Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Thanks for the memories

An ice breaker game loved of management training days often included getting those on the course to say something about themselves that others mightn’t believe. It always seemed to me that everyone else on the courses I attended had jumped out of planes or climbed Mount Everest. Some of these could have been exaggerations of course. But being a truthful sort of chap the one I gave was “I once appeared on the stage of the Royal Albert Hall with a band.” Or “A band I played in gave a televised concert broadcast on TV.”

I can assure you dear reader these are both true. But perhaps you are wondering how this could be? The assumption on the course was that the band I was in must have been some kind of pop or rock band. Whereas the band in question was a brass band – the Crosskeys Junior Band.

We appeared at the Royal Albert Hall having got through to the finals of the Schools Proms. (November 1981 if memory serves me correctly.) Then in July 1982 we were asked to take part in a series of brass band concerts to be recorded by Yorkshire Television. Both were exciting, but it is the Yorkshire TV concert that has stayed in the memory.

The band (of around 30 – mainly teenagers) was put up in a 4-star hotel for two nights. The concert was recorded in the St George’s Hall Bradford. I think the programme was an hour long. Allowing for adverts and the compere’s links we played for around 45 minutes. I do remember though that we were on stage for close on 2 hours as there were some retakes as the director wanted a better angle or wasn’t happy with the lighting or some other excuse.

What has brought this to mind is that the compere of the concert was Peter Skellern. And you may have heard that Peter Skellern recently died aged 69.

Skellern had a brief pop career in the 1970s. He reached number 3 in the charts with “You’re a lady” in 1972. This song featured Grimethorpe Colliery Band. And Skellern’s other minor hits all featured brass band music. And his clear love of brass bands led Yorkshire TV to invite him to host the series of concerts.

The internet will tell you what he did over the years. He performed in shows with Richard Stillgoe featuring trademark witty songs. (I saw one of these shows in London in 1986.) He wrote music for films and TV. He wrote choral music.

A few months ago, Peter Skellern came to mind and I Googled him. I was saddened to hear that he had a brain tumour but I was interested to read that he been ordained as a priest in the Church of England in October 2016.

I thought about writing to Peter Skellern but didn’t get around to it. By way of this blog I’d like to thank him for his part in creating a very happy memory. God bless you Peter Skellern. May you rest in peace and rise in glory.

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

They laughed when I sat down at the piano ....


One thing I’m trying to do whilst off sick, especially as it gets the brain going, is to learn the piano.

This will be my fourth attempt at learning the piano.

I had probably a year's worth of lessons when I was 6 or 7. I was making some progress – despite not wanting to practise. But then my piano teacher decided he would pass his younger pupils on to one of his older pupils. For some reason, I didn’t like the new teacher and eventually I was allowed to give up. My year paid off though as I could read music which gave me a head start when I joined the local brass band. I played brass instruments for next 10 or so years.

As I grew older I regretted not having carried on with the piano. So much so that when in my late 30s I was left a sum of money by an elderly aunt, I bought a piano and started some lessons. I had to start completely from scratch – although being able to read music helped (even if I had to think about the bass clef.) These were going well and I felt I was making progress. But then work intervened. I was working away from home for a month and had to miss some lessons and then got a promotion to head office which meant we moved.

After a space of a couple of years, I decided to try once more. I found a teacher and we go on well. Again, I felt as if I was making some progress. But this time my teacher had to stop as she had a baby. By the time she was back taking pupils I had received my call to ministry and was up to my eyes with theological studies.

Now, after a gap of perhaps 15 years I am starting once more. Again, I am having to start from scratch. This time though, I like my teacher, I don’t intend to have to move with work and it is highly unlikely my teacher will become pregnant given she is a lady of a certain age shall we say! I should have no excuses.

I am enjoying the challenge and it is a challenge. There is the challenge of the learning the piano anyway. And added to this is the challenge of low concentration levels. Unlike before I am not watching the clock when I sit down to practise. I carry on as a long as I want to. However, I find that after 20 minutes or so my concentration goes. I start to make mistakes and it is time to stop. I am sure though that learning the piano in this way will help my sluggish brain.

