Wednesday, 25 September 2019

Of coffee, countryside and kirk...

My last post was a somewhat tongue in cheek ode to the wonders of coffee - the great life-giver, heart-starter, finder of lost brain cells, and mover of our bones.
I am a fan of the bean, the wondrous coffee bean, and the oh-so-many ways of drinking it in all of its fabulous, caffeinated glory. So, there was a slight pang of sadness when I was preparing to move to the rural wilds of the parish, knowing that my [insert coffee chain of choice in here] days of drinking such a variety of caffeinated beverages would soon come to an end. That was before I found [chain that must not be named] at the services on the motorway that passes through the area, and realised that if I sold my first-born or my immortal soul, I could still have all that happy caffeinated joy in my soul - or, the place my soul formerly occupied.

Out here, in the rural wilds [which are not quite as remote as some I've been through], there's less scope for spontaneity of the 'oh, I really fancy an avocado, I'll just nip to the shop' kind. The nearest shop of any description is the neighbouring village store 3 miles along the road. Alas, they don't sell anything quite as exotic as avocados. They do have a decent range of stock for a small establishment, and they've recently begun selling lattes [not bad, to be honest] and making soup and rolls in the new extension. It has become a haven for hungry, and usually very wet, cyclists who pedal the route from Land's End to John 'o Groats. For such hipster needs as an avocado, I need to drive 17 miles up the road to the nearest country town of 2 000. There, the wee town with a 'big' name, rejoices in having a decent array of actual joined up shops, one of which is a killer ironmonger's that doubles as an Aladdin's cave to die for [magic, yes, but no avocados]. The supermarket, as such is a small, but well-stocked Coop, where avocado joy abounds. It's also a useful place to stock up on ever-reliable frozen goods, in case of weather, for this is a place where the weather can hit hard in winter [well, by Scottish standards]. In the tricky winter of 2018, I was stuck in the house for 4 days at one point, and at least I live by the main road in the village, not down a lane or country track. You need to be prepared. If not, there's not so much of the 'blossom and flourish' but more of the 'wither and perish'... or it could be that way if neighbours didn't look out for one another, and it's great when the local farmers take turns on their tractors to try and keep the roads clear.

Scattered over many miles, there are still some very good community networks and yet, there's isolation too. The parish covers approx. 180sq. miles. Nine  small villages spread themselves about the hills and river valleys, with farms scattered around, often up single track roads way out in the middle of what some would consider 'nowhere.' While it's easy to be noticed within a village, it's also easy to be invisible - some move out here to do precisely that, disappear. One of the highest rates of suicide in Scotland is found within the farming community. Alcoholism and substance abuse happens in the beauty of the hills and glens just as it does in the inner cities. Domestic violence exists here as it does elsewhere. Poverty too. I write referrals for the nearest food bank which, mercifully, delivers, given it's 30 miles away from the village I happen to stay in. I'm continually astonished and humbled by members of the congregation and folk from the wider community who know we support the work of the food bank, and who are so generous with their donations. Initially, when we as the local parish church started up our very micro project of accepting items for the food bank, folk gave, but often with the comment
'but no-one around here uses it.'
To which my response was
'You'd be surprised, yes, they do.'
We get the goods up to the food bank, piggy-backing onto another church over in the big' town. It's a nice wee piece of collaboration.

Austerity cutbacks have hit hard in rural areas. With fewer services anyway, those we have are constantly under threat. In the five years I've lived in this village, we've lost the small Post Office, the village shop, and the surgery. Other villages tell similar stories. It means travelling further to get basic needs met. I'm still surprised by the number of folk who live out here who don't drive. If you do have a car, you find that you're paying at least 10p per litre more than in the larger towns. If you don't have access to a car, how do you get the 21 miles up the road to the Job Centre if you have an appointment that doesn't fit with the 3 buses that run [and those 3 buses don't run through all the villages]? If you miss your appointment, that's you, punished and cut off from any help from the Social. Another knock-on effect: if you only have the local store to rely on, sure, you'll have access to food and other goods, but of course, it costs more. The small stocks of Social Housing that have been built here and there, are often filled with folk who are placed from much bigger towns and cities, and who get easily lost. Fewer services, fewer distractions or places to spend time, coupled with feeling like an 'incomer' means addictions that may have been under control, flare up.

Institutionally, with the church, programmes and ideas rolled out from head office are often met with bemusement in places such as this: what works well in towns and leafy suburbs with more 'gathered' human resources doesn't necessarily translate in places where folk are scattered. And that's fine. The church as an institution parallels those other community institutions: education and the NHS. Rural areas are the ones who often don't feel seen - like some in our communities, we feel institutionally invisible. But we're still here. We will be for a wee while longer living with the effects of, and in the shadow of the slow withdrawal from the edges and shrink to the centre that seems to be happening across the board with other institutions. Often I refer to what is happening within the church as 'ecclesiastical Darwinism'. It would be sad to see a business model church where only the wealthiest and best resourced survived. Out here, along with many other rural churches, proportionally, my folk are incredible givers. Yet, we'll never be anything other than seen as 'aid receiving' - just because of such a scattered population. It's easy for rural congregations to begin to look inward, to focus on what they don't have and what they can't do.

