Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Saved by the Clown

I spent one part of my misspent adolescence hitchhiking around the interior of British Columbia. I’d arrive in small towns which had, all of them, identical features: A gas station, a hotel with pub and restaurant and, on the very edge of town, a Rodeo grounds. I was never there on the right weekend and so the Rodeo grounds were always deserted - empty corrals made out of split rails, a weathered sign announcing the date when the Rodeo would be held or when it had taken place and a list of the events: the calf-roping, the bronco rides and the cattle wrestling. They key attraction of course, was the riding of bulls. These bulls were bred to be mean – the proper jargon is ‘ornery’ and, to look at them, they don’t even look much like ordinary cattle - nothing like the other placid ruminants munching grass in the fields. At rodeo time they’re kept in special reinforced barns - not to be trusted but all the boys climb up onto the rails to get a better look at them.

So just to go over the rules: There are a hundred points given for the perfect ride – the rider needs to stay on the bull for eight seconds and impress the judges. If the ride is uneventful and boring the judges will award fewer points. The most points are given when the bull gives a particularly violent performance but where the rider manages to stay on nonetheless.

When the rider is thrown to the ground it is up to the rodeo clown to wave his hands and coax the bull back into his pen - the rodeo clown – the little bugger in the corner with his cowboy hat and red rubber nose and short trousers on over his red combination long underwear. He waves a towel and attracts the bull’s attention away from the fallen rider. He has the most dangerous job in the rodeo. He manages to stave off disaster. He protects both the rider and the spectator and lures the bull back into the pen.

Since Caireen and I returned from our holidays in the summer there has been “no end of trouble in Dodge City”. In our congregations, and amongst family, friends, associates and “encountered strangers”, we have witnessed the struggle of a great many people trying to stay on the bull. Life’s events come in bunches and we’ve seen a bunch of them. It does wear a bit. You find yourself saying “what next?” Tragedy and upset is always a backdrop to the human condition.

The biblical record is filled, though, with a certain amount of comedy which – try as I might – I cannot define in any other way than it being the subtle hint of something which upsets the downward slide in a graceful and almost “cheeky” manner. The drowning man is swallowed by a fish and deposited on the shore; the Book of the Law is found in the ruins of the temple and, initially, mistaken for rubbish. A very old man and his very old wife have a child in spite of their great age. A baby is born in a small and unimportant town and his birth is heralded by angels. The tax collector becomes a disciple. The Saviour goes to eat at Zaccheus’ house. The oppressor of the church is knocked off his horse, converted and becomes the Apostle to the Gentiles.

It all comes in from the side, this grace and possibility, with its red nose and impossible garb waving its towel in the midst of kicking hooves and slashing horns. The believer will look for subtle things which herald the beginning of life when it looks like all is lost.

There’s something “comedic” about the Gospel. These visions, stories, promises and legends appear, at first glance, to bear little relation to the big bulls at the centre of the ring - whatever is happening in our marriages, our health problems or those of people we love, our businesses or our conflicts with family. The subtle beginnings come in from the side. Strange and off-beat thought they may be, they form the beginning of the only thing which will keep us safe. The believer can not only learn to notice these strange beginnings. He will even come to expect them.

The rough and tumble cowboy will, eventually, give in and let himself be saved by the clown.

Thought for the Day
Good Morning Scotland
BBC Radio Scotland
Wednesday, October 27th, 2010

Dementia is a huge challenge facing Britain today. A number of stories appeared in the press this last fortnight about organizations coming together to support those suffering from the disorder and about changes in the types of treatment being offered in clinical settings and in the community. The intention is to transform the lives people with this condition lead.

It’s not that far away from any of us.

The reality of such an illness is that those close to us may lose some of the character we’ve grown up with and learned to love. If we are afflicted, that we’ll slowly begin to lose our grasp of things going on around us. Somebody will have to shift heaven and earth, or at least their own set of priorities, to keep in meaningful contact. And - thinking always of cost as we do these days - somebody will need to pay for our care.


My religious tradition, as an example, understands the worth of human beings on the basis that they are loved, and that they are objects for God’s concern – all of them, well or unwell. It’s not a contest won by those who athletically retain their faculties until the end - the last ones on the block with their wits. What we end up knowing matters less than who we are known to be, by those who love us. And we are known by God even when we cease to know ourselves.

My tradition also understands that the moral fabric of societies and of individuals can be measured by the care they provide to the "least capable" of their brethren.

Fact is, we will need to be taken by the arm at various points of our life. And – it’s true - the world will go on without us.

It is challenge for individuals early in their diagnosis to accept change – a universal change - which in his or her case has come too soon. It’s a challenge, too, to the larger society to provide excellent and compassionate care - to do something more than honour the bottom line.

An audio link is available for a limited time HERE. TFTD begins at 1:23.59 - about halfway along the audio bar.