Category Archives: God-bothering

About an Emperor

There’s nothing new under the sun – and not much new on this blog either.  I go to write about a topic and do a little search – and lo! I find three posts on the same subject without even trying.  But so what?  I mean, how closely are you paying attention anyway?

I’m kidding.  I know you’re all taking notes.

So, today’s topic is the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius.  Aurelius was a stoic; which in many ways is not a philosophy I’m drawn to: I’m not much enamoured of cold showers or camping in the snow and I absolutely decline to whisper as I kiss my children good night, ‘tomorrow you might be dead.’  (I tell myself that child mortality was much higher in his time than now – but that’s not the reason.  The reason is that I simply can’t contemplate it.)

But I can contemplate things which are happening at the moment – at least to some extent.  I’m not sure what M A would have made of the constant negative outpouring of news to which we are subjected 24/7; I suspect he would have rationed his intake of it just as I try to do.  I don’t wish to be callous; I know the situation in Syria is appalling but I don’t want to hear about it every day: I know austerity is causing suffering but there’s only so much of it I can read about.  When I find myself becoming angry, frustrated, depressed or anguished I simply turn it off, reflecting that while we have a responsibility to inform ourselves about what is going on, that responsibility needs to be balanced with protecting one’s own mental health.

But where Marcus comes in really handy for me is in the personal arena; and the saying I’m focussing on right now is this:

‘Love only what happens.  No greater harmony.’

Of course you can see a problem right away: how can I possibly ‘love’ some of the terrible things that happen to me?  How can I ‘love’ a partner’s gender dysphoria or a son’s mental illness or a total lack of money?  Well, in order to do this you have to dig deeper.  You have to believe that underlying every life event is a purpose, and that that purpose is for your own highest good.

I wouldn’t presume to say this to anyone else; and neither, incidentally, did old Marcus: his sayings were written for his own use only.  It’s quite heartwarming to read, across the millennia, a man writing to himself things like ‘for god’s sake stop!’ and ‘when will you ever learn?’  I can remember writing similarly frustrated exhortations to myself in my old diaries.

That a Roman Emperor who wielded power over much of the known world should find the time for reflection and the humility to chastise himself, is truly astonishing.  To put his advice another way, ‘If you don’t become the ocean, you’ll be seasick every day.’  That quote is from Leonard Cohen who, despite his sexual proclivities, was in many ways a stoic, able to look death and disaster in the face and know them for what they are:

Here’s some more information on Marcus Aurelius:

and a load of good sayings of his:

Incidentally, I can’t help wondering if the title character of ‘About a Boy’ was named for Marcus Aurelius?  He is after all a great stoic:

Kirk out


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Filed under God-bothering, philosophy, poems

Nobody Understands Thee. What Tu Du?

I am happy to report that depression is lifting; this is thanks in no small part to actually writing about it.  I am all too prone to interacting with people only when I feel good and hiding away when I’m depressed, thinking that no-one will want to know me in this state and that all I’ll accomplish is to bring everyone down.  But to write about it honestly has been very therapeutic and has allowed lots of other people to open up about their depression: I’ve had many messages of support as well as testimonies from others about what they are going through.  People have offered to visit or meet with me; people have said they miss me and one friend even said I was fantastic.  This has given me a real lift.

I guess you could say in these situations you find out who your friends are: it used to be that one would distinguish between intimates and strangers by the use of pronouns.  A lot of languages still do this, such as French, Spanish, German and Italian, using the informal ‘tu/du’ to distinguish intimates from more formal contacts.  Of course it can also be a way of indicating status, which is why the equivalent probably died out in British English.

Interestingly, when Quakers began, one of their distinguishing characteristics was that they addressed everyone as ‘thou’, this being the informal pronoun (the equivalent of ‘tu/du’) and thus putting everyone on the same level.  The odd thing is that, thanks to ‘thou’ surviving in religion, nowadays it sounds formal rather than informal.

The trouble is, no-one knows how to use ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ any more.  So here’s my handy guide.

  1.  ‘Thou’ is equivalent to ‘I’ and ‘thee’ is equivalent to ‘me’.  Examples: ‘what dids’t thou say?  I gave it thee.’
  2. the verb form usually ends in ‘est’ contracted to ‘st’, as in ‘did’st, could’st, hast (the ‘d’ is forgotten)
  3. the possessive is ‘thy’ with a noun following and ‘thine’ without: ‘thy socks be wet’; ‘these socks be thine.’

Here’s a fuller guide to using ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ correctly, so you’re not caught out.

