Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The white angels of Springtime

I've never been much of a gardener, although there was a time when I knew all the Latin names of every plant in our garden and most of the ones in the plant nurseries. Maybe that's because I was more interested in reading books about plants and gardens than I was in getting my hands dirty and my muscles sore actually doing the work.

That last statement is not quite the whole truth because, to be honest, the bits of gardening I enjoyed most were building walls and fences, laying paths and erecting greenhouses. (All of which I have done at one time or another.)

Nowadays, though, the best bits in my garden are the bits where things happen without human intervention and where the absolute minimum of human effort is required to clear away the weeds. That means especially under the trees. And right now it means... SNOWDROPS!

They were getting a bit of a battering today with the strong winds and lashing rain so I couldn't zoom in too closely. It wouldn't have been fair on them. They are models of simple perfection and we shouldn't take too much notice of their momentarily ruffled appearance and temporary blemishes. They will bounce back to normal when the weather improves.

To me snowdrops are the most amazing flowers because of their combination of delicate fragility and dogged tenacity. To all of us in Scotland they are now always associated with Dunblane. But even here they were a symbol of hope and a sign of a future that refuses to lie down to anything that the past or the present might heap upon it.

Perhaps the thing I like most about snowdrops is that in some ways they can be incredibly difficult for gardeners to grow from scratch. But if they appear by themselves, and look after themselves, they flourish year after year with carefree abandon. That's my kind of gardening now.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Now you see it... now you don't

Question: How long does it take to grow a beech tree?
Answer: It takes about 120 years to reach its full height.
Question: How long does it take to destroy a beech tree?
Answer: About 3 or 4 minutes, if you have the right equipment.

The beech trees next to us were at least 120 and probably nearer 200 years old but in the space of a few minutes they were gone. All of them.
As far as I know the developers had not been given planning permission to remove them, but the one thing you can't do is put them back again once they have been felled.
It's like the toothpaste that has been squeezed out of the tube and can't be put back in again, or the words that have been spoken and heard but cannot then be unspoken. (We've all uttered a few of these, I'm sure.) Or the misplaced kick or pass in a game of rugby that is intercepted by the opposition. (Ask the Scotland rugby team about that one after this weekend!)

On the other side of the coin are the things that are easily started but not so easily stopped.
I remember telling the children in the church once about a petrol hovermower we used to have. Unlike many such mowers this one actually started quite easily, but one day it just refused to stop. I even tried some not very clever moves, like jumping on top of it - to no great effect. Since I had only just filled the petrol tank and it was likely to go on churning away for a good couple of hours, I eventually had to do the even sillier thing of yanking out the lead to the spark plug. It worked. Deprived of its vital spark it finally admitted defeat.
As we enter the season of Lent it is worth reflecting again on some of the things in life that are much easier started than stopped.

Friday, February 23, 2007

A special place

I started off this blog with it's cumbersome title, intending to use it simply to share some of my favourite photographs of reflections but I think the word random has overtaken the word reflections in recent days. Time, then, for another photograph from my favourite place. Venice.
Actually, I think I am simply getting withdrawal symptoms and needing another intoxicating 'fix' of the sights of this unique city. So I am planning to go back later this year with one of my daughters.
I first fell in love with Venice in 1974 when I was travelling round Europe as a student. At this point in our meandering journey we had visited what was then known as Yugoslavia. In fact, we had gone to the city of Llubljana in Slovenia. It was, however, the lowest point in our journey. We found the communist Yugoslavia very dull, grey and oppressive - not helped by the fact that a couple of us had taken ill with a tummy bug. Although it was late September the temperature was in the 90's. One of the girls in our group was stung by a wasp. And we couldn't find anyone who spoke English. (Fortunately another of the girls in our group spoke excellent German, which helped a little.) We decided to take the first train out of Llubljana, rather than look for a campsite. But this meant we had about four or five hours to kill. We went for something to eat. I remember eating some goulash but not enjoying it much. Then we decided to go to the cinema. The film being shown... (no multiplex cinemas in those days) ... was, wait for it... The Sound of Music! In English, with Slovenian? subtitles. I hadn't realised the film had one or two jokes in it. But because we were the only ones who could understand the dialogue, the six of us sitting at the back of the cinema would laugh first, and then a few seconds later (once they had read the subtitles) the rest of the audience would laugh. It was the most surreal experience. Unfortunately, by this time, it was my turn to host the tummy bug (or maybe it was the goulash?) and my viewing experience was interrupted by a number of hurried exits to the loo.
All in all, the six of us just couldn't wait to get out of Yugoslavia and in the evening we caught the overnight train to Venice. (We always travelled overnight as it meant we didn't have to find, or pay for, somewhere to sleep or camp.) The train, however, was totally crowded, with quite a few armed soldiers on board, and we had to crouch down in the corridor between carriages. Not a very comfortable night.
But at 9 am the following morning we emerged from the Stazione Ferroviaria Santa Lucia (i.e. the station - but it sounds better in Italian) and looked out on the Grand Canal. It was like heaven. I remember having a cup of tea (something I never drank in those days) and some toast. That was when I decided this was the most wonderful place on earth. I promised myself that I would be back.
It was another 29 years before I returned but, to my own amazement, I felt the very same feelings on my return.
Being physical beings, we all need special places - usually places that hold particular personal memories. For me, Venice is such a place, though not for the memories, more for its unique faded elegance and beauty. There is such a visual integrity about the place, perhaps simply a factor of age - but (once you have left the ugly modernism of the Piazalle Roma) there is very little in the city that looks out of place.
I'll be back...

