Friday, December 19, 2008

Behold the duck


Talking of symbols...Manchester seems to have decided to celebrate Christmas without too much reference to Christ.
I apologize for the slightly fuzzy picture above. Maybe I was still shaking with laughter at the giant Santa - or perhaps it is a giant duck in a red coat? Who knows?

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Gaudeamus Igitur


When I first started writing this erratic, and often irrelevant blog, I made up my mind that my starting point for any "reflection" would be a photograph I had taken.
One problem that has arisen periodically is that on occasion I have been too busy to take any photographs and so I've had nothing to say. Another problem is that I had made up my mind, as far as possible, not to include pictures of people - especially if I had not sought their permission first.
But today I am going to break my second 'rule' by posting a picture of one of my daughters, who has just received her Masters Degree - because these are the latest photographs I have taken.
Like all of the other relatives present at the graduation ceremony, I was really only interested in one of the people receiving an award, and therefore almost all of my photographs were of her. However, there was one point in the proceedings (which, incidentally, began at the interestingly original scheduled time of 4.45pm yesterday evening) when I wished I'd had my camera ready.. but sadly I didn't.
So you will have to make do with my verbal description.
What I'm referring to is the entry procession of all the academics.
Depending on how you view these things it was either impressively dignified or ridiculously pompous (often there is only a very thin dividing line between the two... as anyone involved with church things ought to realise!)
I'm afraid my warped way of seeing things ended up in my personal assessment veering toward the latter... i.e. rather ridiculous.
You see, at the beginning of the procession there were two colourfully-robed individuals each carrying, with solemn perpendicularity, what looked to me like a silver plated fish-slice with an extra-long handle.
Bringing up the rear of the procession were two similarly robed individuals. They must have been less important, I suppose, because neither of them had been entrusted with a silver fish slice. Instead they each carried a snooker cue. Well... that's what it looked like to me. What else it might have been I do not know.
Nor have I the slightest clue what these objects represented or symbolised, although I have no doubt that there was some symbolic meaning to all of it- just as once upon a time there must have been some practical purpose for the 'mortar-board' hat. (An easily transported and readily available picnic table perhaps?)
That's the trouble with symbols... if you are not in on the secret they are meaningless.
And yet, for those who do know their meaning, symbols are a very powerful form of shorthand.
Most of my parishioners know that (quite long ago) I stopped wearing clerical robes. Part of the reason for that is that I no longer know what they are supposed to represent... and they often make me feel rather ridiculous, especially if I am playing the guitar.
But at least no one has ever asked me to process into church with a fish slice or a snooker cue...

Monday, December 01, 2008

Nature's Royal Variety Performance

[A frozen, frost-covered Braidwood Loch]

Winter has definitely come to Carluke! Today's sub-zero temperatures would not have stopped me playing tennis (outdoor) this morning [several times in the past we've shovelled snow off the court to allow us to play] but my playing partner had another commitment this morning [or so he said] so the tennis was off.
Instead, I dug out the camera.
[I had to dig it out; it was buried under a pile of papers, folders and books on the big chair in my study!]
I set out on a cool (very cool) photo-shoot.

Braidwood Loch... (in reality it's just a village duckpond, but don't tell the residents of Braidwood I said that. It is, in any case, a very attractive duckpond in all seasons) ...
Braidwood Loch was frozen over and had a fresh layer of frost covering the frozen surface, like a dusting of icing sugar on a cake.

I just love the many different textures that a hard frost is able to create on trees, grass, plants, spiders' webs etc. In some ways, I think frost can sometimes do an even more spectacular transformation-job than snow.


On Wednesday evening the team of volunteers will put up the Christmas tree and decorations in the church, but now matter how creative and artistic they may be (and they usually do a brilliant job) they are not going to be able to compete with Nature's exterior decoration skills.

To top off a spectacular Natural Variety Performance, late this afternoon there was a lunar eclipse of Venus (or more accurately an occultation of Venus.)
Unfortunately, while my camera can do a pretty good job of capturing 'The Frost Show,' it struggles with the night sky and objects as far as away as Venus. This is the best I could do at capturing Venus as she re-appeared from behind the moon.


And all of this is free... no need to pay for a television licence to see the show!

[Readers from outside of the UK might wonder what this is. We pay a licence fee which funds the BBC.]

Friday, November 28, 2008

From a bridge to a wall

The Great Wall of China at Badeling

I'm grateful to Peter about his comments on my photographs from Olympic Park Seoul and, of course, I have no objection to him (or anyone) using them as a desktop wallpaper. As long as no one tries to make any money out of them - though that's pretty unlikely.
The photograph I am currently using on my own desktop is the one above of the Great Wall of China. It's quite a contrast to the serenity of Olympic Park, with its the lone walker striding into the distance. There were so many people crammed into this particular section of the Great Wall that it was more jostling than walking.
And yet... for me there was something serene and awe-inspiring about this location too.
As I stopped and looked out at the Wall, seeing it snake across the countryside in bizarrely random directions as it clings impossibly to the contours of the hills and mountains, and knowing that it continues like this for over 2500 miles, I felt a sense of awe and amazement at what had been constructed here.
Much of it, I suppose, is in ruins and the Chinese authorities have been quite clever to concentrate visitors on particular restored sections like this one (nearest to Beijing.)
Looking at all the people going up and down various sections of the wall reminded me of watching ants at work, except that ants seem to have a much greater sense of purpose about what they are doing.
If we are being watched from outer space (and whether we are, or are not, makes absolutely no difference to me...) but if we are, I wonder what our extra-terrestrial observers would make of our crowded highways and even of that scene above?
...And back down here, with all the gloomy news of recession and Credit Crunch (possible name for a new breakfast cereal perhaps...?) do any of us really know where we are going?

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Bridging the Gap


I've always been fascinated by bridges.
I once had the "brilliant" idea of photographing all the bridges over the River Clyde, from source to estuary and writing an illustrated book telling the story of each bridge. (Some of them are pretty old, it has to be said.)
I gave up the idea when I realised that it is almost impossible to say which of the small tributaries that come together near Abington is the real source of the Clyde and also when I realised I couldn't be bothered doing all the research that would be necessary.
There are plenty of bridges in South Korea. It is, after all, a very mountainous country. Seoul itself has something like 27 bridges spanning the Han River- some of them quite impressive feats of engineering.
We came across the construction of a new bridge on our journey towards the border with North Korea and I managed to snap a few pictures from the window of our fairly fast-moving bus. (Hence the blurring in the foreground.)
I wanted the pictures because it seemed to me that this unfinished bridge was a symbol of our developing partnership.
In so many areas of life - not least in the Christian Church - there is a desperate need to tear down dividing walls and at the same time to build connecting bridges.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Olympic Park


Talking of exercise... the favourite form of exercise in Korea is also one of the least expensive... walking! Every morning, hundreds of thousands (maybe millions) of the citizens of Seoul religiously set out for a walk. It's the same in the evening. And, not surprisingly, one of the favourite places to walk is Olympic Park - a real oasis in the midst of the busy city, full of measured pathways so that you know exactly how many kilometres you have covered. And (of course) beautifully kept!
Given the number of people who were in Olympic Park on the morning I took these photographs, it was quite an achievement to make it look so deserted.

Monday, November 17, 2008

And on a lighter note...


Just to prove that newspapers are not completely full of bad news... there is a little snippet in today's Herald (not in the electronic version) which says that "songs that make our hearts soar can make them stronger too." Apparently even just listening to 'heart-warming' songs can be good for your heart, and this very non-aerobic form of exercise has a similar effect to that of recently-lauded medications, such as statins and ACE inhibitors.
I would just want to add that singing such songs yourself (including inspiring hymns) is even better.
It has long been known that singing has positive health benefits for everybody (except occasionally for those who may be in earshot??)

Thoughts on a depressingly rainy Monday morning

At the North Korean border

Since yesterday was the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church* and also the start of Prisoners' Week, our evening service last night focused entirely on the plight of Christians in various parts of the world who are oppressed, imprisoned and persecuted because of their faith.
Following on from my recent visit to South Korea, we included a special focus on North Korea.
North Korea is, as most people will know, a very closed society out of which it is very difficult to get accurate impartial information but the estimates are that there are about 400,000 Christians in North Korea and anything up to a quarter of them are currently imprisoned, many of them subjected to torture and some to execution.
Religious persecution is, of course, nothing new, and down through the centuries the Christian Church itself has often been guilty of horrendous abuses of power, especially in relation to Jews, and to Muslims at the time of the Crusades.
There is something very dark and dangerous in our human nature that is able to pervert the thoroughly wholesome desire for a sense of belonging and togetherness into the brutally destructive impulse to cast out those who seem to be different, or to attack those who do not belong to your tribe.
The attitude of Jesus himself was directly opposed to this sectarianism and he deliberately, and provocatively, stepped over boundaries in the company he kept and in his willingness to embrace the stranger. Of course, we know where that led him.
It has never been easy to stand up for the truth.
I was disturbed this morning to read a number of articles in the Herald that indicated that all is not well even within our so-called 'free' world.
In the first of them is the shocking statistic that one in four children have been bullied because of their faith.
Another article reported on the intolerant attitude of many adults in our society to children in general. (Apparently, half the population believes children are dangerous and behave like animals!)
In a third is reported the sadly predictable reaction of some people in the USA to the election of Barack Obama in a wave of racially-motivated crimes all over the States.
As well as praying for those (of all faiths) being persecuted around the world simply because of what they believe, and praying for those who persecute them, we also have to be constantly vigilant about what is happening in our own back yards. Somehow we have to 'stamp out' the small fires of intolerance that could easily be whipped up into the wildfires of outright hatred.


*in some places Sunday 9th November was observed as the Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church

Saturday, November 15, 2008

New Horizon

Another picture of the sun rising over the East Sea near Sokcho.

I have just returned home from a "reunion."
To be honest I wasn't really looking forward to it... though as things turned out I am very glad that I went.
I think my apprehension was related to another reunion that I had attended in 1988 to mark the 400th anniversary of my secondary school (Hamilton Academy.) That event had taken place in the old school building itself and I found the whole experience a little bit disorientating - not because everything had changed, but on the contrary because most things seemed to be still the same as they had been more than 20 years previously.
Of course, many of the people had changed... outwardly at least.
The trouble is - I found the whole school reunion thing so superficial and even artificial- and I kept asking myself why I was there? What did I really have in common with all these other people?
A few years ago I also attended a reunion of my Final Year group from University (Divinity Faculty) and I found it equally strange. Just another poignant reminder of how quickly time passes.
But tonight's reunion somehow was quite different.
The purpose of the evening was to mark the 35th anniversary of a Christian singing group that I used to be in and of which, for a while, I was one of the leaders. The group was called "New Horizon" and it was formed in 1973. I had to leave the group in 1978 when I began work as an assistant minister in Castlehill Church in Ayr.
After I left, the group continued for another 17 years, performing and recording under the excellent musical leadership of Ian Watson. Since New Horizon continued long after my departure many of the newer members of the group were people I did not know, and had never known, and I think part of my apprehension (apart from my previous 'reunion' experiences) arose out of the feeling that since I had only been in the group at the very start of its life, I wasn't really a very significant part of its whole story. In the event that feeling quickly disappeared on entering the hall.
It was just a big family reunion.
But what made tonight special was that I met some people I hadn't expected to meet (and, to be honest, had always thought I might never meet again) and found that in spite of all the intervening years we could easily talk with each other as if we'd last met on Tuesday!
It's as if things that really matter to you never change and yet are always new.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Take my breath away


The standard of driving in Seoul is not quite as hair-raising as that of Beijing (where taxi drivers seem to be on a perpetual mission to drive people to pray - well every taxi journey I took certainly drove me to pray... for safety!!)
But the driving style of Seoulites can still leave you a bit breathless when you are but a passenger, especially if your driver has a habit of accelerating as fast as possible towards clearly-red traffic lights and the obviously stationary vehicles up front, or when he/she chooses to career violently from one lane to another through seemingly impossible/invisible spaces.
(It reminded me a little of the Rockin' Roller Coaster at Disney's MGM Studios... but maybe even hairier! Although I remember as we went round the first 'bend' of that particular ride my specs flew sideways off my face. Amazingly, I caught them in my right hand.)
Anyway, back to car journeys through Seoul...
Worst experience of all was when my taxi driver decided to do a high speed illegal U-turn against a red-light into 6 lanes of oncoming traffic, then (in the space of a few yards) dart from the outside lane right across to the pavement in order to stop outside my hotel!!
As a guest, of course, you feel that you can say nothing- you just quietly grip the edge of your seat and try to take in the scenery as you are propelled along.
Having said that, much of the time that you spend on Seoul's roads you are going nowhere!
Since Seoul is the second most populated metropolitan area in the world (Tokyo having the dubious privilege of topping the list) one thing the city is rarely short of is the traffic jam!
But even the ironically-named "rush hour" can have its compensations.
I was stuck in one such traffic jam and my eye was drawn upwards to the elegant street lamps bathed in the late afternoon sunshine. They seemed to me to be like a flock of migrating geese (albeit the ones on the left only seem have one wing!)


Sometimes in our everyday lives we may feel we are being propelled at breakneck speed by events beyond our control, but occasionally you get the chance to stop... and look up and find beauty in everyday things.
Try it some time.
It might take your breath away in a different way altogether.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Land of the Morning Calm


Talking of the new dawn... early morning is one of my favourite times for taking photographs. (Well, sometimes it is.)
The picture above was taken during the Korean trip, looking out on the East Sea from Sokcho, or at least near to Sokcho.
Before the sun had come up, the waters opposite our hotel were buzzing with little cuttlefish boats plying backwards and forwards, but despite all the activity there was a wonderful sense of calm and tranquillity, perhaps enhanced by the way in which the rising sun had transformed the sea into what looked like a vast lake of molten gold.
Perhaps not every new dawn is quite so spectacular but when one does come along, wherever it may be, it is worth taking the time to stop and stare and drink it in.
Even seeing the photograph full-screen on the pc rekindles something of the sense of calm of that morning.
Easy to see why Korea is called "Land of the Morning Calm"

(In fact 'Land of the Morning Calm' is apparently an English language nickname loosely derived from the hanja characters for Joseon, the name derived from the Joseon Dynasty and the earlier Gojoseon.)

The dawn of Hope

(Sunrise on the Indian River, Florida, Feb 2008)

Am I imagining this (or perhaps projecting my own feelings on to those of others) but isn't most of the world heaving a sigh of relief at the result of the US Presidential Elections? Well, I am at least. Congratulations, Barack Obama! Naturally, we in Scotland are trying to claim him as one of our own! With slightly more justification the Kenyans too are excited and proud.
I was particularly heartened by the obvious desire of the American electorate to embrace change.
I am old enough to remember the 1960's - a time when black people in some parts of the States were not even allowed to vote. And now...?
Love them or loathe them, there is no doubt that Americans know how to 'do optimism.' (A little linguistic nod there to the way in which they are also skilled at 'doing in' the English language!)
The American Dream has been resurrected and I for one rejoice in that.
Living as I do in a much older nation, with an often tired and cynical attitude to democracy and to politics in general, I find it refreshing to witness the audacity of hope.
One 'scary' thing about Election 2008, though, is how closely reality seemed to mirror the fictional storyline of The West Wing. I think someone should check Obama's name. Maybe it is really Matt Santos?

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Salted shrimp, anyone?


On a visit to Ganghwa Island with my host and friend, Rev. Chang Bin, we found ourselves at the annual salted shrimp festival. It was a very colourful sight, especially the market stalls, but no photograph can capture the sounds or smells of such a marketplace. Nor can any of my words describe just HOW salted these tiny shrimps were!! Wow! Even thinking about it makes me thirsty! Not my favourite I have to say.
Actually, during our Korean trip I tasted all sorts of dishes that you are not likely to find in the average Scottish diet. Most of them (including seaweed, stuffed octopus, tofu soup, cold noodle soup, and even stuffed pigs intestines..) I could eat... and enjoy. And some, especially kimchi, I absolutely love!
But there was one dish I was happy to steer well clear of... hot, roasted bugs. I can't remember exactly what kind of larvae they were (perhaps even silkworm) but the smell of them roasting on a stall near the Seoul Tower at Namsan ensured that I gave that particular stall a very wide bodyswerve.
On the whole, though, I am a pretty adventurous eater. I can't understand people who travel to far off places then insist on eating exactly the same things they would at home. What's the point of that?
But sometimes even I have to draw the line.
When you think of all the strange things that human beings do eat in various places around the world it makes you wonder who first decided to try eating some of these things. It also makes you wonder how many people learned the hard way what NOT to eat.
What's the strangest dish you've ever eaten?

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Answer me...


As the weather turns very much colder here, and the first falls of snow being reported around the country, memories of warm Autumn days in Korea and China begin to fade very quickly.
Thankfully the hundreds of photographs I took confirm to me that it wasn't just a dream. I did actually return to Korea a couple of weeks ago.
While visiting the Korean Folk Village near Yongin, south of Seoul, we stumbled upon a film shoot for some Korean costume drama. The picture above shows some of the actors waiting on the call to go on set. If you look closely, you'll see that at least three of them are busy with their mobile phones while they wait.
I wonder if any of them have had their phones ring in the middle of a take?
These days there seems to be no place to escape the cell-phone.
During a service of worship in Korea, where I was preaching, a cell-phone started ringing very loudly. It wasn't too difficult to see who was the owner of the phone was as a red-faced member of the choir struggled to get into her handbag to switch it off!
It's a wonderful invention, and one I use myself from time to time, but maybe the mobile phone has made many of us even less patient than before. We expect to be able to reach people at any time and we get disappointed, frustrated, and even annoyed if they don't answer. (Well that is certainly how I have felt when trying to get hold of someone recently.)
How different from the old days when missionaries, or other travellers, went to far off lands are were never heard of for years at a time.
Maybe it also affects the attitude of some of us Christians to the business of prayer. If we don't get the answer we want straight away then we give up all too easily, forgetting that the primary point and purpose of prayer is not about getting what we want but about building a relationship of trust with God.
If I was God I think there would be times when I would put my phone to 'silent' or even switch it off altogether... there's always the answering machine, after all. (Now there's another device with an ironic name, since it never gives you an answer to your question!)

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Watching me watching you


I have finally managed to work my way through the many hundreds of photographs I took during my recent trip to South Korea and China. All I can say is 'thank goodness for digital photography!' Otherwise I would have gone through something like 4 dozen rolls of 35mm film (the 36 exposures size) and I would have needed the GDP of a small country to pay for the developing of the prints!
Of course, with digital photography most of the pictures don't get printed at all. And many of them are never looked at again.
The one obvious advantage of the digital photograph is the fact that you can see the picture immediately after you've taken it. (Which also means you can delete it straight away too.)
However, no matter how good the preview window in your camera (and mine is pretty good) you don't see all the details of the shot you've taken until after you view it full size on the computer screen.
Then, occasionally, you get a surprise.
Take a look at the photograph above, for example. Clearly it is a picture of part of the Great Wall of China- a truly awe-inspiring sight I have to admit. You'll see many people walking on that section of the wall.
But take a closer look (click on the picture to enlarge it if necessary) and you may notice someone who wasn't satisfied with taking the same photographs as everyone else but was determined to view things from his own perspective. Do you see him? Just behind the bushes?
I really didn't notice him when I took the picture.
But, then, even though we try to train ourselves to be attentive to the world around us there is still so much that we miss all the time, is there not?

Thursday, October 16, 2008

On top of the world


One of many photographs taken at the summit of Seoraksan (Mt. Seorak.)
Clear air, brilliant blue sky... and a Korean poser! [I'm pretty sure he came up most of the mountain in the cable car just as we did!]
But he does look pretty impressive, don't you think?
I wonder if "Visit Korea" would be interested in using the photo?

Across the great divide


I've never been hugged by a General before... but a few days ago that was my experience as we stood on the northern border of South Korea looking across the demilitarized zone and into North Korea. The General himself was our host for lunch, and our guide, as we visited an observation post on the border. That certainly made getting through checkpoints pretty easy. We were treated once more as VIPs.
It was part of a three-day tour around the area including Seoraksan National Park which provided us with some stunning scenery and many unforgettable experiences, as well as hundreds of photographs. But having returned to Seoul a few days ago and being able to reflect on the whole trip it was perhaps that visit to the border which has left the strongest impression on me. Of course, I knew that Korea was a divided country, technically still at war, but I had not really grasped the heartache that this brings to many Koreans whose families have been torn apart for more than a generation.
Not everyone in Korea wants re-unification, though, and there are certainly fierce disagreements about how to go about trying to achieve it, even if it were possible (which it is not at the moment.) But it is as if the Korean people have been caught on a geopolitical fault line where the 'tectonic plates' of opposing ideologies and values are being pushed up against each other.
There are a number of such spots around the world; the most obvious one being in Israel/Palestine.
With the advent of nuclear weapons the fear is that any 'volcanic' eruption in any of these fault zones will prove to be catastrophic for the whole planet.
Our South Korean guests urged us to pray for their divided nation. Our visit to the border has made such urging unnecessary as I could not help but be deeply moved by the whole situation and, as there is little of practical value that I can do in that situation, prayer seems the only option left.
Returning to my encounter with the General, I have to say no one could have been more courteous, gracious, friendly or welcoming... but I wouldn't ever want to be his enemy!

Saturday, October 11, 2008

In a pause between meals...


This time I have a good reason for not being able to blog! I've been in South Korea since Wednesday heading a delegation from the Presbytery of Lanark (Church of Scotland) to East Seoul Presbytery (Presbyterian Church in the Republic of Korea) and we have been very busy since we have arrived. Also I have not had much opportunity to get online.
The picture above is meant to back up this claim as it shows us standing outside the national Headquarters of the PROK with two of our Korean hosts.
To be honest, the trip so far has been like one long meal interrupted by occasional activity!!
We are certainly not going to starve, physically or spiritually.
Last night on top of the feast of food we were given a feast of culture as various churches and individuals from East Seoul Presbytery put on a spectacular concert for us in Dongkwang Church. Our hosts preferred to call it a cultural exchange as it gave them the excuse to insist that we had to sing something Scottish. (In the end we gave in and sang something Scottish followed by something Korean - but with English words) However, there was no way we could compete with the Korean Drumming group, the Korean fan dancing group, the duo playing traditional Korean intruments, the fabulous young opera singer, the dancers, the accordion band (complete with the former Moderator of the East Seoul Presbytery on the harmonica) OR the ten-piece saxophone band made up of Korean policemen!! There will be photographs to follow to show I am not making all of this up.
I'm not sure if there is a TV programme of this name yet but let me tell you KOREA'S GOT TALENT!
But most of all it has a warm-hearted and generous people who know how to offer hospitality in a big, BIG way... especially when it comes to food! (I'm glad the weight restrictions set by the airlines apply only to the baggage and not the passengers.)

Thursday, October 02, 2008

The Party's Over

Well it didn't last long!! Final Score = Motherwell 0 Nancy 2.
Less than 18 minutes of the game gone and it was more or less over. Even though in my opinion there should not even have been a free kick awarded (which is what led to the first goal) as there was no foul committed that I could see [and I was right in the front row a few yards from it!] we were outplayed on the night by a far better footballing side. And they weren't brilliant. Motherwell were just very amateurish throughout.
The only thing Nancy lacked was a little bit of compassion! They might have let us enjoy the party for longer than 17 minutes!

Getting stuck in

The full picture. And the right way up!
Tess, our cat, in cat-heaven with her head stuck in an ice-cream tub.
(It was more or less empty, I should say... before I get angry messages from cat owners telling me that the ice cream would have been bad for her.)
Sticking your head in a tub and hiding from the world can often seem like an attractive proposition, especially in a hectic week like this one.
Two funerals, a wedding, an elders training evening, all age youth service to plan, among other things... and I'm trying to get ready for an overseas trip.
AND...not forgetting... Motherwell v Nancy tomorrow night!!!
Let's hope the 'Well team get well and truly stuck in and get a result.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Life is full of little mysteries

Yes, I know I've been a little bit lazy with the blog of late. It's so easy to get out of the routine/habit, and when you stop blogging, for whatever reason, it's not long before the blank screen starts to intimidate you and you just can't think what on earth to write about.
Part of my problem is that I started out this blog determined to use photographs I had taken myself as a starting point for some 'random reflections' but recently my camera hasn't seen the light of day except at weddings I have recently conducted. (I usually take a picture of the happy couple for our church magazine.) Although there have been quite a few weddings lately, I don't this is the place for wedding photographs.
As a little aside, however, I was amused (even a bit flattered) when the manager of one of our more popular local wedding venues offered me a job as a 'toastmaster'!
Needless to say it was an offer I could not accept. [For one thing I already miss too many Motherwell home games with weddings on Saturdays. And, perhaps much more importantly, I don't think I'm allowed to take on a second job... of any kind... even if I had the time.)
Anyway, back to the point- you may be wondering what on earth this particular picture is about.
If you are... that's good.
For that is precisely why I have put it here.
I thought it was time for another mystery picture.
Only this one is probably a slightly easier one to guess than the last one.
Talking of Motherwell home games, at long last today we got a home win. Not a particularly convincing one but a welcome one all the same, especially as the home leg of our UEFA cup tie is on Thursday night.
The winning goal today was scored, rather unexpectedly, by the midfielder Bob Malcolm. It would be good to think of it as a sweet first-time volley but in reality the ball just kind of bounced off his thigh and trundled over the line. The first reaction of most of the supporters around me this afternoon was to burst out laughing! although celebrations did follow when we realised that the unthinkable had actually happened.
Life is full of surprises and little mysteries is it not?
Tomorrow, however, I will be attempting to reflect on the truly unfathomable mystery of the Trinity - just the thing for a holiday weekend, don't you think?

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Law of Unintended Consequences


Yesterday I was in Dundee representing Lanark Presbytery at the Church of Scotland's Church & Society Council Conference. It meant I was unable to watch my team (Motherwell FC) being thrashed 4 -2 by Celtic. Maybe I didn't miss much there.
But even apart from that I was glad that I did get the opportunity to take part in that particular conference, especially because the keynote speaker was Dr. Denis Alexander, a distinguished biochemist and Director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at St. Edmund's College, Cambridge. His presentation, entitled 'Transcending Dawkins' God: renewing the positive interface between science and faith,' was informative, intelligent, interesting and inspiring.
I was delighted to get the chance to have a substantial conversation with him afterwards. Later, I also couldn't resist buying a couple of his books. (All I need now is some time to read them.)
There's no way I could summarise in a couple of paragraphs here Dr. Alexander's carefully argued and convincing presentation which showed there is no necessary conflict between science and faith but I can't resist sharing one little anecdote from his talk concerning Richard Dawkins' book "The God Delusion."
Apparently one of the scientists who is on Dr. Alexander's team in his Cambridge Lab was a confirmed atheist ... until, as a result of reading Dawkins' book, the atheistic scientist was converted to the Christian faith!
Now don't tell me God doesn't have a sense of humour!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Social Networking


The world's largest particle physics laboratory, CERN, has been in the news lately and by now most people will probably know that it was here in 1989 that the Internet or World Wide Web first came into existence. A neat irony that! In order to break up atoms, it was necessary to bring scientific minds together by inventing a brand new means of communication.
I don't suppose Tim Berners-Lee and the others who first set up the original 'internet' ever dreamt that it would become the sprawling giant that it now is.
There have, of course, been some downsides to the whole project because any tool that human beings create can be used to harm as well as to help but overall it has been an amazing force for transcending borders and boundaries and opening up the field of knowledge to people all over the world.
And, what's more, it has been very useful for enabling people to keep in touch with one another all around the world, or even to help create new relationships altogether.

In the last few days, I've had a couple of interesting personal examples of this.

First of all, through Facebook, I received a message from a young man who had once been in our youth fellowship in Duntocher, over 20 years ago. Inevitably we had lost touch and I had no idea where he was or what he was doing.
Now, thanks to the internet, he has got in touch with me and I discover he (and his family) are in Canada and involved in a Presbyterian Church there.
What moved me most, however, was the little postscript he added at the end of his email:
"PS. You'll never know just how close I came to chucking in the shipyard for the cloth! You inspired us all!"

And then, just today, I received an email from Australia with the subject-heading "Do I know you."
Apparently the sender had (through Google) randomly stumbled upon this blog and my name rang a bell.
So he wrote:
"Are you possibly the Iain Cunningham I knew in the late 60's, early 70's from East Kilbride who attended Hamilton Acadmey at the same time as I did. The comments and tone of the entries on the blog are very reminiscent of the young lad I remember although the photo does him no justice at all."
What did he mean?? I haven't changed a bit! ...Have I?
To both Dougie and Wullie I'd like to say - if you are still reading this blog - thanks for getting in touch!
And to Tim Berners-Lee (and everyone at CERN) - thanks for making it possible!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Black Hole

Well the LHC at CERN (don't you love acronyms!!) has been switched on... and so far, so good...
We have not all disappeared down a black hole... yet... though some pessimists believe it is still a real possibility.
However, if anyone is interested... I KNOW what happens when you disappear into a black hole.
(So does anyone else who has ever been inside my study! )
And, although it may seem to flout the laws of physics and everything else, I can report that from time to time it is possible to get back out of it and into the real world again. I do it all the time.
In the international footballing scene Scotland seemed to dig themselves into a bit of a black hole in Macedonia but tonight they dug themselves back out of it with a gritty 2 -1 victory over Iceland. (I think that might be a local supermarket team, but I'm not sure.) Even here, though, they peered over the edge of the "event horizon" when the team captain got sent off and they had to hang on desperately for the last ten minutes or so.
If you have no idea what I'm talking about just now, you either haven't been watching the news or you couldn't care less about football, or both.
By the way, I'm sorry I wasn't able to upload a picture to go with this post. I tried to take some photographs of black holes but I couldn't get them in focus. :-)

Friday, September 05, 2008

A recovering chaplain

I've just spent a very interesting/exhausting 5 days or so in St. Andrews. Unfortunately, it didn't involve any golf, or walking on the beach, or relaxing in seaside cafes or restaurants. It did, however, involve some serious over-eating!
I was at St. Andrews University, serving as chaplain to a conference run by the Church of Scotland Ministries Council for candidates for the ministry.
And a very interesting bunch of folk they are too!
Of course, as chaplain I have to observe strict confidentiality so I can't tell you all the different things that made this group (of about 90 people) so interesting. :-)
Seriously, though, it was quite encouraging to know that there are still men and women with great skills, talents and abilities willing to accept the call to ministry.
It's a long time ago now but when I think back to the days when I was training for the ministry I regret that we never had anything like these conferences (or many of the other things that are now in place for students) to help prepare us for the task. We (more or less) had to jump in at the deep end and hope that we could very quickly learn to swim.
And, not surprisingly, many didn't, and went under within the first five years of ministry.
I was delighted to learn just the other day while at the conference that there are now virtually no ministers dropping out during the first five years of ministry.
That can only be a good thing for everyone concerned.
Anyway, I know I said that I was sworn to secrecy... but without naming any names I can reveal that somewhere down the line some congregation somewhere is going to call a minister with the extraordinary (and totally useless) talent of convincingly impersonating a velociraptor.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Sheep may safely graze


We have not seen very much sunshine in this part of the world this "summer."
However, most of the many weddings I have conducted since June have been blessed with good weather. One evening in early July, I was heading home from one of those weddings through a lovely part of rural South Lanarkshire (near Quothquan) and I couldn't resist stopping at this point to take a photograph of these peaceful fields. There were plenty of clouds in the sky but just enough breaks in them to allow the evening sunshine to light up the rolling hills and fields. The sheep lazily grazing away just added to the sense of tranquillity. I could have driven past in a hurry because (as always) there were many things still to do that evening but how much more satisfying to stop the car, get out and then just stare...
Reminds me of the poem by W.H. Davies.

Leisure

WHAT is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare?—

No time to stand beneath the boughs,
And stare as long as sheep and cows:

No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass:

No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night:

No time to turn at Beauty's glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance:

No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began?

A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Gie us peace!


I came across this interesting stone in the churchyard of St. Dieniol's Church, next door to the library.
When I first saw it I actually mis-read it as "The Place of God."
It seemed to me to be a fairly accurate summary of what many people nowadays think and feel. God's place is consigned to the graveyard!
It can be true in two different senses: firstly in the sense that the only time some people think about God at all is when they are confronted by the end of their own life or the life of someone they care about, and secondly (and perhaps even more common) is the notion that God himself is dead and faith in God is nothing but a foolish delusion.
Many people are happy therefore to wish that God will "Rest in Peace" and that those who still go on talking about God will give it a rest. ("Gie us peace!" being their watchword.)
I think for me part of the problem lies in the way that the words "peace" and "quiet" have become associated with each other.
We need a much more robust and lively understanding of what peace is.
It is not just the absence of war, or conflict, or even of hassle.
It is not just about having some space or time out of the busyness of living.
In other words, it is not the peace of the graveyard.
I much prefer the Biblical/Hebrew concept of "shalom" which (brilliantly) can be used as a noun, as a verb or as an adjective as well as being the means of saying 'hello' or goodbye.' Peace is something you do, as well as something you can have and a quality that can permeate anything.
This is a positive, muscular, heavy-duty kind of peace that is life-affirming and life-enhancing. It is about things not being broken or wounded or incomplete. It's about fulfilment and engagement: not escape.
That's the kind of peace I wish you all...
but here are the lyrics of an old Eagles song that could perhaps be taken either way
"I Wish You Peace"
I wish you peace when the cold winds blow
Warmed by the fire's glow
I wish you comfort in the, the lonely time
And arms to hold you when you ache inside
I wish you hope when things are going bad
Kind words when times are sad
I wish you shelter from the, the raging wind
Cooling waters at the fever's end
I wish you peace when times are hard
The light to guide you through the dark
And when storms are high and your, your dreams are low
I wish you the strength to let love grow on,
I wish you the strength to let love flow,
I wish you peace when times are hard
A light to guide you through the dark
And when storms are high and your, you dreams are low
I wish you the strength to let love grow on,
I wish you the strength to let love flow,
I wish you the strength to let love glow on
I wish you the strength to let love go on.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Reader part 2


Well... holiday time is over and it was back to work for me this weekend.
Hopefully it will also mean back to some blogging.
Weather-wise it was a pretty disappointing break. Most of the time I seem to have succeeded in avoiding any glimpses of sunshine that may just have fallen on the British Isles the last couple of weeks. I was in a number of places in England and Wales, including Manchester, Hawarden (more of which in a moment) Bristol and Buckinghamshire. And wherever I happened to be at any given moment, the sunshine was usually somewhere else.
In fact the photograph above is a little bit misleading in that there is actually quite a lot of blue sky showing. An hour or so after that moment, however, there was yet another monsoon.
Having said that, the main aim of my holiday break was not affected in any way by the weather, for I had decided that what I wanted to do most was some reading. Nothing too taxing or demanding. Nothing too 'useful' either. This was to be reading as a form of escape and relaxation.
I had intended (as I said in my last blog) to start with Jonathan Coe's "The Rotter's Club" and in fact I had begun reading before I left home.
Unfortunately, I forgot to take the book with me and for the moment it remains unfinished.
However, I had managed to pack a few others and over the course of the two weeks I read the following:
1. The Reader by Bernhard Schlink. Actually I finished this just before I went on holiday. Excellent story, well-written. Definitely to be recommended.
2. The Rotter's Club by Jonathan Coe. Interrupted in mid-read by my all-too-common forgetfulness- so no final judgement on this one - though I really was enjoying it.
3. One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson. Very well written crime/detective novel set in Edinburgh. Interesting and (mostly) believable characters and an intricate but well-controlled plot line. Another good escapist read.
4. Enigma by Robert Harris. Some years ago I saw the film of this fiction, set in wartime Bletchley Park, and I thought I might find reading the book pretty boring, but it certainly wasn't. Actually I find the true story of Bletchley Park exciting but there is enough of the real historical background in the book to make it work. Having visited Bletchley Park itself a couple of years ago it was very easy to visualise every location in the novel. Another recommended read.
5. Out by Natsuo Kirino. I'm not sure exactly why I chose to buy this particular book. It is not the kind of story I would normally feel attracted to. It is certainly not one for the faint-hearted. But it was the highlight of my summer reading- though highlight is a particularly ironic word in the context. Brilliantly gritty and disturbing, this 520 page novel is a descent into the darkness of the human psyche and it leaves you wondering what any one of us just might be capable of doing, and what boundaries any of us might just cross if the circumstances were right (or should I say wrong?) Probably what makes the story most disturbing is that the circumstances in question amount to little more than boredom and hopelessness. But you'll need to read it for yourself to see what I'm talking about.
6. Steal You Away by Niccolo Ammaniti. Another story populated by low-life characters; this time in Italy. I didn't find this novel quite as enjoyable as Ammaniti's first book "I'm Not Scared" but it had its moment.
7. The Two of Us by Sheila Hancock (My Life with John Thaw) I haven't yet finished reading this biography/autobiography but it is certainly much more than you average showbiz biog. Very well written and interesting, especially the structure of the two lives side-by-side.
8. Flights of Love by Bernhard Schlink (author of The Reader) This is really a collection of seven different stories. They are slightly longer than the average short story, all written in the same cool, understated but poetic style as The Reader. The stories are not connected with each other on the surface but the title Flights of Love indicates a shared theme, explored in many different ways. It ends up as a pretty uneven collection, though. I think some of the stories try to do too much in their attempt to deal with Germany's historical past but there is also some pretty good pieces of writing in the midst all of this. Unfortunately, I don't think it quite reached the heights of The Reader.
9. Raids on the Unspeakable by Thomas Merton and
10. The New Man by Thomas Merton.
These last two books I borrowed from and read in St. Deiniol's Library in Hawarden (pictured above) where I stayed for two nights.
It was a trial visit, scouting out a possible location for some study leave next year. The library's website advertises it as a place for "bed, board and books", but it is also a place to meet some really interesting people, most of whom were engaged in much more intellectual pursuits than I was, writing dissertations for postgraduate degrees or books for publication and so on.
I think I will be back.

Friday, July 25, 2008

A few extraordinary moments


Following up on my previous post... one of the books on my summer reading list that I am really enjoying just now is the above "The Rotters' Club" by Jonathan Coe.
It's a delightful read.
Here's a short paragraph that gives another slant to what I said in the previous post. It's an extract from a story within the story, written by the main character:
"I wonder if all experience can really be distilled to a few extraordinary moments, perhaps six or seven of them vouchsafed to us in a lifetime, and any attempt to trace a connection between them is futile. And I wonder if there are some moments in life not only 'worth purchasing with worlds', but so replete with emotion that they become stretched, timeless, like the moment when Inger and Emil sat on that bench in the rose garden and smiled at the camera..."

The Elusive Butterfly


Even without a proper zoom lens it is not difficult to get good close-up pictures of flowers because, for the most part, they just sit there, perfectly still. Unlike people they don't freeze in front of a camera or put on a funny face to hide embarrassment. You don't have to ask them to smile. What you see is what you get.
Photographing a butterfly is a bit more difficult -especially without a good telephoto lens- because they never seem to stay still for more than a few seconds.
On the dunes above Embo beach in Sutherland I came across a patch of thistles which seemed to be a happy feeding ground for a whole host of butterflies.
Above is one of them.
I know it is a fritillary but I'm not 100% sure which one as (I believe) there are three kinds of fritillary found in the north east of Scotland. [Again, someone more knowledgeable correct my facts if they are wrong, please.]
I think this may be a Dark Green Fritillary.
Now - I know it doesn't look in the slightest bit green but that just proves the ingenuity of those who identify and classify things like butterflies, of which there are so many varieties. The green (apparently) is on the underside of the wings (of the male only?) I can't remember exactly what I read somewhere about them and I don't have time to check.
To get a clear enough picture [and remember to click on the picture to see it full size] I had to get in to about half a metre from it. Not easy when the butterfly refuses to sit still for more than a few seconds at a time. This one, however, was enjoying a long drink of thistle nectar and gave me just enough time to snap away.
I think it is the elusiveness and fragility of butterflies that makes them so fascinating. (I can't help feeling my age when a certain song by Val Doonican runs through my head as I type these words!! - The Elusive Butterfly of Love, for those too young or too sophisticated to know.)
I may have quoted these lines before but many, many years ago I once wrote:
"The painting of a word on paper
or the ghost of an idea
are as fleeting as the glance of light
reflected from the rippled pool,
or the wings of a butterfly
rubbed against the summer air."
(c) Iain D. Cunningham
One thing I love about photography is its ability (very occasionally) to freeze such elusive moments in time; though perhaps in the very act of doing so, the reality is distorted. Butterflies, for example, just do not sit still for as long as it took you to read these words!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Impulse buying


Last week I bought myself a new guitar!
(A Tacoma DM14C electro-acoustic if you want to know.)

I've been saving up for one for a while.
My trusty old Yamaha FG-335 acoustic has just celebrated its 30th birthday and, like myself, it is getting a bit worn around the edges - or to be more precise along the fretboard. Admittedly I have seen a lot more than 30 birthdays.
Recently the Yamaha has also been harder to keep in tune for some reason. Maybe the tuners are just worn out too.
I was amazed to discover that people still buy and sell that old Yamaha on eBay for as much as £150. It was a good guitar, and has served me well, since it was first given to me away back in 1978. It's built like a tank and has withstood a fair amount of rough handling without any major injury. Unfortunately it would probably cost £100-£150 to have it re-fretted and the fingerboard repaired or replaced, so I thought the time had come to look for a replacement.
I did my usual thing and embarked on some research into makes and models - Ibanez, Takamine, Freshman, Tanglewood, Taylor (way out of my price range!)...
I saw (and more importantly heard) Newton Faulkner play his hand-built Benjamin guitar and briefly lusted after one - though I have as much chance of ordering and owning one of them as I have of owning a Ferrari!
Tacoma were not even on my radar, until I picked this one up in the guitar shop.
Right away I loved the clean bass sound and the fine and beautifully smooth neck. It just felt right. And it sounded good- even with my playing.
But I wasn't going to make any impulsive decisions (I said to myself) and informed the salesman in the guitar shop that I was going to visit another couple of guitar stores and music shops before I made up my mind.
I left the shop and started walking towards another store - less than half a mile away.
I walked quite quickly to begin with, then found my pace slackening off - not because I was out of breath but because I was getting further away from that guitar which I'd just played. It was calling out to me like a little puppy with irresistibly-appealing big brown eyes! "You know it is me you want!!" "Remember what I felt like in your hands!"
So I turned round and walked straight back to the shop and impulsively handed over nearly twice as much as I'd set out to spend.
All of this is a perfect illustration of why shopping and I just don't go together, and why shopping is for me a rare experience.
It's been well said that "the best things in life... are not things."
Well, the thing about any well-made musical instrument is that it is so much more than a thing. It represents possibilities yet to be explored, because any musical instrument is only ever as good as the hands that play it and the mind that controls it.
A bit like our own human lives I suppose.
This was also when I realised that my own guitar-playing hasn't evolved much in the last 25 years. New guitar: new challenge! Learn some new tunes and some new techniques.
Oh - and there's another new challenge. This one won't fit into the boot of my car!
And it's not a Ferrari.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Consider the lilies of the garden

One of my sisters has a fantastic garden.
A few years ago it was little more than a field in the highlands of Scotland. Now it is an oasis of colour and beauty. The transformation is the product of lots of creative imagination and lots and lots of constant hard work.
The whole garden is quite amazing but I usually like to home in on individual plants or objects because there is often as much great beauty and interest to be found in the small things as in the big picture.
The flower photographed above was one of my favourites this 'summer.'
I am no expert (certainly not when it comes to actually WORKING in the garden!) but I believe this may be a variety of Zantedeschia or arum lily. I'd be happy to be corrected by anyone who knows otherwise.
These flowers are not exactly shy and retiring are they? They almost SHOUT at you to notice them. And why not? Even the plant world seems to have its celebrities enjoying their moment of fame.

[Don't forget to click on the picture to see it full size.]

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Going and Coming


One of the first things I noticed about Trigony House Hotel was the lintel above the main doorway. Carved into the stone were the words:
The Lord bless thy going out and thy coming in.
A slightly more interesting and unusual 'welcome' sign than the ones you find at the entrance to most modern hotels!
Given the order of the 'prayer' (i.e. beginning with going out and ending with coming in) I wondered if it had more to do with wishing guests a good shooting expedition than simply welcoming them to the lodge for the first time but somehow, for me, it set the tone for our mini retreat.
Of course perhaps it is meant as a variation of the old Scottish way of saying goodbye "Haste ye back!" ...i.e. once you've gone, we hope you come back again soon.
Then again - maybe it's just because in the Psalm from which this is a virtual quotation (Psalm 121) going comes before coming.
I better stop rambling now because I don't know whether I'm coming or going!

Calm between the storms


On Sunday I was preaching about some of the 'storms' of life that inevitably come our way, sooner or later. Given the recent 'summer' we have been 'enjoying' of late some might have been forgiven for thinking that I was just talking about the weather. But, of course, I meant it metaphorically.
Sometimes these 'storms' can be emotional or even spiritual tempests that threaten to overwhelm you altogether. At other times it might just be, as for myself recently, a whirlwind of activity or busyness.
Either way, any opportunity for calm is very welcome.
I have been very busy lately, especially with funerals and weddings, but on Sunday evening into Monday we had the opportunity to find some calm between the storms spending some time at the lovely oasis of tranquillity that is Trigony House Hotel
Whether it was the comfortably large room, the really excellent food, the beautiful garden and surrounding countryside... or just the extra large bed... it was a truly restful overnight stay. But perhaps most refreshing of all is just having friendly staff that serve you willingly and even gladly.
It reminded me that Jesus gave his disciples some very powerful and thought-provoking examples of service (like washing his disciples' feet) to show that he had come to serve not to be served, but he also set an example of allowing people to serve him. I am sure this helped to give him the strength he needed to do all that he did- that along with his frequent retreats into the quietness of the hills.
O let the summer come...

Friday, July 04, 2008

The Reader


Sometimes the act of writing comes very easily. You get an idea and the words spill out almost by themselves. Such times however are almost as rare as hen’s teeth.

Most of the time, it is just plain hard work. Sometimes it even seems a totally impossible task. The blank sheet of paper, or worse the blank computer screen, taunts you and mocks your lack of inspiration.

I find that by this time of year I am running almost on empty. And yet my role as a preacher demands the production of something new (or nearly new) every Sunday. I know when I am needing my holiday. And I know what I have to do when I do get the time off. I need to read: not write— just read for the sheer enjoyment of it.

I’m a bit of a binge reader actually. Once I get started I tend to devour book after book.

I’ve already gathered together some of the books I intend to take on holiday with me. I know I won’t get through them all but I don’t want to run out either. So I’ll take more than I need and (if past experience is anything to go by) I will still find a bookshop and buy some more.

To be honest, I have started my binge, although I won’t be on holiday for some weeks yet. Ironic, perhaps, that the first volume on my holiday booklist is called “The Reader.” by Bernhard Schlink.

No comments on it until I’ve finished… except to say that it is already a pretty good read.

Now back to that blank computer screen: I’ve a sermon to write!

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Seizing the day


OK - it wasn't quite 'the whole truth and nothing but the truth' when I said I didn't take any pictures at Linsay & Kerron's wedding. In fact I took a few pictures before the event, of the marquee/gazebo in the garden, the empty hall and the florist preparing the church etc. as well as a few pictures in the house as we were all getting ready - such as this one of Lynn putting on Linsay's make-up. But I knew that when the time came for me to get into the wedding car with my daughter any kind of camera was just going to be in the way.
In any case, I also knew that I would not be able to compete with the official photographer for the day, Owen Roseblade.
[Great name that, isn't it? Only if you didn't say it very clearly someone might think you were saying "Havin' a Nosebleed!"]