None of this is meant as a complaint. Rural ministry is a great calling. There are joys and there are challenges. So, what is the future for the church in rural areas? I'm not sure, but I think the 'traditional' model has to die as an institutional whole, and rise up in a new way - we are a resurrection people, and 'alleluia!' is still our song. In the meantime, I get on with leaning over farm fences and chatting to farmers, or going to the local agricultural shows, feed the occasional orphan lamb at lambing time, and try to find ways of encouraging my folk to look at what they do have, and what they can do. And, for all that they don't see it at times, it's a lot. In the kindness and support for the micro food bank project, they can and are making a difference: loving their neighbour in a most practical way. There are wee green shoots to be found in unexpected conversations in village halls. So, we all plod on, because, I think, that's the work, and the mission, and the joy. And in the isolation of the rural life, and of rural ministry, God's still walking here with us, in what locals occasionally refer to as 'God's treasure store.'
And in the midst, there's also coffee.

Sunday, 22 September 2019

Coffee table hymns and other tortures

It's been a wee bit quiet due to having been absorbed in writing another book chapter...

In the meantime, challenged by a friend yesterday who was off on a charity walk before breakfast, I wrote an 'encouraging' hymn, because why ever turn down the chance for quality doggerel?
Here below, a hymn for Eric, and indeed, anyone who needs coffee beans to get them up and at 'em and into the day.
This, to the tune 'Fill my cup, Lord.'

Fill my cup, Lord, oh, brew it up, Lord
Come and quench this torpor in my soul
Beans of Heaven, wake me 'til I sleep no more
Fill my cup, let me sup, and make me whole☕️

In a moment of madness, volunteering
seemed like a great thought at the time.
But in the morning hour, sleeping
Needed a jolt of caffeine or I'd die...

Fill my cup, Lord... etc☕️

In the morning, with my brain all a'creaking
I stagger to my sacred hoard
Of beans whose magic gives such pleasure:
Oh! Sweet sound of coffee being poured

Fill my cup, Lord... etc☕️
Oh my brother, why not try a strong expresso
Or perhaps a café au lait?
The mar'v'lous bean that we adore so
Keeps you walking for charity all day...

Fill my cup, Lord... etc☕️

Friday, 13 September 2019

Songs with low expectations

Just some random silliness in between work and writing and wonderment...

You've heard them: the big hits expressing high hopes for love, fame, success, or maybe just a quiet time out looking across the bay as the tide rolls away. It's all very well, but sometimes, life just doesn't work out that way; sometimes the expectations and the reality are poles apart.
Do songwriters need to lower their expectations?
Seems so: there's been a twitter feed rejoicing in the hashtag #SongsWithLowerExpectations.
So I decided to play.
Here follows a few of my own, perhaps more attainable or realistic, song titles...

Let's begin with some reworked hits for hungry folk:
Just haven't et you yet
Chips don't lie
Careless Whispa
There’s A Guy Works Down The Chip Shop broke his pelvis
I want to hold your ham

or songs for specific professions:
The house that kill't me [a cautionary nod to Scottish builders]
Losing my hedge [a nod to gardeners]
The sounds of silage [a nod to farmers]
Hay, Jude [another nod to farmers]
I got ewe, babe [yet another nod to farmers]
Wouldn't it be gneiss [a nod to geologists]

or perhaps some songs for around the home:
House of the rising scum
Stairway to Devon
I gotta ceiling

and several general disappointments:
Papa's got an old used bag
Get outta my dreams and into my cart
All about that mace [a cautionary nod to stalkers?]

So, what other songs need to lower their expectations, I wonder...?

Thursday, 5 September 2019


There are times in life when inspiration is just utterly lacking,
or, when you're caught on the hop so completely, that words fail.
These tend to be the times when a particular prayer for a particular [and often peculiar] occasion is requested.
There are other times when, well...
it'd be kinda nice if someone else did the work.
What to do in times such as these?
I'm glad you asked.
After mulling over this wee issue during the week, I wondered just how useful a 'prayer for any occasion' template might be:
a Prayer-O-Matic, if you will

Given I've asked the question, it seems only fair that I offer a suggestion.
Here's a humble work in progress...

[insert deity name of choice],
we give you
[thanks and praise/ awe and honour/ a brief moment of our attention]
as we gather together on this
[day/night/am/pm/seriously random occasion]
[ask your blessing on x/ call imprecations down upon y].
Through the power of
[your Spirit/ the Force/ Greyskull]
may you
[cause this person/ group/ project]
[blossom and flourish/ wither and perish].
We are
[overjoyed/ excited/ secretly horrified/ quietly bewildered]
by this
[new ministry/ this bold initiative/ lipstick on a pig that's basically same old, same old].
Thank you that even now, you are
[with us/ gently backing out of the room, hopefully unnoticed/ beating your head against a concrete wall]
and that you
[hear us/ are inserting your fingers in your ears and singing 'la la la'/ sighing in despair].
We offer you our prayer in
[insert deity name of choice]

Wednesday, 28 August 2019

Chaos and coup and countryside calm

sneaky peek at Tinto Hill, late afternoon...
A curious day.
In the long-winded saga that is Brexit, there have been so many labyrinthine twists and turns that not even a scattering of breadcrumbs would be much use as a trail to find a helpful way out. Parliament has been in a three year grid-lock of opportunism, grandstanding, and has seen very little in the way of leadership and common sense. This sorry episode in our political history grows more and more surreal on a daily basis; just when you think the whole festering fiasco can't be any more ridiculous, our political masters deliver more buffoonery. If this is the 'strong and stable' alternative to Ed Milliband that David Cameron promised in the lead up to the 2015 General Election, I think I'd like the catastrophic chaos of Ed, thanks.

