Random II

Uxbridge bus station exchange: Three women animatedly speaking Polish. A young man has had enough and approaches them: “Speak f*cking English!” he says loudly. The women stop, quietly sizing him up together. Then they turn back to each other and one says to the others, but loud enough for all to hear: “F*cking English.” They have a laugh and continue on their merry Polish way.  I guess he asked for it.

***

Last week a young couple checked themselves out of their flight and called the ambulance services. The concern? On changing the diaper of their baby boy they discovered his ‘crown jewels’ to be smaller than normal. The ambulance crew, eyes rolling, pointed out that the weather was considerably cooler than it has been till now and their little bundle of joy wasn’t quite dressed warmly enough. Flight missed; parenting skills improved. Another day at the airport.

***

After clearing my head with a walk out to Terminal 2B, having a cup of coffee and a think, I headed back toward the main terminal and my desk at the Chapel office. Taking a staff elevator, pressing my ID pass against the keypad, I descended from Departures to Arrivals, and turned the corner into the long underground corridor leading toward Immigration and Baggage Reclaim. And then I remembered: as I was finishing my coffee I had seen an Egyptair 777 pulling up to its stand.

The corridor was packed with Middle Eastern travellers, many clad, appropriately, in various forms of robes, kaftans, and long loose dresses. Pilgrims perhaps, heading home after the festivities. I joined the throng, choosing to walk on the tile floor rather than be carried along on the “travelator”, the motorized walkway beside. Soon I was caught up behind a slower moving elderly woman. I slowed my pace, in no real hurry to get back.

Following along behind her, my eye caught sight of a man farther ahead, also elderly and in white robes, walking slowly on the travelator: now and then he would turn to check the progress of the woman in front of me, his weathered face bright with an enthusiastic grin. At one point he gave her a reassuring wave and a toothy smile, careful not to lose his balance as he turned.

I understood: No doubt when the option of automated Walkway or No Walkway had presented itself to this elderly couple, Abu had enthusiastically embraced the motorized opportunity, whereas Um had steered decidedly clear of the innovative contraption.

Never mind; as I looked ahead again, the man had reached the end of the first walkway and paused in the space before the next one, waiting for the woman to catch up. Eventually we caught up, him smiling, her shaking her head, smiling inwardly at his boyish enthusiasm.

And then ever so discreetly and fleetingly, as they turned to walk on, he reached out to hold her hand, for just a few steps, and let go again. As we approached the beginning of the next section, he veritably skipped onto the travelator, smiling broadly, glancing behind him again as he sped ahead and as she continued to gently shake her head.

Love, tenderness, companionship, enjoyment of one’s partner: the same in every land.

Of Brexit, Trump and Kings of Old

Were they kings, the men who followed the star from the East to honour the child with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh?  Or were they merely a rabble of starry-eyed astrologers?  The Gospel of Matthew marks them down as ‘magi’ or ‘wise men’; obscure, yes, but with status or exotic qualities enough to win them temporary fame in all Jerusalem and an audience with the king.

This Gospel story comes to us from the synagogue period of Christian history when followers of ‘the Way’ of Jesus were, in the provinces of Palestine at least, primarily Jews.  These Jewish Christians, still members of their local non-Christian congregations, began to see the scriptures with new eyes, discerning in them a presumed meta-narrative, one that transcended the multiple authors, genres, and eras of the various manuscripts, a plot line which tied the canon of scripture together as one.  Hidden in the texts they found hints and fleeting glimpses of a figure whom they recognized as having been personified in Jesus of Nazareth.

In the story of the Magi they heard echoes of the prophecies of Isaiah: “Nations shall come to your light and kings to the brightness of your dawn…the wealth of the nations shall come to you…They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord” (60.1-6).  Solomon too had predicted, “The kings of Sheba and Seba shall bring gifts; all kings shall fall down before him , all nations shall do him service.  For he shall deliver the poor that cry out, the needy and those who have no helper.  He shall have pity on the weak and the poor” (Psalm 72.10-13).

