Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Never Mind the Cassocks!

The snow has been falling & I'm sitting at my computer in an old wool cassock to stay warm. And very cosy it is too. But I know I'd get some strange looks if I walked down the street like this ... I know because when I was an ordinand one of my training rectors insisted that when I was out and about on parish business I wore my cassock. So I've had the experience of filling up at the petrol station or nipping into the supermarket thus attired!

And you know, it wasn't a bad experience even with the occasional odd look. Mostly people said 'Hello Father.' They knew what a cassock was and who'd be wearing one. It was nice being identified by the 'role' I was in (even if I wasn't yet entitled to be called 'Father' by anyone except my own kids!). I was doing important work - work that I felt called to by God - and being so readily identifiable meant that people could see that that work was being done in the world. It was the ultimate in 'multi-tasking' - doing the work and being a visible presence in the community.

Which makes me a little sad when I look around the streets of modern Ireland and seem them stripped bare of clergy and religious. When I was a child it seemed like you couldn't walk down the road to the post-office without almost tripping over a half-dozen or so men and women whose attire clearly attested to their religious vocation. Now not only are vocations down, but so is the wearing of the 'uniform'. It takes a keen eye to spot a priest or religious in the open these days: the clergy collar with white insert removed and top button open; the nun's 'pin' on the collar of her coat; the lay brother with the emblem of his order on his tie or blazer. (And who's not to say that a lack of visible presence doesn't contribute to the fall in vocations - it hard to emulate what you do not see.)

I'm sure there's an element of humility in this - recent Church scandals makes those in Holy Orders and/or Religious Communities reluctant to make themselves too visible in the wider community - being self-effacing is almost a form of group penance for the sins of those who so grievously offended. And while atonement is needed,  personally I think that this is not the way to go about it. The vast majority in orders/religious life had no hand or part in the abuse of others. For those who did nothing wrong to hide is to give credence to the idea that they have something to be ashamed of; that the wearing of the 'outfit' is in itself shameful.

They haven't. It isn't. They should be visible. Always. Every time they walk down the street.

Not only is it part of the charism of the vocation to a life of religious service; but the goodwill of the general public for those who have committed themselves to a life of serving God and their fellow human beings is not to be under-estimated ... whatever certain segments of the media would try to persuade us of. And for those who are not good-willed, being visible puts a face on the nameless 'them' they like to disparage ... and opens the possibility for a discussion of the issues (although I have to say that in the year and a half I've been wearing a clergy collar I have yet to experience a negative reaction from anyone). But more than anything, it is the ministry of presence - a reminder to all that there are people who are willing to dedicate their lives to God and are not afraid to publicly proclaim it, even to the extent of making themselves visually distinctive by their manner of dress.

My 'little bit' in that direction is to make a point to wear a black suit with a clerical collar when I'm out and about. I haven't yet gotten to the point where I wear a cassock as my day to day attire,  but I have to say I've thought about it. At the moment I'm holding off on the grounds that it might seem a bit eccentric given that nobody else does (even though that is the very worst of reasons). On the other hand, there are these very 'cool' looking Orthodox outer-wear cassocks I've seen on E-bay ... they are kind of half-way between a cassock and an overcoat, so maybe they could help me work my way up to it!

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Coming of the Light 5

The Light of Salvation
Reading John 1: 1 – 9
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him.  He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

The opening words of John's Gospel consciously echo the opening words of Genesis: in the beginning … he wants us to be under no illusions as to what is happening here. The Word that is coming into the world is the same word that was with God at the beginning and that word was God. This is the Word that is being made flesh – God; and this is why the light that is coming into the world is the true light and will enlighten everyone … the same Word, the same God that at the beginning said: 'Let there be light' is the God, the Word, the Light that is coming into the world.

In the beginning when God created the world and all that is in it, when he created humanity in his own image, he did so with a purpose … the necessary expression of his own gracious love … and that love did not cease with that initial act of creation … it was and is on-going, continuous … God loved us then and God loves us still … and he showed that love by having as part of his purpose that weak and fragile humanity should exist in relationship with him … something that we could not do alone … something that we could not do without help … without his help … so he showed us that that his love continues by his sending of the Word, the Word that was with him in the beginning, the Word that was his very self, into the world to take flesh and bring the true light to the world … the light that brings true life … the light that enlightens every life … the light that is our salvation. Amen.