Today's Brexit installment saw the PM opting to prorogue Parliament for 5 weeks in an act of supremely cynical timing. To do so basically involved throwing the Queen under a bus - not only undermining Parliamentary democracy, but also the Constitutional Monarchy. There have been plenty of hot takes on social media, lots of mud-slinging, confusion, uncertainty, and fear. Vast armies of hashtags have been pressed into service, including the currently trending #StopTheCoup. What's been remarkably absent is a slew of cat memes, a sure sign that this political jiggery-pokery of Boris must be serious. Taking the long view of history, Charles I and Charles II chose to rule without parliaments and that didn't end well. Meanwhile, we watch and wait, some of us humming under our breath 'Do you hear the people sing...'

As the interwebz buzzed and popped with comment and updates through the day, I had a late afternoon appointment to keep in a small country town. A diary mix-up from the other side saw me spend a cheerful time in the pub discussing the theology and spirituality of tattoos with one of the bar staff, and good banter it was, too. Some nods to the constitutional crisis, and one gloriously perfect steak later, I headed off back down the road in stunningly lovely early evening light. The beauty of the area I get to live in truly does, at times, stop me in my tracks and today was such a day. I pulled over to the side of the road, got out of the car, and took in the view of the sun beginning to make its way behind Tinto Hill. All was calm, quiet, and a tonic to the ongoing political chaos. I had no immediate place to be, so stood there in the moment, accepting that small gift of gentle grace. The old WWII public service poster came to mind, to 'keep calm, and carry on.' As I got back in the car and headed home, it was well with my soul.

Thursday, 15 August 2019

Tiny tales of triumph

...or perhaps: feel the fear, and live life anyway
The summer holidays have ended, the school gates are open and, as I type this, young people will be emerging from their first day:
  • of school ever...
  • of going up a year in Primary school and becoming slightly bigger fish in their particular small pond;
  • of moving up to High School and suddenly feeling like quite wee fish in a strange, new, and rather big pond.
  • Some will still be waiting, and preparing for a new experience altogether: of being treated as adults and looking for work, or heading to university. 
Last week, Scottish Higher results were out, and today, it's the turn of England and Wales. On both days, there were many tweets along the lines of: 'it doesn't matter what you got, your results don't define you,' meant kindly, to reassure, and to help put life into perspective. I'm never quite sure about these tweets: for those getting lower than hoped-for grades, I wonder if  the kindliness almost has the opposite effect and feels as if the knife is just being twisted that little bit more. Also, while it's good to reassure, etc., it's also a good thing to be able to celebrate and for those who did get the grades they wanted, it can feel almost dismissive of the achievement and put a damper on celebrating. How better to balance that, I wonder... but I digress.

One of the big words around in teaching these days is 'resilience' and looking at ways in which to build it within our young people to help them prepare for a world where maybe not everyone gets a gold star. How do we help our young people and, for that matter, people in general learn to cope with setbacks in such a way that they can bounce back and keep going - to help build bouncerbackability, if you like? I'm often in awe of the work that staff and students do together in the five wee schools where I'm chaplain. From working together to build safe, kind, fun, learning environments and being involved in mutual decision-making processes, to ways of handling the wins and the losses in life, I see great team work, care and support. Here, building resilience seems to be the product of being:
  • a part of supportive, encouraging communities which... 
  • nurture respectful relationships, 
  • which have good boundaries set by the students themselves with the help of the staff, 
  • which not only foster healthy self-esteem
  • but also motivate students to be outward-looking - not the centre of their own universe, but a part of the universe itself with their own particular place in it... or 'not everything is about you.'
What I love is that I get to be involved a little, and over the 5 years I've been working here, it's been such a privilege to watch the students blossom and flourish, and see them learn to overcome some of the hard stuff of life. Their stories never make the news, but all of them are tiny tales of triumph. Long may that continue.

In the meantime, back to the first day of school, and of one person's tiny tale of triumph.
Among so many young people experiencing their first day at school, huge cheers for tiny 'E' this morning, who managed to successfully navigate the school gates with a brave grin. And, given all the stimulation and her particular special needs, managed very well. Wee star.

Saturday, 10 August 2019

of hills and river valleys...

On Thursday, I left the seaside behind, heading back to the Southern Uplands and to work. I love this time of year when the fullness of summer creates green canopies over country roads and the silage has been gathered up and formed into great, fat yellow cylinders ready to be packaged into black, pale green, and pink sacks for winter feeding - pink for breast cancer awareness, how excellent is that? The wee, fragile lambs of spring are sturdy and confident now, so big that poor patient mamas are lifted nearly off their hooves as their youngsters look for a cheeky feed.

Different sounds and smells here compared to the coast, the marked absence of herring-gulls fighting, for one. A family of swallows are annual, honoured eaves-guests and chat away in high-pitched peeps to one another outside the bedroom window in the early morning; four hatchlings this year. To the back of the house, where the Clyde loops and winds and becomes a natural boundary between newly-shorn fields, oyster catchers stalk the ground in search of snacks. Further along the valley, the hum of a tractor at work, a little late to the silage gathering. Closer, out front of house, the green and yellow of another tractor catches my eye. I watch it bounce along the road to turn off for the next field. Just like God, John Deere is ever-present.

