Sunday, 7 December 2014

De Profundis

There has been a lot written about the waiting of Advent, about the way it is an active, expectant waiting, about the hope and faith it involves. Perhaps we don't so often think about the way that the waiting and yearning for a Messiah came from the depths of despair, the urgent place you reach when you have just waited to long and are almost hoping against hope for deliverance, looking for a new way when there seems no way forward. Psalm 130 is surely an Advent psalm which articulates the desperate longing for redemption. 

Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord;
    Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive
    to my cry for mercy.
 If you, Lord, kept a record of sins,
    Lord, who could stand?
 But with you there is forgiveness,
    so that we can, with reverence, serve you.
 I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits,
    and in his word I put my hope.
 I wait for the Lord
    more than watchmen wait for the morning,
    more than watchmen wait for the morning.
 Israel, put your hope in the Lord,
    for with the Lord is unfailing love
    and with him is full redemption.
 He himself will redeem Israel from all their sins.

The metaphors of Advent speak to us of this place where we have almost relinquished hope. The resonance of the people who walk in darkness is indeed beautiful, but if you have ever tried to walk in darkness you will know that it is a frustrating, stumbling process where you are as likely to stub a toe, fall over or go around in circles as to make much progress. Likewise the metaphor of the barren woman, Elizabeth, hoping against hope for a child, involves as much anguish and despair as it does anticipation. Perhaps much of this relates to the situation in Palestine at the time of Christ's birth. The longing of the Jews for a Messiah who would restore power as well as peace and prosperity must, in the midst of disappointment and the hated Roman rule, have seemed  a desperate and futile hope.

Then there is John the Baptist out on the margins in his wilderness, not fertile ground but another place of barrenness and desertion where hope finds it hard to take root and he is not a person but a voice crying in anguish and defiance for a straight way where there is no path to be found. John is  a rather extreme figure with his strange clothes and diet and calls for repentance alongside alarming descriptions of winnowing forks and burning up the chaff, and so he should be because Advent waiting is the waiting of those who have reached a point beyond, they wait more than the watchmen wait for the dawn. It all smacks of a very, very long,  barren night of the soul.

 In our twenty first century world with global warming, economic recession, atrocity, conflict and war there are plenty of reasons for humanity  to cry out for deliverance from the depths of despair. Christ never came to deliver us from the Romans but more to deliver us from ourselves and from the human greed and selfishness that has always led us to mess the world up and continues to do so, perhaps just on a larger scale. Psalm 130 also shows us that we find redemption through a despair at our own folly, a reliance upon God's mercy and a willingness to embrace a new way.Advent is about repentance. Crying from the depths of despair to be saved from ourselves still offers our best chance of hope. 

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Advent- the meaning is in the waiting


Moments of great calm
Kneeling before an altar
Of wood in a stone church
In summer; waiting for God
To speak: the air a staircase
For silence: the sun's light
Ringing me, as though I acted
A great role. And the audiences
Still: all that close throng 
Of spirits waiting, as I,
For the message.
                Prompt me God
But not yet. When I speak
Though it be you who speak
Through me something is lost.
The meaning is in the waiting.

It is hard to believe that it is December tomorrow. It seems such a short time since the end of the summer and the return to college. Although I am not keen on the dark mornings, or scraping the ice of the car with numbed fingers, nevertheless I love this time of year and in particular find Advent invested with meaning. I always try to read something that will help me reflect on Advent during December and this year I am reading a book by Paula Gooder which takes its title from the last line of this poem by R.S.Thomas. So many Christian books are, to be quite frank, just so much drivel but so far so good with this one and I think it might prove a meaty and meaningful read.
I am not a patient person, yet when it comes to Advent I don't have a problem with the waiting. I am not enormously fond of Christmas day and it is the intense spirituality of Advent, shrouded in darkness, unknowing and anticipation that appeals to me more. In the spirit of waiting, I am trying to take some time out this Advent, and, even in my reading, to pause, reflect, to write about or pray about what I read. It isn't easy because I constantly find myself lacking time and rushing from one thing to the next. I know it isn't just me. It is a common complaint for most of us, isn't it?
Today, I spent some time thinking about the poem above and found it brought to my mind most powerfully the experience of Quaker worship, not the sort I usually experience where I fall asleep or my mind wanders off and I start making "to do"lists, but the rare but beautiful moments when silence is all that is needed and quietness it is an end in itself and not a waiting room or adjunct to something else.
That is when the meaning is in the waiting.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Do dogs have souls? (Part twenty-four)

