Giving thanks for Andrew Strauss

Andrewstrauss
We often talk about the need for professional sportsmen to be role-models – to be brilliantly skilful, yes, to be successful, naturally, but also to be the sort of person a parent would want their ten year old to look up to, admire, and emulate.

And behold: Andrew Strauss.

 Andrew Strauss Urn
A man without ego-trips or smugness, without a penchant for the limelight or the tabloids, without scandal, without vice, without enemies.  A good dad, a good player, a good person.

And he captained England to successive Ashes wins for the first time in my life.

God bless the man.  Here is a video of one of the great days he gave us:

 

Nb. If Nasser Hussain hadn't run him out for 88, Strauss would have been the only Englishman in history to score two centuries on debut, and would also have held the England record for hundreds (alongside Boycott, Cowdrey, and Hammond).

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From A Resident Alien [Letter 10]

Letter the Tenth

Pledge_of_Allegiance
This one's about flags and flag-waving in the States.

In comparison to Britannia, where (apart from the occasional church spire, jubilee street-party, or Olympics) flags are a rarity, it seems like in America they are EVERYWHERE. The proliferation of star-spangled banners is so rampant that at times you begin to wonder whether the locals genuinely need reminding which country they are in.

But the reality is that our countries have very different relationships with our flags.  In Britain, the Union Jack (or Butcher's Apron, depending on your sensibilities) is synonymous with cringeworthy jingoism or racism-disguised-as-nationalism.

Bnplogo
In America, children pledge allegiance to the flag before they are old enough to know what allegiance means, the national anthem – a song to the Flag – is sung before all sporting events, and the reverence is such that woe betide you if you let one touch the ground.

Kids-saying-pledge

It's a contrast, for sure.

All this flag-waving bombasticity is a natural outworking of culture.  America is a strongly nationalistic country, but with a nationalism not based on ethnic or cultural or religious grounds (unless you count 'Americanism' as a religion).

The United States is a mongrel nation, founded at just the same time that ethnic nationalism was gaining in popularity in the Old World.  America side-stepped racial and religious issues by building itself on the Constitution, and on 'all men are created equal…', and in so doing became a refuge for disadvantaged or persecuted minorities, from Huguenots to Jews to Irish Catholics.

Ellisislandimmigrants
To millions of these, America has genuinely been The Promised Land, while to multitudes of others, whose families took a risk, motivated by opportunity and aspiration, it has flowed with milk and honey.  The flag is seen to encapsulate and symbolize all of that.

So that's why seemingly normal humans will wave, sing to, and pledge allegiance to a piece of cloth.

The big asterisk or footnote or elephant in the room, however, is the blatant fact that not all Americans have a family heritage filled with such positive 'coming to America' stories.  The descendents of slaves, the decimated American Indians, the Inuit, the Aleuts, the Hawaiians etc.  Should they join the flag-waving throng?

It's a sad irony that a country founded on liberty and democracy was also built on a foundation of slavery and disenfranchisement.  But that's America.

None of us is perfect.

And that's the mixed message I see when I look at the Stars & Stripes.

Wood flag

Trees Have No Dogmas


Floating-tree
A killer piece of reasoning from a century ago:

The vice of the modern notion of mental progress is that it is always something concerned with the breaking of bonds, the effacing of boundaries, the casting away of dogmas. But if there be such a thing as mental growth, it must mean the growth into more and more definite convictions, into more and more dogmas. The human brain is a machine for coming to conclusions; if it cannot come to conclusions it is rusty. When we hear of a man too clever to believe, we are hearing of something having almost the character of a contradiction in terms. It is like hearing of a nail that was too good to hold down a carpet; or a bolt that was too strong to keep a door shut. 

Man can hardly be defined, after the fashion of Carlyle, as an animal who makes tools; ants and beavers and many other animals make tools, in the sense that they make an apparatus. Man can be defined as an animal that makes dogmas. As he piles doctrine on doctrine and conclusion on conclusion in the formation of some tremendous scheme of philosophy and religion, he is, in the only legitimate sense of which the expression is capable, becoming more and more human.

