A good place to live...

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Preservation and Prayer

We know we are part of an extensive prayer network, praying for others during the times we are apart too, and how wonderfully prayer is answered. But first, Oberammergau, and the Passion Play.
We've been to Oberammergau, to the Passion Play, [held every 10 years since 1663, when the village took a solemn promised to perform it if they were spared from an appalling plague, at the time of the Swedish Invasion] - and we have been so deeply moved and affected by all that we saw and heard - it is awesome. What struck us the most? although we shall continue to reflect and digest this for a very long time to come, the immediate gifts included seeing the devious and complex politics and power-play [both Roman AND Jewish] - seeing the separate, central stillness of Jesus in the tornado of brutality; and at the end when he came to stand among the crowd near his empty tomb, with no greeting, no 'Rabboni', to see so vivid a message that he is among us always, whether or not we see him... The text includes the synoptics and John, with transposed text [ie the woman caught in adultery appears near the beginning, to great effect: Jesus writing in the dust... at the end of the first half of the Play, when Jesus is led away for interrogation, there is an angel on stage alone... writing in the dust]
. Pilate is a compelling gestapo figure, laughing, sneering, utterly credible when he says he is bored by all their religion, and tells the priests to 'hop it' [literally 'vanish'] - passing the now-unthreatening prisoner to the soldiers for their amusement, before dealing with the Jewish Problem. This is the Play that has been re-viewed to make it less anti-semitic!! but the High Priests are appalling in their ganging-up, with only Nicodemus, and Joseph of Arimathia portrayed as potent voices for Christ yet who are over-ruled by the self-seeking power of the clique.

Without blasphemy, I saw Rowan Williams in this depiction of Jesus - as the still centre holding with integrity despite coming under those pressures which saw nothing of the purposes of God and everything about their own power and authority, the ability to pull people out of the city to shout for Barabbas [his release is suddenly seen as a huge slap-in-the-face for the Romans as he had plotted to overcome the Roman garrison and kill them!] seemed to parallel the factions in the Anglican Communion which cause such dissension - certainly not for God's sake.

Jesus in Gethsemane is portrayed as shouting to his Father, wanting reassurance/confirmation that this terrible pending violence must indeed be endured: it held echoes of something once said, because as he shouted he received all that he had needed, the assurance that he was not alone, that God is present with him, nothing can separate them. And for that reason [I think] there is no cry of despair from the cross, only 'I thirst' and then 'it is finished'.

Worth telling you that only those living there for a minimum 20 years can take part: there are 5,000 Oberammergau residents, of whom 1,500 are NATO [25 nationalities] and thus debarred from acting; and 1,000 are 'too busy' to take part in the play, so 2,500 people are available. They are almost all involved - the orchestra; a choir of 48 with 4 superb solo voices [and there are 3 alternating voices for the tenor/soprano/mezzo/bass]; an enormous cast which includes dozens of children, 4 camels [resident but not local] a horse, some sheep, and goats...
During the 5 months that the play is performed, there are 5 performances each week; there are 5,000 people attending each performance - a total of HALF-A-MILLION people will have seen the Passion Play this year.
The people of Oberammergau say that it is part of their lives - from the moment they are born, carried on as babies, then as the children running in the crowd scenes, or helping with the animals, through to singing in the choir, or playing in the Orchestra, or being part of the crowds swirling across the huge stage shouting 'crucify him'... so soon after they have yelled 'Hosanna'. The major parts each have two actors chosen 2 years ahead, so that they are on alternate nights [such intensity could not be sustained if it were every night].
The casting takes place the previous year; they begin rehearsals of the Choir in September, of the actors in November, and continue rehearsing SEVEN NIGHTS A WEEK from then until the play begins in May. Each performance lasts 5 hours: 2pm - 5.0 and then 8 - 10.30 - with a 3 hour break for dinner [though less by the time you have emerged, and allowed 45 minutes to get back in].
It is so powerful, because these are people who live their lives around the Passion Play, considering it the most amazing honour to be asked to take part, giving up their lives to it really. Every man involved has to grow his hair and beard for the previous year; they are famous for their exquisite wood-carvings [hugely expensive nativity scenes, crosses, and figures of Jesus] mainly in Maple and Lime ! the carving, and forestry, and farming, are the major employment - hard to do any other form of work when involved for so much of each day in the Play.
Our hostess, where we were staying in the Gasthof zur Rose, was typical of this: she was working very hard running her 25-bedroom guesthouse, greeting guests, and then appearing in the crowd scenes in the early parts of the first half [dashing back to be ready for our return to eat dinner] clearing up before returning to appear in the second half. Her 18-year-old daughter was in the Choir [greeted us afterwards 'I saw you all!'] with a beautiful voice... The pictures on Elisabeth's desk showed her father and grandfather in a sequence of photos with her as a small child in the play; then her as a girl in the Choir; then her, holding her first-born in the crowd; then her first-born as a young man in the play; then all her children taking part as young adults; and her presence throughout, with her father and grandfather in each of them as major roles [Caiaphas and Annas].
The other half of our party stayed with the co-Director, who gave them a talk in the evening of arrival and cared for them tenderly.

The village is a delight visually - the houses are painted with scenes from the Passion Play, and have extensive window-boxes filled with double-banks of scarlet geraniums [to repel flies and mosquitoes!!] All around are stunning mountain peaks, the tallest has a cross on top of the vertical crag. Almost a mono-culture, the fields are hay, and maize, with mud-coloured cows + wooden BELLS!! and surrounding pine forests. The rivers are the most beautiful pale-sea-green colour, ice-melt...

Now for the alternative drama.... context: a Stewards' Trust House Party - which has a framework of civilised companionship [how would you behave if you were staying with slightly formal friends], divided into discussion groups which gather to reflect on the excellent talk given each morning; an afternoon to explore, go for walks, chat, etc; then drinks before dinner.
Fifty of us, ranging in experience from a 'sitting' Judge, 2 practicing and 5 retired solicitors; Bankers, including the former 2nd-in-command of Barclays; engineers, including the Consultant on the Docklands Light Railway's upgrade for the Olympics; a current Head Mistress, and several recently-retired ones; a Surgeon-Professor [ie operating and teaching]; 6 [at least] GPs; 5 farmers, 1 of whom was a woman who farmed in her own right; 4 substantial land-owners; a psycho-therapist; a counsellor; a retired Oxford vicar, and 1 current one; an Oxford don; a Naval Captain; 2 administrators; 2 music teachers; a Modern-Dance-Adjudicator who teaches, as well as judging; people from S Africa, including one running a Game Farm [breeding wild animals to return to the wild, but not lions]; someone building a history centre at Rorke's Drift [Boer War - where my grandfather fought] using local labour; and so on - - it was a very varied and very interesting group.

Our party of 50 had spent 5 days at Bad Urach [near Stuttgart] preparing beforehand, then were collected by a super-modern, Mercedes coach for the 2 1/2 hour journey south. Our large driver was very relaxed, in his floral Bermuda shorts, as he set off at a good pace along the motorway. After about 20 minutes, while programming his TomTom [direction finder] he nearly drove into the back of a lorry - the front 4 rows could see clearly, and we shouted STOP loudly, and he swerved in time. A little later, he nearly drove off the road - and we shouted 'HI' and he straightened up. He then entered the next section of motorway without slowing down, right in front of a lorry which hooted long and loudly, as did the cars in the next lane... We were now really rather apprehensive, and kept a good look-out [so we could shout a warning?] - he swerved a lot, but seemed awake, and we sat tight. [People further back were aware of the manoeuvres, but not alarmed, and chatted happily - luckily.]
We stopped after an hour, for coffee, and resumed our journey hoping he too might be refreshed [though he hadn't emerged from the coach]. But he was travelling very fast - the German motorway speed limit is 60mph in fine weather, and less than that when it is raining ... we were driving in rain, at about 75mph - and we were very anxious about the driver's state. A number of us were silently praying, and 4 other couples had actually sent text messages to families to pray for us all.
Suddenly, without any warning, he swerved straight across the oncoming traffic, off the autobahn,[John said he could not see how a coach could possibly have fitted between the oncoming traffic to emerge from that motorway] into a narrow entrance to a very small motorway stop, careering in at right-angles, at such a speed we thought we might tip over - nearly hit the kerb, and then swerved across 3 oncoming cars,[which seemed almost to dematerialise - where did they go, they should all have hit us] finally shooting into a bus parking slot, with such speed we believed we might go through the hedge and back onto the motorway.
He stopped, and sat unmoved, with his hands folded across his stomach.
We had with us several GPs, a Head Mistress who spoke fluent German, and a psycho-therapist - she went forward and said gently to the coach-driver that he had made people frightened, driving so fast - no response. A GP went next, and with some German, asked him gently if he was well? [slight shrug] how were his eyes? [another roll of the shoulders] was he sleeping all right? [same response] she felt his responses were not normal - delayed, no 'yes' or 'no' and no emotion - and there was probably a medical problem.The HM spoke [German] to the driver - he said he was having his lunch break. He sat quite still, hands on tummy, not eating, drinking, or moving anything except his eyes.
Our good Christian group puzzled at a difficult situation: rang the agents in London to report the problem; asked for a new driver. As a safeguard, someone stood outside the bus, someone in the doorway - prepared to wait until a new driver appeared in [presumably] an hour.

I've read too many thrillers, probably, so was anxious that we took a more pro-active step to prevent any further horror - and asked if anyone was willing to remove the ignition keys, and to ring the police - with the feeling that such a driver would not hesitate to drive off after his lunch-break, whether or not someone was left behind. No-one could see the position of the keys, and no-one was keen to provoke the driver: and so we waited. But the wife of our neighbouring friends also felt removing the key was a good idea, so [being slim/small] she went forward to 'spot' - just as the driver's mobile rang, and he briefly leaned forward to answer it; allowing her to see the keys in the ignition. John and I got off the bus to wait in the fresh air [and rain] to ask a rather forceful surgeon if he would muster a few others in case the driver became aggressive.

Ten minutes later, his lunch-break being over, the driver turned on the ignition - and the 'spotter' leant forward, and removed the keys, quickly passing them to someone else - very bravely.

A group leader did ring the Police; the coach company 'boss' arrived [apparently the driver's son] and while they talked, I could see an enormous bag full of large lollipops beside the driver's seat... The GP thought that might indicate he was actually hypo-glycaemic - had an overdose of sugar - and thus liable to extreme mood-swings, eg anger. The Police came, very helpful, and listened to the coach driver's account [nothing the matter, nothing out of the normal, etc] - "we hear your story, but we prefer to believe the 50 passengers who were all frightened by your driving." so he had his licence endorsed, must re-train, and re-take his test to drive coaches, and have a medical.

Finally, after a 4-hour wait, another coach from a different company arrived... the coach and its wonderful driver, Sonya, that had been booked to take us to Munich airport after the Play - and we were preserved, blessed, and deeply shocked but so thankful... sure that the power of prayer alone had saved us all from death.

Prayers are like gold - as I'm certain that all prayer is gathered around those in great need... bless you and thank you - and we have been, in so many different ways, so greatly blessed.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

the small black dog is definitely brilliant!

We took the small black dog with us on two longer car-journeys recently.
Heading for Guildford [2 1/2 hours drive away] we brought with us her food, and a plastic squash-bottle of water, to give to her at her usual mealtime. Halfway there, we could hear a persistent, light clicking sound from the car-boot. No squeaking, panting, or restless sounds, so we puzzled slightly, unable to identify the noise.
Just before our destination we found a good place to stop and let her air her fur. Opening the boot we found...
That amazingly clever little dog had **unscrewed** the plastic lid on the water container, and taken about a third of it, **without spilling any water**
Heaven knows how she did it, as the lid was on tightly, since you don't want it falling over while driving. and heaven knows how she got the water out of its very narrow neck without spilling it, or knocking the container over...
Presumably the clicking sound was her very gentle twisting open the bottle lid, little by little, as there were tiny dents in it, not large bite-marks.
On the earlier 'longer drive' she had done this same unscrewing - was it a fluke? had the bottle top been loose and 'wobbled' off? but clearly now she has repeated it, this is something she has taught herself, and jolly clever it is too! Her answer to boredom?!
Life is full of surprises!

