2013 Guest Columns for Southport Visiter
A brain teaser for you. Try completing the following sentence: on 30th September 2013, three hundred bankers in Washington..... Possible answers might include ‘awarded themselves an early Christmas bonus’, ‘resigned their posts on grounds of conscience’, ‘gave away all their money to the poor’, ‘entered a monastery for a period of moral recuperation’. O.k., answers 2, and 3 and 4 seem pretty unlikely but, surprisingly, 4 is not as far fetched as you might imagine. What actually happened is this: on 30th September 2013, three hundred bankers in the USA capital joined Thich Nhat Hanh, an 87 year old Vietnamese monk for a day of ‘mindful meditation’ with Jim Kim, the president of the World Bank. After their quiet time together (and what an intriguing spectacle that must have been) Mr. Hanh, accompanied by twenty of his brethren attired in brown robes, led the financiers on a ‘walking meditation’ through Washington. Unfortunately, the traffic police failed to materialise and the cultivated silence was interrupted by the honking of motorists already late for their next appointment. We can assume that the monks smiled benignly as the noise increased. And the bankers? They probably shrugged their shoulders or kept looking straight ahead in the hope they were not recognised. A better option might have been to encourage the irate drivers to abandon their cars and join the procession. After all if the president of the World Bank and his colleagues had devoted a day to quietness to focus their minds on how to end extreme poverty by 2030 and increase the income of the poorest 40% in developing countries, maybe there was a lesson there for angry motorists in too much of a hurry.
The practice of meditation – of learning to be still and recollected in an agitated world – pays all sorts of dividends that even the best banks can’t afford. Physically, it calms the restless heart, reduces tension, eases stress and gives needless anger the heave-ho. Mentally, it helps to remove the bad stuff that clutters up our minds all too easily. A wise Christian woman from an earlier time once compared the human mind to a tree crowded with chattering monkeys. A telling image and a few centuries on there are even more monkeys to contend with! Spiritually, it helps to prick the illusion that our lives and preoccupations matter more than absolutely anything else in the world. Silence teaches us that actually it’s not all about me after all and thinking about others is a good thing. You know why angels can fly? Because they think lightly of themselves. Most of us are not angels but meditation can help us rise. It stops us pulling out the revolver when the person in front of us at the supermarket till has taken five minutes to find their debit card. And it eases our foot off the accelerator when that infuriating red traffic light seems to go on forever. Best of all, it helps to make the world a less aggressive, selfish and frantic place. By turning us inwards it directs us to a more creative, generous and illuminating space where a ‘still, small voice’ can show us a better way. Three hundred bankers in Washington can’t be wrong – not when they switch off their computers and pay attention to a monk who knows about such things.
We were married late on a dark, rainy Saturday in January in the mid-1970s. Kick-off time as I recall in keeping with my football allegiance. Flared trousers were in and David Bowie was urging groovy young things to go all glam. I decided eye shadow wasn’t quite me. Instead, I opted not to have a telly in our new flat as my way of bringing on the revolution. My wife wasn’t ecstatic about this (she did speak to me again after several years) and in retrospect it was a little rash on my part, perhaps even selfish. But even then, time was like gold and there were so many better thing to do. I know differently now. There’s still plenty of garbage on the screen but there is also the good stuff that educates, informs and entertains. A few nights ago I watched the first two episodes of Simon Schama’s The Story of the Jews. Top drawer telly presented by a historian with a feel for his subject and a passion to communicate. After watching it – and here I speak as someone who has led several pilgrimages to Israel and written about the Holocaust – I had a keener sense of what it means to be a Jew. If I had centuries of persecution, exclusion and mass murder in my DNA, I would be prey to the fear that if not in this generation, then maybe the next, an ideology or collective hatred might surface again that would bring on the ghetto and the concentration camps. Bar room bores tell us that the Holocaust and all that Hitler stuff is over and it’s time to move on. What Schama has to relate as historian and Jew is that evil has a habit of resurfacing over the centuries. We need to be vigilant if we are to resist it and, in this instance, television proved a compelling teacher.