'such love: that he would be with us
shining in his Word made flesh'

And then, to link all the five themes of the poem/reflections:

'Advent came - is coming still,
as every child of light, reborn
in living water, daily yearns
to daily live as light would will'

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Coming of the Light 4

The Light of Love
Revelation 21: 9 – 11, 22 - 24



Then came one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues and spoke to me, saying, "Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb." And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it

St John the Divine presents us with an image of God's loving vision for the world - ultimately there will be no need for any temple or church – the Lord God himself and the Lamb will be the fulfil that role; and there will be no need for sun or moon or any other source of light … the radiant glory of God will be the light and the Lamb will be a lighted torch for it. And the nations of the world will come to that light.

But until that day comes, there is a Church in the world. And we who are the Body of Christ are part of that temple in the world … We who are the Body of Christ are also part of the Light that it shines in the world – part of the light that all nations are called to, the light that all nations will come to.

This is the true light which all nations need; the true light which all human beings need so that they may flourish and grow as children of God. The light came into the world so that all may be saved by it- and bringing that light to all is part of the work that Christ left his body, the Church. An on-going work – an on-going, never-ending bringing of the light so that all lives might be lit, so that all might have the radiant glory of God's light in their lives, a light that entered the world at creation, a light that became flesh and entered the world in Christ, a light that continues to light the world through his Church, through us … a light that lets us know of God's love for us and that he is with us always.


'the radiant glory of God's light
illuminating all on earth'

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Christmas Spirit

Just a short poem I 'wrote' in the shower while thinking about all the talk of 'doom & gloom' over the Bailout from Europe and all the talk of austerity measures ... thinking especially of all those who had nothing before the boom, didn't get a whole lot from it, & are now looking at being the most heavily penalised by it.

Christmas Spirit
Christmas is coming,
Things are looking lean;
Please spare a thought
For those without a bean.

You think you have it bad,
Others have it worse;
Show you're glad for what you have
By sharing from your purse.

I sent it off to the Irish Times but they didn't use it. Quite right. There's enough doggerel being generated by those in official positions in this country filling the pages of our national papers - there's no need for more generated by a 'man in the street.'

The Coming of the Light 3

The Light of Life
Ephesians 5: 6 -14
Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not become partners with them; for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light  (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.  For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible,  for anything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, "Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you."

As we relive that time of expectation, that time of Hope, that was the first Advent, so we must relive the expectations that fall upon those who seek to claim the benefits of that first Advent, when the world waited for the Word to become flesh so that the true light might come into the world. To have that light shining into your life is to have a life that is changed utterly, and the life that is lived thereafter must reflect that light. We must behave as children of light; we must reject the darkness and the emptiness that the light came to save us from. It is all too easy to believe that having been touched by the light once, or having walked in the light for a while, that we are forever protected from the darkness that surrounds us and may freely return to its empty promises at will, thinking: 'I have the light within me – there is nothing in the darkness that can do me harm.'

But that is not what it means to live as a child of the light. A child of the light strives to live a life of complete uprightness and truth; a child of the light understands that even as the work of Advent is on-going, so to is the work of living as a child of the light on-going. A child of the light leads a life that rejects all the things of darkness and instead leads a life that continually asks the light of Christ to shine upon that life always. In Advent, even as we relive that time of expectation, so too we also learn to relive what it is to lead a life that is filled with the light of life that came into the world for all people.
 

'a light calling, calling everyone
to shine, shine always as the Son'

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Coming of the Light 2

The Light of Hope

Isaiah 42. 2 -6
He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street;  a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his law. Thus says God, the LORD, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people on it and spirit to those who walk in it: "I am the LORD; I have called you in righteousness; I will take you by the hand and keep you; I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations;
All through the Hebrew Scriptures runs the theme of hope, a hope that would be fulfilled by the coming of the promised Messiah. The prophet Isaiah gives us a model for that Messiah, a man who would be God's servant. The hallmarks of the servant the prophet describes are unusual if we stop to consider that so many thought that the Messiah would be a military leader chosen by God to free his people from bondage and oppression. But Isaiah sees him as being gentle, faithful, an establisher of justice throughout the world, not just Israel, someone who teaches God's way to everyone in every land. And God's people, those who follow and are taught by his servant, they are to be a light to the nations.

In the light of this hope, we come to see that the Advent event is not a one time occurrence. Yes, there was a one time historical event; but the true understanding of Advent goes beyond that – it's deeper meaning is of something that is ongoing – a process … a process intended to bring God's light to all people in all places at all times.
And those who are called to be servants of the servant are to be a light to the nations; to model to the world his gentleness, his faithfulness, his seeking for justice everywhere, his desire to teach all people the way that God wants to live. The coming of the light into the world is an eternal event, an event we are called upon to share in by walking in that light, and as we walk bringing that light to others, that all might share in the hope it brings.

