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]