Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Not easy on a bus

I was reflecting the other day how much more difficult simple faith (in God, mostly, on this occasion, but not exclusively) has become in the past century or so. And I think I was ruminating ruefully - do you have a vision of a sad cow? Trouble is, we know too much. All of us, in varying degrees, are equipped with more awareness of what constitutes our surroundings than were our forebears.

Start with something non-religious. Think of these medical dramas which show even the time of my own childhood, the documentaries which show doctors as white-coated invincibles, the patients as wide-eyed innocents ready to believe that all will be well as they descend into what Robert Frost called "the dark of ether". Nowadays fully-fledged hypochondriacs like me can look up procedures, statistics, symptoms, photos (God preserve us from the photos) and learn doubt. We realise when we are being soothed, and the best that can happen is that when we're actually in extremis we feel soothed. It's when normality returns that the doubt arrives.

And I think it's much the same with religion. All the old certainties - from hell to heaven and places in between - are now subject to the scrutiny of science and knowledge. We know what's up there, out there, beyond ... it's not a mystery any more. We can no longer feel sure that God's in his (note - his) heaven, which is up there in the sky. I remember wrestling at University with the teleological and ontological proofs of the existence of God, at a time when I didn't believe in anything. It was a struggle, but not a spiritual one. It changed nothing; it was easier than Formal Logic; I passed the exam.

All this conspires to make me increasingly irritated at people who assume that if you adhere to a faith you are either "throwing reason out of the window" (what my father said when I announced I was going to be confirmed at the age of 28) or are somehow sufficiently ill-informed to accept a child's version of religion. (I also become irritated at Christians who insist that that's the only way, but that's another story). Someone who thinks and challenges and argues is going to bring that attitude to what they call God - and if having done so they can find themselves happy with the language and attitudes of a faith system, that is where they will exercise their minds as well as their souls.

God - that word we use to describe the indescribable, remember? - God hasn't shrunk because we know the workings of the world that we used to consider a sacred mystery. God isn't the little shrivelled creature of some celebrated fiction. My understanding of this word, this concept, is of something at once all-encompassing and omnipresent and at the same time tiny enough to be within every mind that allows itself to wonder, every heart that allows itself to melt. God is in every moment of thankfulness; still there when the heart hardens and shuts God out.

When a faith-structure allows for this kind of vision, provides the framework of beauty and wonder and loss of the self-consciousness that inhibits, gives space for sorrow and joy and the tears of both, that is what I call Church.  When I find myself in it, I am grateful. When it is threatened - and it can so easily be threatened - it is like an impending death. When it solidifies into something else, I'm better off without it, sad though that feels.

But try explaining that over the dinner-table. Or on a bus.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Rummaging in the cyber past

I retired over 11 years ago. After all these years of teaching English I found I was missing the discipline of writing - for when I set essays, particularly to senior classes, I tended to write one myself. It was something I liked to do, to contribute to the discussion, as well as believing you shouldn't ask people to do something you weren't prepared to do yourself. At the time, blogging was pretty new - and it was really the only shared form of communication, the first step in what we learned to call Social Media. My sons were already blogging. I was seduced.

And it was in that first year of blogging that I began to meet people outwith my own circle (there - Blogger doesn't like "outwith" any more than it ever did), several of whom were (another new word at the time) edubloggers. Some of them were Scots, so that I met them physically in Glasgow ("You're Blethers, aren't you?"); some were much further away. And one of the more distant edubloggers I also met, and it's a good story.

I can't remember the exact sequence of events, but it was in November 2006 that I blogged about my input into the classroom work of Anne Davis - allowing her to use my photos as a classroom resource for creative writing, commenting on some of the pupils' work, thoroughly enjoying that little bit of teaching again. Three months later, we met - in San Francisco - thanks to Ewan's social engineering. We were on a month's tour of our American friends, one of whom had just dropped us off at our SF hotel. The cases had just appeared, when the phone rang. You don't expect anyone to phone you in a strange city - but it was Anne, also in town for a conference. Could we meet for dinner?  And we did, and you can read a short blog post about it, though it doesn't mention my recording a podcast for her pupils.

