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Monday, 1 September 2014

The "Soon be Xmas" Service

Let's face it, there's nothing draws in the punters so much as Christmas and Harvest. That's why we celebrate Western, Eastern and Original Beaker Christmasses here at the Beaker Folk. We tried finding out what the Eastern Orthodox dating of Harvest Festival is, but Fr Alexei just gave us a dirty look and said something profound in Bulgarian. Or possibly Finnish.

Anyway, the point is, Harvest is still a few weeks away - we like to make sure we can re-use the pumpkins and marrows for punkies at Samhain - and so we thought what we would have is the "Soon be Xmas" service. This combining the fun of the Yuletide season, the expectation of Advent, the ability to be outside for the service because it's late Summer and, in passing, the latest Transfer Deadline news coming through.

A great advantage of holding a Christmas service in Summer is that we can use all those solar-powered fairy lights we bought in the New Year Sale. They're never gonna charge up in December, after all. Though we've still hours to wait today till it gets dark enough for them to switch on, obviously.

The "3 Months to Nativity Play" was a bit odd, admittedly. Mary telling Joseph off for the way he drank too much at John the Baptist's Purification ceremony does not exist within the traditional Canon. Mind you, neither do silent babies, lowing oxen and the Little Drummer Boy, so not necessarily a great problem there. 

The narrator went off on his own to a large degree, though. Having all the relatives complain to Mary that she already knows it's gonna be a boy - "you've spoilt the surprise". Mary's response to Joseph telling her they've got to go to Bethlehem for the census - " are you sure you're not making this up for theological reasons, Joe?" And the touching closing scene where, with cattle not lowing, no shepherds or wise men, Mary and Joseph sit reading baby books.

The carols were nice: "O get ready all ye faithful, time to book the works do"; "Hark the Tesco's profit warning means mince pies already in the shops" and "In the bleak late summer". And then Father Christmas appeared to show all the kids a load of partly-assembled toys, and tell us that Rudolph couldn't make it because he was back at the North Pole dealing with a major flooding incident.

Then, as fake snow fell on the ground, we joined in a rousing chorus of "Auld Lang Syne" to celebrate Methodist New Year.

A smashing time was had by all. I can't wait for the real thing!

Sunday, 31 August 2014

On Dealing with a "Sky Fairy" Remark

From time to time in your Christian pilgrimage, you will find somebody refer to God as a "sky fairy", or Jesus as your "invisible friend".

Generally speaking you should simply ignore such people. They're making no meaningful point, they have no real concept of how Christians picture God, and being atheists they are less likely to breed than normal people. So their view will gradually die out with them.

If, on the other hand, it's your pastor saying it, the best bet is probably to change church.

Saturday, 30 August 2014

On Encountering a Church

A situation many encounter. For some reason you have decided to go to a church to attend a designated "service". You will need some of the following responses.

On encountering the welcomer:

Do not, on a first encounter, fill in a sheet to be contacted. This can wait. If you have never encountered a church before, it can be distressing, in your first week, to be on the flower rota or to have to join the "Prayer Ministry Team", or put forward as a potential ordinand. Take your time, and keep your personal information personal.

Do say "thanks, I'm just looking around. My children's names are protected under the Geneva Convention. And my husband/wife/Civil Partner/ Significant Other will probably never attend Divine Worship as s/he is a militant atheist/allergic to incense/exploring Buddhism/fighting for ISIS/convinced that the Church of England is Babylon."

On being offered a prayer book and hymn book, just accept them. They may have spores, but it may well not be anthrax.

On being offered a prayer book, hymn book, notices and additional hymn sheet - demonstrate your juggling ability.

If you have children under the age of 16, there may be Sunday Club / Sunday School provision made for them. Make the most of it. You may be in charge in 3 weeks' time.

