Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Shh! Don't tell.

It's not really for me to comment on the enormous headlines that announce the Wikileaks revelations to the world at large, but they do trouble me. Not because they uncover state and diplomatic secrets, for they do not. Neither do they truly compromise the world of diplomacy, international relationships and even espionage - for the contents of the released cables are already fully known to any government with even a half-successful intelligence service. More worrying than the release of these relatively low classification cables is the knowledge that the serious troublemakers in the global arena, Iran, the Taliban and the Al Qaeda-styled terrorist groups have intelligence gathering that can match most western agencies. How they must be laughing when we worry that Angela Merkel is seemingly made of political teflon or that the Duke of York made an off the cuff comment about press involvement in an important international deal between allies. This is the real world, for God's sake, and we have far greater things to worry about.

What much of these released cables point to is that the poignant truth that the political world, whether or not it involves the military, diplomatic discussions and comments, or even spying, is a gray and complicated place. And it is within this difficult and complex nexus that friendly and unfriendly governments meet. Sometimes they do business, sometimes they do not. But the very existence of their activity, even under the restraints of mutual suspicion, keeps the peace.

What does the obviously egotistical network of the Australian Julian Assange actually achieve? Well it temporarily boosts the sales of newspapers. It gives broadcast media a field-day in the absence of concrete new events. It also fuels the blogosphere, of which (I confess) this column is a segment.

Sir Malcom Rifkind, a member of the British Parliament, a former Foreign Secretary, a deeply Jewish intellectual, filled with common sense, and a man to whom I once had the honour of passing the port (quite a few times!) at a mess dinner, made a piercing comment in today's UK press, when he said,"There is a difference between “the public interest” and “the public are interested.” And he is so right. Assange and his secretive, almost self-righteous campaign panders to the latter. The former must be remain in the hands of those who know the importance of "balance and peace."

Monday, November 29, 2010

Escaping on a Day Off...

I did not have a strong urge to escape today, but after the rudeness and annoyance of yesterday's liturgical interruption I needed restoring. I woke this morning with many thoughts. First, how about another hour's sleep; second, my God, this coffee's good. And third, I'm going fishing today. And so after the school run I returned home, did my traditional trip to the "dump," and then set about preparing simple tackle. The ponds I wanted to fish involved a few miles of walking through the woods to the north west of here, so this would have to be a light pack. A telescopic rod, reel, and various bits of fishing kit (including a tub of worms) all fitted into a small House of Hardy canvas shoulder bag.

Having parked the car and walked to the west bank of Scoy Pond I realized that I had not paid attention to the weather. That bank had been in shade all the day and the previous night's frost had left a veneer of thin ice across most of the water. Time to walk around, through thick brush in places, to the east bank. There the water was clear, and I set up the rod.

A hour of great sport followed, with many yellow perch being caught. Ordinarily I would have kept a few, as they are delicious when pan-cooked, but on this sunny, late autumn day, I returned them all to the water. Except one, that is. He was firmly hooked, and I was reeling him in when there was a swirl of water, a violent snatch, and my line went limp. From my fishing days in Devon, UK, I knew what that meant. There's a pike in that water... and I will return. With the correct tackle.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Advent Sunday evening - musings

Advent Sunday has always been one of my favorite days of the year, marking a clear boundary between the folk-festivals of Autumn and the beginning of the Church's New Year. Pumpkins and straws are cleared away to support the prophet Isaiah's words: "Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths." Symbolically, and spiritually. And I have always enjoyed preaching on this day. Yet (without judgement on the soundness of my homily) I was, today, denied that pleasure by a group of noisy children. Now I love the noise of children in church. A cry, a laugh, a squeal - even at an inopportune moment of the liturgy - fills me with delight and blessing. But when such children are allowed to continue to noisily disrupt I surely have to draw a line. They continued to do so, and their parents (whom I do not know) did nothing, and I interrupted my sermon to invite the family to take the children out into the beautiful sunshine. Yet they did not respond. Eventually they did leave. During the Creed. Sad. Indicative of a certain modern parental attitude. This did mean that I had to preach my sermon three times today, as the original recorded soundtrack was ruined by the little urchins. Speaking to an empty church this afternoon was ... interesting.

Late this afternoon I visited the Falkowski farm for the last time this season. They close their stand today, and every year I visit and wish them well for the winter season. Today I was their last customer and bought the last two bunches of beet-roots before wishing them every blessing.

And in the face of all this wonderful reality I wonder about the Episcopal Church ...