Well, I'm happy to say that Owen has lived up to his reputation.
As a photo journal of the day it really does capture the joy of the occasion.

Monday, June 23, 2008

O Happy Day!


In reply to those who have asked why so little blogging lately, my excuse has been all the planning and preparation for my daughter's wedding on Saturday (though to be honest my contribution was marginal in comparison to what my wife did.) Apologies also that the above picture was not taken by me but by one of the guests "Chu." I was already wearing two hats as Father of the Bride and as Minister; I didn't want to complicate things further by trying to be amateur photographer as well.
I do have a few pictures taken before the wedding (i.e. when the sun was shining...) but once proceedings got under way I am afraid I was too busy to even think about taking photographs.
It was an absolutely brilliant day from start to finish. Beforehand I had wondered how it might feel walking down the aisle with Linsay then having to conduct the worship. Would I be completely overcome with emotion?
I have to admit that halfway down the aisle there was a brief flutter... but from then on it was just a totally joyful day, helped no doubt by the fact that Linsay and Kerron themselves seemed to be having such a good time.
My task was made easier by the fact that Linsay and Kerron had invited a friend, Andy Flannagan, to lead the praise at the beginning and end of the service and their former employer Andy Reed MP, to read the Bible readings. There was another Andy (Cunningham) in charge of the sound desk - so we almost had as many "Andes" as South America!
The ceremony was followed by champagne in a slightly chilly Manse garden, then a barbecue (cooked outside but eaten indoors) and finally a ceilidh in the church hall, led by "Rule of Three."

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Come and worship...


Anyone who knows me will be aware that I rate the activity of shopping slightly below dental treatment in the scale of pleasurable pastimes. In fact, normally, I will do everything in my power to avoid shops altogether.
However, earlier this week, I spent a few days helping my eldest daughter to move house from one part of the great city of Manchester to another part of that same city. I really enjoyed the opportunity to spend a few days with her before her imminent wedding. I also (believe it or not) enjoyed building up all the flat-pack furniture- a bedside cabinet, a wardrobe and three bookcases. [By the time I got to bookcase number three I was an expert!]
However, it was also necessary to visit some shops during the course of my few days of being a one-man house-removal firm. And one of those expeditions into (for me) virtually foreign territory took us to The Trafford Centre, pictured above.
(I didn't have my camera with me so I have had to borrow a photograph from the Flickr site of Nicola Whitaker )
If you have not seen the Trafford Centre for yourself, you do not know what you are missing. To be honest, I'm not quite sure what I didn't miss!!
Believe me, this is one of the wonders of the modern world.... in a perverse sort of way.
Actually my first thought when we arrived was that somehow I had taken a detour and had accidentally ended up in Disneyworld. Well, for a start there are about 10,000 car-parking spaces. And everything looks like it has been manufactured out of resin. Then I wondered if I might be having an Alice-in-Wonderland moment.

Perhaps some people will find the Trafford Centre, and similar places (if there are any) to be places of inspiration and delight. To me it all seemed tackier than hot bitumen and as tasteful as tofu. (And, again, anyone who knows me will know what I think of tofu!)

Don't get me wrong- the place was utterly spotless and well-maintained, and clearly cost plenty of money to create, but to me it was the most over-the-top extravaganza I have seen in a long time.
In fact, I think that the Trafford Centre is to architecture what the Eurovision Song Contest is to music- i.e. there is some sort of relationship there but I don't quite know what it is.
I wonder what the reaction of some of my Kenyan friends might be to such a place?
But it set me thinking.
What is actually going on here?
Perhaps the explanation is simple: shopping has become a religion.
If the local superstore is the parish church of this new religion, giant retail parks like The Trafford Centre are the cathedrals and temples to the new gods. Like the great medieval cathedrals of Europe, these are places of pilgrimage for the consumer age, a homage to the gods of retail therapy and consumer credit.
The green domes of the Trafford Centre do look a bit like film-set copies of renaissance cathedrals. However, the main entrance is more of a Greek or Roman temple. (It's hard to tell which as all sorts of styles seem mixed up with each other.)
They are certainly places of sacrifice!
I know...
I ended up getting my credit card out too!
_The food hall... or maybe the deck of a luxury liner...

Friday, May 30, 2008

The perils of public speaking and live broadcasting


There are many perils and pitfalls facing anyone who would speak in public. Most of us who do it for a living, in one context or another, will have our own cringing memories of gaffes and blunders we have made, which is probably why there is a little frisson of secret delight when someone else does it!
Perhaps the only thing worse than accidentally saying the wrong word to a 'live audience' (since speaking to a 'dead audience' doesn't count!) is broadcasting your gaffe on national radio.
I was driving home a couple of days ago and, though I tend not to listen to the radio when I am driving, I was tuned in to Radio Scotland in order to hear the news at the top of the hour. Immediately following the news and sport there is normally a traffic report.
The female announcer (whom I will not name on compassionate grounds) unfortunately stated -with all due solemnity- that, as a result of excess surface water, traffic was very slow in the Charing Cross Underpants!
I just wonder what was in her mind at the time...
No, actually, I don't.
She compounded the error by immediately noticing her mistake and trying to correct it thereby drawing it to the attention of those who had not heard it in the first place.
For, of course, the truth is that we often hear what we expect to hear, just as we often read what we expect to read.
It's just a pity that sometimes we fail to say what we expected to say...
Oh, incidentally, she meant to say Charing Cross Underpass... I think.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Late for lunch


This is where I should have had lunch on Wednesday!
Holyrood Palace, one of the Queen's official royal residences in Scotland and home to the Lord High Commissioner and his retinue during the General Assembly.
(The photograph is not mine but from T Stadler's Flickr site. You will maybe understand why in a moment.)
To set this in some context I should explain that I am very much a last-minute sort of person (at least in terms of preparing for talks, sermons, speeches, meetings etc.) but, paradoxically, I absolutely hate being late for a meeting or other event. In fact, I will often arrive far too early for an event rather than be caught out by heavier than usual traffic or by some other unforeseen delay.
So imagine my frustration on Wednesday when we were too late for lunch.
Originally we had been invited to the palace on the Sunday but I had to point out that, since I am a Parish minister, Sunday was a working day for me and I couldn’t manage.
The palace very kindly issued another invitation for the Wednesday—the last day of the Assembly.
Although not a Commissioner at the General Assembly I was due to present the report of the Nomination Committee, of which I was convener. I had, of course, prepared the report at the very last minute the night before.
In the event, some of the reports before mine provoked lengthy debate and so went beyond their allocated time. By the time I stood up to speak I was already supposed to be at Holyrood and the palace had already phoned to ask where I had got to.
So we were too late and couldn’t go the palace after all.
However, the Moderator, Rev. David Lunan and his wife, Maggie, whom we have known for many years, invited us to have lunch with them instead. And a very nice lunch it was too!
(I have been reliably informed that we probably would not have been so well fed at the palace ...but I couldn’t possibly comment.)