Tuesday, March 29, 2011


"Sometimes I sits and thinks, and sometimes I just sits..."
Satchel Paige, US baseball player (1906 - 1982)

Sitting is productive. Thinking gets you tied up in knots.
thanks to intlxpatr for the pelican

Images ebb and flow in the consciousness. They don't necessarily have to always have a meaning or a thread which links them all together. 

God is, whether or not I choose at this moment to say 'yes'.

I am not a human being in search of a spiritual experience, I am a spiritual being immersed in a human experience 

(para: Teilhard de Chardin)

The more (a man) simplifies his life, the more the laws of the Universe will appear less complex 

(Henry Thoreau)

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Two Churches

Walking along the Boulevard St Germain this afternoon, in the shadow of the Sorbonne's Faculty of Medicine building, it occurred to me that probably nobody in the world had done what I had done that day. it's been a long time since I attended church twice (or even once, truth be told) on a Sunday, and even longer since I went to two rather different ones on the same day.

Hillsong Paris is a Sydney transplant, in most respects, it would seem, similar to its parent church. It meets in a large rented theatre in chic Montparnasse, flanked by a sex shop and a couple of Japanese restaurants. The building is modern, seats almost a thousand and the church is able to make best use of a fully equipped light and sound system. Because of the hour change, we were late, but the greeter in the teddy bear costume didn't seem to mind and someone escorted us to a couple of balcony ringside seats. Worship accompanied prayer and preaching, nothing was over the top or out of place, with the possible exception of myself who must have raised the average age in the room by a couple of months at least. I really enjoyed myself, it was joyous, upbeat and grace-filled but it was clear that there were quite a lot of spectators - it's France, after all -  and much like anywhere else, energy, drive and enthusiasm, although available in abundance, was being generated by comparatively few. The service was bilingual, the Australian pastor was being expertly and simultaneously translated shotgun-style - it's rare to see it done so well - while the band slipped effortlessly in and out of the preaching. They weren't restricted to the usual drummer in a cage with lead, rhythm and keyboards - a string quartet put in an appearance who clearly were soloist standard and it was quite nice that nobody seemed to have a musical axe to grind. Bought the newest CD which might come in useful.

I asked who the pastor was and in fact the people I spoke to had trouble recalling his name, so whatever else he was he certainly wasn't in the business of developing a cult of personality. He was young, smart, street-savvy and ate, anonymously, at the same restaurant as we did afterwards. 

The Left Bank has a reputation as the cradle of the Revolution and something of its stubbornly rebellious nature hangs in the air like a half-smoked Gauloise. It is crammed with bookish types with earnest expressions, as well as large numbers of Orientals, probably educational tourists who attempt to copy Parisian languor which combines sang-froid and boredom.

L'Eglise de St Nicolas du Chardonnet on the corner of the rue Saint-Victor was the second spiritual oasis of the day. The Archbishop of Paris has served an eviction order on the building, since it is used by an heretical, right-wing Catholic sect, who conduct Mass in Latin, perform Gregorian chants and refuse to acknowledge the authority of any Pope elected after Vatican II. They call themselves the Society of St. Pius X, founded by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in 1970. It is their only church in Paris and although many others exist in France and it's not their official French headquarters, it is seen as their de facto national centre. We hit the scene just in time for Vespers. Beautifully choreographed, bowing, chanting, ten steps, sharp right, hold the book up, bow some more, genuflect, censer swinging - you get the idea. The priest, dressed in Lenten purple unsmilingly intoning the prepared Latin script with various cantors doing the backing track. There then followed some kind of homily delivered by a vulpine looking individual from a pulpit positioned in such a way as to discourage the faithful from actually looking at him, the gist of which appeared to be something of a diatribe on the evils of not following Church teaching during Lent, at which point I had had enough and slithered out under a hundred condemnatory eyes, mostly elderly and female. I probably didn't bow in the right places either.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Smokin' Taylor

Elizabeth Taylor died today. She was twenty years older than me which didn't seem to prevent me at eleven from suffering all kinds of pre-adolescent fantasies. It must have been those smoky eyes, or perhaps lingerie manufacturers in the sixties were trained differently, but nobody seems to have quite the knack of making what the Germans call B├╝stenhalter' in quite the same way these days. The Germanic capitalisation confers a certain, well, insurance I find. London lingerie shop Rigby& Peller used to sell a flesh-coloured object which resembled a surgical appliance with nose cones. I'm certain she must have bought some.

