Sunday, 29 March 2009

So, about this Jesus bloke...

Over at Telling Secrets there's a great post with some good questions. Do go read the whole thing.

I'm having a little attempt to answer some of the questions for myself, here. Because really, a lot of this is what I'm trying to figure out.

So, here’s my question: Do you know Jesus? Yes, I know you do, but how would you describe Jesus? In your own words? Who is Jesus for you and why does he make a difference in your life of faith?

I don't know that I do know Jesus, really.

I know what some people say of Jesus.

My familiarity with the Gospel is somewhat rudimentary; I'm working on mending that, through daily reading and prayer. But I'm not a literalist, and I'm sufficiently cynical that I will always wonder how much of what is in the Bible is entirely context-dependent, I will always wonder how much of what people wrote is true in any sense. Sometimes, that doesn't seem to matter much: the Summary of Law speaks to me on a level that doesn't take into account literal truth in any sort of rational way, it just feels right. But even then, there's this bit of me that says, "Okay, nice idea, admirable idea, I'll buy that, I'll try to live that way, but how do I know that it's this Jesus guy who said it? Hillel came pretty close for all that. It's an idea that was floating around at the time, it needed a story." It's all a bit too convenient, and I can't accept on any rational level the authority of a text that isn't even consistent within itself on that level.

If I were to say that the Bible is a finished work rather than a snapshot of an ever-growing library, then I might have to conclude that Jesus was a person who was hugely inspiring to a number of people. I know how I feel when I have am falling in love with someone, how my entire world revolves around them and I think they are the Best! Thing! Evar! (better than kittens!) and I want to tell everyone I meet how shiny they are. I can see an extrapolation of that leading to the conclusion that a person is somehow more divine than the rest of us, somehow sent by God for the benefit of the rest of us. The psychological wrenching shock of the crucifixion would make that an easy leap to make, I think.

But... somehow, that doesn't really feel like the right answer. I can't put my finger on all of why. Partly it's that I don't accept the Bible as a standalone, finished work. I think there's a very strong possibility that it is still in progress.

I said that I know some of what others say of Jesus. Contemporary accounts are part of that, too. And most of that isn't so much in the form of words as in the form of actions.

There is Deacon Friend, who reaches out to those in need no matter how great her own suffering, who has turned her life upside down and inside out in some very unfavorable circumstances to pursue a vocation to priesthood. There is Catholic Friend, who has provided so much practical and moral support through some very difficult times of my life and who takes so much care to speak truth and reduce harm. There is C of E Friend, who balances his public and private life in a way that makes me think even someone as strange as I am (for I am, in some ways, less strange than he) can perhaps find a community and fit in without dishonesty or confrontation. There are many other examples, people who seem to be doing what I perceive as God's work in this world, moving heaven and earth to help others. Many of them seem superhuman in their stamina and I can see, in some of them, that their ability to do this work is tied up in their relationship with God. For many that relationship with God is very much in a Christian context, inseparable from their relationship with Jesus. And that's one of the things that does make Christianity itch for me, does keep me curious about Jesus: if so many of the people who make this world worth living in are Christian, if so many of the people who I would actually trust with my life are Christian, then maybe there is something to it. Maybe I was wrong to walk away.

There are plenty of examples of people I think do God's work, or at least have been Godsends in my life, who are not Christian. Some belong to other faiths, some to none. Some of them are not even theist. And yet all seem to have the same modus operandi: that nobody, alive or dead, is worthless, that we are responsible for compassionate action in the world, that the world is interconnected in ways too deep and complex for us to understand, that unconditional positive regard (that's, er, love) can change the world. The theists among them would expand that to say that we are all loved, unconditionally, that we are all God's children.

And I think that maybe that's what Jesus was getting at, too. And whether the Gospel is an accurate historical account, a mythology, or something somewhere in between, it says Jesus was so committed to this message that He was willing to die for it. That this message is so important, so sacred, that even death couldn't kill it, because love is stronger.

I don't think that Christianity is the only religion that has these linked messages of God's love for us and our invitation to act for God in the world, to become an active part of God's work. But human beings love stories, and as stories go, the Passion is a pretty good illustration of those messages--whether it's true in a strict historical, rational sense or not. As a metaphorical thought-shorthand it works very well. And I don't know about you, but I do need metaphorical thought-shorthand. I need images and symbols and rituals in my life because without them I get disoriented and lost.

If some visitors who weren’t Christian came in today because they wanted to meet Jesus, who would they find? How would you describe Jesus to them?

I guess I would try to explain what I already explained above. I would say that the story of Jesus' life and death and resurrection is one that assures us we are loved and invites us to participate in the world in a loving manner. I would explain that the more loved I feel the more I also feel called to love the world as much as I can, that service from this position of an overflow of love becomes a joy rather than a chore, that when I am exhausted or discouraged or frightened or lonely or hurting it is love that keeps me going and that I seek to augment my awareness of God's love so that I can augment my love of the world so that I can augment my awareness of God's love, that it's a cyclical process, that love is stronger than fear, love is stronger than death. And that doesn't seem, at first glance, to have much to do with Jesus at all. Maybe I can understand the meaning of the story without accepting that it happened as literal descriptions would claim.

Here’s the important question of faith: How would you tell others about who his is and where to find him? And, would they know that any of that is true by how you live your life? One of my favorite images of the church is that of one hungry beggar telling another hungry beggar how and from whom to get bread.

