Does one go up or down to London? From South Wales I always considered I went up geographically from Swansea to Paddington but to say I’ve come down from Chester to Euston feels condescending. It’s too big a place for that isn’t it? Stepping out of the station the place is (and remains for the duration) oven hot. I arrive wearing a jacket (with my pens, notebooks, train tickets and phone I consider it the true man-bag) but I’ve taken it off within ten minutes. I head to Skoobs the secondhand bookshop in Bloomsbury for a browse without anything really taking my fancy, then on to the National Gallery to see the Raphael exhibition.
I have no great knowledge when it comes to art but I want to learn. So when The Times gave the exhibition a five star review I booked a ticket. Raphael is (apparently) a bit de trop these days and even I can see why. The colours are so bright it’s like being in a sweet shop and whilst initially they’re almost lickable they quickly become a little bit too saccharine. Everything feels bright and sunny and, in a post covid, mid Ukraine, pre-recession era just a bit too perfect for our tastes. However, I’m a philistine! So when I read that Raphael lost his mother as an infant and was orphaned before he was twenty I look again. Turns out, of all those Madonna’s not a single one is smiling. Raphael may paint beautifully but it’s painful too. Painting aside the visit is worth the effort for the drawings. His sketching is beyond description. Two or three times I find myself stifling a laugh. It’s not funny, just an involuntary expression of how extraordinary his work is. I’m a philistine but I think I know genius when I see it.
I’ve come to London for the Catalyst conference at the International Presbyterian Conference in Ealing. The speakers include Sinclair Ferguson, Jonty Rhodes, and a man I’ve not heard of called Jonathan Landry Cruse. The theme of the conference is The Church and over three days we hear about Jesus: The Lord of the Church; Worship; The Sabbath, and Baptism. You can see what was said for yourself by searching IPC Catalyst Conference 2022 on Youtube.
Travelling from central London to Ealing I get to try out the new Elizabeth Line train. A woman in front of me demands that someone give up their seat for her boxes. She’s transporting birds, injured ones at that. I see some people give her dirty looks and move away.
One of the uncertainties of conferences is who else will be there. The primal fear going back to High School is that everyone else will know each other and you’ll be left eating alone. Of course being a Christian conference you hope that won’t happen and, happily I eat out with friends, new and old each night. One night after pizza someone suggests a game. One person thinks of a bible character (let’s say Moses) and gives that characters initial — in this case ‘M’. The other players have to guess the character by asking questions like ‘did you part the Red Sea’ or ‘did you sleep in the bulrushes’. To make the game more difficult however, those asking the questions should ask in such an obtuse way that the other person doesn’t know who they’re thinking of. For example, if the person guessing thinks the M is Miriam they might ask ‘did you sing after about a disaster?’ If the person can’t think of who or where that might be (Exodus 15) they lose their turn. It sounds much more complicated than it is. We spent nearly two hours playing it.
One of the best things about conferences is the illustrations that ministers bring. Jonathan Landry Cruse told of an experience he had in America. He had gone into West Philadelphia (home of the Fresh Prince of Bel Air) one night to buy supper when he noticed something on the ground. It was a brand new, unwrapped, bow tie. He looked around for the owner and then decided to keep it. It is, he said, one of his favourite. He pointed out however, that this was not the normal way to shop for bow ties. Ordinarily he would go to a shop to buy a tie. In the same way we can ‘find’ God in the most unlikely places but that does not mean we should search for him while buying a pizza on the mean streets of West Phillie. The church is the place where God invites us to meet with him, in the name of Jesus, by the power of the spirit and through the fellowship of the church. It was the illustration that summed up the theme of the conference. Next year the conference will be held on June 13-15 with the theme being about Christian Ministry. Why not save the date? If you come I’ll take you for dinner and teach you how to play the Bible guessing game!