At the moment, the field at the front is home to a flock of Bluefaced Leicesters. An odd-looking breed, tall with long, aristocratic noses and lovely sticky-up ears; they've now become a favourite. When I first arrived in the area I wondered if they were goats. Five years on, I am a little more advanced in the language and look of sheep, have learnt how not to get in the way at lambing time and have fed the occasional orphan lamb as needed. Yesterday morning, looking out at the field, I missed a perfect Kodak moment of what appeared to be synchronised sheeping. The flock had assembled by the gate. Rather than bunching themselves up, they were in a drawn out line of twos and threes, bodies all perfectly aligned, eyes all facing north-west and out to the valley as if watching the river. All were perfectly still. One of their number wasn't playing the game; in contrast, it was determinedly facing the other way refusing to conform. Or perhaps this was the star of the 'team' doing a solo? Having seen the young shepherd earlier in his trusty, rusty blue quad bike - with Don the collie at the back balancing on velcro paws - I knew the sheep hadn't come to wait for him. For fully five minutes, I watched them as they stood, stock still, poised and alert. I wondered what they were going to do. Nothing, apparently.
Sheep are weird.
Most of the farmers around here claim that the sole aim of a sheep is to see how quickly it can die.
Twenty minutes later, coming back by the front, they'd daundered off back up over the ridge of the hill and were lost to sight. Time now, however, to turn from sheep and turn to work.

Thursday, 1 August 2019

Of estuaries and oceans

It must be because I'm by the seaside on holiday and staying in my wee bolt-hole, that I've been thinking of place...

Standing at my front door, I look to road's-end where the beach begins. Marram grass covers the dune, its pale green broken by bugloss blue, yellow ragwort, delicate purple milk vetch. The bushy buddleia continues on its take over mission, pushing up from the ground and spreading out, invading. By the tide-line is a scattering of sea-smooth stones, driftwood, a smattering of shells including the ever-present mussels after which the town was named - though older folk use a different name for this side of the river, remembering their fishing heritage: 'we're no' Musselburgh, we're Fisherrow.' High tide is mid-afternoon and the sun is beginning to peek out from dour clouds and lighten the mood. So close to the river-mouth the water is mixed up and muddied, never clear. This is not a beach where waves come crashing in; open sea is further out and here, although the Forth is broad, the tidal ebb and flow moves in a more kindly manner.

On coming back to this place, when I've been away for a wee stretch of time, it's the noise of the birds that always surprises - not quite Hitchcockian, but there are echoes of it as they flap and bicker overhead. Fierce creatures. Yesterday, a herring gull, presumably fallen in battle, lay dead beside the old wash-house in the courtyard. Still body gathered up, it was carried gently to the dune and buried, becoming part of the landscape more literally. Low tide then; the uncovered mussel beds the province of oyster catchers, black-faced terns, black-bellied dunlins, kittiwakes, the ever-present herring gulls, and two middle-aged wellied lug wormers searching for bait.

This morning, as the gulls pierced through sleep, in my half-dream state there were glimpses of another beach in a much wilder place; no gentle Scottish estuary. The sand was bleached white by a stronger sun and finely ground from free-rolling waves crashing on the shore. Blue-green transparent waves curled, glistening in the brightness of the light, then broke, surging into shore before pulling back out again into the deep. Somewhere, there was a hint of coconut oil in the sea-salty air....

It's been many years since I lived by the Pacific Ocean and yet, there it was in sight and sound and smell, and more so in the waves: there's something about the shape of a wave that marks its place in the world. Now, at the end of this day, the brightness and the vivid colours are still at play in my mind's eye, but it's the shape of waves that hold my thoughts. I look across to near where the kettle rests on the bench. Nestling nearby there's a jar of Vegemite and a box of Tunnock's wafers, symbols of the land of my birth, and the land I now call home. I wonder about the shape of my life, and how that marks my particular place in the world.

Wednesday, 24 July 2019

Stand up with a steely glint in your eye and crack on

the Nasty Party just got Nastier
Way back in the less dim and dark days of 2002 during the Conservative Party annual conference the then Chairwoman of the Party spoke of the need for change, arguing for a broader, more open, more sympathetic approach. The Party, she claimed, needed to rid itself of the reputation for being known as 'the Nasty Party.' That same speaker, Theresa May, who in the intervening years had risen to the dizzying heights of Prime Minister, today fielded her final PM's questions, then headed off to Buckingham Palace to step down as PM. In doing so, she left the post to the tender mercies of Boris Johnson.

If we thought the Westminster Government was relatively right-wing under Mrs May, the new incarnation under Boris was always going to be extreme right, hard-line. And, so it appears to be. With astonishing speed, having been sworn in as the new PM, Boris has wasted no time in what effectively appears to be a night of the long knives - culling any who expressed support for other contenders in the Party leadership contest as well as any not prepared to leave the EU if 'no deal' should be on the cards (as looks more likely to be the case). Within a couple of hours, the new PM had appointed someone who:
  • lobbied for the tobacco and alcohol industry
  • did backdoor deals with Israel as a cabinet minister and in so doing, threatened National security
  • opposed equal marriage
  • threatened Ireland with food shortages over Brexit
  • wants the death penalty reintroduced
and that’s just Priti Patel, the new Home Secretary. There's also the terrifying thought of Jacob Rees-Mogg who, with all his Pullmanesque Spectral presence, will soon be looming over Parliament in his new role as Leader of the House Commons. Strident Brexiteers and BoJo supporters have been duly rewarded with other Cabinet posts bringing into being a Cabinet that could only have had Nigel Farage as midwife. Truly, if it were at all possible, the Nasty Party has just become even nastier.