If I had to point to a text to sum things up I don't know where I'd start. If I were talking about my own personal experiences, then I guess I'd start with how other people have affected my own spiritual path. I'd say to find Jesus look for love in the world, try to see the love in any situation, add to it if you can, and especially add love if you can't see any.

I hope that the way I live my life might say a little of this. I know I routinely fall short.

I am a genuinely caring and affectionate person; I try to communicate this, I try to let people know by my words and actions that I do love them. I know I often fail, or overshoot and come across as horribly forward and inappropriate (especially in British culture).

I am a teacher. One of the things I strive for in my teaching is to be honest with my students and respectful of them, to invite them to learn rather than intimidate them into it. Children really do get an awful lot of flak and I don't want to add to that. I try to make it clear that I am there to teach them music and the reason for that is that it is fun and worthwhile. I try to make it clear that some of what I teach them about music is applicable to learning other things, or to life in general. I try to teach them that learning to love what they are doing is more important than learning not to make mistakes, that learning to love a piece of music so much they want to play it for others is more important than passing exams. I try to teach them that practising is a tool, not a punishment, that it is okay for them to have bad days as long as they are genuinely trying their best, that I do believe they are giving it their best shot. Because I do, you know, maybe I'm just naive, but I believe every last one of them does the best that they can with the resources and information they have. My job is merely to try to frame the information in a useful way. I don't know that I succeed at any of this, but objectively I can say that I do not shout at my students as much as some teachers I have had, and that they do mostly seem to want to continue learning, and that today I had students smiling, rushing to their instruments as soon as I arrived so they could show me what they'd done this week. So maybe I do get it right some of the time, this teaching stuff, enough of the time to know it's worth it for me to keep trying. And maybe none of my students will see Jesus in that, but I hope they get the message that they are loved, they are worthwhile, that it is worth doing the best they can.

Here’s the thing: If you want to meet Jesus, you don’t need a formal introduction. All you have to do is walk with him, and let him walk with you. Put your body and your mind and your soul with him and open yourself to his presence.

And, believe. Amen.

I'm working on it. It sounds so simple, and yet I trip over my rational doubts so often. I don't seem to be able to relate to Jesus much except on a very metaphorical and symbolic level.

Saturday, 28 March 2009

A sadness

There has been another tragedy in this community that I don't really know but which has welcomed me so warmly.

Last night Sweetie was late for my concert. I was worried sick. We haven't had half a lifetime together to grow close but the thought of losing him is still terrifying. I can't imagine what Lisa is going through right now. As with my bereaved friend earlier in the week, I have nothing to offer but my thoughts and prayers.

Friday, 27 March 2009

plodding along

It's getting toward the end of a busy week.

The sadministrative (that was a typo but I'll leave it!) problem that reared its ugly head a week and a half ago has not gone away but it is firmly in hand and not bothering me so much now. One of the staff, at least, at Academic Institution sees my point of view, agrees that students ought not be penalised for administrative failure on the part of Academic Institution, and will write letters in my support.

Performance last night went well. It was exhausting and conditions were not ideal but we played well. The German Requiem, in particular, was meaningful for me as a friend's brother died earlier this week. The commute home after the concert was unpleasant, I did not get in until well after midnight. As I was up at 6am again today this was less than ideal. Today is another ibuprofen day. We get to repeat the performance tonight in a less forgiving acoustic. Despite the tiredness, I'm looking forward to it. It helps that the commute afterward will be shorter and include the company of Sweetie, who I've not seen for a week.

Tomorrow I will rest. I had hoped to travel northward to meet Grandmere Mimi but I think I am too tired for the journey at this stage. I need to practise a little but can take it easy. I might make nettle soup again, if there is fine weather for foraging. Sunday I teach all day. Monday I rehearse, then teach.

Tuesday I have a solo performance. It's a competitive situation; my task is to find the courage to play with love, warmth, honesty and joy despite this. In some ways it helps that I don't have a hope of getting through to the next round of competition!

After that things finally quiet down a little. I'm planning to work half days for the last three days of next week. Depending how tired I am and whether the lurgy I've got now makes itself scarce, I may extend that until Easter. I want to catch up on rest and get some physical vigour and stamina back. After Easter I have the last three big written assignments to do, and my final recital to prepare for, and then this course of study will be finished. And there will be much rejoicing.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Fear, love, courage and performance

Today has been rather long. Nearly six hours of it was spent in an orchestra rehearsal.

As a musician I feel like I've been put through a wringer. The conductor is very good. He has a lot of good things to say, he is trying to encourage us, trying to get us to take risks and play from the heart as (I feel) true musicians ought to.

The difficulty is that he also expects, nay, demands, a very high standard of performance. In the long term, this is entirely compatible with his desire for a heartfelt, musical performance from all of us. The way to get to a point of taking risks and giving a committed and heartfelt performance is to take the risks in a safe environment, to discover that yes, we can do this well and no, the odd technical problem really doesn't matter all that much in the grand scheme of things.

The problem is that it isn't a safe environment when we're being encouraged to take risks and then chastened when the results of those risks are perhaps less technically brilliant than they might be. We're all nervous already--because we care about the music, we care about getting things right. There are two responses to that. One is to love the music all the more, pour heart and soul into performance and accept that, oh, we might miss some notes. The other is to switch off. The conductor doesn't want us to switch off, but he also doesn't accept the missed notes.

