Wednesday, January 30, 2008

In support of democracy

Earlier this evening I was in the Scottish Storytelling Centre at John Knox House in Edinburgh. I had been invited to a reception by the Moderator, Rt. Rev. Sheilagh Kesting.
I'm not altogether sure why I was invited, though I suspect it probably has to do with being a convener of an Assembly Committee. Anyway, it was an opportunity to meet a number of very interesting and charming people from various walks of life, including the above-pictured Ken Macintosh, a Member of the Scottish Parliament, with whom I enjoyed a lengthy chat.
Politicians in this part of the world don't get a very good press these days, though sometimes they have only themselves to blame. Unfortunately those whose chief motivation is simply to help other people (and I do actually think that is the majority of them) rarely get the credit they deserve.
I know that some of my fellow ministers sometimes have to face considerable hostility and criticism from people in their congregations (not always justified either) but, for the most part, at least the general public just regards 'clerics' as quite irrelevant or simply as some sort of curious relic from the past (after all relic is almost an anagram of cleric.) Most of the time we don't have to put up with the hassle that politicians at all levels seems to get.
When I see what happens in some countries, like Zimbabwe or Pakistan or Kenya for example, I think we should be grateful that politics in the UK is about as clean as it gets and, while it is right to keep them on their toes, and root out genuine corruption, at the same time I think we should pray with thanksgiving for those who represent us and who, for the most part are trying to make the world a better place.
Yes, I know that even the best of people can be seduced and corrupted by power and that effective democracry requires rigorous accountability but I also know that democracy can be badly damaged by too much cynicism. It's always easier to stand outside of the action and point the finger of accusation than it is to get your sleeves rolled up and stretch out a hand to help.
Reflecting this week on the Holocaust is a sobering remember of what happens when democracy fails.

Monday, January 28, 2008

On the way...

This evening I began a new Discipleship Group. That probably sounds a little bit grander than it actually is. What it amounts to is a group of people meeting in my home for about 90 minutes to explore issues of Christian faith.
It is one of the most enjoyable aspects of my work as far as I am concerned. I get to "do theology" without using any theological language, relying instead on stories, images, things I've heard recently on the radio or seen on TV, or from my own experience, or wherever. Added in to this are the varied and fascinating experiences and insights of all of the people who happen to be in the group.
This group seems to be a good one; not afraid to ask questions or raise issues.
I like the free-wheeling approach to these things. Although I have in my mind a general direction in which I would like the group to 'travel' and even a kind of rough "curriculum" in my head, it is more like walking on a rough path up a hillside and every so often taking little detours to the side to explore things that catch the eye.
I've been doing this kind of thing now for almost 28 years and what I find fascinating is how it is quite different every time and how much of the shared journey is shaped and determined by the particular individuals involved. I never fail to learn something new myself each time; occasionally even from myself. Once or twice I have thought to myself, as I've found a fresh way of expressing things, 'I should make a note of some of this and use it another time...'
But on reflection I am glad that I never do, because each 'journey' is unique, and the very act of doing things this way forces me to clarify in my own mind how I see things.
And it means I always start to get excited and passionate about what I am sharing.
No bad thing, I'd say, since the most boring teacher is a bored teacher!

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Mind your hurdy-gurdies

We are right in the middle of the Celtic Connections traditional music festival at the moment and earlier this evening I experienced one of the most bizzare and fascinating musical ensembles ever gathered together - la Banda Europa.
If you already know the difference between your nyckelharpas and your hurdy-gurdies and your panderttas from your duduks then it may not be strange to you, but it was certainly strange to me... but great fun all the same.
Click on the link above to learn a bit more about the band, or drop into their myspace page to hear them for yourselves.
As most of my readers know, I love classical music (amongst other styles of music.) I guess it could be argued that in some way the classical orchestra gathers together musical instruments at the very pinnacle of their development - but this has meant leaving behind some of the fascinating instruments that preceded the ones we are familiar with now. I tell you, there is something hypnotically relaxing about a hurdy-gurdy quartet! (Although it does look a bit bizarre.)
Watching the players cranking the handles of their hurdy-gurdies reminded me of the mechanical calculating machines that my secondary school invested in - just a year or so before the invention of the electronic calculator. (What a waste of money that was!)
When the teacher left the room we used to play a game. A kind of competition really.
If you set all of the levers of the calculating machine to 9, then cranked the handle backwards as fast as you could, eventually all the levers would return to 0 and a bell would ring. The trick was to crank the handle as fast as you could and the first to get the bell to ring was the winner. Amazing. Fantastic exercise for the upper body! Although once or twice when the teacher returned early and saw everyone furiously turning the handles of their machines we had to quickly think up some highly implausible excuses for our bizarre behaviour.
I never once thought to say: "I'm practising for when I play the hurdy-gurdy!"

*by the way, just in case you wondered - the people in the picture above are playing nyckelharpas

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Losing the place

Nobody seems to have noticed that in my original post below I suggested that one of my "visitors" was from Japan. Clearly no one actually looked at the map itself as the red dot is nowhere near Japan at all but in the Philippines. I have now amended it accordingly.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Starting again

Apologies for the tiny picture!
It's the archived picture of the visitor locations on my ClustrMap. It showed that from 20 Jan 2007 to 21 Jan 2008 there had been 17269 visits to this blog. Not a particularly large number as internet sites go but it also showed where each of these 'visitors' was located and I found it fascinating to think that people from all sorts of countries and on every continent had one way or another stumbled on to this blog. You could also see where the regular readers were- they were represented by the larger dots.
But now ClustrMaps has decided it is time for a spring clean and a fresh start and they have archived my map and produced a new one.

And now I discover that my first visitors of this new year are from England, France, Philippines, USA (4) and Brazil (2)
I wonder who you all are?

Monday, January 21, 2008

Free for all...

Last night, here in Carluke, the annual Service for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity took place. This year the service was held in our local Roman Catholic church, St. Athanasius'. It was pretty much a "night off" for me as I didn't have to preach. I was, however, playing in the small band that led the praise. On this occasion I had to play trumpet most of the time, but, for once I didn't mind (I usually much prefer to play the fiddle.) I didn't mind because the acoustics in St. Ath's were so good.

I was a bit embarrassed, however, when the priest announced to the congregation that two of the hymns we were singing had been written by myself. (The words, that is.)

In fact these two hymns had been chosen by "Churches Together in Britain and Ireland" for inclusion in the resource leaflet prepared for the 2008 ecumenical services. Some months ago I was quite surprised to receive the phone call asking me if it would alright to include the hymns in the leaflets. Naturally I gave permission for their use which then prompted a huge sigh of relief at the other end of the phone.

"I'm glad you agreed." said the caller "You see, we've already printed hundreds of thousands of leaflets and they've already been sent out all around the country. We forgot to get your permission first."

I suppose I could have changed my mind at that point... or perhaps intimated that here would in fact be a huge royalty fee payable...but I didn't. I sometimes get a bit annoyed when you have to pay quite significant sums of money to use a single hymn or song in a service of worship. I know that for some professional hymn-writers it is their only way of making a living, but I suspect that some publishing firms also make considerable profits from the more popular ones.

As far as I am concerned - unless it is for a professionally produced publication - I am always happy for my hymns to be used free of charge. The only stipulation I make is that the copyright ascription is included so that no one else claims the work as their own. After all, hymns are surely meant to be a resource for the church's worship.

Anyway, these thoughts were prompted not just by last night's united service but also by the discovery that the brilliant classical violinist Tasmin Little has released her latest album "The Naked Violin" as a completely free download. It is a seriously good performance and recording (as long as you choose the highest quality download.) What impressed me most, though, was that it is part of a whole strategy which Tasmin has of making classical music more accessible to people who may not have tried it before. It includes a tour of very unlilely venues like factories and shopping malls etc.

As far as the download itself is concerned she has issued a three-step challenge:
Step 1
Listen to my spoken introduction and download my CD.
Step 2
Take some time to listen and get to know these pieces. Then write to me and tell me what you like (or don’t like) about each piece.
Step 3
Go to a concert, buy a CD or write and tell me what barriers still remain to prevent you from wanting to do either!

I think it's a brilliant idea and I hope it all works.
Mind you, although Bach's 'Partita No. 3' is one of my favourite pieces of music I'm not sure how it will appeal to those who've never listened before to classical music.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008


Last night I thought I had lost my mobile phone...
I was just heading out the door to go to a meeting when I instinctively patted my pocket to check the phone was in its usual place... only to discover that it wasn't.
Nor was it on my desk or in my briefcase or any of the places it might normally end up. I checked the car (though I was intending to walk to the meeting) but still no sign of it...
I tried calling the number from the landline yet could not hear it ringing out anywhere... but then, I normally keep the cellphone on silent mode.
No time to look anywhere else, though... have to wait till after the meeting...

So I headed off for the meeting with this vaguely unsettled feeling.

I wasn't likely to need the phone. (Actually I don't use it all that often in any case.) But as I walked along the road I began to feel more and more like Linus without his security blanket. I don't know what disturbed me more- not having the phone, or the feeling of being disturbed at not having the phone. (If you can follow this so far...)

I know it had nothing to do with the monetary value of the phone itself. (It's not a particularly expensive one, and it is insured.).
Nor is it really the data stored on it. (I've not had the phone for all that long and I still haven't transferred all the numbers from my previous address book.)

So why was I feeling so annoyed?
I certainly wasn't wanting anyone to call me on the phone.
And I knew I didn't need it. I've lived the greater part of my life without having a mobile (and in fact the first 12 years of my life without even having a landline in our home) so I know it's not a necessity.

In the end I came to the uncomfortable conclusion that it must have had something to do with habit, the comfort of routine etc..
It was some sort of security blanket after all.
Maybe I'm losing it... and I don't mean my phone.

But one good thing came out of it: it gave me an idea for a talk that I was to do today to the "Scripture Union" group at our local High School. I could talk about communication... etc.
And so I did.

Oh.... and in case you're worried... (although I know you're not!)
...the mobile turned up after all...
...where lots of of missing objects often do...

I had only sat down on the sofa for ten minutes after dinner to catch the end of the news bulletin: the phone must have slipped out of my pocket and down between the cushions...

Friday, January 11, 2008

Who's not scared?

Last week I had to attend a meeting in Edinburgh. I wasn't quite sure exactly what time I was meant to be there so I went early. You may wonder how it is possible to do this - deliberately go early when you don't know what time you are actually meant to be there- but I did. In any case, it turned out that I was early by more than two hours- enough time to pay a visit to the bookshop and buy a book and (even better) enough time to start reading it.
The book I bought is pictured above. OK - it is not exactly hot off the press. It was published in 2003 and (as you can see from the cover) it has already been turned into" a major motion picture" which is also now available on DVD.
And I know why: it was a brilliant read. One day I would love to be able to read it in the original Italian; but even in the English translation by Jonathan Hunt it is quite delightful.
I'm not going to attempt to review the book, far less spoil it by giving away the plot: I just want to recommend it.
The old proverb tells us never to judge a book by its cover but I don't mind admitting that it was the cover which sold it to me, along with the title. When somebody says (either out loud or just into themselves) "I'm not scared!" you can be pretty certain that this is precisely what they are.
People can be scared by all sorts of things, and often the fears are entirely irrational - like my own fear of heights, or other people's fear of spiders. Some fears are not only justified, they are downright useful. When you are about to cross the road, it is a good idea to be a little bit afraid of fast moving cars: not so scared that you are rooted to the spot and unable to cross, but, equally, not so blase that you walk out into the road not even looking to see if there is any traffic coming. Even fear has its uses sometimes.
Unfortunately, we often fear things we can do absolutely nothing to change and, perhaps even more often, we fear things that are just not likely to happen.
So what is your most irrational fear?
Own up...right here...
...if you dare!

Monday, January 07, 2008

A bit fuzzy and blurred...

Just back from my more or less annual "fiddle fix" - by that I mean the Annual Fiddle Force Winter School which for the last 10 years (I think) has been held at Wiston Lodge in South Lanarkshire. This year's excellent tutors were Iain Fraser and Lori Watson but the classes are only part of the experience. The best thing is just getting the chance to play the fiddle all day and into the "wee small hours."
For some reason or other I hadn't played the fiddle as much during last year as I would have liked. But the weekend was a chance to catch up, as well as a chance to meet up with old friends and make a few new ones. [Congratulations to Colin and Anne on their recent marriage - making Fiddle Force part of their honeymoon!! :-) ]
The photograph above is of one of the evening "sessions" taking place in a very dimly-lit room. I decided not to use any flash; not because I was avoiding distracting my fellow fiddlers but because I wanted to see what sort of picture I might be able to take with so little light available. I like the grainy 'old film' look. And it's probably a good idea that you can't really identify the people in the shot - because I never asked anyone's permission to publish their photos.
Life itself is a bit like this in any case.
Some folk like to give the impression that everything is bright, clear-cut and sharply in focus; for such folk the truth is always absolute and obvious. And they are quite certain they know it.
As for me...I'm not always so sure.
Sometimes I think reality is probably more like this picture - a bit fuzzy and blurred - like a dim image in a mirror, as St. Paul might have said.
No, wait a minute ... that's exactly what he did say.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

The rage continues

According to emails and texts I have received today from friends in Kenya the situation is still very tense and dangerous. The upsurge in violence continues and people are, rightly, very afraid. News I heard earlier of up to 50 people being burned to death while trying to shelter in a church underlines just how shocking and brutal this violence is. One friend in Kenya sent me a terse but heartfelt email asking simply "May God give you power to PRAY for Kenya"
I invite you to join with me in responding to the request.