Archive for September, 2007

The natural history of the rhinovirus

images1.jpg It begins with the throat. Though I accept there’s probably a lot of variability from person to person. It’s usually wakening at 6am with that dry catch in the back of your throat, not quite a lump when you swallow, but more like there’s a bit of glass there. Then you know it’s coming. You know you’re in for the dreaded man-flu.

Then the head begins to ache, when you can feel your heart pumping with each throb, the rush of blood in your ear when you lie on one side. Your skin and muscles begin to ache, a symptom that rejoices in the name of hyperaesthesiae. You’re hot then you’re cold then all of a surprise you’re hot again. Though that may just be the menopause…

And last of all the nose kicks in. Feeling like you’ve been hit full smack with a football in the face, your eyes water. Like you’ve just watched Watership Down three times in a row. With that comes the sneezing, sneezes that rush up on you all of a sudden, that leave you no time to get a tissue to your face and you end up covering friends and colleagues with microscopic droplets of what may well be bubonic plague, cause by this stage this is what you feel like you have.

You become physically attached to a box of Kleenex, knowing that standing up quickly will provoke a change in the mucous distribution in your sinuses, leading to a whole new barrage of nose trumpeting.

You down paracetamol like smarties, thinking you’ll die of liver failure if the man-flu doesn’t get you. You hoak about, right at the back of the cupboard looking for the Ribena and drink gallons in the hope that the Vitamin C just might do something.

You lie in bed but can’t sleep cause no matter which side you lie on one of your nostrils will always be blocked, you try rolling over to let gravity shift the mucous but it doesn’t help. The only way it stays clear is lying on your back but then you can’t sleep at all like that.

But then one day you wake up and your nose has stopped running. Like it’s hit the wall or just finished the 10km fun run. Instead, when you blow you’re greeted by a whole new consistency. A kind of green sludge, like the type of stuff they used to pour over minor celebrities heads on Saturday morning TV shows back in the good old days. Now you know you’re on the road to recovery.

48 hours from the first symptom you’re running about like a mad thing in complete health. This is man-flu, the very definition of making a mountain of a molehill. Goodness knows how I’ll cope if I ever get proper sick.

The Gingerbread Boy

Once upon a time there was a gingerbread boy. He lived in the land of Faerie where people sat on tuffets from Ikea all day and princesses took long afternoon naps and small German children got eaten in houses made of chocolate. This was long before the introduction of the ASBO.

People used to ask where Gingerbread boy came from and sit back and wait for him to tell them long stories about storks and cabbage patches. But he only told these stories after he got one or two drinks into him. People in the land of Faerie will believe anything after one or two drinks.

The truth of the story was much more straightforward. Gingerbread boy was baked in the bakery by the Baker in Faerie town, just like all the other gingerbread men. He came from the same mould all the other gingerbread men came from. He was baked in the same oven and laid out on the same table to cool.

But something about Gingerbread boy made him different from all the others. There was something wrong with his mouth. He could see all the other gingerbread men laid out beside him, all identical with their little round icing mouths, each one painted with a kind of mock surprise at their own existence.

But Gingerbread boy knew his mouth was different. He knew that something must have gone wrong when the Baker had been icing his mouth. Maybe the bell of the door of the bakery had rang, maybe his cellphone had gone off, the vibration of the phone in his pocket jarring his hand at just the wrong moment. Maybe the Baker just didn’t care enough to fix the crooked sugary scar left on his face.

Something had gone wrong with Gingerbread boy. And now he was left scarred with a crooked line on his face where his little ‘O’ of surprise should have been.

Gingerbread boy knew he was ‘damaged goods’. And he knew what happened to all the other ‘damaged goods’ in the Bakery. He wouldn’t be fit to lie on the shelves behind the counter, waiting to be chosen for the little boy’s birthday party. To lie on the plate on the table, beside the birthday cake in the shape of a tank made from Cadbury’s flakes, just on the far side from the M&S cocktail sausages. He knew as ‘damaged goods’ he’d never make it to that birthday party. And going to birthday parties was what gingerbread men were made for. If he knew nothing else then he knew that.

He knew he was destined to end up with the other broken gingerbread men in the Baker’s basket in the back yard. Joining the other misfit gingerbread men, the ones with only one leg and three eyes. To make a feast for the Baker’s dog and the pigeons come closing time.

