Tuesday, 30 November 2010

The bluebottle in the porcelain

On Saturday nights, I tend to go to sleep listening to the very serious programme on Radio 4 The Moral Maze. This week they were discussing “Nudge Economics” which apparently has entered the British political scene. There’s a unit at Downing Street, apparently, dedicated to manipulating public opinion, in a way which Michael Buerk illustrated by relating the ingenious Dutch scheme for cleaning up the gents at Schipol airport. 

On the sweet spot of the urinal, slightly to the left of the plughole, there is a picture of a bluebottle, under the glaze. Of course, being men, everyone tries to pee on the bluebottle, causing less mess all round. And, naturally, it works! I think the idea is to get people to do what the government decides is good for them by subliminal methods. The discussion, which I soon fell asleep in, was whether that was ethical.

Personally, I’d rather people acted out of conviction than as a result of manipulation. That means being informed by information and intelligent debate – and not falling asleep in the middle! Maybe there’s also a place for story-telling, such as parables and anecdotes of real life. They lodge in the memory better, like insects on a sticky fly-paper.

Sunday, 28 November 2010


As Brian comments, today is Advent Sunday, and I'm watching a really rather good Songs of Praise, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00wdb51. It's below freezing outside which is my today's excuse for not going out to church. Sorry, vicar! Stiffening muscles combined with end-of-day tiredness is not a good recipe, unlike the excellent lunch we went out to earlier - it was like a Christmas meal, and again the best of company.

From Douglas House website
Our hostess works at Douglas House, the hospice for teenagers and young adults in east Oxford. So I asked her about euthanasia, and she told me that the inpatients there never asked for "mercy-killing". They all want to live and to have a natural death. She also emphasised the importance of explaining the control of symptoms available in palliative care for patients facing death. Fear is a big factor in seeking a short-cut, and that fear, Liz explained, arises out of ignorance. And ignorance is also a major factor in the popular opinion in favour of euthanasia. If people realised that in this country we really do have the ability to control symptoms and pain in terminal conditions, she reckons far fewer people would support shortening life unnaturally. It was impressive hearing a senior practitioner in palliative care talking objectively and yet passionately about something in which she was highly expert.

Returning to Songs of Praise, which has now finished, there was an amazing interview with the Bright family. Their young son Edward contracted a rare strain of meningitis when he was 7, and only survived at the cost of his lower legs and forearms. His parents confessed to having not a great deal of faith but when you're desperate you pray, as his dad said. He has his own blog, in which they wrote: "As we reflect on our journey we have experienced deep despair and desperation, not knowing if our precious son would win the battle he had with death, but win he did, (and he recalls that when he was asleep (on the ventilator) he just knew he did not want to die and that God helped him (Edward's own words)). After the despair and desperation came hope, and with that, the optimism and inspiration we have gained from our son, Edward. He is now blessed with a true understanding of just how precious and fragile life is." In the programme, I think Edward said that in his coma Jesus came to him and told him he would not die. On the website: http://edwardbright.eu/default.aspx, you can see how he begins to learn to walk on his prosthetic legs a year later. On Songs of Praise we saw him playing football with, I think, his twin brother William.

I love the wisdom of that sentence, "He is now blessed with a true understanding of just how precious and fragile life is." What a great message of hope and faith for Advent.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Manchester and music

After Grace's funeral, we spent the night with Paul and Penny, and our lovely granddaughters, in Manchester. The M6 is a pain to negotiate twice in a day, and we don't often get up to the north-west. It seemed too good an opportunity to miss - and we've not seen their woodburner yet. And so we spent a mellow evening together.

Our departure was somewhat tardier than the family's. Once home Jane did her stint of duty at Cornerstone, and then in the evening we were out to the Oxfordshire MND Association social at the Bear and Ragged Staff in Cumnor. As well as the  visitors and friends, there was David despite his MND has just completed and gained his Master's, as well, he tells me, running a profitable 'herb' farm! Moira was there too, who has the same slow type as me. Times together like this are important, even if the cold weather makes our muscles seize up.

Friday was car exchange day. I must say Scott of Whitequay Seat in Newbury did very well for us. Highly recommended. Jane really enjoys driving the Altea XL, nice and smooth, with features like headlights that point round corners! Anyway, I'm very grateful for the Disability Allowance.

