The thing in my vicinity that just works, and for which I give daily thanks, is the traffic light system on the New England Highway through Maitland and on down to Hexham. Those sensors in the road are little beauties. They don’t pull you up at a corner unless there actually are cars waiting. They drop the right-hand-turn lane’s arrow out of the sequence if there’s no one there. I really noticed the difference when I drove down the old highway from Newcastle to Swansea lately and several lights pulled me up to let in non-existent cars from cross streets. Wouldn’t happen where I live! Okay, fellow residents, I do have my doubts about the settings on the Green Hills corner. But the exception proves the rule. Otherwise, the system works, and that is good.
Another favourite thing is my genuine badger hair shaving brush. When my last one was nicked by a houseguest some years ago, I did the ideologically sound thing and bought an artificial one (‘just as good’) from a greenie store. Not the same at all. That’s not a lather! I ended up importing a new badger brush from England in desperation, and it works. All of which raises the question of why we replace things that work with things that don’t. Cakes of soap, for example. I’ve never had one fail. Those squirty things of body wash, on the contrary, even if you have two hands free to use them in the shower, shoot a dob of gel that slides straight off your wet fingers or, if successfully captured, is good for about six square inches of washing and then, insult to injury, can never be totally rinsed off. This aberration, I think, is a marketing ploy. I’m sure the profit margin on squirty stuff is much greater than that on simple, cheap-to-make soap. But soap works.
More importantly, I think that, on the whole, our system of government works. Now, politicians being so unpopular these days, I’ll get howled down on this one, I suspect. And I freely admit that the system does not work as well as it could if the parliamentary terms were longer, the party whips less powerful, the press more interested in policy than in leadership contests and if compulsory voting didn’t make our election campaigns simply contests for the best three-word slogan. Still, with all its faults, our system of parliamentary, responsible government gets us through without violent upheavals, dictators and revolutions. Our only coups happen in the party room. We don’t live in a country of executive orders and presidential brain snaps. Every substantial matter of law and policy has to get by that large hall full of members who, in turn, have to worry about what their voters will think. On the whole, it works.
More curiously, papal elections seem to work. Elderly chaps in red silk gowns are locked up until they can settle on the one man who is supported by enough of them to enable the white smoke to be sent up the chimney. Certainly it is somewhat weird, but in my lifetime it has delivered Pius XII, John XXIII, Paul VI, JPs I & II, Benedict XVI and now, of course, Francis. Can anyone out there think of a succession of prime ministers, presidents, chancellors, chairmen of Ford or Telstra or whatever, anywhere, to match that strike rate of getting ‘the right man at the right time’? Of course, the X-Factor is the role of the Holy Spirit, which makes the comparison a bit unfair. But the point remains, papal elections do appear to ‘work’.
Finally, and in all honesty this is the thing that got me started on ‘things that work’, it’s not long since I celebrated the pre-Easter ‘Holy Oils’ or ‘Chrism’ Mass in our cathedral. It worked. If being gathered together in prayer is supposed to lead us into a sense of a time that is sacred, if it is meant to be an experience of being united by our faith and hope, if it’s about feeling the power of God at work among us, then the Chrism Mass works, and works every year. Of course, the congregation is self-selecting, they’re the people who want to be there and to be a part of everything. They sing, they say ‘Holy, holy, holy…’ as if they mean it. They’re hushed when they should be and loud when it’s right to be. So everyone builds everyone else up. And there I go, blaming the Holy Spirit again! For it is a work of the Spirit in people, not of the organisation, not of the ‘institution’. This year we reflected on Jesus’ words ‘The Spirit of the Lord has been given to me, for the Lord has anointed me and has sent me….’ We reflected on how each of us can say that, since we too are anointed with God’s Spirit. And I observed on the night how, if we don’t put up too much resistance, the Spirit of God really does work. It is good when things just work.