Thursday, 31 January 2008

Giving it up for Lent

I've never been too sure about Lent. It's probably because of the common association with "giving something up for Lent". Usually the 'something' is a self-indulgent luxury like chocolate or alcohol or tobacco... you get the idea.

I don't recall ever giving anything up. It's not due to a lack of willpower, just that I don't see any point.

But this year, I'm going to try something. I'm going to fast throughout Lent. Not a food fast (as those who know me would already have guessed!).
No, I'm going to join in with Tearfund's Carbon Fast. While I think that I'm quite aware of my impact on the environment, it'll be a good way to look at various aspects of my lifestyle and see how it really stacks up. It'll also be a good way of recognising the effect that climate change has on the poorest people on the planet - and thinking about the justice agenda associated with that.

Wednesday, 30 January 2008

We still love ...

Unusually for me, I was moved almost to tears by a news story today - full version over at Auntie Beeb.

Short version - man with schizophrenia kills his father, despite doctors knowing about the voices in his head.
Why the "almost tears"?

Firstly, there seems to be a reasonable case for saying that this tragedy could have been avoided. Inevitably we all make mistakes/ poor judgements, fortunately for most of us they don't lead to loss of life. What must the consultant(s) be going through? They need our prayers.

Secondly, Gary (the son) is going to need a lot of care for a long time - while he is ill, and especially as/if he gets better and realises the enormity of his actions. He needs our prayers.

Thirdly, his mother's reaction is a model for all of us. She said:
"It's been a horrific tragedy for us all, but as a family we still love Gary and we are all standing by him and hope that one day he will get better."

Pray for Mrs Ward and her family.

Tuesday, 29 January 2008

The answers always ...

I heard a song on the radio tonight (The Joyful Kilmarnock Blues by The Proclaimers), which contains the fantoosh lyrics:

The question doesn't matter
The answers always "Aye"
The best view of all
Is where the land meets the sky

I see two problems with this quotation:

1 - my answer is more often "Aye, right!" (meaning "No!")

2 - in this beautiful land of ours there are places where the land doesn't meet the sky - flood water meets the sky.

Well, at least I can do something about one of those issues!

Monday, 28 January 2008

I asked for wonder

“I did not ask for success; I asked for wonder. And You gave it to me.”

These are the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel. I’ve been coming across his stuff quite a bit recently – in a book I’ve been reading about the Sabbath (more of that later), and also over at Living Wittily.

Today his words seem to be particularly appropriate – I’ve been considering and reflecting about the way that I observe and respond to the world around me. In recent weeks, I’ve been noticing things more keenly, and responding to them in different ways – photos, daft drawings, bits of poetry, and even some painting!

I’ve commented on aspects of this in some of my recent blogs – it’s like a kind of re-awakening of things that have lain dormant for a long time. Fish Wife was commenting on it the other day, with reference to some of my activities when I was at university – over twenty years ago.

Tonight, I started to read an anthology of Heschel’s material and I came across the quotation below, and it seemed to fit with what I was thinking and feeling. I am aware that much of this is of no interest to anyone except me – so call me self-indulgent – but it helps to write it down!

“We can never sneer at the stars, mock the dawn or scoff at the totality of being. Supreme grandeur evokes unhesitating, unflinching awe. Away from the immense, cloistered in our own concepts, we may scorn and revile everything. But standing between earth and sky, we are silenced by the sight.”

Saturday, 26 January 2008

That magical moment

I realised this morning that I was very 'out of touch' with the garden. It's been pretty wet and miserable here recently, and I haven't been spending any time noticing what's happening, never mind doing anything productive in the garden.

Today as I went to the garage for something I was stopped in my tracks as I spotted the "February Gold" daffodils growing strongly, and getting ready for their annual show. (February is a bit of a misnomer - they don't flower until early March here, although they do stand for a long time.)

Later on I spotted it - the first snowdrop in bloom! I grabbed my camera and squelched across the green bit that we call a lawn.

