Conversations which Alter our Perception

There was a comedy team fifty years ago which put out an album entitled “Everything You Know Is Wrong.” Have you ever had such a moment (or moments) in your life wherein that seemed to be the case? Perhaps everything you knew wasn’t wrong, but you had your eyes/mind opened to the fact that you were completely wrong about something or someone.

For me, such a revelation came the night before my brother’s wedding in 1976. I was sitting up late with my uncle Paul–my father’s youngest brother–and we were getting sloshed on gin and tonic. Paul mentioned something positive (now long forgotten) about my father’s sensitivity and I responded sardonically with something like: “You are talking about JC Lawson, my father and your brother, aren’t you?” Paul was not amused and gave me the ‘Lawson look’ before he spoke. I have never forgotten his words: “Your father is the most sensitive man I have ever known.” As the saying goes: “You could have knocked me over with a feather.”

Bit o’ background. The photo above is of my father on Okinawa in 1945. He was in VMO-7, attached to the 3rd Marine Amphibious Artillery. His group flew artillery spotting, aerial photo reconnaisance and perhaps most importantly–because of the capacity of their aircraft to take off and land in 100 metres–they evacuated badly wounded Marines. Paul, on the other hand, was too young for the war, was sophisticated, lived in Washington, DC and was gay. All I knew of my father was post-war; but Paul remembered his very sensitive older brother before he went to war. I knew my father as a tough-guy Marine, heavy smoker and drinker, with an explosive temper. That temper was the only ‘sensitive’ part of my father to which I had been exposed. One could never be sure what would set off my father’s anger. (I didn’t realize I tiptoed whenever I was indoors until I was 27.)

Paul was talented, an amateur actor with a fine singing voice, knew fascinating people and threw great dinner parties. I loved going up to DC to stay with him. So you can imagine my reaction when he described my father as the most sensitive man he had ever known. In truth, it wasn’t a case of everything I knew about my dad was wrong; I just didn’t know enough. I had pigeon-holed him. Having never been to war, suffered kamikaze attacks or evacuated the bloodied, broken bodies of my fellow Marines, I couldn’t know firsthand what happens to a very sensitive young man in a savage war.

Thus began a journey of father-discovery, as well as self-discovery in psychotherapy. I was a prison chaplain at the time and worked with a lot of Vietnam vets. It became clear to me that pain, suffering and grief–if not dealt with openly and honestly at the right time, come out as anger or violence at the wrong or inappropriate time. We can train our military to fight and kill, but we can never train them not to feel anything when they see their comrades die or they take the lives of others. Those emotions go deep inside, but they will eventually come out. We now know it as PTSD.

It was three years after my conversation with Paul that my father and I finally ‘met.’ I had decided to visit my parents and spend some time with dad. We went out for a few beers, but when we arrived back at my parents’ house, dad made no move to get out of the car. I remember the emotions more than what was said that night. As we opened up with each other, all the sensivity that my father had suppressed–since the war and since becoming a father–came out in a flood of tears. I was almost in shock as I held dad in my arms while he wept on my shoulder. I learned that his fear of showing his emotions appropriately had been rooted in the fear of not being able to ‘control himself’ once they started to come out. I don’t know how long we stayed in the car; but it was long enough to alter my perception of my father forever. Dad died 36 years ago. The last time I saw my uncle Paul, I thanked him once more for giving me the chance to alter my perception and come to know my father.

Of Mind Trash and Human Prejudice

A year or two ago I wrote a blog about ‘whitespeak’–the coded language that white Americans use concerning peoples of colour when they want to see if you (should you happen to be white) are ‘on their side.’ Today I want to reflect on a similar language of prejudice, but in England. In the above picture–of a photo on my study wall–you’ll see a much younger me receiving my PhD at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (hereafter HUC). It was a defining moment in more ways than one. Yes, the degree marked the successful end of years of study and research, and my thesis was published as a book; yet little did I know at the time that it would be one of the most detrimental aspects of my academic career. Let me explain.

I had applied and been accepted at several prestigious universities to do my doctoral work. All had offered partial scholarships, but HUC offered me ‘the full ride.’ That was important for a poor prison chaplain. It was also the case that HUC’s school of graduate studies had a “Christian Fellows Program” which admitted 5-6 Christian doctoral students each year on fellowships. The graduate program was conceived after the Second World War as a way to foster Jewish-Christian dialogue. That interested me. So it was not your average PhD program. All well and good…but then came my job search in England…and my introduction to Gentile-speak, for I had been tainted by Jews!

Forget that I had attended an institution with the largest Judaica collection outside of Israel, and could sight-read Hebrew, Aramaic, Akkadian and a fist-full of other languages. Although that in itself was a threat to many English academics, the clincher was I had studies with Jews. And so followed a number of unsuccessful interviews in which the sticking point was always, and I quote, “Hebrew…Union…College…bit esoteric that.” That exact phrase was used at different universities; often by a member of staff who was also an Anglican clergyman. Being something of an idealist I wasn’t prepared for such outright prejudice. Although no one, of course, resorted to calling Jews ‘kikes’ or ‘yids,’ the whole tone of the interviews changed. There I was thinking that universities wanted teachers well-versed in the languages and cultures they were meant to teach, but I had, as it were, ‘gone native.’

Let’s consider Cambridge. After the code-phrase “bit esoteric that” had been spoken–and I knew the interview was a lost cause–I noticed at eye-level, on the shelf behind me, The New English Bible (NEB), Oxford Study Edition. (In this instance, “English” is not a reference to language per se, but ethnicity.) As all prejudice is born of ignorance, I embarked on a suicidal bit of education for my interlocutors. To their surprise I pulled the NEB off the shelf and in the same ponderous monotone as “bit esoteric that” I said “New…English…Bible.” Then I turned to the editorial page and read out: “Samuel Sandmel, general editor of the New English Bible, Hebrew Union College, Sheldon Blank, HUC, David Weisberg (my PhD advisor), HUC, etc. In sum, there were more scholars from HUC on the editorial and contributors list of the NEB than from any other university in the world. For some reason, my efforts to enlighten the interview panel failed miserably, and I went away jobless, hurt and very angry.

Why do I share this experience? (It is not sour grapes, as one might be tempted to think. Read on.) Two reasons: First, despite the Second World War and the Holocaust, anti-Jewish prejudice is alive and well–across Europe and the USA. In my experience, Gentile Hebrew Bible scholars are amongst the most rabid opponents of the state of Israel, and by extension, of Jews in general. Before my wife and I left England in 2016, anti-Jewish hate crimes had increased by over 2000% since the year 2000. Just like racial prejudice in the US, these ‘pet hates’ have only simmered in the background until the social/political climate was right to express them once more. That’s scary–and it must be exposed and confronted. Second: As I prepare myself for the inevitable, death, I am doing my best to leave old baggage behind (see my blog of a similar title from a few weeks ago). Some of this I do by writing, some through meditation, some by blessed forgetfulness(!) and some by simply ‘letting go’ as I focus on my newfound profession as goatherd. With hindsight (the blessing of longevity!), I am glad I was not appointed to several of the posts I sought so fervently years ago. In fact, I find it funny now. But what I don’t find funny is deeply engrained prejudice against our fellow human beings–of whatever colour or persuasion; for that is the Covid of the human spirit. We need to be putting as much effort into the fight against prejudice as we do in our fight against viruses.

The Art of Pure Being

In writing this piece, I am standing on the shoulders of Jesus, Buddha, Meister Eckhart, Rumi and a host of other spiritual teachers and philosophers over the past millenia. This is simply my take on a subject which affects all of us–but only if we give it some thought…or perhaps some pure being!

Most of us start out as children. I say most of us because a significant minority have gone through the ages of childhood without actually having lived as a child. And, sadly, some in this world of ours are denied childhood due to warfare, famine, poverty, etc. Having a good childhood is important because it is our introduction to the art of pure being: no pretense, no shame, no need to have ‘all of the answers.’ It is a time of wonderment, imagination, being the hero in our stories, and more.

We recently had the pleasure of keeping our neighbours’ 8 year old son for a week. When we watched “The Wizard of Oz” together, he was in the story. When we took him walking in a nearby forest, we were inducted into his world of make-believe which, as Bruno Bettelheim has pointed out, is important work for children. Some adults are lucky enough to have jobs that allow them to keep the child in them alive: artists, writers, playgroup leaders, etc. And I stress that this is not some sort of Peter Pan existence. It is simply giving our right-brain as much time as our left hemisphere. To use the cliché, it’s about living as a human being as opposed to a human doing. When our young guest was at play, he wasn’t constantly looking over his shoulder to see if anyone was watching or worrying about what someone might think. That is pure being. Numerous saints, Zen masters, mystics and artists live into the art of pure being. It is also where joy resides. And joy is the lifeblood of being.

For my part I also have important teachers in our goats. All my life I have found more pleasure in being with animals than with my average human counterparts. Animals live in a state of pure being–and they can share that with us–if we will only give the necessary time to be with them–and listen and watch. As I look back over my life and career, I find that being a goatherd is by far more enjoyable than being a university lecturer, parish minister or commmunity development worker–roles in which everyone had an idea of what and how I was supposed to be–particularly as a minister (a role which seems to invite projection of all sorts–mainly negative)! Like their fellow four-footed creatures, goats use a variety of bleats, eye contact, nudges, head movements, etc. to communicate. And dare I say they are even responsive to mindfulness(!). But that first requires that I must be present and mindful. Some people who see my goat posts on Facebook respond that the goats are probably training me as much as I am them…well yeah! It’s a relationship; and in that regard it’s no different than roommates or spouses learning to live together. We have to learn and adjust to one another’s peculiarities.

Mr. Jesus said that if we want to enter the kingdom of heaven we must turn and become as little children. Amen (or Ba-a-a!) to that! Children (and goats) live in the only existential, real time: now. If we had a good start with our childhood years and–if we’re mindful enough–we might just be lucky enough to live into the ‘second childhood’ promised by old age. But why wait, why not start now?

The Pace of Change

Yesterday, as I was listening to BBC Radio 4, I heard a very cogent argument for going on personal retreat. For myself, I need no argument for taking retreats, as I have done so numerous times. But one only need get behind the wheel, join a queue in a supermarket or visit a busy restaurant at lunchtime, and you will certainly see many people who would benefit from a retreat–if only for a few days. It should also be stated that retreats need not be faith-based.

Alongside the notion of retreat, I started musing about today’s pace of change, which is largely driven by technology. Had we lived a thousand years ago, we probably would have lived our entire lives without one significant change in technology as regards its impact on individual lives. Today, with our many mobile devices, we are never out of touch with family, friends, work, robo-calls, etc. News flashes tell us of tragedies half-a-world away, within minutes of their happening. There is more information in the Sunday Times (NY or London–you choose!) than the average literate person would have read in an entire lifetime in the Middle Ages. However, our brains are relatively the same size and our nervous sytems haven’t changed significantly. Computers double in speed roughly every four months–but not our nervous systems! Go to any decent bookshop and look at the number of self-help and how to manage stress books. It’s a growth industry.

I can still remember when my paternal grandfather took a car journey with our family on an interstate highway for the first time. He was totally flummoxed by the idea of all cars going in the same direction in both lanes! When he stepped into our new home, he felt something soft underfoot and checked the bottoms of both shoes–he had mistaken wall-to-wall carpet for cow dung! Grandpa had been born within a year of Custer’s defeat at the Little Bighorn and the British debacle with the Zulus in South Africa. He died a year and a bit after humanity set foot on the moon. In between came motor cars, telephones, air travel, two world wars, computers and more. No wonder he was happy to stay on the farm and not venture out! I saw similar reactions when I worked as a chaplain in a pre-release prison unit. All of the men had spent upwards of 25 years removed from society. It’s not surpising that so many committed infractions in order to go back ‘inside.’ They were literally ‘out of time.’

