Happy New Year

Writing here in bed just as the old year is closing.
Friends, may 2011 be a year of blessing for you.

Just now many threads and strands of thought are muddling round in my head.  I'm working on a novel with some elusive and complex ideas in that has delicate and not-so-easy passages of interaction and dialogue to write.  And I've been asked for some complicated editorial bits and pieces to lay some inconsistencies straight in the fiction series I've been writing.  Christmas and New Year have meant a difference in household routines etc, and family time and encounters, that all take up head-space.  So my thoughts are a bit muddled and random...

One of the things I've been thinking about is the whole concept of personal history.  I wish you could have been a fly on the wall to behold an interaction between me and my Badger yesterday; it would have been very educational for you.

You know how there are some things that run in families, or in a life, things with a History?  A bit like old Aunt Ada Doom, in Cold Comfort Farm, who had to have her own way all the time because she Saw Something Nasty In The Woodshed when she was a little girl?  So those things run like a tape that comes to dominate relationships and trains of thought and likely outcomes to conversations.

Well, a sequence of events set me off on one of those old tapes.  A moment passed me by like a snake slipping quiet under the grass into the bushes, that I could have caught if I'd been alert enough, but I let it stay in my peripheral vision and didn't lay hold of it.  That moment said to me, "You know, you don't need this. You don't need to do this."  But in the interest of being honest or just unwilling to let things go, I set off on old complaints and clung doggedly to old hurts and injustices. 

In the past, it would have escalated into a row, and me and Badger would both have been defensive and said hurtful things; but we didn't.  He heard me, and he understood, and asked me what I wanted him to do that would make things better; and I couldn't think of anything.  And we stayed in a place that was honest and loving, although fairly painful.

This was all about old family stuff, difficult things from the early days of our marriage.

And then this morning, it came to my mind what Carlos Castaneda had said about personal history in his book Journey To Ixtlan:
I have no routines or personal history. One day I found out that they were no longer necessary for me and, like drinking, I dropped them. One must have the desire to drop them and then one must proceed harmoniously to chop them off, little by little. If you have no personal history, no explanations are needed; nobody is angry or disillusioned with your acts. And above all no one pins you down with their thoughts. It is best to erase all personal history because that makes us free from the encumbering thoughts of other people.

Now of course if you really have no personal history at all you might have trouble finding your way home or remembering which brand of muesli you might want to buy in order to enjoy your breakfast tomorrow morning.  But that isn't what he means.  He's talking about letting go of the domination of relational tangles, allowing life to slip through your fingers like the water of a mountain stream, clear and free, unhindered and wild, like it was mean to be - not snarled up with recriminations and grudges and old resentments.

And I realised in a visceral way that hadn't come to me before (though I'd known it as an intellectual proposition) that I could let go of the painful history that had soured and poisoned some of what we'd passed through.  I didn't need it any more.  To retain it or let go of it was my choice.

So at the crossroads between the decade that has just gone and the one just beginning, I think I prefer the road to freedom.  Goodbye to all that.  I cut the ties of this pack I've been carrying, and it can roll down the hill into the sea.  Eternity is only ever approached through the doorway of now.  Eternal life has no yesterday and no tomorrow.  The same is true of joy.  The only access to joy is in the present reality of now.  Nursing old grievances, the things that someone said and did, whether they meant to or not, is incompatible with joy.

So as I step into 2011 I am choosing to leave my personal history behind. It won't be needed on the journey.  If I'm made in the image of God as Jesus said, then I am what I am, and the past has no dominion and isn't even very interesting either.

Peace.  Simplicity.  Friendship.  Kindness.  Understanding.   These are what I choose. 

God bless you in 2011.  May it bring much laughter and many happy times.  May you remember not to take yourself too seriously.  May you have the space and the love you need to be the person you were meant to be.  may you be happy.  May you be whole.  May you be free.


New Year Thoughts

If you ever want to feel useless and unworthy, have I got a plan for you! All you do is take one of your hobbies or talents and compare yourself to those who have mastered those skills and can do everything better than you can. Look at how much time you waste, then compare that to folks who are organized and productive. Consider your present situation, then see how much other people get done despite having many more stresses and adversity to overcome. Check your appearance out against others your age who look younger than you, notice people with better figures than you, better cell phones, better brains, better temperaments. Don't reflect on your accomplishments; just stew over the great things others have done and focus on your own failures. Don't rejoice at how far you've come; just agonize over how far you have left to go. Be obsessed with how fast the clock is ticking and be paralyzed with the impossibility of doing everything you want to do in this short life.

I guarantee that the above will bring you unhappiness, discontent, and disillusionment. I know at one time or another, I have fallen in the trap of doing those exact things.

For instance, I read a lot of sewing-related blogs. One lady reviewed her past year of sewing and here is what she made: 24 dresses, 7 cardigans/jackets, 3 pair of pants, 3 tops, 3 skirts, 1 twinset, 1 vest, and 8 pieces of doll clothes. What clothes have I made this year? Two blouses that I had to give to Goodwill because I didn't realize I had to make a major fitting adjustment before I cut them out. Two simple skirts. One blouse correctly fitted but not put together yet, and one jumper for 7-yo Caroline that I absolutely have to finish before I see her on New Year's Day. Yes, I do work outside the home full-time, but I have no children living with me and my husband does all the cooking. I have a good sewing machine and serger, a cutting table, some lovely pieces of fabric and many patterns, and several reference books. So why am I so lousy at getting my sewing done? Compared to that blogger, my efforts are ridiculously ineffective. It makes me feel quite worthless.

Now, if I took that information about her productivity, and instead of using it to beat myself up, use it to provide creative inspiration, yes, that's where things change. There's a major difference in "If she can do that, what's wrong with me?" and "If she can do it, I can at least do more than I'm doing!" One paralyzes; the other energizes. Even better, I take the inspiration from her report, file it away in a corner of my mind, then only concentrate on myself. The word "inspire" means to breathe in, so I breathe in their accomplishments, and then the only step left is to breathe out my own accomplishments. In the end, it's all me - my plans, my joys, my life the way I want to live it - because others can provide inspiration, instruction, advice, and help - but it's ultimately my decision and commitment to create my own unique experience.

You can't compare yourself to others because every decision in life is a trade-off. Very few people are what we can Renaissance people who are geniuses at everything. If you want to be a concert pianist, you have to devote hours a day to practicing the piano - and therefore have to give up other things you might have used those hours for. Those trade-off decisions make life tough. As I've heard, you can have anything you want - just not everything you want.

I find at this time every year when I get introspective and reflective about what I have done in the last 12 months and what I want to accomplish in the next 12 months, I find it tempting to focus on everybody and everything except myself. True introspection is a nasty business, as it can lead to clarity, and clarity can be mighty upsetting. I get disappointed in myself, and I get frustrated when my specific weaknesses make themselves too apparent to ignore, and I ultimately know in my heart something needs to be done about them, and it's all up to me.

Yet, I persevere. I can see that I indeed did accomplish more than I thought this year - I made a baby quilt for Joshua, I renewed my Certified Medical Transcriptionist certification by completing the CEU requirements, I finally learned the pattern adjustments for my body type that will enable me to sew perfectly fitting clothes, I've learned how to eat for health and energy and have reached and maintained my goal weight, I've participated in my first software beta program and had a ball working with it, I've been more productive at my job, and I'm sure I have other things to my credit that I have momentarily forgotten. Once I satisfy myself that I am indeed getting things done and learning new skills, I am finally ready for the new year ahead and more goals and challenges.

One of the hardest things in life is to find that balance - of feeling good about yourself, yet realizing your past mistakes and the never-ending attempt to improve, learn, and prioritize, because the hopeful part about life is that we have indeed been given more time, even if it's only today. So, my advice to myself and my friends on the journey:
1. Don't compare yourself to others - it can be intimidating. Whether you pour all your efforts into many resolutions for self-improvement, or you just want to survive 2011 emotionally and physically intact, focus inward, not outward.
2. Prioritize. (Right now, we have a very sick baby Joshua and everything else pales in importance.)
3. As I said last week, this too shall pass.
4. Fly the Serenity Prayer as a banner above your head: Accept the things you cannot change, change the things you can, and have the wisdom to know the difference.
5. "Waste" is an evil word - whether you're wasting money, time, talent, or some other precious gift. Less waste in 2011 would be a worthy goal for all of us.

Welcome to the Great Adventure of 2011! We are travelers on the road together. I wish you safe journey.

New Year's resolutions

It’s coming up time for the New Year. I really like New Year’s resolutions. It helps me get a clear frame on what my priorities are for the short and medium term – to start on right now but expecting to take a while to process.

This year I have three resolutions.

