Thursday, January 31, 2008

Bringing heaven to earth

I'm really enjoying listening to Rob Bell's book, Sex God, on my iPod. The chapter headings invite you to find out more:

Chapter 1 - God wears lipstick.
Chapter 2 - Sexy on the inside.
Chapter 3 - Angels and animals.
Chapter 4 - Leather, whips, and fruit.
Chapter 5 - She ran into the girls' bathroom.
Chapter 6 - Worth dying for.
Chapter 7 - Under the chuppah.
Chapter 8 - Johnny and June.
Chapter 9 - Whoopee forever.

Now, I know some of you are wondering what on earth chapter 4 is about. Well, you'll have to read the book!!

I think the story that Rob shares below is wonderful:

'I have a new hero. Her name is Lil, and I would guess she’s in her late fifties. I met her earlier this year when she introduced me to her daughter, whom she was pushing in a wheelchair. Early in their marriage, Lil and her husband decided that they would adopt two children. As they became familiar with the family services system, they learned that there were kids in the system nobody wanted. So they went to the local adoption agency and asked for the kids with the most pronounced disabilities, the most traumatic histories, and the most hopeless futures. They asked if they could have the kids nobody wanted. Over the past thirty or so years, they have raised well over twenty children, raising their biological children alongside their adopted children.

When Lil got to this point in her story, she reached down and patted her daughter and said, “This is Crystal. She’s twenty-seven years old but will be about six months old developmentally for the rest of her life. She can’t talk or walk or move or feed herself or do anything on her own. She will be like this, totally dependent on us, until the day she dies. And I love her so much. My family and I, we can’t imagine life without her. She makes everything so much better.”

What is Lil doing?

She’s bringing heaven to earth.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Music that inspires - 4

Toss The Feathers is a traditional Irish foot-tapping folk tune that has been performed in a number of contexts. I love this popular version by The Corrs with all of its energy. It always thrills me to see a group of musicians really enjoying themselves. What must it have been like to have grown up in the Corr household in Dundalk, Republic of Ireland? Andrea, Sharon, Caroline & Jim learned to play a variety of instruments and were often present at the pub gigs of their parents, Gerry & Jean. What a family! I hope you enjoy this clip performed at the Glastonbury Festival in 1999.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Spring is getting earlier!

I took this photograph at the Sandy Smith Nature Reserve, just west of Chicksands in Bedfordshire, early this afternoon. The photo is not good, but it's my first lesser celandine of the year - one of my favourite plants. Soon there will be bright green & gold carpets of these members of the buttercup family lighting up local woods and ditches.

It was also one of William Wordsworth's favourite plants, abundant in the Lake District where he lived, and he wrote three poems based on it, including one which begins:

'There is a flower, the lesser celandine
That shrinks, like many more, from cold and rain
And, the first moment that the sun may shine
Bright as the sun himself, 'tis out again!'

You can find a stone commemorating Wordsworth at St Oswald's Church in Grasmere. Everyone knew how much he loved the lesser celandine, so they thought it would be a really good idea to carve one on it. All well and good....until the person engaged for the task did a carving of a greater celandine....which is actually a member of the poppy family!!

Other wildlife on the reserve included a male muntjac deer; a disturbed toad (!); kestrel; sparrowhawk; pair of stonechat; meadow pipit; skylarks (singing); a wonderful 'charm' of about 30 goldfinches.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Quotes for living - 3

Erma Bombeck once wrote about what she would do differently If I Had My Life to Live Over:

'I would have invited friends over to dinner even if the carpet was stained and the sofa faded. I would have eaten the popcorn in the "good" living room and worried much less about the dirt when someone wanted to light a fire in the fireplace. I would have taken the time to listen to my grandfather ramble about his youth. I would never have insisted the car windows be rolled up on a summer day because my hair had just been teased and sprayed. I would have burned the pink candle sculpted like a rose before it melted in storage. I would have sat on the lawn with my children and not worried about grass stains.

I would have cried and laughed less while watching television and more while watching life. I would have gone to bed when I was sick instead of pretending the earth would go into a holding pattern if I wasn't there for the day. I would never have bought anything just because it was practical, wouldn't show soil, or was guaranteed to last a lifetime. Instead of wishing away nine months of pregnancy, I'd have cherished every moment, realizing that the wonderment growing inside me was the only chance in life to assist God in a miracle. When my kids kissed me impetuously, I would never have said, "Later. Now go get washed up for dinner." There would have been more, "I love you's" and more "I'm sorry's" but mostly, given another shot at life, I would seize every minute....look at it and really see it! And never give it back.'

Sunday, January 27, 2008


At our service this morning we played the following video featuring Jude Simpson's poem, Broken Open. Listen to it and see if it doesn't move your heart.....

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Sensual Intelligence - 3: Your Nose

I've had some bad experiences this week. The worst one was the fruitless time spent trying to unblock a drain. I won't frighten you with the details. A kind soul loaned me some rods with various endpieces that help you to screw, scrape and squish the stuff, but I couldn't manoeuvre them more than a few feet down the pipe, so it's an ongoing situation. The other bad experience has been today's attempt at decorating. I loathe decorating and all of the energy drains from me even thinking about it. But Carole and I have set to, and managed to give the ceiling a couple of coats of paint. At least it's a start! One of the worst common factors about unblocking drains and decorating is the smell - my olfactory senses have been well-and-truly assaulted this week!

