Tuesday, 18 August 2020

Labels

Noodling about with the idea of identity in this week's reading from the RCL:
Matt 16:13-20, I was reminded of an old sketch by Rikki Fulton, in his persona of the 
Rev. I. M. Jolly, commenting on a baptism and forgetting the child's name.
'Spindonna Jaiket' comes the reply from the father.
The Rev. is bemused by these strange new names that people feel the need to come up with...
he begins the baptism 'I baptise thee, Spindonna, in the name of...'
and is interrupted hastily by same parent, pointing to the label on the wee one's gown upon
which the child's name has been pinned -
'No you fool, there! There! Spindonna jaiket!'
[which in a good Weegie accent = It's pinned on her jacket]
From that ridiculously silly sketch, I began thinking about labels and identity and the questions 
Jesus poses to his disciples -
'Who do people say I am?'
and
'Who do you say I am?'

Anyway, from my noodling and silly dialect sketches came the following:

Labels/
Labels: 
John, the baptiser;
Elijah, ravens’ friend
(and occasional flame thrower);
weeping Jeremiah, perhaps,
in an echoing well?
A prophet –
just a random
one for any occasion?
The expectations of the people
are pinned on Jesus’ jacket
but cannot
pin him down.

Another label:
the One,
the Son
not just any old son...
this One
is of the Living God.
Not wood,
not stone
but flesh and blood
and bone.

Somehow,
in the mystery,
God has put skin on
trying on ‘human’
for size:
becoming
a waymarker
pointing us
to life
less wooden,
to hearts
less stony;
showing,
in who He is,
whose we are
and what it means
to fully live.
Our expectations of the Promised Messiah
are pinned on Jesus' jacket...
while we
are pinned as Jesus’ own.

c.Nik Mac 2020

Tuesday, 11 August 2020

The quality of mercy...

Crumbs...
A wee thing I wrote for a resource I'm involved with - which works for this week's RCL gospel passage.

The quality of mercy

Mercy:
doesn’t need to be pristine,
nor need to be huge.
It doesn’t need to be protected,
nor kept in a pot
with a lid
and a lock –
and oh-so-carefully
parcelled out
to those deemed ‘deserving’.
Just
a
crumb
will
do.

Mercy:
is not like pie,
nor is it mealy-mouthed or stingy.
It can’t be measured,
can not help itself
can’t be contained.
No matter how some try,
still, it overspills
the tables of power and privilege,
subversively escaping in
scraps
and crumbs
that are limitless,
boundary-breaking.
Just
a
crumb
will
do.

Mercy:
is subversive,
spilling out for all,
even those deemed (by some) as:
‘undeserving’,
‘different’,
‘not one of us’.
It re draws the circle
wider than the edges
of our imagination.
Just
a
crumb
contains
more grace and love
than we
will ever need...
so:
just
a
crumb
will
do.

c.Nik Macdonald, 2020

Sunday, 26 July 2020

Questions to a swift, returning

Just a wee bit of writing practice, emerging from a writing workshop the other day...
Asking a question of a swift, returning to nest - possibly undertones of COVID lockdown at play...

Questions to a swift, returning

Did Sahara's rising heat
thrill you
                        as you
                      soared and spilled above –
blazing a trail
                      tracing the yearly path?
                                     Such grace.
What did you spy
           upon your travels?
                      What smells
                       and sights
            and sounds
                       did you collect
                                  and revel in?
How was the journey,
             little one?
                    And are you happy here
                   nestling in such homely eaves,
           chill Upland winds ruffling such
                                    long-wending feathers?

I long to see and be where you have been.

c. Nik Mac 2020

Thursday, 23 July 2020

Imago Dei

Imago Dei 

We bear the marks
of grace upon our face,
carry within us God’s DNA:
God-made.
Sparks of divinity
course through our veins;
our warp and weft,
the stuff of stars.
God shaped...
and so,
we are.

Heaven-made creatures,
birthed from earth,
we dance between the world and universe:
God’s own.
Flesh and blood
and soul and bone
combined in
holy mystery.
God loved...
and we,
God’s mastery.
                    c. Nik Mac 2020

Tuesday, 21 July 2020

Emerging

Emerging from blog hibernation...
Emerging from lockdown...
and, trying to emerge from the bleakness...

