Review – ‘Every Third Thought – on Life, Death and the Endgame’ by Robert McCrum

An exceptional book, even though it’s written by someone at the other end of the belief spectrum! I had my own medium stroke in March 2016, and this book was published in 2017.

It brings home the absolute finality of life, and of death. You cannot get around this, death will come anyway – regardless of how you feel. Death is on its way to all of us, ouch!

‘Witty, lucid and provocative, Every Third Thought is an enthralling exploration of what it means to approach the ‘endgame’, and begin to recognise, perhaps reluctantly, that we are not immortal’.

The TitleEvery third thought shall be my grave’, comes from The Tempest by William Shakespeare.

‘In 1995, at the age of 42, Robert McCrum suffered a dramatic and near fatal stroke. Ever since that life changing event, McCrum has lived in the shadow of death, unavoidably aware of his own mortality. And now 21 years on, he is noticing a change: his friends are joining him there. Death has become his contemporaries ‘every third thought’.

In the Introduction, Robert McCrum quotes William Goldman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – ‘Every day, you get older. Now that’s a law’.

McCrum states, ‘I felt it then, and still feel some 21 years later, a powerful need to explore the consequences, and perhaps the meaning of this very close call …. The event that I was learning to call ‘my stroke’ was an emergency that would not only transform my life, but also change my thoughts about dying and death for ever’.

In this chapter, Matter of Life and Death, McCrum quotes John Donne, Meditations 17 regarding ‘No Man is an Island’, and then describes his stroke: ‘In my head I could never go back to my old self. In darker moments I would mourn a former life. Now, each day is a reminder of human frailty’.

McCrum states later, ‘a self-assured generation, which has lived so well for so long, is having to come to terms with a complex but universal truth: make peace with death and dying, or find the inhibitions of everyday life in your final years becoming a special kind of torment’.

I know these feelings all too well. Going back to a former life is virtually impossible.

‘The endgame is a journey down a one-way street towards an inevitable destination that’s remains as mysterious and terrifying as it is well known … Empathy might be one key to unnecessary rapprochement with the terrors of imminent oblivion, just as personal candour will help to make peace with threats of extinction …. Sixty, they say is the new forty. Actually, sixty is still the old sixty’.

In chapter 2, Injury Time, McCrum describes ‘an emergent occasion’ on 27 June 2014 when he ‘tripped and fell’ in the street in London. He describes the fall, and of being taken into hospital by ambulance (again!). He talks about his life, of how he had ‘eaten paper and drunk ink’, both at the publishers, Faber and Faber and also at The Observer.

McCrum started to think about writing this book during that time: ‘Since 2014, and during 2015/16, the year in which I have completed the book, there have been sudden deaths, irruptions of pain and loss, unanticipated afflictions, and the nagging intrusion of what I now think as ‘the third thought’. My fall had dumped me, metaphorically, outside an almost tangible, and imminently dreadful, threshold …. From which there can be no turning away’.

In Forever Young, McCrum looks at the final years of his life and works them out to be ‘around 3650 days, 87,000 hours and 5.25 million minutes‘ of his life left! It’s quite scary to look at life in this way. But I have to say that when you have had a stroke that is precisely how life works. You actually need to know just how long you have got left. Will I have a stroke tomorrow, next year or a few years hence? No one knows. Quite scary.

McCrum goes on to say: ‘In truth, I am always a spectator. Now, reluctantly, I am also a couch potato’.

McCrum writes in The Skull of Man about the Brain – and how extraordinary the brain actually is: ‘it’s both banal and magical’. I never thought about my brain until I had had my stroke. Now, on most days, I often think about my thoughts and feelings, and how the brain is working to basically improve my life, even though sometimes it doesn’t feel like it! It truly is an astonishing part of the body.