All day it was like this. We played, perhaps a bit too nervously, certainly too woodenly. He begged us to play properly, play the music not just the notes, get off the page and into the soul of things. We responded, and then someone messed something up--usually something small, something we could fix given another time or so to go over it. And then he stopped, to tell us we shouldn't really be making those mistakes, we should have better technical skills, focus, control than that. And the defensive walls in our hearts went right back up and we repeated the whole thing again.

There are a lot of reasons we're not playing at our technical best. Some of it is to do with the way the orchestral projects are run at Academic Institution; in order to give a fair chance at orchestral playing to rather unbalanced instrumentation, there isn't a set Symphony Orchestra with set players in it; rather, players are chosen on a project-by-project basis. This means we aren't used to playing together as a group and haven't had time to really start to listen to one another the way a good ensemble should, or to iron out the worst of the (inevitable) problems with intonation and with starting and ending notes together. The conductor can do only so much for ensemble issues.

For my part, I've had a very very busy six weeks. A lot of my own playing is not at the technical standard I would like because I have had to skimp on practice time in order to get everything done; my 90-minute technical maintenance routine has had to be shoehorned into 45 minutes far more often than I would like. The result is a lack of consistency in my playing, and of course that inconsistency is in itself disconcerting enough to cause problems. But there's very little since January that I've been in a position to turn down, and I know several of my colleagues are in a similar position of wanting to do better at the music but straining at the limits of their physical and mental capacity to do more work.

For the most part, though, I think the biggest problem is that we've all spent a few years now trying to improve our playing. Musicians have to be self-critical: if we can't hear our own mistakes we won't be able to improve without help. Every slight indiscretion is noted, to be examined later in the practise room or in a lesson, and when we're playing together with others and for a conductor we don't know that all gets magnified.

I hope that we can find the generosity and love for the music that we will need to create an honest and courageous performance. Playing it safe, being driven by fear, is not my preferred mode of performance.

This isn't unlike some of the issues I've looked at before here. I think there's an element of this love-vs-fear problem for any performing artist.

I think there are broader applications, too: are we judged by our intent, our efforts to do right, or by the results of those efforts? Is it better to take a risk on something that might improve the world, or to play it safe and do no harm?

I'm still pretty tired so it's off to say my prayers and go to bed. Maybe I'll have time and energy to discuss this stuff further at some point.

Monday, 23 March 2009

Reaching out

I'm trying to write a condolence letter to a bereaved friend. I wish I could find the right words to let her know she is in my thoughts and prayers.

I wish the words, thoughts, prayers could ever be enough, but they aren't and won't be.

I hope I can offer some comfort.

I was rehearsing a requiem when I got the news. I've not met the deceased, but the rest of that rehearsal, at least from my perspective, was a prayer for him.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

I aten't ded.

So many thoughts swirling around in my head, and I don't seem to have the mental wherewithal to put any of them into a coherent post. Here, have an incoherent one, instead.

Of course I ended up thinking about motherhood and my own Mum and our relationship. I've re-written the rest of this paragraph several times now, trying to find a way to explain things accurately without speaking ill of anyone. Perhaps some things are better left unexplained, at least in such a public forum.

Reading some of the Mothering Sunday messages that have been about has made me cry. I think Good in Parts and Reflectionary are the main culprits.

Some of the tearfulness is probably just tiredness. Big Project had a final performance on Friday night, after weeks of preparation and rehearsal. Soon I will have to do all the evaluative paperwork but for now I am leaving it well alone; this week I have completely different performance goals, and some nasty administrative paperwork to try to sort out.

I'm glad of the online spiritual sustenance; the sermon I heard at Evensong today did not do much for me. Maybe I just don't have the background or I'm too tired, but it seemed to be linking too many unrelated ideas in ways I didn't understand. But the music was good.

Yesterday - spring! It has sprung, at least in London. I was extremely tired but managed to wander around the park and made nettle soup. That will teach those nasty nettles to sting me.

There are actually quite a few good plants to eat at this time of year if you know what you're looking for. Most of them aren't as bothersome as nettles. I rather like being aware of the ways the world feeds me.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Halfway through the week already!

Exam today was okay. Not amazing, but it could have been worse.

I've regained some perspective about some of the administrative stress from earlier in the week. I'm not necessarily happy about it but I've accepted that the Big Project I've been working on is not going to go as I'd hoped it would. This doesn't make it a failure, just something to learn from. Even if what I learned is "no, projects on that scale are not a good idea while in the final year of a degree."

Choralgirl writes of the Charter for Compassion, a project of Karen Armstrong financed by the TED Prize. I'm curious about how this will turn out. Compassion does seem to be increasingly important to my own understanding of faith and life.

That in turn relates back to Loving Your Enemy.

I find it very difficult to love or find compassion for people who are in a position where they can hurt me, in situations where an imbalance of power leaves me feeling vulnerable and afraid.

That doesn't mean I need to wrest power from others and try to take control of situations. Oh, sometimes that is probably the right thing to do. But many times dealing with these situations in a loving manner means figuring out why I am afraid, thinking about what a loving response would actually be and how to do that, and then taking the risk.

That's not an easy task, but it gets a whole lot easier when I feel loved, myself. I can talk about therapy and medication and how much those helped me to recover (to an extent) from depression. I can talk about the physio exercises I do most days for my joint problems, to keep me mobile and relatively free from pain. But I know that none of that would even have been possible without the care, concern, compassion and love that others showed me.

That love transformed my life. It taught me that I want to love others.

Maybe it can also teach me how to do so.

Monday, 16 March 2009

That'll teach me to count blessings...

