Saturday, 31 December 2011

50 Words For Snow

In reviewing the music that I've been listening to over the last year earlier this month, I mentioned that I hadn't got round to listening to the latest offering from Kate Bush - 50 Words For Snow. Well, I now have.

Compared to her earlier material, which I've only recently really started listening to, the new collection is quite different. In terms of song length, whereas previously these have been between 3:30 and 6:00, the songs on the new album range from just under 7:00 to 13:30. Musically the sound on '50 Words...' is much mellower, and more minimalist in style. Kate's voice has also mellowed with time, and has lost the sharp edge of some of her earlier recordings.

I found it to be a beautiful, meditative, ethereal collection of songs, all loosely around a winter theme (a concept album?). Stand-out songs for me so far are 'Misty', which seems to be an erotic fantasy about a snowman (?), and the album closer, 'Among Angels', which is simply stunning.

Even if you find Kate's music challenging, I would recommend giving this offering a listen. I don't think you'll regret it.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

A Night Like No Other

This is something I wrote a number of years ago now, when our boys were very small. I hope it still speaks.

A Night like no other - A Meditation on the Eve of Christmas

The gifts are all wrapped - well, most of them
      prepared for the assault of tiny fingers (and not so tiny);
the shops are closed - well, most of them
      preparing for the onslaught of the sales;
the children are asleep - well, most of them
      awaiting what the morning will bring,
    and leaving the parents wondering when that morning will begin.

Our attempts to placate the insistent and the persistent,
     our expressions of affection and gratitude,
     our tokens of love,
  are presented and await the desired response.
It is Christmas Eve - the night before the morning after
      and the air is thickening with anticipation;
it is a night like no other.

What's he bringing you?
You'd better be good, or he won't come!
I hope we've not forgotten anyone!

In a draughty shed,
   a young girl tries to feed and comfort her Son,
     only a few hours old.
Behind her, her fiancé tries to find enough clean straw
   to line the feeding trough that will double as a cot
     for tonight at least.
Outside the early morning sounds of the city clamour to be heard
      soon the light will be here, the day will have come.

No, the Light has already come.
The One Who caused the light,
    Who brings the light,
    Who is The Light,
is there in the stable
     in the arms of a teenage mother.

The Day has already come;
that for which so many had hoped,
    and dreamed,
    and longed,
    and prayed has arrived.

The Gift that all need,
    but so few want,
is there, gift-wrapped in swaddling cloths,
    but still waiting for a tree.

The pleading of the insistent and persistent has been heard by the Father
     their needs have been met;
the greatest expression of affection and token of love is there,
awaiting eager hands to grasp it and claim it and own it,
for their name is there, written in the palms of His hands.

And the Father is waiting to see the look on our faces.

Copyright  © John L Simms 1994

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Music of 2011

The music press at this time of year produce their 'Best of...' lists for the past 12 months, so I thought I'd look back over 2011 and pick through what I've been listening to.

So what's been exciting and entertaining me musically this year? Well, it's been an interesting and slightly eclectic year, one in which I've got hold of a large amount of music, new and old. But here's my pick of this year's releases.

My love of Scandinavian Progressive music has developed over the year, chiefly driven by the many projects of the prolific Roine Stolt, but elsewhere too. Highlights for me have been 'The Black Forest' by Agents of Mercy, 'Mammoth' by Beardfish, and 'In a Perfect World' by Karmakanic, but for me the outstanding  album in this area was 'Rites at Dawn' by Wobbler, a wonderful evocation of the early 1970s with great musicianship reminiscent in places of Yes in their heyday.

2011 was the year I discovered Bandcamp, and was introduced to some great mood music by the likes of Umber, Janes Scenic Drive, The Echelon Effect and Lowercase Noises. Perhaps the most prolific was that of Earlyguard who produced on a monthly basis wonderful minimalist ambient soundscapes with the ability to transport you to quiet and mysterious places.

Although I have a tendency towards Progressive music, I am also partial to a bit of blues too. This year gave us a new release from blues hobo Seasick Steve with the aptly-titled 'You Can't Teach an Old Dog New Tricks', and fresh material from one of the hardest working guitarists in rock Joe Bonamassa, who produced his own 'Dust Bowl', and a second album with Black Country Communion. Both were strong examples of hard-driving blues rock that brought a great deal of joy.

From the Progressive Metal stable came new recordings from Symphony X, with 'Iconoclast' - a dystopian vision of a machine-dominated future, and from Dream Theater, their first recording without the considerable talents of Mike Portnoy on drums following his departure from the band at the end of 2010. His shoes were tough ones to fill, but Mike Mangini rose to the challenge and the band produced a great recording somewhat reminiscent for me of 'Scenes from a Memory'.

On the quieter side of the Progressive spectrum I have enjoyed the work of Lunatic Soul, a side project of the man behind Riverside, Mariusz Duda, who released their third collection, 'Impressions' towards the end of the year; Anathema's reworking of some of their earlier material in a much mellower style in 'Falling Deeper'; and the latest offering from Blackfield, 'Welcome to My DNA'. Blackfield are one of the many musical outings of Steven Wilson, the leading light behind Porcupine Tree, who as well as this release from Blackfield also completed his second solo album, 'Grace for Drowning'.

Veterans of the progressive music world Yes produced their first collection of new material in 10 years this year: my thoughts on 'Fly From Here' can be found here, and there was also 'The King of Limbs' from Radiohead, reminiscent for me of 'Kid A' in many places; and 'Beyond the Shrouded Horizon' from former Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett. But there were new discoveries too in the guise of Matt Stevens, a talented and versatile guitarist who as well as producing his third solo album, 'Relic' this year, also managed to release 'If it carries on like this we are moving to Morecambe' with his band The Fierce and the Dead; and from a band by the name of 'Majestic' who produced and album of epic prog called 'Labyrinth', available FREE here.

Albums I never got around to this year, that have featured in some of the seasonal listings, included 'Heritage' by Opeth, 'A Grounding in Numbers ' by Van der Graaf Generator, and '50 words for Snow' by Kate Bush. Maybe next year... Anything else I may have missed?

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Light in our Darkness

As Advent Sunday approaches, here's a hymn for use when lighting the Advent Candles which I wrote a few years ago. It can be sung to the tune Bunessan (Morning has broken)

Week 1
Light in our darkness;
Joy in our sorrow;
Hope for our future;
Help on our way;
Jesus, your people
Look for your coming,
Bringing deliverance:
Hasten the day!

Week 2
Lord of the future,
The past and the present,
Now and for ever
Always the same:
May we believe
The truth of the Scriptures,
All of us giving
Praise to your name.

Week 3
Voice in the desert,
Calling your people
To new beginnings,
Starting anew:
Jesus, your coming
Challenges us
To offer our lives
In service to you.

Week 4
Mary, you heard
The voice of the Master;
Willingly gave
Yourself to His plan.
Through your obedience
We have salvation:
God is among us,
Now become man.

Christmas Day
Glory to God
And peace to all people;
Jesus is born
Salvation to bring.
This Christmas morning
With all creation
We join in worship:
Praise to the King!

Copyright © John L Simms 1999

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

"Sing and make music..."

I was prompted to think about music and musicians this morning, as I was reminded that today is the Feast of St Cecilia, the Patron of Church music.

Music is a very important part of my life. I don't think a day goes by when I don't listen to music, and thanks to the wonders of digital technology I can now carry my music collection with me wherever I go, and listen (almost) at will. Music can aid relaxation, or can stir one to action. My tastes are diverse, with everything from Bach to the Beatles, from Stravinsky to the Sex Pistols, and from Miles Davis to Iron Maiden. My particular predilection is for Progressive Rock, from the 1970s to today - the great thing about Prog is that it keeps on evolving and pushing the boundaries, which can only be good in the end, as fresh musical expression is found.

Music has the ability to lift the soul, to raise the spirits, and to burrow truth and beauty deep into the psyche. Charles Wesley, through his hymns, used popular music of his day as a way to teach Christian doctrine to those who couldn't read the Bible. At this time of year, as Christmas approaches, I'm always amazed at the ability of music to stir memories of times past, and to bring Scripture to mind. Handel's wonderful combination of stirring music and Old Testament prophecy in 'Messiah' is just one example - I cannot read those words without hearing his melodies: the two for me are now intertwined.

I belong to a Christians tradition that was 'born in song': worship just doesn't seem like worship to me if it doesn't include singing. Having spent the last weekend away on a course it seemed really odd for the times of worship in which we shared to be non-musical. That's part of who I am. St Paul (if 'twas he) urged the Ephesian Christians to 'speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your hearts to the Lord' [Eph 5:19] and that, to me, is the most natural expression of devotion and worship.

I found the following quote in Butler's 'Lives of the Saints'. At the end of the chapter on Cecilia, he writes:
"As to music as an amusement, too much time must never be given to it; and extreme care ought to be taken... that children be not set to learn it very young, because it is a thing which bewitches the senses, dissipates the mind exceedingly, and alienates it from serious studies, as daily experience shows. Soft and effeminate music is to be always shunned with abhorrence, as the corrupter of the heart and the poison of virtue."
I'm not sure I could agree with any of that. What do you think?
  • How important is music to you in your life?
  • How important is it to you in your devotions?
  • John Miles wrote: 'To live without my music would be impossible to do'. Do you agree?

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Yes - Sheffield City Hall

After releasing their first album of new material for 10 years in July this year (my review here), Yes are currently touring Europe and tonight was the second concert on the British leg of the tour.

The concert was approximately 2¼ hours long, with no interval and no support.

Set List:
Yours Is No Disgrace
Tempus Fugit
I've Seen All Good People
Life On A Film Set
And You & I
Steve Howe Solo Set:
     Second Initial
Fly From Here
Wondrous Stories
Into The Storm
Machine Messiah
Starship Trooper
Staging, lighting and sound were all, on the whole, excellent. There were one or two minor technical hitches, but nothing to detract from the music, which was played to the very high standard of musicianship that fans have come to expect from these guys. Geoff Downes juggled with three banks of keyboards and a set of bass pedals excellently; Chris Squire strutted around the stage like the consummate pro that he is, and interacted with the crowd with warmth and good humour; Alan White kept things ticking over splendidly on the drums - like any good drummer the sometimes unseen powerhouse of the band, driving things along when necessary, and dependable throughout; Steve Howe, every bit the mad professor of Prog, was for me outstanding in his flair and virtuosity, at one point working with electric, acoustic and steel guitars at the same time. Benoit David, the 'new boy' of the group and, at 45, the 'baby' of the band by 14 years, displayed great energy on stage, pirouetting and contorting during most of the numbers, and running around the ample stage to interact with fellow band members and the crowd. Vocally he fitted the songs well: only 3 of the set were songs that he had recorded and he did great justice to Jon Anderson & Trevor Horne's songs.

The versions of classic songs from the band's heyday in the early 1970s were first rate, with some brilliant improvisation within them, though I did think that more could have been made of Geoff Downes' keyboards at some points during the show. The crowd were swept up in the music and were all on their feet for the set closer - Starship Trooper - which saw most of the band rocking out on electric guitar, acoustic guitar, bass and 'key-tar' (or as my son calls it 'git-board') during the final section, and for the encore - Roundabout.

This was a night that I had been anticipating for almost a year, and a band I've been wanting to see for roughly 35 years. It was an unforgettable night, and one I will remember for a long time to come.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Frustrations and joys

One of the things I love about my life as a Presbyter in the Methodist Church is its unpredictability. However much you try to be proactive and plan ahead, there's always something that crops up to take you by surprise and demands that you react in the moment.

One of the things that really frustrates me about my life as a Presbyter in the Methodist Church is its unpredictability. However much you try to be proactive and plan ahead, there's always something that crops up to take you by surprise and demands that you react in the moment.

I've just come though 'one of those weekends' -  a long weekend, really, because it all started on Thursday evening. Some background: I have responsibility for one church in Sheffield, but two congregations - we brought the two together under common governance and trusteeship in September 2010, and a large part of my work focus over the last 15 months or so has been on forging stronger links between these two Christian communities. In the past we have socialised and eaten together (always popular) and studied and shared fellowship together. Last Thursday saw the start of a short (4 weeks) course on faith-sharing - a course produced by the Methodist Church called 'Talking of God'. What frustrated, no, saddened me about was the numbers that turned out, particularly the numbers from one of the congregations (not the one where the meeting was held). Like the Great Banquet, there were many valid reasons for not being there, but after I'd put in so much work preparing for the evening I was a little disheartened.

Then there was Saturday morning. For the last few years one of the congregations has shared in an 'away day', where we can worship together, think, talk and pray about the state of and future direction of the church. This year I'd planned for it to be an opportunity for both congregations to share together - to talk about how we can better be one church on two sites. But again, the attendance from one congregation was minimal, and attendance overall was very disappointing (half those there disappeared at lunchtime too). Again the plans I'd made had to be shelved, and the productivity of the day was severely reduced. There was opportunity for us to pray together, which was positive and helpful, but I have to say that I came home thinking 'Why do I bother?'

On Sunday morning I was planned to lead worship with the congregation that had been conspicuous by their absence over the weekend. We presented JMA awards early on to those who had raised almost £600 for the World Church and Mission in Britain, and as the culmination of worship we shared Communion together. I'd decided to not use a set liturgy this week, but to pray ex tempore, and I have to say that it was one of the most moving Communions I've shared in for a while. God was so clearly present with us as we prayed and shared together, and a number of people commented after the service about how moving they had found it.

I'm glad sometimes that God continues to surprise us, and to meet us in our deepest need, in our frustrations, and in simple things like Bread and Wine.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

The real story of Xmas?

I have to say that I found this mildly ironinc. This advert on Facebook today caught my eye:
Surely the real story is not a X!?

Monday, 31 October 2011

Church 2.0

Just read Vicky Beeching's latest blog post and found myself drawn very strongly to the idea of 'Church 2.0'.

I have no doubt that 'church' as many of us know it has to change in order to prevent itself slipping further into a mire of tedium and irrelevance. Much of the work that comes under the banner of 'Fresh Expressions' is seeking to effect these changes, to create 'church' that is more appealing to and more able to meet the needs of the great swathe of our country that are 'unchurched' But there is just as much need for forms of 'church' that can hold on to those who are currently part of our fellowships. I, for one, do, on occasions, get frightfully disengaged by what goes on on Sundays.

My major concern (if that's the right word) is how we begin to move away from Church 1.0 in the kind of congregations with whom I minister - to be honest mainly retired and mainly technologically pre-literate. Having a data projector in worship is more than enough for some, let alone interacting with each other or (heaven forfend) thinking about using social media in the service of Christ.

Maybe there's an opportunity for those of us who do make use of it - however clumsily, haltingly or (at times) wrongly (mea maxima culpa) - to seek to demonstrate its use and effectiveness.

All is not lost, though: I have at times been pleasantly surprised when I've, in effect, said at the end of the sermon "What do you think?" and conversations and testimonies have started from what I thought the most unlikely people. Maybe, in the words of Brian McLaren, they are 'more ready than you realise'?

Friday, 28 October 2011


I've often said that nostalgia ain't what it used to be, but it came pretty darn close last night. As a treat, and to escape a pre-Halloween party at home, Judith & I went to see the new Tintin film. Both of us remember fondly the cartoon adaptation of Hergé's original books, so were quite keen to see how the big screen would deal with them.

The film is directed by Steven Spielberg and produced by Peter Jackson, both renowned for big-screen epics and a prolific use of special effects, and has been made primarily using performance-capture animation - the technique used by Jackson for the character of Gollum in his 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy. This technique gave the film a realistic quality, particularly in the many action sequences, whilst allowing the film-makers licence to keep the characters as close to Hergé's original design as possible.

The film stars that acting and vocal talents of Daniel Craig, Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis (who played Gollum in Lord of the Rings), Nick Frost & Simon Pegg, who all put in sterling performances. Without wanting to give away the plot, the film ended in such as way as to leave room for more, and I believe that possibly two sequels are being planned.

On the whole it was a very entertaining evening, and I would highly recommend the film to any, like me, who remember the original cartoons, or the books themselves, and to those of more tender years who, I'm sure, will be captivated afresh by the stories.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Fruitful Field - some initial thoughts

'Fruitful Field' is a paper produced by the Methodist Church's Ministries Committee, looking at the future shape of training in all its aspects within the Methodist Church. Essentially a consultation document, the paper outlines the provision that has been and is being made by the Methodist Church, and looks at possible future directions.

The first thing that struck me about the paper was that it read more as a management document that a theological reflection, which isn't to say that there is no theological reflection within it, nor that a management document is per se a bad thing. But it did grate a bit to read of such 'jargon' concepts as 'hubs' and 'pathways', which seem to be mindless bureau-speak rather than the terminology of normal, everyday thought and conversation.

Once I'd cleared this hurdle, I looked for some concrete proposals in the report, but my search proved in vain. There are proposals towards the end of the report, but I'm yet to be convinced that they are 'concrete', though that may be the intention of the document at this stage. The report states:
  • We should seek to establish high quality, flexible connexional pathways, which can be delivered in a number of different communities and contexts, and which meet the needs of a discipleship movement shaped for mission and the needs of the ministries of the whole people of God.
  • We should seek to establish a single connexional network of skilled and knowledgeable staff, including both regional staff (coordinated and resourced within regional teams) and tutorial staff based in a learning hub.
  • We should seek to establish a single connexional hub on one site.
I have very few issues with the first of these proposals, and on the whole would support them. Contextual training is vital, and in a changing world and a changing church the ways in which we discern the calling of, select and train 'ministers', both lay and ordained, needs to be as flexible as possible whilst retaining a discernible identity (and I would want to say, in these Ecumenical times, a discernible Methodist identity). The high quality of that training goes without saying. The second proposal seems sensible, linking those responsible for the provision of training in all its forms, and it seems right to me that this should be equally well resourced both regionally and connexionally, thus enabling the consistency and contextuality mentioned above.

It's the third proposal that I have the most concern about. The training that is offered currently, particularly in institutional settings, has a necessary and welcome diversity to it, based not only on the content and context of the training being offered but also on the geographical location of the institution. The implication of this proposal would be that the work of Cliff College - a centre of specific lay training in evangelism and related disciplines - would be separated from the site in Derbyshire and located, along with that of Presbyteral & Diaconal formation, in some other place yet to be determined.

As a former student of Cliff - twice-over: as a 'certificate' student in the 1980s and as a Postgraduate student in the early 2000s - I may be seen to have something of a vested interest, but those who have been associated with Cliff know the importance of the College as a place of learning, discipleship and pilgrimage for many thousands of people over its 100+-year history. The work is so closely associated with the location that it would, I believe, change the whole nature of the establishment to separate the two.

What particularly worries me about the report and the final proposal is an underlying concern that this is driven as much by the financial constraints that the Methodist Church finds itself in as by the (I believe genuine) desire to provide the best training possible for the Methodist people. Establishing 'a single connexional hub on one site' would free up much valuable real estate across the Connexion, as has already been done through the closure of Wesley College Bristol. I hope that this is just my cynical mind at work, and not the primary factor in bringing these proposals.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Steph's Baptism

Yesterday was a day of firsts for me, which at 50 isn't a bad thing!

During the morning service at Wesley Hall I conducted my first baptism by total immersion. It's not the first adult baptism I've conducted - I've done four previously (two in this circuit) - but on all the previous occasions they've opted for sprinkling rather than 'dunking'. This time, though, it was the real deal, and to add an extra 'frisson' I was baptising my younger son's girlfriend - so almost family.

We'd borrowed a pool from a local church (Thank you Greenhill Methodist) and had decided to set it up the night before. Due to a concert in the church we couldn't start the set-up until about 9:00 p.m. and by 10:30 we'd got the pool together and about 3" of water in. I decided to come in early on Sunday morning to fill the pool and put the heater on, which I duly did.

By 09:30 Sunday morning the pool was knee-deep, but the water was about as warm as the sea at Scarborough in April. As we prepared to start the service, the Steward praying with us asked God that the service would go 'swimmingly' - and then realised what she'd said!
First time those shorts have appeared in worship!

Don't drop her!
Oh, how the congregation laughed as we climbed into the pool and Steph let out an audible shriek! For the baptism I was assisted by James, my son, and thankfully we didn't drop her and we managed to get her completely under the water (my two main worries).

Right under!

All in all, the occasion was extremely moving, and I'm sure I'm not the only one there who found it a most profound spiritual experience. Later in the service we confirmed Steph, along with another young lady, Beth, and Beth's partner Tim was welcomed as a member of the church too. A great day for us all, I think!

The other 'first' was later that afternoon, when I shared in a communion service at a Retirement Village - Loxley Park - and we shared bread and wine by intinction (for those who don't know, that's where you dip the wafer in the wine). As someone commented later on Facebook - "lots of liturgical dipping then!"

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Ye Servants of God

Over the last 3 months we have seen in Britain the passing of three of our most insightful theologians. The Church Militant has benefited greatly from their thoughts and their words, and now the Church Triumphant is blessed by their presence.

John Stott was an Anglican Evangelical Church leader who helped the Church throughout the world to grasp a fuller understanding of the nature of the Christian gospel. As one of the authors of the Lausanne Covenant in the 1970s he helped the evangelical wing of the church to see that salvation wasn't just about the soul of the individual believer, but about social caring and the struggle for justice. Many thousands of new Christians were grounded in their faith through reading 'Basic Christianity'; many more came to a fuller understanding of the Cross through reading 'The Cross of Christ'; and yet more were helped in their discipleship in an increasingly pluralistic society and through the decline of Christendom through his work with the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, and books such as 'Issues Facing Christians Today' and 'The Contemporary Christian'. Stott was instrumental in guiding Evangelicals out from the margins of the church and into a position where they now have considerable influence.

Kingsley Barrett was one of the leading New Testament scholars of the 20th Century. His commentaries on John's Gospel, the Acts of the Apostles, and Paul's letters to the Romans & Corinthians have become seminal works in Biblical Studies. But Barrett is remembered just as much by some for his passionate commitment to the Methodist people. He was a strong critic of the stalled unity scheme with the Church of England in the 1960s, and quickly became the unofficial spokesman for the 'Voice of Methodism' that grew up as a reaction to the unity talks. But what impressed me most about him was his willingness - indeed his love - of preaching not in the 'big' University pulpits of Durham but in the small mining village chapels, where he preached in down-to-earth language about the Jesus he not only studied but whom he loved and served.

Angela Shier-Jones may not be as well-known in the wider church as the two above, but she was no less of a great scholar and theologian. Angela cared deeply about her Methodist heritage, and longed for people to understand and live out the inherent inclusivity of Wesleyan Arminian theology. Her writings demonstrate her passion, and her desire to make that heritage relevant to contemporary discipleship. Angela was, at times, the grit in the oyster of Methodism, irritating (in the positive sense) to produce pearls of great wisdom and insight. Her blog 'The Kneeler' was a vehicle for her to vent some of her frustration and anger with her beloved Methodist Church, but always with a loving and prophetic edge.

The Church today is the richer for the wisdom and devotion of these saints and servants of Christ. May they rest in peace and rise in glory.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Grace For Drowning

They say 'never meet your heroes', usually for fear of disappointment. Well, today I broke that tabboo when I met Steven Wilson, the guitarist and guiding light behind the Progressive Rock group 'Porcupine Tree' (and many other excellent projects), and I have to say I was not dissapointed at all. He was doing a personal appearance at a local independent record shop, 'Record Collector' in Sheffield, just a few hundred yards from our house, to publicise his new solo project 'Grace for Drowning'.

I was immediately struck by Steven's unassuming affability and total humility about his musical achievements. He was approachable, and interacted with his fans warmly, chatting and signing autographs with relaxed ease, from the same side of the counter as his admirers. He came across as a thoroughly nice bloke.

The new album - a second solo effort following on from the 2009 offering 'Insurgentes' - is a great collection of music, reminiscent of his work with Porcupine Tree, with some at times soaring guitar work that in places reminds me of Pink Floyd and King Crimson at their height, but also making use of keyboards, drums, bass and woodwind. The mood flows from hard rock to quieter, more meditative passages, all with Wilson's signature 'groove'. A highly commendable album - as is everything the man does. Give it a listen, or even treat yourself and buy a copy.

BTW: that's me on the right and the afore-mentioned Mr Wilson in the middle; the young chap on the left is my youngest, who has an (almost) impeccable taste in music ;)

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

If I could ask God one question...

Do you ever wish you'd kept a thought to yourself? A few weeks ago I had an idea for a preaching series, which was "If I could ask God one question...". Rather than come up with the questions myself I asked the congregation for suggestions instead, and for a few weeks nothing appeared. This week, however, a positive flood has come my way. Here's what I've got so far:

  • Why does God in the Old Testament seem to be demanding mass slaughter, whereas in the New Testament God's message is about love?
  • Are you the same God that is worshipped by other faiths?
  • Why do you allow people who you know will do terrible things to be born?
  • Why is it that the Jewish race has undergone such persecution over the years?
  • Should we give all teaching in the Bible equal weight?

That should keep me busy! Any thoughts, anyone?

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Norway - a beautiful land

For our family holiday this year (probably the last holiday the four of us will have together, as the boys get older and more independent) we sampled our first taste of cruising. We sailed from Southampton to Norway, visiting places like Stavanger and Bergen and cruising around some of the magnificent scenery of the Norwegian fjords.

We spent a day sailing along the beautiful Geiranger Fjord, with its towering mountains, magnificent forests and impossible buildings perched on the hill sides with little if any means of access.

Hand-carved over millennia:
each drop of rain;
each flake of snow;
each breath of wind;
each grain of rock;
etching, forming, shaping
the rugged beauty.
Each seed, embedding itself
into solid rock,
greedily thirsting for life-giving water;
silently growing
to shroud the hills in green -
towering pines standing evergreen sentry,
singing praise to their Creator.

How do trees hold on
To lofty mountain crag-side
But by God's firm hand?

These are just some verses that I wrote at the time, though I was, and still am, aware of the inadequacy of words in the face of such grandeur.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Home is where...

A phone call this morning has set me thinking about home. It was from my mother, to say that they have sold their house and are preparing to move into a bungalow. I knew this was on the cards - they've been talking about it for a few weeks now - but when the news came it took me aback, and took me back.

We moved as a family into that house in March 1967: I was almost 6 years old. I don't remember much about the previous house, a 2 bedroom terraced property, other than where it was and that it was nearer to church. The 'new' house had three bedrooms, which was important as there were now 5 of us in the family: mum, dad & 3 boys. As I was the eldest, I was allowed a room of my own, except when we had guests, when I slept on a camp-bed with my brothers.

I don't think it's too sentimental a thing to say that that house helped to make me the person I am today, principally because it was home. Even though I only lived there for about 18 years, it has always been home to me: a place I could return to at any time and feel as if I belonged, that felt familiar and comfortable. Since I left there I've had 11 addresses, and have never lived anywhere more than 6 years, but that house has been a rock, a place of permanence, amid the changes that life has brought. It was there that I received love and nurture, forgiveness and understanding.

The same could be said about the church in which I grew up. It was the place in which I was baptised, in which I was converted to Christ - probably more than once, and in which I received the encouragement of God's saints over many years. But, sadly, a few years ago, the building closed and the people became part of other fellowships. We drove past the place just the other week: the building has not yet been sold, and it saddened me to see the gardens that had once been so lovingly tended looking so overgrown - saddened me, because that used to be home.

I've written earlier in this Blog about place. But home is a special place: home is where we feel we belong; home is where we are accepted; home is where we are nurtured; home is familiar yet challenging; home is where we can always be secure and loved and welcomed. And yes, I know that there are times when home can be frightening and oppressive and abusive, which is anathema to me, but that is not part of my experience. Home is more than the address you live at, more than the church building you attend, yet they symbolise for me so much of what a true home is.

Home is where the key fits. That rite of passage when one is given 'the key to the door', a tiny piece of metal that allows one access to the home at any time, is symbolic of belonging as well as of maturity. I was trying to remember when I was given my key: I'm certain it was well before my 18th birthday, let alone my 21st. And soon it will need to be handed back (hopefully to be replaced with a new one for a new place, a new home).

I can't help but think of words of Jesus at this point: "There are many rooms in my Father's home." [John 14:2 NLT] It is in God that we are truly 'home' - accepted, loved, challenged, where we belong, where the key fits. Whatever changes in life, we can be sure of this.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Fly From Here

The wait is over. The first new collection of music from legendary Prog rock band Yes in 10 years has been released in Europe, with a few changes to the line-up and people now no longer wondering what the new sound will be like. It's only the second album of theirs not to feature Jon Anderson on lead vocals - a distinct, and some would say essential, feature of the Yes 'sound'. So how does it shape up?

The album opens with a six-part suite, 'Fly From Here', which began life as a shorter piece penned by Downes & Horn over 30 years ago, during their 'Buggles' period. The overture sets the scene nicely, introducing themes that will reappear later, and leading into the first 'movement', 'We Can Fly'. This is our first encounter with the lead vocals of Benoit David, Anderson's replacement, who made his name in a Canadian Yes-tribute band. He seems to have a similar range to Anderson, though perhaps just a touch more understated. The track itself is OK: a little pop-y in places, and the obvious single (if there is such a thing these days - an abridged 'radio-edit' has been available for a week or so now), though it is also quite obviously Yes in its style and particular in Steve Howe's guitar part.

The second 'movement', 'Sad Night at the Airfield' has echoes for me of Alan Parsons' early work, and also of a current favourite of mine, Big Big Train, and there are glimpses of David Gilmour in the slide guitar work, so a good prog pedigree shining through in this track. By the third 'movement', 'Madman at the Screens' we begin to see more clearly than hitherto the influence of Trevor Horn & Geoff Downes' previous work with Yes, as this has, for me, clear hints of 'Into the Lens' from their first engagement with the band, 'Drama'. It's also the first foray into odd time-signatures (an essential element of classic prog) with a substantial portion of the song in 10/8. This continues into the fourth 'movement', 'Bumpy Ride', which lives up to its name with passages in 15/8 and 6/8, with many changes in tempo as well as signature. The final section, a reprise of the first, draws the suite to a close, and at 23:49 it clocks in as the band's longest single piece of music. As one of their many epic tracks it's not quite up to the grandeur of 'Close to the Edge' or 'Awaken', but it is worthy of Yes.

The rest of the album comprises five shorter pieces. 'The Man You Always Wanted Me To Be' is the only track to feature Chris Squire on lead vocals, though strangely it's the only song in the collection that I can imagine Jon Anderson singing. It has a good guitar part from Howe, but has, I have to say, nothing really outstanding about it - which probably means it'll be a future single. 'Life on a Film Set' is another old Buggles demo brought to life, and another song that has echoes in it of Drama-era Yes: it has a nice section in 11/8. 'Hour of Need' is a Steve Howe-penned song, relatively harmless, of which there is a longer version on the Japanese release of the album. Steve Howe's other solo writing contribution, 'Solitaire' is a solo performance from him on acoustic guitar, a tune with nice variations in pace and good displays of his undoubted virtuosity, which stands well alongside his other classic solo acoustic numbers, 'Clap' and 'Mood for a Day'. The closer to the album is 'Into the Storm', which starts explosively, but which fades quickly. I get the feeling that it is trying to be another 'Tempus Fugit' or 'The Silent Wings of Freedom' as an album closer, but it doesn't quite manage it. The final bars contain echoes of the opening suite, which does give a wholeness to the album.

It's good to hear new material from a band that has been delighting audiences for over 40 years, in various manifestations. Although not up there with 'Fragile', 'Close to the Edge' or 'The Yes Album', it's certainly not a 'Big Generator': this is recognisably Yes, and is certainly worth a serious listen by aficionados and by those exploring the delights of Prog for the first time.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Cut Off!

I've just spent the last 30 hours or so with no Internet connection in the house. Don't worry, I'm OK, and it's back on now. Things, however, got so bad last evening that both my sons left the house, one for an evening at the pub with his girlfriend and the other off in search of connection.

How did we manage without it? I have to confess that my morning routine was completely scuppered with the lack of www - I usually check e-mails, blogs, Facebook, Twitter etc when I get in from my morning walk, but this wasn't possible either this morning or yesterday (I can keep up with Facebook & Twitter on my Blackberry, but it's a little tedious, and slow when relying on mobile access rather than wifi). I found myself resorting to... reading! You know, I remember back in the days of dial-up Internet (and even in the dim and distant days before the ubiquity of the world-wide web) that I used to read books a lot more than I do now, and that was never a bad thing. Don't get me wrong, I still read, just not as much as I did.

So much of my life, professional and private, (and I would suspect of yours too) is captivated by the instant access to information, networks, and social media that the Internet provides. You need to know something, so you Google it; you need to contact someone, so you e-mail them, and expect a response within minutes; you have an inspiring thought, so you tweet it; you've just had the most amazing sandwich for lunch, so you share it on Facebook. This is wonderful, but we mustn't let it dominate our lives (so why am I writing this in a blog that I hope at least some people will read?).

Perhaps this has been a kind of wake-up call to me to not rely too much on the web. But, there's a whole world out there waiting to be discovered...

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Hobson's Choice

I had an excellent evening yesterday at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield for a performance of Harold Brighouse's 'Hobson's Choice'. I have to confess that I'd heard about the play for a while, and had read some very good reviews of the current Sheffield production, but was unaware of the story, so took the opportunity to catch the play before its run comes to an end this weekend. From the stage set as we walked into the theatre it was clear that (as I said to my wife) 'it's about a shoe shop'. But it's about more than that. It's a 'rags to riches' tale, a story of womanly wiles, and, as some have pointed out, somewhat akin to Cinderella.

The audience at the Crucible, for those who don't know the place, is set around three sides of the stage, which presents challenges to the actors and the set designers. This challenge was risen to in this production: the diction was clear and the story well played. The sets were sparse but effective: Hobson's shop, Mossop's cellar, and Hobson's living room brought to life with effortless ease; and the acting first rate.

Particular note must be made of the performances of the leading actors: Philip McGinley, Zoe Waites and Barrie Rutter, who related the story with enthusiasm and aplomb; and of the direction of Christopher Luscombe. Together they created a wonderfully warm, enjoyable, laugh-out-loud, entertaining evening. Well done to you all.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Filling Gaps

I've been having what is technically called a 'splurge' recently - spending a considerable amount of my income on music, plugging gaps in my collection, but also finding some new music to listen to as well.

The gaps have come in the work of three bands in particular. The first was Yes, whose early work I have loved for years, but whom I kind of lost touch with during the uncertain days of the 1990s with the numerous line-up changes and internecine strife. I'd heard some bad reports of their work during that decade, so hadn't bothered to explore it until now. I have to say that, while not completely bowled over by the material it's not that bad, and I am particularly warming to 'Magnification', while eagerly anticipating the release on July 1st of the new album 'Fly From Here', their first collection of new material for 10 years.

Secondly there's Marillion. I was a big fan of them in their early years, but had not heard any of their material recorded with Steve Hogarth on vocals in place of Fish. He (Fish) gave the band its distinct feel (despite sounding at times like a Peter Gabriel clone), and I was again a little reluctant to see how the band had changed/ developed in his absence. Listening to their output since Hogarth stepped in has revealed a new sound for the band - it has amazed me how different they sound simply by changing singer. The 'new' Marillion at times lacks the fire that Fish's occasionally snarling vocals brought, but a gentler sound is not always a bad thing, and again their later work is growing on me.

Thirdly there's Iron Maiden. I first saw Iron Maiden at the Reading Festival in 1980, shortly after the release of their first album. Their best years probably came after they were joined by Bruce Dickinson on vocals - from their 3rd album onwards. I found that, like Yes, their music from the 90s was largely missing, so I plugged the gap. I have to confess to being more than a little disappointed with the two albums on which Blaze Bailey sings: they just seem to lack that certain spark that Dickinson brings to the band, and I was grateful that he was only away for a relatively short time. Musically it does exactly what it says on the tin - it's Maiden, it's metal and , on the whole, it rocks!

The new music has come from Seasick Steve, who continues to produce good, no-nonsense blues, now ably assisted by (among others) John Paul Jones, late of Led Zeppelin, and that influence at times is quite evident; from Bon Iver, whose debut offering was greeted with much acclaim and whose eponymous second album offers a similar style, though one that is more reliant on keyboards than the guitar-driven sound of his first recording; and from Black Country Communion, a blues-rock super group driven by the guitar talents of Joe Bonamassa, along with Glenn Hughes, Derek Sherinian and Jason Bonham, who once again have produced a collection of hard rocking songs that should delight rock fans everywhere.

But I'm also enjoying very much the latest release from The Echelon Effect, a short collection of tunes, combining quiet ambient sounds with driving post-rock, from an eventual four-part suite, 'Seasons', which you can find and download here. I never cease to be amazed at the amount of talented musicians there are out there, waiting to be discovered (and the amount of garbage that so often gets played on national radio at their expense). Listen, and tell your friends if you like it, and if you've got time check out this guy too. (Slightly biased but proud dad)

Monday, 20 June 2011

A New Start

For six years from 1998 to 2004 I was minister of Wetherby Methodist Church. For four of those years life was good, things seemed to be going fine, and then a bombshell struck and life became very uncomfortable for me and my family. Without going into too much detail, we left there in 2004 quite seriously disheartened and quite deeply wounded, and I have carried the emotional and psychological scars of our leaving since then.

I hadn't been back to the church since, and had had little contact with people from there, until last evening. Over the last few years the church has embarked on a major redevelopment scheme: removing the pews, opening up the entrance to the church, making more space in the gallery and remodelling the ancillary premises, and yesterday was the official reopening and rededication. We had been invited to attend a celebration service yesterday evening, and it was with a certain amount of trepidation that I returned to the church. It was not easy for me to go back.

I have to say that I was amazed at the transformation. Although the church appeared smaller there was in fact more seating available; the space at the front had been enlarged, and the whole building now looks lighter and more inviting. Hearing the story of the project, and my successor's involvement in it, it was clear to me that he had been the right person at the right time for that church: there was no way that I could have handled that project as successfully, and that for me was a great cathartic experience. To see the way that the church had grown - there were a number of new faces in leadership and in the congregation - and had united behind the vision of creating a base for spiritual growth and outreach and a flexible community resource, was a real encouragement to me. I was also heartened by the welcome that Judith & I received - though I must confess that putting names to some faces was a challenge at times!

I believe that a major healing has begun in my life and ministry as a result of last night: it is clear to me now, in a way that it hasn't been for seven years, that it was right for us to leave Wetherby when we did. Maybe the manner of our going was not quite how it could and should've been, but they have the right person leading them for this stage of their journey. Sheffield has been good for me, and it has always felt right for us to be here, but a significant part of my ministry here has been adversely affected by the effects of our leaving Wetherby. "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose." [Romans 8:28]

I'm grateful to God for the new start in the life of Wetherby Methodist Church, and wish them every success in this new chapter in their life, but I'm also grateful to God for the healing that has begun in my soul.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Clarence Clemons RIP

I think the first time I came across the talents of the sadly late Clarence Clemons was on The Old Grey Whistle Test when they were showing a video of the E-Street Band playing 'Rosalita'. I just loved the interplay between Clemons and Springsteen on stage - an obvious chemistry between them that shone through the music they produced.

I later went on to discover more the the band's output, in particular the awesome 'Born To Run'. The world of music has lost a great man and a fine musician - rest in peace, and thanks for the music and the memories.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Choosing to Die

Sir Terry Pratchett is one of my favourite authors - I've loved his writing ever since I came across the blurb on the back of his 4th Discworld novel 'Mort' which said "Death comes to us all; when he came to Mort, he offered him a job." It's ironic really that that should be my first memory of Terry, in the light of last night's documentary that he presented on the subject of assisted dying.

Sir Terry was diagnosed with Alzheimer's a few years ago, and is naturally concerned that his faculties and abilities will diminish as the illness proceeds. In the course of the programme he followed two others with similar debilitating ailments - Multiple Sclerosis and Motor Neurone Disease - as they contemplated ending their lives. Assisted death is illegal in Britain, but on the continent it is possible to be helped to take ones own life.

The programme explored some of the issues around this subject from the perspective of Peter, a 71 year-old, and Andrew (42), both of whom had opted to use the services of 'Dignitas', a Swiss-based non-profit organisation dedicated to helping people who wish to to take their own lives, and also from the perspective of Dignitas' Secretary General Ludwig Minelli. It did so in a dignified and non-sensationalist way, though not without touches of Pratchett's trademark tongue-in-cheek humour in places. As Terry and his assistant Rob were driving to meet Peter & his wife Christine at the beginning of the programme, the car's SatNav could be heard in the background stating "You have reached your destination"; and when talking to Minelli Terry referred to Dignitas as 'The Hades business'.

I must confess that I did not warm to Herr Minelli: I found him a little 'creepy'; there was something about his demeanour that left me feeling a little cold, and his reference to the 50 types of tea that he had in his house, which makes him some kind on tea-ologian - "and that's the only 'tea-ology' which I accept" - just jarred a little. For such an issue which raises a number of theological and ethical questions, that was really the only nod to God in the whole programme (other than Pratchett acknowledging that there are those who object to assisted dying on religious, moral and practical grounds) - though I must accept that Pratchett comes at the subject from a non-religious perspective.

Perhaps the biggest question from last night's documentary was one that was almost a throw-away line: "Who owns your life?" Minelli's central justification for providing this service (for a mere £10,000) is based on the right of each human being to self-determination, which he extends to the right to determine the time and nature of the end of their life, and this implies that the answer to Pratchett's question is 'you own your life, and you have the right to decide when it comes to an end.' For those of us who come from a position of faith that is not as easy a question to answer, for for some of us the 'deeds' to our lives have been handed over (handed back?) to another - to God. That then leaves us with the question of whether, if we were in the grip of the debilitating diseases that were highlighted in the programme, we would consider it right for God to want us to suffer until God saw fit to bring that suffering and our life to an end. How does 'I am no longer my own, but yours' fit into this context? Yes, life is special; life is sacred, but when does life cease to be life and become mere existence? In prolonging life are we, at times, simply prolonging death?

Andrew and Peter, who took part in the programme, had come to the conclusion that, for their own sakes and for the sakes of those closest to them, they could continue their lives no longer. I have to say that I found the final 10 minutes of the programme profoundly moving, as we accompanied Peter through his final moments - and I am not easily moved by much these days. At the end of the day I cannot in my heart of hearts say that what he and Andrew did in taking their lives was wrong. Would I take the same route if I were in their position? I just don't know.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Son of Encouragement

Yesterday was the Feast of St Barnabas, the Encourager. It was also my mother's birthday, which is almost inconsequential, except that she's always been a great source of encouragement for me throughout my life. It was, also, the day I'd chosen to embark on a walk around the Sheffield (West) Methodist circuit, a distance of about 14.7 miles, primarily to raise money towards a £20,000 target we have set ourselves at Wesley Hall over the next 12 months.

I had contacted all the chapels in the circuit, asking them for sponsorship but also asking for someone from the church to be at the chapel to greet us when we arrived and provide us with refreshment (and a toilet break). I'd given them a rough idea of when I expected to arrive, so that they wouldn't be sat there all day. I also offered to pray for them, and invited them to pray for us as we journeyed on.

The result was fantastic: at every place we called bar one there were between 2 and 9 people to meet us; the refreshments were freely offered and gratefully received, and at two places others joined us on our travels for part of the way. Prayers were offered and received, and money collected - in some places people were quite apologetic that they hadn't collected the money yet: that wasn't important. What mattered to me was that they were there, and we could encourage one another and pray for an out-pouring of God's Spirit at this Pentecost season. It was a great help to me that a couple and their infant daughter drove out to meet us at one of the chapels - they were going to walk with us, but by then it was raining, and later a lady came out of her house to wish us well as we prepared to tackle a long, winding hill (which I didn't think was that bad really).

I hope that the prayers offered yesterday will be answered, and that God will pour out the Spirit afresh on those congregations we visited yesterday. And up to now I reckon we've raised at least £600, which isn't a bad day's work really. I stand encouraged.

Monday, 6 June 2011

A Discipleship Movement Shaped For Mission

It doesn't happen very often, but when it does it could prove the catalyst for a seismic shift in the life of the church. To what am I referring? A report to Methodist Conference.

Most of the time, to be honest, Conference reports are destined to gather dust on shelves - even those which are received with great aplomb and welcomed whole-heartedly by the church. I well remember the enthusiasm with which 'Charter 95' was embraced in Bristol, calling for the young people of Methodism to be given a greater part in the life of the church. The following year a 'young person' was nominated for the office of Vice President of Conference - here's the chance to stand by our words of 12 months ago, I thought, but what happened? Nothing. Conference reports come and go. Conference initiatives come and go. Presidents and Vice-Presidents, and even Secretaries of Conference/ General Secretaries of the Methodist Church come and go, yet very little seems to change.

So why am I getting so animated about another such report? Because I think this one has the potential to make a huge difference to the life, ethos and potentially the future of the British Methodist Church. It is the report of the General Secretary, Rev Dr Martyn Atkins, to the Conference of 2011, in which he calls on the Methodist people to rediscover their calling to be a Discipleship movement shaped for mission.

I was first alerted to it by an article in the Methodist Recorder which picked up on many of its salient points, but that didn't really do justice to its 24 pages in the agenda. In the report, Martyn:
seeks to discern and describe a vision of the direction of travel of the life and work, worship and mission of the Methodist Church as it responds in loving obedience to the gracious prompting of the Spirit;and to set an emphasis on the Methodist Church as a discipleship movement shaped for mission. The report sets out the consequent challenges; reconsiders connexionalism in the light of them; and outlines various recommendations for further work to address them in the areas of patterns of ministry; property and stewardship; worship; a mixed economy of traditional and new patterns of being the Church; evangelism; and partnerships. [from the summary of the paper]
In the paper ideas put forward by previous leaders of the Church, dormant for a number of years (the ideas, not the leaders), resurface in the belief that their rhema-moment has now come: ideas such as Nigel Collinson's desire for there to be a pastor for every church, and Tom Stuckey's call for Circuit Meetings to have more say on the closure and disposal of churches which have come to the end of their mission. These are set alongside a timely call for better, targeted training for Superintendent ministers; the encouragement of a mixed economy of ministry in circuits between lay, diaconal and presbyteral, with a wider sharing of pastoral responsibility; the encouragement of more small group leadership (which is one of the factors in how early Methodism grew in the way it did). And there's so much more in it: take a look at the full report, which you can find on pages 23-48 of volume 1 of the agenda, available on the Methodist Conference website.

I find quite striking a couple of words in the header pages of the report: when assessing the impact of the report, it simply states 'potentially considerable.' But only if we take these prophetic words to heart, and act on them as expediently as possible. As it goes on to say about the risk of this report: 'A wide ranging number of risks involved in pursuing … and not pursuing such priorities.'

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

More new music

One of my recent 'discoveries' has been some excellent music on t'interweb, available for free in some cases or for whatever you want to pay, through sites such as Bandcamp.

I've already written here about the work of Matt Stevens - an artist whose work I greatly admire - and it was through accessing his music that I discovered the multitude of great musicians who make their music available over the web. His band The Fierce and the Dead have recently released their album 'If it carries on like this we're moving to Morecambe', which is an excellent example of 'post-rock', a powerful and passionate piece with overtones of King Crimson in places.

It was through Matt's involvement in a project called 'Singularity' that I began to discover the work of The Echelon Effect, Circadian Eyes and Sky Flying By. Liking what I'd heard on the compilation I checked out some of their other material, and was not disappointed: a mix of progressive sounds, post rock and electronic music with a contemporary feel that I keep going back to.

One of my favourite finds though is the work of Earlyguard. This is not everyone's cup of tea - my wife thinks it's pointless noise - but I think this music is wonderfully serene, quiet, minimalist ambient textures of sound that have the ability to take you to pleasant places and leave you feeling better about yourself and the world. His latest offering is an almost hour-long piece called Haiku - well worth a listen: you can find it here. In a similar vein is the work of Jane's Scenic Drive and Lowercase Noises - not as minimalist as Earlyguard but just as enjoyable. Do give them a listen, and maybe let me know what you think.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Camping it up?

I may be being a little premature here, but it seems, due to the lack of reports from the Antipodes of major cataclysm or of missing persons, that the much-heralded (in some quarters) Rapture has not begun - not yet anyhow.

Harold Camping, an octogenarian Pastor from the United States had declared that, through his study of Scripture, he is absolutely certain that the Rapture - the return of Jesus to Earth and the taking up of true believers to be with him in the air as the opening scene of Judgement Day - would take place at around 18:00 today 21st May 2011. Apparently this would be a rolling event, beginning in New Zealand and ending in Western Samoa over a 24-hour period (so at least those of us in the West would get advanced notice - how thoughtful!).

He had come up with this date, as I say, through careful and prolonged study of the Bible. He had, of course, come up with a date in 1994 through the same study methods, so maybe we shouldn't be surprised that he may have made a miscalculation again. The problem as I see it is that he seems to be treating the Bible as if it has some kind of hidden, coded message in it, that only certain people can decipher. Now that sounds like Gnosticism to me, and I thought that mainstream Christianity had written that off as heresy centuries ago.

The Bible is not some code that needs deciphering. It is a record of God's dealings with humanity and humanity's struggling with and searching for God over the course of a couple of thousand years, and it has been and is a means by which humanity has continued to struggle with and search for meaning and purpose in life. For those of us of the Judeao-Christian tradition it is a means by which God reveals God's nature and God's will to humanity: not in some hidden way but clearly and plainly, chiefly through the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth, whom the Bible reveals to be Messiah - the Christ, the Anointed of God - and the Son of God. And in one of his clearest statements Jesus is recorded as saying, of his own return: "No-one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father." [Matthew 25:36 NIV]

His message was not one of 'you must escape this wicked world' but one of 'the Kingdom of God is among you'. It was a message of affirming life on Earth, not writing it off for some 'pie in the sky when you die'. It was a message of bringing dignity and worth to all humanity, irrespective of social status, culture, race, gender or sexuality. It was a message of transforming this world, not escaping to the next one.

That is the clear message of the Bible. You don't need special teaching to understand that: you simply need to offer yourself to a relationship of trust with the one who declared himself to be 'The Way, The Truth and The Life', who came that we might have life, in all its fullness, now, today, here, in this world.

Now to me that makes so much more sense than any of Camping's ramblings.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Holy space

Out for my walk this morning I was listening to a 'Thought for the Day' from earlier this week on my iPod, and the speaker, a Buddhist, was speaking about it being an anniversary in the Buddhist tradition of Gautama's 'enlightenment' sat beneath a fig tree. I then listened to a recording of Radio 4's 'Sunday' programme, and one of the reports was of a book which lists the 500 holiest sites in (I think) Britain. Towards the end of my walk I popped into the local newsagents and had a brief chat with Mahmood, the newsagent, who I'd not seen for a while. He told me that he'd just returned from a visit to Mecca (I presume it was his 'Haj'), and was quite obviously moved by the experience of visiting that place which is of such significance to Islam.

This left me reflecting on the importance of place in the spiritual life, and the linked idea of pilgrimage. My own tradition of British Methodism has a strong nostalgic sense of place around Epworth Rectory (John & Charles Wesley's birthplace), the New Room in Bristol (The first Methodist preaching house), and Wesley's Chapel in London, where John Wesley died, and there are many from around the world who journey to these places on a regular basis.

25 years ago I was a student at Cliff College, a Methodist Bible college situated in the Peak District of Derbyshire, and every year since then I have returned there for their annual 'Festival' weekend around the Spring Bank holiday. A friend of mine, who was a student at the same time as me, places his conversion to Christ at that event back in the early 1980s, and could point out the tree under which he was standing on the terrace when it happened. The place is important to him - something significant happened to him there (like Buddha) under that tree.

Last evening we held our annual meeting at Wesley Hall, and we talked - among many other things - about the space we use for worship and mission. In silence, sorrow and celebration; in sermons and in song, people have, over the years, found God in that place. God is, of course, in all things and in all places, but there are times when that presence is focused and enhanced in certain locations - when God's Spirit is evoked by the prayers of God's people over the years concentrated in that one spot. And perhaps the art, the outcome, the end of Spirituality is to recognise the presence of the Divine wherever we are, for 'surely the Lord is in this place.' And is perhaps part of the role of the Church is to help provide and maintain 'space' for people to encounter God for themselves, in their own way, in their own time.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

'Time Machine' Tour

Last evening was spent at the Motorpoint Arena here in Sheffield for a concert by Rush, a Canadian band who've been recording since 1974 and whom I've been following since my teens. It was the first time I'd been to a concert at the Arena, and I have to say it's an impressive space. My only quibble would be the 25 minute wait to be served at the t-shirt stand, but otherwise a great venue.

Unlike many bands Rush are not touring a new album at the moment - they've got one in the pipeline, but are waiting to complete this tour before putting the finishing touches to 'Clockwork Angels'. Having said that, they did include two tracks from the forthcoming album: 'BU2B' and 'Caravan', both of which were released as a single last year.

The main purpose of the tour is to mark the 30th anniversary of their classic 1981 album 'Moving Pictures', and part 2 of the show began with them playing this album in full. The rest of the set included songs from across their repertoire, from their eponymous first album to their last release 'Snakes and Arrows', all of which were performed with skill and energy by consumate professionals. The lighting was complimentary and at times spectacular, as were the occasional pyrotechnics, and the set was punctuated and illustrated with video footage performed by band members and animation sequences. If I had one complaint it would be that it was a bit loud, but then this is an old man talking!

Highlights for me: Spirit of Radio, YYZ, the opening sections of 2112 and La Villa Strangiato as the first part of the encore. A great night, with a great band!

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Looking backwards, moving forwards

So, we went away this weekend with a group from Wesley Hall to think through some issues as well as to have fun and fellowship together. The theme I decided to tackle was 'Looking backwards, moving forwards', which of course if not handled correctly just leaves you flat on your face (or worse).

We took our inspiration from Luke's story of the walk to Emmaus, and the conversation that Jesus had with Cleopas and his companion. We began by looking backwards: assessing where we were as a church, what our history was, and what we valued most about the life of the church during the time that we've been a part of it. For some of us this was only about 5 years, for others it was a lifetime - 60 years or more. On the list were:
  • The atmosphere of friendship and welcome;
  • the spiritual & personal support that people received there, particularly through home groups;
  • the willingness to take risks and grasp opportunities for mission and service;
  • outreach that was arranged at times when most people could be involved - in the daytime - and was targeted at the local community;
  • the stability and permanence of leadership, and the teamwork which enabled people to use their giftings;
  • the quality of worship, particularly of the worship group and worship leaders;
  • generosity, fun and lots of eating!
I was heartened by this list, particularly after being their minister for the last 7 years, and particularly at a time of difficulty for the church caused by building issues.

There are three ways that we can deal with the past: we can live in it, we can discard it as irrelevant, or we can embrace it (but not hang on to it) and move on into the future - as Mary Magdalene did with the Risen Jesus. So we then thought about moving forward, and I invited them to consider things they'd love to see as part of the life of Wesley Hall, drawing on where we are now. The results were greatly encouraging...
  • More young people and young families in the life of the church;
  • a continuity of leadership, teaching and preaching, alongside developing new leaders and allowing/ enabling people to maximise their talents and gifts, and encouraging involvement in all aspects of church life;
  • a desire to develop contemporary worship further; to create more opportunities for worship mid-week; and to encourage corporate prayer;
  • to use the space we have creatively, and to make greater use of opportunities to promote events and ministries in the community.
That's not a bad place for a church to be!

We finished by looking at the life of the early church in Acts 4:23-35, and at how they moved forward at a difficult time in their history. We looked at how they:
  • faced their fears - were realistic about their situation
  • faced their Father - were reassured about their support
  • faced their future - were reliant on the Spirit
That's the only way to be, and I'm looking forward to being a part of that future with them, if that's what God wants of me.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

New music

I've been catching up with some new music recently, and some old tunes too.

My most recent acquisition is a compilation put together by Echelon Effect, available for free here, called Singularity 1. It features tracks from a variety of musicians and bands in what can probably best be described as the 'post-rock' or 'ambient' genres. If you like Sigur Ros, Tangerine Dream or Radiohead there's probably something for you here. Stand out track on the first listen has to be Matt Stevens' 'Sand Part 2'.

Also in that 'post-rock' area is the latest offering from Blackfield - 'Welcome to my DNA'. Blackfield is a collaboration between Aviv Geffen & Steve Wilson, and their music has a distinctly mellow feel to it compared to Wilson's better known work as guitarist with Porcupine Tree. One of my stand-out albums of 2011 so far, this is an excellent introduction to a more progressive vibe without the lengthy compositions that can sometimes be a turn-off for some.

At the more popular end of music we find the latest offerings by Elbow, Fleet Foxes and Joe Bonamassa, each of whom have their own distinctive style. Elbow have consistently turned out exquisitely-crafted songs, coupled with Guy Garvey's distinctive vocals and a contemplative feel that is finally receiving the recognition it deserves, and their latest release - Build a Rocket Boys - sticks with the tried and tested formula to great effect. Also continuing with a winning formula are Fleet Foxes, whose debut offering in 2008 brought their close harmonies and quirky acoustic sound to a wider audience. Their latest offering - Helplessness Blues - carries that same sound and brings a sound of summer, of long dreamy days, to your ears. Joe Bonamassa has been playing and singing the blues since his earliest days, and his new release - Dust Bowl - gives us another hour or so of hard-rocking, guitar-driven blues in the tradition of Clapton or Gallagher. A man with a terrific work ethic, this is his third solo offering in as many years, alongside his sparkling debut with Black Country Communion last year (and a follow-up release due later this year). For those like me who love the blues, this is a must.

The old tunes came in the form of Blondie's classic 'Parallel Lines' from 1978. What an outstanding recording! Every track is a gem, and although it may be a cliche to say 'all killer, no filler' that certainly applies to this album: every one is a classic. How have I missed this for so long?

Friday, 6 May 2011

A critical ward?

Yesterday's local elections have resulted in the Liberal Democrats losing control of Sheffield City Council to Labour. The ward in which I live, Broomhill, has as one of its councillors Coun Paul Scriven, now the former leader of the council. Within its boundaries are a large number of students from Sheffield University, and also a number of Sheffield's hospitals. What do last night's results reflect from this part of Sheffield?

The first thing I note is that turnout was down from 59% last year to 37.8% this year. A major factor in this, of course, may be that we also held a General election last year, which may have grabbed the popular imagination a little more than a referendum on AV. But are people also losing faith in the system that has not produced the promised change?

Secondly the change in voting shows that, here at least, the Lib Dems are bearing the brunt of discontentment and disillusionment over the Coalition's policy strategy. Lib Dem share of the vote fell by 19.4% to 27.2%, whereas the Tory share only fell by 1.7% to 10%. These votes were picked up by Labour, who increased by 12.1% to 34.6% and the Greens, who grew 8.8% to 26.1%. UKIP showed a slight increase, from 1.9% to 2.1%, but I think they can largely be ignored here. Are the Lib Dems becoming the 'whipping boys' of the coalition, diverting public anger away from Cameron and his party?

Sheffield is seen as Nick Clegg's 'heartland'. If that is so, it seems that some major surgery may be needed to prevent the terminal decline of a party that many hoped would bring radical change to British politics, but who instead have done nothing but disappoint their core constituency through the deceit and broken promises of their leader. I have no doubt that others in leadership in the party will say, as Paul Scriven did this morning, that this is only a 'temporary blip', but I believe that things are much worse. The new dawn that was promised only 12 months ago has so soon clouded over and the storms are brewing.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Voting on voting

I've been a voter since 1979, and at every election - national and local - I have exercised my democratic right and cast my ballot. So why am I so reluctant to do so today?

There are two ballots being taken here today: one to elect members of Sheffield City Council, and the other the referendum on the Alternative Vote system as a replacement for 'First Past The Post'. In both of these polls I am still wondering what to do.

The vote for a local councillor should be easy. We have some excellent councillors here in Sheffield, and the Broomhill ward in which I live has been well served by the incumbents. My natural inclination is to continue to support them, and based on their local record I should. If it were simply a matter of local issues, and competence at the job, my vote would be secure.

But politics isn't as simple as that. Our councillors are Lib Dems, a party I have supported at every election (either them or their forebears), but their role in the coalition government, and particularly a) giving the country a Tory PM and b) Clegg's blatant lies about student funding have caused me to question whether I can support the party this time. I have always advocated local elections being fought on local issues, and not treating them as a 'referendum' on the national government, but I am savvy enough to know that that's not how they are perceived. My head says one thing, but my heart says another.

The AV referendum causes me equal concern. I have always thought that the FPTP system was unfair in many respect, and that an alternative was needed. But the AV system proposed doesn't seem to me to be the right alternative. I want change, but not this change: so how do I vote? Do I vote for AV in the hope that, if the system is changed it can be changed again at a later date to a fairer PR system, or do I vote against AV, and hope that there will be a further chance to change the system? The risk is that if AV is defeated that will be taken as a mandate to keep tings as they are, rather than look for a better alternative to the present unfair system we have.

I don't think I will know how to vote until I get to the Polling Station. But I will go, and I hope everyone who can go will go. We have a right to determine our future that many in the world are denied: that's democracy. But democracy also gives us a duty to live with decisions with which we may not agree - I think I may well have to do that after today.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Sanctity & Celebrity... and bin-Laden

I spent my morning walk today catching up with the BBC's 'Sunday' programme, which this week reflected on the imminent beatification of the late Pope John Paul II - imminent when the programme was broadcast, but now a fait accompli.

There was, I have to say, much about this event that concerned me. The whole idea of officially sanctioned holiness is one that irritates me greatly and which I struggle to justify theologically. Being a saint (of which this beatification is a step) is not the privilege of a few but the calling of the whole church, reflecting the holiness of God through openness to the Holy Spirit. It is God who 'makes you a saint', not the church.

Yes, there are those who walk the way of Christ who inspire others in their journey: I have a number of people in my life without whom I would not be the person I am, the Christian I am, and the minister I am. But they do not need the official sanction of the church to be 'saints'.

The speed with which Fr Wojtyla has attained 'Blessedness' is almost unprecedented, and his elevation to 'full sainthood' will probably not be long in coming. Indeed the public clamour in some circles for this has been evident since shortly after his death. This may be due to his being a very high-profile Pontiff, in that he travelled over 3/4 million miles during his papacy, and as such fitted very neatly into the burgeoning 'celebrity culture' of today's world. How much is that 'celebrity' status influencing his elevation, I wonder? How much is the cult of the saints about holy celebrity? There are, after all, various lists of saints: those who have 'feasts', those who have 'commemorations'; the 'A-list' of apostles and archangels, the 'C-list' of the 'Blessed', and the 'E-list' of 'those whose faith is known to God alone'.

I have no doubt that John Paul was a good Pope, maybe even (as some are dubbing him) a 'Great' one. He did much to raise the profile of the Catholic Church during his papacy; he worked tirelessly to inspire his native Poles, and others in Eastern Europe, to throw off the yoke of Communism; he committed himself to Evangelisation, and no doubt helped to lead many to faith or to a deeper faith. But he also presided over the huge systematic cover-up of child abuse by some members of the Catholic clergy, steadfastly refused to change his (and the church's) stance on women's ministry, abortion and contraception, and became increasingly authoritarian and controlling towards the end of his life. He was, at the end of the day, a human being like you or I - and a fallible one at that. But by the grace of God - and only by that grace - he was also one of the 'hagioi', the holy ones.

As I sat down to write this, news began to break of the death of Osama bin-Laden in Pakistan. Over the last 10 years or so, he has become the celebrity villain par excellence, and there can be no greater contrast in the public imagination than the events of these last two days. Understandably there will be great rejoicing among the American people at this news, and probably elsewhere in the world too, and maybe even a sense of closure from the events of September 11 2001. But one wonders whether 'justice' has truly been served by his death. What I am reasonably sure of is that bin-Laden will now face The Judge, to whom we all will answer, and that, ultimately, is the verdict that matters.

Saturday, 30 April 2011

Fine Dining

Last night, as the final part of my 50th birthday celebrations, Judith took me to The Old Vicarage in Ridgeway, to the south of Sheffield, the only Michelin-starred restaurant in South Yorkshire. I have been an avid watcher of various cookery programmes on TV, particularly 'Master Chef' in its many varieties, but have never, until last night, sampled Michelin-Star food.

The restaurant is, as its name suggests, an old vicarage, which makes for a cosy and intimate setting for dinner. After a glass of champagne and canapes in the lounge, we were seated in the conservatory with about ten to a dozen other guests. The menu was a seven course one, cooked and presented excellently, served efficiently and courteously by the young waiting staff and with personal attention from the maitre-d' and the Executive Chef, Tessa Bramley.

On the menu we had:
Champagne & Canapes
Pan-fried Langoustine tails with wild garlic & chive risotto
Baked fillet of Brill with Yorkshire Liquorice, caramelised hazelnuts & buttered parsnips
Quail roasted with pomegranate molasses, roast potato purée, fennel, orange & pomegranate salad
Roast fillet of local charolais beef, thyme roasted beetroot with fresh horseradish, butter gallette of Jersey Royals & sautéed wild girolles
Waterloo Cheese with white truffle honey & toasted brioche
Chocolate & Mocca Soufflé, Sweet Woodruff Ice Cream & Cherry Compote with Kirsch syrup
Rounded off with coffee in the lounge.

The experience is one I will remember; the ambiance of the evening was perfect, and the food and company wonderful. I must confess to feeling a little guilty about us spending the amount we did on the meal (about what we normally spend on groceries for 3 weeks), but then you're only 50 once, and I will increase my donation to Christian Aid this year in an attempt to salve my conscience a little.

I just wish I could cook like that!

And there is now a part of me that, having sampled 1-star food, is now eager to try 2-star. Maybe I'll have to start saving up for Judith's 50th and take her to Le Gavroche?

Friday, 29 April 2011

Wedding Fever...

Today HRH Prince William of Wales and Kate Middleton will 'tie the knot' at Westminster Abbey and, like many millions of couples before them, become man and wife. This is not a rare occurrence - so why is there so much media fuss?

Part of the reason is, of course, that William is second in line to the British crown - whatever that means in an increasingly egalitarian society. By virtue of his birth (and the popular and media obsession with his mother, Diana Princess of Wales) he has lived his life in the media spotlight simply by dint of who his parents were. Don't get me wrong: I'm not particularly anti-royalist, nor am I particularly pro-royalist - I'm just not convinced that aristocracy should necessarily be a criterion for celebrity, in the same way that I'm not convinced that there is much that should lead to 'celebrity' as it is hallowed today.

I may not be a royalist (nor a republican), but I am at times a cynic, and part of me sees this media-led hysteria surrounding the wedding as a way of diverting popular attention away from the parlous state of our domestic political situation, as the implications of Coalition economic policies begin to take hold of people's lives. There's nothing like a party (and a day off work) to take your mind off your troubles! Of course, those troubles will still be there tomorrow.

Nevertheless, I know from experience that marriage is not an easy journey, but through a combination of love, hard work, determination and prayer Judith & I have managed to survive 23 years so far. Sadly the track record for William's family (apart from The Queen & Prince Philip) is not good as far as marriage goes. So I wish them both well; I hope that the press and the people will leave them alone to make this marriage work; and I pray that God would bless their union. But that is, if I'm honest, the extent of my interest in their happy day.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

23 years...

At 11:00 on Saturday 23 April 1988 Judith & I were married at Walkley Baptist Church in Sheffield. It was the church that Judith had grown up in, and had recently been refurbished - in fact we were the frist couple married there following the refurbishment. The weather was OK - not as nice as it is in Sheffield today - and it was great to share the day with friends and family.

Reflecting on the last 23 years, my thoughts turned to the following poem - one of my favourites - by RS Thomas, which for me sums up the love that underpins any successful union of man and woman. It's simply called 'A Marriage.'

We met
     under a shower
of bird-notes.
     Fifty years passed,
love's moment
     in a world in
servitude to time.
     She was young;
I kissed with my eyes
     closed and opened
them on her wrinkles.
     `Come,' said death,
choosing her as his
     partner for
the last dance, and she,
     who in life
had done everything
     with a bird's grace,
opened her bill now
     for the shedding
of one sigh no
     heavier than a feather.