Being more reckless

Reckless is one of those words where the opposite form has fallen into disuse – we don’t talk about having more reck, or more ruth, or more feck.  ‘Reck’ is an archaic word meaning care, and care is something that’s generally to be recommended.  But when IMG_2252you’re playing online free poker, it’s the end of the night and you don’t much care whether you win or lose, playing recklessly is amazingly fun.  And so far it’s a strategy that has ‘paid’ off, and I ended up with an imaginary pile of 11,000 imaginary credits, having beaten both the rest of the regular players and the ‘zombie’ players who we’d already beaten earlier in the game but who our generous host (plagued by heinous luck all night, he’d have us know) had allowed to re-enter the game with another 1000 imaginary credits.

When it happened the first time two weeks ago I felt like it could provoke a blog, and it wouldn’t be the first time a game of poker inspired me.  Generally I’m known as quite a responsible person and that’s a helpful trait for a church trustee and safeguarding officer.  Having a mind of the potential consequences is very important part of those roles, and it’s something I know I can handle with some competence.  However, unlike some, I don’t actually think I thrive on being responsible.  It does not bring me joy.  My personality tendency is more towards spontaneity and open possibilities than routine and settled decisions.  In Myers Briggs terminology, my preference is towards P rather than J, although I generally avoid talking about my p-ness for more than the obvious reason.

I can plan a good lecture, but I have felt more alive the times when I’ve had to wing itIMG_0141 because someone else has called in sick or when we’ve completely changed the lecture style.  I can write thoughtful emails but I’d rather have an unexpected conversation where I have to respond to someone in the moment with compassion and clear answers to questions I hadn’t anticipated.  The extreme Myers Briggs P-type is easily bored and flits from thing to thing, and while we’re socialised away from this being acceptable, I can see these traits in my enthusiasms for things which come and go, and my resistance to making five year plans or monitoring my own finances with the care I have applied to church accounts.

Quitting my job without a new job to go to or any other fixed plan would seem pretty reckless to most people, and I know I am privileged to have the financial freedom to do this.  There is also a freedom in not having dependents which means that I’m making the decision for myself rather than needing to consider a partner and children.  I was due to leave my job the day before yesterday, and to fly on Thursday next week although the Covid-19 situation meant that my flights were cancelled and my marking has come in more slowly than expected.  I decided not to end my employment with my paid annual leave but am working to the end of the month instead, having more time to finish my marking and taking payment for the annual leave instead.  So far, so responsible.  I don’t want to risk catching or spreading the virus and I’m not about to travel against Foreign Office advice.  So far, so responsible.

I do want the freedom to take opportunities which come up, and to do some different things.  I loved interrailing back in 1999 – being in Madrid and wondering whether to go south to Seville or west to Caceres was an amazing feeling, and I didn’t regret my choice even though I’d love to go to Seville one day.  I can plan a good holiday, but in the event, it’s been easier to cancel a few things than a whole detailed itinerary.  My blank diary for July onwards isn’t too scary – or maybe just a good kind of scary.  I’m still pleased to be getting out of higher education for now.

There’s a song that’s been popular in the church for the last few years called Reckless Love.  Cory Asbury from Bethel released it in 2017 and I wasn’t too sure of it to start with.  The chorus goes:

Oh, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God
Oh, it chases me down, fights ’til I’m found, leaves the ninety-nine
I couldn’t earn it, and I don’t deserve it, still, You give Yourself away
Oh, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God

IMG_0090editCalling God irresponsible seems a bit daft, and yet, the whole biblical story alluded to here when the shepherd leaves 99 sheep to search for the one who has gone astray could be called reckless.  This parable told by Jesus in Luke 15 talks about the Father’s joy and rejoicing in heaven when he finds  the one who had gone astray, which Isaiah said was all of us (Isaiah 53 v 6).  Perhaps it could be argued that God sent Jesus to earth in a way that didn’t protect him from all the consequences of suffering and death.  It’s hard to say that a God who knows everything, is all-powerful and is outside of time can truly be irresponsible, and yet he does give agency to human beings.  CS Lewis discusses the dignity of causality from the ideas of Pascal; how God allows our prayers and actions to affect and effect things, which could be seen as a certain release of control (OK, I got this from Pete Greig’s Prayer Course really).  There’s perhaps an occasion when a good parent allowing a child some responsibility for a choice could be described as irresponsible.  Either you keep all the responsibility for yourself and allow the less mature party no responsibility, or you release some responsibility (even while retaining the overall responsibility for a child’s wellbeing which comes with being a parent).

I’m not fully sure about this one, and others have made a strong case that the Reckless Love song is unbiblical, see Georgi Boorman.  I think there are times for extravagance, like the woman who poured perfume on Jesus’s feet who could have been described as reckless and was certainly blamed by more responsible church finance types who calculated what could have been done with the money.  Avoiding all risks isn’t healthy, as I argued in a previous blog.  I’m not about to argue for a total disregard for consequences during a pandemic, even as some of my neighbours display behaviour I might call reckless.  But always going for the choice that seems responsible and safe doesn’t sound quite like the Jesus who turned over tables in the Temple and said things that angered the Pharisees so much that they plotted to kill him.  Maybe if we’re obeying God, then the consequences are his responsibility and we can have a bit less regard for them.  I’m not arguing against making prudent choices based on the wisdom he gives us, but I don’t think life following Jesus was or should be boring or predictable.

