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


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!