 If your children are under the age of 6, and there is no Childrens work or you have wandered into an "all age service" that consists entirely of readings from Barth's Church Dogmatics, you may be told you will never be welcome again. If this happens, presume it is God's judgement on that congregation, and go find another one that still wants to exist in 20 years.

Do not mention you can play an instrument. Do not comment knowledgably about the Amin6 in the closing cadence. Do not do "air guitar" if there is any suggestion you understand pentatonic scales or have the vaguest idea what an Emaj is. Let people assume you know nothing about music. Then the worst that can happen is someone tries to recruit you for the choir.

On the other hand, instead of everyone being after your time and attention - there are some places where nobody will talk to you. Do what you like - hang around with a cup of coffee, inspect the stained glass, set fire to the vicar - you will just be assumed to be a stranger and left to it. Don't worry you're being ignore. Enjoy this. At some point in the next 40 years, something unrealistic and arduous will be expected of you.

When choosing a pew / seat - be aware that they are all "taken" - at least potentially. Arrive as late as you possible can - that way you can get a better idea of where is generally free.

Do sit as far back as you can. That means you will avoid the danger, if you are at the front, of standing up when all the "regulars" behind you are sitting, or kneeling when everyone else is doing the hokey-coley Should this happen, everybody will tell you it was fine,  and nobody noticed. Do not believe them - they saw it all, and they're all laughing at you. To repeat - arrive late, and sit near the back.

Communion services are quite odd. If you don't know what a "communion service" is, you need a more advanced guide. Basically, if someone you don't know suddenly walks up to you and offers to shake your hand - reciprocate. If the greasy bloke in the choir who's been watching you throughout the service tries to hug you - knee him in the canticles. If anyone tells you they believe in sharing a "holy kiss", tell them you're from Glasgow or Millwall.

Different churches have different rules on when people can receive Communion - either after they have been baptised, or when desirous to be confirmed, or after confirmation. Any given new church will have rules you can't anticipate. Best is to to go up when everyone else does (sitting at the back will help you judge this) with your hands crossed over your chest for "a blessing" - at least until you're made a bishop. Otherwise someone will think of some reason why you've been a bit premature in receiving.

Do not assume that the person who is really friendly to you before / after the service is just being friendly. They may be the person who has just done the "church welcoming" course, and will follow you round for days to come. If you are male and have given hints you are single/widowed/divorced, they may just be trying to get in quick before the rush. If they are wearing a dog collar, they may be the vicar. In which case it is his/her job to be friendly. If you live in a country area, and it is the vicar, don't worry. They'll be off to the next service in four minutes.

Most important of all - do not assume that the above is exaggeration. You may think I'm implying that people in Church are weird. This is because they are. The important thing to remember is - so is everyone else. Church people are no more weird than anyone else. They just have a sneaking suspicion they might be weird, and a vague hope that God can do something about it. They're probably right, but timescales are important. Remember that 1,000 ages in God's sight are the equivalent of one evening - what's the chances he's going to be doing a rush job?

Friday, 29 August 2014

Lord of the Dance Threat Level

We've raised the Lord of the Dance Threat Level from "Subdued" to "Ironic".

There is still nothing you can do about it, but at least it looks like we're in control of matters

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Theology and Technology, Merlin and Megaliths

"Today, in the 21st century, to call Stonehenge a computer shows less respect than to call it an ancient sacred place, a metaphor which by degrees is again becoming more prevalent." - Christopher Chippindale 2004,  Stonehenge Complete,  3rd edition.

There was a phase, mostly forgotten now by academia but still remembered by tourists, when the great scientific concern with Stonehenge was to prove that it was an astronomical computer.

And the funny thing is, as much effort went into proving lunar and stellar alignments between the stones of Stonehenge and objects of its environs, as has gone into the "alternative" stories - Merlin-magic and ley-lines and magnetometer-based psychic energy detection. And, to a large extent, the scientific theories have been of the same consistency of drivel as the New Age ones. There's one solid alignment at Stonehenge - all else is, at best, supposition.