In a fright he sat bolt upright on the tray and glanced around him. The other gingerbread men just lay there like a Faerie version of the Terracotta army. With their little ‘O’s of perfection sitting smugly in the centre of their heads, somehow feigning surprise, as if saying ‘who? me? perfect?’ Gingerbread boy felt angry, wanting to rip the nose off the nearest gingerbread man just to spite his face.

But he knew his time was short. Soon the Baker would be back to fetch his most recent batch to go out to the front of the shop. Looking around him, he caught sight of an open window leading into the alley behind the shop, and made a leap for it. He caught a fleeting glimpse of his ‘scar’ in his reflection in the glass and promised himself he’d never look at it again.

And so began Gingerbread boy’s adventures in the Faerie. Most people know the story of what happened next. How he slipped away from the bakery, from the child in the street and then the pig in the wood, all who wanted to eat him. And how when he got to the river and realized he couldn’t swim across it was the fox who offered to take him across on his back. And how when they got to the other side the fox broke his word and tried to eat Gingerbread boy.

But most people don’t know that the story didn’t stop there. For when the fox turned on him Gingerbread boy pulled out a little bottle of pepper spray from his back pocket and that was the end of the fox’s treachery.

Gingerbread boy roamed far and wide and spent some time with Humpty Dumpty shortly before he discovered hard liquor and had his great fall. Once he saw red-riding hood’s wolf in a failed attempt to catch the three blind mice. When the wolf saw he couldn’t catch either a small, stupid girl or three visually challenged rodents he went into a bit of a decline and took solace with the troll under London bridge. Together they drowned their sorrows singing depressing songs that London bridge was falling down… falling down… falling down.

Gingerbread boy saw he wasn’t the only ‘damaged goods’ in Faerie. It seemed everyone bore the scars of their own story. But he wouldn’t let this stop him, for now he no longer had the bakers basket to fear. Gingerbread boy set his heart on making his fortune and becoming the envy of all of Faerie.

He started a business making stringed instruments for cats, and made lots of new friends till one day his dear friend the dish ran away with the spoon and broke his heart and the cow jumped over the moon with the profits to get away from the Inland Revenue. Gingerbread boy was left bankrupt and soon found out that although he could easily, and with one simple phone call, consolidate all his debts into one manageable repayment… he knew this just wouldn’t be enough.

Walking back alone through the woods that night, his icing mouth felt more crooked and snarled than ever. It felt continually in spasm, the pain sending jolts through his head. He was convinced that no one would stay with him, with his face the way it was. He thought that Faerie folk just use people like him and that he just couldn’t trust them any more.

With a heavy heart he turned back towards town, giving up on his fortune he resigned himself to find whatever happiness there was to be had in Faerie town, and the Baker’s basket be damned.

He took a job sweeping the streets at night, once all the Faerie folk had gone to bed. During his lonely shifts he thought about the Baker and how careless he must have been to make such a slip while icing his mouth. Every night he always skipped cleaning outside the bakery, night after night the rubbish piling higher. He told himself this was revenge, but deep down he was scared to go too close in case he saw the other gingerbread men staring back at him from the shop window.

He found a flat on the wrong side of the tracks, down by the old graveyard where the demons and the goblins and the vampires lived. Working night shifts he found this the only place to get peace and quiet during the day so he could sleep.

Gingerbread boy soon forgot his dreams of birthday parties, or of making his fortune and being the envy of all of faerie or even finding whatever happiness he could. He forgot most everything. Except of course his crooked mouth and the painful spasms.

Gingerbread boy took to drinking to drown his sorrows, till his sorrows learned to swim. He changed to drugs till they didn’t work and just made things worse and it was just the needle and the damage done. He kept thinking that if it made him happy then why the hell was he so sad? He lost his job cleaning the streets of Faerie and spent his evenings off snorting lines of coke through $50 bills with the goblins down by the canal. He’d get drunk or high or both and get into fights with the goblins over who was going to go pick up the pizza.

One night he got so off his head, he started on about his time with the Baker and how this made him special and better than all the goblins. The goblins, who had been behaving pretty decently for goblins till now, could take no more of this upstart and turned on him.

Two days later he woke up in hospital with one gingerbread leg reduced to a gingerbread stump and with a white bandage covering the hole where his left cherry eye should have been. He lay awake in the hospital each night thinking of his scars, thinking of how damaged he was.