Eat chalk

Walk – spend time in nature

Live spaciously

EAT CHALK – well, I posted about that during November. What I mean by that is that 2011 is to be a year when I focus on how I speak to people, to make it gentle and quiet, both in my voice and in what I have to say. All through the gospels, right from when the angels announced His birth and through a variety of incidents in the course of His life, we come across the phrase “Fear not” in connection with Jesus. “Don’t be afraid, it’s me.” I really like the idea that the voice of a person’s life, what a person’s whole self says, could be “Don’t be afraid”. So that when people see it’s you the tension goes out of them and they sigh with relief, “Oh! Phew! It’s you”.

For that to happen, the voice of a person’s life would have to be gentle and quiet; and strong too, I think. So that the sound of their voice brought people home to themselves, spoke peace.

To work towards that is one of my 3 tasks for 2011 – and that’s what I mean by “eat chalk”.

WALK – SPEND TIME IN NATURE – I really could do with getting some more exercise. I also crave time just being with the beauty of everything. During 2010 I did so much writing (I wrote 4 books; that’s a lot!) that all through the breezy blue sunlit days I was perched up in my garret, writing and writing, with a cloth hung from the window to keep the noon light and the afternoon light and the light of the sun setting out of my eyes. I didn’t go on the beach even though I live near the sea. I didn’t go walking in the hills or the woods. I didn’t sit out in the garden. I didn’t cook outdoors. I just wrote.

I wouldn’t quite know myself if I wasn’t writing something, and I have started a new book, but this one can go more slowly. This year I want to spend time walking, and being outside in nature. I love the earth. I love the beauty. It moves me so deeply, and it fills my soul with joy; all of it, the grass and the light on the water, the flight of birds and the stateliness of trees, the smell of dust and grass and flowers, the feeling of sun on my skin, the sparkle of frost.

This winter when it snowed, one day I had to go up into the hills to take a funeral, and the roads weren’t safe for my little car. So I had a lift with the funeral director’s bearers, and we had to go a circuitous route to stay on safe roads. The latest fall of snow had been very light and soft, every leaf and twig bore a tottering load of snow. The funeral was at half-past three in the afternoon, as the sun was low in the sky. Travelling up to the crematorium we drove through a fairy land of snowy trees, and when we came out from the funeral the sun was setting. The grass lawns of the cemetery were smooth expanses of untrodden snow, sparkling and glistening where the light caught and shadowed blue. Across these expanses fell great panels of vermilion light from the setting sun. It was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. I’m so glad I didn’t miss it.

So this year I want to spend more time outside, to walk and think and just be, knowing I am alive and marvelling at the beauty, being grateful for the chance to have been here, the chance to have been part of this beautiful earth,

LIVE SPACIOUSLY – I don’t know exactly what’s happening with me, but I am getting less and less able to accommodate mental clutter. I cannot cope with complicated relationships – tension and arguments and games. I cannot even bear too much human company (Julie if you are reading this, it does NOT mean your visit to us in September – maybe you are not exactly human; I will be just fine with you :0)

And I can’t be bothered with the endless interaction Things require – tidying and sorting, washing and organising – some of them will have to go. Things set up a kind of IV to themselves from one’s soul – they drain energy away. And I can’t cope with complex schedules. I can feel the tug of a number of people I’m supposed to visit and spend time with… and somehow… I don’t.   I care about them. I am happy to pray for them. I think about them. And there it stops. I’m not going to see them.

Today, we had visitors for the day. Fortunately, having raised five children, my hands know how to put together an adequate meal with little input from my head. But as I looked at the crumpled, slightly grubby cloth on the table, and put out for each person just a fork and a paper napkin, I had to concede that my performance as a hostess makes even the stable at Bethlehem look relatively stylish. Basic. That’s all I can do. I can feed them something tasty and nutritious, they are welcome at my fireside, and I care about them – how they feel, how they are in themselves, what their dreams are and their faith, their spirit inside them. More than that I cannot do.

I feel guilty about it often. An example: my mother is on the brink of moving house. She is coming to live near us so that as she gets old we shall be there for her. I am conscious that as her daughter I should have been to stay with her and helped her pack up her home. I have left it to her friends to do that, and it is remiss of me. But she is a lady of many treasured possessions, and very decided and particular preferences – and the will to tangle with all of that is like expired elastic in me. I can’t make myself do it.

This year, I am giving permission to myself to live without guilt in relation to these changes. I am going to make space for the urgent need to live simply. I will have only the honesty of who I am to offer, here in my home. Sometimes, when I can, I will make it to someone else’s place to visit, but if I can’t get my head together to do that, I will accept it in myself, and just hope they do too.

I am going to undertake the discipline to do one thing at a time, to let things go, to walk quietly through the days of my life, building structures of the Peaceable Kingdom.

I have thoughts about life, but in social situations – parties and visiting scenarios – I have less and less to say about anything. I am going to accept that.

If I am not harassed by things to do and deadlines to meet and social interactions to accomplish, then when my grandson comes to visit me, I am pleased to see him. When I am overwhelmed by the pressure of what people want of me and tasks scrambling to get done, then he becomes a nuisance. I will not have a child become a nuisance; that is not of God. So in 2011 I am going to make my life more spacious, so that there is room in my spirit to welcome the little ones of God.




IN 2011 – THAT’S ME

Beyond the tree and the coloured lights

Behind the coloured lights of the Christmas tree

behind the family times

behind the Christmas feast and the laughter

the gifts and the excitement and the fun

(even behind the challenges of spending time

 with people we find difficult

people who are lonely for a good reason

people we heartily wish were not in our family – but are)

quietly, eager faces full of wonder

stand the mother and child

reminding us

this is what it was always all about.

May the courage, faith and good hope of Mary

and the blessed presence of the child Jesus

be with you this Christmas

and through the year to come.

With love from Pen (Ember) Wilcock

This Too Shall Pass

Our inheritance from our mom (who is still going at 87 years old) consists of many intangible things - her faith in human nature, her insistence that milk of magnesia cures all ailments, and her many aphorisms. Among the latter is "This too shall pass."

I must interject here that my immediate and extended family is coming off of a bad week: Unexpected financial difficulties, a lovely dinner not ready in time, being late for the kindergarten Christmas program, strep throat, broken glasses, excruciating tooth pain which necessitated two dentist visits and will result in an expensive out-of-pocket root canal, a Christmas present backordered, a fall down the steps, and a flat tire right before leaving to take the kids to school - just to name a few of the setbacks. This is one of those weeks that I have to keep repeating to myself and others: This too shall pass. It will get better. As my dad used to say, "Things will lighten up after Christmas."

Throughout my life, I've depended on "This too shall pass" to get me through the hard times. Today, though, just a few days before Christmas, I am reminding myself that the role of "This too shall pass" is not solely applicable to the stormy days. It's also good to remember during the happy, carefree times.

Yes, a lot of us are in financial straits. Yes, a lot of us have had bad news. Yes, things have happened that we would love to turn around and change. And we can be comforted by saying "This too shall pass." That's true.

But do you know what? Other, happier moments are fleeting as well. This is little Joshua's first Christmas. Soon it will be a memory. The years will go by quickly, and we will look at pictures of Joshua at 4 months of age and say, "It's hard to remember when he was that little!" Charlotte and Caroline will be teenagers one year, going on dates, getting their first jobs, and we will say, "How time flies! Remember when Charlotte was intrigued with her first personalized video from Santa? Remember when Caroline used to love to play in the attic?"

The key to life is remembering "This too shall pass" - the difficult times, and, yes, the wonderful, amazing times you want to last forever. That is what being in the present moment is about. The smiles and cries of a baby? That toothless grin of a first grader? The wide-eyed wonder in the face of a kid listening to Santa? Hold them closely to your heart and savor them. This too shall pass.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Thoughts about feminism.

The last of my questions generated in my mind by the Gunn Bros film The Monstrous Regiment of Women.

What do I think about feminism?

Feminism has been defined by S Haslanger, in the Stanford Encyclopedia of philosophy, as “an intellectual commitment and a political movement that seeks justice for women and the end of sexism in all forms.” And this expresses the nub of the problem I have with it, in that it seems to me to be a contradiction in terms. I mean, you can’t both seek to end sexism in all its forms and seek justice for women. Because that’s sexist. It may well be that sexist intervention is necessary in order to redress the balance of social justice in favour of women because there isn’t a level playing field at the moment – but that still is sexist. To act in favour of one gender is sexist. That’s what sexism is. So you can’t act in favour of women and at the same time say you are trying to end all sexism, for in fact you are advancing and perpetuating sexism: just operating in favour of women rather than traditional sexism which has operated in favour of men.

