Sunday, September 30, 2012

Feeding the soul

Back in church this morning; good to catch up with people; and excellent to go out unexpectedly for lunch with a bunch of people from the service to chew the fat and laugh together. I wondered over pizza and peronis which of the morning gatherings was more spiritually useful....

I'm now listening to the new Dylan album - Tempest - and reckoning it's the best thing he's done for more than a decade. He'll never make albums of the game-changing kind he made in the sixties and early seventies (the world is a different place now). But Tempest has lyrical edge and musical verve and is worth paying attention to. There's not much music you can say that of.

So, I reckon lunch fed my soul more than the morning gathering to sing and listen (which had lots of good bits). Conversation is essential, everything else seems optional.

I'm reading Paul Auster's New York Trilogy at the moment. The writing is brilliant but the stories are strange and possibly too clever by half. The first seems to be a laboured reflection on authorial presence and the truthfulness of stories. But I didn't find myself empathising with any of the characters and when Auster himself turns up as a character, I felt I was being manipulated, however good the writing is.

As we talked about books over lunch, there was agreement that stories really engage us when we can empathise with a character, when we care about what happens to them and those that matter to them. I read Conrad's Shadow Line and Heart of Darkness while I was away and was yet again drawn into narrative worlds where people made choices (good or bad) that had consequences for them and those around them that I cared about. Heart of Darkness always leaves me wrung out and on the edge of despair about the human condition - except for Marlow's world-weary concern for the feelings of others; he reminds me that for all his outward cynicism, like so many of us, he has a heart that beats with compassion for those caught up in life's trials and mishaps, a heart of shadows and light rather than impenetrable darkness.

So, as we shared about books and our reactions to stuff happening in the world around us - near and far - I was touched by the compassion of my lunch companions and strengthened to be more empathetic in the week ahead. It wasn't just my waistline that expanded over lunch; my soul was filled and fattened to - and that always needs to gain weight.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Last thoughts

It's our last day in Sri Lanka and we're back in Dehiwalla having spent the last six days in one of the best hotels I've ever stayed in. And the hotel staff were right - the taxi from there to here took exactly 45 minutes and not the hour and half we were expecting!

And now hot-foot from Lanka Hands, we've done all our shopping, caught up with friends and said goodbye and are getting ready for our final evening meal in this lovely, busy, complex, heart-breaking country.

Life at college carries on (quietly in the library where I am) and out in the streets the horns sound, the traffic grinds its way slowly to destinations, the pavements hum with activity and the occasional train clatters by heaving with commuters.

We have had a whole heap of good experiences on this trip, not least with the countless church leaders we have talked with, taught, leaned from and laughed alongside. I am coming away with plenty to think about and a reasonable tan (for me - which means I'm off-white with red streaks!)

Monday, September 24, 2012

Glad I'm not on a cricket tour

Day two of the gruelling holiday regime finds us sheltering from the rain in the hotel lounge sipping coffee and updating Facebook and blogs. There are number of distraught England cricket fans nursing post-match bewilderment at such a shambling performance. And there are a number of German guests baffled by the feelings we Brits have about our national game.

I think I might be feeling a little miffed if I'd paid a large sum to be here to watch the twenty20 but hopefully England's fortunes will revive as they head to Kandy for the super 8 part of the tournament. England are looking anything but super now!

Hopefully, the sun will shine a bit later. I got burned yesterday under mainly cloudy skies - as did many of the guests of all nationalities - which serves as a warning to apply factor 50 even when it looks like rain!

Anyway, I think I need a swim to work up an appetite for lunch...

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Spending time in traffic queues

We are now on holiday at a wonderfully appointed hotel that we found through the Agoda website. If this hotel is anything to go by, then I thoroughly recommend checking out the good people there if you are looking for accommodation in Asia.

One thing we have noticed since our visit in 2009 is that the amount of traffic on Sri Lanka's already crowded roads has risen exponentially. The result is that many parts of Columbo are all-but grid-locked often doubling journey times.

I've also seen a lot more accidents. Just yesterday on the A2 from Kandy to Colombo we passed the debris and aftermath of three serious crashes involving four or more vehicles. Judging by the driving, it's a wonde the aren't more. But the rapidly rising number of vehicles - especially 4x4s driven by the newly wealthy - isn't helping.

That journey - distance of 100kms - takes on average three hours; usually more because your exhausted driver needs a break and you need a cup of tea for your nerves!

The  problem has made the pages of today's Sunday Times (Sri Lanka version!) and is leading to a fairly major road building programme (done mainly by the Chinese who are doing a lot of development projects in the country in return fro being allowed to develop the port at Hamabntota as a refuelling stop for its navy). New roads will undoubtedly help.

In the meantime we are taking with a pinch of salt the hotel staff's suggestion that it would take 45 minutes to get from here to Dehiwalla, where we're spending our last night, and are reckoning we need to leave at least an hour and half for the trip.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Entering the last lap

One of my students reads Frank Viola and trawls post-evangelical blogs, another is a very conservative AOG pastor and still another works with addicts in Sri Lanka's prison system. They are a wonderfully mixed bag and it's been great fun teaching them.

This afternoons we deal with our final subject - 1 Peter. It's a pity we can't devote a whole week to this excellent letter. But even at Spurgeon's it comes and goes in two hours. There's no justice.

Anyway looking forward to a stimulating final session....

Standing in tthe light

Listening to Charlie Peacock, watching the campus come alive with early morning activity... This is my last day of teaching. It has been a good, stimulating, challenging week. This crop of undergraduates has worked hard and produced good assignments so far which is pleasing for their teacher.

As Charlie sings 'I want to be in the light as you are in the light' I have been pondering the purpose of what we do here - small thoughts for a Thursday morning! And I think it boils down to helping to equip my students to stand in the light, work in the light and shine that light through their ministries to their neighbours.

This must be the goal of theological education. The light will banish the darkness of half-truth and junk ideas that seem all-too prevalent here as they are back home; the light will encourage greater partnership working as we stand in the light together; the light will dispell the darkness of competing with each other, of building empires and not God's Kingdom; the light will shine in our lives and remind us that 'I'm just a man in need of a saviour'

So, here's to a final productive day of teaching and learning...

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Good and bad news on the climate

Just back from a good time catching up with the peerless Clarence Mendis, social entrepreneur, Christian evangelist and guiding light of Farms Lanka for the last 39 years.

The course is going well, I think - though it is always difficult to tell how things are being received as  Sri Lankans generally do not interact in class until they know their teacher very well, something impossible if you're only with them for a week!

Tomorrow I shall be outlining what I'll be expecting from their assignment. Hopefully, there'll be lots of questions!

We had a lovely walk this afternoon round the mount Lavinia hotel and along the beach in the very warm sunshine. It is - depending on who you talk to here - the rainy season. But it hasn'tt rained since Sunday during the day. Clarence reckons the island is being affected by climate change with the rains less pdictable now than at any time through the past 50 years. This is affecting agricultural production and people's livelihoods.

So good sunny days for us (and we certainly don't want it to rain on our holiday!) are maybe not such good news for Sri Lanka's poor farmers. They are, however, good for the tourist industry, still on its knees and needing more foreign vistors spending their money in the shops and restaurants. It's a complex world...

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

A land of stark contrasts

This week has been pretty full-on. The group of MDiv students I have is small - just 7 - and reasonably well-engaged. Their English is generally good and they seem very diligent. But teaching is still pretty demanding.

After classes we have been meeting various people, some old friends, some new contacts, hearing stories that hearten and fill us with despair.

Yesterday evening we walked down the Galle Road into Mount Lavinia for dinner. I never cease to amazed at the noise of the streets - car horns, engine noise, people shouting - that make holding a conversation all but impossible!

Three years ago I walked on the beach just the other side of Dehiwalla station and found a fisihing community that five years after the tsunami was still living in the wreckage of their homes. I met a mother stoically waiting for the government to win the war over the LTTE. Then she said, they will come and help us. The war was just finishing then.

Linda and I walked on the beach on Monday afternoon. The people are still waiting. We met a man selling crisps to raise money to put food on his family's table. His house is still a shell; no help has come from any quarter.

It makes you weep to see people 8 years after the tsunami, in a city where the number of four-by-fours has risen exponentially, where condos are going up all over the place, including one overlooking this beach which boasts a gym and a swimming pool, still living in the debris of houses that had once been their homes.

It makes you realise what a place of contrasts this country is and how many still suffer the effects of those contrasts.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Fruitful and fruitless use of time

So an eventful first working day in Sri Lanka...

We were involved in a road traffic accident, a shunt involving two cars and a motorcycle. No one was hurt and our van was not badly damaged, though the car that drove into us looked like a write-off.

We were on our way back from Rathnapura Baptist Church, a two hour drive from Colombo, where I was preaching yesterday morning. After we'd all come to a halt and got out of our cars, no one shouted at anyone; no one called anyone a plonker; no one doubted the parentage of any of the people involved. Instead, all parties calmly tried to account for what had happened and why; bystanders and passers-by - and even people arriving by three-wheeler who had been nowhere the accident when it happened - also gave their firm views on the ins and outs of events.

This went on for a good half and hour before a policeman arrived on a motorcycle, took off his helmet and set about asking anyone with a view what had happened. This took some time. Having made copious notes, he left.

We waited. It transpired that we had to wait for the insurance representative of the company that insured the car we were in because William, who was driving, is not the owner. It is Gary's car (and very robust it is too!). He had to come because although William was driving with Gary's approval and permission, he was not the insured person and so was not able to tell the insurance company what had happened.

It also transpired that the man in the sporty coupe that had crumpled on impact was not the owner and our insurance man had to produce a report for that car's owner too. The insurance man duly arrived, took photographs, made notes, nodded a lot, took more photographs and then left.

All that had to happen now was that we go to the police station so the paperwork could be filed. That done we set off for Colombo, a two hour journey stretched to five with a lot of hassle for William.

It was worth the trip (though not the hassle) as the church as Rathnapura turned out to be a revelation. William had told me that last time he was there, about 25 were gathering and a new young pastor had recently started work there. That was about four years ago. Well yesterday 75+ crowded into the tiny Victorian edifice for a service that was lively, interactive, involving and full of life. I really wondered what I had to contribute. Afterwards, people came for payer, wanting the minister but also Linda and I to pray with them, wanting to be blessed, touched by God, moved on in their faith. I wanted to bottle their spirit and bring it home!

They are poor people - tea pickers mainly, working long hours, living in modest homes - but they were full of faith and glad to see us, glad that we'd continue to pray for them when we got back home.

Interestingly, Rathnapura is where BMS established a base, housed some missionaries and founded a high school (now part of the state system) that is still there. The work of those early missionaries, it seems, continues to bear fruit.