We were out again in the evening to go to Stanford for a concert given by Lillian Boutté in memory of our friend Richard Speed. It was through him that she first came to give a concert in Stanford Church about 20 years ago and began working with children in local schools. She sings jazz and is the official New Orleans ambassador for jazz. She's married to Thomas, a witty German saxophone and clarinet player. The musicians had some difficulty in making it through the snow but it was worth the wait. As you can see, she is full of life and full of faith.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Grace Sheppard

On Wednesday we steamed north to the Wirral for the funeral of my cousin, Grace. We'd heard about the lorry fire on the M5 and went instead by the M6 Toll, which meant we got to the church (in the car!) in time to snatch some lunch before the service. It was a moving service for an impressive person. She looked after her husband, Bishop David Sheppard, when he contracted cancer. "Since caring for David through his illness, and following his death in 2005, Grace confounded all by not succumbing to the darkness of bereavement, in spite of a diagnosis of breast cancer in 2006. Quite the contrary, she embraced life and didn't waste a moment, putting her energy into deepening relationships with her family and friends and expressing her inspiration through writing" - as her daughter and her brother well put it in the service sheet.

As I've said, exactly one month and one day before she died she preached in the Pause for Hope service in Liverpool's Anglican cathedral. This is part of what she said that day:
"There is power to heal in gratitude.
"Some years ago I was sent a postcard from a friend. It had on it this quotation:
'Gratitude never faileth.
'For gratitude is the herald of faith, and
'Faith the harbinger of hope.'
"There is a link between gratitude and hope. Just saying thank you politely is not what I am talking about. It is having such an awareness of God's gifts that a feeling of thankfulness wells up causing us to express that gratitude in heartfelt ways. Once this awareness of what we have been given is allowed room, then real gratitude can begin to take root. Then it becomes a habit. And then you can't stop and despair is sent packing and hope moves in. I have tried this and now I can't help seeing so much by way of gift. I am convinced that this has helped me through some tough times recently, and strengthened my faith too. I recommend Gratitude as a tool for healing. For whingeing and self-pity only lead to despair. There is a choice....

"Sometimes it is in the little things that God shows himself, and very often through other people.
"It is in the tenderness of an elderly man that I saw in hospital patiently tending his dying wife day after day: in the way the light falls on the plants in my garden: in my little next door neighbour jumping on the trampoline, with arms outstretched, shouting  'I can reach the sky!': in the robin puffing out his chest in the early morning sun: it can be found in the way food is prepared and presented on a plate:  - and yes, even in the company of a close friend enjoying 'Strictly' on a Saturday night.
"We are each other's gifts. I'm thankful for every life-giving encounter. Today I stand here out of sheer gratitude: gratitude for Life; to God; to my family and friends and neighbours; to everyone who has sent cards and messages and flowers and offers of help; to all in the NHS: doctors, consultants, nurses, Macmillan nurses, district nurses, researchers, administrators, chaplains, secretaries, maintenance engineers, phlebotomists, radiologists, dinner staff, tea ladies, auxiliary staff, porters and volunteers. They are part of us and we are part of them. Thank you too to all who have been praying - I can feel it every day. There is healing power in Gratitude.
"Pausing, breathing in the love of God, in this great stillness together will give inspiration - oxygen - to our spiritual wellbeing. It will touch people in our homes and hospitals, in our streets and workplaces, in our communities and across the world; it will contribute to the common good.  I hope it will touch you as it has touched me.
"Breathing out is as important as breathing in: it is creative, calming us in the face of fear. Here we are enfolded in the safety of God's love.  It reminds us of our belonging and connectedness to one another. Pausing, breathing and giving thanks together is life giving, and makes room for mutual respect and hope to flourish. It is something we can all do, wherever we are, on the path between living and dying.
"So let's get on with living - in hope!"

One of the most touching parts of the service was when Grace's grandson, Gilles, aged 10, read the version of the 23rd Psalm which she had adapted herself in her final illness.
"... Even though I walk through some dark valleys,
I will fear no danger, for He is at my side....
Your loved ones and mine are there to strengthen and comfort me....
My cup of joy overflows.
Kindness and faithful love pursue me
Every day of my life.
I will be at Home with you today and for ever."

What a privilege to have known her! You may understand that the service was not miserable but a celebration. She loved her garden overlooking the Dee estuary. The last alteration she had done in it was to have an overgrown conifer replaced with a liquidambar sapling, which she called her "resurrection tree". It was illuminated at the funeral tea. She herself never saw it in position, but as she said, "Let's get on with living - in hope."