So that’s the first problem I have with feminism. It’s a contradiction in terms. It’s not what is says on the tin. Not only is it sexist, but it’s sexism in denial.

And I don’t like sexism. Back in the bra-burning days of the 1970s, I can remember women storming men-only clubs as a demonstration of protest against inequality and sexism. Later, when I became a Methodist minister, which I was for about fifteen years, our District synods were meticulous and passionate about acting in favour of women. They vigorously defended the interests of women, whom they saw as victims of social, cultural and religious discrimination. I hadn’t been a minister long before I was invited to join a special sub-group of ministers having their own retreats and meetings – women ministers. What? What happened to equality, to inclusive church, to our militancy against sexism? Feminists seem to have a blind spot here. They can see the problem with other people (men) excluding them, but they can’t see that the identical problem exists with them excluding men.

I do understand about the social problems women can suffer. I understand that domestic violence is often (not always) an aggression of men toward women. I understand that women often carry the double burden of childcare and breadwinning, and often are left to bear the responsibilities of the home by men who sire a child and leave. I understand about the frequency of abuse of female children by adult men. I understand about women often earning lower wages for doing the same job as men.

But sexism cuts two ways. In family disputes and divorce hearings, the courts can be unkind and unfair towards fathers to the point of immorality and corruption. In the media and in casual conversation everywhere, it has become acceptable to make men (especially white Christian middle-class men) the butt of jokes and discourtesies which would be unthinkable towards women (or black, Muslim, or working-class men).  No movement which fosters ridicule and contempt is truly a movement for equality. Ridicule and contempt are forms of bullying, and pave the way to more hard-core forms of bullying to follow in their wake.

In many families, men are still the main breadwinners, and though this makes the wife of an unreliable man more vulnerable, it gives the wife of a reliable man both security and freedom to raise her children and care for her home and family. I realize that the home and family in question are the children and home of both the man and the woman, but I know that as a woman I would do anything to stay home with my family, and I think that is true for many women but not true for most men. Therefore I believe the traditional arrangement of a man going out of the house to work while his wife is the homemaker, is the best fit for most men and most women.

I believe that the courtesy and gentleness of men towards women – carrying her heavy bags, opening doors for her, standing to allow her to sit on a crowded train – were beautiful things, without which society is poorer. I believe that the pride of a man in protecting and providing for his family was a noble thing, and we have not improved society by scorning it.

I believe that the ‘feminine touch’ of a woman around the house enriches life, and men can rarely replicate it. For me as a woman, it is a joy to nurture and care for my household, making sure they are comfortable and our home is warm and welcoming, tidy and (fairly) clean.

My husband is glad to lend a hand around the house, and I am glad to chip in my bit of earning money. Neither of us is helpless left alone to earn our living and run a home. But to serve and care for each other sweetens life; it makes everything feel worthwhile.

I care very much about people in different cultures around the world who are downtrodden and oppressed – but I care about it just as much if they are men as if they are women or children. It makes no difference what their age or gender – if they are suffering, unhappy and afraid, if they are cold and hungry and worried, if they are trapped by circumstances and bullied by their neighbours and families, then I want to change it. In fact I see no reason to limit that concern to the human species. In the words of the Metta Sutta (the Buddha’s words on loving-kindness):
Wishing: In gladness and in safety,
May all beings be at ease.
Whatever living beings there may be;
Whether they are weak or strong, omitting none,
The great or the mighty, medium, short or small,
The seen and the unseen,
Those living near and far away,
Those born and to-be-born,
May all beings be at ease!

In writing these thoughts about feminism, I am aware that I expose myself to criticisms that in societies all over the world women are oppressed by men. I understand that. But I think the problem is not men, but oppression, not gender but violence. Ephesians 6:12 – For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places (KJV) People are never our enemy, though some kinds of attitudes and behaviours are. Feminism has served us very poorly in insidiously creating an accepted view among women that men are a problem, a nuisance, a valid target for ridicule and scorn. Indeed I wonder if this tendency to criticize, ridicule and hold others in contempt has always been a particular temptation to women, and maybe that was why St Paul taught so firmly about women regarding their menfolk with reverence, submission and respect. I don’t know about you, but I know that I’m not very good at getting this one right. Mea culpa.

A primary outcome of the feminist movement has been the independence of women from men.  Feminism has encouraged women to allow nothing to stand in the way of their personal fulfilment - even when that means abortion, divorce, whatever.  Such impediments to personal fulfilment cease to be seen as social ills in themselves, in the feminist agenda.

An aspect of this independence is following a separate career - which developed quickly from being an opportunity to being a duty.  Women working outside the home brought in second incomes which in turn increased the level of mortgage loans available, which in turn drove up the price of accommodation – not for two-income households only, but for all households. This has left many families forced to place their children in nursery out of (at least perceived) financial necessity created by the increased cost of accommodation, when they would have preferred to care for their own children at home.  What feminism gave with one hand it took away with the other - the freedom to be your own woman and strike out alone, only to find that the price of accommodation had sky-rocketed so you couldn't afford it.  Feminism plays into the hands of the rich in the way that traditional family life did not.  Feminism allies unfortunately with free-market economy to tip the scales very heavily in favour of the already advantaged.  I think.  I'm not totally sure.  I'm thinking that in a traditional society, where a house with a garden was more affordable, the home-maker wife of a dustman could grow veggies and keep hens just as well as the wife of a teacher.  And home-makers were not always deprived of the means to earn a second income.  Taking in lodgers, seamstress work, selling handcrafted items, writing books, making baked goods and sugarcraft, market gardening, millinery - there are many ways to expand domestic income without dismantling traditional homes.

Even so, in spite of all my reservations, I recognize that because of the political victories of feminists I can vote, own a house, go to university, take out a mortgage and find a career in almost any field. If it hadn’t been for the work of feminists not so many families would need a mortgage in the first place. It doesn’t matter who I vote for, somehow it’s still a politician that gets in. The career I did go in for (ordained ministry) had a lot to do with the wrecking of my first marriage. I learned almost nothing at university.  But hey – I guess I’m grateful, I know it’s hard for me to imagine how grim my oppression would have been without several decades of social revolution.

But I should not be cynical about this.  The feminist revolution has undoubtedly brought freedom of opportunity to women.  Couples can still choose to be counter-culture, preferring a traditional home and marriage if they wish, without being trapped in that as the only option.  It's just that however hard I think about it, the price of abandoning those traditions that safeguarded and shaped our society seem to me too high.  I don't know.  What do you think?

Oh - and can you tell yet? I am not a feminist.

Take me to your leader

So, the next question prompted in my mind, by the Gunn Bros film The Monstrous Regiment of Women, was:

Do I think men and women are created equal, and if so what do I mean by that?

Yes and no.

I don’t believe that all women are the same as each other, or that all men are the same as each other. So, for example, when it comes to caring for little children, I think in general women are better at it than men, but I also think that some men are much better at it than some women.

And I think things go better when people do what they’re good at. In an earlier blog where I mentioned that England has a queen, and she does a great job, a sister who commented on the post reminded me that however good a job she is doing, the queen is biblically out of order. I remember the scriptural texts that led my sister to that belief, but I am baffled by the concept of a God who would prefer a man doing something badly over a woman doing it well just because the man is a man and the woman is a woman. I have no clear opinion about this; it just doesn’t make sense to me.  Where this is an issue, I prefer the route of simply deleting the hierarchical status. Let's not have monarchs, then.  Same I feel about bishops, and indeed any ordained clergy.  If there's going to be a row about whether women are allowed to be bishops or priests, let's not have them.  Jesus wasn't a bishop or a priest, and He had no kingdom of this world.

Other kinds of equality?  Are women and men equal in the sense of being basically the same - interchangeable?  Despite the neurologists' findings that there is very little difference between the male and femael brains, I personally believe that, even factoring in the great variety among human beings in either gender, men and women are so startlingly different from each other they sometimes seem to come from different species if not actually different planets. I know marriage must be God’s idea because I can’t imagine that any other than a transcendent and all-wise being could possibly have come up with so laughably crazy an idea as a woman and a man trying to set up house together, and still have it work OK.

Are men and women equal in importance then – that is, do they have equal eminence, equal status, equal prestige? Yes, they do. They are both infinitely valuable to God – and there is no relative quantification of ‘infinite’ – and apart from that, neither man nor woman has any importance at all; no eminence, status or prestige whatsoever, outside of their own imagination. Neither man nor woman is more valuable than the other to God, and neither has any other value at all.

So should men rule over women? This is an unnecessary question, for God has already told us they always will (here), and that He regards it as a curse.  She was looking for a connection, a linking of soul-to-soul (her desire is for her husband); instead she found herself a link in a chain of command (he shall lord it over you).