They made him spend time in rehab, though he tried to say no, no, no. He was trying to escape coming to terms with everything that had happened since he’d left the Bakery. He talked with smiling, kind-hearted people about getting his life back together but in his head he didn’t want to leave. Not knowing what he’d do whenever they let him out.

In time he got to like it there. He liked the kind-hearted people, knowing that a good heart these days was hard to find. One day a gingerbread girl turned up at group. She had purple Smarties for buttons down her front and a red liqourice lace as a scarf round her neck. But Gingerbread boy could she that she was ‘damaged goods’ too. Her right cherry eye was squeezed shut with her little green icing eyebrow tugged down to meet it. She looked like she was grimacing all the time.

Gingerbread girl didn’t remember the Bakery, she’d grown up with the old woman who lived in the shoe on the outskirts of town. She said she’d always been hungry growing up, as there was never enough broth to go round and the old woman was mean and was forever whipping them and sending them to bed. She’d ran away when she got the chance, but things hadn’t gone well.

She’d never worked out where she’d come from – she’d always been too scared of the perfect gingerbread men in the Bakery, to ever set foot inside and ask the Baker. She had no answers to why she was ‘scarred’. Her eye hurt so dreadfully all the time, and though she knew that everybody hurts, that everybody cries, sometimes… but she had no friends to take comfort in. And she was on her own in this life and the days and nights were so long, and she thought she’d had too much of this life to hold on…

So she’d taken a stack of sleeping pills she’d bought from the demons down by the canal. She took them all at once and she went to sleep thinking of princesses that slept for a thousand years only to be woken by beautiful frogs dressed as princes and… the sounds of sirens as the ambulance raced her to hospital. That had been three days ago, and well… here she was, a small, obscure section of the mental health act away from doing it all over again.

Gingerbread boy soon got to know Gingerbread girl. Nothing much changed, but it seemed like everything changed. Gingerbread boy was still stuck with his umbrella shaped candy cane as a crutch to get around, he still had no job, no money, and he’d forgotten all the dreams he’d started out with. But somehow this didn’t matter quite so much cause Gingerbread girl was his daisy through concrete.

They fell in love. Though Gingerbread boy merely fell over first, still getting used to his candy cane crutch. When they got out of the hospital they moved into the big shoe on the outskirts of town. The old woman having been accused selling dope to dopey the dwarf and evicted by social services.

Gingerbread boy got a job in the office of a company selling snow to Eskimos and carrying coals to Newcastle. And for the first time in his life he thought he’d found what he was looking for.

He forgot the old dreams of birthday parties, or of making his fortune, or of finding whatever happiness Faerie had to offer him. He even could see himself forgetting his ‘scar’ for a while. Like everyone he had good and bad days but when he looked at Gingerbread girl he thought if heaven didn’t exist what would he have missed and this life was the best he’d ever have.

I’d like to say they lived happily ever after, for that’s what happens to most folk in Faerie, but sometimes the story doesn’t always get told. Gingerbread boy got scared. Scared of the nightmares that came back to him, scared of the friends that scorned him, scared of the Baker laughing at him and throwing him in the basket. And most of all Gingerbread boy was scared of Gingerbread girl falling out of love with him.

Gingerbread girl had been working as a waitress in a cocktail bar when she met him. Who he was doesn’t really matter. He doesn’t really matter in this story. What mattered was that this ‘him‘ wasn’t Gingerbread boy. What mattered was that Gingerbread girl fell in love with him, and they had their own story to write from then on. And it was a good story as stories go, but there just wasn’t room for Gingerbread boy in it.

Gingerbread boy tried to write her a letter, tried to put things right. He told her how proud he was just to have her sitting with him and how if she were here he would admit that he was wrong. But it was too late, he knew that now it was over, there was no way he could stay sober, though it wasn’t like he tried. He remembered how the troll used to sing under the bridge, that his old man always said that hell would have no flames, just a front row seat, to watch your true love pack her things and drive away.

Gingerbread boy spent a week alone in the shoe. Lying on his bed staring at the ceiling. Wondering how life could be this cruel. The spasms in his mouth came back, a continual reminder of how ‘damaged’ he was.

He lifted his candy cane crutch and hobbled out of town. He walked and walked and walked and then walked some more. Crossing the river just before dawn, he climbed the wall of the bridge and stood staring at the icy water below. And he thought how everybody hurts sometimes. But surely not this much.

And it was only then he remembered the bakery, and the other gingerbread men, and birthday parties. It all seemed so very far away, so very long ago. He stared at the water, but the cold scared him more than the fall and he climbed back down again and sat at the base of the wall with tears streaming down his face.