Interesting article today about how dogs brains are hard wired to respond to humans. The evidence is based around stuff like neuroimaging and the way the  caudate nucleus lights up when they see, or more importantly smell, humans.There's nothing like a few scientific terms to baffle and impress, of course, more convincing to me was that dogs apparently are the only species to seek out eye contact. So your dog sees you as its family and it really does care...awww...but then didn't we know that anyway?

NB: I do keep planning to blog on something with more gravitas than how lovely dogs are or what I've done over half term but am just really busy still and spent a weekend recently wiped out with nasty winter vomiting bug. Just be glad I didn't blog that one.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Weekend away

We headed down South this past weekend partly to enjoy a half term break away but also so that we could see our son, as I explained to Mr M, I just needed to "lay eyes on him and check he looks OK." The good news was that he did indeed look  and sound OK. He reports that there is a shed load of work but that he is absolutely loving tutorials and student life in general. He was also very enthusiastic about a lecture he had attended given by Roger Penrose who designed the tiling outside the Maths Institute; son was sporting a hoodie with the tiling on it and tried to explain to me why the tiling was important- but you can just read about it on the link if you are interested.We also took him for a meal in The Eagle and Child,  it seems he has been pretty much living off Tesco's value food and kebabs.

Penrose tiling

Penrose hoodie

At the post office at Bletchley Park
We also visited the Ashmolean Museum, although we didn't really have as much time as we would have liked. On Sunday morning we went to Sung Eucharist at the Cathedral at Christ Church. On our way back we visited Bletchley Park, again there wasn't enough time to get round everything and we hope to visit again as you can return within twelve months and reuse your ticket- tickets are  pinned up on the board in the kitchen but that is no guarantee we won't forget them. All in all, a lovely trip away. Just a shame to have to get back to the routine!

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Letting be

 Yesterday, I read this post about the often cold or flawed nature of the welcome that  conservative churches give to LGBT people, even those who embrace celibacy. It wasn't a new story to me because there are some depressing attitudes around and conservative LGBT Christians can get the worst deal from churches as they can feel uncomfortable theologically and personally at "affirming" churches but do come up against an insidious prejudice in some conservative churches. One person told me that the church he went to told him that they were quite happy to have him there as long as he wasn't in a relationship, but then, a few months later when he offered to be more involved in church life, announced he would not be a "good role model." I want to hasten to say that there are conservative churches who do manage things much better than this, equally there are "liberal" churches which still manage to be crass or insensitive.
So what can you do if institutions or the people within them make you angry, bitter or hurt? Well, you can leave, or you can stay, or you can work to change them from the inside. It doesn't matter which of these options you choose as long as you recognise that being angry/ bitter/ hurt is not generally a realistic proposition as a long term emotional state. There are always a few individuals, of course, who thrive on their anger or outrage and use it to galvanise them to work for change. This can be admirable, although they can also run the danger of being one track crashing bores, but it does not suit the average person.
Over the summer I read Anthony De Mello's How to Love which was a book recommended on the Available Light blog. There was a lot about the book that I struggled with, didn't agree with or thought was too simplistic... and yet... there was something in it. I went back to the book several times and found myself in the strange position of either fervently agreeing or fervently disagreeing with almost every idea in it. I also found that it helped me cope better with a colleague with whom I had had a disagreement- and we were at a bit of an impasse. De Mello says that a lot of our unhappiness is caused by our ideas and expectations about the world around us and our need to try to arrange the world to our liking. He writes,

" Yet another belief: Happiness will come if you manage to change the situation you are in and the people around you. Not true. You stupidly squander so much energy trying to rearrange the world. If changing the world is your vocation, go right ahead, but do not harbour the illusion that this is going to make you happy... as well search for an eagle's nest on the bed of an ocean as search for happiness in the world around you."