Saturday, November 27, 2010

I'm sorry, but ...

There are many times of the year when the seasonal message from the leaders of the Anglican world are listened to more than usual, and Advent is one of them. As people prepare for their Christmas they like to have a sound and well-grounded preliminary message.

This weak, poorly delivered and badly edited homily does not fall into such a category. Going to bed five minutes early and hoping for a middle-of-the-night revelation is ... well, make up your own mind. Oh dear.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanksgiving Day Thoughts Delivered This Morning

I have to preface this and every Thanksgiving sermon of mine with the disclaimer that, for me, Thanksgiving is an adopted feast day. That’s a natural enough admission from one who grew up in another land, but it pays to be honest! Yet it has become my most favorite of days, without the pressures and intensity of Christmas and Easter, and the razzmatazz of the Fourth of July. A day to spend time with family and friends, to enjoy company and cuisine, and to try to do so simply, and in a genuine spirit of Thanksgiving. In this respect Thanksgiving Day had adopted me as much as I have adopted it. It is a perfect example of mutual agreement!

Yet I am disappointed, not so much by the folklore behind the feast, and it is folklore, but by the vulgarity which has been injected into what is the most dignified of acts; and also by the insistence by many that Thanksgiving is purely secular in nature, and that any notion of God ought to be avoided in favor of over-eating and football on the TV. Their argument against religion falls at the first hurdle. And the second. For those early settlers, whoever they were and wherever it took place, certainly offered prayers for their very deliverance and survival. And when the observance of Thanksgiving became a part of national life, the intention, given by presidential letter, make the nature of this feast day explicitly clear.

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.

So began the Proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. He was referring to the natural blessings of this land, as well as the diversity of industry and commerce that had sprung up, and multiplied despite the challenges of Civil War, international aggression and divided communities. And a balance had been restored:

… Peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.

Things were well and prospering, and the recovery from the years of conflict was under way. And Lincoln was able to stop and consider the past, present and the tentative future, and glimpse a greater power at work.

No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.

Gracious gifts of the Most High God. And so the simple response to those gifts must be thanksgiving. Yet not merely on an individual level but as a people, a nation. He insisted:

It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People.

And therefore, the invitation to do just that had to follow.

I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.

And that brings us, down the year, to this day. This wonderful day. This day when we look around us, and express our thanks for all the blessings that we have received – as many, and as one.

I feel sorry and disappointed for those whose moment of thanksgiving will depend on the touchdown, or the size of the turkey, or the sweetness of the pie. I would not begrudge them any of these things, but if that is all it means then I fear greatly for culture and civility.

Rather I encourage all people to read their history books, and learn from the wisdom and insight of so many who have shaped this country, and built its foundations.

Of course we will celebrate this day. Many tables, many foods, many languages, many family traditions – but with one heart and voice… Let us make Thanksgiving to God. Then, and only then, can we celebrate in whatever way we choose.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Get outta my way! I wanna celebrate Thanksgiving.

Just a short post, merely a cough of a comment. I dropped by our local supermarket late this afternoon to pick up a few items, and was amazed to discover that a normally busy store had been transformed into a zoo at feeding time. Shopping carts piled high were being navigated by people who had expressions of angry purpose and intent, suggesting that if they had been at the very first Thanksgiving celebration, wherever that was, they would have pushed past the prayerful settlers and insisted that their little brats really do need jello and marshmallows to make sense of this uniquely American cultural expression. Which saddens me, as one who has adopted Thanksgiving Day in a real way.

But more about that tomorrow, and more again on the Day itself.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Shaken, and Stirred

When in a pub or a bar I am the most easy-going of persons, especially when sipping a drink, but I confess that in such places, and restaurants included, I have a serious complaint that seems to apply to all but the most traditional of establishments. It involves the ordering of a most special drink. The martini.

In countless, unforgivable, moments in this part of the world, I have asked for a martini, only to be asked if I would like a gin or a vodka martini. An educated reader will join me in silently screaming at this point. Why? Because a martini is always made with gin, unless the customer (who is always right) asks for a vodka martini.

It seems that bartenders in New York where the most diverse cocktails in the history of drink o’clock were created are, now, sadly, guilty of this ignorance. And that’s a sobering shame.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Something so small. So old.

Let me begin by clarifying something: My father was never one to tell stories, exaggerate or reminisce. In fact he avoided telling any tales, be they of his many wartime missions as a bomber navigator in the Royal Air Force (and his times in India after the war ended.) Or his early childhood in Fishguard. Or his times in seminary. In fact, and I hope that I am not doing his memory a disservice, I do not even recall him reading me a bedtime story. And I hope that my recollection is wrong in that respect. For I loved him dearly.