This week was already going to be a very heavy week in terms of academic and performance work; several deadlines at once have decided to gang up on me. Next week is also pretty bad but at least some of the worst deadlines will be past by then.

The last time this happened, and some other life stuff was happening as well, I ended up handing a written assignment in two weeks late and woefully undercomplete. That's not bad compared to some previous assignments when I was significantly less well; some of those were seasons late, even though they were much smaller assignments. I did the prudent, responsible thing and spoke to people about it before it was too late. I filled out a mitigating circumstances form, detailing the various mitigating circumstances (which were multiple), and handed that in too. I rectified one of the worst mitigating circumstances (which was actually something Academic Institution should have done at the beginning of October, and failed to do because of administrative problems and understaffing). And I've set aside time, after this particular knot of deadlines is over, to re-do that assignment so I actually learn the material.

Today, at the end of a long and exhausting day in which I lost more time than I can afford to travel and was already wondering how I would make it through the rest of the week, I opened my post to find a letter from Academic Institution saying my claim for mitigating circumstances has been rejected. Apparently, it does not relate directly to the timing of the assessment affected. Without wanting to go into too much detail, I don't see how that can be the case.

The person at Academic Institution who was my greatest advisor and advocate has moved on. I could ask her advice, and she'd gladly give it, but she has her own personal and far more serious sorrows to deal with right now.

I'm trying to keep a sense of perspective about this, and rather failing. This is my final year. I had to take a year out already when I was ill, and I started six years later than most, also due in part to illness. I've worked very hard to put my life back together, and I've had a lot of help from people I don't want to disappoint. I want to finish. I am doing the best I can. This couldn't have worse timing: I can't take the time to respond properly to this letter, to appeal this decision, without sacrificing some other deadline.

I am going to say my prayers and go to sleep now, because there is nothing about this situation that is made better by me being exhausted. But I don't think things will be any different in the morning, except that it will be seven hours later and I will still have just as much to do.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

A lovely day

Oh, internets, I had such a good day today.

The weather was beautiful for cycling. I woke up in plenty of time and with more energy than I've any right to given my recent schedule; the normally-takes-thirty-minutes-mostly-uphill initial part of my commute was only twenty or twenty-five today. The glorious sunshine continued all day. The plums are in full flower now and the magnolias are not far behind. What a blessing.

Teaching was challenging and tiring, as always. Nothing about teaching today was spectacularly dismal, and nothing about it was spectacularly wonderful, except that teaching is always miraculous somehow. Some of my students are working toward exams, others have more personal goals; all are progressing, though not always in the directions they and I think we would like. Sometimes I have the joy of finding a student who responds well to my teaching and learns to love what is essentially a very difficult subject requiring much discipline and much courage. Sometimes, discovering with a student that actually, they don't want to learn this instrument or even this subject... sometimes that's still successful teaching. I am savoring the last few lessons with a student I've taught for several years now, she is at a point where it is time for her to move on, and though I'll miss her I know that this is right. I love every one of my students dearly and want to teach them as well as I can. I'm keenly aware that every challenge they bring me is an opportunity for me to improve as a teacher and grow as a person. And I get paid for this, enough to live on if I'm frugal. What a blessing.

After that I went down to Leafy Suburb Church for Evensong. The journey went well and I saw a rather beautiful sunset. I'm starting to be known at Leafy Suburb Church, everyone was very welcoming. Before the service I ended up discussing hymnody with... well, I'd have to call them friends by now really. There were some moments of perhaps not-entirely-Lenten levity. I feel welcome there. What a blessing.

The service itself was good. Hymns maybe a bit on the slow side--a Lent thing perhaps?--but two of them to tunes I know and love. Someone had printed out the pointed psalms and music for them and left them on the ledge and this meant I was able to join in with the choral psalmody in a way I haven't previously. I found myself whispering small bits of the Apostles' Creed, though I still find much of it I can't accept and so won't utter. And that, too, seems to be okay, seems to be accepted. There is a warmth of spirit, a goodwill and lovingkindness in the worship at Leafy Suburb Church which seems almost tangible at times. What a blessing.

Of course, I'm hopelessly biased about Leafy Suburb Church, because the main reason I make the journey all that way is to see Deacon Friend. I don't think she expected me to come to every choral Evensong. I didn't expect I would be able to but it has worked out that way so far. And so in a friendship that is mostly conducted on e-mail these days, today there were shared smiles, eye contact, commiserations over our respective deadline pileups, that near-instant visual appraisal of another's wellbeing that renders the small talk of "How are you?" moot except as a conversational placeholder, the polite and a bit tired (we'd both been working all day, after all) chitchat that in some relationships seems to bring people closer rather than hold them at arm's length. We're both very busy and Leafy Surburb is a good 90 minutes' commute from where I live, so we don't get to see each other much; every visit is a blessing. And every visit reminds me, in turn, what a blessing this woman is to the world and what a blessing this friendship is in my life, what a blessing so many other friendships are to me.

Even the journey home seemed charmed: I didn't have to wait long at either of the two changes, which always makes things a little easier. That's a small thing, but still very much a blessing. All of the little joys I've mentioned can be seen as small or insignificant in face of the trials and evils in this world, but not to acknowledge them and partake of them would just be to add to the trials.

What blessings did you notice today?

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Have a heart. And a liver. And some kidneys...

As most readers here will know, Roseann over at Give Peace a Chance needs a kidney. I don't really know Roseann, but I've been praying for her all the same, because she seems to be part of this community and you all seem to care, and a little more prayer isn't going to hurt her or me. And I've known others waiting for kidney transplants and it is every kind of not fun, folks, that you could ever imagine.