Check out these words by Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) from 9 centuries ago: “Flee for a while from your tasks, hide yourself for a little space from the turmoil of your thoughts. Come, cast aside your burdensome cares, and put aside your laborious  pursuits. For a little while give your time to God, and rest in him for a little while. Enter into the inner chamber of your mind, shut out all things save God and whatever may aid you in seeking God; and having barred the door of your chamber, seek him.” I am not sure what sorts of stresses people had in the 11th/12th centuries, but certainly it was a time when much work was literally back-breaking, medical care was minimal, and even learned clergy like Anselm lived in stone-cold (literally) monasteries with one “warming room.”

Even if the pace of change in the Middle Ages was more measured than what we experience today, it is clear from Anselm’s words that all of us could benefit by taking time out from the drivenness of life. We can all benefit by taking time away from our electronic masters and re-set our minds and emotions with physical, mental and spiritual refreshment.

Leave All Baggage Behind

A couple of weeks ago my wife, Chris, and I were flying to Greece. During the safety announcements before take-off, we were told that, in the event of an emergency, we were to “leave all baggage behind.” For some reason those words made me laugh as I turned to my wife and said, “Do you think that is what we will hear when we die?”

My wife has a keen interest in Near Death Experiences (NDEs) and I have listened to the experiences of many people who have had one or more NDEs. So far, I haven’t heard anyone use the words “Leave all baggage behind,” but isn’t it the case that, when we come to breathe our last, we in fact leave all of our baggage behind? Over the last six years–which have included two trans-Atlantic moves(!)–Chris and I have done our best to leave a lot of baggage behind–literally and figuratively. Shipping one’s accumulated ‘stuff’ is expensive. We have rejoiced whenever we have been able to give to friends a cherished piece of furniture or a set of books.

Not so long ago, we completely filled our car with any number of items we had kept far too long. We took them to several brocantes in our area of Normandy but only managed to sell one thing. However, one of the owners told us of another brocante about ten kilometres from his place, so off we went. The lady who managed this other brocante told me that she was only interested in house clearances. Not to be dissuaded, I suggested that this was, in fact, what we had done! We had cleared the house, saving her the trouble. She laughed and agreed to have the carload of ‘baggage.’ The fact that we were paid a paltry thirty-five euros for the lot barely registered with us. We were overjoyed that we had left yet more baggage behind–and created more space in our house!

What about the figurative baggage? Do we really want to wait until we are dying to let go of regrets, grievances and other emotional baggage? Isn’t it a wonderful feeling of lightness when we are able to let go of past relationships, negative memories, mistakes we have made or harm done to us? Many a wise person has said that, very often, in order for us to adopt a new behaviour or new attitude, we have to let something go–the old baggage. The medieval mystic, Meister Eckhart once wrote, “Live as though you didn’t exist.” Far from being a negative statement, he meant we should travel lightly in this world, ditching all unnecessary baggage, and leaving behind us only love.

rUSsiA?

Many a wise person throughout the ages has written that the thing we profess to hate the most or over which we obsess the most, is often the very thing we become. Take the relationship between the USA and Russia. Since the Second World War, most American leaders–and particularly the Republican Party–have railed against Russia’s communist/dictatorial regime. The Cold War, the nuclear arms race, the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, the Cuban Missile Crisis and numerous proxy wars are just a few exemplars of the uneasy relationship between the USA and USSR/Russia. Yet now, many in the Republican Party not only support Vladimir Putin as a great leader and “genius,” they even applaud his country’s unprovoked invasion of the Ukraine and the untold suffering it has caused. When American Putin supporters talk about ‘freedom’, they usually mean the freedom to do whatever they want, without extending the same right to those who disagree with them. Too many Republicans admire the ‘strong man’ autocracy seen in Putin’s Russia, wherein no dissent (freedom of speech) is tolerated, and they think it would suit America–until, of course, they fall afoul of the system.

