In which Ruth ponders her dad’s Life Story

There has been a project on the go now for a number of years in which old folk in homes are encouraged to put together (with help) their Life Story. The Twilight Home in which my dad lives has just got around to doing this with the inmates residents. A lovely volunteer sat down with dad one afternoon and filled in the book of his life – and very amusing it was too. 

For readers who don’t know, my father has dementia. Not Alzheimers, but dementia brought on by a series of strokes. This manifests itself in various ways: he knows who we are but doesn’t always remember our names (but then he never did and we were often introduced as numbers – I am No 1 Daughter); he doesn’t initiate conversations and dislikes questions as they tend to be a test of his memory; his short-term memory is lousy but his long-term memory is not too bad; if he doesn’t know something he has a tendency to confabulate, ie make up something plausible; he pouches food he doesn’t like (like a hamster) which means he eats very slowly because his cheeks are bulging and nothing else will fit in. (Note: he never does the latter with smoked salmon.)

Dad and tiger moth 1952The volunteer had to ask dad about his memories of childhood, school, family, homes, jobs, cars, things he liked and disliked, influential people and friends, spirituality and faith, and jokes. What an interesting read it was too! Most of it was factual but there were some delightful insights into our Walter Mitty papa. At my last visit I had to ‘red pen’ considerable chunks of it and we spent a lovely few hours adding some more memories which I was able to trigger for him. 

I also learned that Dad has spent his first twelve years near here in Polmont. I always knew he was born near there but hadn’t realised that he had lived her for quite so long. He remember where he lived (9 Whitesideloan) and went to Wallace Stone Primary which still exists. He said he’d love go back there some day to see what its like now so I’m planning to do that soon. 

Dad’s cars were a great source of conversation and it is probably a blessing that he hasn’t been able to drive for many years now. I remember vividly as children sitting on his knee being allowed to steer the car and encouraging him to go faster, faster. And he never wore a seat-belt. On journeys we played many car games – counting makes of cars, counting baths in fields (what happened to baths in fields?), guessing when a mile was up, etc. Who needs computer games? We reminisced about his Daimler Sovereign, Ford Capri, Humber Super Snipe, and the one which had a long seat in the front. Anyone remember what they were called? (Just before the Capri.)

So if you should ever read my Dad’s Life Story please take it with a pinch of salt. Especially the bit about his many wives. Not all of it might be true.

In which Ruth ponders why congregations don’t like new hymns

Two complaints came to my ears this week. The first was that we didn’t know the last hymn. Indeed, when I announced said hymn I did ask Mad Margaret, our deliciously eccentric organist, if it was a new one as I didn’t recognise the first line. Half the congregation shouted NO and the other half shouted YES, so just so be on the safe side MM played it through first. Indeed we did know it, except, it would seem, the person who complained. And her friend.

This is an ongoing problem. New hymns. And I wonder why it is that so many people don’t like them. If I thought it was because they like to sing everything with gusto and not hesitation then I wouldn’t mind. But it is rare that a congregation really lets rip with joy and abundance when singing. (Easter and Christmas being the exception and strangely enough we only sing those hymns once a year.) We like familiarity in Church. We like things to be the same. We like the same liturgy, the same pew, and it would appear, the same hymns. Nothing to disturb us. Nothing to upset us. Tosh!

hildegard-musicI mean, if we never learned any new hymns we’d still be singing some Gregorian Chant with a bit of Hildegard of Bingen for the girls. And I have one person who can’t stand the modern Iona hymns set to well-known tunes. ‘Hymns should never be set to folk tunes,’ they say. Like Vaughan Williams never did it! Ha!

Then there’s the words, the content. Some of the modern hymns (and I don’t mean those banal choruses) are really powerful and far more relevant to some of us. But its like the bible, isn’t it? Some still prefer the King James version to the NRSV – until you ask them to read it aloud, that is. We want to encourage new folk into church but we also want them to sing ‘consubstantial co-eternal’ and understand what its all about. 

Of course not all congregations are like this about new hymns. Actually, that’s not true. They are all like this. But teaching organist with fagthem takes great skill. Now, I don’t sing. Actually, that’s not strictly true – I do sing, perfectly in my head. It just doesn’t always come out the way I’d hoped. So my method for teaching new hymns has always been to get the organist to play it through first and then we all have a bash. It works. Not always well, but in time we all catch on. And often some people do know the hymns anyway. I hate it when organists or choir leaders say ‘Oh we don’t know that one’ as if they speak for everyone. They may never have sung it in that church before but people do visit other churches and places and do pick up different hymns. (I’m starting to get really angry now – teeth clenched etc.)