'Cleopatra' might have been a spectacular box-office flop but the memory of Richard Burton as a brooding, aggressive Mark Antony representing the rise of Roman power alongside the smouldering Taylor as the waning glory of Egypt can still be brought to mind after all these years, later surpassed only by the much more sophisticated 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf".
Married eight times, twice to Burton, she was undeniably a boy's girl. What is it about the Welsh warrior poets?
There are whispers that yet another version - the twelfth, or even the thirteenth - is in plan, almost certainly with Angelina Jolie and perhaps - inevitably - Brad Pitt.
Side by side...? No contest.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Waves of Unrest

It's becoming hard to keep up. Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya and now, apparently Syria. Placards and flags burned or waved, people discharging weaponry either into the air in supposed jubilation, or at their enemies in a viral infection of discontent against usually dictatorial, authoritarian or otherwise unacceptable power structures. Even a timid little squeak of protest, easily squashed, in Saudi. It might be over-optimistic to suggest that the pressure wave of civil disobedience might just decay away quietly and exponentially as undisturbed ripples with the threat of sanction and reward, much as this optimistic and hopeful-looking little graph suggests.

A graph is a mathematical representation of a physical reality - this one was originally created to demonstrate how sound waves die away - would that politics could be so simply described. The Arab world appears to have suddenly developed a micro-organic life of its own with frightening rapidity and a single political lacewing, landing on an already unstable leaf, might bring a very large tree crashing down into the forest, where the rest of us are condemned to pick up the pieces. 'Coalition forces' have unleashed firepower not seen since the Americans sent a routed rabble home to Baghdad. The British, with their often inconveniently sensitive notion of fair play are leading the way. Intervention has consequences.
One of these images above is of a mad dictator, the other is of a felt puppet.

Twitter, Schmitter

Various pundits have commented recently about the influence of mass communication technology on the recent unrest in the Arab world. Twitter is now five years old and has grown into a dangly (or is it gangly) adolescent. Personally, I don't get it, thus have little of value to add to an already overcrowded debate. Why does the entire online population have to be informed that one's socks are not dry or one has just missed the number 27 bus?
Tech-savvy yoof however has allegedly used social media to generate foment, unrest and what used to be quaintly called treason by sheer volume of 140 character comment, most of which has as much political weight as the arrival or not of public transport and it's worrying to reflect on the notion that if enough people tweet about something the subject matter acquires respectability, veracity and authority in consequence - the ad populum fallacy. I myself, on the other hand, find 140 characters not nearly enough and use a different logical fallacy, proof by verbosity, to prove a point. This is sometimes referred to as argumentum verbosium, a rhetorical technique that tries to persuade by overwhelming those considering an argument with such a volume of material that the argument sounds plausible, superficially appears to be well-researched, and it is so laborious to untangle and check any supporting facts – there may very well be none at all -  that the argument might be allowed to slide by unchallenged. I find that burying the listener, or perhaps, the reader, in $50 words is equally, if not more effective.
I think I'm the only person I know who has used the word 'moreover' in a text message since I find the rape of my mother tongue in whatever context by illiterate spamheads, flatheads, pinheads and crackheads a little bit perturbing. Additionally, when texting, one does needs to be quite sure about the recipient's identity. Caveat lector, with apologies for the missing full stops, also comma after 'ex'.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

1973 or 22

The exiled poor in the Libyan conflict are the voiceless ones most to be pitied. Many of them are illegal immigrants from Ghana and Nigeria - an impoverished underclass in Libyan society - living amidst piles of garbage, sleeping in makeshift, blanketed tents haphazardly strung from fences and trees and breathing fumes from an open sewer which divides their camp from the parking lot of Tripoli’s main airport. All of them are desperate to escape and many report they had seen deaths from hunger and disease almost every night. Scrawny babies are born with a feeble grasp on life and without proper medical attention for either themselves or their mothers. Without sufficient money, papers or the wherewithal to escape, tragically, over a million illegals from sub-Saharan Africa are caught in the middle. But, worse follows. These are the ones in a classic Catch 22, most particularly dark-skinned Africans who are routinely robbed for money and valuables by loyalist guards at the checkpoints and attacked on sight by the rebels who believe them to be sub-Saharan mercenaries hired by the Gaddafi regime. Streets remain uncleaned, construction projects halted and people are dying. Their own governments have, it seems, left them to fend for themselves and the security stranglehold around Tripoli has prevented aid from reaching them in the makeshift squalor of their camps.
Led by the French, the Americans and the British, air strikes have begun in response to UN Resolution 1973, ostensibly to enforce a no-fly zone. The reality may be somewhat different as may the outcome, since crippling Gaddafi's airpower is a fairly straightforward objective and preventing ordnance being emptied indiscriminately on the civilian populations in rebel held strongholds like Benghazi is achievable. But, what then? Gaddafi is still at the controls, his tribal allegiances are undiminished and his willingness to slaughter unabated. How then should the operation proceed after these primary objectives are met? Coalition forces have picked a fight. It remains to be seen whether they can finish it or not. I wonder if the sea of human misery encamped around Tripoli airport cares very much who wins, since it will inevitably be the loser.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Flying Ashtrays

I sometimes blunder into other people's theological reflections, almost by mistake and thoughts from someone's study often contain quite a few little gems.
Came across these the other day...

'Here is a curious thing. Liberal Christians find it impossible to believe that God raised the dead Jesus, yet accept without difficulty that God created the world. After the latter, you’d think the former would be a piece of cake.'

'The New Atheists have come to their senses. Having finally realised that hurling abuse at believers is strategically incompetent, they are now trying flattery. For example, last year Christopher Hitchens called Rowan Williams a “sheep-faced loon”.'

'I would like to help Christians in the UK who say they suffer from persecution substantiate their case – by feeding them to the lions.'

'Preachers who are universalists are just hanging around for the paycheck.'

'WWJD? Ask Oprah.'

'Love wins. Fundamentalists in Florida are demanding a recount.'

'If due to deforestation bears no longer shit in the woods, will the pope still be Catholic?'

'My wife once threw an ashtray at me. It whizzed by my head and took a chunk out of a brick wall. That is what grace is like – except God doesn’t miss.'

'If your faith doesn’t make you both kinder and angrier, you’ve lost it.'

'Were we ever to reach unanimous agreement on issues of faith and order, the age of ecumenism would come to an end. So would the church.'

'Are people who pray happier and healthier than those who don’t? Only if they are not doing it right.'

'Bartimaeus said to Jesus, “Take it from me, Lord, blind people actually walk along together quite safely. It’s when twenty-twenty twits try to help us that ditches become dangerous.” And Jesus said, “Oh.”'

'Recently, a minister in the United Reformed Church wrote an article in which he admitted that while he didn’t understand Paul’s theology, he was quite sure that the apostle was an entrepreneur. Well, he was half right.'

'Experience has taught me that prayer is often a way to be narcissistic with both a good conscience and public approval.'

'Prosperity Gospel Jesus: “I am the Alpha and the Romeo.”'

I used to think that Christians who put the fish symbol on their cars were prats. Now I think they are simply being considerate – by letting people know that there is a crap driver at the wheel.

The upper image is of a 'flying ashtray' bullet, so named because it fragments on impact, causing maximum damage. The lower is Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel depiction of Jeremiah. H'm.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

There We Wept - Reflections on Exile

The hearts of the world go out to the Japanese people. A gigantic rent in the Earth's crust, 240km long and 80 wide has displaced an unimaginably vast body of water with nowhere to go but spread horizontally, swamping everything in its path. Residents thousands of miles away have felt the ripples of its awesome power.
The people themselves have been displaced, exiled from homes and communities which provoked a train of thought concerning homelessness.
I have often been accused of fecklessness when I say to people that, for now at least, I'm not uncomfortable about my lack of a national home. I'd be very uncomfortable indeed about 'home' being a cardboard box under Westminster Bridge, but by 'home' I mean a national identity rather than a physical location. A part of me enjoys living in a kind of Babylonian exile and I don't weep a lot over my captivity. I think I'm unusual, since most people enjoy a cosy intimacy with nationhood and wear national colours at rugby matches to prove it. It has been said that the church in the 21st century more than ever before is a church in exile, a view with which I have some sympathy since an exiled or homeless community is consonant with its founder who 'had nowhere to lay His head'. We are prone, however, to losing the cutting edge, the pioneering spirit so necessary for survival as a diaspora in a foreign land and there are, it seems, several pitfalls  about the exile mentality into which we have a tendency to stumble. The first is nostalgia, pining for the good old days and trying to re-inscribe them in artificially familiar terms within the reality of today. "It was always so much better when we were in the House Church..." "We'll do Anglican just like we do at home.". But – remember King Canute – you can’t command the tides of time to withdraw. The second danger is withdrawal, disengaging from the big bad world of today altogether and circling the wagons. It's been done before, J N Darby's closed Brethren were significantly world-rejecting, taking 'come ye out from among them' to a logical, if shortsighted conclusion. This sectarian option is not only cowardly and faithless, it is also a recipe for further decline and ultimate disappearance. And then there is the third danger, assimilation, whereby we think we can save the church by copying the ways of the world, as if all we have to do is to market and manage the church more strategically and effectively in order to be “successful”. But then the customer, not the gospel, becomes sovereign, and though the church gain the whole world, it loses its soul. “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” Jeremiah wisely counselled the exiled Israelites, running counter to the prevailing (and false) prophetic initiative of the time. Exile is the right place to prune and refine, to explore and experiment, to make tactical critiques of prevailing cultural norms, and to practise that peculiar counter-cultural way of being human called “discipleship”.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Make a Difference

Cindy Chang is a designer. She turned the side of an abandoned house in her comparatively poor neighbourhood into a giant chalkboard where residents can fill in the blanks and remember what is important to them. All they have to do is complete the sentence, ‘before I die I want to…’. It’s also about turning a neglected space into a constructive one where people can learn the hopes and aspirations of the people around them. Great idea. I wish I’d thought of it. I suppose most of us have a bucket list of some kind – a mental must-do of things we’d quite like to but might never get round to or afford to do. I’d like to drive a Ferrari around Monza. I’d also like to have the skill to drive it well.
I’d like to be disciplined enough to finally get a PhD in something valuable enough to impact the lives of others in a positive and constructive way – to contribute, perhaps, to the cause of human happiness – perhaps by emigrating to Papua New Guinea. I’d like to take part in a genuine, indubitable miracle, freebase from the top of the Burj Khalifa, learn to speak another language fluently, play guitar like the insanely talented Phil Keaggy, learn the viola (again) write a book that I can be really proud of, see African children (or wherever) gain lifetime benefit educationally from something that I have given them, speak or play to spellbound multitudes….the list goes on and is probably of no interest to anyone but myself.
But, what of others?  How would Gaddafi complete the sentence …before I die I want to…’trample on the bloodstained, rotting corpses of those who dared to defy my despotic ambitions in the ruins of Benghazi’, perhaps. Some might have more modest, less overarching desires. ‘I want to make a difference’ is a phrase oft-repeated on the Wall. Make a difference to whom, and for what purpose, I wonder? We all, I think, want to ‘make a difference, almost as validation of our continued presence on the planet, a footprint in the eternal sand, not fading like Rubashov’s ‘shrug of eternity’, the final sentence in ‘Darkness at Noon’.
Google has over sixty-eight million pages containing the words ‘make a difference’.
We curmudgeons do schmaltz rather sparingly. However, for dewy-eyed, soft, warmhearted, compassionate human beings…this is for you.
It's called the  'Make a Difference Movie'. Stop jeering.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

An Unlikely Champion

It's been a busy week for interfaith dialogue, of a sort. It’s just that it's beginning to dawn on politically incorrect old me that it might be a rather illogical exercise. Faith, though not incompatible with reason, nonetheless differs from reason. Better, then, to let those of other religions follow their own beliefs in peace and tranquillity while one can attend to one’s own. This seems the more modest way, the better route to amity. But, then again, perhaps not since I'm finding myself quite amused by the tricks that history can play. Who would have thought that so soon after the Inquisition and so many other infamies perpetrated in the name of the Church and the silence of Rome during the Holocaust, that after all this history we would fetch up in a world in which Jews could pick up a newspaper to discover that between Julian Assange who alleges a Jewish plot to smear him, the president of Yemen who believes in the existence of an operations room in  Tel Aviv dedicated to fomenting Arab unrest and the Iranian tyrant  who alleges that the 2012 Olympic logo spells the word 'Zion" that the leading voice in their defence is the Pope?  His new book, excerpts of which make interesting reading, absolves the Jewish people exclusively for the Crucifixion, instead the whole of humanity is responsible.
A moment for both Christians and Jews to savour. My thanks to the New York Sun, also other places I can't mention.

Friday, March 04, 2011

orando laborando

If I have a fault – don't all chorus at once – it is that I use too many words to say things. OK. Live with it. For a change, I'll keep it short today. Calling a spade a spade is not usually part of the gently pastoral vocabulary of the priesthood. It's refreshing therefore when one comes across it. TBP has an engaging smile and zero tolerance so the Church meeting ran on rails today. He told us that some might be offended; almost certainly true. So be it. No more anonymous emails whining about ruffled feathers. Good. I was reminded of God's remark to Jonah..'do you have a right to be angry?'
William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury - the only Archbishop, as far as I know, who forty-six years later, followed in his father Frederick's footsteps once said that 'the Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.' Which is a useful and timely reminder of our place in the order of things.
He is also credited with this:
“Worship is the submission of all of our nature to God. It is the quickening of conscience by His holiness, nourishment of mind by His truth, purifying of imagination by His beauty, opening of the heart to His love, and submission of will to His purpose. And all this gathered up in adoration is the greatest of human expressions of which we are capable.”
Time to put the learning trousers on and get down to work.