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

The joys and perils of Facebook

I enjoy Facebook, I must say, most of the time. It keeps me in touch with real friends' lives in a way I physically couldn't manage otherwise. Sometimes they give me real encouragement or entertainment. And I like to think that sometimes my feeble and intermittent prayers are informed by the news I read.

Alison Krauss (Wikipedia)

For example, Sarah who used to lead worship in our church and now lives in London, just yesterday mentioned her discovery of the beautiful voice of Alison Krauss. "Interesting," I thought, because Sarah's own voice is not at all bad, and went on a virtual expedition to YouTube, and there found her most popular clip, When you say nothing at all, and she certainly has a lovely voice. But I also loved the words, which perhaps should be the anthem of MND/ALS patients.

However, I also foolishly followed a link which took me to the Diocese of London's website and a statement from the Bishop, Richard Chartres, regarding the Bishop of Willesden (who by the way made a full and unreserved apology for the remarks which had been passed to the press, presumably by a so-called facebook friend):
"I was appalled by the Bishop of Willesden’s comments about the forthcoming royal marriage. In common with most of the country I share the joy which the news of the engagement has brought.
"I have now had an opportunity to discuss with Bishop Peter how his comments came to be made and I have noted his unreserved apology. Nevertheless, I have asked him to withdraw from public ministry until further notice...." 
What an overreaction, calculated to make my blood pressure rise! Heresy and immorality are tolerated, but not free if unwise comment. It feels like the Establishment flexing the last remnants of its muscles. Or maybe a Royalist prince prelate putting the boot in to a republican upstart. I know, it's not an easy job, a bishop's. I should have known better than to have followed the link, I suppose. 

On a more cheerful note, Jane tells me that Cliff Richard tops the 2011 calendar ratings! And Ann Widdecombe has survived ordeal by Blackpool, despite being overwhelmingly awful, as one judge rightly observed. The old order still has legs, for better or worse!

And I was very glad to hear that Margot Macdonald's 'End of Life Assistance (Scotland) Bill', due to be debated in the Scottish Parliament on Thursday, had been given the thumbs down by the committee scrutinising it. Their report concluded: "Overall, the majority of the Committee was not persuaded that the case had been made to decriminalise the law of homicide as it applies to assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia, termed ‘end-of-life assistance’ in the Bill, and, accordingly, does not recommend the general principles of the Bill to the Parliament." It's been calculated, according to Dr Peter Saunders of Care Not Killing, (http://pjsaunders.blogspot.com/) that if passed it would result in 1,000 Scottish deaths per year. I pray and trust that it will be decisively thrown out on the 25th.

So let me return to that song - which actually is about something that matters infinitely more than the internal wranglings of an ancient institution. Personally I wish they would punctuate song lyrics, but I suppose they're not purporting to be great poetry. The song was written by Paul Overstreet and Don Schlitz. The story is that they'd had an unproductive day trying to compose, and were strumming away saying nothing. I find it poignant because it says what MND sufferers need to hear, that words aren't needed to express love. In the end, like Jozanne, we'll lose the capacity to speak, but not the capacity to love. And conversely we won't need words to tell us that we're loved. All human love reflects divine love, and much of the song can be read as a metaphor for what St Paul described as "the love of God (which) has shone into our hearts":
It's amazing how you can speak right to my heart
Without saying a word you can light up the dark
Try as I may I could never explain
What I hear when you don't say a thing

The smile on your face lets me know that you need me
There's a truth in your eyes sayin' you'll never leave me
The touch of your hand says you'll catch me if ever I fall
You say it best when you say nothing at all

All day long I can hear people talking out loud
But when you hold me near, you drown out the crowd
Old Mr. Webster could never define
What's being said between your heart and mine

The smile on your face lets me know that you need me
There's a truth in your eyes sayin' you'll never leave me
The touch of your hand says you'll catch me if ever I fall
You say it best when you say nothing at all
Held in His hand Sarah Lomas

Sunday, 21 November 2010

A subject I thought I'd not mention!

