Saturday, July 30, 2011

the end of the holidays

As a child, the holidays lasted forever. Long summer days of playing in the sunshine worked their way into long summer evenings on the road, on my bike, in the dirt, in the grass, with my friends. One August we all found ourselves up above town on the moors swimming in the ponds, running in the hills, knowing those times would never end.

Till school called us back.

For ages after I left school I would awake to the nightmare sound of the bell that ran my life through all those years: teachers, I have no idea how you can do it. I suppose it has, however, had a twin effect upon me: I chose a job with no set hours. And a personality type with a pathological attention to the clock.

Well now the holidays are over again. School is calling me back - or, at least, university. No bell (thank God). But a more set routine than I have known since I began my working life, and a commute for the first time since I was eighteen. Strike that, seventeen - my final exam at grammar school (a forty minute bus-ride from home) was the day before my eighteenth birthday.

The problem with memory (of course) is that it only looks back. I cannot remember forwards at this point in time to the friendships ahead, the joys set before, the trials overcome, the triumphs and simple pleasures that await. I cannot reminisce about quiet evenings three years from now, or wax lyrical about friends I have yet to meet, relationships that have not begun, passtimes and priorities that my life will take on in the days locked up beyond tomorrow.

The holidays are over! The resting is done! A key is placed in the living door of my experience which may turn in this way only this time and only this once - and I got to choose to do this! It's happening! I need to snap my head forwards, to bring my mind from remembering things past to being ready to take on all things new.

For, as angels sang on Easter morning - Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here - He is risen!

My life was on those hills in Accrington, in that school in Blackburn, at university in Oxford, ordained in South Wales, working in Aberystwyth, writing in Cambridge, being vicar of Pontypridd - but my hand is in the hand of Jesus, and he is the God of the living, not of the dead. Not forgetting what lies behind, I strain forwards to gain the prize, to live the life, to seize the day, to rise on wings and to live the life set out for me. Grateful, and being grateful using all that I have gained with love and for glory here and now.

Here and now.

It's the end of the holidays. A new day is beginning. Hallelujah.

Sunday, July 24, 2011


Amongst the many treats on YouTube is a clip of me singing with a certain Big Band. No names, no pack drill. The accompanying photo should in no way be taken as a clue or hint as to the band or song to which I am referring.

Anyway, as usual, I have control over the comments that go up. I vet everything. Of course - I'm a control freak. You may say what you like, but only if I like it. As I sang in my opening number at the St Caths Plus Variety Show recently - 

"The ego of the actor / has the subtlety of a tractor
So comments that are audible / Should always be laudable..."  

Singers, if anything, are even more thin-skinned than their thespian fellows. We just need to be loved, dahling. 

Well. Over the past three days I have been receiving notification of comments for the aforementioned video clip. One thoughtful person has been offering me critiques that sound kind of familiar from somewhere (where?); here's the first they sent:  Not very good at all. Very pitchy.Very Flat at 1:56 and 2:34

I think 2:34 is sharp, personally, and worse - distorted by bad microphone technique. But I tell you what - somebody hiding behind a pseudonym on a website doesn't get to say that. And I was left huffing about it all day. The cheek! Of course I didn't approve their comment. No bloody chance. So yesterday they tried again. This time they offered (and again the words are strangely familiar): Who told you you could sing?

Oh I was cross. Cross enough to think that I wished I knew who it was so I could reply - who told you you could listen? Who told you you could be rude on somebody else's website? You'll imagine that this comment also failed to get posted. 

But then today this person surpassed themselves. And it was at this point that the penny finally dropped. At last I recognised the play book my web judge has been using all along. Just one word came on the YouTube Service email this evening: Horrible. 

It's Simon Cowell isn't it? 

I'm being cyber-stalked by a Simon Cowell wannabe who thinks that if they keep being nasty, eventually I'm going to publish their brilliantly witty and insightful comments on my singing! The thing is, the Horrible comment actually made me laugh out loud... So I'm thinking of posting it. Except if I do, will I encourage this mad person, or stop them? And if I stop them, what will I miss out on tomorrow? "That's positively the worst audition I've ever heard. Seriously." 