There was, when I was young, a computer at Luton College of Further Education. Our school accessed it via a dial-up line from a thing like Grandstand's teleprinter. You got a right telling off for playing "sharks"; online at local dialling rates. My friend Mandy went to see it once. It was in a special dust-proof room, and the size of a large sauna. Mandy was astonished. It was like the modern world had become the world of Science Fiction - all lights and tapes and beige.

The Android device on which I am writing this has thousands of times more power than that beast they fed and watered and bowed down to. And yet I find its specs uninteresting. It doesn't really matter. It's just an Android. It does Facebook and I can read Twitter and see the news.

Unlike the computer in Luton Tech, I can - as long as I am connected to the Beaker wifi or a friendly café's - use unlimited bandwidth without a sternly-written letter and invoice for telephone costs being sent home. I don't really care. In the lateish 20th century, this was the cutting edge of science - I nearly said "magical", but it wasn't that. We'd learnt that, in some interminable lessons where we discovered what a bit was, and how a byte was a bit bigger than a bit.

So the excitement of Stonehenge as a computer - it doesn't matter if it was true (it wasn't) because nobody cares any more. Each wave of exciting science - as Tomorrow's World used to tell us, they nearly all involved a laser, and/or a computer - nobody cares. That's why Tomorrow's World has gone, but we've got Minecraft. Stonehenge is like a computer? Can I play Bejewelled Blitz on it, or lend people a dolphin to look after?  Can I pin misattributed quotations to it, or pictures of sad kittens, so all my friends can see? No? Well it's not a very good computer then, is it?

We've lost interest in the sheer thing-ness of technology now. They're just stuff. What's the good of Stonehenge being a star calculator, if it won't show you back - episodes of Family Guy? Science can show you the full wonders of the universe - how we're stuck together, how we fall apart. But it can't tell us what it means to be human beings. That's not its fault, it's not meant to.

But a sacred place - now that is, or at least can be, different. A place where the dead aren't simply absent from the world, but are haunting the stones. A place where life and death meet together. Even if it's a place we don't understand, whose builders we can't name. Even if we don't know what they thought they were doing.

A star calculator made in rock would be interesting. For about ten minutes. The thought of those cold,  lifeless stones giving us clues to the way the cold, lifeless bodies above us behave: interesting and yet;  shortly  after, quite dull. We've got a Google App for that.   For that stone circle - still at least partly together today - to be a sacred place, one where the spirit is reality and life is given meaning and death is no final barrier - that's another matter. The sacred will call us, wherever we are.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Seeing Others Through Your Own Dark Glasses

It's strange what a bit of romance or invention can do for a religion. Especially somebody else's. The picture is, according to the people of the 18th Century, exactly what the folk at Stonehenge were up to in the Druidic era. Arks of the Covenant,  snakes, processions, banners - everything the modern druid was after in worship. You can imagine the thrill as the worshippers gathered, the solemn cries of the druids, the awesome refrains of the bardic harpists.

Of course, it's an illusion. The artist thought these worshippers were British druids and their followers -  what people somewhat later would class as "Celtic". If anything like this ever happened (unlikely) it would have been Beaker People - the Stone and Bronze Age inhabitants of Wessex - not Celts, whether Brythonic or Belgic. Their Druids would have been friendlier, more charismatic, somehow more holy than their Celtic equivalents. Obviously. Stands to reason.

But it's an illusion in another way. Maybe it's a function of time difference, or of distance in theology and tradition, but do you imagine this as some fantastic, climatic experience or is that just my delusion? Do you assume some fantastic quality - as opposed to the mundane nature of your regular worship, in a 17th Century preaching box with a drip in the corner and another in the pulpit, or in your school hall you rent, whose walls are covered in pictures of Hindu gods because that's what they're doing in RE this week, so you have to turn them around every Sunday morning before the service and restore them afterwards?

In short - when everyone is telling you what a great service it was do you think, 90% of the time, that you must have been at a different service?