In Christ Church they only teach new hymns if the choir can sing it first, perhaps a few times, before the congregation is ‘allowed’ to join in. Now the choir sing/lead one hymn and that’s just after communion. And frankly, not all hymns are suitable for the post-communion slot. When I first came here I was told that nobody knew Sweet Sacrament Divine and the choir would have to sing it a few times first. How smug was I when everyone joined in? (Yes, that was considered one of the ‘new’ hymns a few years ago.) A friend was visiting a church in Fife a few weeks ago and told me, in shocked tones, that the Rector had taught them three new hymns in one service. Three! I ask you! How brave is that man?

Anyway, back to the other complaint… that the hymns were too long. This poor person was exhausted by the end of it. Really? For those of you who don’t do liturgy or choose hymns to go with it, let me give you a few hints:

  1. The Introit hymn (entrance) should be jolly and majestic, suitable for a procession, long enough to get the altar party down the aisle and to their places. Sometimes, if there is incense, it needs to be a little longer to allow the Celebrant to cense the altar too and find their seat which make time with all that smoke about. 
  2. The Gradual hymn (just before the Gospel) can be short and snappy and preferably the words should suit the reading of Scripture or fit the theme of the readings. This is not always possible but the Lord knows we try.
  3. The Offertory hymn (when the bread and wine is brought and the collection taken) should be long enough to allow all this to happen. In some churches it involves more incense and there might even be two hymns (eg St Michael & All Saints). Bonus points are given if it also fits the theme of the service.
  4. The Communion hymn(s) are just as people are coming for communion or going back to their seats. The choir may do a beautiful piece as a solo, or in our case the congregation can join in if they have got back to their hymn books. The second one is usually when everyone is back in their place and is slow and reflective and usually sacramental in nature. It may have to be long to allow the priest to also get out to those in wheelchairs and unable to get up for communion. (Unless you have an organist who can ‘twiddle’.)
  5. The Recessional hymn is the one the altar party march out to and might have ‘sending out’ words to encourage us. It should be a bit like the coming in one – fast and uplifting. You Shall Go Out With Joy is a good and bad example of this. Good because of the words, bad because it is only one verse and you’d have to make it a sprint which is never dignified. (Yes, we sometimes play it three times.)

In my defence, the hymns last Sunday had (1) Jesus is Lord! (3 verses with chorus); (2) God of mercy, God of grace (3 verses); (3) All hail the power of Jesus’ name (6 verses with chorus – but the verses had 3 lines); (4) Such love (3 verses) and then O God who at thy Eucharist dids’t pray (4 verses) and still not long enough; (5) O Lord all the world belongs to you (5 verses). Well I managed them and I have COPD and Asthma! 

So there we have it. Rant over. Want to share your love of new hymns? Any suggestions on how to share your enthusiasm?

PS MM is a lovely organist and is extremely obliging and willing to have a go at anything. Anything.

Homeless in Falkirk? Forget it.

We clergy who live over the shop (ie next door to the church) are used to callers. These can vary from photocopier salesmen (yes, all men) to those men (yes, all men) who have some tarmac ‘left over’ from a job down the road that they could use to pave my carpark at a very reasonable rate to those who need something. The latter are in the majority. The ‘something’ they need can vary too. Usually it is money.

begging-cup1Each week I probably have about 5-10 callers who need money. Money for electricity cards, for food, for baby food, for train fares because a close relative has died far, far away, for phone cards for that urgent phone call, for all manner of things. All of them look down on their luck and some are more sober than others. Some are so stoned they can hardly stand or speak. All of their stories begin with “This is the God’s honest truth” and often it isn’t.

It is a tricky situation. They have come to me because they believe that as a representative of the church, I will not say no. That as a representative of the church, my job is to help those less fortunate than myself. But usually I suspect that the money I might give will be spent in the local off-licence or junkie. Perhaps you think that this is okay. That it is their choice and that the good Samaritan gives without question. I don’t believe I’m a very good Samaritan. And I don’t often have any money anyway.

The stories they tell are sometimes long and elaborate. They are often heartbreaking. Remember I used to work with homeless people and I’ve heard some of those stories before. Some, I know, are tall tales. Tales spun out of desperation for the alleviation of their addiction. Tales which I often admire for their creativeness. Sometimes they tell me they have a faith or are born again and that this should count for extra consideration. Some want me to let them in so they can tell their story in peace.