What do you reckon? Come on, I'd like you to send me votes to post now or suggestions for more Cowell put-downs I should be expecting. I'll publish the best ones - & if crazy stalker actually continues I'll award fictional prizes for the most accurate guesses too! 

This is Cyber-Stalker Idol!

Friday, July 22, 2011

settling in

Every time I have moved, I have been the same. The whirlwind of activity, the emptying of boxes, the establishing of a new home. I have seen others move & seemingly camp out in their new houses for months, and something in me screams out - how can you bear to do this? I cannot. Within two days or so all is sorted.

Kind of. Don't ask me to find everything. That will take longer.

Mind you, Matt & I are already finding our way around the neighbourhood. It turns out my trusty SatNav is a bit, well, selective on local roads. So I do need to buy a map, as well as checking out Googlemaps before setting out. There tend to be better alternatives than my onboard computer wants me to believe! Goodness, it's been a while since I've actually remembered directions...

Take the nearest cinema, the Leeds/Bradford Odeon. As the crow flies it's about a mile and a half, two miles. SatNav wants to take me a five mile journey to get there when there is actually a crow-fly road. And I am finding that several Leeds trips are pretty similar - and not helped by the re-numbering of roads in central Leeds following recent bypass arrangements. In weeks these will be absolutely second nature.

In weeks the house will feel like home too. It still feels like a place where all my stuff finds itself. Finds itself squashed... No - I am genuinely glad of the smaller space. Genuinely glad of the cosiness of the house. Time will make this home - time and the visits of friends and the accumulation of memories. You cannot fake "home". It sneaks up on you.

And, as yet, though I am settling in, I am still in the post-leaving/just-arriving fog of emotions that means I don't quite know where I am or what I feel.

It's good that I have lovely neighbours - on one side they will look after Matt when I'm at work, seeing he gets out during the day and isn't alone all that time. That side also keeps the gardens straight and checks on bins and is wonderfully efficient. On the other side, a couple I have yet to get to know but they are Christians and one of them works in the University.

People. Place. Time. Feel. History. Memory. So many things make up "home". And here am I in a rented house - for here I have no abiding city. I have the outwards sorted, but the inners, the interiors of life - these things cannot be put in their place in two days, no matter how hard I try. And so I am slightly displaced. Neither there nor yet here. But here I am in a place where I have been led. With good people all around. And I am looking forwards to going to church on Sunday in the local parish church, which, by all accounts, may well be a good place for me. So this is a strange, settling in period; and I am grateful that after the whirlwind of the last few days I now have another week before I start work, work which I am looking forwards to. I need to take this time to relax and sit back and prepare, and properly take advantage of a little holiday for body and soul.

For, to misquote the hymn, God has brought me safe thus far, and he shall lead me home.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

the final day

Matt & I walked through Ponty park as we always did, him sniffing every darned tree, me calling "Head!" to pull his attention away from burying his face too deep in any especially repugnant odours. A gentle rain spotted the ground and midges thronged under the trees.

We called in on Clare at the newsagents on Mill Street. She went red - she'd meant to come to church yesterday, but had overslept. I told her not to be so silly. And we said our goodbyes.

Barbara came to clean the empty house. Oh, how I have relied upon Barbara. She has cheered me up so many times without knowing it. Made me feel better just by being there, as well as by making my home look and feel and smell nicer week by week. I gave her flowers last week; she brought me wine today. We shared tears.

A trip to the bank saw money into my account - both from my little house sale on Saturday and from the amazing generosity of the church as I left. Wow. And thank you - I know many of you read this. I am overwhelmed, and incredibly grateful.

Then Dan came to help me finish off sorting the house out. I married Dan and Gemma one Christmas a few years back. I'd got to know Gemma's dad through taking funerals for his parents, and when he asked if I'd do his daughter's wedding I was delighted - though if it had been anyone else, I think asking for a Sunday wedding at Christmas might well have got a no from my diary! We have a running joke - I invite them to dinner, and then go to their house to eat. We've been trying to meet up in the run up to my leaving, and it hasn't happened, but they came yesterday & I was delighted to see them & their boys. Dan offered to help me as I finished off the house & did a couple of tip runs. Gemma insisted I then came to lunch. I was thrilled to say yes.

Gill Tuck came to the Vicarage as we were done. She took my keys. Empty, gone, all over. I had feared I would slink out of town without anyone noticing. Gill was aware of this and was making sure that couldn't happen. Dan was there too. The book of these days closed, but friends were all around me as the words on the pages ran out. Indeed, just as I got into the car Kim Howells walked past pushing his granddaughter in the buggy. Many's the day when he has regaled me with stories of meetings with chiefs of staff, spies, wars in foreign parts, chairing the United Nations, facing down the Prime Minister - but now he wears a more relaxed look and his granddaughter gets the attention that previously was demanded by such unimportant matters. A friendly hug, another and fitting final farewell.  

Then the long drive northwards. I crossed the bridge to England. I used to live here. No, I do live here; I used to live in Wales. For seventeen years I stayed in the Principality - almost as long as I lived in Accrington as a kid, before first moving south to University a lifetime ago. And as I drove I thought of my yesteryears, and of my yesterday.

Yesterday was lovely.

The team here had worked hard to make a super occasion. Wardens, staff, musicians, St Catz Kids, St Caths Plus, Stewart as he led the service and the folk who provided the wonderful lunch - though a confession: I spent so much time talking to people over lunch, the only thing I actually ate was a piece of Val's lemon meringue!

Here was a church looking forwards, in good health, celebrating its life. And I enjoyed every minute. Great to see visitors amongst the crowd - including Owen & Liz, Alice, Karsten, Robin, David, a couple who come to the Remembrance events, some of our wider family, and of course lots and lots of us. Just us.

I had great fun preaching - Stewart called it a "tour de force", but he would, showing off his French, (always the class swot!) as I decided to go out on Matthew 22.34ff, the greatest commandment, but got carried away so gave them pretty much all of Matthew 21 & 22, with references to Matthew 4 & Deuteronomy 5-8 thrown in for good measure. Plus quotes from Cecil B deMille and a couple of my favourite little jokes...

The greatest commandment: it is in the way we love one another that the truth of our love for God is revealed. Be the real deal. It isn't easy, it's not supposed to be; it is worth it.

Stewart spoke at the end of the service of our friendship. Of the way I'd come to Cynthia's bedside at 4.30am on the day she died. Of our Bible studies, ranging from exegesis to pole dancing. I assured the congregation we didn't actually do any pole dancing...

I looked out and saw others. Those present like Ashley & Helen with baby James. I remembered visiting them in hospital on Christmas Day when Helen had been confined to bed for months before James' birth. Those absent like John Murphy, who is confined to his bed but who has been to me a true friend. I wouldn't have had these eleven years without him. Or like Dan & Kirsty - and it was lovely to have Matthew Truelove sing a song written by Dan for the occasion. And to sing one of his own, a favourite of mine. Then I saw out there too those gone before, like Gwyneth, whose smile and attention to detail were both very special. And Mac. And Ken. And Gladys, whose final prayer I will remember always.
As I missed the buffet I drove to Tesco to grab a sandwich for lunch. And another for supper. And after my final final service, a gentle evening communion (with a few extra in attendance - I should leave more often if it does the numbers so much good) most of us ended up at the Bunch of Grapes.

Actually, right at the end of that evening service, David Carver came forwards & said that he wanted some people to pray with me. I was absolutely thrilled. Just as I had not wanted to leave today by myself (and I guess in part that's a being single thing - a lot of life is by myself you know), I had really wanted somebody at some point before I left to say - "we need to have a good group of people pray for you". And it hadn't happened. Then David did it.

Don't take this the wrong way, please - I have always had great wardens, and the current crop are wonderful & hard working & pulled out all the stops yesterday in making the whole day go off amazingly. I love them to bits. But I will confess to having a very soft spot for David Carver & for Derek Phillips; they were a very special team as wardens. They are very special godly men. David proved it for me again yesterday, and those last few moments of my final service were golden.

So. I got into the car & began to drive. Eleven years, eh? There have been ups & downs, tough times & failures amongst the joys & triumphs. I don't know if I did everything I was supposed to. But as far as I was able I tried to be obedient. And as I sit in the kitchen of what is becoming my new home, I am reminded that for the past few years this blog has had at the top of it something of what I have seen as my job description, a play around Thirteen Words that have always meant a lot to me. Well, I'm going to have to change that soon.

But let me remind you: I have the joy of pastoring a church in South Wales, (and now come the 13 words) my job is to worship Jesus - his job is to grow the church. He is far better at his job that I at mine, but grace is all about how these things come together.  

He is far better at his job than I at mine; but grace means I leave with happy memories, and I can't ask for more than that.

Monday, July 11, 2011

moving day

A very moving day. The dog is all over the place, and frankly so am I. Chris & Carl, my two removal men, have been great. Most of the work has been done now, we'll be off in the morning, and in Leeds for mid-afternoon. (Thanks again to the wonderful efficiency of Clare & David Mac).

One friend was standing by the church gate earlier; a passing elderly gent told her - the vicar is going. Been here Eleven years. They haven't found a replacement yet.

Good to know the grapevine is accurate.

I used to live here. My house is becoming hollow. Clean, warm rooms are looking like tired, musty, damp shells. Echoes of themselves. Memories of laughter sound around them. The kitchen remembers Podcaths & Bible Studies and Alphas and then sighs - and forgets.

The dining room wonders where the piano was.

The study is a repository for unwanted furniture. Not yet wanted furniture. Not yet wanted books. Someone will claim them again. But not me, not here.

I used to live here. I am moved, am moving, am emotional and in motion.

Farewell, vicarage.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

And now the end is near...

...but still to come, the final curtain.

Though some fat ladies are singing. The Rejects are done with me. I have feasted with my wonderful quiz team one final time, after one final victory at the Bunch. Steve & I were the only ones who turned up for that quiz - & Steve was nervous. I told him to man up. Winning attitude, that's all it takes.

That's all it took. I shall miss the quizzes, but more the friendships of this group of bearded blokes. Never again do I expect to know so many experts in Sanskrit in so confined a space.

As I prepare to move away from full time parochial ministry, it was both an odd and a pleasurable experience to be a supporting cleric for Clare Hayns as she was ordained at Christ Church Oxford last week. I was best man at John & Clare's wedding many, many moons ago. I am godfather to their eldest. We have had many phone calls discussing theological essays over the past few years. John & Clare's friendship is one of the fixed points of my life. Seeing her ordained (from rather a good seat, I must say) was a total joy. And John will make an excellent vicar's wife - he can make a sponge cake appear out of nowhere in no time flat. No really. He's a member of the magic circle.

And it gives everyone the chance to see that (just occasionally) I do don the odd item of clerical garb myself. Actually, the cassock & scarf are Rob Graham's. I keep them for special occasions.

I was reminded the night before Clare's service of an event three and a half year's back, when being dressed like this had a particularly helpful effect. And also made for one of the funniest occasions of my time here in Ponty. Thanks Chris for bringing that back to mind: Irish scaffolders downing tools on a particularly gloomy morning with the cry "The Father says stop!" will stay with me for a long time. That it was over the construction of the neighbouring car park is even more pleasing... And I managed to use the story this morning in preaching on John 13, which passage was read at Clare's ordination. My usual illustration is of a man with a pepper grinder. Scaffolders & priests made a good alternative. The point held, and was one I wanted to make again before finishing. It's one of the key things I'd like people to remember here.

To remember. When I am gone. In the morning the removal men come. I will be back next weekend for my final services, but in between I am moving up to Leeds. Going, and coming back. A bit like Jesus, only I'm doing a house sale.

And without the help of the megastars who are David & Clare MacInnes it would be impossible to be ready. David & Clare came to stay for a couple of days last week & transformed the house into a state of readiness for the move. I am eternally grateful. More friends who have been a constant in my life for longer than I can recall. More friendship displayed than I could possibly deserve.

So, the list is almost complete. Farewells are being said. It is happening. The future is arriving, pushing its way into the present, making today fade into yesterday. I am touched by the kindness and good wishes I am receiving from many, and can only hope that I may yet have time to bless my friends here as I am still being blessed.

In God's economy, you must always give away what you want to keep.

Though if you are doing a house sale, I think selling books at 50p for soft backs and £1 for hard backs is also fair. Saturday next, 2pm. There's furniture too...