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

I feel the earth move...

I blame global warming!
A few nights ago I was wakened about 3am by the sound of a bird singing outside the window. They are so confused these days. They think it is Spring already. Maybe I should sell our radio-alarm on eBay because we don't need it any more - what with the birds singing while it is still dark and.... the diggers and earth-movers next door causing the whole house to vibrate from about 8.30am every morning!
The area next to our garden is being cleared for the building of new houses. Plans for the construction were agreed some time ago but the work only began in earnest a week ago. In fact it only took them a day to convert what had been the grounds of a children's home into something that resembled the Somme in 1916. Actually it is scary how quickly these big machines can transform the landscape. Then again, it is scary how easily (and carelessly) we human beings in general are able to shape the environment to suit us rather than allow it to shape us and our behaviour.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Show me the way to the Armadillo...

I had a meeting today in the SECC in Glasgow, which will be the venue for Nexus, later this year.
My particular reponsibility is to organise the Saturday evening worship event which will take place in the Clyde Auditorium (pictured here) known locally (and much more graphically) as 'The Armadillo.'
You'll be hearing much more about it in later posts - that is, once I have something to say!
For the moment, I am in the rather worrying situation of having very few of the plans, and people, fully confirmed. But there is plenty of time....
Isn't there?...
I am happy to say that the rest of the planning team are much further on than me and that the whole event is shaping up to be a really exciting and dynamic three days.
One thing I have really enjoyed about working with anything to do with our 'Church without Walls' process is that the meetings have always been lively, creative, energising.... and enjoyable and that is not something that can often be said about meeting associated with church business!

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Light in the cathedral

The sun was shining and the sky was blue over Edinburgh today as I undertook to show Nancy our capital city.

Having had a whole week of training in how to operate a video camera, Nancy herself was not slow to gather some footage of her own. It may take her some time to edit the diverse clips she must have captured including the long slow pans across the Edinburgh skyline from the esplanade of the Castle and the bumpy action shots from inside the car as we drove along some of Edinburgh's cobbled streets.

What impressed Nancy most was the age of so many of the buildings, especially the churches. Of course, one thing Scotland has plenty of is its past... though sometimes I'm not so sure about its future! Especially when it comes to the church.

One place we visited was St. Giles Cathedral in the Royal Mile.
(As the Church's own website says: "There is record of a parish church in Edinburgh by the year 854, served by a vicar from a monastic house, probably in England. It is possible that the first church, a modest affair, was in use for several centuries before it was formally dedicated by the bishop of St Andrews on 6 October 1243. The parish church of Edinburgh was subsequently reconsecrated and named in honour of the patron saint of the town, St Giles, whose feast day is celebrated on 1 September.")

There is within the cathedral a pleasing balance between the old and the new. While we were there the organist was giving an organ recital, which just added to the atmosphere - more "music coming from the chapel" but what caught my eye was the way in which the light, filtering through the stained glass, fell on the backs of some of the chairs. I could not resist taking a photograph of it. Pity the photograph didn't manage to capture the organ playing too. But, then, maybe Nancy will have it on video?

