Sunday, December 31, 2006

On the sixth day...


I curled up with the wonderful pile of books that I've been blessed with this Christmas. The trouble is they are all so good that I want to hop about from one to another even more than usual. Am currently reading Alan Bennett Untold Stories, Mark Tully India in Slow Motion
E. Stanley Jones Christ of the Indian Road and the latest Dick Francis
- so I'm hugely grateful for a wet and windy afternoon which just cries out to be spent reading on the sofa with a dog on my feet.

On the fifth day

an outing to the Sales with Hatti Gandhi...netting one new skirt, 2 tops and a truly wonderful stripey mohair jumper from Monsoon.
It did, though, feel very odd to be the one shopping for England while HG failed to find anything that excited her madly...that's the sort of role reversal I find quite unnerving.

Later, I enjoyed her driving me down to Bristol to see our favourite hamster owner.
I'm doing really well in touching base with the people who matter most to me this holiday, and I'm so glad that I know them :-)

Friday, December 29, 2006

On the fourth day...















a walk by the sea at Poole...part of a lovely time with Eirene, my honorary mother, whom I blogged about back in the summer.
Today all my children were there, which made me very happy. I love having those whom I love collected in one place - well worth a 6 hour round trip with too many tall people in one middle-sized car!

Thursday, December 28, 2006

On the third day of Christmas...

Good friends and an open fire. Can life get much better?
Hear the purrs.

And then...

came the Boxing Day walk - just me and the dogs on Crickley Hill, as everyone else was still half asleep. Selfishly, this was exactly what I needed - even extroverts enjoy a window of solitude now and then, provided they know it won't be prolonged and we were out so early we didn't even need to be sociable to other walkers.
The space was specially welcome as the rest of the day was very heavily populated with all of LCM's family convening on a hotel near his mother's home for a loooong lunch.
The great joy of this, from my point of view, was the huge honour of a new god-daughter, Julia...Her mother, A's neice, was once back in the mists of time, one of my bridesmaids, and the whole family is now living near Malmesbury - so there's actually hope that I may be able to get to know J properly and actually be part of her life sometimes. Most of my (altogether splendid) god-children are now in their teens (the oldest, indeed, is in her late 20s) so the relationship has shifted rather. To be invited to share in the nurture of a new generation is really exciting- and of course a baby to cuddle is pure delight!

Part 2

Christmas Day
dawned with alarming speed (as is the way of things if you reach home at 2.00 a.m. and have to wake in time for stockings before the 8.00 Communion) but with such pleasure that bleariness soon departed. The 8.00ers were full of good cheer, and I was relieved to hear that the one or two whom I'd feared might be on their own were in fact all sure of company for the day.
Rapid breakfast before the Parish Eucharist: my turn to preside and traipse around merrily in a cope, amid clouds of rosa mystica. Simon and Rebecca, 2 of our new communicants, were acolytes for the first time and shone more brightly than the substantial candles behind which they might have disappeared...pride and joy are the words that spring to mind.Again, numbers were good. Though this seemed to be the year when many of our regulars were elsewhere, they were replaced by crowds of C and E attenders .I was hugely aware of the privilege of being part of what was perhaps the only intentional connection with God's church that many would have all year. To be able to place the Sacrament in so many hands and say those words to people for whom they're not necessarily a part of life to be taken for granted...wow! Have I ever told you before how much I love my job?!
Happy pandemonium at the Family Service- even though the relighting candles on Jesus's birthday cake were a bit of a failure. From my point of view, one of the best parts was seeing those child-free adults who'd opted for Short and Informal as their window onto Christmas worship joining in the impromptu percussion accompaniment to "Come and join the celebration" and grinning broadly as they did so. No compulsion whatsoever,- they really did want to.
By the time that congregation had departed, WonderfulVicar and I were about ready for bed - but since we'd seen over 1000 come happily through the church doors in 24 hours, a bit of exhaustion seems a very small price to pay.

Of course, bed didn't happen as I un-collared, put the curate away in a cupboard and turned into 100% uncompromised mummy on holiday for a week...and that was just lovely. Not having a turkey was one of the best decisions we've made as a family for a while - instead of spending the whole afternoon in a state of torpor, I not only enjoyed eating lunch but was happy to stay awake amid the excitement of present opening. The greatest pleasure was probably seeing HG united at last with the harp she has longed for for a good 15 years. It is so lovely to be able to make things happen for your children,- and there was lots of that sort of joy to be had this year.

So here it is...

Only minimal apologies for the break in transmission...My suspicion is that you have, for the most part, been too busy doing happy things with real people to miss the blog. Certainly I'm much enjoying immersion in my family and other special people - but because so many lovely things have happened, I'm allowing myself a brief foray into the study so I can bounce about them to a (theoretically) wider audience.
So here's part 1.
  • Christmas Eve: huge crowd at the Crib Service at 4.00 - People Who Know say it was at least 400 and while I know it's not all about numbers, it was great that I knew a high proportion of the children who appeared, complete with tinsel and tea-towels, so that we could put together a living crib at the same time as we built the static version. St M's has a lot of lee-way to make up in terms of connection with the community, and services like this suggest we are beginning to manage it: lots of good-will about the place.Baby Jesus was on cracking form, sitting up and smiling at everyone throughout...another couple of months and I suspect he would have been waving to his public, so it's possibly just as well that we switched calendars when we did! The service proper must have lasted all of half and hour, but afterwards there was a constant stream of families past the crib to rearrange the scene and count the camels.




  • After that, a random collection of enthusiasts decamped to one of the nearby hotels, where we'd been invited to sing carols for the guests. In previous years, we've been arranged tidily in a corner of the foyer and left to get on with it, but this year we were wheeled into a large function room and found an audience of some 150. I really struggle with the idea of people choosing to spend Christmas in an hotel, but nobody here seemed overcome with self-pity and misery, - indeed, they were all very jolly and a good proportion of those who promised to join us at worship over the next 24 hours actually did so, - which made certainly made the curate smile.
  • Home for family music: all the things we have to play and sing on Christmas Eve, and the essential Christmas books too. Does anyone else out there share our devotion to The Good Little Christmas Tree? Since I'm still reading it now that HG has flown the nest as far as uni at least, it seems highly probable that it will still be required when she and her brothers are in their fifties. Tradition!
  • Midnight Mass: just lovely, really! Full church, great singing and the sermon (on pondering- inspired by a conversation with Maggi) went down really well, even though the PA system gave up on me and I had to project for England. Walking home together through the silent streets it was all blissfully and utterly real.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us

Instead of a Christmas card, this post comes with love for all of you, and thanks for visiting my blog this year.


And is it true? and is it true?
The most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window's hue,
A Baby in an ox's stall?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me?

And is it true? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant.

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare -
That God was Man in Palestine
And lives to-day in Bread and Wine.

from Christmas by John Betjeman




The lines from Betjeman are, I know, not the newest or freshest of Christmas expressions, but I will always remember hearing the whole poem for the first time at my school's carol service the year I was 12, and going straight to the library to copy it out and learn it by heart so that I could share it with my parents on Christmas Eve.
So for me it is, like the slightly tarnished decorations on our tree, a link with a precious bit of my past...and, of course, Christmas is a time when past and present touch gently by candlelight. Blessings my friends xxx

Asian Nativity

Hatti Gandhi has just given me a Christmas Eve present with which I'm entirely delighted.
She found in St John's Cathedral, Hong Kong back in June, before either of us realised how very much I would love India and be thinking of my friends there as I prepare to celebrate Christmas.
It's so good to see a representation of the Nativity that doesn't proclaim the Holy Family solidly white caucasians.
I love it,- specially the exhausted shepherd sprawled on the floor! Thanks HG.

