I am just coming to the end of a part-time ministry in two linked congregations in the Angus countryside near Dundee. Over the five or six years of this association I have learned a great deal about rural life and its institutions, and about farms and farmers. Having spent all of my previous working life in cities, I had a great ignorance and considerable prejudices about the countryside, both of which have been reduced by my recent experience. When I add that the countryside in question is the lovely green strath on the southern side of the Sidlaw hills, readers will understand when I state that I feel blessed to have been given this opportunity, in my relatively advanced years.

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Achilles binding Patroclus’ wound

The true blessing has been the new friendships made and sustained. Because rural living often puts people at a greater distance from each other than urban living does,  many rural dwellers put a great value on the friendships which prevent loneliness and build up community. Hospitality which fosters friendship is still recognised as a virtue in such communities. Readiness to share food, conversation, concerns and individual experience enables friendship, and although in many cases for me these friendships remained tentative rather than fully established, they involved a genuine sharing of goodwill. To know that another person with a different experience of life, likes you and values your liking of them, enhances your life and your ability to live well. Some of the pleasures of friendship – the times of mutual discovery, the fact of mutual trust, for example – are similar to those of being in love, but without the dynamics of sexual passion. There is an easiness about friendship which we do not find in sexual love. Many couples say however that in a long relationship, friendship between them has developed alongside sexual love and become as important.

Some of the friendships I have made will survive the end of my ministry, but many will not, which is why it can seem like an event of mulitiple bereavement, with losses which seriously diminish the wealth of my daily experience. I do not find this topic much addressed in the literature about retirement or changing jobs. Perhaps most people assume that friendships established through work will survive outside it. If so I consider they will be wrong as least as often as they are right. Nor is friendship itself a great topic of discussion in say, the popular press, unlike sex, while the endlessly discussed so-called friendships on Facebook are nothing of the sort.

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David says farewell to Jonathan

Are there great works of art about friendship? Ancient literature abounds with friendships between warriors, Achilles and Patroclus, David and Jonathan, Roland and Oliver. Shakespeare of course recognised it in Hamlet and Horatio, Brutus and Cassius, although these are not the main matter of the plays in which they appear. Boswell’s biography of Dr. Johnson is at one level a celebration of his hero’s friendships. Mark Twain beautifully delineates friendship between Huck and Jim. Sherlock and Watson  are friends. Friendships abound in great modern masterpieces by Proust and Joyce, but in none are they the ruling subject. Perhaps the only great work of art in which a friendship is the true subject is Tennyson’s In Memoriam, where the friend has died. The poem eventually establishes the experience of friendship as constitutive of the poet’s intellectual, emotional and spiritual identity. Faced with his friend’s death and the absence of any coherent comfort, the poet says, “The heart stood up and answered, ‘I have felt.'” The experience of friendship allows Tennyson to hold to the worth of human existence even when everything else seems to reduce it to insignificance.

Perhaps in theology this sustaining human relationship has been underused as a model for understanding God. Set against the absolute use of the word love, friendship may look more ordinary. In Paul’s classic summary of the experience of God, “the GRACE of the Lord Jesus Christ, the LOVE of God and the FELLOWSHIP of the Holy Spirit” maybe we should look again at the last component, in Greek KOINONIA, often used of commercial collaboration, meaning shared enterprise,

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Roland and Oliver greet each other

shared life. We might define it as friendship within a common project, which for Paul means the down-to-earth shared friendship amongst members of the believing communities enabled by the shared friendship of God, extended to the newcomer and the stranger, and even to the persecutor. In this way we could give friendship its true place in the story of God: acknowledging the creative and sustaining parental love, marvelling at the passionate longing of the divine lover, we can enjoy the companionship of the divine friend, who shares our journey, and gives us other dear companions on the way. Maybe after all, the Bible is the great work of art about friendship.

 

 

Today the religions of Barcelona held their own event of opposition to last week’s atrocity. All Christian denominations, including Catholic, Orthodox, Evangelical, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons, came together with Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Taoists and Bahais to asssert their common allegiance to the community of Barcelona, described as a unity of diverse people with diverse beliefs. They affirmed each other’s separate identity as a vital contribution to the richness of civic experience in Barcelona. Because the attackers had been young, the event included young women and men, encouraging them to believe that a robust personal identity was not contrary to a shared communal identity but rather a constituent of it; and to resist any attempts to found personal or group identity on hatred of others.

Civic and national leaders were present but were given no special prominence and there were no allusions to the Catalan independence issue. Religious people were saying that their very different traditions of faith and practice were directing them on the one hand to the welfare of their neighbours, and on the other to humility in holding their own versions of ultimate truth. Not that they doubted these truths, but rather that as they expressed them most clearly, they realised they pointed beyond themselves towards what cannot be expressed, but can be worshipped and lived. The great Taoist teaching is relevant: “The Way that can be (fully) told is not the Eternal Way.”

