On the Road!

During my years at university I had a dream of visiting a certain bar in London. You might think visiting the bar is the dream and daily practise of most students, but this was a very particular bar, and I wasn’t planning to go there for the beer. No, this was Bob’s Blues Bar in North London, which boasted the claim of being the only bar in Europe that had live blues every night. Rumour had it that the musicians weren’t just local musos, but if you got the right night you might be entertained by the likes of Eric Clapton. Naturally as a guitarist and lover of this form of music, this was a must visit location! Finally, not long after my course finished, I managed to round up a few friends and off we went, hiking in hunt for this mystical venue. It took some tracking down, which surprised us – until we found out why. It had been closed down a few months before over some licensing issue. I was absolutely gutted…

Today (Sunday) as you read this I will trying to fulfil another life’s ambition and pilgrimage, taking part in the London to Brighton cycle ride. I’ve always wanted to do this, and hearing that a group were doing it from St. Cuthbert’s gave me the excuse to do it – please forgive my absence this morning! Hopefully by the time you read this I won’t be too far from the infamous Ditchling Beacon, the killer climb just before the descent into Brighton. We’re getting up for a 5am departure from Hoddesdon in the hope to make an early start from Clapham, so don’t expect me to be with it Monday morning.

Two pilgrimages. There were or will be obstacles on both, and yet in both, the end of the journey and the companions on the road will provide the motivation to keep going. One of the themes we’ll be touching on over the next couple of months at church, especially in the evening where we’ll be looking at the Exodus story, is this theme of being people of pilgrimage. We’re on a journey with God, a daily adventure of faith. We have times of great delight and laughter, and moments of despair and frustration too, but just as I hope I’ve found today, we’ll have each other’s company to keep us going. More than that, we’ll have the glorious presence of the Holy Spirit to guide us and provide us will the energy and desire to keep going. There’s also a finishing line, God’s Kingdom in all its wonder, where all wrongs are righted and all made new.

If I’m honest, I’m a little worried that I’m not as fit as I’d like to be for today, somehow August flew by in a fit of busyness and the bike was left lonely most days. Let’s not embark on this journey without being fit, but train ourselves through prayer, Scripture and sharing our stories of God at work with each other, encouraging each other with hospitality, a listening ear, and travelling companionship.

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Review: On the Road Bike: The Search For a Nation’s Cycling Soul 5/5 stars

On the Road Bike: The Search For a Nation's Cycling Soul
On the Road Bike: The Search For a Nation’s Cycling Soul by Ned Boulting
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the sequel to Boulting’s ‘How I Won the Yellow Jumper’ (see my review here) which I devoured and loved. What is it? It’s not really the story of how we came to win the Tour de France and quickly rise as a cycling power as a nation over the last few years. It’s not a systematic history of British cycling either. It’s the account of a number of our cycling greats – a say number because it is in no ways complete and looks often into either those who are alive and forgotten by the mainstream or the more idiosyncratic. Interwoven around this in Boulting’s easy to read style is his own story of falling in love with cycling and becoming a MAMIL (middle-agged man in lycra), something I can readily relate to. Again I loved it! It’s not a heavy weight book, it’s language is accessible to the non-cycling buff, which successfully conveys something of why we take to the bike and ride and how many Brits have done this despite it being unfashionable and eccentric to do so. Others may not rate it 5 stars, but I smiled my way through it, a knowing smile from both enjoying the jokes and realising that I have come to see cycling in much the same way as Ned has.