Why am I writing about this wretched turn of events? Yesterday, a friend posted a tweet expressing her despair at the thought of Boris becoming Prime Minister. She wondered how to get out of bed when waking up to such news. As I sat and looked at her tweet I realised that now, more than ever, we don't have the luxury of not getting out of bed: at the most basic level as followers of Jesus, we're called to stand up, speak out, be love in both word and in action. While there is no ideal political party, this is the Party who, through their long and inhumane policy of austerity, have preyed upon the most vulnerable in our society. Rather than tackling the various companies that pay virtually no tax, instead, the Party has scapegoated the poorest, the sickest, the ones not in a position to defend themselves - the ones Jesus named as 'the least of these.' This new Cabinet contains those who are cheering at the thought of leaving the EU, because they will no longer be committed to adhering to the EU Convention on Human Rights. It is now even more the Party of the elite, for the elite.

In response to my friend's question about how to get out of bed, I tweeted:
With fire in the belly, determination in your heart, and resistance in your soul.
They want us to roll over and be passive.
No. Don't let them off with anything.
Stand up with a steely glint in your eye and crack on.

I'm thinking of getting a mug made with that last: a small cry of resistance in times such as these.

Soft closing loo seats for serial killers

On holiday, and with a little more time to ponder life and deal with some household practicalities, I can't help but think what a strange, wee world it is. No, not the world where Trump and BoJo are apparently leaders on the world stage; I'm talking the world of bathroom accessories. In need of a new toilet seat *genteel cough*, I went on t'interwebz. I'd always thought that I was relatively easy to please and in this case, I was after a simple white wooden seat. Typing key words into a popular search engine, a vast cornucopia of delights and assorted horrors spilled out of my screen.
Ah, yes, add 'soft closing' to the search terms.

I looked at dolphins desporting themselves gaily on seat covers and twitched a little at the thought of another set of dolphins curiously watching my progress as I... well, let's just draw a veil over that.
I raised an eyebrow at seats with mottos such as 'Carpe Diem', 'Just do it!', and 'Yes, you can!'. I can do without motivational messages on a loo seat, thanks all the same. A small mercy: at least the first resisted going down the 'Crape Diem' cheap pun route.

The sheer variety of food and beverage themed seats truly had me puzzled:
a reminder of what goes in, must come out?
Then there was what I named the 'bling' range:
diamantes, sparkly glitter-pink decoration, pearls and champagne. Why?
Several seats left me oddly disturbed:
the large and too jolly Santa Claus seat...
the bloody hands - a favourite of friendly neighbourhood serial killers, I suspect.
However, I needed quite substantial amounts of brain bleach to get rid of the rainbow unicorn image.

toilet seat, please.
Clearly, I'm too conventional with my water-closet accessorising needs.
Where's my hammer?
Am off to build my own.

Thursday, 18 July 2019

sitting with the words: Didion and a grief observed


“I could not give away the rest of his shoes. I stood there for a moment, then realized why: 
he would need shoes if he was to return. The recognition of this thought by no means eradicated the thought. 
I have still not tried to determine (say, by giving away the shoes) if the thought has lost its power.” 
― Joan Didion, 'The Year of Magical Thinking'

Very occasionally, a piece of writing manages to lodge itself somewhere deep within soul, flesh, bones, and sinews; takes up residence in a quiet corner and settles in for the long-term. I've been sitting with one particular piece of writing for several years now and keep returning to it, wandering in, wondering, and very occasionally, weeping. Each time I make the journey to the dwelling place where these well-considered, well-crafted words live, there's a sense of silent ritual; a physical nod as I pick up the book and realise that it's time once more. The ritual - blink, and in a moment, it's passed - involves a cleansing, a paring away. Sloughing off assorted encrustations of white noise and distraction. There's a baring of the heart, this to create that sacred space for honesty, a little like shoes being taken off in acknowledgement that, to be here is to stand on holy ground. These words are good; worthy of attention. These words refresh; a well of cold, pure water to drink long and deep. Time spent in their presence requires the patience of the goldpanner - to read slowly is to find those small shining specks that stand out, shimmer, call you to reach back in to the stream for more. The writing nourishes, is cathartic - tears, silent wonder, and deep yearning interweave - leaving gratitude and hope, clarity of mind and purpose, calmness of soul. With a nod to life, and a  satisfied sigh born of doing useful work, the return journey is made, and shoes put back on ready for the world once more.

So it is for me, with Joan Didion's 'The Year of Magical Thinking'.
What is it to grieve? Didion's unrelenting gaze, so often focused on others, is directed upon herself, examining her grief in the wake of husband John's death. It is astonishing, powerful, and written in her singular style: cool, crisp, and observing the small details, the marginal - people, reactions, items such as shoes, that elsewhere would go unremarked. Didion tells us this is how grief was, and is, for her filled with 'magical thinking.' Items don't get thrown away because they may be needed; they sit, waiting patiently, symbol of hope for the beloved's return. To remove them is to walk in unfamiliar territory, to let in the possibility of no return at all. Surely this present is just a strange dark dream that will end, and all shall be well once more? The shoes will be worn again, glimpsed under the table while the loved one sits on the old, wooden chair, engaging in the ease of old, familiar conversation. Grief is the place that unites mind and heart, who work together in disbelief and denial of death, creating magical thinking: keep the shoes and you might just cheat death itself.