The meta-narrative, the over arching story that bound together their heritage and their new-found faith in Christ continued its development in the later writings of the new testament, most especially in the visions of Paul and John and, as they understood it, went something like this: From one man, Adam, God created a family of diverse peoples among whom a Chosen People – a nation primus inter pares – whose history and society was meant to reveal the character and purposes of God; now – in a new age – through one man, Jesus Christ, God was gathering the complex identities of humanity together into a new society, a community of peoples whose diversity was fitted together like a multi-faceted jewel, the individual shape and angle of each facet adding to the brilliance of the whole.  On offer was an attractive alternative, an opposing vision to the Pax Romana, the world as they knew it, united by the blunt instruments of military conquest and unrelenting suppression.

And so, the Twelve Days of Christmas find their conclusion at the Feast of the Epiphany when the Church remembers the journey of the Three Kings and celebrates the manifestation, in baby Jesus, of the Christ, the long-awaited saviour for a world rent by division and lost in despair.  In the Christ child we look for the fulfillment of the ancient oracles.  We may quibble about whether the accounts of Jesus’ birth and early life are historically accurate or rather, on the other hand, the Gospels contain not only the parables of Jesus but also parables about him, but either way his central role in the story remains.

St Paul writes to the churches: “In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the non-Jewish peoples (Gentiles) have become fellow-heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise…so that through the Church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known…” (Ephesians 3.9-10). And in the very last pages of our scriptures we find St. John’s vision of the heavenly city, of which he says, “The nations (lit. ‘ethnicities’) will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendour into it…The glory and honour of the nations will be brought into it.” (Revelation 21.24,26).

So here we are, two thousand years removed from the proclamation of the new age of Christ.  Our forebears, those who have gone before us in the faith, have not always succeeded in making this glorious vision a reality.  The Way of Jesus became Christianity and soon enough Christendom; what began as a counter-cultural movement of inclusion quickly morphed into the mainstream and gathered to itself both the selectivity and accoutrements of political power.  Converts, if one can call them that, came at times by the threat of the sword, entire peoples subjugated or colonized under the banner of Christian dominion, forced to give up the gifts their people had to bring to our new community, cultures lost forever on account of the false supposition that “to make disciples” meant to form them in our own image, not necessarily that of Christ.

Maria Pascua, an aboriginal of the Makah people who inhabit the furthest reaches of the northwestern United States writes: “I am a Christian; I am not sorry the missionaries came.  But I wish they had known how to let their news change peoples’ lives from the inside, without imposing their culture over our ways.  We have lost so much.”  (Ozette: A Makah Village in 1491; National Geographic Magazine, October 1991).

Not in all places, but in many, we find that the vision was lost of a Church composed of the beautiful diversity of humanity.

Which brings us to Anno Domini 2016; to Brexit, Trump and the year gone by.

Much has been made of the “protest vote” aspect of these surprising poll results.  Whether we can rightly attribute them to protest or not, the result is that many of the liberalizing policies of the last few decennia have suddenly and broadly been called to a halt.  Roger Cohen, in a recent opinion piece in the New York Times concludes: “It is time to listen to the people who voted for change, be humble and think again. That, of course, does not mean succumbing to the hatemongers and racists among them: They must be fought every inch of the way. Nor does it mean succumbing to a post-truth society: Facts are the linchpins of progress. But so brutal a comeuppance [as delivered by Brexit and the US elections] cannot be met by more of the same.”

Thankfully the path of Christ allows for great liberty in the way we order our lives, both individually and in society; a genuine Christian faith can be lived at most points across the political spectrum.  What it does not allow is for us to abandon humility, compassion and sacrificial love for our neighbours, no matter what the colour of their skin or the language they speak at home. To be proud of our own people, to seek to protect our livelihoods and cultural heritage, insofar as these things bring honour to God, is good and right; the uniqueness of our people too is a blessing from God’s hand.  But to raise our own interests so high as to exclude those of others, to make love of nation the sole guiding light for our actions, ignoring the yet purer light of the Gospel – which is to love God first and to love our neighbours as ourselves – this is not the Way of Christ.

