Monday, December 31, 2007

More bad news

After the rioting following on the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan, it is the turn of Kenya to explode into political violence. I was in Kenya in 2002 just before the elections that brought the current government to power and those were tense times but nothing like the scenes that are being reported now in the wake of the presidential elections. In 2005, when I was last there it seemed to be a country that was relatively-speaking at peace with itself.
It is strange to see such violent events breaking out in places that you recognise and which at the time you visited them seemed relatively 'normal,' albeit poverty-stricken, but I suppose violence can erupt in any situation and that the outward veneer of civilisation is pretty thin no matter where you are in the world.
The saddest thing is that the current violence in Kenya seems once again to be based on tribal allegiances, artificially papered over by the processes of colonisation in previous generations.
There is a deep human need to feel that you belong to something bigger than yourself or your immediate family, but when passions run high and one tribe feels threatened by another (whatever the context) the impulse to violence seems hard to contain.
But a sense of belonging to a group need not always be something harmful.
The sense of belonging engendered by a football club is tribal in its own way and, sadly, can sometimes generate its own brand of divisive and destructive behaviour, but as recent days at Motherwell FC have shown a sense of belonging may also provide a positive source of mutual comfort in times of tragedy.
One of the greatest tragedies of all in human behaviour is when groups/tribes/nations/religions/denominations or whatever feel that they can only establish their own sense of identity in opposition to others rather than basing it on something positive.
Let's hope and pray that the violent end to 2007 may not be continued into 2008.
I wish you all a peaceful and blessed New Year.

Well missed


As a Motherwell fan, I am still trying to come to terms with the sudden death on Saturday of our club captain, Phil O'Donnell. Because I was conducting a wedding I didn't get to go to the match which, before the tragedy of Phil's death, had been shaping up to be one of the best of the season. Most of the rest of my family were at the game, however, and I couldn't believe it when I received a text from one of my daughters telling me what had happened.
All the things being said about Phil O'Donnell being such a good man as well as a good footballer are true and he was truly respected at the club. We will all miss "Uncle Phil" and our thoughts and prayers are with his wife Eileen and the family at this time.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Blue skies... nothing but blue skies


You may have been wondering why a "Schmap" reference to Florence recently appeared in the sidebar of this blog. It's just vanity on my part, really, mingled with a bit of yearning for the clear blue skies of Italy in late summer.
'Schmap' (whoever they are) found the above picture of the Old Bridge in Florence (Ponte Vecchio) on my Flickr page and asked for permission to include it in their online guide to the city.
I was happy to oblige - though I would be even happier had they offered me a free trip to Florence to write an article for them about the city.
Sadly, no such offer was forthcoming, so in the meantime I will have to content myself with journeys in the memory and imagination.
However, back in the real world, yesterday I conducted a funeral: tomorrow it will be a wedding. Yesterday it was more or less dry but cloudy, cold and very windy. Today the rain is pouring down and the only word capable of describing the day is the Scots word "dreich." Tomorrow we hope for better weather- though there is a distinct possibility of snow. There's more than one way to have a white wedding, you know!
As we head towards a New Year we might well long for 'nothing but blue skies' but you can virtually guarantee that even if there are some bright and cheery days ahead there will also be some darker days.
We need something more reliable than the weather to hold on to, as the following lines suggest. (You may know them well.)

I said to the man
who stood at the gate of the year,
'Give me a light that I may tread safely
into the unknown.'
And he replied ,
'Go out into the darkness
and put your hand into the hand of God.
That shall be to you
better than light
and safer than a known way!'
So I went forth
and finding the Hand of God,
trod gladly into the night .
And he led me towards the hills
and the breaking of day in the lone East.


Minnie Louise Harkins 1875-1957


Monday, December 24, 2007

It's time..

some of our heavenly host of little angels

How can the totally predictable take you by surprise?
I don't know - but it happens.
Every year, without fail, Christmas comes around on the 25th December. (No movable feast here.) And yet... every year (no matter how often I promise myself 'this year I will be ready on time') ...it sneaks up on me like my cat pouncing on an unsuspecting mouse.

So, once again, at the very last minute, I am putting the final touches to the Christmas Eve Watchnight Service.

Now, when am I going to get round to preparing the Christmas Day Service….? Ooops.

But, we’ll get there. We always do. Just like Christmas.

Yesterday, was our All Age Christmas Celebration. The central part of it consisted of a short follow-up to the pantomime we put on at the start of the year (Jack and the Beans Talk.) This short sequel was entitled “Zack and the Herald Angels Sing.”

It went brilliantly well—probably because I had virtually nothing at all to do with it.

Probably most of my regular readers have far too many much more important things to do than to be reading this blog before Christmas, but I just wanted to wish everyone a VERY HAPPY CHRISTMAS whenever you read it.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Don't look up now

I heard in the news yesterday that very soon visitors to Rosslyn Chapel are not going to be allowed to take photographs inside the building any more.
And the reason?...
... wait for this...
Too many people, apparently, have been trying to take pictures of the ceiling and have been falling over, or tripping on the uneven stone floor!!
So it's a Health & Safety issue!
It begs the question, should people who fall over when they look up even be allowed out of doors by themselves?
Frankly, when I heard the piece, I was beginning to wonder if it was April Fools' Day, or that I was listening to a sketch from a Monty Python Show.
But - no - you couldn't make up something like this.
Does anyone else think that 'Health & Safety' issues are sometimes taken just a bit too far?
In my opinion, most people don't look up often enough! They don't marvel at the stars, or the rising moon, or the glories of a sunset, or the flight of birds.
In these pre-Christmas shopping days it's 'heads down and keep moving' - don't pause even for a moment to look up at some of the magnificent buildings in our cities, or even to lift up your heads enough to look your fellow shoppers in the eye.
One of the things I like about the Christmas stories as you find them in the New Testament (without all the additional ingredients that over the years have grown on to the stories like barnacles on the hull of a ship) is their honesty in admitting that very, very few people actually noticed anything special about that night, or that baby. Just a handful of shepherd and a few wise men.
And what did they have in common?
Only that they were in the habit of regularly looking up at the sky.
So they were the ones who saw stars and who heard angels sing.
On that first Christmas time God looked down so that we could look up.
Lift up your heads.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Doing a good turn

Video

Travel by public transport...

.... it's good for the environment...

..... if not for the nerves!

Land of hope and...

Video

This is not (repeat NOT) a member of the New Scottish Orchestra. Nor is it myself in disguise!
The amount of processing power and programming required to enable this robot to 'play the violin' is amazing, but I don't think Maxim Vengerov has anything to worry about yet: it will be a long time before robots, no matter how well programmed, will ever produce anything like real music.