But I must tear myself away from this nostalgic wandering among the archives. The reason I'm doing it appears in the photo at the top: Anne sent me this book that she and a colleague, Ewa McGrail,  have written (and it costs a fortune to send a book from the USA) and it has the most lovely dedication on the front page and several references to me, all wonderfully flattering, scattered throughout the text. I'm delighted to get it, and to relive that time - which in many ways feels like another life. Even this blog post, full of links that take ages to find because I keep reading what I'm rummaging among, reminds me of that era.

Now, of course, it's all short-form communications. Social media rules, and the most unlikely people turn up on Facebook. Blogging is much less of a thing. And yet ... I find myself returning to blethers when I want to say something longer than a sentence, or something that I haven't got a proper photo for (because Blipfoto seems to have turned into my regular blog spot, in a strange way - maybe because of the interest of photographers). And when I was reading the book this morning, and reflecting on how I'd celebrate its arrival, I thought about children's writing and the joy of having it read by more than just the classroom teacher - to say nothing about having comments added by outsiders.

Children - and we've been talking primary school pupils throughout this - still love to have their best work displayed on the classroom wall. There is a place for this sort of controlled online interaction - on the much bigger wall, as it were, of the internet. This book, Student Blogs, seems to me to cover so many of the areas that might worry the cautious teacher - everything from accessing photos to Creative Commons and beyond - as to encourage any teacher to have a go.

Unless, of course, no-one can write more than 140 characters at a time these days. Just like The President ...

Monday, February 06, 2017

A Treaty with metaphor

I've been listening quite a bit to Leonard Cohen's final album - You want it darker - and in particular to one song that many, including me, regard as his last. Treaty, a song which is reprised by a string quartet as the final track on the disc, has provoked several thoughtful responses, ranging from questions about its meaning to personal accounts of how it has come to symbolise and to soothe at this particular time in the writers' lives.

It's got me thinking too. Cohen was "a Sabbath-observant Jew", we are told, and his language reflects that background - but not only that. In Treaty, some of the symbolism comes from Jewish tradition - the fields rejoicing at Jubilee; some that is as familiar to Christian as to Jew - the serpent in the Garden; reference to changing the water into wine sounds like the marriage at Cana, in the Christian canon. Elsewhere on the album there is the juxtaposition of Jewish prayer with reference to the Crucifixion - and to me the effect is of a seamless blending of imagery which has a profound effect.

But then, I'm a Christian - I belong within a certain tradition, just as Cohen belonged in his. The joy for me is that the imagery works, so that without spelling it out I gain an insight into the regrets and compromises that we recognise as we grow old, and claim them as my own. But when I say that, am I asserting the rightness of my interpretation? Am I succeeding in what, to the best of my remembrance, Matthew Arnold demanded - to see the object as in itself it really is? I had to write an essay on this, the first essay set in the Ordinary English Class at Glasgow University in October 1964; I wish I could rewrite it now, when I have so much more to bring to it than the frantic garnering of other people's ideas that my essay amounted to then. But I digress.

What I'm trying to say is this: because I have access to a wide-ranging framework of imagery gained through several decades of worshipping and reading in a Christian context, I feel a resonance with Cohen's song. But if I were to attempt to explain it to a completely non-religious person, someone who has not grown up with the language, someone who has resolutely turned their back on such nebulous superstition, I would find it much harder - or at least, I would have to find another set of metaphors and different imagery to lay out that which I have a shorthand for.

So is all religion, in the end, set out in metaphor? My hero, the poet-priest R.S.Thomas, thought so. In a video clip the interviewer John Osmond asks RS Thomas whether his rĂ´les as poet and priest conflict. No, he replies, because poetry is metaphor, and religion is also metaphor. He sees no conflict between administering the Christian sacraments, which are metaphor, and administering the metaphor of poetry. I have that video somewhere, though for want of a suitable connection to my TV I can no longer play it. But the memory of that interview sticks in my mind, and points to what I now recognise as my own position.