Roseann has been turned down for a transplant waiting list, because she's considered too high-risk by that particular medical institution. Now, there are lots of things wrong with that, and they'll probably be discussed elsewhere, but here's the thing:

She's been turned down because there are so few kidneys available that only those with the greatest need and the greatest chance of survival even qualify for the waiting list.

If you aren't on the organ donation register in the country where you live, I want you to have a good long think about why not. If you were hit by a bus tomorrow, what would happen to your liver, your kidneys, your heart? Those could save three or four lives, and you'll have no need of them.

If you aren't on the organ donation register in the country where you live, and you have no strong objections to donating your organs after you're done with them, I'd like you to sign up. I would consider it a personal favour.

Here's how to get started in the UK.

Here's how to get started in the US.

I'm not sure about other countries, but feel free to add links in comments.

Consider, also, becoming a living kidney donor. I've considered it--seriously--but my own health problems prevent me being a suitable donor at this point.

(It's quite likely that this did the rounds months ago, long before I got here. Too bad. It's important enough to repeat.)

Thursday, 12 March 2009


I'm really upset by the Church of Nigeria's support for anti-gay legislation. Come on, people. Humans can do better than this. We can love better than this, we can live better than this, we don't have to be so afraid of one another that we would imprison those who are different from ourselves.

All theological or doctrinal issues aside (and I've got a few of those), how can I even consider joining a Church which is in communion with people who support such hate and violence? I do not expect perfection, I expect there will be diversity and disagreement. I expect people to make mistakes, and I expect it to take time for those mistakes to be rectified. I expect I make a fair few mistakes myself, the sort that frustrate others. But I don't see how this kind of hate-mongering is ethically acceptable. I certainly don't see how it follows Jesus Christ, who (as I understand it) preached love and forgiveness a lot more than judgement and punishment.

It's one thing when your child gets caught shoplifting, age 13, and you take him back home and have a Serious Talk about why that sort of thing is Not Okay, and also seriously examine your own parenting skills. It's quite another thing when that same 'child' is 25 years old and has moved on to armed robbery and is still living in your home. At what point does supporting a person condone their actions? At what point is that support collusion rather than just tacit approval? And yet, and yet. People have to make their own choices. Turfing out that 13-year-old would be considered too harsh. Turfing out the 25-year-old would be, well, it would be too little too late. And where did that 25-year-old learn that armed robbery is an acceptable strategy for success, anyway?

As far as I can tell, as long as the Anglican Communion accepts this sort of thing, it is aiding and abetting some pretty vile discrimination. I don't know how to respond to that, or to the discrimination--less violent, but still marked--within the Communion in supposedly more 'civilised' countries. But joining up doesn't seem like a very good idea.

Whatever you do unto the least of these, you do unto me.

Lord, have mercy on these people who re-crucify You, two thousand years later. Apparently Your forgiveness is infinite. Alas, mine isn't. I can't even forgive the sins of my own insignificant life without Your help. I'm pretty sure I don't even perceive all of the ways I nail You to the cross every day. I cannot comprehend mercy on this scale.

(In other news: the essay is going to be a day late. I'll take a 10% docking of marks for it. I'm annoyed but resigned: I can't do everything. Still.)

Wednesday, 11 March 2009


I'm meant to be working on an essay today, it's due tomorrow. Organ improvisation and DuPré's Vespers Op. 18, and how he communicates the text (bits of Song of Solomon, Ave Maris Stella, and Magnificat) in the music, in case you're wondering, but most of you aren't! The potential to get sidetracked into Gregorian chant is very high in this essay but I've got most of an outline done, just need to keep fleshing it out with more detail until I get to my required number of words.

So, since I'm meant to be working on an essay, I've actually been thinking profoundly deep theological thoughts pissing about on teh internets.

Things I've been thinking:

A post at Questioning Christian has made me think that maybe we humans go about this whole "repent and be saved" thing the wrong way around. A strong sense of the existence of God and an acute sense of my own imperfection don't seem to be enough for me to actually improve: perfectionism takes over, and I get stuck. A sense that God loves me, a sense that God's love is abundant and freely given and absolutely unconditional, has the opposite effect. I worry less about getting things 'right' or 'perfect' and just try to love the world as much as I can, with God's help. The perception of God's love in my life right now is fairly embryonic, I'd say. My conscious awareness of it can be fleeting and I am most unaccustomed to feeling this way. But it's there sometimes, and it seems to be growing. And I think that is good. And I think, maybe, that is making it easier to improve.

I read a lovely webcomic called xkcd. This comic has been stuck in my head since it was posted last week. I keep thinking, "Hey, there's a cross in the etch-a-sketch, what does that mean?" and I know it's just how the thing works, nothing deliberate, and I'm pretty sure the author didn't mean any reference to Christianity. itches. There's a cross in the etch-a-sketch. I feel that way about Christianity in general, I think: I know it fits somewhere in my life, but I'm really not sure about the how and where of it. Perhaps could fit somewhere is more accurate: I'm still not convinced it has any truth to offer that other major religions do not touch on in some way, and many of the reasons I feel drawn to Christianity now could very well be social and personal rather than based on any profound spiritual uniqueness. But the etch-a-sketch could have had a triangular mechanism, and the reasons it doesn't are pragmatic, not aesthetic. Maybe it's okay for some of my approach to spirituality to be pragmatic, too.