My Vestry are concerned for my safety. Not long after I came here a man tried to kick my front door in because I wouldn’t give him money. I now have locks and chains and a sign on the door which says I don’t give out money. I feel bad about that sign in my door but I know it is for my own safety. I do give out food and drinks. I make cups of tea and fill bags with food which might fill a gap. I refer folk to the Salvation Army up the road who provide hot meals, clothes and washing facilities, and give out food parcels when the Foodbank is closed, but often people come to my door when the Sally Army are closed or at the weekend. And often they tell me its not food they want, its cash. I wonder what other clergy do?

Early on Sunday evening a man came to my door called David. He wanted me to pray for him. Now that I can do. But first he wanted to tell me his story. He wanted us to go somewhere, perhaps the church, where he could tell me what he wanted me to pray for. David is from Lithuania and his English wasn’t very good. He was tall and looked quite clean, with a small backpack and an umbrella. There was no smell of drink and no signs of drug abuse. I asked him to tell his story on the doorstep which didn’t please him but he reluctantly agreed. He’d come over for work which was promised but didn’t materialise. He was sleeping rough in the park when he was beaten up and had spent four days in hospital. (He showed me his hospital wristband, his bruises, his loose teeth.) I think he wanted money for a phone card but I truly didn’t have any money in my purse. He wanted food and coffee and I gave him some and I prayed with him. On the doorstep. The hospital had given him clean clothes and the backpack but no socks and he wanted some but mine were too small. “No man?” he asked incredulously. He wanted me to write down the name of the hospital because he was to go back the next morning at 9am for a follow-up appointment about his ribs, I think. Translation was not easy. (The hospital is over 4 miles away.)

In my heart I knew I should have done more for David. But where could I take him? There is nowhere in Falkirk which does emergency accommodation. And would I be brave enough to get in my car with a 6′ man and drive anywhere? I ended up suggesting the Roman Catholic church because I know they have a big Presbytery and there are plenty men around. But I should have taken him myself. I was too scared.

Yesterday I phoned the local housing department and asked what I could have done. They said he wouldn’t get a house anyway unless he comes from Falkirk or unless he could pay. “No point in giving a house if they can’t pay for gas and electricity,” they said. There are no hostels in Falkirk, no places where someone can sleep out of the cold and rain. Their advice to me was to phone the Lithuanian Embassy in London. “Nothing we can do if he’s come here with no return ticket.”

So my question is: what do you do? If you don’t live in a big city with hostels and temporary accommodation, where do you refer people to? Because nine times out of ten, they come in the evening or at weekends out of office hours. I sometimes suggest the Police but I’ve never had anyone take my up on that suggestion once. They may say they’ve been there already, but often I suspect it is the last place they’d go. In retrospect perhaps I should have phoned the police about David.

He’s still in my mind and my prayers. What would you have done?

feet poor

Whitchester Parish Weekend

In all the churches I’ve been rector, I’ve led silent retreats. They have never been over-subscribed but usually appreciated by the dozen or so who do attend. Even those who have never been silent before often become devotees and persuade others that they should try it. Readers will know that I myself struggle greatly with silent retreats. There are probably more blogs about my catastrophes than any other topic and I invite you to go seek them if you want a laugh. However, I do find that leading them is not quite so difficult for me – probably because I get to speak and listen and have enough in the organising to keep me busy.

Since I’ve been at Christ Church many have said that they wouldn’t come on a silent retreat and that’s fine (and quite understandable). And often the feedback after a retreat is that people just wished they had got to know one another better. Mind you, I think you can find out a lot about folk watching them in silence but that’s another topic… So this weekend we had a Parish Weekend. Not a retreat. Not silent. Just a weekend for us to get to know one another, enjoy conversations, and have fun. Hopefully.

We went back to Whitchester Christian Guest House just outside Hawick because they are trying to encourage more visitors and it is a lovely house. A bit too close to nature for my liking but I know others like that sort of thing. I’d planned to go from Friday afternoon to Sunday afternoon so that any who worked could join us. The majority were probably in the 70-80 age group but that was offset with one family with 3 year-old Eleanor. I’d planned on worship morning and night, and took along some crafts for those who didn’t want to go out hiking or whatever folk do when they go off into nature.

Unfortunately it rained all day on Saturday and although some did go out (mostly looking at overpriced cashmere) the rest of us learned how to do encaustic art and produced some masterpieces. We also made our own labyrinth which took up most of the day but everybody painted at least one leaf on the fabric. It can now be used in our own church – or if you would like to borrow a 12′ square labyrinth, do let me know.

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Worship didn’t go as well as I’d planned because I’d printed the booklets incorrectly. Page 1 was at the beginning and the correct way up, but Page 2 was at the back of the book and upside down, and so on. It was a test of ingenuity and caused some pauses in unexpected places as some shuffled back and forth with puzzled expressions. On Sunday we had a Eucharist to remember the beginning of WW1 and everyone was invited to bring a flower from the garden and lay it on the altar. (We’d pretty much got the hang of the booklet by then!)

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The only problem was nature, and I feel just a little smug about this. Breakfast was delayed by some time while the staff leapt around the dining room with a net trying to catch the two bats who had swooped in. At night they were back and forth like busy bees and this rector certainly did no wandering about outside after dusk.

We had a lot of laughs and did indeed learn more about one another. Perhaps every alternate year we ought to forgo the silence and just have fun instead.

In which Ruth remembers her Quali

There has been a lot of talk this week about Proms. On Woman’s Hour there were interviews with Year 6 leavers who talked about being in tears at leaving their Primary School, about the sadness of leaving lovely teachers, of frocks and limousines and all the rest. It was quite a revelation to me.

Let me tell you about the Quali Dance at James Gillespie’s Primary School, for yes, it was not called a Prom in the 1960s. In my day it was the Qualifying Dance (known as the Quali) and I assume it was for those who had qualified to get into the Secondary School. I don’t remember anyone who didn’t qualify but there was a test which was very scary. Did anyone fail it? I don’t know. Of course we left at the end of P7 and I’m not quite sure if it is the same as the current Year 6. Anyone know?

Although there was a James Gillespie Primary School for Boys there was no joining up for the dress patternQuali so it was girls only. I remember I wore a coffee coloured dress which was painful to wear. It had a sticky-out skirt and it itched. I hated it. With a passion. Frou-frou it was. I’d rather have worn my lovely cat-suit and no, there are to be no photographs. No way. There may have been white socks too. Lovely. (Not long white socks, by the way, as those were only worn by the Roman Catholic girls at the Convent next door – ours had to be short, or long grey or fawn.)

Now, my memory of the actual Quali Dance is rather hazy. There must have been dancing but I’m assuming it was of the Scottish Country variety. With girls, yes. That was my life until I left secondary school and then there was a joint dance in 5th Year with the boys of George Heriot’s, but that’s a whole other story and involves Vodka in handbags. The Quali Dance was not nearly so exciting. I don’t remember teachers dancing but perhaps they did.

Nobody cried, that I know of. There was no procession with the whole school waving farewell and parents crying into their iPhones. There were no limousines – I walked over the Meadows as I did every morning and every afternoon. It was held in the gym and perhaps there were balloons but that was probably all the decoration. Most of my friends were coming to the same secondary so we knew we’d all see one another after the summer holidays, so there were no tearful separations.

And if any of my old school friends are reading this and remember it completely differently and were awash with tears then that just goes to show you what a tough nut I was in those halcyon days.

In which Ruth goes on holiday

Does anyone else find it really hard to unwind on holiday? I know of friends who suffer from migraines who spend the first few days of their holiday having a massive migraine attack. It is something about your body relaxing and letting go of a heap of tension and allowing the headache gremlins in. I don’t get a migraine but I do find myself wandering about like a lost soul, picking up books, watching DVDs, needing to tidy the house but reluctant to do the whole lot so just half-heartedly push things around from one place to another. After two days I just wish I was back at work as all the things which need to be done creep back in to my consciousness. And I get bored. Really bored. I get bored because I’m not dealing with people, I think. (Introvert friends look away now!) I want to phone Mrs So-and-so to find out how she got on at hospital. I want to do the baptism booklet that needs to be done on my first day back. I want to plan the Parish Weekend that’s coming up. Let me tell you, I really have to fight those urges when I’m on holiday. So much of ministry involves people and I miss them when I’m forced to stay away from them. Is it just me then?

Ah, I hear you cry, ‘Go way somewhere!’ Well, have you seen the state of my bank balance? This year I shall indeed be going away in September on my D-Day Expedition so this July break was on a severely restricted budget. Now I could stay at home. I love my home and I could potter and read and watch and stuff but when the rectory is next door to the church it makes that more difficult. My little flock are very good at keeping away really but you do get the odd one… “I know you’re on holiday but…” or “Sorry to disturb but my key isn’t working…” And then there are the regular callers: the ones looking for money for electricity or baby food or the bus fare to granny’s funeral. They are a constant in every priest’s daily life when you live over the shop.