Didion, in studying her process of grief, holds it out, arms-length so as to examine it more clearly. She refuses to give in to mawkish sentimentality: the years of disciplined observation of others now in full clinical sweep even while her heart and world is breaking. The disorder of grief is made orderly as she calmly recalls, examines, processes. Through the writing, Didion gives herself permission not to feel that societal pressure which tries to rush us out of the awkwardness and embarrassment of grief so as not to feel a bother to others; it is well-measured, there is space. Be. Breathe. Recollect. Release. This is what makes it an extraordinary book; it is defiantly counter-cultural - Didion doesn't shy away from doing the work of grieving, and as she does, provides a way for others to quietly do that work in their own time, in their own space.

There are many kinds of loss. Didion marks the loss of a loved one. When working through change, and loss of various kinds, I come back to her book, looking for traces of magical thinking within the particular situation. It helps to declutter my mind, reorient, and refocus it. Currently I'm pondering institutions, particularly the mainline church in which I serve, and which is undergoing a profound sense of loss: the glory days of 'empire' and establishment fading, the default norms of ecclesiastical power no longer automatic, the language now of 'managing decline' underlining a quiet hopelessness. There is magical thinking a-plenty within a structure and pattern that has seen better days. The thrawn resistance to change - the determined keeping to ways of doing and being that echo keeping shoes, just in case they're needed. I'm not convinced the Church was ever meant for power within the earthly framework of empire, so perhaps am less inclined to keep those particular shoes. How do we move forward, however, regroup, and do so that isn't a panic-induced rush, but allows breathing space for reflection? I wonder not what kind of shoes, but whether we need them at all?
If we want to stand on holy ground, we have to let go of the shoes.

Friday, 18 January 2019

heading home: Mary Oliver

'Meanwhile the wild geese...are heading home again.'
photo by Steve Gardner, Scottish Wildlife Trust
Safe home, beloved poet, with so much gratitude and heartfelt thanks 
for paying attention and for your one wild and precious life.

And while I love 'The Summer Day', it's to 'Wild Geese' I turn today...

Wild Geese by Mary Oliver
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

Comma Butterflies, and other grammatical beasts

Messing about with a wee writing game, which was to take a news headline
and run with it in some form or other.
So, a little silliness after a long blog silence...*
Couldn't resist the following headline on the BBC news website as I began to think of twitchy friends and grammar obsessions:

‘Extraordinary Comma Butterfly Colonises Scotland’ [web BBC headline 31 July, 2017]

It started with the apostrophes. In some places, they gathered like the plague; shop signage seemed a particular favourite for this intrusive wee beastie.  The humble tomato, when in company, soon found itself attacked and submissively turned into ‘tomatoe’s’ in greengrocer displays the length and breadth of the land. ‘Courgette’s’ soon followed, and later, the unmitigated horror that was ‘banana’s’. The apostrophe mite spread, moving out from the serried racks of assorted fruit and veg and into charity shops along the High Street: ‘book’s – 5 for a £1’ declared an Oxfam store, arrogantly.

As the egregious profusion of apostrophes began to dominate, a challenger came forth. Commas came and went; flying in when unwanted, and skulkily flitting even though needed. Determined to dominate Scotland, the Comma Butterflies bred and flourished and settled on signage, in a flurry of academic papers, in tabloid and broadsheet alike. The blighters were here to stay. Apostrophes were alarmed and the semi-colon no longer existed, wiped off the grammatical landscape. The profusion of loose-use commas saw sentences lengthen at an horrific rate. The lack of clarity was disturbing. Reaching beyond Scotland’s shores, the Comma Butterflies sought nothing less than world domination, infecting news reports. Shorter, punchier headlines began to create confusion as to character, or number. Was:
‘Trump, a Nazi and a fascist’ or, were there several people in the statement: ‘Trump, a Nazi, and a fascist’? Meanwhile, in a quiet, dusty, neglected section of the grammar garden, adverbs wept at the thought of their own futility, made powerless by their sheer invisibility.

In these dark times, however, one small group made a stand: quietly, passive-aggressive resistance created chinks of light in the bleakness. Grammar guerrillas armed with Sharpies, Tip-ex, and other correctional materials, began to fight back. ‘Tomatoe’s’ changed, overnight to ‘Tomatoes’. Adverbs were inserted into advertising billboards: the car promising ‘a real smooth ride’ now ‘really’ meant it. Daringly correct insertions of the Oxford comma brought clarity, relief, and stability to sentences. The Comma Butterflies cowered and twitched, sensing rebellion.

With each corrected sign, pedants took heart. It would be a long and vicious struggle but, with Sharpies at the ready, victory would come; Comma Butterflies would eventually take flight and flee, their over-wheening ambitions crushed. Sensing utter defeat, the profusion of unholy and unnecessary apostrophes would follow, heads hung low. The adverbs dared to raise their heads and look to a time when they would be welcome; long-lost friends come home. All would be well, and all restored to order.

*I suspect that I don't want to know how much grammar I've broken in the writing of this practice piece.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

New-born: lambs, Julian, and Ps 23

A pair of wee blackie lambs basking in the
Iona sunshine last week,
possibly plotting world domination...
We are coming to the end of lambing time in hill and valley parish. Possibly my most favourite season of the farming year - although I have the luxury of enjoying watching the lambs bouncing and playing without actually doing any of the work. I continue to admire and respect the farmers around the area: while working in beautiful countryside, yet, it's still hard graft.
A nice touch of continuity was had, however, last week when on Iona with a group of RevGals - lots of cute blackie lambs about the place, playing chase before bedtime just as they do down here.
Anyway, have been thinking about lambs...