But it seems to me that there is a way round this whole equality question that makes it completely irrelevant.  Because this whole thing is about who's the boss, who's in charge, isn't it?

Here are some things Jesus said that blow it right out of the water:

Verily I say unto you, except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:3 KJV)

And he said here (Luke 22:24-27 KJV) that the greater person should be like the junior person, and the boss should be like the go-fer.

And Jesus said: Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. (Matthew 11:29 KJV)

And here is something from one of the New Testament epistles (Ephesians 5:18-33 KJV) saying that a wife should reverence and respect her husband as deeply as the church reverences Jesus, and that the husband should love his wife with as tender and self-sacrificial love as Jesus loves his people in the church.  "They two shall be one flesh."  One flesh.  How can you have a hierarchical relationship in one flesh?  Hierarchy requires different ranks, different strata of status; one flesh is indivisible.

I have read Christian writers saying that in any relationship there is a conflict of interests, and when that occurs there has to be a hierarchical relationship, or there will be a stalemate.  So one partner must have the casting vote and that should be the husband, because he's the head.  That's logic, but it still isn't what Jesus said.  When Jesus came upon his disciples arguing about which of them was the greatest, He said "except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven."  So you can set up an arrangement where the husband is in charge and the wife has to do as he says, but that still leaves them both outside the kingdom of heaven, because Jesus said that's not the way they do it there.  To even enter it, you have to go the way of simplicity - stoop down, and be humble enough to get in.  You don't stride into heaven, the lintel is low.  You crawl in on your hands and knees.

It seems to me that all we have to do is put these teachings into practice and the whole problem just goes away. All you get left with is faithfulness, humility and love.


Still working my way back up the list of questions provoked in my mind by the Gunn Bros film The Monstrous Regiment of Women. Arrived at question 3 with something of a heavy heart, for more vitriol leaks into human society over this than most things.

“In what sense am I a biblical Christian?”

I love the Bible.

When a monarch is crowned in these islands, a copy of the Bible is placed into her or his hands with these words:

…to keep your Majesty ever mindful of the law and the Gospel of God
as the Rule for the whole life and government of Christian Princes,
we present you with this Book,
the most valuable thing that this world affords.
Here is Wisdom;
This is the royal Law;
These are the lively Oracles of God.

And I give my ‘Amen’ to that.

The Church of England set out 39 Articles of Religion back in 1563. Article 6 says:
Holy Scripture contains all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary for salvation.

And I give my ‘Amen’ to that.

Within the Bible itself, in the 2nd letter to Timothy (3:16-17), the apostle Paul says:
All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.

And I give my ‘Amen’ to that.

I believe that the Bible is our kindly lantern, the light to our feet, our guiding star; it will never play us false and its wisdom will never let us down. Its word is trustworthy and true.

Again in the 2nd letter to Timothy (2:15), Paul introduces to us a phrase I treasure:
Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.

The Greek word orthotomeo occurs only in this verse, in the New Testament, and we translate it as ‘rightly divide’. It means ‘cut straight’ or ‘cut properly’ or ‘cut correctly’.

Proverbs 3:6, In all your ways acknowledge him and he shall direct (orthotomee in Greek, yashar in Hebrew) your paths.

Proverbs 11:5, The righteousness of the blameless will direct (orthotomei in Greek, again yashar in Hebrew) his way aright, but the wicked will fall by his own wickedness.

It’s also reminiscent of the verse in Hebrews 4:12 – For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.

Orthotomeo, rightly divide, is a verb that describes cutting a road through the tangles and impediments of overgrown country; cutting a straight path that goes directly to the destination. Paul means Timothy to so handle Scripture as to get straight to the heart of a thing without getting his feet tangled in the peripheral distractions of pointless arguments and fancy sophistry.

And I give my ‘Amen’ to that.

But here’s the thing. Not part of the Scripture, the whole Scripture, and with a commitment to study the meaning, the intention, the cultural background, and the effect on human society that the words would originally have had. In applying it to my life, which I try to do (and often fail), what I am attempting is to replicate the meaning and intention and the effect as appropriately translated to the modern setting of my life here and now. I am trying to build a bridge between the eternal truth of the Gospel and the norms and realities of the modern world.

The word of the Bible is always alive and active, but the application becomes sterile when one part is applied in contravention of other parts of the text. For example, the statements and attitudes of Westborough Baptist Church about Elizabeth Edwards’ funeral. Elizabeth Edwards was an attorney, an advocate of gay marriage, estranged from her US senator husband after he had a child with another woman, admitting to her faith wavering after the death of her son.

She died of cancer, and the Westborough Baptist Church protested her funeral. This was the statement they gave about their plans to disrupt the funeral:

God heard self-absorbed Elizabeth as she rode the talk show circuit spewing blasphemy. Elizabeth Edwards and her faithless husband, John, lightly esteemed what they had. They coveted things that were not theirs, and presumptuously thought they could control God.

I can quickly spot the biblical references in this statement, and quickly find my way to the scriptures they are citing. I can see where they are coming from, and why they think they are upholding the sacred values of the Bible.

I also think they have missed the point by a million miles.

Hatred, disruption, cruelty, meanness, causing others distress when they have been bereaved, making a career out of hounding and persecuting other people, whatever their beliefs and lifestyle – this is not the way the Bible means us to go.

The Bible charts the journey of the people of God as they struggle toward a living expression of His love, as they grow into the deepest meaning of faithfulness.

In this great journey, fulfilment is reached in the broken body of Jesus on the cross, showing us that the way of faithfulness is about accepting responsibility, redeeming whatever the cost, bearing the pain of the sin of others with the unconditional forgiveness of perfect grace.

In the New Testament, we see the newly formed church grappling with purity issues as the Gentiles, who are beyond the pale and unclean, want to join their number and be accepted as they are. Peter, struggling to embrace the openness of God, protests that he would never touch what is unclean. God tells him it is not for him to call unclean what God has declared clean.

Peter, probably knowing better than to argue with God, forbears from pointing out that in the Law of Moses, God did call the Gentiles unclean and that’s why Peter thinks they are.

What’s the lesson? It’s not that Gentiles are clean or unclean, it’s not about Jews and Gentiles at all. The lesson is that God moves us on. The lesson is that where the fruit of the Spirit is, there the hand of God is at work, and that this is a profounder truth than attaching labels to other people garnered from prohibitive proof texts.

The Bible – the whole Bible; its directions, its intentions, its meaning and its impact on society – guides my life and my thinking, according to my dim and wavering light.  I don't always get it right.  Many times I miss my way.

I pray for guidance to rightly divide the scriptures so that my feet may go straight through, without tripping over the brambles of dissension and self-righteousness, and arrive at the holy Word at the heart of the text – which is always Jesus, the bearer of the light of grace into a fallen world.

Keepers at home

Is it just me that reads everything backwards? If I look at a magazine, I always start at the back. If I read a novel I look at the end to find out what happens, take the tension out of the plot and then settle down to enjoy it in peace, without the agony of suspense.

So here I am working backwards up the list of questions left in my mind by the Gunn Bros film The Monstrous Regiment of Women. I’m at my question 4:

Do I think ‘a woman’s place is in the home’?
I should explain (they do tell you in the film) that “the monstrous regiment of women” is a quotation from a pamphlet written by John Knox in protest against political rule by women during the time of the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots. “Regiment” means rule or authority, and “monstrous” means unnatural, freakish. The image it conjures of an army of female trolls was probably, while not an accurate interpretation of what he said, not far from John Knox’s mind. So he thought the regiment – rule – of women was unnatural, against the order of creation. The film supports this view, promoting strongly the opinion that being a keeper at home is a woman’s highest calling, that large families are a delight and blessing of the Lord, to be cherished and sought, and that whether we are thinking of a business boss or a church minister, woman is not made for leadership or power.


Well, I am English, and as you know England has a Queen who is head of the Church of England as well as our monarch. And I have to say there is nothing in the way she conducts herself that would support John Knox’s view. The first Queen Elizabeth was also an excellent monarch – more admirable in every respect than her father King Henry VIII, who divorced two wives and beheaded two more. His masculinity blessed us not at all, and his treatment of the monasteries was nothing to be proud of either. He was not without good qualities of course, but that much can be said of all of us.

Queen Victoria was another very admirable monarch. Her moral standards and (partly under her husband’s influence) her concern for the public good were exemplary.

Other women in power? Abbess Hilda of Whitby, perhaps, who reigned over a dual abbey with some monks and some nuns. Or Mother Ann Lee, the founder of the Shakers? Or Mother Teresa? The more I think about it the harder I’m finding it to see what John Knox’s problem was.