I reckon that after the service in the picture, in which you can't tell that the solsticial sunrise was obscured by a cold, heavy drizzle, the harpists went off not speaking to each other, because one of them played a B sharp when it was a Bmin key. And the Archdruid was grumpy because she hadn't been as inspirational as she'd imagined when she wrote her sermon and she was blaming the head cold.

And half the congregation went off cold and miserable.  But a few teenage enthusiasts were raving about how great the worship was - and why couldn't they have such a good service at the Rollright Stones every full moon?

Because a lot of what we take out of worship, we bring to it.  And that's not surprising as we're human.  And if the druids went off grumpy because they only saw the crescent, while the bass harpist saw the whole of the moon - then was that because they were less inspired? Or he had a better digestion - was more resilient when it came to attendance at sunset then midnight then the bug fight with the wolf then sunrise? Next year maybe he'll have struggled to get into the mood on account of a bad case of Black Death.

We are all fragile and leaky. And we can think that other traditions and times had or have it easy. But our limited and unsatisfying experiences, with glimpses of something greater, are reminders that our eschatology is not realised, our experience is not perfect, we are still on a journey.

So look through your glass darkly, and prayer for it to be clearer. One day it will be as clear as crystal.  But, for today, don't worry if anyone else has a clearer view. Just enjoy what you can see, and share their joy. We'll all see better one day.

Of course, it's possible that you actually have a fantastic time in worship every time. In which case ignore me. I probably just need to pray harder.

Duck Henge Rises

It was, we felt, important that we created a monument to partner the new (and old) Moot Houses. So as the new Moot House starts to rise over the Doily Shed, we've had to think hard about its companion.

And so, after a lapse of many years, Duck Henge is being restored around the duck pond. Obviously it's not a henge - it having no banks or ditches - but it is very definitely a wood circle. In the manner of "Sea henge", the famous circle and hippy magnet on the Norfolk coast, we're putting the trees into the ground roots up and branches up. Immensely symbolic - albeit we don't know what of. But then that's half the fun with symbolism, isn't it?

Before the last Duck Henge burnt down, it was a thing of wonder and beauty. And, coincidentally, the ducks never suffered from mange, beak rot or general debilitation the whole time. Let Duck Henge Arise!

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Extreme Worship Leading Brings that Nagging Sense of Unease

I've been left wondering a bit about Drenzul's "Evening Reconciliation" tonight. I think that maybe - just maybe - he's going a little too far in his worship leading style.

Now don't get me wrong.  I will never criticise anyone who uses a sensitive nudge here and there - a reminder that God is good, our loving Parent. Nothing wrong with that. A suggestion that we, fallible, weak, uncertain, unpredictable, limited, imperfect, fragile, created as we are - that we should approach this awesome Creator with a certain trepidation - with awe and, for want of a better word - trembling - nothing wrong with that.

Nothing wrong with that at all. Not in a leading-into-the-presence of God kind of way.

If, on the other hand, you lead into a time of confession with a PowerPoint gallery of the people in your congregation, actually caught in or roughly around the time of the iniquities for which they will shortly be confessing - that would seem a little edgy. I mean,  the shot of Young Keith walking into the wall of the White Horse - we've all seen that a hundred times. He's got broad shoulders, has Keith. Though they've been broadened, admittedly, by the frequent contact with the walls of the White Horse.
No, more concerning was the fly-on-the-wall footage of Burton Dasset scoring at the annual Accounts v Actuaries cricket challenge match. And before you all leap to condemn him, I will say it's not the worst thing that has ever been filmed in a cricket scorebox. Not even close.

In fact, i would personally call this an act of kindheartedness, or at worst trying to save face. No results were affected by this act of minor fraud. But imagine the scene.

Burton is scoring during the Accountants' innings. He is running the scoreboard - one of those proper, big ones like a brick shed with strings to control the numbers - and the score book. Sat next to him is the wife of the captain of the Actuaries, doing their score book.

