An Ashes Day Out

George and me at The Oval

I fulfilled a boyhood ambition yesterday when I attended the final Test match of this current Ashes series between England and Australia at the Kennington Oval in London, now known as the Brit Oval. (It’s important to be precise because I mentioned to a friend that I was looking forward to going to the Oval on Saturday and they said, “I didn’t know that you were a Glens supporter”!) It was a very special day out for me, and one that I thoroughly enjoyed, thanks to my good friend, George, who made it all possible.

The rivalry between England and Australia for the Ashes is well-documented as two teams battle it out for what is simultaneously the biggest prize in cricket and the smallest trophy. It all goes back to 1882 when the Ashes urn had its origins. In that year, England lost to Australia by seven runs and the result enveloped the nation in such gloom that a mock obituary of English cricket was published in the Sporting Times. It was the birth of the Ashes.

Peter Siddle does "the teapot" at fine leg
Peter Siddle does "the teapot" at fine leg

Everyone has their favourite Ashes moment. The Ashes series was in 1981 is a favourite of mine when Ian Botham’s batting and bowling were more Australian than the Australians. It was also unforgettable because it was the summer my first daughter was born. Many will remember Shane Warne’s first ball which bowled Mike Gatting in 1993 or Kevin Pietersens’s century at the Oval in 2005 to clinch the draw for England. It has always been a great encounter.

What I loved about yesterday was not only England’s domination of the Australian bowling and Jonathan Trott’s century as a debutante, but the fact that it all took place in the most pleasant temperature and with long sunny spells. It was idyllic. The banter from the crowd was good-humoured, especially when an Australian fielder came down to our section of the boundary rope. It was a great day out.

The Death of Respect

These two programmes on the problems in British society are among the best television documentaries I have seen in a long time. Am I the only one who suspects that one of reasons why the BBC put these programmes on at such a late hour was because their conclusions were so non-PC? Particularly, what Judge Coleridge had to say was refreshingly straight-forward.

The conclusions reached by John Ware are a challenge to the government, both national and local, as well as to the church. If he is right, then those of us in leadership in the church should be addressing the causes of our problems more directly. But we know that we cannot impose an “outside in” solution. It has to be “inside out”. In other words, legislation will not solve the problem totally. Hearts and affections need to be re-oriented. But maybe we should be doing more in showing people that God’s design and pattern for marriage and family is the answer.

Being 100

Maude Rankin with her new minister, Rev Simon Henning and myself
Maude Rankin, a member of Ballyblack congregation, with her new minister, Rev Simon Henning and myself

It has been a great privilege to visit a number of women recently who have all reached their 100th birthday. What has amazed me is how well they all are keeping, how alert they are to everything around them, and what fun there has been at their birthday celebration.

I arrived to visit Maud Nicholl at Woodgreen, near Kells. A woman met me at the door and ushered me in, and only when I walked into an empty living room did I realise that the person who greeted me was Maud herself. She did not look like a 100 year old.

Maud Nicholl, member of Wellington congregation, Ballymena
Maud Nicholl, member of Wellington congregation, Ballymena

Some younger people might say, “Oh, I wouldn’t like to live to be 100.” Maybe it’s time to revise some of our categories. If 80 is the new 60, then 100 could be the new 80! Using that scale, I’m not even 40 yet!

Graduation at UU

img_0136It’s 40 years ago since I first set foot on the Coleraine campus of what was then known as the New University of Ulster, and 36 years now since I graduated. So it was really good to be back at one of this year’s graduation ceremonies at the Coleraine campus.

We were received warmly by the Vice-Chancellor and the Provost and entertained to a beautiful lunch at which I was invited to say grace. Then I had an opportunity to be with Rev John Coulter and his fellow chaplains for a short service of thanksgiving just before the graduation ceremony. It was most appropriate that those moments were taken in the middle of the day to acknowledge God’s help and goodness in the lives of the graduands.

In his address, the Vice Chancellor spoke of the university’s commitment to diversity and how that the  educational experience of higher education was enriched and enhanced by a diverse student population. He reported that UU has been able to welcome many international students into its degree programmes. My friend, Professor Manny Ortiz would agree with his emphasis. He says, “Education is who you go to school with.” Friendships formed and lessons learned from classmates probably have more lasting and memorable effects than the formal curriculum which is taught. Almost forty years on, I have forgotten much of what I learned in the courses I took, but the names and memories of my fellow students are still vivid.

While there was clear evidence of diversity in the student population as well as much diversity in the range of degree programmes offered, I was looking for something that united all these people engaged in such widely different areas. Is it tolerance or respect or freedom or personal development? After all, it is a university. What is that unites geography and biology, computing and media studies, history and art?

It is not by accident that in Western Europe the universities had their origin in the monasteries which were centres of learning as well as prayer. Christians believe that the God who is at work in the world of economic life is the same God who sustains the world explored by nuclear physicists. When that divine integrating centre is lost, then the sciences and the humanities become distant from one another and communication between them begins to wither.

Postmodernism expresses its suspicion of all metanarratives and unifying principles. But when God and Christ are left out of our thinking, then other gods quickly arise in an attempt to unify human thinking. There has been the effort to explain all human behaviour and beliefs within an evolutionary, naturalistic paradigm. Human worth has been assessed in terms of “utility”. All moral discussions have been reduced to a universal language of rights. And others have tried to evaluate education systems solely in terms of their impact on the national economy. I believe that all of those gods and idols will ultimately fail us.

The Bible says that it is Christ who is the centre around which everything turns. “He is before all  things and in Him all things hold together.” (Colossians 1). The question is: Without Christ, can universities be universities? What is the point of education and learning if it is not “to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever’? That’s why the thanksgiving service conducted by the chaplains was an essential and important part of yesterday’s graduation.

My first 100th birthday

img_0109_2One of the Moderator’s tasks throughout the year is to visit Presbyterians who have reached their hundredth birthday. Yesterday I had my first 100th birthday party with Winnie Agar, a member of Townsend Street congregation.

I must say that Winnie was amazing. She was clearly enjoying every moment of her birthday celebration and was talking and moving around, speaking to everyone. What a delightful time we had in Vara Drive with Winnie and her daughter, Iris. Winnie’s minister, Jack Lamb, was at the party, as was  Iris’s minister, Noel Agnew, plus neighbours and friends. The food was great, especially Jean’s pineapple creams. Happy birthday, Winnie!