Some of the protesters challenging Police brutality and racism since the murder of George Floyd are being called reckless, but if they’re being non-violent and observing social distancing then I think that’s legitimate and important demonstration and solidarity.  People serving God around the world have made choices that others would call reckless.  Hopefully they do it in a way that is close to God’s will and where they will see his blessing and protection, but that’s not always the case and some of them will know the truth of Jesus’s words:

For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. (Matt 16 v 25)

I’m not wanting to be irresponsible with my life as I travel or explore new possibilities, but I do want more of the feeling of doing something exciting and vibrant and challenging, both to me and to the injustices of the world that I encounter.  Those zombie poker players look like they are competition, but actually they are already finished.  They can’t win.  The enemy is defeated and Jesus already has the victory.

I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world. (John 16 v 33)

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Blessing the NHS

I wasn’t convinced about the idea of street-based clapping for the National Health Service.  I found the points about the need for more practical testing and PPE as rather more beneficial for our NHS staff than a spattering of applause and pot banging.  I did feel more moved by the videos of The Blessing which have been shared massively online.  Most of my readers will have probably seen The UK Blessing,

 

but maybe you’d be interested to view The Pittsburgh Blessing, The Blessing South Africa, The Malaysia Blessing, The Blessing – Canada, The Blessing Zimbabwe, La Bendición – Latinoamérica, The Hawaii Blessing, The Blessing [Kids]

Blessing is an important and positive act, especially during difficult times.  Some years ago I heard a great preach from Russ Parker and enjoyed his book ‘Rediscovering the ministry of blessing’ where he speaks about the power in blessing people to flourish and know God’s closeness and purposes.  He describes situations of breakthrough following prayer for blessing in circumstances including family estrangement, chronic illness and times of hopelessness.  Perhaps it feels simplistic to pray God’s blessing on nurses, doctors, healthcare assistants, cleaners and all the other staff who keep the NHS running, but it also feels important.  I am deeply thankful to have a nationwide health service which is designed to be free at the point of use to everyone who needs it (even though some migrants’ access is unfairly denied).

There was a time before it existed – the fight to establish the NHS was hard as captured in Martyn Joseph’s great song Nye in honour of Aneurin Bevan, the post-war Minister of Health.  Opposed by many in the Conservative opposition, his own Labour party and the British Medical Association, the National Health Service Act was passed in 1946.  Bevan had been a miner in the local Welsh colliery, was active in their miner’s lodge, gained a scholarship to the Central Labour College in London and was elected an MP aged just 31.  He was 49 when the NHS Act passed, and he went on to be active in Housing Reform as well.  He died in 1960 following stomach cancer aged 62 in his house in Chesham in Buckinghamshire.  The dream which brought the NHS to birth is still ‘alive and strong’ sings Joseph, and probably seems like a dream in much of the world where health care relies on expensive insurance payments for those who can afford it.

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Remembering this makes me thankful, but I was even more thankful earlier this month when a freak accident meant my housemate and I needed assistance from our local Accident & Emergency department.  We were trying to reattach the shower door which had come off its runner, and it smashed to tiny pieces all over us.  Despite being covered with glass, my housemate escaped with only minor cuts to her hands and feet but I had a deeper cut in my hand which bled quite a lot and needed 5 steri-strips and dressings which meant my hand was bandaged for a week.  I managed most things left-handed but had to wait for a while before playing the guitar again, when I attempted my own version of Nye for the Open Micsolate group on Facebook.

 

I am thankful today that I didn’t lose more use of my thumb, or the digit itself.  The paramedic did check whether we’d lost fingers or toes when he called us back, after asking several questions about any symptoms of Covid-19.  It could have been so much worse.

IMG_9218redI was very thankful for my other housemate who administered some impressive first aid, called 111 and drove us to hospital.  I was thankful to the nurse practitioner who laughed with me and seemed pleased to have a proper wound to attend to.  During an extremely quiet period in A&E which meant we were out within 40 minutes, I was glad of the chance to express my thanks and encourage the staff who helped me, even while my housemate was praying for another patient and her family member outside.  I was thankful to whatever angel was watching over us which meant we weren’t more badly injured, and thankful to whoever invented safety glass (apparently it was an accident by Edouard Benedictus, a French scientist in 1903).

And two days later, I was glad to join with others on our street in applauding the NHS, IMG_9260even if I was limited to slapping my thigh with my left hand that week.  I still see the arguments that this isn’t enough, and that Conservative politicians and others are using it as a PR opportunity even while failing in so many areas.  But it feels good to come together in an act of positive appreciation, and good to have a moment of more obvious community on my street.  Part of what I love about the UK Blessing video is the way that it united over 65 very different churches across the UK, and has now been viewed nearly 3 million times.  Along with supporting staff practically and following advice, if we come together in blessing and prayer I believe we can change history, see a virus defeated and see healing in our world.   Come on.