We use language to describe our experience. When we experience something new, we describe it in terms of the familiar, the known. When we continue to experience this, we perhaps change our similes into metaphor - so, God is no longer "like" something else (or like nothing we've ever experienced at all), God "is" something else. And then the attributes of the original something else become God's also, and the metaphor hardens with each accretion. Before you know where you are, God (or any other spiritual experience for which you originally had no words) has become solid, fixed, immutable - and lost something in the process.

I fear I'm drifting into territory where others, much more learned than I, already hold sway. Bear with me, folks - I'm doing this for myself. But the wonderful thing about Leonard Cohen's song - and about many, many more that he wrote in a lifelong pursuit of what he called "blackening pages" - is that he never himself explained what he meant. He left it to us to respond. And that, now that he's gone, is what people are doing in droves.

And this, I offer, is the antithesis of what I hate about organised religion. There is plenty to love, but rigid fundamentalism isn't part of that. Let's hear it for metaphor, and the freedom to respond: I do not care who takes this bloody hill.

Friday, January 06, 2017

At the year's turning ...NHS magic

A brief appreciation, on the Feast of the Epiphany, of an experience at the year's end. The year's end, when nothing is quite as normal, when people and institutions are not working at all, or on a shoestring before the next holiday, when the nights are long and dark and when often - as was the case last Thursday - the sun never really puts in an appearance and life seems suspended. It was on the evening of such a day, two days before Hogmanay, that I had occasion to make use of the Ambulance service and the A&E department in Dunoon's hospital. And before I get carried away, let me say one thing: they were wonderful.

A persistent cold virus has had every second person I know struggling over December, and it had caught me up over Christmas, so the day has been quiet, boring even, in a pleasant sort of way. This all changes when I am assailed by a searing pain that feels as if I'd been stabbed under the ribs (I haven't.) As it is actually the worst pain I've felt - even more so than childbirth - Mr B ends up dialling 999. It quickly becomes apparent, even to me, that people think I might be having a heart attack. (I'm not. I'm pretty sure of this, for some reason. Can one tell?) I think that when they hear my date of birth these days alarm bells ring. Besides, I am dripping in sweat, freezing to the touch, unable to stop trembling - you know the kind of thing. Quite dramatic.

I find myself being assisted downstairs by a large man in green. He is making soothing remarks. There is another big man in the hall. Soon our sitting-room is full of green - uniforms, bags - tubes, paper things, a white oxygen cylinder, needles. They take an ECG, despite the contacts' sliding off periodically. Morphine. Anti-emetic. "Don't go to sleep on me!" Fascinated - even in this state - to realise that though the pain is still there I don't care so much. And I don't really care about anything but the pain in the first place.

Seventeen steps between our front door and the gate. Swaying down on a small chair to which I am strapped, worrying that the man behind me will have a hernia by the time he reaches the gate, realising that the gate is not held back by the big chuckie I've used since I was pulling a pram up and down, noting dispassionately that the lead paramedic is having to hold it open with one foot in order to get me through it. The blue light on the ambulance is flashing, as it has presumably flashed for the past 45 minutes. Oh, Lord - the neighbours. It is strangely difficult to transfer from seat to bed, but I get there somehow. The ambulance has rock-hard suspension and I hear myself groaning. And all the time the lead paramedic is telling me I'll be all right and not to worry, and somehow I am comforted and simply give up.

It's the same in A&E. One nurse, one doctor. The paramedics are there doing the handover and then they're gone. More stabs. A cannula. Somewhere along the line the pain recedes and I fall asleep. The whatever-it-is you lie on in A&E seems sublimely comfortable. I don't know what I dream and what is real.

I'm allowed to go home at 4am. Mr B is roused by a phone call, having been sent home before midnight, and I march out across the car park unaided. I am incredibly grateful for these people who rescued me, looked after me, restored me to myself. My own bed beckons. There is only one thing that perturbs me in this euphoric state ...

I have been wearing my EastEnders dressing gown. Vulgar and totally risible. Warm, comforting - yes, but not what one's mother would have tolerated. Perhaps I should buy a more decent one ... just in case?

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

How the NHS lost my man ...