The first snowdrop. For me this is the sign of the start of the gardening year. I love snowdrops - they seem so frail, yet they are so strong; so vulnerable, yet so reliable. They seem to have an elegance and a purity that is unique. They speak to me of hope and resilience and faithfulness.

Not bad for a wee white flow'r! The magnificence of God's creation!

Friday, 25 January 2008

Friday photo - Arran in winter

Thursday, 24 January 2008

Ayrshire connections

(Not George Burley - from Cumnock - although I think he'll be a decent manager for Scotland!)

Tomorrow is Burns Night and I'll be wading up to my be-kilted knees in haggis and tartan at a Burns Supper. The austere side of me (there's another side? - I hear you say) doesn't really approve of Burns Suppers. I don't think Burns would have done all that tartan stuff, however, it's a charity fund-raiser and an 'obligation' thing from work. So I'll go and have a good time (I hope!).

Anyway, I love Burns. Like me he's an Ayrshire lad. I have always found his poetry evocative and moving and full of passion. He did us a great favour, in my opinion, by collating and saving hundreds of traditional songs.

In recent times, Eddi Reader has recorded a lot of Burns songs, and I have really enjoyed her approach. She was brought up in the same town as me, so I guess that she 'gets' Burns as well. The video below is Eddi singing 'Ae Fond Kiss'.

Why 'Ae Fond Kiss'? Well, it's a fine song, which she sings well. But there's another Ayrshire connection for me. The song is about the ending of one of Burns' affairs, with a woman named Nancy. That's my mum's name, so this one's for my mum.

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

What a difference a day makes!

Typical of the East coast of Scotland. From yesterday's magnificent sunrise to today's gloomy mizzle (mixture of mist and drizzle). I couldn't even see the houses that I wrote about yesterday.

And yet ... there is something to learn from days like today. There is a stillness that seems to pervade everything - even the birds seem quieter, muffled, subdued.

In our human frailty we find it hard to be inspired on a day like today - when you can barely see 100 yards. Maybe we need to find ways of looking for the positives on days such as these. Yesterday, the majesty of creation was awesome; today, was a time to be still and know.

And I'm sure I spotted a tiny chink of sunlight on the horizon as I drove into Arbroath.

When I walk in his mists
he will guide me
if I learn how to trust
in his ways

When I walk in his mists
he will guide me

if I learn to tune in
to his voice

When I walk in his mists
he will guide me

if my life in his hands
I will place

When I walk in his mists
he will guide me.

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

sunrise reflections

The sunrise was beautiful this morning. As I started my drive to work, there was the promise of something in the clouds - the leaden grey was breached by faint hints of gold. Then yellow stripes imposed themselves on the reluctant gloom. The grey adopted a blue tone as the glory unveiled itself. Soon the sun burst above the horizon fiery red, imposing itself on the reluctant Angus coastline.


And I didn't have my camera! Again! Hence the flowery description above.

Actually the real joy of this morning's sunrise was in the reflections. As the sun broke through, I was driving past a row of newly constructed houses on a hill, facing the sunrise. Every window in the street was glowing red. It was breathtaking (and I'm sure that's isn't said very often about these houses!). The view from inside must have been truly awe-inspiring.

I've attempted to recreate the effect below. I know it's 'a bit basic', and applying the label 'art' to this post is bordering on the farcical, but ... I blame 'Lucy' for making me even think about doing that... actually I should thank her for stimulating thoughts that have long lain dormant.

Monday, 21 January 2008

Church will eat itself… I hope!

Last week I caught the end of “Pop Britannia – Two Tribes” on BBC Four. It was a documentary looking at the “struggle between the forces of art and commerce” in British pop music over the last 30 years. You know the kind of thing –

Stock, Aitken, Waterman versus Blur
X-Factor or Arctic Monkeys

It was well presented and quite uplifting to recall how the radical edge has always re-surfaced to challenge the production line approach. Towards the end the presenter comments:

“British pop always eats itself and creates something totally new.”

Hence the title for this entry.

