Thursday, 29 November 2007

A question of faith...

from the Bishop of Oxford's sermon this morning during chapel at work (they're evangelicals, remember?):

"For me, the mark of an authentic faith is that the person isn't about whether they're really religious or not, it's whether
or not they are fully alive ."


He continues:

"I've known people whose faith has diminished them, made them smaller. It has prevented them from fully engaging in life."

He has articulated one of my most deeply held beliefs. As a Catholic in my church, my faith is measured by whether I receive communion on the tongue or on the hand; whether I go to a mass where the priest's back is to me; how well I can worship at a priest's feet; how precisely I follow the rules.

But looking around me, all I see is death. People dead to the world, to joy, to God.

As per a favourite poet:

"And an old priest said, "Speak to us of Religion."

And he said:

Have I spoken this day of aught else?

Is not religion all deeds and all reflection,

And that which is neither deed nor reflection, but a wonder and a surprise ever springing in the soul, even while the hands hew the stone or tend the loom?

Who can separate his faith from his actions, or his belief from his occupations?

Who can spread his hours before him, saying, "This for God and this for myself; This for my soul, and this other for my body?"

All your hours are wings that beat through space from self to self.

He who wears his morality but as his best garment were better naked.

The wind and the sun will tear no holes in his skin.

And he who defines his conduct by ethics imprisons his song-bird in a cage.

The freest song comes not through bars and wires.

And he to whom worshipping is a window, to open but also to shut, has not yet visited the house of his soul whose windows are from dawn to dawn.

Your daily life is your temple and your religion.

Whenever you enter into it take with you your all.

Take the plough and the forge and the mallet and the lute,

The things you have fashioned in necessity or for delight.

For in reverie you cannot rise above your achievements nor fall lower than your failures.

And take with you all men:

For in adoration you cannot fly higher than their hopes nor humble yourself lower than their despair.

And if you would know God be not therefore a solver of riddles.

Rather look about you and you shall see Him playing with your children.

And look into space; you shall see Him walking in the cloud, outstretching His arms in the lightning and descending in rain.

You shall see Him smiling in flowers, then rising and waving His hands in trees."

--"On religion", The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran

So you'll pardon me if I judge your faith not by your ability to parrot or follow the rules, but by how you live your life: how you treat others; whether you will risk fully engaging in a mortal life that brings love and pain, happiness and sorrow in equal measure; whether you will risk everything for love, mortal or divine; whether your faith opens you up to others or makes you shut them out, creating a world of 'us' and 'them'.

I have seen 'faith' diminish too many people - they have become small-minded, narrow; desperate for the approval of their superiors; joined the 'more perfect' religious life to run away from their issues and to lead an easy (read: avoiding responsibility) life; they amputate parts of their personality until they fit a soulless mould and there's nothing left of the person God created.

Shortly after that, Bishop John made a point that wasn't explicitly related, but I think ties in beautifully to his comments above.

"When I'm afraid, I lock the door. But when I lock myself in, am I locking Christ out?"

That's the real question, isn't it? "Perfect love drives out fear" - and makes you unlock that door - and yourself.

The truth shall set you free.

Saturday, 17 November 2007

The head fake

This is the best lecture I've ever had, given by a professor I've never met. Carnegie Mellon University professor, Randy Pausch, is dying of pancreatic cancer at 47. CMU has a tradition called "Last lecture" - every year, a professor gives the lecture they would give if they were dying. This year, they renamed it "Journeys". As Randy said, "Damn, I finally nail the venue and they rename it."

It's 85 minutes long, so be sure to have the time to watch it in a single sitting. I've chosen this version because it has the introduction by his friend, Steve, but the download at Blip seems to have better sound. Your choice.

Trust me, if it were between this and "Spooks", Randy would win, hands down.

Saturday, 10 November 2007

Bring them home

Enough is enough. Isn't it time that the Royal Festival of Remembrance became just that - a festival of *remembrance*? Last year, I spoke of how haunted I was by cataloguing books from 1910-1920, and how lads entering university in 1912 or 1913 rightly looking forward to golden years studying and punting found themselves on the muddy fields of Ypres.

