Thursday, 27 November 2008

Bird on a Wire

What is it with this sudden Cohen revival going on in our household? I went to bed last night and Clemency was sitting up under the covers with 40 year old sheet music scattered all around her, going over the tablature for Suzanne and The Stranger . I only have to play a few bars of Hallelujah (any version will do, but Jeff Buckley works best) and she's speechless - drifting around the room with a dreamy look on her face. It's very handy, but also puzzling in a woman whose usual taste runs to Teleman Beethoven and Rachmaninov. Why is it that I woke this morning with a burning desire to listen to Rufus Wainwright singing Chelsea Hotel? Why is it that since about 5 I have been awake with the song - well, actually, not the song, but one line from the song - running through my brain? It happens doesn't it? A catchy phrase or a haunting bit of melody gets stuck in the gray matter like a piece of gristle between the teeth and no amount of mental licking and pushing can dislodge it. Perhaps it's a small and instructive window into obsessive compulsive disorder for those of us who are 9 on the enneagram and INFP on the Myers Briggs and consequently don't get too exercised by too much at all.

Perhaps it's something about the structure of music. Nobody can rest if there is a baby crying nearby: hard wired into our brains is an alarm response triggered by the particular note emitted by an infant in full voice. Perhaps there are other notes or combinations of notes that trigger some deep response for goodness knows what evolutionary reason from our ancestral past;

I heard there was a secret chord
that David played and it pleased the Lord... goes like this, the 4th, the 5th
the minor fall and the major lift,
the baffled king composing Hallelujah

Leonard Cohen's music must be full of those little gristly bits that call you back and back and back.

Perhaps it's the associations we have with the music. The first time I ever saw my wife was in a folk concert at Canterbury University. Clemency and her friend sang Bird On A Wire. They were both beautiful and they both had memorable names: Paula Feather and Clemency Underhill. It made quite an impression on an 18 year old Cohen fan but apart from the obvious Pavlovian response, there was more.

Like a bird on a wire,
like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free... a baby stillborn, like a beast with his horn
I have torn everyone who reached out to me...

The evocative phrasing of the song had already helped me give voice to a painful early adulthood, and I heard it then presented freshly and clearly and somehow innocently - but is the memory shaping me or am I shaping the memory? Anyway, the rest, as they say, is history;

I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel
you were famous, your heart was a legend
You told me again you preferred handsome men
but for me you would make an exception...

Perhaps it's other deeper things. Perhaps around me the Universe shifts and folds lovingly, opening itself at the prompting of the Old Wise One and in any way open to it, draws my attention to things I need to know. Wisdom breaks in on every side and leads me to herself. I am astonished at the number of small synchronicities involving birds on wires that have happened over the last few days.

I saw a beggar leaning on his wooden crutch,
He said to me, you must not ask for so much.
And a pretty woman leaning in her darkened door,
She cried to me, hey, why not ask for more?

OK wisdom. Got it. But perhaps a little clearer, for those of us who are hard of hearing?.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

The Traitor

A couple of people have questioned me privately about the Leonard Cohen song The Traitor, and about Cohen's comments on the song,

"[The Traitor is about] the feeling we have of betraying some mission we were mandated to fulfill and being unable to fulfill it; then coming to understand that the real mandate was not to fulfill it; and the real courage is to stand guiltless in the predicament in which you find yourself".

What on earth does he mean, and why am I so excited about it? For the latter, check with my psychiatrist. For the former, my take on the song is this:

The Traitor is another of those instances, as in The Partisan, where Leonard Cohen uses a military metaphor to speak of life in general and human love in particular. Many of us hold high ideals: some great quest or other that we pursue. These are often laudable things: finding true love, finding the absolute love of God, becoming enlightened, spreading the Gospel, writing the great novel or some such other impossible dream . We catch sight of our great and manifold ideal, symbolised by the swan, the rose and the suntanned woman and for the sake of this perfect vision we forsake all, leaving our mother's home (though not without telling her to keep our room ready for our return) and set off on the noble quest like a soldier venturing to war. We are watched all the while by the judges who wait expectantly for our failure. But the pursuit of this perfection is self defeating. Our own imperfection kills any chance of gaining the desired other because even if we nearly reach it, once it is in relationship with us, our flaws destroy it. The judges note our failure to attain the great goal, and urge us on to greater effort. We struggle on, caught between our idealism and the reality of who we are until, at last, the perfect visions fade and leave us in possession of a lesser, harsher reality. The faded rose is threaded with wire to keep up the appearance of freshness, the swan is revealed as a clockwork toy. The great love of the suntanned woman is seen as mechanistically sexual. We are incapable of warning the others behind us who are in the process of making exactly the same mistake, so instead we settle into a grateful acceptance of what is real, while the judges deride us for our failure to attain the illusory goal - which they believe in but are unwilling themselves to risk all in pursuit of.

The point of the song is that our noble goals -whatever they are - are illusions and our true destiny lies not in attaining the goals (which is impossible) but in learning to be real. Unbeknown to us, our failure itself is the actual goal the Universe has sent us to pursue. The end of illusion and the acceptance of reality is the great prize. Others deride us for treachery to the great cause but in our failure and desertion we have actually won everything. There is the courage of the captain who leads in pursuit of the great cause. But when the great cause is shown to be a mirage, there is a greater courage needed: to accept the loss of all that we have based our hopes upon and the acceptance of "our idle duty" - our need to live with what is actual.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

I'm Your Man

AAhhh.. the early seventies. Bell bottomed cords and paisley. Going to the Victoria Coffee lounge where they served Nescafe in earthenware cups and lit the place with candles jammed into the necks of old wine bottles. Sitting around til dawn having D&Ms. And the soundtrack to it all was Leonard Cohen. His dark eyes glowered soulfully out from the cover of Songs Of Leonard Cohen propped against the side of the sofa as the needle cracked and popped its way across the LP:

Suzanne takes you down to her place by the river,
you can hear the boats go by you can spend the night beside her

I wish.

I haven't listened to him in years. He caught absolutely the angst and self absorption of early adulthood; he gave it all meaning and set it in a bigger context. The last album I bought was Death Of A Ladies' Man, and then I sort of lost track of him. I'd found another even bigger context.

But a couple of weeks ago I was given a DVD called I'm Your Man, a film centred on the tribute concert Came So Far For Beauty held in Sydney in 2005. The DVD weaves together historic footage of Leonard Cohen, interviews with him and footage from the concert. Cohen himself doesn't sing on the DVD until the end when he does the vocals as U2 performs Tower of Song. By his own admission he is not a great singer. His songs are poems set to tunes. Listening to these well known pieces after all these years, I was struck by two things: 1) He is a very good poet indeed. Perhaps even a great poet. 2) the tunes he has set his poems to are also very, very good. Leonard Cohen is one of those artists whose original versions of his own songs are often eclipsed by the covers of them by other artists. And so it was in the Came So Far For Beauty concert. Rufus Wainwright's version of Hallelujah is perhaps not as gut wrenchingly haunting as Jeff Buckley's but it still beautiful. Martha Wainwright's peculiar voice brings meaning and depth to The Traitor which Cohen himself had not managed to convey. A highlight of the DVD for me was found in the special features: Teddy Thompson rehearsing Tonight Will Be Fine and making of the song all that Leonard Cohen intended.

Interwoven were the interviews with this wise old man. I hadn't realised that since I departed the fold of his faithful he had spent time as a Zen monk. It shows. He has, in old age, a humility and a self awareness that is not common in people as famous as he is. His explanations of the songs were illuminating. Speaking of The Traitor, for example, he says the song is about
"The feeling we have of betraying some mission we were mandated to fulfill and being unable to fulfill it; then coming to understand that the real mandate was not to fulfill it; and the real courage is to stand guiltless in the predicament in which you find yourself."
It's one of the few concert CDs I have listened to twice in the same week. More in fact, for bits of it. I went to my shelf and found my copy of Leonard Cohen: Selected Poems, which I bought in 1971 and last opened in (I think) 1979, and over the past few days have read a few again. The old guy is good. Very good. There's no doubt about it

PS. Just as a matter of interest, seeing as I've given you links to two covers of Hallelujah, here is Leonard Cohen singing it from (I'd guess) about 1980.