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Three Little Words…

If you were to use three words to describe yourself, what would they be? Dashing, confident and clumsy? Thoughtful, content and polite? Comic, intense and quirky? Have a go, it’s not so easy is it? Perhaps it’s easier for others who can see you from the outside?
A recent study has revealed just this, at least for the footballers taking part in the World Cup. The Cambridge University Press collated the words used to describe each nation’s team over a variety of media outlets into a multi-billion word database of spoken and written words and have produced a list of the three most used words for each. So what words were used? For England the top three words were; exciting, inexperienced and disappointing, words which probably summed up their short-lived participation well. For Brazil, the hosts; emotional, popular, desperate and for the two finalists Germany and Argentina; powerful, focussed and committed, and confident, flair and unconvincing.
Reading the results is interesting, even with three words some quite complex patterns emerged, mixtures of positive and negative. You can certainly see that in England’s set with exciting placed alongside disappointing, or Brazil’s coexisting popular and desperate. So often people are presented as one-dimensional, but there’s much more to all of us than that. We all have a good side and a dark side, hidden depths and surprising characteristics. Surprisingly the press shows this, if maybe exaggerating these facets to the extremes, swinging from one view to the other. Perhaps there’s a lesson here for us to be wary of seeing either supposedly good people or purportedly bad people so simplistically, just as seeing Brazilian footballs as flamboyant or Germans as functionary; the 7-1 scoreline when they met certainly demonstrated the fallacy of this.
This all got me wondering, if God was given the task of summarising us in three words, what words would he choose?
The first word I think would be ‘YES’. 2 Corinthians 1:20 says, ‘For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ…’ Jesus is God’s word of acceptance to us, a word of grace and affirmation.
The second word is related to this. It is ‘LOVE’. John 3:16 famously says, ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.’ God speaks his word of acceptance because of his love for us.
The final word I think would be ‘FAMILY’. The loving invitation of God through Jesus to us is to become his children, ‘Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God…’ (John 1:12)
What a difference it might make if we could learn to see each other with these same three words.
(To see the rest of the World Cup words see: http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/football/28247716)
Church Newsletter article, 13th July 2014

A Question of Sport

Everywhere you turn at the moment there is sport. With the World Cup, Wimbledon, the Young Life Cricket match and now the Tour de France all coinciding it is a bumper summer for sports fans, even if so far it has not been the most successful for the British supporters (although I’m hoping Cavindesh might just be yellow when you read this, despite it being a big ask.) For those into sport it is a wonderful year, but for those who aren’t fans, it is hard to know where to turn.
To listen to ardent fans talk about their team or sport, you’d think sometimes that they’re talking about the most important thing in the world. Passions rise, debate flows and the love of their team is matched only by the hatred of the opposition. Incidents in the game, become frontpage headlines and are discussed outside all proportion (how many hours are devoted to talking about recent misdemeanours compared to matters of real importance around the world?) Bill Shankley, former Liverpool  football club manager, once summed this up in his reply when someone once said, ‘To you football is a matter of life or death!’ Famed for his one liners, Shankley came back with the quick and now famous retort, ‘Listen, it’s more important than that’.
Clearly sport is not more important than life or death issues despite what the relative column lines devoted to sport and other news issues might suggest and so why does it captivate us so much? Is it something that we as Christians should value and be involved in?
To answer those questions backwards, I’d say the answer to the second is yes. Yes because it is important to our culture, and as Paul says, ‘I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.’ (1 Cor. 9:22) To relate to those around us we have to be able to relate to what they’re interested in. For many that includes sport. I’d also say yes because sport is a great way of keeping fit, and looking after the bodies and minds that God has given us. Finally I’d say yes because it’s fun. There is more to life than just serious issues, Jesus came to give us life and life to the full (John 10:10). It is good and alright to enjoy ourselves!
But what is it about sport that means it engages people as much as it does? There are many parts to the answer I’m sure, but I suspect part of it is because sport reflects something of the creative and communal nature of the God whose image we’re made in. Our striving to give of our best and win reflects the way God always gives his best for us.
Church newsletter article 06.07.14

Faith on Two Wheels

A few weeks ago I went for a ride with a couple of friends of mine. We hadn’t ridden together before, but had talked frequently about our love of cycling both as a sport to watch and as something to do. After months of saying we must go for a spin together, the alarm clock woke me early on a Saturday (early for me that is – we don’t tend to do early on Saturdays) and I slipped down for a quick breakfast popped on the cycling strip (yes I am a MAMIL – ‘middle aged man in lycra’) and pushed out the bike to meet them. Cycling with someone you’ve never ridden with before involves ground rules, for example, what do you do if one of you is lagging behind? How about hills, do you go your natural paces and then meet at the top, or do you strike up a shared pace and stay together? And maybe the most important question of all, who sets the pace? I consider myself a good cyclist. I’ve cycled all my life, and it’s one of the few sports I have a good physique for with little body weight to drag along, even if the legs look ridiculously skinny beneath the shorts! Agreements made, off we went, and boy was it fun. We did some 30 miles up and down the hills around Essendon, Brickendon and Bayford and were home for a mid-morning cuppa.