For a long time now, I’ve been frustrated by the ‘production line’ approach to church services. The same basic formula week in, week out. Where is the innovation? The pulsating, creative response to our Creator God? John Drane wrote a book called ‘The McDonaldization of the Church’ and I fear that’s exactly where we’ve reached.

Time to take a fresh look, try some new approaches, different emphases.

Why do we limit our worship for a limitless God?

Friday, 18 January 2008

Friday photo - living in community

Thursday, 17 January 2008

Extreme Pilgrim concludes (again)

I finished yesterday's blog entry with a question - The question is how do we maintain the spiritual dimension in our lives – short of trekking half-way around the globe and doing headstands in a thong?

I have two answers, or approaches, to suggest.

Mark Sanborn has posted a blog about Space and Place to Think. I think that this offers a clue - find a place and space to be with God. It doesn't have to be a Himalayan mountain-top, but it should be somewhere meaningful for you. Find it, and then go there regularly.

The second suggestion is to do it regularly - for me connected to Sabbath (again). David Adam talks of his belief in recital theology (in Power Lines). I am thinking of it as repetition within a pattern. The point is to establish a regular habit and stick with it. Don't wait for a spiritual crisis, make it part of your weekly. It should become natural in time - and fit in with other commitments.

Does it have to be any more complicated than that?

Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Extreme Pilgrim concludes

The BBC’s Extreme Pilgrim reaches its conclusion this week – or does it?

The series will end on Friday night, but will Peter Owen-Jones reach any conclusions or find any satisfactory answers on his quest to find a spiritual dimension to his faith? I hope he does – primarily so that we can all learn from his adventure. I’ve also warmed to him over the course of the first two instalments, and I hope that he finds some answers for himself.

Before the series does conclude I thought I’d share my thoughts so far – based on what we’ve been shown. First of all, as PO-J has relaxed and retreated from (Western) society, he has found more peace and seems more at ease. This seems to point toward a need to slow down and step back from the hurly-burly of every day life. This fits with some of my own developing thinking about establishing Sabbath practices as an integral part of our lives.

Secondly, PO-J’s progress has also been linked to his involvement in small communities - in the mountain-top Buddhist monastery and in the Indian village in the foothills of the Himalayas. The lessons here seem to be that we do not exist in isolation, and certainly few of us will not find a spiritual dimension in completely retreating from the world.
The question is how do we maintain the spiritual dimension in our lives – short of trekking half-way around the globe and doing headstands in a thong?

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

The Incarnate God

After yesterday's rant I wanted to post something a bit different.

I'm currently reading John V Taylor's "The Incarnate God" (which I may blog about later - when I've finished it). In the meantime, I thought I'd post this.

In the preface to one of the section there's a prayer that Taylor used as a daily dedication. I like it; I hope you do too.

Lord Jesus Christ
alive and at large in the world,
help me to follow and find you there today,
in the places where I work,
meet people,
spend money,
and make plans.

Take me as a disciple of your Kingdom,
to see through your eyes,
and hear the questions you are asking,
to welcome all others with trust and truth,
and to change the things that contradict God's love,
by the power of the cross,
and the freedom of your Spirit.

Monday, 14 January 2008

Learning from mistakes - or not!

OK - spot the connection:

Peter Hain
Wee Wendy Alexander
George Osborne...

Aye - politicos who are in hot water over donations to their various activities.

Why can't they learn? They're not the first ones to fall foul of the rules about declaring income. Remember Henry McLeish?

It doesn't inspire confidence when the people entursted with governing the country can't follow rules - which they have been involved in drawing up!

But I think there's a deeper, moral question in all of this. What do they need the money for?

How did Peter Hain spend more than £100,000 on an internal party campaign to be Deputy Leader? Why did Wee Wendy need any money at all - she was elected unopposed! Does George Osborne have an explanantion (proper explanantion, not feeble excuse) for half a million pounds to run the shadow Treasury?