No entry

Well, Wilson didn't get his visa. :-(
We have yet to hear the official reason but it is very sad none the less.
As I have said before it is incredibly difficult for a single, male Kenyan to be allowed entry into the UK.
I should point out that Wilson is not in this picture. This is a group of young guys at Muguga that I played 'football' with. As you can see from the picture, they were a lively and happy bunch. The ball was home-made from a number of supermarket carrier bags, all layered on top of each other and held together by rubber bands. It makes for a surprisingly bouncy ball. However, I don't think FIFA are ready to endorse it as an official match ball.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Drive by argument

Perhaps I should have come clean and owned up to my particular interest in the fortunes of "Drive by Argument." It has something to do with the fact that one of the members of the band is the boyfriend of one of my daughters. Not that this has influenced me in any way, of course. :-)

All that aside, they are definitely worth a listen.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Sega Method

I'm also looking forward to the release of the single "The Sega Method" by Drive by Argument.
Check it out on their myspace website.

Amazing Grace

I'm looking forward to the release of this film. I only hope that the film-makers manage to do justice to the story which by any standards is an 'amazing' one.

Here's what some of the advance publicity has to say about it:

"The film is based on the life of antislavery pioneer William Wilberforce. The film's release also coincides with the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade.Amazing Grace stars Ioan Gruffudd (Black Hawk Down), Albert Finney (Erin Brockovich), Michael Gambon (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), Rufus Sewell (Legend of Zorro), and introduces Youssou N'Dour. Gruffudd plays Wilberforce, who, as a Member of Parliament, navigated the world of 18th Century backroom politics to end the slave trade in the British Empire. In 1785 Wilberforce underwent a spiritual encounter which he described as a conversion experience. He resolved to commit his future life and work wholly in the service of God, and one of the people he received advice from was John Newton, a leading evangelical Anglican clergyman played in the film by Albert Finney. Youssou N'Dour plays Olaudah Equiano. Born in Africa and sent as a slave to the Colonies, Equiano bought his freedom and made his home in London, where he wrote a best-selling account of his life and became a leading figure in the fight to end the slavery of his fellow countrymen."

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The music coming from the chapel

Recently I was given a gift of one of Paulo Coelho's books-"Like the Flowing River." It is a series of thoughts and reflections, short pieces written between 1998 and 2005. I have enjoyed many of Coelho's novels and was looking forward to dipping into this. I have not been disappointed.

His style is simple but poetic but, much more importantly, his insights are often profound.

One of the pieces entitled "The music coming from the chapel" describes an incident when Coelho come across a hermitage in the middle of a wood near Azereix in southern France. As he enters the usually-closed building he finds a young woman playing guitar and singing. He describes it as "an unforgettable moment in my life, the kind of awareness we often only have once the magic moment has passed." In fact for him it becomes a moment of revelation and deeply-felt worship.

When I read this particular story it reminded me of a very similar feeling which I had on one of my trips to Venice. I cannot remember whether it was in 2003 or 2004. I was with my youngest daughter, Heather, and we were indulging ourselves in a kind of photographic feast, shooting off dozens of rolls of film. One of the places I wanted to visit was the Chiesa di Santa Maria dei Miracoli (The Church of the Miracles.) It is a beautiful little marble jewel of a church, built between 1481 and 1489. Unlike St. Mark's and some of the other major tourist attractions it is never swamped by boatloads of day-trippers, partly because it is almost hidden away in a residential part of the Canareggio.

We paid the small entry fee and stepped inside this little marble wonder.

I think there were only a couple of other people inside the building at the time, apart from the person at the entrance desk. There was a hushed and reverent silence.

I was walking slowly up the steep stairs towards the high altar when suddenly this magnificent tenor voice burst out in song: I think it may have been a Monteverdi psalm. I turned round to see the source of this 'music from the chapel' and there stood the slightly bulky figure of a man with a magnificently bushy beard. When he came to the end of the psalm he simply turned and walked out of the building again. I felt exactly the same feelings as Coelho describes in his essay "a state of worship and ecstasy, and gratitude for being alive." Just a fleeting moment, yet it felt timeless. Music has often that had effect on me but in that particular place at that particular time, the effect was almost overwhelming. My own little personal 'miracle,' a sign to me of the spiritual world in the midst of this world.

A short while afterwards when Heather and I left the church we saw the man again, talking to someone else. As we walked past I was surprised to hear him speaking in English and I could not help overhearing him as he told his listener that he was the conductor of a choir from England and he was in the process of organising a tour. He was looking for venues where they might perform. I don't know who he was, or what choir he was talking about, all I know is that in that particular moment, and in that special place, his voice touched something deep inside of me. Coelho has expressed that moment perfectly: "In the simplicity of that small chapel.... in the morning light that filled everything, I understood once again that the greatness of God always reveals itself in the simple things."