In this year's Royal Festival of Remembrance, John Simms read us a letter from Passchendaele written by Jack Mudd to his wife Lizzy and their two little ones, taking us back across the years, reminding us of the true cost of war:

Dear Lizzie, it's nearly six months since I saw you, how I long for you and the children. God bless you all. I love you more than ever. I want nothing more to take you in my arms, what a lot of love we have missed, but please God it will make it all the sweeter when I see you.


Please God it won't be long before this war is over, we are pushing old Fritz back, I don't think he will stand the British boys much longer, and then we will try and keep a nice home. I will know the value of that now.

Why can we not know it always? Four days later, Jack was not present at roll call, and his body was never recovered from the knee deep mud and slime at Ypres. Lizzie remarried a friend of his from the same battalion who was badly wounded, but she kept his last letter in remembrance of their happiness. Her daughter donated it to the Imperial War Museum, granting us the privilege of a window onto their love.

No more. No more stories of young men dying on their 24th birthday in Basra's field hospital whilst his twin holds his hand. No more men and women coming home irreparably wounded - physically, spiritually and emotionally. No more young widows and widowers. No more orphans.

No more young men dying for old men's wars.

From Laurence Binyon:

For The Fallen
With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
England mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free.

Solemn the drums thrill; Death august and royal
Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres,
There is music in the midst of desolation
And a glory that shines upon our tears.

They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted;
They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years contemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England's foam.

But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the Night;

As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain;
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.

And finally, please...

God on high
Hear my prayer
In my need
You have always been there.

He is young,
He's afraid -
Let him rest,
Heaven blessed.
Bring him home
Bring him home
Bring him home.

Just bring them home. For always.

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

My telly shame

I'm sitting on the sofa on a Tuesday night, having just careened through a sublimely tense, gripping episode of "Spooks". Another episode (having to do with nuclear triggers for Iran) is on at 22.30. I'll be watching it.

In between, I'm catching up with one of my favourite (hence the shame) trashy telly programmes: BRIIIIIIDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDEZIIIIIIIIILLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLAAAAAAAAAAAAAS!

Yup, I confess, I watch Bridezillas - it's one of the more amusing pieces of social commentary around. It has given us some of the best television 'slag offs' ("Good for you. Grow a dick," is one I like so much, I've adopted it) around. And it makes me grateful to be single.

(ARGH. A groom just said, "I don't want to deny you anything in life." WHERE'S THE PUKE SMILEY WHEN I NEED IT?? "It's 20x more than anything I've written a cheque for. We could have bought a house with this," he continues. ARE THERE ANY MEN LEFT IN THE WORLD? REAL MEN WITH BALLS? Buy the damn house. Pie Jesu.)

"It's a good way to spend my parents' money." *Snort* We went through women's lib for this? Come on, Manhattan brides, pay up! Buy your own jewelry, your own wedding dress, your own party. These boots are made for walking, remember? Just make sure they're on your credit card.

Here's a hint, boys - this Bridezilla? She's the real woman you're marrying. If she's like this planning a party, what's going to happen when a real crisis arises? If you want to see what a person is really like, watch how they treat the people who serve them and how they react to a crisis. You've got the opportunity to observe and then get the hell out of there.

And girls, a reminder - a wedding is for a day; a marriage and good friends for a lifetime.

"Something's bothering me about this dress. I'm not sure what it is."

You look like Little Bo Peep, sweetie, that's what's bothering you. Cf. Andie McDowell in Four Weddings. May I offer you a shepherd's crook and a lamb to go with that? Only £5000.

Hmmm...maybe we need a "Bridezillas: five years on" series...I could see it going down well...

Ooh, the first strains of next week's "Spooks". Sorry, gotta go. Mwah, dahlings.

Right after I buy that matched diamond necklace and earring set...

