I’ve just realised that it’s now half past four on a Tuesday evening and that I haven’t written a blog post for about three weeks. Oops. But then I found this one. I’ve no idea why I didn’t post it at the time, suffice to say I suppose life has been a bit busy since I wrote it and it’s quite long. I also have a horrible feeling I’m repeating myself with the story about my parents. Yes, I know I’ve just been fifty and I know that menopausal brain fog really IS a thing but I still feel I should be able to work out whether or not I’ve told a story on my blog.
Never mind. I can find no evidence, so I’m going to assume that I haven’t told the stories and my memories of having done so are just rather vivid ones of writing the original draft.
Right then. Onwards and upwards.
So a while back I was negotiating with Mum and Dad’s neighbour. They were putting in a fence and we were trying to work out where it’s going to go. But the process went on for a long time because the neighbour and I were both very busy and very leery about putting it in the wrong place for either of us.
However, the negotiations weren’t what made it difficult. What I struggled with was that it brought the progress of Mum’s dementia into stark relief. Because Mum would normally have sorted this, herself. Even six months ago, she’d have sorted it. But this time, she was just not able to. I had to and it was tricky from a long way away. Also because it was my parents’ garden, and my parents’ fence I found it difficult to detach myself, emotionally which hindered the process – because I wanted to be sure that what I agreed was what they’d have negotiated if they were able to – and that also made it take longer.
The thing is, when someone has dementia, it’s like the slowest death imaginable. At the start they are just a little bit forgetful but then, as it begins to take hold they become unable to cope with things, and as that starts to happen, you have to do those things for them. With Mum it was cooking, she started to forget recipes, indeed, the moment I realised she was getting dementia as well as Dad was the day when she rang me and asked me how to make flap jack, pretty much her signature dish. Luckily, she’d given me the recipe but after that I made sure I collected all the recipes she used regularly, the’d she’d collected from various people over the years.
When that sort of thing starts to happen, you start to mourn the loss of the fit healthy person. It’s not that you can’t have good times with them as they are, it’s just that you miss the jokes, being able to discuss things with them, the advice they would give. The subtlety, the nuances of conversations with them, the multiple shades of colour and tone in your relationship start to fade to simpler notes; black and white, primary colours, capitals only.
Of course, they are still with you, and yet more and more of these subtle things you so love in them are not. And that hurts. It’s natural to withdraw a little at this point. You still love them, you still care for them but you simply can’t be as open because it hurts too much.
Mum and Dad’s dementia is something I cannot look in the face for too long metaphorically speaking. I can look through it, round it, I can turn my head sideways and look at it out of the corner of my eye but if I look at it head on for more than a second or two, I am undone. So what the negotiations with their neighbour did was compel me to appreciate the full extent of Mum’s dementia; to look it full in the face without flinching or turning away, all day, every day for about five weeks, after which every single piece of white goods, and their shower, broke in succession followed by other things which I didn’t think could break, which proved me wrong by … well … breaking.
It’s been tough. Although at least the fence looks fab, the shower is fixed, the new washing machine works and the new fridge is working, too, even if the stair lift is on the blink and all power to their kitchen has failed (can’t win ’em all).
Mum and Dad are both very smart. Even now, Mum is one of the best judges of character of anyone I know and Dad was. That’s one of the things I really miss about him. When I pine for the things that are gone, I turn to memories, just as if I am grieving, for real. I guess I am grieving, for real, in respect of these personality traits because they are things that I will never see again. I’ve been doing a lot of that kind of grieving recently and I remembered this story, which, in turn, has led me to think about religion and faith. Run with me I do get to the point eventually.
A few years ago now, when Dad was beginning to become forgetful but was still perfectly able to do some things on his own he went off to do some some bits and bobs at the church. It was about five o’clock in the evening and as he came out he met a man in the churchyard who asked if there was a bus to the next town. At that time of day, the last one had gone so Dad explained that there wasn’t.
The two of them got talking and after a while, the man admitted that he was sleeping rough. Dad asked if he wanted help with the bus fare and the man said no. He then offered the man a lift into Brighton where there was a hostel. Again, the guy said that no, explaining that many of his fellow rough sleepers were mentally disturbed or on drugs, and if they weren’t, they soon became that way after a few months of homelessness. He explained people in the hostel would steal the few things he had to his name and flog them to get another hit. Some would go in groups from inmate to inmate extorting money and beating up any that had none to give or refuesed to pay. Others were suffering from mental illness, often without any medication. He said he’d been beaten up several times by gangs but also by people who appeared to be having a paranoid episode or who were clearly hallucinating. However, he said that if Dad was happy to do so, he would appreciate a lift to the station at Shoreham By Sea.