Last week was busy, but got increasingly pleasurable. You can perhaps deduce the tipping point.
Monday - car had its MOT. Needs new tyre.
Wednesday - visit to doctor. Blood pressure needs "keeping an eye on". Kwikfit came and fitted two new tyres. Dog goes to vet with back/neck trouble.
Thursday - blood test, followed by dentist. Tooth refilled. Need to watch plaque upper left. My teeth are a catalogue of decay!
Friday - wheelchair serviced first thing. Afternoon visited my best man in Oxford, a brave man. Evening had three friends round for meal and to pray.
Saturday - Jane out morning, brother and wife call in for coffee. Out for meal in evening with two of the BEST friends.
And I forgot to mention three other visits from friends interspersed through the week.
Life's not dull.

Meanwhile the news broke on Wednesday, or was it Thursday, that William Windsor had proposed some time ago to Catherine Middleton. At last, you might think, after nine years of friendship and four years of 'living together'. The arcane reason given for its being announced now was, I heard, that otherwise she couldn't have spent Christmas at Sandringham with the royal family. The protocol that approves of cohabitation before marriage but not of entertaining your girl-friend at your parents' home seems to me a trifle bizarre, if not topsy-turvy.

However I must beware of sounding like the Bishop of Willesden, who's incurred the establishment's wrath with his republican remarks expressed in lively Facebook language. Pete Broadbent obviously wasn't brought up with the principle my mother taught us about making remarks. "Before you speak, ask: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary? If it doesn't pass all three tests, don't say it." I guess the bishop's remarks fail on 2 out of 3 counts. That is a huge temptation with blogging and social networking - to be funny and trenchant without asking those questions or exercising personal imagination. That leads to vitriolic extremes, which are downright ugly.

Personally, I wish them a long and happy marriage. I don't envy royalty in any way. Their lot is not an easy one, mainly because of the obsessional interest which we appear to have in them and which the media profitably feeds. There's an excellent marriage preparation course which I hope the celebrant of their wedding will insist William and Kate do together.
 http://relationshipcentral.org/marriage-preparation-course. We used to use it with prospective couples in our church. Very good it was too. Hopefully the bishop's ill-judged remarks won't have put them off.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

In retrospect

We’ve had a glorious week in South Devon, up a muddy bendy lane, in a warm converted cowshed overlooking beech trees and a trout-stream valley. What a full few days! I'm getting used to the idea that even in retirement holidays are worth having.

The view from the cottage was great, with the autumn leaves just clinging on for us despite the westerly winds. I didn't notice the pylons; the nearby wildlife was a lot more interesting. I reckon there were blue, great, coal and marsh tits, as well as greater spotted woodpeckers and nuthatches on the bird feeders, green woodpeckers, pheasants and squirrels in the garden - and Jane counted 14 herons in the field across the valley. Then at night the trains down in the dip would pass back and forth with the lights of their carriages on. 

On the Sunday we made for Exmouth to seek out Christ Church - the home church of some New Winers we met this year. Though the people we'd got to know best weren't there, we received a great welcome. The worship and whole service was led by young people. Excellent. I can even remember the 'talk's' three points still: we need consistency, cooperation and confidence in following Christ.
 After that we drove down to the estuary where Jane walked Jess to the river, while I discovered the car of the third in line to the throne, as I deduced from its registration K1NGH. In fact, when it passed us later, it contained an elderly couple (even older than us). We moved on to the promenade which was remarkably busy for a cool autumnal day. Dog-walkers, kite-fliers, promenaders, and even kayakers. It was of course sunny, and actually we joined the procession on the prom. Lovely.

I won't bore you with a blow-by-blow account of the week: Seaton - overrated but nice clifftop garden; Jane's parents - impossible to overrate; Axmouth - brilliant picnic by another estuary and lots of waders and seabirds (curlew, little egret, redshank, sandpiper et al); plus a visit from my favourite journalist, walks for Jane in the area with the dog, the autumn colours, blue skies, and evenings watching 'Poldark'...! I came home reflecting how fortunate I was still to be mobile enough and able to enjoy such a beautiful place and how blessed we'd been with bright November weather.