Monday, 5 November 2007

State of emergency

At midnight on Sunday, 4 November (Pakistan time, so GMT +5), Pervez Musharraf declared a state of emergency in Pakistan. Opposition politicians, including cricketer Imran Khan, were placed under arrest, as were many other Pakistani citizens. The Supreme Court was disbanded just days before they were to rule on the legality of Musharraf's election.

Predictably, the UK and US howled in outrage. Condoleeza Rice, a woman who betrayed her gender and race by becoming part of an administration that hates both, has done what a true Republican does - threatened to pull Pakistan's aid package.

Hmmm. Let's see what happened in the weeks preceding the state of emergency, shall we? Islamic fundamentalists taking hostages in the Laal Masjid; 130 people killed in a single suicide bombing; more people killed as various outbursts of violence occur. We all know Al-Qaeda wants to isolate Pakistan from the West and turn it into a draconian Islamic state. They're punishing Pakistan for being close enough to the West to receive American aid.

And so, when Pervez Musharraf reacts the only way a Pakistani president knows how to react when the country is falling apart, Ms Rice, who doesn't know a damn thing about the culture or history of the place - and doesn't have the sense to ask anyone who does - threatens to isolate the country even further, destabilising it and driving it right into Osama's hands.

Not too surprising, since she actually believes that George W. Bush sees non-whites as equals.

Do I agree with what President Musharraf has done? Absolutely NOT. Do I understand in light of the culture and the way Pakistan works? YES. And the way to get Pakistan out from under this is NOT to push Musharraf further into the corner he's already in, but to talk to him and help him find a way out.

And let's be honest. Does either the US or the UK have a leg to stand on? The US instituted the Patriot Act; tortured prisoners in Abu Ghraib; locks people in Guantanamo Bay indefinitely. When I went back for a wedding four years ago, despite the fact I carried a US passport and had a US accent, I was asked rather aggressively, "Why are you here?"

I very nearly responded, "I was born and raised here, and carry an American passport, you c**t. Tell me, what are *you* doing here?"

I thought better of it and said I was going to a wedding, but I filed it away. Along with every time I got patted down by a man on my way to the plane, not because of the way I acted, but because of how I looked.

The UK doesn't fare much better - no pics of them abusing prisoners of war, but their Prevention of Terrorism 2005 Act, allowing the imposition of 'control orders' on those suspected of terrorism, doesn't give them the moral high ground. You know you're in trouble when one of your own judges calls your law 'an affront to justice' because it violates the European code of human rights.

To quote a favourite youtube video (see below):

"I AM afraid of the dark. I'm afraid of other things, too. I'm afraid that Western government is using terrorism as a Trojan horse to limit civil liberties..."

That is exactly what Western government is doing - it is using the fear generated by terrorism to exert greater control over a people who trust it less and less.

So if I were you, Condoleeza and Jacqui, I'd keep my mouth shut about human rights. You don't want to be looked at too closely - with centuries of constitutional liberties behind you and peaceful lands, you don't have the excuses that Musharraf does.

Amnesty International is watching you.

If you'd had any sense, you'd have brought the children of immigrants, like myself, on board. No one can hate Muslim extremists more than those who have grown up fighting the repression of Islamic culture so they can be free to be themselves - especially the women.

In my darkest revenge fantasies, I'm standing on a football pitch surrounded by pyres, on which burn the bodies of every single Taliban and Al-Qaeda member, along with every male of his line - each one shot, execution style, by a Muslim woman he abused.

No one can hate them more deeply than we can. No one wants to see them ripped out, root and branch, more than we do.

If you'd done your homework, you'd have known that. Instead, you assumed a Muslim monolith. You've paid for it in time, resources and goodwill lost.

Why are you here, indeed.

Sorry, Condo, you were saying, about Pervez Musharraf and the state of emergency...

no? What's the matter, cat got your tongue?

Or did you think you might want to take the plank out of your own eye before you remove the splinter from his?