Monday, 30 January 2012

Watching The World Go By

A little time ago, I was in the house alone. It was quiet, the passing planes seemed a distant memory and the sun poured through many of the windows. The house was suffused with that warm golden light that only morning sun can offer, and all was peaceful. 

As I had a moment to ponder, I sat down and looked out of the window. I watched one of the many squirrels that are resident in our garden busying himself with his nuts (!), the wood pigeons flapping from branch to branch as the parakeets screeched through the relative silence. 

I looked up to see the Airbus 380 ascending in the blue sky above the house (and despite its colossal size and 550 passengers, made its way in the spirit of the peace that was currently prevailing). Up it went, defying the gravity that surely should have prevented it rising! I was reveling in this scarce moment of tranquility, a magical moment when every thing seemed to freeze-frame in a concentrated breathe of perfect grace. 

At the side of my garden and in my direct view is a brick wall, above which passing vans can be seen, or the heads of taller passers-by. As they drove or passed by, I pondered the purpose of their journey - to see friends, to visit the shops, to go to work, to see loved ones, to work off breakfast? I pondered the many many worlds that coincide in every moment and in every place, people passing other people, each with hopes and fears. 

Then one man, as he passed by, looked round as was tall enough to see over the wall. He saw me sat there pondering, yet he looked awkward. I was minding my business and I even smiled broadly in a sort of 'howdy-doody' greeting of sorts. He looked down and scurried off. I wondered if it was the dog-collar, that by some feat of unholy power I was trying to reel him in for the Lord at thirty paces. I had only just moved into the house, so was as yet unknown to people. It's funny how some people are. 

Then to my horror it occurred to me.

I was sat on the toilet and the window was in the room across the hall through the door I had forgotten to shut. New house, new rules!

Friday, 27 January 2012

Shoah

You may remember that I visited Jerusalem about 16 months ago and spent two weeks studying at Yad Vashem, the World Centre for Holocaust Research. It is a place that serves two primary purposes - the first to give the 'memory and a name [yad vashemד ושם‎‎י ]' to the many millions of now nameless Jews who died at the hands of the Nazis, the second to educate the world about the causes. 

If you want to read a few of my thoughts from that visit, please visit an old blog of mine here

I read, watched and listened to many hours of testimony, primary source evidence and the scars left by that tragedy. A few things stuck:

1. The Holocaust ['Shoah' (Ha Shoah, catastrophe השואה) in Jewish circles] was unique among genocides because it was a whole-race destruction based on idealism and not on aggrandizement of land or property. Jews dies simply because they were Jews, not because the Nazis coveted the land or wealth of that population.

2. The ideology behind the Shoah has its roots in (among other places) Christianity and the first Christian tragedy of the death of Christ. Martin Luther joined many of the Early Fathers in an anti-semitism that was later nurtured in the heart of an Austrian artist and eventual Chancellor of Germany. Indeed, his book Mein Kampf cites Luther a number of times, regarding him in the light of a national hero. (I ought to note here and now, that the Jehovah Witnesses died in their thousands because they wouldn't support the Nazi ideology)

3. Three groups of people played their part - the victim, the perpetrator and the by-stander. The first two are perhaps obvious, with the third including you and me in this day when people still die in genocides. 

Of the accounts that I heard all those months ago, of all the faces of children I looked at as they played mere days before their screaming agonising frightening execution in the dark, of all the piles of personal paraphernalia that now characterises that event, of all the hours of evidence given by relatively banal civil servants defending their acts of genocide as 'orders', one encounter stuck. That was of a women who sat before us in the room where we were gathered.

She was a women in her seventies, a retired nurse. She was well dressed, well presented, the happy mother of children (one of her sons was our tutor). She had lived a broadly good life, except for one thing: she didn't know her name. She knew the name that her adoptive parents gave her, a women into whose arms she was thrown (yes, thrown) while her birth-mother queued for her death. She landed in the arms of a stranger who took her in (to their own mortal risk and against vast odds of landing in supportive arms) and raised her as their own. The lady didn't know who her real family were, who she really was. In many ways she still felt anonymous, rootless, the un-murdered victim.