Musing on lambs, Mother Julian, and Ps 23:

of hay and sheep
fills barn;
shepherd watches,
Low ‘baah’ meets
shrill bleat.
surprised and stunned
sits still,
mother licks him clean,
hears his tiny quick-beat heart.
Then, movement;
Fragile limbs
struggling, wriggling;
knees push
white, wiry matchsticks.
body rising
as hoof finds floor.
muscles memorise movement.
Cautious, curious;
confidence builds
then colllapses
in small, splayed heap.
Wee bleat,
then hay shuffles
as rickety legs rise.
Shepherd nods
a brief smile,
then moves on,
another yow
to tend.
All is well,
all is well.
And all
shall be well.
              c.Nik Macdonald

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Gone fishin', and other thoughts

Currently, pondering and reflecting upon the sermon for tomorrow.
It's been a different space, over the year since the end of August 2016, as I've moved from making use of the Revised Common Lectionary, to working through Brian McClaren's book 'We Make the Road by Walking' with the congregation. It's been fun encountering texts I've not necessarily preached on before, as well as finding other texts in quite different places in the church liturgical calendar than I've been used to.
Engaging with story/stories.
Making me think in a slightly different way.
All good stuff.
Hopefully, the folk who've bought the book and aimed to follow along as they could, have also found it a helpful approach.
Currently wondering where we might go from 'Making the Road'...
Always the big question, really:
how to help folk engage with God a little more - new ways, and old ways, creative ways and more structured ways, in the mystery and the everyday.
And, following on, through that engagement, how to work out that engagement
in a context wider than just a 'me and my God' way.
I'm still passionate on the 'called to be in community' thing - a challenge in a world where
we seem to champion the individual over all, forgetting that none of us ever gets 'there'
completely by our own efforts.
Anti-Hayek bias coming to the fore: there is such a thing as society...darn it.

In the meanwhile, I've recently come across Steve Garnaas-Holmes' site Unfolding Light.
Some really lovely reflections in there, and I'm looking forward to gently working my way through some of his posts while I'm on a wee break.
Given that I'm off-lectionary at the moment, and meeting fish, rather than walking along the road to Emmaus, I'll be borrowing the following during worship tomorrow, for a short reflection:

Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach;
                  but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus.
         Jesus said to them, “Dear children, you have no fish, have you?”
                  They answered him, “No.”
         He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat,
                  and you will find some.”
                           —John 21.4-5

The surface is always blank.
The real, submerged.

Look down into that sky,
where beneath a vague cloud flashes,

—is it above or below?—
created, given, waiting.

There is another way,
another side of your little boat.

Beneath your dreary, fruitless nights
something graced awaits,

abundance exceeding your capacity, blessing
at which you laugh in wonder and fright,

a gift that bears you to the breaking point,
a net swelled with light and glory,

and not by luck, but given in love: a presence,
a companionship you hadn't recognized.

Heaven is offered, hearts are restored
in something as simple as a broiled fish, shared.

But first you learn a new way,
another side, the unrecognized friend.

And then, after the gift, the revelation,
you learn a new way, another side.

The Mystery doesn't leave you.
It leads.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Maundy Thursday reflections...

Some reflections for Maundy Thursday, written for a project that I'm involved with...

It is a week that begins so well.
The crowds roar their delight as he rides into town:
Word is on the street.
He is teaching, healing,
and the crowds surround him.
Mid-week, the mood turns
along with the tables in the Temple.
Not good for business,
all this chasing folk from stalls,
making whips from cords,
berating them for just earning a living,
running about as if he owned the place.
These country folk don’t understand
the art of tact and diplomacy.
Hackles on backs are raised
while there are still some who seek a miracle.
His friends are getting twitchy watching
as he dances dangerously on the edge.
Wary, they walk the city
trying to keep a low profile,
keeping their heads down
and wishing that he would do the same.
He doesn’t play the game:
speaks out against the powers that be
for not caring for the least,
for loving privilege more than these.
On Thursday, his friends are fractious,
cracking under stress.
He bids a couple to go prepare a meal.
Over bread and wine and blessing,
he talks of his body breaking and bleeding,
wants them to eat the bread
and drink from his cup of suffering.
It’s all too much,
and they lash out at one another:
fingers point and accusations fly.
They fight for top position
on what is feeling like a sinking ship.
His words, though quiet,
cut through the conversation:
overturn their notions.
He tells them of God’s kin-dom,
built on loving service:
seeing, hearing, those ignored
and those unheard,
and making space at the table
for all.
That kind of talk will get him killed....

'A time, and a place'
'The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to put Jesus to death,  
for they were afraid of the people.' 
In the city, in the halls of religious power, there is fear.  
The unruly rabbi has been causing trouble.
Proclaimed by palm-waving crowds,
popularity has gone to his head.
His habit of spending time with outcasts is offensive;
his unholy act of anger in the Temple is verging on the seditious.
They must put him in his place, contain him.

So Jesus sent Peter and John, saying,   
'Go and prepare the Passover meal for us that we may eat it.'
In an upper room, the table is made ready for the feast.
He is eager, they are puzzled;
wine is poured and bread is blessed.
The One who is the Word speaks into startled silence:
breaks bread, and says it’s his body, broken;
pours wine, talks of the shedding of his blood.
This, a meal, not soon forgotten.