Has any of this money be used wisely? Or has it simply been used for self-indulgence - or worse?
And don't get me started on the obscene sums being spent on Presidential candidacy campaigns across the pond!!

Sunday, 13 January 2008

Cool classics

I’ve just discovered My Classic FM. You can choose from a range of music streams – smooth classics, opera, baroque etc – to suit your mood. Then you can rate individual composers and pieces of music, so that the music played is tailored to your preferences. You can even ban some music altogether.

Of course, you can still listen to Classic FM in its traditional format – for a slightly more random selection.

Is this another example of Web 2.0? Now if only we could get our broadband connection sorted out to give us more reliable performance!

Saturday, 12 January 2008

Network Rail ... has a silver lining!

I drove down to Ayrshire to visit my parents today. I would have travelled by train (as I was going on my own – it’s a bit more environmentally friendly, and would give me 4 hours of reading/ thinking time). However, Network Rail continue their outstanding (as in outstandingly bad!) record of never finishing a job when their supposed to. This meant that the normal 2 hour train journey would have taken about 1.5 days with 14 changes of station, trains and buses. Aye, I know I’m stretching a point, but I’m grumpy so I feel entitled to exaggerate.

Actually, they did me at least two favours. The drive down was beautiful. It was a cold, crisp morning, and the countryside was awesome. See Lins Honeyman’s blog for some photos. While I would have been able to see most of this from the train, I would have missed the view that I got of Arran as I approached Irvine today. The snow-capped hill tops rising above a layer of cloud at sea level was fantastic.

Secondly, on the way home this afternoon I was listening to the fitba’ on the radio, and enjoying the commentary on Hearts v Motherwell. Anyway, after the game had finished I hit a radio black spot. I scanned to see what stations I could pick up – nothing at all first time round. Second time around I got a signal from (BBC) Radio 3, It must be more than 20 years since I listened to Radio 3 and I would normally have just switched it off. But they were playing a version of Blue Skies by the Benny Goodman band. This is the music that my Dad loves – and used to play in his dance band days. So I listened on, thoroughly enjoyed it, and am listening to it again as I write this. (I must remember to tell Dad about the programme - Jazz Record Requests, Radio 3, 17:30-18:30 on Saturdays).

So thanks to Network Rail for these two happy accidents – but next time can you please fix the railways when you’re supposed to??!!!

Friday, 11 January 2008

Thursday, 10 January 2008

DIY exhibition

I came across this today and think it's a great idea. Basically - the community creates the exhibition by bringing their photos. Then watch it grow.
It's simple, but could be incredibly effective. I don't know if it's been done before (probably), but it could be done anywhere. I hope they keep a photo-record of the blank wall as it fills up with ... er .. photos!

Wednesday, 9 January 2008

City hall came calling

His Girl Friday's recent post reminded me of the music of Capercaillie, and particularly of one of my favourite songs. It's called Outlaws (see lyrics below).

It's a beautiful song, beautifully sung by Karen Matheson. And that would be enough for it to qualify as a favourite.

But there's more to the song for me. I really feel an emotional tug whenever I hear it. It seems to me to be very Scottish in nature, conjuring up images of clearances and declining primary industries, but I guess that the picture is more universal than parochial.

The line "Till city hall came calling... " haunts and challenges me. As someone who works in 'city hall', it reminds me that behind the policies and reports and performance information there are real lives - affected by what I do and say. It's easy to forget sitting behind the bureaucratic desk, but I need to be reminded regularly!

She stands at the window
Proud Mary, bad news
Demands from the credit
And the sheriff's men too
The wife of a fishermen no longer at sea
She can always find him where whisky flows free
She never called it poverty, the doorstep was clean

Till city hall came calling to show what it means

Have you seen it before
The names of good women and men
Decreed by the sword and the pen
To be outlaws all over again.

The names in the churchyard are long overgrown
Still she came kneeling with flowers of her own
They're watching you Mary
In hard times afraid
As counsel finds guilty
For charges unpaid
And even as the last hope is labelled and sold
We're all for one, Mary
Outlawed for gold.

