Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Route 58: Followers of the way?

Of course I'd better explain. County Road 58 is the main road that, for four miles or so, runs through the centre of Riverhead's commercial district. As a further explanation: Riverhead is the county town of our county of Suffolk, and it is also where my daughter goes to High School. So as you can imagine, I write from daily experience.

County Road 58! Surely it conjures up a rural image? A winding road with barns and hay stacks either side; traffic occasionally stopping for cows or sheep; an old inn offering home-made chowder and freshly baked bread. Unfortunately not. With the exception of "Lolly's" ( a tiny and superb diner/cafe that, along with the ruin of two barns, dates to the agricultural past) the hungry traveller has to choose from the usual selection of fast-food pollution. The existence of TGIF and Applebees only raises the culinary bar by a millimetre at best.

And the traffic? This road is an amateur racetrack at most times of the day! The speed limit is 35 miles per hour, but surely only a suggestion. And I am guilty as the next driver at not keeping within that number. Yes, I'm aware of that, but today I was aware of not only my failure to adhere to the number of the law, but of the drivers who were passing me. I was cruising at about 40 mph, and, of course, the Ford pickups were passing me at excessive speeds. But that's a tradition in so many parts of America. Big truck, large wheels, small brain. It's a cultural, mathematical equation. It is what is is!

What was much more interesting this afternoon was my noticing five. maybe more cars passing me at similar speeds, but cutting in and generally and aggressively annoying other drivers. And all of them displayed the "fish" decal on their rear. Ah, the fish! The symbol of one who is a Christian. But not merely a Christian, but one who is a member of a particular type of church. As John of Patmos wrote in Revelations, in one of his less surreal moments, "Let the reader understand."

What is it with these born-again folk? And why do they rush so? I feel a need to increase my speed and follow them. But I'm afraid of where I might end up! And I'm sure it ain't heaven. It might be County Court.

Musical Monthly Truths!

A friend, fellow priest and co-blogger posted this as a comment on my last offering, and he is so right that I feel (with deference to Flanders and Swann) I should paste it here!

"Thought that you might have quoted from the Flanders & Swan song "The Months" as their review of April seems uncannily accurate:"

"January brings the snow
Makes your feet and fingers glow.

February's ice and sleet
Freeze the toes right off your feet.

Welcome March with wint'ry wind
Would thou wert not so unkind.

April brings the sweet Spring showers
On and on for hours and hours.

Farmers fear unkindly May
Frost by night and hail by day.

June just rains and never stops
Thirty days and spoils the crops.

In July the sun is hot.
Is it shining? No, it's not.

August, cold and dank and wet,
Brings more rain than any yet.

Bleak September's mist and mud
Is enough to chill the blood.

Then October adds a gale
Wind and slush and rain and hail.

Dark November brings the fog
Should not do it to a dog.

Freezing wet December; then
Bloody January again!"

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Thirty days hath September, April...

And April does seem a long month, and one always filled with disappointed expectations. Just what are these expectations? Warmer weather, of course. That's why, last Saturday, in a fit of fifty degree pique, I replaced the glass window in the front screen porch with the bug screen. We haven't opened the front door since. I peer intently at seed and seedlings, willing them into growth, but nothing happens. Clearly I lack the gifts of the Prince of Wales. I have cleaned the barbeque grills (well, almost), re-hung the wind chimes that by December were driving us, and probably anyone within half a mile, crazy; shrubs have been trimmed, leaves and winter debris cleared, and decks swept. And despite today's slight mild humidity there will be a chill in the air for at least a week and more.

Why do some of us get impatient with April? Simply because we are tired of the frozen extremities of winter and ready for the thermal luxuries of summer. Spring, being a harbinger of such things, had better hurry up in coming!

How present tense our wishes are! Writing The Waste Land, TS Eliot taught us:

April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

Desire we can understand in our rush to summer idyll and beach towels, but memories? They are usually short, in that we forget winters past in the notion that this last one has been the worst. And I'm not as convinced of that as the local morning coffee meetings would proclaim. Besides, April is both a month of surprises and moods. Philip Larkin, the twentieth century English poet, teased about April in An April Sunday brings the snow:

An April Sunday brings the snow
Making the blossom on the plum trees green,
Not white. An hour or two, and it will go.

And so this disappointment seems to be perennial. April comes and we want more, but more is not immediate. So the month remains elusive. Sir William Watson, forgotten by many, yet a romantic man of his day reminded his readers (shortly before he was rejected for the post of Poet Laureate:)

April, April
Laugh thy girlish laughter
Then the moment after,
Weep thy girlish tears.

I, for one, have no definite opinion, no ax to grind. Each day I walk past a small, stumpy shoot that I inwardly call the "season tree." It knows when to bud, and it has not done so yet. Wiser than me, it is a better announcer of spring than any weather forecast or coffee gossiper. And if small trees could read, this one must have read Hal Borland.

April is a promise that May is bound to keep.

Yes! Now I think it safe to put away the snow shovel...

