A Sunny Sunday in London Town

On Sunday tube delays and closures caused me to be nearly a mile and a half from Holy Trinity Brompton with only about 20 minutes to get there, with a gimpy knee, no less.

So I did what every tourist in London should do at least once: I took a cab.  It was a  brief, but informative, Sunday drive to church.  I vaguely recall reading or seeing  somewhere that being a certified cab driver in London is a rigorous process that involves testing and continuing education that spans career. Maybe with the advent of GPS this is no longer the case, but my driver seemed awfully well-informed.

My driver got me to the church on time and the service was inspiring and well worth going through the diversions and delays.  As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, 3,000 of HTB’s members are on a week-long retreat. There was one acoustic guitar player/song leader. The congregation sang every song.  There was a call to prayer at the end that had the air of an altar call/healing service. The preacher was a fairly young guy, recently ordained, who preached on the Prodigal Son, or,more correctly, the older brother of the Prodigal Son.  It was deeply personal and what it may have lacked in polish or poise was more than made up for by his authenticity, vulnerability and faithfulness. 

I must be honest: the service felt a lot like we, like the 3,000, were also off at church camp. The songs, the prayers, the style of the worship leader, the informality.  In any event it was great. And their “low” Sunday looked to have about 1500 people at the late service alone (there were three others prior to this one).

I hung around the church and bookstore/cafe until 130pm and then spent an hour or so at the Natural Museum next door.  Then I “hopped” on the Tube over to Green Park where there are Sunday art shows.  I ended up in the Mayfair neighborhood, where a lot of the embassies are located, which has to be the nicest parts of London I have been in.  I figured, “when in Rome,” so I popped into the Connaught Hotel for tea. It was pretty posh and the Hungarian food server waiting on me and I struck up a great conversation about living in London as an expatriate. Frankly, the whole tea and cakes thing wasn’t my, well, cup of tea, so I orderd up a Bloody Mary and some actual food which hit the spot.

That was about all the walking my knee could handle so I made my way through the labyrinth that is the Tube system and finally got back to my home base in Ealing.

It has come time to say farewell to London and… HELLO NORTHFIELD! I am looking forward to being home as my month away at “camp” comes to an end. It has been, despite the inconvenience of the injury, a most excellent adventure

Posted in Traveling | Leave a comment

So this guy walks into a bar…

in Canterbury, in the OLD part of town where guys like Chaucer, and later, bad boys like Henry VIII and Oliver Cromwell walked the streets (okay, Cromwell pretty much ran amuk and trashed everything, but give a guy a little license with his story if you please), presumably waxing poetic, politic, prophetic or all three.

So, needless to say, I was feeling a bit lyrical as I walked into the Parrot, the oldest Pub in the town built on top of the ruins of a nearly 2000 year old Roman wall. The pub has only been in operation since 1370. I think I saw one guy sitting at the bar who has been there since opening day.

Oops, hold on a second I need to run and get on a train…

Thanks for waiting. Anyway, a guy walks into the Parrot (I know I already told you the name of the place, but it is, after all, called the Parrot);  actually the young guy limps in. He has a flip-flop in his left hand and he is pointing to his right heel from which blood is spilling out and onto the floor. “Not the first time there’s been blood on the floor inhere, I bet,” I thought to myself.

I am standing at the bar (no, I have not been going to a lot of bars, it’s just that this is a really historic place). I look down at his heel, then back up at his face, since he is now right next to me standing on one foot and grimacing, I say, “stepped on a pop top huh?”
“Beg you pardon,” he says this as he grimaces in obvious pain, I assume from the injury.
“Blew out your flip flop,” I try to give him another line to catch.
I knew I was through but I said it anyway, “Cut your heal, had to cruise on back home?”
“I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean.” He turns back to the bar, “Sally, may I have a plaster?”  Sally, obviously an acquaintance of the man and looking just as confused, was the bar mistress.
I learned no less than two things from this experience; three things if you count “it’s better to just keep my mouth shut,” as one of the learnings which should have sunk in long before now.

As for the other two:
First, Jimmy Buffet has yet to take his rightful place next to the likes of Chaucer and Shakespeare as a literary giant, at least in Canterbury.
Second, a “plaster” is a band-aid. Sally gave her friend two bright purple ones. “Jimmy Buffet would like the purple band-aids,” I thought, but kept it to myself, “not to mention the name of the place. Did I tell you it’s called the Parrot?

