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

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Wind Blows

When I was a little girl I asked Jesus into my heart. ‘Come in today, come in to stay, come into my heart, Lord Jesus.’ What was that all about? How could a grown Jewish rabbi enter the cardiovascular system of a ten-year-old?

Religious belief is a funny thing. You embrace it long before you understand it and when you’re old enough to subject faith to reason you can never quite escape the feeling of safety and certainty that comes with childlike conviction. Nor should you want to. In a world of horror and mayhem and chaos and collapse, physical and political, it’s important to have a refuge.

I now understand that it’s not Jesus who visits the believer but it is the other one, his invisible self or spirit, known as the Holy Ghost who indwells. He’s harder to tie down and Christians have been arguing about when and where and how and to whom he comes for years.

What would life be like without metaphor? The Holy Spirit is at once dove, fire, water and wind and like all of these will not be tamed. He is who he is and cannot be constrained or contained by denominations or creeds. I love his mystery and his invitation to come and join him in the great romance of the Trinity.

I was out walking this morning, hood up against the breeze blowing briskly on the cusp of spring. I decided to try not to think and just listen. The wind picked up as I strode to higher ground and it ‘druthered’ through the trees – mostly the evergreen pines where there is enough foliage to offer some resistance and produce the swirl and swish of air fighting to be free. When I turned the corner onto the Ballyrogan Road it blew fiercer and harder, licking my chin with its sharp tongue. In one place the trunk of a palm tree had been snapped in two leaving the top upended on the road like an ice cream cone. It was good to get the winter cobwebs cleared.

I have a friend who is into things spiritual and she told me about a funny incident that took place this week. She is a teacher in a local primary school and one day after school Harry, the caretaker, stopped at the door of her room and asked her if she’d been burning incense. She said no and he described a smell he’d noticed as he passed her room – an aroma, a perfume, a scent… My friend could think of nothing and wondered if it might perhaps be the Holy Spirit so she proceeded to expound some biblical truths to the janitor about how God’s presence can manifest itself in surprising ways. Harry was content, if a little bemused.

It was as she was packing up her bag to leave that my friend caught sight of some wooden sticks poking out of her pencil pot. She had brought them from home to use in her craft lesson but they had been sitting in a sweet-smelling oil diffuser all over Christmas and were still impregnated with the perfume. Not the Holy Spirit after all then! She giggled all the way home and was still laughing at herself hours later.

No harm came to Harry because faith is ridiculous and often the believer looks foolish, but joy and passion are infectious. As for my friend – she has learned that the ‘fragrance of life’ is not in her room, but in her.

‘The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going.’

Sunday, February 20, 2011

This is my Song (an extract)

Joy hated Sundays. She knew it was supposed to be a day of rest because God took a break after six days creating the world. But with her father being a professional Christian he was busier than God and there was no rest for him or the family. They were always up early, despite protestations that it wasn’t a school day. Her father was usually boiling eggs – a Sunday treat, and the only one at that. Throughout the day there were to be no ball games, riding bikes, listening to the radio (they didn’t have a television) or practising the piano. If they wanted to read it was Sunday books only.

No sooner had the soldiers of white toast been scoffed, than Joy and her two sisters were shoehorned into stiff Sunday clothes and marched to morning Sunday school at Oldpark Parish church. There they sat in circular classes according to age, with a teacher in charge of each group. They sang songs about Jesus owning the cattle on a thousand hills and then they had the lesson. They heard a Bible story, often illustrated by flannelgraphs – felt figures which stuck, or more often didn’t stick, onto a green baize cloth draped over a square piece of hardwood.

Joy's favourite was a picture of a chasm in which prowled a hungry-looking tiger. There was no bridge to get across until Jesus came and made a way to escape the clutching claws of the wild beast. There was homework too – passages of Scripture to learn and recite. Joy was good at this, because she went to elocution lessons, but some of the other children squirmed uncomfortably when it came to their turn. They stuttered though the first verse and then tailed off, looking at their shiny patent feet. It was worse than school and although no punishment was meted out for failure, the sense of shame and embarrassment was chastisement enough.

Joy always wondered why they weren’t allowed to ask questions. She had loads: If Jews didn’t eat pork, why was there a herd of pigs nearby for Jesus to send the demons into? On the Sunday before Christmas, when they sang, ‘Away in a manger’ one bold, bad girl asked the Sunday school superintendent how Mary and Joseph got pregnant when they weren’t married. Mr Burch shuffled on the platform and fiddled with the Church Army badge in the lapel of his second best jacket. The best was kept for weddings and funerals. He muttered something about an angel and a dream but Joy knew in her heart that there was mystery here and it was probably rude.

On the whole, Joy liked Jesus. Her parents were addicts and scoured the Belfast Telegraph for more and more meetings to attend, especially special missions for children. No matter what the denomination or venue, the formula was the same: lots of community singing followed by a rousing talk and an appeal. One such event was held in the local Free Methodist hall and hosted by Child Evangelism Fellowship. It was mid week and Joy was tired from learning spellings in preparation for Miss McIlroy’s Friday test. If you did well, you got to sit near the back of the room. The seating arrangement was changed after the test every week and the dunces who scored the lowest marks were moved nearer to the front. The goal was to get to the very back of the room next to the radiator and near the door. A crate containing tiny glass bottles of milk was plonked down there every day and if you were clever and quick you could snatch one before it curdled in the heat.