We, and all peoples, are equally invited to bring our gifts – the glory and honour of all nations – and bow our knee in worship before the Christ.

 

Gaudete in Domino semper

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

From time to time, if we are able to see through the aura of accumulated holiness hanging thick around the heroes of the Bible, the saints and the prophets, we find in them a remarkable ignorance.  They so often have no clue about how the circumstances of their lives actually fit into the movement of God in their time.  John the Baptist, for example, seems so average here.  It’s as if he is conscious of being carried along by a stream, but is not entirely sure of where the stream is going.

David Roche, in his book The Church of 80% Sincerity writes:

The Principle of Delayed Understanding…states that you cannot understand what is going on while it is going on….consciousness always lags behind reality. Here is proof: How many of you are still trying to figure out things that happened in your childhood, twenty, forty years ago? The best you can hope for is to minimize the length of time it takes to catch on….When you think you understand what is going on while it is going on, you are most likely delusional. This is simply a statement of reality and frees us from the need to pretend, to beat ourselves up for not knowing the right words or actions. Don’t worry about not knowing the answer immediately. Don’t confuse yourself with Google.

Half the battle of being a person of faith is learning to live with ambiguity, of accepting uncertainty; the other half is learning how to live with it, of not allowing our ignorance to paralyze us with anxiety or diminish our hope.

Consider the rabbinical story, found in various tellings, commonly known as Elijah and the Cow:

Rabbi Jachanan went on a journey with the prophet Elijah. They walked all day, and when evening came they arrived at the humble cottage of a poor man, whose only treasure was a cow. This poor man ran out of his cottage, and his wife ran too, greeting the strangers and welcoming them in for the night.  They offered them all the simple hospitality which they were able to give in their humble circumstances. Elijah and the Rabbi were given plenty of the cow’s milk, and butter, yoghurt and cheeses.  Satisfied, they were put to sleep in the only bed while their kindly hosts lay down before the kitchen fire.

But in the morning the poor man’s cow was dead.  The Rabbi looked at Elijah, but he was silent.

Again, they walked all the next day, and came in the evening to the house of an extremely wealthy man. This man, however, was cold hearted and inhospitable, and all that he would do for Elijah and the Rabbi was to lodge them in his cowshed and feed them stale bread and water. In the morning, Elijah thanked him for his hospitality, and – noting that one of the walls in the shed was falling down – sent for a man to repair it, paying the bill himself.  Finally, Elijah and the Rabbi were on their way again.

Rabbi Jachanan, unable to keep silent any longer, exasperated with Elijah, begged the holy man to explain himself and the way he had treated the two hosts. 

‘In regard to the poor man and his wife who received us so hospitably,’ replied Elijah, ‘it was decreed that the wife was to die that night.  However, knowing how much the man loves his wife, I pleaded with the angel of death – who never leaves empty handed – that he should take the cow instead.’

‘And with regard to the inhospitable rich man, I repaired his wall because I noticed a jar of gold coins concealed in it, and if the miser had repaired the wall himself he would have discovered the treasure, something for which he is not worthy.  So, say not to the Lord: What doest Thou? But say in thy heart: Must not the Lord of all the earth do right?’

Perhaps you remember how someone else once famously put it: “There are things we know we know; things we know we don’t know; and things we don’t know we don’t know.”  Personally I prefer the sentiment as expressed by the American rock band 4 Non Blondes, in their 1993 hit ‘What’s Up?‘:

And so I cry sometimes
When I’m lying in bed, just to get it all out
What’s in my head
And I, I am feeling a little peculiar
And so I wake in the morning
And I step outside
And I take a deep breath and I get real high
And I scream from the top of my lungs:
What’s going on?!

It’s Gaudete Sunday this week, the Sunday that takes its name from the first word of the introit to the Mass: Rejoice!   On this 3rd Sunday of Advent we are invited to lighten up, to Rejoice in the Lord always, to raise our heads and look for the dawning of a new age marked by the promise of healing and restoration.

This is that half of faith that says: even if I don’t understand, I will trust.  The half that led the disciples up the mountainside where “they worshipped him, even though they doubted” (Matthew 28:17).

