I was never a big fan of magicians because I don’t enjoy feeling conned or suspending my disbelief. Then I encountered Penn and Teller. Who couldn’t love magicians with a TV show called Bullshit? They are scientific sceptics and atheists who love making mince out of sacred cows. I particularly enjoyed their trick of making an American flag seem to disappear by wrapping it in a copy of the United States Bill of Rights, and apparently setting the flag on fire, so that the flag is gone but the Bill of Rights remains. I saw the trick first on West Wing. If their unique routine weren’t enough they have written numerous books. I am most drawn to two of their titles: God, No!: Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales and Every Day is an Atheist Holiday!: More Magical Tales from the Author of God, No!
If we go far enough in the future, historians may label the present time as the Age of Anxiety. There is certainly enough anxiety floating about for everyone to build a raft. The possible outcomes in Ukraine weigh on us all. Climate change is occurring faster than projected as sea levels and sea water temperatures rise. Poverty due to wealth inequality is creating social instability. Authoritarianism is rearing its head in unexpected places, endangering our freedoms. And then there is Covid. It is on the rise again in its increasing number of variants in the UK, France, US, South Africa, Southeast Asia, and Australia. Ashley Bloomfield this week announced that models for New Zealand suggest that the number of new cases, hospitalisations and deaths are not expected to go much lower than they are now in the near future and are likely to increase significantly during our winter months. We all know people who have been infected, a growing number of whom are members of this congregation. I learned of two more yesterday. We know going back to a pre-pandemic normal isn’t going to happen. So, what is the new normal going to look like and who in the hell knows?
Some have called “This Land Is Your Land”an alternative national anthem in America. It was written and first sung by Woody Guthrie.
Growing up in small-town Oklahoma, Guthrie heard church hymns, outlaw ballads, blues, fiddle tunes and popular music. The Guthries had been fairly prosperous — Woody’s father was a small-time politician and businessman — but the family unravelled during the Depression and his mother’s mental illness. That’s when Woody took to the road to be a street entertainer.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once observed that “It is a happy talent to know how to play.” But I have found it a difficult talent to utilise over the past couple of years. The last time I can remember being immersed in play was doing the chicken dance at Rachel’s and my wedding. It was also the first day someone entered the country infected with Covid and life changed dramatically for me in two ways. Getting married does that for everyone. The other change encompassing us all occurred six weeks later when we went into lockdown busy hoarding toilet paper.
My Dad was a pretty smart guy. He had a lot of academic degrees after his name and when younger I thought of him as the only Renaissance man I knew. Why? He seemed to know the answer to every question I could throw at him. Later I figured out that he was conning me. When he didn’t know the answer, he still gave me one, saying it with enough authority that I bought it hook, line and sinker.
Sherlock Holmes, the master of deductive reasoning, tells us in The Sign of the Four: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
His approach minutely analyses a clue, making huge claims about the information it must contain. From a stocking found in the river he arrives at the height, weight, social class and personal history of the victim.
Dr Watson is an undeclared Unitarian. Being a scientist, he methodically collects the clues that Holmes finds and does the boring tests and legwork to make the case hang together. He is unwilling to accept the conclusion until the weight of evidence supports it. Dr Watson favours inductive reasoning.
The Christian world is beginning Holy Week this week. I know that because it always begins the Sunday before Easter with Palm Sunday, the celebration of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. I know today is that day because all this week I’ve been inexplicably humming a song I used to teach the children of my parish on Palm Sunday years ago when my theology was more uncritical. I can’t remember all the verses, being old and all, but here are some snippets.
Kat Liu’s reflection on beating up on herself brought back a happier memory. It was a game my mother played with me when I was little older than a toddler. She would take my arms and force me to hit myself, not so it hurt but until I gleefully giggled when being scolded to stop hitting her baby. She meant no harm. How could she know I would get pretty good at the game? Only when I played it, it did hurt.
Like Kat, I remember bringing home an anatomy test with the highest grade in the class, 98%. But when I showed my parents the test they couldn’t stop laughing that my one mistake was switching uvula with anus. It was funny, why wouldn’t they laugh? Again, they meant no harm. But I was 12. I was very good at feeling shame, not knowing that was different from being embarrassed or being able to laugh at myself. I was black and blue emotionally from beating up my mother’s baby.
When I was a child I liked playing on the teeter-totter at the playground. Apparently, you call it a see-saw here. What I found challenging was finding the balance point with my partner at the other end. I was not a philosophy prodigy at the age of seven, so I had not the words to describe what I knew intuitively: balance is a positive outcome in a precarious world. I did know it was not easily achieved. As likely as not, one end would crash down with prostate-jarring intensity while the other end would fly up threatening to launch the occupant into the stratosphere. Giggling with glee at our failure, we would eagerly try again to teeter without tottering.
The world is stuck. There is lots of evidence. This premise is supported by recent events in Aotearoa New Zealand. The once admired Prime Minister has been stripped of her beatification, not by anything she has done or failed to do, but by our anxiety displayed on Parliament’s lawn. The pandemic is still taking a toll, never mind to a much lesser degree thanks to her government’s decision to put people’s well-being ahead of the GNP. Russia has declared war in Ukraine and threatens the world with nuclear weapons. Certainly nothing Jacinda has done. Thanks to that war, petrol costs are skyrocketing. Again, not Jacinda’s doing. Due to the pandemic interrupting supply lines, petrol costs, labour shortages due to illness, supporting vulnerable people and businesses, inflation is the monster under the bed everyone thinks Jacinda should scare away. Out of our anxiety we want certainty. That desire gets expressed as a demand for a quick fix, when no such thing exists.