'a promise made unasked
of hope – future, now, and past'



Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The coming of the Light 1

As I mentioned in my post 'Advent' I'm working on a candlit Advent service of readings and carols. There are to be five readings, each followed by a short reflection. I've decided to post these as a series over the next five days. Perhaps they'll help those who read this blog get into the 'mood' of Advent. Each post will consist of the reading followed by the reflection, followed by the lines from the poem 'Advent' which refers to that part of the service.

Here beginneth the lesson!

The Coming of the Light 1

The Light of Creation
Genesis 1: 1-3
 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

It may seem strange to begin our Advent journey with the creation of the universe. But that story serves to remind us that the roots of our salvation go back to the beginning of time itself. It is impossible for me to read even those few verses of Genesis without having the whole of the creation story of Genesis being brought to life in my mind: God's deliberate and magisterial creation of the world in which we live; his bringing humanity into being for the purpose of being in relationship with him; and our failure, then and always, to live up to God's expectations of us, despite all that he has so freely given to us.

But God, our loving Father, always knew that he needed to do more for us than simply make us and then set us loose like so many clockwork toys on a table – he did not abandon us to go our own way, some careering off the table to be smashed below; some to crash into others and fall over, helplessly unable to get up again; all to eventually wind-down and lapse into meaningless motionless. And so even from the moment of creation there was the promise of salvation, the promise of eternal life. God begins his Act of Creation by the power of his Word: 'Let there be Light.' From the beginning God's light was coming into the world. And ultimately that Word would be made flesh, to be the Light of the world.


'and so was light always coming
even from the world's dawning'


Advent

Necessity is, as the saying goes, the mother of invention. I'm in the middle of putting together a candlelit service of carols and readings for the first Sunday of Advent. There has been, not unnaturally, some re-jigging along the way. 'Could we do this? We'd really like that!' Last night I realised I had a 'gap' in the service. Where originally there had been a reflection there was now two hymns back to back. Hmm, I thought, what to put in there? I thought perhaps a poem on the theme of Advent. So I started searching. Google will sort this, thinks me. But surprisingly no. John Betjeman's 'Advent 1955' popped up, but didn't really seem to be what I was looking for (& in any case would still be in copyright!). I paged through my 'hardcopy' of Herbert's 'Temple' but nothing jumped out. I tried the other metaphysical poets (always a safe bet for a religious verse or two!), but wasn't tracking anything down fast - 'I could be at this forever,' I thought 'and never find anything that really seems to fit with the service.'
And so, when all else fails, do it yourself! The result below may not be the greatest Advent poem ever, but it does the job I need - and who could ask anything more?


Advent (The Coming of the Light)

and so was light always coming
even from the world's dawning

a promise made unasked
of hope – future, now, and past

a light calling, calling everyone
to shine, shine always as the Son

the radiant glory of God's light
illuminating all on earth

such love: that he would be with us
shining in his Word made flesh

Advent came - is coming still,
as every child of light, reborn
in living water, daily yearns
to daily live as light would will

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Required Viewing

I sat down to blog about something else - me actually! About the sermon I preached this Sunday & how well it was received by the congregation ... it was partly on the same topic as my previous post, Perspective 2, and I was thinking of sharing it ... mainly because I felt it put some of the points of that post into a more religious context - although to be honest I'm still not too sure about the idea of posting sermons in amongst the other posts - maybe that's for a separate blog? While I was thinking, I checked out some of the sites on my 'favourites' list & came across these two clips (posted as separate posts below - I'm not 'techie' enough to make this all into one thing yet!) of recent interviews with +Gene Robinson. The man's humility and integrity shine through, I think. The pain he felt at being excluded from the Lambeth Conference is palpable. I found his retelling of his own story of coming to terms with his sexuality to be both funny and moving.

Whatever your views on religion, Christianity, Anglicanism, or homosexuality, I think these are two video pieces that can certainly help to inform your opinion even if it doesn't change them. It's particularly relevant in light of the debate on the proposed Anglican Covenant, which has come into being as a direct result of the 'fallout' of +Gene's election as bishop. Watching them will be 23 minutes or so of your life well spent - less than the average sit-com! And probably a great deal more to your benefit than my old sermon  ... even though I may still post it - the 'jury' of me is still out on that!

