Saturday, 12 June 2021

Perygl in Wales

 "Per-gol" Toby said, reading the sign.  "Hey, that's a much better word than Danger.  Welsh is great!"

Actually, the word is Perygl and comes out more like pear-reyg-l, but it didn't really matter - the boys had already fallen in love with everything Welsh, and were happily agreeing that all the words were far more interesting than their English equivalents.

We seemed to encounter a lot of perygl on our two days in Wales.  Signs warned us against flying golf balls, steep drops, deep water and narrow roads, but fortunately we survived unscathed apart from one scraped shin (that was Theo falling off a rock).  In fact, it was a remarkably good short break, with perfect weather, beautiful scenery, and the main attraction: a big blue camper van to carry us around.



Graham's friend Ben had converted the van a couple of years ago, and kindly agreed to lend it to us for the weekend at the end of half term.  After a rather last-minute search for places to park it overnight, we headed for Harlech, a little seaside town on the west coast of Wales.  This turned out to be a good idea.

Harlech has a huge sweep of a beach, a castle perched up on a rocky hillside, a golf course (hence the flying golf balls) and a little train that comes chuntering through every couple of hours.  It was lovely.


We spent the morning doing the obligatory digging on the beach, and discovering dead jellyfish. 


 

 

In the afternoon we walked up the hill to the castle.  It's small, for a castle - I think it would have got claustrophobic being besieged there for very long - but there's a lot of it still standing.  We walked around the top of the walls (perygl - steep drops) and back down the hill to the Water Gate, built long ago when the sea covered the golf course, the sand dunes and the railway station, and the besieged inhabitants were kept alive by supplies on boats from Ireland.


 

Can you spot the blue camper van?


After all that climbing, we needed an icecream!

 

Much as we liked Harlech, we had somewhere else to be for our second night.  Llangollen was on our route home, and we'd decided that two short hops would be easier than another long drive.  So we packed up the van again (got the stool? turned off the gas? removed the rattly cooker grill?) and drove back across Snowdonia.  Fortunately our second stop had an equally beautiful view - and a good pub meal, too.

 

Next morning we drove to Horseshoe Falls, where the Llangollen Canal leaves the River Dee.  We'd been here before, a few years ago - look how tiny Theo was then!

Then...

 
...and now.

It's a pleasant walk along the path between the canal and the river into Llangollen town.  We watched white water rafters braving the rapids, hopped around on the rocks beside the river, inspected some old cars outside of Llangollen Motor Museum (sadly closed until next year) and passed a horse towing a narrowboat.


 

Llangollen provided us with lunch, some delicious cakes, and a few souvenirs.  It has a lot more bustle to it than Harlech, with a street full of eateries and the kind of shops which sell "A Present from Wales" teatowels and personalised fridge magnets.  

We saw a couple of families of ducklings, and the boys practised their parkour skills on the rocks one last time (that was the scraped shin).




Sadly, then, it was time to head out of the land of perygl and back into the land of boring mono-lingual road signs.  I think we'll be back, though.




Sunday, 15 November 2020

What's getting you through?

Well, here we are, still: lockdown number two for the UK, and the journey feels like it's dragging on... and on... and on.  Normality is a distant dot in our rear view mirrors, while ahead of us is a dull and jumbled landscape of shifting restrictions, cancelled plans and unsatisfying virtual connections.  And no, we are almost certainly not nearly there yet.

So, what's keeping you going? (Apart from chocolate cake, of course.)

Image: Pixabay

I've recently found encouragement from reading the book of 2 Corinthians - a letter by Paul to the church at Corinth when he was seriously struggling.  He'd had some kind of disagreement with them, and spends part of the letter apologising, part justifying himself, quite a lot telling them about all the other awful things that have been happening to him, and he still manages to fit in some phrases of quite profound hope.  This one's been buzzing around in my brain:

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed... We do not lose heart.

2 Corinthians 4:8-9, 16

Paul seems to have had at least three things that kept him from losing heart.  Thinking about my efforts to keep going through lockdown, I realised that the same things are helping me, too.

Purpose

Purpose is hard to find when your workplace closes, your voluntary activities all stop, and you can't even be there for friends and family who are ill or grieving.  I admit to being relatively fortunate in that respect; even though I was furloughed for the first lockdown, I still had to homeschool the kids and keep the house running, and was able to keep connected with things online.  My life didn't suddenly collapse into a void.

Even so, I found myself using a to-do list in a new way.  Usually it's a moving target, something I'm constantly running to keep up with.  In lockdown it became the equivalent of a jog round the block; easily achievable, but at least if I'd completed my list each day than I knew I'd done something useful.

Some people find purpose by bringing food to their neighbours, by making masks for NHS staff, or by tending their garden.  Paul's purpose, always, was to tell people about Jesus and to care for the churches that were created, and the strength of that purpose kept him going through some truly horrendous circumstances.