Don’t be like the person who posted this joke on Facebook:

A 19th century Quaker farmer woke up in the middle of the night hearing noises downstairs. He crept down the stairs, cap-lock rifle in hand to discover a burglar in his living room. He took aim and announced in a loud clear voice, “Excuse me, friend, but would thee please move? I am about to shoot where thee is standing.”

The correct version should of course be: ‘Excuse me friend, but could’st thou please move?  I am about to shoot where thou art standing.’

Oh, and if you want an archaic plural of ‘you’, try ‘ye.’

Kirk out


Filed under friends and family, God-bothering, language and grammar

Lincoln, Mandiba, Maya and Dante

I don’t know much about Abe Lincoln except what everyone knows: that he was shot in the theatre (ouch) but apparently before he died he suffered from depression.  ‘If there’s a worse place than hell, I’m in it,’ is how he put it.  ‘Ouch’ doesn’t begin to cover that.

Nelson Mandela was despised as a nobody, imprisoned for twenty-seven years and yet became the first black leader of South Africa.  The regime took away his marriage to Winnie and his only son.

Maya Angelou became an elective mute as a child after suffering abuse, as her memoir ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ relates.  And yet she rose to become one of the foremost authors of the US and gave a recital at Bill Clinton’s inauguration.

What these people have in common is both darkness and greatness – and that’s no coincidence.  Most of us spend our lives avoiding darkness.  It’s painful and confusing; it’s unpleasant and frightening.  It can be absolute hell with no let-up.  Yet in the darkness lies the way to greatness.

Darkness comes when everything else runs out; when all the tried-and-tested methods for keeping your life going have ground to a halt, when habit seems meaningless and loved ones remote.  The darkness comes when you are at the absolute end of your strength; when there is not one ounce of energy left within you to try to make things work any more.  It’s like floating on a black sea: there’s nothing you can do but let it happen.

It’s the same journey Dante made when he ‘woke to find himself in a dark wood where.. the right way was lost.’  Dante has one hell of an Easter weekend; going through the inferno on the Friday, purgatory on the Saturday and finally arriving in heaven on Easter Sunday.  What’s interesting is that he never loses sight of the world ‘outside’, knowing at any moment what day and hour it is, where the sun and moon are and whereabouts he actually is (hell is located in the centre of the earth in his cosmology.)

Hell is the worst thing the human imagination can conceive: read James Joyce’s sermon from ‘Portrait of the Artist’ and then try sleeping, if you can:

I couldn’t.  But you don’t need to believe in Biblical sin and damnation to read Dante.  Like all works of genius it transcends the age which spawned it, and today it can be read as a dark night of the soul; a journey through the depths of depression towards realisation and enlightenment.  In Dante’s cosmology the damned are quite separate from those in purgatory who, though they suffer, have hope.  But we need not read it so: for us, as for Dante himself, there can always be the possibility of transformation, of transition to a better place.

Nowadays we have little concept of sin and punishment.  We have thrown out the sins of our fathers and decided that we are our own judge, jury and executioner.  But the greatest sins are those which separate us from others and from our common humanity – which is why the centre of Dante’s inferno is not fire but a frozen lake.

What melts the frozen lake is compassion.  One of the most moving scenes from the film ‘Gandhi’ is where a man comes to him in despair.  ‘I am going to hell,’ he tells the Mahatma.  ‘I took a Muslim child and bashed his brains out against a wall.’

‘I know a way out of hell,’ says the ever-practical Gandhi.  ‘You must find an orphaned Muslim child and raise him yourself – as a Muslim.’

The way out of hell is reconciliation.  Reconciliation melts the frozen lake and allows people to come together.  Where would South Africa have been without the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Mandela instituted?  Where would Maya Angelou have been if she had stored up bitterness and hatred in her heart?  Instead she turned the hell of her childhood into a powerful work of art.  Reconciliation is the way out of hell.

None of us knows for sure what happens when we die, but anyone can find out what happens when we live.  Embrace the darkness, find the truth within it, and move on.

Here’s an article I found helpful when writing this post:

Kirk out


Filed under friends and family, God-bothering, philosophy

TV Martyrs

Imagine my surprise!

Go on!

Well, have you imagined it?

What’s that?  You want a reason?  OK well imagine that yesterday morning it’s early.  Too early.  That’s not the reason – I wake up early every bloody morning including Sunday.  Nor was it the fact that OH made tea early: that was no surprise either.  This is my life – everything is early.  Nope, the surprise was that as he came in with the tray the news also entered the room that the Church of the Martyrs was on the radio.  Not local radio, national.  Radio 4.