In my inbox, among the emails, was on from my co-author, Jozanne. I don't think she'll mind my quoting from it:
"Since my last mail, I have regressed considerably. I am no longer able to use my computer and spend most of my days in bed. My body is weak and my breathing is very shallow. I have lost most of my muscle mass and probably weigh between 35 & 40 kg's. I am on a 4 hourly dosage of morphine which brings me great relief from the pain I have been experiencing in my neck and shoulders. I am not able to eat anymore due to the weakened muscles in my mouth and swallowing process. I take all my feeds through a tube in my stomach. I am completely paralysed and I am grateful for the two full-time caregivers that assist me during the day and for Dave who helps me at night.                                                                                                                                         
"My greatest challenge now is speech and communication. This is very frustrating for me because I can no longer verbalise any words. It is difficult for me to express how I feel or what I need and also for those around me to understand what I am trying to say. We do seem to find ways around this but with much difficulty and effort.
"Despite all these challenges God has been so faithful to us. He daily gives me the strength to carry on, but not just that, He fills my life with joy as He reveals Himself to me more and more everyday...." 
That's the reality of MND for all but a few.

David & Grace (Liverpool Echo)
And then there were two about my cousin, Grace Sheppard. She has been having treatment for widespread cancer. Last month, six years after her husband David had done the same, she preached at Liverpool Cathedral's Pause for Hope service. It's for cancer sufferers, families, carers and medics. One email told us she was in the hospice; the second that she had died, five years after David. Only a few months ago she'd stayed with us. She was, and is, a lovely person. I shall treasure her book, Living with Dying, which she inscribed for us when she was here.  http://www.liverpoolecho.co.uk/liverpool-news/local-news/2010/11/12/bishop-s-wife-grace-sheppard-dies-after-cancer-battle-100252-27646634/

Finally there was the news of a new Wenham born into the world, daughter to my nephew and his wife - with the nice name of Marianne. And I also saw, with delight, an entry on Jill McCloghry's blog that after 35 weeks she's still carrying her baby girl. You may remember the extract I included in I Choose Everything from her blog of her months of agonised grieving after the loss of her first baby, Max. She's another remarkable woman of faith.

Monday, 15 November 2010

"Your carriage awaits"

Here I am sitting in Whitequays Seat garage in Newbury. We’ve brought in our car for its first and final MOT. As ever, proceedings are taking longer than predicted, but the coffee’s nice and the disabled toilet well appointed.

Our next car - res ipsa
In ten days or so, we’ll take delivery of its replacement I’m hoping we’ll be able to have a sneak preview as, when we got home from Devon, we had a message that it had arrived. We can’t take delivery until the previous Motability contract expires. As I’ve commented before, this is a real boon of the Disability Allowance. I trust it survives the cuts. In the big scheme of things it is quite small, but having a reliable car which is comparatively easy for access and egress and which fits in the clobber of disability, such as wheelchairs, is not to be undervalued. My son who knows about such things is a bit disappointed we didn't go for the trendy Qashqai, but I'm afraid it failed on a number of convenience grounds. 

Beauty - or a beast?
And so it's this rather sleek Altea XL instead. I can't quite decide whether or not it looks a trifle sleazy! Whatever - I'm looking forward to being chauffeured in it!

Thinking of cars - so we've reached the end of the F1 season, and sadly Williams (our local team) haven't broken back into the big time, as I'd hoped. They've not done badly: 6th in the constructors' championship, and Rubens Barrichello 10th in the drivers'. Their young driver, Hulkenberg, is moving on (I wonder if they'd like Jane instead... She's quite nippy!), and I gather they might have a new engine next season. We wait in hope!

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Please don't hijack care

First, an apology: I fell into the oldest trick in the politician's PR book, viz "When you've got some unpopular policy to announce, leak a worse version first and then when you make the real announcement people will think, 'Well, that's not so bad, is it?'" The cap on student loans is going to be "only" £9,000 per annum, but, unlike now, there will be an additional 3% p a over inflation to repay. It's still quite a hike from the present and still, of course, means students ending up in debt. Graduates on the national average wage of £31,000+ would pay 19.3% more tax than their non-graduate contemporaries, while paying off their loan. One mysterious (to me anyway) rule is that graduates will be penalised if they pay the loan off early.... (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/ministers-set-to-unveil-tuition-fee-plans-2123847.html)

This week car manufacturer, Toyota, are having yet another recall, this time of 12,000 of their iQ models in this country (bringing the grand worldwide total over the past months to 10 million of various models). It's extraordinary how successful they still are. First it was a braking problem ("Keep your distance; the car in front is a Toyota"); this time it's a fault with the steering. I know they're not the only car maker to recall cars, but they seem to have more than their fair share.