And so it has come home to me that I will probably never again set foot in the land of my birth for the very same reasons I will not visit Russia. Simply put, I believe that a euro, a dollar or a pound is a vote. When we spend money on something, we are at the same time saying ‘I believe in the product.’ For years I have wanted to visit Leningrad–primarily to visit the Hermitage, but for other reasons as well. Now I wouldn’t go there even if someone else paid the cost. Why? Simply because Putin has brought to the world the same sort of evil as every dictator before him. He is George Orwell’s “newspeak” incarnate: war is peace, invasion is liberation, and of course, Ukraine’s democratically elected president, Zelensky (himself a Jew) is referred to by Putin as a “Nazi”. What a sick misrepresentation of reality. Why would I choose to ‘vote’ for Putin’s regime by visiting and spending money there?

Meanwhile in America, the country of In Guns We Trust and the most weaponised society on earth, public safety is interpreted to mean more weapons in the hands of everyone. If the fuel can in your garage caught fire, would you see more petrol as the answer to the fire? If your answer is ‘yes’ then you belong in the Republican Party…and to Putin’s Russia. But in any case, the frightening rate at which Americans kill their fellow citizens, and particularly children–all in the name of the sacrosanct Second Amendment–have turned American society into a reign of terror equal to Putin’s blood-soaked hands. No thanks. France learned their lesson during the “Terror” of the Revolution, when the excesses of the guillotine turned the cobbled streets of Paris into rivers of blood. Life here now is much more peaceful. I vote for liberté, égalité, tranquillité!

The Half-Life of War

The above photo isn’t very exciting, is it? I took it only a few minutes ago, because the subject matter has been weighing on my mind of late. It is the road bank next to our fence, but it could be just about anywhere on our property. At first glance it looks simply like a rubbish tip–until one considers that in 1944, this area was a battlefield. I live in Basse Normandie, an hour south of the D-Day landing beaches. Nearly every inch of Normandie was contested by both the Germans and the Allies in the summer of ’44. Thousands of civilians died; tens of thousands of soldiers. When planting trees or flowers, when digging the vegetable patch, etc, it’s easy to find the detritus of war, nearly 78 years after the fact. The above dishes and pottery are harmless enough, but this time of the year, when the farmers are plowing, up comes the unexploded ordnance. In our area, it’s from the Second World War; further north, it’s from both world wars (see photo below).

WW1 shells in a field in Picardie

Sadly, unexploded ammunition is not that hard to find. I went for a ramble with two friends north of here and when we stopped to consult a map, I noticed something lying at our feet: a 25lb shell. We took our map to a safer location. The farmers stack the upturned shells at roadsides and call for the French sappers to come and take them away for disposal. When I was working in Lille, about 20 years ago, two sappers were killed by a WW1 gas shell that exploded in the arms of the man carrying it to their lorry. He died instantly, and his companion the next day from gas inhalation. So the dirty work of war carries on, years after the shells were fired in anger. An astounding 2000 tons of unexploded ordnance is plowed up every year in northern France. Let that fact sink in.

Then there is the human cost of war, which is still in evidence in my village. My next-door-neighbour (who was born in the room where I am writing this) was ousted from the family home, along with his mother, by Germans in WW2. His father had been deported to a prisoner-of-war camp, probably for forced labour. He was seven at the time, but he clearly remembers the depridations of their occupiers, who purloined the best farm animals, their food stores, etc, leaving the native inhabitants to live off the land as best they could. The German officers lived in what is now our house; and what is now our back pasture held a barracks, kitchen and a barn. Only the barn has survived, but again, the foundations and rubble remain from the battle that swept through here. (Don’t ever walk barefoot in this region!) There are many other people here whose childhood and memories remain scarred by war.

