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') 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


Travel by public transport...

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

..... if not for the nerves!

Land of hope and...


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