I always set out with the best of intentions when it comes to journal or blog-keeping.
What I continually discover, is that what is consistent is my ad-hoc randomness.
Perhaps I work best to deadlines.
Perhaps I'm not one for finding a profound thought every day and proclaiming it;
sending it half-cocked, and not quite formed, out into the world.
Perhaps I lack ambition, perhaps I just get tired, and often, I just get distracted -
the joy and the curse of a butterfly mind...
As the great emergence from lockdown begins, its effects, for me, seem to be more tiredness, even more butterfly mind.
We all of us have our different reactions and coping mechanisms:
clearly, one of mine is napping and it's hard to focus when you've nodded off unexpectedly in the office chair.

Thinking of lockdown, of COVID-19, and of coping:
I've been curious to see how others have been affected, and their particular coping mechanisms and reactions. I listen to folk on the phone, or watch interactions in yet another 'zoom' meeting, or dig under the walls of dogma and political ideology that passes for news to try and find what the reality might be.
There is talk of collective trauma, lots of rage against 'the machine' of the Establishment.
There has been corresponding amounts of bluster and deflection by the Establishment.
There have been deaths, too many deaths.
When our PM talks of 'success', I think of the line from 'The Princess Bride': 'You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.'
Perhaps the toxic combination of the old British sense of exceptionalism and a Brexit-induced nostalgia for the glory of Empire is perverting something that has been so utterly devastating into something to cheer about.
Double-think and newspeak live, and Orwell was a prophet.

I yearn for government with conscience, that seeks the commonweal.
May your kingdom come, Lord...

Saturday, 7 December 2019

Thresholds: an Advent memory

The ward is all bustle and busyness as I enter. M is there at the desk and we smile a greeting. A little banter and small talk, some seasonal chat, and then:
'Anyone in particular...' I trail off, enquiring.
'Yes. I wonder if you'd be willing to sit with Mrs B in Rm 3? It's...' she pauses, looking for words. 'Well, she's close now, and, I've phoned the family, but they just said to call back after it's done.'
Almost in unison, our eyes meet and eyebrows raise. Perhaps the implied judgement is harsh: who really knows what goes on in families?

With a small nod, and an 'of course,' I head to the room, accompanied by M. Over the short time I've been here, I've come to have immense respect for the medical staff. Their determination to do everything in their power not to let anyone die alone, if at all possible, is admirable. In the midst of machines and beeps, of needles and tubes, they are the beating heart of the ward. 
'I've tried to make her comfortable, put the radio on, y'know, to give her some small dignity. She's unconscious, but restless. We've given her morphine for the pain but...' An apologetic shrug of the shoulders finishes the sentence. We stand, pausing at the threshold, looking in upon the tiny human gathered into herself with pain. Classic FM is playing 'The Coventry Carol'. Sombre, haunting notes weave themselves in and around the room: Bye, bye lully, lullay. 

I catch myself taking a deep breath as I move across one threshold and into another: a liminal space where past, present, and future mix. Here, life and death reach out, fingertips seeming to meet with just the barest of touch. Hearing is generally the last of the senses to shut down. As I approach the bed and the unconscious Mrs B, I greet her softly:
'Hello, Mrs B, my name is Nik, I'm one of the chaplains. M asked me to come and to sit with you awhile. I hope that's okay.' I settle on the blue plastic chair at the bedside, glance across at M and we nod. She disappears along the corridor. The room is graced with a generous window, and so I describe the day and the doings that are going on outside. It is a glorious winter's day. High up, a dissipating vapour trail interrupts the clear blue sky. Closer to earth, a gentle wind eddies about bare tree branches, while an empty Gregg's bag is pushed in fits and starts along the path. Flashes of blue and orange float towards goal - the entrance to the other side of the hospital across the square. The timely exit of a nurse creates an opening and it's in. Not long after mid-day, and the soft sunlight fills the room. The music has moved on, and a chattering Mozart tinkles playfully, all bright and breezy.

