Tuesday, April 25, 2017

A whirlwind

Within three months the seminary where I have been based since 2000 is vacating its spacious property, for a building some seven miles away.  Apparently, needs must and most people are rolling up their sleeves and getting on with this massive move, including emptying the residential block (where we are staying) of its inhabitants.  It's a whirlwind with new faces including the new Director of my preaching program (who commutes from Cincinnati) and some missing old faces.

Yesterday one of the staff asked me to preach in chapel today.  Yes, the next day!  Apparently, in all the moves the message hadn't got through.  I have to say that it was a thrill being back with my friends for the last time in the chapel room.  You'll never guess (!) but I developed the theme from my last post about the risen Jesus coming alongside (very) ordinary people in their questions and bewilderment.  It seemed especially appropriate.

As Carol and I spend our last few days here we have been reminiscing about what this seminary has meant through our recent years. Of course, it's all to do with the people we have belonged with - around every corner, in most rooms, conversations, friendships, breakthroughs as well as occasional sadnesses have resonated.  So, along with many others we shall dearly miss this old place...but pray for the new place to quickly become a place of belonging too.

By the way, temperatures have been in the 70's touching 80 Farenheit, so the whirlwind is a hot humid one.  I know from friends in the UK it's not quite like that at home!

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Easter Wonder

Last week I heard the Today interviewer Nick Robinson on Radio 4 introduce a new programme by saying that all the assumptions that we once held as certainties had been shredded.  He emphasized the word shredded - almost with a note of despair. Certainly the unknowns seem to increase with each daily news bulletin.

I suppose to many non-Christians these three days (Good Friday to Easter Day) seem irrelevant and for anyone to claim these three days change the world for ever appears beyond absurd.  Yet this story remains the only source of world hope in spite of its often downbeat telling.

On the road to Emmaus, Cleopas and his friend (Luke 24) have only shredded certainties.  With the death of Jesus of Nazareth weighing so heavily on their minds they plod the seven miles with deep dark questioning.  We cannot begin to imagine how the risen Jesus, after the greatest reversal in the world, can afford to come alongside them. Why spend time with such a couple of people discussing on the road.  Surely he has more important things to do?  Much more important!  Yet, as with a woman in the garden, Easter is about ordinary people.

As he listens to their recital of gloom he, the Easter Lord hears some of the Easter story without hope.  Tenderly, yet firmly, he takes them into the Old Testament to speak of the suffering of the Christ and their hearts are strangely warmed.  On the greatest day of history he spends time quietly, generously on two people of no importance, entering their house he breaks bread and they recognize Jesus alive with them.

The wonder of Easter is that Jesus is like this. He comes alongside ordinary people who have their questions.  Easter is not for spiritual giants - it's for people like me.  Yes, it has cosmic implications too and the wonder is - Jesus is alive and nothing can ever change that truth.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

So there!

Those who have heard me speaking about preaching will have heard my lament about preachers who major on information.  Please no!  Good news is never merely information!  It should also be associated with inspiration and transformation.  Sermons that are informational may interest the mind but more rarely do they stir the spirit and move emotion.  Of course, the Holy Spirit is the one who aids inspiration and transformation and He blows where he wills.  He can use anything offered humbly. But information is more likely to be about Scripture than enabling direct proclaiming of Scripture's good news.  Explanation of the text is elevated as the priority!

So, imagine my surprise when turning to the Scripture Union Encounter with God notes for the next quarter.  At the beginning they list the authors with a thumbnail sketch of each.  My description ends with the words:  ' He is also an.....informational speaker.'  I think it was meant to read - international speaker - but it serves me right!  Mind you I suppose it is better to be an informational speaker rather than a vacuous one. No comments please.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

'Taken' - A One Man Drama

There's nothing too unusual about one person plays but yesterday in my local church, Histon Baptist, it was highly unusual.  Why?  Not because it was held in our worship space, nor that the actor Lloyd Notice was a professional with impressive credentials. Nor because props were minimal with white sheets forming three walls with a mattress, chair, table, glass.  It was surprising to have a camera blinking continuously into the stage area but then the stage represented a bare cell with the actor inside as a hostage victim, spied on by his captors.  But what really took our breath away was the way that the actor (inspired by Terry Waite who in captivity helped retain sanity by reciting Scriptures he had memorized) recited much of Mark's gospel with such sensitivity and power.