The night before, at about the same time, I was sitting in a small room in a local nursing home with a frail, elderly lady who had been in considerable pain for most of the day. The room was clean, a few personal belongings were evident but it felt bare and sterile. We talked a little, she began to relax and then even smile. My presence or prayers working their old magic? Afraid not. It was Corrie! The familiar music blared out and before you could say ‘ee by gum’, the room felt warm and familiar. Old acquaintances were dropping in and for a while sadness could take a back seat. Joe Moran’s new book about television Armchair Nation (Profile £16.99) has a lot of fascinating stories about the impact of the medium on our lives. It confirms what many know – that television is a comfort for the lonely and unhappy. “I am a widow and live by myself”, an elderly woman once said to Peter Ling, the man behind the often-derided soap opera Crossroads. “I have no family and I get very lonely, but every day I watch Crossroads. I live with Meg and all the others.” I must remember this remark next time I’m tempted to take the hammer to the screen. The box in the corner or, increasingly, the flat screen on the wall, shows no sign of losing its importance or forfeiting our affection. And why should it? At its best, it can be our teacher, our library, our Rovers Return, and, yes, sometimes, even our friend..
Possibly this will surprise you. For all its superior delights and attractions, one place I find myself returning to again and again in Southport is the Household Waste and Recycling Centre by the Kew roundabout. Partly it’s necessity: I do the ‘tip run’ in our house as part of my exceedingly modest domestic duties. I drive through at some point every week carrying cardboard, plastics or other items that have seen better days. Occasionally, I almost give way to temptation and contemplate throwing throwing myself into one of the containers until I remember that I don’t fall into one of the permissible categories. Batteries, tyres, furniture, CDs, beds and books are all welcome but Church of England clerics of a certain vintage are not allowed. A pity really: it would be so cool to be recycled as Russell Crowe in Gladiator, Steve McQueen in The Great Escape or, for that matter, any of the great male leads who have played Batman over the past twenty five years. Setting such dashed hopes aside, my pilgrimage to the tip remains worthwhile and instructive. The attendants are always cheerful and helpful; they seem to enjoy their work and appear a good team. There is also something intrinsically satisfying in offloading stuff and doing one’s bit to help the environment. What I still haven’t got used to however is the sheer scale of the waste generated by a consumer society. Mountains of cardboard meet the eye on arrival and sometimes it’s a tight fit squeezing just one more tiny plastic container into the greedy bottle bank. It’s no more than a hunch but I suspect that a generation or two from now, historians will chronicle such scenes with incredulity or disdain. Perhaps they will muse why it was that we craved more and more and seemed unwilling or able to make do with less. What we actually dispense with in terms of household goods is astonishing. Some items at the tip are clearly still in their prime but there they lie, unloved and resentful that they have been cast aside for a later model. They see my dog collar and a counselling session ensues: a forlorn toaster wants to know why it has been rejected when it still turns each pale slice a lovely golden brown and a sleek little CD and audio system insists that it can still blow the ceiling off so why such a sad end? I have no answers that will satisfy and there is little point in leaving my number. They have no mobile phone to hand and, anyway, they have their pride. This pervasive and powerful idea that pretty much everything is disposable represents one of the least attractive aspects of the way we live now. It goes way beyond shopping and even extends to what we once regarded as our most important relationships. As a priest I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry when I learn that someone’s daughter is nervous about her forthcoming wedding because it’s her ‘first time’. I listen carefully for a trace of humour or irony in this news but there is none. I’m going back to the tip to check that toaster out: perhaps I’ll find an explanation there.
Mindful of the old saying that when we are tired of London we are tired of life, I should tell you that all sorts of good things are happening in the capital over the next two months. You can see a marvellous exhibition of the paintings of L.S. Lowry at Tate Modern (hooray, recognition of a Northern genius at last!), breathtaking paintings by Vermeer at the National Gallery and a season of fabulous music to suit most tastes at the annual Proms. It’s an Exhibition at the National Maritime Museum Greenwich however that has really captured my interest and imagination. Under the title Visions of the Universe, an astonishing collection of images and photographs reflects the heavens over the centuries from early hand-drawings to pictures and footage from the Hubble Space Telescope and the Mars Curiosity rover. A highlight of the exhibition is a panoramic projection of the Martian landscape seen by NASA’s space probes as they trundle along the surface of the red planet. The rock we see is not the sort we associate with Blackpool!