Here's a wee NHS story with a personal twist. I've been married to a non-person for the past 12 years - or is it 11? We did wonder, a month or so ago, when the man on the other end of the NHS24 line turned savage (or at least peremptory) and refused, "in the interests of security", to speak further with Mr B because, according to Mr NHS24, there was no-one with his details registered at our address. A tad Orwellian, huh? And strange, as we've lived here for over 40 years and Mr B has seen quite a few decades under the NHS. But we had other things on our mind, no-one was dying - he was only trying to make a physiotherapy appointment - and we let it go.

Until yesterday. Yesterday, in the hospital On The Other Side - in Gourock, not in Heaven - the discovery was made that Mr B had the Wrong Number. This is the CHI Number, defined thus:

The Community Health Index (CHI) is a population register, which is used in Scotland for health care purposes. The CHI number uniquely identifies a person on the index.

CHI is mandatory on all clinical communications.

- according to the NHS site. It is a 10 digit number, the first part of which is one's date of birth. And some sharp-eyed person in Inverclyde noticed that Mr B's number didn't tally with the DoB he'd just given. There was, apparently, a great flurry of concern. And this is why ...

Had Mr B been wheeled into A&E on a trolley after something horrid like a car crash, someone would presumably have retrieved his driving licence, found his name and DoB, and called up his medical records electronically. Only they might well not have been his records - or they would perhaps be unable to find them, because they'd be under another birth date. Luckily, he's not been in such a trauma, so the problem hasn't arisen, and yesterday he was perfectly compos mentis and able to speak up for himself. But don't forget the NHS24 man - he refused to speak to someone whose records didn't match what the person on the phone was telling him.

A bit of digging at the local GP surgery - where he's been a patient since the 70s - revealed that the error happened some 11 years ago, when handwritten records were digitised. Someone changed a 0 to a 1, and the real Mr B disappeared, replaced by an imposter 10 days younger. And we've only just found out.

I don't know what would have been the final outcome had this not been discovered. I hate to think. As it is, it's almost amusing - sufficiently so for me to blog with a relatively light heart. It might have been very different.  I've just checked my CHI number, and it seems to be correct.

Is yours?

Monday, November 07, 2016

Tolerant no more

I haven't been blogging much recently - short form social media has been bad for me; it makes communication easy and brief. But I've been driven back here by a meeting at the weekend, and the memories it stirred. The meeting was about Mission, and the memories involved me, blogging when it was The Thing, and the scorn heaped on any such thing by most of the church people outside the orbit of the Provost of St Mary's Glasgow.

I exaggerate, of course - always one for the soundbite. However, I'm not about to exaggerate now. We'd been discussing Mission - the hows, the who, the strategies. We'd argued the finer points of pew-removal, and whether this was A Good Thing. We'd talked about town-centre churches and churches stuck up a hill in the back of beyond; we'd pondered the desirability of holding discussions in a pub rather than in church after a service. It had been borne in on me anew that if the committed in any congregation are unable to demonstrate why they go to church by the way they refer to it, to what goes on there, and make it sound fun, frankly, then I wouldn't be tempted to visit. (I use the word "fun" loosely, you understand, for "fun" can encompass much - but it involves a spark however you find it).

There was also this business of language. (I'll get on to the blogging connection, I promise, but I'm started now ...) I suspect we're all a bit different in our reactions to the different language we use to discuss our religious experience. I'm turned off by a great deal of traditional evangelical terminology myself; I can see it's helpful to other people but it makes me run a mile. So we have to gauge our audience and communicate accordingly - and if that means I often speak about religion in rather unexpected language then that's fine. I've spent my working life sizing up my audiences (classes, if you didn't know - classes of adolescents) and making my subject matter accessible and interesting, and I've transferred that to any sharing of religious experience now. I reckon self-awareness is tied up with that - do we ever objectively consider how we come across to people?

And then there's social media. (Told you I'd get here). There are still people who "don't do social media" - and they say it as if there was a bad smell under their noses. Most of them are not exactly young, but it's surely more important to be youthful in our willingness to use whatever is available to make life easier? How on earth do you share anything with people who are (a) under 60 (b)total strangers (c)not exactly strangers but not intimate acquaintances, if you refuse to have anything to do with the vehicle through which they conduct an increasing amount of their social life?