2014-07-06 08.25.26So this year I did potter for the first week and then went to stay with friends. First was Fr Alex and Anne at Canty Bay, just outside North Berwick. They are old friends and a great source of ecclesiastical gossip and jolly good at entertaining. For a few days we sat in the sitooterie (Scottish name for a conservatory) and blethered and watched birds at the feeder and marvelled at the skyscapes over Berwick Law and out to the Bass Rock. On Sunday I went to church with them at Holy Trinity, Haddington where Mother Anne fed my soul. So lovely to be pew fodder and relax into the Holy Mysteries.

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Then further down the east coast to stay with Mother Jennifer at Eyemouth where there were more churchy conversations and problem solving and sharing mostly over the kitchen table or out in the back garden (another bird feeder and different birds). We toodled down to Holy Island for the Lindisfarne Scriptorium’s exhibition where I made a Brigid Cross and did some colouring in. We wandered along to the church as we share an adoration for The 2014-07-08 16.50.53Journey, a beautiful wooden sculpture of monks carrying Cuthbert’s body. There was a sign outside to say that Choral Evensong was about to begin with the visiting choral scholars from St Martin-in-the-fields. We were lucky to get seats as the church filled and we were treated to some Parry, Andrewes and Wood. Throughout it all a swallow who has been nesting in the porch swooped and cried along with the singers. A perfect end to the day.

On Wednesday we went to Alnwick where Jen’s daughter lives and met her for lunch at Barter Books at the old Railway Station. If you haven’t been, you must. It is the most extraordinary secondhand bookshop with a model railway round the top of some of the bookcases. We could have spent the whole day there (and the food is great too) sitting reading or having coffee – they really have it all. I was very good and only bought two books but if I’d made sense of the filing system might have bought more.

2014-07-09 15.52.46After that we had a gawp at the castle and then a leisurely drive back up the east coast, stopping at Spittal where we had some very happy holidays as children. The beach was full of people sunning their milk-bottle legs and scoffing ice cream. We resisted both.

Home yesterday via Costco and now I am itching to get back to work. Resisting until tomorrow when I can finally get to work on that baptism…

 

In which Ruth ponders her holiday reading

Did I tell you I’d found a new crime writer whose books are just fabulous? I heard about her from several clergy friends – all women and all from over the pond. The author is Louise Penny and the series of books which I’ve been enjoying are the Inspector Gamache series. So far, I’ve read the first four: Still Life; Dead Cold; The Cruellest Month; and The Murder Stone. They are set in the delightful village of Three Pines in Quebec which is a bit like Midsummer in that many people seem to get murdered there. I kind of want to go there but would be very wary, if you know what I mean. The characters are so real that you feel as if you know them and poetry-loving Inspector Gamache and his wife are just delicious. And the food! Every meal is mouthwatering and there really should be a recipe book brought out soon. There’s not much in the way of churchy stuff but lots of human life is there to be pondered. (By the way, I didn’t read them all in this holiday – just two of them!) Each book is a stand-alone story but it is best to read them in order as the characters develop over time.

I’ve also read The Four Last Things by Andrew Taylor. It is the first in the Roth trilogy but I’m not sure I’ll rush to get the next ones. It is churchy but rather dated now. A little girl is kidnapped from her childminder. Her mother is a curate and father a policeman and the book explores their strained relationship and what a missing child does to your faith in God. The rest of the book explores Angel and Eddie, the kidnappers, and what has brought them to this place. Rather grisly and the church doesn’t fare very well. Perhaps this is more realistic than I’d like to think.

I also read Extraordinary People by Peter May (of the Lewis Trilogy which I loved). This is the first in the Enzo Macleod books, a Scottish forensic expert living in Paris. If you know Paris you will probably love this book. I’ve been but don’t know it well enough so found the constant use of street names a bit of a pain. (However, I realise if it was set in Edinburgh I would probably be delighted so make your own mind up on that one.) Lots of clever clues which of course he manages to solve just in time which reminded me a wee bit of The Da Vinci Code. Good characters and good mystery. Not sure I need to read the rest of the series though. Back to Inspector Gamache for me.

Acts and OmissionsAnd finally I have started Acts and Omissions by Catherine Fox which was waiting for me when I got home. I read all her books when they first came out and absolutely loved them. Being married to a clergyman she knows the church and all its foibles and this is no different. This book actually began as a weekly blog but I didn’t enjoy having to wait each week for the next chapter so am thrilled that it is now in print. It is hilarious and wonderfully observed. If you love the church you will love this. More when I finish it…