These people were not saying that their different faiths could be mingled in some super-religion that would take over from them; they were saying that their traditions had nurtured them and enabled them to keep moving into what T S Eliot called “another union, a deeper communion.” But maybe that phrase suggests a mysticism which was foreign to this gathering, whose focus was upon friendship, solidarity, wisdom and justice.

I only have a Spanish news report of this event which perhaps will not be picked up by worldwide media; but it struck me as both admirable and unusual. In a confusing world of myriad available points of view the temptation of some form of fundamentalism is strong. People, perhaps especially young people who are unsure of their identity, along with those whose identity has been shamed or abused, grasp eagerly at any certainty that promises them dignity. Many religious, as well as political leaders, understand this opportunity and gain power by offering their own form of certainty. Such brute certainty is not only a contribution to sectarian hatreds, it is also a denial of the sublety of all the great religions, who know that their good truths are not the whole truth.

A freindly act of witness to an inclusive civic culture which nurtures vibrant individual identities, gives religion a much-needed good name.

Yesterday, in every continent of the earth, some human beings showed their care for the planet, by treating its creatures with respect and its soils and waters with wisdom.

Yesterday, in every nation of the earth, some political leaders did their duty according to their best knowledge, putting the good of their people above concerns of personal advantage or reward.

Yesterday, in every farmland of the earth, some farmers put long-term fruitfulness above short-term profit.

Yesterday in every industry of the earth, some workers united to secure their common good rather than individual safety.

Yesterday in every science in the earth, some scientists cooperated in testing and re-testing their discovery rather than rushing to announce sucesss.

IMG_0506Yesterday in every university of the earth, some scholars found happiness in handling the material of their discipline, rather than worrying about research ratings.

Yesterday, in every city of the earth, some strangers met and laughed together rather than being suspicious of one another.

Yesterday in every school in the earth, some pupils learned something new and were delighted, rather than aiming at test results.

Yesterday in every church, mosque, synagogue, temple, ashram, and sanga of the earth, some people looked for truth rather than religious dogma.

Yesterday, in every village of the earth, some residents reached out in compassion to a brother or sister in need, rather than giving them the body swerve.

Yesterday, in every street in the earth, some families lived together with love and commonsense, rather than tearing themselves apart.

Yesterday throughout the earth, some prejudiced people began to find difference a source of interest rather than threat.

Yesterday, over every land on earth, the rain fell and the sun shone on the just and the unjust without discrimination.IMG_0508

On the whole, it wasn’t a bad day, with many happenings that would please the heart of Jesus.

But all our mass media have focused only on the terrorist attacks in Spain, because they use them for self- aggrandisement, for adding to their sense of importance as they obsessively chew over the minutiae of disaster even before the facts have been established. All media outlets are to some extent guilty, but the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme is especially offensive as its teams of clever boys and girls ask their smart questions and interrupt with their egregious theories the foreign officials who are good enough to speak to them in English.

All of which leads many of us to imagine we live in an evil and frightening world.

We should remind ourselves how selective our news is.

Our mass media don’t want to know about Jesus (or Mohammed or the Buddha or Moses) but choose, as Jesus’ opponents did, Barabbas, the violent jihadi. They ignore almost all the surprising good of the earth in favour of its repetitive evils. I’ve always prided myself on being well-informed and up to date with the news. Now I know that to preserve a truthful impression of the world, I must ignore much news presentation, try to feed on facts only, and dig hard to find the stories of human goodness that are buried beneath the rubbish of 24/7 coverage.

A week of reading the mutual threats of Donald Trump and Kim Jung-un have convinced me that a song excluded by Randy Newman from his recent album “Dark Matters” should be dusted down and released as a single, which would surely rise immediately to the top of the world charts:

My dick’s bigger than your dick / It ain’t braggin’ if it’s true / My dick’s bigger than your dick / I can prove it too / There it is! There’s my dick / Isn’t that a wonderful sight? / Run to the village, to town, to the countryside / Tell the people what you’ve seen here tonight. CHORUS: What a dick! What a dick! What a dick! IMG_0505

Newman excluded it on grounds of its vulgarity, but it remains a beacon of discretion when compared with the traded insults of the two great leaders. The North Korean people at least have an excuse for being ruled by a nutter in that he is a ruthless dictator who’s not about to ask their permission, whereas the USA actually chose its nutter. This suggests that the nuttiness coefficient of the US population is higher than that of the North Korean.