In a manner of speaking, I have also “blown out my flip-flop,” as what began as nuisance knee injury has now turned into a signficant disability.  So, tomorrow, a few days earlier than planned, I am going to “cruise on back home” across the pond to Northfield.   While this means missing Oxford, I will have this to look forward to at another time, the good Lord willing. I will say again, what I said a long time ago, thank heavens for the American Disabilities Act, Europe, for the most part, seems two thousand years behind on this one.

My weekend, even with being fairly impaired, was delightful. I came back from Canterbury and went over to St. Martins in the Field, a place anyone visiting London, particularly people of faith, should go see. I had both lunch and dinner in “The Crypt” and dined on the bones of martyrs and saints.  That is to say, that my table sat atop the crypt of a few long-gone bishops, clerics and movers and shakers in the 14th, 15th or 16th century. The stone etchings were a bit hard to read, so I can’t say for sure exactly which saints I was sitting on.  I went upstairs to the sanctuary and listened to the dress rehearsal of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, being performed later that evening by the Festive Orchestra of London.

Okay, hang on a second. This is the last time, I promise. I have to hop – figuratively speaking – off of the train. Be right back.

As I was saying, the pews at St. Martins were so uncomfortable I decided to get back to Ealing and not hang around for the full concert. The next day I went to Notting Hill (how could I resist?) and ended up going to the Portobello Market or, what some refer to as the antique market. In any event it stretches of two miles and includes many hundreds of street vendors selling just about any food item, trinket, clothing item, antique or you name it.
In the evening I walked over to the Walpole Park in Ealing to the annual community blues festival. While it was more English, and American Country Blues, it was great fun.
Included are a few pictures from Friday and Saturday.

Posted in Traveling | Leave a comment

Canterbury Trails

Our tour guide back in the Black Forest said that “Germans enjoy ‘wandering.'”  In other words, one of the things folks like to do is take off for new destinations, not knowing exactly what will be waiting for them when they arrive.

Well, after going to Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB) in London and finding out that things at the mega-church are fairly shut down this week as there is an all-church retreat going on “up north,” I decided I should implement Plan B. In other words, to go “wandering.”  Yesterday, I hopped on a train (actually, several trains) and made my way to Canterbury. I attended vespers at 5:30pm and came back at 8am today for communion.  The services were lovely, if remarkable for their propriety and stoicism.  Note to self: the preacher/priest should try to avoid sitting with his head in his hands, yawning and frowning throughout the service.  The choir (from New Jersey!) sang the service perfectly, if a bit woodenly. The services were so closely choreographed, with an almost military cadence, as to seem mechanical. I do not mean for this to come as a criticism, okay just a tiny little bit. The good Lord knows I could, and should, tighten things up liturgically. It’s just that this was such a different experience for me, which is,  I know a good thing;  experiencing different and new things is important for this sabbatical to be what it needs to be.

I will also say that, for all the worship and music I have heard and participate in I have yet to hear an organist or choir that moves me the way our NCC musicians do.  There have been Sundays (and other days) at NCC that I simply cannot believe that our dear little fellowship can go so high up on the mountain, higher than any church or cathedral that I have gone to so far this summer.  Of course I’m biased, like a parent who sees his child through the eyes of love and hopefulness, but I also like to think I have a fair level of objectivity about things that are church. After all, it’s been my gig for a long time now.

After attending vespers I hopped (okay, “limped,” as I seem to have injured my knee) on local train to Dover. I walked the town and the “dour” before I sat on a bench (next to some homeless guys, also “wandering,” I suppose) at Ocean’s edge to watch the sun set behind the cliffs.  After reading about the “White Cliffs of Dover,” for so long, and watching old World War II movies in which these cliffs are shown, this was not only a memorable experience but a bit of a relief to finally see in person these wonders of nature.

Today, I “hop” on another train to make my way back to London.  I’m going to try to get to St. Martin in the Field this evening, but my left knee may have other ideas.

Posted in Traveling | 1 Comment

OK in the UK

After various airline delays in Geneva, I finally got to Heathrow mid-afternoon Monday.  British Airways uses Heathrow Terminal 5, the new and enormous facility added (with some controversy) in the Spring of 2008.   As daunting as the airport is, for the first time in several weeks I did not feel at such a disadvantage as everything is posted [first] in English. 

Both the Swiss and English TSA-type agents were none-too-happy about the fact that my passport did not get stamped upon arrival in Rome on July 1. After I talked for a while (okay, quite awhile) doing my best to explain what happened, the Swiss agent shrugged his shoulders, threw his hands up and told me to go to my gate.  I could hear him sigh and say something in French that included the word “Americans.”