Creativity and work - the tensions?

A new blog, by Hamid Ismail, the world service writer in residence, asked how we might strike a balance between work and creativity: my response is that there was an advertisement some years ago that 'inside every fat person is a thin one struggling to get out' and I wonder whether this actually applies, now, to would-be-creative people. The pressures of work, which we have made for ourselves [people work longer hours, to earn more, and do not seem to be 'better off'] allow less time for creativity, only for de-stressing... It would be interesting to know whether this is reflected in the variety of films on offer - either through total sales [both of seats and of DVDs], or through the subject matter.
Balance - I write poetry, on the back of envelopes, small pieces of paper, and some survive, and some give pleasure. I have a private wish that one day they could be published. Meanwhile, working hours and family needs actually have a good effect - the words form in my mind, and are compressed onto paper [when I find something to write with] when I can hold onto them no longer.
I look forward to reading the blog; and hope he gets a varied and interesting following - and that we shall learn from him, not only about creativity and its tensions, but also about his surviving links with Uzbekistan, a beautiful and desperately threatened country.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

down with the new - already?

Listening to the Today programme, with its immediate and lamentable reaction was a shock: thanking Peter Hennessy for his informed comments, Evan said we’ll speak again “when this fails” and was rebuked by PH.
How about a short honeymoon period: encouragement, not immediate assumptions of failure.
Perhaps the media can include something of this hope – which the country must long for after all the energy and tension of the past weeks – to allow space for what is to come. Financial decisions will attract criticism, whatever happens, how good it would be to support the new government, and acknowledge that there are people in politics who do genuinely put their country first: David Cameron has convinced us he is such a man – give him encouragement.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

The election still 'hangs'

we have watched and listened, voted, and waited; now the tired potential leaders must talk it through and reach some conclusion. It is a puzzle of significance - can they remain above party politics and consider solely the good of the country?

The temptation is set out repeatedly by the reporters: if LibDems don't join forces with Labour, they will miss their chance of PR voting reform. They have no such assurances from the Tory party, who favour re-distributing constituencies, ie allocating MPs to a specific number of voters - seems fair to me! If they ever dreamt of PR they know they could never be re-elected; so it is not an option.

Even at the risk [?] of letting Vince Cable take over the Exchequer, there must be a real agreement, the country cannot wait. The stock markets cannot wait, either, for clear evidence that some definite action is to be taken to deal with the enormous deficit - the size of which the electorate simply do not understand.

apparently research among the state bureaucracy - swollen so enormously under Labour - shows that more than 50% believe that further spending was realistic; not cuts, which were expected to be natural wastage, or extra economies - wow! we are in for some major shocks! if people honestly do believe that, they don't read their papers, and of course, being part of a Labour organisation, they believe what they hear from Gordon Brown.

Interesting, he has gone to Kirkcaldy for the weekend - clearly, he had waited long enough in London for Nick Clegg to contact him, and wasn't waiting around any longer.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

The day the world...changed?

It is a day of waiting, with all the portentousness that invokes. A grey, lowering sky, the lack of a breeze, a stillness without birdsong - all the physical symptoms of an impending thunderstorm.

And at the end of today, or perhaps tomorrow morning, we shall hear what our Election has achieved. All the people who vote, elect an MP, and out of those MPs a government is formed. Which party 'wins' this poisoned chalice [with the economy as the aconite in the cup] will have a truly thankless task: who could wish to start out on a great new adventure with such a horrific burden.

T Blair, with his New Labour visions of a different future, never got beyond the idea that with so much money in the kitty, and the rosy prospects which a careful Tory government had produced [policies aside, the country was reliably affluent] all he really had to do was throw money at everything. and when that money ran out, then borrowing ever larger sums to continue this illusion of successful 'investment'.

How 'unfair' [Labour's great slogan of fairness in this campaign] that an incoming government has to deal with this appalling, mind-blowing debt, before it can even begin on its own programme for the country's well-being.

the one sensible suggestion has been to call in the IMF straight away so that any blame for Greek-style insurrection against the inevitable cuts, would not land on a government and spoil their future achivements.
24-hours .. we shall see.