Monday, December 03, 2007

In at the deep end


The first time I visited SeaWorld in Florida was in 1975. One of the highlights of that particular theme park at the time was the performance of "Shamu the Killer Whale." (Shamu never actually killed anyone but he/she did manage to soak more than a few people; the naive and the adventurous who sat in the front rows.) I don't know how many Shamus SeaWorld will have "employed" over these last 30 or more years but as far as I know Shamu is a still a big attraction.
OK - I know... you're wondering... why the photoshopped picture of my fiddle when I'm talking about killer whales? But I'm coming to that. Eventually. And it has nothing to do with being naive or adventurous.
No... wait a minute... it has everything to do with being both naive and adventurous. But I will come to that in a moment.
Before I do, let me tell you why I thought the Shamu performance was so good. It had nothing to do with the whale, as it turns out.
When we arrived at the open air "Shamu" arena, with its gigantic whale pool, we were greeted by a SeaWorld employee who ushered us towards the seating area. Those who were already in their seats, or on the "bleachers" if you prefer, were laughing loudly and enthusiastically. We had no idea why, as the show hadn't started. In fact it was a total mystery...
.... until we had taken our seats and could look down on the next group of people to enter the area. Like ourselves they were met by the "usher" who pointed the way to the seating areas.
But this "usher" was in fact an expert mime artist who, within a few split seconds, was able to sum up something distinctive about the way that a person walked or gestured. As the 'usher' pointed out the way ahead he would step behind the unsuspecting stooges and mime hilarious caricatures of them. I tell you, he was a master.
And now to the point...
.... on Saturday I had the amazing privilege of playing with the New Scottish Orchestra for their annual Christmas Concert. It was a fantastic experience, even though the first time I saw any of the music was at the one and only rehearsal in the afternoon, and even though I had somehow been placed in the first violins, and even though most of the music was in five or six flats and even though some of the pieces had all sorts of 'impossible' runs and arpeggios in them, and ... well, let's just say, too many notes!!! (I'm only talking about myself, by the way, most of the players around me seemed to be doing fine.)
Anyway... this is where Shamu came to mind. For I found myself from time to time doing a little bit of expert miming and caricaturing, even occasionally 'playing' the violin with the bow about half an inch above the strings!! I did a passable impersonation of a violinist. Don't tell anyone now.
Seriously, though, in spite of the occasional difficulties of my sight reading, it was a marvellous evening. One of the soloists in particular had a fantastic voice, the baritone, Terence Ayebare. If he doesn't make a big name for himself in the classical music scene in the near future I will want to know why - although, to be fair, Terence Ayebare is a pretty big name already.

That's what I call laid back



Someone I know pretty well may have had a hand in this little production. Someone else I know (though perhaps not quite so well) had a jaw in it!

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Lift up your heads

When I have more time I may reflect on my (very enjoyable) experience of playing with the New Scottish Orchestra, but in the meantime I'll just share with you the words of another new hymn I wrote for today's service. (First Sunday in Advent)
We sang it to the tune of Stuart Townend's hymn "In Christ Alone." I hope he won't mind that we didn't ask his permission first, but I had to use a tune which I knew our congregation was familiar with and enjoyed singing.

Lift up your heads

Lift up your heads,Lift up your hearts
Out of the darkness will come light.
Lift up your voice in joyful praise
Sing for the breaking of the night.
In those who yearn for God’s new day
His hope will burn eternally,
for Christ will come, his light will shine
into our world in God’s own time.

Lift up your heads in patient hope.
Wait for the day when tears will end;
injustices will be no more;
hearts that are broken love will mend.
The day of truth will dawn at last;
God will transform all that is past;
for Christ will come, his light will shine
into our world in God’s own time.

Lift up your heads. Lift up your hearts.
God’s Holy Spirit is outpoured
as he fulfils his promises
here at the table of our Lord.
He comes among us in his love,
a foretaste of the feast above.
So Christ will come. His light will shine
into our lives in God’s own time.

(c) 2007, Iain D. Cunningham

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

One more step along the world we go...

I am not exactly sure how many weddings I have conducted in the last 28 years but it is probably somewhere around 700. I've never been asked to be a "Best Man" (when it came to my brother's wedding I was the minister again) and I've never been asked to be a bridesmaid (thankfully.)
But soon I will have a new role... as father-of-the-bride!
(It might yet be a dual role but that is still to be decided.)
Our eldest daughter, Linsay, is now engaged to be married.
Exciting times ahead.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Old dog: new tricks

'my' fiddle... "photoshopped" a little

Well - last week was... interesting.
Although it sounds a bit like the title of a well-known movie, I conducted three funerals, one wedding and four baptisms. Not all on the same day- thankfully.
You get occasional weeks like that, when everything seems to happen all at once. It can be quite draining, but there can be few other 'occupations' where you are privileged to come alongside people at their most joyful and most sorrowful times. As a certain 'newspaper' used to say "All human life is here."
But this is precisely how it should be since any faith that is worth holding must surely touch every area of life.
This week is already another busy one, and with three services to prepare for Sunday coming it's not likely to ease off much. But I am looking forward to a little oasis on Saturday. I can't really say it will be an oasis of relaxation, as I will be playing with the New Scottish Orchestra for the first time and I will probably be more than a little bit nervous. Details of the "gig" can be found here.
OK - it's the NSO and not the SNO - but I'm still pretty pleased to have this opportunity.
It takes me back to a time over 20 years ago when I was playing trumpet in a praise band and sitting beside a very good violinist. I remember saying to her how I had never really enjoyed playing the trumpet; it was just that this was the only instrument that my school could provide so that I could take advantage of free tuition.
"What I've always wanted to play," I said, "is the violin."
"Why don't you?" she answered.
"Well I'm a bit old to start learning now, am I not?"
And she went on to tell me the story of her aunt who had begun learning to play the violin at the age of 60 and had gone on to become a regular member of The Huddersfield Symphony Orchestra. She only gave up going onstage with them in her mid-80's because she felt she looked too old among the rest of the players.
So I made a decision there and then then that if I ever got the chance to get hold of a violin I would 'have a go.'
I was 42 years old when that opportunity came along and a friend lent me the Scottish Fiddle you see above, and I began learning to play it. I know my limitations of course and not having had any proper classical training I am never going to be invited to play in anything other than an amateur group but that doesn't matter to me. The important thing is realising that you never too old to try something new. (Although in my case I draw the line at skiing and sky-diving.)

Thursday, November 22, 2007

UK PULLS OUT OF EUROPE...!!


No, it has nothing to do with a referendum on the European Constitution!!
I'm talking about the Euro 2008 tournament in which none of the 'home nations' will now participate, since both England and Northern Ireland crashed out last night, joining Scotland in the 'also-rans' after Saturday.
Of all the British teams, however, I think Scotland has emerged as the least disappointing and the least disappointed. After all we exceeded most people's expectations and climbed steadily up the FIFA rankings. Maybe it is time our southern neighbours dropped the old saying "England Expects..." since it is usually a precursor to 'England Disappoints.'
I'm reminded of the story Jesus once told about a dinner party and how some guests pushed their way up to the best seats only to be told to get to the back of the queue while those who were a little bit more humble in their approach were actually invited up to the top table to their surprise and delight.
It's not a totally accurate analogy, however, since none of the 'home nations' even got past the bouncers on the door!
It makes the forthcoming World Cup draw pretty interesting though...

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Hymn for the persecuted church


[Photo: inside the prisons of the Doge's Palace in Venice]

I am sure a number of people who used to regularly read this blog have now given up on it entirely. I haven't managed to write much at all in the last few weeks. My only excuse is that I have been pretty busy lately with my real job.
This week alone I have three funerals, a wedding and (on Sunday coming) four baptisms.
All the same, I do have a little something to share with anyone who might have the slightest interest.
Last Sunday was the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. I spent some time searching for a suitable hymn but I couldn't find anything that really fitted. So I decided to write one myself. This is it - set to the tune "Passion Chorale."