Monday, February 12, 2007

Trees in the mist

On the way home from Bo'ness I stopped for a few seconds to take a quick snap of Linlithgow Palace* in the morning mist and rain.
It really was a quick stop!
I had overtaken a tractor at the top of the hill and managed to take the phtoograph and jump back into my car and pull away before the tractor caught up with me.
I must have looked like a real tourist!

* birthplace of Mary Queen of Scots

Getting there...

So here is Nancy beginning the course at World Without Walls. (We still haven't had any snow so I got her to Bo'ness without any problem at all this morning- apart from not being able to lean back in my seat.)
No word yet as to whether Wilson will be able to get his visa or not. He has been told that he will get a decision tomorrow. So keep praying and hoping.
I am hoping to be able to sleep a little tonight. Without going into the messy and unpleasant details I am expecting the doctor's knife will have been more effective than the antibiotics.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Adverse weather conditions

Sorry to go on again about the weather theme, but which century are we living in?

I couldn't believe this section of the leader in yesterday's "Times." [Then again, I don't often buy the Times] But are they seriously saying that a couple of inches of snow managed to prevent the leading article from being written? No, wait a minute, that is exactly what they are saying: "We apologise that this leading article could not be written due to adverse weather conditions." [that's in case you can't read the rather faint scanned picture]

Does this mean that leader writers of The Times don't have computers and email etc.? Maybe they still write everything out long-hand and send it to the typesetters to be set up? Hmmm...

No such excuses from me! Well, for a start we still haven't had any of the snow. But a few inches of the white stuff is hardly going to affect this publication. What has almost prevented me from writing just now, however, is "adverse health conditions." A large cyst on my back has become infected and is giving me a lot of pain. I can't find a comfortable way to sit or lie down, and sleep has been in short supply the last few nights. I'm just hoping the antibiotics begin to take effect soon.

But enough complaining from me! I have some good news at last on the Kenyan-partnership front. Nancy arrived from Kiambaa this morning. Too late to join us at church but in time to meet a few of the congregation who were still having tea or coffee. Tomorrow she begins the World Without Walls training course- provided I get her to Bo'ness in time. Now there's something that "adverse weather conditions" might manage to prevent. Let's hope not.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Half a loaf...

I suppose administration and bureaucracy are necessary - but sometimes they can be very frustrating.

You may remember we have been trying to organise a visit to Scotland by two of our friends from Kiambaa Church (our partners in Kenya.)

[The photograph shows some of the young people of Kiambaa church just before we left in 2005]

In the last few days and weeks there have been many messages (telephone and text) flying across the miles between us and today there was some good news. At last. One of our guests, Nancy, has been granted a travel visa and thanks to the very helpful people at Key Travel, I have just managed to book a flight for Nancy for tomorrow night and she should be with us by Sunday morning which will enable her to begin the World Without Walls Training Course in Bo'ness on Monday morning. Unfortunately, Wilson has been asked to go back to the British High Commission on Monday morning and has not yet been granted a visa. At this stage we have no idea whether he will be successful or not. It is all very frustrating.

Of course, as I probably mentioned in a previous post, if Wilson was married, had lots of money and lived in the city he probably would have had few problems in getting a visa, but clearly the authorities consider that there is a risk that he will choose not to return home and somehow just disappear in this country. It is all very frustrating.

However, I suppose half a loaf is better than no bread... and if we keep on hoping and praying maybe Wilson too can have the privilege of leaving the warmth of equatorial Kenya to come to the sub-zero temperatures of central Scotland.

On that point, I have been getting quite irritated (once more) at all the fuss in the TV news about the weather in England. Honestly....a couple of inches of snow and you'd think the world had come to an end! For goodness sake... it is February. It is winter time. Sometimes in winter it snows in this country! And sometimes (for reasons that didn't seem to apply when I was young) that means schools are closed... oh, and traffic has to move more slowly. So what? There are other more important things happening in the world. Learn to live with it.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Get set... go

The last pantomime picture - for a while anyway. This is more or less the full cast just before 'curtain up' on Saturday night.

Of course, if you were at the panto you'll know that we had no curtain. It meant that our stage crew (Graeme & Derek) had to be very quick, very efficient and very quiet at scene changes. I have to say they managed to be all three and did a superb job and, apart from one little glitch on the Friday night, it went incredibly smoothly.

Not like a performance I attended last year at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall. A special treat for my birthday - to go the opera. I know it was a great sacrifice for my wife to take me there because she can't stand opera. But I love it. Now, any of you who are familiar with Glasgow will know that we have a perfectly good opera house - the Theatre Royal. But this was in the concert hall. A large stage, certainly, but no curtains and no facilities for flying scenery quickly offstage. Now, you might think this would be a good time to go for a minimalist approach to the set: let the audience use their imaginations and allow the music to set the scene.