Dad asked him if he’d eaten that day and when the man said he hadn’t. Dad loves his food and has always got distinctly ratty if he misses a meal, indeed, to him the idea of missing a meal is a pretty major disaster, so immediately he invited the man home to tea; an action Mum would have one hundred percent endorsed. The man accepted and Dad drove him home where he was plied with copious cups of tea and a lot of home made cake, flapjack etc. By the time they’d finished, it was seven pm and the man thanked them and said it was time he went as he wanted to get the 8 o’clock train. Mum and Dad had spent a couple of hours in his company by this time and found out where he grew up, how he became homeless, what he’d done before etc. When the man went to the loo they had a discussion and decided that it was too late to take him to the station. They had a bible study group that evening, so people would be coming to the house and they were certain he was fully in possession of his faculties and highly unlikely to hurt them, why not ask him to spend the night?
The man was completely overjoyed to be asked to stay and Mum went and made up the bed in the spare room. She asked him if he’d like to join them for bible study or if he’d like to watch TV or something. He said that what he’d really like to do was stay quietly in his room and listen to the radio. So she took her radio up to the spare room and made up the bed. She asked him if he would like to have a bath and his eyes lit up. It would be wonderful, he told her. So Mum dug out a huge towel and ran a bath for him. She asked him if he’d like her to wash any of his clothes, she could hang them over the radiators and they’d be dry by morning but he said no.
Ten or twenty minutes before the bible group was due she rang me.
‘Darling, I’ve done something you may not approve of.’
‘Uh huh. Come on then out with it.’
‘Well, look, if I don’t ring you by 9.30 tomorrow morning, can you call the police? Only your father found a homeless man in the churchyard and we’ve invited him to spend the night.’
I’ve met countless rough sleepers in London and since I never had any money, I always tried to talk to them, because I felt that if I couldn’t give them a place to stay or money for whatever it was they spent it on, then at least I could acknowledge their humanity by sitting down with them and having a normal chat. I reasoned that they probably don’t get many of those. I may have been lucky with the folks I’ve spoken to but those conversations have left me with a strong belief that most of them are decent people. Some are damaged, for sure, but most of them are decent.
‘Is he an addict?’ I asked her, confident that after 40 years of teaching and 17 as a house master my father would have no trouble spotting the most cunningly concealed addiction from a mile way.
‘No, he just seems like a very nice man who is down on his luck.’
’You’re nuts and you have absolutely no sense of self preservation. You know that don’t you?’
‘Yes darling. Oh and darling?’
‘You won’t tell your brother about this will you? Only he’ll be furious.’
‘No, I won’t, at least, not until afterwards.’
‘Afterwards is fine, just not now.’
‘It’s OK, I won’t tell him now.’
‘It’s a pleasure. On you go then, speak to you tomorrow morning.’
Needless to say it was fine. They gave him a slap up breakfast – ‘I hadn’t a thing in the house so the poor man had to have porridge, fruit and then some toast, and then I managed to find an egg so I boiled that for him’ – and dropped him off in time to get the 9.40am train.
McOther, was especially impressed by this. As a confirmed atheist, he felt that actions such as these are what religion is supposed to do for people. He even told the story at a lunch with some friends in London, to illustrate the point. When his friends laughed and told him my parents had been unbelievably naive and stupid McOther, in an incredibly touching moment of loyalty, went into orbit, bless him, telling them that my folks were well aware of the dangers of what they were doing which was what made it such a Christian act in the first place. I think he and his friends were all half cut as McOther ended up totally losing his biscuits and having a massive row which finally came to a head on the pavement outside when he told them they were all bastards and he never wanted to see them again. Then – his memory of events is a little hazy – he thinks he threw his brief case at one of them who had followed him up the street to apologise and try to calm him down, before telling him to fuck off, a grand gesture that was rendered a bit less grand by the fact he then had to go and retrieve his briefcase from his friend’s feet before he could storm off properly!
When McOther arrived home, he had many, many missed calls from his friends trying to apologise. I was touched that he should have stood up for my parents but at the same time, I told him, ‘It’s not a real row, you were rat arsed and they were rat arsed. They’re a decent bunch, they know it’s a blip, just ring them back and make up.’
He did and they are all firm friends again but I’ve noticed that he comes home from these lunches a little less under the affluence of incohol than before so they might be moderating the excess! Not sure.
Anyway, it made me think, because in these days of the internet it’s so easy to think that a Christian is someone banging on and on about how all gay people are evil and that Jesus needs your money to buy an important preacher a new private jet. And if you are a person of faith it’s easy to forget that the kind of dickhead who does that is what most lay people think a Christian IS. Especially when most folks’ only experience is encountering absolutely mentalist American Christians on the internet. Or morons who start spouting the Old Testament at them and telling them to repent their evil ways. Some Christians seem to have completely missed the transition from Bronze Age Syria to modern society. Never mind.
However, trust me peps, Jesus will NEVER need your money to buy some smarmy, bouffant-haired fuckwit an aeroplane. Jesus got pissed off with the money lenders in the temple precinct, went off on one at them, and trashed the place. You know, like The Who at the height of their 1960s hotel-room-smashing excess might have done – I suspect the Who are far more well behaved now, they probably retire straight after each gig with a hot water bottle and a cup of Ovaltine with a slug of whisky in it but I digress.
There are strong arguments to suggest that one of the most important aspects of JC’s ministry was the idea that it was a new era and people who were not Jews could be baptized and be part of this. The idea that changes could be made, new people, different people could be admitted and accepted into the new faith while still keeping the premise and core ethos of the old one. Then there’s the whole thing about The Law. Originally it had been set up to help people live good and loving lives, to stop them abusing their slaves and servants or eating things that would make them ill and to keep them actively participating in the arms race with the tribe next door – the one where the bunch who can breed the highest numbers of strapping young men gets to beat all the other tribes when they have yet another war. But now the Pharisees were using it as a stick to beat the people over the head with. There are so many parallels between what Jesus appears to have been trying to tell us then and what is happening, today.
You see a Christian is called that because they are ‘a follower of Christ’. And as the priest at my church pointed out the other day, we started with ten commandments, each beginning with the words, ‘Thou shalt not,’ and then along comes Jesus and he gives us two commandments which start with, ‘thou shall’. It seems to me that a lot of Christians look to the Old Testament over the new, putting a tremendous amount of time into ‘thou shalt not’ at the expense of ‘thou shalt’. They strike me as a bit off message.
For a start Jesus explained that it’s a new covenant, new start so yeh, New Testament. So if the Old Testament lays down some draconian dictat, and you believe that, over and above contradictory statements made by Jesus in the New Testament well … are you even a Christian? Because if you’re calling yourself a follower of Christ and you’re not fucking listening to him, but, instead, turning to old lore, the one supplanted by the New Testament ie His law, surely you’re something different; a gentile follower of some really extremist Jewish sect, possibly? If you’re not accepting the Christy bits, how can you be Christian? The clue is in the name and surely the love thy neighbour Christy parts are the whole fucking point.
And this is what perplexes me. Because it appears that, for many folks, the point of being a Christian is to force your behavioural norms on others, turn everyone into some kind of holy Stepford clone and to vilify those who don’t conform to your ideas of what a ‘wholesome’ life is. There is no compassion in this wholesomeness. No mercy or pity for the afflicted, it’s all about kick-back reactions to stuff, someone’s an alcoholic so all alcohol is evil. There is a medieval simplicity to this approach. In US Republican politics, it seems to come with the suggestion that if people are poor it’s their fault and it is always, always this sickly saccharine ‘wholesome’ over happy. It’s always about the minutae. It’s all about judging, condemning. It’s about not swearing and not drinking, about not doing bad things and stopping other people from doing bad things. So often it seems to be about condemning young women who get pregnant, ruining their lives with approbation and censure, with disapproval, shunning them and then vilifying them when they have an abortion to avoid a life time of stigma. A life of stigma which is entirely unnecessary. There seems to be fuck all about love, and kindness and doing good things, and compassion for people who can’t help doing bad things because they’re damaged or hurting or indeed, who might be very different if given a helping hand.
Mostly it seems to be about following the ‘rules’ and condemning those those who don’t confirm. It’s about not being gay, although so long as you vilify and condemn gay people loudly enough in public it’s OK to go cottaging or sleep with rent boys while your wife is at bible club! Just don’t let anyone find out. It’s about brainwashing rather than free will and reason. It’s about controlling other people’s behaviour rather than looking at your own.
Is that what Jesus would do? Just like the Pharisees, who went around looking for tiny faults in others so they could point them out and make themselves look good, these folks seem to have completely and utterly missed the point of religion. And that’s why normal people, like McOther’s friends, just didn’t get that Mum and Dad’s actions there, though possibly unwise, were Christian. Because the only Christians they’d met were people who were so busy obeying rules and judging those around them who didn’t, that they’d forgotten the whole be-like-Christ thing.
That seems to be the difference, to me, between the Christian Right and … well … Christians. A Christian tries to live like Christ. That’s where the name ‘Christian’ comes from. A Christian is supposed to love their fellow humans as much as they love themselves. A Christian heeds Christ’s words, ‘judge not, lest you be judged.’