HYMN FOR THE PERSECUTED CHURCH

We bring before you, Jesus, the ones who bear your name—
our sisters and our brothers, oppressed and put to shame.
In times of persecution, when faith is sorely tried,
give courage through the knowledge that you are by their side.

Help us to share the burden and show us how to care
through faithful interceding for all who need our prayer;
that we may stand together with all who suffer loss,
those who in faith and courage have taken up Your cross.

If we should face oppression because we are your own,
may we find strength in knowing that we are not alone;
and should we find ourselves with a bitter cross to bear,
may we find hope and comfort through someone else’s prayer.

(c) Iain D. Cunningham, 2007

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Bubble-wrapped


She is a strange one, our Tess!
Like most cats she has no owner, but she does have a household full of servants who will get up and open doors for her or make sure that her bowl has sufficient food in it. She is also pretty smart in other ways. We have trained her to sit on a box in the kitchen to tell us when she wants food, or wants more food. One of my daughters has decided that the next step must be to teach her to speak but I am a little bit sceptical of this possibility.
Often Tess can be incredibly affectionate, and loves nothing better than to curl up in your lap and sleep. Again like most cats, she can make herself unbelievably cute, inviting you to stroke and caress her. She purrs like the most expensive Rolls Royce.
But all of that can turn in an instant. When her eyes change colour and she takes on her 'scary look', you just better get out of the way because she is likely to want to sink her claws or teeth, or both, into any exposed flesh she can find.
Those are the times when she becomes "Psycho-Cat."
She was a rescued stray kitten whom we adopted from the local Cat and Dog Home some years ago. I reckon she was probably badly-treated and even abused as a kitten and occasionally (often for no obvious reason) she reverts to this almost feral behaviour because she suddenly feels insecure.
Fear and insecurity are often the real source of aggression - and not just in cats.

Today Tess was pretty unsettled for some reason and, as she often does, jumped up on to my desk. (This is an action which usually involves a complicated dance sequence over the computer keyboard, with typically annoying consequences.) But instead of settling down as she would normally do, among books and papers, and anything else that might be cluttering up the desk at any given time (and there is always lots of that!) she just jumped back down again.
Eventually she found a box of laser printer cartridges and managed to make an opening through which to squeeze her way inside. After a few brief, green-eyed, glances she curled up and promptly went to sleep.
I reckon the problem was that this morning there were near-gale-force winds outside and she just wanted to find somewhere safe to hide from the storm until it blew over.
I can understand that- though often the storms I want to hide from are not the meteorological ones.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Painted Veil


My camera has been having a bit of a rest lately - which also means I've had nothing to say on the blog for nearly two weeks!
Well, on the basis that a picture is worth a thousand words I would have had to have written an awful lot of words to make up for the lack of pictures. In fact the two real reasons for not writing much lately are
1. I've had nothing to say (I know... it hasn't stopped me before)
2. I've been pretty busy doing some real work, including three funerals in a week. (It happens like this some times)
I did have some time on Monday, however, to watch a movie on DVD - "The Painted Veil."
I really enjoyed it and would enthusiastically recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good story well told. (It's the third film version of the story by W. Somerset Maugham.)
I enjoyed it mainly because of the sumptious cinematography that captures magnificently both beauty and ugliness, but also because of excellent performances from Naomi Watts and Edward Norton (pictured above.)
One of my favourite lines in the movie, however, is delivered by Diana Rigg, playing the part of a nun. She says: "When love and duty are one, then grace is within you."
In these days when plot and action and special effects seem to be the all important ingredients there are far too few films that take the time to show character development and even transformation. But this is one of the few.
If you haven't seen it yet - take a trip to the video library. It's worth a look.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Morning reflections


Well - no surprises last night then! Georgia 2 - Scotland 0.
I had a bad feeling about it. I kind of knew we would revert to type.
Still - all we have to do now is beat Italy....
Should be easy don't you think?
After all they are only the world champions.
Never mind - we couldn't lose out to a better country.
I'll console myself with this classic view of San Giorgio Maggiore...
Oh no - 'San Giorgio Maggiore' ...sounds like the Italian for "Isn't Georgia bigger and better?"
(OK - I know what it really means before you start correcting me.)

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The big question


The big question!!
No - not 'what is the meaning of life?' but 'Can Scotland do it tonight?'
Can we beat Georgia in the Euro qualifier?
One thing seems almost certain - if we don't make it to the finals it will only be because Scotland has an incredible knack of finding new ways to only just miss out or to fall at the last hurdle. But, maybe tonight... followed by a win or draw against Italy....

Monday, October 15, 2007

Gotcha


One of the things I like about Italy is the status of the Italian waiter. Serving others at table is an honourable profession, and not thought of as some menial task, or some sort of stop-gap employment to be done by out of work actors or students or immigrant workers who can't get any other kind of employment. As a consequence they take the job seriously and everything is done with a flourish.
I liked these two guys who work at 'Antico Capon' in Campo Santa Margharita. I remembered both of them from previous visits to Venice. Naturally, they were never going to remember me among the thousands of customers they serve.
I've forgotten their names already, but the one on the right is the one who actually waited on us at the table. The one on the left had a different job altogether and it was fun watching him do it. His job was to get people to decide to stop at 'Antico Capon' for a meal. When we came along he didn't have to work at all as we were already planning to eat there anyway but it was great fun just to watch him go about his business using every possible trick in the book to get folks' attention and draw them in. Enthusiastic, smiling, sometimes loud, there was never the slightest hint of embarrassment on his part, and he never got upset when any of his invitations were rejected. He was clearly trying to guess from a distance what nationality passers-by might be so that he could choose his language accordingly. If he didn't know, he just said 'hello' in every language he could think of.
He was trying to reel people in like an angler, and in fact he was able to 'land' most of those who paused even for a moment to take the initial bait, although one or two got away. We had great fun trying to predict who would and who would not take the bait.
As I watched him working the passing crowd, I wondered if this is this is the kind of thing that Jesus meant when he told Simon Peter he was going to make him a fisher of men?

Friday, October 12, 2007

Wings to fly


In the so-called Piazetta of St. Mark's Square, Venice, near the water's edge stand two tall Byzantine granite pillars. On top of one you will see the figure of St. Theodore, the first patron saint of the city, proudly holding his shield and spear. On top of the other is the winged lion of St. Mark, which you find all over the city, and on the Venetian flag.
And on top of that...
... at least for a moment or two the other week...
there stood a proud gull.
I don't know how much thinking seagulls ever do, but I can imagine this one thinking.
As it first looked upwards to the golden winged angel on top of the campanile, then down at the winged lion on whose back it stood...
"Your wings may look more impressive than mine, but I can actually fly you know!"
Something to think about.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Grounded

If you want to see loads of Italian Renaissance Art, Venice is one of the places to go. The place is overflowing with it, or almost sinking under the weight of it, to vary the overstated metaphor.
Never mind the art galleries: every church has its Bellini, Titian or Tintoretto (usually several, in fact.) After a while it can get a bit much.
For some relief from all of this overwhelmingly religious imagery, you can call in at the late Peggy Guggenheim's house (just don't make the mistake of ordering anything in the tearoom/cafe there - it will cost you the price of a small painting, if and when it finally arrives, and it won't be worth eating anyway!! -You can see we had a bad experience there.)
It is, of course, a museum displaying some of Peggy Guggenheim's amazing collection of modern art - very different in style and subject matter from all of the Renaissance stuff...
OR...
you can find 'art' in the streets.
I'm not sure whether this object pictured above could really be considered as a work of art or simply as a political 'flyer.' It is certainly preaching an environmentalist message and it is a stark reminder to all the tourists and visitors like myself who arrive in Venice by air, that we may be leaving some rather large (size 12+) carbon footprints for the sake of a short break.
Well, it made me think.
But, will it make me change my behaviour?
Does any preaching do that?