I discovered a few things about myself that morning. I might be a good cyclist, but they were better. Whereas I tended to ride at 16mph on the flat, they preferred 20mph, and so I had my work cut out to keep up. I was fine on the flat but towards the end I was struggling on the slopes, and every pot-hole sent my legs to jelly (strange phrase I know, but if you’ve been there you’ll know what I mean!) I kept feeling that I had reached my limit and soon they’d stop noticing I wasn’t there and leave me behind in a crumpled heap on the floor! Fortunately they were gracious and kept stopping for me and I made it around, promising myself that I’d have to put in more practise and pedal harder and faster so that next time we rode I would be able to stay with them. And that is what I’ve done. On the flat 20mph is no longer the test it once was, and the slopes are getting easier. If I keep at it I am sure that next time I will find it comes much more naturally to me.

Our recent Bible notes in James started with Paul’s attitude towards suffering. He wrote, in James 1:2-4, ‘Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.’ I wonder if in some small way I have found the truth of this on two wheels.

Church newsletter article 25.05.14

Clip-less pedals – I’ve now had ‘my moment’

Switched my bike pedals to clip-less pedals the other day and installed cleats on my cycling shoes. This means that my shoes click into the pedals a bit like skis and ski-boots. This gives security in knowing your foot won’t slip off the pedal at a crucial moment and also greater efficiency in pedalling. Approached this with some trepidation, you see there is apparently for every clip-less cyclists ‘a moment’ that needs to be endured when you slow to a stop, attempt to get your foot out of the pedal, wobble and fall over. Had that moment today cycling into Cheshunt. A wonderful slow motion topple onto the pavement with everyone watching! Mercifully no one pointed and laughed, although I certainly did – seemed the easiest way to cover it! Hmm, more practice needed…

Review: The Man Who Cycled the World. Mark Beaumont

The Man Who Cycled the World. Mark Beaumont
The Man Who Cycled the World. Mark Beaumont by Mark Beaumont
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another recommendation for my friends who like either cycling or travel. This is the autobiographical account of Mark Beaumont’s successful attempt to cycle around the world faster than anyone else had done before him.

I recognise that this won’t be a book for everyone. The writing isn’t necessarily the best. The details can get repetitive, there’s only so many ways in which you can describe mechanical issues and saddle sores before it gets a little tedious, but as a keen cyclist and lover of discovering about other cultures, this had me hooked from the start to finish. Not only did I admire the challenge and cycling feat undertaken, but I found that the book gave a great account of the differing cultures that Mark swept through , especially the more Middle Eastern countries about which I knew very little. It is satisfying to learn that the world isn’t homogeneous, but differs from locale to locale in both appearance and customs. Made me want to get out to some of these places myself. Also invigorating and a great antidote to the moans of the media were the many stories of little and big acts of kindness that Mark witnessed, those who stopped and gave him food or drink, or invited him to stay with them, even or especially in the poorest of countries.

An uplifting read, a must for bike and travel fans everywhere!

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The Year of the Underdog

For the fan of the underdog, this Wimbledon has been a veritable feast. Top seeds have been tumbling – both literally and at the hands of other players – on a daily basis. We’ve seen Nadal knocked out by Steve Darcis, Hewitt defeated by Dustin Brown, Maria Sharapova falling to world number 131 Michelle Larcher de Brito, and then to cap it all on Wednesday night the reigning champion, Roger Federer was stunned by the world 116 Sergiy Stakhovsjy. There’s also been an unusually long list of top players injured and having to pull out. What a crazy opening few days it has been. The biggest surprise is that Djokovic and Murray have made it through the first week (at least I hope they have, this is a statement of faith made on Thursday morning, but to be honest by the time you read this all could have changed!…)

The English love underdogs, and so it seems fitting that this should happen on our soil. Why do we? Perhaps because so often in sport we are the underdogs as a nation. As someone who grew up in the 70s and 80s when English cricket was simply a pseudonym for a batting collapse and too many occasions snatching defeat out of the hands of victory, having a national side who are in the top ranking in the world just feels wrong!