It was then he noticed the van heading towards the bridge, its headlights brilliant in the pre-dawn. Soon they were at the bridge and the van was slowing, indeed stopping. A voice called from inside,

YOU NEED A RIDE?

It’s not that the driver was shouting, just that his words were the brightest, most beautiful, most solid thing Gingerbread boy had ever heard, and emboldening or italicizing the type would never quite get that across. His words were of the sort that didn’t need quotation marks, when he spoke he needed no announcement.

Gingerbread boy climbed up beside the driver and mumbled a muted thanks, knowing that no matter how long he’d sat on that bridge he’d never have plucked up the courage to either leap off or walk away.

YOU DON’T REMEMBER ME DO YOU?, said the man. The words were laughing and rich, Gingerbread boy was sure there was a melody behind them.

Gingerbread boy looked around him and suddenly a smell hit him, his mind flooded with memories, the smell of day old bread. As the sun inched above the horizon he looked at the driver and realized that this was the Baker. And all of a sudden it hit him how odd that he’d so long hated a man he’d neither seen nor sought.

By now they were driving, through the wood that Gingerbread boy had first passed when he’d escaped with his life from the Bakery. At once, a myriad of different questions for the Baker arose in his head, why had he messed up his mouth so long ago? Why had he condemned him to the path he now found himself on? Why had he made it so hard for him? He was just beginning to order his thoughts when the Baker spoke.

YOU WANT TO KNOW WHY DON’T YOU? THEY ALL DO… DON’T FEEL BAD LADDIE, IT’S THE WAY IT WORKS FOR EVERYONE. LET ME ASK YOU ONE QUESTION FIRST. WHY DO YOU THINK NONE OF THE OTHER GINGERBREAD MEN EVER RAN AWAY?

Something inside Gingerbread boy snapped, to put it simply he lost it. He told the Baker how he knew what happened to ‘damaged goods’ in the Bakery, he told the Baker how scarred and damaged he’d been left and he told the Baker (in no uncertain terms, using some pretty fruity expletives he’d picked up from the goblins) how it was all his fault and how if he hadn’t been so darn careless then he’d never have had to run away. The Baker made no attempt to stop him and so before he knew it, Gingerbread boy had launched into the whole story. He told him how it all happened and what he’d been through, all the pain, all the suffering, all the loss, and always, always the spasms and pain from his scar of a mouth.

The van continued to bump slowly across the old road. Silence descended in the cab for a few moments.

INTERESTING THEORY I SUPPOSE, BUT YOU NEVER REALLY ANSWERED MY QUESTION ABOUT THE OTHER GINGERBREAD MEN, WHY THEY NEVER RAN AWAY. LET ME PUT IT TO YOU ANOTHER WAY. DID YOU EVER ASK THEM WHY THEY STAYED?

Gingerbread boy admitted that no, he’d never asked them, thinking back to how smug they’d been, just lying there in their perfection.

AND DID YOU SEE ANY OF THEM WAVE GOODBYE WHEN YOU LEFT?

Again Gingerbread boy said no, they all seemed far too interested into getting behind the counter than seeing him off. Silence fell between them again. A thought occurred to Gingerbread boy, why didn’t they ever show him any sympathy? Even a nod of the head in acknowledgement that he existed, damaged as he was…

But then come to think of it, Gingerbread boy couldn’t recall them nodding at all, couldn’t remember them ever doing much of anything to be honest. They just lay there, looking perfect. He wondered why he’d never thought about that before, it certainly seemed odd… The Baker continued as if he knew the answer already.

I WOULDN’T SAY I WAS SURPRISED WHEN YOU CAME OUT OF THE OVEN THE WAY YOU DID, BUT I WAS CERTAINLY PLEASED. PART OF ME DIDN’T THINK IT WAS SUCH A GOOD IDEA, IT CERTAINLY WOULDN’T HAVE GONE DOWN WELL WITH OTHER BAKERS. BUT I WAS SURE PLEASED ALL THE SAME.

IN A WAY I THOUGHT IT WAS SO OBVIOUS THAT YOU WERE SPECIAL, THAT YOU WERE DIFFERENT, THAT I DIDN’T NEED TO TELL YOU. DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME?

