Tuesday, 31 July 2007

holiday reading thoughts from abroad

It's great to see that Ruby has been hard at work while I have been sunning myself in Italy for a fortnight. Well, in fact 'sunning' is not quite right, it's been too hot for that - the day we went to Florence it was 43 degrees! Even walking around that wonderful Duomo (cathedral) is a slog when its so hot. And ironically it was that day when we learned of continuing awful weather and devastating floods in England. Being so hot I took to sitting in the shade reading and sipping something cool. It's a hard life!

I rarely read anything except novels on holiday, and this one was no exception. The rest of the time what I read is largely dictated by the demands of my appointment, and novels rarely figure, so I save up what I want to read for holiday times.

I read four books this holiday.
'The Rule of Four' was advertised as a combination of 'The Da Vinci Code' and 'The Name of the Rose', though it had neither the pace of the first nor the brooding depth of the second. It is a unlikely if jolly and engaging tale about a group of friends at Princeton University and in particular an obsession a couple of them have with an unfathomable Rennaissance document - unfathomable, that is, until these two likely lads crack the code. It was a decent read, but I left it in the beautiful little house in the mountains south of Naples, where we stayed the second week. Anyone think it's better than 'ok'?

Bill Napier's 'The Lure' was better fare as far as I was concerned. Plausible science bordering on possible sci fi. I've read all his books (He's only written 4 I think!) and they are just the job for this minister on holiday. In 'The Lure' a group of scientists, who have sat around an underground lake in Eastern Europe for a number of years waiting for something to happen suddenly get their wish. Their lake is bombarded with rhythmic bursts of subnuclear particles which, to their astonishment, and the insight of a mathematician ferried in for the purpose, are deemed to contain a code which can only have been sent from highly intelligent beings somewhere in the Universe. ET phone home!

But the book is not about little green men, rather the tussle between scientists wanting to declare their findings to the world, and politicians of their respective countries who decide it might not be best to declare anything and try to repress their discovery. I mean, if we earthlings answer the message then we signal to this intelligence our very human existence, and we don't know if they are goodies or baddies, so we could be walking in to a trap. On the other hand this far superior intelligence must have turned their back on violence and war long ago, mustn't they? And they probably have the cure for cancer. Hmm dilemma.

The small religious contribution to this intelligently presented moral conundrum is presented by an old evangelist figure who is invited by the US President to offer advice. He argues vehemently that a) the intelligence must be baddies, because b) Jesus Christ only came to this world, and therefore all the rest of the Universe must be highly dubious. Now there is a rounded theological position for you! Anyway, well worth the read. Or perhaps you thought it was rubbish!

'Winston's War' by Michael Dobbs was different but equally enjoyable. Using historical events and facts as the framework for fictional additions the book covers the 14 months or so from Neville Chamberlain coming back from Munich stating peace in our time, to the time Winston Churchill unexpectedly became Prime Minister in May(?) 1940. Dobbs obviously hero worships Churchill, but it was a good read nonetheless. Anyone else venture an opinion?

The best laugh came, as it has on a number of occasions down the years, from Bill Bryson. 'The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid' is a comical account of his childhood in 1950's De Moines. As always, among the humour and vivid images he offers, come a few gems, passages or thoughts that I underline - even on holiday - and resolve to use in some sermon sometime. I will find some way of using his observation on p282 when he notes how, faced with the Nuclear threat, and the fear of Communism and suchlike, there was a
'curious blend of undiluted optimism and a kind of eager despair. Over 40 per cent of people in 1955 thought there would be a global disaster, probably in the form of a world war, within five years and half of those were certain it would be the end of humanity. Yet the very people who claimed to expect death at any monent were at the same time busily buying new homes, digging swimming pools, investing in stocks and bonds and pension plans, and generally behaving like people who expect to live a long time.'
And I thought such incoherent consumerism was a trait of postmodernity!

Enough. Back to work means the end of novels for a while. There is a rather juicy three chapters of a near copmplete PhD in the pile of mail awating my return - joy! Let's see if it matches Bryson, though in one sense, I rather hope it doesn't!

Wednesday, 25 July 2007

Water, water everywhere

I keep thinking that the floods in Britain must be coming to an end - and they carry on. I know that in Asia and other places around the world worse floods are happening and many lives are being lost and these are not even hitting our radar. We need to be aware of that and do what we can to help. However, it is still a shock to see hospitals in Britain having to receive bottled water and to watch families have to tear up other items of linen to make cot sheets where their small children have soiled the bed and they daren't use their bottled water to wash them. Where is the good news in this?

It is certainly in the responses that people are making. Particularly the emergency services and agencies like the Red Cross - who are putting out appeals for funds in major newspapers today, community organisations including churches and mosques. But also neighbours rallying round to look out for the elderly, disabled people and those with young families. It is good to see communities rallying round. But what do we say as people of faith when peoples homes are being flooded again having just been cleared up and babies born prematurely in their flooded home die before they reach hospital? God is alongside in every situation, but finding the right words to say this without sounding pious or ridiculous can be hard.

It is important to reach out and care in the midst of these difficulties and show the love of God to not only those who need us, but those who need us most. At Conference the President and I signed letters of greeting and support to ministers in areas of flooding as their communities struggled with the day to day difficulties and also reached out to those around them. Those messages go out further now as two weeks on more communities are affected. As we encourage Methodists to give support in whatever ways they can, those affected remain in our thoughts and prayers.

Saturday, 21 July 2007

Celebrations, commiserations and late night theology

Feeling tired could be the recurring theme of this blog. It's certainly how I feel now having just travelled back from a wedding in Somerset in the rain. The journey down yesterday and back today took about twice the time we would normally expect. But at least we got there -even got into the church ahead of the bride, but only just! Turning up at the wrong church initially did not help. Some of our party did not make it to the church and others arrived early this morning, having missed the whole thing because they ended up spending the night on the M5. Two adults and three children overnight in a car with no supplies was not their idea of a good time and we missed them at the celebrations.

I really enjoyed the wedding of Karen and Ian yesterday. A simple relaxed service was followed by a wonderful meal and an evening do with disco and band. The bride was beautiful, the groom attentive and their two children played their part with 6 year old Alyssa as a gorgeous bridesmaid and 11 year old Rhys as an excellent assistant best man. His proposal of a toast to mum and dad was a real tear jerking moment. It was a privilege to take part in the service by reading an excerpt from Captain Correlli's mandolin.

Late in the evening as we waited up in the hope of seeing our missing friends, the conversation turned to religion. We were a mixed group including a Methodist minister, a youth worker, a professed atheist comedy writer and broadcaster (all ex members of a youth group of which I was a leader) and a gay historian and archeologist. It is difficult when you hear the faith and values that you hold dear being lifted up as the cause of many evils in the world (and that was just from the Methodist minister!). But some of the arguments are based on facts that cannot be refuted. Many wars arise from religious differences. Fundamentalist teaching encourages young people to develop feelings of hatred to other groups. Gay people are not encouraged to believe that they can take up an equal place within religious communities. It is easy to see how you might arrive at the resulting conclusions that it is all bonkers and should be avoided if not banned. Whilst I fully believe that secular society shows that bad things happen even where people have turned their backs on religion, that power struggles happen and gangs come together based on a range of belief systems I do think that it is important to recognise not only the good that comes out of faith communities but the misconceptions and injustices as well. I can't help thinking that people will be more persuaded by our lives than our arguments. Back to concentrating on following Jesus without embarassing God!

Well that kept us going until about 3.30 this morning when some of us went to bed. I may be getting too old for late night theology.

By the way, just to reassure anyone who thinks that I might have mislaid the President again, please note that he is having a well earned holiday before getting down to carrying out the duties of President of the Methodist Conference in earnest.

Saturday, 14 July 2007

The Carnival, sorry Conference, is over

Well, after a week of early mornings and late nights the Conference is over. In some ways it doesn't seem five minutes since I arrived in Blackpool in the rain a week past on Wednesday and in others it seems a lifetime away. It is always the case that looking back you can see ways that you might have handled something better. It is too late to change those now, but sincere apologies go to anyone who got hurt along the way.

The content of the Conference business can be found through links from the Methodist Church website http://www.methodist.org.uk/ but what about behind the scenes?

Waiting to appear on Saturday afternoon is very odd for the President and Vice President designate but we hid ourselves away for the first half of the proceedings in the record office where we could watch what was going on via a screen. It broke the tension when one officer of Conference walked sedately from the platform and burst into the records office in search of a statement which needed to be read in the next two minutes, ran back out with it and appeared sedately back on the platform.

On Saturday evening we had a meal with family and friends which had an unauspicious start when we lost the President - finally found safe and well signing copies of his new book. (See https://secure2.cyberware.co.uk/~cb537/acatalog/Mission_and_Ministry.html for details!) A highlight of the meal for me was having the Vice Presidential cross described by my 17 year old nephew as my new "bling". It was really good to have time to share with people who had travelled to lend their support. (Especially knowing that from then on the days would start with meetings/Radio interviews etc in the early hours and go on late into the night with little time to stop and share).

Another of those fantastic moments arose on Sunday morning when at 8am the room used by the President, Vice President, the Business Committee and occasionally Uncle Tom Cobley and all, was found to be locked with no sign of a key. The conference centre said that 3 keys existed but they thought that the Methodist Church had taken them all. A chair which needed to appear on the platform (no not Wesley's chair, a smaller one hot foot from IKEA) and the President's robes were dutifully locked away. At 10am, with no one admitting to possession of the keys, and the worship due to begin at 10.30, the centre's handy person was sent for to break the door down. Fortunately he was just beaten to it by another of the centre's staff who had found a key. All's well that ends well.

The weekend contained many formalities, the inauguration of the President and myself and our addresses, hearings about aspects of the Team Focus business to be considered later in the week, the reception into full connexion of this year's ordinands and their ordination services around the North West on Sunday evening. At the end of all of that people are exhausted but also uplifted. It was wonderful to take part in the worship and for that to surround all of the formal business, to realise that we are a movement and not just an organisation. To know that we are united in our faith even when we don't agree with each other about every little detail. The Wednesday communion set within the context of the work was also very moving and special and set a worshipful tone for the business of the day as it was led by Barbara Glasson and the special people from "Somewhere else" in Liverpool. http://www.somewhereelse.org.uk/ I hope there will be opportunities to come back to thinking about that here.

For me then it was a bit of a shock to the system having driven back from Blackpool on Friday to go straight into the House of Commons to attend our departmental summer party. It felt right to be back in the workplace having emphasised that this is where many lay people express their ministry. I spent most of the evening serving drinks so I suppose that could be seen as a servant ministry, but I was very tired when I eventually arrived home.

After a domestic day on Saturday my husband and I drove up to Arnold in Nottingham and Derby District to be the surprise guests at the farewell service for a Superintendent minister and a lay worker on Sunday evening. My first official appointment and it had been a well kept secret! I had been invited because I was the former youth leader of the Superintendent minister. That really makes me feel old - I was a very young youth leader at the time! It was a good service and it felt good to be with local Methodists in their own setting. I was pretty tired and did not feel very inspiring but it was humbling that so many people were appreciative of me just being there in this new connexional role. It emphasised for me the need to think about that during the year and to follow the mantra I have used a number of times recently from the title of a book by evangelist Tony Campolo - "Following Jesus without embarassing God". Let's hope that's how it looks when we get to next summer. I hope we can build up some conversations about that during the year.

Back to work today in earnest, complete with the full regalia and House of Commons chamber duties until late this evening. No one addressing me as Madam Vice President, and going back to trying to sense God's presence in the everyday instead of having the obvious elements of worship to rely on.