McCrum then goes on to look at the Alzheimer’s disease, ‘going mad’ (in his terms) and then dementia. He picks this up in the next chapter, Silly of Me, and talks about how ‘the assault of old age on the brain can radically change the terms of the endgame: it can transform the physical encounter with ageing, death and dying into a crisis of consciousness and an attack on the Self …. The self is a fragile vessel at the best of times, and (whatever else it might be) old age is no longer seen as part of the ‘best of times’, if it ever was’.  Here McCrum speaks about Terry Pratchett and Prunella Scales, both of whom succumbed to their own dementia. All very sad.

In Losing the Plot, McCrum speaks about Dr Andrew Lees and his work on Alzheimer’s and dementia. Next, in ‘Do No Harm, McCrum talks to Henry Marsh, the ‘eminent brain surgeon’. Marsh writes, ’much of what happens in hospitals is a matter of luck, both good and bad; success and failure are often out of the doctor’s control’. Marsh goes on later to say: ‘the truth is that even now we don’t begin to understand how ‘matter’ (the brain) becomes ‘mind’ (consciousness). Quite a thought.

McCrum in Astride of a Grave writes about being ‘a patient’. He describes himself as ‘a bad patient’, and mentions that ‘a sick person is more restless, angry and difficult – ‘im-patient’ – than you would expect’. At the end of the chapter, McCrum writes, ’and here’s the rub. The real world is both achingly precious, and at the same time, indifferent to our plight’.

In chapters 10 and 11, The Will to Live and Person who was Ill, McCrum looks at two women who are dealing with this issue of dying. Fascinating stories. Then in Where are We Going (chapter 12), he looks with Max at Parkinson’s disease.

In The Good Death and Necessity of Dying, McCrum looks at ‘how to die well’ and then talks to Adam Phillips, a British physiotherapist and essayist, and a biographer of Sigmund Freud.

McCrum in Last Words talks about how many people that he has known have died during the writing of this book, and of how many are dealing with issues regarding their own deaths. It’s quite a long list!

In One Foot in the Grave, he writes about the late Clive James, and the details about James’s life. Clive was from Australia, and was a broadcaster and writer here in the UK. He was often on the television and I remember him quite well. James had an eight-year affair with someone in Australia, and was evicted from his home as a result. There were several reports of him being close to death, but he lived until November 2019. A probing chapter.

Staring at the Sun is a chapter about the Hospice movement, including Arthur Rank, culminating in the question, ‘What about assisted dying’? The final answer to this is, ‘they will have to go to Switzerland’. Quite a curious chapter!

In the Dying of the Light, McCrum talks to the novelist Salley Vickers, culminating in ‘Paschal’s Wager’; this starts from the ‘assumption that the stakes are infinite if there is even a small possibility that God does, in fact, exist’. McCrum does not believe this fact, and points to Richard Dawkins and ends with Montaigne’s advice, ‘We know not where death awaits us: so let us wait for it everywhere. To practice death is to practice freedom’.

McCrum in the penultimate chapter, Nowness of Everything is reading the King James Bible for ‘the music of its language and the thrilling arrests of its narrative. Here is a cathedral of words whose expression of faith has no meaning for me, but whose sonorous periods make you want to weep’.

McCrum later states, ‘When I started to write Every Third Thought, I imagined that, through the putting of words on paper, I would arrive at the conclusion, as if at well-mapped destination. Vain hope: in the end, questions of life, death, and consciousness baffle and defeat the search for clarification. With no possible report from beyond the grave, and no other resolution available, we are left with this one basic option: to live in the moment while the moment lasts, and to become reconciled to the acceptance of our fate. Once upon a time, writing My Year Off provided a kind of resolution. This time, my investigation has yielded just one intransigent outcome: that there are only more questions, and an ever-deepening mystery’.

Later in the same chapter, McCrum turns to a new reading of A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis. It’s fascinating to read this, by someone who clearly does not believe in God; ‘a confused non-believer’. I found these thoughts helpful as the author explains them in this book – Lewis’s book is capable of different interpretations. McCrum finds it very helpful, but it does not lead him to faith. Interesting. McCrum finishes by saying, ‘as a non-believer, I am glad to entertain the possibility of being pleasantly surprised. I have lived with the mystery of the brain, and I think I am happy to fade into a mystery beyond the magic of the cortex’.

In the final chapter, A Month in the Country, McCrum details his short list of ‘dos and don’ts’: 1. Try to keep fit, 2. Accept your fate and insignificance and 3. Live in the moment. It’s a short list, but somehow I feel that he is quite right.

McCrum celebrates the idea of ‘now-ness’, and ‘living in the moment’. To him, ‘the mystery of death and dying is only equalled by the mystery of life and living’. He ends up by saying, ‘in truth, there is no other sensible narrative available. Unless you believe in an afterlife – which I don’t – then this must be the only way forward’.

McCrum does speak about the sad end of his marriage to Sarah Lyall; ‘our love died, for no obvious reason, a painful admission’. This, I found, terribly heart-breaking.

In conclusion – last Sunday, we were eating lunch in a pub in Somerset and this quote was up on one of the walls: ‘What the caterpillar calls ‘the end of the world’, the master calls a butterfly’.

‘Every Third Thought’ is a lovely book, if somewhat bleak. I truly appreciated reading it. It helped me work through everything I have experienced, since March 2016, when I had my own stroke. Always hard to get over.


‘Every Third Thought – on Life, Death and the Endgame’

Robert McCrum

245pp, 2017, Picador

Hardback, ISBN: 978-1-5098-1528-9

Review – ‘The Face Pressed Against a Window – The Bookseller Who Built Waterstones’.

October 3, 2020 Leave a comment

This is a fine book, particularly if you want to know more about how ‘Waterstone’s the Bookseller’ was built. Waterstones is a great business, and despite many earlier difficulties, it continues to be very good at its business. I do trust that this will continue well into the future.

The book is well written, and the author is keen to speak quite a lot about his own background before the growth of Waterstone’s. I don’t think I’d realised before, but the Waterstone’s book chain was being established from 1982-1993, whilst I was at STL Distribution in Carlisle, Cumbria.

In my view, Sir Tim (81) is first a businessman and then a bookseller. However, his bookshops are extremely good, and have stood the test of time for a very long while. Tim sold Waterstone’s to WH Smith’s eleven years later (they had sacked him previously). Wonderful!

Happily, Sir Tim Waterstone gave me a foreword to my own book on ‘Your Christian Bookshop – A Complete Resource’ (Jay Books) in 1992. I was clearly aware of him, but I had no idea that Waterstones would become the extensive business that now covers the whole of our country.

He says in the foreword, ‘I believe that the world of Christian bookselling is ready to go through the same revolution that general bookselling has been going through in the last few years. There is nothing to fear’.

Tim’s book is in two parts. Firstly, there is the overview of his own life – from his childhood in Crowborough (he didn’t get on with his own father at all), as a colonial boarder in Warden House, onto Hawkeshurst Court and then to Tonbridge School. Onwards to St Catharine’s College in Cambridge, and then some time in India to join a Calcutta broking firm, before then embarking on his own Bookshop chain, Waterstone’s.

During this time in India, Tim married but in a few years this marriage broke up. However, Tim says really nothing in the book about this time, and actually later on, the same happens again – and again nothing is said. Between all of this, Tim had a depressive breakdown, but fortunately this did not occur ever again.

The second part of the book looks at how Tim started Waterstone’s. On returning from India, Tim joined Allied Breweries followed by WH Smith. Whilst in America, working on behalf of WH Smith’s, he was dismissed by the WHS Chairman who apparently said to him, ‘We don’t really mind what you do now, though we wouldn’t want you to go straight out and open a load of bookshops in competition with us. That we would stop!  Tim writes, ‘I was angry, but at the same time I was exhilarated’.

The idea that stood out for me was just how much time he had put into growing his own Bookshop business. It was clearly part of him. Sir Tim had been looking at this idea for a long time before starting the business in 1982.

Initially, Waterstone’s was actually a ‘rollercoaster ride’ and Tim put in a lot of his own money in those early days. He was able to obtain bank lending at a time when retail was doing very well (there was no Amazon, for example), and Tim knew exactly what he wanted from his own Book chain.

His mantra was ‘perfect stock, perfect staff, perfect control’.

I guess he sold it at time when a number of factors were coming into retail, which ultimately affected how, good or bad, these businesses would become. Following that first sale to WH Smith, Waterstones went through a 10 year period – under HMV Media – when it really struggled. Tim was part of this till 2001, and eventually he had to stand down, upset by all that was happening around him.

Ultimately, in 2011, Tim became the Chairman of the new company with James Daunt as CEO, and owned by the Russian billionaire, Alexander Mamut. Interestingly, Tim still speaks very lovingly about Waterstones as a business, and his comments – now – about the Elliott Advisors involvement in the business are very illuminating (p273).

I wish Waterstones well. They have an excellent brand, and many book lovers would generally buy from them, as opposed to Amazon. Most UK towns and cities have a Waterstones present, and I trust that this will be the case for a long while yet.

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The Face Pressed Against a Window – The Bookseller Who Built Waterstones

Sir Tim Waterstone

323pp, 2019, Atlantic Books

ISBN: 978-1-78649-634-4

Review – ‘In the Days of Rain’ by Rebecca Stott.

This is a brilliant book.

The Times reviewer described it as ‘compassionate and furious’ and ‘an intense accomplishment’. I truly enjoyed it. It helped me understand some of what happened in my own family in the Exclusive Brethren in the 1960s. No one really told me very much about it all.

I have three older brothers, and I am the youngest in our family. I’m not sure that being in the Brethren really bothered me too much. By then, we had left the ‘Exclusive’ Brethren and had gone to another church in Oxfordshire in 1963. I guess this church was still Brethren in character, but some of the wider practices had been put aside by people, including my parents, who did not agree with such terrible concepts.

However, for my eldest brother this was not really true, and for a number of reasons he walked away from Christianity. I have thought much about this throughout my life and recognise why he did this. Overall, the Exclusive Brethren was a cruel system, and if you did not agree with the way they worked, then it would be very bad for you – and my brother was in that category. I do not blame him for this at all.

The author, Rebecca Stott, was born in 1964 – 7 years after me! She is currently Professor of Literature and Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, UK. Rebecca is also an historian and wrote this book, In the Days of Rain: A Daughter, A Father, A Cult, in 2017. The book won the 2017 Costa Book Award. She has three grown up children, Jacob, Hannah and Kezia, and lives in Norwich.

Rebecca writes well, and she is very articulate. Her family went back over four generations – over 100 years – in the Plymouth Brethren, and her grandfather was a trustee of the Stow Hill Bible and Tract Depot, near Brighton. Her father also did well, and preached in many countries, ministering for the Exclusive Brethren. Initially the Plymouth Brethren were ‘just good men walking in the Lord together, trying to find a way of living according to Paul’s gospel’. Later it all went very wrong ……

The Exclusive Brethren ‘collapsed’ in July 1970. This happened in Aberdeen, Scotland and caused ructions across the world. J.T. Taylor Junior, the Brethren ‘Man of God’, slept with a married woman in Scotland, and it was this that caused a separation of ways within the Brethren. It split the worldwide movement right down the middle.

However, there are still 45,000 Exclusive Brethren across the world, 16,000 of them in the UK. That’s a lot of people. This sect is still here, ‘they blend in’, and now is even on the Internet!

The book details how when the family left, it all came to a shuddering halt. Her father ended up going to prison due to gambling debts. When he came out he worked at the BBC for a while, but again his gambling caught up with him, and he ended his days in Norfolk completely going against any of the Christian teachings which he himself had preached years before. All in all, an appalling and sad tale.

Rebecca herself ‘came out’ from the Exclusive Brethren with her family but clearly looking back on it, understands a lot about what was being taught. She was horrified by the emphasis of the Brethren only having the ‘Brothers’ preaching and teaching! Sadly, she talks about her ‘father and grandfather as ministering brothers in the most reclusive and savage Protestant sects in British history’.

For Rebecca, her use of Brethren language is remarkably classical. She uses the very words that I can remember hearing as a child. These were very different phrases to what you would normally hear in a church, such as ‘caught up in’, outside in the world it was ‘dangerous’ and where ‘Satan lived’. The Bible was the ‘Scriptures’.

Rebecca describes the fault lines between faith and doubt, duty and love. To her, doubt and love were in short supply within this sect. Then I remembered this quote by a Captain in a Roman legion in Libya: There are in life but two things to be sought, Love and Power, and no-one has both”.

It seems to me that Rebecca’s understanding of her Brethren past remains. To her, this is an area of her life that continues through to now. I suspect that this will not ever leave her.

See also: www.brethrenarchive.org

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In the Days of Rain – A Daughter, A Father, A Cult

Rebecca Stott

394pp, 2018, 4th Estate

ISBN: 978-0-00-820919-3

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An Advent Meditation

December 13, 2015 Leave a comment

Still me Lord and calm me. You’ll be with me throughout today. I know it. Let peace rule in my heart. Let calmness rule in my soul. #Advent

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Enfold me Lord. You love me and you’ll love me all through today. I know it. Let love rage in my heart. Let God rule in my soul. #Advent

Forgive me Lord and cleanse me. You’ll be with me throughout today. I know it. Let forgiveness rule in my soul. You are in my soul. #Advent

You Lord are Mystery. I cannot know you fully. Yet you’ll be with me throughout today. I know it. Let me awaken to your glory all around. #Advent

You Lord are my strength. You’ll be with me throughout today. You are my joy. Lord you are my life. You are my salvation. I know it. #Advent

The Lord is my Light and my Salvation – Jesus Christ is the Light of the World.

 

Review: The Church in Madras (Rev Frank Penny) 1904-12

October 16, 2015 1 comment

‘The Church in Madras’

A 3-volume red hardback set (I.88.1) housed in Gladstone’s Library, Hawarden, Wales.

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Written by Rev Frank Penny from 1904. Final volume published in 1912.

Frontispiece: Presented by the Secretary of State for India (1905, Vol 1-2), Presented by the Secretary of State for India in Council (1912, Vol 3).

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Vol 1    1640 – 1805     Inc. St Mary’s, Madras, page 81

Vol 2   1805 – 1835     Inc. St Stephen’s, Ooty, page 320

Vol 3    1835 – 1861     Inc. All Saint’s, Coonoor, page 169

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It was thrilling to see on page 196, the word ‘should’ written in pencil in the margin by William Gladstone replacing ‘shall’, proving that Gladstone himself read these volumes!

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The East India Company (EIC)

The EIC was neutral about Christianity and its work, but their Charter of 1698 (renewed in 1792 by William Wilberforce) required them to employ Chaplains. These, in turn, had to be approved by the Bishop of London and had to be from the Protestant Communion.

However, the EIC officially discouraged and sometimes prevented the work of missionaries and Christian mission. The Royal Danish Mission and the SPCK (mostly Germans) worked in the south of India for the ‘Great principle of the duty of promoting Christian Knowledge’. There was therefore a marked difference between the work of the EIC Chaplains and that of the SPCK missionaries.

Fifteen Churches were built within the bounds of the Madras Presidency by the Company and six or eight more were built privately.

By 1835-61, 41 Churches had been built in India.

See also – Bishop Stephen Neill, ‘The History of Christianity in India’.