Monday, April 11, 2011


Driving this afternoon the news declared that Laurent Gbagbo had been taken into some form of custody, either by the French ground forces who were denying the fact in outrageous accents, or by troops loyal to the elected presidential pretender, Alassane Ouattara. As a flippant aside, Gbagbo’s name might belong in a children’s novel or animated cartoon. “Gbagbo’s Bunker” springs to mind. But then when I recall that this man had been the cause of hundreds of deaths, perhaps such a book should best be avoided.

The violent debacle in Cote d’Ivoire is desperate and sad, and yet another illustration of a African nation’s failure to conduct itself in a way that is acceptable to a modern, democratic, accountable and peaceful set of standards.

Oh, they can blame it on the French colonialists, or (in other examples) on the British, or the Belgians, or the Italians, or… (insert name here.) But they are historically wrong. And especially in the case of the Ivory Coast.

Twenty-four years after the country established its independence from France I spent five pleasant and happy days in its embrace. (Thanks to her Majesty the Queen, and the itinerary of one of her frigates, namely AVENGER.) The first and last of those days were all caught up and entwined with social, political and diplomatic duties, but the middle three? Times spent in what could be surely called the Paris of Africa.

Countless times I took the inexpensive taxi from the ship’s berth into Abijan, the nation’s commercial capital. A ride of some twenty minutes, depending on the traffic. And each time led to a new and wonderful experience. The shopping. The friendly welcome. The cafes. The night clubs. The architecture and landscaping. And the restaurants. Ah! The restaurants! Whether it was a simple lunch or an elaborate dejeuner, the food and service was without fault. And for one who’s French was and is far from perfect, all those wonderful people, regardless of the color of their skin, spoke in a way that I could understand. And they were so proud of it! Proud to be African, and yet boasting of the cultural meld that was European. And this joining was seamless, and the economy was booming because of this international attitude.

Nearly twenty years on I weep for this wonderful country. It has all fallen apart. If I were to take a taxi to downtown Abijan tomorrow, I might not return. And why? Here I am going to abandon political correctness and look to truth and history for an answer.

Cote d’Ivoire has reverted to its seventeenth century experience of tribal colonialism and empire, when the Moslem Kong empire and other local, non-European nations vied for its lands.

In other words: The Ivory Coast has become African again.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Thoughts Delivered on Laetare Sunday, 2011

I can’t remember if I have told you this particular story so I will risk telling it now.

It happened nearly twenty-five years ago when I was a newly-ordained priest. On a Tuesday morning. My day off. And a phone call from the Bishop’s secretary. Could I come and see the Bishop that very afternoon? You see, a complaint had been made.

I nervously drove the twenty-five miles to the Bishop’s Palace, and was shown in to his study. Bishop John was one of the last great country bishops. An old school bishop. A bishop who hadn’t embraced the modern trends of corporate management. And on this occasion a bishop who was at his desk oiling and cleaning two sixteen gauge shotguns. My nervousness increased.

I needn’t have worried. He told me with a laugh that he had received a letter from a woman (who lived in my parish but never attended church) who took offence at seeing me leaving a hardware store with purchased goods – on a Sunday afternoon. What, she exclaimed, was the church leadership coming to?

The Bishop explained: I had to call you in as a matter of procedure. He then tore up the letter with the words, “The old bat can wait a few weeks for a reply!”

Yes, it was a long gospel reading! But a memorable story. The giving of sight to a man who had been blind from birth. As this happened a group of Pharisees are lurking darkly in the background with their own blindness – their closed and narrow legalistic minds.

The principle charge against Jesus this time? Making mud on the Sabbath Day.

Theology? Oh, there’s a large amount of theology in this story. Any Gospel tale that contains lines such as, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” is far removed from the historical sayings of Jesus, and closely rooted in the creeds of the Early Church. And this is one of those stories - a teaching story.

There is more Early Church in this tale that first appears. There is the strong imagery of baptism. Jesus anoints the blind man’s eyes with clay – just as the catechumens, those preparing, were exorcised before baptism. The blind man is then sent to wash in the pool of Siloam, just as the catechumens were led to the waters of baptism.

After washing, as after baptism, the man is a new person. A child of God, and a member of Christ.

A human being has moved from darkness to light.

Strip away all the theology and the commentary and the editorial, and most wonderful line exists within the story. One doesn’t have to be a scholar or theologian to understand it. Simply a human being.

Confronted with the religious authorities the man could not answer their questions in the way they wanted. All he could say was:

“One thing I know, is that I was blind, and now I see.”

Probably the most beautiful and simple line on the lips of any person in all the books of the Bible.

“One thing I know, is that I was blind, and now I see.”

This is a statement that has been uttered by countless individuals for whom Christ has made a difference in their lives. In ways great and small.

We may recall the words of the hymn-writer John Newton:

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,

That saved a wretch like me.

I once was lost but now am found,

Was blind, but now I see.

Whatever one makes of healing miracles – and there are many ways to approach and understand them – one has to accept that the purpose of this story is not only to describe the giving of sight to a man in Jerusalem, but also to express the power of an encounter with the living God.

This is a God who cannot be confined by social or religious traditions, the blindness of some and the expectations of others.

Rather this is a God who, on occasion, deliberately chooses to work and reveal himself outside of these confines and boundaries. Always a God of surprises and challenges.

As we move towards Holy Week and Easter we pray that our eyes may be opened that we, too, may be surprised and challenged