It made me think that it was about time that we thought about another of Tony Buzan's group of amazing facts regarding our sensual intelligence, and what more appropriate than thinking about our noses! I find what follows absolutely incredible...
  • Your nose has 5,000,000 olfactory receptors: each one has its own gene.
  • Over 1,000 giant protein molecules are used by your receptors to decode smell.
  • Your nose can distinguish 10,000 different odours.
  • In ways that no scientist has yet been able to explain, your nose can detect one molecule of 'smell' in one part per trillion of air!
  • Your olfactory nerves are unique. One end of each of them is exposed to the outside world. The other speeds the impulses directly into your brain, providing an instantaneous communications link between the two. The things you smell can bring about deep and powerful emotive responses. This is because the minute your brain is aware of a smell, it sends the information directly to your emotional centre. This is in part why aromas are so closely associated with sexual arousal and the powers of recall.
As always, Buzan suggests some exercises for heightening our awareness of the different senses. Here are some of his suggestions regarding our sense of smell:
  • Regularly give your nose (as well as the rest of you!) the treat of trips into nature. Inhale through your nose as all animals do, rather than through your mouth, as most people do. Sniff the rain. You think it doesn't have it's own aroma? Yes it does!
  • Learn to distinguish the scents of different flowers.
  • Smell has become one of the least used senses. Reverse this trend! Experiment by placing flowers around your home, and by using perfumed candles in chosen rooms or when you are having a bath. If you have a garden, plant it to create scent treats.
I've got another suggestion, too. A group of people who have trained themselves to distinguish between a number of different smells are mycologists - people who study fungi. Lots of fungi are distinguished by the odours they give off. So there's something you can have a go at next Autumn...toadstool sniffing!

Friday, January 25, 2008

Stuck in a rut?

I'm informed that there is a sign in a wild region of Alaska that reads, “Choose your rut carefully. You’ll be in it for the next two hundred miles!”

It reminds me of the occasion, one cold winter's day, when I was driving a tractor and trailer, loaded with bales of hay and bags of concentrate, for a flock of sheep.

I was making my way down a muddy farm track, the tractor winding its way through the fields, with just a couple of deep ruts to guide me along. In the tractor cab with me was Liz, the farmer's daughter. I was in my late teenage years and hadn't been driving tractors for very long. When I got to the field where the sheep were, I found that I couldn't get myself out of the ruts. Every time I turned the steering wheel the front wheels of the tractor would turn but would just continue down the rut at that angle as the back wheels drove them. I tried again and again, getting increasingly frustrated. Several times, Liz offered to have a go and said that she could do it, but I waved her offers away, determined to prove that I was up to this simple task. In the end, I admitted defeat and, now sure that it was impossible to get out of the ruts, vacated the seat for Liz.

You have to understand that what happened next is a bit embarrassing to recall and share with you!

Liz sat down in the seat, leaned forward and, with her right hand, unclipped the small metal bar that joined together the left and right sections of the brake pedal! ...I hadn't even realised that there were independent brakes for each of the back wheels!! She sat back in the seat, revved the engine, jammed her foot down on the left wheel brake and let out the clutch. The left wheel remained where it was - immobile - the right wheel turned, spinning the tractor around the axis of the left wheel and, a few seconds later, we were out of the ruts and heading over to the feeding troughs where the sheep were waiting for us!!


When we're stuck in a rut it's often a good idea to let go of our pride and listen to what someone else is might make all the difference!

And sometimes we just have to decide that it's time we put our foot down, and do something about it!

It's not always that simple...but sometimes, actually, it is!

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Pudsey & the boys!

I can't say that I'm a Boyzone fan. Firstly, because I don't even know the title of any of their hits and, secondly, because I'm not sure I'd want to admit to it even if I did!

But I did buy a CD of Ronan Keating's greatest hits for Carole a year or two back, and I got to meet and talk to Ronan briefly at a Make Poverty History march in London about the same time.

So I was interested to read today of the Christian faith of Boyzone's former 'bad boy' Shane Lynch (on the right in the picture above). The anger and bitterness that had characterised his past - and led to a breakdown in his relationship with Ronan Keating - has been dealt with. He put things right with Ronan and the band reunited to perform on Children In Need last November. They're now planning a tour this coming summer.

Shane comments in the latest issue of New Life newspaper, "...some people mocked me when I announced that I was a Christian two years ago, but this is no flash in the pan experience. I'm stronger, freer and happier than I've ever been in my life and it gets better and better. Every day is a brand new adventure. I'm a better man for the faith which has been placed in my heart."

I've posted the Youtube video of the Children In Need reunion below. It's great to see Shane with his arm around Ronan's shoulder afterwards. Of course, I can't admit that I enjoyed listening to them....!!

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Today I will make a difference

Today I will make a difference. I will begin by controlling my thoughts. A person is the product of his thoughts. I want to be happy and hopeful. Therefore, I will have thoughts that are happy and hopeful. I refuse to be victimized by my circumstances. I will not let petty inconveniences such as stoplights, long lines, and traffic jams be my masters. I will avoid negativism and gossip. Optimism will be my companion, and victory will be my hallmark. Today I will make a difference.

I will be grateful for the twenty-four hours that are before me. Time is a precious commodity. I refuse to allow what little time I have to be contaminated by self-pity, anxiety, or boredom. I will face this day with the joy of a child and the courage of a giant. I will drink each minute as though it is my last. When tomorrow comes, today will be gone forever. While it is here, I will use it for loving and giving. Today I will make a difference.

I will not let past failures haunt me. Even though my life is scarred with mistakes, I refuse to rummage through my trash heap of failures. I will admit them. I will correct them. I will press on. Victoriously. No failure is fatal. It’s OK to stumble… I will get up. It’s OK to fail… I will rise again. Today I will make a difference.

I will spend time with those I love. My spouse, my children, my family. A man can own the world but be poor for the lack of love. A man can own nothing and yet be wealthy in relationships. Today I will spend at least five minutes with the significant people in my world. Five quality minutes of talking or hugging or thanking or listening. Five undiluted minutes with my wife, children, and friends.

Today I will make a difference.

[Max Lucado]

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

In the beginning GOD

Molly is a member of our fellowship here at Ampthill Baptist Church, with interests as diverse as singing, motorbike racing....and astronomy! Molly is a Fellow of the Royal Society and sent me this photo earlier today. She's given me permission to share it with you.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Music that inspires - 3

Today is a national holiday in the United States: Martin Luther King Jr. Day. I still get a frisson of excitement run down my spine when I hear the conclusion of his 'I Have A Dream' speech following the march to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington in August 1963. Those words still have the power to inspire and lead to a consequent desire to work towards justice in all of its forms.