In the UK, the 30-something year old female agent offered a few words of condemnation about Italian efficiency, or lack thereof, and then spent several minutes grilling me about the purpose of my visit to the UK. As I recall, the conversation went something like this:

“So you are a clergyman?” She said this as she looked over my little blue and white entry card.
“Yes, I’m here on holiday,” I said.
“So, you are not here to preach or prosyletize?”
“No, I am here to refresh and renew; I’m laying off preaching for awhile.”
“So then, you will not preach, teach, or perform clergy services of any kind while you are in the UK?”
“No, I am on sabbatical, I’m out of the game for the summer. Of course I plan to attend church, but as an observer not a leader.”
“So you say. But we have had many others like you tell us the same sort of thing and then go on perform religious services anyway.”

To this I said, “I am sorry about that, but I assure you I have no plans to do that while I’m here, that is unless you want me to pray for all those preachers you have met who reneged on their promises. Better yet,  I can ask the good Lord to give you patience for dealing with all of us preachers, we can be a difficult lot.”

Finally the tiniest fissure of a smiled cracked on her face. She half-heartedly stamped something(s) three times,  looked up and past me toward the next person, and flicked her finger to wave me through.

I must admit, I was sweating it there for awhile as I imagined the the jabbing I would get back at home if I failed to make it through the gauntlet:
“So, they wouldn’t let you in to England. What did you do? You know England is one of the few countries that seem to like us, or at least they used to before you got there.” I could hear one of you say.
“Well, I’m not exactly sure what happened. I just admitted to the immigration agent that I am a laid off preacher.”
“Sure,” one of you says, in my imagined scenario, “and you probably made a wise-crack of some sort, didn’t you? Be honest.”
“Well, yes, but you know me, I can hardly help it. Stuff just bursts forth before I can stop myself.”

Thankfully, they let me in, I’m not sure I could have taken all the ribbing.

Speaking of sweating, it is a bit cooler here in London, though it’s fairly warm by their standards (mid 80’s). Last night I had a COLD Guiness at Northfields, a local waterin hole.  As I sat at the bar by myself, nursing a COLD (praise the Lord!) Guinness and feeling a bit lonely, I was reminded that the only thing better than a cold beer on a warm day is a cold beer, on a warm day, served by a talkative and entertaining Irish Bar Keep.  It didn’t make me miss family and friends any less, but it was a marvelous distraction while enjoying a nice COLD pint.   

I have finished reading “The Stories we Live By by Dan McAdams.  McAdams, a research psychologist, has spent his career looking at individual narrative and the shaping of personal myth as a way of interpreting, and integrating, life experience.  I am moving on to another book entitled, “This Odd and Wondrous Calling” by UCC colleagues Lilian Daniel and Martin Copenhaven on the call to, and experience of, ordained ministry.  It should be, I think, a bit lighter reading.

I am staying in a flat in Ealing, a West London neighborhood 7-8 miles from central London. It is an easy train ride with one transfer to get into the thick of things in the city, so it’s a great location. I figure to cool my heals the rest of the day today and then venture out tomorrow mid-morning to central London. I’ll stop by Holy Trinity, Brompton, to get the lay of the land and see what things I can join in.  Then I’ll play it by ear. My little fantasy world has me hanging around and going to evening services somewhere downtown. We shall see if that works out.

I decided this afternoon that I could no longer wait to get a haircut and finally scoped out a place at the local mall. How could I pass up “Mr. Sam Barber shop?”  A young Lebanese immigrant named Hussain cut my hair. When he found out I live in Chicago, he had a million questions on virtually every topic, not the least of them organized crime, and whether I had ever seen anyone in a pinstriped suit carrying a machine gun. It was a one hour hair cut. Fortunately, I had a lot of hair to cut!

I had a delightful time meeting Mr. Sam the owner, also from Lebanon. After a very thorough and enthusiastic wacking by Hussain, Mr. Sam walked me next door and gave me a cup of Cappuccino.  We had a great conversation about life, the universe and everything.  Upon parting he told me that, since I am here by myself, if I need any help getting around or run into difficulty, I should be sure to stop by or call. I thought this a remarkable demonstration of hospitality and kindess.

So, that’s my blog for today; nothing nearly as exotic or picturesque as a great cathedral or ancient Roman ruin, but rather the more mundane, and-yet-rich, revelations of hospitality and kindness in ways and places one may not expect. I think it could be that the local barber shop, like the local church, has a similar personality and quality wherever you find it.