Advent 4

Our Eucharist this morning was bubbling with suppressed excitement as we admitted 5 children to Holy Communion for the first time. I presided and FabVicar preached about Bethlehem the house of bread, and included mention of my beloved Lancelot Andrewes, who in 1615 connected the little town with the Eucharist

'the true Bread, the Bread of heaven, the Bread of life--and where that Bread is, there is Bethlehem for ever....the Church in this sense is very Bethlehem no less than the town itself. For that town itself never had the name rightly all the while there was but bread made there, bread..... Not till this Bread was born there Then, and never till then was it Bethlehem; and that is in the Church, as truly as ever in it. There shall ever be this day a Bethlehem to go to--a house wherein there is bread.'

He told the children to shine like stars pointing the way to Jesus ...and they were very shiney today. They've been a real joy to prepare, and when they brought up the elements at the Offertory, they did so with such solemn excitement that I nearly lost it completely.
Nat, Joseph, Rebecca, David, Simon - hold onto that joy and delight in God's gift of himself - and carry on shining.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

It might be creeping up on me...

Over the past couple of days I can report that there have been a few moments when I've felt distinctly Christmassy. Most of them involved catching Hatti Gandhi's eye as she sang in the choir during the Nine Lessons and Carols last night...it is so good to have her home for the holidays, and back in the choir stalls too. But overall, I'm still waiting for the breathless eight-year-old style excitement that usually grips me this close to Christmas. I do hope that India hasn't spoiled me for something I'm usually unashamedly enthusiastic about. The tree is up at home, and there are candles all over the place,- which means you can see less of our familial mess in the twilight. There are some parcels wrapped and ready to place under the tree. I don't actually have to prepare that much more for church. So here I am, waiting for the reality to dawn. Perhaps I'll actually have to hang on till Midnight Mass this year - but that might not be such a bad thing.
Meanwhile, St M's did look very pretty by candlelight for the service last night. For the second year, we've invited people to "adopt" a candle in memory of someone, and so we have 37 named candles on every available surface, and the effect is really rather lovely,- lots of light and love in every corner. The blessed Biggles, (camera), sings a little song whenever switched on, so nobody dared to take photos during the service itself - but here's the tree, all by itself when nearly everyone had gone home. I love the church then,- it's so calm and somehow relieved to be sinking back into itself after all the anxious activity that precedes a big service. Despite the grim prognostications of some, holding the service on a Friday night saw no reduction in the size of the congregation, and many of them were "occasionals" - so we clearly met a need. What's more many of those leaving said that for them, the service had made Christmas real,- so there must be some hope!

Anything rather than write my sermon...

While considering the wonders of Luke's account of the nativity, I found myself re-reading past Midnight sermons (which, interestingly, all seem to have been on John...it's clearly high time I engaged with Luke for myself) and remembered the year that I, as a Reader, was conducting the first part of the Midnight Mass at Great Rissington, and had to fill in until the priest managed to get there from another eucharist in one of the neighbouring villages. That year nobody could complain that they didn't get to sing their favourite carol. We had the lot, interspersed with assorted readings, chosen on the spot to pad out the Ministry of the Word. It was also the year that, by tremendous serendipity I managed to so time things that we reached the last verse of O Come all ye faithful just after the church clock struck 12.00 - so those words were the very first uttered on Christmas morning. Before that, though, I took them around the highways and by ways of English literature, including this poem, which I'd almost forgotten. Did you know that Hardy scorned his novels, and wished to be remembered only for his poetry? Much of it is, imho, on the edge of twaddle, but this, I think, is rather lovely.

The Oxen - Thomas Hardy

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
"Now they are all on their knees,"
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
"Come; see the oxen kneel,

"In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,"
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Revelations - or another attack of Five Things

the meme which is circulating at top speed around assorted blogs. Steve tagged me, in the slightly mistaken belief that I might enjoy playing. Perhaps I would have done, except that it's rather hard for someone who talks as much as I do to find anything that most people don't already know about me...On the other hand, it says nothing about five interesting things
so here we go
  1. I once circumnavigated the roof of Durham Castle wearing evening dress
  2. I met Longsuffering Clockmaker on the pavement outside the Albert Hall, while queuing for the Last Night of the Proms
  3. I once organised a national conference in London on Miscarriage and Neo-natal death at which all the keynote speakers wore snowboots (it was February 1991,- the same winter in which we were snowed out of our house).
  4. While I at Trinity I had special leave from the college council to keep my hamster (Antigone) in college,- the first undergraduate to have such permission since Byron kept a bear.
  5. I was the first ever girl to be Head Chorister at my school.
In theory I should tag five other people, but so many have done this already, and most of you are quite busy enough at this point, so if you want to play just say so in the comments, and I'll promise to drop in and read you revelations.

So what have I forgotten?

My good friend Marcella is complaining (only quietly, of course) about not feeling specially Christmassy...and, without any good reason, I have to admit I'm in rather the same state.
Some of this I can blame on post-India syndrome, which tends to make the consumerist excess of a British Christmas rather distasteful.
Some of it might just be that fixed penalty notice (though I really should get over myself on that one).
Some of it is undoubtedly that I'm not actually rushed off my feet (here I am blogging, after all) and am wondering and worrying as to why...
What have I forgotten?
Incredibly after my whinges last week I seem to have written and posted cards (even including a letter of sorts) , despatched those presents that needed to be despatched and even wrapped a majority of those which will end up under our tree here (at least one of which I am very very excited about...can't say more as family read the blog, but it is a truly good present).
We've worked out a strategy for Christmas food that should balance the needs of vegi daughter and carnivorous men folk
I'm getting to see some of my very favourite people, (including a new baby great-niece-in-law - which makes me so ancient) and I get to admit 5 lovely children to Holy Communion on Christmas Eve, to preach at Midnight (OK, I do need to write the sermon) and to preside on Christmas morning.
Surely there's plenty of scope for seasonal joy bubbling up amid all that?
But it's just not real yet.
Oddly enough, I'm worrying about being too calm...so this morning's action from the Praying Advent series worked surprisingly well.
It read thus

Do not panic. Christmas is very near, but for you that means that Christ is very near. Let the unbought remain unbought now. Pray slowly and several times through today: ‘Lord Jesus Christ,Son of God, by the breath of your Spirit renew me.’

I'm going to try to use that from now on...and let the jollity (or lack thereof) take care of itself.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Grimble!

I had a lovely morning at the Little Fishes Christmas service and party, but I'm currently feeling thoroughly unseasonal, for reasons that will become evident...
  • On Saturday night, the London Underground let Hatti Gandhi down badly, so that a relatively short tube journey took well over an hour, with the result that she missed the last coach directly to Cheltenham and had to catch the Oxford Tube instead. It being a 40 mile walk from there to here, I drove to Oxford in time to collect her when she arrived at 1.30 a.m.
  • We then returned home thankfully, with a nasty little voice in my head reminding me that I was "on" at 8.00 and could do with some sleep.
  • Apparently at some point as we headed up the totally empty Woodstock Road, my speedometer inched over 30 mph...in point of fact, it reached 35.
  • I know this because I have just opened a Fixed Penalty Notice....£60 and 3 points on my licence.
  • This is my first driving offence in 28 years, - why did it have to happen just a week before Christmas?
OK...I feel better for giving vent to that. I know it's a small irritation in the grand scheme of things, and since I clearly did break the speed limit, I should expect to be penalised. I'll get on with filling in the horrible form now,- just wanted to growl to the world first.

Post Script: Reasons to love my WonderfulBishop include his reaction to the obligatory email I sent yesterday to inform him that one of his clergy was the wrong side of the law. His response began "You wicked woman!" and concluded with the instruction not to lose any sleep over this, as he certainly didn't intend to. Feel much better this morning :-)

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Of missionaries and their ways

I’ve been thinking a bit more about the work of the early missionaries in India. It truly is awe-inspiring. They set out without the benefit of travel books or web-sites, of orientation programmes or reading lists, and without any of the medical protection that we wrapped around ourselves before travelling. Their journey was surely unimaginably long and difficult, and they would have arrived in a culture that was utterly alien. For all my delight in things Indian, there were days during my stay when I really longed for familiar language and the cultural backdrops of home. (I really did thank God for a certain cafĂ© chain, with a branch in MG Road, Bangalore. We only visited when we were completely desperate, but it was comforting to know it was there when we were).
Those missionaries, in contrast, were totally adrift, with no sense of what they might expect and few, if any support structures to turn to. Strange country, strange people, strange food and a whole battery of unpleasant diseases. En route to Kanyakumari, we passed many wayside cemeteries, - and the crosses there reminded me of the missionaries who literally gave their lives for the people of India, just because they loved God and felt called by him to take his love into new places.
In their turn, they deserve to be remembered with love – and indeed they are.
They are the unofficial saints of CSI, spoken of with affection undulled by the years. Their faith challenges me. To journey so far, and risk so much for the love of God and his people - in comparison, I know I haven't even made the starting blocks.

Today, their obvious legacy is the churches, schools and hospitals that so often bear their names, - Sawday Memorial Church, Hudson Memorial, Platt Memorial - and their sepia photographs remain on the walls of many presbyteries and ashrams. Better still, their emphasis on love in action has clearly continued to shape C.S.I. so that the social work that the church is involved in makes all the difference in the world to so many.

The Karnataka diocese is rightly proud of its social action programme and was anxious that we should experience it at first hand, so our first 10 days were projects, projects all the way. If I’m honest, while the first few in each category made a huge impact, this diminished somewhat as we were exposed to more and more of the same. For me, our visit culminated in a marathon day spent trailing the Bishop as he dedicated a new church, launched the centenary booklet at another, opened a project for school drop-outs, and a community dining hall, and presented the certificates to graduates of another programme for disaffected young people. By the end of the day, most of us in the semi-offical party wore glazed expressions, and were beginning to panic at the thought of yet another garland (no ceremony in India is complete without flowery speeches in all directions, and numerous presentations to guests of honourThe wor itself was, and is, all tremendous stuff though and I mentioned to the Bishop’s wife my admiration for the church’s involvement in social action.
Her response was typically robust
“If the church isn’t involved in this sort of work, then the church is meaningless”
Ouch. I suspect she’s right, but it can be hard to see where to start in a context as comfortable as ours here.

Perhaps that’s one reason why some missionaries, even today, elect to spend their whole lives in India. If you can fall in love as thoroughly as I did in just one month, its easy to imagine that working there for a longer period might irrevocably spoil “home” for you. I met one such long-term missionary, Brother John, on my first Sunday in Bangalore. Conversation with him was fascinating for, now in his 80s, he has been in India for most of his adult life, living through the “quit India” campaign of the 40s and the terrible violence surrounding partition. He spoke of "Gandhi-ji" as a friend, and had known E. Stanley Jones (who wrote the wonderful Christ of the Indian Road) well too. As he talked to us, history lived and his whole being shone with love for the country and its people. Before we left, he took us outside his one-roomed home, in the compound of St John’s Church, and showed us the garden he had made. The trees which towered above us were all of his planting.
This had been home for him for 40 years, and that’s a long time even in arboreal terms…

He’s still at work planting seeds, as he was due to run a mission in one of the city’s senior schools in the two weeks after we met…
I’m willing to bet that some of those seeds will grow too,- like those planted by his predecessors in the mission field.

Monday, December 18, 2006

1 CORINTHIANS 13 FOR CHRISTMAS

I found this somewhere (no idea where) a year or two back and rediscovered it this morning as I panicked gently about all the stuff that still isn't being done here at the Curate's house. Then the electricity went off, so the whole morning's work disappeared, making remembering this all the more necessary.

If I speak in the tongues of Christmas materialism and greed but have not love, I am only a tinny Christmas song or an out of tune choir.

If I have the gift of knowing what Aunt Agatha will give me this year and can even understand last year's present, and if I have the faith that I won't get yet more socks and ties this year but have not love, I am nothing.

If I clear out the house and give everything to charity and my credit cards are snapped in half but have not love, what can I possibly gain?

Love is patient when the fourth store you've tried doesn't have a bottle garden.

Love is kind and lets the couple with only a few items go in front of you and your bulging shopping cart.

Love does not envy your friend who gets mega-presents from everybody.

Love does not boast about the £400 bike, the Xbox 360, the TV, VCR, and computer your dad gave you.

Love does not attempt to out buy, out wrap, and out give the rest of the family just to impress.

Love doesn't cut Aunt Flo off your Christmas card list because she forgot you last year.

Love is not self-seeking and leaves a copy of your Christmas list in every room of the house.

Love is not easily angered when the young girl at the checkout takes forever because she is just temporary staff.

Love doesn't keep remembering how many times your mum forgets you don't like Brussels sprouts.

Love does not delight in the commercial bandwagon but rejoices with the truth of a baby born in the stable.

Love always protects the family from Christmas hype.

Love always trusts that the hiding places for presents will remain secret for another year.

Love always hopes that this year more neighbours will drop in to your open house coffee morning.

Love always perseveres until the cards are written, the presents all bought, the shopping done, and the Christmas cake iced.

Toys may break, socks wear thin but love never fails.

Where there is the feeling of the presents to guess their contents, and mum going on about being good so Father Christmas will come, and searching through the cupboards to find your hidden presents, they will all stop.

For we think we know what we are getting, and we hope we know what we are getting but when Christmas Day arrives all will be revealed.

When I was a child I talked with big wide-open eyes about Christmas, thought that Christmas was all about me, I reasoned that Jesus should have been born more often. When I became an adult, I forgot the joy, wonder, and excitement of this special time.

Now we just hear about the angels, shepherds, and wise men, then we shall see them all the time. Now I know as much as the Bible says about the first Christmas, then I shall know just how many wise men there were and where they came from.

Now three things remain to be done:

To have faith that the baby born in a stable is the Son of God.

To hope that the true message of Christmas will not get discarded with the wrapping paper and unwanted gifts.

And the most important to have a love for others like the one that God has for us.

Copyright 2001 Claire Jordan (caleb[at]eurobell.co.uk). Permission is granted to send this to others, but not for commercial purposes.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

"Advent in Tamil Nadu" by Rosie Morton

is part of the wonderful Wildgoose collection, Candles and Conifers, which makes life so much easier in this time of desperate creativity as hassled clergy across the world try to proclaim afresh the wonder of the season. I'd forgotten it till leafing feverishly through the book earlier in the week...and was so excited, because, you see, I was there, only 4 weeks ago! I'd had breakfast and supper at the Tamil Nadu Theological Seminary in Madurai where Rosie had stayed when writing. Indeed, Indian friends suggested that I might do a short course there some time in the future, as a good pretext for a return to the country. So, in my current, "ever- so- slightly -homesick-for-India" state, finding these words was a real gift. The pictures were taken in the grounds of TTS, which provided a welcome haven during the Journey from Hell to Kanyakumari. As Rosie points out "Come, come" - or, in my experience, "Please come" is probably the phrase that visitors to S. India hear most.