It's ironic then that Care Services minister, Paul Burstow, should be so keen on another Japanese invention, Hureai Kippu. I don't know how likely it is to crash, but it's a very bad idea. In case you don't know, it means "Caring Relationship Tickets", and it's a way of rewarding voluntary carers with credits they could later redeem to fund their own care when they need it. So, for example, if someone were to shop for me or wash me or help me on the toilet - out of mere concern or love - they could log it and put it in a "bank" of credits for when they needed care. Good idea, you might think on a superficial level. However, there are two things fundamentally and profoundly wrong with this. 

One is that everyone, whether or not they've been nice or nasty, whether they've clocked up Hureai Kippu points or not, ought to be cared for when they're in need. Compassion should be free at the point of need. 

The other is that care, voluntarily and freely given, is just that. To link it to self-serving reward is to pollute its very nature. Certainly caring for someone else brings incredible personal reward, but as a by-product, not as its purpose. The caring professions, of course, are incomparable and I rely on them, but the care of those who stand to earn nothing from it is of a different order. To incentivise it would be to compromise it tragically.

I'm reminded of the prayer of St Ignatius of Loyola - which I think I learned in my brief career as a Cub Scout -. It would be an immense loss to abandon the profound principle of disinterested service which remains a beautiful part of our country's Christian heritage, even if so clearly enunciated by a Spaniard!

Teach us, good Lord,
to serve Thee as Thou deservest;
to give and not to count the cost;
to fight and not to heed the wounds;
to labour and not to ask for any reward,
save that of knowing that we do Thy will.
through Jesus Christ Our Lord.

Thinking of volunteering, the episode of The Secret Millionaire on 17th October contained a good example. "Travel website entrepreneur and self-confessed geek Chris Brown confronts painful memories and undergoes a life-changing experience as he looks for people to help in north Manchester." Among the charities he visited was The Mustard Tree where Paul works. What Chris Brown found hard to get his mind round was when he offered £15,000 to Oscar, who works in the refuse centre and does up thrown out bikes and gives them to families who couldn't afford one. Oscar turned the money down, because he simply loves doing it. He does it out of love. That is worth the world. To give Chris Brown his due, he respected Oscar's decision. Let's hope the government gets the point too. http://www.channel4.com/programmes/the-secret-millionaire/4od#3129925


Wednesday, 3 November 2010

I think my life's not bad!

There are certainly frustrations in my life - such as the failure of the repairers to return my injured laptop for some days - but heigh! I could borrow Jane's, couldn't I? Lesley, my physio sans pareil, came for my four-monthly check-up on Monday. She's fabulous. She gave a very positive verdict on the state of my MND - which is basically really stable. Most MND patients have an M25 (or do I mean Porlock Hill?) experience, with on average 17 months between diagnosis and dying. I seem to have been sent on the scenic route. I'd be churlish not to appreciate it. 
It does make me think that in fact everyone should live in an "attitude of gratitude", as someone once said. A friend of mine, Claire, recently put on her Facebook status: "Loves the beautiful autumnal colours :-D  My Dad made each of those beautiful views you see around you right now." (NB Dad has a capital D.) I hope to be out at the weekend to admire those views. Even the last two leaves hanging on our cherry tree have their defiant frail beauty.

Meanwhile my second cousin sent me two attachments of which I already have one but the other is a fascinating one of when Kilbowie, Alfred Ebenezer's final pile, went on the market. It's the cover of the estate agent's blurb. Without all the modern excrescences, it is really impressive, it seems to me - but I wouldn't have wanted to live there. Give me my urban mod cons any time!
"Ours is a nice house ours is;
It has no rats nor no mouses." - as my dad used to quote!


So you think your life is hard...

Soon after I'd finished preaching on Sunday, in a Syriac Catholic church in Baghdad, a congregation were being held hostage by six al-Qaeda gunmen. They'd seen their priest shot before them. The church was surrounded by Iraqi security forces, and they must have known that the outcome would only have been bloody. In the event the troops stormed the building, the terrorists exploded their bomb-vests and grenades and presumably opened fire - with the result that something like 50 worshippers were killed and more injured. Canon Andrew White reports one little girl running out crying, "They've killed my Daddy, they've killed my Daddy!" The avowed aim of this al-Qaeda group is kill all Christians or drive them out of Iraq.