My memory is crystal clear in one exception to my father’s reticence, even shyness, when it came to telling a story. I can’t recall the exact time and situation, but certainly remember the place. It was his study in the huge Victorian vicarage in Worcester, a house that would engulf at least three modern vicarages! (Ah, how times have changed!) And something must have sparked off a conversation. Perhaps something we had seen on television, or a homework assignment. Whatever it was prompted my father to begin to tell a story. And what a riveting story it was.

It had taken place only a couple of years previous to us moving into this suburban vicarage. We had lived for many years in the small rural village of Himbleton, and it was there that my father had been asked, as vicar and priest, to visit a farmhouse that was host to extraordinary events.

I can close my eyes and see him now, sitting at his roll-top desk, and telling how, in this farmhouse, the family was afraid. Furniture was moving in violent ways. Windows were being inexplicably broken, and a threatening aura prevailed. There had been, he told us, no recent tragedy in the house (which dated to 1420). Neither were there any young people involved, which, he explained, could sometimes create spiritual mischief. And I remember him smiling at this point. What next?

He went on to describe how he insisted on celebrating the Eucharist in this house, with the family attending. Then, how during that mass he felt a great sense of relief, and (and here’s where it becomes different) an urge to tell the family to look for a stone in the house. That he did. And the house was at peace.

He paused, saying that a couple of weeks went by, and then the farmer called him to say that in replacing a floorboard in the old scullery they had found a piece of amber, about an inch in length and less than that in width. But they were afraid to move it because the disturbances in the house had resumed. And so, he told us, he had to go and lift out and destroy the stone with a coal hammer. In his telling, as he took the stone outside there was a great deal of spiritual reaction and even violence in that large bookshelves were toppled and kitchen pots spilled, but once the hammer fell peace also descended.

Do you understand that story? I certainly don’t.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

A Pictorial Blog: Provincetown Color

Provincetown, on the furthest tip of Cape Cod, is renouned for its color, in more ways than one. It's buildings and its signs exemplify this! For your enjoyment, and mine, a few images taken on my last trip a week ago.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Telling it on the Mountain

Although not my first experience of what is inaccurately described as the “supernatural” a meeting, extraordinary in retrospect, on a snow-blown mountainside in Wales is as clear in my mind today as it was then, nearly forty years ago.

Several of us from the Upper Remove of the King’s School, Worcester were taken for a long weekend camp at the Old Chapel in a long and lonely valley in south Wales. The valley was the Grwyne Fechan. Yes, I know that placename creates problems for non-Celtic readers, but please enjoy it, as that name was in place well before most cultures drew maps. With the exception of the Italians, Aztecs and the Greeks, of course, but as none of those groups have an historic foothold in the Welsh mountains, and do not speak Welsh, at least to our knowledge, they are both welcomed and then excused.

The two teachers responsible for our party were Mr. Cunningham and Dr. Cattermole. The Old Chapel, once a place of worship for rural Methodists, was and is an outdoor activity base for the school, owned by them since the 1960s, and is now a well equipped building that probably offers better facilities than some of the farmhouse B&Bs in the area. Not so in 1972.

You see there was no running water, and so the first task of any group arriving was to collect water from a fresh spring some five hundred metres up the hillside to the west of the chapel. I, together with Rick Mayall and Simon Curle, was dispatched - three water bearers, each of us carrying a plastic ten gallon container.

The conditions were near “white-out” but we were able to follow a rocky trail up the slope. I was in the lead, but as minutes went by I realized that the visibility was getting worse and I was unsure where the spring, and its sticking-out pipe was.

Then the man told me, “You’ve just passed it. It’s over there.” And he pointed to a rocky outcrop about twenty feet away. “Thanks,” I said. And stumbled over to the pipe. Rick was the next to arrive. “Who the f___ were you talking to, Tim?” “Just this guy who helped us out,” I said. And he looked at me in a weird way. “Yeah, really?” We carried the thirty gallons of water back to the camp.

About a year later, on a similar trip, I told this story to a mountain guide, a local ranger, who quizzed me about this man that I had met. All I could say was that he was not dressed for walking on the mountain, snow or no snow. The ranger then told me that I was one of dozens who, over many, many years, had possible seen a man who had died looking for a lost sheep in the hot summer of 1927.