Friday, 31 August 2012

Strengths and Weaknesses


With the jet-lag gradually fading perhaps I can manage to put some words in the correct order and make an attempt at a coherent blog.

It was great to be at Coffee Morning today and meet up with folks – many told me they were concerned about our homeward journey from The USA and its unfortunate coincidence with Hurricane Isaac.  Well the plane was half empty because folks simply couldn’t get to Miami airport for departure.  Fortunately, even though our flight from Tampa was delayed by over an hour, we made the connection at Miami with ten minutes to spare and took off on time.  Florida, as our taxi-driver to the airport said, has once again ‘dodged another bullet’, New Orleans suffered more but, I think, our prayers go out most of all to Haiti – a country still in the process of rebuilding which didn’t cope well with all that Isaac threw at it last weekend.

Like many I sat up and watched the opening ceremony of the Paralympics on Wednesday evening.  In the lead up programme on Channel Four I was so impressed by a survivor of the London 7th July bombings – a lady who had lost her legs – who was now part of the GB team for sitting down volleyball.  Her story, amongst thousands of others, was an inspiration.

During that rather long procession of athletes the Canadian commentator – a former paralympian himself – said something like: It’s our strengths and our WEAKNESSES that make us truly human.  I thought that was a worthy statement for such an occasion – indeed for any occasion.  Who couldn’t have failed to be moved by the touch-bearer serviceman, who had lost his legs on active duty, as he ‘flew’ into the stadium from the Orbit Tower showing such dignity, courage and resilience. 

The bible has a similar adage – it says God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness.  So often in biblical narratives it wasn't the obvious gifts of people that God used but their faltering steps and uncertain actions. 

I sometimes use a prayer in worship that asks God to take the ‘strengths and weaknesses of our church’ and use them for his glory.  Praise God He does – and pray God He will continue to do so in the future.

With best wishes,

 

Ian

Monday, 27 August 2012

We survived!

We survived!

On Sunday afternoon Hurricane Isaac decided to turn left instead of right - it's now in the Gulf of Mexico - the bad news is it's heading for New Orleans and will probably land there on the anniversary date of Hurricane Katrina a few years ago.

As Pastor Carl Hansen said in church yesterday morning - someone's good news so often turn out to be bad news for someone else...so 'let us pray for them'.

The Greens are packed up and waiting for the taxi to the airport - Jonty wants to put the swimming pool in his suitcase!

Goodbye Florida and thank you for a wonderful three weeks!

Best wishes,

Ian

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Awaiting Hurricane Isaac


A sign which greeted us yesterday afternoon!
We have just one day left of this wonderful family holiday here in sun drenched Florida – or have we?As I write dawn is breaking here in North Port but just a few hundred miles south the Florida Keys is gearing up for the arrival of Hurricane Isaac later today – it then makes it way up the Gulf of Mexico and reaches us early tomorrow morning, the day we are meant to fly out of Tampa!

We have, as you can imagine, been watching the projected storm path of the hurricane since Wednesday. It looks as if Tampa – our nearest city and airport departure – will miss a 'head-on' encounter with Isaac but the rain, wind (even possible tornado) will characterise Monday's weather – so who knows if the plane will be able to leave or even if we'll be able to make it to the airport!

This afternoon a member of our exchange partner's family is due to come and put up the hurricane boards around the house – so we are beginning to have a new appreciation of the British climate!

Although this is hurricane season (a fact we obviously took on board when planning this trip) the truth is this is the first such storm here for five years – and we can't believe its arrival is timed so perfectly with the Green's departure!!

Well I never thought I'd be writing a blog about waiting for a hurricane but as we gather in church this morning I guess that will be on everyone's mind and in everyone's prayers. I suspect tomorrow will be a wild and windy day without fatalities – just the possible inconvenience of airport closures and rescheduled flights home.

There are days when we are called to be people who simply try to make the best of situations which develop around us – tomorrow looks like being such a day!

With best wishes,


Ian

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Shell seeking on Gasparilla Island

I'm writing this with the thunder and lightening of a sub-tropical downpour going on outside. It's been another scorcher of a day and to escape the humidity we drove over to Gasparilla Island – just half and hour away by car – and ended up on the glorious Boca Grande beach with its refreshing sea breezes for the afternoon. (Upon our return we read up on our location and discovered it means 'Big Mouth' in Spanish!)

Boca Grande was a magical place – made even more so by our unexpected sighting of a couple of dolphins swimming just a few metres in front of us. Bronzed Floridians were trying out the surf but our small family group ended up shell seeking. Each wave brought more and more highly coloured, exquisite shells onto the beach.

It struck me how wonderfully 'ordinary' it is to look for shells – whether here on the Gulf of Mexico or back home at West Bay on the coast of Dorset. Some of the best bits of life are the simplest – like looking for shells.

And all of that chimed in with a book I'm reading at the moment by Kevin Scully called Simple Gifts: Blessings in Disguise. I've been asked to review it for The Retreat Association so I tucked it into the suitcase as we left. The book is a real joy – not much in it is actually profound, but its message contains a profound truth: that simple gifts like 'hospitality' can bring some of the richest blessings in life – and offer us that 'wholeness' which is a feature of the Kingdom of God.

The simplest of activities can bring the deepest of joys – even spending an afternoon searching for shells.

With best wishes,

Ian

Sunday, 19 August 2012

A Eucharist with Lutheran friends

With Pastor Carl Hanson after Morning Service
It's late Sunday afternoon here in Florida – the rains haven't come today, instead it's been a blue sky day with a temperature of 33 degrees and humidity at JUST 74%!

This morning we got in the car and drove off to Morning Service at Living Waters Lutheran Church here in North Port. I preached today and was gratified that the congregation laughed in the right places! It was super to be with them again and receive the warmth of their welcome and friendship. Matthew played the postlude at the end of the service and people were so encouraging to him.

After I preached we all went up as a family to receive communion. Pastor Carl was officiating in his usual gracious way. I couldn't help but sense all of this was very special. Here we are almost four thousand miles from home in a totally new environment (sub-tropical) with folks from a different tradition (Lutheran) – and yet...there was such a sense of togetherness as we ate bread and drank wine together – this was 'the family' at worship, bound together in the Lord Jesus Christ. I confess, with no shame, that my eyes were moist as I received the elements – there are times when it feels such a privilege to belong to the body of Christ and this morning was just such an occasion.

Thanks be to God!

Ian


Florida Keys and The Everglades

Rachel's alligator!
In the Wilderness Waterway on Chokoloskee Bay, The Everglades

This afternoon we returned home from a week long trip covering almost seven hundred miles (on near deserted roads) down to the Florida Keys and back via the Everglades – it's been the 'big trip' of our exchange and has been a real joy.

Perhaps the two highlights were the trips out from Key West to a coral reef where all four of us went snorkelling in the warmest possible sea – surrounded, I may say, by many jelly fish! - and the boat journey yesterday afternoon in the Everglades as we meandered along the Wilderness Waterway of Chokoloskee Bay. We saw manatees pushing their snouts above the waterline, ringed kingfishers darting from the mangroves whilst ospreys sat majestically on dead trees as kings of all they surveyed – and then there were two 'up close and personal' encounters with alligators by the water's edge – our twenty one year old pilot had the eternal optimism of youth on his side as he made us linger a little longer than I felt comfortable alongside these fine creatures! However, we made it back in one piece with all our limbs in tact – the only trophy we brought home was Rachel's photo of the alligator perched in the water.

It's just been fascinating to listen to so many rangers on these tours as they have talked to us about the fragile ecosystem of the Keys and Everglades. One thing we learnt was just how catastrophic has been the release of pet Burmese Pythons into the swamp areas. These snakes are not indigenous yet they have thrived in the Everglades so much that they now threaten even the alligators. As we sing All Things Bright and Beautiful this Harvest my mind will recall these rangers' talks and their appeal to us to try to understand our natural world a little better.

We have seen such a variety of life this week: there was a moment when we got lost on the outskirts of Miami and I could see the city sky scrapers ahead, the flat bottomed boat trip from Key Largo to a coral reef, the hour at the Turtle Rescue Centre, the bohemian atmosphere of Key West and listening to a soul singer at the end of the pier as we watched the sunset, the swim in the Gulf of Mexico and then looking an alligator in the eye!

It's good to be back at Dell and Diane's beautiful home – the fridge has been restocked after a visit to the wonderful Walmart store this afternoon – the boys are in the pool and I'm just about to go through the sermon I'm preaching at Living Waters Lutheran Church here in North Port tomorrow.
Good night from Florida!

With best wishes,

Ian

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

A different kind of South Street

'South Street' signage in Key West , Florida - directly opposite our hotel
Walking back to our hotel this afternoon I realised it was located on South Street here in Key West – it's a very different road to the one the church is on back in Yeovil!

We are in our second week holidaying in the sun drenched State of Florida and this week we have driven 240 miles south to the Florida Keys ending up here in bohemian Key West – probably not at all the kind of place a Baptist Minister ought to take his family to!

Key West became the adopted home of Ernest Hemingway – we passed his house this morning. It has a huge Cuban population and that might explain why there is a cigar shop on every block and why every other voice we hear is speaking Spanish! This is a place surrounded by a coral sea, the southern most point of the United States and a mecca for holiday makers and street theatre performers – Jonty thinks it is wonderful and wouldn't mind doing a gap year here!

This year's trip to the United States couldn't feel more different to cosmopolitan Washington last year. Every day we have woken to sunshine and the temperature rarely falls below 28 degrees celsius even at night – I needn't have packed a sweater!

Watching the closing ceremony of the Olympics was fun because we saw it through American eyes – that said the NBC coverage was extremely positive about the success of us Brits and devoted a full segment of Sunday night to showing some of our successes and playing God Save The Queen!

One of the highlights so far was Sunday morning worship at Living Waters Lutheran Church. The liturgy was straightforward low church Anglican in style – all projected onto the wall which was really helpful. The interim pastor (who is leading the church during Dell's Sabbatical) is The Revd Dr Carl Hanson, and we had lunch with him and Betty, his wife, the day before. Carl led the service with such grace and preached with such integrity – I loved it and it was a real privilege to share fellowship with such a wonderfully friendly bunch of people.

So we're half-way through – the sun is out and the air-con is on – and even after travelling over three thousand miles – we're still in South Street!

With best wishes,

Ian



Thursday, 9 August 2012

Welcome to America - can I help you?

This is our second full day in the United States this summer and my mind is still sifting through those first impressions which make a fascinating assault upon your senses whenever we encounter somewhere new. We were here last year, further up, in Virginia just on the outskirts of Washington; yet Florida feels like an altogether different place.

We landed at Tampa airport in a thunder storm and the lightening (our taxi-driver said it was the worse he'd seen for sixteen years!) meant our bags stayed stubbornly on the plane for a further two hours and that meant our rendezvous with the taxi was considerably behind schedule . None of this seemed to trouble the driver who met us with the board saying 'Greens', instead his greeting was remarkably up-beat: 'great that you're here now – let's go!'

During the next hour and half I sat in the front seat (right hand side), and whilst those behind me fell asleep after the long flight, I was engaged in conversation! He told me that the forthcoming Presidential election in The Fall was too close to call – Obama, he said. campaigned last time on the theme of 'change' and there hadn't been any! He also told us that on the day we leave from Tampa the Republican Convention starts in the city – 'it will be packed' he said .

The next impression was arriving in the stunningly beautiful home of Dell and Diane, our exchange partners. I feel somewhat that we have swapped a cottage for a palace! My only hope is that the Shiell's will find both their accommodation and surroundings 'quaint'.

Initial impression number three: well that would be the fun of watching the Olympic Games on American telly – no Jess Ennis bias here! The other thing that's missing is the official (and in my opinion rather wacky) London logo on any of the programmes or newspapers here – instead every publication and TV station have made up their own.

I'm only too well aware that any initial impression needs constant revision as time goes by. However, I think my first one will linger a while. It occurred within seconds of us leaving the baggage pick-up area. In a flash we were through the doors and the huge, confusing concourse of the terminal building at Tampa airport was before us. We were already late for our taxi and tired from the journey. Then this little (and he looked passed retirement age) man stopped me – he had an official badge on his lapel – and said: 'Welcome to America – may I help you?' What a relief – what a joy! Hundred of signs were up – but none of them were as helpful and encouraging as this man. He knew exactly where the taxi would be waiting. Forty-five seconds after this encounter we were greeting our friendly driver.

In all walks of life, including the church, we can print as many notices as we like, pass on as many instruction leaflets or books as we have – yet nothing beats one human being speaking to another. In fact didn't someone once describe evangelism as 'one beggar telling another where to find bread'.

With best wishes from a sunny (perhaps I shouldn't have said that!) Florida.

Ian


Friday, 3 August 2012

On our way to the Olympics...!

Well it’s not every week that I can give the blog such a splendid title!  However, today I can because we’ve just returned from an exhausting, yet never to be forgotten, experience of attending the Olympics Games.  We entered the ballot and to our great surprise got tickets for the first morning of track and field in the stadium.  The sun shone, we got to our seats on time even though the Circle Line collapsed on us, and I cannot describe the sheer volume of noise that went round in support of Jessica Ennis – the crowd was completely partisan!

Two things struck me on the Tube as we made our way to Olympic Park.  The first was being offered a seat by a young man who obviously thought I looked old and frail!  The second was an advert by British Airways encouraging people not the fly – but stay home, sing the anthem and support Team GB.  I’ve never ever seen an advertisement discouraging customers from using a firm’s services before!

Both incidents spoke of a certain generosity of spirit.  I was touched to be offered a seat (amused that the same thing happened to Rachel on the way home – and she graciously refused!)  I was also impressed that BA is advocating the idea of ‘support’ so strongly.

Such altruism is a theme that is also regularly encountered in Christian Spirituality.  The essence of putting others first is central to the story we call The Good Samaritan.  Paul alludes to it with his appeal for us to ‘carry one another’s burdens’.  And the hymn writer surely had such selflessness in mind when he penned that line: I will hold the Christ-light for you in the night time of your fear.

Our humanity and discipleship reach ‘gold’ when it can be said of us, as it was of Barnabas in The Early Church, that we are sons and daughters of encouragement.

With best wishes,

Ian

Who is up there?!

We were in Lisbon over half term and enjoyed glorious sunny days throughout our visit. The city has many squares, almost all with statue...