Saturday, 22 November 2008

Meditation Anyone?

It's not easy to establish a meditation practice if you are a Christian because there is no easily visible meditative tradition in most of the Church and even if someone becomes interested in meditation, where do they go to learn about it? You won't find a notice for Thursday's meditation class on many parish noticeboards. You won't find many teachers of meditation listed in the Diocesan phonebook. Books like Anthony De Mello's Sadhana or Morton Kelsey's The Other Side Of Silence can give pretty reliable information and instruction but does your local Christian bookshop stock them? Don't count on it. Sure, we know there are monks and nuns somewhere who probably meditate but mostly we hardly even know what the word means.  Sometimes we use the word to denote deep thought, particularly if that thought consists of pondering the meaning of tricky Bible verses. Sometimes we use it as a synonym for a short sermon. Sometimes we refer to it by kinder, more acceptable synonyms such as 'contemplative prayer' and we share our experiences and almost get what it's all about. Sometimes. In much of the church there is not just an absence of meditation but downright suspicion; say the M word and you conjure up images of the Maharishi and Tibetan guys in orange robes blowing big trumpets and we all know where that leads to.

It's no wonder then, that within the church misconceptions about meditation lie thicker on the ground than Pentecostals after a healing meeting. The principle misconceptions are these:

*Meditation is about losing connection with the world and entering some sort of trance state. No, medititation is about becoming more connected with the world, and heightening our awareness of it.
* Meditation involves letting go and losing yourself. On the contrary, meditation involves the difficult work of not being swept away by your own, or anybody else's thoughts.
* The aim of meditation is to stop mental activity and think about nothing. No, that's death you're thinking of there. We can't turn our brains off. We can, in time, learn not to be prisoners of our own thoughts, but that's another matter.
*Meditation is opening yourself to odd spiritual influences. No more than any other human activity. Meditation of itself is no more and no less "spiritual" than other mental activity, such as thinking, or dreaming, but like thinking and dreaming, it is a very sure means of personal spiritual development.
* Meditation is Eastern and to participate in it means selling out to the Hindus or Buddhists. While it is true that the Eastern practice of meditation has been more open than in the West, and that the Eastern practice of meditation is more visible, and possibly more highly developed, meditation is a universal human phenomenon with no particular debt to any one culture or faith.
*Meditation is something we do with our minds. Meditation is something we do with our bodies as much as our minds, in much the same way that sleep is something we do with our bodies as much as our minds
*Meditation won't save your soul. True, but neither will fasting or attending Holy Communion or going to church or doing good deeds, or praying for that matter. Only the Grace of God saves souls. Eating won't save your soul either but that's no reason to stop doing it.

Meditation is spiritual practice; a training exercise we perform to strengthen our spiritual muscles. It is a technique, a way, a method by which we can co-operate with the holy Spirit in furthering the work of sanctification. It is a way by which we can recognise and untangle the grave bandages we all trail behind us as we leave the tomb.I'm not sure why meditation has virtually died out in much of the church. Although it does survive in pockets here and there, it is something the Church could profit by rediscovering.

Thursday, 20 November 2008


For two weeks now I've been trying to stick to Ian Gawler's Healing Diet, and, I have got to say, more or less succeeding. It's a lot of bother. There are six glasses of juice to be made and swallowed daily, and apart from the one made of fruit, they aren't the sorts of things you'd swallow for the fun of it. There are three vegetarian - well vegan, really - meals to be made in a day, which has meant a radical revamp of the fridge freezer and pantry. Because the whole day's menu has a carefully planned balance, I've been sticking to the recipes, which is not the way I normally cook. I'm more of a lets get the vibe of this dish and amend it as we go sort of cook, but this way has taught me a lot of new ways of combining food which would be worth repeating even if you didn't have a bigger agenda for the meal.