Now turn your thoughts to Ukraine. Yes, we all want the war to end and for the Russians to withdraw…well, those of us who think beyond the current cost of fuel and know that the images are not fake. Yet the cessation of active fighting doesn’t mean the effects of the war are over. Lost loved ones, lost homes, landmines, unexploded ordnance, PTSD and more are the hidden half-life of war. Emotional and psychological scars don’t disappear when the shooting stops. In fact, that’s when they begin to show themselves. And if French sappers can be killed removing death’s hardware from a century ago…well, need I say more?

Counting the Cost?

Everything I write, I try to write with complete honesty. Today I’m writing with blunt honesty and trepidation. Trepidation because my wife and I have opened the door to a future we had in no way anticipated in France. For one, we had not anticipated a war with Russia; and like most of the world, apart from the filthy rich, we are experiencing a personal cost to the war in Ukraine: with prices rising daily. And now Chris and I have added another, as yet, unknown cost: we have agreed to host refugees from Ukraine. They are on their way as I write this and are in Romania at the moment.

For their part, our guests (mother and daughter), are coming to live with complete strangers in a country where they do not speak the language. It’s reciprocal, as we have no real knowledge of them either. Chris and I ran a B&B for nearly three years before Covid shut it down, so we are used to having strangers in our home. We also took in refugees from a hurricane in 2018 and became fast friends with them…but it was only for a week. Hence my trepidation. Our guests might be with us months …or years.

Truthfully, I like my solitude. I enjoy our goats and hens more than most human beings. As a former prison chaplain, pastor and university teacher “I gave at the office.” But this war on Europe’s doorstep has blasted me out of my solitude. Ironically, three weeks ago I even contemplated going to the Ukraine to help or fight, but decided that a 70-year-old might be more of a hindrance than a help. But watching the ruthless assaults on civilians ignited, what a friend once described as, my “over-developed sense of fairplay.” I hate bullies. As a bookish lad, I suffered enough at their hands.

As so here I am, worrying about “What if they can’t sleep or have night terrors? They’ll be in the studio apartment over our heads.” “What if they won’t leave me alone?” (I am not alone in this, for my wife has similar concerns…I just have a need to express mine!) Happily, at this moment, money is not a major concern. We have been bowled over by the kind offers of friends in different countries. And yet…what the hell else are we meant to do? Jesus’ admonition to “welcome the stranger” rings round in my brain. And so Chris and I made the decision to offer hospitality without counting the cost. We are not special people or heroes, so please, no more comments like that on Facebook. We are doing what our God-given humanity has called us to do. And we might be asking some of you for your support.

Finding Your Voice?

Writers and literary critics often talk about ‘voice’. A writer’s having ‘voice’ is a positive statement, meaning that there is authenticity to what the author is relating–particularly with fiction. Many years ago I was talking with a chap who had recently finished his PhD dissertation and was trying to find an academic post. I suggested that getting some or all of his dissertation published would be a big help in the world of ‘publish or perish.’ He averred it was a good idea, but then stated that he would defer trying to get published as he hadn’t yet found his voice. It was a sad statement…and his academic career actually ended there. In my previous blog I quoted Oscar Wilde’s aphoristic: “Be yourself; everyone else is taken.” So if one cannot find one’s own voice…well…any other would simply be imitation.

Without wanting to sound puffed-up, the voice with which I write–fiction or scholarly articles–is the one I’ve always had. I don’t mean my vocal chords and speaking voice, as in the above diagram, but the voice which plays inside my head. Most of us experience a voice which narrates our lives, thoughts, amusing stories, angry narratives, etc. Writers simply write things down: stories, histories, poetry, sermons and the list goes on. The ‘trick’ for any writers-to-be is simply to trust the voice you have been given. It’s the same voice with which you tell jokes, relate sad events and speak words of endearment to a loved one.

