Saturday, 4 May 2019

Learning at the speed of no mistakes

Four years ago, I began an amazing journey - I took up playing the clarinet again after a break of more than 25 years.  I bought an instrument, found a teacher and have been practising regularly ever since.  Within a year, I passed Grade 4, and by the end of 2017, I have passed Grade 6.  As I write this, I am awaiting my date for my Grade 7 exam.

To help me progress, I have been watching tutorials from experienced musicians - two by Nick Carpenter, a former principal clarinetist with the London Philharmonic Orchestra have been particularly useful.  The first was on warming up.  I like many music students am always busy, it is so easy to rush into a practise session and go straight into the music without taking time to warm up.  Such preparation when you do take time pays dividends.  There's a lesson there about adequate preparation and being in tune with the instrument.

A second video was about practise and how it isn't enough to just practise regularly, it has to be the right practise.  When we identify passages that are more difficult, we slow right down and practise the notes at the speed of no mistakes before gradually increasing the tempo to normal.  It's all about establishing the right habits.  Practise scales or pieces with recurring mistakes and they will become habitual mistakes.

By putting those two tutorials into practice, I have been able to improve quite dramatically.  The experience got me thinking about my spiritual journey.  It's so easy to rush through life without taking enough time to prepare ourselves.  It's easy to rush through life and not spend time getting our lives in tune with God.  We need to take time, we need to go into each day at the speed of no mistakes and make sure what we are doing is what God would have us do.

A clarinet is just a wooden tube with metal keywork on it until a skilled musician picks it up and starts to play it.  In the same way, we cannot reach our true potential unless God's Spirit is breathed upon us and directs us.  It means being open to the will of God.  Until that becomes habit - we must set out at the speed of no mistakes and allow God to transform us into the people he would have us be.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Are you willing to step out of the comfort zone?

As is common on holiday, I have been reading a book - a very good book called 'The Faith of Leap', embracing a theology of risk, adventure and courage, by Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch.  I have less than two chapters left to read, but it has been quite an experience as the ethos of what the authors ties in so perfectly with my own convictions over the last seven years.

It all started back in 2010 with a call to step out of the comfort zone, what followed was a series of events that meant I did just that - and since that point, I have grown so much.  In 2012, as I progressed from a local preacher on note to a local preacher on trial, a second experience told me that God wanted me to be a 'catalyst for the kingdom'.  As a scientist - a catalyst is something that allows a chemical reaction to happen much more quickly, but it doesn't get used up in the process.

All through my training as a local preacher I have remained convinced that it was a stepping stone, not an end point.  Since those earlier experiences, I have searched diligently for the way forward.  My project that I did for my Unit 18 of Faith and Worship (after accreditation) was on 'Building Blocks for Mission' and the reading I did for that made me realise that I had to be more open to change, more open to new ways of being church, new ways of reaching out.

2018 is Goffs Oak Methodist Church's 150th anniversary - as a church family, we have a whole series of special events planned that will allow fresh community engagement and all of my revelations will no doubt influence the approach to those opportunities.  Embracing risk, adventure and requiring a good amount of courage.

The biggest revelation is that it isn't about what I do, it's about what church - the Body of Christ does as a community that is important.  Even if that means risking failure, risking ridicule, risking sticking out like a sore thumb.  Mission isn't about what I do as an individual, it's about an entire body of people working together for the glory and the growth of the Kingdom.

All I can do whilst all of this sinks in is pray - pray that God won't just show me the way as a church leader and local preacher, but that God will show those around me what is required and enable us to embrace this new way forward.

Friday, 21 April 2017

Hitting the Right Note

Two years ago, I rediscovered the joy of playing the clarinet after a gap of almost 28 years since I last played regularly.  It wasn't easy at first, but as the weeks and months have gone on, I have rekindled my old skills and am almost back to where I was back in 1987.  I had one big advantage this time round, I have a much better instrument than I had back then.  Equipped with a good clarinet, a good quality mouthpiece and the right reeds, the sound is so much better.

What is necessary if I am to achieve the standard required is lots of practice.  It means setting aside the time between my weekly lessons to learn scales, arpeggios, exam pieces and related skills as well as having some fun too.  Without regular practice, the stamina cannot improve and fluency cannot be achieved.  If it is going to be a success, it has got to be done well, otherwise anyone within earshot is in for an assault on their eardrums.

Since those early days, I have now reached Grade 5 and am now preparing for my Grade 6 exam towards the end of 2017.  My music is a source of real joy, and I can even play during worship.  It was both a joy and a privilege to play alongside other talented musicians at special services at Christmas and Easter.  It is the product of many hours of diligent practise and there are still many more hours of practise ahead.

Just as musicianship requires a good deal of effort, so the life of Christian discipleship.  God cannot reach out to us if we never engage with the Bible or spend time in quiet reflection.  We can never fully engage in Christian Discipleship if we never listen to and acknowledge his call on our life.  We need to understand what it means to be a disciple, we need to be prepared to live our life to the glory of God.

When we do fully engage in our life of discipleship, we begin to experience the real joy of belonging to Christ.  It doesn't mean that life will be easy, it doesn't mean that bad things won't happen, but we do not walk the difficult path alone.  Nothing this world throws at us can ever separate us from the love of God, our life takes on a whole new meaning and sense of purpose.

As we continue through the Easter season, may we all be able to sing with joy:

Jesus is king and I will extol Him
Give Him the glory, and honour His name
He reigns on high, enthroned in the heavens
Word of the Father, exalted for us

We have a hope that is steadfast and certain
Gone through the curtain and touching the throne
We have a Priest who is there interceding
Pouring His grace on our lives day by day

We come to Him, our Priest and Apostle
Clothed in His glory and bearing His name
Laying our lives with gladness before Him
Filled with His Spirit we worship the King

O Holy One, our hearts do adore You
Thrilled with Your goodness we give You our praise
Angels in light with worship surround Him
Jesus, our Saviour, forever the same

© 1982 Word�s Spirit of Praise Music 

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

A Vantage Point

When I was growing up in Belfast, we lived quite high up on a hill.  Looking out from our rear-facing windows, we could see Stormont in one direction, and in another direction, we looked right over the city of Belfast, with the cranes of Harland and Wolff standing loftily in the foreground.  As a young child, one thing I loved doing with my Dad was going for long walks.  One walk took us up a country lane to the very top of the hill.  There was a farm gate where we used to stand and look down on the house where we lived.  It looked tiny from our vantage point.  On a clear day, if we took our binoculars, we could see ships travelling up and down Belfast Lough, cars being driven down the winding road on the hill opposite and I always thought we were really lucky to enjoy such a view. 

There’s always something special about a vantage point – a special place where the view is extra spectacular.  For many years Peter and myself spent our holidays in mid-Wales – and it was always part of our plans to drive up into the mountains to get the incredible views of the countryside. Seeing nature in all of its splendour always made me feel closer to God, even in those times when life was so tough that finding God in the everyday was a challenge.  To be in the wilderness with only the sounds of nature – the trickling of a stream, the calls of sheep on the hillsides, the shrill cry from a raptor soaring high on the thermals, the gentle buzzing of insects flying by, it is refreshing and calming.  Somehow, being above the landscape made me feel just that little closer to God as I looked in awe at the expanse of creation below.

When I turn to my Bible I find that some truly great things happened in high places.  Moses received the Ten Commandments, Jesus was tempted, Jesus was transfigured and we know Jesus often retreated to more remote places to teach his disciples.  When Elisha flees for his life to Mount Horeb (1 Kings 19) the mountain of God, he takes refuge in a cave. When instructed, he goes out and stands on the mountain waiting for the presence of the Lord to pass by.  The Lord wasn’t in the wind, or the earthquake, or the fire, but came as a gentle whisper.  When we retreat to our vantage point, we are removed temporarily from our difficulties and can be more receptive to the still small voice of calm, the quiet whisper reminding us that God is alongside us and will never leave us or forsake us.  For those precious moments, our troubles are dwarfed by the greatness of God and the beauty of creation and we are comforted.

However special our times in the lonely places may be, we always have to come back to reality, to the hardships and the uncertainties, but we do so better equipped and strengthened by our encounter.  We go back to our challenges as Elisha did, with God on our side.

Breathe through the heats of our desire 
thy coolness and thy balm; 
let sense be dumb, let flesh retire; 
speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire, 
O still, small voice of calm; 
O still, small voice of calm.

Saturday, 19 September 2015

Refugees Welcome!

In recent weeks, our news reports have been filled with the plight of the thousands of people fleeing their home country for a better life in Western Europe.  Feelings on both sides have been running high and the tension between Governments and the refugees has intensified.  It took the grim photo of a tiny boy washed up on a beach to focus people's attention and there is a glimmer of hope that more of these people will find refuge.

Last Saturday, London District abandoned some of their Synod agenda to join a protest march to Downing Street.  Many Methodist clergy were there in their dog collars as a very visible presence, standing in solidarity with the refugees.  On that day, even though I was unable to march, I was proud to be a London Methodist.  Social responsibility sits at the very core of what Methodism stands for and it sat at the very core of Jesus' ministry too.

Surely in our response to this crisis, we must ask ourselves the question "What would Jesus do?"  That must be our guiding thought, and when we have accepted that, to follow through by appropriate action.  Support charities, local initiatives, lobby MPs and most of pray that the situation improves dramatically.

Thursday, 5 March 2015

The Great Commandment

Jesus never missed an opportunity to challenge those he encountered.  Reading the Gospels, you get the impression that he just couldn't hold back from each opportunity to put people on the spot and make them think.  If you turn to Matthew 22: 34-40, we read of Jesus answering a question from the Pharisees on what was the greatest commandment.  The Pharisees were obsessed by the law - they had volumes of rules governing all aspects of human life.  Jesus' reply was a show-stopper for those who were trying to lure him into a trap:  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it.  Love your neighbour as yourself.

Who is our neighbour?  When Jesus said these words, he didn't just mean those who live above us and beside us.  He meant everyone.  The commandment is tough because it demands that we love the unloveable.  It demands we pay attention and be gracious to those who don't count amongst our friends and that's not easy.

The first commandment remains no less challenging today than it was for those who heard Jesus speak those words nearly 2000 years ago.  To love the Lord with all our heart, all our soul and with all your mind - how does that work in practice?  It has to mean leading God-centred rather than self-centred lives.  It means putting faith before fortune, faith before pleasure, and that we enter into a personal relationship with God through Jesus.  It means following Jesus' example in our dealings with others and upholding Kingdom values in a society that sometimes can feel quite hostile to those with religious conviction.

We know we are getting closer to keeping the Great Commandment when we sense the conflict between our day-to-day lives and our commitment to God.  It becomes more real when we are confronted with a sense of calling, when we are prompted by the Holy Spirit to pursue ministry, local preaching or other service of the church.

If we all strived to keep those two commandments, what a different place the world would be.  It is however, a glimpse of our future.  A glimpse of the time when God's Kingdom will be fully established.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

Psalm 139:13-18 NIV
[13] For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. [14] I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. [15] My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. [16] Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. [17] How precious to me are your thoughts, God! How vast is the sum of them! [18] 18 Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand— when I awake, I am still with you. …

Psalm 139 is beautiful, it reminds us that we are created by a wonderful God.  We are part of creation, part of his grand design for this world.  It also reminds us that God never leaves us, we cannot escape him.  Not even if we run to the farthest corner, God is there.

That is such a wonderful thing to remember when we feel burdened or  even at our wits end.  No matter how desperate our situation, we are never alone.

Some will say that if God really cared, we wouldn't have to face such difficulties, but that is the price of our free will, that is the price of evil having entered our world.

We are indeed fearfully and wonderfully made.  Let us walk hand in hand with the one who created us.