I myself come from a line of strong and forthright Yorkshire women.

I well remember as a child listening to my mother in conversation with a man who had charged her an extortionate, unreasonable sum of money for lopping a dangerous branch for our oak tree that overhung the highway. He was an oily and unpleasant man, and murmured to her in obsequious tones as she handed him her cheque: “If ever you’re in trouble, just give me a call.”

“If ever I’m in trouble,” she replied, “I’ll get out of it somehow without coming to you.” And there is no doubt in my mind she would have made good on those words.

My great-grandfather started a village shop, and my great-grandmother did the accounts and cooked all the baked goods. She was by training a textile designer, and she also turned her hand to millinery and made her own clothes as well as tending her beautiful garden and keeping her home in apple-pie order.  During the war their household expanded to include evacuees from more dangerous parts of the country.

Her daughter Kitty married a man who worked his way up from poverty to substantial wealth, owning a large farm and a number of other houses. Every year at Michaelmas they went to the fair to employ their horsemen for the year who, along with prisoners of war and various other farm hands, lived and ate and worked on the farm. Kitty oversaw the daily domestic running of the whole enterprise, and kept the accounts for the farm. The cleaning and childcare and domestic detail were taken care of by a housekeeper – Kitty managed the people, the money and the organization of this large community. Her husband was the actual farmer – the beasts, the crops, the building, the machinery, the choice of labour and the land were his area of concern.

Kitty’s daughter, my Auntie Jean, married into a similar setting. Swarms of gypsies worked on their land, along with regular farm workers and the rest of the family. My Auntie Jean also had hens, ducks and geese as well as the vegetable garden to manage on top of the orchestration of the household, the usual domestic chores and an army of people to feed.

My mother, Kitty's eldest daughter, did not marry a farmer. My father worked overseas and was rarely at home. My mother bought and sold houses as a means of making money – we lived in them while she enlarged, improved, refurbished and rebuilt them and then moved on. Eventually we were able to afford a home with five acres with room for sheep, ducks, hens, an orchard, a huge vegetable garden and many soft fruit bushes. We had our own wood and stream, with no need to buy in logs, and an abundance of flowers and herbs also graced the garden. With no man at home – just my mother, me and my sister – all the decisions, all the heavy labour and all the courage had nowhere to come from but women.

Kitty's youngest daughter, my Auntie Jessie, had chronic severe depression and periodic nervous breakdowns; it would have been realistic to expect her to hold down a job.  But as well as that, in late middle age Kitty, then a widow, suffered a detached retina and became almost blind.  My Auntie Jessie therefore was needed at home as a full-time carer for her mother.

So when I am faced with the proposition that a woman’s place is at home, and she is not suited to ‘regiment’ (ie being in charge of anything), all I see is a matter of location and scale.

When the Book of Proverbs in the Bible was written, and the description of the Good Housewife penned, the writer had in mind more the kind of housewife that my grandmother and great-grandmother were, than the Edward Scissorhands variety of household – neat as a pin suburban boxes surrounded by manicured lawns and topiarised bushes, occupied by women who lived there alone polishing floors and silver and furniture while their husbands worked for corporations and their children went to school.

Certainly my mother and her mother and mother’s mother treated men with deference and respect. They were waited on and served. They were spoken of always as the most important member of the household. But the women took great pride in the work they did and the area of responsibility they exercised. In such a setting, being a keeper at home makes perfect sense. No intellect could be stunted, no ability or creativity left unfulfilled, with such a broad variety of daily responsibilities to address.

My own life has been different. I married a man who became a schoolteacher, a musician. He worked the normal teacher’s pattern but added on innumerable music commitments besides – some paid, others for the beauty of it. His mother, a devout Methodist, worked part-time as a teacher alongside her husband, a headmaster.

I stayed home to raise our children – I would never have countenanced the possibility of sending them into the care of another woman – and homeschooled for a couple of years along the way, giving up under stiff and steady opposition from many sides.

Meaningful work in hospice and prison and church morphed into part-time paid ordained ministry which morphed into full-time ministry at which point my husband left with another woman – who also works full-time.

The peculiar circumstances left me with no job at all and impossible accommodation for our children. A very draining and difficult decade followed to put a life back together, which involved a great deal of very hard work indeed. During that time I was remarried, widowed, married again.

So when we ask, ‘should women be keepers at home?’ it seems to me a less simple question than it first appears. To manage the accounts and household, garden and poultry of a large farm is a different proposition from living in a small urban house equipped with labour-saving gadgets and having no garden. And what is a woman to do whose husband has walked out and left her with a large family and no means of support?

What if a woman has both an aptitude and a sense of vocation to, say, the practice of medicine, but has neither interest nor skill in domestic matters like laundry and cooking?

I believe that the strength of any civilization is founded on the quality of its home and family life. I believe that home is the place where values, faith, priorities and relational skills are taught. I believe that the home is the primary place of a person’s education. A child who grows up where there are no books is unlikely to develop a love of reading. A child growing up in a home where dull processed food from packets is served at every meal stands little chance of one day becoming a chef.

And a home is not made up of bricks and mortar only. For a home to feel like home, to offer the kind of sanctuary and nurture and support that makes it what home can be, people with home-making skills must be somewhere involved. To come home on a winter’s night to find hot food, a fire in the stove, the bed made and the washing hung out in the hours of daylight and now inside to air – this is quite different from coming home to last night’s washing up and pot noodles in front of the television.

I believe that most women are better suited to home-making than most men. Women, whether through natural aptitude or generations of tradition I do not now, manage the complex minutiae of responsibilities involved in running a household better than their menfolk, in most cases. When their wives are sick or leave them, many men rise to the occasion and work hard to keep home homely; but they rarely do it as well as women do. The bachelor establishments I have known have sometimes been clean and tidy: but they have lacked the cheerful orderliness of a family household.

In the end, I suppose, I can speak only for myself. ‘You ought to’ is rarely a helpful beginning to a sentence.

I know that the place where I want to be is my home. If I need to make money for this to be possible, I know how to be frugal, I am willing to take lodgers, I am happy to share with others to keep costs down, and I love to write books. But I don’t want to go out to work. My home is where I live. It’s the place I want to be. I don’t need holidays or trips abroad. I have no need to ‘get away’. This is where I want to be. My home and my family are my joy.

I do also enjoy having my own area of thought and life – writing, conducting funerals and retreats (for women). I love making things and thinking and reading: but I want to be at home. And if I had to go out to work I would be miserable.

However, if another woman felt the other way round – that she would be miserable stuck at home and felt desperate for a job to give meaning to her life, and felt lonely by herself at home all day and longed for the busy environment of an office/school/shop – well, I have no desire to make a woman’s home into her prison. And I think anyone who can run a farm can probably run a small country.  Besides, who is to care for the many individuals who must be in nursing homes and hospitals?  Men?  Perhaps care work is thought suitable to women because it is menial - but is not a night care assistant looking after a floor of patients, including a number of men, in a sense ruling over them?  She is in a chain of authority, but the nrse and the matron are most likely to be women too.  Perhaps the Gunn Bros in their film meant that women can be given authority and responsibility but never prestige?  They can have power over others, even be left in charge in situations of life and death, just so long as nobody else is going to call that important.  And what kind of an idea is that?   Dalits by another name.

Oh, I don’t know! What do you think?

To be or not to be

So. Working backward through my list of yesterday I next come to the question ‘What do I think about abortion?’

I have not honestly visited this question since I was an undergraduate of eighteen and wondered if I might be pregnant myself. I can recall the turmoil. My upbringing valued the art of fitting in. You don’t cause trouble. You don’t draw attention to yourself. You don’t rock the boat. You sit nicely and pass the biscuits and initiate conversation on topics that cause no contention. You are grateful for what is done for you, you work hard, you take responsibility, and you behave in a manner that will bring credit to your family. On reflection I could see that an undergraduate eighteen-year-old pregnancy was not going to be good news. Everyone I knew socially at that time (mid-70s) was of one mind – you make it go away. But not me. I had joined a pro-Life group (the only university club I did join), though I had stopped going because it was a pro-Life pro-Feminist group, and I was a bit annoyed by this because I wanted to put my hand up and be counted for babies to have the chance to live, but I didn’t think I was a feminist and didn’t want to become known as one by default. Anyway, the problem with its attendant turmoil did go away because I wasn’t pregnant – not by happenstance but because the contraception I had been carefully and precisely using had not let me down. I mention this moment in my mis-spent youth because I think it’s important to make it clear I am not thinking about ‘these girls who get themselves into this situation’; I am thinking ‘if this were me’.