Now I invite you to take the next leap with me: vocation. Vocation is a term which, in English, has usually been reserved for religious professions or trades. But that is a much reduced usage of its original and full meaning. The Latin vocatio literally means a ‘calling’ and applies to anything we feel we are made/created/built to do: art, engineering, farming, parenting, etc. The idea of calling is theological: God calls us into being and endows us with specific gifts, talents, abilities. Vocation is that inner voice which sings with delight when we live, act and do what we feel we were made to do. In Carl Jung’s Psychological Types, he writes that each of us has a type which is essential to who we are. But he did not mean this as some sort of limiting determinism, but rather that we are meant to develop within the type we have been given. There are certain aspects of our lives that we cannot essentially change: height, hair colour, inherited traits and more. (And, yes, I am ignoring all of the many ways we try to change our appearance.) The point of this life is to take what we have been given–our talents, interests, abilities–and use them to make us into the best selves we can be. No one else has your voice or your calling; no one can take it from you; but only you can free it to blossom into the life you want to live.

Being Who We Are

Oscar Wilde famously said, “Be yourself; everyone else is taken.” That was both a pithy and witty way of putting what so many philosophers and spiritual greats have discovered and shared over the millennia. Most of us waste a lot of our years trying out different personae mostly to gain acceptance with others–usually in our work and our relationships. We are driven by existential questions such as: How do we want others to see us? What will help us to succeed? What will help us to ‘get ahead’…but ahead of what or whom? (And what would happen if we actually got ahead of ourselves? Then where would we be?!)

I spent most of my life as an ordained minister in various contexts: prison chaplaincy, parish ministry and academic teaching. In my second novel, No Good Deed, one of my characters says to a friend considering parish ministry: “Being a minister in a church could be likened to being the screen in a movie theatre…except it’s made out of toilet paper—people project onto you all of their hopes and fears about life…and God. And when you don’t live up to their expectations, they tear you up and flush you.” Well, that was my experience, in any case. If one tries to live up to the various expectations of others, one becomes nothing to anyone. For the record, prison chaplaincy was by far the most natural setting for me. (Make what you will of that! Many have.) Working with people who have had their names dragged through the press, police and court records, and have been tried, convicted and sentenced creates an overall atmosphere of brutal honesty–nothing like the tea and crumpet, go-lightly superficiality in most churches. The longer I was in parish ministry the more my clerical collar felt like a noose: ‘be like our former minister’, ‘don’t joke around so much’, ‘don’t ever discuss politics’, etc. In other words: ‘Just be nice to us and have no strong opinions about anything.’ No wonder Jesus never worked in a parish! But then, had parishes existed in his day, he wouldn’t have been ‘selected’ for ministry in the first place!

So back to me…that’s me in the photo above: the guy holding the goat (Rocky). I like that picture more than most any other of me in recent years, because I was just being me. Just being me usually means wearing trousers with muddy hoof prints on them, an old jacket which also has the hoof prints (I’m thinking of starting a fashion trend called ‘Off the Hoof’) and Wellingtons…covered in goat and chicken shit. I LOVE animals (wild and most domesticated). I love animals more than most people because they meet you fully as who they are. (I once held a lost, newborn fawn and it was one of the purest, most joy-filled moments of my life.) People usually take longer to grow on me. I own that some of that is probably because my personality is a mix of Kierkegaard, along with Groucho and Harpo Marx.

I think I will be inclined to revisit this topic in the coming days and weeks; but as this is the first day of 2022, I want to put these questions to the handful of inquistive types who read my blogs: What does it take for you to be truly yourself? How much time do you spend hiding the bits you think other people won’t like? (And do you really need to spend time around those people? If not, then why do it?) And most importantly do you have friends or family with whom you can truly be yourself? I hope so; if not, work on it! There is only one you.