Rarely do we see these people with our own eyes. We read of them in our history lessons or in books that we dare to glance through. This Shoah was real and the victims real. They are still among us today as we carry on with our business. Though they are the 'lucky' ones. They didn't have to dig their own grave before being shot into it. They didn't have to experience that moment when lights dimmed and poison filled the air. They didn't have to regard the taunting eye of a gun chamber or a line of uniformed boys pointing rifles.

This happened in our lifetime. This happened in the age of television and telephone. This happened because bystanders (on all sides) stood by and watched madmen construct vile ideologies.

Which means that it could, just could, happen again (if we let it). 

On this Holocaust Memorial Day, may Yahweh bless, preserve and watch over all those who died because of their heritage, and over us who can never fully comprehend their Passion.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Toning Up for God

...you know I have been going to the gym...
Yes, I have successfully managed to squeeze my corpulent reverential bulk into a gymnasium to a sufficiency that demands the language of plurals. I run some, row some, stretch pull and lift some - then I steam and spa, shower, coffee, home. I have even lost a stone of lard since Christmas, so there.

I used to go to the gym when I was late-teenager and did, believe it or not, sport the odd formed muscle. You'd be hard pressed to discern shape under the blancmange that caresses every inch of my ontologically-changed form nowadays, but aspire I do, and sweat too. 

There are many good arguments in favour of keeping fit as a sort of 'Temple preservation exercise', to maintain the mean-altar that the Lord places in our unworthy hearts. I subscribe, reluctantly, as one who finds it hard to exercise these days. I accept too that as fleshly creatures, we are a complex assortment of the circulatory, muscular, skeletal, endocrine, immune and digestive to name but a few. We make even the most complex computer look like an abacus, and we cannot endlessly neglect our bodies. 

So, to the gym I go in the presumptuous hope and belief that I am doing some good as I fast approach my forties. I don't aspire to a muscularity as offered in the image, or to be able to run a marathon, but simply to live long and live the best I can. 

As I look around the gymnasium, itself set within a Temple of Sport (Twickenham Rugby Ground), I see much that attends to the needs of all that makes us animals the same as lions and tigers. As humans, and as those created in God's image, we are so much more than skin, bone and sinew. We have a facet of our being that sets us apart from all other creepy crawlies and birds of the air - and that is our innate spirituality. 

If I want sodding great big arms, I can sling some iron around. Big arms I gain but to what end? To pull down a steer and bite its ears off? Do big muscles and a thriving blood-system keep us feeling happy? Do they give a sense of wonder in the face of exquisite beauty? Do they help us know God even a fraction more? No, of course they don't. It would be the same as saying that a church is mighty because its roof doesn't leak, or that a bank will never fail because it has modern lifts. We focus on the the tangible and external because we can see results.

But we often neglect the intangible, immeasurable - and I believe increasingly to our peril. 

I have been working on a sort of idea born of the efforts I put in at the gym, an idea that might find life in my church. I believe, quite sincerely, that many Christians privately despair because they think that can't pray or relate properly to God. Of course they can, but that reticence often provides a barrier to the experience. Also, prayer techniques are acquired and learned like so many others. We are creatures of habit, good or bad, and sometimes we just need to be shown a new way. 

I will, in one form or another, be proposing the idea of a sort of a spiritual gymnasium (Pip and Gym?) where all-comers can be exposed to 'exercises' and receive a little guidance and advice (or more importantly, a time and a space). Presenting an opportunity, in a conspicuous form, to maximise on the relationship that is already there and already full will (I believe) give us all a greater ability to receive what is always there in abundance from our Lord. 

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Damascus or Psalm 139

Today, in the Anglican cycle of things at least, we commemorated the conversion of one Saul of Tarsus. Flash bang wallop, one very neat letter writer, jail-bird and Mediterranean rambler.

This day, and the readings to which we were treated in Exciting Holiness this morning (fine book, get a copy), brought to mind a small anxiety I have harboured for a good number of years. 

In the main, there are two types of Christian (in this schema): those termed 'cradle-Christians' and those who did all that getting-to-know the Lord stuff at a later age. Put another way, you get your Psalm 139 disciples or you get your Damascus Road disciples. 