'I am among you as one who serves.'
At the table, tempers fray:
ambition unmasked, they fight for power.
The beloved teacher watches as they squabble.
Three years and yet they’ve missed his point entirely.
Quietly, he pours water into basin,
takes the towel,
and kneels before them:
gives them the place of honour with a servant’s heart.
There is still a little time to learn...

'A growing darkness'
Symbolic actions could be incorporated into this reflection, 
either by the person reading, or done by another while this is being read.
This could be used just prior to Communion.  
Begin with lights dimmed, if possible....

Act I: The Plot 
(coins are placed on table at one side)
Shadows creep and darkness deepens,  
fear hangs heavy in the air.
Terms agreed - a secret meeting;  
betrayal, sanctified by prayer.

Act II: The Meal
(table is ‘dressed’ with a candle, at each end and lit; bread and wine is placed centrally on the table)
Friends now gather, drawn together,
Jesus calls them to the feast.
Blessing bread and wine, he bids them:
‘Do this to remember me.’

Act III: The Fight
(symbols of power - e.g. hammer, crown, or badge of office - are placed next to the coins)
As they eat, the talk grows heated;
bitterly, they fight for power.
Oil lamps flicker, shadows lengthen,
time circles closer to his hour.

Act IV: The Servant
(a towel and basin of water is added to the table opposite side of coins/ power symbols) 
Lamplight dims—their eyes upon him
as he speaks of sacrifice,
and of the power of humble service.
Judas walks out into night...

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Ash Wednesday: Dust

'Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.'

It is a day of turning.
It is a day of returning;
changing direction,
and purposefully,
step by step,
walking toward, not from, God.
This is a day of new beginnings,
putting down a marker
where we start afresh,
where we wander into wilderness
following footsteps that have walked this way before -
travelling with the great crowd of saints
following the way of Jesus.

It is a day of dust,
of ashes,
of remembering our mortality;
of remembering who we are
and whose we are.
Today reminds us that we are not gods,
but we are God's:
The sign of mortality and love and belonging
smeared in ash upon us.

It is a symbol.
It is also a promise;
of cleansing,
of mercy,
of showing to the world that this
is not all there is
and that death does not have the final say.
In the mark of ashes
the power of resurrection
waits to be rebirthed.

Monday, 6 February 2017

Are you the one? Reflection on Luke 7:18-35

‘Make way!’
‘All will see God’s salvation!’
The crowds gather,
hear the call to repent,
are baptised
by the camel-haired prophet.
Is he the One
they’ve all been waiting for?
But he points, instead, to another.
when uncomfortable arrows of truth
find their mark,
the twitching Tetrarch
tries to tame
the wild man of God.
Starry vastness of open sky,
replaced by stone-walled cell.
No wandering wilderness here,
but rather wondering:
thinking of that other.
Are you the One
bringing winnowing fork and fire?
Or is it another?
Disciples dispatched,
come back,
with stories of signs
and words of encouragement.
‘Are you the One?’
is answered
by God’s kingdom breaking in,
predicted, expected,
yet strangely disconcerting.

c Nik

Monday, 30 January 2017

Centurion and Widow: a reflection on Luke 7:1-17

Centurion and widow
Had he always wanted to be a soldier?
To travel the world, fight for Rome,
and gather up honour and glory?
Had she always wanted to be a wife, a mother?
To settle down, make a home,
and calm her son with bedtime stories?

Had he ever imagined a land like this:
strange ways, strange words, strange God,
and he, with power, privilege, and prospering?
Had she ever imagined a lot like this:
hard times, hard hearts, hard loss,
her future like a vine uprooted, withering?

Different lives
and different journeys,
but both, outsiders in their time of grief.
Had they ever imagined a God
who loved both powerful and powerless,
who cared for foreigner and widow?
Conceived of a God
as patron of lost causes?
Dared to believe in a God
who’d draw the circle wider,
extend the love and blessing;
break down the boundaries
and welcome all?


Friday, 11 November 2016

Poems of the heart: Love's a wizard

Because when the world feels like it's going up in flames,
coping mechanisms kick in, such as rustling up doggerel...
I feel the need for a little nonsense pause,
before heading once more to the breach, my friends.

Love's a wizard

He flourished flowers on demand,
a winning start for any man
and with some charm and with that smile,
well, I was instantly beguiled.
From up his sleeve – or so it seemed –
the rainbow-serpent scarves, in streams
would fight with rabbits,
vie with doves,
all symbols of my wizards love.

My love changed ceiling into sky
and every night, wild geese flew by
and with a wink and wave of wand,
my bathroom turned into a pond.
He conjured goldfish-flowing taps,
and lizards – former shower-caps –
sang songs of life
of love, of art,
reflections from my wizard’s heart.

Though his spells were entertaining,
I soon felt my enchantment waning,
even when, with eerie mutters
dust transformed to diamond clusters;
but diamond pythons aren’t the thing
to give girls as engagement rings
and snakes worn
as accessories
are seen these days as ‘un-PC’.

Plagued by this mesmerising pest,
and with the neighbours so distressed
I wondered how to break his spell –
would my magician take it well?
While black sheep in the lounge-room grazed
and lizards by the pond just lazed,
I ran some gold fish
in the bath
and psyched up for the aftermath

I broke it gently, like one should,
and then I asked him if he could
remove the rabbits, doves, and flowers,
shut my ceiling from the showers.
I kept a scarf for mem’ries sake,
but gave him back the diamond snake.
It’s really not
an easy thing
to date someone in conjuring.
                                                             c. Nik