Let’s backtrack a little.  Immigration is a big subject for debate at the moment.  The other week I had a disagreement with someone who thought there was a link between the churches and far-right groups.  No, I said.  Absolutely not.  Maybe in the US but not here; in the UK, churches of whatever persuasion would not touch far-right groups with a bargepole.  And I stand by that – but the programme (which was also on the TV) gave me pause for thought; because it appears that 66% of Anglicans want immigration to be reduced.  That’s 66% of churchgoing Anglicans, not people who just put ‘C of E’ on application forms without ever setting foot inside the porch.  The figure for non-churchgoing Anglicans is 88%, which is more understandable, but the figure of 66% is quite concerning because it means Anglicans are more hostile to immigration than other denominations.

First on the programme was Billy Graham’s son Franklin, who defended his attendance at Trump’s inauguration by saying, in effect, ‘no-one’s perfect’ and declaring that God intervened to appoint Trump as President.

it’s about 7 minutes in.

The recording of The Martyrs came as a breath of fresh air.  It was made during a recent ‘Tomatoes’ breakfast cafe about which I have blogged many times:

and talking about a Christian duty to welcome the stranger and the refugee.  It included an interview with Evernice, whom I know well, who is a refugee from East Africa and now a valued member of the church.  There was also an interview with vicar Richard who reiterated the point about the Christian duty to welcome the stranger.  It never ceases to amaze me how people can ignore key aspects of the gospel when it suits their particular prejudices.

Kirk out


Filed under friends and family, God-bothering, politics, radio, TV reviews

The Devil is in the Retail

The title of this post came to me at 5 o’clock this morning, and I immediately started to construct a post in my mind, centred around this question: what is the biggest threat to Christmas?  It’s not Muslims: Jesus is a prophet in Islam and most Muslims are quite happy to go along with celebrating Christmas in a minor sort of way.  It’s not Sikhs or Hindus or Jews or those of any other religion.  It’s not even militant atheists like Richard Dawkins.  Nope, it’s our good ol’ friend commercialism, who, the minute a religious festival pops up rubs his hands together, sets up a stall and starts cashing in.

Of course this is nothing new: from the money-changers in the temple to medieval purveyors of religious relics, people have always tried to cash in on religion; but I am starting to feel a little like Jesus.  What with Black Friday and Christmas starting in October and all the relentless shopping, I’m itching to get in there and do whatever is the modern equivalent of overturning the tables.

Our Christmas has cost about £250 in all; including food, presents, cards and decorations.  Now I’m not saying ideally I wouldn’t have liked to spend a bit more, but I’m not convinced that if I had it would, to quote Jane Austen, have added considerably to my happiness – or anyone else’s.

Anyway, today is the solstice, which is a time for acknowledging the darkness while remembering the light; a time for lighting candles rather than cursing the dark; a time for reflection.  It is hard to recall now that Advent (which continues until Christmas Eve) is traditionally a time of fasting rather than manic shopping and endless parties.

So this Christmas as well as thinking of the homeless and empoverished, spare a thought for those who think Christmas comes from a store.  Because they are truly the poorest of the poor…

Kirk out


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The Search for Certainty: God and the Transgender Debate

Does God hate gender-queers?  According to ‘God and the Transgender Debate’ by Andrew T Walker, certainly not.  This is the best aspect of a book which fell into my hands via a relative and which I snatched up eagerly, hoping it might have some insights to offer me.  God loves gender-queers; in fact God loves the whole rag, tag and quiltbag, and so should we.

The good news is that Walker goes to great lengths to urge Christians and churches to accept and welcome the transgender/gender queer/gender dysphoric.  Apart from that, I have to report that sadly the book has little to offer the trans person or their families (I shall use the word trans as an umbrella term here, to avoid either lists or acronyms.)  He even goes so far as to say that churches should use the preferred pronoun of a trans person coming to them.  However, he goes on to say:

‘If and when this person desires greater involvement in or membership of the church – or if, for example, a biological male wants to attend a woman’s Bible study – a church leader will need to meet with them and talk about how they identify and what faithful church involvement and membership will look like.’

All of this sounds very open-minded and in some ways it is; but since the bottom line is ‘you must accept Genesis’ you pretty much know how that conversation’s going to go.  I have been on the receiving end of such conversations (to do with other issues than this) and I can tell you it hurts just as much then, as it does if you are not welcomed in the first place.  In fact it hurts more, because it signals that acceptance by a community is conditional; that if you want to go further you have to shed certain aspects of yourself and conform.

