Friday, June 29, 2007

More water everywhere

People in many parts of England, especially Yorkshire, have been having a really dreadful time lately with unprecedented amounts of rain and the inevitable flooding afterwards. My heart goes out to them all. Apparently we are due to get some pretty heavy rainfall tomorrow too but it is unlikely to be quite so devastating here.
On a much smaller scale, though, I had my own little inundation incident this morning.
My study sits directly below our upstairs bathroom...
you can probably guess more or less where this is going...
After I'd had my shower this morning I went back into my study and noticed that the computer monitor appeared to have shut down. A closer inspection revealed a spot of moisture on the screen. An even closer inspection revealed that the spot of moisture was behind the screen - inside! A quick glanced upwards confirmed my fear... the top of the monitor looked like it had also (like myself) just had a shower. Which in fact it had. Indeed, it was more or less the same shower. After I'd experienced it, it had clearly made its way (via a leak in the shower cabinet) through the bathroom floor and the study ceiling right on to my desk, and in particular on to my pc monitor.
Sad to say... the monitor now appears to be completely defunct!
I'm glad the shower did not have that effect on me.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Chilled but not frozen

What about the concert then?
Well, the band we went to see was the Norwegian jazz trio known as Tord Gustavsen Trio, comprising Tord Gustavsen on piano, Harald Johnsen on double-bass and Jarle Vespestad on drums.
I've been listening to their CD "The Ground" for the last three years but this was my first opportunity to hear them live, as part of the Glasgow Jazz Festival.

As is often the case with those you only hear on the phone or the radio or on a recording, Tord Gustavsen himself looked different from what I'd imagined - even though I'd seen his photograph in the sleeve-liner for the CD. A slight, almost fragile, and slightly crumpled-looking figure, he had a very peculiar hushed but high-pitched voice as he almost whispered into the microphone that he held tight to his lips... but that is to leap ahead a bit because before he, or anyone else spoke, he shuffled across the stage to the piano and in a strange curled-up posture leaned over the keyboard. He stretched out his left arm to press down one key in the bass, then reaching in the opposite direction with his right gently tapped out a single high note. From these two widely-separated but repeated notes, and with a lot of 'loud' silences in between, he began to bring the notes together. [It was the child Mozart who once said that all he did to write tunes was to "bring together little notes that like each other"]
It was like listening to the dawn of creation as a musical theme gradually came into being.
Eventually, he was joined by Vespestad on the drums. He virtually caressed the cymbals and snare (and even the bass drum) with various parts of his sticks and brushes. I don't think I've ever heard a drummer play so quietly, or in such an understated way. He went on during the evening to squeeze all sorts of strange noises from his drum kit, using a variety of techniques, including dragging the point of a stick along the surface of a cymbal to make a sound like a rusty gate-hinge, or a 'keening' sound like whale-song and even dolphin-clicks.... and all with immaculate timing. A bit weird, but in this context it worked...most of the time.
The trio was completed by Johnsen "playing on a hired bass thanks to British Midland."
The thing about the live performance, apart from the fresh jazz improvisations on tracks I'd heard many times before, was the musical chemistry between the three players. It was a real trio, not just a star pianist with two others filling in an accompaniment, even though in a sense Gustavsen is the 'star' being the composer.
All the best music (whatever the style) is about togetherness - even when it is a soloist, as Gustavsen demonstrated with just two notes at the very beginning of the concert.
I don't know how the trio would define their music themselves but I think of it as 'late night jazz' - the kind to just chill out to. It was also for me very spiritual music. Not in a theological sense, perhaps, just in the sense that it touched parts of me deep down that I can only call 'spiritual' - certainly beyond rationality and deeper than emotion.
One of the things that the best music and the best musicians teach us is that the silences, the spaces between the notes, are just as important as the notes themselves. (This applies even to loud, fast and energetic music, but it is much more obvious when the music is 'chilled.')
It's true of life too - getting all the different bits of our lives to work together and not be fragmented, but also making those spaces just to be rather than to do - it's not easy.
Some folk have a talent for it - most of us just struggle like beginners banging out chopsticks on the piano.
If you've never heard Tord Gustavsen before have a listen to some of the samples on Amazon.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Alternative Viewpoint

Whenever I have a camera with me I try to find more unusual angles from which to view things. It's not always possible and often the results just don't work. They just turn out weird.
But I was pleased with this one, taken a couple of years ago in Hong Kong.
We were at a concert hall, about to go in to hear a rather brilliant American clarinet player, whose name I've completely forgotten. In the foyer of the theatre was a cafe/bar, so we decided to have a drink while waiting to go in.
I noticed that the ceiling was a little bit unusual - being covered in mirror tiles. So I discreetly placed my compact camera on the table and snapped to produce this picture of ourselves as if seen from above. I suppose you could say that was weird too, but I think it works.
It was our great Scottish poet, Robert Burns who once wrote:
"oh wud some power the giftie gie us tae see ourselves as ithers see us"
[which, for those who don't quite understand Scots means something like 'wouldn't it be good if some higher power gave us the ability to see ourselves the way other people see us' - though I think the way Burns put it was much more succinct and much more memorable :-) not to mention quite a bit more poetic! ]
Perhaps even more useful than the ability to see ourselves as others see us might be the ability to see ourselves as God sees us. I reckon we'd all get a bit of a surprise seeing things from that angle!

By the way, talking of concerts... I have just come back from an amazing gig which was part of the Glasgow Jazz Festival. I'll write about it later, once I've let the experience seep in to my soul a bit more.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Rain or shine

Apparently over the last couple of days there has been a huge amount of rain falling on certain parts of England - no doubt designed to coincide with the start of Wimbledon. (Incidentally, I am really disappointed, though not surprised, that Andy Murray has pulled out of the tournament this year.)
Fortunately, in contrast, although our weather here has hardly been "summery" we have managed to escape any really severe rainstorms.
I was travelling to a meeting last week through the Upper Clyde Valley. As we approached the fairly prominent landmark known as Tinto (an extinct volcano) my passenger remarked that he had never seen Tinto except when it was surrounded in cloud and rain. (That night was no exception.) However, I had to tell him that I had often passed it in bright sunshine. The photograph above is proof of the fact.
After my last post, I've been reflecting on what it is that makes a place seem 'beautiful.' Certainly sunshine can help, but it isn't always necessary.
Memories can be just as important - though perhaps that just makes a place seem special, rather than beautiful.
As I've said before in this blog, for me some of the most beautiful places are where nature and human creativity combine in harmony. There's very little of that human activity evident in the picture above but I hope that doesn't contradict my 'thesis' (though, come to think of it, the presence of the neatly mown lines made by the tractor do add something to the photograph and do draw attention to the beauty of Tinto itself.)
All too often in the Western world (at least since the Industrial Revolution) we have focused on dominating the environment, shaping the landscape to suit our own ends, and sometimes in the process destroying its beauty and even at times its life. We need to learn from the East how to live in greater harmony with the world in which we are placed and in some ways let it shape us.
Having said that... I'm glad Tinto is extinct!

Saturday, June 23, 2007

A place of beauty

I suppose I should let you see the castle where I conducted the wedding earlier this week. Since the local press photographer was there I guess the wedding was not a secret. The present castle (known as Lee Castle, by the way) is not all that old by Scottish standards. It was built in Victorian times, no doubt as some kind of hunting lodge/stately home, though the chapel is apparently much older.
I was told the rather gruesome story that the chapel was for a long time used as an abattoir until the time of the previous Baron of Lee who arranged for it to be reconsecrated by an Episcopalian minister as a place of worship. I was also told that there is at least one regularly haunted bedroom. Well, it wouldn't be much of a castle otherwise, would it?
It is set in a beautiful valley. There was talk about 20 years ago when we first moved into the area that an exclusive golf course was going to be created with the castle as the clubhouse. That particular plan was thwarted, probably by the local planners, but it would have been a spectacular setting for a golf course and it would almost certainly have rivaled, and even outshone, Loch Lomond.
Actually the valley in which it is situated was once part of the original course of the River Clyde. Just when, or why,the river changed its course I do not know, but it left behind a valley of exceptional beauty. I'm sure it took millions of years for that valley to be formed and it has also been further shaped by human beings over the centuries. Unlike some places, the natural beauty has been enhanced rather than destroyed by this human interaction with the countryside, and like the very best of Buddhist temples, Lee Castle sits in harmony with its surroundings.
In many areas of life it is hard to get that balance right between shaping the world around us and living in harmony with it. But when you get it right, it makes your heart sing.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Come on let's celebrate...

