The shaky ego

So the Prime Minister is rattling the sabre again.  After a week of embarrassment and bad news, he is to announce a tough new approach to crime and imprisonment, in which ‘retribution will not be a dirty word’.  And the £46 routinely given to prisoners on release may be cut.   The BBC reporter said that this would ‘steady Tory nerves’, and presumably thereby re-establish David Cameron’s authority as leader.

It’s a very well-known syndrome:  you experience a failure or defeat, and respond by asserting power and a strong-man image.  That was what I found in today’s gospel (Mark 10:35-45):  James and John had shared the disciples’ failure to cope with 5000 to feed, or to understand the Transfiguration, or to heal a young epileptic. So they ask to have the best seats in heaven – blustering their way to power, covering failure with assertion of ego.

Contrast Aung San Suu Kyi who simply accepted her situation and did not try to grab power by compromise of her principles or sheer force.  Once ‘despised and rejected’, she is now being hailed and welcomed and honoured.

The tragedy is that there is always a cost.  Aung San Suu Kyi’s family suffered.  And it may well be that many prisoners will suffer too from Cameron’s law and order drive, for not all prisoners are alike, and many women in Scotland really need that £46 to get a bus, a meal and a bed when they emerge from Cornton Vale Prison.  I thought we had passed beyond retribution as a solution to crime, or even as a category of thinking in justice policy, but it seems not.  I just hope that his words about extending rehabilitation do translate into action.  It’s about serving others, not bolstering the ego.

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Joining in

It was quite a weekend at church, hosting a diocesan gathering and then celebrating Music Sunday.  We ended with a lunch and then a short musical about St Francis led by what – perhaps – may become a junior choir. Our Director of Music had taught them the music splendidly in record time, and they were great.  But I say ‘led’ rather than performed …

Some time ago, I went to the Rocky Horror Show with our kids, and, for a sad person like me who has always frequented well-behaved classical concerts and operas, it was, shall we say. disquieting. Not because of the content (though that was an eye-opener), but because you were supposed to Take Part, even standing up in your seats.

Then there was the Dougie MacLean concert at the Albert Hall in Stirling.  Sit back and listen to my favourite folk singer, I thought.  Not a bit of it – we all joined in when allowed,  and like most other people there, I discovered I knew the words already from CDs on long car journeys.

And St Francis the Musical?   Well, there was a line sung by St Francis or Christ, then by his Companions (the children), and then by ‘ALL’.  And we did sing – adult choir and mums and dads and the rest of us who were there to see what it would be like.  Fantastic! 

We had explored in the service beforehand the effect that music and singing has on you.  And now we were able to enter into the story of St Francis rebuilding the Church – first with bricks and mortar, and then with joy and peace and love.  We were there and we were one in the task.

I just wish we had done the St Francis musical at the diocesan gathering:  it was exactly the message we were trying to absorb, and being led into singing it would have grafted it onto everyone’s hearts.

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The successful heretic

I remember so distinctly all those years ago as a student hearing one of my tutors claiming that St Francis was a successful heretic.  It seemed so deliciously iconoclastic in those days, and it makes a lot of sense.  The saint, whom we celebrated yesterday, managed to keep within the Church – just – when those around him who were saying very similar things fell foul of the authorities.

Fra Dolcino church

On holiday recently by Lake Garda, I found a simple little church currently used by the Alpini – the mountain regiment. Apparently Fra Dolcino preached there in the early C14th.  Now Fra Dolcino is well-known from The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco’s novel that was made into a film starring Sean Connery.  Some of the inmates of the monastery it features were charged with being among his heretical followers. Dolcino was a radical anti-clerical preacher who lambasted the wealthy churchmen of his age and tried to create a new world.  He and his followers ended up stealing and fighting and trashing any community that resisted them;  also, reputedly, indulging in free love.  He met a very nasty end at the hands of the Inquisition.

The Franciscans were all too easily tarred with the same brush by forces in the Church who squirmed at their critique of wealth and power – this was the context of Eco’s murder mystery, and they strove to disassociate themselves from radicals like Dolcino.  But what constituted their innocence?  Holding an idea that in the wrong hands could become dangerous and unlawful but which was good in itself – like the need for the Church to be poor and to side with the outcasts in society?   Are we responsible for the use that people make of our ideas?