Time slows. We two are floating on a raft, adrift somewhere between this world and the next. There are moments of calm as well as restlessness. Who is this woman, reduced so much by illness? I wonder about her life, her loves, dreams and hopes - who and what formed the person she has become? In this moment, however, with only a stranger beside her for company, she is only truly known to God. I suspect that it's the case for all of us. Occasionally, I speak, or gently touch a cold hand when the pain causes Mrs B to groan and shift fitfully on the bed. Mostly, we have moved into silence, with a reassurance: 'I'm here. I'm just by your side.'  I hope that if she is  aware in some way, that my presence is not intrusive, but welcome. Ancient words form a pattern in my mind and I realise that I am praying the Aaronic Blessing, pausing at length at the end of each bidding. There is the overwhelming sense that another has joined us on the raft, even as the silent prayer follows its course. A momentary jarring, as the strains of a pomp  and circumstance march parrumphs along its way energetically. Such an oddly mixed play-list. I let the thought pass. The march retreats into the background and we land on holy ground.

For all the restlessness, when the moment comes, it is a relatively peaceful death. A long sigh, stillness. Seconds pass. An intake of breath, and out, and then she is gone. I place my hand on her now peaceful head, pray a blessing on her, then walk out to find M. As I leave, I realise that 'O come, O come, Emmanuel' is playing. I walk along the corridor with the verse sounding in my ear:
O come, Thou Dayspring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here.
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death's dark shadows put to flight...
Rejoice, rejoice! Emmanuel 
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

Later, at home, as I light the Advent candles before dinner, I pause, think of Mrs B, her absent family, of M and the staff in the ward. I give thanks in this season of Advent for odd moments of grace in a strange world, liminal places, for the kindness and care of strangers, and for Mrs B - unknown to me, but in my own faith's understanding, known and named, and loved by God.
And, yes, for the curious privilege of this calling.

Tuesday, 19 November 2019

'She cannot throw his shoes away' - Martha and Lazarus

As a wee writing challenge to myself, I'm exploring different forms of poetry.
Earlier in the year, at writing group, we discussed the 'villanelle' -
think 'Do not go gentle into that good night', by Dylan Thomas, as an example.
One of our number had raised the subject, and then shared an attempt [brilliant]
that she'd written. It planted a seed. Now on holiday by the seaside, I've a little
time to write. In having a go at this form, I really enjoyed the winding thread of
rhyme and the pattern.

Below, my first attempt.
The subject matter is grief - with a nod to Joan Didion's 'shoes' in her superb
'The year of magical thinking.'  
Here, we have Martha, sister of Lazarus.
Perhaps this may come in handy over Holy Week, or at a bereavement service over Advent/Christmas.

Martha, on the death of Lazarus
She cannot throw his shoes away
and runs her thumb along the grooves -
perhaps he’ll need them back one day?

She feels the hollows toes have made,
and feels his presence in the room -
she cannot throw his shoes away.

She sits and holds her tears at bay
looks at his clothes, smells death’s perfume -
perhaps he’ll need them back one day?

She stumbles in her grief, feels rage,
feels numb, feels sad; how grief consumes -
she cannot throw his shoes away.

She rises, at the Rabbi’s gaze
and, shoes in hand, a small hope blooms -
perhaps he’ll need them back one day?

‘Come out!’ she hears the Rabbi say
and signs of life sound from the tomb:
she cannot throw his shoes away
perhaps he’ll need them back one day?
                                            ©Nik Macdonald, 19 Nov. 2019

Thursday, 14 November 2019

#WordKindnessDay


'What is the quality of life on our planet? It is nothing more than the sum of our interactions. 
Each kindness enhances the quality of life. Each cruelty diminishes it.' 
                                                                                                       - Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu

According to the 'trends' bar on Twitter, yesterday was #WorldKindnessDay.
On Sunday, the not quite so United Kingdom saw Acts of Remembrance conducted all around
the four nations, reflecting upon that most unkind of arenas, war. This year, as I made preparations
for the four services that I'd be conducting over the day, it was the power of words that struck home.
Of the many weapons of war, one of the most powerful tools to create conflict is a word honed
and sharpened and polished to deadly perfection.