Faith is never going to make perfect sense; that’s why it’s called faith.  Thank goodness.  Because in order for faith to make perfect sense it would have to be constrained by a world where everything can be measured and explained and knowable, a world without mystery or profound beauty or unbounded hope.

It is not, and neither are we.

When the Commies Came to Play

The year, I’m guessing, was 1973.  And it must have been late in the year because I remember the threat of rain throughout the day; Brasilia’s dry season had come and gone.

At the Summer Olympics the year before, the USA men’s basketball team had suffered a controversial and ignominious defeat at the hands of the USSR during the final match in Munich.  The Soviet players went home with gold medals and the Americans went home with…nothing: they refused to attend the medal ceremony or even accept their silver medals which, nearly 45 years later, are still being held by the International Olympic Committee, awaiting a change of heart by Team USA.

But the early 1970s was also the height of détente, the slow thawing of Cold War relationships, chief among them those nations which held nuclear arsenals.  Leonid Brezhnev, leader of the USSR, and US President Richard Nixon met in Washington in June 1973, one of the high-water marks of the process.

In that spirit, with the Americans still bruised and sulking about a basketball game, and yet both nations looking for opportunities for gestures of good will, someone at the US Embassy in Brasilia came up with the idea of challenging the Soviet Embassy to a friendly basketball game.  A rematch.  Our embassy staff against yours.

Surprisingly, the offer was engaged.

The capital city of Brazil, Brasilia, was largely built in the 1960s, and among its planned oddities – a city of half a million people laid out in the pattern of a giant airplane and having no traffic lights? – was the fact that the embassies were allocated space based on the perceived importance of each nation to the people of Brazil.  So the closest embassy to the centre of government is that of the Vatican.  The second closest is Portugal, the mother country.  Third and fourth are toss-ups:  the USA and USSR.  It would have been easy enough for the one group of diplomats to walk to the other embassy after work – the embassies are literally just across the street from each other – but of course that would mean playing the game on partisan soil.  What was needed was a neutral venue that came with a decent basketball court.

And so it was that the compound of SIL – the Summer Institute of Linguistics, where my father had his print shop and where we lived – came to host the USSR v USA Basketball Rematch, Diplomats Edition.

The Americans arrived first, mid-afternoon, filling up the parking lot with their Chevy Suburbans and spilling onto the lawns around the basketball court.  Their team was far from the pencil-pushers we had generally expected; instead, it seemed populated almost entirely with young US Marines, no doubt the security detachment at the embassy, led by a particularly tough and foul-mouthed officer.  They warmed-up with the regimental discipline so typical of American sports teams, doing exercises and drills in unison, looking for all the world like winners.

Time ticked on.  The USSR didn’t show, and the Americans grew both impatient and undiplomatic.  “Those Ruskies, they ain’t nothing but no-good, lying chickens; make a gesture of good will with them and see where it gets you….”  (These are only the more polite of the many comments which were vented.)

In the end the Commies did come.  Late in the afternoon, I and some of the other neighbourhood boys acting as scouts as we stood with our feet on the bottom strand of the wire fence at the edge of the compound, spied a single ZiL limousine stopped on the street below.  Soon a long line of similar ZiLs eased slowly up the street, pulling in behind the first car, and parking where they stood.  Up the pathway came the Soviet team and their supporters, and what was immediately obvious to all was that their security detachment had been left at home; to a man, these men really were middle-aged pencil-pushing diplomats.

The game was a farce. In no time the young American team was winning by double digits, running circles around their Soviet opponents.  But even in winning the Americans could not help but let the unsettled score of the Olympics goad them on to bad behaviour, the brash Marine officer repeatedly picking fights for no apparent reason, glad to have an excuse to let loose another stream of expletives.  One by one, red-faced, huffing and puffing, the Soviet diplomats allowed themselves to be substituted by the SIL men who stood watching from the sidelines, my father – an American – included.