She was quite attractive, sure. And if you were to accuse Burton of the kind of adultery which would result in us all losing an eye, rather than go to the Smoky Place, if we took things literally - well, yes. I suspect he was guilty. But that was all. But maybe the excitement of sitting next to an attractive woman in a confined, relatively darkened space, resulted in Burton concentrating somewhat less than normal.

In any case, the Accountants' opening bat had a great innings. Even via the Web cam that Drenzul had clearly hidden in the back wall of the scoreboard, you can hear the cheers as he knocks a four through cover-point for a century and Burton delightedly rings up the third digit on the board.

Even in the half-light, with muffled sound, you can see and hear Burton's panic as he realises he's cocked it up, and the opener's only got 90.

We go on to see low-level fraud on a massive scale - unreckoned since the game began - as Burton systematically gives every extra - or every bye and leg bye, at any rate - to the unsuspecting batter. You can almost hear the sweat falling from Burton when there's an appeal.  You can only admire the way he occasionally "forgets". to ring up the second when they run two, and - with the collusion of the other scorer - rewrites a few bits of history. By the time the opener is out, the score in the book matches that on the board. Burton is a broken man.

But not as broken as when Drenzul played the whole sorry affair, and then spent ten minutes accusing Burton of being, if not the father of all lies, certainly a close relative of all lies - a cousin, or maybe uncle-in-law. This kind of thing was repeated for everyone Drenzul had some dirt on. And there were many.

I know I should have stopped it. After all, I've been blackmailing some of those people for the things we were watching. No chance now. But it was gripping stuff. I've never seen such a heart felt act of confession at the end of it all - although the concluding prayer, "Know you're forgiven and we will never mention what happened here" seemed unusual.

And so we moved on. The logical conclusion of being these kinds of broken people in a broken world, according to Drenzul, is that we need fixing. Turns out he knows a song about that.

And it's not like I've never heard "Fix You" used like that before. And it's not like it can't be quite moving. But I've never seen it played over a PowerPoint montage of sick and injured puppies and kittens before. People were really taken into the whole thing.

In fact, as Chris Martin warbled towards that last dramatic pause, and the baby labrador - having had the plaster cast removed - gambolled across the sand dunes - it would have taken a hard heart not to think that, tough and unfair as this world may be, there's hope and beauty in it.

Just a sneaking feeling of unease, though. I know Drenzul is committed, sincere and a great and sensitive worship leader but - and maybe it was just me - I wonder if the service, taken as a whole, was just a little bit emotionally manipulative?

Monday, 25 August 2014

A Quick Guide to Viral Social Media Posts

No, Facebook aren't removing it from people's timelines.

Now your friends have blocked news from all your games, it's like you're invisible.

Yes, it's easy to see.

You'd be the sort of superhero who stays in all day doing Facebook quizzes.

The puppy was found 100 yards from its house. It has since died of old age. It did go on to have a career as a spoof Twitter account which continues to this day.

The play wasn't as blasphemous as is made out. And it closed four years ago.

London, New York and Toronto all have an "o" in them. As do Ulan Bator, Rome, Cairo and quite a lot of others.

Oh, is s/he being controversial again?

As many circles as your mind wants to make up.

The reason 95% of people don't post that status is because it's pointless and annoying. Your concern about anything is not measured in clicks. And the 95% has not been scientifically measured.

A woman in every town has, apparently, found a simple trick to lose years off her looks. Dermatologists don't care a fig. They're still eating.

If you don't want Facebook sharing your data, switch it off. None of us can follow those instructions and you probably did it wrong in the first place yourself.

Just because a celebrity said it doesn't make it witty enough to propagate.

There are no real people quoted in that article.

No, nobody has died from it.

Just because they've done it, doesn't make it compulsory.

Don't click! It's the Daily Ma... Oh, too late. Oh wow, she has let herself go.