The image is of what we fondly called the TSR, the Temple Speech Room at School, where Frederick Temple was headmaster, 'the Doctor', sixteen years after Arnold. His 'tremendous powers of work and rough manner intimidated the pupils, but he soon became popular, and raised the school's reputation. His school sermons made a deep impression on the boys, teaching loyalty, faith and duty.'

The School motto is 'orando laborando' - by work and prayer

This seems quite familiar. I wonder why?

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Wands, Bones and Quantum Mechanics

Understanding the 'why' of quantum mechanics - the physics of the very small - is futile. Most are told, just use the 'what' - in other words,  the laws, because they work. Forget the fact that it's irrational and unpredictable. It just works. I tell my students that the way to visualise quantum mechanics is to imagine a hundred identical boats in a harbour. A wave one metre high rolls in through the harbour mouth. What happens? A hundred boats obediently rise and fall one metre as the wave passes underneath. Quantum mechanics says, "no, this won't happen. Instead, 99 of the boats remain exactly where they are and one of them - nobody can tell which one, rises 100m into the air."
Ah. I think a few of us get a little bit lost at this point. But, be comforted. So do I.
I'm not sick at the moment, but have been thinking nevertheless about healing, prompting a less than rational trawl through the undergrowth of alternative healing technologies.

E pluribus, hic, ergo...All brackets mine.

"The Wheeler Wand is a quantum technology (is it, indeed...) containing a special circuit (no details, then?) that creates a Zero Point Energy beam, ( at absolute zero, perhaps...?) which is directed to different parts of the body that require an accelerated healing response. (doubtless powered by a personal nuclear power station.) This device is about seven inches long and one inch square, with the outer shell made of indestructible  plastic. (Impressive, but let's not go there...). Zero Point Energy is the energy left over after all other energies have been removed from any physical system. In other words, Zero Point Energy is the energy behind all other energies to maintain integrity and continuity in any physical system, including the human body. (Absolute, unmitigated twaddle, drivel and fart.)  Providing zero point energy to the body is key to restoring and maintaining the highest level of health, with the Wheeler Wand the only authentic Zero Point Energy technology in the world today."
"The source energy that runs the Wheeler Wand comes from the body itself. (batteries not included, then?) By holding the Wheeler Wand in either hand, the sensitive circuitry inside taps into Zero Point Energy and concentrates it into a beam that comes out of the treatment end of the technology. When holding the Wheeler Wand it should be pointed to those parts of the body that require healing. For those people who are sensitive to the expression of subtle energies, (ah, here's the disclaimer, if you don't get better you're an insensitive armadillo and deserve to die) a heightened feeling will let a practitioner know when they are pointing at a part of the body requiring a flow of Zero Point Energy."

This is complete scientific mumbo-jumbo. Zero-point energy is the lowest possible energy that a quantum mechanical physical system may have. Interested readers - I know that there aren't many of you - can look here for a little physics, whereupon it should become apparent that wands of whatever manufacture are as fanciful as Harry Potter's. Thus, claims that these devices are 'able to heal'  are pseudoscience - at best based on a complete misunderstanding of physics, biology, and medical science - and at worst self-serving, fraudulent business practices. Such advertisements often share space with ayurvedic healing, reiki, and Buddhist philosophy. Caveat lector.

But, wait. I believe that the Creator of the Universe can mend broken bodies and souls, sometimes in quantised ways. By this, I mean that a steady, normal, rational recovery such as most of us undergo when unwell is very occasionally overturned, superseded or disassembled by what might we might term a 'miracle'. A 'quantum all or nothing' event, instantaneously reconfiguring the dislocation of illness into health and wellness. Yet, there is an uncertainty, almost a randomness about the recipients. it is not necessarily  the most deserving, those why pray the most, fast the longest, give the most. God seems to roll the dice and somebody wins the jackpot, while pretty much everybody else loses.
Einstein once said - my paraphrase - "this quantum mechanics is very imposing, but I am convinced it gets us no nearer to the secret of the Old One. In any event, He does not play dice". Perhaps Einstein was wrong - and we just haven't figured out how the Old One rolls the quantum mechanical bones.
Note: these 20-sided dice are obtainable from http://www.thinkgeek.com Every starship should have one.