This is, of course, a statement of the blindingly obvious. I accept, too, that people drift in and out of faith as their lives peak and trough and that such elasticity is a good and healthy thing. Christianity, in the main, is not a faith of those 'inside' and those 'outside', and that it one of its most gracious qualities. Toe-dipping, running-away-screaming, coming back when the kids grow up, confessing an old faith on the death bed - all these and so many more are ways that as Christ's disciples, we make sense of that journey.

If only it were that simple. Sadly, it feels (I lean on 'feel' as it might just be me) that there is a spiritual stratification in place, surrounding this specific matter. 

I have lost count of the times when I have seated myself in an Anglican Circle in a large room to dissect my 'story'. Largely throughout theological training, but quite a lot since, I found myself doing the 'going-round-the-circle' thing. How we come to faith is up there with our name and some interesting nonsense about how we lived life before we sat in that room, and spill our guts we do. Then it happens.

Person 1: God spoke to me up when I was a terrible teenager

Person 2: I gave my life to Jesus at 6.42pm on April 11th 1976 and it was raining outside

Me: I have always been a Christian since I was born
Person 4: My dad is a priest and I always went to church
Person 5: I answered God's personal call to me after three decades in the wilderness
Person 6: I was a crack addict until I let God into my heart and here I am

All good, no issues. Unless you are sat there in the room. Confessing a Psalm 139 faith is about the same as "I am only here because I can't be arsed to leave", or "Accidental Christian". Confessing a Damascus Road faith is received triumphantly like a hero returning from the field of battle, scarred and bloodied, but alive (and yes, affirming grunts from the throng are audible). I have never given my life to God simply because I didn't ever need to. There were no days before my faith, I was made like this (fearfully and wonderfully?). Sadly, it seems to be the case that you ain't no-one unless you can name the time and place. 

I am no-one. 

Except who God made me to be, and I am happy at that.




Monday, 23 January 2012

Playing The Numbers Game

Last week's Church Times does as it always seems to and got me despondent and mildly vexed in equal measure (in other words, it challenges me to think afresh many things). 

Tucked away on p7 was a little article by Ed Thornton covering 'church numbers', a perennial exercise in poor news made amusing by those trying hard to see the good in all things. Gawd blessem.

Church attendance numbers are, gently, going down. That is not good and news that displeases me. This year has, though, offered news that church weddings are 'up' which is alright innit. Oh, and half a dozen more people worship God in a skater-cafe ice-rink so that is good too. 

I am blessed with a particular autism, and that is a fascination for statistics. I used to discover petty larceny by staring for hours at tables of number in Font 4 in my old job. Church-based numbers are no less fascinating to me, for I am one weird saddo who ought to get a life. 

So, what has happened in 2011? Allow me to be uncharitable for a moment. Fifteen or sixteen disgruntled Anglo-Catholics suddenly changed their sacramental theology and became half-cast half-baked Roman catholics, which is not good. Fear of Breasts in Clerical Shirts, otherwise known as Boobincollarphobia, is a debilitating scourge on many 'traditionalists'. So go they went and went they did. But surely we are laughing in the Church of England because we have the pasta-based Gospel marketting machine reeling people in for the Lord. Yet numbers are still tumbling despite gazillions of people who have partaken of Ruarchioli, so either churches of a given flavour do not complete their registers, or something is not as rosy as we would like to pretend. 

Fortunately, the good Lord doesn't worry like we worry. The good Lord probably doesn't become gussett-rotated (if the Ominpresent Omniscient Omnivorous Lord has such an article of clothing) about numbers like we humans do. God has given us faith, and would direct us to, in the words of my wise and most excellent training incumbent - 'avoid the numbers game'. 

Amusingly though, at the foot of p7, my dear friend had posted a very nice advert for a gathering of WATCH folk suggesting (possibly) that they may be in the wilderness. I encourage them to take heart.  Only twenty-four people go to church, so that wilderness is a very very tiny place. 

Still, the good news is that I have tidied my study. There must be a liturgy for that somewhere!

Friday, 20 January 2012

500 Not Out


Well, I am rather delighted to say that this is my 500th post in this 'ere blog. It is proof, were any needed, that this priest can not just concoct one or a dozen daft notions but many hundreds. 

I think that I have been blogging for about 14 months now, and have found it to be a most satisfying way of spending a spare fifteen-odd minutes some days of the week. I have learned as much about me as you have, and I know that there are those of you out there that have read every jolly letter. That in itself is a humbling fact to absorb, and I thank all of you most sincerely. 