Although the quality is not great, I find the video below moving - a montage of photos and clips from Martin Luther King's speeches over the U2 song, Pride, which was written after the group had visited the Chicago Peace Museum. Pride refers to the pride that MLK had inspired in black people.

Sunday, January 20, 2008


In the book of Deuteronomy, God’s relationship with his people is compared to that, ‘ an eagle that stirs up its nest and hovers over its young, that spreads its wings to catch them and carries them on its pinions.’

It’s a verse that is both challenging and comforting. What does Moses mean when he says that God is, ‘Like an eagle that stirs up its nest...’?

When the eagle makes her nest the uncomfortable layer of branches, thorns and sharp stones at the base are cushioned by a layer of fur and feathers from her prey. This is very much appreciated by the young eaglet but, in time, becomes a comfort zone making it much harder to persuade the bird to leave the nest and fly! So the eagle stirs up the nest, ripping out this comfortable base and exposing the material beneath to encourage the eaglet to vacate the nest!

I’ve asked a number of people this past week the reasons why they have ‘remained in the comfort zone’ rather than stepping out in order to live life to its utmost. The most popular answer has been fear of the unknown: “What if I step out and then fall flat on my face?” Fear of change was another answer. It was Mark Twain who said that the only person who likes change is a wet baby! Then there was, lack of confidence, laziness, and the 'affluenza' which so often dulls our appetite for life.

What keeps you in your comfort zone? Think about that for a few moments, and then ponder these words of John Ortberg:

‘This is a way that leads to stagnation – unrealised potential, unfilled longings. It leads to a sense that I’m not living my life; the one I was supposed to live. It leads to boredom, to what Gregg Levoy calls the common cold of the soul.
To sinful patterns of behaviour that never get confronted and changed,
Abilities and gifts that never get cultivated and deployed –
Until weeks become months
And months turn into years,
And one day you’re looking back on a life of
Deep intimate gut-wrenchingly honest conversations you never had;
Great bold prayers you never prayed,
Exhilarating risks you never took,
Sacrificial gifts you never offered
Lives you never touched,
And you’re sitting in a recliner with a shrivelled soul,
And forgotten dreams,
And you realise there was a world of desperate need,
And a great God calling you to be a part of something bigger than yourself –
You see the person you could have become but did not;
You never followed your calling.
You never got out of the boat.’

Or, in the context of our passage here, you never got out of the nest!

Maybe God’s stirring up the nest of our soul, challenging us to step out and soar with him. We can have the confidence that he will be with us and will watch over us even if he has to give us a bit of a push, and then catch us if we find ourselves falling: ‘ an eagle that stirs up its nest and hovers over its young, that spreads its wings to catch them and carries them on its pinions.’

There are a number of adaptations of a legend of an Indian brave in America who took an eagle’s egg and placed it into the nest of a prairie chicken. The eaglet thought that it was a prairie chicken and spent its life searching the ground for seeds and insects. One day, now fully-grown, he looked up and saw a majestic eagle soaring effortlessly on the air currents high above. “What bird is that?” he asked, to which one of the prairie chickens replied, “That’s an eagle, the king of the birds, but you could never be like him,” and so the eagle continued to search for bugs!

What conditions us? Do you want to be scratching about in the dirt with the chickens, or soaring with the eagles?

The prophet, Isaiah, writes:

‘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.’

Stanley Jones wrote about the behaviour of an eagle he witnessed in the Himalayas as a storm approached: "I expected it to head to the earth to escape the fury of the elements. Instead the eagle set its wings in such a way that when the storm struck it rose above and cleared the storm. It used the strong winds to go higher."

Eagles are made to fly….and to fly high! And God calls us not to live mediocre lives, but meaningful passionate lives given in adventurous service to him.

As the old Baptist preacher, Charles Spurgeon, expressed it, ‘Brother, your failure, if you fail, will begin in your faith. The air says to the eagle, “Trust me; spread thy broad wings; I will bear thee up to the sun. Only trust me. Take thy foot from off yon rock which thou canst feel beneath thee. Get away from it, and be buoyed up by the unseen element.” My brethren, eaglets of heaven, mount aloft, for God invites you. Mount! You have but to trust him.’

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Sensual Intelligence 2: Your Ears

I lay in bed yesterday morning and listened, for the first time this year, to a song thrush singing in someone's garden across the street. If it wasn't for the fact that I had a very busy day ahead of me, I could have lain there listening to this wonderful songster all morning!

We're continuing with thoughts from the chapter on sensual intelligence in Tony Buzan's Head First.

Here's another fascinating array of facts:
  • You have 16,000 hair cells in your inner ear - they respond faster than any other cell in your body.
  • Any of the 16,000 hair cells will trigger if you move the tip by as little as the width of an atom! That's the equivalent of being able to detect the movement at the top of the world's tallest skyscraper if it moved less than half-an-inch.
  • Your hair cells, when you listen to the high notes in classical music, fire at the rate of 20,000 times a second.
  • Your ear receives information in one dimension, and yet you hear 3-D sound and can instantaneously locate its origin. How? Because your amazing ear-brain system can distinguish the different time by which the 'same' sound arrived in each ear. The difference that you can distinguish is 200-millionths of a second!
Buzan suggests several exercises to give our ears regular aural treats. The first is to learn to discriminate the different sounds in nature, especially bird song. I led a dawn chorus walk a few years ago and I was so encouraged by the excitement of those present as they realised that it was possible to learn the difference between our common birds with a bit of practice and the use of helpful mnemonics. Spring is not far away...get yourself a CD or DVD of bird song (there's a number that you can choose from) and start to learn the common species. It really isn't hard and makes all the difference when you're in the countryside, giving you a totally new perspective.

Buzan also suggests other treats, including:
  • Listen to more ethnic and classical music - widen your aural horizons.
  • Listen to excellent recordings on the best equipment, and attend live concerts.
  • Occasionally give your ears the treat of no sound - like the rest of your body they need rest, and will reward you well for providing them with it!
Finally, something that I've never forgotten regarding the benefits of music...when I worked for the dairy unit at the Nottingham University School of Agriculture, the chief herdsman, Dave, used to play a tape of his favourite group, The Seekers, in the milking parlour. He insisted that there was a noticeable rise in the milk yields when the cows were listening to the amazing voice of Judith Durham and the other group members. So I've included the video of one of my favourite Seekers songs, I'll never find another you, below. Who knows what it might do for you as you listen to it!!

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Apple & a bunch of bananas!

The Apple phenomenon rolls on. Co-founder Steve Jobs gave a keynote speech at the Macworld conference in San Francisco, yesterday, extolling the virtues of the exciting film rental opportunities that will be possible with the new Apple TV box.

Steve Jobs has got the knack of coming up with memorable quotes. My favourite, by far, is his appeal to John Sculley, Pepsi Cola's youngest ever President, when persuading him to join the Apple team:

"Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water, or do you want a chance to change the world?"

That would have done it for me!

This evening, 80 or so Trustees, staff & volunteers of The Greensand Trust gathered for a social at Eversholt Village Hall. The conservational work that the Trust does across Mid-Bedfordshire is absolutely first class, and it was great to see everyone involved encouraging and appreciating one another. I really value the friendships that I've made over the years working with the 'Eastern Vols', a fantastic group of people, wonderful characters one and all, if a bit bananas (which is why I fit in so easily)! Below is their concluding contribution to the evening. I confess to being the 'vicar' who turns up for tea! I didn't want to spoil the piece by singing, so I elected to video it instead. Lyrics have been added below.










Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Quotes for living - 2

"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do then by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover."

Mark Twain

Tuesday, January 15, 2008


Zacchaeus. Pure. That’s what his name means, and the people of Jericho must have laughed, or else despaired, every time his name was mentioned.

Luke tells us that he was ‘a chief tax collector and was wealthy’ (Lk 19:1-2). It’s reckoned that there were three principle tax offices covering Judea at that time. One of them was based in Jericho, where Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector, the king of the hill, took his cut from the the gains of all of his employees, who had, in turn, squeezed every denarius they could from the reluctant purses of the populace to feather their own nests. No wonder he was wealthy! And no wonder he was hated – a taxman and collaborator to boot!

I’ve often wondered about Zacchaeus’ early life. Luke tells us that he was short. I wouldn't be surprised to discover he'd been the butt of many a joke, and the object of many a bully as he grew up, his heart becoming increasingly calloused. It was Alfred Adler who coined the term inferiority complex. He cited another small man, Napoleon, as the classic example of someone who compensated for his perceived shortcomings by a pathological power drive, striving to make a big impact on the world. I think that he could just as easily have cited Zacchaeus!

He must have got quite a kick as those who once teased him now trembled as he knocked on their doors. He knew that they cursed and spat behind his back, and glowered and grumbled as he walked by. He made out he didn’t care…but I’m sure that, in his heart of hearts, he wanted both to love and be loved. But now it was too late.

Or was it? I’m convinced that he saw in Jesus some hope of redemption. That’s why he went to such desperate measures. Perhaps he had heard the story of another taxman, Levi the Capernaum Clutcher, who had abandoned his tax booth to follow this amazing teacher and worker of miracles. Like him, Levi was very rich, but it seemed that he, too, had discovered just how empty those material riches were.

So here he was – desperate measures – up a tree both spiritually and physically, out of the line of sight of those who hated him, but responding to the spark that had ignited and flickered against the cold walls of his heart.

But he wasn’t prepared for what happened next. He didn’t expect Jesus to stop right underneath the limb he was clinging to. And he didn’t expect him to look up and invite himself for dinner. And he certainly didn’t expect him to know his name!! He almost fell out of the tree, but managed to slither down, ripping skin, and stand, overjoyed, before this man who welcomed him with open arms.

The well-to-do’s and holier-than-thou’s in the crowd were scandalised: "He has gone to be the guest of a sinner!!"

I wonder what that dinner party at Zacchaeus’ house was like. From what we know of Zacchaeus, the guests were not ‘A’ List! They didn’t consist of the so-called ‘respectable’ members of society – because they wouldn’t touch Zacchaeus with a barge pole, or whatever was the equivalent in those days – a trireme oar, perhaps!

No, the guests could only have been fellow misfits; undesirables – the sort of people that you would steer clear of; the ones you would cross the road to avoid; those whose children you would warn your children to stay away from. But that’s where Jesus chose to share table fellowship, giving out God’s love; revealing God’s heart; pouring out God’s grace.

Maybe Jesus told the story of the Prodigal Son – that’s how Franco Zifferelli portrays the scene in his film, ‘Jesus of Nazareth’. The wine-swigging, joke-telling guests listen in silence as Jesus talks about the son who demands his inheritance, leaves home…and lives the life of Riley, before hitting the skids, becoming destitute, and finally returning home a broken man, only to confront his father running down the road towards him and enveloping him in his arms.

Whatever Jesus said, his words together with his embrace of those outcasts gathered there, caused the spark in Zacchaeus’ heart to burst into flame: “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”

………..did you hear that bump? That was Zacchaeus’ wife hitting the ground! Can you imagine the others guests sat around the room with eyes like saucers and chins on chests! And can you imagine the queue of people outside Zacchaeus’ door the following morning!

We’re not talking about a slight reorientation of Zacchaeus’ priorities here – we’re talking about a paradigm shift, a seismic change in his thinking and actions. A life transformed.

And if Jesus wanted to welcome and share fellowship with a person like Zacchaeus, doesn’t it follow that he wants to welcome, and forgive and transform us, too?

When the Prodigal Son returned home, he was given a ring for his finger, a robe for his back, and shoes for his feet…..topped off by a humdinger of a party! In the same discourse, Jesus told two other stories. The first was about a sheep that wandered off and became lost. But the shepherd didn’t give up hope, and searched until he found the sheep, bringing it home on his shoulders, before throwing a party to celebrate. And, then, a story about a woman who lost a precious coin, but who was prepared to turn her house upside down in a determined search which achieved its goal, followed once more by a big party of celebration for the neighbourhood.

Extreme, don’t you think? After all, it was only a sheep….and a mere coin?

But they were precious to their owners. And we may think that we have little value, but we’re precious in God’s sight. And when we’re found again, God just loves to throw a party! Jesus says, “In the same way, there is rejoicing in heaven in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Lk 15).

Although the people despised Zacchaeus, I reckon that they envied his parties! I just get a sense that if anyone could throw a party it was Zacchaeus. But the party in Zacchaeus’ house that night was nothing like the party being thrown in heaven when he came to faith. Can’t you just imagine the angels looking wide-eyed at one another: “Can you believe it? Zacchaeus has become a follower of the Master. Yes, that Zacchaeus…." and then whooping aloud, and looping the loop!!

Jesus came to reconcile people like Zacchaeus, and people like us, to God. And, yes, he knows exactly what we’re like, better than we know ourselves. And yet, still he reaches out in love to us, inviting a personal response!

We don’t hear about Zacchaeus again. We’ve got no idea what became of him. But I’m pretty certain that he spent the rest of his life telling other people about God’s love for him…and the day that Jesus came to town!

Monday, January 14, 2008

Music that inspires - 2

Driving in the Highlands of Scotland moves me intensely. I remember one occasion, driving along a road with mountains rearing up on either side. The cassette player was blaring out a selection of Scottish airs through the wide-open windows....and I was in seventh heaven!

The next time I go to Scotland I will be playing the piece that follows - Ashokan farewell. It's got a really Celtic feel, and was featured on a Scottish TV production (sorry about the voiceover right at the end)...but it was actually composed by the American, Jay Ungar, who introduces it, and it is most remembered 'over the Pond' for being the theme tune for an American drama series about the civil war!

I've been listening to it regularly for a number of months, now, and I still love it. See what you think:

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Waiting room days

An amazingly emotional day today as I baptized David, Pauline & Jessica in a service involving both joyful celebration and deep consecration.

I've just got time to share some words of Wes Seeliger that I read earlier before going to bed:

'I have spent long hours in the intensive care waiting room watching with anguished people, listening to urgent questions: Will my husband make it? Will my child walk again? How do you live without your companion of thirty years?
The intensive care waiting room is different from any other place in the world. And the people who wait are diffferent. They can't do enough for each other. No one is rude. The distinctions of race and class melt away. The garbage man loves his wife as much as the university professor loves his, and everyone understands this. Each person pulls for everyone else.
In the intensive care waiting room, the world changes. Vanity and pretense vanish. The universe is focused on the doctor's next report. If only it will show improvement. Everyone knows that loving someone else is what life is all about.
Could we learn to love like that if we realised that every day of life is a day in the waiting room?'

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Sensual Intelligence - 1: Your Eyes

Leonardo da Vinci noted, with some melancholy, that the average human 'looks without seeing, listens without hearing, touches without feeling, eats without tasting, moves without physical awareness, inhales without awareness of odour or fragrance, and talks without thinking.'

I always used to turn my nose up at self-help books but, recently, I've come to realise that there is some gold amongst the dross. The above quote is taken from Tony Buzan's book, Head First, which I picked up for 99p at our local Age Concern charity shop. It begins a fascinating chapter about recognising and developing our sensual intelligence which I'll gradually work through here.

The first of the senses considered is our eyes. Consider:
  • Your retina, the light-receiving surface at the back of your eye, is only slightly thicker than a razor blade, yet contains 130,000,000 photoreceptor (light receiving) cells.
  • Of these 130,000,000 cells, a mere 6,000,000 of them, called the cones, handle all colour vision.
  • These 6,000,000 cones can process and distinguish 8,000,000 different shades of colour.
  • The remaining 124,000,000 photo-receptors are called rods. They are so sensitive that they can detect and distinguish a single proton of light.
  • At night the 124,000,000 rods, in order to help you survive in the dark, can increase their sensitivity 75,000 times.
  • Every second billions of photons of light strike your retina. This is the equivalent of about 100 megabytes of information per second!
To make all this amazing information even more amazing, it isn't actually your eyes that 'see' - it is your brain. Your eye sends all its multiple gigabytes of information along your optic nerve to the back of your brain, where what is called you occipital lobe actually does your seeing for you. This it does with a few billion brain cells that perfectly reproduce reality for you.

Wow - I don't want to waste all of this potential. Buzan suggests that we give our eyes regular visual feasts. I think I will try the da Vinci training exercise:

'To sharpen his eyes and focus, Leonardo placed a complex object, like a bowl of flowers, in front of him, tried to memorize it, and then closed his eyes. With his eyes closed he tried to revisualize the object. Leonardo would then open his eyes and compare the memory with the real vision. He then looked even more closely, correcting his memory, and once again closed his eyes and revisualized the scene. He kept on doing this until he could hardly tell the difference between the vision he saw with his open eyes and the vision he saw with his mind's memory. Try it! It sharpens both your external and internal vision.'

When I took advantage of the glorious sunshine this afternoon to spend a few hours over Ampthill Park, I tried to look and see. It really does make you realise how much you miss when you don't!

Wildlife Sightings: Ampthill Park.

I was pleased with the following 35 species of birds for this time of year, noted down in the order they were seen (notable absences were song thrush & buzzard):

Robin; blackbird; goldcrest; nuthatch; magpie; starling; blue tit; wood pigeon; carrion crow; wren; coal tit; chaffinch; great tit; pied wagtail; dunnock; herring gull; rook; jay; lesser redpoll (4); jackdaw; collared dove; long-tailed tit; goldfinch; great spotted woodpecker; bullfinch (1 male & 3 female); kestrel; siskin (small flock); stock dove; redwing; fieldfare; moorhen; black-headed gull; mistle thrush; treecreeper (call); green woodpecker.

Mammals: female muntjac running across the path in front of me, closely followed by a cocker spaniel! Another female muntjac in 'Bunker Field'; common shrew under refuge.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Our eldest son, Mark, passed his driving test yesterday. I came home from some visitation to find the Pass Certificate lying on my computer keyboard. I was so excited, shouting out with joy. I rang Carole, and she was really excited, too. We added him to the car insurance today....that brought us down to earth, though Mark's determined to pay for it himself!

I remember the days when Mark and I spent many hours in the countryside as I taught him all about the various plants and wildlife. He's into his music now, and vows that he's lost interest in all things wild...but I reckon the spark will be reignited sometime in the future!

Robert Byron was a British travel writer who died when the ship he was travelling on was torpedoed by a Nazi U-Boat in February 1941. Interestingly, he had attended the last Nuremburg Rally in 1938 and was outspoken in his criticism of the Nazis. Today, a friend sent me the following words which Byron wrote, bringing back fond memories of those days with Mark and my other sons, John & Matt. It's a beautiful piece, and it's all the more moving when you learn that Byron died unmarried and childless.....

If I have a son, he shall salute the lords and ladies who unfurl green hoods to the March rains, and shall know them afterwards by their scarlet fruit. He shall know the celandine, and the frigid, sightless flowers of the woods, spurge and spurge laurel, dogs' mercury, wood-sorrel and queer four-leaved herb-paris fit to trim a bonnet with its purple dot. He shall see the marshes gold with flags and kingcups and find shepherd's purse on a slag-heap. He shall know the tree-flowers, scented lime-tassels, blood-pink larch-tufts, white strands of the Spanish chestnut and tattered oak-plumes. He shall know orchids, mauve-winged bees and claret-coloured flies climbing up from mottled leaves. He shall see June red and white with ragged robin and cow parsley and the two campions. He shall tell a dandelion from sow thistle or goat's beard. He shall know the field flowers, lady's bedstraw and lady's slipper, purple mallow, blue chicory and the cranesbills - dusky, bloody, and blue as heaven. In the cool summer wind he shall listen to the rattle of harebells against the whistle of a distant train, shall watch clover blush and scabious nod, pinch the ample veitches, and savour the virgin turf. He shall know grasses, timothy and wag-wanton, and dust his finger-tips in Yorkshire fog. By the river he shall know pink willow-herb and purple spikes of loosestrife, and the sweetshop smell of water-mint where the rat dives silently from its hole. He shall know the velvet leaves and yellow spike of the old dowager, mullein, recognise the whole company of thistles, and greet the relatives of the nettle, wound-wort and hore-hound, yellow rattle, betony, bugle and archangel. In autumn, he shall know the hedge lanterns, hips and haws and bryony. At Christmas he shall climb an old apple-tree for mistletoe, and know whom to kiss and how.

He shall know the butterflies that suck the brambles, common whites and marbled white, orange-tip, brimstone, and the carnivorous clouded yellows. He shall watch fritillaries, pearl-bordered and silver-washed, flit like fireballs across the sunlit rides. He shall see that family of capitalists, peacock, painted lady, red admiral and the tortoiseshells, uncurl their trunks to suck blood from bruised plums, while the purple emperor and white admiral glut themselves on the bowels of a rabbit. He shall know the jagged comma, printed with a white c, the manx-tailed iridescent hair-streaks, and the skippers demure as charwomen on Monday morning. He shall run to the glint of silver on a chalk-hill blue - glint of a breeze on water beneath an open sky - and shall follow the brown explorers, meadow brown, brown argus, speckled wood and ringlet. He shall see death and revolution in the burnet moth, black and red, crawling from a house of yellow talc tied half-way up a tall grass. He shall know more rational moths, who like the night, the gaudy tigers, cream-spot and scarlet, and the red and yellow underwings. He shall hear the humming-bird hawk moth arrive like an air-raid on the garden at dusk, and know the other hawks, pink sleek-bodied elephant, poplar, lime, and death's head. He shall count the pinions of the plume moths, and find the large emerald waiting in the rain-dewed grass.

All these I learnt when I was a child and each recalls a place or occasion that might otherwise be lost. They were my own discoveries. They taught me to look at the world with my own eyes and with attention. They gave me a first content with the universe. Town-dwellers lack this intimate content, but my son shall have it!

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Grasping the nettle

From my notes:

Bishop Abel Muzorewa tells of a critical period in his life when he had been asked by his people to lead the African National Council. He knew that all the previous leaders in Rhodesia who had criticized government policies as unjust to black Rhodesians had been either deported from the country, put in a restricted camp, or killed. He struggled with his decision, and prayed as he had never prayed before. He did not want to be killed, deported, or placed in a restricted camp, yet his people were calling him to lead them. As he struggled with his decision, a friend handed him this poem:

People are unreasonable, illogical, and self-centred – love them anyway!
If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives – do good anyway!
If you are successful you will win false friends and true enemies – succeed anyway!
The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow – do good anyway!
Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable – be honest and frank anyway!
The biggest people with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest people with the smallest minds – think big anyway!
People favour underdogs but follow only top dogs – fight for some underdog anyway!
What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight – build anyway!
People really need help but may attack you if you help them – help people anyway!
Give the world the best you’ve got and you’ll get kicked in the teeth – give the world the best you’ve got anyway!

What do you think he did?

What will you do?

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

A noisy insight into my life!

As I write this, my son John's band, Rogue Poet, are practising. If you look at the, admittedly poor quality, video of a recent band practice below you'll see my middle son, John, on the drums. If you go directly downwards from where John's drums are - through the carpet, underlay, floorboards, joists, ceiling and stippled paint, you'll find me directly below!!

They've just finished practising the song Indie Kid - the track featured on the video - and they're now into the next track. Don't know what it is, but there's a lot of bass and drums, and my study walls, ceiling and I are literally rocking along with them.....but I love it!!!

I've got the first ticket given to the band for the official end-of-tour aftershow party of The Cribs at the Brixton Jamm where Rogue Poet been invited to perform on 22nd February....This will be brilliant exposure for them. Can't miss that - I'm feeling like daddy-cool (and daddy-roadie, daddy-taxi, & daddy-pacify-the-neighbours)!

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Beauty treatments

Some miles east of my home town, Ampthill, there is an establishment called Henlow Grange. It's one of those places where you can go and really get pampered. Even the thought of going there turns me cold but, for a lot of women, it's something akin to paradise!

As I described what's on offer to our congregation on Sunday morning, I'm sure that a number of our ladies went all doey-eyed and open-mouthed, whilst tilting their heads slightly towards their shoulders (O.K., preacher's exaggeration.....but not much!!).

How do you react to their website advert which promotes, 'a Laconium, herbal steam chamber, two fitness studios, a state of the art Rasul mud chamber and thalassotherapy pool.' And, to cap it all, we're enticed by the news that, 'You may also experience the legendary wax bath treatment, exclusive to Henlow for over 40 years. During the treatment, warm paraffin wax is smothered all over the body to exfoliate and condition the skin to reveal a silky smooth layer of skin!'

Sounds like some kind of refined medieval torture to me but, if it rocks your boat, you can give it a try and book in for a luxury day of pampering and relaxation......if you've got a spare £240 in your piggy bank, of course!

Just imagine what it would be like doing that for a year!! Well, that's what Esther - along with 126 other beauties - went through in preparation for her audience with King Xerxes. You can read about it in the Old Testament book of Esther. It was a kind of Miss Ancient Near East beauty contest, with the winner becoming Mrs Xerxes!

John Ortberg in his book, When The Game Is Over It All Goes Back In The Box, skilfully uses this story to warn us of the dangers of our shadow mission. He writes, 'Just as we all have a mission - a way of contributing to God's kingdom that we were designed and gifted for - we also have what might be called a shadow mission. My shadow mission is what I will do with my life if I drift on autopilot. It consists of the activities toward which I will gravitate if I allow my natural temptations and selfishness to take over. Everybody has a shadow mission.'

Esther's shadow mission was the lifestyle of the palace with all of its advantages, which must have been quite an exciting prospect for this young lady. But her mission was to be a part of God's plan to redeem the world, which meant risking her lifestyle...and her brazenly importuning the king, inspired by the vision-casting words of her cousin, Mordecai: "Who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?"

What about you & me? Are we where we are simply through random circumstances? Or are we where God has led and placed us? And, as we enter 2008, are we fulfilling his mission....or our shadow mission?

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Music that inspires - 1

I don't mind admitting to being a person for whom tears often flow freely. I find myself deeply moved by listening to certain music, witnessing people achieve special landmarks...and watching romantic films (usually curled up on the settee with the 3 'c's: Carole, Coffee & Chocolate!) I will share some of these moments over the coming weeks.

The first 'moment' is the performance of Con te partiro/Time to say goodbye by Andrea Boccelli & Sarah Brightman. It's said that Sarah Brightman heard Andrea Boccelli singing this on a CD whilst she was in a restaurant. She loved it and asked for the name of the singer and song determined to follow it up. And the rest, as they say, is history! It's a beautiful song, sung from the heart by two immensely talented artists. I find this version, from 'A night in Tuscany', particularly moving. The popular English translation is below.

When I'm alone I dream of the horizon and words fail me.
There is no light in a room where there is no sun
and there is no sun if you're not here with me, with me.
From every window unfurls my heart the heart that you have won.
Into me you've poured the light,
the light that you found by the side of the road.

Time to say goodbye.
Places that I've never seen or experienced with you.
Now I shall, I'll sail with you upon ships across the seas,
seas that exist no more,
it's time to say goodbye.

When you're far away I dream of the horizon and words fail me.
And of course I know that you're with me, with me.
You, my moon, you are with me.
My sun, you're here with me with me, with me, with me.

Time to say goodbye.
Places that I've never seen or experienced with you.
Now I shall, I'll sail with you upon ships across the seas,
seas that exist no more,

I'll revive them with you.
I'll go with you upon ships across the seas,
seas that exist no more,
I'll revive them with you.
I'll go with you.

You and me.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Joan's Thanksgiving Service

This afternoon was Joan's Thanksgiving Service following an earlier Committal Service. Joan was an amazing 86 year old woman, and a number of people shared their vivid memories of her with us. I baptised Joan in May 2002 at the tender age of 81. The heating had broken down, the water was freezing, but nothing was going to stop Joan following her Lord and Saviour through the waters of baptism. Below is the short message that I shared towards the end of a moving service....

As we draw to a close, I would like to share a few brief thoughts with you from a verse of Scripture that I read out at the beginning of the service:

‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead’ (1 Peter 1:3).

I know that Maryla chose this verse because the night before Joan’s fall, which led to her hospitalization, Maryla attended a talk by John Polkinghorne at the Open University’s Institute of Physics. Afterwards he signed a copy of his Advent book, Living With Hope, followed by this verse, a verse that became a great strength for Maryla over the difficult days that were to follow.

And, talking about following, look at the words that follow and reinforce this verse:

‘Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade—kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God's power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.’

Peter must have been absolutely broken following Jesus' crucifixion. His hopes, and the dreams of the other disciples, too, had been cruelly dashed and, to make matters worse, he had never had the chance to make his peace with Jesus after he had betrayed him, denying knowledge of him 3 times, just as Jesus had predicted that he would. That look of Jesus and the crowing of the cockerel were images that had burned themselves deep into Peter's subconscious, and now he was bowed down with the twin burdens of hopeless despair and raging guilt.

And then, on that amazing Sunday morning, there had been shouts, the sound of running feet, and Mary Magdalene arriving breathless at the door. "Jesus' has gone. His body isn't in the tomb - it's empty. Someone must have taken him, but who and why and where we don't know!!" And so Peter and John had left Mary catching her breath whilst they retraced her steps, racing to the tomb, their minds awhirl with speculation. John was the fitter of the two and outpaced Peter to arrive first. It was just as Mary had said. Peter lumbered up and ran straight past John who was standing in the doorway looking at the strips of linen that had once encased Jesus' body. In the semi-darkness Peter stared at the wrappings. He turned to find John now at his side. And in the cold light of that dawn hope began to awaken!

And over the coming months, the early church began to understand, with increasing conviction and anticipation that, if Jesus had indeed risen from the dead, then those who were spiritually 'in Christ' were also assured of sharing in resurrection and eternal life.

So it’s no wonder that Peter, writing here as an old and much wiser man, begins the main body of his letter: 'Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead' (v.3).

A new birth. Many people feel just like that when they trust in Jesus and the Holy Spirit comes to live in their hearts and lives. At her baptism, in May 2002 and at 81 years of age, Joan shared briefly, but deeply and movingly: ‘To come to Christ has been a long and thoughtful journey. Having reached the end of that journey, I have experienced a peace which I am unable to put into words.’

Of course, the journey actually continues. The Biblical word ‘salvation’ encompasses having been saved, being saved, and to be saved…the future tense that Joan is now experiencing.

That’s why Peter can write that we have a 'living hope', not a dead hope. The atheist, Robert Ingersoll, wrote, 'For whether in midsea or among the breakers of the farther shore, a wreck at last must mark the end of each and all!'

If I believed that then I would be a much glummer Plummer!! That’s a dead hope....but Peter talks about a living hope, because he worships a living Saviour, the same Saviour as Joan who now lives – ‘with Christ, which is better by far’, as the apostle Paul expresses it!

Peter knew that he’d let Jesus down….and on the shore of the Sea of Galilee early one morning, the resurrected Jesus came to him and assured him of his forgiveness, bringing peace to his soul. Joan asked that we might pray for her forgiveness of sins at this service, which we will do in a little while, but we pray assured of her peace of soul, too, in the near presence of her Saviour and Lord.

A final thought. Someone shared with me the words inscribed on Ruth Graham’s tombstone and I immediately thought of Joan. Ruth had been drawn to these words ever since coming across them on a noticeboard at a building site. Her stone reads simply: “End of Construction. Thank you for your Patience.”

Now, like me, can’t you just imagine Joan sitting at the Saviour’s side and, with that familiar glint in her eye, speaking those same words to us, gathered here this afternoon? “End of Construction. Thank you for your Patience.”

'No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.'

Friday, January 4, 2008

American dream

For some time I have been following the progress of Barak Obama. And now I am finding myself increasingly caught up in the fervour and fever of the American Presidential election. I eagerly awaited the results of yesterday evening's Iowa caucus and, when I learned of Obama's victory, I was really excited. Then, when I listened to his victory speech I was riveted.

I can't wait for New Hampshire next week!

UPDATE: Tuesday 9th January.

"Surely we've not got another 9 months of this?"

No, Carole's not pregnant, but these were her words to me when I got back into bed at 4.30am this morning and told her about the latest Stateside poll upset. The big mug of tea presented to me in the study just before Carole went to bed earlier had resulted in the inevitable when, at 4am, I made my way to the bathroom! Afterwards, I took the opportunity to creep downstairs and turn the TV on to the CNN Channel, just in time to see the beaming face of Hilary Clinton before she launched into her victory speech (after about 40 'thank you's'). The Obama bounce had been well and truly cushioned! What a fascinating race for the White House this is turning out to be!

Wildlife sightings.

The Kramer Hide, Priory Country Park, Bedford at dawn:

  • 3 little egrets roosting in trees opposite the hide.
  • The incredible sound of a magnificent corvid roost dispersing.
  • Pair of muntjac browsing on the spit opposite.
  • Large pike ‘breaching’ several times.
  • Kingfisher; cormorant fishing in front of hide; gadwall, shoveler & teal.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

At play

I had a surreal experience early this evening. I’d been over Ampthill Park at dusk, listening to a Rob Bell sermon on my iPod whilst peering into the freezing gloom to see what wildlife was around. I then walked round the Park whilst catching up with The Archers. Going home via the children’s playground I couldn’t resist having a go on the swings. This used to be one of my favourite activities when I was younger and, as a father with young children, I managed to get away with it in broad daylight during their tender years. But I have to do it secretly now, regularly casting furtive glances to make sure that I’m not being watched. But tonight I thought, “Oh, hang it all!” And so there I was, swinging to and fro as high as I could go, in pitch darkness, and in the midst of a snow flurry, whilst listening to William Orbit’s arrangement of Barber’s Adagio For Strings. Like I said….surreal!

We adults need to play more, to let go from time to time and not worry about what sensible grown ups think as they look down their noses at us! Carl Jung once wrote concerning himself, “The small boy is still around, and possesses a creative life which I lack. But how can I make my way to it?” One of the answers he found was to play! Get those beta-endorphins flowing…do something playful today!

One of my New Year’s resolutions is to play more… this space!

Wildlife sightings today.

Dawn in Ampthill Park:

  • 7 bullfinches (2 male & 5 female) feeding amongst the brambles.
  • A stoat amongst the lime trees near The Rezzy which I managed to ‘charm’ to within 5m where it scampered up a tree and sat on a bole staring at me before descending and disappearing into a bramble thicket.
  • Close views of a female green woodpecker in the children’s playground stabbing the turf in a search for food.

Dusk in Ampthill Park:

  • A flock of 23 fieldfares and 17 redwings in the Bunker Field.
  • A female muntjac with well-grown fawn in Bunker Field copse.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008



Nature is going frisky! Birds were singing everywhere during a walk around Ampthill Park with Carole early this afternoon. The exceptionally mild weather and sunny intervals were having their effect. Long-tailed tits chased one another around our heads; a male great spotted woodpecker bounced up an ancient oak branch before drumming his equivalent of "I'm the king of the castle"; grey squirrels played a dizzy game of tag around the trunks. No doubt the freezing weather forecast for the end of the week will pour the proverbial cold water on it all!