What is your purpose?  Have you had to find new purposes during lockdown?

People

Have you noticed that everyone stops for a chat these days?  Some formerly taciturn cafe customers have become quite conversational, and all the dog walkers will say hello.  Everyone's become slightly starved of human interaction.

I've certainly appreciated the people I have around me.  Family, neighbours, my book club and church homegroup on Zoom, the friends that keep in touch on Messenger or WhatsApp.  Every little scrap of conversation becomes a precious thing, and a laugh with a friend will light up a day.  And you're talking to an introvert here - someone who can happily spend hours in her own company!

I'm pretty sure Paul was an extrovert.  If he wasn't visiting churches he was writing to them, and if he wasn't writing he was getting reports from them through his network of contacts.  He could be lifted up by receiving good news, or thrown into despair by the lack of it.  Paul spends half of 2 Corinthians telling the church about all his pain and suffering, and the other half telling them that he doesn't mind any of it as long as they are doing well.  The people in his life were of immense importance to him.

Who has been important to you during lockdown?  Have you been able to build new relationships or strengthen old ones?

Power

One of the most famous verses from 2 Corinthians comes just before the passage I quoted.

But we have this treasure [the good news about Jesus] in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.

2 Corinthians 4:7

The more overwhelmed Paul got, the more he realised that he couldn't do all this in his own strength, but had to rely on something greater than himself.  He was only a "clay jar" - plainly made and easily breakable - but he was convinced that God's power was working through him.

Lockdown may have brought us to the end of our own resources, and made us look for something more.  Suddenly we are reaching out for a power greater than ourselves, a force that is greater than the events which are way outside of our control.

Prayer is an age-old response to this need.  It's something that I've found myself doing more of, recently.  The Lectio 365 app has been helpful for me - a 10 minute daily meditation which makes me stop, slow down, and focus on God.  I've also been part of an online book club which has been studying How to Pray by Pete Greig, with its emphasis on prayer as a relationship with God, and its unflinching look at the disappointment of unanswered prayer.

Where do you look for power?  What practises help you to face your own weakness and find a strength that is greater than yourself? 

Image: Pixabay

I hope you are managing to find enough purpose, people and power to keep you going on this long journey.  And remember, if all else fails, there's always chocolate cake! (Call me; I'll make you one.)

Tuesday, 29 September 2020

Sunsets by the sea: A swift visit to Lymington

It was the end of a hot day.  The cool water felt good on our feet, and the waves lazily pushed the pebbles around on the beach.  Across the channel, the Needles turned from white rock to glowing peach, as the sky dimmed, the air became cooler and stiller, and the red sun sank irresistibly towards the edge of the earth.


 

We had discovered that the best time to come to the beach was at 7pm.  The crowds had gone, the parking was free, and we didn't have to mess around applying sunscreen.  Once the sun had finally disappeared, we bundled the boys into towels and drove them back to the cottage, where they were happy to fall into bed.

The cottage - a compact and fortunately cool Victorian semi - was in Lymington, where we managed to spend a few days in August.  It's a neat little place with a high street that tumbles down the hill to a harbour full of expensive yachts.  A short drive away, through the New Forest, is Beaulieu Motor Museum, which of course had to be the first stop on our itinerary.

The Motor Museum was packed with cars, from the very old...


...to the very fast...


...to the very small...


 

...to the downright odd.



And who remembers these??


Graham, Toby and Theo absolutely loved Top Gear World, with the Real Cars that had been altered, cannibalised, and generally wrecked by the presenters.  I retreated to the beautifully peaceful remains of Beaulieu Abbey, and reserved my admiration for the beans and squash in the kitchen gardens.




All the pre-booking systems for Covid-19 compliance meant that most places were operating at a much reduced capacity.  That was great at Beaulieu, but we got caught out for the Isle of Wight ferry, which turned out to be fully booked for foot passengers.  We had to settle for a cruise round the harbour.  Still, I doubt they would have let Toby steer the Isle of Wight ferry!




Turning our backs on the sea for a few hours, we found our way into the New Forest and paddled in a stream.  It mostly flowed over stones (rearranging them to divert the water into new channels was a most absorbing activity) but of course the boys had to find the one patch of mud.  And make the most of it.




We also said hello to some of the ubiquitous New Forest ponies, and ate - what else? - New Forest ice lollies.  Usually Walls and Nestle are the only choices, so we were pleased to discover a company that offered some new options.  Toby was delighted to find one which was something like an ice cream sandwich and a Feast jammed together.

 



On our final day we took one more walk down to the marina in Lymington, along to the open air swimming pool (which sadly had also been fully booked for our visit). 


The journey home was carefully timed to coincide with the second Silverstone Formula 1 race, so that we could listen to it on the car radio.  The excitement of Max Verstappen's unexpected victory meant that we hardly noticed the miles disappearing beneath the tyres, and in fact we didn't stop until we pulled on to our own driveway.  

It had been a long few months of lockdown, and life wasn't back to normal yet.  But a few evenings of watching the sun set by the sea had definitely made things look better.

Monday, 17 August 2020

John 3:16 vs Micah 6:8 - How do you sum up the Christian faith?

 

Through my growing-up years, if I'd asked someone which Bible verse summed up the Christian faith, I'm pretty sure they would have responded with John 3:16.

 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.  (John 3:16 NIV)

It was the verse; if you could quote one bit of the Bible from memory, this would be it.  Those of us in UK Sunday schools in the 1990s can probably still sing John Hardwick's musical setting, with its acrostic chorus: "L is for the love that he has for me, I am the reason he died on the tree..." (it finishes with F and E, in case you were wondering).  And while no one would argue that it represented the totality of God's revelation to us, I think most evangelical Christians reckoned it was a good start.

Nowadays, I rarely hear anyone quote John 3:16.  But everywhere I turn, people seem to be leaning on Micah 6:8.

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
    And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
    and to walk humbly with your God.  (Micah 6:8 NIV)

The Lectio 365 prayer app uses it as one of their key verses.  I have recently heard several talks using it as a central text, and anything referencing racial justice, environmental issues, poverty or slavery is quite likely to include it.  Again, no one is using it as the be-all and end-all of our faith, but as a guide to living a Christian life, many people count it as a good place to start.

Looking at the two verses together, the difference in emphasis between the two is quite striking.  I think there has probably been a corresponding change in emphasis among many UK Christians, which is why we now hear Micah 6:8 quoted more than John 3:16.  So let's look at each of them more carefully.

John 3:16

This starts with that great statement of what God has done: For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son.  The fact that our faith rests on what God has already achieved for us is front and central in this verse - and as I've previously argued in my post about teacups, this is quite an important thing to remember.

that whoever believes in him... Our response, then, is to believe in someone not to do something.  In my experience of how this verse has been used, the emphasis is often individualistic (you yourself must believe) and prescriptive (this is the set of ideas you must believe).

...shall not perish, but have eternal life. So we wind up with the ultimate threat/reward: are you in or are you out?  The understanding of this phrase was definitely that it referred to your "eternal destiny" i.e., whether you went to heaven or hell when you died.  So the bit between believing (as a one-time individual decision) and salvation (as a specific thing which happens when you die) is left unsaid if you use John 3:16 as a summary of the Christian faith.

Micah 6:8

This verse also starts with a statement of what God has done, but in a much vaguer way.  He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. Does this mean the giving of the law, or a reference to God's character, or to our own consciences?  No one seems too bothered about the exact meaning, and it's usually glossed over in order to get to the "live justly" bit.

And what does the Lord require of you? In contrast to the verse from John, the focus here is on what we do in response, not what we believe.  This is used to declare that our faith comes with a strong responsibility to the world around us, and that responsibility is not just making sure other people know what to believe.

To act justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God. Well, this firmly fills in what John 3:16 leaves out - and avoids any mention of eternal salvation.  Although Micah's text is addressed to "You, O mortal", it tends to be interpreted in a more corporate way - we, as a church, are called to work for justice and mercy in the world.

So if there has been a shift in emphasis from John 3:16 to Micah 6:8 to understand what Christianity is, what might we have gained?  And what might we have lost?

I think there's been a shift from belief to action.  

This is one of the clearest distinctions between the two verses; John is about believing, and Micah is about acting.  We are less likely to say, "To be a Christian, you must believe this," and more likely to say, "Come and join in with what we're doing as Christians".  We're more likely to talk about bringing God's kingdom to the world around us, and less likely to make firm statements about heaven and hell.

Is this a gain?  It has the benefit, hopefully, of giving our churches fuzzier edges - people can join in with what we do, without having to decide whether they agree with every article of our faith.  It also reflects the wide variety of beliefs within the church itself.  It's less important whether a church is Baptist or Pentecostal or Anglican, and more about whether it's an active part of the community.

If we're not careful, though, it has the danger of making it more about us than about God.  We lose that joyful affirmation of a historic event - God loved us and sent his Son! - as we rush around trying to figure out the best way to do justice and love mercy.  Again and again, we need pulling back to the good news of what God has done, not just good advice about how to live.

I think there's been a shift from love to justice.  

"Love your neighbour" often turns into, "Be nice to those who you naturally associate with," or at least, it does for me!  I find talking about justice much more challenging, as that requires me to pay attention to people I wouldn't naturally associate with, and answer questions about whether they get the same consideration that I get.  Which, really, is what loving your neighbour means.

Framing things in terms of justice also gives us a different set of expectations for people.  We can work for justice - and indeed mercy - for everyone, regardless of whether we agree with them, because we believe that justice and mercy are good ideals in themselves.  Whereas Christian love has sometimes become conditional.  "Of course God loves you, but he only really welcomes and loves you if you're doing the right thing."  As I write that, I realise how ridiculous that is - we should be able to say exactly the same about love as we do about justice and mercy.  But I still find myself trying to justify it.

So it's not that justice overall is better, but that it gives us a fresh perspective.  Our concept of love has got distorted, so that it's easy to persuade ourselves that if we are nice to those like us, then we are being loving.  Asking ourselves whether we are promoting justice makes us look again at how we are living.

I think there's been a shift from individual to societal.  

Interestingly, John 3:16 is the verse that talks about "the world" and "whoever", whereas Micah 6:8 addresses, "You, O mortal".  On the other hand, in John's gospel, Jesus is talking to one man, Nicodemus, whereas Micah is prophesying to the whole nation of Israel.  

At any rate, the model of Christianity built around John 3:16 tends to emphasize doing mission by bringing individual people to a definite point of belief in Jesus.  The model built around Micah 6:8 tends to emphasize being missional by influencing the society around us.  Some of that comes out of different ideas about the main point of following Jesus - is it to save us from eternal damnation or is it to bring God's kingdom to the world?  Some of it is a reaction to the growing individualism in our culture, and a recognition that many people need a community to belong to.

Of course, individuals are society, and vice versa.  We can't separate the two, and maybe that's useful to remember - that when we talk to one person, we talk about the world, and when we speak to our nation, we say, "You".  We can't just have lofty ideals about changing our culture, and we can't just deal with the person in front of us and ignore the larger picture.  We need both.

How do you sum up your faith?

A post like this reminds me just how difficult it is to make generalisations.  I'm pretty sure these shifts apply to a larger group of Christians than myself, but I'd struggle to define who they are and what labels they might give themselves.  Evangelical?  Post-evangelical?  Liberal?  Progressive?  Hopefully it's less about the labels and more about realising some of the weak points in our previous understanding, and trying to address them (without over-compensating the other way!)

So, has your faith shifted?  Would you sum it up differently now to how you would have done in the past?  And what have you gained or lost in the process?

Thursday, 2 July 2020

States of Matter (or Making a Glorious Mess)

It started off as a lesson about touch.


Theo's meant to be looking at the five senses this week, you see, so we've had a bit of fun with tasting food while blindfolded, and guessing the smells.  Today was the sense of touch, so I thought, "Ah yes, those touchy-feely boxes." 

Then I thought, "How about jelly?" 

Then I thought, "Gels.  Foams.  Aerosols.  All sorts of fun stuff!"

And quite frankly, if having a chemistry degree doesn't mean you teach your kids about colloids and viscosity by the age of 10, then what is the point?

So for colloids, we had green jelly, blue shower gel, shaving foam and yoghurt.  (Is yoghurt a colloid?  I'm pretty sure it is.)  Otherwise known as lots of lovely gloop. 

If you missed that bit of your education, a colloid is basically one state of matter dispersed in another one.  So you can have a solid mixed with a liquid, which gives you something like shower gel, jelly, or yoghurt; or liquid mixed with gas, which gives you shaving foam, whipped cream, or whisked egg whites.  Most things that are kinda gloopy are probably colloids.  This website gives a pretty good explanation.


Powders are another interesting one.  All the tiny bits are definitely solid, but because they can flow over each other like the molecules do in a liquid, you can pour a powder a bit like you pour a liquid.

(You can also explode some powders quite nicely, but I think we'll stick to watching YouTube videos for that experiment!)

We had flour, salt demerara sugar and custard powder for a nice range of particle sizes, and talked about whether they felt soft or gritty or squeaky (that was the custard powder).


And then we had viscous liquids.  That's black treacle, golden syrup, olive oil and water.  Viscous is one of my favourite words.  It means thick and sticky.  Viscosity is the measure of how viscous something is.  Treacle has the highest viscosity here, and water the lowest, and we talked about if a liquid got really really thick and sticky, it would pretty much be a solid.


Of course, after all that, they said, "Can we mix it all together?"

And I said, "Sure, why not!"

So we had this:

And this:

And finally these, which you'd almost think were edible if you didn't know they were composed of shower gel, black treacle, cornflour and shaving foam.


After that we melted chocolate and coconut oil (solid into liquid transition) and made these, which are, in fact, edible, if you don't mind all the sugar balls getting stuck in your teeth.


And after that I had to wash sticky gloop off every bowl and spoon in the house, and get the boys to change their T-shirts.  But it was worth it to hear them say, "That was the best homeschooling day ever!"

As long as no one says, "Mum, can we do it all again tomorrow?"