Posted in Traveling | 1 Comment

Calvin and Knox

I attended church this morning next door to the Cathedral de St Pierre, worshipping with our “cousins” from the Church of Scotland. It was a lovely service with a great sermon on the Old Testament lection for today. I stuck around for coffee and conversation and had a great time hanging out with church folks.

I spent a fair part of the afternoon in the old city and then finally called it a day as I am not feeling in exactly tip-top shape right now. I think the travel schedule has caught up with me, or maybe a local germ. Anyway, it’s not too bad and I don’t figure it will impede my progress as I am still planning to fly to London tomorrow.

I hope to settle in for the next week or so, visit Trinity, Brompton as there are activities available for me to join in doing and I also plan to be still (or at least mostly) so I can get to some of my reading. I have lugged a few heavy books around for three weeks, I would like to at least read them before I come home.

I have included below some Iphone snaps of St Pierre Cathedral and of Geneva.

I did send up prayers today for our beloved NCC congregation and I continue to give thanks for the whole lot of you dear friends, family and kindred in the faith.  Thank you again for your kindness and support.

Posted in Traveling | Leave a comment

End of the journey

Yesterday I said farewell to my family as they headed back for the United States and I took the train from Basil, Switzerland to Geneva

It was a very hot, but very rewarding, informative and relatationship-building two and a half weeks.

The last two days of our river cruise were spent in or around Strausburg and Briesach.  Strausburg is a beautiful city with a rich and diverse history. Among the city’s most notable citizens is Albert Schweitzer, the preacher/organist/physician who, besides his missionary work, wrote, “The Quest for the Historical Jesus,” a book that, 75 years after it was written, continues to shape modern Christian theology.

Besides being the seat of the EU parliment (and other important governmental “stuff”),  the city is home to Notre Dame Cathedral (yes, another  one) that is remarkable in stature and similarity to the Cologne Cathedral.  The canals of Strausburg are lined with shops of all kinds.  Before we could get out of town Sam had sampled the wares of no-less-than four Crepe makers and Beth and Anna had stopped in many, many chocolate shops. Of course I did not participate at all! 🙂

Briesach was mostly a place to dock so we could take a bus trip into the Black Forest which, among other things, was a cool change from the overwhelming heat of the river valley.  The NCC staff might be relieved to find out that I did not buy a Cuckoo clock to put in my office, though I was sorely tempted.

It is Sunday morning here in Geneva and I am off to attend church at St. Pierre Cathedral. This is where John Calvin, and, John Knox preached.  I’m running a bit late, and it’s a long walk, so I am off and on my way!

Posted in Traveling | Leave a comment

Family Ties


This morning we opted out of a trip into Heidelberg in favor of arranging for a car and driver to take us to the Bohnenstiel Winery in nearby Herxheim.  This vineyard has been in Beth’s family since the mid-17th century and is currently owned and operated by Edwin and Martina Bohnenstiel, a cousin of both Beth and our friend Keith Cooper, who is with us on this trip.

Unfortunately, even after many attempts at making arrangments, Beth’s cousin was not at home, so we visited for a bit with a caretaker and then took the liberty of walking the grounds on our own before heading off into the countryside for a car tour of the Rhine wine country.

Our driver was a good sport and took us through several small towns, pulling over for us to take pictures, to make a pit stop and to stop at a bakery for a pretzel.  We were all impressed by how clean and neat each place was and the obvious pride of the residents to keep things in tip-top shape.

We drove back to Speyer to meet our boat and, though we were in no hurry, our driver must have been anxious to get on with his day. At one point Beth asked me to look at the speedometer and the needle was covering the 150 kilometers per hour indicator on the dial.  That means the nine of us in the van were traveling at about 95 miles per hour or roughly 4-5 times the speed we have been going on the river.  

We have arrived in Speyer and decided to take a break for a couple of hours before going out for an afternoon walk. The temperatures are well into the 90’s with high humidity, so we walk a lot and then rest a little.

Posted in Traveling | Leave a comment

Rolling on the River

After traveling between Kinderdijk and Cologne, it has taken far less time to get from town to town. Today we toured a castle in Koblenz. This was a prelude for what we have spent the entire day doing as we have cruised down the Rhine seeing castle after castle and hearing both history and legend about the places in the Rhine Valley. 

As I write this we are pulling into the dock at Rudesheim where we’ll have a chance to look around on our own before an evening walking tour of the city.