Later, as a young mother of 22, I became friends with a Jewish obstetrician. By this time I had clearly abandoned my mother’s painstakingly taught lessons in how to conduct myself as a young lady, because I asked him not if his wife was quite well or he had enjoyed good weather on his holiday, but how he could square being a good Jew with his occupation as an obstetrician, involving as it did the regular performance of abortions.

He was a man not unfamiliar with questions of life and death. He had come to England in the first place on the Kinder-transport, sent by his parents as they saw what was approaching. So he evaded the concentration camps, but his family had not, which must have left its scars, don't you think? He wanted, I sensed, to work close to where life was, where life began. He was very honest in his answers to me. He said that he had become an obstetrician in the first place because he loved children, and wanted to be part of bringing babies into the world. When he began it, that’s what he had been thinking of, not doing abortions. But he said that people seek abortions because of serious moral dilemmas. He said that he had interviewed women who were afraid for their lives because they were pregnant, and women whose lives would be ruined for ever by the birth of a child. And of course, though he didn’t say this, women who have been trained to be compliant and respectful, to please and serve men, may be all the more likely to find themselves in this terrible dilemma. Women who have done what is asked of them and are not sure how to refuse an unwelcome request, or how to say ‘no’ when a situation has evolved beyond what they intended or imagined.  He said he didn't see how he could improve anything by forcing such a woman to bring a child into the world.  He said he thought it was desperately sad, but some of the situations brought him to the place where he saw it as the best thing to do.  And he didn't like it.

When I met that man I had one child. I went on to have four more, all planned and intended. I used contraception on those occasions when I judged it not right to have a child, and left of the contraception when I thought another baby would be okay. I never had to do more than leave off contraception once or twice and I would conceive; and I never conceived when I was trying not to.

After I had my twins (Child 3 and Child 4) I felt I had seriously exhausted my resources on the child-raising front. We lived in a very tiny two-bedroomed cottage, with slightly less money than we needed to pay our bills. I had no car and it was a long walk to any grocer’s store. My husband was a busy musician, often out weekends and evenings as well as working fulltime (though when he was home he was a very hands-on father, and formed a close and happy relationship with his children). We had four children under four, all in nappies at night, some by day as well, no help in the house, and I was tired.

But the Lord asked me to have another child. He showed me that wherever the Bible says ‘blessing’ it means ‘fertility and increase’. He showed me that children are a gift from the Lord. He sent a word of knowledge for me to our prayer group. ‘I want you to have this child,’ he said. So I did. And what a child. The wild side of feral. Untameable. Our own small fury. That fifth child deserves a whole blog post of her own, but she threw the entire peaceful rhythm and ordered routine of our home life up into the air like confetti. She shredded beyond repair all my preconceptions about myself as a person and as a mother, and pulverised my illusions about my ability to cope. Since then she has grown up in to a sort of guru – not in the context of a cult I mean, just that she is as wise as the hills and the stars, and walks as free and as pure as the soul of the wind. She is an extraordinary woman.

When she was a baby, John Bickersteth blessed her. He was the closest to being a saint of anyone I ever met. It happened when I was supposed to be at my husband’s side in a meeting for worship, but couldn’t because I was still trying to get my wild baby to sleep in the corridor. I had her in her moses basket which I was swinging gently at the darker end of the passage where people were not, in the hope of her going to sleep. While I was doing this, John Bickersteth and his wife arrived at the meeting. This was in the context of his big stately home place that he’d turned over to the Lord to use as a conference centre, Ashburnham. He and Marlis were just going into the big hall for the meeting, when he stopped, left her side, came along the corridor to me, and asked: ‘Are you all right?’

I wasn’t. I felt upset and frustrated because I never seemed to be free of having a baby to care for, and I wanted to be in the meeting; and I hadn’t wanted this child in the first place, it was all the Lord’s idea and he’d sent me one that caused havoc and never went to sleep. But I had only been standing there in the shadows, quietly rocking the moses basket. Nothing in my demeanour should have given me away – and besides that, John was almost blind. He had about 10% vision. But the eyes of his soul were not blind. He had Seen me. So I told him about that baby, and how the Lord had asked me to have another one even though I felt I’d had enough, and how tired I was and how hard she was to care for. I told him about the vision I’d had when she was conceived – of an old plant fruit like a rosehip or an onion, wrinkled and finished, that had become infused with radiant light and turned back into a rose-bud again. And John said the Lord would honour that I had been obedient to Him, and that this child would be a special blessing. And he blessed her. I hung onto that through her stormy and difficult childhood, and I remember it now that I see her pure soul – a wise, ancient soul, a soul with a blue starry robe that sees into the secrets of life and knows about love and truth and freedom, and the power of patience and kindness – all the things that most of us come to much later in life than she has.

So I know a bit about having babies and what a struggle it can be. I am well aware that once a child is born your life is never the same again. But in my understanding of things, though a child’s body must form, and its mind and character develop, these proceed from the interaction of the soul with its environment: and the child’s soul arriving into your body is what conception is. The soul arriving is what starts it all off. When the angel Gabriel came to Mary, he was not suggesting that she grow or raise a Messiah. What He was would be there with her from the moment of conception – though His style of Messiahing certainly owed something to His mother, as you can see if you compare His sermon at Capernaum with the power and glory of His mum’s Magnificat.

So the idea of abortion is something I have given headroom to, but I would not give liferoom to it. I could not actually do it because if we had got to the place where this small holy guest had chosen the hospitality of my body, I could not live with myself if I turned her (or him) away. God can be trusted. God alone gives life. If God thought that my body was a suitable stable, and my womb a suitable manger, then Amen.

But I am speaking out of my life, my experience. I cannot begin to know what it must be like to be a woman whose family will beat her and burn her and murder her if she has this child. I cannot imagine how it must feel to live with the kind of rigid Protestant parents who would cover her with shame and throw her out of the family, and leave a woman raised to compliance and belonging and authority and hierarchy on her own with no support just when she needed it most, expected not only to manage an independence she was not raised for, but the expensive and exhausting care of an infant without the means to provide that.

Abortion? This is what I think about abortion. I think that like many social ills, abortion is an end-stage that people think of as a first-stage. Abortion is symptomatic. It is to be expected in a society where shame and punishment are rife, where breastfeeding is seen as obscene, where people are infected with materialism and consumerism, where women are supposed to be elegant and thin and sexy and employed, where raising children is not natural and sweet but processed through institutions and regulated by inspectorates, and where religious people get all acidic about sex. In a society that sets up gatherings – everything from church and chapel to theatres and restaurants and colleges – where the presence of babies will be an interference, unwelcome and a disruptive nuisance, of course people will seek abortions. Because they are themselves only human, only children, and they don’t want to be left out they want to join in.

When I had my second child, and she was about seven or eight weeks old, I went to a carol service. This took place in a medieval church on a freezing December night. It was beautiful, magical, charming, ethereal – songs about the baby Jesus, readings about the baby Jesus, a little Nativity tableau, everything you could wish. But oh dear! My baby got restless. She was one who liked to be fed at least once an hour. And in such a setting, breastfeeding was not socially acceptable. Hoping to quieten her and string her out until the thing was over, I crept out into the small, icy porch. There I found all the other people with restless infants, crowded into this bitterly cold inadequate stone ante-room because the real children were nothing but a darned nuisance to the people who were singing lovely songs and reading lovely poems and Bible passages grouped round a baby and its mother who were conveniently devoid of screaming, pooping or breastfeeding because they were only statues.

In such a society abortions will occur naturally. It’s no good blaming the women or saying they are selfish or sinful. If we don’t like abortion, then everything we do and say, every choice we make in our homes, churches, shops, caf├ęs – everywhere – will have to say YOU ARE WELCOME.  Abortion is the end-stage of an inhospitable society that practises a culture of blame. Why do women seek abortions? Because they will be excluded, punished, ostracised, blamed, limited, poor, left alone and get into trouble. We could change that, couldn’t we?

Just as long as babies are a nuisance, people will seek to avoid the responsibility they bring.

Sweet Influence

While I was on Facebook today, I came across a lady I hadn't met before, with a beautiful gentle face, and I wondered who she was. When I looked at the information about her, she came across kind of stern, and under the heading of films she enjoyed on her page was just this one film, the Gunn brothers’ The Monstrous Regiment of Women. Intrigued, having not come across it before, I watched all of it in instalments on YouTube. Some of you may already know it well, if not and you are curious, Part 1 is here.

It filled my mind with questions.

The questions orbited around several topics that have buzzed away in my mind for some time now. I don’t have answers, just questions, but I thought I’d like to share the questions with you. Not all at once on one day, but over two or three days.

The questions are around these topics:

1) What do I think about feminism?