It's been easy doing without meat - I haven't missed it for a second. It's been easy doing without the processed flour and sugar and all the fat as well. Last night, with a plate of cakes left over from a meeting held in the house, I ate one and immediately wished I hadn't. My body let me know in no uncertain terms that it was on Ian Gawler's side and what exactly did I think I was doing sending that muck down the chute. I won't be repeating the experiment in a hurry, and I'm not sorry about that either. Over the past fortnight and the one before that when I was not actually on the Gawler diet but was moving that way, I have reaped great benefit. About 4 kg of weight has evaporated. I have slept better and feel more energetic. Which brings me to my point for the day.

My body is not a thing, it is a process. It is a particular pattern of energy finding shape in an ever moving and changing stream of atoms; in much the same way that an ever moving stream of water finds shape in a seemingly permanent whirlpool. My body is a process, which means that diets can't be temporary. I will reap the benefits of a blanced healthy diet for just as long as that diet remains one of the processes which helps shape the pattern that is my body. Stop the diet and revert to the old patterns and my body will immediately revert to the way it was before. The healing diet is a temporary stage but it will be followed by a permanent diet based on the same principles, unless I want to continue as I was doing before - digging my own grave with my teeth.

My body is a process, an impermanent ever changing pattern of energy within which there is another impermanent, ever changing pattern of energy, my mind. These two are inseparably linked and each has effect on the way the other exists in a strange dance of mutual dependency. To effect my body I must make the requisite mental changes, but just as truly, to develop my mind I must be careful, repectful and gentle with my body. And lying within both, more subtle still, is that which gives rise to all patterns.

Friday, 14 November 2008

Can't Get No....

A rough, unscientific rule of thumb I have used in running churches over the past 30 years has been the distinction between sources of satisfaction and sources of dissatisfaction. That is, the things that make people happy and pleased to be here and the things that tick them off. Fairly early, the penny dropped for me that they are not usually that same thing. If you remove the sources of dissatisfaction you won't make people any more satisfied.

In a church, the things that make people dissatisfied are things like heaters that don't work or a buzz in the sound system; or the Vicar's annoyingly drony voice or the fact that whoever chooses the hymns around here has the taste of a blowfly maggot. Sources of dissatisfaction are easily identified - people let you know about them early and often. Sources of satisfaction are harder to idenify. They are more subtle, deeper and often unconscious. People don't talk about them much and tend to take them for granted. They are things like a strong sense of community, awareness of the presence of God, the knowledge that people are valued and accepted in this place. 

Many clergy I know operate on the squeaky wheel principle. They spend their lives chasing around after the sorts of trivia that people ring them about, getting tired and wondering why the roll keeps on dropping. Of course if there is a buzz in the sound system it needs to be fixed, and perhaps I could do with elocution lessons, but by and large, if the church is a satisfying place to be, people will tolerate, even begin to enjoy, any number of evidences of character. So rather than a shopping list of minor things to get sorted, church leadership needs to quickly and consistently address itself to the bigger issues: the issues that are hard to identify and require years of patience and hope to fix. In the long term, the only way to build a successful worshipping community is to be aware of exactly what is going on, at depth, in the congregation and addressing energy and time to building it, healing it and maintaining it. This will result in making practical nuts and bolts changes, but often, not to the things people are complaining about. For example, when I arrived at St. John's ten years ago, it seemed to me, newly arrived and without any history in this community, that the greatly beloved and very beautiful church was inhibiting rather than facilitating the way the congregation functioned. Nobody was complaining about the building; in fact most saw nothing wrong with it. Nevertheless we got involved, fairly early, in making structural changes to the church and the church hall. The results have worked not just because they make things more comfortable, but because whole new areas of ministry have opened up for us and because the new arrangements facilitate the growth of our sense of community.  

It is the sources of satisfaction that need attention and thought. Sort them out and the other stuff tends to take care of itself. As with church life, so with national life and politics. 

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Follow The Leader

Copyright 2008 New Zealand National Party

Our new prime minister will be sworn in next week, so I am told, and despite myself I find I am beginning to respect the guy. He's moved a lot faster than politicians normally do in setting up his government. He's shrewdly got the Maori Party on board, hitting three birds with one stone: extending his somewhat slim majority; alleviating some of the public apprehension about the ACT party having their rabid fangs in the treasury's leg; and setting himself up nicely for a broad electoral appeal in 2011. Very neatly done. I respect that. But do I trust him? I don't know yet. I am dreading a return of the new right policies of the 1980s and 1990s which did such damage to so many layers of our social fabric and suspect that under his neatly brushed pate he has only three basic ideas: privatisation, privatisation and privatisation.

We had the lowest voter turnout for years. Perhaps the election was such a foregone conclusion that people just didn't bother. Perhaps none of our potential parliamentarians excited much interest. Perhaps both of the above. In contrast people got very excited about the American election. I meet a lot of people in the course of a normal day and many of them, over the past few weeks, have spoken of the presidential race. Before the election the only note of apprehension I heard from anybody was that McCain might win, and no-one, not a single person that I have spoken to, has expressed any disappointment in the eventual outcome. There is some admiration for McCain's graciousness in defeat but there is universal admiration for Barack Obama and glee at his victory. People - many people - reported being moved to tears by his acceptance speech in Chicago. He is someone that people, even these people from a different country and with no direct stake in his election, would follow.

This is, simply, what a leader is: someone with followers. Some leaders achieve this by brute force, and some by dint of who and what they are. My feeling about our own new Prime Minister is that he is not yet a leader; at least not for the majority of his fellow New Zealanders. We have elected him not so much to lead us as to manage us and woe betide him if his management falters. He has the position that we have given him, but we will be watching him like keas circling a new born lamb waiting for him to do something that displeases us, and then we will be seeking his replacement.

Tragically, with the world and the church starting to come apart at the seams and with, if you'll pardon a shift in metaphors, dangerous shoals ahead, it's leadership, not management that we desperately need - in the world and in the church. Maybe that's why we get so excited when we see it somewhere else. And maybe, just maybe, John Key can produce some of it. I'm not going to hold my breath, but he has already shown the capacity to surprise me.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

Repent, The End Is Near

We went and saw the urologist again on Friday. He discussed options for further treatment. He outlined the probable side effects of radiotherapy and then said, "Most of these side effects will happen in about ten years, so, of course, they aren't going to be an issue for you. " It was double take, knock me down with a feather, go back a sentence or two if you don't mind time. He's a very frank, matter of fact sort of guy. He spends his days from morning til night dealing almost exclusively with men who have prostate cancer. He knows my profile. He knows the odds. He was telling me the truth as he saw it.

This was 8:30 in the morning, and I spent the rest of the day in a sobre sort of way. I did some internet research and was even more sobred. I emailed and texted my family and friends. And I got on, as best I could, with preparations for our parish fair and with the other things that would normally have happened on a Friday. Life was suddenly very rich and real and precious and I didn't want to miss a second of it. A couple of other encounters happened in the course of the day. I learned of a man about my age with five large tumours in his liver. This is normally a death sentence and an imminent one as well, but he's lived 2 years with it so far and is still going strong. He even took a 3 month voyage to the Pacific Islands on his yacht. Clemency met a woman who had a cancer of the cervix which had spread into her lymph system. Her prognosis was a 30% chance of surviving for 5 years - about the same odds the statistics give me - but 14 years later she's still here and seemingly untroubled by her cancer.