I'm not sure how those two things relate to one another, but it does feel like there's some connection.

Pragmatism says it is well past time for me to eat lunch.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Gender dysphoria treatment

A friend of a friend of mine is currently being refused medical treatment on the NHS for a debilitating condition which seriously threatens her health, in one of the most vicious, idiotic and arbitrary Catch-22 policies I have ever had the horror to encounter.

She has created a petition to attempt to get the government to recognise the inhumane treatment to which she is being subjected, and to compel the Primary Care Trust in question to bring its policies in line with the rest of this (apparently 'civilised') country.

If you are a UK citizen or resident please consider signing the petition here:

Please also propagate this link. A minimum of 200 signatures are necessary for the petition to be considered.

A clarification of the Catch-22 in question, from sebastienne:

"To further explain the Catch-22:

Gender reassignment, in the UK, is mediated through specialist clinics. For the south of England, the specialist clinc is at Charing Cross Hospital in London. In order for Charing Cross to put you forward for surgery, you have to demonstrate that you are functioning day-to-day, living in your target gender.

In order to get funding out of Oxfordshire PCT, you have to demonstrate "extreme need" - and pretty much the only way to do this is to be so depressed as to be at risk of suicide. A state of mental health which then makes you ineligible for treatment by Charing Cross.

Oxfordshire PCT will only fund your gender reassignment when your condition, through non-treatment, has made you too ill to undergo surgery."

And a link to the full report referenced in the petition explanation, which gives some history as well as details of exactly what Oxfordshire PCT are doing wrong, and how they're doing it: PDF Article by Outen et al.

One Camel Has Fallen Behind

I'm a little overwhelmed with academic work at the moment so not reading as much here as I'd like.

Why did I think it would be a good idea to start a new blog in the last few months of a performance degree? Was this really a good time to start a new project? But oh, yes, I think it was the right thing to do, even if it doesn't seem sensible and even if I can't keep up as I'd like to, because you all remind me of the interconnectedness of the world in a way that I didn't expect.

I don't have much to say today.

Yesterday during one of many procrastination breaks I was looking for churches in an area of London I'm looking at moving to. Even a few months ago I wouldn't have been thinking about. Yesterday I found out that Forward in Faith have a website (I'm not linking to them) and a list of their churches. How kind of them to provide such a tool, so that I know in advance which churches and clergy to avoid! Though maybe as Margaret said a week or so ago there is something to be said for going and converting the unbelievers I find there... but I have so many questions, so many confusions, and I think I will do better at first to associate with more open-minded folk. I do struggle with how to include those who are not themselves inclusive. I think I need to engage with that more. But I also need somewhere relatively safe as a starting point, and some of my history and some aspects of who I am may challenge even more liberal congregations. [EDITED TO ADD]: I'm hoping it's not until summer that I'll be moving, when things will be a bit less hectic. But finding the right community is still very important.[END OF EDIT]

Though I had only just started following his Twitter updates and website I'm saddened by the loss suffered by Bosco Peters and his family at the death of Catherine. Again with the interconnectedness.

Have a poem, also about that interconnectedness:

I have come into this world to see this:
the sword drop from men's hands even at the height
of their arc of anger
because we have finally realized there is just one flesh to wound
and it is His - the Christ's, our

I have come into this world to see this: all creatures hold hands as
we pass through this miraculous existence we share on the way
to even a greater being of soul,
a being of just ecstatic light, forever entwined and at play
with Him.

I have come into this world to hear this:
every song the earth has sung since it was conceived in
the Divine's womb and began spinning from
His wish,

every song by wing and fin and hoof,
every song by hill and field and tree and woman and child,
every song of stream and rock,

every song of tool and lyre and flute,
every song of gold and emerald
and fire,

every song the heart should cry with magnificent dignity
to know itself as
for all other knowledge will leave us again in want and aching -
only imbibing the glorious Sun
will complete us.

I have come into this world to experience this:
men so true to love
they would rather die before speaking
an unkind
men so true their lives are His covenant -
the promise of

I have come into this world to see this:
the sword drop from men's hands
even at the height of
their arc of
because we have finally realized
there is just one flesh
we can wound.


Saturday, 7 March 2009

Love your neighbour. Love your enemy.

The world is a diverse place. There are a lot of people in it who interpret life differently than I do, and a fair few who seem to share some of my interpretations.

As long as we're sitting around our nice cozy metaphorical fireplace, talking about theoretical situations, that's all well and good. It's easy to accept, "Well, I would do differently," or "I think this is right/wrong/crazy," and pour another whisky or make another round of hot chocolate.

The world we live in, though, isn't so comfortable. We are compelled to act in the world, to make decisions about what we should do or not do--and even choosing not to act is a decision about action.

I believe in God and I love God. I try to reflect that belief and that love in my actions. I also try, though my beliefs are less secure in this area, to act as though God is loving and merciful. I am certain that I fall short most of the time. To err is human.

I do not believe I have any special claim to knowledge of God's will, for myself or for other people. I try not to judge or condemn those with whom I disagree. But if I can make errors in discerning right action, so can anyone else. I think that by discussing divergent viewpoints with compassion and an open heart, we can all get a little nearer to knowing what is the right action, get a little nearer to making this world a reflection of God's will.

I believe compassion and tolerance are integral to this process. Love has to be part of the discussion; love has to be what drives our actions.

