how that kind of anticipatory adrenelin fuelled fear feels.
Jesus couldn't bear to face his agony alone. He asked that his friends 'kept him company' - such behaviour is manifest in the child's request to 'come with me' - fear is often softened by the company of others. His reaction to their failure in their charge implies a considerable level of fear.
Matthew states that Jesus was agitated. Whilst I am no biologist and certianly no medic, I know that fear precipitates a fight/flight response. Agitiation seems to me to be an outpouring of this instinctive response.
Jesus asks the Father to let the cup pass from him. While know that he later submits to his fate, his plea to the Father is (again, to me at least) a clear sign of Jesus' fear in the face of what was foretold and what was to become among the most brutal documented tortures and murders ever.
Overall, the tension that is seen in Jesus, his response to his flagging friends, his dialogue with the Father - all of these things paint a picture (to my eyes) of a man who lived knowing what fear was at its most raw and immediate.

Fear is natural; fear is born of a sense of self-preservation which, it could be argued, underpins the majority morality of human culture. It can be harnessed for good by grace or it can be allowed to become morbidly obese and a narcotic in its own way. Jesus experiences fear for his life which perhaps makes him a greater student of fear than most of us - but in the end, he lets grace wash over it. He does not let it become destructive or damaging to others:

'...But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?' (Mtt 26:54)

Friday, 5 March 2010

The Beauty of Hands

I was sitting looking at my daughter's hands today. They were in mine, as she sat and watched a cherished 'Mr Tumble' TV programme - so I had chance, once again, to have a good look. 

I have been fascinated by the girls' hands since they were born. In the first days and weeks, they were the grasping, indiscriminate things with fingers flicking in all directions and none (this picture is of one such hand at one such time). They were hands that had no co-ordination beyond the instinctive, no ability to hold in any meaningful way, no ability to manipulate or control. I remember thinking then how it is another miracle of nature that such hands can develop into dextrous tools - the mark of humanity in many ways. 

Hands are, to me at least, central to my ministry. I use them in the sacred moments of consecration; I can give peace to someone who is ill-at-ease, just with a touch; in many ways I can weave stories and spells that mesmerise some of the children in my ministerial care; I can offer a greeting (one hand if you are 'alright', two if I really like you). I also believe (counter-culturally) that touch is the most soothing, reassuring, human thing that I can do, and appropriate with adults and children. Yes, there are protocols, but so are there for everything. 

With this in mind, I found myself rapt by these little hands. They are pretty adept at what life requires of them, but they are also gifted in comforting and soothing. Jessica and Rebekah have learned that even though they are still two years old, a stroke of the face is a healing thing. They have learned that a hand held is reassuring, offering safety and protection. They have learned that hands can beautify - they play with one another's hair, decorating it with clips and other such adornments (before moving on to mine). Yes, they also know how easily an index finger reaches to those places in the nose that a crayon cannot reach. Yes, they know that a hit will hurt. 

I stare wonderingly both in the present joy that those little hands give, and also at the vast potential that lays in them. I have no wish for them beyond being happy in this life, but I find myself pondering what those little mitts will achieve in their days. Will they be the hands that pens a world-class novel or an earth shattering symphony? Will they be hands that heal? Will they be hands that can suspend pain and tears? Will they be hands become capable of creating music that is so beautiful it is crippling? I even wonder if the vagueries of life will mean that they have to become hands that kill to prectect? If I miss a trick as a parent, will they be the hands that adminsiters the next fix? If eyes are the window to the soul, then hands are surely the front-door. The goodness that is innate in my children (even beyond any control that I can claim to have had) is manifest in their tenderness, in their readiness to heal (even now). They are so small, so perfectly formed, and yet so powerful that they can overwhelm me. In the years that I hope and pray are granted me to do so, I will watch avidly as those four little hands acquire new skills - all the while praying that they retain the perfect silent meaningful power that they already have.


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