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When our first child was born, wise old sages said ‘Enjoy this time; it will soon pass’ & I thought ‘You are old- you know nothing’.

I was wrong: they knew everything. That child is now a man and in China for a year with a charity (at the moment: the situation changes from day to day). His younger brother; taller and stronger than both parents, is 16 today.

The wise old sages were doubly wise ; even though my younger child, looking at me now says ‘You are old- you know nothing’, with the all the acuity & clear judgement that only a 16 year old males possesses….

3 questions: 1

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The Methodist Church is on a year of ‘telling stories’ (I hope I’ve got that right: I’m so far out of the loop  that what once seemed familiar is fast becoming a mystery) ; getting people to talk about their faith in a way that is natural and doesn’t sound like an automaton or an embarrassed salesperson trying to sell you 6 impossible things before breakfast.

I was in a church service a few weeks ago and the person leading it gave us a sheet of paper with 3 sentences with blanks in them. The idea was that you filled in the blanks and tried to tell your story. This was the first sentence:-

‘I once met with…… who said……..and that made a big difference in my life.’

The blank page, or even a page with blanks in used to make me feel nervous: how could I start? Now I see it more as an invitation to create and to dream; the blank page is my friend.

Suddenly, I was 17 again and studying for A levels and I remembered my Maths teacher. I wasn’t a great mathematician and A level maths, although I passed was a step too far: I’m inordinately proud of my ‘A’ at O level but it lulled me into a false sense of security.  I began the sentence with ‘I once met with Mr Stoeter who was my maths teacher’. I remembered: it was a lunch time in the canteen and he sat on our table and listened to us and began to talk with us as most teachers did at VIth form- we weren’t yet adults but were taking our first hesitant steps in that direction.

‘Who said…. and that made a big difference to my life’. The thing is, I don’t have a clear memory of what he said although I remember the general sense of it. He talked of how his faith made sense and how it was real. I had a church background; never really left, but it seemed disconnected and embarrassing to how I lived my day to day life. Plus, I was 17, left wing and cynical of anything that smacked of indoctrination.

Normally I would have listened- we learn more my listening- walked away, analysed it and thought ‘No: not today- in fact: not ever’. Even though I don’t remember the detail of what happened, there was no ‘hard sell’ or abuse of authority. But there was something about his coherence, his authenticity, that got through. From that moment, I knew that I wasn’t a Christian and there was something different to what I knew and what a Christian was.

There was no ‘conversion’ then, but just the beginning of a questions and the start of a searching that would take well over a year. In fact, the more I reflect on it, I’ve never stopped searching since.

I’ve often gone back to that conversation when someone has talked about Christianity as ‘bronze age superstition’ or for the gullible , the naive or stupid and thought ‘Not in my experience… not at all.’

Part 2 to follow soon, and it is not specifically about faith….

Why I love village pantomimes.

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I’m in the current village pantomime (the above is a shot from the 2013 one). We’ve had two performances last week and we are entering our final run from tomorrow (Thursday, Friday and twice on Saturday. If you are interested click on this line          ) .

It is part of the tradition of villages round here. In the past, several put one on in the period from January- March and people from different villages would go from panto to panto. Now, a lot have died out although some still remain. I’m biased, but I think ours is one of the best (I really think it is the best, but I’m trying to be modest): six paying performances and around 800 ticket sales in a village of 1800 people is pretty good (even if a fair few people come from the areas around to watch it).

These are some reasons why I like it:-

It knits a community together. The sight of people known in a community parodying their own roles is part of the warp and weft of community life that ties people together: it stops us being atomised individuals. As it is a form- pantomime- with set rules and rituals, audiences generally come together not just to watch but to take part. At its best , the ‘4th wall’ is knocked down and we become ‘we’ and not just a collection of individuals.

It gives people a chance. There are some very talented amateur actors of all ages who take part, but there are many of us who do not fall into that category: for some it might be their first time on stage. Conversely it might be the last time they ever do this, which is fine; they’ve had a go. It gives non actors with little talent like me, the chance to fulfil childhood dreams.

It is an exercise in temporary community. I think that we only ever truly know ourselves when we are part of something: I never quite got on with the Cartesian ‘I think therefore I am’. There is something powerful and lovely when people come together to produce something greater than themselves (and sometimes argue and fall out: that is part of community).

It involves ‘buy in’. Society seems to be going further down the route of ‘I consume, therefore I am’. Something like this-like any voluntary activity- involves ‘buy in’: you are no longer on the sidelines, watching, but you become involved. Some people go through life never being involved, but only buying; life seems richer when you take part in something and ‘give’.

It is fun. Yes it is hard work whether up front or behind the scenes (more so the latter, I think), but it is also a lot of fun. It is ‘democratic fun’ as well: apart from the £10 membership fee, it doesn’t cost anything so anyone can take part. I’m sure Douglas Coupland in ‘Generation X’ wasn’t thinking about village pantomime when he wrote ‘Purchased experiences don’t count’, but he could have been.

I could give many, many more reasons, but I’m due on stage, dahhrlings…

Epiphany

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Today does not feel like an epiphany moment. I guess many of us feel the dulling sensation of having to get up early, go out into the dark and go back to what we left a week or two ago. I’m fortunate; I love what I do, but this day- this dark day- of getting back to ‘normal’ always feels hard.

Epiphanies tend to be imagined as happening when we have some kind of serenity or stillness; when everything feels ‘together’ or calm; not dark, cold or tired (It still irks me when I hear a preacher say ‘Let’s seek God in the silence’: I want to say ‘Is he not in the noise, then?). The formality of the above picture doesn’t help: I like the TS Eliot poem ‘The journey of the Magi’ better.

Years ago, the story of the 3 wise men seemed simple & they seemed bland (most parts of the nativity story read back through the lens of school nativity plays do); it now seems really complex. I guess that many reading this will know there is no number mentioned, they weren’t kings, they were likely to be a type of astrologer and probably Zoroastrian (You’ll recall that Freddie Mercury had a Zoroastrian funeral; I’ll bet though that they weren’t as good at singing or had such voracious sexual appetites..): everything that is an anathema to your good and faithful Jew like Matthew who wrote the story down (or maybe created it to make an important point).

Anyway, they come into the story, meet Herod, find Jesus…and leave…. and that’s it: the rest is unknown- they seem like bit part characters.Well; it is not strictly it, as their interventions lead to a massacre of small children. That’s the bit that is sanitised out of nativity plays and most Christmas services:  it’s a pity as I reckon if it was in the depiction of Christmas in Western culture it would be less sanitised, more gritty and truer to life. Grubby realism, questions, suffering and pain are never far away in the Bible; most of us filter them out.

This got be thinking about epiphanies: maybe they happen just as much in the noise, confusion, darkness and uncertainty of everyday life as in those rarified moments when everything is still and ‘connected’. Perhaps like the Magi, that tends to be partial and uncertain: we don’t know where they went to or what the result of this epiphany was for them.

Often epiphanies may come through situations where we are profoundly uncomfortable and we don’t know the way. Also; an epiphany might not be in any sense a final breakthrough but be just enough light to go on with now….the darkness will still come back, but that faint sense of hope may still linger-there may well be a new direction, but it is still hedged with uncertainty and can be painful. It can be that ‘epiphany’ is only grasped in hindsight many years after: at the time it felt like anything but.

I might read this again mid afternoon when all I want to do is sit in a warm room, eat another mince pie and bing on netflix and feel festive….