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

Resolutions and character

"Character is the ability to follow through on a resolution after the enthusiasm with which the resolution was made has passed."
Brian Tracy

Monday, 7 January 2008

Extreme wholeness

More thoughts about Extreme Pilgrim and the spiritual dimension to faith in the West.

“Our job is not to figure out the how. The how will show up out of commitment and belief in the what.”
Jack Canfield

I’ve been using the ethos of this quotation all over the place recently – and probably driving people crazy in the process – because I firmly believe that we are prone to jumping straight to the ‘how’, rather than identifying clearly what the ‘what’ is.

Applying this to the Extreme Pilgrim – or at least my interest in it – Peter Owen-Jones is looking at some of the ‘hows’, but what is the ‘what’? On reflection, the ‘what’ is not about the spiritual dimension as such. The ‘what’ is the search for wholeness and balance. If we only focus on the spirit, we will inevitably neglect something else (body or mind). I think this is where we end up when we pull back from the extreme of Extreme Pilgrim (and I’ll be interested to see where P O-J ends up).

We can think of wholeness in a variety of ways:
- Mind/body/ spirit
- Creative/ productive
- Prayer/reflection/ study/ application
- Life/ work/church
- etc, etc, etc

The point with any of these combinations is to find the right balance. This doesn’t mean equal portions, and the balance will vary for each of us.

The dissatisfaction with the spiritual dimension that I’ve been speaking about recently, is a consequence of losing the balance. Of giving too much emphasis to other dimension (mainly the mind in my view).

If we commit to finding our own balances, then we might find the ‘how’ that we need.

One final thought – look at the balance in Jesus life on earth. He spent time in prayer (spirit); teaching (mind); and healing (body). He also rested and enjoyed the company of others. An all-round balanced life. Dare we aspire to this?

Sunday, 6 January 2008

Following the extreme pilgrim

Have we lost the spiritual dimension to Christianity in the West?

To a large extent I believe that we have – or at least we have diminished the importance of it. Maybe this is due to the post-Reformation fear of ‘mumbo jumbo’ – so the focus was moved from feeling to knowing. Then as a result of the Enlightenment, knowledge and rational thinking became a dominant theory in church life. More recently we have perhaps emphasised the aspect of the ‘personal salvation decision’, rather than developing a relationship with God.

I realise that all of these points are contestable, but it seems to me that they fit a picture of Western, Protestant Christianity that I recognise.

So what if the analysis above is correct? What do we need to do about it?

Well, I came across a publisher blurb for a book on Henri Nouwen, which talked about “… escaping the tyranny of busyness, choosing to live in ways that, moment by moment, remind us of who we are – the beloved of God.” I like that!

The key to any solution (if a solution is needed), is to recognise and define the problem, then carefully consider what it is that is trying to be fixed. I suggest that this is not a quick fix or extreme makeover of the sort you see on TV. Rather it’s about adapting and adjusting our approach and building a more balanced perspective.

More to follow … but in the meantime a quotation from an Indian philosopher to think about:

“A cup is useful only when it is empty; and a mind that is filled with beliefs, with dogmas, with assertions, with quotations is really an uncreative mind.”
Jiddu Krishnamurti

Saturday, 5 January 2008

Extreme pilgrim

I stumbled across this programme last night on BBC2 - you can watch it online for the next few days using BBC’s iPlayer. In my opinion it’s worth watching, although you may need to stick with it for a while. I didn’t find the first bit particularly endearing, but was quite captivated by the end!

Initially my interest was at a fairly superficial level. I had a degree of empathy with a middle-aged, unfit man entering a month of martial arts training. However, as the programme proceeded, I began to see some resonance with the spiritual quest that he was on. In his view, the church has become too intellectual, with not enough spirituality. In his words:

"What I'm looking for is a spirituality that is absent from western Christianity. A spirituality I know exists in the extremes of world religions.

I hope to enter worlds where rule book and doctrine are replaced by an individual relationship with God and where the attainment of enlightenment is won by hardship, privation and pain. I have to become an extreme pilgrim."