Gene Robinson Part One: the Anglican crisis

Gene Robinson Part Two: A Boy Named Vicki Gene

Friday, November 19, 2010

Perspective 2

I suppose we all have our favourite part of the newspaper, the part we turn to first. For some it's the sports page; others the financial news; others the obituaries. I go for the letters page. I think of them as a way as keeping a finger on the pulse of the nation, an indication of what the people are thinking - the real people, the man or woman in the street, rather than what some journalist or spin doctor wants us to think or thinks we should be thinking.

Usually I find great satisfaction there.  Occasionally I pen a wee note to the editor myself. Even more occasionally it's published. When that happens, I am  of course a bit chuffed. But even when I don't find my own name among the contributors I enjoy what I find there: Jane or Joe Soap sticking a pin in the balloon of some politician's ego; the on the ground view of some new policy; a sharp, honest opinion about our own over-inflated opinion of ourselves as a species; a heartfelt plea to remember the less fortunate in society. The kind of stuff that reminds you that the ordinary folk are out there, they care, & they have a voice that should be heard.

But not today. Today I was first bewildered, then shocked, then saddened. I usually check the papers online, over breakfast. When I went to the letters page of my favourite, I thought there was something wrong with my browser. Instead of the usual dozen or so topics on the letters page there was only one. One heading, with a blank space beneath. The space where the other topic headings normally are.

And the topic? Us. Ireland. A huge outpouring of outrage, grief, and blame. Why? The bailout from Europe. It's the bank's fault. It's the government's fault. It's the media's fault. How could they do this to us?

I checked the other major national papers. Not the headlines, the letters pages. Pretty much the same. Poor, poor us.

I know this is a tough time. The economy is in the metaphorical toilet - perhaps even in the literal one. Jobs are going. People are worried about paying the mortgage, about paying bills. And these are real problems. Serious ones. But lets take a step back and try to do more than gaze up our own fundament.

No one is going to starve in this country. No one is going to end up in the streets. That's not the way the system operates in this country. My biggest concern about this is that all this obsession with this single issue - how awful our lives are now - is that it is causing real tragedies. Depression is rising. Suicide is on the increase. By focusing on the glass half empty we're sucking the hope out of people. The glass is still half full. We still have an enormous amount to be grateful for. A lot more than people in other parts of the world. Places where people are starving. Where they are dying from hunger, drought, war. Where a lost job can mean the end of everything, instead of a reduction of circumstances. For some the reduction is dramatic. But it isn't the final curtain. Not in this country.

So to find the letters pages of the nations newspapers taking a universal one note whine was a bit of a surprise. Sure it should be a hot topic. But the only one? Perhaps it was an editorial decision. It's easy to forget that the letter's page is still under the editor's control and that they can shape the appearance of what is concerning the common people. In fact I rather hope thar's what it was. That mister or missus editor looked at the post bag (ok, in-box of their emails) and thought: 'hmm. A lot of good letters today. But let's keep the pressure on the government on this. Let's focus on the nation's outrage on this issue. The other stuff can wait. Sure aren't the poor always with us?'

I hope that's what happened. Because otherwise I think we've learned nothing from the rise and fall of 'Celtic Tiger.' That during it we became self-absorbed to the extreme. A lot of people got nothing out of it - people who are probably the ones who are really suffering now ... the ones who were poor during it and are even poorer now and facing cuts to their income in the next budget as the government tries to 'share out the pain' in such a way as to cost them the fewest votes. But most bought into it. Enjoyed it while it lasted. Thought it could never end. Screamed abuse at the 'prophets of doom' who tried to warn them. And now blame their erstwhile heroes for bringing disaster upon them. If all we can think about is ourselves, then we're in even worse trouble than the people writing in think. Because it'll happen again. And we'll let it.

I wonder what the letters pages will say tomorrow. More of the same? Or will a day bring a little more maturity, a little perspective. I hope so. Because the letters page are my favourite. I'd hate it if I couldn't stomach reading them another again.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Perspective

What are the issues that are consuming Anglicans at the moment? When I look at things like the Church newspapers that I read, & the blogs and web-sites I follow, the top contenders would seem to be human sexuality (gay clergy & the blessing of same-sex unions); the ordination of women (esp. women bishops); & the Anglican ccovenant.

These are doubtless important things. But do they deserve the amount of attention they are getting? There are so many things going on in the world that would seem more pressing; issues which cause so many people to die every day. Poverty. Global warming.  Human rights abuses. The list goes on. The Church does not ignore them. But at the moment they don't seem to attract the same kind of passion as our own in-fighting does, if we are to judge matters by column inches ... which is the way that outsiders looking in do judge us.