And now, only now did Gingerbread boy understand. That he’d never seen the other gingerbread men do much of anything, because they couldn’t, because they couldn’t move so much as a cherry eye, and they never would. Simply being made of gingerbread wasn’t enough, something different had happened with Gingerbread boy. That he was more special than he could have imagined. At that moment his mouth went into spasm again, all the old scars and pain were jolted back again, worse than ever. It settled after a few minutes. The Baker spoke again.

SO I SUPPOSE IT’S ONLY FAIR I TELL YOU ABOUT YOUR ‘SCAR’ THEN. YOU SEE I WAS SO HAPPY AT SEEING YOU COME OUT OF THE OVEN THE WAY YOU DID THAT I THOUGHT IT WAS ONLY FIT THAT YOU LOOKED RIGHT FOR THE OCCASION. I MEAN, HAVE YOU EVER TRIED NOT FIGHTING THE SPASMS IN YOUR MOUTH?

Gingerbread boy felt the corners of his mouth twinge again, the beginning of another spasm but this time he took the Baker’s advice and didn’t fight it. And to his surprise the pain didn’t come. Indeed something else entirely came.

NOW LOOK IN THE WING MIRROR LADDIE

As he turned to look he remembered the only other time he’d seen his reflection and how it had been etched on his memory, the twisted snarl across his face. But what he saw now surprised him, so much that he was sure there was a different Gingerbread boy looking back at him. It must have been someone else, for surely the scar was gone and in its place was only… a smile?

SO MAYBE I GOT A BIT CARRIED AWAY, I JUST THOUGHT THAT IF YOU WERE SPECIAL ENOUGH TO BE ABLE TO MOVE THEN IT SEEMED ONLY FAIR THAT YOU COULD SMILE AND ENJOY IT. MY HAND NEVER SLIPPED, MY HAND NEVER SLIPS, YOUR MOUTH WAS ALWAYS MEANT TO LOOK THAT WAY. YOU WERE MEANT TO SMILE. THOUGH I KNOW YOU NEVER CAUGHT ON.

AND WHEN I MADE GINGERBREAD GIRL TO GO WITH YOU SHE WAS MEANT TO WINK, AS A SORT OF ENCOURAGEMENT TO YOU. BUT SHE WAS AS SURPRISED AS YOU AT BEING IN THE BAKERY… WELL YOU KNOW WHAT THEY SAY, THE BEST LAID PLANS OF MICE AND MEN AND ALL THAT…

Something told Gingerbread boy that Baker hadn’t really meant the last bit, and that he’d just added it on to make Gingerbread boy feel better about the whole thing.

The van had stopped, though Gingerbread boy hadn’t noticed when. Words failed him.

WELL, YOU BETTER COME IN IF YOU WANT TO GET THAT LEG FIXED. IT’LL NOT TAKE TOO LONG BUT THERE’S NOT MUCH TIME TILL THE PARTY.

Without thinking Gingerbread boy found himself hobbling into what he now saw was the Bakery. He saw the rows of gingerbread men in the window. As ever, just lying there, as they always had been. Looking back he thought how silly he’d been to be scared of them, how silly he’d been about a lot of things. His mouth twinged again, but he knew now not to fight it, that he was made for the twinges.

He hopped up on a stool and up onto the table as the Baker kneaded some dough on a cutting board beside him. As Gingerbread boy lay there he thought back on all he’d been through, as the Baker took a hunk of dough and began moulding it around Gingerbread boy’s stump of a leg. The Baker spoke again.

RIGHT THEN, INTO THE OVER FOR 30 MINUTES AND THAT LEG WILL BE AS GOOD AS NEW

Gingerbread boy sat up in fright, just as he had done when he’d woke up for the first time in the Bakery long ago. His immediate thought was the heat, then the pain. He found himself lifting his body off the table, the fresh dough pulling away from his leg, leaving him as he started. He told the Baker that he’d been through enough, that 30 minutes in the oven would kill him, and that he’d get along just fine at the party with his candy cane crutch.

IT WILL HURT, YES OF COURSE IT WILL HURT, BUT SOON, DEAR LOVE YOU, SOON YOU’LL FORGET ALL THAT. YOU SEE YOU’RE GOING TO THE BIRTHDAY PARTY, INDEED YOU’RE THE GUEST OF HONOUR, THE DANCING SMILING GINGERBREAD BOY. YOU SEE YOU’LL NOT DO AT ALL JUST THE WAY YOU ARE

When the Baker mentioned the Birthday party, and dancing and smiling, he knew that that was what he’d always wanted to do, that more than anything else in the whole world that was what he wanted to do. Slowly and carefully the Baker lifted Gingerbread boy into the oven, burning his own arm as he did.

