Saturday, 27 August 2011

The Cowboy

Dawn breaks at the cattle ranch. First out of the bunk-house is the cook, who prepares breakfast for the men. Next out is a cow-hand, dressed in a plaid shirt, hard-wearing Levis, and a pair of boots with heels which will not slip out of the stirrups. Later he will don a neckerchief with which to wipe his brow, a wide-brimmed hat to shield him from the sun, and wide leather chaps, if he’s going to be branding cattle. On his belt he carries a wooden-handled knife which he keeps sharp and clean, as well as a wooden-handled .45, essentially a humane killer in case a beast breaks a leg out on the range and has to be put down. Everything he wears and carries is serviceable and well looked-after, the tools of his trade. He is a cow-hand.

Much later in the morning, from the main house steps the Dude, a visitor from out East. He makes quite a picture: matching shirt and pants all embroidered and fringed, a huge, white, pristine ten-gallon hat, a fancy tooled gun belt with matching, pearl-handled .45s, as well as a pair of fancy high boots. He is going to have a ride on a carefully chosen, mild-tempered mare. He thinks he is a cow-hand.

It’s funny: some people say cowboy to mean not to be taken seriously, doesn’t know what he’s doing. Here, you can see the picture, can’t you? Who is the serious person, who the poser? When it comes to needing a guide through the sagebrush, or through life, would you rather trust the cow-hand or the Dude, the experienced person or the man in the fancy clothes and silly hat?

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Do You Believe in Air?

The writer Thomas Harris (not the author of The Silence of the Lambs) wrote a book called I’m OK, You’re OK, an exposition of Transactional Analysis (TA) which was founded by Eric Berne. The title represents a positive and trusting outlook towards oneself and other people, which TA says is the only really healthy position to occupy in life.

One of Harris’s friends asked him, “If I’m OK and you’re OK, why do you lock your car?” A searching question. I think the answer must be, “There is good in everyone, but some people have had such a painful start in life that they don’t know that they have this good inside them, and so they act as if they were bad, not knowing any different.” By extension, you do according to what you feel you are.

If God is universal and eternal, then he has all space and all time covered. He always was, he is everywhere, and he will always be. Quakers believe that he is in everyone too, everywhere in the inner space of people as well as existing everywhere even in the empty outer space of the universe.

How then is it that we think of some people as being without God? To begin with, we simply do not know for a fact what goes on in someone else’s heart and mind, since we can have no direct experience of it. We think we can infer, from what they say and do, how they feel and what they believe, but inference is unreliable at best. Even well-chosen words are limited and ambiguous when it comes to trying to express the inexpressible, as we try to do, and the meaning of someone’s actions can always be misinterpreted. Hence the wisdom of, “Judge not, that ye be not judged” (Matt 7:1). It is foolish and presumptuous to think that they are not with God, and even more presumptuous to think that God is with us and not with them.

We may be able, very cautiously, to consider that some people don’t seem to be aware that they have God in them. Then the question arises, “Is it crucial to know that you have God in you? Is it crucial what you consciously believe?” (Compare, “What must I do to be saved?” “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house.” Acts 16:30-31) Well, your awareness makes some difference, it’s bound to, but I am not at all sure that it’s the whole answer, by any means. My thinking goes like this:

Some people declare, “I only believe in the facts, me. I only believe in what I can see with my own eyes.” Really? Do you believe in air? No one can see air. You can feel a breeze against your cheek, or the wind blowing your hair, but you can’t see it. We know about air by observing air’s effects, through experience. We certainly know the effects of lack of air, within seconds. But the existence of air, or certainly the existence of oxygen, the bit we need, was only discovered in the scientific age. It is not necessary to know about air or to believe in air, to gain its benefits. It is only necessary to breathe; you don’t need belief, only lungs.

I would say, likewise with the spirit. All the animals and most of the people have always breathed, without knowing what they breathed. I will say that people who do not know that they have God in them, have God in them. They live, without knowing how they live. There is to my knowledge no instrument or scientific method that can prove (or disprove) God’s existence. Only the promptings in our hearts and minds can lead us to awareness of God’s presence and love for us, but our hearts and minds need to be tuned to that awareness, which doesn’t come easily.

I also believe that it is a good thing to effect some sort of introduction between God and the people in whom he dwells, if at all possible. There is doubtless no need to say, “God, this is Man.” He knows. But there is every need to say, “Man, this is God.” Gently, always very gently.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

News from Hlekweni

I’m sitting at my desk with a hot water bottle inside my jumper, enduring the unexpectedly cold Zimbabwean mid-winter. The sun is shining as always, but there is a biting wind and of course no heating in the buildings so everyone is suffering and waiting for summer.

Hlekweni is completely full at last, with 107 trainees, including a group of 54 Shona-speakers from rural Masvingo Province who arrived in June. So we have become a tri-lingual community overnight (English, Ndebele and Shona). Needless to say, we had no idea that the June arrivals were all Shona-speaking until they arrived. For all of them this is their first experience of Matabeleland - for some the trip here was their first time on a bus. It feels quite significant that we are able to welcome young people from Zimbabwe’s different ethnic groups, which have a history of conflict, and that (so far) they are getting on well together and seem to be having a great time. They have started their own clubs for singing, drama, art and debating (!), with help from our new volunteer Jessica, a young Quaker from New Zealand, who is with us until December.

Our mid-week Quaker Meeting for Worship is becoming quite extraordinary. About 30 young trainees came last week. After about 15 minutes of silent worship a young woman started singing and everyone joined in. Then we had a flow of beautiful songs, interspersed with Bible readings in different languages, that went on until dinner time. All of it was unplanned and unorganized – the young people had got the message that Quaker worship is Spirit-led and just run with it.

The local children were delighted with all the new books donated by friends in the UK (there are some lovely photos on the website at: The school holidays are just starting here, and Kate and Jessica will be running another holiday club with games and crafts in the library. 

Trying to manage Hlekweni continues to be a struggle - I generally feel like the ant that thinks it’s riding an elephant (ie the elephant has its own opinion… ). Half the farm has been burnt by wild fires over the last few weeks. It’s an eerie sight in the evening to see the horizon lit up by bushfires and palls of smoke drifting for miles. Jonathan has been quite worried that we are going to get burnt up, but no one else here seems too alarmed, which I’m hoping means it’s not dangerous. There certainly isn’t enough water to put out any fires - our water supply has been intermittent again, as the water table seems to be dropping steadily, and there’s no rain now until at least November.

Sending our love and do stay in touch – we really appreciate your emails, letters (and parcels!)
In Friendship,