This human predilection for gazing at the sun, moon and stars – more often than not with awe and wonder – has a long history. The Old Testament writers considered the heavens and concluded there must be a Creator behind such a splendid panorama who was worthy of our homage. Other religious thinkers and philosophers have been stunned by the immense silence of the universe: space is a cosmic cathedral where the dizzy rush of our lives suddenly seems touchingly inconsequential. If there is a message out there for us it might amount to an invitation to slow down. For example, we might just remember being told at school that the earth is 93 million miles from the sun - that’s the distance between Southport and Ormskirk and a little bit more – but until now I had no idea how that fabulous burning ball of gas in the sky actually works. I knew that at its centre hydrogen is converted into helium and the generated heat gradually moves from the centre to its surface and eventually makes us feel happy as we lick our ice creams on Lord Street. But there’s more to it than this. To get to the surface of the Sun from the cauldron at its heart, the heat has to travel 700,000 kilometres, equivalent to a journey from the earth to the moon and back. We are talking 40,000 years for the process to be completed. That lovely warm feeling on our faces and bodies in recent days: well, it started its journey when the Neanderthals, our long-extinct human relatives, huddled in caves to keep warm during the Ice Age. Unlike us, they weren’t much interested in sun cream but we do share 99.7% of their DNA so they are distant relations. We don’t know if they had language but they did bury their dead. And here we are, 40,000 years on, long enough to appreciate the warm glow that began its epic journey in the heavens as the Neanderthals peered out at the cold and kindled their fires. The Greenwich exhibition runs until the 15th September: on that day the conversion of hydrogen into helium at the sun’s centre will begin its fiery work and eventually benefit the citizens of Lord Street on 18th July 42013. There’s no need to put the date in our diaries. But we can smell the roses and the coffee while we are here and wonder, more than we do, if the universe isn’t telling us something about the time of our lives and how best we might use it.
Recently, I came across an obituary of Jim Clark, sheriff and segregationist from Alabama. Back in the early 1960s he carried a truncheon, rope and cattle prod and all the white ladies loved him. He wore a lapel button which declared ‘Never’. Never, that is, ‘to let the nigger overcome him’. He earned fame by beating Negroes and once with the help of his prod, he forced 165 teenagers to carry on running until they collapsed from exhaustion. His town, Selma, was identified by a Baptist church leader as the most segregated place in the USA.
Almost fifty years ago, on 28 August 1963, the same black clergyman addressed a crowd of 250,000 in Washington D.C. The day was hot with expectation as speakers from different strands of American society made a collective plea for jobs, freedom and civil rights. Celebrities were present including Marlon Brando and Joan Baez but the occasion is remembered for the words of one man – the minister, Dr. Martin Luther King. He began with a prepared text about discrimination, the discontent of black people and the needs to turn the tide. Then the singer Mahalia Jackson shouted out: ‘Tell them about your dream Martin! Tell them about your dream!’ And he did.
With the tongue of an angel and drawing on the deepest of convictions, grounded in scripture and the teachings of the prophets of old, he gave the most famous speech of the last century. President Bill Clinton records in his autobiography that he cried when he listened to this address at the age of 17 . Just a few days ago, as I heard it again in a seminar along with students, the old magic was still there with its tantalising vision of the just society in which all God’s children, regardless of colour deserve a place at the table. King believed that such an ambition represented the politics of paradise – the fulfilment of the Lord’s Prayer which decrees that God’s ‘will should be done on earth as in heaven’. He was awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 1964 and four years later, aged 39, he was assassinated at 6.01 p.m. on 4 April, 1968.
His courage, faith and resolution provide hope in our own restless and uncertain times. The good doctor was not a saint in the conventional sense – there are well documented weaknesses in his life – but he was an undeniably great leader who, at a critical moment in the history of his nation, felt the hand of God upon his shoulder. He overcame his fears and anxieties and met violence and intimidation with non-violence. Injustice in any form, indeed anywhere, affronted him and when he saw it, he refused to walk by on the other side. From his writings, I take the phrase ‘the fierce urgency of now’ as a perennial reminder that transforming life for the better always begins today. Paradise postponed or denied is a bad creed whether we believe in God or not. If we are serious about making a difference to the world’s needs and woes, there is no better time than today to begin the task.
The men knocking at the door of the convent just a few yards away are from the funeral director's office. I can tell by their suits and their disposition. The black van parked close by is also a clue. A priest has died and they are here to bear him away. I've come to prepare some addresses but I pinch myself to make sure I've not died and that it's actually me they've come for.