The air is pregnant with joy
and excited anticipation.
Storm clouds gather;
monsoon rain gushes and splutters,
but spirits cannot, will not be dampened.

Come, come
for this is the time
to celebrate Advent.

Handmade lanterns glow with the message
"Towards the fulness of life".
There is a multi-coloured fish,
a yellow globe surrounded by men and women holding hands,
a broken terracotta pot containing the word Justice.


Come, come
for this is the time
to celebrate Advent.

Tamil songs
Leave lingering messages on the night air;
Amidst suffering
there is hope -
we are waiting
for Jesus to be born.
Come, come
for this is the time
to celebrate Advent.


This is some Advent
Waiting for what?
For all to have clean drinking water.

Waiting for what?
For all to have food.

Waiting for what?
For women to be treated equally to men.


Waiting for what?
For workers to receive a fair wage.

Waiting for what?
For the rich to share their wealth.

Waiting for what?
For the caste system to end.

Waiting for what?
For baby Jesus to be born.

This is some Advent.

Waiting for rather alot
it seems...


There's more of Rosie Morton's sequence and a wealth of other wonderful stuff in the book...Buy it now (and its companion, Hay and Stardust) so they are sitting on your shelf before next year's Advent panic begins.

Edit: Additional thanks to Rosie, since blogging this provided a much-needed kick start for the sermon for Evensong tomorrow...Unsurprisingly, it's all about waiting with hope. I've put it here

Friday, December 15, 2006

Sign of the times?

As Christmas preparations in church spiral into free-fall, I heard myself utter the following alternative verses during the canticle at Evening Prayer yesterday

"Mercy and truth are met together
Righteousness and Peace have killed each other"

Is this an indication of Advent overload, do you think?

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Flying Pastors...

are very much the rule in CSI. During the time I spent there, I was shown a model of ministry that is almost shocking to someone trained and working in a western context.
You see, CSI believes in sacrificial ministry with knobs on. On more than one occasion I heard the Bishop publicly berating his clergy for taking time to go home to visit wife and family when he’d posted them to work in parishes 2 hours away from home. He had very little time for the CofE concept of a day off, speaking critically of it during one address, and the “Pastors’ Retreat” at Kanyakumari seemed to me far more like a conference, with a series of addresses (and a few stern talks from the Bishop to boot) . Certainly there was little if any time out for the clergy to engage with God, or simply to rest and recoup.
A month of holiday is prescribed each year, but there is the option of taking payment in lieu, and in households where funds are tight that is an understandably popular option.
That endless coach journey to the tip of India was punctuated not only with the sound of the horn (announcing every manoeuvre, planned, complete or abandoned) but with the constant sound of mobile phones. “Crimond” “Lead us, heavenly Father, lead us” and “The Entertainer” were particular favourites, and barely a minute went by without one of these sounding through the coach. Even during worship, phones were answered without any embarassment, and during one hour on a Monday afternoon, Christy’s mobile rang 16 times. I asked what would happen if he ever turned it off, and was told that there would be instant complaints to the bishop that he was a bad pastor, who put his own needs before those of his congregation
You see, a good pastor in CSI is always available to his people.
S/he always answers the phone…and on answering, the first thing s/he will hear is “Pastor, where are you?” followed by a demand that, wherever the pastor may be, and whatever the hour, s/he drops everything and comes at once.
That is a reasonable request if there is a real crisis,- indeed, I rather envied my hosts their genuine and unquestioned involvement in all the major life events of their congregation – but often it is a question of blessing a new car, or admonishing a wayward child, of recognising a daughter’s first period or a son’s first motorbike. Whatever it is, the pastor is expected to respond immediately, and does so without hesitation..
When I asked whether Christy ever took time for himself, citing Jesus’ withdrawal to pray alone and recharge, he told me that , yes, indeed, he usually rose an hour before his family in order to have some time to himself with God. Perhaps I’m being silly, but I didn’t think that was really how it worked…

So, I’ve come home with some big questions.

I loved the way that prayer is interwoven into every aspect of the lives of Indian Christians,- but I despaired at the clerical dependency that is taken as read by clergy and people alike. No social visit to a parishioner (and these are an essential part of the fabric of life) is complete without a prayer and blessing,- excellent!- but the dominant focus on the role of the “holy hands” seems to disable everyone else altogether. There is a lot of lay involvement in the day-to-day running of the church, and in its work of teaching and social care but when it comes to prayer and spirituality, only the pastor will do.
After a 2 hour service, in many churches there will be at least another half hour when individuals descend upon the pastor asking for prayer. There’s no suggestion that anyone else could possibly pray with them, and rapid petitions and blessings are repeated again and again, as you struggle to make your way across the church compound to the next meeting – Sunday School, or Boys’ Youth Group, perhaps. After one such session, the only image left in my head was of nestful of baby birds, their beaks wide open, cheeping their needs at the top of their voices. Each encounter was special, but the cumulative effect was terrifying, - even for me, with my love of being needed, my aspiration to be "Superpriest" and my persistent urge to make things better.

No wonder most CSI clergy spend their lives on their motor scooters – it’s the only way they can hope to keep up with a ministry that redefined “demanding” for me.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Chronicles of wasted time

So the struggle of the curate and her day off continues.
It feels like a really precious resource, specially at this manic time of year, but somehow I rarely feel I've used it as well as I might.
Today, for example, I really should be getting to grips with that terrible thing, The Christmas Letter. For ages I wrote a proper individual letter (with a real pen) to most of the people on my card list, but latterly that has simply not been practical,- so I've succumbed to the round robin variety.
I've worked really hard to avoid the awful "aren't we a clever family" missives which sometimes appear through the letter-box, and last year we had a multiple-choice quiz, which seemed to go down very well - but now I'm utterly devoid of inspiration and am only too aware that if I don't write something today, the next likely opportunity is around 27th December, so I might as well not bother.

You might well feel that not bothering would be the wisest course, but I tend to feel a bit cheated when cards arrive with only the signature (unless, of course, I'm in regular contact with the sender)...Christmas is such a good opportunity to re-open communications with people you are sad not to see more often,- and this has been an interesting year for us, which I enjoy talking about.
So, bearing all that in mind, logically I have had a haircut, walked the dogs, done 3 loads of laundry and taken lots of plastic bottles to be recycled. I've done a wee bit of stocking-filler shopping, and queued for nearly half an hour to collect a parcel that needed a signature. Now LCH, HS and GK have departed for the second performance of the school "Christmas Miscellany" ( I went last night, so have had the first mulled wine of the season- always a Good Thing). The pets and I have the house to myself, Charpentier's Messe de Minuit is on the CD player...and I'm still not writing the letter.
I think I'll post some pictures from the walk instead. Lots of bare trees, amazing skies, and even a brief sighting of a group of deer. I did enjoy myself!

Blind faith?

I've been thinking about those Hindu converts I mentioned earlier,- who taught me much about the nature of faith in the short time we had together.