And it hurt, more than anything had ever hurt before, more than the ‘scar’, more than being ‘damaged goods’, more than being abandoned by his friends, more than his time in hospital, more than watching Gingerbread girl pack her things and drive away. But somewhere a still small voice was telling him about a birthday party and as the whisper continued the pain didn’t get any less but he could feel the corners of his mouth rising again, he knew that he was smiling. And he knew that he was going to dance as the smiling gingerbread boy at the birthday party, and you know what? That was just about fine by him.

Diamonds on the soles of her shoes

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Of my many, and ever increasing number of neuroses, is my fear of boredom. Of mental, physical or spiritual inactivity. That somehow I will read, work or spiritualise my way into heaven. I’ve tried this. It doesn’t work. It doesn’t stop me trying.

So one of my many, and ever increasing list of problems, is dealing with an empty diary. I keep my appointments on my calendar function on my phone. Because I like digital order and the nerdish satisfaction I have from it. Usually this consists of work rotas, gigs, practices and meeting up with various folk. I like when each day has a little blue square of happily occupied bliss. I like it even better when one little blue square runs into the next and then the appointments get highlighted in red as a clash, like some kind of James Bond doomsday device countdown read-out.

These little things give my self-justifying soul a warm and fuzzy feeling.

The last little blue square of bliss I had was a wedding a month ago. And that was it. When I look at my phone it greets me with no ‘upcoming appointments’. A constant reminder of the uncertain mornings, afternoons and evenings that lies before me.

This no longer scares me. In fact I’ve grown to quite like the idea. Like new shoes that feel odd and uncomfortable, almost constricting compared to your beloved and smelly trainers that have finally made a final demand for holiday entitlements and a pension fund. These new and, almost brutal new shoes slowly worm their way into your life till you try on the old trainers one day when they’ve just popped back from the golf course and you realise that you’ve grown used to the new ones.

I promise to refrain from shoe metaphors for the remainder of our time together.

I’m getting used to the idea of waiting. I’m getting used to the idea of not justifying myself by what I do. I’m getting used to the idea of having nothing in the diary for the next 3 months.  I’m getting used to the idea of not being happy about it.

Common People

So I was having this discussion (in a taxi headed downtown…) in a coffee shop with a friend, Mostly about Christianity. All the things that piss us off about ourselves and the church and the world we live in. We end up talking about the gap there appears to be between the type of Christianity we see in our church – Bible centred, mostly cerebral, a lot of consideration and understanding, by a mostly highly educated group of people. Contrasted with the normal everyday society of a working class housing estate – educated as little as possible, where books, never mind the Bible have any role, where reaction is more important than consideration, who dance and drink and screw, casue there’s nothing else to do.

This begs two questions.

1) is the Christianity I describe what should be called ‘compulsory’? Is a love of study and theology and a grasp of the finer aspects of the five points of Calvinism what we need to be looking for in a believer?

2) if not, what type of church do we end up with and how should we do it? Together or separate? And how does this affect how we reach all the people in the working class housing estates.

Now there is enough in the two paragraphs (in which I have made huge generalisations and ignored many important points) preceding to spark all types of debate and controversy. That even may be the point. But I will try to explain a few things.

I grew up in a pleasant, safe (though not leafy) housing estate on the outskirts of town. Born to two first generation professionals, one of whom even had some form of degree, well a teaching certificate at least, and Da had 3 O-levels and some gnarly side burns so all’s fair there….

I was loved and nurtured and educated, both at home and in school. I was amply provided for and raised in a stable, loving and caring environment. Churched from a young age and taught the value of hard work, honesty, integrity and what would have been called moral values. Though perhaps I was just indoctrinated by a bunch of fundamentalists and projected some horrible Oedipus complex. I’m not sure. You choose.

I have been educated to a tertiary level and am a qualified professional in a very well paid and respected job with career possibilities coming out of every orifice. I am, by any stretch of the imagination, a golden child, one of the luckiest people on the planet.

There are now over 6 billion people on this planet. Most of whom without a toilet or running water, many of whom who die before the age of 5 from (what would be in our society) entirely preventable diseases. Many go hungry. Many can’t read. Few drive a car. Few have electricity to their home. Even fewer have used the internet or listened to a CD or read a book. Even fewer have been on an airplane to another country.