In a context of menace, with disturbing music and sound effects of fellow prisoners and guards, Lloyd scratched his head as though pushing himself to recall word-for-word the story of Jesus.  Fear was palpable but so was the reality of his story-telling.  His expression held us rapt. You really felt his joy as he retold stories of Jesus healing - his rejoicing, jumping up and down with laughter and dazzling smile connected so powerfully.  Especially because he was in a prison cell!

And you really entered the pathos.  For me, his breaking down at the death of John the Baptist tore the heart, as when we told of the betrayal and cruel suffering of Jesus.  Someone said to me today that they couldn't get out of their minds his miming of the pressing down of the crown of thorns on his head.  And what sheer wonder there was at the transfiguration and resurrection.  Actions, silences (oh how significant!) with familiar words told as story left us all in a spirit of worship.

And telling as story was key.  He told the story as a joined up narrative.  He gave us a flavour of how the first disciples (with high contemporary oral memory) told out the story of Jesus for the three decades before Mark's gospel was written.

Did he recite every verse? No. He edited out whole chapters like 10,11 and 12....and he needed to. The first chapter took such a long time I confess that I was calculating how long sixteen chapters would take.  But the necessary choices he made held the story together with integrity.  And, yes, for those who ask technical questions, he used the longer ending of Mark! 
It remains the greatest story ever told because it is about the Lord of life for today and tomorrow.  I was so grateful to hear it like this!



Friday, March 31, 2017

Back to school -Water colour class (3)

The final class this week finished with a flourish as we attempted to paint two very bright boats (orange and blue) bobbing in a harbor with dazzling reflections. 'I want you to use bright bold colours as well as washes', said our teacher.  And we tried to!

I look back over the whole experience with gratitude.  It has kick-started me into a fresh activity which propels me into a very different zone from academics and sermon writing.   Earlier I mentioned some of the advice he has given us beginners and this has been added to through the classes:
-  Make sure your initial sketch is sound - nothing will compensate for a poor drawing.
-  Simplify, simplify, simplify.....always look for the bigger picture.
-  Stop before you think you're done.  Avoid dangers of over-painting!
-  Don't go back when its partially dried.
- When you paint wet on wet - let it paint itself.
-  Balancing tones is essential for distance and contrasts.
-  Be bold not fussy!

There's good stuff here if I remember to practice it and I guess I will continue some painting now the class as finished.  A friend visited and mentioned she had seen a documentary which analyzed three groups of retired people in order to monitor what most helped them most to keep healthy in body, mind and spirit. One group went on a diet, another took to the gym and the third did life-drawing.  Apparently, the last group won hands down with positive outcomes all round.  I still think that belonging to a lively loving church community with all that means will come out best but I am sure a spot of creativity adds spice!

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Not too bad!


I promised to give an honest report about whether dabbling with paints compensated for not taking my laptop on my seaside break!  Since the weather turned very wet and cold with ferocious hail on our last day my ambition to wander out with sketchbook in hand and sun on my face was seriously sabotaged.  However, I managed to paint some harbour scenes in Minehead with opportunities to experiment with sea, waves, reflections and boats.

Overall the experience was a happy one though I made a discovery that applied to every picture I attempted.  Each time there was some element that pleased me.  Some tones, details, adjoining colours seemed to hum. It wasn't necessarily a large percentage of the paper but it made me feel my night classes have been worthwhile.  However,  each time there was also some element that greatly displeased me - tones or colours turned rather ugly or details jarred.  Of course I never wanted this to happen especially if it began sweetly.....yet it kept happening!  It  reminded me forcibly of life in general with flies too regularly in the ointment (and what an odd expression that is!) But, maybe as I keep practicing the displeasing parts will become less.  That applies to Christian practice too!

I go to my last watercolour class next week. It's definitely opened up another way of spending my time..... and trying not to waste it!

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Severing a cord.

It has dawned on me that something is happening for the first time in seventeen years.  Carol and I are preparing for a few days' break, seeing family, friends and spending time on the Somerset coast.  In the usual order of packing one of the first items on the list has always been my laptop.  Always this has accompanied me so that I could snatch writing time to keep up with some deadline or other.  It has accompanied me as though attached by umbilical cord.  But NOT this time!  I realize with a jolt (and some pleasure) that there is no pressing writing commitment for the first time in recent memory.  Of course I could be doing some serious stuff but I don't need to.

Instead I am packing some paints and pastels in hopes that my recent art classes have inspired me enough to spend my time in worthwhile activity!  I know my long-retired friends will tell me that I should not be surprised at such a turn of events....that this is what retirement is all about.  However, its occurrence has suddenly crept up on me as I leave my laptop behind. It really is a wrench. I look forward to seeing what a difference it makes.

