Friday, 31 December 2010

The Old Year Turns

One of my favourite poems is called: 'The Old Familiar Faces'. It speaks of those who have gone - those who we see now in our mind's eye, whose memories are kindled by our remembered affection. I write this as the old year turns and again we stand on the edge of a new year. The distance from our past increases; the space widens and we are ever moving on.

That is what is so inspiring about the Gospel, the Gospel that the Company will seek to share in the New Year. It never changes. Its claims upon us remain the same; the rewards do not deteriorate with the waiting. Hope is the fuel of our endeavours, an unchanging, fully redeeming and renewing hope that claims to take humanity from death to life, from darkness to light. This incorruptible prize of eternal life is the most magnificent gift we can offer to anyone.

The Company is called, commissioned and sent by the One who says: “I Am the Resurrection and the Life”. What an amazing statement! The month of January was named after the Roman god Janus who had two faces, one looking back and one looking forward. There is work to be done, work for the Kingdom. And when we have finished we long to hear those words: “Well done, good and faithful servants”.

So as the year turns and the new unfolds, we seek in the strength He gives us, to carry out the commission we have been given. As a Company, “we are not ashamed of the Gospel, it is the power of God unto salvation”. Let us work while there is still light.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Carols in the Greenhouse

We never thought we would find ourselves singing as a choir in a departmental store. But that's exactly what we did on the 9th and 11th of December, in Beales department store in Tonbridge. We were confined to what I called 'the greenhouse' - a structure which marks the entrance to the store. Mostly glass, we shared the space with a manequin and a few beds! But it was wonderful to be able to read the Gospel accounts of the Nativity and sing, not only well known Christmas music such as Mary's Boy Child and When a Child is born, but also a selection from our musical Stargifts, which we will be presenting next year around the Christmas period. The music was broadcast all over the store and the readings could clearly be heard as they linked together the songs. We also included two songs: 'Behold Zion' and 'Shekhinah', which we had last sung in Israel, in particular on one evening, when we sang over the city of Jerusalem facing the Golden Gate.

We were really encouraged by the response, as people seemed to pass through a tunnel of music as they entered the store. No one stopped us, no one objected to the Bible readings. Where is all this so called opposition to Christian things? I think we are being conned by the PC brigade! The choir sang their hearts out. We were subjected to both warm and cold air as the store heaters gave way to the icy blast of the car park, as the outer doors opened and closed. We had been invited by the Rotary Club of Tonbridge to help them raise money for two worthy causes: the Scott's project and the Kent Air Ambulance. Their target was £1000; in the end they raised over £2000.

So now we look forward to negotiations to see if we can sing the same programme in Bluewater next year. And the New year beckons with new projects: the setting up of a Bible School in Tonbridge; more performances of Yeshua Messiah; the celebrating again of the Seven Feasts of the Lord; and an evening celebrating the 400th anniversary of the Authorised Version of the Bible. At the end of the year we look to present Stargifts as the Company's contribution to celebrating Christmas.

As we look back on 2010, we give thanks that the Lord has been good to us and we look forward to further adventures as we seek to proclaim the Gospel and inspire the Body of Christ. It was in Bethlehem, in 2009, that the choir was prophesied over by the pastor of the church where we sang. He said we were like Jehoshaphat's singers, sent ahead of the king's army to inspire the troops in the battle. I don't think the people in Beales would have understood what that meant, but we know!

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Open wide...

I read a remark by a small child the other day. Whilst speaking to a children's evangelist, he picked up a Bible and said: "It's easy for you. It's all in here, all you have to do is read it out!" Simple - but he had a point. I like the story of the little girl who was praying at the end of the day. Her mother overheard the following comment as the child came to the end of her prayers: "Dear God, please look after Yourself, 'cause if anything happens to You we are all in big trouble."

I've always been a collector of remarks that make you think. They are very helpful to spread amongst the anecdotes when speaking in public. How about this one: "Most of the problems in this world are either caused by people who are trying to be important, or by those who think they are important." One of my favourites is a line from Arthur Miller's play All my Sons, in which one of the characters says: "There are some people who would rather see the whole world hang than admit that they were wrong." And George Bernard Shaw authored a few good put-downs, too. Commenting on foxhunters, he referred to "the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable".