I certainly agree with the first part of his statement.

Yesterday, I also came across a blog entry talking about Konrad Lorenz and his view that man has lost the capacity to be reflective.

These two discoveries have certainly caused me to pause and reflect a bit.

Have we – in the Western, Protestant churches – lost the spiritual dimension to our faith? Have we intellectualized and neutralized our relationship with God? Do we view the spiritual aspect with suspicion?

Am I personally guilty of this?

Over the next few days I will reflect on these and provide some of my own thoughts here. Feel free to join the debate.

Friday, 4 January 2008

Friday photo - Approaching Epiphany?

Thursday, 3 January 2008

Winter's low tide

For all sorts of reasons, that I can’t go into here, I’ve been reminded today of a prayer from David Adam’s "Tides and Seasons" collection. In the introduction to the low tide section, where the prayer is included, Adam writes:

“The low tide is the winter of our lives; it is a time of bareness and death. Yet it is also a time of strange beauty, a time of purity – and purifying. In winter we see things that we have never seen before. Our vision on clear days seems lengthened – we can see past the trees, because the foliage is gone. On the shore, low tide can be an interesting time…”

The prayer is called Caim Rune:

This is the prayer
I make today
This is the rune
I wish to say
The presence of God
To you abound
The Power of God
Keep you sound
The Love of God
Encircle round
The Peace of God
Your life surround
This is the rune
I wish to say
This is the prayer
I make today.

In the Father’s way
In the Son’s bright ray
In the Spirit’s sway
Be this day

In the Father’s sight
In the Son’s light
In the Spirit’s might
Be this night

Wednesday, 2 January 2008

Heart start

“A stubborn heart is a dangerous, dangerous condition.”

A while back I listened to a podcast sermon by Mike Breaux from Willow Creek. In it he highlights the fact that we will do a variety of things to keep our physical heart healthy – eat oatmeal, run on a treadmill, watch our cholesterol intake. This struck a chord at the time as I try to do all of these things. It also seems to resonate with the significant surge in gym attendance during the month of January, as various resolutions are implemented. (Things usually quieten down again by mid-February as the enthusiastic burst fades into mere good intentions.)

But Breaux asks a more pertinent question: What is the real condition of your heart? Is it soft, compassionate, teachable, gracious and grateful?

Now that is worth reflecting on at the start of the year and resolving to make any necessary changes.

Tuesday, 1 January 2008

New Year traditions

I don’t really do the traditional Scottish things at New Year any more – the bells, whisky, black bun, first-footing etc. Probably due to the excesses of my youth when I over-indulged in most of these (I don’t really like black bun!).

Nowadays, life is more sedate at this time of year, but we have developed some things that are now family traditions, which seems to me to be a better way to celebrate the start of a new year.

These traditions are about what happens on the 1st of January – during the normal waking day, not around midnight and the wee sma’ hours.

I always do some gardening – whatever the weather! Sometimes it’s no more than walking around the garden, looking at what I’d like to tackle in the year ahead. One year I started to cut down a tree – and quickly realised that it was completely beyond my skills and tools, so a professional was called in to finish the job. Today, I tidied up a bit in the greenhouse. It’s not much, but it’s a good way to start the year.

We also watch the New Year’s Day concert from Vienna. This dates back to when I lived with my parents – it was always a regular feature. My parents still watch it too, so phone calls are arranged around the starting time. It remains an ambition of mine to spend New Year in Vienna, and go to the concert live. Maybe one day …

We always try to go for a family walk – although the rain put paid to that today! The photo was taken by the Fish Wife a couple of years ago on our New Year walk at the North Inch in Perth.

Finally, over the past few years I have cooked a curry. This is a tradition that we will definitely continue. Sometimes we invite friends around to share it with us – sometimes we don’t. Today it was just the three of us, and we cooked our own chapattis for the first time. Good fun, and largely successful.

Happy New Year – however you celebrate it.