This does not mean some serious stuff does not lie ahead and I recognize that I truly enjoy the challenge of writing and speaking commitments to come.  But it will be interesting to reflect on how much I really can enjoy scribbling and washes instead.  Of course, it depends somewhat on the quality of the scribbling and washes!  I shall seek to make honest report on my return.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Still life apples

On Saturday I attempted another burst of creativity.  I participated in a three-hour workshop using pastels (at a different community college).  We were told to wear old clothes and that all necessary materials would be supplied.

Many years ago I used wax crayons for quick holiday sketches but was always disappointed by their anaemic appearance.  I wanted to see if I could overcome past experience.  Beforehand I mentioned to Carol that it was likely we would begin with a still life - like an apple.  Well, of course, having been introduced to the two contrasting mediums of chalk pastels and oil pastels we were each given an apple to draw!  Yes!  Mine was very green with a little blush of red - a rather poor specimen.  However, I set about drawing it with both kinds of pastels and was surprised by the different possibilities.

Why did we need to wear old clothes?  It became apparent as we moved on to more complex subjects that the prime method of using chalk pastels is to smudge colours with your fingers.  Within a short time you can gain very subtle shades while fingers turn disgustingly dirty.  Actually it reminded me of going down a S. Wales coalmine and discovering that everything I touched turned grimy.  I have to say the finished results were very different from my watercolour class and, in their way, quite encouraging.  One of the delights was to find that I was sitting next to one of the older ladies in the church we belong to who turned out to have quite a knack.  Yet another opportunity seized by retired and semi-retired tryers!  

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Bone chilling half marathon

No, it wasn't me!   My days of marathon running are long gone but today my son Simon ran the Cambridge half-marathon again.  With two of my grandchildren we went to give support which turned out to be much more of a sacrificial effort than I expected.  Arriving (as requested) an hour before the race began we froze in heavy rain while floating on mud.  9000 competitors with supporters were trying to keep warm and/or joining immense queues for the portaloos.  It was a sea of misery with a loudspeaker exhorting competitors to stay alive and focused.  Eventually, as the mass of runners took off we tramped to the first agreed cheering point - sheltering in a shop entrance until the last moment when we burst out to cheer Simon on.

Desperately we broke away from the crowds to secure hot chocolates which brought feeling back to fingers and toes.  Then we set off for the next cheering point some two-thirds along the course on a crowded Trinity Street.  We realized that we were at least half an hour early for Simon as elite runners shot by but, with the surrounding crowds, we began to get into the spirit of the occasion.

Each runner had their name printed clearly on their vests under their numbers.  We began to shout out specific encouragement by name.  I felt particularly drawn to those who looked close to collapse and a rousing shout: 'Tom, keep going, you're doing well!'   'Susan, well done...keep going' etc. brought not only actual smiles but visible spurts of energy.  I particularly cheered every Michael, Simon, and Robert with loud partiality.   Runners were also high-fiving spectators if they were brave enough to hold out their hands.  Anton nearly lost his right hand as an enthusiastic runner took a swipe;  after that he was noticeably subdued.

Simon said that it really helped him knowing that we would be at three agreed cheering points, including the final stretch.  Over the loudspeaker, which broadcast commentary as people passed the finishing line, came the words: 'And here comes Simon with his face wracked with pain!'  He completed the 13.1 miles in 2 hours 10 minutes!   We rejoiced with him, going back for roast beef and a hot shower (at separate times!)

It obvious to see this an illustration of the race of faith with the cloud of witnesses cheering us on (Hebrews 12:1, 2) and the thought of being encouraged by name is truly cheering as we run with endurance, isn't it?



Friday, February 24, 2017

Back to School - Water Colour Class (2)

Half-term break last week brought us half-way through the course. One or two friends have asked me how I am doing and hinted they would like to see some early evidence.  I have firmly resisted, for a predictable mixture of reasons:

Realism prods me to acknowledge how unsatisfactory my early daubs are.  There are flashes where some elements seem to work together but they are often undone by clumsy brushwork and tone elsewhere in the picture. One time you achieve a passable sky with realistic clouds...but the next time its patently unrealistic.

Pride is obviously at work.....who wants to have viewers who, while showing compassion, are so clearly trying to find something positive as they struggle to give affirmation.   As the class teacher said of my first effort: 'I can see what you were trying to do!'  At least that was some crumb of comfort but it was a crumb!
Hope stirs me to look ahead with yearning that I will improve so that I can meet at least some of my expectations by the end.  Who knows?