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Walking with me

west wingIt took me over a month of lockdown to decide that it was time to get out The West Wing box sets, and I’ve been watching from the beginning again. Wow, but they all look so young, and the screen is 4:3 which seems very strange now. I binge-watched it all in 2006 when I was off work sick, and I’m not sure now whether it had an influence in the big career change I made later that year. Perhaps seeing characters working for something they really believe in does encourage you take stock of your own life choices, a bit like some of my musings after watching Hamilton. I’ve heard Lin-Manuel is a big West Wing fan – see a brief history here (including some great videos I hadn’t seen before).

The other reason I returned to The West Wing was thinking about the notion of walking with someone, as the long tracking shots they use as people bustle through the White House corridors while delivering quick-fire dialogue are a trademark of the creator/writer Aaron Sorkin and director Tommy Schlamme. In episode two, Chief of Staff Leo invites the doctor Morris: “Take a walk with me, will you?” Leo is the one who uses the term most, although President Bartlet also uses it a couple of times. It indicates that they are busy and productive, walking and talking to get things done; visually presenting progress and generally creating more dynamic television than two people sitting or standing in a room and talking. There’s a lot of walking and talking in the West Wing which features heavily in this montage:

I’ve heard a couple of good sermons in the last week about Jesus meeting the disciples on the Emmaus Road and walking and talking with them,  explaining what had happened and how it fitted with the scriptures before they only realised it was him when he broke bread at their meal. The idea that Jesus is Immanuel, ‘God with us’ is a key theme of Christmas readings but it’s also been in my head a lot lately. As we go through the Covid-19 pandemic, the idea that God is walking along with us, not just looking down from on high is a comfort. At first a key theme I was hearing was about being still and knowing God is God (see Psalm 46) which is important, but actually Jesus talks a lot more about following him. If we’re bustling round with distractions then being still is a great first step, but God doesn’t leave us to be still, he invites us to walk with him.

Enoch and Noah were two men in the Bible who it says ‘walked with God’, and right back at the start of Genesis God was walking in the garden with Adam and Eve. I love the verse in Micah which says:P1013031edit

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.

Back in Leviticus, God made a covenant with the people of Israel with consequences for obedience:

I will put my dwelling place among you, and I will not abhor you.  I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people.

These verses are then quoted in other scripture including 2 Corinthians 6:16 as key for believers, who are earlier described in this chapter as God’s co-workers. It’s an amazing thought that God invites us to walk with him and be part of what he’s doing in the world. Not that this should be a burden, or pressure to take us out of resting in his presence as well, but that we can take steps together with him.

One of the key ‘Be still’ verses in the Bible comes in Exodus 14, before Moses parts the Red Sea. Moses declares to the people that they will be delivered, they will never see these Egyptians again:

13 Moses answered the people, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the LORD will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. 14 The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still.”

But the very next verses include God commanding action and movement:

15 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to move on. 16 Raise your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea to divide the water so that the Israelites can go through the sea on dry ground.

Similarly Psalm 37 which talks in verse 7 about being still before the Lord and waiting patiently for him has many more verses about committing your way to the Lord, trusting him, doing good, God making our steps firm, hoping in God and keeping his way. More recent songwriters have also taken up the theme about walking with God. Bryan and Katie Torwalt’s song ‘Remember’ has the lines:

And oh my soul
Remember who you’re talking to
The only One who death bows to
That’s the God who walks with you
And oh my soul
You know that if He did it then
He can do it all again
His power can still raise the dead
Don’t tell me that He’s finished yet

And Tim Hughes and the team at Gas Street have a new song as well, Immanuel:

Hallelujah, you are my strength
Hallelujah, my one defence
Hallelujah, my song will be:
Oh praise the God who always walks with me
Oh praise the God who always walks with me

This new song fitted really well with Nick Drake’s talk about Emmaus Road (later in the same video). His main points were about how humbly Jesus walked along the road with the disciples, their companion as they voice their confusion instead of trumpeting his victory. Consistently, God offers to walk with us, whatever we’re going through. We need a revelation of his presence with us and he will transform our lives.

P1002496edit smallAs I’m thinking about the next steps in my life, and a new direction as I leave my job, I want to be walking with Him. Even more than I expected, I’m not sure where I’m going. My initial travel plans to Canada and Europe seem much more in doubt now, and the projects and friends I hoped to visit as I contemplated a new direction may not be available to me. I’m happy to spend a while being still – a rest after all the marking will be most welcome, particularly if the weather and local walking is as pleasant as it has been earlier this month. But I’m also praying that the right opportunities will come up, whether volunteering or some way of travelling or a job option. I’d love some prophetic words and sky-writing but if they don’t come I will take some tentative steps, try some metaphorical doors and see what God says.DSCF0344

This is what the Lord says:

“Stand at the crossroads and look;
ask for the ancient paths,
ask where the good way is, and walk in it,
and you will find rest for your souls.   Jeremiah 6:16

I’m pretty sure this passage inspired the song made famous by the Waterson’s, The Good Old Way,  here in a version by Eliza Carthy and the Ratcatchers which I mentioned in a previous blog as well. Wherever I walk, I think there will be singing.