We spent a couple of hours on my last Monday in Bangalore sitting together on the floor of Zion Church (which, I suspect, is where I've left my heart) while they shared their faith stories. It was frustrating to need an interpeter, but these ladies came from the poorest homes and had little education...while I, with no such excuse, had not a word of Tamil to my name. However, the tireless Rev Christy somehow found time to translate for me, and the stories that emerged were simply wonderful.
Papamma told hers with full dramatic emphasis,- Sarah Bernhardt in a sari- but when Christy translated, I realised that she was entitled to it. She had struggled with abject poverty for many years, and eventually the family situation became so bad that they determined that the only solution was to buy paraffin and burn themselves alive on a shared funeral pyre. However, to immolate a family of 5 demanded quite a quantity of paraffin, and a Christian neighbour noticed that Papamma was buying little else from day to day, suspected her intentions and suggested that, before she lit the fire she at least tried visiting the church and praying to the "Christian God". Papamma had always been a devout Hindu, and loved spending time in holy places, so she agreed to this...and on her visit to the church she encountered God in a way that changed everything for her.

What was striking to me was that materially nothing had changed at all. She remains desperately poor, racked with arthritis and with huge anxiety about her young grandson, who has severe cerebral palsy and is incapable of independent life. But there is no trace of the frantic desperation that had driven her earlier plans. She told me that she knows that God loves and cares for each member of her family, and she's prepared to trust him come what may.
The other ladies were equally assured. Their faith was overwhelming. On one level, they prayed "slot machine prayers", asking for very specific things - for healing, for a wife for a grandson, for enough money to pay the rent - but they remained serene when instant answers were not forthcoming. I wondered if that calm evolved from the fatalism of the Hindu world-view, or whether the scornful Marxist criticism of religion as "the opiate of the masses" might actually be correct. Had Christianity simply lulled these wonderful women into acceptance of the unacceptable? But no, these women were working to transform their own community by simple everyday kindness, which had won the respect of their Hindu neighbours, who had initially viewed their conversion with suspicion.
Their spirits were not dulled in any way - they shone for me, that afternoon.

Back in the guest house I was writing while listening to music on my blessed iRiver (surely one of the best purchases ever). The Kevin Prosch track "Kiss the Son" drew to a close, with its repetition of the words of Job
"Though you slay me, I will trust you Lord"
and for a moment I understood the faith of those wonderful women.
I shall go on praying for them, and for their families...For Jesu, the grandson with cerebral palsy, for Dennison, a school boy with haemophilia (surely a death-sentence when you live in a slum in a developing country) and for so many others. Perhaps you will too.
And 5000 miles away, I know those women are praying for me. That feels wonderful.

Monday, December 11, 2006

I love my camera!

I've never dared experiment with photography before this year, and being madly shortsighted I have always presumed myself incapable of any form of visual art...but thanks to the blissful little Sony camera that HG bought back for me from Hong Kong (and, for reasons of her own, christened "Biggles"), I'm throwing caution to the winds and having such fun!
These pictures from yesterday's jaunt seem to me to connect with some of Eliot's poetry,- perhaps Rhapsody on a Windy Night...which clearly means that I am getting above myself, so it must be time for bed!

Play time


When Hatti Gandhi was considering her choice of university, at the back of my mind was always the hope that wherever she ended up, it would be close enough for me to attend any concerts she was singing in. Having been parentless by the time I hit Cambridge, I used to find their absence hardest when I had a big (or even middle-sized) solo...Other people's parents would appear, applaud wildly and then take their offspring out for supper afterwards,- and being invited along wasn't ever quite the same thing. So I was delighted to head down to Cardiff last night for L's first gig there. She was singing with "Blank Verse", an ensemble of girls' voices directed by a music post grad, and they were really really good.
HG wasn't doing any solos, so I don't think this is just proud-mother talk. Lovely pure sound, and the programme included Britten and Chilcott and really hit the spot for all of us, to judge by the demands for encores. Good church too...lovely acoustic, and the air still heavy with incense from the morning's worship!

Afterwards, as neither of us needed to eat, we explored the joys of "Winter Wonderland", Cardiff's very own Christmas fair.
Lovely views of the city lights from the ferris wheel and lots of dotty mother-and-daughter stuff, but best of all was knowing how very happy HG is with her course, her friends, her city. After the agnonies of decision-making, she has clearly arrived in exactly the right place.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Why is it

that having trembled at the prospect of preaching into an unfamiliar context in India, the words flowed as they've rarely done before...but now, back in my familiar setting, with mountains of experiences to share, and all the wonderful Advent readings to engage with, sermon prep yesterday was horribly like pulling teeth?
Just wondering.
I did get it finished just before midnight last night, and it reads OK this morning, but I'm off to preach it now, and that of course is the acid test.
I'll stick it on the sermon blog, just because...

Saturday, December 09, 2006

More displacement

But truly, a small purr is in order, since we heard last night that Hugger Steward has passed his Grade 8 flute by a very comfortable margin, despite his teacher being off sick for several weeks before the exam and his wretched mother (who can be quite useful for music practice, and even the odd bit of accompaniment) being on the other side of the world on the day itself.
It won't have much influence on the future course of his life, I know, but all the same, I'm faintly proud of him...His flute choir concert on Wednesday was just lovely too. Really worth the trip to Oxford, even if I hadn't been his mother!

In other flute news, I was nearly prevented from boarding the plane home because staff at Bangalore airport were reluctant to believe that the bamboo pipe protruding from my backpack was in fact a musical instrument. I must admit, the sounds that emerged from it when I tried to play did cast some doubt on its musical identity...but once safely in the hands of HS, it turns out to be positively tuneful! So there!

Oh, one more thing- a plea to praying readers. HS has some rather important interviews on Monday and Tuesday,- and though he'd hate my asking, I still feel a few prayers would be quite nice. Having your heart set on a particular university is maybe not the best move, but I was exactly the same at his stage, so I can but sympathise.

A measure of accountability

(being an ironic title for a post being written while I fail to get on with tomorrow's sermon)

WonderfulVicar and I went to a CME training session this morning for Incumbents and Curates, which among other things considered the way the training partnership works (or doesnt) and how a working agreement may help in addressing tricky issues en route.

We have, imho, quite a good working agreement and what's more it is a fairly accurate reflection of the reality of our lives...but one thing which the morning highlighted for me was that while we are both very good at recognising and admitting our weaknesses to one another (they tend to be similar, as we're alike in our aproach to most things) we are both utterly hopeless at actually doing anything about them.

So, for example, I regularly agonise over blurry boundaries between time on-line that might help my personal/ministerial development and time on-line that is pure self-indulgence...
or I lament my inability to make good use of the odd half hours here and there that are such a feature of the working day....
or the appalling backlog in accounts and expenses, and the state of the study floor.
I chunter about the number of books I have on the go, that I never actually finish or reflect on.
I groan about the reactive nature of so much of my ministry, and wonder what happened to the determination to be visionary and strategic.
And there it rests.

But, honestly, that's not OK at all.

This curacy is a precious time in which to develop skills and habits that will sustain me when I'm out in the Big Bad World on my own....and I can't afford to leave so much rubbish lying around the place.
So for starters, WonderfulVicar and I are going to keep a record of what we actually do with our time in the 2 weeks leading up to Christmas. He maintains that I will be pleasantly surprised at how much I actually achieve. I'm less certain of the outcome, but am glad to have a mechanism in place to keep me thinking.
We're also going to read a book and diary in a slot to discuss it EVERY MONTH.
I suggested too that he forbid me to preside at the Eucharist until I've submitted my expenses for the past 5 months...I don't think he took me seriously, -but the rest of you could perhaps rattle sabres at me in a menacing way from time to time.

This is my 3rd year, after all. Gloucester curates are expected to move on sometime during their 4th year,- which gives me till July 08 at the most. In other words, the spectre of incumbency is beginning to loom and while there is much I'm looking forward to, I have a pretty good sense of the gaps in my knowledge and the shortcomings in myself. Time to address them, as far as possible. If anyone fancies asking awkward questions as to my progress once in a while, I'd (probably) appreciate them!