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In Dundee

We decided to have an afternoon out in Dundee – well, don’t forget that some think its name means ‘Gift of God’ (donum Dei).  First we went to the McManus Gallery to see some drawings by Leonardo da Vinci on special exhibition from the Royal Collection.  There were only ten, and they were mostly really tiny, but with incredible detail.  What fascinated me was the mirror writing that he used to write his notes at the side.  He was left-handed, and right-to-left makes smudging the ink less likely, but mirror-writing calls for another step in mental agiility.  or is it – as some say – evidence of neural abnormality?

Anyway, we were soon through with that and went on to some Scottish masterpieces, including gorgeous McTaggarts of Macrihanish Bay which made you want to get out there surfing right away.  Plus gems by Raeburn and the Glasgow Boys.

Then on to the Verdant Works – a converted jute mill which tells the story of the industry and its impact on Dundee life.  Basically, the Scots found jute in India as a cheap subtitute for flax, and destroyed the local cottage industry by exporting it to Dundee and using complex machinery to process it.  Then as labour costs rose here, they exported the machinery back to India and created what is still a very thriving jute industry in Kolkata, who export eco-friendly bags and carpet backing back to Scotland.  Well, that’s how it goes. 

The jute industry provided much-needed jobs in Dundee, but largely for women (males were dismissed once they reached 18 and had to be paid a man’s wage).  Men who couldn’t get other jobs – of which there were many – were called ‘tea-bilers’, who ensured hot water was ready for tea when the women got home.  There was a picture of one dad cradling a baby, but I wonder whether they were really ‘house-husbands’.  Probably had granny round the corner or even in the next room …

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Sipping with the devil?

At the Stirling Street Pastors Roadshow last night, we discussed their relationship with the drinks industry.  No, Street Pastors does not have a ‘view’ on minimum pricing, for example.  They are there to mop up (in various ways) the effects of over-indulgence in alcohol and/or drugs amongst partying people, not to become a pressure group about social issues.  Indeed, their effectiveness depends on building good relationships with bar and club staff, and they are really appreciated by them.  In Aberdeen, they bought Street Pastors a £40,000 truck to use as a safe space for those they are helping.

But inevitably, Street Pastors get involved with agencies who are trying to deal with causes rather than symptoms.  There’s a difference between addiction and having a good night out, and they encounter the effects of both on the streets at night.  How do you negotiate these very complex issues?  You want to be there non-judgementally, serving those in need, and to do this you must befriend those who make it possible for them to be ‘in need’, by selling them too much drink.  After a while, you must, surely, want to do something one stage back – education, even legal controls.  Actually, there are now ‘School Pastors’, who help to explore life choices with young people, so they are supporting the education side. 

I was impressed by how the attitude of the Street Pastors was not, ‘Don’t drink – it’s evil’  in a sort of Victorian Temperance Society mode, but rather, ‘Have a good – but safe – night out’.  Much more like the way Jesus chilled out with the wine-bibbers.

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Very diffidently introducing a series on prayer to the discussion/house-group at Holy Trinity, I found myself pondering how Jesus would have prayed with his disciples.  Liturgically in the synagogue, one assumes, but what went on when they were together as a group?  Did he teach them extempore prayer as well as the Lord’s Prayer?  Can you teach it anyway?

One of the insights we had was that the kind of extempore prayer that is often found in prayer groups actually uses Biblical and ‘customary’ phrases that are learned from study or the prayers of others.  That does not make it any the less spontaneous, but it does draw that kind of prayer closer to ‘liturgical’ prayer. 

The other thing we rejoiced in was that you cannot privilege one sort of prayer over another as more ‘authentic’ or ‘better’.  Silent meditation can be torture for extraverts, and long liturgical prayers can make ‘doers’ twitch with impatience.

So ‘what would Jesus pray’?  Really?

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Past the shieling …

A great congregational outing to Cashel Forest by Loch Lomond yesterday.  It’s run by the Royal Scottish Forestry Society, and aims to create a space dedicated to native trees and plants.  There’s even an apple orchard with Scottish varieties.  You can take walks of different lengths, and there’s a visitor centre too. 

We took the medium-length walk which takes you up over the hill to a splendid viewpoint over Loch Lomond, through rowan and alder and aspen and bog myrtle and blaeberries and a sense of being back in world before sitka spruce and Japanese knotweed.

Years ago, crofters would spend time amongst such hills, pasturing their animals on the higher ground over the summer.  They’d stay in little huts called shielings.  I’ve sung Mhairi’s Wedding often enough to imagine what ‘past the shieling’ would have looked like, but I got it wrong.  I thought of a nice little stone cottage, one or two rooms …  But in Cashel Forest, they’ve reconstructed one of these huts – basically turf and mud, with not a lot of room for a family. Not quite a holiday cottage:

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