From a wedding... to a graduation...
I'll take any excuse to celebrate... especially if it involves eating lots of good food.
And I got my chance to eat too much again last night as we celebrated the graduation of one of our daughters.
You've no idea how much I like the fact that celebrating and eating so often go together. Like they were made for each other.
Last night to mark Ailsa's graduation we visited our favourite local restaurant. Prego's. Unfortunately it is not as local as we would like it to be, and as we had hoped it would be by this time. Some unforeseen building snags have delayed the opening of the Carluke restaurant, but it didn't stop us enjoying once more the friendly atmosphere and good food I have mentioned before. In fact, I have mentioned Prego's often enough online that maybe I should be asking for a discount on our next visit...
I draw some comfort from the fact that Jesus himself was accused of doing too much celebrating, and especially of enjoying eating and drinking far too much... for his own good. The religious people of his day reckoned Jesus ought to be much more sombre, much more serious, and much more sober... in fact, much more like themselves.
Funny how we always seem to want everyone else to be like us, isn't it?
A pity too because it's the sheer variety of life that makes it so interesting.
Actually, I suspect the Pharisees were really closet Presbyterians, or Puritans, who in the words of H.L. Mencken lived with the "haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy."
Life's too short not to let yourself be happy now and again, is it not?

Wednesday, June 20, 2007


We are well into the wedding season and over the last few weeks I have conducted quite a few wedding ceremonies- one reason for the recent shortage of blog posts. They have all been very enjoyable though all quite different from each other and all memorable in their own way.
Someone once asked me how many weddings I had conducted over the years, but I'm afraid I could only guess - as I have never kept an actual record. I imagine, however that it must be somewhere between 500 and 800, maybe even more. Almost all of the time the weddings I have conducted have taken place in a church, although there have been one or two notable exceptions. And yesterday, was one such exception.
The wedding took place in a castle not too far from here (although to qualify that last statement - the castle has its own little consecrated chapel see below)
But what made this particular wedding most memorable was not its location but the coming together of two very distinctive cultures - American and Chinese. I can just about speak American (but I confess only with a Tennessee accent derived from an American friend) but when it comes to Chinese I haven't a clue, so I was grateful for the assistance of an interpreter who was able to translate much of what I said into Mandarin. [At least I have to assume that he was translating what I said. He could have been saying anything!!]
For my "talk" to the happy couple I used a pair of chopsticks as an illustration.
The gist of what I said had to do with the fact that chopsticks must be used together if they are going to work. (Ever tried to pick up a grain of rice with just one? It's hard enough with two.)
They are made for each other - a pair. And yet each is free to move in its own direction. What makes them work together as a team is the hand that holds them.
I'm sure you can fill in the rest yourself...
There was an earlier bit about the Chinese words for chopsticks (which means something like "quick little fellows") sounding very similar to another Chinese word which means something like "soon son" i.e. 'may you soon have a son' but I won't go into all that.
At the reception afterwards we had the same mix of Eastern and Western cultures.
The thing I liked best is what you see in the photograph above. An apple on a string (ribbon) was held above the heads of the bride and groom and they had to simultaneously (without using their hands) take a bite from the apple. It required the same kind of co-operation that you need between two chopsticks to get the food into the mouth. It was also a lot of fun to watch. Probably even more fun to do!
However, it also reminded me of another story of a man and a woman sharing a piece of forbidden fruit... and all the trouble that caused... :-)
The photographer at yesterday's wedding was a young photo-journalist by the name of Beth Skabar. Check out her website to see some very interesting examples of her work.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Signs and wonders

One of the interesting people I met at the General Assembly was a woman from Finland called Minna. We got talking about language. (In English of course!) Minna had originally trained as a teacher but according to Minna herself Finnish people when talking are usually not very animated. (She described what she meant by putting on a blank expression and keeping her hands firmly by her sides.) She reckoned this was not good for effective communication - something she felt essential for teaching. (Mind you, it has to be said that the Finnish education system is already reckoned to be about the best in the world.) Anyway, she decided it might be a good idea to learn sign language.
Now, having had an uncle who was born deaf and a sister who currently signs for the deaf, I began to get very interested and made the observation that as there is British Sign Language and American Sign Language, I guessed there must be Finnish Sign Language too.
"Yes" she said "but it's a bit more complicated than that. In Finland people speak either Finnish or Swedish, so there is Finnish Sign Language and Swedish Sign Language but the Swedish Sign Language used in Finland is quite different from the Swedish Sign Language used in Sweden."
That 'Finnished' it for me, and I decided it was time to change the subject...
The language of signs, however, is a fascinating area for exploration.
I love this shop sign in Byers Road, Glasgow. It is above a Florist's Shop which also sells (quote) "unusual gifts."
How aptly named, for isn't grace an unusual, but priceless, gift in our world?
Unfortunately, I did not have my camera with me recently when I passed a Gents' Barber's Shop above which hung the sign:

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

A week in Edinburgh

I've just been reminded by someone I met at the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland that I had promised I would make my own little observations about the week, and, of course, I have not yet done so. In my defence I would like to say that in the first place I've been having quite a few difficulties with my computer systems in the last couple of weeks and really have not had much time to think about the General Assembly or blog about anything else either. Another complication (though probably not one that would bother anyone else) is that I didn't take any photographs of the happenings at the General Assembly [not that much actually 'happened'.]
OK - enough excuses - I've thrown in a picture of Edinburgh, taken on another occasion - what are my observations of the 2007 General Assembly?
On a personal note - disappointment that no one even asked a single question of my report (though to be fair since my 'report' of the Nominations Committee is little more than a list of names, there are very few questions anyone can ask except maybe 'why wasn't this name or that name on this or that committee?' and in my spoken presentation I answered that question in advance.)
Much more significantly, on the progress of the whole Assembly, I think you'd have to say it was more business-like than earth-shattering. Indeed there were very few topics on which anyone seemed to get even in the slightest way worked up, even though there had been predictions that the debate on human sexuality might result in some blood on the carpet, if not an outright schism in the church.
The only thing you can say about it is that this was the one thing on which all sides were in absolute agreement - they did not want to split the church, even if they were diametrically opposed on points of theology or floundered somewhere in the middle, unsure of what to believe. All of which caused amazing consternation to one group of observers - the Press.
One reporter was seen at the end of the debate pacing up and down the so-called 'Black & White corridor' shaking his head and muttering to himself as if someone very near and dear to him had just met with a serious, if not fatal, accident. When asked what was wrong he could only stammer out something like "M..M...My Editor is going to kill me!"
Why the perceived death threat??
There had been no fight to describe, no catastrophic division of a dying church to report, no 'blood on the carpet' To him it was a disaster...nothing 'newsworthy' had happened; everyone had been unbearably understanding and tolerant towards each other! I suppose it could be said that good news is no news to the news people.
Staying in Edinburgh for the whole week meant my elder and I could go along to lots of 'fringe' events most of which were fairly interesting: especially the lunchtime ones as they usually offered a 'free lunch.' Well - all it cost was agreeing to listen to someone speaking about their topic of interest.
For myself, the best thing about the Assembly (as always) was getting to meet people. Some, I already see regularly at meetings in Edinburgh and elsewhere, many I see only on occasions like the Assembly (and it is so good to catch up on news) and (best of all) there are others I meet for the very first time- from all around the world, Finland, Hungary, Israel, Kenya, Lebanon, USA...etc. etc.
So many interesting people.
We were sharing a house with an American who is the Church of Scotland minister in Budapest and a Hungarian-Romanian woman, both of whom were great company. We had lots of laughs, late into the evening at times.
Another house I seemed to visit quite a few times in the week was the little one at the end of the Royal Mile- not Edinburgh Castle but Holyrood Palace. Sadly, I wasn't asked to stay for dinner on any of the occasions and had to make do with the cucumber sandwiches, or other little canapes.
However I did have a very pleasant lunch with the Moderator and a few other guests on the last day in the Moderator's Room at the Assembly Hall.
As you will have already guessed, apart from meeting people, another very favourite pastime of mine is eating.
But - hey - I'm in good company. Didn't Jesus get a reputation for sometimes being more interested in people and food than the niceties of the Law?

Friday, June 08, 2007

More fish and ships

Now, I don't want this to turn into a cookery blog! But, after receiving a few comments from various people about the story of the whale, I feel it is necessary to offer a little basic culinary advice, for it is clear that not everyone quite got the point about the pasta.
First of all, I concede that you do indeed normally cook pasta in water.
Boiling water!
What you do NOT do is "soak" the pasta in cold water for about three hours! (Which is what happened in the incident recalled.) If you do, you end up with flour and water paste.
Not very appetising, though (as I have demonstrated) occasionally useful.
Secondly, it was this flour and water paste that was used, along with torn up newspapers, to make papier mache, which gave the whale some 'body'. We did not (as some people seem to have thought) glue pieces of pasta to the cardboard. That kind of activity is best left to playgroups and nurseries.
I'm sorry to have to spell things out like this but it is one of the hazards faced by all of us engaged in the business of communication that sometimes the wires get crossed and what you think you said is not what some people thought you said. Ask any preacher.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

A little tale of a ship and a whale

I've been trawling through some of my favourite photographs. This is one I took in 2003 in Boston. It's the mast and rigging of the USS Constitution, otherwise known as "Old Ironsides."
Definitely worth a visit, by the way.
When I found the photograph I thought of doing a post about constitutions. (We may be about to change our church's constitution, for example) but I realised that would be about as exciting as counting rivets (which I suppose someone somewhere has to do from time to time, but I for one would not find it a riveting experience.)
As a boy I was always fascinated by sailing ships. Most Saturdays after visiting my grandparents in Glasgow we would wait for the bus for Port Glasgow at Clyde Street, next to the old clipper ship "The Carrick." [Occasionally, though, we would travel by train - but that's another story for another time.]
I used to try and build model sailing ships myself. I never had enough money to buy the right materials that real model-builders use for all the rigging etc. but I learned to improvise. It's a skill that has stood me in good stead ever since.
Which brings me to the whale...