In research for my thesis, I did a good bit of work on the subject of verbal dispute and reconciliation.
For Early Modern Scots, the Victorian saying:
'Sticks and stones may break my bones
but names will never hurt me,'
would be incomprehensible - in an honour culture, they understood how the power of words
could ruin a reputation. They felt keenly the wounds that words could cause. I've come to the
conclusion that, in a sense, they were much more on point in their understanding concerning
the power of name-calling than the Victorians who made up a saying that is essentially tosh.
Words chip away at self-esteem, words/ name-calling can dehumanise, and words
were one of the first things that were employed by propagandists when war broke out.
It is easier to destroy a fellow human being once you've effectively turned them into a
'mad brute', or 'filthy Hun.' In the process of 'othering', the cogs of conscience are made smooth
and so the justification to eradicate 'vermin' and 'monsters' becomes a little easier.

Paul, the main protagonist in that excellent novel 'All quiet on the Western Front' like his
comrades in the trenches, has not been immune to the effects of 'othering'. Occasionally,
however, he has unexpected glimpses of shared humanity. On one particularly terrifying
night, while out on patrol, he gets confused in the mess and maze of shell holes and trenches
and sits out a bombardment in a crater. During the night, as he hides from an enemy patrol,
a soldier falls on top of him. Instinctively, Paul stabs him, mortally wounding the man. It is
the first time he has been involved in hand to hand combat. The man takes a long time to die.
Compassion compels him to help his enemy; Paul tries to comfort the man, offers him water,
sits with him as he dies. As Paul looks at him, the 'monster' disappears and is replaced by a
fellow human being, a man who, if circumstances had been different, could have been a brother.
Bit by bit, as Paul imagines who the man is, what his life was like, and wonders about his
loved ones, the power of his imagination rehumanises this enemy. A pocket book and
photographs complete the integration and Paul is filled with remorse. Beyond the jingoism
and pithy insults, here in front of him was just another poor soul who'd been caught up
in the horror of war, caught up in the words designed to encourage him to join up, to fight,
and to kill.

The 'war to end all wars' didn't, and over the decades since, words have continued to be a
powerful and deadly weapon. They are not just employed in the arena of war. I watch and
am alarmed at the growing polemic used within political debate and journalism. Words
used by those in power are tools of division, conflict, and disunity. They are used to deflect
the truth. They are used to bully, cajole, condemn, and intimidate. They are picked up
and used by others to destroy 'surrenderers', 'cowards', 'traitors' - all used of those in
the courts tasked with using the rule of law; used of those on different sides of the political
fence who may exercise their democratic right to disagree with a particular point of view.
They are the kinds of words that saw Jo Cox murdered, and are the kinds of words that
will continue to hurt, maim, and kill. They are the kinds of words that are deeply unkind.

And so, we come full circle, back to #WorldKindnessDay.
Perhaps the act of kindness begins by taking one letter out of the hashtag;
perhaps it begins with #WordKindnessDay?
If words can be used to dehumanise, they can also be drafted in to rehumanise.
The Early Modern Scots had quite specific rituals, used to recall 'wild words' -
to take them back out of the social arena, to put them away, and to use words
of reconciliation: confession, apology, taking responsibility, promising to do no further harm;
words making a beginning that recognised and affirmed the inherent humanity of the one
that they'd 'othered'; words even hinting at a possible future in which the relationship was restored.
Perhaps they were on to something.

Instead of breaking someone down with words, #WordKindnessDay would be a day where
words would be used to build one another up. Echoing the words of Desmond and Mpho Tutu,
each word would be carefully considered, each word chosen to communicate kindness, and so,
each word ultimately becoming a tool to enhance the quality of life for all.
Each word used would help to create a culture of kindness in which all are seen not as 'other',
but as precious, fragile, beautiful human beings.
All it takes is a little imagination to see beyond the 'other' and find yourself looking into the
eyes of an almost-familiar face, who with a little kindness, might well become
a friend, a comrade, a kindred spirit.
A simple, difficult task.
A reconciling task.
A task, I think, that faith calls us to, so to break the cycle of destruction and dehumanising.
There's a saying that often crops up:
'practise random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty.'
In one way, I like the feel of it, and yet... I think I need to work more on being more intentional
in the way I practise kindness.
And perhaps it's by making a start by using one - carefully considered - word at a time.

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.'

chorus/
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☕️

v.1/
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☕️

v.2/
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

Prayer-O-Matic

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...

Dear
[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]
to
[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]
to
[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]
Amen.

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.
*click*

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.

Just.
A.
White.
Wooden.
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.