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andrew rumsey
strangely warmed
By Andrew Rumsey
More strange warmings here
The mild man of Borneo
July 2004

One of my more rewarding experiences recently was to attend a "self-defence for softies" class, run for clergy in my neck of the woods. Obviously there were good, common sense reasons for doing this (a few minor scuffles during after-church coffee, nothing too serious) but I confess I also went along because I thought the comic potential of such an occasion was limitless. Surely watching some of the mildest-mannered people on God's earth, collars askew, grappling with one another, was too good to miss. Happily I was not disappointed.

The highlight of the day arrived when our trainer, Steve, tried in vain to persuade the least assertive person I have ever met to "come at him" with an attacking blow. He might as well have been addressing her in Swahili, for here was a woman of quite phenomenal meekness, one for whom – as I inadvertently saw whilst changing – lowliness had indeed become her inner clothing.

In an episode evocative of Balaam and his Ass, Steve coaxed and provoked her – even deliberately spilling her cup of Mellow Bird's – all to no avail. She may have been seething beneath the surface, but it just didn't connect to her limbs until, at what must have been the apex of her fury, she unleashed a strange, stroking movement that, had he been a greenfly, might have caused a moment's irritation, but, as he was not, merely served to smooth out the creases on his tracksuit.

Rare fun. Reflecting on this since, it strikes me that Western Christians nowadays might be lacking a certain, shall we say, vigour, when it comes to working out their faith. This is captured perfectly in one of Garrison Keillor's Lake Woebegone stories about a group of Lutheran pastors out for a boat trip, which finishes with the wonderful scene of the boat slowly sinking and "twenty four ministers standing up to their smiles in water, chins up, trying to understand this experience and its deeper meaning."

Clergy in particular can tend to be those for whom strength of feeling is explored rather than enacted, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the way we speak – usually with a curious sort of italicized emphasis on things that are particularly meaningful. This can be a useful habit to pick up, suggesting as it does that you are a bit like Wordsworth when he writes, "To me the meanest flower that blows can give thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears".

My feeling is that we overdo this a little. Soon after the self-defence shenanigans, I attended another meeting at which the facilitator asked us to share the joys and sorrows (that's pros and cons to the rest of you) of having an assistant minister in training. While I struggled to mine the deep seams of emotion that were clearly expected of me, one of my neighbours responded by describing the sheer joy of seeing their colleague's emerging vocation, at which everyone nodded sagely and gave the occasional "mmmm". I mean, really.

Perhaps what we need is a revival of "muscular Christianity", the 19th century movement that, through novelists such as Charles Kingsley and Thomas Hughes, espoused manly heroes and the spiritual benefits of robust physical exercise. According to Kingsley and Hughes, the church had gone soft. What it clearly needed was to get some fresh air, pull on its rugger shorts and show some backbone (sorry, backbone).

Whatever its undoubted shortcomings, this era certainly produced characters of remarkable discipline and perseverance, often in the mission field. Not so long ago I came across an obituary in the Church Times for one Rt Revd Peter Howes, who had spent most of his 92 years working alone as a missionary in Borneo.

Among his exploits, this human dynamo translated the New Testament into the local Dayak language whilst imprisoned by the Japanese, writing on the backs of labels from cans and hiding the texts under the floorboards of his hut; he survived tropical ulcers by plunging headlong into riverbed of slimy black mud and worked a mind-boggling 140-hour week in his jungle "parish" until well into his seventies. All this from a bookish, slightly bewildered-looking parson of the sort you might meet tending his roses in Ruislip.

Taking a warm bath to recover from reading this heroic tale, I couldn't help pondering how bland and self-indulgent the obituaries of my own generation will seem in comparison. While we rest in peace, they will rise, promptly, in glory.
strangely warmed
Strangely Warmed by Andrew Rumsey is now available as a book.
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