Sunday, June 21, 2020

Redeeming an Unmentionable Word

Rugby League player Dave Hadfield recounts that he was once transferred between clubs during the half-time interval, wearing shirts of both Oulton Rangers and Hemel Stags in one match. How his erstwhile team-mates treated him on the pitch after his radical switch of loyalties he does not record! Changes of loyalty, purpose and identity always provoke a reaction, not just in sport.Essential to the Christian view of the spiritual life is just such a transition. The problem is that the word once routinely used to describe it has fallen into disrepute.  The dodgy word, is of course, “repent”! Formerly considered to be the standard stuff of the spiritual life, it has become the domain of swivel-eyed loons yelling at people in shopping centres.

The comic-actor Tamsin Greig performed a hilarious impromptu routine on the Graham Norton Show in which she talked about her atheist neighbour who dog-sits for her. The story goes that she gives her new dog a mad-name which her neighbour will be required to yell in the park in order to call it back to heel. The name of the new dog? Of course, it was “Repent!”

One of the issues is that the word is routinely misunderstood. Many people remember the monks in Monty Python and The Holy Grail beating themselves with wooden planks. Indeed, during the Great Plagues in England, there were flaggelists who did just that.

Believing that the Black Death was an outpouring of the wrath of God, they sought to punish themselves in order to deflect this wrath from the populace. But this is a misunderstanding of what Jesus meant when he called people to “repent”.

What do Christians mean when they talk about “repentance”? When Dave Hadfield swapped rugby teams he first changed shirts – he publicly identified with the new team. More important, though, was the understanding that he would completely change his direction of play.

There is nothing self-flagellating about this transfer. After all, the Bible is insistent that entry to the Christian faith is entirely founded upon the grace of God and doesn’t require either self-denigrating acts of flagellation any more than self-enhancing acts of charity.

In fact, the picture is that the passion of Christ has completed any necessary flagellation for the whole of humanity.

Nevertheless, this free transfer has immediate and life-changing implications. That is, nothing less than a complete change in our goals, aims and direction of play. This essentially involves heartfelt changes in patterns of behaviour.

In the West today these typically involve a change to the way we relate to the big beasts of the human psyche, (money, sex and power): how we regard possessions, ourselves and others.

Christians make no claim to being “good people”; rather, they are people who need forgiveness. In our sporting metaphor, we still make errors on the pitch, score dreadful own-goals, and give away penalties.

However, pursuing those things is no longer part of our identity, our purpose, or intention; rather we are deeply committed to a new direction of play.

Properly understood, repentance is both required and life-giving. It is required because Jesus demands it. In fact, the very first words the New Testament records Jesus as preaching are “Repent for the Kingdom of God is near”.

Attempts to remove the notion of repentance from Christianity have been common throughout history. Some have thought that repentance is an affront to the idea that God saves us by his grace, not our efforts.

This is fraught with problems, not least that this free grace changes us radically. Some have tried to merely add a religious veneer to their lives; but something deeper is required.

Faith in Jesus Christ is one side of the coin. The other is repentance, which means embracing this new identity, owning a new loyalty and heading back out onto the pitch, in new colours, ready to begin to play for a different team.

Repentance is the moment at which the love, grace, joy and transforming power of God flows into a person; and the business of making them more Christlike begins. Repentance is not some self-flagellating ritual nor an optional-extra; it is the departure lounge for eternal life.

Don’t expect your former team-mates to welcome your change of loyalty, though. It can be rough out on the pitch.

This article first appeared in The Scotsman: here.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Craig Gibbon

I'd heard there was a curious obelisk on the little Perthshire hill of Craig Gibbon, just above the village of Bankfoot - but never found it before. The A9 dualling works north of Perth seem to go on forever, and the slow speed limit interminable. In the middle of those roadworks looking North, there is  range of low gentle hills off to the left. Next to Dunkeld there is Birnam Hill, adjacent to that is Obney Hill. The next hill to the west is Craig Gibbon, separated from Obney by the deep (and rather lovely) Glen Garr. We climbed Obney via Glen Garr last year, and ended up wading through chest-high bracken and thorns before making the lovely summit; opting for the easier route back, direct from the ridge to Balhomish Farm.

For finding Craig Gibbon, I started at the well-used car park at Little Glenshee, by the ford in Sochie Burn. A huge stile crosses the deer-fencing and follows a bulldozed track into the hills, immediately North of the car park. It soon splits into two, the left fork veering steeply into the hillside, while I took the right on past the pretty Tullybelton Loch.

The path meanders on past two lovely ponds, nestling in unlikely positions in the hills - before coming to a T-junction. Here a small walkers signpost points to the right, directing people towards 'Bankfoot'. I turned left, up the hill, alongside a line of ancient trees. The track climbs for a mile or so, trending westwards before meeting another track up on the ridge.

Turning right, I followed this track for a mile or so, along the top towards Craig Gibbon. The obelisk itself is hidden amongst a cluster of trees, on a small hillock to the right of the track. There is a little path that drops down to it, and up through the trees to the obelisk itself. As Corona virus starts to bite into the country, thousands of people are being forced to self-isolate. I didn't need to - although there was air-traffic above me; down at ground level, I didn't see a soul! Deer, small birds singing, and huge birds hunting, were my company all day.

To return to Little Glen Shee, I continued along with high-level track, over Moine Folaich, which doesn't have the quirky little features of the low-level route in; but does provide wonderful expansive views of the surrounding hills, over the massive windfarm at Aberfeldy and onto to snow-capped Schiehallion. Then southwards, way beyond Perth and down to the paps of Fife.

It's not a huge walk - certainly not a high level one; but it was exhilarating to be outdoors, with boots on; in wide-open spaces clear-skies and an icy wind. Marvellous!

The Inspiration Orchestra

I first became aware of The Inspiration Orchestra through its founder, Ian White. Ian has been a well-known musician, especially in churches for decades; but I really got to know him through what was known as "Mr White's Guitar Club", at the local primary school. There, one lunchtime a week, my older son, gained a love of guitar-playing which he has to this day. He now plays Hendrix songs on a white Fender Strat (!), but it started picking single note melodies on a battered acoustic in the school hall.

I went one night to see Ian's new project, "The Inspiration Orchestra", playing in a church in central Perth. The Orchestra is entirely made up of people with disabilities, who have music lessons with Ian, and who he brings together for concerts. The players are drawn from across the generations, and come with a variety of different skills and instruments. The concert was wonderful, joyous, heart-warming (sometimes, slightly chaotic, as carers worked hard with musicians to get everything ready for each song), and yes, inspiring. I left a cheery, encouraging note on their Facebook page, and thought nothing more of it.

Then, I was made to think.

I was self-employed at that time, and had just taken on some work doing some publicity, media etc for the Christian philosopher and ethicist Andy Bannister, at Solas. Around that time, he conducted a debate with the atheist, utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer, for Justin Brierley's "Unbelievable?" radio programme. (Incidentally, in this age of censorship, and people seeking to "no-platform" people they disagree with, I love the way that every week, Justin puts people he totally disagrees with on the radio, gives them a platform - and engages with their ideas!) . The Bannister-Singer debate was wide ranging and detailed - but something struck me most profoundly. Singer seemed to be arguing that the value of a human life is somehow proportionate to their abilities, their capacity for decision making, and what they can contribute to the workforce. In comparison, Bannister pressed the case that humans, made in God's image have an intrinsic worth - which is not dependent on their skills, or capacities; but is bestowed by their maker. As such, the most vulnerable should be treasured as much as the powerful, rich and celebrities of our age.

It was a total clash of world-views. If Singer was right, then the weak are holding us back, if Bannister is right- then the mark of true humanity is to care for and value the weakest. I was overwhelmingly convinced that Bannister was right, and that Singer's was a path not merely towards his (notorious) advocacy of infanticide, but on towards a tyranny in which the powerful can determine the value of life.

The question for me then, was what to do with that conviction.

For a while, our family had been supporters of Water Aid, the International Justice Mission and Christians Against Poverty - chipping a few quid every month towards these inherently good things, directed towards the poorest. However, it didn't seem enough, in the light of what I was convinced of in the Bannister-Singer debate.

Then Ian White e-mailed, asking me if I would be willing to help him out with The Inspiration Orchestra! I'm not a musician, and so there's nothing I can do on the music side of things. However, there is a small committee behind the scenes that keeps things running, and I joined it and help with some of the publicity. At one of the last concerts, I was asked to tell people a little about the Orchestra. the words I used were "celebrating value and unlocking talent". Ian works tirelessly with all the musicians, modifying instruments for their particular abilities, teaching, practicing and encouraging. He does this because it is a labour of love, which seems to me to be the perfect outworking of a world-view in which every individual is uniquely valued, and precious, a conviction grounded in the belief that they are made in God's image. The Inspiration Orchestra celebrates the value of every musician and unlocks their talent. That's why the concerts are so utterly joyous. Chatting to some of the musicians after concerts, and in the Orchestra's charity shop in Perth (Shop at 91), has been wonderful. Seeing the way in which music brings so much joy to their lives too, has been tremendous.

Sadly, all concerts are postponed at the moment, because of the Corona virus outbreak. However, they are expected to resume later in the year. Details are on the website, and Facebook.

The Inspiration Orchestra
Shop at 91

Monday, November 04, 2019

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Book Notes: The Best of A.A. Gill

The back cover of this anthology of the late journalist's columns reads that it is: "by turns controversial, uplifting, unflinching, sad, funny and furious". It is also ranges through being deeply sad, beautifully observed, and written; vulgar, offensive, nasty and brilliant. That's quite a stack of adjectives for one writer!

The book begins with a series of articles from Gill's celebrated food column. There are some terrific bits in here, such as his wonderfully evocative description of life in a busy high-end London restaurant kitchen; his hilarious diatribe against vegetarianism, and his written skewering of certain over-priced, over estimated and under-performing restaurants. This section of the book is rather good fun.

The best section of the book by a country mile is his travel writing which forms its second section. Gill's descriptions, especially of Africa are so moving, vivid and brilliantly observed (both in terms of what he sees, and his own responses to what he sees). His poise, sight and ability to respond to Africa in the most brilliantly chosen words - is at times breathtaking. Quite remarkable. It is in fact the section of the book I will return to again.

The TV section which follows, sees Gill appreciating the good and excoriating the dreadful in popular culture (just as a clue, Alan Bennett = good. Peppa Pig = bad). While the final section entitles "Life" is an odd collection of unlined pieces on things as diverse as Fatherhood, Death, Dyslexia, Pornography, Glastonbury and ageing. On Fatherhood, Gill is quite brilliant, on Glastonbury utterly depressing and on pornography so crude that I honestly couldn't read it - it was actually really unpleasant. 

I picked this book up almost by accident, in search of well-crafted, powerful (even beautiful) prose. Despite the inclusion of a couple of pretty grim articles, the book as a whole didn't disappoint. The writing about Africa in particular was so vivid and compelling, that the reader call almost smell the place. These travel pieces were worth the price of the book alone.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Sgurr nan Coireachan, Garbh Chioch Mhor and Sgurr na Ciche

There are some days in the hills which are just a cut above the rest, and this was undoubtedly one of those... three magnificent Munros, in the heart of the wild west coast, bathed in glorious sunshine, clocking up my 250th Munro, and chatting to really interesting folks that I met along the way.

The drive to the access point in Glen Dessarry is exceptionally beautiful, but extremely long. As soon as the main road is left just after Spean Bridge, progress is unbelievably slow. It's only 23miles from the Post Office at Spean Bridge to the road-end at Loch Arkaig, but it takes well over an hour. It begins winding its way around the Caledonian Canal, and Loch Lochy, before doubling back to run alongside the length of Loch Arkaig. The lochside road is slow, but wonderful. As I drove in on Friday night, the deep forests smelled damp, the loch glistened in the sun, and in the far distance the great western mountains with Tolkeinesque names such as Sgurr Thuilm, beckoned me on from the horizon.

I managed to find a camping spot just short of the road-end car park, and after a chat with a fellow walker camped nearby, managed to have a brew, and settle into my tent for the night. I've done a lot of walking in groups, and with my family; but I've also gone to the hills alone a lot. About half the Munros I've done, have been solitary climbs, and the same is true in terms of days spent exploring glens, waterfalls or coastal paths. Sometimes these have been rewarding because they have provided wonderful experiences of pure isolation; while on many other occasions I have fallen in step with fellow-walkers. I'd be lying if I said I had never met a rude on unpleasant hill walker; but my experience on the whole has been that the people I meet in wild and remote places are consistently amongst the most thoughtful and engaging folk I've met. Saturday turned out to be a great case of the latter, the guy pitching his tent just along from mine, was heading up the same hills as me, so we teamed up for the day. 

Up at first light, I packed up my tent, and cleared my little roadside campsite, and brewed big pot of coffee as the sun arrived on Loch Arkaig. Not long after that we tramped down to the road end, past the gate and soon forked right towards Glen Dessarry Lodge. The glen bifurcates beyond the hamlet of Strachan, Glen Pean to the left, and Dessarry to the right. Glen Dessarry has paths up each side of it, and we elected to stay on the North side, above the tree line - in order to be able to see where to turn uphill. Our fear was that the lower track (although apparently in better condition), was so concealed in the woods that seeing where to turn into the hill would be impossible.

The track, after it passes the few building in the glen, disintegrates into a muddy footpath. It has been dry recently, and yet the ground here held a lot of moisture. After heavy rain I wouldn't fancy it at all! There are two large forests in the glen, and about halfway along the North side of the second of these, the forest line extends Northwards at the line of a stream called the Allt Coire nan Uth. The burn was easily forded and very shortly afterwards a tiny cairn indicated the start of the ascent of our first hill of the day - Sgurr nan Coireachan. Knowing that a long, hot day was forecast as we walked over rocky, streamless ridges, I was carrying a lot of water; which felt unbearably heavy as we slogged our way up the path. 800m of relentless ascent were made easier by the rapidly expanding views. and the excellent banter of my walking companion for the day. I think by this stage we were on to history!

The path becomes rocky in its upper reaches, dives around a false summit and pulls up to the Munro proper - a magnificent airy viewpoint. Ben Nevis was obvious to the SE, while the Glen Finnan hills filled the foreground in front of us. The ridge, winding its way westwards looked daunting and thrilling too, culminating in the great summit of Sgurr na Ciche. This is the wild heart of the "Rough Bounds of Knoydart". It was also here that we picked up the remains of the dry stone wall that runs along the ridge, marked on the 1:25000 map as a thin black line. It was obviously a large wall once, but its' remains kept us company across a couple of miles of dramatic, twisting ridge walking.

The path off the first Munro was steep, but obvious and led easily onto the climb up the second. This turned out to be a real slog! First the intermediate top of Garbh Chioch Bheag has to made, a gruelling almost 250m pull up the ridge. After some height is lost, a further 100+ metre ascent it required before the Munro is gained. This was 250th Munro, Garbh Chioch Mhor, and it certainly put up a fight! The views, now also in Knoydart were just breathtaking.

Garbh Choich Mhor and Sgurr na Ciche are less than a kilometre apart - yet are separated by a 250 metre-deep cleft, which has to be climbed down, and then up. As we left the old dry-stone wall which does not go to the summit, we dropped our rucksacks and went up to the peak and back. The views here were just astonishing! A few years ago, I had stood with my younger son on Meall Bhuide on Knoydart, looked at Sgurr na Ciche's sleek beautiful lines and longed to climb it. I've stood with people on Ben Nevis who have said "What's that really pointy-one over there?", and gazed on it from Torridon's great peaks to the North - where a whole load of my friends were climbing that day. At last on Saturday I managed to climb it, something I had longed to do for years! It surpassed all my expectations. We stayed there, chatting to several small groups of passing walkers, for as long as time would allow; but aware of the declining length of autumn ways, and the long walk out, reluctantly trudged back to our rucksacks hidden in the bealach.

The descent back into Glendessarry is via a steep, rocky and sometimes unpathed gully, which plunges almost 350metres southwesterly from the bealach which separates the two hills. As the gully ends, the path obviously bears left and then descends to the head of the glen. 

The walk back out is long and arduous. we took the other path back along the glen which at first it was pretty boggy; and ran through the two woods, rounding the back of the A'Chuil bothy, and back to the car - and more importantly some hug bottles of  water!

At the end of one of the best day's hillwalking I have ever done, I bade my new friend farewell, and began the mammoth drive home. As I approached Spean Bridge, I realised that I must have had no phone reception over the weekend, as my phone suddenly lit up with a battery of missed calls, texts and social media updates. I was back in the 21st Century!

The Sgurr na Ciche group are some of the finest Munro's I have climbed. If you are a hillwalker, I'd say - save them for a sunny day. The miles are long, the ridges steep and the challenges significant; but these hills offer superlative ridge walking, in magnificent scenery. These hills are simply unmissable! 

Friday, September 13, 2019

Meall a'Bhuiridh & Creise

Meall a'Bhuiridh & Creise are the two hills which mark the entrance to the beauty of Glen Coe from the south, and Meall a'Bhuiridh is most well known as the mountain which is host the the Glen Coe ski resort. With a very mixed forecast, which included some rain and high winds, I opted out of attempting the huge scramble up Creise's famous Sron na Creise ridge, and took the less scenic route straight from the ski carpark. It initially follows the ski tows, up the steep section above the car park, but then once the upper corrie is reached, "footpath" signs send walkers to the right (west) of the chair lifts and up the long ridge to the summit. It's in places boggy, in other places rocky - but leads eventually to Meall a'Bhuiridh's lovely summit.

The ironmongery all over the landscape, and the accompanying roads, paths, fences, poles, erosion and visual intrusion are pretty grim - especially in a place like Glen Coe. Nevertheless once these are past, these two hills provide incredible views of hundreds of surrounding peaks. The foreground is of course dominated by Glen Coe itself, as well as The Mamores, The Black Mount, and Bridge of Orchy hills, with countless more behind them on all sides.

The link between the two hills is provided by a high and narrow bealach at 932 metres, at the foot of Meall a'Bhuridh's long south-west ridge. This in turn provides access onto Creise's summit ridge, where a cain at 1070m marks the place the paths plunges down to the bealach. I was delighted to see the cairn there, as the one potentially tricky navigational manoeuvre in cloud was knowing where to dive off the summit ridge- and the cloud was lowering as I walked.

Happily the cloud and rain were short-lived, and although it was very windy and cold, the views from Creise were outstanding. Possibly the best part of the walk was the wander along the ridge to the top Stob a Ghlas Choire from which the views of Buachaille Etive Mor was magnificent.

Retracing my steps over Meall a'Bhuiridh was a slog, made more pleasant by stopping to chat to two other walkers doing the same route as me. They were the only people I saw much beyond the car park all day- apart from them it was deserted up there. The descent on the 'path' around the ski centre was horrible. Steep mud and scree, and water - made for a slow descent back to the car.

It's been a poor summer for hillwalking, mostly due to a bad ankle sprain earlier in the year. This however was a good day out, and the first good old-fashioned Munro-bagging expedition for some time. Last week I had gone back to Mount Keen (a revisit in the rain), but this was a case of choosing two hills I hadn't done, driving to the west and just getting them done. It's a great way to spend a day - I really hope I can get another one in before winter comes!

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Meall nan Eun

On Saturday I was back in lovely Glen Etive for the first time since last year's disastrous walk Stob Coir an Albannaich. The aim was to climb Meall nan Eun, which had alluded us last time, amidst cramp, and waterfalls blocking our progress. This time however, in far more pleasant weather there were no such dramas, (aside from a lost GPS!), and the walk along the river, and up Glenceitlein was straightforward enough, if not a little rough in its upper reaches. This was my first munro after spraining my ankle very badly pursuing the (very macho) sport of netball, with my daughter in the garden. The sections of the walk on paths were great, the rough tussocky thickets further up created many problems for my poor, aged joint.

Meall nan Eun is not an especially remarkable hill in and of itself, it's steep sides give way to a broad and featureless plateau. Nevertheless, it's smooth rocky higher slopes were damp and shimmering in the hot August sunshine was we climbed. There wasn't time to do the round, and climb Stob Coir a Albannaich again, and so we opted to retrace our steps, to complete a rather pleasant day out.

Sunday, August 04, 2019

Auchnafree Hill

Circumstances combined rather well yesterday to facilitate a great little walk up Auchnafree Hill, a Corbett near Crieff, set amongst delightful scenery. Last Sunday, I took a good friend from Canada around the Glenturret Distillery, for their excellent tour, and saw their photos of Loch Turret, their water supply and thought how good it looked for a walk sometime! Then, less than a week later, with the sun splitting the skies, all our kids busy doing different things - and it being our 23rd wedding anniversary, we drove over the Perth to explore this lovely glen.

Glen Turret is absolutely gorgeous! The number of times I have driven through Crieff, and missed this little gem, in search of 'bigger' scenery is shocking. I think we tend to instinctively overlook what lies close at hand. I grew up in London's suburbs, but didn't really ever visit any of London's great sights which were on my doorstep, like The Tower of London, until showing some friends from the USA around London when I was a student! Likewise, I would never really think of going to Crieff for a day out, it's not very far, and the hills are not huge. Crieff was always a place I would stop for breakfast on my way to Tyndrum, or Glencoe or The Mamores. Well, I've missed out!

Soon after the Glenturret Distillery, a left turn on a tiny road leads N/NW up the glen. The surface soon becomes riddled with massive potholes, and the "10mph" signs, which look ridiculous at the bottom of the road are optimistic further up. It's not a public road, rather its owned by the water board, but they allow cars up, and provide a car park under the dam at the top.

The walk to Auchnafree Hill can be done a number of ways, we followed the lochside track the length of the east shortline, and then took a second track, climbing steeply until just under the summit, where a further track jags left, and then becomes a feint path all the way to the twin cairns. The smaller cairn seems to mark the true summit, but the larger one is a better viewpoint, and this is where we stopped to stare at the mountains all around us - and swat away the millions of flies!

A great circular walk is possible, by staying at high level back over Choinneachean Hill, but the blazing hot sun, and lack of water drove us back to the lochside, for a delightful wander back to the car. Alluring paths led off in all directions, suggesting that there are many more routes to be enjoyed here too.