The tendency of the North Korean leadership to magnify any of their pathetic achievements – they have never succeeded in feeding their population for example- would be comic if they weren’t messing about with stuff that could make Hiroshima look like a smack on the wrist. As it is millions of North Koreans bow down before the splendour of their huge shiny penile weapon. The USA is more sophisticated of course, merely promising to unveil fire and fury of a size never before witnessed in the world. The sooner the white vans arrive to remove these leaders to institutions where they will be well looked after, the better. Because if they are in charge too long there may be no vans, no institutions, no people, no life.

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Tardigrade

Well not quite no life, as I’ve learned from the public discussions about who or what might survive a nuclear war. Here it’s also clear that size matters: only the smallest of creatures have much chance of eating breakast the day after a nuclear attack. Connoisseurs of this topic know that the common cockroach is often said to be ideally suited to survival due to its tolerance of radiation, but recent thinking favours the Tardigrade or Water Bear, a minute creature 2mm in length that can survive all extreme events – flatten it, eat it, freeze it, boil it, irradiate it, it always comes back smiling. Then again, animals however small are nothing like as perfect survivors as bacteria, which due to the speed with which they can share their genes, are able to adapt with astonsihing speed to almost any environment. Such humble creatures with their ability to absorb punishment and gift of communal adaptation are much more likely to survive disaster than complicated macro-organisms like homo sapiens.

Amongst human beings of course, presidents and prime ministers however stupid and culpable are much more likely to survive nuclear conflict than the most intelligent and moral citizen, hidden as they will be in protective bunkers. It seems to me an elementary requirement of living with nuclear weapons, that those who can decide to use them should be sure that they will have no special protection at all. That might concentrate their minds.

Jesus advised his followers to become small, like children, if they wanted the best life. He taught them that although in the way of the world, leaders lorded it over their subjects, they must have very different communities in which the true leaders were servants to the rest.  This strand of Jesus’ teaching is not unimportant, as it was his readness to identify with the small people of his society that so aroused the enmity of the big battalions who got rid of him. He would have known the critical words of the prophet Zechariah about the rebuilding of the ruined temple: “not by might or power but by my spirit,” says the Lord, along with the prophet’s question about the tentative beginnings of restoration, “who can despise the day of small things?”

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Bacterium

The day of small things may be the day of the tardigrade and the microbes who survive the nuclear war unleashed by leaders who wanted to prove theirs was bigger than his.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this is a GLENCOE product named after the glacial trough in the west highlands of Scotland, which is itself the product of evolution, which is in turn, as far as I believe, the product of God. In fact, I would also quite like to advertise my thinking as GLENCOE theology, a branch of GLENCOE Christianity, as practiced by the International Church of GLENCOE Jesus.IMG_0494

Sane readers may be wondering why I should indulge in this repetitive naming of a west of Scotland glen with a sad history, and the answer is, because I can. Because the glen in question is part of my native land, a known and named location on planet earth, I feel justified in using it as the name of this intellectual product, if I want. I recognise that others may do the same, but if I don’t complain about them , why should they complain about me? Yes, there might be arguments if I use the mountain names Fuji or Everest, but unless my product is competing with products marketed under those names, surely I cannot be stopped selling my theology as Fujiism or my paintings as Fuji images?

That would not be the view of the National Trust Of Scotland, which has threatened a small Scottish manufacturer of outdoor clothing with legal action for calling one of its jackets, “Glencoe” because as the legal owners of Glencoe, the NTS has registered its name as a trade mark. Over the years the NTS has done some strange things, but this is one of the strangest yet. As part of its mission of keeping this historic glen for the people of Scotland and the world, it has turned the very name of the place into a trade mark which can only be used to market NTS trash in its visitor centres. Of course I recognise that it has done so because it can. The registration of a commercial product under a name taken from nature can, it thinks, stop other people from doing the same. If this is the law, which I doubt, the law is an ass, and requires sorting out.

How could the act of registering a name which belongs to all the world somehow restrict that ownership to a body which happens to own a large number of stately homes, gardens and land, on behalf of the nation? I have a love/hate relationship,with the  NTS, of which I have been a member for many years. I support its preservation of historic buildings and landscapes, while cringing in embarrassment at the biased narratives it has often peddled as history. Its care of the precious hills of Glencoe has been exemplary, but that does not entitle it to sole possession of its name.IMG_0493

Social critics have used the unlovely word, “commodification” to describe the process whereby elements of nature or of human invention from birds and bees to Winston Churchill and the Ode to Joy are capitalised as objects to be traded. Many people will see this as a crime against nature and humanity, but I see it also as an insult to the Creator.

The poetic theology of the book of Genesis, one of the subtlest of all theologies, insists that the earth belongs to humanity only as a gift from the Creator, and that with the gift comes the responsibility of looking after all its creatures. Great kings and Pharaohs are seen as laughable when they imagine themselves as outright owners of what belongs to God and God’s creatures. The NTS does care for land and creatures and should not be sidelined by a naff commercialism into commodifying the land it owns.