2) Do I think men and women are created equal, and if so what do I mean by that?

3) In what sense am I a biblical Christian?

4) Do I think ‘a woman’s place is in the home’?

5) What do I think about abortion?

6) Are people created good or bad?

Just one for today. The first shall be last and the last first. So “Are people created good or bad?”

I am not good at remembering exactly what is said in a film with such a powerful vibe as this one. The polemic comes across so strong that I am inclined to reconstruct what was said according to how it made me feel. And I don’t think I want to watch the whole film all through again to get at this part. However if I’ve remembered it aright, the film challenged the belief that people are essentially and fundamentally good. It said that the Bible teaches that people don’t start out good, and it gave some references to back up the belief that people are inherently sinful.

What do I think about that?

Well, I think people are both. I think they are inherently sinful and fundamentally good, and I think that for two reasons: 1) because observation tells me this is so and 2) the Bible says so too.

In David’s sad, lamenting, penitential Psalm 51, the Miserere, he says (v.5) “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.”

Both in my experience of who I am, and in the Christian tradition in which my faith and practice flow, I can identify with that. However, right at the beginning of the Bible, in the first creation story of the book of Genesis I read: “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” I am part of all that He has made. I too am good. And Jesus loves me: it would be impossible for Jesus to love something that was at root, inherently, evil.

So I think the film was not correct and not biblical in saying that people are not fundamentally good. People have to be redeemed, yes – but ‘redeemed’ means ‘bought back’. Redeemed carries the implication of something you had in the first place, not something you are acquiring for the first time. When God redeems us from the evil of sin into which we have fallen, He is getting back something that was not always so damaged and shamed. He is getting back something that was made in His image, made beautiful, made good. The image of God cannot possibly be anything but good; and Jesus says we are made in the image of God. That means we are made good and made to be good.

It is a matter of observation that humanity is frail and flawed, and the Bible says so too. This is the paradox we have to live with: that though we are essentially and originally good, we have all fallen into sin. We lose the balance of accuracy if we say we are not fundamentally good, or if we claim to be only good and not flawed at all.

I felt uneasy with the proposition that we are fundamentally bad. It gave me a horrid feeling deep in my solar plexus. It put me off the film a lot.

Something happened this evening though that took me by surprise and made me think hard.

When I was a young teenager (maybe about fourteen?) the film Clockwork Orange (which you may or may not remember) came out. I’m not sure what kind of a film it was because I never saw it, but I received the impression it was violent and sinister (that’s why I didn’t go and see it). Around this film raged debate as to whether seeing violent films made people (and as a consequence, society) more violent, or whether films only expressed violence that is already there. That is to say, do films change people? The young man who was at the time my sister’s boyfriend was of the opinion that watching the film wouldn’t make any difference, it couldn’t possibly affect what you did or the kind of person you were. But the odd thing was, the weekend after watching the film he got my sister’s set of false eyelashes and attached them both round one eye just like the man in the film. So then I knew that not only do films influence behavior, but the person whose behavior has been influenced can be completely unaware that they are being influenced – they can deny they have been influenced at all at the same time as imitating what they have seen.

Watching The Monstrous Regiment of Women today, I came away with a prevailing sense of uneasiness and misgiving, despite agreeing with many of the points it makes. I had many questions and few answers. I didn’t like the film.

But in the course of the film, there was a plump smiley lady with a crocheted headcovering and a blue flouncy blouse who had been through some kind of weird bad stuff at an ordination school where her husband was training for ministry. She had been drawn into training herself and then been considering divorce, but came through all that and went back to being a keeper at home. I wasn’t totally sure what the moral was – Divorce is bad? Training is bad? Ordination is bad? Theological college is bad? Women who go to college will reject their husbands which is bad? Ordination school leads to divorce which is bad? I just got a general feeling of badness. But I liked the plump smileyness of the lady and her blue flouncy blouse. And she was making hot chocolate for her children and giving them marshmallows to put in it. This is something I have never done. I have heard about it. I have seen gift packs with mugs and chocolate powder and marshmallows. But I have never done it. This evening, as everyone was out and I was tired and feeling a bit despairing, having been reading Donald Kraybill on the Nickel Mines shooting and also worrying about the Great Wave of socializing that is coming my way as Christmas approaches, and feeling the bad feeling that came from The Monstrous Regiment of Women, for the first time ever I made myself a hot chocolate with marshmallows. And I liked it.

So, Gunn Bros, you have influenced me, changed my habits, moved me onto a new track. But possibly not quite in the way you expected.

Goodbye soon, 2010

We are fast approaching the end of 2010, and I have just opened my new calendar for 2011. This annual task fills me both with apprehension and excitement. As I turn the empty pages, I can't help but wonder what is to come. What new experiences are waiting for me? What adventures and accomplishments will be filling these days? How much of it will I have control over, and how much of it will be beyond my ability to direct? Of course, with the good must come the bad - the sorrows, pain, and regrets. They will come as surely as winter follows fall. The whole next year of my life is a blank canvas for me and those I love.

I, of course, have my expectations. I make a resolution list like most people. I have hopes of making some clothes, finishing Matt and Sarah's quilt, learning some new sewing techniques. I'm looking forward to spending more time with my family, watching Caroline and Charlotte develop and grow, and enjoying my first wonderful year with my new grandson, Joshua. I have goals at my job, too - speed, accuracy, and furthering my medical knowledge. As is always the case, I want to remember my priorities, my desire to simplify, finding meaning in life, choosing love over intolerance, hope over pessimism, and staying healthy to make the most of my time here.

That's a lot to ask from 2011. The pages are still blank, and Father Time is still silent on what is to come. I don't have a guarantee that I, or any of my loved ones, will still be here this time next year. But this I do know from my 56 years of living: I am blessed, and 2011, regardless of what it holds, will hold more love that I ever could imagine, more adventures than I ever could plan for, and more amazement at the beauty of this earth, the beauty of life itself, the gift of family and friends, and the ability to weather any disappointments. I want to go into this new year as a child at Christmas - with wonder, expecting miracles around every corner.

Thank you, God, for giving me the chance at writing another year's story in my existence. I'm looking forward to it with great anticipation!

Partings and connections

Crumbs. The Righteous Brothers. Bet that takes you back! John Wimber used to play keyboard with them, back in the early 60s!

That song, along with this one, has a strange effect on me – sets up an almost unbearable yearning and lostness. And then I want to hear it again. And again. Like you go back to woggling a loose milk tooth again… and again… as a child – fascinated by how much it hurts.  
Connections, separations, how strange they are.

Decades ago, we were travelling back from Yorkshire to Sussex in our family car, having stayed there with my parents. My mother was driving back to Hertfordshire, so we came down the A1 together, eventually reaching a roundabout where she would peel off east and we would continue the journey south. I remember the moment when we reached the roundabout, and I looked for her, and she waved from her jaunty bright yellow Renault 5 – and then she was gone. I remember the feeling, of total loss, like a death within a life. Partings always affect me like that. Standing at the railway station waving goodbye as the train pulls out sends me crazy with loss. Unbearable.

But final partings – death, divorce – send me into different territory entirely. Feelings reach a certain level and then (in me) they flat-line. There comes a point where my soul reaches beyond the register feelings are designed to cover. Feelings are a kind of luxury item, for relatively simple, relatively trivial things. Some experiences in life surpass feeling.

On those occasions when, like rotten fabric giving way, I have felt my life tearing in two from top to bottom, I have experienced very little in the way of feeling. Feelings are more for The Righteous Brothers and Ben E.King, not for the moment when everything topples and you think, ‘This is it,’ just before it all goes down.

I had a dream – maybe twenty years ago – that we lived in a ramshackle happy little house by the edge of the sea. Its light frame made of graying wood exposed by the white paint peeling back in the salt and wind and sun held the glass panes of many windows. It was a house of light, a summer house, built on the sand of a beach where wiry grasses grew among the dunes. In the next bit of the dream – I worked as a hospice chaplain in those days – I saw myself urgently begging the hospice receptionist to supply me with some kind of lethal medicine so that I could bring my children’s lives to a close if the impending disaster proved more than they could bear, and she refused; said it was not their policy to give out such drugs. Then, in the dream, I saw the shabby little house standing bleached in the joyous sunlight and the children playing in the sand round about; when suddenly, from nowhere it seemed, a tidal wave swept in and engulfed everything. The flimsy wooden frame was broken to matchwood and swirled in the sucking waters that smashed the house to pieces before I could even move. Frantic, I struggled in the sea-water that swept me away, desperate to rescue my children, but among the roaring commotion of waves over my head, I could not even see. Eventually, kicking and struggling, my hand made contact with the hand of one of my children, and I knew she was dead. I knew they all were. And so I let go. It didn’t matter any more. ‘This is it,’ I thought. Only a sadness as vast and fathomless as the sea.