Friday, December 08, 2006

JAFFA update

Thank you, those who prayed and/or offered wise advice in advance of my meeting with M's mother. Our conversation was entirely amicable, though I'm more confused than ever as to where her boundaries are drawn. She is, apparently, a post-Messianic Jew ++ , but very anxious not to be put in any box whatsoever (something I can entirely sympathise with) ....and has had a very interesting journey thus far.
She was prepared to accept that the incarnation was something to celebrate, but not that it made sense to do this around 25th December...She is happy for me to talk about the cross and the empty tomb, but not to mention eggs as a symbol of new life...Oh, and she has invited me to a series of Bible studies focussing on prophecy, to which I didn't commit myself.
Anyway, it was all so much better than I'd feared, though I do feel pathetically ignorant. I guess the remedy for that is in my own hands.

Assorted bits of Indian oddity

revealed as I read through my diaries, in the hope of finding inspiration for this week's sermon (thus far without success)

Where but in India

- could you see a camel being ridden the wrong way down the fast lane of a city flyover?

- do you regularly encounter free range cattle in a shopping mall, or holding their own in rush hour traffic?



- would a rat run over your foot while you queued to use an internet cafe (now you understand why blogging was a little erratic, I'm sure!) ?

- would a cement mixer be pulled along the main road by a bullock cart?

- would a 4 lane motorway suddenly peter (or is that petre?) out into a dirt- track, forcing you to lurch through potholes akin to the craters of the moon for a crazy 200 yards, till the metalled surface resumes as though nothing had happened?

- would a beggar, clad in pitiful rags, whip out a state of the art mobile to call a colleague as soon as she thinks you are out of sight?

It really is the most extraordinary country. I'm so glad I experienced it (though you'd probably gathered that already).

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Still thinking

OK...I've been home a week , and am very aware that more processing needs to happen fairly swiftly, before I lose touch completely with the India experience amid the Advent avalanche. At the moment, if I'm honest, its impact seems to be mostly that of a large road-block that's hindering me from re-engaging with the people I'm called to serve here and now in CK. I know that I've left part of my heart in a parish in Bangalore (CSI Zion Church, if you're interested) - but I simply mustn't allow this to impede my ministry here.
After all, that would be to negate the whole point of my visit.

Before I left, many people asked what I was going for,- and a similar question was put by the diocesan bishop of Karnataka Central when we arrived. "What is your agenda for the month?"
Our official brief was "to learn from the pastoral ministry of the CSI,- with the implicit hope that this would impact (positively) on the whole way we do ministry when we return home" but at the moment I'm finding the differences in context and delivery so huge that making sense of the lessons is almost beyond me.

It's not simply that the church in India is completely committed to vigourous social engagement, though it's very inspiring to see the many wonderful projects, schools, hospitals and rescue schemes that the diocese runs. (More of these later, I expect)
I both loved and hated the response of Nirmala Vasanthakumar, "Bishop Amma" (as the wives of CSI bishops are known) "If the church doesn't do these things, then the church is irrelevant" - because it's not easy to hear such a stark truth about oneself,- but I believe she's right.
Quite what I do with this reminder now I'm back in the affluence of CK is another matter. I'm haunted by the knowledge that, when we attended the launch of a new project for street children, I was thanked for our parish's contribution to the funding...and hadn't actually remembered we were supporting it, because the annual donation of £100 was so insignificant in our budget that the PCC simply wrote a cheque, with no need to fundraise, and thus without any sense of ownership or involvement at all. That didn't and still doesn't feel particularly admirable to me, so to be garlanded and celebrated for our generosity was distinctly uncomfortable.

But that's not the main difference between our churches.

It's nothing to do with the differences between a church that operates on the "gathered" model, and represents a minority faith, as opposed to the C of E, which continues to operate on the assumption that everyone living within the parish is our responsibility, if they've not explicitly opted to belong elsewhere.
Certainly, it was both helpful and challenging to realise that the majority of the people I met outside the Indian churches had less than no knowledge of or interest in Christianity...Now where have I heard that before?

Of course India is a famously spiritual place. One of my most significant meetings during the past month was with a dozen elderly ladies who had all converted from Hinduism, and clearly saw their faith in Christ as the logical conclusion of many years of devoted Hindu observance. They had all been "continually in the Temple" and this laid the foundation for what came next...which also makes sense in the current climate of spirituality shopping that we're assured is part of contemporary western culture. I wish there had been opportunity to talk directly with practising Hindus. As I visited Christian homes, the many holy pictures and statues displayed with pride had a distinctly similar aura to the Hindu shrines we passed on street corners, and sometimes in worship it felt as if at any minute something older than the Christian church might emerge from somewhere beneath the surface of the liturgy. This was specially true when the Tamil congregations used traditional lyric music alongside their hymns. Their singing communicated with parts of me that I didn't even know existed,- perhaps because I was totally ignorant of both the meaning of the words and the musical form. For whatever reason, being part of a congregation worshipping in this way was a hugely liberating experience.

I suspect, though, that I'm not explaining myself well at all, as I'm not in any way suggesting that Indian Christianity is only a veneer, but rather that I was made specially conscious of the common nature of the search for God, whatever its context.
Far from being superficial, the faith that I encountered was quite simply and non-negotiably real, the foundation of everything that happened, every day, from the death of a child to the purchase of a new car.
So, I guess the most overwhelming difference between the church here and there is that, quite simply, all the congregations I encountered in India obviously believe in God and expect prayer to change things.


To spend a couple of hours in worship on Sunday, and then another 45 minutes praying with all sorts of people, in all sorts of different situations (some of which I couldn't begin to understand, as my Tamil is conspicuous by its absence - but that mattered not a jot) was a completely new and wonderful experience for me. To have elderly ladies automatically dropping to their knees at my feet having asked me to pray was perhaps the most humbling thing that has ever happened to me.
To come home without knowing the "end" of so many stories is terribly painful.
I did say that I'd left part of myself behind.

Advent challenges

Yesterday's offering was no easier than its predecessor, so I'm wondering whether, as Wednesday is my day off, I can exempt myself from trying. You think not? Ah well.
Here it is, anyway, in case you're made of sterner stuff..

Reflection for the day
THOUGHT: “God does not love us because we are valuable: we are valuable
because God loves us.”
Fulton John Sheen 20th cent., RC archbishop in USA, prolific spiritual writer
ACTION: St Paul observes that we can “pierce ourselves with many griefs”.
Consider what harm you do to yourself: with what unnecessary
‘grief’ do you make yourself unhappy? Today, believe in your own
worth and decide that by Christmas you will give up that self-harm.
PRAYER: for the courage to love oneself so that love for neighbour becomes
more real.


Today I "simply" have to focus on humble and unobtrusive service to my neighbour...which is fine until I reflect that this almost certainly includes my family. Oh piglets. Whose idea was all this anyway??

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

They've done it again...

Since 2005 Gloucester diocese has offered resources for praying together during both Lent and Advent,- a daily pattern that includes elements of Common Worship Daily Prayer, but with additional material for reflection. At St M's we've found this really valuable, not least because the initial Lenten series provided the catalyst for several members of the congregation to join us in praying the Office throughout the year. I've always found the non Scriptural material thought- provoking, and this Advent there is also an action suggested. We're only on day 2, but I'm feeling thoroughly shaken up already, which I guess is rather the idea. So I don't suffer alone, here's today's. So much easier to type than to actually get on and do, but I'm working on it, I promise!