One of you commented that I am obviously a man of many parts.  Let me honestly reply that I am yet to be persuaded that this is one of them!   But I shall go on....

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Grave disappointment

In December I mentioned a preaching tour spectacular scheduled for May 2017.  Four of us were to form a preaching team for conferences in Manila, Taipei and Seoul...all within two weeks.  Hearing that arrangements were developing full steam ahead with a deadline for materials at the end of February 2017 I pressed on eagerly and these last few weeks I have (mostly) written my address for translation.  Imagine my delight when talking with the Boston tour operator she then organized my first (business class) airline ticket to the Philippines from Heathrow.  It was becoming real.

However.....imagine my disappointment when I heard last week that the whole trip was cancelled!  Oh no!  An email shared the sad news without explanation though, of course, with much apology.  The US administrator said he was distressed by the news too.  Apparently I need to send him my address which may be published and I have to stand by because a conference opportunity in the US may open up in 2018.  But I cannot disguise my disappointment.

In the interests of full disclosure I also need to mention that Carol is exhilarated by this news.  Though expressing some sympathy for me she has never concealed her worries about me going off to foreign places without her.  Every piece of disturbing news about the three countries to be visited has reinforced her concerns and (though she is coy about admitting it)  I am pretty sure that she has been praying the trip would be cancelled!  For my own protection, of course. As one of my  friends said: 'Well, you know about the powerful prayers of a righteous person!'

Saturday, February 11, 2017

80 years young

We recently attended a 80th birthday celebration for a friend we have known for the last thirty years.  About 50 people gathered in a restaurant to enjoy the occasion and we were delighted to greet several other guests we know well and be introduced to several more.   After the meal a cake was produced and our friend made a short speech.


She thanked us all for coming and then said three things:
     I am unhappy that I am so doubled up that I now have to use sticks to walk (her arthritis is serious);
     I am very unhappy that my husband is not here. He died 10 years ago and I miss him terribly;
     BUT for the last 65 years Jesus Christ has been with me every step of the way.  I have to tell you that his friendship is the most important part of my life. He is the same yesterday, today and forever.
It was a very short speech but it expressed so clearly and honestly just how she felt on her big day.


It was a timely reminder as ageing so often brings poor health and bereavement that the relationship with Christ cannot be broken - the same yesterday, today and forever.  Gratefully, I left the meal with that conviction ringing in my ears.  There's no substitute for live testimony like that!

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Back to School - Watercolour Class (1)

The last four weeks I have been back to school - actually a nearby Community College - which boasts a variety of adult classes.  Though I greatly enjoyed painting in the past (that's forty plus years ago) I have never learned to use water colours.  When I saw this class posted for beginners and those with a little experience I signed up, albeit with many questions.  You know the kind!  Who will be there, who will teach and how, what will happen in ten weeks?  Ten of us started out and it seems to have settled down to around 7 or 8 - evenly divided between men and women with the average age knocked down by a younger couple.

So what happened?  I have been intrigued by how the teacher has worked with our disparate group.  First, he has gone for boldness and confidence.  He poured scorn on little brushes, small paper, and detail of any kind. "We are not maiden aunts with our little paint pads doing miniatures!' he said.  He demanded that we buy quarter imperial paper, big brushes (12 or 14 for those who know about these things!) and that we begin with big vistas and large brush-strokes.

Second, he focuses on simplicity.  He recommends three colours are all we need: cadmium yellow, cobalt blue and cadmium red.  The rest is down to mixing with basic rules of eye-level, horizon, near, middle and far distances and concentration on tone.  It's tone that matters he keeps saying!

Third, he models from the front.  Sending out details about the next picture before each class he then encourages us to paint along with him.  As he slaps the paint on at the front (and at times it just seems a slap) he distributes little gems such as the need to preserve the white paper and the changes of tone to give three dimensions.  As we follow, he walks round, to give personal encouragement, advice and sometimes rescues a problem!  Rarely does anyone lose enthusiasm!

Four, he makes plenty of room for mystery.  At the outset he explained that because water colouring works with water  there is always some uncontrollability about what may happen next.  With experience you can build expectation but you never quite know.

I know I shall have a couple of reflections as the class progresses but the class agrees that he is a good teacher....and it's much to do with these four aspects.  I cannot help thinking about implications for those of us engaged in Christian teaching.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

A recording device (2)

As a follow-up to Rob's oral history I should also mention his other recording exercise. At the end of their visit in 2015 he managed to compile a series of thoughts from all the family members (except us!) as they reflected on their time in England.  Well edited, it combined humorous and off-beat comments combined with several poignant and heart-felt words.  Listening to it reduced Carol to tears!