There is something of God in this love of the underdog. The Bible frequently describes him as being on the side of the poor and oppressed, and acting to turn the tables on those who stand over them. The phrase ‘The first shall be last and the last shall be first’ is a particularly provocative and memorable soundbite uttered by Jesus, the master wordsmith. What does this mean? Does this mean that God prefers the poor to the rich, the oppressed to the powerful, or the slaves to the free? Surely not! God loves all equally, that’s the scandalous message of the Gospel. Why is that scandalous? Think about how that differs from how as a culture we tend to treat and see people. What it does mean, though, is that God uses different standards to measure us by than we do. So often it is the rich, powerful and beautiful who get to define what success and importance is – it is no surprise then that those unlike them don’t get a look in. God however, looks to the heart and acts to give everybody fair opportunity. How about us? We might love an underdog, but do we see and more importantly treat people in the same way that God does?

Church Newsletter – Sunday 30th June 2013

A Heavenly Perspective

There are many things that need to come together if you want to be a great sportsperson or explorer. You need the right physique for their sphere; the chances that a shortish, skinny guy like me will ever be an international star in a rugby scrum are fairly remote! You need the right skill-set and knowledge. But having the right physique, skill-set and knowledge is not enough, you need to have the right mind-set too. This covers a whole lot of aspects such as commitment, determination, a positive outlook and the ability to keep going in face of setbacks and criticism.

Listening to interviews with those who succeed in this area, there is often talk of visualization. This is often to do with picturing in your imagination your succeeding; crossing the finishing line, lifting the trophy or reaching the pole or mountain top. It’s amazing how this simple sounding tool can make a difference. I know that when I’m out running, picturing myself making a good time or getting to the end, can help keep the pace up and manage when I’m flagging.

As Christians, this is something that we’re called to do as well. We’re called to live our lives like athletes determined to live it as well as we can for God. Paul calls us in 1 Cor. 9:24 to, ‘…Run in such a way as to get the prize.’ The writer to the Hebrews encourages us that we can do this as Jesus has gone before us and shown it can be done, ‘…let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith…’ Hebrews 12:1-2.

We were thinking about this at the mid-week Bible Study this week, considering what it means to live a life of faith. One of the questions challenged us to consider how much of the way we live is determined by the culture of those around us and how much is shaped by our understanding of what God has promised in the Bible. The morning sermon series at the moment is looking at the unfolding story of The Father’s Heart for creation and his promise to put right that which has been spoilt. The Bible tells us that we have a secure position before God through Jesus. We have been adopted as his children and eternal life, our citizenship in his Kingdom, is certain. I wonder, what difference would it make if we were to visualize this destiny on our lives in the here and now as we live out this life for him?

Church Newsletter, 05.05.13

Review: How I Won the Yellow Jumper: Dispatches from the Tour de France

How I Won the Yellow Jumper: Dispatches from the Tour de France
How I Won the Yellow Jumper: Dispatches from the Tour de France by Ned Boulting
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I absolutely loved this book!

Grew up watching the Tour de France with my Dad, and have seen virtually every stage televised in the 80s, 90s, 00s and 10’s to date. Throughout this time the commentary team of Phil Ligget, Paul Sherwen, Gary Imlach and more recently Chris Boardman and Ned Boulting have been my travelling companions as I’ve learnt how this gruelling sport works. I’ve watched heady days of dramatic climbs, ongoing duels between champions and of course the gloom of drugs cheats envelop the Tour. Most excitingly, I’ve watched as British Cycling has emerged from the occasional glimmer of hope to being Green and Yellow Jersey winners! Heady days indeed.

Boulting’s book is a wonderful behind the scenes read. His style is conversational, witty and easy going. He covers the big topics and the small idiosyncrases of life following the Tour with humour and personal insight. This isn’t a book about the racing – if you want to learn about how the race works, the tactics and regulations, this isn’t the book for you – but let’s face it, the Tour is so much more than just the race but is a movement, a lifstyle, an annual pilgrimage even. This is a book of the life around the Tour and the challenges of presenting it.

I would certainly recommend this book to all sports fans and anyone interested in the world of road racing. Look out for the edition that includes the update ‘How Cav Won the Green Jersey’. I wonder if there will be an update to include the unprecedented British Tour win by Bradley Wiggins?

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