REFLECTION
If you have a fearful thought, do not share it with someone who is weak; whisper it to your saddlebow and ride on singing.”
Alfred 9th cent., King of Wessex
ACTION: Discover what is your ‘saddlebow’: hold a Cross or your Bible, and whisper your fear to the Lord. ~ Do you fear a person or a situation? Write down the name of who or what disturbs you. Look steadily at that named fear and pray “Our Father . . .”, then ‘ride on, singing’.

A post just for Songbird...

who, thanks to the Atlantic Ocean, has managed to live a blameless life, free from any pernicious taint of Christingle!

I guess the main thing to know about said service is that it is staggeringly popular, attended by scores of people who wouldn't dream of setting foot in a church on other occasions. It combines children and sweets, carols and candlelight...is it any wonder that it packs them in the pews?
It's also a rather clever way of persuading people to support a worthy cause,- but I do have very mixed feelings about it, even when I'm not jetlagged before I start the proceedings. I'm fairly soggy at heart, but in all honesty Christingle does border on the unbearably sentimental. Only on a very a good day, can I feel OK about "Away in a manger" by candlelight. Christingle makes me want to imitate an Anglo Catholic priest (who is undoubtedly famous, which is probably why I can't even begin to recall his name)..and who used, iirc, to shock his congregation at Midnight Mass each year by removing the baby from the crib and placing a cross there instead, which is strange, because the circumstances of the children that Christingle sets out to support have far more in common with the suffering God than with chocolate-box commercialism.
So I'm probably being unreasonable...and most years, I devise Christingle services with good grace. This year's grimble factor is probably just part of the post India fall-out. Anyway, here is a Christingle in all its glory, plus the official info from the Children's Society US friends want to experiment, there's enough material there to keep you going for years!website.

Christingle services bring together family and friends of all ages. Held from Advent to Epiphany, this festive celebration communicates the Christian message in an inspiring way to adults and children alike. Its wide appeal makes it an ideal way to encourage newcomers to church and extend your congregation.

The Children's Society holds its special Christingle appeal each year to raise vital funds for the children facing life's harshest challenges. Children who may find themselves sleeping rough this winter; or fleeing conflict and war; caught in a cycle of crime; or marginalised due to a disability. The funds raised from Christingle help us to shine light into the darkness of their lives.

Christingle was established by the Moravian Church in 1747 as a symbol of Christ's light and love. The word itself means Christ light. The Children's Society introduced it to the Church of England in 1968 and it has since become a popular family and community event.

The Christingle itself is made up of a lighted candle (symbolising Jesus, the Light of the World), mounted on an orange (representing the world), and a red ribbon or tape around the middle of the orange (indicating the blood/ love of Christ). Four cocktail sticks bearing dried fruit or sweets are also stuck into the orange to signify the four seasons and the fruits of the earth.

So there you have it. If any U.S friends want to experiment, the Children's Society website surely has enough material to keep you going for years,- but I won't blame you if you decide to give it a miss!

Ummmm

Thanks for your responses to my JAFFA club dilemma...To my surprise (and pleasure) M's mum appeared to collect this afternoon, so I asked for a quick word and explained what I planned to do next week. Pleasure was, however, rapidly replaced by near panic, as the situation is
even more complicated than the school had suggested. There is indeed a strong Jewish connection but the mum describes herself as "Christian, but we don't do all the stuff that the church has added...like the festivals, because they are pagan anyway".
I asked where her boundaries lay in terms of acceptable teaching for her daughter, and we now have a coffee date lined up for Friday to explore more fully. All was entirely amicable, but I'm actually rather unnerved by the whole thing, and fearful that I'll say something crass and unhelpful or, in my anxiety to keep the channels open, bend over backwards so far that I end up gazing at the stars.
A few prayers for wisdom wouldn't go amiss, if anyone has time.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Am I being unreasonable?

I've been sharing the leadership of an after-school club at the local (non church) primary school off and on for a couple of years, taking it over more fully this year when a teacher retired , and relaunching it with a slightly snappier name chosen by the children to replace the original cringeworthy "Christian Club".
It is, I repeat, a voluntary after school club, with an expressly Christian agenda. For the record, the name the children chose was JAFFA kids (Jesus A Friend For All),- so it's hard to think we've been unduly sly or stealthy in our approach.
So what am I to make of a parent who has contacted the school to say that her daughter enjoys the club and is keen to continue attending, but as they are Jewish she does hope that I won't be focussing on Christmas in our activities as term draws to a close? Her child is a sweetheart and a real asset to the group, - but it does seem a complete nonsense for me to reorganise the programme and lose one of a limited number of opportunities to remind the children that Christmas is about more than just presents. Tomorrow, I'll try and do something about light and darkness that will be applicable to Hannukah as well, I hope (suggestions very welcome)...but for the final session of the term, I'm anxious to steer their thoughts to the baby in the manger . I hate to be awkward, but I am a Christian priest trying to help the children to celebrate a Christian festival. Surely that's not too much to ask?

I can see it will be an ongoing problem....There's lots I can do during "Ordinary Time" by way of exploring the stories of the Hebrew Scriptures, and some work on social justice issues would be great too, but what price Easter without the cross and the empty tomb? And why send your child to a Christian club if you don't wish her to hear any part of the Christian message? I'm very happy to have her there,- as I say, she's a sweetie. I'm just asking...

We interrupt this series...

of post-India reflections to report on the sheer madness of Advent Sunday at Charlton Kings.
I loved presiding at the 10.00 - can't think of a better way of reconnecting with the congregation here, and the Advent Carol service last night was blissful too...Standing in the darkened church listening to the Palestrina Matin Responsary produced the annual goose-pimples, and Wachet Auf made me believe that maybe, despite my most Scroogelike inclinations, Christmas might be worth looking forward to.
However, I discovered rather late in the day that in their eagerness to make me feel needed, my colleagues had left the Christingle service for me to sort as I saw fit. My confidence in this strange annual rite was not at its highest level, after I had tried to explain the concept to my Indian friends, in a conversation that reminded me mostly of the Bob Newhart sketch about Walter Raleigh and tobacco ("then you put it in your mouth and set fire to it???!") ...
"You take an orange and stick sweets in it..."
"You WHAT?!?!?!"
Somehow, the whole thing felt increasingly fatuous, before ever we got the stage of building a human Christingle (thanks, D) and (oh deary dear) singing "Shine Jesus, shine" but the crowds leaving the church at the end of the service seemed to have enjoyed themselves, and there were lots of comments today about the atmosphere and the "Ahhh" factor of small children by candlelight. I guess I'll just have to accept that I've left a part of myself back in Karnataka, and adjust to the novel feeling of half-wishing I was somewhere else even as I rejoice in being with my friends and family once more.

Meanwhile, if you are one of the three people who saw me this morning pushing a supermarket trolley (complete with wonky steering, of course) laden with Christingles through the streets of Charlton Kings en route to the playgroup and didn't fall about laughing, I'm deeply grateful.
The rest of you can form a committee to plan next year's service, OK?

Saturday, December 02, 2006

"Girl Child Sunday"


was celebrated 2 weeks ago, when I was in Channapatna.
"Girl child"? What's with that? you may wonder...It certainly sounds strange to western ears, and the fact that there's a whole Sunday set aside by CSI to address the rights and needs of girls is a powerful reminder that India is a very different context from home. For all my delight in the Indian experience and my envious admiration of the beauty of my Indian sisters (why, oh why can't the west adopt fashions as universally flattering as the sari or salwar?) I wouldn't want to swap lives with them for all the tea in Darjeeling.