On Monday evening Andrew White was interviewed on Radio 4's World Tonight programme. You can hear it at 30.53 minutes into http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00vkwlz/The_World_Tonight_01_11_2010/
Andrew White (FRRME website)
He said, "There's literally not one Christian in Baghdad that's not been affected." He says to his church, the largest in Iraq, "I'm not going. Don't you go... But despite all these things this is the happiest church I've had."

You can see him talking about it on Monday on the FRRME website; it's worth spending a minute and a half watching it. http://www.frrme.org/latest-news

On Facebook today Andrew reported:
"It has been another awful day in Baghdad with over 20 serious bombings, more of our people killed. Then one of our young people said to me, 'It may all be awful but Jesus is walking with me all the time.' For us it is not theory Jesus is indeed walking with us all the time."

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

'Extreme love'

On Sunday, as I mentioned, I preached on my first away fixture at Hampstead Norreys Village Hall. When I reported on Facebook that I'd preached longer than ten minutes, cried once, and no one had heckled, the response was immense - more even than for my birthday!
I thought you might like to read the historic talk, not that I stuck to it! Tony is the Rev Tony Lynn who took the risk of inviting me. People were very tolerant of my voice and my lability ('emotional incontinence'), and so after initial nerves I actually enjoyed the experience. Being treated to a rather good roast followed by a dripping chocolate dessert (Yum...) in The White Hart afterwards helped!

I asked Tony how long he'd like me to preach this morning, and he said, "I usually preach about ten minutes - but people would like it to be shorter."…

So I'm just going to try and tell you a couple of the discoveries I've made since being diagnosed with the dreaded MND and then just invite you to ask any questions - no holds barred.  

As you can imagine as a human being told I had an incurable condition was chilling and perplexing.  I wasn't particularly worried for myself.  I'd seen death and I believe in the resurrection and life to come.  But I feared and hated what it would mean for Jane and my children. 

My form of MND is slow, and so I've had more time than many to reflect on it as a Christian.  There have been all sorts of blessings on the way, such as being enabled to identify more with the many who have their own dark valley to go through and being less judgemental…  Dark valleys are, I suspect, a thousand times more common than we think: childlessness, rejection, joblessness, bereavement, failure, disappointment, illness, exhaustion, abuse, conflict, desertion.  I'm not saying life is all depressing.  That is quite simply untrue.  But for many, if not most, of us there is a dark underground stream where it hurts.  

Strangely, I've never really doubted that God loves me.  I've had enough evidence that I've not fallen off His radar - and there are what were once called the means of grace.  (I love that phrase, "the means of grace and the hope of glory".)

However I have had to reassess what this love can be.  What sort of love is it that allows torturing diseases and natural disasters?  And that doesn't stop humans torturing others and digging unsafe mines?  If God does let me have MND and yet loves me, what is this love?  
My conclusion has been that it is vastly vaster than my previous ideas.  This severe, mysterious and magnificent love which encompasses light and darkness, pain and joy, sickness and health, death and life.  It's rather like trying to picture the whole expanding universe as we explore it to ever greater depths.  As Isaiah put it: 

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts (Isaiah 55.8 & 9).

And to be honest, I'm glad I don't understand.  I don't want a God who fits into my brain, or even the most brilliant human mind.  He wouldn't be worth worshipping.  My reference points have to be the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus in history.  This is God.  He's mystery, but this is love. 

I wanted to tell you about the means of grace which I've discovered, but I've not time.  I've listed most of them in I Choose Everything.  One of them is this service, the Eucharist, in which we come, just as we are, with empty hands, and Jesus comes and says, "This is my body, given for you.  This is my blood, shed for you.  I love you that much."  

The second means of grace and my last point today is faithful friends.  These are the people, family and friends, who I am persuaded will stick with me and walk alongside until the end of the road.  The Chilean miners' families.  You see, they are the embodiment of Christ.  I love our Gospel reading.  That verse must be one of my favourites in the Bible, 
  "Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to 
the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he 
loved them to the end" (John 13.1).
One version says, "He loved them to the uttermost" - to the very end.  

And I love the fact that the way Jesus, Son of God, expressed His love was in the most menial act of service - as well as in the ultimate act of self-sacrifice.  Universally and unconditionally given: that's the mystery of love.  That is love.  I'm blessed to be on the receiving end of such love.

As followers of Christ we are all called to embody that love, unconditional, menial, self-sacrificing - to the utmost.  It's severe, a testing calling.  May the Holy Spirit enable us, to the glory of the Father.