Hallelujah, my song will be:
Oh praise the God who always walks with me

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Seeking new life

I’ve felt a bit conflicted in the last week or so.  Although the news has continued to get mainly worse about covid-19 in the UK and other countries where it is spreading fast, my own week of annual leave has been generally very pleasant with lovely weather, wonderful walks and wildlife spotting and some great food and time with my housemates.  While I have kept in touch with the news and some very moving stories of people losing loved ones, it has seemed important to focus on signs of new life in the world around us and the resurrection story of Easter as well.

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Visiting my local green spaces more regularly has meant I have been aware of the birds I have been photographing starting to have babies.  The herons were first, and my new zoom lens that I was longing for last summer has really come into its own.  Then my housemate spotted that her favourite great-crested grebe in the park had babies too, and again it was the zoom that meant I could capture the amazing stripey heads they have.  Lots of people had been mentioning the mallards which also had babies in our local country park.  Easter Monday I went back there and was delighted to photograph them as well, and I’ve also seen coot babies (and have edited to add these – ever so coot!).  Even the cows have got in on the act and there are a couple of calves in the local field as well.

On Easter Sunday my housemates and I walked to the lake which is part of the RSPB reserve on the edge of the country park.  We had been celebrating Jesus’s resurrection in the morning via online church meetings, at least one of which included an invitation to receive the new life Jesus offers by praying a simple prayer acknowledging the mistakes we have made, thanking Jesus for dying for us and asking him to be lord in our life going forward.  Easter is the most important event of the church year and this might have been the first year that I had not been in a church on Easter Sunday, but God was still with us as we spent time together enjoying his creation.  Local bird-watchers pointed out lapwings and oyster catchers (while remaining an acceptable social distance from us) and we also saw an egret and jay which I had not seen in that park before.  On Monday while photographing the ducklings the same chap pointed out the swallows and house martins above us, which have recently returned to the area from their winters in warmer climes.  Yesterday I saw a goosander and shoveler when I ventured back to the lake again.

All this new appreciation for birdlife around me and my local walk possibilities are good things that have come out of the enforced limits on my other usual activities of being out with more people, whether at the cinema, folk club, church events or shopping.  I know other people have even less freedom, being restricted to stay indoors as they are shielded from anyone who might expose them to the virus due to their underlying health conditions.  One friend in this group in particular has been encouraging me to share the pictures I am taking to get a taste of the outdoors and places he would love to be visiting.  We’ve also been considering as a church how we can take this time of uncertainty and for some, less busyness, and focus on loving God and praying more, seeking more of his will in our lives.  As some of the clutter is stripped away and we see what is really important, maybe many people will be finding new priorities as we move on from the lockdown into whatever comes next.

pan IMG_3150I had already been feeling a dissatisfaction in my job situation, and have already put the wheels in motion for some big changes here.  I had been planning some major travels and time to figure out what’s next in my life, considering where God might want me to live and work in the future.  World events mean that most of my travel plans may not now be possible, but I have decided to trust that it is right to move on and hope that new opportunities will open up, whether these involve some more local volunteering or travel to somewhere where I can self-quarantine as needed for the requisite time before being suitably helpful to mean the travel is allowed.  This all feels like an additional layer of uncertainty beyond the covid-19 situation, and I am grateful for the finances which mean I can even consider leaving a job where I have a steady income at a time when others are losing their jobs and financial security.

Whatever worries we are facing at the moment, whether they are financial, health-related, concern for loved ones or despair at our politicians, I hope we can know God is with us and he cares.  I like the various mentions in the Psalms of us being sheltered in the shadow of God’s wings.  Even Jesus, as he approached Jerusalem before his arrest and death, looked out at the city and longed to “gather [their] children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings”(Matthew 23:37).  Psalm 91 says:P1002528editSq

Surely he will save you
from the fowler’s snare
and from the deadly pestilence.

He will cover you with his feathers,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.

Even within the covid-19 stories, there are some encouraging ones of people who have been treated in hospital and have recovered.  I hope they return to their normal lives with a new zest for living and determination to make the rest of their days count for good.  And even when we lose loved ones, sometimes this can also remind us how precious life is, and that we must not waste it.

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Performing during pestilence

Maybe you’ve seen the stories that say Shakespeare wrote King Lear while he was under quarantine for the plague.  Or that Isaac Newton invented calculus, theories of optics and gravity during the Great Plague of 1665.  I’ve seen people encouraging Lin-Manuel Miranda to crack on and write a new masterpiece even while I’m disappointed that the theatre closures and lockdown mean that my nephews and I won’t be seeing Hamilton over Easter.  We enjoyed the Zoom call the Hamilton cast made to one lucky girl though!

Zoom is a whole new world for me, and I have been impressed at the way it allows group meetings, distance computer support and even a kind of lecture from the comfort of my own study.  Some of my colleagues have been more resistant but I generally enjoy trying out new technology.  I think it’s been more successful than some of the discussion forums I tried to launch, and those who didn’t manage to join us have the option of watching the video afterwards.  Lots of us are pulling new skills out of the bag, whether it’s home-schooling, virtual church or just managing a Skype call.

