Monday, June 30, 2008

Life returning to normal

Hanging on for the dvla this morning, the phone system played me David Gray's Sail Away, not the best song in the world, but a considerable step up from a tinny electronic Greensleeves! And once through, a lovely Welsh lady was very helpful. Thanks, Swansea.

This week, our last before Linda starts her new job, will be spent sorting stuff out at home and in the garden and visiting folk. We have to buy a new car as ours is on its last legs - though it did a trouble-free 1600 miles in France (not bad for a ten year old Renault that's done 93,000 miles!) - so I'm trawling websites and dealers looking for bargains on the greenest car we can afford.

I am also getting my thoughts together ahead of a meeting next week with a publisher for what would be the biggest book I've written. More on that later.

I have another month of sabbatical left, so I'll be doing some thinking, some writing, some planning - and a lot more chilling...

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Tudor London's lessons for today

While in France, I read the latest installment in C J Sansom's increasingly brilliant series of Tudor crime novels featuring the lawyer/sleuth Matthew Shardlake and his reliable assistant Jack Barak. Called Revelation, in many ways this is the best so far, not so much for the plot - which is a clever serial killer conceit - but for the creation of a compelling atmosphere of fear. Set in the days after Thomas Cronwell's fall, in the run up to Henry's last marriage to Catherine Parr, Sansom catches the ugly mood of uncertainty on London's streets.

The plot concerns a series of murders perpetrated to fulfil the seven vials prophecy in Revelation. All the victims were once gung-ho for reform and had cooled in their ardour. This allows Sansom to get under the skin of opinion in the early 1540s, a time when the first flush of reform in England was being rowed back by an increasingly conservative king and Privy Council led by London's Bishop Bonner and Winchester's Stephen Gardiner. A beleaguered Thomas Cranmer, still archbishop of Canterbury and enjoying Henry's love and support, is under attack from conservatives in and out of the court. London's streets are awash with suspicion and fear as reformers are increasingly arrested for holding views that only a few years previously were mainstream.

In the course of creating a totally believable Tudor London, Sansom throws sidelights on our own uncertain times, where different fundamentalisms - Christian, Islamic and secular - clash and create victims all round. The war on/of terror is nothing new - it was fought in Tudor London against different enemies and, then as now, pretty much the only victims were innocent folk from both sides.

It's a great and moving novel that left me wanting to read all four of them again. I can't wait for the next!

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Final evening in la belle France

It's our penultimate day in France and we're in a Premiere Classe hotel room (sounds better than it is!) with free Internet, so I thought I'd bring you up to speed on our travels.

We're in Amiens, having come from Rouen this morning. We left the Charante on Monday morning after a really chilled break. The gite was great, the pool in particular was fab and the region offered interesting site-seeing opps.

I especially liked Saintes which has lots of Roman remains, including a really well-preserved late first century amphitheatre. The sun shone the second time we went there which was lovely.

I've finished Len Sweet's Gospel According to Starbucks and think it's one of the best things he's written - concise and thoroughly enjoyable. I'm also reading Mark Everett's autobiography, he of the Eels. It's really well-written and entertaining, as well as extremely poignant - he's been through a lot and come through with a really mature take on life.

Started dipping into Walter Brueggemann's latest on preaching - stimulating but hard-going for a holiday!

As far as listening is concerned, I've been loving Yeasayer, Joe Jackson's latest (Rain), Elbow's Seldom Seen Kid and The Cinematic Orchestra Live at the Albert Hall.

Back to blighty tomorrow and my sabbatical travels come to an end. It'll be time to take stock and think about what the future in Bromley holds (at least the autumn...)

Monday, June 16, 2008

A rainy day in France...

Greetings from La Belle France! I wasn't expecting to have internet access here but I have for the moment. And it's raining, so I thought I'd blog a bit.

I finished John Gray's Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia yesterday. What a fantastic book! I've been an admirer of Gray's since hearing him at the London institute for Contemprary Christianity soon after his Straw Dogs was published. He was provocative and very interesting.

Well, Black Mass doesn't disappoint. It's a surgical strike against the secularist myth, against the notion that any kind of utopia - such as the neo-con dream of democracy for all - can be achieved. More than that, it is a startling and brilliant analysis of the roots of all such utopian thinking in the Christian story. His assertion that secularism is a product of Christian eschatology minus God is rather wonderful. And he demolishes the arguments of secularism's heroes with panache and gusto.