In terms of standards (education, finance, health, opportunities, safety) I’m somewhere in the top oh… 0.001% of the population of this planet. The white, middle class, Protestant male is the top of the food chain. Mostly by clambering on top of everyone else to get there, but I have no time for history.

If you are reading this then you are a) probably lost, b) full of perseverance to make it this far down and c) probably in the top few percentage points along with me.

On the other hand if I was born in a sink estate in Belfast, or in any city of any industrialised nation, I could well be an unwanted child of a teenage parent, with no father present. With an unstable family upbringing, few opportunities, an early entrance to anti-social and criminal behaviour, becoming heavily involved in alcohol and recreational drug abuse as a way to escape the awful pain of being alive and falling just short of the higher percentage points of human existence.

I draw generalisations to make a point. We are exceptional. Not in the BUPA advert type of a way, but that life is, in general, for the majority of the population on this planet and in this country, in this town, a conveyor belt of fear, pain, misery and death. I got lucky, though I in no way I believe I ended up with who I am by luck but you know what I mean.

I am a thinking Christian. I read books, I have vague notions of artistic appreciation and creativity. I need to understand my faith. To understand something of what expiation, imputation and sanctification mean. I need to question what my faith means, not even always finding satisfactory answers. I need to understand why I am what I am, why I do what I do.

Does this make me a better a follower of JESUS CHRIST?

The question I think should be this: does this make me a better follower of JESUS CHRIST?

It is subjective. Surely it must be. It would be anathema that GOD would create a faith accessible only to the top 0.001% of the population. Aren’t we to become like children in our faith? Heaven will be largely full of people who never learnt to read (assuming this whole shambles of a universe is called to a close sooner rather than later).

The gospel message is simple enough for a child to grasp and believe. Yet complex and deep and meaty enough to dedicate many of the finest minds of humanity into dedicating their lives into its understanding and unpacking.

So it seems clear that I’m not right about everything. A shock to us all I know…

I mean that how I relate to GOD will be different from how you will relate to GOD. That somehow GOD is glorified even in the variety of our personalities and our intellects. That the faith of a peasant believer in India (note how he is not simply a believer but a ‘peasant believer’, because I believe a delusion that my circumstances are normal, and his are in someway exceptional and deserve the preceding adjective) brings equal, if not greater glory to GOD. The first shall be last and the last shall be first.

So perhaps that’s question 1) dealt with, in the smallest and most superficial form of course.

As for what our churches should look like then I have only begun to scratch the surface in my own mind. For now I’m more concerned with how that affects our evangelism.

Most of us are strategic about our evangelism. Trying to get the best understanding of the culture to which we are preaching the gospel. As a simple example, when I was in Malawi a few years back, we had to do some ‘preaching’ in church on a Sunday morning. Often it consisted of little thoughts from the psalms. In a burst of enthusiasm I got our translator to translate my psalm to English from his Chichewa (the language not the Wookie from Star Wars) Bible. I soon realised that there are no deer in Malawi and therefore my psalm had been modified to ‘As the giraffe pants for the water’. There are cultural barriers to be crossed. Most much more complex than this.

This town is divided by all kinds of barriers. Most obviously by that which cost the lives of 3000 people in the past 30 years. I rarely call myself a Protestant (though I indeed sign up to the doctrinal statements) but a Christian. But I can’t ignore the fact that I am a Protestant and the person I am speaking to is a Catholic. I cannot close my eyes and pretend the issue is not there. It is. I need to busy myself with dealing with it.

I have a secure and well-paid job. You are on income support, with no qualification and indeed no motivation to work. The simple and inevitable conclusion is that if you sign up to what I preach then you will become like me. Though the even scarier conclusion is that you need to be like me to sign up to what I preach. I cannot ignore this.

It is vital that we understand the significance of the barriers (and sometimes opportunities) that stand between human cultures. CHRIST was undeniably Jewish and preached to an almost exclusively Jewish audience. Paul spent his time with gentiles on his journeys, indeed in Athens he grasped and understood the culture of debate and pantheism that surrounded him. The consequences of the tower of Babel did much more than simply separate us in terms of language.

A ‘one size fits all’ Christianity does not work. The world is not full of Christians like us. I in no way want to come across as a lefty universalist, let’s just all hold hands and praise the Lord – that type of thing. It matters who you think the Lord is. It matters how you get to know him. It matters how you relate to him. Doctrine matters. Do not doubt me on that.