I’ve enjoyed seeing some musicians I love performing live-streaming gigs, including Nerina Pallot (live on Thursdays 8pm), Yvonne Lyon (still available) and the Indigo Girls.  I also enjoyed the National Theatre Live YouTube screening of One Man, Two Guvnors (until 7pm 09/04/20) with James Corden in the lead role and a broadcast of the film version of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.  Sharing nice entertainment via Facebook seems to be a good service in these days; brightening up people’s feeds and days and promoting some artists who deserve more recognition and potential sales as well.

The last three Saturdays some friends and I have done some performing of our own, starting with a good laugh Skyping the Shakespeare play Twelfth Night.  I know this wouldn’t be everyone’s idea of fun, but it was suggested by a friend I used to live with, and we’d actually read some plays together back ten years ago when she was in the UK.  We’d seen a marvellous production of Twelfth Night at Stratford with Richard Wilson playing Malvolio and he was so funny.  She’d even bought a copy of the script in two languages.  I managed to recruit another friend from university who had hosted some play enactments in her room in halls over twenty years ago…  I divided the parts between the three of us, and with a bit of creative use of accents and some talking to ourselves in some scenes, we had a merry time.  I had never noticed quite how many references to plague and pestilence crop up in Twelfth Night, but you can bet we noticed every one now. http://shakespeare.mit.edu/twelfth_night/full.html

A group of five of us then tried Much Ado About Nothing over the next two weekends, and we’re recruiting more people for next Saturday too.  There have been some dodgy accents, some baffling phrases and even a few changes of hats.  My Benedick owed more than a little to Kenneth Branagh, but some of them were too young to have seen that version which I recalled owning on VHS tape… I know my friends are facing different challenges at the moment, from bereavement to separation from loved ones and a wedding under threat of delay.  But it was good to leave the worries of the present days and travel back to a whole lot of entertaining ado about what turned out to be nothing.

Even the duck was busy conducting…

It’s actually been a very busy few weeks for me, trying to find new ways to work from home and still support the students as best we can.  I know that keeping busy can help me to avoid thinking about the challenges facing us during a global pandemic, but I know that rest is also important at this time.  I hope over what would be the Easter holidays, people can take a break from home-schooling and feeling the need to fill every waking hour with something stimulating.  It’s been good to enjoy local walks and a bit of sunshine, and to spend a bit more time cooking some nice food.  While others are performing key worker tasks to keep us safe and medically cared for, supplied with food and other essential services, maybe the most helpful role I can perform is that of a compliant citizen who stays at home, upholding others in prayer and helping out when I can.  And if I can help cheer someone’s day by singing a song or pretending to be drunk, then I’m amply prepared for that.

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Turning into pumpkins

Autumn is here and pumpkins are everywhere, particularly in Ludwigsburg where they have a whole festival of pumpkins or Kürbis as they call them. This year’s theme was fairy tales and there are a range of giant pumpkins sculptures, amazing pumpkin carving, hundreds of different varieties of pumpkin on display and various pumpkin food and drink options. I was sorry to miss the Pumpkin Canoe Regatta which took place the weekend before I was there! Lots of people have been turning pumpkins into an amazing variety of other things.

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The notion of things or people turning into pumpkins may have started in fairy tales but it has spread to popular culture and common parlance. Most often I think it means running out of time at the end of the night. I could hear someone European talking about “and then we turn into pumpkins, right” in my head, and it took me a while to recall that it’s a line from one of my favourite films, Before Sunrise.

Jesse: I feel like this is some dream world we’re in, you know?

Celine: Yeah, it’s so weird. It’s like our time together is just ours. It’s our own creation. It must be like I’m in your dream and you’re in mine or something

Jesse: And what’s so cool is that this whole evening, all our time together, shouldn’t officially be happening

Celine: Yeah, I know. Maybe that’s why this feels so otherworldly. But then the morning comes and we turn into pumpkins, right

Unlike in the Cinderella story, here it’s the humans anticipating pumpkinification… an idea which seems to have also gained some popularity as a warning against eating too many sweets at Halloween. I’m not quite sure why this video has so many views:

Don’t eat too much candy, or you’ll turn into a pumpkin

Other people online are complaining that pumpkins or pumpkin spice flavour in particular has totally taken over (it’s a bit sweary).

Another trend I’ve found online which seemed to be growing in popularity in 2017 and 2018 was using face paint and glitter to turn a particular part of the human anatomy into a pumpkin (search for #pumpkinbutt at your own risk – it started off as a cute baby thing but there are definitely some larger pumpkins out there…)

Rather classier are these glass pumpkins made by my friend who creates ‘Big Red Elephant Glass’, see her Etsy shop here. While I’m not a fan of Halloween, I do like the autumnal warm orange of pumpkins, and love a bit of pumpkin soup or pumpkin pie. I did think the displays in Ludwigsburg were fabulous.

It also got me thinking about how the actual Cinderella story isn’t so much a warning of a punishment for staying out too late. Cinderella herself isn’t threatened with pumpkinification – just that the pumpkin which the fairy godmother transformed into her carriage would revert to its original pumpkin state at midnight, admittedly leaving her stranded at the ball (unless she could find someone skilled at pumpkin canoe making…). The magic or the illusion would wear off, and she’d just be left with a glorious huge orange fruit with lots of seeds and potential.