It should be said that he is no particular friend of religion. But he is astute enough to see that religion answers an innate and deep human need and therefore has to be accommodated in whatever society we try to create.

I found the book wonderfully stimulating and provocative. I shall blog about it further when I've had time to process it.

I'm also reading Leonard Sweet's The Gospel According to Starbucks which is a terrfiic restatement of his EPIC theory of living in relation to coffee. As well as offering a truly attractive picture of how the followers of Jesus should live, he offers all sorts of fascinating facts about coffee. What more could you ask?

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The journey goes on

It's been all go since returning from Prague, so I haven't had a chance to sort pictures or reflect on the experience.

I've been reading a manuscript for a publisher which is good and sorting things out for going to France tomorrow.

I also had a chance to catch up with a few friends - always excellent.

So, I'll not be blogging for a couple of weeks. lots of updates when I return.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Waiting for our ride to the airport

We're all packed up and waiting for our ride to the airport. It's been fabulous in Prague and we're sorry to be going home after a month (I could have stayed for another at least!)

We had a great evening yesterday - dinner with Phil and Alex (a lovely young couple working here for another year; Alex is looking for a church in the UK from next autumn - she'll be a considerable catch!) Then on to Ungelt to hear Chicken soup a wonderful jazz-fusion band.

We'll be leaving with lots of good memories - I'll post some pix once we're home and have sorted outthe 400 or so I took(!) - and having made a bunch of good friends. I hope some of them will be our doorstep in the UK at some stage - we'll certainly be back on theirs.

So, now it's a week at home and then off to France for a fortnight to recover. Sabbaticals - they're tough and not everyone can keep up!

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Our earthy identity - and why it matters

We had a lovely communion this morning, gathered in a circle and saying a liturgy influenced by central european baptists and the Northumbria community.

It was simple and profound. The community here is a bit special. It's also unreal and unreproduceable elsewhere. But it gives hints and pointers to ways of being church elswhere that are very attractive.

One of the reasons for this is its conscious striving to be a baptist community. Here our identity as baptists is taken really seriously. I've just had a conversation with a serbian who has has a masters in Anabaptist and Baptist studies, about who we are. Again McClendon was named, Dayan pointing out that theology as biography has to be the place where we start to create baptist community. Everyone's story matters, everyone's story has something to teach everyone else about what it means to live by the one story at the heart of our gathering, the story of man from Nazareth who is the Lord of glory.

Again, I was struck as we broke bread and shared wine this morning, how vital it is that Jesus was fleshy, sweaty and earthy (no decetism here!); and how our stories with all their pain and laughter are caught up in his.

This is the kind of place that makes you look at things in fresh, appealing and suggestive ways. I'm sorry our time here is almost over...

Meandering in Europe's loveliest city...

It's raining this morning. Hopefully it'll brighten up after morning chapel (which includes communion).

Steve and Val are leaving today. It's been great to spend this month with them. They are a great couple and have been a real laugh to be with as well as a source of insight and wisdom on a whole range of issues.

I think we'll do a gallery today. I still haven't seen the El Greco in the Sternberg Palace. A couple of days ago we went to Vysehrad, the other castle and cathedral that overlooks the city on the opposite bank of the river from St Vitas and the royal palace. It's starker but still impressive. it's also the place where the Czech Republic's great and good are buried in a fabulously crowded grave yard.

Prague continues to be a delight. Last night we went out to eat with Steve and Val and Tima and Iulia (a super Russian couple who are seeking settlement in the UK and who'd be an asset to any church that called them). We walked in the Old Town Square and drank coffee at the art decco concert hall, having eaten at our favourite Architcture Club restaurant. Blissful...

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Offering a tangible welcome

Also this morning, we had one of the most moving infant dedications I've been to for a while.

The couple had a daughter of about four and a son who'd been born very prematurely and struggled for a while. But now at just over a year was a strapping lad and they'd come to give thanks.

As part of the service, various members of the church bought the child gifts that symbolised hopes and dreams for him - a book for his learning the story of the world and God, a toy for him to develop a sense of adventure and playfulness, anticeptic cream in thankfulness that he had come through the dark valley of ill health into a place of relative vitality, and so on

It was very moving to see the church symbolise its hopes for and welcome of this new arrival in this very tangible way. So this is another thing I'll be thinkiing of introducing back home.

Sharing our common life

We had a lovely agape following the morning service at Sarka Valley Community Church. I think with adaptation, the model would work back home. So we'll probably try it.

It was a church lunch that began and ended with a communion liturgy - breaking bread at the start and sharing a common cup at the end. It was really cool to share wine with people you were laughing and chatting with and dropping the words of institution into the conversation as the cup reached us.

We also sang three great songs - all influenced by Iona's John Bell in some way - this morning. Again, these are works that will make their way back home.

Here's a flavour of one of them (an excellent communion hymn):

As once you served a waiting crowd
when someone shared their bread
so still, through freely offered life,
your hungry world is fed

For, having planted seed corn deep
in every human heart,
there, quickened by affirming grace,
your kingdom's work can start

The final verse says:

Then break me with the hands of grace
that living, I may prove
a generous bread of kingdom life,
of healing, peace and love.

(words by Pat Bennett/music by John Bell)

There were lots of goodbyes to say today as many of the students who've lived here for the last year are heading home. Many tears were shed and email addresses exchanged, a sign that deep relationships form over an academic year; students were valedicted and sent back to their churches to fulfil the ministries that God has prepared them for over the past year.

We also welcomed a group from Baylor University in Texas who are here for a few days as part of a six week tour of europe.

Catching up with life in Prague

I've been so busy chilling that I've forgotten to blog the past couple of days. So here's a catch-up.

We had the IBTS graduation ceremony on Friday - students in the certificate and masters programmes were awarded and valedicted. It was great to see young (and not so young) people from across central and eastern Europe (and the UK) get their awards. IBTS does a unique job in offering training opportunities at what seems to be a good standard at a good price.

We've had lots of music over the past couple of days as well. Undoubtedly the highlight was seeing the National Saxaphone choir of Great Britain at the fringe festival yesterday evening. They are an ensemble of 18 sax players doing things with the instrument that you wouldn't have thought possible. It was a great show. They'll be touring England soon and are well worth catching.

Then we went on to Agharta to catch some modern jazz in a wonderful club (one of Prague's best). It was a quartet of piano (a very dextrous guest player from new York), a veteran but nimble-fingered upright bass player, a soprano sax player and a drummer (again, long in the tooth but amazingly subtle and energetic). They were really good, playing their way through a set of improvisations around well-known jazz standards.

The low point musically was the Moody Chorale! We went to see them on Thursday evening with our new friends and Ian and Janice (older friends) and it was like falling into a time-warp. Tuxedo'd men and evening gown'd girls singing their way through a light classical and spiritual repetoire that had a high point and a very low one. The high point was a sublime latin anthem about Jesus as the light of the world. They also did a good version of John Rutter's The Lord Bless you. The low point was a gospel song with two soloists who really couldn't cut it as ike and Tina Turner. Ah well.

I have also been reading. I've made two interesting discoveries. The first is Andrew Das, a New testament scholar from Elmhurst College Illinois who's written a lot about Paul and the Law and Judaism. His latest book is a detailed defence of the proposition that Romans was written to an exclusively gentile audience. This is not a new idea - Stowers, Munck and others have suggested it recently - but Das is the first person to write a book-length defence of the view, taking full account of the new perspective and recent work on the social history of Pauline communities. I'm reading it with some interest.

My other discovery is James McClendon. Round here his name is uttered in hushed tones as though he were the fourth member of the Trinity. Having talked about him with Jim Purcell - visiting from Scotland for graduation - I can see why. He is a baptist, narrative systematic theologian and I've heard enough about him to bury all my prejudices against systematic theology and read his trilogy - a volume each on Ethics, Doctrine and Witness. It's interesting that he begins with ethics - how Christians live - before talking doctrine (what they believe). What excites people most about him is that he is truly communitarian (as Jim puts it) in his approach.

The weather has been wonderful - hot and sunny - except that last night we got caught in the promised thunderstorm on our way home from Agharta. Such is life...