So then - what of this blog. It is always a work in progress and this blogger a blogger in training. There are many hundreds of far better offerings than this, and I thank them too for teaching many lessons in what it is I try to do here. As I think back, I can count an incomplete Lent Course, an incomplete series of how to attract men into churches, far too many red-faced rants, a couple of experimental liturgies, some needless reactions to having had buttons pressed, many times when I have been wrong, a few when I was right, a change of name, some giggles, some good ideas (I think), and many many new acquaintances and friends. In other words, I'd do it all over again. 

I still believe in the valency of blogging. I think that the world is starting to too, with people facing conviction for stuff that appears in micro-blogs, and other social media sites. I read a story of a woman fined millions because of defamatory remarks made on her own blog. This is real, the words are real, the sentiment is real, the effect intentional (mostly) and it exists through eternity. We blog carelessly at our peril, and sadly, many do. 

I reach people in places I haven't even heard of, and by posts I would never have predicted. Most days, now, well over a thousand hits land here (and only 976 of them are me), and my top five posts of all time are:

Humuhumunukunukuapua'a


Oddly, none of these is overtly Christian, if even religious at all. It perhaps goes to show that if we God-botherers stop trying so hard, we might just get somewhere. 

I am not sure how to end this post other than to say thank you to those of you read this, and to bear with me as I struggle to find time to write. Be assured I still want to, and this Vernacular Fool ain't going nowhere. 





Wednesday, 18 January 2012

The Food of My Soul



I was trawling through video clips so that I could update my Vernacular Video Bar, and struck (for me) gold. Today I have placed two pieces for your enjoyment - one because it is technical picking as I like it (though not hard to do if you know what you are doing), and because the other made me cry (in a nice way).

This is hard on the heels of a journey that I have made this morning where, as ever, I was plugged into my iPod. 

I reflected this morning that I could live without many things physical or temporal - but not music. I can no more live without music than I can live without air, and the starvation of either makes for a poor day, I find.

The video at the top of this post is of Mark Knopfler, the only man alive who by his creativity can make me weep because I find his skill overwhelming and beautiful. His music, to me, is stunning. It is music that soars like a feather on a spring breeze, just before crashing into me like a freight-train. It is effective, lyrical, hard yet soft, winsome when needs be and technically about as good as you will find. This video is of a song that is dripping with pathos anyway, and with an orchestra, is a perfect moment. The fact is, that Mr Knopfler is a man who makes the notes that he doesn't play sound stunning too. 

In general terms, music reaches us where we wish to be reached. I played a wide array of snippets of music last night at the service I lead in the Week of Prayer for Christian unity - including Maria Callas, Metallica, Eric Clapton, a kids' nursery rhyme, Alien Ant Farm and the odd Wesleyan hymn - partly to illustrate that we are all different, but to comment that despite their differences, all of that music was on my one iPod. In its breadth I am best served by music as there are Faure days as their are Chris Rea days. Unity, I said, wasn't about being the same, but about being united in our variety.

The thing with music is that we choose what we like. We don't waste a moment of our time listening to music we dislike, so it fast becomes the purest expression of ourselves. I am not sure that much else works like that so easily and so purely in our lives. Our musical tastes have their seasons too, and it fair to say that I haven't listened to Hitman Howie Tee for a few years (though I used to listen to little else when I was a sprog).

I pity the poor soul that has to arrange my funeral. I can't even do it (an exercise I have tried to do so that Mrs Acular is spared). Music in death is as evocative as music in life, and the effort to sum me up in hymnody and song will be a rocky one. Put another way, if you want to get a real idea of who this blogger really is, listen to these videos and others as they appear - for they do a far better job than I could. 

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Social Media and the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

It's a funny thing. I am sitting in the coffee shop of a national chain of gymnasia, wheezing, and rather than exercising, am preparing a sermon for a service in church tonight. I am also 'riding' Twitter (as one does) following the hashtag #wpcu2012 . For those who don't speak the Masoretic language of Twitter, it is a label that connects all thoughts on the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. 

And it's my day off! 

As I ponder this idea of Christian Unity, especially on a day when we commemorate the life of an Egyptian monk (St. Antony) and the life of an Oxford academic who was part of the Tractarian Movement (Charles Gore), it is clear that for as many Christian who have lived and breathed on this earth, there are as many variables of this living faith of ours. Yes, we conglomerate into denominations, and those denominations have some similarities, but in the end, the great joy of holding a faith in Christ is that we can all be different. 

The theme for the Week of Prayer this year is that of 'change'. Let me get this straight: we are all different, seek unity, while at the same time aspiring to change. Sounds like a game of ecclesiastical Twister to me, but like all challenges to our faith, is one that commits not just our efforts but those of the God we adore in common. I wonder if the change that is called for is simply that we embrace our differences in the comfort of the overwheleming matters that we hold in common. 

This brings me to social media, and a drum I bang often. Among my Twitter friends, and those whose blogs I read or who are kind enough to read mine, are Christians of every flavour and pursuasion. I am a Christian of a specific brand, and those who know me know my preferences in worship, in ecclesial attire, in hymnody, in theological nuance. In the gander scheme, none of those things are important, and simply choices that appeal to me. Social media doesn't really care for any of that, yet accommodates all of it. Twitter and Facebook care not a jot that I am a contemporary breed of Anglo Catholic, and in many ways that is good. I share thoughts and debate with many Christians (and those who have no faith) and most of the time, the labels are simply of no importance. 

I don't think a week of prayer for Christian Unity is, or should be, about us all being the same. Life would be turgid and dull if we were. A week of prayer for unity is a week to celebrate what we hold in union and that we carry in hands each pair distinct from the next. I don't want to be a Roman Catholic and I am sure that my Catholic friends have no desire to be Anglican. We are who we are and we are as the Lord has called us. Imagine an orchestra if every one of the gifted musicians played the same instrument. Yes, there would be music, but the repertoire would be rather limited.

Friday, 13 January 2012

A Vicar's First Christmas

Ss Philip & James Whitton
And so it came to pass that Christmas came to pass, and that Christmas present fast became Christmas past. The Christmas to which I refer was, as a Vicar, my first and I hope and pray will not become my last. I arrived with hopes and a few more aspirations. The truth is, dear readers, that each was amply surpassed. Of my train of thought you may inquire, and on I get with it, pretty fast. 

As a curate, in many ways the show that is Christmas is laid on by others. One joins an organisation that has its routines and rituals, and it is incumbent upon the curate to slot in, pick up some of the duties, and generally crack on. That changes, subtly, as the Incumbent. Yes, we join an organisation with its routines and rituals, but not a single one would happen without our 'agreement'. 

As September edges into October edges into November, as the New Vicar, it fast becomes apparent that an unspoken expectation develops. What are doing this Christmas, Farv? The response was, this year, along the lines of 'what you did last year is good this, so I can watch and learn'. A pall of relief fell over the community.

Then the great feast arrives, Advent flies past with a pace, and the services start to loom. I confess that threw a few curved balls to see what response I would get - a meditation on the penultimate Saturday before Christmas, opting to sing the Preface at Midnight Mass - things like that. The response was good, though if I am honest the lock-changes occupied people's minds more than my liturgical adaptions. 

Priests will tell you that Christmas is a busy time. Poppycock. Actually, in the great scheme of things, it is about the same as the rest of the year on one level, although the burden of stress seems to increase on another level. We churn out more services, yes; but the meetings abate, the schools close and many aspects of a Vicar's day fall away. Lots of carols, lots of stress. The stress is as a result of knowing that, to a greater or lesser extent, the parish Christmas is in my hands. That is a big thing to absorb. I am blessed with brother priests and readers who were able to look after a few services, and sitting back in a pretty cope was still stressful. What if ... what if ... what if? We want Christmas to be perfect, unique and fit for use and fit for God. Anything less is, to most of us, abject failure. We worry about numbers, collections, musicians arriving on time, all that stuff.

In the end, although I would have sweated every bead whatever I knew the outcome to be, it was a wonderful Christmas. The stress implicit in the 'what ifs' is balanced in the satisfaction of a well attended service, the faces of children engaging with the content, the laughs of typically straight-laced adults, feedback, swollen collections, people coming back already, myriad myriad new faces and returned familiar ones. I didn't make it happen, because I am but one wheel in a very large cog, but that doesn't mean I didn't pat myself on the back on Boxing Day. This Vicar is blessed by a capable, committed and energetic flock, most of whom added to the celebrations in specific ways. The church was full most of the time, and with minimal stress from anyone (apart from the Vicar).