De Mello does take this idea to the extreme and advocates a kind of asceticism in thought that even extends to a lack of concern at the thought of losing those closest to you - I have to say I have not reached this point yet! However, his ideas about letting people be themselves, not worrying too much to change them but just accepting them is good advice. It moves you from anxiety to peace. We all seek the approval of other people, but De Mello helps you to see that the only place  really worth seeking approval is with God and within yourself, your own conscience. And once you have reached that place external things such as people and institutions will no longer have the power to make you bitter, angry or hurt.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Tattie Harvest!

Over the summer I've grown radishes, dwarf runner beans and regular crops of salad leaves, all in tubs and pots on the patio alongside the usual sweet peas. This year I also managed an unplanned potato crop! This came about because I use our own compost in which to grow veg and one day, in between the salad leaves , I noticed a little seedling that looked a lot like a potato plant. I left it for a few days and, once I was sure it was a potato plant, I dug it up and transplanted it into its own pot. The only explanation is that it must have come from an eye in a potato peeling left still unrotted in the compost ( I had forked it  over a few days before and a peeling must have worked its way down.) Since it was so keen to live and grow, I thought I would give it a chance, and it not only grew into a bit of a monster, it produced a crop which wasn't bad seeing it just came from the compost. We are planning to eat the tattie crop, it looks like they are King Edwards, with some slow roasted pork chops and apple sauce on Wednesday.

At the moment I just grow veg in pots but the plan is to create a little vegetable garden. Mr M felled two pine trees this summer revealing a lovely sunny spot next to the wall which we think would be ideal for raised beds. Then I can grow runner beans, onions, potatoes and salad and will officially be as middle aged as I possibly can:)

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Mental illness

I had a dream last night. In the dream I was living in a beautiful house. The house was surrounded by a wonderful garden and there were amazing views of the sea and a stunning coastline.My initial feelings in the dream were that I could not believe I had been given this incredible place to live; I walked from room to room admiring everything and I couldn't wait to explore the garden and walk along some of the paths by the coast.
Then, looking out of one of the windows up a country lane, I saw a black spectre making its way toward the house. Spectres usually glide but this one was walking purposefully like it was on a practical mission and had tucked up its dementor-like robes so that you could see it had legs. This sight was so incongruous that, at first, I laughed out loud, but then I felt a sense of dread because I realised it was coming to my beautiful house and coming to get me. Very soon the dream turned into a nightmare as I tried to evade the spectre. I would look up to find  it beside me as I read or washed up dishes. It would reach out and touch my arm or my side and, wherever it touched, my flesh would go cold and numb and turn purplish blue. I tried to block the spectre by locking doors or building barriers but no physical barrier could keep it out.
The next part of the dream, I was looking in the mirror in the morning, and all the places the spectre had touched had  become discoloured and were beginning to putrefy. I then decided that, in my next attempt to evade it, I would go out to the garden which had a rose garden through a pretty arch. The rose garden contained some truly beautiful specimens in crimson, flame, yellow and pure whites and it was heady with scent and summer sun. I felt that I would be safe there. To my horror, the spectre followed and laid its arm around my shoulder in a comradely manner while I was trying to admire the roses. In desperation I noticed some steep steps down to a harbour and sea wall, the sea looked deep and surprisingly choppy given the summer weather but I wondered if I could escape the spectre by plunging into the sea or whether, there too, it would overwhelm and drown me.
This was the point when I woke from the dream and I knew at once that it was about a  case that happened at work last week. I can't say more than that as the details are obviously confidential. The symbolism of the dream seemed to me to translate to the idea that you can be in wonderful circumstances ( the sumptuous house) with good prospects ( the view) but that mental illness can still come out of the blue and lay its chilling fingers upon you. I want to say that I am not at all concerned about my own mental health, if anything, after a childhood marked by some difficulties and some emotional and mental illness in my early adult life, I have experienced what I would describe as post traumatic growth. The dream, I think, was a salutatory reminder that mental health issues can affect anyone, and that I should not be complacent or dismissive when others cannot seem to find a way to escape them because that may be their personal experience. The rise in mental health problems in adolescents is something that I am aware of through my work, and it troubles me deeply and often frustrates me. I think the dream may have been an exercise in empathy.