This time he produced another masterpiece.  Recorded during our final Chinese takeaway meal it began with rapid fire interviews with somewhat eccentric responses asking how family members chose to eat their Chinese. I am not sure we needed to know some of the enthusiasms!  But then Rob asked for their thoughts on all that had happened at Christmas with Nanny and Grampy!  One by one our children and grand-children spoke with seriousness and kindness.  Elliot (10 years old) said: ' I like that Nanny always plans ahead and prepares everything so carefully. When she told us that she had made the beds in the house we were staying it made me feel so welcome to England.' (What an insightful lad!)  Our daughter-in-laws both commented on Carol's gift of hospitality.  One of them said:' I love it when we come into the house and everything is so clean and ordered and right from the beginning we can relax.' Several other comments are too personal and it would be self-serving to report them (!) but you can guess how much we treasure this recording.

It reinforced the value of stopping to reflect and thank. This is not easy. Too often our busyness pushes us into the next thing without pausing for breath.  But when we consciously stop in order to be grateful and, better still, express those thanks - to God and to each other - we share in experiencing more the 'now' and live a little more deeply.  In 2017 we don't need a recording device to act on this.

Monday, January 9, 2017

A recording device (1)

After all the family happenings of these last few days so much merits reflection.  My son Rob, who is an associate professor of media studies (radio) at William Paterson University NJ, announced that he had packed his digital recorder in order to begin an oral history of his parents!  Though he stated this intention early in the visit it was only on the last day (actually within the last few hours) that he set up the impressive machine together with its heavy boom microphone fixed on a lightweight tripod.  I think both Carol and I were a little nervous and perplexed.  How on earth do you describe your past life in 45 minutes.  Actually, we only managed the first ten years.

A couple of things happened:
- As to the question How? - it all depended on sharp questions intelligently asked and sensitively followed up. He really is a good interviewer.  The time passed very quickly as we gave it our best shot.  Carol's birth story, her non-adoption giveaway, her frugal home and upbringing.  Living in the same house until she was married, she recalled early years playing with friends in the street, going to school, and special memories of her mother.  In contrast, I spelled out my early years in London, followed by idyllic times in Faringdon, Berkshire with village life spilling over with  'Darling Buds of May' stuff (H.E. Bates rosily pictured the Larkin family in the 1950's) followed by brutal experiences in S. Oxford school, followed by a move to Gloucester....all before the age of nine.  Surprising memories tumbled out. Really vivid.

- Rob expressed such amazement in hearing about us both. At the end he kept saying: 'I never knew that....I just never knew that!' Of course, why would he?  I realize how I never sat down to ask my parents to tell me something of their stories.  I really wish I had!
I don't know when we shall next tell some life-stories but it was deeply rewarding for us to look back with gratitude for all that God has given us and how he has led us.  How important it is to listen to others stories! And to tell them!
 

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Welcome 2017

Just a line to greet you as the year has turned.  I guess optimists face 2017 optimistically and pessimists pessimistically with many of us probably wanting to identify as centrist realists.  For me, one expression has jumped out from Zechariah 9:12 (NLT)
Return to your fortress,
O you prisoners of hope;
even now I announce that I will restore twice as much to you.


Prisoners of hope!  Christians are in the extraordinarily paradoxical situation of being caught up, trapped, in God's bigger kingdom purpose which does not remove the troubles, grief and despair of the human condition (which sadly continues in this fallen world) but which empowers cosmic conviction that 'Our God Reigns!'

Omid Safi sums it up well in his blog 'On Being':
Hope is powerful. Hope is different. It is more, much more, than mere optimism.
Optimism is ultimately about optics, about how we see the world. It’s about seeing the glass half-full.
Hope is different. Hope is a cosmic quality. Hope is rooted in faith, with feet mired in suffering. Hope is a heart in agony that yearns for liberation.
Hope is tied not to how we see the world, but to the faith we have in how the world actually is and will be.
Hope is not about seeing the world, but about the heart behind the eye, the soul that sees.
Hope is not a choice. Hope is not optics. Hope is not mere politics. We are wrapped up in hope. Caught up in hope. Imprisoned in hope.
Return to your fortress,
O you prisoners of hope.

We hope in the moral goodness of the universe. We hope in the goodness of God. We hope in the victory of good over evil.
Welcome 2017!