And do you know something? I'm no longer prepared to allow that the people who react like this have a right to their own opinions. If that's how they feel about it, perhaps they ought to consider themselves out of the game, as far as Mission is concerned. If that's how our church is seen, it will die.

Happily, there are people who are not leaving the table (I'm hooked on Leonard Cohen's latest album just now, and it's supplying a soundtrack to this) - and some of them have been running the church, and some of them are prominent social media figures, and the interaction they engender by online discussion in popular forums (or should I stick to fora?) involves far more than just the members of the club. Now, at Synod, people are reminded of the power of social media and asked to tweet civilly - a change from the days when it was de rigeur to scoff at the silly names of the platforms instead. I've been scoffed at publicly in the past - but not any more.

So can we have the next generation of missionaries (shall I call them that?) who will incorporate the use of social media into their talk as naturally as they used to talk about coffee mornings? And maybe, for the people who would prefer the latter, a deliberate policy of education to enable them to continue to be effective?

But why bother writing all this? If you read it, you're using social media anyway. I'm preaching to the choir. But maybe it's just because I want to be less tolerant, and my own blog is a place to do it...

Friday, August 12, 2016

Hoolies I have known ...

This startling photo was taken by Karen Brodie last Saturday as the participants in the Festal Evensong that had just celebrated 140 years of the Cathedral of The Isles poured out in a swish of red and gold onto the steps and stopped to pose. Small people to the front, they said, and some of us obliged. Far be it from me to lurk in the shadow of a mitre ...

It's been a long time since my first posing on these steps as part of an ecclesiastical extravaganza - the picture below was taken in the summer of 1973, when I have to say I felt as if I had a bit part in a Fellini film. It wasn't long after that that I was confirmed in the Episcopal Church, and another 6 months would see me uprooting myself from Glasgow and moving to Dunoon on the back of an invitation from the priest whose institution as priest-in-charge of Cumbrae as well as of Holy Trinity Dunoon was the occasion for that bit of finery. You can see that in those days we were soberly dressed in black (I think they were our MA gowns, and cassocks for the boys) whereas nowadays we are more Whoopie Goldbergish in red (donated by an American church). The red gowns used to have dreadful white polyester scarves, but we managed over time to lose these ...

And if you look closely at the two photos, you should recognise one constant - or rather, four constants: the four members of the St Maura Singers, a relatively new group back then; a somewhat older one now. Two men, two women. We (the women) were both pregnant in the first photo; decidedly not so last weekend. So it's been a while, and we've seen a great many hoolies in this lovely place.

There's nothing quite like a full house to boost the spirits; nothing quite like a good choir to sing with to make the spirits soar. I reckon I've been lucky to have my faith journey as well as a chunk of my musical life linked into the Cathedral on Cumbrae - or the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit, or the Cathedral of The Isles, if you prefer - for it remains special, full of benevolent spirits and still numinous in the incense-remembering silence of an evening alone in the Butterfield building. I've shared it with musicians, with retreat groups, with a Cursillo weekend, with a preaching workshop, and simply with our friend Alastair who is the organist there. But no matter when I go or with whom, this is my place* - which may explain why I look so pleased with myself in Saturday's photo.

That said, it was a crazy weekend. Many of us who made up the choir had arrived on the Friday for dinner and had rehearsed until 10pm; the following day we began at 10am and went on till 1pm with a 15 minute break; the Evensong - an enormous sing - took up the afternoon; we rehearsed till 10pm in the evening. On Sunday, we began at 9.45am to practise for the Eucharist (a Mass setting we'd never seen before); when that was over and we'd grabbed a salad it was back to get ready for a concert at 3pm. I haven't worked so hard in years, and neither has my voice.

I attribute its surprising resilience to a summer spent singing along to Leonard Cohen, actually - it's fair ironed out the break around Middle C that used to cause me such bother, and in a summer of builders and no choir it's been good to have something to sing with. How long, O Lord ...?

A final thought: I have no idea what anyone not involved in this kind of thing makes of it. It's clearly formed a big part of my life, and I've had a lot of fun. But normal? I don't think so ...

*This is not strictly true, you understand: there are probably hundreds of people who'd say the same, but ...