There was a great thriller I read when I was a teenager by Desmond Bagley called Running Blind. The hero has a device to deliver. People are dying all around him to get there hands on it. It's importance? None whatsoever. It is simply intended to be a time-waster, something that will divert the enemy's resources down a blind alley.

I'm starting to think that all the issues over which we are pouring so much of our energy are similar blind alleys. How do they advance the mission of the Church? How do they show how much we love God and each other? Hardly at all. I don't think a starving child in Africa or a political prisoner in Burma is going to feel the love in the least.

In a few decades from now, when time has consumed us all, and they are writing the latest heavy-weight single volume history of the Church, what we are going through now is going to be the last chapter. Is this really what we want as our legacy? And when we're standing before our maker, being asked how it was that we were the face of Christ to others, do we truly want this to be our answer?

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Memories

My dad has Alzheimer's. He hasn't known who I am for over a year now. When we're talking, he can tell me the names of his children, but looking at me he has no idea that I am one of those children.

It's hard for many reasons. Memories make up so much of who we are. Shared memories help define a relationship. So it's hard to have my own father look me in the eye and have not a clue who I am. I'm no different to him now than the staff in the nursing home. It's hard to see the man who was my 'daddy' reduced to this, shuffling around the hallways, not from physical incapacity, but because he hasn't the confidence to stride - he doesn't know where he is or where he's going. It's hard seeing him wearing a bib to eat and wearing pads in case he doesn't make it to the loo on time again. And it's hard knowing there's a good chance there is something similar in my future. His father had it. Most of his siblings had it. Odds are I'll get it too. And my children.

There is one blessing - at least he has late onset Alzheimer's. I remember a few months back seeing a neighbour of my parents who had been one of the 'dads' in the circle of kids I hung out with as a child. He was striding off down the road to the pub on his own and I remember thinking how lucky his kids were that their dad was so well and independent. A few months later that man was dead of cancer. He was only 72. My dad, who is almost 83 now, didn't develop Alzheimer's - or at least it didn't really start to affect his lifestyle - until he was 78 or 79. I had a lot more good years with my dad then they had.

The 'experts' tell us to chat with my dad when we go to visit, to try to stimulate him. It can be uphill work. He has no short term memory worth a dam, so small talk is all but impossible. I can't ask him about what he watched on telly yesterday evening, or converse about the terrible rain during the night, or if he enjoyed the breakfast he finished a few minutes ago. Or rather I could, but there's no point. He doesn't know the answers & often I feel that he's embarrassed that he doesn't know. So we're limited to talking about things that he does know, his past. And increasingly we're having to go further and further into the past to find stuff he can talk about. He doesn't remember his grandchildren. Nothing that we've done over the past 30 years rings a bell. He knows he had children, but when I ask them what they look like he can't tell me. And more and more the memories from his own youth and childhood are getting fuzzy.

Sometimes its funny. I ask him a question like 'tell me about your time in England' and he gives me a look, like 'who is this guy asking all these questions?' - it's as if I'm being impertinent, nosey, asking about stuff that's none of my business. And then sometimes, after sifting through tons and tons of frustration you hit a gem. Like the conversation I had with him a couple of days ago.

We were on the sofa in sitting room of the nursing home. It's an old 'big house' from Ascendancy times, with a long, tree lined drive and large bay windows near Kinsale. It's been much extended to adapt it to its new role, but the sitting room is in the old part of the house, with the sofa tucked into one of the bay windows. I asked him did he know who Joan was?
'She's my daughter.'
'And what's she like?' A long pause.
'I couldn't tell you.'
'And do you know anyone called Paddy?'
'I do.' (Not surprising in Ireland!)
'Who is he?'
'He's my son.'
'And what's he like?'
'I couldn't tell you.'
Often I would leave that train of conversation there. It isn't easy waiting during the long pauses, watching him struggle to remember something, and then having to admit failure. That day I had his coat and was planning to take him for a walk up and down the drive. But it started to lash rain. We were clearly going no where for a while. I thought I might try digging a little deeper.
'Could you tell me what Paddy looks like?'
'I don't know.'
'And what does he do now?'
'I couldn't tell you.' Sitting next to him in a clerical collar wasn't the slightest hint.
'Do you know what he did after he left school?'
'No.'
'Did he go anywhere?'
'I don't think so.' He used to love talking about the places I'd been, the different things I'd done. We'd swap stories about the places he'd gone, comparing the USA of his day to when I'd been there.