A Christian is supposed to ask themselves, ‘what would Jesus do?’ and do that. A Christian is supposed to reach out to another humans in need, whatever the cost. God knows we don’t manage it much – or at least, I know I don’t – but we’re supposed to try. A Christian is supposed to be kind and loving to everyone and every thing; like Jesus. The reason Christian countries don’t torture prisoners of war, even if other countries do, is because we are supposed to have evolved beyond all that. It’s the whole goddamn point. So if we waterboard people because we think the brutal regime they come from is bad, we’re just being like them and completely surrendering any moral high ground. Suddenly it’s just two differing regimes, wrong versus wrong as opposed to right versus wrong. An eye for an eye doesn’t solve anything, it just makes for a lot of blind people with even less understanding of one another than before. Was Jesus being remembered for how incredibly judgemental he could be? Wasn’t it the Pharisees who are remembered for that? And when did he condone violence and torture? Oh yes, that’s right, never.
Also, correct me if I’m wrong but try as I might, I fail to recall the bit in the New Testament where Jesus says that rich people will inherit the earth. Indeed, wasn’t it the poor? And wasn’t it blessed are the meek, the pure in heart, the peacemakers … anything about the merits of vainglorious pomposity and bald pursuit of power? Mmmmnope. Only when Jesus is deriding the behaviour of the Pharisees. Oh wait there’s something about how it would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man get to heaven isn’t there?
Another thing about Jesus. He doesn’t seem to go in for organised bullying, for example, in the Sermon on the Mount, try as I might, I find myself unable to recall the moment when Jesus picks people out of the audience – possibly at random, or possibly because he knows they disagree with his view – and vilifies them for being ‘unpatriotic’ Jews. At no point does Jesus ask some of the more sturdily built disciples to hustle these folks out of his sight while the crowd chants ‘Israel, Israel,’ and Jesus exhorts their manhandlers with choice phrases such as ‘don’t go too easy on them! Get them outta here!’ I confess, I’ve heard accounts of Hitler doing that, and seen film footage of America’s devout christian president, Donald Trump doing it, of course, but not Jesus. It’s not the way someone who professes to be a Christian should behave. Not if they have the smallest understanding of their ‘faith’.
Conversely, when the crowd don’t like what JC has to say, he just leaves them to it. We are told that ‘many turned back and stopped following him’ after they didn’t like, or understand, his preaching in the synagogue at Capernaum, so many that he asked the twelve apostles, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’
One of the things that strikes me about internet christianity or Trumpian ‘Christianity’ is that there’s no dialogue. Jesus talked to his enemies, he debated with them, he proved them wrong in intellectual discussions. He showed people why his way was the right one. It’s no good deciding that everyone who disagrees with you is a morally dissolute liar and refusing to talk to them. That just brings polarisation, extremism and deadlock. Oh yeh and if you’re a leader, it also shows you up as too thick to argue.
A few years back I remember being extremely impressed by something I read after the death of the Revd Ian Paisley; a Northern Irish MP who was a tub-thumping, protestant, hell-firer if ever there was one. The impressive thing was that one of the first people who popped up in praise of him was his opposite number from Sinn Fein. He explained how, while they both disagreed on many aspects, he had an enormous amount of respect for Paisley for a) coming to the table and b) the way he conducted himself when he did. The way these feuds are perpetuated is when each side has managed to convince themselves that those on the other are less than human. That’s what the alt right do. Teach you to fear and distrust other human beings so you are afraid to talk to them and believe the hype. Lack of contact between polarised communities helps perpetuate this.
Our fellow from Sinn Fein, who, let’s face it, had made the same brave step, was impressed with the way that Paisley didn’t treat him as an enemy, but as a fellow Northern Irishman with different viewpoint with whom he must work for the good of the people. He – I think it was Martin McGuinnes but I can’t be sure – felt that a man could only cross that divide if he genuinely put the well being of those he was elected to represent over his own personal viewpoint and that for someone who had held such an entrenched viewpoint for so long to do that took not only conscience but moral courage.
Those first stage talks were difficult and long, but apparently, despite their polar opposite political viewpoints, the two men grew to respect each other enormously and became firm friends in their work to try and bring peace and some kind of cease fire that both sides could agree over.
Wouldn’t it be lovely if Christians in politics would follow JC’s instructions to leave judgement up to God. Wouldn’t it be grand if they tried looking to their own behaviour, rather than endlessly picking out faults in others to score points and win votes, or looking for ethnic groups and minorities to blame for economic problems of their own, or other politicians’ making. Wouldn’t it be great if they took the hard path of truth rather then pandering to extremists and stirring up racial and ethnic hatred. The end doesn’t justify the means.
Why is it that God in politics seems to bring out hypocrisy of the worst type? ‘Christians’ and holy people in the public eye who behave like actual Christians appear to be rarer than unicorn shit. I guess we should just thank fuck (or possibly God) for Desmond Tutu, Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama.