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.