The basic tenet of this book is exactly the same as books on homosexuality twenty or thirty years ago: that God created Adam and Eve and this means that the sexes, while complementary, are irredeemably different.  There is no spectrum; there is a line that cannot be crossed (in the same way, similar books twenty or so years ago emphasised that sex is between a man and a woman because god created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.)  This is the bottom line.  The Bible is the ultimate repository of truth and that’s that.  It remains for the church to find ways of dealing with trans people in a spirit of love.

Now I give him full marks for the spirit of love aspect: he really does go out of his way to point out that all have sinned etc and trans people should be treated no differently from the rest of us.  So far so good.  What the book doesn’t posit is any kind of a solution.  Churches like his (he’s a US Southern Baptist) have gotten savvy about ‘praying things away’; there are too many examples out there which show this doesn’t work and hasn’t worked (I know of at least one in my own life).  Which leaves him with – well, not very much really.  Basically if you have gender dysphoria you’re stuck with it until you die – at which point, of course, all your problems will be gone.

‘When it comes to gender dysphoria, Jesus is not promising that coming to him means walking away from that experience.  He is asking someone to be willing to live with that dysphoria, perhaps for their whole lives – and to follow him nonetheless.’

This seems to me highly unsatisfactory.

What is at the bottom of this debate is the fundamental question of human identity.  Walker does at least separate gendered cultural norms from ‘essential gender’ (whatever that is), though he hardly takes it very far: it’s OK for girls to like football and boys cooking, but men have broad shoulders whereas women have broad hips.  Wow.  I’m sensing a basically unaltered fundamentalism here.

The book dismisses the modern culture of individualism with a very superficial analysis and surveys history with a single sweep, concluding that ‘in traditional societies… virtually every society until the last decade or so in parts of the West – gender has been attached to sex.’

This is simply inaccurate, and as an American he ought to know more about Native American culture and its ‘two spirit’ idea.  There are also African societies that think differently about gender, so the idea that traditionally this is all cut and dried is bunkum.  I don’t mean there isn’t a bottom line; it’s just that where it is ain’t exactly clear.

So all in all, this book is helpful in one aspect only; in its teaching to the church to be compassionate and accepting.  And for that I honour it: but the rest, I am afraid, leaves us with the same question we started out with.

I’ll leave you with some humour:

Kirk out

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Filed under Book reviews, friends and family, God-bothering, politics

That Thought Would Never Have Occurred to Me

Occasionally you meet with an opinion on some everyday phenomenon which rocks you back on your heels, not necessarily because it’s controversial but because it’s so totally out there: it’s a thought that would never, in a million years, have occurred to you.  The latest example of this meme (if you can call it that, which you can’t) happened the other evening.  I was at a meeting in a room with an artwork on the wall, showing Guy Fawkes on a bonfire.  It was a 3-D effigy and the flames were very colourful; I smiled at it once or twice, thought how unusual it was to see Guy Fawkes rather than a bonfire plus fireworks and set off on a nostalgic journey to a childhood where groups of kids wandered the streets with a stuffed suit in a wheelbarrow shouting ‘penny for the guy!’  We were never allowed to walk the streets, but we did make a guy every year by stuffing some old clothes of my Dad’s with newspaper.  This guy went on the bonfire and was a central part of the festivities, along with hand-held sparklers, wall-mounted Catherine wheels and distant rockets whose failure to explode would be investigated by a torch-wielding parent.  I loved Bonfire Night and have regretted that of late it has been superseded by Hallowe’en: it does seem to be making a comeback, though, possibly connected in some vague way to Brexit.

But in all these years it never occurred to me to think of the burning of Guy Fawkes as anti-Catholic.  Sure, I knew the story, but as far as I was concerned these religious divisions were buried deep in the past.  Bonfire Night was an anti-authoritarian night of fun; nothing more.  So I was quite taken aback to hear someone say, after the meeting, that she was shocked by the picture on the wall.

‘Shocked?’ we asked.  ‘How so?’

‘It’s so anti-Catholic,’ she affirmed.

I think we were all taken aback by this view of things.  Most others took my view of things, that the 5th of November has been so long divorced from those political acts that inspired it, as to have no relevance.  If it inspires any feelings nowadays beyond family fun, it is a general antipathy to politicians: I don’t think it would occur to anybody to associate it with anti-Catholicism.  After all, nobody thinks about the torture of St Catherine when they look at a Catherine wheel, do they?

Am I wrong?  Am I living in an Anglican bubble?  Do Catholics still take offence at Bonfire Night?

I think we should be told.

Kirk out

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