Maybe turning into a pumpkin isn’t so much about what happens when you eat too many sweets, or stay out too late. Maybe it’s about being honest about what you really are. We can all put on an act for an evening, or spend a lot of time putting on make up for a selfie. But maybe the largest fruit in the world, which grows and feeds people and offers many seeds to share – maybe that’s a good thing to be. This porcupine certainly appreciates them!

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Bearing good fruit

I don’t generally think disagreeing with Jesus is a good policy, and in fact I’ve been quite encouraged by the Red Letter Christianity movement who focus particularly on the words Jesus is recorded as saying in the Bible as opposed to a whole range of issues he says nothing about. However, the greengage tree in my garden seems to be stubbornly refuting Matthew 7 v 18 that

“A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.”

‭See, this bad tree, which disagrees with Jesus is producing some excellent fruit, which would make it a good tree. But it’s also producing some rather unpleasant, bad fruit too. Whether it’s a bad tree producing some good fruit or a good tree producing some bad fruit, it certainly seems contrary. Some of the fruit might have been good until a wasp or other insect got at it, for which I wouldn’t blame the tree. But some of the fruit has signs of brown rot, which I understand is quite common with various types of plum tree.

The tree has not been well looked after over the years although my Mum did help prune it the Autumn after I moved into the house. A lot of the branches crossed with each other and I was keen to try to get rid of the least healthy branches. Once we realised it was a greengage tree and that yellow meant ripe (purple is a sign of over-ripe or disease) we have enjoyed some good fruit from it, memorably during the prayer space we ran at the end of August last year. There have been a lot of fruit on it this year, and the main branch has bowed right over with a combination of the weight of the fruit and some storm damage. The tree seems knackered, and yet, it’s still bearing some healthy, delicious fruit.

For some reason, although it seems unscriptural on the surface at least, I am finding this quite encouraging. I guess some days I relate to a tree, maybe even one that is bowed over, trying to do too much, a bit self-conflicted and in parts, not that healthy. But I still want to be bearing good fruit and this tree makes me see how there is a precedent in nature. I guess I think most of us aren’t perfect and that some of our deeds glorify God rather more than others. I don’t want to be complacent about bad fruit, and I’m happy to see pruning as a healthy process which Jesus describes elsewhere in the gospels. Indeed, removing the fruit which shows signs of brown rot is part of the advice for helping reduce the impact of the fungus.
While some of the fruit looks great, and some of it looks decidedly dodgy, there are also greengages which seem to have more minor flaws.

Cutting into the fruit can reveal that this is superficial or more serious, and by discarding the bad portions some sweet and good fruit can still be salvaged.

 

 

 

It reminds me of a line from one of my comfort-movies, Sweet Home Alabama (apparently ripe for a sequel!) where Melanie is worried that she’s messed everything up. Her mum, Pearl shares some of her Alabama homemaker wisdom:

Anyway, spoiled’s in the eye of the beholder, like these plums here. Some people might call them “spoiled”, but I think that, um, these almost-ruined ones… sometimes make the sweetest jam.

The fruit I take to our shared church lunch tomorrow will be the most perfect looking, ripe and yellow greengages I can find. I want to reduce the chances of someone biting in to find a wasp larvae or brown rot or even just a sour taste. Perhaps if people knew about the rotten ones they wouldn’t want to take a chance at all. But maybe if I dealt with the more patchy, flawed ones, and then made a crumble or jam, I guess that would be welcome too. We need to be encouraging one another to bear good fruit, but maybe being honest about the rot is also helpful. James wrote:

“Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.” ‭‭James‬ ‭5:16‬ ‭NIV

‬‬It’s perhaps easier to expose the flaws of my greengage tree than my own, and to deal with the bad fruit by throwing it away and pruning the tree. It’s not healed but even though some rot continues, I’m not getting rid of the tree. The good fruit are worth it.

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Optimising My Shot

I felt like I waited a long time to see the musical Hamilton. Late to discover the writer and star Lin-Manuel Miranda via a James Corden musical themed Carpool Karaoke I then binged on YouTube clips including this one of the cast performing My Shot at the White House. Only recently have I found out that LMM spent over a year writing My Shot as he explains on this chat show. In fact the whole show has a real depth to the lyrics and references to all sorts of other music as well as some of Hamilton’s own speeches.

There are clear parallels between Miranda’s prodigious writing talent and that of the ‘Ten-Dollar Founding Father without a father’ he has immortalised. Still not forty years old, he has created and starred in two Broadway musicals (the other In The Heights in 2008 when he was just 28). He now has a Pulitzer Prize, Tony Awards, Grammy Awards and an Emmy as well as nominations for Golden Globes and an Oscar for his song ‘How far I’ll go’ from Moana. He’s a phenomenon and clearly works amazingly hard such that even researching his career is a bit overwhelming and makes you wonder what you’ve been doing with your life.

Hamilton himself wrote with such a passion and productivity, even while wishing he was taking a more active role on the battle lines. He also seemed to have a depressive side which made me wonder if others have linked his emotional states with Bipolar disorder (they have, see Dr Drama here). I wonder how much time he can have spent finessing his work when he was churning it out at such a rate (he wrote 51 of the 85 essays known as the Federalist Papers in six months).