I'm aware that the number of funerals I lead often rises just after Christmas. People hang on to see their families one last time, and then let go. Our bodies and the course of our illnesses are much more intricately linked to our minds and wills than the statistics give credit for. I am aware that an authorative person giving me a timetable could, if I was not careful, become self fulfilling prophecy. I am grateful to the doctor for reminding me just how very serious the issues are and for making me aware of exactly what I am dealing with; but I have other plans. Here is another of life's paradoxes. It is important to realise the fragility of life and the imminence of death, but realising that I am only a heartbeat away from the end makes life more real and precious and makes me more determined to live it as completely as I can.

This Sunday I will preach about the ten bridesmaids and their lamps; a story which is told to enjoin watchfulness. As I was reminded by the death of Diane a few weeks ago, life is fragile and temporary for all of us. The parable says that none of us knows when we will be called to give an account of ourselves and it's probably not a bad idea to live in such a way that we won't be ashamed if today's the day. I'm suddenly very aware of that, and regretful of the huge acreages of time which I have frittered away over the past fifty six years . I want to waste as little as possible of what I have left , which may, of course, be quite a long long time yet. People beat the odds all the time and I think I am beginning to see how the dice can be weighted and the cards marked, just a little.

3 guys die and go to heaven. At the pearly gates St. Peter opens the lamb's book of life and gives a low whistle. "Wow! You guys have been really good. I mean, REALLY good," he says. "As a special reward I'm going to allow you to dictate what people will say at your funerals."
The first guy said, "At my funeral I want them to say 'He was a great husband and father'." And so it happened.
The second guy said "At my funeral I would like them to say 'He was kind to animals and everyone really liked him'." and so it happened.
The third guy said, "At my funeral I would like them to say, "Look! He just moved!'"

I'm with the third guy, all the way.

Monday, 3 November 2008

Perfect Love Casts Out All Fear

The most popular page on our website by far is Alan Firth's The Beginner's Guide To The Anglican Church. This brief informative little piece is linked to by 35 other parish websites in a number of countries. For the last couple of years it has been read about a thousand times a month. The feedback we receive about it is generally very positive, but last week we had an email from a reader who called us confidence tricksters for publishing such a thing. What struck me about the email wasn't the content of what was said but the tone. It was filled with fear and anger.

Fear and anger are of course closely related. Anger is a threat response. We get angry when we are threatened with a loss of some sort. The loss might be real or imaginary. It might derive from something in the world around us or the inner world of our conscious or unconscious psyche. The loss might be to us personally, or to something or someone we care deeply about. An angry response may or may not be an appropriate one in any particular circumstance. An angry person is a threatened person and it is always helpful when trying to resolve anger - our own or someone else's - to ask 'what is being threatened here?'

The anger and fear of the email sent to us revealed a threatened man; one for whom Alan's quite innocuous piece of writing had shaken some dearly held notion or other. This is not unusual in Christian circles. The emotion underlying many flavours of the Christian faith is fear. This is why much of the Church faces the world defensively and why the reaction of some Christians to the wider culture - or to other parts of the church - is often one of anger. Of course, "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom"; but note that the fear of the Lord is the beginning , not the end of wisdom. The end of wisdom, the place where it will take you if you follow it for long enough is that "perfect love which casts out all fear". The Genius of 1 John is the realisation that if we can truly have faith in (ie trust) God's absolute acceptance of us and love for us, we will not be frightened. If we are not frightened we will not be angry - with ourselves, with other people, with God or with the world. If we are not angry we will show to others, in our words and actions, that overwhelming love with which God treats us.

Alan, one of the gentlest and least threatening people you are ever likely to meet, wrote back to the person and explained himself reasonably, clearly and succinctly. In response he got an even more venomous reply. The emailer wasn't looking for reason or clarity. He was angry, and would remain angry until he was no longer frightened; until love was perfected in him, which, judging from the email, might be some way off yet. Of course that's not how the emailer would have explained it to himself. I think his own assessment of his email would have included words like "correct" and "courageous" and "Biblical" and "Godly." Such is the window dressing we give our fears.