Friday, May 30, 2008

Young Leaders

One of the advantages of being a theology student are the invitations that come in to help the odd church here and there with their services, on a kind of supply/locum type basis. This means that I am constantly being exposed to different churches and the way they go about things. This is not just educating, but also enriching and rewarding. The minutiae of difference in procedure between us all is dull, and irrelevant. Occasionally however, I come across something which differs from my expectations, and is quite wonderful.

Such an event happened on Sunday morning. I had been invited to come and speak in a local church, and to fit my remarks into a series they were doing on the Exodus narrative, focusing on the sins of pride and envy as demonstrated in the lives of Aaron and Miriam in Numbers 12. So I wrote and then delivered a message about these sins and compared them with understanding and responding to God's grace. This, however was unremarkable.

What was unusual, noteworthy and refreshing was the musical input in the service. At this church the young people have formed a band, and have clearly practiced hard. Apparently a few weeks ago they asked the church leaders if they could lead the worship. To their credit the leaders said yes but gave them some guidance on doing it. Before I came to speak, these young people had read the text, looked at the meaning, chosen relevant songs, prayed together, and rehearsed. Last month they had also been to a training event on worship-leading, and spoke about how they were putting into practice what they had learnt there, including sensitivity towards those with different musical tastes (ie. old folk!). It was a privilege to be lead by them.

The reason that church had so many young people worshipping with them is not just that they liked the musical style and were not alienated by the antiquarianism that is the church's stock-in-trade. What made them feel at home there was 'ownership'. They wanted to have a part in forming the worship, not just participating in a prescribed formula. What was wonderful was not just that they did it so well, but that they were mature enough to listen to advice and do it so wisely.

It was quite overwhelming.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Book Notes: Hillwalkers Bookshelf

There are two kinds of walking books. There are firstly the 'how-to' genre of route guides and technical manuals describing either the best routes up far-flung hills, how to use a map and compass to find your way off them, or how to survive if you get stuck on one of them. On the other hand there are plenty of mountain memoirs, three of which I have read.

If mountain books come in two genres, hillwalkers do too. The first type of hillwalkers are those who drive sensible cars, park at the bottom of nice hills in sensible weather and and sensibly clad in gore-tex, carry sensible equipment, up and down mountains. You will see us, suitably thus bedecked, on any summer weekend on Ben Lomond, or Schiehallion.

On the other hand there are the nutters, the hard core, death-or-glory hillwalking fraternity, whose exploits, deprivations and achievements startle us lesser mortals. There can be no doubt however, that they, have far better stories to tell. Many of the hillwalking books which have really loopy tales date from the early days of hillwalking either side of the war. "Of Big Hills and Wee Men" by Peter Kemp, for example describes the workers in the Govan shipyards hitching to Northwards for weekends of awesome hill adventures. In fact, the early part of the book, which describes such times was fascinating - but I got the feeling that he had exhausted his best stories in the first half of the book and the last section somewhat limped home. Then I realised that the difference was that he had changed! No longer was he engaged in mad-cap adventures, with dangerous characters in snow-covered bothies - but was by the 1990s, driving sensibly to do sensible walks. Great fun to do - less amusing to read.

Ralph Storer's "Joy of Hillwalking" is a fun book as well. His obvious delight in the hills, and slightly odd personality shine from every page.

His loathing of the pre-occupation with Munro-bagging is such that he declined to climb one of them on principle, so that he could never be accused of being a munro-bagger! He admits to feeling a little deflated when the one he had chosen to avoid was declassified in the revision of the tables, leaving him by default, a member of the despised!

"Mountain Days and Bothy Nights" is a hilarious read, nicely written and engaging with a bothy-culture about which I know little. It contains legends, hill tales, great exploits and accounts of adventures in tumbling bothies, and hidden howffs in all corners of the Scottish hills.

I was especially amused with the story of the 'haunted howff' in the Arrochar Alps, and also the occasion in which the Queen met some hillwalkers wearing YCWA badges, somewhere high in the East Grampians. "Oh the YMCA" she smiled - "NO, we're the Young Communist Walkers Association" came the reply!

These are great reading for foul weather when sensible people are not dragging their wretched bodies through peat hags, but are drinking coffee and opening books. They do create a wistful longing for the hills though...

Monday, May 26, 2008

Braeriach Now and Then

Cairn Toul from Braeriach

Braeriach! What a wonderful sounding hill. Sadly, its English translation (unlike some Gaelic hill-names) is rather dull, and doesn't do justice the mountain that most guidebooks label as 'Mighty Braeriach'. I remember staring at the huge dark bulk of this mountain from Cairn Toul, many years ago, but having to retreat back to Derry Lodge and the Linn of Dee, as time had run out on us. Climbing Braeriach today fulfilled an ambition that went back much further than that day eight years ago however. Braeriach (along with Cairn Toul and Ben Macdui) has a mythological status in our family - as these are the hills that my Dad came up and climbed as a youngster and told us all about. The strange-sounding Gaelic names sounded like something from The Hobbit to my young ears.

So sitting on top of Mighty Braeriach, I could see all the routes of my Dad's youthful adventures laid before me across the Cairngorm landscape. In fact I could almost picture him and his chums, Ginger, Algy and Bertie from the Middlesex Ragged School, marching past the Pools of Dee, with nowt but their hobnailed feet between them and the granite. Straining under the weight of their heavy canvass army-surplus sandwiches, with their ration books and gas-masks neatly at their sides I see them threading their way down to the pine woods of Rothiemurchus.

Of course if they were here now they would be shocked. For a start the hills have lost something of their evocative charisma now that they are in colour, whereas they were so much more nostalgic in black and white back then. Another thing is that while these boys may have been held together with string, at least they knew that it was unpatriotic to climb hills without ones school cap on straight, over neatly parted hair. What if one were to meet the King at Corrour bothy? Stranger still, as they head down into Aviemore, it is a charming Highland village, one street with a few houses clustered around the railway station; rather than the weeping sore on the architectural conscience of the world that it has become.

It's then I realise that today, it is far too cold for sitting daydreaming on top of mountains.

Scotland in the Spring: The Cairngorms, Braeriach and The Lairig Ghru

In the Lairg Ghru
(looks a lot better if you click on the photo and get it full size)

The path from the Sugar Bowl Car park, leads away from the skiing area and skirts the central Cairngorm massif, around the the Chalamain Gap. It's a good path which speeds progress through the hummocky moraines, the streamlined shape of which show the direction the ice which formed them was moving.

The Chalamain Gap is a bouldery canyon through which to scramble in order to gain entry to the Lairig Ghru. The Gap ought to be renamed the Chalamain Funnel, because even in Spring icy winds blast through this notch in the hillside. I climbed through this bleak chasm early this morning in complete isolation, and was strangely aware of how treacherous these mountain passes are in winter, and the parties of folk who have perished in these hills.

The Chalamain Funnel path leads right down into the Lairig Ghru, that famous gash that runs deeply through the centre of the mountain range. The walk through it from Deeside to Speyside is one of Scotland's classic treks and one I have not yet done completely. The walls of the pass tower above the glen; Lurchers' Crag leading to Scotland's second highest peak to the west, Braeriach the third highest to the right. If Glen Tilt a fortnight ago was a gentle, pastoral landscape full of wildlife, houses and grazing sheep - these Cairngorms are big, brutal and demanding mountains.

The Lairig Ghru looks wonderful from deep within its confines. Gazing directly down into it from Sron na Lairidge is even better!

The Cairngorms are such a glacial environment that they do not have sharp angular peaks like the west-coast mountains. What they do have though, is spectacular cliffs. and corries. This photo is from the summit of Braeriach.

Friday, May 23, 2008


Premier Christian Media & Christian Solidarity Worldwide have announced a special campaign of prayer, protest and provision for the people of Burma. Please visit to sign the on-line petition, calling on our government to be more proactive in pressuring the country's military junta both on aid and human rights. Burma has an horrific record of persecuting minorities and opponents, especially the church. This website has specific prayer requests, and all the latest information on the campaign.

You may not wish to endorse a petition sponsored by those particular charities, however, there is lots of info of use on the site, and you can then use this link to directly e-mail your MP/MSP/MEP.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Ancient History

Having studied so much Modern History, my knowledge of Ancient History is rather woeful. Once in a while though I come across something about the ancient world which grabs my attention. This week's In Our Time, about the findings of the archaeological dig which revealed the remains of the Great Library of Nineveh - was brilliant. While 90% of this, the ancient world's greatest collection of books, was destroyed when the Assyrian Empire fell to the Medes and the Babylonians - some has survived. It seems that the Medes (who cared little for such things) burned the palaces in which the library was kept. In so doing they burnt the wax-covered boards on which most of the texts were etched. However, they also inadvertently fired the soft clay tablets on which around 10% of the works were imprinted, saving them for posterity under the rubble.

These were discovered in 1849 by Henry Lanyard a English amateur archaeologist, who couldn't read the texts but shipped them to London. Here the language was deciphered which unlocked enormous new insights into several ancient civilisations, unlocking how they viewed the world, magic, religion, medicine, kingship and government, agriculture, mythology.. which are surveyed in 40 very good minutes of radio. The perfect accompaniment to my Dopiaza!

Listen Again/podcast etc here (Next week it's "Black Death!")

It's a fair cop, guv?

Our weekly church prayer sheet is always thoughtful, insightful and keeps everyone up-to-date, concerned and prayerful for matters in the fellowship, the country and the world. In addition to important weighty matters, the above also featured this week. I happen to be in the privileged position of knowing who the guilty party was, and said paragraph did lead to a very healthy time of confession at housegroup last night. However, I wonder if the guilty party might take this opportunity to make him (or indeed her) self known?

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Scotland in the Spring: Glen Tilt

Most people who leave the A9 to go into Blair Atholl head for the historic Blair Castle, or are heading for the House of Bruar - that monstrous retail complex dumped incongruously in the Highland landscape. A better choice than either of those two options is to take the narrow road adjacent to the bridge over the River Tilt, and up to Old Blair to the car park which grants access to Glen Tilt. It's where I went, with my bike this morning. Atholl estates used to allow vehicular access up the glen, but they have reversed this policy, helping this long and beautiful glen to retain its wild and remote feel - a feeling that grows in intensity with every charming mile of progress made. Spring in the Highlands is wonderful. In the bright sunshine, Glen Tilt today was alive with nature, bursting out into the the Spring sunshine - the shackles of winter having been loosened so much over the last few days. A cacophony of bird-song filled the woodland air around Gilberts's Bridge, while red squirrels darted across the road, dangerously close to my front wheel. Vivid psychedelic butterflies, danced in the sunshine with all the joy of their random flitterings, and spring lambs ran and sprung and assaulted their mothers for milk. Further up the Glen a huge Buzzard soared, patrolling his domain, while the trees below echoed to the steady cooeing of the first cuckoo I have heard this Spring. Pine cones are strewn around the track, now with the warmth and dryness, all starting to open to present their seed back to the soil. Further down in the forest it is warm too, the rich carpet of pine needles is steadily heating and giving off a tasty pungent aroma

Glen Tilt is a classic Scottish glacial trench, with a flat base and steep sides - mercilessly carved through the landscape by the giant ice sheets, millions of years ago. Along the ice-formed sections of the glen, the river Tilt fans out, meandering across the flat valley-bottom, appearing to be heating the whole glen with its dazzling array of rippled reflected sunbeams. At the end of the last ice age, a huge loch formed in-front of the retreating ice, and overflowed through the glens to the south. Where such fluvio-glacial activity has left its mark, the River Tilt now rushes and crashes through steep gorges, over rocks and below towering river-cliffs.

And then I got a puncture and in disgust dumped my bike in the hedge and went on up the Glen on foot, realising that it was going to be a far longer day out than initially envisaged! Sadly time pressures then meant that I was unable to continue to the North of the glen to see the Falls of Tarf.

The lower slopes of Beinn a Ghlo, reflected in a puddle, still blocking the path.

Stripes in the heather - evidence of burning.

Peat, drying and cracking in the heat - at 800m on the way up Carn a Chlamain

To the hills, to the hills! Carn a Chlamain

Carn a Chlamain is a hill just to the west of Glen Tilt above the Forest Lodge, reached by a very steep path which zig-zags its way up the steep glen side just beyond the Lodge. The photo above is the view of the summit, which becomes visible once up on the shoulder, high above the valley floor.

This is simply a hideous foot being rested on the summit!

The summit cairn is the usual place to rest weary legs and shoulders, to stop, have some food and on a warm day, a gentle doze in the sun.

The view Northwards from Carn a Chlamain, towards the Cairngorms. It was hazy, but clear enough to pick out many mountains in every direction.

The descent path, dropping gently back down into warm, green, gentle Glen Tilt to start the long, long walk out.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Book Notes: Lament for a Son by Nicholas Wolterstorff

I heard someone raving about this book recently. She works in a hospice and is face-to-face with death, especially the death of children on a regular basis. So I tried getting hold of a copy, which proved to be quite hard. Eventually though, via, I managed to trace one.

Nicholas Wolterstorff lost his son in a climbing accident. In this book, which is a series of short meditations he reflects on his life, and probes for meaning in his horrific experience. He remembers his son Eric, he writes of his grief, and the way that living through the death of his child has coloured every day of his subsequent existence. He writes tenderly, with great gentleness and passion, making the book utterly compelling, and very, very moving. He writes with complete honesty, of both his faith and his questioning, of his coping and not coping, of his belief in eternal life, but his overwhelming incurable anguish in the now. He speaks of joys, of regrets, of guilt, of those who came to help him and why some did, but why others made things worse.

Despite Wolterstorff's academic credentials, this is not an academic work of impenetrable philosophy, but on that level an easy read. In terms of the effect it has on the reader it is far from easy-reading.

Very sobering, deeply affecting, wonderfully profound; there is not a trite phrase in this book. If you see a copy, get it. Here's an extract, from p34. If the text is too small to read, please click on the image and it should enlarge.

Sunday, May 04, 2008


The shortness of life is a thng which is always true - but seems to come home with greater force at some times than others. It's not just funerals. like my Grandmas which we attended recently, that enhance that feeling either, the progress of my kids has the same effect.

Young Boris is busy planning his first holiday without us (off to the Grandparents: London branch), Norris has his first wobbly tooth (but surely he only grew the first set a few weeks ago!), and now today little Doris is three years old!

The speed of the passage of time suddenly dawned on Mrs Hideous, when at church this morning, little Doris marched off with the Sunday School children for the first time. "I am a big girl now" she will very seriously inform anyone who asks. Mrs Hideous also pointed out that for eight-and-half years we have deposited children in the creche room at church - and that particular era has drawn to a close! Is the accompanying wistfulness representative of a love of young children or an inward horror at such tokens of the approach of middle-age?

Little Doris is completely unaware of such parental emotions. She has been given a dressing-up costume which is a flouncy-Cinderella, complete with golden-tiara. She is parading around the house fully persuaded that she is a princess, a view endorsed by the delivery of a huge pink 'princess-castle' birthday cake, personally sculpted by Lord and Lady Lucan.
Happy Birthday little Doris!

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Back to the Woods

Doris and I picked Boris and Norris up from school, and drove straight to The Hermitage at Dunkeld for a quick walk to the falls and back. The river was in spate, following the torrential rain earlier in the week which had exposed weaknesses in my walking jacket and our kitchen roof! The positive side of this is that it makes all the waterfalls look spectacular!

It rained while we were there, then the sun shone on the wet forest and the dark, moist undergrowth, releasing a pine aroma that Radox can only dream of capturing and imitating!

On the way home we paused by the Old Bridge in Perth to enjoy the rainbow arching across the lower slops of Kinnoull and Gannochy.

My children always protest at the indication that we are going for a walk - but always love it when we do! We are all glad that I didn't succumb to the demands to get home to Playstations and CBEEBIES, but enjoyed the Hermitage instead.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Sinister Sky

In contrast to the stark beauty of the sky on Saturday, last night's combination of sunlight and building masses of cloud was full of forbodeing, almost sinister! Dramatic and compelling, nevertheless.

Intriguing Inscriptions

Second hand books are wonderful. It's not just their smell, their feel, their weight and (often) their content. It's not even the cloth and leather covers and old bindings that make them special. The other thing I love about them is the the thought of all the different people, in different contexts and eras who have handled those pages, how they read the text, how their times influenced how they understood what they read, who they were, what their lives were like.

Glimpses into some of these things are given to the reader if previous owners have inscribed the front cover of the book. Harry and Sadie had a "Grand Day Out in Dundee" during the war and celebrated it with a copy of G. Campbell Morgan's "Great Chapters of the Bible" - which I have just picked up as primary source material for my essay on Christian attitudes to social concern in the 1930s. I wonder who these two were? Did they survive the war? Were they in love? Did they marry? What constitutes a 'grand day' in Dundee?!

Very occasionally an inscription in a book comes from someone of whom you have heard. David F. Wright, long after he inscribed this copy of the "Journals of George Whitefield" became a expert in medieval history and historical theology at Edinburgh University. The University lowered its flags for his funeral last month, in a rare and moving tribute to an important academic.

What I found even more remarkable was what I read inside the book. The book is heavily notated with many cross references and insights, which I have no way of knowing if come from the pen of Professor Wright, or a subsequent owner of the book. Alongside a passage which Whitefield relates as follows: "He told me I pulled him all to pieces and razed his false foundation and led him to to a Sin forgiving God. He thought I aimed and spoke particularly to him and said he should have cried out, only pride prevented him". The margin is inscribed "cf. Derek Swann."
Derek Swann, was the pastor of the church in which I grew up, and about whom I have blogged here. Clearly someone who previously owned this book experienced something of the power of God in Mr Swann's preaching akin to the account of Whitefield's ministry, centuries before. It also nicely illustrates the heart of the gospel of Christ and what it means to respond to Him. When pride, self-reliance and self-righteousness come tumbling down and self-justification is no longer an option, when the soul in anguish stops searching for an excuse for sin, but for the saviour from sin, then this is the work of the Holy Spirit! And here it is evidenced in Whitefield, in Mr Swann, and in whoever held this book before I bought it online, and was intrigued by the inscription.

I know that several of you are second-hand book puchasers. Seen any inscriptions of note?

(I should, of course, be studying these books, not blogging about the inscriptions in them!)