But, no. It was a pretty traditional approach to Rigoletto by The Chisinau National Opera in association with the Ukrainian National Opera. The trouble was it took the stage crew about 25 minutes between acts to disassemble one set and then build the next. It could have been very boring - and almost was - except that I kept hearing the sound of electric screwdrivers buzzing away in the darkness, accompanied by cursing and swearing from the stagehands who clearly weren't sure how everything was supposed to fit together. Admittedly it must have been a bit like building a 3-D jigsaw puzzle in the dark. Quite bizarre.

However, not the most bizarre feature of the show.

The award for that has to go to the moment when a fully-grown golden eagle was brought onto the stage. There seemed to me to be absolutely no dramatic, musical or logical reason for this, though in the publicity for the opera it was being hailed as a particular attraction, along with the fact that there would be some nudity involved in the production.

Maybe I was just too near the back of the concert hall to appreciate either. All I can say is I'm glad the singing was quite good.

All's well that ends well...

A glimpse of the two "baddies" (Haudit and Dropit) from 'Jack and the Beans Talk.'
Of course, they turned out alright in the end.
So did the panto as a whole. Everybody had great fun and, what's more, so far it has raised over £1100 for charity.
We plan to share the proceeds among the Children's Hospice Association Scotland, World Vision, Kiambaa Church (our partner church in Kenya) and Glory Christian Fellowship Orphanage in Kenya (another project we regularly support.)

We are hoping to further strengthen our links with Kiambaa very soon, as long as the visa authorities in Nairobi are on our side. We have invited two of our friends from Kiambaa (Wilson & Nancy) to come over to Scotland and take part in the World Without Walls training course. We tried this last year but Wilson and Nancy were refused travel visas. We are hoping and praying that this time they will be successful.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Good news and bad news

Well, what do you want to hear first: the good news? or the bad news?
The good news was that the pantomime was a great success. A sell-out both nights and two lively, up-for-it, audiences (although I have to say that Friday night's audience was a little bit quicker at getting the jokes! On Saturday the cast had to work a bit harder to get the gags across.)
Talking of the cast... that was the bad news.
My daughter, Ailsa, was due to play the lead role of Jack - a part with quite a lot of lines to learn including a one and a half-page monologue at the start. Being the central character in the story it was a rather important role.
Unfortunately, in the early hours of Thursday morning Ailsa took ill. So ill that she had to be taken by ambulance to hospital. I am happy to say that she is now making an excellent recovery. However... we were left on Thursday with a real dilemma as there was no understudy for the part. (OK - bad planning, I know...)
We felt desperately sorry for Ailsa who had put so much work and practice into preparing for the show, not just in the lead role but also as choreographer and even helping to direct a couple of rehearsals. But since she couldn't even stand up on Thursday, treading the boards on Friday was just out of the question.
So we looked at the various alternative options:
Cancel. Hard to do when we had sold nearly 500 tickets.
Postpone. But for how long? And the set had already been built and was in place. Could we get everybody together again for some future date...?
What if I, or my wife, Dawn, played the part? (Em...No - don't think so...)
ENTER our youngest daughter, Heather!
She volunteered to have a go, even though she had spent the previous week complaining that she didn't even like panto and hadn't even read the script, never mind attend a rehearsal.
And so, with just one day to learn the 40-page script and no time to get the cast together for a full rehearsal, Heather took on the challenge. Now, no doubt I am biased, but I thought she was brilliant. I have no idea how she managed to learn the part in less than 24 hours and then carry it off with such confidence. It was fantastic.
Actually, everyone who took part did a brilliant job, including many who had never acted in their lives before.
Even the beanstalk rose majestically and magically to its full 4.5 metres... although half an hour before the show opened I spotted some fraying on the pulling wire and we had to get the ladder out and fit a second wire just in case.
Of course there were some minor mistakes (mainly technical... and mainly my own responsibility) but all in all it was a fantastic effort from everyone concerned.
Oh, and the picture, by the way, is of the "giant's" mask - magnificently crafted by Rhoda Baxter.
Let me quote from the script:
Jack Mum, that was only some of it! There’s a whole load of treasure up there. But there is something really scary up there as well. That’s why I ran. …..It was huge with bulging staring eyes, and spiky hair, and it had hair all over it’s face like a straggly beard, I bet it had a big fat belly and flat feet too.

Mum You mean just like the minister!

Jack Just like him, but huger!
Maybe you can see the resemblance yourself?