I’ve been thinking about how rarely I put in the time and effort to do my best work these days. Although my PhD involved a lot of drafting and redrafting, most of my blogging or other writing is closer to my first draft (I’m wondering how soon I will publish this as I am writing it). I’ve been working on a second edition of a book chapter over the summer and am unwilling or perhaps don’t have the time I need to polish it completely. I haven’t spent so long writing lectures or sermons recently, instead valuing skills of managing to wing it or improvise when time is tight (or that time when I’d totally forgotten to prepare a sermon until the night before… Eek!)

Instead of aspiring to the excellence which I tell myself (perhaps deludedly) could still be in reach if I made the effort, I’m generally settling for the concept of ‘good enough’ in a wide range of areas. I spread myself too thinly to be a great preacher or a great guitarist or a great singer, not having taken the time to study theology or have guitar or singing lessons. I’m still performing lots of roles in my local church which perhaps means I’m not deepening my skills enough in any one area to be employable in a church setting. I am trying to look sideways for a possible career change and I feel like I have some transferable skills but probably need to put more effort into job applications if I really want to give it my best shot.

My other current enthusiasm is photography, having replaced the camera I lost in Canada last year with a nice LUMIX model in February. I am still only scratching the surface of what it can do, and I’m wondering about doing some sort of photography course to learn more (as well as that theology course and singing lessons and guitar lessons…). I’m not sure how much getting the best shots depends on practice, technique, framing, good equipment or sheer good luck – and reckon it’s probably some combination of all of these.

I’m still wanting to invest in a better zoom lens (I’ve currently got 14-42mm, F3.5-5.6 Ii HD) but I’ve been continuing my interest in waterbirds since my blog about Catching the Wind and have used the burst function to capture a few images I’m proud of.

I rarely have the patience or stamina to wait for the best shots and I don’t have the technique to always get the best focus or lighting, although you can do so much editing post-shot these days. Sometimes I resort to the auto functions but other times I get into brightness and contrast etcetera to try to get the best results.

Mainly I take quite a lot of photos, and then look for the good ones. I know if I wrote more songs, did more painting or crochet then I’d get more good ones of those too. But I’m not sure if doing more lectures or sermons has necessarily improved the quality of them. Quality or quantity. Part of being a university lecturer is being aware of how much more there is to learn on any chosen subject, and while I can research a new topic with more ease than my students, some of them are getting better marks than I ever did as an undergraduate. I know where the academic goal posts are so much more clearly than I did, and I am trying to share this with those I teach. Putting the work in, lining it up, she shoots, she scores. I am not throwing away my shot.

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Charting some success

As evidenced by some pub quizzes lately, I am generally very out of touch with recent chart music. One quiz has two music rounds, one more recent and one for older music. Although this reaches more people, frustratingly I seemed to fit squarely between the two rounds, not knowing much about pop music since 2000 or before the 1980s. We’ve still managed about 4th or 5th place out of 20 or so teams which seems a good result, but this seems to be our level.

With this background it may be surprising that I’ve actually found that two artists I enjoy have had some chart success this last week. Karine Polwart, a Scottish folk singer I greatly admire has covered some songs I remember from the 1980s, but brought a very original slant to them. Her fab versions of The Waterboys’ ‘The Whole of the Moon’ and Deacon Blue’s Dignity have got some radio play and at one point the album was number 6 in the album chart. The cover of Women of the World by Jim O’Rourke also seemed to resonate unexpectedly with the news of Caroline Lucas’ proposal for a national unity government led by women.

Amy Wadge is another singer songwriter whose work I’ve enjoyed since I went to a gig where Emily Baker was her support artist. Amy has had some attention for her work with Ed Sheeran including co-writing Thinking Out Loud which she joked at a gig has paid her mortgage. She was also in the download chart this last week for her new EP of music from the TV show Keeping Faith. Thinking Out Loud stayed in the singles chart for over a year and broke many other milestones as well.

Most of the music I listen to doesn’t make it anywhere in the pop charts, but I don’t see that as an indication of quality at all. Part of the impact of new music technology means that artists don’t need a record label to be able to record and release music online, and this independence has advantages as well as challenges if you want to earn a living from music. Plays on Spotify earn almost nothing for the artist unless they’re in the millions, but other platforms such as Bandcamp are more artist friendly, and various Kickstarter/Pledge schemes can help raise money for producing music in advance.

Given how little respect I have for many of the more formulaic and commercial tracks which dominate the pop charts, it’s probably a bit incongruous to then be so pleased for artists I like when they do get chart recognition. I’ve been wondering about this, and I guess mostly I’m pleased that they are being seen and heard. Even when their main priority is not writing a catchy hook which will get radio play and make the big money, their originality, talent and musical integrity is achieving some success in this forum as well.

It got me thinking about other charts and league tables which I might have mixed feelings about. University league tables tend to prioritise academic prowess, graduate earning potential and similar metrics which mean my workplace rarely scores that highly. Finding the table which reflects your own priorities might be useful for students trying to find the right course for them, perhaps especially this week when some of them may not have found themselves ranked as highly as they hoped on the A level results scale.

I was also thinking about star charts which can record a child’s progress in an area of desired behaviour. Designed to be achievable and using stickers which appeal to the child, I think these can be a helpful way to motivate and recognise progress. The child and parent can see in a simple visual form little milestones and achievements, and this can give some hope and encouragement.

It’s nice to celebrate an achievement, even if moving up certain league tables on certain metrics may be of dubious value. Maybe being first in your city in a particular area or being recognised for good student support does reflect well on efforts by particular staff. Maybe entering the pop charts with a particular release does say something, although perhaps more about the buying public and their appetite for nostalgia or TV programmes than about the inherent quality in the work. I think other original albums by Karine Polwart and Amy Wadge deserve just as much attention, and other areas of colleagues’ work deserves more recognition as well. But perhaps the chart news will get more people finding out more about other worthwhile work done… I can hope.  

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Catching the wind

malvern birdIt’s been a long time since I blogged, but a couple of weekends back I returned to the Malverns which inspired my first post on this blog 8 years ago. It was a glorious sunny day and from the top I observed many birds hovering and gliding on the fairly brisk wind, at times almost motionless above me. It made me think of how the wind isn’t just something to fight and hide away from, but that if we face the right direction and reach out, maybe we can soar.

I was reminded of a favourite passage in Isaiah 40:

Do you not know? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no-one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint. Isaiah‬ ‭40:28-31‬ ‭NIVUK‬‬

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I think the birds I saw at the Malverns were kites and kestrels, but over the summer I did see plenty of bald eagles in the area around Tofino on Vancouver Island. I managed to catch a few pictures there and back in Vancouver (see below) but for truly great pictures check out some of the amazing work of the Tofino photographer we met on our travels.

eagle-2.jpg        eagle 3        eagle 4 Some of the eagles there tend to stay near the harbour, enjoying the easy pickings of cast off fish scraps but typically Canadian eagles will travel further south for the winter, flying up to 225 miles per day. This site details how if there is no wind, eagles can’t soar but will just stay put or travel locally.

seabirds crySome versions of the Isaiah passage talk about waiting on the Lord to renew our strength. Perhaps after a long journey the birds will need to rest, feed and renew their strength but they also need to wait until the wind is right to travel any significant distance. On my way back down from Worcestershire Beacon I stopped in to the Malvern Book Cooperative and bought a copy of Adam Nicolson’s wonderful book, The Seabird’s Cry. The first chapter after the introduction focuses on the fulmar, white and grey dove-like birds found in the Hebrides. Nicolson quotes James Fisher who studied fulmars for many years:

Rough weather is as necessary to the fulmar as the Trade Winds were to the human conquest of the New World. Rough weather is the fulmar’s passport, its transport to the mid-ocean.  (p30)

Scientists from Aberdeen fitted GPS loggers to 22 fulmar birds in 2012, and Nicolson describes how they followed the journey of one bird (identified as 1568) in particular amazement. Once his partner returned to look after their egg, 1568 flew out to sea but waited two days afloat on the ocean near Orkney. When the winds blew he travelled north west for eleven hours up to the channel between Shetland and the Faeroes where he fed on the rich plankton there, before surprising the scientists by picking up new winds further west south west and flying a thousand miles in fifty five hours to the Mid Atlantic Ridge, two thirds of the way to Canada. This even richer fishing ground was his banquet for three days before he headed home via south west Ireland and arrived back at his nest after travelling nearly 3900 miles in sixteen days.

Nicolson writes:

If it were calm and the bird had to flap its wings to move all day… they would have to expend 2000 calories, thirteen times what they would consume sitting or sleeping or doing nothing. As the wind increases, life becomes more viable so that when it is blowing at about 20 miles an hour… they can glide most of the time… but when the wind notches up a little further, to about 25 miles an hour, or Force 5 to 6, flying costs them nothing. It is the magic horizon. In those winds, fulmars almost never beat their wings at all, but drink in the energy they need from the wind around them. That, and more, was the wind on which 1568 drove more than halfway to Canada. (p35-6)

I tried to share some of this in church this morning, but what strikes me most now is the futility of flapping away in our own strength when we can wait for the wind to soar. Bethel Music have a powerful song called Catch The Wind which includes some of these ideas. But the song that came to mind when I was finding the title for this blog was the old Donovan track which seems much less hopeful about finding the love he is looking for, and how trying to catch the wind (and keep it captured) is a metaphor for trying to pin down some flighty lover.

My friend who was leading worship this morning picked up the ideas about how jumping off a cliff to start flying is pretty scary. Even trying to wait for the wind, we never quite know if we’re going to soar for ages or whether the wind may drop and we will simply glide down. As I contemplate venturing back into dating I can’t know whether a bit of flapping will lead me back to the ocean with a bit of a splash or whether I might catch a current more like soaring. But if I never leave the cliff, I’ll never know.

And with God, sometimes we soar more than others, but we can trust the way He has made us. If we feel like we’re just flapping and getting nowhere, maybe it’s better to rest, feed and wait for the wind. But when that wind comes, we still have the choice to sit in our nests, wings tightly wrapped around us and going nowhere. Or we can soar on eagle’s wings.

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