I never forgot the dream, and in terms of life story (taking the sea, the house and the death as metaphorical), it came true. The circumstances that swept our life away were as sudden and comprehensive as that freak wave, and just as irresistible. The security I had in place to shelter us proved as flimsy and insubstantial as a wabi-sabi little shack built on the sand.

When I was a child, if I or my sister went to a party, or some special outing, my mother waving us goodbye from the door as we went our way would call to us; ‘Have a nice time!’ If we were going to school, she would send us on our way with the words, ‘Best work!’

Every year, I save the Christmas cards I have been sent, secure them into a bundle with a rubber band, and tuck them away in a drawer. When December comes around, instead of looking through the address book and making a Christmas card list, I take out the bundle of cards and read them through, with their accompanying letters, reminding myself of the names and circumstances and tastes in Christmas cards of those who like to keep in touch. I did that this morning, with a slightly strange feeling, because I knew that somewhere in the bundle would be a card from my father, whom I found dead in his cottage last March.

My father and I were not close. Gentle, eccentric, untameable, he lived his life on the edges of everything like a feral cat that can neither leave nor come home. As far as I know he never read a thing I have written – he certainly would not have discussed it if he had. I visited him dutifully but not often as he grew old. I tried to be kind to him. I am very like him, the Norse ancestry is very plain in us both, and we had a certain like-magnets-repel thing going on. But, away on his own planet where no-one else dwelt but him, he cared about me very deeply in his unique and incomprehensible way. My mother, infuriated by him, once (among many times) berated him for his difficult temperament, like a broken branch jammed sideways in a stream. ‘You think I’m difficult to live with?’ he half-joked: ‘How do you think it feels like to me? I have to live with myself all the time.’

One time in the last year or so of his life, my mother was regaling us all with some story of how she is often (she doesn’t know why) mistaken for an Austrian when travelling abroad. Musing on why this might be, she lost track of the word she was searching for. ‘I think I must remind them of… remind them of…’

‘Hitler?’ he said.

A unique sense of humour. An unforgettable man. As a child, I adored him. He had effortless, natural glamour, and was quintessentially kind. As an adult? I cannot say what I felt for him. My relationship with him spiraled up into one of those places feelings don’t reach; like metal plates rubbing together the discord between us was intolerable. He was my father. I was like him. That was all.

So, I found his card.

This was the moment, I think – not the moment I found him dead or paid tribute at his funeral or watched the curtain close around his coffin – that I saw him wave goodbye as his rickety chariot peeled off into the blue.

‘Have a nice time – love Daddy,’ said his card; and on the front a picture of a snow bear curled protectively round its cub.

So. He is on his way. Things must have been resolved. In this, as in so many other occurrences, I have the sense of touching a living web of meaning that sings along its every thread with joy, and at the same time sweeps through my soul with the music of intensest sadness.

Goodbye, Daddy. God bless you.

More thoughts on community and economy - Senator Bernie Sanders

This video is well worth your watching and considering.

As Christmas approaches, most of us will be buying some gifts and also the seasonable meat and vegetables to feed our families and guests.

This is a time to bless our community by purchasing from small local firms and producers - the farmers' market, the craftsman, the family-run shop.

A community is grown organically by systematic blessing. Sometimes locally grown produce and locally made artefacts cost more money than things made in China and flown across the world to be sold in a supermarket. There would be a reason for that, and it is likely to be related to the standard of living the producers can expect to enjoy. Anything small is more easily fixed and more easily maintained. Local systems are simpler and easier to safeguard. Local self-interest is easier to influence than self-interest on a remote and global level.

Thinking globally and acting locally; living simply and frugally, consuming very little; supporting local tradesmen rather than large international corporations; encouraging self-reliance and a good level of self-sufficiency in our own families - these measures will help to stabilise the terrifying economic slide we presently have in prospect.

I think sisters do not always appreciate what a crucial role we play in the shaping of society.  Mention the word 'politics' and it translates instantly as 'Men; arguing - contention,' and sisters turn off, don't want to know.  We think of ourselves as women of faith and prayer, but not as political activists; see that as not our place, something we leave to the men.  It never occurs to us that whether we intend it or not, where we buy our children's toys and our clothes and our vegetables is political, and that politics is not a secular matter but is part of our discipleship. 

If we read the Old Testament prophets, we notice God's grief and rage that the poor and needy are sold for a pair of sandals, hear Him cry woe and thrice woe to those who but house after house and field afte field until they have bought up everything and it all belongs to them.  That's what Bernie Sanders is talking about.  It is part of our faith.  It's in the Bible.  And what accumulates to consolidate or change it will be the innumerable individual decisions we make day by about where to get our carrots, our lamb chops and our underwear.  Prayer changes things; and where we source the commodities for our households is a prayer.

Closing the gap

If you can fight your way through all the ads and eye-catchers, here's a reminder of Dave Bryant's song Jesus Take Me As I Am

What brought it especially to my mind is the part asking God to make me like a pure, precisely cut crystal through which the light of Jesus can shine clearly.

Thinking of that song reminds me of a man I met when (a long time ago now) I and a handful of friends had the privilege of going each week to join in the Christian fellowship group at a prison a few miles along the coast. 
As new men came into the prison and wanted to join the group, the first attendance of each was very revealing.  Some came in quietly, desiring self-effacement.  Others came in with swagger and loud bravado, obviously stretched thin by life and afraid of being seen and known.  One man came at first unkempt and hostile, principally to gibe and sneer, but ended up being the most eager in the waiting queue, having showered and combed his hair ready for the weekly meeting now held precious because there he was accepted and loved. I remember forming a completely wrong impression of one man the first time I saw him.  With a wickedly disarming smile and a cheeky line of humour he chatted and befriended us.  Then we settled down to worship, and he spoke up to request (I remember it still, 30 years on!) No 136.  I thought it would be some kind of joke - like the times men asked innocently to sing It only takes a spark to get a fire going (!) 
But he was not joking.  The song he requested was 'Let the beauty of Jesus be seen in me' - and he meant it too.  That made me stop and think.  He was someone I grew to love and respect, for he was Christ's man, a most gentle and beautiful friend of Jesus, for all he'd made mistakes in life and done wrong things, ended up in prison.  The Lord had lifted him.  "Thou, O Lord, art a shield about me; my glory, and the lifter of my head" (Psalm 3:3).

The memories of those songs that have meant so much to me all came flooding back as I meditated on a short phrase I came across in Cynthia Keller's excellent novel An Amish Christmas, which I have been so enjoying reading in the last few days.
The phrase, ESSE QUAM VIDERI, quoted from Cicero, is apparently the motto of the state of North Carolina, and it means not 'eat until you are sick' (as you might at first think) but TO BE RATHER THAN TO SEEM TO BE.  It is the focal theme of the novel as the story unfolds and, ever since I read them, the words have been on my heart and on my mind.

People often describe me as 'transparent' and believe me to be a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of person; and I guess that's true up to a point.  What you see is what you get - but I do select very carefully what I allow you to see; and I think that's prudent.  Letting it all hang out is rarely wise and never lovely to behold.

But that means what I seem to be and what I am are often two different things.  They have to be.  I speak and write what I believe regardless of whether I achieve it, and that's my intention.  I want to point your thinking toward the truth I believe in, not the depressing shortcomings of the way I live it.

A few weeks ago I listened to a friend teaching about some religious belief that God forgives only three times (not his own belief - he was teaching about a tradition).  I hope that tradition is wrong.  Tonight as I came into the quietness and peace of my room to let God's gaze of love search my heart at the end of the day (and don't run away with the idea I'm a holy mystic vigiling my way through the night, I did this for about five minutes), I had to say sorry once again for moaning and whingeing and gumbling and complaining and being unfair and unkind about other people.  This is what I said sorry for yesterday too.  Maybe it will be the last time and I will never need to say sorry for it again, but somehow I can't help thinking.... 

I felt that hopeless 'Here I am again, Lord' feeling.  Only three times?  I hope not.

So I pick myself up, or He picks me up or something, and I carry on.

Where I want to travel to is that place of real transparency, 'light of Jesus shining through', where the beauty of Jesus is seen in me, and the gap is closed between what I am and what I seem to be.


Do you know this hymn?

Dear Master, in whose life I see

All that I would, but fail to be,
Let thy clear light for ever shine,
To shame and guide this life of mine.

Though what I dream and what I do
In my weak days and always two,
Help me, oppressed by things undone,
O thou, whose deeds and dreams were one.
                                                                       (John Hunter 1889)
That's what I mean.