But what we are so often trying to do is make more people like us (by which I mean more people who are like us, not simply make people think we’re fun to be around). One of my biggest fears about church is that we are simply dividing along the secondary issues. That all we will be left with are groups of people united not by their love for JESUS CHRIST, but their taste in music, their age, their personality or the style of the sermon. But don’t get me started.

GOD wants disciples, wants people who love and treasure him for who and what he is. He does not want us to be making Presbyterians (though this may end up being the case) out of people. He does not want us to make Protestants (most Protestants know nothing about the reformation or have read any of Luther or what he fought against, most Protestants in this country are Protestants because it simply means they are not Catholics) out of people. He does not want us to make white, middle-class males, lovers of CS Lewis and a good self-deprecating lyric. He does not want me to make people just like me. He wants to make people, to remake people, to make them what they were meant to be. He is into making them like himself.

Such a simple plan

So I suppose a brief update is in order.

My dad has been in hospital for roughly 4 weeks. Through two major operations, a spell on a breathing machine, an episode of mild disorientation, a few organs lighter and more antibiotics than a 3000 year old fungus infested coffee cup.

It has been somewhat up and down to say the least. ‘Set back’ is a truly devastating turn of words. We’ll get there. I’m pretty sure we’ll get there, it’ll just take time. I continue to keep the details of our lucky day in Hell and how all this feels, I’m just not quite sure if I’ll ever get round to sticking it on the site.

I spend roughly between 4 and 6 hours a day in the hospital in Belfast with Dad. A lot of the time he sleeps and I read books (5 Chronicles of Narnia, a John Pipier, a Kurt Vonnegut, The Great Divorce, The Pilgrim’s Regress, a lot of CS Lewis essays and finally, at last – On the Road). Me and Mum have developed all kinds of little routines to fill our days and keep us sane. We even bring a flask of hot water to the ward so we can have a cup of tea and coffee when we’re there.

This leads to a strange, slightly fractured lifestyle. I’m used to working and routines and planning ahead. And now I plan no further than a day or two in advance (and frequently cancel), always waiting for the next crisis. This is strange for me. This is losing control of my petty little importances (sic). This should be driving me loopy but it’s not. I am eternally grateful that it’s not.

I’ve taken to cycling to Scarva and back of an evening with some of the lads. Simply to get out of the house and avoid the phone ringing. We end up coming back in the dark along the tow path, with narrowly slit eyes to avoid the flies. Riding back in the dark feels like Africa, just cause there’s no artificial light. It’s nice to find new experiences in your own town when you’re 26. They become fewer and further between.

I have such plans. Such plans to read, to write short stories, to study medicine all over again and actually learn something. To use my time wisely and meet people for coffee and build depth and honesty and integrity in my relationships. To go to prayer meetings and church and feel part of a community.

But time flies when everything you’ve held most dear hits the proverbial fan. Well I wouldn’t exactly call this fun, would I? And so I only occasionally meet my ambitions. Never mind Paradise Lost, I’ve still got the (not so) new Harry Potter to get through.

August and everything after

The past 6 weeks in summary:

Yellow eyes. Blood tests. Hospitals. Waiting rooms. Magazines. Day time TV. Scans. Results. Waiting. Blood tests. Cotton wool. Tea. Car parks. Rain. Cigarette butts. Cardboard cups. Newspapers. Driving. Vinyl floors. Biopsies. Results. Tumours. Cancer. Doctors. Cleaners. Nurses. Tablets. Injections. Blood. Pain. Waiting. Drips. Infusions. Scars. Wounds. Staples. Pain. Nausea. Ventilators. Tubes. Morphine. Sleep. Waiting. Anxiety. Insomnia. Fear of the phone ringing. Fear. LCD screens. Temperatures. Blood pressure. Urine. fluid. Numbers. White cells. Red cells. Platelets. Kidneys. Antibiotics. Oxygen. Tubes. CS lewis. Paul Simon. Van Morrisson. Prayer. Tears. Waiting. Phone calls. Doorbell. Repeat. Surgery. Transfusion. Drugs. Pain. Ice. Lollies. Confusion. Washing hands. Lifts. Stairs. Beeping. Machines. Car parks. Tea. Coffee. Books. Waiting. Chinese Take aways. Emails. Little routines. Joy. Sadness. Pain. Sorrow. Relief. Hope. Faith. Coming home.


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September 2007
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