The rain was easing off. I sighed and picked up his coat. But it was still spitting a little. Maybe another question or two?
'What was he like when he was child?'
'Who?'
'Paddy. Do you remember what he was like when he was a boy.' There was a long pause.
'He was a handy young fella.' I froze for a moment. Then:
'Really? Handy in what way?'
'He was good to help you with things. With jobs.'
'What kind of jobs?'
'All kinds. With cars.'
'How did he help you with cars?'
'We had to take something off a car one time - it was a hard job. He was great help.'
'Was it a tow-bar?'
'That's it.'
I remember that day very well. I was about 12. My parents had decided that instead of renting a caravan in Ballybunion or Castlegregory for our summer holidays, we would do something different - camping! We had bought a load of gear second hand - the rector in Carigaline sold us his entire fit-out secondhand ... big blue frame tent, air-mattresses, sleeping bags, gas cooker, the lot. My dad had made a trailer. He cut and bolted together old-angle iron for the frame, made the springs himself out of flat pieces of steel, and made the flooring and sides from old packing crates. I think the only things he bought for it were the hinges and the hitch (when we kids were grown & camping holidays a thing of the past he gave the trailer to a cousin of ours - it still is in good working order over 35 years later). And of course we needed a tow-bar for the car. Did we go to a motor-factors? Of course not! On Saturday my dad and I went to a scrap yard - a field full of wrecked cars near the Kinsale road roundabout. The farmerish looking man at the gate said he thought there was one on a car down the field. He told us to take a look. If he we could find it, it'd be three pounds and we'd have to take it off the car ourselves.

We went and had a look. The car was on its side. My dad thought the tow-bar looked ok. So we told the man we'd take it - but he had no tools to lend us to take it off! Luckily home was only ten minutes away. So we went back, loaded up the car with every tool known to man and went back. Dad put on his mechanic's overalls; I was wearing an old blue and white striped tee-shirt with longs sleeves that had been my dad's 'til it shrank and jeans.

It was a hot summer's day. It took us about three hours to get it off. We used socket wrenches, monkey wrenches, spanners, pliers, hammers, chisels, rocks, lengths of pipe, & anything else that came to hand. Half the time I was hanging from a spanner from the under-carriage side of the car, while my dad stood half-in the boot putting all his weight on a socket-wrench. It seems like every two minutes we were squirting one of the bolts with oil and hitting it with a hammer to loosen it. I have no idea how we managed it, but we finally had the thing unbolted. We were covered in muck and oil and rust. The field didn't have so much as a cold tap to try and clean some of the dirt off before we went home.

Sitting on the couch after cleaning off a bit, my dad was rewarded for his efforts with a 'stubby' bottle of Carling. I got a coke - a huge treat: in my house soft drinks were only for special occasions like Christmas or when we had guests. But I'll never forget the happy look on my dad's face as he sang my praises to my mom:
'He's getting strong. He was great help - I couldn't have done it without him!'

That day is one of the treasured memories of my childhood, the kind of day you take out every now and again and relive just because it was such a good day. And I never knew until that moment that the day was just as special to my dad. And he is my dad - not just the remains of what used to be my dad. The essence of the man - the person, the mind - are still there. And the memories are still there too. Sometimes he has trouble getting at them - I have no doubt the next time I ask him about that day, he won't remember - but they are still there.

My dad has Alzheimer's. He doesn't know who I am. But he does remember me.

Friday, November 5, 2010

War? What war?

The Boston Pilot recently carried a report about Pope Benedict's address to a group of scientists at the Vatican. The story only confirms something I've always felt: the so-called war between science and religion is false. It's a 'makey-up' conflict that's only of real interest to extremists on both sides, the riders of various hobby-horses lining up to do battle with each other.

I grew up Catholic in the Republic of Ireland. I went to two different secondary schools, both run by religious orders. My first science teacher was a Presentation Brother. I took science for the Junior Cert (Inter Cert as it was then); and Physics, Chemistry, & Biology for the Leaving Cert. Later in university I took a minor in Earth Sciences for my BA. At no point did I encounter anything either in Church or in the Classroom that would have lead me to believe that what I was taught in one was incompatible with what I learned in the other.

I was 29 and in Alabama when I had my first face to face encounter with someone who thought evolution was a lie. 'I'm not descended from no monkey swinging in a tree!' I was passionately informed by someone I had found to be in other areas of discourse (notwithstanding the double-negative!) reasonable and intelligent. Of course I've encountered the opposite side of the debate also. When I worked in the Civil Service, a colleague who I had always found to have a keen and analytical mind, when he found out my intention to offer myself for the priesthood said: 'I wish you luck. But I think it's all nonsense. Pie in the sky for those who can't accept they're worm-food when they die.'

