Archive for the ‘ Christianity ’ Category

Books of the Month – May 2012


This has been a month where I haven’t really managed to read very much, and I’m not at all sure why. But what I have read has been worth reading.

Towards the End of the Morning by Michael Frayn

Set on Fleet Street during the middle of the 20th century, this book is both highly amusing and rather sad.  It shows the newspaper industry at the end of it golden years, seen through the eyes of a few characters who work in an insignificant department, responsible for dreaming up crosswords and similarly cutting-edge parts of their publication (though they, of course, believe themselves to be dynamic journalists).  The characters are all deeply flawed, and Frayn draws them in such a way that you laugh at them, then are moved to feel sympathetic for them, even John Dyson, the pompous fool who is trying to make his name on television.  The disastrous press trip to the Persian Gulf which takes up much of the final few chapters of the book is a masterpiece of farcical writing.  An intriguing glimpse into a different time and world, this novel is decidedly worth reading.

Identity Theft by John Andrews

With the subtitle ‘Finding the missing person in you’, this is a Christian book about personal identity – both the general identity of a Christian as a child of God and individual identity.  This latter aspect is welcome, as a lot of Christian writing seems to imply that we are all turned out of the same mould and should be a homogeneous mass of identikit people.  This book sets out the reasons, both Biblical and otherwise, why this shouldn’t be the case, and encourages the readers to acknowledge both aspects of their identity.  I found the book challenging and encouraging, and have gone back to the beginning to read it again in the hope that I’ll actually remember what’s written here and live it out.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens

This month’s book group book (though yet again I missed book group night).  I have seen the stage musical based on the book before and caught a mixed adaptation on television recently, but had never got round to reading it.  I didn’t find it one of Dickens’ best books, to be honest, though perhaps my feelings would have been different if he had finished the story before he died.  The chief problem is that the characters do not, for the most part, feel quite so vitally alive as his characters normally do.  Some of them, particularly Mrs Crisparkle and Durdles, are beautifully described, but there is a spark missing.  The big question of the book is this – what is the mystery?  Dickens made it clear in some letters that the obvious suspect is indeed the culprit, and all the clues are laid out quite clearly (for the reader if not for any of the characters yet).  So for me the mystery is how the guilty party will be brought to justice or who the disguised detective Dick Datchery really is (my money is on Bazzard, though that is again the obvious choice).  The mystery could be unravelled if everyone sat down and talked to each other, as each person holds a vital clue, but the likelihood of getting  such different people as Rosa Budd and Princess Puffer in the same room would be rather unlikely.  Reading Dickens is never a bad thing, but there are definitely better ones out there.  Oddly, leaving the novel midway doesn’t seem hugely frustrating.

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So not the most impressive list of reads this month.  In terms of impact, Identity Theft has been my most valued read, but Towards the End of the Morning wins in terms of enjoyment.

Bible in a year – on the train!


During 2012, a number of people from my church are reading through the Bible.  Each day, there are three or four chapters to read, and the idea is that with quite a number of us reading it at the same time, we will have plenty of people to share encouragements with or to ask about the confusing bits (and let’s face it, there are quite a few of those!).  There is no obligation on anyone to do it, and nobody will be frowned upon for slipping behind or doing anything differently.

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Advent


Today is Advent Sunday in the church calendar, the day when preparations for Christmas officially begin.  Of course, in the retail world, preparations for Christmas began as soon as the Hallowe’en stock was removed, or in some cases even earlier.  And other aspects of festive activity have also begun in earnest – baking of cakes, rehearsals for nativity plays and pantomimes, switching on of lights and selection of presents.  But in the church, Advent Sunday is the day when we are supposed to begin spiritual preparation, looking forward to the celebration of Christ’s birth, or rather of his incarnation.

As well as the opportunity (sadly missed this year) to get cracking with singing ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel’, the start of advent means something very specific.  In my house, it means decorations!  The boxes of sparkly, shiny objects, the Christmas trees, the sack of cuddly toys with a vague Christmas theme and the bag of tinsel will not make an appearance until this day of days.  And then, the level of activity is high.  Furniture must be moved (unearthing long-forgotten dog toys in the process), lights must be strung on the plants in the front window, nativity sets must be compared and re-arranged, and tinsel must adorn every possible location.  The cellophane will be removed from this year’s edition of Carols For a Cure, and the tracks will be listened to and variously enjoyed, discussed and laughed at.  A lengthy conversation about the optimum date for viewing the Muppets Christmas Carol will ensue.  There is little that is overtly spiritual in all of this, but it is an important time for the household, a few hours to share and enjoy, a ritual which has become an essential part of the rhythm of our lives.

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Tree of life


I don’t often speak very directly of my faith on this blog, nor of what I get up to at church.  On some Sunday mornings, I sing with the worship band.  Sometimes I am ‘merely’ a member of the congregation.  And on other weeks, I am involved with the children, either helping with or teaching one of our Sunday school classes.  At the moment, the group I am involved with is (with the exception of me as a leader) entirely female.  Quite how the members of my church manage it, I do not know, but children seem to come in gender waves – a year or two of boys, followed by a year or two of girls.  We’re currently in the ‘girls’ part of the cycle in the crèche as well as in my group.  But that isn’t really relevant.

For the last few weeks, my group has been looking at bits of the book of Revelation.  Not my idea, and not something that happens very often in Sunday school, really.  We (or rather they, as I haven’t been there every week) haven’t been examining tribulations or battles, but some of the images from the last few chapters, which have been getting both the kids and the leaders thinking.  My task this week, one of my rare weeks of leading rather than helping, was to look at the last chapter (number 22).  As we also have preparations for the inevitable nativity play under way, I didn’t have very long, so the focus was essentially on verse 2 of the chapter.  In the King James Version (which I love for literary reasons but don’t use for my own devotions, normally, and definitely not for Sunday school), this reads :

In the midst of the street of it, and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.

I was struck by how awesome an image this is.  A tree that is in fruit all year round.  In the context of eternity, this means a tree which never stops bearing fruit.  Whether this is different types of fruit or not, this is a beautiful picture of heaven – never-ending provision and abundance, a constant knowledge of God’s presence, care and love.  And leaves for the healing of nations – an end to every ill and wrong, whether that be physical, mental, emotional or physical.  And for everyone – the nations means the whole world, with no barrier of race or gender.   In this world, I can doubt God’s love so easily, but in the world to come, there will be no doubt.  Not ever.  What a mind-blowing thought.

“It’s like science has won.”


Last week, I was struck by a moment during the first of Torchwood’s five episodes.  Gwen Cooper, Torchwood agent, was talking to Doctor Rupesh Patanjali, someone who could potentially be brought in as a new member of their team.  His explanation of his interest in alien life was intriguing:

The past few years, suicide rates have doubled and that’s ever since the first alien.  My first case… my first… death, was a suicide.  D’you know why she did it?  ‘Cause… she’d written all these letters, been a Christian all her life, and then alien life appears.  She wrote this bit, she said “It’s like science has won.” [Gwen comments ‘Lost her faith?’] More than that.  She said she saw her place in the universe.  And it was tiny.  She died because she thought she was nothing.

Leaving aside the fact that we can’t necessarily trust what the charming Dr Patanjali was saying, as his motives in the conversation were not quite as Gwen or the audience believed, this is an intriguing statement, and I suspect it may reflect the views of the scriptwriter (for Day One, Russell T. Davies) to some extent – that the existence of alien life would terrify some, amaze others, and cause believers to lose faith and hope.  I wonder – is this true?  If alien life were to make itself known somehow, whether in peace, war or otherwise, would faith suddenly become meaningless?

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Something new every day


They say that you learn something new every day. This is probably true, even if it’s only something that’s seen, read or heard in the news, but I suspect we all forget many old things each day. I sometimes wonder whether new things push specific old things out of the memory banks and whether the volume of lyrics, tunes and useless facts about musicals stored in my head will one day have a disastrous effect, as something vital such as ‘alphabetical order’ or ‘how to breathe’ falls out of my ears as yet another song goes in. Recently, in addition to everything I’ve been learning for my various performing exploits, I have learned some more unusual things, which I thought I’d share.

1 – Bad posture can have painful results.On Monday, I woke up and my neck was very cross with me. The muscles in the right hand side of it were tight and angry, meaning that I could not fully turn my head to the left, and would get twinges of sharp pain when moving suddenly or when lying down. This was probably Officer Krupke’s responsibility, as it was noted in Sunday’s rehearsal that my Krupke posture was not going to do my back and neck any favours due to the way I was holding my shoulders. Or alternatively, I may have jarred the muscles when rehearsing the scene where Krupke falls over one of the Jets. Either way, a change of Krupke posture and some appropriate gentle stretching exercises gradually righted the problem. My advice – be careful, bad posture hurts!

2 – I cannot do an Irish accent. I really can’t. Monday evening was the first script read-through of Titanic, and one of the people that was missing was the young chap who plays Jim Farrell, third class passenger on the voyage. I was asked to read in for him and although his first line was delivered in a passably Irish manner, things simply went downhill from there until you’d have been hard-pressed to tell that the poor chap was human, let alone Irish. On the positive side, it did cause minor amusement to my fellow cast members, which was increased at the nadir of my accent attempts, when a particularly atrocious sound gave me a case of the giggles and caused me to go bright red as I struggled for air. I shall stick to the various English, Scots and American accents that I actually can do in future.

3 – The sense of smell can be numbed. On Tuesday, I helped at a family fun day organised by the local churches, where I spent the best part of four hours either serving or cooking sausages which were handed out free to grateful members of the public. I love sausages, but being part of the cooking and serving of several thousand sausages may have curbed my enthusiasm slightly. After only half an hour or so, I realised that I could no longer smell the sausages that were merrily cooking on the BBQ. My nose must have had enough and simply given up.

4 – An empty glove is not a good thing to be.The wonderful Archbishop of York was a part of Tuesday’s event and gave a great message about what it means to be a Christian. He compared life without God to being a glove without a hand in it – floppy and directionless. But being filled by God is like a glove is like a glove being filled by a hand, now able to wave, shake hands, bake a cake or do the hand jive (OK, so the Archbishop didn’t actually mention doing the hand jive, but you get the idea). He was speaking of Jesus’ statement that He came so that we could have life in all its fullness, not just a little bit of life, but an awful lot of Life. It was a clear, direct and inspirational message.

5 – One of my defining qualities is agelessness. It tends to be said that I look younger than I am, and I thought the cast of West Side Story were going to prove this when one of them guessed my age as 24. Unfortunately, yesterday, one of them (who is 13 but has the cheek to look at least 16) decided to guess my age and came up with the figure of 35. Yikes. I’m 29, and will turn 30 the day before the curtain rises for our production of Titanic. There’s nothing wrong with being 35, but really… However, to a 13-year-old, surely anything past about 21 is ‘ancient’.

6 – I’m a big softie. I don’t cry at films or books, and the only things I’ve seen in the theatre that I recall making my cry are Cabaret and Blood Brothers (though Parade and Billy Elliotmust both have been close to bringing on the waterworks). However, on Friday, we reached the final scene of West Side Story in a run-through, and there I was with tears trickling down my cheeks, so that I had to nip outside and dry my eyes before we set the bows. The last couple of scenes are deeply emotional for my more serious character, Doc, but even so… I don’t normally get deeply invested in my characters and this was a run-through in a hot room in a school, with very few costumes, with a few stops and starts and with only plastic chairs as the set, so I don’t know why it got to me. It did, though, so the only conclusion must be that I’m a big softie. I’m hoping that I get over this by the time we open on Wednesday, but who knows. Perhaps I’ll be a blubbering mess all week.

So there we have it. Six things that I’ve discovered this week. What’s your ‘something new’ for the day?

Talented youth


This week, I have been privileged to see talented young people performing in two different venues in Canterbury, and it has inspired and encouraged me.

The first was a performance of a musical by two of the local grammar schools – the Bernstein/Sondheim/Laurents masterpiece West Side Story.  I am not frequently in attendance at school shows, but this one starred a talented young guy who I have performed alongside in Kiss Me, Kate and My Fair Lady, and I wanted to support him, so turned up to the opening night along with a couple of other members of the operatic society.

From the overture onwards, I was frequently impressed by the skills, energy and enthusiasm of those involved.  The orchestra negotiated Leonard Bernstein’s difficult score very well, and seeing the show performed by people of around the right age for the characters was a rare treat.  Though there were some iffy moments, these were far outweighed by the good bits.  ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’ exploded with energy, and the boys were clearly loving every moment of that song.  The ‘Tonight’ quintet was impressive – not perfect, but very, very good.  It is an incredibly tricky piece of music.  In terms of stage craft, I was amazed at the ensemble’s ability to hold a freeze at the end of the ‘Somewhere’ sequence – it seemed as though not a muscle twitched.  The leads acted most of the adult characters off the stage.  My young friend had an entirely natural, relaxed and convincing air to his performance as Tony and both the main girls impressed me greatly.  The girl playing Anita had an incredible voice, with immense power and control far beyond her years.  I was so glad I had gone and I was encouraged that the schools were supporting talented young performers – involvement in a project of that nature can teach many things which cannot be taught in conventional lessons.

Then on Saturday, I was a steward at the semi-final of a talent competition run by the local churches for the city’s secondary schools and further education institutions.  This competition has many aims.  To encourage and develop local talent (the judges are from a local stage school and offer helpful advice as well as giving out scores).  To demonstrate that the church is not a remote and cold institution.  To have fun. 

The talents on show at the heats and the semi-final were diverse – dancers, singers of all varieties, solo musicians, bands, a comedienne and even a pair of roller-dancers.  Some are better than others, but most of them perform with such joy and enthusiasm that it is infectiously exciting, even if their particular brand of performance is not the spectator’s normal cup of tea.  Particular highlights from the semi-final include a girl who had written a song after hearing someone on the radio say they’d never been given flowers or a card on Valentine’s Day.  The song was well-structured and moving, and her delivery very engaging, using her deep voice to great advantage.  And then there was the boy who did an Irish dance routine, who was able to do amazing things with his knee joints.  It was also encouraging to see the acts cheering each other on and giving fulsome applause.  Next week’s final should be an absolute delight, though I fear the pressure of counting the votes may get to me!

It is a joy to see talented young people perform, perhaps even more so than talented people who have had time to refine their craft.  There is a raw energy and excitement to what they do which is wonderful to behold, and there can be a surprising amount of talent locked in the youngest of bodies.  I can only hope that their teachers, relatives and friends continue to encourage them to use and develop their gifts into adulthood and that young people (particularly boys, who seem to have more inhibitions than girls) continue to be brave enough to act, sing, dance and create music.  It is a privilege to have shared in what they do.

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