It seems from the Gospels that Jesus, too, had the ability to use the one-liner to prick the bubble of pomposity or underline a truth. My favourite is His reply to the fault-finding Pharisee, when he said: "You strain out a gnat and swallow a camel". I think Jesus had a great sense of humour. Mark Twain once pompously said: "It is my intention to one day explore the place where Moses was given the Ten Commandments." He received the reply: "Why don't you stay in America and try and keep a few of them?".

With pomposity often comes a sense of superiority and power. I find the words of Jesus to Pilate most telling: "You would have no power over Me unless it were given to you". The late President Kennedy was once quoted as saying. "We all inhabit the same Earth, we breath the same air and we are all mortal".

A rich man died. A friend inquired: "How much did he leave?". "Everything" was the reply.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Of Dreams and Caravans

Recently a friend's wife had a dream, which she passed on to me. It went something like this:

She saw me riding in a traveller's caravan, heading out into the desert, away from a large town. The message of the dream was:

'Turn back to the safety and security of the city.'

I was grateful for this dream and went on holiday! - to Port Isaac, a pretty, slumbering fishing village in North Cornwall, where every piece of land is used and the houses are shuffled together and tumble towards the sea. The scenery, of course, is wonderfully inspiring and ideal for coastal walks.

One bright morning we decided to walk to Pine Haven, a rock strewn inlet on the Cornish Coastal Path. At this place we decided to have some time with the Lord. Having finished our prayer time, I said the word 'Shalom'. At that moment, a great squadron of seagulls, some 100 birds, began gliding into the inlet. Silently and without effort, they rode on the wind and one by one landed in the sea forming, over a few minutes, a bobbing island of white. I then threw a large stone and a couple of seconds later I heard the dull plop above the sound of the waves. Looking down some minutes later, we saw that a cloud of foam had formed on the surface of the sea, riding the waves in a gentle rhythm. Suddenly, Jenny noticed what she thought was a person swimming near the foam. In turned out to be a seal who, having broken the surface, seemed to be clapping his flippers in joy.

In the afternoon we travelled to Tintagel, the fabled home of King Arthur. Regardless of whether it is true, it's certainly a good story! High on the cliffs, we looked down from the precarious wooden steps that cling to the side of the rock face. The mist thrown up by the waves refracted the bright sunlight. It was a glorious view; the hazy sun threw a great area of liquid gold onto the sea: A photographer's dream! The warm wind blew strongly in our faces as we made for the top of the promontory. It seemed such a wild place. Far, far below we could hear the waves echoing as they crashed against the unforgiving rocks. Now, here on the top, there were only the remains of a walled garden, a well and some foundations which made slight grey patterns amidst the grass. What a vantage point though! Out across the water the sea continued to reflect the racing clouds and the golden sunlight.

Then came the finale of what had been a wonderful day. Turning at a T-junction on to the Port Isaac road there, on the verge, was a traveller with his two horses. Parked behind them was a beautiful caravan, decorated with bright colours. I hadn't seen one in years and years. In that one moment the dream became reality!

Friday, 24 September 2010

Crunch Time?

The milkman popped a note through our door this morning, apologising for having to put the price up. Nothing particularly unusual about that these days, I'm afraid. In fact, it's difficult not to notice the steady climb in the cost of just about everything: food; energy; transport; insurances; taxes; and so on. Every government department, and every business, is desperately trying to maintain its revenue stream, whilst at the bottom of the food chain, ordinary men and women are watching outgoings rising, whilst income is either pegged or decreasing. Am I alone in thinking that things can't continue for much longer before whole economies start to implode?

The Church makes much of personal repentance and salvation and rightly so, but this mess requires repentance on a national scale: By the businessmen; bankers; politicians and heads of state who have helped create it. No grass-roots movement; this has got to come from the top. And at the head of the queue must come the Church and its leaders. Let's be blunt: our Lord gave the Church the privilege of taking His good news of salvation to the hurting masses and it dropped the baton and retired to the changing room to nurse its blisters, leaving the arena to the opposition.