One thing is certain: the crate above is not going to get off the ground any time soon. It is going nowhere. And that's the problem with the environmental issue too. We need to find new ways of fuelling transport because the long term answer cannot be for us all to stay in our own little corners.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Daft hands



Talking about creativity and original ideas, what about this for an original idea?
Bizarre, but genius all the same. (Thanks to my daughter for pointing me to this video.)

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Abstract reflections


I've said it before - there's a sense in which the camera always lies. That is - a photograph is not reality itself: it is merely a creative interpretation of one aspect of that reality, a freezing still of a moment in time. This is, in itself, a distortion of reality; for we do not experience life as separate, or even separable, static moments: it is a moving continuum, like a river.
However, distortion is not the same as deceit, for it is possible sometimes to capture just the right moment which expresses the essence of a place, or a time, or an event, or (and this is much harder to do) of a person. In this sense it is, like bending palm leaves into 'locusts,' an act of creative transformation.
Water provides the photographer with some of the best opportunities for doing this, precisely because it is usually something moving. You can vary the exposure time to make reflections in water look like molten metal or smudged paint. Depending on how far you take it you can even create almost totally abstract patterns. The picture above doesn't quite go that far, but it is almost there.
What people sometimes fail to realise is that words are often just as much distortions (or at least interpretations) of reality as pictures. When we do take this into account we are much less likely to be arrogantly dogmatic in believing we have grasped the whole truth of anything.

A play of locusts?

The creativity, inventiveness and sheer skill of human beings never cease to amaze me.
Where do people get their ideas from?

I once watched two young boys in a little Greek village take an old metal container and, with nothing more than a couple of large stones, transform it into a boat which they could float on the water and play with. A toy out of almost nothing.

The picture above was snapped hurriedly last week in Venice as we passed this group of Chinese people transforming palm leaves into 'locusts' with just a few deft and well-practised twists and folds. They looked to me as if they could have made these things with their eyes closed.
Amazing.

Reach for the moon

Another picture from Venice...
On the basis of the old saying - that's another thousand words...

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Keeping in touch

I know... I haven't blogged anything for ages.
But I have a good excuse, or at least an explanation. I spent last week in one of my favourite places in all the world (outside Scotland that is) - namely Venice. It was a treat for my second youngest daughter who recently graduated and who had not, until then, ever seen Venice, or any other part of Italy.
I've blogged before about why I find this place so special, particularly when it comes to taking photographs. It is always good, however, to see even the most familiar of places through the eyes of someone who has never seen the place before. (It was also good for me that Ailsa, like myself, enjoys a good espresso!!)
One of the things I like most about Venice, and which, in many respects sets it apart from so many other cities of the world, is that on one level it never seems to change. Not many new buildings here.
And yet... it is always different. The shifting light reflecting on the water sees to that. And there is always some little back alley that you haven't been lost in before.
In addition, because in some ways the backdrop stays more or less the same, you can pay more attention to the little details.
If you look closely at the photo above you might just spot one of those details...
No?
Take a closer look at the gondolier.
He is not just resting his chin on his hand: he is talking on his mobile phone. Nothing unusual about that these days, I suppose, but there is a certain incongruity between this ubiquitous 21st century accessory and the 18th century mode of transport, not to mention his outfit.
The only time I've seen something like this yet even more incongruous was in the Masai Mara when I spotted a Masia nomadic herdsman walking barefoot with his cattle in traditional Masia dress with a mobile phone clipped on to his belt. Unfortunately I didn't have my camera at the ready that time.
How did we ever manage in the old days without our mobile phones?

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Don't look down


What sort of situation might provoke in you an urge to pray?
Perhaps a scene of natural majestic beauty - like this seascape, photographed on Islay earlier this year?
Or perhaps a situation of danger?
Let me tell you another of my true stories from the dark side of employment pre-Health & Safety Executive days.
This particular event happened early on in my roofing 'career.'
As I said before, I started that summer job with a very definite phobia about heights.
(It's no use telling me that choosing a job as a roofer was probably not the best option for someone like me: the truth of the matter is that it was all that was available at the time and it is amazing what some people will do for a little bit of cash!! Especially students.)
Anyway, I arrived at the site of our first assignment - a set of factory roofs in East Kilbride.
These were called 'nest factories' but this description had nothing to do with any avian housebuilding activities. I think it had something to do with most of the companies being 'fledgling' companies, but maybe I'm making that one up.
At any rate the one good thing about this being our first job was that the roofs of these particular factories were not too high. A mere 30 feet or so. A good place for an acrophobic* student to begin. [*look it up if you don't know what it means]
There was one drawback, however.
Although the roofs were only about 30 feet off the ground... the ladder we used to access it was a bit less than 30 feet. It meant that to get on to the roof you had to climb to the second top rung of the ladder then reach up to grab the flashing on the wall-head and pull yourself up the last three or four feet. When I saw one of the existing workers engaging in this particular acrobatic feat while simultaneously holding a large propane gas cylinder on his shoulder, I began to contemplate taking a vow of poverty for the summer. But I couldn't escape very easily and soon it was my turn to attempt to get onto the roof. It felt as if my stomach got up there before the rest of me but by concentrating hard and not looking down I managed it.
Well, this was to become a several-times-a-day routine over the next couple of weeks and eventually (to my own amazement) I too could be seen quickly shinning up that wallhead from the top of the ladder while carrying all sorts of objects, like buckets and brushes and compressor hoses... and, yes, even a propane gas cylinder. But I didn't ever dare look down.
Now, the 'regular' workers knew that we were all students but, as far as I was aware, they had no idea what subjects any of us were studying. (For a lot of the time neither had we, but that's another story!)
We were a diverse foursome in this respect.
Electronics. Chemistry. Law.. and, of course, in my case... Theology.
But nobody knew... I thought.
Then, one day, the foreman (a rough, red-faced Glaswegian by the name of Ronnie) was holding the foot of the ladder on which I was climbing. His job was to make sure the ladder did not slip. I was carrying something in my hand at the time. I think it was a bucket.
I was almost at the top of the ladder and therefore reaching up to take hold of the wallhead with my free hand when suddenly the ladder started to fall back away from the wall into a vertical position. Involuntarily, I looked down!! Almost 30 feet below me Ronnie was pulling the ladder backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards, while I clung desperately to the top of it like some sort of performing monkey.
And from down below I heard Ronnie's voice bellow out in mocking Glaswegian tones "Aw right then, Reverend, let's hear ye saying yer prayers noo!! Ha! Ha!"
He didn't hear me...
but -believe me- he had certainly provoked within me an urge to pray!