I go into the sitting room and tuck myself away at the desk in the corner. The sun is brilliant and on a trolley in the centre of the room there is wine, cake, balloons and a banner proclaiming Happy Birthday. It's not my big day but a little later in comes Mary with her family. It's her party and everyone is making a fuss. The family had set off very early to be with her and it's obvious they care. Their conversation seems a bit slow to start with but as the room warms up so does the chatter. Mary notices me across the room: 'Who's that man in the corner asleep?' she asks her son. For the record, I'm not asleep - it just looks that way. 'It's Dr. Garner' he says and 'he's here doing some writing.' This fact fails to excite her and their talk takes a different turn.
The wine is opened, the cards are read, glasses clink and Mary begins to hit her stride. It's not exactly raucous but a good time is emerging and she has things to say. I go for a mid-day walk - the room is getting rather hot - and on my return the party has finished and there is the familiar quiet, broken only by the soothing ticking of a clock. Mary has taken her cards away and will no doubt be reading them avidly. There is one from Ian 'with very warm wishes' and another from Elizabeth who 'sends her greetings on this memorable day'. Ian happens to be Ian Duncan Smith, Secretary of State for Works and Pensions. Elizabeth is the Queen of England.
Mary is 105 today and thinks the Queen has barely started at nearly 87. The story is true and maybe it will console you if your heart feels like winter just now. A priest's death in the convent was immediately followed by a much older person celebrating the fact that even at 105, living can still be a pleasing thing. Those addresses I mentioned earlier (when Mary, shame on her, thought I was snoozing) are for Holy Week and Easter. This period represents the most solemn week of the Christian year and speaks starkly but hopefully of the cruel and early death of Jesus and the unexpected life that followed his crucifixion. Things can change in a moment and sometimes for the better. We have a name for this: resurrection. When death hits home and we wonder what on earth our days are for, resurrection is the only word that can begin to pierce our frozen hearts. It declares that death is not the last word about our human situation and encourages us to believe in the unfailing promise of Spring.
Each generation finds a particular topic taboo. The Victorians were, on the surface, very uneasy about sex and it was rarely a topic of open conversation. There was lots of sex going on of course, but it was concealed: gentlemen indulged in it but ladies didn't talk about it. Our own age has its own hand-ups and has for quite a while been evasive about death. When a culture tends to give up on God or finds the awkward fact of mortality distressing, it's not surprising that death is boxed off in institutions or hospitals until the last possible moment.
But now there is another candidate to add to the taboo list: bowels. Apparently we find it very difficult to talk about them or respond to medical invitations to check them out for traces of cancer. About 50% of older people routinely fail to return the little pack of strips that comes through the post every couple of years as a means of early detection and cure. It's not the most exciting or pleasing experience to negotiate a piece of one's own poo and put it on a stick before despatching it through the mail to the laboratory but it is an important procedure that can save lives. Yet half of those invited ignore the request. Why? Some commentators think it amounts to a form of fatalism - 'if I'm going to get it.....' or a weird case of British stoicism that carries on uncomplaining and doesn't want to inconvenience the lab technicians with the contents of our intestines however miniscule. I think the truth is more complex. We are easily embarrassed by our bodies, their intimate functions and how they sometimes let us down. Bowels in particular are unlikely to feature in Hello or OK magazine any time soon as a hallmark of fame or celebrity, and with the huge emphasis placed on youth and beauty, the internal workings of our human waste disposal system are just not sexy.
It's an old problem. You may find this hard to believe but there were some Christians in the earliest centuries who refused to believe that Jesus had intestines - he was far too holy and spiritual in their view. Nonsense of course but damaging nonsense. Jesus was human in all things except in his refusal to sin - and all things included the lavatory.
Given the choice, most of us would prefer to watch footy or indulge in some retail therapy in preference to responding to the delicate matter of the sample request. But I can see the point and the procedure does keep us humble! If you are still one of the reluctant 50%, maybe a prayer to St. Sebastian will help. He was a captain of the Roman Praetorian Guard in the 3rd century before converting to Christianity. For this offence, he was beaten, shot with arrows and then thrown into the Cloaca Maxima - the largest sewer in Rome. It's always good to have a saint on our side when confronted with a difficult decision - especially one who's been there.
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8.30am Holy Communion
10.15am Parish Communion (First Sundays in month are usually a Family Communion with children taking part)
10.15am Sunday Club
(For 3 year olds upwards - on all except first Sundays and school holidays)
6.30pm Evening Worship
(e.g for Saints Days): as announced
Practising members of other Christian denominations are invited to receive Holy Communion.
If you are not confirmed but would like to receive a blessing please come forward with other communicants and place your hands below the altar rail.
We hope you will join us for refreshments in the Parish Centre after the Service