My dad (who is a good pianist and church organist) asked me recently how things were going with the piano. "They’re going OK" I said. "What about the left hand?" "Not too bad – the only trouble is when I combine it with the right hand!"

All the right notes. Not necessarily in the right order.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Putting your body on the line

It is a time of the year I really enjoy, for last weekend the Six Nations rugby tournament started. If I can, I watch all the games but I make sure I never miss the games my beloved Wales play in. Now, I should say at the outset, that if you’re not a rugby follower you will need to bear with me for a while before I get to the point of this blog.

Last Sunday Wales played Italy. (Wales won the match 33 points to 7.) Much of the focus in the pre-match TV analysis was on a Welsh player called George North. North is loved by fans for his turn of speed and strength. However, there have been concerns expressed about his fitness. He has been susceptible to receiving knocks to his head and suffering from concussion as a consequence. The rugby union authorities now take this much more seriously than they once did. The punditry before the game was concerned with whether George North would soon have to give up playing rugby. (He is only 24 and made it clear in the interviews he had no intention of retiring, though he may not have much choice.)

Wales looked lacklustre in the first half of the game against Italy and in fact were trailing 7 – 3 at half time. However, in the second half they came alive and one of the highlights was a great try by George North who ran in from distance and at speed. However, it was clear that he was in pain. His thigh was heavily strapped and press reports afterwards said he had hurt his knee.

Chatting to a friend on social media afterwards I made the comment that George had put his body on the line for the Welsh victory. Despite all the talk about his future being in doubt if he got another head injury, George North knew he had one job to do when he was given the ball – score a try for Wales no matter what the personal cost to him.

In another bit of TV punditry before the game, former Wales player Shane Williams was asked about what the Six Nations means to Welsh fans. Williams commented that although a cliché, rugby is like a religion to Welsh people. I recalled this comment after the game in the light of the thought about George North putting his body on the line.

One of the central tenets of the Christian faith is that Jesus Christ allowed himself to be executed on the cross. He put his body on the line taking the sin of the world upon himself. He died so that we might be forgiven. He died so that those who believe in him may have eternal life for in his death and resurrection he conquered death once and for all.

John 15:13 New International Version - UK (NIVUK)
13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

But Jesus also made it clear to his followers that we might have to put our bodies on the line for him too:

Mark 8:34 New International Version - UK (NIVUK)
34 Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.

Thankfully very few Christians have to die for their faith – although from the start this did happen and is still happening today in some parts of the world. But even if we don’t die for our faith we must remember there is an element of sacrifice to it.

One thing I am wrestling with myself at present is what my future ministry will be like. Will I be fit and able to go back into full time Christian ministry? Or will I never regain fitness so that I have to leave ministry? I don’t know. Though I sense God is telling me ministry will be different in future. My illness will reshape my ministry. Though what that ministry will be like I don’t know.

But I do know that in some way I will have to put my body on the line to serve my Lord.


Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Alone again naturally


Since being “confined to barracks”, there’s been a concern that I’ll be home alone for many hours each day. This is true – Anne and Tom have both left for work by 7.30am and Tom doesn’t get back until around 4.30pm and Anne any time between 5pm and 6pm. The concern has been about my safety and also to ensure that I won’t get bored.

These are very valid reasons. But the thing is I don’t mind being on my own. Admittedly I’m a people person and like to meet people. But I equally like having time by myself. Ministry has provided the perfect balance between being with people and being on my own.

Now though most days I have a visitor or two each day. I’m not complaining. Far from it. I appreciate people coming to see me. It’s just that I am starting to miss my times of solitude. I’ve come to the conclusion that I will just have to block out days when I can have time to myself.

However, what to do on those days devoid of visitors? When I was in hospital and looking forward to being home, I had grand plans for what I would do with the space I’d been given through illness. I even gave Anne a list of books to take from my study shelves. Books I’ve been meaning to read for a while and hadn’t got around to. So far, those books have remained untouched.

And when I’m not in the mood for reading then there is plenty on Netflix to catch up with. (Funny, I seem to have found time for Netflix but not for the reading.)

We went to church at St Pauls Chippenham last Sunday. The congregation there is being encouraged to follow a Bible study scheme the aim of which is to “Go deeper with God”. The preacher spoke of the importance of us slowing down and making God space. This really struck a chord with me (though I must confess to having nodded off during the sermon – more to do with me than the preacher.) The God space was what I was longing for in hospital.

I know only too well that I can easily find things to fill the God space. Whether visitors or Netflix. I know only too well how I end up Doing rather than Being. But to be an effective Doer we need to be an effective Be-er too. We need that God space. That time to be with God.

The preacher on Sunday concluded his sermon by reading the following poem:

Prayer Stool

I leave aside my shoes, my ambitions;
undo my watch, my timetable;
take off my glasses, my views;
unclip my pen, my work;
put down my keys, my security;
to be alone with you, the only true God.
After being with you,
I take up my shoes to walk in your ways;
strap on my watch to live in your time;
put on my glasses to look at your world;
clip on my pen to write up your thoughts;
pick up my keys to open your doors.


Graham Kings (1986 Kenya)

https://www.fulcrum-anglican.org.uk/articles/prayer-stool/

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Seeing things from a wheelchair


In order to develop empathy with another person it is often said that “Before you criticise a man you have to walk a mile in his shoes”. As someone who is currently having to use a wheelchair I’m beginning to understand what it is like for disabled people in this country. I’m beginning to see things very differently.

Let me share some of my experiences so far:

When I was still in hospital in Bristol, one of my outings from the ward was to visit the Costa coffee shop in the hospital atrium. At that stage I needed to be pushed in my chair. On a couple of occasions (though not always) one of the people serving ignored me and spoke to my wife. The chair made me invisible.

Using a disabled toilet in Sainsbury’s supermarket in Chippenham, I found the door (that opened out) was heavy and quite hard to cope with. Inside the lock was an ordinary “Vacant / Engaged” lock. I was able operate this easily but would someone with a problem with their hands?

At a council owned car park in Corsham there were plenty of disabled spaces. But they weren’t much wider than ordinary spaces and there was no space at the side. This contrasted with Parent and Child spaces which appeared wider and had the space at the side.

Although there are dropped kerbs we find that the wheelchair catches on the road surface.

We’ve already worked out that several pubs we enjoy visiting for a meal will be no go areas for a variety of reasons. But we recently visited The White Hart at Ford (just outside Chippenham.) There was level access and all seemed fine until I needed the toilet. There was no disabled access toilet. To have gone to the Gents (even if I could have got in) I would have needed to negotiate a step down into the bar area. What was frustrating was that there was a baby changing room and the restaurant area of the pub (admittedly an old building) was fairly new. Why wasn’t a disabled toilet put in then?

Some people or organisations like employers, shops, local authorities and schools must take positive steps to remove the barriers you face because of your disability. This is to ensure you receive the same services, as far as this is possible, as someone who's not disabled. The Equality Act 2010 calls this the duty to make reasonable adjustments.
Clearly this legislation isn’t being enforced or is being ignored.

I find it heartening that many churches (and I am thinking mainly of Methodist ones) have tried to comply with the legislation. Why don't commercial organisations feel the same?

Saturday, 24 December 2016

It's beginning to look like Christmas - but it doesn't feel like it.


It’s Christmas Eve afternoon. On Christmas Eve afternoons for the past 9 years (since I’ve been in ministry) I’ve been used to putting final touches to sermons for the Midnight service and Christmas morning service. And then doing my share of the food preparation.

But not this year. My long recuperation after my sudden illness in September means I’ve no services to take and I’m not really capable of doing much in the way of food preparation. (I can do but the reality is that it takes me ages to do anything.)

All in all, I’m not feeling particularly Christmassy. And I feel a bit like a spare part. I feel like I’ve been shunted into a siding.

The trouble is I’m more used to doing than being. And yet my recuperation offers the perfect time to reflect, to pray, to be. But I am used to doing.
I will miss leading the Midnight Communion service tonight. And as much as I would like to attend such a service I know that I would be far too tired. We will manage to go to church tomorrow morning though. I hope that will fill the emptiness I feel at present.

But I am blessed by having a loving family who has been there for me.

Thursday, 28 July 2016

You cannot reap what you have not sown


The morning after Father Jacques Hamel was murdered by Islamist terrorists in Rouen, I received a phone call from my local BBC radio station. Would I be interviewed over the phone to comment? Thankfully I wasn’t asked specifically about Father Hamel’s murder. (What could I say?) Instead they wanted me to comment on the news that the British government had offered £2.4 million to make places of worship more secure. (The Guardian newspaper pointed out that there are an estimated 47,000 churches in the UK.) And that Britain’s anti-terrorism police were advising churches to be vigilant – not that there was any specific threat.

In the brief interview I made the point that by their very nature churches, and church communities, were meant to be places of welcome and refuge. (Though sadly we all know examples of those that aren’t.) Therefore, what could we do? I for one would not want us to lock doors and exclude people.

During the interview I was asked whether the murder of Father Jacques had left me worried for my own safety. I mentioned that last Saturday evening I had been out on patrol with Chippenham Street Pastors. (I was mainly there to accompany a couple of Methodist VIPs – the President and Vice President of the Methodist Conference.) I had gone wearing my dog collar. Consequently, I was approached by several people and had some interesting conversations.

One was purely fun. A young man, who had clearly been enjoying himself, stopped us and said “Any idea where I can buy some fags?” He then spotted me and said “Now don’t you go and start telling me I’m killing myself!” I promised him I wasn’t going to do that. I’d identified his accent as Welsh and asked him where he was from and told him I was Welsh too. He then gave me the classic look only drunk people manage (the one where they sort of shut one eye in order to focus) and then broke into a big grin. What followed was a stream of nonsense really but eventually I was able to get through to him that just around the corner was a late night grocery store and he should be able to get cigarettes there.

“Cheers bud. I’ll come and find you later and give you one of my ciggies.” (He never did!)

The other conversation was a bit more serious. A man (in his late 30s early 40s) accompanied by another man (in his 50s) stopped me. “You are a priest” he said. “Sort of” I explained. “I am Catholic.” he said. “This is first time I have seen a priest on street in this country”. From his accent I guessed that he was Eastern European. His friend then chipped in (with a broad Wiltshire accent) “Peter’s from Poland. He’s a Catholic.” “Yes I am from Poland and am Catholic”. (In the helpful way drunks explain everything to the sober!)

We then had a long conversation during which Peter held my hand tightly. The upshot of it was that Peter had been living in this country for 13 years “But since Brexit I don’t feel welcome. Many people want me to go to Poland.” I told him that as far as I was concerned if he’d been here 13 years he was British and was welcome here.
“That’s what I keep telling him Father. This is his home now.” Peter’s friend said. “Maybe he’ll listen to you.”

I prayed for Peter and assured him he was welcome in this country. Though clearly Peter doesn’t feel that way.

If I had not been wearing my dog collar (and unusually for me a plain, black clerical shirt) would Peter have spoken to me? Probably not.

Jesus once told a story to illustrate who he regarded as true followers and those who he didn’t. He explained how people might ask how they would know if they had done the right thing in Jesus’ eyes. In reply he said:

35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was ill and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”
37 ‘Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you ill or in prison and go to visit you?”
40 ‘The King will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

Matthew 25: 35 – 40

The sign of a truly caring Christian community (and indeed a truly caring country) is one that reacts in that way. That welcomes the stranger.

That then is what we should be doing as Christians. That is how we should be caring for others. That is the welcome we should be affording the stranger. How can we do this if we are shutting our doors? Or we are not prepared to speak to people on the streets?

Archbishop Oscar Romero was another Catholic priest who was murdered in his church. He once said:


If welcoming the stranger leaves us vulnerable to an attack by terrorists, or indeed anyone, then that is a risk we must take. For Jesus' sake.