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Worth waiting for


Some things are worth waiting for.
No - I am not talking about our uninvited arachnids! I am referring to our new local restaurant, Prego.
Some time ago I wrote about Prego in Lanark as one of our favourite eating places, and I was looking forward to the opening of a 'sister' restaurant here in Carluke. It should have been ready for business in late April/early May but various snags and delays in the construction meant that it only opened this week. However, as I said, some things are worth waiting for, and yesterday I was at Prego, Carluke, for the first time...
...and the second time.
I had lunch... then dinner.
The restaurant is decorated in the same style as the Lanark one. The main difference is one of size and space. There is room to breathe as well as eat in Carluke!!
The food is of the same quality, which is great. Last night I had the 'special' for the main course - large fillets of grilled halibut on a bed of fennel and a souffle of asparagus and ginger. Mmmm...
Definitely worth waiting for.
Vital though they are, decor and food are only part of the eating out experience. It's the attitude of staff that for me decides whether I will return another time. And I am happy to report that Prego in Carluke is every bit as welcoming as Prego in Lanark - because many of the staff from Lanark now work in Carluke.
We have been in some eating places where as customers/clients we got the impression that we were a necessary inconvenience. The staff knew vaguely that we had to be there for some reason but apparently wished we weren't.
And then there are places like Prego (too few of them) where you are made to feel "this is your place; you belong here, and we are here to make your stay enjoyable."
Sadly, you find the same variations of welcome in churches.
The other week someone told me about a visit their family had made to a church while on holiday. It was quite a big church but with very, very few worshippers. And so, almost all of the seats/pews were empty. The visiting family had a wide choice available to them and chose a row near but not quite at the back. Just as the service was about to begin someone entered the sanctuary and uttered the time-honoured words of Christian welcome: "Excuse me - that's my seat you're sitting in!"
You couldn't make this stuff up.
Sadly, you don't have to.
Here at Kirkton we try to make our church like Prego's...
...except for the food.
(although Crossroads cafe on a Monday and The Coffee Club on a Tuesday are a good start.)

Friday, September 21, 2007

Through a glass darkly...

Recently I have been called upon to evict a number of unwanted house-guests from our home.

Usually I am summoned by an urgent cri de coeur from my wife, who loves these uninvited guests every bit as much as I love heights (if not more.) [See previous posts.]

Personally, I find these guests rather fascinating.

However, I am usually obliged to dispose of them as rapidly as possible. I usually try to do so without causing any unnecessary injury, and for this purpose I normally make use of a glass and a piece of card or strong paper.

Occasionally, though, my aim or my timing may be a little bit out, and this can result in an unintentional amputation, which is distressing for me - not to say for the victim. But most of the time I succeed in capturing the intruders alive and am able to show them the door.

I am beginning to suspect, however, that some of them simply turn around and re-enter by some other secret way. Either that, or they have very large families.


Having spiders appear in our house is nothing unusual, but lately these unwanted visitors seem to be exceptionally huge.

I just caught this one this evening.



To give you some idea of scale, the glass is 7.4cm in diameter (almost 3 inches.)
Its body was about the size of a wasp.
Definitely super-sized!
I think there must be an obesity problem among arachnids as well as among humans!

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Tales from the dark side


I began my 'tales from the rooftops' at the top - that is, from the highest roof that I actually worked on. Being pretty scared of heights, I'm glad it wasn't the first roof that I actually had to climb on to, but neither was this escapade (in spite of the fire) the most dangerous of all the roofing exploits that we 'got up to' (so to speak.)
A week or so before the Bowaters incident, we were dispatched to a rather gruesome old building in Rutherglen which housed one of the British Ropes factories. We never did get to see inside the building, nor can anyone now, as the building was long ago demolished. This is one reason why the photograph above is not of the building in question.
The picture is, instead, of the oldest house in Glasgow, the so-called Provand's Lordship. (I visited it again recently with our Korean guests.) This particular building dates from the 15th century, so I am sure that if its stones could speak they would have many an interesting tale to tell, and most of them more interesting than mine.
However, I uploaded the photograph for two reasons:
one, because I like the picture, taken from the vantage point of the St. Mungo Museum of Religious Life on the other side of the road,
and, two, because it may help you to imagine the building I am about to describe and whose roof I was sent to work on.
The British Ropes Factory was an ugly building whose slate roof was roughly 80 feet high (that's more than 25 metres by the way) - probably high enough to reach terminal velocity if you should slip from it. And there was nothing at the edge of the roof to prevent this from happening should you begin to slide. We, expendable students, with absolutely no training on how to walk on roofs, and with absolutely no safety equipment to anchor us to the roof (something which would now be required by the Health & Safety Executive) had to trust in our own sense of balance and good luck.
Where the roof of the the British Ropes factory differed from the roof you see above is that along its length were large "roof lights" (i.e. windows.) They were rather crucial to the activities going on in the factory below as they were virtually the only source of daylight. But there was a problem. Around the edges of all of these roof lights were strips of lead, or at least there had been until thieves had stripped the strips of lead from the roof. (In those days you could get a good price for second-hand lead.) It meant, of course, that whenever it rained the windows now leaked and the rain dripped on to the factory floor 80 feet below. Not pleasant for those trying to make ropes for a living.
Although the lead had been replaced more than once, this had just provided additional supplies to the lead thieves, who were happy to return and repeat the process as often as they could.
So, we were called in.
Our mission?
... to paint non-drying, anti-vandal paint in a one-metre strip all around every roof light. I guess the theory was that if a lead thief were to step on that one-metre strip he would immediately slip... and the roof lead would be safe... though it is unlikely that he would be. Of course, as this anti-vandal paint gathers dust it becomes pretty much invisible, hence making the trap all the more effective.
Can you believe this stuff??
I'm not sure who the bigger criminals were - the lead thieves, or those trying to stop them.
Anyway, we simply had to do what we were told, which meant being especially careful not to put a put a foot on any of the non-drying paint that we had already laid down. A bit scary, even if I had not been afraid of heights in the first place.
We worked away, each of us with a bucket of paint in one hand and a long-handled brush in the other. It took us about a week to complete the job. Then we went on to the Bowaters job.
While we were working on the paper factory roof the weather was especially warm - and that was before the fire. What we didn't realise was that back in Rutherglen our beautifully painted window-surrounds had begun to melt with the heat of the sun, and this tarry-black non-drying paint had started to run down the glass and give to the roof lights a less-than-attractive brown tint. In fact the amount of daylight reaching the factory floor had been cut by 50%!!
So we were sent back - this time with buckets of diesel oil and long-handled brushes- to wash off the non-drying paint.
And, this time, it took two weeks.
To risk your life doing something that is totally futile and meaningless... ah! those were the days.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Up, up on the roof

During our visit to New Lanark with our Korean guests, I noticed that a new feature was being installed - a garden, on the roof of Mill 3. Quite an impressive sight, even though it is still under construction and probably won't be ready for another month or so.
To see it, of course, required us to go up onto the roof, and for that purpose a very convenient elevator was available.
It took me back a few years.
Right back to 1974, in fact.
I was a student then. I had just completed an Arts degree and was about to begin my Theology degree. I needed a summer job, especially as my father had died the year before, but work of all kinds was in short supply that year.
In the end the only employment I could get for the summer was with a "roofing" company. (The inverted commas are necessary to indicate that this "company" was of the Western variety. i.e. they were pretty much cowboy builders!!)
Now, I think it's worth observing that since I have always been pretty scared of heights, it seemed to me to be a rather a cruel irony that this was the only job open to me for the summer. It's amazing what you'll do for a wee bit of cash, mind you.
It is also worth pointing out, to those who may not know about these things, that The Health and Safety Executive had not come into being at the time I started the job. I have no doubt that it was precisely because of the kind of work practices that I enjoyed (sorry... endured) that the HSE was invented.
Anyway, I was reminiscing about some of these experiences on Saturday evening when I was the guest speaker for our local Baptist Church's Anniversary weekend. I was asked to think of something light-hearted to talk about after the Saturday evening meal, and this is what I came up with.
I can laugh about these experiences now but I'm not sure how much I laughed about them at the time. I'm also pretty sure I was pretty much unaware at the time of just how dangerous were some of the exploits we got up to.
I'll share a few of them with you in due course.
The highest roof I had to work on was more than 100 feet above ground level. (I still don't know how I managed to do it.) It was the Bowaters paper factory near Yorkhill Quay.
I remember it was pretty sunny that week and we (the roofers) were working on the roof alongside some glaziers.
You could certainly see for miles in all directions.

"Hey, come and have a look at this!" cried someone, and we all went nearer to the roof edge to see what he had spotted. It was a couple of fire engines racing down the Great Western Road, lights flashing and sirens blaring.
Moments later we could see a few others, also converging from different directions.
"Some view you get from up here, eh?" says one guy.
"Ah wonder where they're heading for?" says another.
"Don't know, but it must be quite a big blaze when there's so many of them!"

...and then from down below, the bellowing voice:

"Get aff the roof, ya eejits! the buildin's oan fire!!"

Given that it was a paper factory, it was probably sound advice.

Some time later when we were allowed to go back up to the roof, I noticed that my jacket (which I'd left behind in the evacuation) had mysteriously 'vaporised.'
Strange that - given that the fire had never got anywhere the roof.
I always wondered if maybe some wee Glasgow glazier went home that night with a nice nearly-new jacket?

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Catch 22 and a half


Aren't computers amazing? Don't they represent a pinnacle of human technological achievement, the product, surely, of some of the greatest intellects of our time?
Doh! Not when it comes to error messages!!
I mean, who makes these things up?
Especially this one (above) which happened to my PC recently.
The only question is- should I press F1 or F2?
What do you think? :-)

An apple a day...


I don't have time to write anything today but I thought that I would post another close-up picture illustrating the richness of the natural world. (The photo of these so-called "cooking apples" on my sister-in-law's apple tree was taken in August.)
I eat an apple just about every day but I don't always stop to marvel at the simple beauty of fruit.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Consider the fuschias of the field


You don't have to believe the world was created by God to be amazed by so many of the things you see in it. (Such incredible variety and such frequent beauty.)
But you do have to be prepared sometimes to stop and take a closer look , even at the most ordinary of things.
This particular fuschia plant was in the garden at Scottish Churches House in Dunblane, but they are common enough in homes and gardens throughout Scotland. In fact, we have a huge, sprawling untidy mess of fuschia in our own garden. Together the massed flowers do make a certain impact but its when you get in close and look at each individual bloom you discover that although they are all similar, they are not identical, and each bloom is a masterpiece of asymmetrical balance and vivid colour. There are masses of them, yet they never look mass-produced. I just love Nature's extravagance in this respect.
Somehow, sneaking such a close-in look at all this variety makes me feel astonishingly rich.

PS. Remember to click on the picture to see it full size. Hope you have a good PC monitor to see it on.

Signing on the dotted line...


The picture above was taken last week at our Presbytery meeting as we signed a partnership agreement between the Presbytery of Lanark (Church of Scotland) and East Seoul Presbytery (PROK.) The two other folk in the picture are the moderators of the respective presbyteries.
I suppose it could be argued that coming to this historic agreement (the first between two presbyteries in our two countries) and reaching that moment of signing was the fundamental purpose of the visit to our presbytery of our seven Korean visitors.
However, that's not quite how I see things myself. What I mean is that, to me, the signing of the piece of paper is in itself quite meaningless: what really does matter, and what, for me, was the real purpose of the visit, was the establishing of genuine friendships that transcend our very different cultures. The signing of the agreement becomes, then, a tangible expression of the existing friendship/relationship.
It is, of course, possible to devise treaties and contracts and formal agreements on a quite impersonal level, and there are many contexts in which this is either sufficient or even preferable, but in terms of the shared community of the church, I don't think it is enough.
But now we are friends.
All we need to do now is extend the number of these friendships between us and we will have a genuine partnership.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Paris Match!

France 0 - Scotland 1

Brilliant!

Blogger not letting me upload photos at the moment but what a picture that scoreline represents!!

A tree, a bird, a fish and a bell


There are some people who seem to think that it nearly always rains in Scotland and the sun hardly ever shines. (Most of us who think this way, it has to be said, actually live in Scotland, so we know what we are talking about!)
However, it does not always rain... just nearly always.
Which means that when the sun does come out and the sky is blue it is all the more welcome, and all the more beautiful.
During the time that our Korean visitors were with us, surprisingly enough, we saw very little rain - apart from our short time on Iona. One particularly beautiful day was right at the start of the visit, when I took the group to Glasgow. Among other things, we visited the St. Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Glasgow Cathedral, a visit that was certainly enhanced by the blue sky and the gently warm sunshine.
In the Cathedral precincts are a number of attractive lamp-posts bearing the emblems of Glasgow's Coat of Arms - a tree, a bird, a fish and a bell. There's a little rhyme that accompanies these varied objects:
There's the tree that never grew,
There's the bird that never flew,
There's the fish that never swam,
There's the bell that never rang.
There are also legends attached to each of these, and to save me having to type up my version, I'll just direct you to another web-page where you can read it for yourself.
Most legends are interesting, even if they have little or no historical foundation, because they often express a view of reality, or an aspiration, or a sense of identity, or even a universal truth... and that is the point of them. Some kinds of truth are best 'explained' by not explaining them at all, rather by simply telling a story that resonates with something deep inside of us.
Jesus knew this; which is why, as far as we know, he never bothered to write a systematic theology or philosophical treatise, preferring instead to tell stories that rang true, and leaving his hearers to make the connection... or not.
I recently came across this interesting description of the power of the story in our shared human experience. See what you think of it yourself. In the meantime I'm away to try and think of some stories that I can tell at a dinner on Saturday evening. I've been invited by our local Baptist church to be their guest for their anniversary weekend, which means speaking on Saturday evening at a dinner, preaching on Sunday morning then preaching again on Sunday evening.
I think I'm going to need quite a lot of stories for that!

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Light and Shade



Well, most of our Koreans have now returned home and it is time for me to return my 'luxury Mercedes' to its home. (see pic below)

It has been an interesting, if tiring, couple of weeks.

As someone pointed out to me recently, one of the benefits of showing visitors around your country is that it encourages you to see your own familiar world through a stranger's eyes.

Well, that's my paraphrase of what this person said, because I can't remember the exact words. It's true, though. When you take on the responsibility of showing visitors around, you have to learn to notice what they might notice and also what they might not notice.

You are also, of course, expected to be able to answer all sorts of historical and geographical questions. My philosophy on these occasions is just to give a confident answer, even if I haven't got a clue. Sound authoritative. Appear to know what you are talking about. Chances are they will never remember what you said anyway, or it will get edited, re-worked or completely re-invented anyway.

How else do you think all these urban myths and historical legends first came into being? :-)

Seriously, though, it does make you aware of what you know, and even more of what you don't know, as well as what you ought to know.

It goes without saying, I suppose, that I was also very busy with the camera over these last couple of weeks. Among the many hundreds of photographs taken was the one above taken on the road to Oban (while I was not driving, I hasten to add again.)

I like it because of the brooding dark clouds and the shadows they cast contrasting strongly with the patch of bright sunlight striking the mountainsides.

Most of our lives are like this, a mixture of 'sunshine' and 'shadow.' Some people, it has to be said, do seem to have more than their fair share of dark clouds on their horizon, and some seem to breeze along in bright sunlight most of the time. There are no explanations for this and few consolations for those who have to cope with the dark times, but it does seem to me that, in the photograph at least, the clouds make the light seem all the more spectacular.


Talking of contrasts... what about that Mercedes badge and the paint job above??

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Yon bonnie banks again

Here is Loch Lomond from a different angle altogether. This picture was taken at Inveruglas, on our way home from Iona last night with our Korean guests. The light was beginning to fade and a gentle rain starting to fall, but there was great sense of calm about the loch.

That's two Friday evenings in a row I have been at Loch Lomond. How blessed is that?

But, then, there are thousands of similarly beautiful spots all around Scotland - and none of them is exactly the same two days in a row. A bit like people, I suppose.

It's the unpredictability of the natural world that makes it so fascinating to those who take the time to look carefully, and the unpredictabilityof human beings that makes relationships so challenging.

Our brains are programmed in such a way that they prefer regular patterns and routines, in order to make sense of the world around us, but there is sufficient space and flexibility in the way that we process information for us to take delight in the new or unexpected. Again, though, it requires us to stop and to notice. And when we do, we begin to make sense of the world in another way, and sense its givenness and even its Giver.

So here's another picture to stop and stare at for a few moments at the end of a day.

It was taken quite early in the morning from the window of our minibus on the road between Dunblane and Oban.

I hasten to add that on this occasion I was not the one doing the driving!

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Four wheels on my wagon...



I'm always joking that if I decide to give up ministry I'd like to work as a bus driver. Well, that boast was well and truly tested today as I took our newly-arrived Korean guests (they came last night) on a wide-ranging tour of our Presbytery. Actually since the Presbytery covers over 500 square miles the trip wasn't as wide-ranging as it might have been. And, guess what? I haven't changed my mind. I had a great time, even though the bus I was driving looked like it had been shipped out of a war zone. (Maybe I'll take a picture of it later.)

The minibus belongs to a local Scout group and has obviously seen one or two jamborees in its lifetime. But it is a Mercedes and well built and, in spite of its length, it is actually pretty easy to drive and even to park - although I haven't been too challenged on that score as yet. Wait till I take it into Glasgow tomorrow.

But today, it was a chance to underline the vast difference between the home Presbytery of our visitors (East Seoul) and our Presbytery. Seoul, of course, is a vast conurbation with a population of about 20 million all crammed into a space probably about the size of Lanark Presbytery. Maybe even less. Here, on the other hand, there are more sheep than people. So it's a bit of a contrast.

In the background of the picture above is one of our older churches, St. Mary's in Biggar. This particular building dates from 1565, I think, and replaced an earlier one built in 1164. Apparently, however, there has been some sort of church on this site since the very earliest days of Christianity in Scotland, perhaps as far back as AD500 or 600. Amazing to think that Christian worship has been going on in that spot for so many hundreds of years.

History and memory are precious gifts but they can never be more important than an appreciation of the present moment, or even the anticipation of the future. Having a past is good (usually) but living in it is not. I'm happy to believe that as we establish this international relationship between a small part of rural Scotland and a small part of urban South Korea we are building something useful for the future.

In the immediate future, however, what I have to concern myself about is getting the bus through our driveway gates. There is only about one inch to spare on either side! ... now maybe I should think about a change of career...

Monday, August 27, 2007

N.E.


I think I have just about recovered from the "Nexus Experience." I'm not sure what that phrase might mean to those who attended the exhibition, the seminars, the children's 'praise party' or the evening worship, but for those of us on the organising side, it meant being on your feet for a very long time, over several days (which is not something that my dodgy back enjoys too much.) And, of course, by the end of the week "the Nexus Experience" = Near Exhaustion.
First prize for endurance has to go to Bryan Kerr, the Project Manager, but I reckon all the team deserve a rest, although I know none of us will get much.
My particular responsibility was for the closing Worship Event on Saturday evening. I think it went pretty well on the whole, even though the first time that the band got to play together was at the soundcheck. (I hope that wasn't too obvious.) Extra thanks to Dave the Trumpet (as opposed to Dave the Drummer, or Dave the Singer... bit short on variety of names I'm afraid. Same goes for Mo the Sax) for stepping in at very short notice and playing so well.
We were especially pleased and privileged to have Pete Greig as our speaker. If you haven't yet read his book "God on Mute" then you ought to do so. It raises many of the questions that most people of faith end up wrestling with at some point in our lives. Thankfully, though, Pete doesn't give any facile or superficial answers. He shows, nevertheless, that it is possible to realistic without being cynical and positive without being superficial.
On the question of the silence of God, it was interesting to read in Time magazine this week about the letters which Mother Teresa wrote over a period of 50 years in which she privately confessed her spiritual struggles and, in particular, how, for very long periods, she never sensed the presence of God in her life. It makes her faithfulness in service all the more remarkable. Most of the truly special (holy) people in Christian history have gone through what the mystics called "the dark night of the soul" but for Mother Teresa it seems to have been a very long night indeed. I had known before of Mother Teresa's private doubts, but the Time article provided many quotes I had not previously seen.
It confirms for me what I have often suspected - that those who constantly express absolute dogmatic certainty on matters of faith are either very superficial or simply dishonest. Life on this earth is never that simple.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

By yon bonnie banks


Once again, not much time to blog recently. The last three days have been taken up with Nexus Scotland, a Christian-Muslim wedding, and preparing for our nine Korean visitors who will arrive tomorrow afternoon for a 2-week exchange visit.
However, I just thought I would share with you one of the nearly 400 pictures I took during Nexus.
No - I haven't uploaded the wrong picture!
It was decided to invite exhibitors to come and enjoy a short visit to Loch Lomond, which included a meal on the Maid of the Loch (a paddle-steamer no longer in active service but used as a very excellent eating place) a brief sail up part of the loch, and then some entertainment back on the Maid before returning back to their hotels. This was the view as we returned from the sail just after sunset. Magnificent!
After a long and tiring day in an exhibition hall there is something truly refreshing and restful about the sight of the sun setting across a loch. But what was just as refreshing was the opportunity the exhibitors and organisers had of just getting to spend time with each other chatting and getting to know each other around a table.
It's no wonder Jesus spent so much time just eating and drinking with his followers. He knew the importance of relationships and how they are formed, established and deepened. Shared meals can be a very important element in that process, no matter what kind of relationship is involved.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Look... a picture!


So we're back in business uploading photos.

There was a pretty gruesome story in the newspapers here a few days ago about a swan that had been discovered with a crossbow bolt embedded in its wing. Clearly someone with a warped mind had been using it for target practice.
I am happy to say, however, that the swan above was shot with nothing more than a camera. What attracted me to the scene wasn't just the swan itself, although invariably they are such majestic and graceful creatures, at least when fully grown (cygnets can look a bit comical.) No, what caught my eye was the water and the brightly coloured reflections. (Make sure you click on the picture to see it full size)
I could make this another "guess what it is a picture of..." competition, but instead I'll just tell you- it was a multi-coloured canal barge. An interesting subject in its own right, perhaps, but to me even more interesting 'on reflection.'
I can't remember who it was who first said "the camera always lies" but it is true. Photographs are only ever one way of looking at something: they are never 'the whole truth and nothing but the truth', and that is the case even before you use Photoshop to 'doctor' them. (Incidentally, the above photograph has not been 'doctored' at all.)
By the way, if you follow the link to the Evening Times newspaper article, have a look at the author of the piece. I did a bit of a mental double-take at first, because I thought her name was Sarah Swan!

Look no picture...

When I first started writing this blog I was determined never to upload a post that did not have a picture with it. After all, it was my enjoyment of photography and of words that first led me to experiment with this medium.
Last night, however, "Blogger" had a fault and wouldn't upload any images. The problem still hadn't been resolved this morning. So what I was going to write about will have to wait. And then... as I started to write this picture-less piece the electricity suddenly went off and the PC died instantly. (The handiwork of the plumber who is currently installing a new shower - a fault in his extension lead triggering an RCD circuit breaker. You just needed to know this, didn't you?)
Anyway, these last few days have reminded me just how much I rely on electricity and various forms of technology and how, most of the time, I just take them for granted.
Of course, my wake-up calls have been pretty benign. Spare a thought, and a prayer, for all those who have been caught in the path of Hurricane Dean and other powerful and destructive natural events in recent months.
It is all too easy for us in the developed world to imagine that we are always in control, but the reality is that this world is still sometimes a pretty hostile place. And we inhabit just one small, fragile planet suspended in an unimaginably vast universe.
Strangely enough, the knowledge of just how small and puny we really are can inspire either faith or atheism. Some look at the vastness of the cosmos and laugh at the idea of a deity who might be in the slightest bit interested in one small speck of a planet, far less individual human lives: others look at the vastness of the cosmos and are filled with awe and worship and, an admittedly illogical, sense of the nearness of the Creator of it all. I can't explain the difference.
But neither can I explain the INdifference of those who take no account at all of the world in which we live and whose 'god' turns out to be like one of the old Roman household gods - small enough to put on the mantelpiece and under our own control.
Someone once asked "Is your god too small?" and I suppose that is the question I am asking too.
It was the question that was asked in a very stark and brutal way of the Old Testament character Job. the only answer he got was in the whirlwind, but somehow that seems to me to be much more authentic than the platitudes of Job's 'comforters'.

Then the LORD answered Job out of the storm.
He said: "Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge?
Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me.
"Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation? Tell me, if you understand.
Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!

Who stretched a measuring line across it?
On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy? ....


You should read the rest ... amazing stuff.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, it means I ought to do a whole lot of writing here to catch up... but, don't worry, I won't. The poetry of the Book of Job more than makes up for the lack of pictures.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Here today.. gone in an instant


Where have I been these last few weeks?
I wish I could say that I have been visiting exotic locations, soaking up the sun, enjoying extended leisure time etc. etc. but unfortunately that is not the case. My absence from the 'blogosphere' is the result of a number of much less enjoyable experiences conspiring together. First of all there was the back injury while on holiday which meant sitting at a computer was not an attractive proposition for me. Then on returning to work I became extremely busy with a couple of 'out of the ordinary' ventures being planned - Nexus (which you can read about here) and the forthcoming visit of nine people from South Korea to Scotland to establish a 'Presbytery partnership' (and I am responsible for organising the 10-day visit.) And, just in case these events proved too stress-free... last week my computer network had a catastrophic failure. And I mean catastrophic. :-(
(I'd rather not talk about it too much , if you don't mind, except to say that - although I thought my system had been routinely making automatic backups I am now minus just about every bit of data that I created in the last 18 months!! ouch! )
The picture above is of an extremely well-preserved Roman mosaic in the museum at Verulamium (St. Alban's) in Hertfordshire, a place we visited while on holiday. It's a neat irony, though also a slightly painful one for me, to realise that this mosaic is nearly as fresh and complete now as it was when it was made in 150AD while my computer data (i.e. a lot of my work) managed to evaporate in a fraction of a second never to be seen again. Oh, I know you can go in for all sorts of expensive data recovery procedures (I've done it in the past) but the simple truth of the matter is that, however inconvenient to me, nothing that I have lost will really be missed by anyone other than me. Ah well. C'est la vie.
But enough complaining. I thought that I'd better get round to 'blogging' something before my most loyal readers (both of you) stopped visiting the blog altogether.
Actually, it amazes me that since I started this series of assorted ramblings and musings nearly a year ago, I've had (apparently) something like 11,800 'visits' - not exactly massive by internet standards, but surprising to me.
I'm only sorry that a lot of the time I haven't had anything interesting to say. (Of course, being a preacher...that has never got in the way of me saying it anyway.)
Keep visiting, though... one of these days it may be worth it.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

There was a crooked man...


A little postscript to my last post...
(And for a few excruciating moments I thought it was the last post...)
I spoke about this beautiful 17th century house with its low ceilings, but a few days ago it wouldn't have mattered had the ceiling only been 3 feet above the floor. That's because I was on my hands and knees, in considerable agony, unable to straighten out my back.
I had "slipped a disk."
It has happened to me once before and I can say it is not my idea of fun.
For the first couple of days I could only shuffle slowly, hunch-backed, a few yards at a time looking like a man of 85 and feeling like a man of 90. (Well, I have to imagine that since I've no idea yet what it might feel like to be 90, and, of course, I may never know.)
Thankfully I have been improving steadily and once again look more like a specimen of homo sapiens than neanderthal man. (i.e. my knuckles are no longer dragging along the floor.)
But, hey! Every cloud has a silver lining.
It has meant that I have been able to indulge in a binge.
NOT binge drinking (the dubious 'pleasures' of which I've never really understood and which would not have mixed well with the painkillers) but binge reading.
I read five books in four days, including two books introduced to me by Emma- 'Blue Like Jazz' and 'Searching for God Knows What' - both by Don Miller. I hadn't read any of his stuff before but I'm glad now that I have.
Can't say I agreed with everything. Come to think of it when I look back I don't agree with everything I've ever said myself! But both of these books are definitely worth reading. I especially like Miller's emphasis on the importance of story.
The way I see it words create worlds.
It's no surprise to me that the Biblical creation story begins with God speaking and bringing things into being with His word.
Sadly we human beings are probably more skilled at using words to tear down and destroy than we are at using them to create. But it remains true that in the hands of a skillful writer words create worlds.
I'm on my sixth book at the moment. (Each has created its own new and unique world for me.)
I have to say that the latest Harry Potter book is not featured in my binge, but I know that one of the reasons for the success of that particular series has been the ability of J.K. Rowling to create a world of characters and places and events that many children (and many adults) have been able to enter into.
Yep, words create worlds...
but I'll not say what word, if any, passed my lips as my back went out of joint and I slumped to the floor... :-)