Bee Wars

As the pool guys sculpt the edges of our new baptistry, an afterword on the bees. You’ll remember that choking them with foam seemed to enrage them and gentle persuasion met with the apian equivalent of the finger. A combination of additional strategies has resulted in, if not a truce, then at least a stand-off. The bees from the ground floor have departed, thanks to a number of complementary approaches, not least being the provision of the equivalent of a 50mm cannon in the shape of a ‘firemen only’ spray so powerful that it actually had a perceptible recoil. A jet of airborne chemical ordnance dropped a thousand at a time from a distance of nearly six metres and any stragglers seemed to have run out of fight.
They, and the remains of their homes, were unceremoniously evicted, shovelled out in a vast, sticky black and gold mass, each hexagon containing new larvae. The pile was large enough to fill two household buckets and the detailed construction was admirable. Expandable foam inside the walls deterred any would-be architects from adding to the tower inside, also preventing curious rodents from investigating. The large hole at the base – originally a drain hole for the pump – opened by the firemen, has been cemented closed and any unfortunates left inside will experience the same fate as the Nun of Monza. 

It was not long, however, before a new squadron of Republican Guard had formed a skirmish line at a much higher altitude, much like an addiction seeks a new disguise in the psyche of a vulnerable personality. They find their way in through the smallest of emotional apertures. Likewise, a bee can enter an orifice less than 3mm in diameter, thus preventing all access would require the whole house to be hermetically sealed like a submarine. I’ll be interested to see what my psych friends make of the analogy. It remains to be seen if the scouting party has given the thumbs up to a newly crowned queen, although industrious buzzing behind the upper walls is not encouraging. At some future date, the demolition squad will no doubt be called upon again. But, for now, order is restored and the way cleared for the next tranche of workmen to clear the ground, fill the trenches and start laying the decking. Huzza.

Spiff it Up


Welcome, welcome. Sit anywhere you like.

This post, despite  a tongue wedged in the gap where my wisdom tooth once was, is like a knitting needle  – it does have something of a point to it. On a stand-up show in Las Vegas, the so-called comedian Bill Maher referred to Sarah Palin’s Downs’ Syndrome son as a ‘retard’, prompting universal outrage. I haven’t seen the clip, and at face value even used in some satirical context, good taste trumps satire every time. Also, Public Figures can’t hit people below the belt, which isn’t levelling the playing field, really, is it? But – is satire sinful? If it is, then my new Facebook address will be somewhere in the Sixth Circle of Hell – nothing to do with the Sixth Ring – Kuwaiti friends please note (it is really but I didn’t want to frighten you). However, I want to talk to you today about the Use of Words and my point is that we churchy folk have a vocabulary all our own, don’t we? I say this in love. Nobody – not even the most primitive of Baptists – understands us, but we get to be quite cosy together in our linguistically challenged little corner. In deference to the pounding legions of progress, it’s time to refresh (what a delightfully modern word that is…) our cookie drawer and say what we mean – or is it ‘like?” So, let’s update the extraliturgical vocabulary a bit, shall we? Spiff it up, as it were?
I did get a little bit of help from the Beaker Folk when preparing this, and intend asking Archdruid Eileen for her hand, and possibly the rest of her, unless of course she has been secretly betrothed to that naughty young shepherd, Gabriel Oak. Surely, she is of the stuff of which great men’s mothers are made. Since they hail from a little corner of rural England, far from the madding crowd, it’s possible that some of the more obscure references might lie beyond the scope of the seething, cosmopolitan audience which eagerly awaits my pronouncements. Nevertheless…For a start, Cedric, the octogenarian greeter is going to be replaced by a lifesized anime of Miss Piggy, with appropriately Pentecostal head covering and remotely controlled from the organ loft by a man called Alan. About time, really. Cedric died in 1978. And now for the main course, the pure meat of the word. First, a question. Can you pronounce the word “Taizé”? No. I thought not.”Unhappy” is now deeply cringeworthy and is to be replaced immediately with “challenged”, “differently inspired” or “fine”. “OK” isn’t sweeping enough, unfortunately. “Dreadful”. Much too direct – honest, even.  To be replaced by “Truly meaningful” (as in “that’s a truly meaningful worship song you’ve just written, Doris”.) “Moaning whingers, always looking for things to complain about” to be replaced with “loyal members of the fellowship”. But everyone knows what it means. ‘A faithful word’ should more properly be translated as ‘not a spark of life but you couldn’t fault the theology.’ Really. “Worship leaders” was initially replaced with “lead worshippers”. No. Neither will do. We’re gonna lose them both. We’re not replacing them with a new word. We’re just gonna pile them all into a minivan with all their instruments and lose them off one of the A7’s more remote junctions. Near the sign that says “Taizé”. “Leadership Group” to be replaced by “Enablement Group”. This won’t make any difference to how any of them think or behave, but it just feels a bit less patriarchal, don’t you think? “People who are praying for you” to be replaced by “friends”. “I prayed about it” replaced with “it occurred to me recently”. “Sharing”. Monosyllabic interchange with the TV on. “Deep and meaningful sharing”. As above but with the TV off. “We just really need to share” to be abolished, with no replacement. And now for those who teach. Let’s hope there’s not too many of you and you only have one wife. Mistresses count, remember. “Why can’t your preaching be more inspiring, like at New Wine?” To be replaced by “why can’t the congregation be more inspiring, like at New Wine?” “Liturgical Dance” to be replaced by “Prancing Around In Long Frocks”. “Modern Liturgical Styles” to be replaced by “Prancing around In Long Frocks with Flags and Ocarinas, with fairy lights in the background, and simultaneous prayers in eight languages”. Ask Alan for an ocarina, should you have forgotten to bring your own. “Sunday School” to be replaced by “Sunday Club” to be replaced by “Kids Church, no apostrophe” to be replaced by “The empty room next to the ladies’ toilet”. “And finally” to be replaced with “Just ten more minutes. Please don’t leave just yet. The match won’t be on for at least half an hour.”

I’m glad to have got all that out of my system.  If you can tear yourselves away from the next episode of “The Office”, at our next gathering – so much cosier than ‘meeting’ or ‘service’ – Revd Dr Margaret Witherspoon   is going to be, er, sharing, on the probability of apocalypse next Sunday.  Best odds, 52%, including rapture. That is, she’s going to be speaking next Sunday; the spreadsheet algorithm isn’t quite refined enough yet to predict a particular day. Assuming we’re all here, of course, and the Arctic methane eruptions haven’t turned whichever part of Eden you inhabit into a treeless, smoking cinder. Have a nice day, now.




Bees and Booze

A year or so ago, perhaps more, it became clear that we had a little problem. A few wild bees were seen crawling in between the gaps in the brickwork in the Pump House. They seemed small, made no mess, didn’t seem to swarm and we’d resigned ourselves to some kind of joint occupancy since it’s illegal here to simply exterminate them. A relative had tried injecting foam into the cavity wall, to deprive them of building space. However, this year, the problem has become greater by an order of magnitude. They have justified their reputation for industry, that’s for sure. They have constructed their own Burj Khalifa all the way up the wall. Beekeepers came – the objective being to gently lure them out into the open and persuade them, as Fagin put it,  to ‘change lodgings’. Two separate experts came, suited up and proclaimed the problem insoluble. It was suggested that we block off the entrance, reasoning that if no more could get in, the current occupants would simply succumb and all would be well. We didn’t consider that even if this worked it would leave behind an open invitation for more perniciously invasive guests, like rodents who can smell a free lunch. After a trip to town yesterday, we arrived home to find the entire lower floor filled with angry buzzing and the house uninhabitable. Depriving them of the front door, they had, with admirable resourcefulness, found a back one which they seemed more than capable of defending. We called the fire department who knocked a few holes in the wall, reopened the original hole and pulled a huge, black and gold glutinous mess out on to the grass. They injected resinous poison into the smaller orifices, blocking them up afterwards. After they left, it became clear that the surface had barely been scratched. Come evening, a menacingly ominous humming could be heard in various locations behind the cavity walls. It was clear that although one part of the swarm had been eliminated and they might have lost round one, the fight wasn’t yet over. No, indeed.

Strangely, I found myself thinking “this is war.”

Various strategies came to mind. Opening a hole in the wall, squirting insect poison through the hole and blocking it up again? Rejected. Waste of spray. Good enough to pick off the stragglers who wander unbidden into the house, useless for a high volume Panzer attack. Canute knew he could not hold back the tide and so do I. Next option – a tiny Spartan army held off thousands of Xerxes’ hordes at Thermopylae by bringing them to battle in a funneled valley. But, as yet, the bees don’t want to fight and provoking them to do so by trapping them in might provoke a response of such disproportionate magnitude that even if thousands were lost, more would quickly replace them. King Leonidas was betrayed because a small path behind his lines was revealed to his enemies who promptly outflanked him. Napoleon had numerical advantage most of the time, but still lost at Waterloo. Third option. Get someone in to tear down the entire wall and dig out comb, foam and queen. Collateral damage, considerable, but, problem solved. Fourth. Pray. I wonder why I didn’t put that first on the list.

I used to drink. Alcohol, that is. A lot. Much too much, as it happens. For the first few years, the booze and I rubbed along together, much like a small, but inoffensive honeycomb behind a wall. There were inconveniences, but nothing more. However, the man takes a drink, later the drink takes the drink then the drink takes the man – as the Japanese are fond of saying. The infestation into one’s personality becomes more and more pervasive, money, jobs and friends evaporate, there were unwelcome police interventions – oh, yes – until ultimately, rock bottom is struck with a bone-shattering crunch and something has to be done or a whisky-sodden grave beckons. There were palliatives – visits to clinics and hospitals, dryings-out, group therapy and other equivalents to squirting poison into holes. But, the beast with red eyes refused to die for a long, long time. It took dramatic, divine intervention before the whispering black dwarf was finally and permanently dislodged from my shoulder.

It feels a bit like that with the bees. I don’t like leaving the story half finished, so next time we meet, there’ll be more to tell. One thing is sure, there will be victory. One way or another.





Shouting Methodists

A long time ago, I read “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s seminal novel about slavery and forgiveness. I was not alone – over a million copies were sold in Britain, it had the reputation for laying the groundwork for the American Civil War and was the second best-selling book of that century, after the Bible. The hero, a Negro slave, Uncle Tom, was a Methodist and one of the more perniciously pious white females in the story refers to them -that is – the members of the slave church as “shouting Methodists. Horrible”. I haven’t come across many ‘shouting Methodists’ in recent times but have been following with some interest various events wherein Uncle Tom might have found congenial company. Not because he was a slave and black, but because he belonged to an anonymous, poverty-stricken, powerless community which hope swept up and out from temporal misery.
Others have written about ‘the Cwmbran Outpouring‘ – perhaps its flames have now been fanned into a full-blown revival along the lines of the great Welsh Revival of 1904-5, an early leader being another Methodist, Joseph Jenkins.
Cwmbran is a new, not particularly affluent town in Wales – a search turns up advertisements for a shopping centre and not much else. 
Victory Church is part of the Elim pentecostal denomination – as if that really matters – and its congregation meets in a building on an industrial estate. Around the country there are a thousand more churches just like it, some successful, others struggling to make the rental payments and pay the pastor more than minimum wage. For the last month or more, this apparent backwater seems to be hosting happenings that look like a rerun of a hundred years ago, painted in fresh, bright colours. Many visitors have simply said: ‘this is the most authentic move of God of our generation’. One of the pastoral staff famously remarked the other evening ‘we don’t know what is going on’. This suggests two things. First, we are, it would seem, capable of recognising a genuine ‘move of God’. Second, having been caught up in it, we have no idea where it is going, where it will lead us or the outcomes of our climbing on board.
All of this, of course, offends those who like their religion nicely cut, dried and presented in a palatable and digestibly rational form. Some are fond of liturgy and organisation and get squeamish when any emotion surfaces, shuddering and turning round nervously, looking for the exit signs. Some are cynical, having seen too many white-suited
American preachers putting on slick presentations to thousands then climbing into their private Gulfstream jets with the proceeds. Others go and stand at the back, almost expecting to see manipulation, looking for what they believe to be ‘rectitude’ – I’m trying hard not to use buzzwords here – where nomenclature, pronouncements and utterances are calibrated against a scale which truly only exists in the mind of the observer, for participant they surely are not. At the first sulphurous whiff of dominionism or replacement theology, they stand back and smugly fold their arms. These calibrations are often denominationally configured and such is the variance of interpretation, are almost inevitably subjective, hence flawed. Then there are the third type – those who have no background, no religious affiliation, no yardsticks, measuring instruments or preconceptions, who walk in off the street and are confronted what one blogger who writes much better than I do called a wild goose, which allegedly was the name given to the Holy Spirit by the founder of the Iona Community. In any event, nomenclature tends to become less important if, as has been widely reported, ‘signs and wonders’ are happening at the nightly meetings. Karl Barth once famously wrote about the ‘otherness’ of God. I remember having to write an essay about it when I was at theological college. I came to the same conclusion then as I do now. That which we perceive as God is not like us, in the sense that the way things are done in ‘places’ other than our own isn’t predictable or necessarily subject to the immutability of what we call reason. Supposing that God ‘thinks’ like we do is analogous to a belief that our dog is anthropocentrically similar to ourselves. C S Lewis’ Aslan is no more human than the wild goose, time has a different meaning and irrational events crowd in one after the other as some kind of hidden portal to heaven is mysteriously opened and glory pours down like liquid gold. Why? I have absolutely no idea. Is it real? Probably, or possibly not – it rather depends on one’s definition of reality. How much do I know about crowd psychology to possibly form an opinion? Does it work? Yes, in the sense that participants touch the ineffable in ways that they didn’t before and more importantly, are touched by it, possibly permanently, like Jacob. Will it fade? Almost certainly, but until it does and the waterfalls of presence, power and grace that seem to be being released in an anonymous little Welsh town are continuing. I find myself thinking that it is this ‘otherness’ which all believers reach towards and cry out for from places in the depths of their being that even they can’t see or comprehend. They may look for it in a Benedictine abbey, at a meditation retreat, or in the familiar words which their preferred dish on the liturgical smorgasbord apportions them. The thirsty traveller who searches for water, often content with finding little, one day turns a corner and is engulfed by a tsunami in which he has little option but simply to bathe.
What about me? Do I want to go and see, professional Zacchaeus as I am? Yes, and no. I have seen things I cannot explain before, felt the weight of the Presence, been almost deafened by holy laughter and tried to step back from bodies untidily littering the aisles. Put another way, the ferocity of heaven’s joy and the sovereignty of God’s disconnecting temporarily the physical body – whichever you like. I’m fascinated and, perhaps, justifiably so. If not here, where? If not now, when?

Girlie and Me

The riverbank
Bizarre, isn’t it. I have begun to talk to my dog. We don’t discuss philosophy or national politics or anything like that – we just sit together and she nuzzles approvingly every time I have a witty or amusing thought. Of course, I don’t need to share it out loud with her – how weird is that –  she understands perfectly and eyebrow-speak is quite sufficient. We share a common language in an arcane and almost religious way. When it’s feeding time she sits down, briefly, then rises as if there’s a burr on the floor that she’s just sat on. Remembering herself, she sits again, licking her lips. Meanwhile, I open the door to the food cupboard. She trots forward, then, recalling I don’t much care for poor manners, sits again. Luncheon is served.

Dogs have moved in next door. Three of them, girlies to a man. They do what all women do when they get together, twitter, chatter and fuss, doubtless discussing the relative merits of different brands of kibble. Large and boisterous, they are like three Lancashire lasses in search of booze and boys on a Friday night. My little girl, unaccountably, wants to join in so there’s a short but intense barkfest as we pass the vixens’ den on our morning outing.

She’s a sociable girlie. Friends with all, except the homicidal white Russian wolfhound across the pathway who disembowelled a careless visitor a while back. On our afternoon jaunt the other day, we went as usual to the expanse of common where the tall grasses slow her down a bit. There was a lady, dressed in one of those funny peaked visors, sitting on the grass, reading. Even at a distance, her discomfiture was palpable. At our approach, she looked round nervously as if to find a place to hide. I thought it best to keep Girlie and self a discreet distance before unleashing. But, no. Obedience decreasing as the square of separation meant that from thirty metres away instruction was meaningless. In consequence, friendliness and curiosity got the better of her and she bounded up to the lady, who was clearly catatonic with fear, and announced her goodwill by jumping all over her. The stupid woman started screaming and waving her arms about, which amused Girlie no end and she had to be dragged away, both of us helpless with laughter and trying not to show it.

It’s rather fun when one has a dog, since one has to develop something of a canine perspective, according to the book I’ve got which is readily to hand in the bathroom – the only room in the house where I can be sure to be alone. We discuss the book together, Girlie and me. Large upright persons are chieftains of some description, High Ups, and if you jump all over them, most of them don’t much care for it – but it doesn’t matter because you know they’re friends, really. Then there are the smaller versions who squeak and giggle and turn out to be remarkably easy to knock over. If this happens, some kind of shrill altercation tends to take place where small person is raised heavenward by larger variety, which, of course, makes them harder to get at to play with and jumping up to try seems to make things so very much worse. And, why are the Big People so fussy about their clothes? It’s only a bit of mud on the Versace – it’ll wash off.

Enough, already.

As is so very evident, I am being slowly and inexorably deprived of whatever sense and gravitas I once had. Somewhat against our better judgment, we took Girlie for her first trip into town yesterday. In-car behaviour, immaculate. Underground car park? Er, no. Stairs or the elevator? Neither. When a twenty kilogram animal decides she’s not gonna move, sprawling on the sidewalk with paw and claw digging into the concrete and wearing a mutinous expression, options shorten. We had to carry her back to the car, to the intense and ribald amusement of the sex shop touts on the Boulevard Clichy. No, I had gone to buy guitar strings and we were on our way up the hill to Montmartre, before you join too many dots. It was quite a relief to get back home and across the footbridge for a little gallop down the towpath. Her, not me. Or, should it be ‘she, not I?’