When man drops one doctrine after another in a refined scepticism, when he declines to tie himself to a system, when he says that he has outgrown definitions, when he says that he disbelieves in finality, when, in his own imagination, he sits as God, holding no form of creed but contemplating all, then he is by that very process sinking slowly backwards into the vagueness of the vagrant animals and the unconsciousness of the grass.

Trees have no dogmas. Turnips are singularly broad-minded.

GK Chesterton, Heretics, 1905.

From A Resident Alien [Letter 9]

Wet lettersLetter 9

One of the best things about living in coastal South Carolina is the epic summer storms.  Pretty much every day is the same at the moment: 85-90°F, 80% humidity or more, very hard to be outside after 9am or before 6pm for heat reasons, and hard to be outside the rest of the time because of the mosquitoes.

7Day_ForecastBut in the afternoons, we often get magnificent lightning storms, which are not only brilliantly entertaining, but are also very welcome because the rain will knock fifteen degrees off the thermometer.

It reminds me of my lovely friend Christina from Egypt.  When I first met her (in 2001), it was an English summer, and whenever it rained, which of course it did, she would go outside and dance in the rain.

I didn't understand: I'd never lived in a country where rain comes as blessed relief.  Now I do, so when it rains, I go outside 🙂

 

So, dear reader, did you spot The Metaphor?

Generally, life for me here has been sunny and hot: ideal for a short holiday, but after a while, you start to feel parched, like farmland in drought.  There's a prevailing dryness which, unchecked, would wither me.

But there have been moments – quite a few moments, actually – where the sky-of-my-life has lit up with majestic electric energy, the rain has fallen, and the oppressive temperature has dropped.

The moments themselves have tended not to last too long – they are the exception, not the rule – so the challenge is to milk them for all they're worth: to go out and dance in the rain while it's falling, to get wrapped up in the deliciousness of the moment, and then afterwards to keep dwelling on it and be thankful.

These girls are one such summer shower from this week.  See here.

MK&Vivi

From A Resident Alien [Letter 8]

Clean pageLetter 8

Just a minor epistle this week.  Possibly.

Rather than commenting on general subjects like 'America' or 'Life In The States' or 'Lebanese people who marry their cousins', I thought that today I would make it a bit more personal-focused.  Apologies if you were hoping for cutting insight/vitriol/cynicism, but this one's just about our life at present.

Let's start with a picture of me, posing with my morning sacrament – a cup of tea.

Photo-1
Every day I wake up, make a cup of tea, and take it for a walk outside to say my morning prayers (Psalms 51, 1, 8, & 67, plus preamble – hat-tip to the Coptic Orthodox Church).  The view, across a tidal marsh, is lovely, and the mosquitoes usually ignore me (because I take a garlic tablet each day).

If I don't start things off with some measure of reconnecting with God and nature, it's going to be a bad day.

Maria and I are still lodging with her parents, and I'm still job-searching (I work 5 hours per week for a church, which will probably increase come January, but probably not before), so life often has quite a weird vibe: being a married couple simply doesn't work without a home to build.

But what this spare time has done is given me space to work through what I think I'm called to – ie. why, from God's perspective, I'm in Charleston.  For example, I just met up with a guy here who works for the Anglican Mission.  When I first emailed him to say hi, this is what I wrote: 

So briefly: I'm David, English, 31, newly-arrived in the States. I'm feeling the tug towards planting contemporary monastic communities and equipping the saints for ministry, leading to context-specific mission and worship, reconciliation between races and denominations, and a general life-as-sacrament approach to church and the Kingdom.
And I'd be very happy to attempt to explain what I mean by all that, if you'd like to meet up sometime!

You'll have to forgive my addiction to multi-syllabic words.  Other projects (starting a cricket club, using yoga liturgically, urban farming) will hopefully follow.  But now, on to my beautiful wife Maria.  

Maria
Maria is brilliant at pretty much everything she does, but tends not to realise it. And she looks Elven.

Maria works as a personal trainer, doing all sorts of stuff to help people's bodies work well.  Mine included.  Her clients love her, her boss loves her, and I love her.  Whether this is her long-term vocation or not is unsure (her boss is keen to open another location in a couple of years and sees Maria potentially in charge), but she's doing really well as a newcomer to it.

To an even greater extent than me, Maria rarely finds God in church.  On the waves, kite-boarding: yes.  In the gym, exercising: sure.  At the dinner table, being Lebanese: but of course.  God is present.  But in Christian services, no, not really.

As the wife of someone who believes he is 'called to the Church' (and in a location where the Church's main focus is to get people to come to meetings), that is both a difficult and a brilliant position to be in.  In years to come, we may get plenty of funny looks from people who don't get it, but the Church will be the better for her honesty and ability to see through the crap.

So that's us.  We'd appreciate your prayers and your company (electronic or otherwise).

M&D Maria & David

From A Resident Alien [letter 7]

Angry-letterLetter 7

If you have followed these epistles thus far, you will doubtless have noticed that I'm managing to maintain a balanced, objective, non-partisan approach.

Pretty much.

It's important.  When you move to a new culture, you need to play the intrigued anthropologist for a while, before graduating to the high-horse of cynical critique. But, just for fun – and because it's been a crap week – today I'm going to slag off all things American.

Huzzah!

So, let's launch forth into unbalanced diatribe …

ISSUE 1 – FAT PEOPLE

Fat+american+shirt
Yes, make no bones about it, Americans have 'fat bones' (translation: 'a lot of fat around their bones, with additional layers of blubber and padding on top of that'). They are the evolutionary missing link between human and hippo.

But let's not judge them: Americans are genetically predisposed to eat sugary, unnatural, pre-parepared crap in vast portions, and not to walk anywhere. It's in their nature.  Which is why they think nothing of waddling to a doctor, in search of surgery or a pill to solve their type II diabetes, self-image issues, and lack of pep.

Which leads me neatly on to …

ISSUE 2 – PHARMACEUTICALS

Popping pills
'Do you occasionally feel vaguely less then perfect?  Then ask your medical professional about new Ikansolvital, a cocktail of 37 industrially-produced compounds guaranteed to make you feel better, because it costs $37.99 for 6 tablets, and anything that expensive MUST be amazing, right?'

And don't get me on to insurance companies profiteering on people's poor health.

ISSUE 3 – CONFORMITY

ProductionLine
Back in the 80s, we all used to smirk at those dumb, ugly communists building dumb, ugly carbon-copy tower blocks out of concrete.  Well, the production-line, mass-produced capitalist dream has amounted to the same thing in modern America (only with slightly prettier concrete).

Cloning.  Houses, neighborhoods, towns – all look the same.  Likewise clothes, cars, churches, and shops (which all sell exactly the same stuff).  In a country full of creativity and natural variety (desert, mountain, swamp, grassland), it is a crime that the man-made stuff conforms so utterly to the post-war baby-boomer bigger-is-better utilitarian mold.

ISSUE 4 – HOW ARE YOU TODAY?

Howareyoutoday
I will never – NEVER – get the point in asking after the well-being of someone you do not know, do not care about, and whom you will never meet again.

The conversation goes something like this …

[phone rings, DAVID picks up]
DAVID: Hello, David speaking.
PERSON: Hi, how are you today?
DAVID: Um, I'm alright, though I do have a bit of a cough. Who is this?
PERSON: I'm good thanks.

ISSUE 6 – TAKING THE PISS OUT OF THE BRITISH WEATHER

Rainybritain
Yes I know: the reason my green and pleasant land is green (and reasonably pleasant) is because we have a sizable annual rainfall.  And yes, I know it's cold: if you were within 600 miles of the Arctic Circle, you'd be chilly too.

But the fact is, oh South Carolina, blessed as you are with with hot sunny day after hot sunny day, you'd have more integrity in your chiding if you actually went outside occasionally.  And no, sitting in your car with the a/c up full does not count.

Union flag