Many years ago I was leading a Summer Mission Team to Ayr.
As part of our activities with the children I decided we would put on a ten-minute musical known as "Jonah Man Jazz" by Michael Hurd. It's a fun piece of music.
My problem, though, was how to create a whale for the end-of-the-week performance when all the parents would be coming along. That's where I had to improvise.
The rest of the team were having the afternoon off and I was sitting in the Church Hall wondering how to conceive a whale (metaphorically, of course.) [By the way, I know that the Bible itself calls it a "big fish" not a whale... but bear with me please.]

To understand what happened next I have to reveal a rather delicate secret. A member of the team (who is now an excellent cook but at that time was somewhat inexperienced) had been delegated to make the team's dinner on the previous night. It was to be a pasta dish. For about 30 people!
He had been told the quantities of pasta required to feed such a bunch of hungry teenagers. But no one had given him any instructions as to how the pasta should be cooked. Somehow he had got it into his head that it had to be soaked in water. So- picture the scene when the team came back that afternoon to find several large 'dixies' (outsize saucepans) overflowing with a gooey white paste. OK - you got the picture.
One of my fellow leaders wanted to pour the sticky mess down the toilets. But I imagined that this might have led to a kind of constipation in the drainage system and said 'No. I'll think of some way to dispose of it later. '
And there I was one day later, sitting in an empty church hall wondering how to make a whale become.
As a first step I took a piece of chalk and drew the outline of a whale on the floor. It was about 2.5 to 3 metres long. Then I stood and stared at it and asked it out loud "How am I going to make you stand up?"
It so happened that there were workmen doing some repairs on the hall roof and they had left some old bits of timber lying outside. I gathered some and laid them on top of my chalk drawing as a kind of skeleton. (We are at the first part of Ezekiel chapter 37 now ... 'can these dry bones live?' 'Only You know, God!')
The next thing I found were some large cardboard boxes. I opened them out and laid them on top of the wooden 'skeleton.' They could be nailed to the wooden frame and maybe taped together ... I thought .... and then did it.... but it still needs something more.
Of course...!
A eureka moment!
There is always pasta!!!

So, about an hour later when the team arrived back I started handing out the instructions. "Gather as many newspapers as you can and bring them to the hall." And we started slapping on the flour and water paste together with the newspapers to make a papier mache. Two of the girls were sent to a local DIY store to buy grey paint. When the store-keeper asked what shade of grey, they simply said - "The right shade for a whale!"
I would like to have seen his face, but, of course, I was back at the hall directing operations.
How I wish I had a photograph of that creation when it was finished. All I can say (modestly) is that it was perfect for the occasion. It had just enough flexibility to look as if it was alive when it was being carried across the stage, and just enough strength not to fall apart... thanks to the mighty pasta!
It had to be carried by two of the smaller members of the team who would not be seen behind it as they transported it across the stage. One of the 'whale-bearers' had also to hold up various placards such as "Yum! Yum!" when Jonah was thrown into the sea.
But it worked.
Thanks to some improvisation.
You see, even mistakes can be used creatively.
God does it all the time with the mistakes we make.

The only account of the creation of a whale that is even more implausible than this one is the tale recounted by Ted Hughes in his wonderful book of children's stories "How the whale became.." only my tale is a true one and not just a big fishy story.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Hey-Ho...Silver lining

I have not managed to blog for a few days because I've been having computer problems. Amazing things when they work: hair-tearingly frustrating when they don't!
(I won't bore you with the details.)
Anyway... I had a great day today. A real silver lining.
One of our local primary schools (Kirkton) is celebrating its 25th birthday. The scary thing is - I have been their school chaplain for 80% of that time (i.e. for the last 20 years!) Anyway, today the whole school was in the church recording a celebration CD. I was asked to help with some guitar backing etc. It was good fun.
The kids did a brilliant job and I'm sure all those who in the weeks to come manage to get hold of this collector's item will really be pleased and proud to own it.
OK - it won't make the top of the album charts... but I think all the parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, neighbours and passers-by who are asked to buy one from the Primary 7's as part of their "Enterprise" project will enjoy listening to it... at least once.