I see so many examples of fear. Those links are all to people who I believe are trying to act with grace, people who are lovingly questioning the way things are and looking for how we can do better, and they're all discussing things that have gone wrong in the world, things that I think come from fear.

A theme that keeps coming up, again and again in these conflicts and countless others, is how and indeed whether to engage with those we could consider our enemies.

I am a teacher; my instinct, when I see someone in confusion or someone who is engaged in self-deception, is to try to clarify the truth. The greater the confusion and self-deception, the more horrific the wrong committed, the more I want to take that person aside to somewhere quiet and safe and talk to them, and listen to them. I want to try to understand how they got where they are, and either adjust my own attitudes accordingly (referring, always, back to God's love and mercy as my yardstick of right and wrong) or help them to see things in a less painful, less harmful way. If people had not done this for me, countless times, I would not be where I am today.

So, what to do? A church I am not a part of excommunicates someone who made a faithful and compassionate decision that happens to go against the doctrine of that church. As far as I can tell the decision for excommunication is either very misguided on a personal level, or a symptom of a much deeper systemic confusion between the function of the church as an agent of God's mercy and as an agent of God's judgment. Those are some pretty deep-seated fear and control issues. Do I imagine that I can get through to someone like Archbishop Jose Cardoso Sobrinho? No. Do I imagine that others haven't tried? No. Do I imagine that the Archbishop has not given this some thought and prayer himself, and simply come to a much different conclusion? No. Does that absolve me from a responsibility to respond, somehow, to this issue? Absolutely not. So I read about it, and I ask questions. Further discussion online would amount to feeding the trolls. I pray about it, and hope that the log in my own eye is smaller than the speck I see in someone else's. I consider whether I might write to the Archbishop, but he'll have thousands of similar letters from people far more qualified than I am. I remind myself that some of my regular charitable donation goes toward an organisation that, among other things, supports young women who flee their families because of a similar sort of religion-backed misogyny, that of female circumcision. I hope that I am supportive of the women in my life and a good role model for the girls. I try to get back to my 'regularly scheduled programming' of living my life (learning, teaching and creating: truly a blessed existence) as best I can and not thinking too hard about the great weight of fear and hate in this world... I can only do so much.

It doesn't feel like enough.

I have had so much help from so many people, religious or not, people who loved enough to take a risk on me and try to help even though odds were it wouldn't do much good. These people didn't give up on me, they didn't cross to the other side of the road. They took responsibility, whether they knew it or not, for representing God in the world.

How can I, in any sort of faithful good conscience, walk away from situations that cause so much pain? I do it every time I don't have spare change and a kind word for the homeless, every time I walk away from a discussion--even with trolls--about compassion and mercy, every time I decide I don't have the strength or money or endurance for one thing and another thing and choose the thing that I enjoy or do better rather than the thing that is going to do more good in the world, every time I just don't even do the research to find out which is going to do more good in the world.

Is there ever an excuse for anything less than tireless acts of lovingkindness, complete self-sacrifice to improving the world through caring for others? It seems impossible, unreachable. No wonder so many people lose their way.

Lord, help me to do better, and forgive me when I fail.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Well, I went to bed in the end and got some sleep, and finished the assignment today. All done and dusted now and I can jump to the next hamster wheel for a while. I had vague plans for Saturday but I am cancelling them in favour of sleep. Maybe common sense is the thing that is stronger than exhaustion.

I am very much looking forward to being finished this course of study.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

No rest for the wicked

I really was very tired last night. Today was not restful.

As is typical of music students in their final year of studies, I am somewhat overcommitted at the moment. My teaching schedule is light at about nine hours per week but the associated travel is somewhat tiring. I have been spending quite a lot of time on my academic work of late, often fifty or sixty hours per week, but this has not been enough to prevent me getting to the uncomfortably familiar place I now inhabit: that of having an assignment due tomorrow, with at least four hours (and probably closer to eight or twelve, if I'm honest) of solid work ahead of me, when my body is absolutely crying out for sleep; this is way beyond the point where caffeine is useful. I have some other things I need to do tonight as well, and I can only wiggle out of some of them. Tomorrow is going to be long, Friday is very full, and next week (which had looked relatively clear) is taking form with a rather punishing schedule. I'm not as young as I was (though that would be a good trick, eh?) and I do have some medical problems; I am already paying, with physical pain, for the wonky work:rest ratio of the past few weeks. And of course that makes it harder to concentrate and get the work done, and here I am writing about it here instead of, er, getting the work done.

Yesterday I found out, yet again, that love is stronger than fear. It's a powerful lesson and yet one that I seem to need to keep repeating. I'm not sure what I'm learning tonight, but if you can think of anything that's stronger than exhaustion, do let me know.

I already know what's stronger than the pain, at least on a temporary basis: it comes in the form of little white tablets and costs 36p for eight doses from the chemist and it keeps the ouch levels down at 2 or 3 on a scale of 1 to 10.I want to stay off the prescription-grade painkillers, the pharmaceutical kabbalah, until I'm 40, and so far I've been successful.

So in my prayers tonight I thank God for the mercy that ibuprofen brings, and for the fact that I don't yet need anything stronger. And I thank God that the greatest of my immediate worries is not whether I will survive the night, not whether I will have a roof over my head or food to eat this time next week, not whether my close family are in any grave peril, but that I'd really rather like to get my work done and make a good job of it and I'm not sure if I have the physical endurance to do it.

This made me smile.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Love is stronger than fear.

I am very tired, so I'm not sure how much sense this will make, but I want to write it down before I go to sleep as tomorrow is busy and I won't have a lot of time to reflect.