Posted in Traveling | 1 Comment

Holland Days

 Our train pulled in to the Amsterdam train station right on time on Saturday afternoon.  It was about a 20 minute walk from the station to our ship, the Viking Helvetia.  It fairly quickly became apparent that Sarah, Matt, Anna and Sam would be in the minority, age-wise. They seem none-too-phased by this (they have their intergenerational church upbringings to thank for this!)  and have fit right in, partaking of all the activities and chatting up a storm.

We were met by our friends Keith and Jenny Cooper, a pleasant surprise, to say the least, who are also on this cruise. Keith, Jenny, Beth and I took a cab into the center of Amsterdam to see some of the sights as well as to get a birdseye view of the red light district and the “coffee” (marijuana) shops.  I am still formulating an impression, but, it goes without saying living in Amsterdam is quite different than the life I know in Northfield.

We left port late in the evening and took a Sunday morning walk in in Kinderdijk, Netherlands. We got a brief lesson of what it takes to live life at or below sea level.  Sunday was also Matt and Sarah’s 1st anniversary, so it was a very special day to be with them.

From there it was an all day and night cruise to Cologne, Germany where we spent all day Monday.  We had an informative tour of both the city and, in particular, the city’s cathedral that took more than 600 years to build and is in constant state of repair and renovation.  It is a magnificent edifice. Our guide told us that it is home to a congregation of 400 people or, roughly, about the same number of people that are in our NCC fellowship. 
The popularly held position is that the institutional church is on the verge of extinction in places like the Netherlands and in Germany where religious edifices are viewed by many in the same way as a museum or some ancient ruin:  as a physical marker of days and thinking long past.  On the other hand, there is a grassroots, organic movement afoot in places like Germany where there is an apparent appetite for something more than a utilitarian, rational approach to life; something transcendent and meaningful, something that connects.  The church exists, but it is less and less represented within the walls of great cathedrals and lovely churches.
More about Germany in the next post.

Posted in Traveling | Leave a comment

Farewell Paris, Hello Amsterdam!

It was another hot, but wonderful, day in Paris. We did a fair bit of walking and window shopping along the Champs de Elyss and considered purchasing a few of the items we liked most. It took a great deal of willpower to say no to the $52,000 Euro croquet set at the Louies Vuitton store and the snappy looking men’s suit I could have picked up at Hugo Boss for a measly $5,000 Euro. Anna and I found a strangely alluring painting of tibetan monks and were able to negotiate the price down to $15,000 Euros. Of course it would have been difficult getting any of these items back home, so we took a pass.

We had an evening walking tour at the Louvre where our guide told story after story about Napoleon (the president, not the dessert). We learned that if one spent 3 seconds in front of each piece of art it would take three consecutive months to see all the Louvre has to offer. Of course, we heard less-than-heroic stories told about Napolean when we were Venice, a place Napolean’s armies overtook and fairly dismantled, or at least tried to. It reminded me again that whether news is good news or bad news can depend a great deal on where one is sitting when one hears the news.

We took a late night boat ride on the river Seine. Just before the boat left the dock we sent Sam on an mission of mercy and he returned with several bottles of wine for us and various libations for others we had gotten to know as we waited to board. The top deck turned into an international party as we saw a lighted and sparkling Eiffel Tower and a majestic Notre Dame Cathedral, among various other sights and wonders.

We “strolled” into our hotel lobby sometime after 2:00 a.m., leaving behind streets and cafes still teaming with people and their ascending plumes of smoke. I think I recall reading somewhere that France is one of the few places where the art of conversation is still alive and well. I believe it!

This morning we got on the Thalys train to Amsterdam (where I am typing this blog) and have been traveling at speeds approaching 200 miles an hour. As terriffic as the travel on this train has been, navigating (and waiting) at the Paris Nord station was a challenge that makes O’Hare Airport look like a day spa by comparison.

This marks all but the last time the family will get around by train as we are trading the rails for the Rhine River. One of my hopes is that we would gain some proficiency in maneuvering mass transit systems in Italy and France. I THINK we have done this, relatively speaking. I have found the Metro in Paris to be pretty logical and user friendly as well as convenient.

We will soon arrive in Amsterdam and will make our way to the little boat we will call home during our week on the Rhine. After we drop our bags we’ll see at least a little bit of the surrounding area be we shove off. I am sure I’ll have a few impressions to share after spending some time in Amsterdam.

I have, of course, included photos with this blog post. A note as Sunday approaching…our thoughts and prayers are with our NCC congregation, friends and family as well as our abiding thanks for this sabbatical opportunity.

Posted in Traveling | 2 Comments