Oh, sure, there are plenty of people, usually those with an interest in maintaining the status-quo, who'll say: "You can't" and "You mustn't upset people", but there's a world out there, waiting to hear something that will give them hope. Besides, whilst the oposition is saying "No", Father is saying "Go" so, whose point of view do you value the more?

The voice of one crying: "In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord!"

Friday, 10 September 2010

Life's Rich Tapestry

What do a Scots piper, McDonald’s and casting stones into water have in common? Well they are all aspects of the rich and varied work that the Lord has called us into this year.

This Saturday (11th September) we shall be celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. This memorial service, which features an interview with a 93-year-old ex-pilot, will include contributions from a number of sources. God always seems to like surprising us and, sure enough, three days ago a lady rang up and asked if we would like a piper to play before and after the service.

We look forward this Sunday (12th September) to another opportunity to preach the Gospel. Last time the choir sang on the High Street we were accompanied by a number of very loud car horns. McDonald’s seemed to like us, too, because they kept their door open. We shall see what happens this time!

Last evening (9th September) we celebrated Rosh HaShana, or The Feast of Trumpets. About 85 people sat down to a wonderful meal and we shared teaching about exciting future events. During the evening we identified with the Jewish celebrations by casting stones into water, symbolic of casting our sins into the sea. How wet yours truly got was in direct proportion to the gusto with which some people did this!

We have had an unexpected invitation from a large department store in Tonbridge to sing some Christmas music. This time I think the adjoining Sainsbury’s will keep their doors open!

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Right on Queue...

We're standing in the queue at Lille station, waiting to buy a ticket to Bruges. In front is an English couple. We are waiting at the 'English spoken' ticket office. In front of them is a lady in earnest conversation. Our train goes in 15 minutes. Time drags on. The lady is still talking. The hands move on and we have 5 minutes left to catch our train. She is still talking. We have missed our train. Just before we run out of time, the man in front of us, with a dejected look on his face says: "She's not going for three weeks!" Some seconds after that the lady finishes her conversation and rushes past us head down - but I don't think with embarrassment.

Sometimes life sends you these little things, like darts, to gently irritate! But it all turns out right in the end. On arriving at Bruges we are confronted with that steady fine rain that slowly but surely soaks you. Dull skies, bad photographing weather. Invest in an umbrella. Good shots however of the sightseeing boats cruising the canals with the myriad coloured roof of umbrellas, like some Roman siege engine. We are frustrated, moving from lace shop to chocolate shop window shopping and marvelling at just how many things you can make out of Belgian chocolate. Having had a wonderful meal in the town square the sun finally comes out. Blue in the photographs, reflections on the water, contrasts. This is good stuff. So thank you lady at the ticket office. Our delay, caused by you, enabled us to enjoy a sunny river cruise and good photo opportunities. If only life was that simple!

We are busy preparing for aBattle of Britain memorial evening at Tonbridge Baptist Church on September 11th. We had a wonderful time interviewing William 'Jimmy' Corbin, a 93 year old ex-Battle of Britain pilot. We are using the interview as a filmed insert for the evening. Marvellous man. Straight talking. (We've had to do some editing!) Trying also to get in touch with a pilot at Biggin Hill who has a Spitfire for a hobby. We are trying to get an overflight on the evening. If you don't ask you don't get!

Last month we had a wonderful time with the choir outside Christchurch in Tonbridge, singing to the High Street. The sun was out, the people listened, even MacDonald's kept their door open. And we had cars hooting their horns. We want to do it again, only this time on a Saturday morning.

What else have we got? O yes. September 5th - the first of the Autumn feasts, the Feast of Trumpets. And when the last trumpet is sounded, we don't want to be late for that. Unlike our train to Bruges...

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Spiritual Blues and Honest Emotion

I am nearly through a book called 'A Song for Jenny', the story of lady called Julie Nicholson, a priest, who lost her daughter Jenny in the 7/7 bombings in London. It has been a long time since I have read such a searingly honest book, stripping bare all the emotion of bereavement and the associated feelings. She made the headlines because she courageously decided to resign her position as a priest, because she could not find it in her heart to forgive the bomber who had killed her daughter. As she poignantly says: "We didn't lose Jenny, she was stolen from us".