Joy didn’t want to go to the meeting – it was always a battle with her, and the family usually ended up hot and bothered with their eldest daughter pouting selfishly. Although she stood dutifully for the singing, in her heart she was still sitting down with arms firmly folded. Her uncooperative moods didn’t last long though because even at the tender age of ten she was a devotee of the well-constructed sermon. She could see it was an art form and one which she practised herself at every opportunity. This time it was the gospel in a nutshell. Plastered onto a board was a huge picture of a nutshell large enough to contain several kernels of truth. These poked out from the shell and the speaker extracted them one at a time and expounded their meaning. When displayed together the phrases made up a verse from the Bible which declared that God loved the world so much he sent his son down from heaven, where he’d been perfectly happy, to be crucified on a hill far away and if you could just believe that this was a good thing for a loving father to kill his son then you could live forever, not like Jesus because he died hammered onto a wooden cross with blood on his head from the crown made of thorns and the hole in his side where the soldiers stabbed him. Simple!

Joy's parents smiled down at her beatifically, apparently oblivious to the irony that their offspring weren’t allowed television because it might damage them and yet they were subjected to this horrific story of injustice, suffering, pain and torture on a weekly basis. It was too horrible to be believed and yet Joy did believe – every word of it. This Jesus didn’t die for long. It was all right in the end because when his friends came looking for the body it wasn’t there. He was standing in the garden with holes in his hands wearing a white dress and gazing up to heaven where the angels had a special seat for him and a hero’s welcome. The pianist was playing softly in the background as the speaker asked if anyone wanted to go to heaven and meet Jesus.

Joy wanted to very much. She knew she was a sinner because she heard that she was every week. Sin was second nature to her – first nature according to the preacher – and she wanted to wear a white dress and feel clean. She was always being naughty. Once she and Eleanor were playing boyfriends and girlfriends and Eleanor kissed her on the lips. Joy had also kissed a boy on the lips when he promised to buy her a bag of butter balls from the corner shop near the school back gates. Then there was that time when Eleanor made her take off all her clothes in her neighbour’s garage and the two of them marched round while the big boys in their street stared at them. They promised to give her loads of comics but her parents arrived and took her home where her father smacked her on the bottom. She never did get the comics. She really wanted to be good but it was too hard. She started to cry. Maybe Jesus could help. She made up her mind and gingerly raised her hand. The singer sang, ‘I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back, no turning back.’

One of this week’s spellings was hallelujah – H A L L E L U J A H.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011


At the beginning of a lesson with Year 12 a boy greeted me with, “Can I ask you a rhetorical question, Miss?” I replied that he could but said that naturally he wouldn’t expect an answer. He nodded and looked at me. I looked back at him, waiting for the question. It didn’t come. Finally, with a smirk he said, “That was it. That was the question.”

Questions are funny things. This week my son-in-law, working as a locum in the A&E department of a Belfast hospital, tended a patient who had a nasty cut on his chin. He was rather the worse for wear (the patient, not the doctor) and Sam was trying to engage him in conversation as he carefully stitched the wound. After giving a few grunted replies the patient felt he should at least try to enter into the dialogue and asked Sam, “So, what do you do yourself then?”

In church on Sunday, our pastor told a story about the actor, Kirk Douglas, who apparently enjoyed giving lifts to hitchhikers. One such traveller, recognising the driver as someone famous blurted out, “Do you know who you are?”

Often we know the answer to our questions, but we’re making conversation and exploring our own and other people’s thoughts and opinions. Like the inner child we haven’t quite outgrown, we are always asking “Why?” I have lots of questions - most of them, it has to be said, for God. As I get older there are more and more imponderables and fewer easy answers. When I was a university student I knew a lot more, or thought I did, than I do now. I was a passionate evangelist and loved the certainty of religious conviction. Nowadays, God seems inscrutable and mysterious. Less sure, I still love the adventure of faith, the listening and the hoping and the wondering and the waiting.

Jesus liked to ask questions. Picture the scene: a blind beggar sits by the side of the road, desperate and needy and Jesus says, "What do you want me to do?" Wasn’t it obvious? Isn’t it still? I know there are times when I’m looking for direction and God says, "What do you want?" The will to choose and decide is a precious gift which is ours to exercise every day.

I may have mentioned GM Hopkins before. I love how the poetic agonies over his faith are infused with an irrepressible joy in God’s creation. He asks the big questions but doesn’t lose heart when he cannot arrive at a definitive answer. Hopkins believed in ‘inscape’ - that everything has an essential ‘isness’ - a self which screams out a singular aspect of its Creator.

Even trees, or especially trees. In Binsey Poplars, He laments the wanton felling of a row of aspens and lambasts those who ‘hack and rack the growing green’. Their loss is described as a death and a travesty for generations to come. There is an implied suffering as the destructive strokes ‘unselve’ the beautiful scene. By destroying nature we attack its very essence, and with it impoverish our own selves. Could it be that like the flowers and birds our only purpose is to reflect the glory of I AM? Every petal and feather, like every person, is a tiny piece of God. That’s who he is or at least that’s how we can catch glimpses of a little bit of who he is. He is so vast and we are so small that we can only understand if he draws us pictures, like a parent with a palette. In As Kingfishers Catch Fire Hopkins can hear creation cry “What I do is me: for that I came.” The Forestry Commission would do well to think on that as they rush through the sale of tracts of woodland without any safeguards.

It’s not as we worry or question or debate things to death that we understand, but as we are quiet and soak in the beauty of the Creator as reflected in created things that we know, find a self and are known. And that has to be answer enough, for now.

"Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet."