Wednesday, August 08, 2012

The British Summer

This is a talk given as part of the BBC Radio Stoke "In Praise of God" programme. This was recorded on 23rd May 2012 and broadcast on Sunday 15th July 2012. Its broadcast was preceded by some of the worst (wettest) weather many of us could remember. It was followed by a gloriously mini heatwave.


We British have a very ambivalent attitude to the Summer.

On the one hand we crave the summer weather. We have this idealised picture of summer days, the village green, cricket matches, warm beer. Wimbledon, strawberries and cream, barbecues in the evening. We love it so much, that at the first sign of the sun, the meerest hint of a cloudless sky, we take off jackets and shoes, don tee shirts and shorts, and rush outside to lie on the grass and soak in the sun. We love it so much that people stand under artificial sunlight or even paint themselves, just to make it look as if they have been in the sun.

And yet, like so many other things, when sun does appear, and the temperature rises, we find plenty of causes for complaint. It is too hot, or too stuffy. We suffer from hay fever, or midges and gnat bites. Milk goes off if left out of the fridge. Chocolates melt quickly and get on our clothes. We look out of the window in some frustration if we have to work - or if we are free we get stuck in traffic, and the car overheats and we complain about the number of people who have had exactly the same idea as we have had and flocked to the beaches and made it impossible to find somewhere to sit.

And of course - biggest complaint of all - it never lasts! Busy one day and unable to enjoy the sun, we are sure that will be able to enjoy the outdoors over the coming weekend or the bank holiday, when of course it rains.

And I am sure that you, like me, have plenty of memories of summer days blighted by cloud and wind and rain. As a priest I've conducted Weddings on cold and blustery August days, yet seen glorious sunshine in the autumn and spring. I have many child memories of day trips to Chester Zoo, Rhyl and Southport, sat under rain shelters eating soggy sandwiches - you know the ones where the tomatoes have soaked through the bread, the whiff of the egg overwhelms you when you unwrap it from its foil. I remember not being able to sit on the beach or the play equipment because it was wet or cold, wearing a plastic rain mac which became claustrophic and sweating, and determinedly trying to make sandcastles out of sand-mud.

There were nice days too - lots of them - but somehow its the wet and windy ones we seems to remember.

Yet none of this ever deterred me.

We have such a great love of the outdoors - such a yearning for the fresh air, the beach or the field, that people still rush outside partly dressed, even if the temperature doesn't quite justify it.

Our lives can be so built up, so hemmed in, especially in the towns and cities, that we yearn for something different. We love greenery. We adorn brick buildings with ivy and hanging baskets, and paved yards with planters.

However much our lives are regulated, heated or cooled by machinery, enclosed by shops or offices, there is nothing quite like the fresh air, nature. It is where we come from - and it is where we will leave this life - covered by grass, bordered by trees, strewn with flowers. It speaks to something deep within us. We yearn for nature. We thirst for it.

Yes, even the water which dashes and splashes through our days out is the source and sustenance of life itself. The Bible begins with a world enveloped with water, and ends with a vision of the heavenly city surrounded by water. We thirst for water as we yearn for nature.

Our love of the summer, of warmth and sunshine - and even the memory of blustry days, is something which is rooted deep within us. It is where we come from.

And for religious believers, Christians, but not just Christians, the wonder of the world is evidence for the existence of God.

The beauty of a sunset, the rhythm of the tides, the intricacy of DNA, the calm of a slow river, the soft calls of song birds, the majesty of the stars, the sweetness of newly picked fruit, all of these and so much more, move us to admiration, inspiration, awe.

There is something just so wonderful about the natural world, that we know it cannot be constrained into the dry words of chemistry, physics or biology. Science, in all its glory, leads us to reflect even more "why", and "wow".

The writers of the books of Scripture we well aware of this. In the book of Genesis, where we hear the tale of the creation of the world, we are told again and again not about processes and methods, but that it was "very good".

Jesus himself speaks of the glory of nature:
"See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labour or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these."

Nature is, as the Americans say, "awesome". When we are struck by the wonders of the world, we may seek factual explanations, but even the most detailed and most accurate, can never take away that "wow" factor.

Nature makes us stop and think.

And Jesus takes it a step further:
"If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you?"

Jesus invites us to take a step. And it is not a small step. If God is so wonderful in making the world, he says, won't he care for you even more? The beauty of the world is not just a reason for wonder, marvel, glory - it is also a reason for hope. We know about all the negatives, but it the heart, he made it very Good. And if the creation is Good, then he wishes only good for us, whatever ill may befall.

It is a big step. But as we admire the glories of creation, deep down we know that there is some great power, some extraordinary person, Someone who has made us. And loves us.


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Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Never mind the Olympics - what about School PE?

This article was written for publication in the Staffordshire Sentinel on Wednesday August 8th 2012. It is adapted for my homily of Sunday August 5th

Never mind the Olympics, Usain Bolt's 9.63 seconds and all those medals for Team GB - what do you remember about your own participation in sport - School PE lessons? 
I think for most of us, me included, it was a mixed experience. 
At primary school there was sports day, our own little olympics. I was allowed a go at the egg and spoon race or the sack race, but being rather large - even then - my most important contribution was less exciting: I had to lie flat on the wooden benches so that they would stay in place when the fitter, more athletic children crawled underneath  in the obstacle race. I loved playing football, and was proud to be chosen for the school team - only to be dropped a week before we played in the final of the Congleton Primary Schools' cup. 
Secondary School was sometimes better. Being big and heavy, such a disadvantage in football, proved a positive asset in Rugby. However, I detested swimming (I just couldn't do it - and still can't). And Cross Country? I was terrified that I'd arrive at school to discover it was Cross Country day and I'd forgotten the undated note from my mother saying I had a cold and am unable to do PE. 
The Olympics have provoked renewed debate  about schools and sport. It has been noted that many of our medal winners were educated not in state schools but in the private sector. There have been calls for more funds for school sports. It is not so simple, though - after all, its unlikely that state schools would ever be able to teach sports such as sailing or dressage. And let's not forget that many medal winners are from state schools, including Mo Farah, who arrived here as a Somalian refugee and asylum seeker. 
Political points aside, everyone seems to agree that sport has an important role to play in education. And that is very significant.
Education is not just about the intellectual. Education means “growth” and we grow not just in our minds but in our bodies too. Of course, some people are more practical, others more intellectual. Some excel at both, many are more inclined to one or the other. But no one is all mind, no one just body, both are essential - and we know only too well that if we are ill, then it affects not only our body, but our concentration, our attitudes our general well being. 
This idea - that mind and body, thought and action, physical and spiritual are one - is a Christian insight. It is rooted in the belief that Christ is Word made Flesh, the perfect unity of the spiritual and physical. It inspired the ancient monasteries and universities, great centres of academic study, where physical work accompanied prayer and study. 
Christian ritual, the pouring of water, the smearing with oil, the eating of bread and wine, makes clear that the action of the body goes hand in hand (literally) with the communication of ideas. 
If we lose this insight we make serious mistakes, perhaps supposing that high intelligence can be developed in "ivory towers", remote from everyday life and without compassion, that faith is irrational and that belief is the release from the pains or struggles of daily life.  Or at the other extreme, we may suppose that the books and reading are a waste of time, that the physical world is complete in itself, that science can answer every question and solve every problem. 
Neither view satisfies. 
Intelligence must serve humanity, prayer inspire action, sport infuse education.
And PE should be fun!