But most people I know don't buy into the battle. They, like me, find it a fairly hollow dispute. Theology and science are not contradictory but complimentary. They comment on different aspects of the human condition. Do I think this because of my particular background? I have no idea. I'm not sure how one's upbringing plays into this. There are plenty of atheists who were raised by religious parents, as a quick dip into the blogosphere will show. And many who were raised atheist who later turn to faith as events in the former USSR and China display.

I know there are people of faith who find what science has to tell us extremely challenging.  It completely undermines their world-view and therefore they think it is an insult to God. But to the majority of people of faith, it is that very world-view which is at fault. It is a world-view which limits Gods grace and power. It forgets that we are made in God's image and part of that image is God's mind, God's intelligence. The rational part of our humanity, which seeks out new things, new discoveries, can never undermine one's faith in God. It can only build it up.

And what of those like my former colleague who think it's all nonsense? When I was a teenager, I had a joke about theology. I called it the science of proving what you already believe. I wonder if atheists are doing something like that. They do not believe in God, and they naturally seek to support their beliefs. Science, the study of all that is tangible, is one logical place to find that support. But people of faith will never accept their arguments, because they see what science has to say about theology as no more relevant than what theology has to say about science. Each can inform the other and give insight, but they can not contradict.

The sad thing is that I think the false war is ultimately futile for those involved. The religious side will paint themselves ever further into a corner without ever having much impact on mainstream beliefs. The atheist side will do little do influence the majority who know their experience of the Divine to be as real a form of knowledge as anything that can be dissected or put under a microscope. The media will continue to cover it because debates where the opposing sides passionately take such diametrically opposed views makes for good copy. But most will see it as irrelevant to their lives. Hobby-horses are only of interest to those riding them.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Levi/Young 12-step programme to church financial growth

Here's one of the many reasons I like to look at atheists blogs: Check this out: http://unreasonablefaith.com/2010/11/03/ed-young-wants-your-bank-information/ 
Now, since the video is over seven minutes long, and the pastor does tend to repeat himself a bit, you may have missed some of the finer details of Ed Young's way of scaring - I mean encouraging - folk into giving generously (or, indeed, may wish to spare yourself the necessity of sitting through it all). Here's my summary of his church financial viability plan, handily formatted into a 12-step programme (which I humbly call the 'Levi/Young' programme - I think I deserve a fair amount of the credit on the strength of distilling it all down into an easy to follow, bullet point schemata!): 

  1. The Bible says you have to tithe
  2. That means 10% of your income (cash, not crops!)
  3. The Bible also says you'll be cursed if you don't
  4. But the good news is you'll be blessed if you do!
  5. That's 10% gross, not net!
  6. Don't bother to pray about this (or think about it) – the Bible already says you have to do it, so it would be really dumb not to (remember the curse!)
  7. It doesn't matter if you're in debt or or the bank's about to foreclose or if your kids will starve – that's God's money! Pay up!
  8. Real men tithe; women who have a real man, make them tithe - did I mention the bit about being cursed if you don't tithe?
  9. If you don't give me your bank details, I'll know you're not tithing – I'm taping this and I'll put the video on Youtube so everyone will know what a sinner you are. And I'll tell your mom.
  10. That's 10% to church, not other charities – if you want to help the hungry in Africa, or the local homeless shelter, fine ... but use your own money, not God's
  11. Just think about all the blessings you'll receive if you do this – I know lots of people who do this and they're rich ... just look at me for example!
  12. Did I mention the Bible says you have to? And you'll be cursed if you don't? And that it's 10%? Gross not net? You'll be blessed! You'll be cursed! It's 10%! It's mine – I mean God's! Gimme, gimme, gimmee!
 How could I not think highly of atheist blogs after this? It's where all the best training material is! Just one more reason for all my parishioners to pray for them even more!

More than one way to skin a cat

I was well pleased this morning when I checked the website of the Irish Times, the national newspaper I use as one of my homepages. They had published a letter I wrote ... the first one I've had published in ages. I'm not complaining, because it's the first one I've sent in in ages! A while back, when I had more time, I used to submit letters quite frequently & I had a publication ratio of about five or ten sent in for everyone one published. So to return to the 'letters to the editor' fray and chalk up a 'one in: one published' has me well chuffed.