I played in a concert today. The repertoire was chamber music that I love, the venue was a beautiful church.

As late as this morning I felt deeply ambivalent about playing. One or two people I'd hoped would be able to attend could not and I was feeling a bit forlorn and sorry for myself, but I don't think that was the main issue. I've been working with these musicians for about a year, and they are fine players, but at times all three of us lack organisation and initiative, and that makes for a bumpy ride. I've been feeling annoyed at the pianist over a number of administrative things for a while now. Yesterday's rehearsal was somewhat fraught, both in terms of musical issues which I thought had been resolved ages ago, and in terms of some of the details of what was to happen today. We were all tired, which never helps, and can be worrying the day before a concert. This morning I felt that we should be able to do better but that I didn't know how to raise the bar, how to get this trio of ours to rehearse and organise to the standard I think we're capable of rather than one that would be okay. I knew the concert would be okay but I want to do better than 'okay'. The music is worth doing better than 'okay'.

Today's concert went better than expected. To begin with I was in a very nit-picky frame of mind. I did try to relax and get past all the stress and irritation but was having quite a hard time doing so and remained rather vexed until the violinist made a mistake she has never made before, at which point something in me seemed to shatter and all the irritation and anxiety melted away and somehow I got on with loving the music, my fellow musicians and the audience, which is really what I'm there for... I don't really have the right words to explain it properly, but I have previously found that the difference between performances I enjoy and performances I don't is something along those lines, and it does seem to come across to the listener in at least some cases. There seems to be an element of it in practising as well, though it's a lot easier to tailor my practising to how I'm feeling that day than it is a public performance!

I don't know if anyone noticed any audible difference today, of course, and I don't think technical aspects of my playing changed much, but it was interesting to experience that sort of perspective shift so abruptly in the middle of playing, like winter turning to summer in about half a second but with less confusion, or a loved one walking into the room smiling. To put it in bluntly theist terms, it felt like God smiling, and my own playing and my own feeling toward music, players and audience was a natural response to that smile, that love, a prayer with no words, just Brahms.

It's so much easier, and so much more rewarding, to make music from that perspective than from the fear-driven perspective.

I hope to learn to get to that point more consistently... though I have a feeling it's mostly about creating the right conditions, making a sort of mental space where that can happen, and then getting out of the way and letting things happen or not. There are probably techniques I can use to help things along but ultimately it doesn't feel like a process that I can control by sheer will, more a blessing to be hoped for and to be grateful for.

There were some good comments from musicians in the audience but I didn't have time to chat properly as I had to run off and teach. It will certainly make for an interesting discussion with my own teacher at the next lesson; an advantage of having studied with him for so long is that we can discuss things like this, which I think are more important in some ways than the technical issues (I can fix those by logic and practice, though of course it's faster to consult with people who can be more objective and have more experience) and can sound rather off-the-wall and irrational. And maybe it is irrational, but if music were entirely rational we'd get machines to do it.

Maybe I'm just trying to add meaning to something that really isn't so significant.

Or maybe I'm too tired to make much sense and should revisit this topic when I've had some sleep.

Or maybe love is stronger than fear.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Truth in context

After a couple of weeks of a gentler-than-usual teaching schedule I found today tiring. It didn't help that I ran over every single lesson, so though I had planned, agreed-upon teaching amounting to five and a half hours I actually taught for nearly seven hours today.. and of course lesson that run over slightly are usually the ones that are mentally and emotionally draining, and all the travel (Tube and cycling) leaves me pretty physically tired, too. I don't mind the unpaid work, but I need to pace myself better. I'm exhausted.

I still made it to Evensong at Church on the Hill. The choir outnumbered the congregation again, unless you count the choir as part of the congregation... I do. Church on the Hill is running a Lenten series of sermons on the seven deadly sins, and the curate who was preaching this evening drew the short straw and got to talk about lust.

I think he spoke well, trying to clarify the difference between the sin of lust and the gift from God that is sexual desire. He proposed that sinful lust can be identified two ways. One is by its being acquisitive, when we want someone for ourselves and in so doing turn them into objects. Another is by its being the stuff of selfish fantasies, in which we arrogantly cast ourselves in the starring role and the world revolves around us.

I can see how fantasy can be dishonest to a point, can be an escape or turning away from God-given reality where we can experience pain but also love. But I also think the human imagination is a gift from God, and wonder how this earnest young curate would identify the stories we tell ourselves and others in order to understand reality better rather than turn away from it. I suppose that, like the distinction between sinful lust and loving sexual desire, depends on context.

Perhaps there are some absolute truths, some absolute rules for right and wrong somewhere, and other situations or actions that really are context-sensitive. Maybe one of the areas where people disagree is in assigning any specific action to one category or another. Maybe one of the things we're trying to do in religious is to figure out what the absolute truths are, and make sense of how those affect the context-sensitive stuff.

If you had to choose one thing, one idea, and say you think it is an absolute truth (or perhaps an absolute command), what would it be?

The curate also mentioned in his sermon that Jesus is reported to have said very little about lust, though the link between the quote he did provide and the way he discussed the subject seemed a little tenuous.

That's seven Sundays in a row I've been to church. This seems to be getting to be something of a habit.

Further to my previous post I'd like to open up discussion here regarding some of the issues I touched on over at The Exegesis Fairy's blog. But I'm very tired, and I have yet to hunt library books tonight (to avoid fines tomorrow), so I think it will wait.