'What I do is me: for that I came.' G M Hopkins

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Not Ashamed

Get the advent calendar out – the countdown to Christmas has begun! And so has the annual battle about its significance.

In the red corner we have George Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury, speaking on behalf of Christian Concern for our Nation (CCFON) who has declared that 1st December is Not Ashamed Day and has encouraged Christians to ‘Wear their Faith with Pride this Christmas’. He says that Christians are feeling beleaguered in an increasingly secular society and need to come out and declare loudly what they believe – citing the positive influence Christianity has had in our schools, laws, hospitals and history.

In the blue corner is Christopher Hitchens, journalist, writer and polemicist who made the news this week when he met Tony Blair, a late convert to Catholicism, in a debate in Toronto. The motion was that ‘Religion is a force for good in the world’. Hitchens is a devout atheist who dared to criticise even Mother Theresa for failing to empower the very women she purported to save by denying them the means ie abortion and contraception to take control of their lives and escape poverty. In opposition, he cited the negative influence religion has had in our laws, history…

He was also interviewed for this week’s Newsnight by Jeremy Paxman where he lambasted organised religion and the notion that life has meaning or purpose, saying that the Bible, Torah and Koran are ‘depraved works of man-made fiction’.

So who cares what he thinks? I do. I was fascinated by one phrase he used: ‘We are created sick yet commanded to be well.’ This was his summary of the gospel and as someone who was a season ticket holder for gospel rallies up and down the country, I thought this was pretty accurate.

The thing is, though, Christopher Hitchens is sick – really sick. He is suffering from cancer of the oesophagus, which has already spread to the lymph nodes and the lungs. He has described life as a ‘losing struggle’ and he is almost certainly losing his. It’s always important to listen to the words of a dying man, whether you agree with him or not. He does have regrets - living a ‘bohemian and rackety life’ for one and, surprisingly, being too soft on Robert Mugabe. He said that he feels a sense of waste because he’s ‘not ready’. Paxman asked him about Pascal’s Wager – that even if you cannot prove the existence of God by reason you should live as if you have faith because if you lose, you’ll never know. To his credit, Hitchens resisted the temptation to ‘bet’ on God. He does, however, have a speech prepared for the eventuality that he will have to face a tribunal in which he appeals to the judge on the basis that he was at least honest and true to what he believed, or rather didn’t believe.

I’m with Scrooge on this. Last week we had our school play: A Christmas Carol in-the-round with angelic choristers, Victorian costumes and the young fiddler plunging his face into a bowl of porter to the amusement of everyone at Fezziwig’s Ball. Children screamed at the ghost of Jacob Marley, resplendent in chains which represent his past sins, the weight of which he is condemned to carry eternally. But why did he come back?

Hitchens feels that his untimely death will somehow betray his family and friends. Marley obviously felt the same and that he could atone for his by warning his former business partner about the fate to come. After much, ‘Bah humbug!’ Scrooge sees the light, literally coming under the door, which finally leads to his repentance, ‘reclamation’ and transformation. It’s great for teaching similes – he’s as light as a feather, as happy as an angel, as merry as a schoolboy, as giddy as a drunken man. Interestingly he also says, ‘I’m quite a baby.’ All the soul-destroying, life-sucking cynicism has left him and he is delighted to be different.

He promises to keep Christmas ‘in his heart’. Hitchens refuses to accept the words of mere mortals, as did Scrooge who could not be persuaded by his nephew. He needed a visitation. We all do. In the face of real revelation we become like children again – like a baby, because Jesus did.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Pimp my Poppy

I heard on the news this week that a student from Reading was arrested for hurling a fire extinguisher at the police during the demonstrations in London protesting against the hiking of university tuition fees. I have to admit that my son is at least in part to blame. He is a student in Reading, although thankfully not among those arrested. He was responsible, however, for inciting other students to join the protests via the university’s campus radio station. He has a slot on Monday evenings from 5.30-7.00 pm. You can catch it online at junction11.rusuhost.co.uk and go to Listen Live. The week before last I distinctly heard him issue a rallying call to his fellow students to march on the capital and exercise their democratic right (he’s doing Law) to make their voices heard. You may have seen it on TV – hundreds of young people pushing forward in a cause.

Just like at the front in WW1, on the battlefields and in the skies in WW2 and, as we speak, in Afghanistan. Young men who take up arms to defend that very freedom to speak out in protest. It’s armistice weekend and I always feel very sad when I remember those who fought and died in the war which was not so great. I am deeply moved by the sacrifice of so many local young men at the Somme in WW1 but fifty years closer to home I think of my father.

On Thursday morning, I attended a short remembrance service at the school in which I teach and watched the head boy lead a squad of young ATC cadets in a march through the assembly hall to lay a wreath. The names of past pupils who died in WW2 were read out and the Last Post sounded eerily though the corridors. I could see my father in those boys in blue and I wept as I realised that he was only fifteen when war was declared. He was working on the family farm in the townland of Ballymagarry near Whiterocks and he desperately hoped that the war wouldn’t be over before he could ‘get out there and fight’. For him the nearest ‘big smoke’ was Portrush; he’d never even been to Belfast! There was no conscription in N Ireland so young Robert volunteered in the fight against facism and went to England to train as a wireless operator. Finally, still a teenager he got his wish and flew in many bombing raids over Germany in Lancasters.

On a night-time training mission the plane in which he was flying caught fire and the command came to bale out. This young farmer’s boy sat on the edge of the black hole and made a pact with God: he promised that if he ‘got out of this’ he would become a Christian and serve God for the rest of his life. And God was listening! Dad’s boots were whipped off by the rushing air but he landed safely in his stocking soles in a ploughed field in the middle of the night. He walked to a nearby farmhouse where the people took him in and made contact with his base. After demob, that young man ‘got saved’ in a tiny meeting house and became a City Missionary in Belfast and then a lay-pastor in Newtownards, devoting his life to visiting the sick, serving the needy and rescuing ‘down and outs’. We didn't have a 'devil's silver screen' until I was in my teens and then my father was adamantly against watching TV on a Sunday. However, I do recall him making a single exception when wanted to see The Dambusters. He died on the job on November 12 1984 - the anniversary always falls on this armistice weekend. I salute his courage and conviction and the bravery of all those who didn’t come home.

Sadly, not all young men are heroes. A group of accountants and experts in things financial made the headlines this week. They work for the distinguished firm Price Waterhouse Cooper in Dublin and were described as ‘pricks with calculators’ for sending out an email which invited colleagues to ‘rate’ the new batch of female interns for ‘personal attractiveness’. They exchanged head shots of these girls which made the rounds of banks and law firms in Dublin then into the tabloids and, of course, onto the internet. The men in question have been suspended and the company has apologised. The beautiful, smart women are mostly mildly amused. I know because my daughter’s flatmate is one of them and she is staying here this weekend to escape the paparazzi. She has just started as a trainee accountant with PWC and can’t believe that her photograph has been splashed all over the newspapers just because she’s ‘hot’! She and my daughters went out in Belfast last night and people were introducing her as 'one of the top ten'. She is blonde and beautiful but she is also a clever, kind, sensitive young woman who devotes her spare time to working with underprivileged children in the inner city. How dare these ‘ejiits’ give her marks out of ten! There are some who believe that what guys like that need is a good war to make men of them!

I had an absolutely fabulous night this week at the Grand Opera House in Belfast. We were given tickets (thanks Big John) to see the Waterboys presenting An Appointment with Mr Yeats - a musical tribute to one of Ireland’s greatest poets. I had never heard the band before and I was transfixed! Mike Scott looks a bit like Bob Geldof and is a mesmerisingly theatrical performer who sang Yeats with passion, infusing old words with new life. I thought that I might be offended by this sacrilegious treatment of literary treasures but a song is simply poetry put to a tune and Mr Scott’s melodies are as haunting as the lines he lilts. I suppose it’s hard to imagine a Blues version of 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree' but it was so right and I can’t wait for the album in September 2011.

The musicians were equally magnificent and I particularly enjoyed the oboe player Ruby Ashley from the Irish Symphony and the RTE orchestras and the flamingo flautist, Sarah Allen, who stands on one leg when overcome by the power and beauty of the music. They performed a rendition of 'An Irish Airman Foresees his Death'. Like my father, the young man in the poem has left his village of Kiltartan Cross and his countrymen to meet his fate ‘somewhere in the clouds above’. He acknowledges that he is fighting those he does not hate and guarding those he does not love. It’s not duty that bids him fight, but the love of adventure – the desire to live a life of purpose, even if that leads to a premature demise. His greatest fear is not death, but the ‘waste of breath’.

It’s fashionable this year to wear a pimped poppy like the Swarovski limited edition brooch designed by Kleshna – a snip at £84.99 and sported by Dani Minogue et al on The X Factor. Celebrities are in danger of drawing attention to those doing the remembering rather than what they’re supposed to be remembering. I’m wearing the machine cut paper version with the plastic stem today, not simply to remind me not to forget but in celebration of life – my life and my children’s lives because young Robert lived, and also in hope of a future because of the peace he fought to achieve. Many young people have wasted time and talents. But not my dad.

I balanced all, brought all to mind
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.
(WB Yeats)