The teams shook hands at the end, the Americans exulting in their victory, high-fiving each other enthusiastically as they threw their gear into the Suburbans, driving off with horns honking in triumph.  The Soviets waited until the Americans were gone, thanked their hosts, and withdrew to their ZiLs, going as they came, disappearing around the corner in a long, dark uniform rank.

Really? Thy kingdom come?

Do you believe in an afterlife?  Heaven?  Paradise?  Something like that?  A place where you will live with your loved ones in happiness?

Tell me about  that afterlife you imagine.  Does it include violence?  War?  Weapons?  Abuse of women and children?  A society where some have far too much and others not enough?  Destruction and degradation of the natural world?

Probably not.  In fact, the opposite.  I’m guessing you imagine a place of peace and contentment, a place where the wrongs so familiar in this present existence are finally righted.

And when you pray, Christian, do you earnestly say, ‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven‘?

Hypocrite.  Like me, you hopefully pray that the ideals of heaven will invade the present one.  And yet you readily resign yourself to the brokenness of this world, you won’t lift a finger to undo it; worse, you are part of the problem, you contribute to it.  You celebrate warfare and violence.  You accept the preeminence of money above righteousness in the businesses you support, the choices of the governments you elect, in the lifestyle you live.

“Oh, well, I’ll just get through life as comfortably as I can and slip peacefully into eternal bliss…”  To hell with thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Really?  So you believe those things that cannot survive into eternity should enjoy our present support, our quiet complicity?

This is not the way of Jesus about which I read in the Gospels.  Maybe we should look for a new religion.

Or maybe we already have one.

Travel Notes

When the wind blows from the North we can hear the train.

Not the thump-a-thump, thump-a-thump we heard as the carriages crossed the viaduct at the end of the street in the Czar Peter neighbourhood of Amsterdam, when the bedroom windows stood futilely open on hot summer nights; nor even the vague and distant rumble of the Canadian Pacific, now in Abbotsford, British Columbia, when the traffic at the corner had finally gone to bed, leaving the throb of massive diesel engines and myriad steel wheels to roll up to us from the Matsqui prairie, mixing gently with our dreams.  No, here the Chiltern Railways up Ruislip way sounds more akin to someone sliding a dinner plate across a stainless steel counter, a long metallic swoosh drawing ever away, disappearing into silence.

What did travel first sound like to me?

Perhaps it was the comforting two-stoke knock of the Recreio, the reliable Amazonian riverboat that would fetch us from the mission station in the pre-dawn darkness, tying up briefly at the flutuante, the mantels of the Coleman lanterns casting white-hot light across the dock as the assorted luggage and goods of the locals – homemade hammocks, pods of Brazil nuts, large smoky balls of real rubber – were quickly loaded aboard, headed upriver to the markets at Manaus and onward to the world beyond.

Later, as a teenager in Brasilia, bed-time coincided with the last flight from BSB, a VASP Boeing 727 whose Pratt & Whitney engines emitted an almighty scream as it climbed for the clouds, headed north over the planalto. I would pull the sheet up over my head in a vain attempt to fend off the mosquitos, and dream of far-away places.

The other day, descending the stairs of a London double-decker, pitching this way and that as the bus drew up to the stop, I pushed my way through the crowd of fellow commuters and stepped out into the roar of the airport. The smell of kerosene filled the air.  Looking East toward the rising sun I could see the ascending lights of five aircraft stacked up in their final approach; “Five times two”, I told myself, “ten miles of traffic I can see with the naked eye; and probably about a thousand passengers, all told.”

I never get over it.  How modern transport has so completely changed the world, how it has become so easy to move across the globe.  Ninety years ago, in 1927, my grandfather took his bride from Chicago to Seattle in a Ford Model T; upon arrival, my big-city grandmother didn’t like the look of the frontier town one bit, so they turned around and went home again.  The trip took three months.

Three of our daughters will be gathering in Edmonton, Alberta for Christmas this year, but we’ll be staying home in London.  Before the New Year we need to be in Amsterdam, where our fourth daughter is expecting a baby.  Oh well, I suspect we’ll all meet up again sometime next summer.

Where, I’m not yet sure; but really, does it matter?  Wherever it is, it’s less than a day away.