The topic (& turn away now if you bore easily) was as inevitable as death - taxes. The relevant minister was reluctant to increase the tax rates on the wealthy because he was afraid they might leave the country (presumably for some fairy tale land where you can earn lots of money and not pay tax). I can sort of appreciate his logic. Better a little from the super rich than nothing at all. But it's a kind of logic that's hard to take. It was the wealthy that benefited most when times were good - and indeed arguably did the most to cause the economic meltdown that has us all suffering now. It seems a little unjust that those who gained the least from the boom times should be the ones who now pay most to get the country back on its feet.

My suggestion in the letters page bought into the minister's pragmatic approach. So the really rich might leave if you increase taxes for them? OK, but that doesn't mean you can't increase taxes for the relatively wealthy who aren't in a position to leave the jurisdiction - the moderately high earners whose wealth is dependant on living here. Hospital consultants earn more in Ireland than the UK. Tax them. If they decide to move, so be it. Senior civil servants (& politicians whose pay is tied to their rates of pay) earn more here than almost anywhere else in the world. Tax them. If they leave, it's cutting off their nose to spite their face - no one will pay them anything like what they get here ... if they can get a job elsewhere. And then there are the bankers ... I could go on, but I think I've illustrated my point sufficiently. There's plenty of rich folk whose continued high earning capacity is tied to this country. They have no where to run to if their share of the tax burden increases.

So I suggested a tax-banding approach. Increase taxes for those who earn a lot ... and then, once you start into the 'super-rich' category drop the tax back down again. Will the minister take my advice? Probably not - but at least I have the satisfaction of nailing the flaw in his argument. I'm only sorry that my suggestion doesn't target the super-rich who - the developers etc - are the real architects of the misery so many are now suffering. Like many I suspect, I am fed up of seeing all the solutions imposed to sort out the economic crisis being drawn up in such a way as to protect the rich fools who caused the whole mess. And if you remember the parable of the rich fool, he's the one who suffers the consequence of his greed, selfishness, and folly - not the workers who brought in his abundant harvest during the good times or built the bigger barns he wanted.

I haven't yet thought of a 'pragmatic' way to increase the taxes of the super rich in such a way that the minister can't claim they might run away - but perhaps you have some thoughts? Let me know ... maybe together we can pen a letter to the Times that will bring a smile to lots of faces!I

Monday, November 1, 2010

Our Newest Martyrs

I am stunned by the coverage the slaughter of Catholics in Baghdad has received. Or should I say the lack of it. Every morning I switch on my computer & one of my homepages is set to a major national newspaper. Right after I check emails, I check the news headlines. So is this how I heard about the latest horror in Iraq? Of course not: I found it out from one of Catholic blogs I follow in the USA. Great way to find out about what's happening in the world - on a blog from another country rather than my own national media.

When I read the blog I thought, what's this? A massacre in Baghdad? When did this happen?I went straight to my national newspaper link, thinking that this was something that had happened since I last checked in ( I'd had the radio on over breakfast and I hadn't heard anything on that either) ... but it wasn't in the headlines. But then I noticed something off in the corner of the page ... a little list of 'most viewed' ... and there it was. They didn't have it as a headline.

What an irony: on the feast of All Saints, the newest martyrs of the Church were being all but ignored. I know that's been the way of things for saints and martyrs down through the ages, but in this digital age when a flea farting in the jungle can expect a team of reporters to land on his doorstep (closely followed by an agent with a book deal and a Hollywood producer wanting to option the rights) how can something like this generate such low media attention?

I find this disappointing on many levels. First I feel let down by the media. They're not doing their job of keeping us well informed. Secondly, it's hard not to see some kind of anti-church agenda here ...  I'm not normally one for conspiracy theories, but heaven help me I'm starting to buy into it. Three priests shot dead during Mass, dozens of men, women, children slaughtered by bullet and bomb in a place of worship - but that's a 'low interest' piece for the media? And finally, this is the Feast of All Saints. I had just come in the door from saying Mass when I heard about this. Which meant I hadn't had a chance to remember these new saints in the prayers, to give thanks for their witness in a difficult and dangerous place, a witness for which they paid the ultimate price.

So I remember them in my prayers tonight. I invite you to do so also.  If you're not the praying kind, I ask that you mourn with me the loss of these lives, simply because they were human beings who died horrible deaths - innocent lives taken for no reason other than their religious beliefs. And perhaps you will also feel anger, as I do, that there were held so valueless in the world media's attention as to hardly rate a mention.