I found it such a refreshing book as well as deeply encouraging. There was none of the trite evangelical jargon that seems to crawl out of the woodwork whenever anyone takes on the subject of forgiveness and offering advice when they themselves are fortunate enough not to have anything major to forgive. As C.S. Lewis wrote: "Forgiveness is a wonderful idea until you yourself have to forgive someone".

The book is a journey through the early stages of bereavement and what stands out is this woman's humanity. No short-circuiting here. As she says: "Forgiveness is complex".

I found it a timely book to read, as I am about to embark on writing a musical about Job. Poor Job! His four friends were fine until they opened their mouths! In exasperation, at one point he says: "O that you would be silent, that would be wisdom indeed!" I am sure that, given the right circumstances Julie, like Job, would find herself being given all sorts of so called well meaning advice, most of which would be judgmental, unhelpful, and deeply debilitating.

That's why I like the psalms. I read one today; it spoke exactly into my situation. Some of the psalms have been called the 'spiritual blues.' All human emotion is there, laid bare, just like Julie's story and Job's story. And in that honesty there is a tremendous strength in weakness. Real situations, real humanity, real emotions and no slick answers. Just mysteries.

I warmly recommend Julie's book.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Touching the Face of God

I shall never forget the first time I walked into King's College Chapel in Cambridge. It was a building that literally took my breath away. The sheer beauty of the magnificent ceiling and the great ribbons of colour from the stained glass windows caused a great sense of awe. It was in these wonderful surroundings that we heard Evensong. It reminded me of another building where we had heard the same service, the glorious St. George's Chapel in Windsor Castle. What an incredible sense of history we experienced listening to the beautiful liturgy of the service, knowing that only a few feet away was the tomb of Henry the Eight and his Queen Jane Seymour. It is a historical fact the Hitler gave orders that Windsor Castle should not be bombed as he wanted to use it as his headquarters when he had conquered England.

On Sunday, Jenny and I walked on the Downs east of Lewis and the great panorama of southern England lay spread out like a myriad green carpet. Above us, 70 years ago, the Battle of Britain had been fought and won. When Hitler turned his attention to the cities of England and gave the RAF a miraculous respite in order to repair airfields and regroup, the stained glass in King's College was removed and stored. On Friday we shall return to King's to hear a concert of Monteverdi's Vespers and hopefully, if the weather is good, spend some time punting on the Cam.

What a glorious place England is, with its incredible history and its wonderful places of worship. That is why we must do all we can, in the strength that the Lord gives us, to preach the Gospel and thereby continue to give a reference point and a hope to all who seek the true meaning of life. Those who built the magnificent ceilings in King's and Windsor are long gone, but their legacy lives on in the inspiration and refuge that these buildings give. An airman, killed when he was just 19 years old, wrote a poem a little while before he died, called High Flight. He wrote:

'Oh I have slipped the surly bonds of earth and danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings'.

He closes with the words:

'Put out my hand and touched the face of God.'

For some, gazing up at the ceilings of King's or St George's Windsor, or just gazing into the sky on a summer afternoon, must feel that in some way they too have touched the face of God.

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Beside Still Waters

Gazing out from our rented cottage in the Lake District, Grasmere lake stretched out with all its glazed colours. This is a total retreat spot: No people, no cars; just deer, birds, rabbits, Mr and Mrs Duck, sheep and the occasional RAF fast jet beating up the valley on low level exercises. We have been coming her for several years now. The Lakes in all seasons look so beautiful: The wildness of Wastwater, the peace of Ennerdale Water and the isolation of Buttermere.

Just in front of our little cottage, on the lawn overlooking the lake, is a seat in desperate need of varnishing and weatherproofing. Here, Jenny and I have sat on many occasions, praying about various things. On the last day, as we sat admiring the view before the long journey home, we were praying when suddenly, out of nowhere and for the first time, a young deer sprinted across in front of us left to right. But as he reached the middle of our view he leapt! It was a most wonderful sight, one I have never seen before. It reminded me of the words:

'Then shall the lame man leap as the deer' (Isaiah 35:6).