Girl Child Sunday is necessary because in India six years into the 21st century, the prevailing attitude to women remains firmly medieval. Women's work is the foundation of every Indian home, with mothers rising at dawn to draw water (even close to Bangalore, mains water is not only undrinkable but often non-existent for much of each day, so vessels must be filled to meet all domestic needs whenever the water actually does flow), then spending a good hour cooking the traditional Indian breakfast. (I've really struggled with the overwhelming hospitality that insists on three cooked meals a day, with numerous snacks in between - bizarrely, being thoroughly overfed so put me off food that I've actually managed to lose weight...not sure quite how it worked, but it's rather pleasing all the same).
From then on, for the Indian housewife, it's drudgery all the way. Housework (every home seems to need sweeping on a daily basis), more cooking, shopping for fresh food every day, more cooking...all to serve the men of the house, whether husbands, sons or fathers.
Domestic violence seems habitual in the poorer homes, with drunkenness compounding the problem,- it was commonplace to step round insensible shapes sprawled on the pavements,- and women have no escape from this, as to leave your husband is to cut yourself off from family and community, and ensure that you can no longer call anywhere home.
Only once her sons marry can a woman acquire a higher status for a time as a mother-in-law, making daughters-in-law miserable in their turn,- but with widowhood, high-caste women may find themselves non-persons again, traditionally condemned to shaven heads, white saris, sleeping on the floor and spending their time in prayer for their departed husbands, with no possibility of remarriage. In an interview a woman, widowed when she was still in her twenties lamented the outlawing of the custom of sati, for, she said " Swift oblivion has to be preferable to decades of living death" and sati matas are traditionally revered as akin to saints.

Even in westernised homes, where both partners work, the expectation is that the woman will undertake all domestic tasks on top of her career. I really struggled when clergy wives, coming in at 9.00 pm from a day's teaching and a long commute from the city immediately set to work serving the evening meal, waiting on husband, father and guests (including me). Nobody even suggested that a little help could be offered, and the culture of service seems completely non-negotiable. Repeatedly I was told "It's our privilege and pleasure to serve our menfolk"...and too bad if it isn't.

Against this background, it is maybe not surprising that female infanticide remains a problem. While in the past fathers might seek to evade the demands of providing a dowry by killing their new-born daughters, today it more like to be the mother who opts to abort a girl-child, not wanting to bring another woman into the world to suffer as she herself has suffered.
Modern medical techniques make this so easy that there is a real potential for gender imbalance in Indian society, such that the government has just launched a means-tested scheme to offer grants to girls on their eighteenth birthday.
But unless there is a radical change of attitude, it will never be easy for Indian women. Wherever we went, I was conscious of their labour, from our hostesses, eating in the kitchen long after the rest of us had relaxed at table, or the array of sweepers and labourers carting loads of bricks on their heads on the building sites of Bangalore.

I'm aware, too, that it is the women who are the strong core of the church. It is the women who gather regularly for midweek prayer, the women who hand on the faith to their children...but though women were ordained in C.S.I. for 10 years before the vote went through here in England, they remain largely submissive in ministry too, serving in difficult contexts with scant support. Even in my rather bemusing role as a "foreign dignitory" (yes, I really was announced as such on several occasions!), I too was largely ignored if the men in our party were present. This had its plus side, as I was less of a target for beggars and street vendors, who assumed that I had no voice in decision making,- though it could be maddening too.

I know that there is some interesting work emerging from feminist theologians, and a growing recognition that women may be entitled to an identity beyond that of wife and mother...but it seems to me that there are many many miles to travel before I could be persuaded to change places with my sisters...On Girl Child Sunday, I was privileged to baptise 3 children,2 boys and a girl.

As always, the rite was sheer joy, but more than ever I found myself wondering and worrying about what might lie ahead for Nikith, Pranesh and Nisha, in that society that is so unlike my own, and praying that each of them might come to realise their infinite value as children of God,- sons and daughter.

I hate jet lag!

Having spent most of yesterday light-headed from exhaustion, and talking gibberish to all who came my way, I fell asleep delightedly at around 9.00 pm...(which meant I wasted a whole evening of Hattie Gandhi's company, as she is on a flying visit home,- but I wouldn't have been much use to her even if I'd been awake).
So far, so good, but I have been wide awake now since 2.30 am and this is really not the best weekend in the year to be drooping again by mid afternoon. As well as the Eucharist, there's Christingle, Advent Carols, and alot of wonderful people to catch up with. Meanwhile, since I'm clearly not going to get any more sleep, I've added some pictures to earlier posts. I don't think I'm up to intelligent blogging yet, though.
Do more seasoned travellers among my readers have any helpful hints for dealing with this? Or do any local ones have a spare sleeping pill? This is just silly!

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Just checking in...

We left Bangalore at 4.00 am local time, and I reached The Curate's House at 2.30 pm UK time (which is 5.5 hours behind Bangalore...) and last night I was too excited to sleep...so I'm not on particularly scintillating form now! However, I've tons and tons more to share about India, if anyone can bear to hear it. It was the most amazing experience,- a month is just enough to make me aware that I've barely scratched the surface of understanding India,- but I'm so glad to have had the chance to begin at least. Will start saving for my return trip as soon asap, and will blog more very soon.
Thanks for reading and commenting while I've been away. I've not even tried to keep up with all your blogs, but it's been good to have contact with the blogging community via your appearances here. More once I've slept and cleared my desk!

Saturday, November 25, 2006

The Prince and the Pauper

Once upon a time in Mysore there lived a Maharajah. He was immensely
wealthy and lived in a magnificent palace, with golden domes, floors
of inlaid marble, doors of carved silver and wonderful glass ceilings
engraved with peacocks. Once a year he allowed his people to marvel at
his splendour when he emerged for a "Darshan" festival, riding the
royal elephant in a golden howdah encrusted with jewels.
When his people saw him, the climax of a procession of guards and
bearers, of local dignitories and minor royals on lesser elephants, -
when they saw him they knew that truly their Maharajah was one of the
gods.

Once upon a time in Mysore there lived a Maharajah. Though he ruled
over thousands who struggled from day to day in abject poverty, he
would sometimes steal out of the palace at nightfall, disguised as an
ordinary man, to check that all was well in his city. Or perhaps he
didn't, but since people believed that he did, the effect was just as
good.

Once upon a time in Mysore, there lived a Maharajah, and at his gate
there was a beggarman, scavenging with the packs of stray dogs for
scraps from the royal table.
Years passed, and a new country was born, a country so vast that the
state the Maharajah ruled was only a fraction of the whole. As the new
country came to birth, many old things passed away. Soon there was no
Maharajah to ride on an elephant and receive the homage of the crowds.
The people were ruled by men from far away, who seldom visited to see
that all was well with them.
The palace that had glittered with the light of a thousand lamps stood
empty and quiet.
But at the gate, sixty years on, the beggarman, or his son's son,
remains. His daily routine is constant no matter who governs, for this
is India and turn where you will, the poor are always with you,
scavenging with the dogs for scraps from the rich man's table.
I'm assured by my hosts that today nobody needs to beg. There is land
set aside for "beggar colonies", where the poorest of the poor can
grow the staples of life, and receive a government stipend if they are
unfit for work.
Beggars remain, say my friends, because "It's easy money..." and, I
would guess, because for generations their caste has existed without
any self respect, believing that they have no value, no dignity to
lose.

Mahrajahs may come and go, and so may British tourists, but until the
caste system is excised from the mind of India, there will always be
a beggarman at the gate.