Public interest has already led to it adopting a more reasonable tone over the Glencoe jacket, but it should be aware of the number of Glencoe bandits who are ready to swamp their markets with Glencoe toothpicks, cookies, craft beers, umbrellas, sex toys, bicycles, triple glazing, pop ballads and ….. blogs.

PS

I hope that the manufacturers of the Glencoe Jacket will not take me to court when I market my superannuated oilskins, the thing with holes, as a Glencoe Special Issue.

 

IMG_0492My alien pal Marty is normally a stand -out, what with his green skin, lizard-like hands and chinless head, but suitably dressed he merges seamlessly into any gathering of the European aristocracy, of which there were many representatives at the Passchendaele remembrance ceremony earlier this week. I had urged him not to go, but he was anxious to understand one of the great tragedies of earthling history, which he had come here to study.

I accompanied him at a discreet distance, not wishing to participate, if truth be told, but concerned about his safety, knowing that if he was outed, he might well be dispatched as a Bosche come back from the dead. The solemn remembrance of half a million dead young men was of course moving, and I was in a sombre mood when later I asked Marty what he’d thought of it . He snorted – something that Martians are good at with their long noses – and told me he is still puzzled. When I pushed him further, he said,”Your Prince Charles was insisting on the courage of the soldiers who fought here, but I am more impressed by their stupidity.”

I asked him what on earth he meant.

“Well, even a Martian can tell that there was no good reason for this war, if there can  ever be a good reason for war. In this  case there were just a lot European empires jostling for the best chances to dominate the world. Most of those who assisted the slide to war had no idea of new technologies or the carnage they could cause. Most young men had no quarrel with the young men on the other side, yet they let themselves be ordered to kill them by a amall class of patriotic cretins. And you wonder why I call them stupid!”

I sighed at this, and made some important points:

1. The young men had no source of information independent of government propaganda.

2. Although some volunteered, most were conscripted, amd would have gone to prison for refusing to fight.

3. The popular press, the mass of citizens and the churches, were enthusiastic supporters of the war, and of the young men who fought it. Anyone with other opinions was very unpopular.

4. For these reasons it was unfair to label that generation of young men as stupid.

IMG_0490Tell me things I don’t know, baby,” he said in that irritating Martian drawl. “All you’re saying is that they belonged to a stupid society. A society too stupid to have a press that thinks and writes independently; too cowed to oppose the crime of conscription; too conventional to have churches that might stand up for the views of Jesus. No, it’s true the young men were failed by their culture and their religion, but still, they knew what they were being asked to do: to go and kill other young men who were in the same position as themselves. By the time of Passchendaele, many of them had heard some facts from older men about the nature of the conflict, yet still they went like lambs to the slaughter, because they hadn’t learned to think for themselves or to organise together against the establishment. I am not saying these men were thick and unable to think, but that they were stupid because they did not use the brains they had. Those who have youth and strength and vitality and courage will always be used by older people who lack these qualities but possess cunning, unless they have a humane ethos and learn to question any departure from it.”

I said that Plato believed that justice in the soul and in society were mutually dependent and mutually reinforcing, but never succceeded in explaining how either could grow from the corrupt souls and societies which exist now.

“Surely I don’t have to tell a minister of Jesus that the transformation of individuals and societies grows from those who act now as if true justice has arrived, making its goodness available to them. They do not wait for the perfect society to arrive but create communities of justice in the midst of the world as it is. And they educate their children to think and act in the same conviction. If your church had been doing its job in 1914, in Germany and in Britain, many lives might have been saved.”

I observed sourly that whenever the church had acted in the way he was describing it had been savagely persecuted and the lives of many of its members had been lost.

“Not lost,” he said, “but given as a sign that people can do justice even in the worst circumstances. This is something I did not know until I came to your troubled planet.”

I thanked him for recognising some value in our civilisation, but wondered why he had not learned these things at home.IMG_0491

“You think I’m here on a kind of gap year,” he replied. “That is not the case. I’m here because our civilisation has been much like yours, and our violence to each other and our planet has left no more that a hundred of us alive today: we are a threatened species. I am here, as numbers of my colleagues are amongst other intelligent species, to learn what wisdom we can for a new start. Your Jesus had extraordinary wisdom. I don’t understand why he is not more valued, especially by his church. I will take his wisdom back to Mars, but maybe you could use it to prevent more Passchendaeles, and more memorials that praise the dead rather than damning the causes of their deaths.”

I wondered aloud if there might be room for homo sapiens on Mars if things went badly on this earth.

“It’s impossible now to survive on Mars without peaceful cooperation,” he told me. “Maybe you’re not quite ready?”