It was a wonderful sign. How carefully God chooses His images through His Word and how in the West we often do not see the full significance of these pictures.

Last Saturday I was at the Biggin Hill Airshow. We are looking to put on a concert sometime in mid September to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. It was a marvelous sunny day and, standing right at the end of the runway, I was able to get some good images of Spitifires and Hurricanes dancing the sky. How easily we forget the price of freedom, and what an analogy for the Gospel! There is a very thought-provoking book called The Trumpet Calls for Britain which speaks about our Christian heritage and how, over hundreds of years, this country has been miraculously delivered from invasion.

Hearing the sound of the Merlin engines as they passed over the old World War Two airfield, I thought again of the sacrifice of war in the summer skies over Kent in 1940. We need to cherish our history and thank God for our deliverance. I commend again the book I mentioned in a previous blog - Rees Howells: Intercessor.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Oxford Sunshine

Saturday 12th June found me basking in the glorious Oxfordshire sunshine at RAF Brize Norton. It was their Families Day and it was an opportunity to catch up with a very brave man: Rusty Waughman. The name doesn't mean much, I know, but he is one of a unique group of men: One of the 40 members of 101 Squadron left alive who served during the Second World War. He is also part of the only remaining almost complete crew; 6 of the original 8 are still alive. I had the privilege of meeting 5 of them three years ago in Ludford Magna, north Lincolnshire. Here, every first Sunday in September, they meet together with their elderly colleagues and past and present members of the Squadron, to remember the many men who died flying from the nearby bomber base during the War.

Ludford Magna was an operational bomber squadron during the Second World War and the home of 101 Squadron. It carried out special intelligence missions, as well as bombing. My uncle, Sergeant Randle Roy Etherton was a tail gunner on a Lancaster bomber, which flew from Ludford in the early months of 1945. He was shot down on his seventh mission: He was only 20. I grew up hearing a lot about my Uncle. I was born a year after he was killed. He was my hero. I guess from him came my love of flying and watching aircraft dance the sky. Those who have seen our musicals will understand why there's always an aircraft in there somewhere!

Losses for this Squadron were higher than the average for Bomber Command; you stood a 50/50 chance of survival. Rusty's crew were the only crew left alive 6 months after they had joined the Squadron. In that time hundreds of men had died. Sometimes we take our freedom for granted. Most have forgotten the dedicated men and women who prayed for miracle after miracle - Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain, D-Day. If you get the chance, get hold of a book called 'Intercessor' by Reece Howells. It tells the remarkable story of the answers to prayer they received as the prayed for the nation during the War.

Rusty left the Squadron 6 months before my Uncle joined. I never met my Uncle. In October 1989 I decided to find out more about his last days and my enquiries eventually led me to Ludford, which I visited together with my wife, daughters and mother on a cool, blustery day in October 1989 (Wed. 25th). It was late afternoon. Then, two years ago, I visited his grave near Bad Toltz, south of Munich, where the War Graves are situated amidst the glorious scenery of the German Alps.

Below is a poem I wrote when I first visited that long abandoned airfield from which my uncle flew over 65 years ago.

Ludford Magna

I stood silent
And felt the winds blow across the Wolds
Clouds fled
And their furrowed brows moved in grey procession
Across the flat fields
Far from town and city
Just open space
And here in northern Lincolnshire
Near Ludford's sleepy hamlet
Some barely twenty
Flew away into the night
And found eternity
As I stood learning against the wind
I thought I heard the sound of Merlins roar
And saw again the silhouettes of Lancasters
Riding the moon
With their young crews
Flying the Wolds, the Humber
The heaving sea
And the jaws of hell in Germany
I wasn't even born
But I would have been there if I could
But I can only stand
Amidst fields that have long buried their past
Where clover and weed and winter grass
Bend with the great wind
That once carried the giants aloft
And God alone knows
How many mothers' sons
Lie buried far from Lincolnshire
Only he knows the full folly of war
And the bravery and sacrifice it brings
As I turn my face full to the October wind
I see once again the great Lancasters
Climbing the stairway of clouds
With their pilots, gunners, bomb-aimers, navigators and secret men
All come together from England and lands far away
And who is to say what they felt
I wasn't there
What fears, what terrors, what lost aspirations
What last prayers
Were spoken or felt
So far from Ludford
Flying a carpet of fire
And spitting snaking flak
Away across the water in Germany
And as I gaze out across this place of memories
I watch my two children
Run and laugh at the field's edge
I think of the price of war
I think of the flower of service
I think of the fruit of bravery and courage
Born out of duty and fear and terror and lost aspirations
I perceive the seed of hope
Born to my children through my generation
I am so glad and rejoice in their freedom
I remember the joy when they were born
And I pause and think of my grandmother's sorrow
United with the sorrow of so many mothers
Whose sons never returned
Who fly now forever and never grow old
And as I consider these things
I turn my eyes
To the first evening star
That shyly appears from behind a cloud
A star that was there
Long before man ever went to war
A bright bauble
Hanging in eternal distance
And He who made the stars
Knows every tear
And every sad parting
Every lost, unforgotten friendship
Every dead comrade
Every last terrible moment
He says that one day
'Swords will be ploughshares
Spears will be pruning hooks
Nation will not take up sword against nation
Nor will they train for war any more.'
And I look and the star burns brighter
And I give thanks
Here in these fields of so many memories
For the brave young men
Dawn flowers that caught the sun but never became full-bloomed
Courageous in the nightmare theatre of war
Who died at a moment in time
And were gone
But who live on
In my children's freedom

Roy Etherton (Revised November 2003)

The airfield has now returned mainly to farmland. The runways were removed in the early 70's but the trained eye can still see evidence that this was once an airfield. A recent visit in Sept. 2003 revealed a number of buildings, including the camp cinema, still standing. The 'secret men' mentioned in the poem refer to the eighth member of the crew who spoke fluent German and was engaged in counter-measure operations (normally Lancasters carried a crew of 7). The 'Merlins roar' phrase refers to the Rolls Royce Merlin engines on the Lancaster, the sound of which during a full Squadron take-off must have been tremendous. The section beginning: 'Swords will be ploughshares...' is taken from the Book of Isaiah, Chapter 2 verse 4.

Monday, 7 June 2010

Wading in the Water!

For an hour the rain just did not stop. But the singing didn't stop either! Fresh in their new T-shirts, the Absolute Gospel Company sang and sang in the pouring rain, so the T-shirts were symbolically baptised!

Tonbridge Christian Arts Group has officially become The Absolute Gospel Company. Our motto, printed on the back of our T-shirts, is: 'Taking the Word to the World.' And there on Tonbridge High Street, by the Big Bridge last Sunday, 6th June, we sang a selection of songs from 'Yeshua Messiah' and others from our extensive back catalogue of musicals. In July, August and September we shall transfer to the relative comfort of Christchurch in the High Street where, on one Sunday in each of those months (see the diary at, we shall be singing directly opposite MacDonald's. Food for thought...

The Company has a busy calendar ahead. As we look back, we give thanks for the great response to the four Feasts of the Lord we have already celebrated. We look forward to the final three in September. Practical considerations mean that two of these will now be celebrated at Christchurch in Tonbridge, with the final Feast (Sukkot/Tabernacles) being celebrated at Tonbridge Baptist Church. We have such a happy group of people who seem to rise to every challenge. We really do try to work at being a team and there is a fair smattering of humour.

Well, by now, everyone should have dried out and we have been given the gift of a large gazebo should the heavens decide to open again! We are also looking to purchase a portable generator for outside work. We are definitely on a learning curve.

Coming back to yesterday, people were listening: In the comfort of Pizza Express, at the bus stop (dancing was seen) and in the nearby restaurant, aptly titled the Slug and Lettuce (how did that get by health and safety?).

Now we move on to practicing for our three concerts in the Autumn. This will mean a recce to the places concerned. The adventure continues.

Watch for more news.