It was everything I had dreamed of and hoped for, several times over. 

Thursday, 12 January 2012

The Exploitation of Our Armed Forces?

Courtesy of the Guardian newspaper
Until about two years ago, you had (among a very small number) SSAFA and the British Legion, organisations comprising veterans who devoted much time and effort to raise funds for recovered personnel and their families during times of conflict. Then came Help for Heroes, a wonderful organisation that does pretty well what it says on the tin.

This is all good stuff and a sign that the heart of the nation still beats with a care for those who defend its borders or those unable to defend themselves.

Then we started seeing the Wootton Bassett effect which started off as the outpouring of grief from the wider circles of friends of repatriated fallen servicemen and women. Eventually, the bus to Bassett became the one to board whether you knew the soldier in the hearse or not, and in many ways, is another sign that the heart of the nation still beats as it should. It perhaps took on some of the Diana Effect where people would publicly express visible grief at the death of strangers.

In recent days something has become apparent to me that forms a strange blend of encouraging and troubling. In adverts for a whole array of different products and services, most recently the mighty WeightWatchers, there has been an increase in the 'use' of the armed services (and in particular those in Afghanistan) in the advertising. The example I cite is a woman who wanted to be slim for the return of her husband from his tour of duty. In other words, it feels just a little like the men and women of our armed services are becoming commercial currency.

Part of me thinks that we have finally come to terms that we are sending people into harms way; part of me that 'heroes' is a new and very emotive and lucrative bandwagon. I am not so sure I would mind if I didn't know that some of these present day heroes, when their day is done, become very quickly forgotten when they come home and are discharged from their military units (except perhaps those who suffer horrific visible injuries, and quite rightly so). 

I wonder if I am being churlish. Why shouldn't our armed forces receive some much needed publicity? I think, though, that when men and women in mortal danger become the stuff of a slimming advert, that we may have gone too far. The soldiers I have contact with, with less visible but no less life limiting injuries, do not enjoy this use of their specific risk and would value a few shekels from the profits of the companies selling their goods on the back of their sweat and toil. 

Friday, 6 January 2012

My Dad Said It Was Rubbish

With thanks to fellow blogger Gareth Saunders for bringing this to my attention. My journey with Metallica started about the same time. They celebrate 30 years making music this year. This blogger congratulates them, thanks them, and hopes they come to the UK again soon!

If you don't like Metallica, this probably isn't for you! (some language too, be warned)

Rock on

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Gherkin

As I ate fois gras with Mrs Acular and the Twins Aculae earlier today, we pondered why the gherkin always appears in certain 'culinary offerings'. Take a bite, spit it out - for a gherkin rests within. Why?

I'll tell you why.

Because the McDonalds Corporation is doing me a favour. And let me explain.

Ronald McDonald doesn't just buy a peck of pickled cucumbers, but rather an entire GDP of pickled cucumbers. They do so in order to enhance the experience of the Big Mac eater. And glad we are too. Except that I have never met a soul who doesn't be-grease his or her fingers in the extraction of the slimy green disc of gammy sludge that resides between the nasty dayglo mustard and the wangy cheese that has no more seen a cow than my gerbils. Such is the accepted architecture of the modern burger, a la McDonalds. We all loathe them, we all pick them out, but yet the Golden Arches clan continues to insinuate gherkins into the heart of the English Burger. 

Better that they are though.

The thing is, if McDonalds stop putting gherkin into my burger, the great Gherkin Conglomerate in deepest Gherkinland would, in a trice, go out of business. That would generate a specific and calculated response from Christian organisations, each desiring to keep the gherkin industry afloat.

With the sweep of a dozen committees and the issuing of a dozen more edicts, we would all become Fair Gherkin Churches, members together of Fair Gherkin Dioceses.

Then, instead of the noble Sunday morning coffee, we'd all be committed to sup gherkin juice ... for God.

So, McDonalds - know now that we delight in you putting gherkins into your food. If you didn't, people like me would have coffee mornings to save the green perils. 


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