Travel: San Thome Basilica, Madras (now Chennai)

October 14, 2015 Leave a comment

Just yards from the beach, south of Chennai, this Church is traditionally built near to or over the site where ‘Doubting’ Thomas, the Apostle to India, was reputedly martyred in AD72, having come to India in AD52.

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This large white Roman Catholic Cathedral dates from 1896, and was given the status of Basilica in 1956.

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It is one of only three churches worldwide said to contain the tomb of one of the twelve disciples of Jesus.

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Marco Polo recorded a chapel on the seashore during his travels in Asia in 1293. The original small church was built by the Portuguese in 1523. The Prelates on this brass plaque in the Basilica date back to 1600.

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Travel: All Saint’s Church, Coonoor, Tamil Nadu

October 13, 2015 8 comments

Coonoor was one of three Hill stations established by the British Raj in the Nilgiri Hills in Southern India. Elevation 1720m.

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The Church was dedicated in 1851 and opened in 1854. A distinctive cream-coloured English-style Church in India.

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‘A charming and restful spot of great natural beauty’ (The Church in Madras). 

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My journal entry (October 2014):

After lunch, we visited All Saints Church, next door to the Gateway Heritage Hotel. This was quite a revelation – a beautiful interior, well looked after and clearly still well used. It has a dark wood, vaulted roof space, lots of stained glass and is well painted both inside and out. Someone opened up for us. So glad that he did. The large and reasonably well tended graveyard contained the usual poignant memorials to those who died in India – from the military, the church and the planter community. All far from home’

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Travel: St Stephen’s Church, Ooty, Tamil Nadu, India

October 12, 2015 3 comments

Ooty or Ootacamund in the Nilgiri Hills was one of three Hill stations in the area favoured by the British Raj. Elevation 2240m.

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Ootacamund became the summer headquarters of the Madras Presidency, nicknamed ‘Snooty Ooty’.

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The Church was dedicated in 1829, opened at Eastertide 1831 and is the oldest church in the Nilgiris.

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It has a beautiful dark wooden ceiling with huge beams hauled by elephant, following the capture of the city palace of the conquered and feared enemy of the British, Tipu Sultan, in Seringapatam over 100km away.

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My journal entry (October 2014):

We arrived at St Stephen’s Church, a cream-coloured, somewhat squat building dating from 1831. Climbing the steps, we entered the Church after first removing our shoes. It had a gorgeous dark wood interior with white paint and the usual array of brass memorial plaques. Outside, I wandered through yet another unkempt Anglican, colonial graveyard full of decaying tombs and headstones, now in the hands of CSI but utterly uncared for and overgrown. How many relatives know anything about any of these graves? There must be thousands of such spots all across India, gradually fading away into the past’.

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Travel: St Mary’s Church, Fort George, Madras (now Chennai)

October 11, 2015 1 comment

This is the first English Church built in India. It is the oldest English Church east of Suez.

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Clive of India was married in the church, as was Elihu Yale, an early founder of Yale University.

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The barracks were built in 1687 but St Mary’s was begun in 1678. It was consecrated (controversially) by Richard Portman in October 1680. The organ was installed in 1687. The spire was added in 1710.

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The walls are 4ft thick, it was built to withstand siege and cyclone and had a blast-proof roof of solid masonry. The brickwork is 2ft thick.

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The building could accommodate 500 people. The distinctive black granite baptismal font dates from 1680.

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My journal entry (October 2014):

St Mary’s – the oldest English church east of the Suez. So many similarities with St Andrew’s cathedral in Singapore, just not as big. So many brass memorial plaques to those who died, often of sickness and disease, many very young. We strolled in the heat of the beautiful sunlit church garden. A peaceful place. Butterflies. Odd how a mercantile and mercenary Raj took the Church with it as part and parcel of Empire. It was obvious you would think, wasn’t it? Well, as the years have unfolded, no – it was a bad idea!  Felt a little strange that Grandad would have known this church. Presumably as a bandsman, he may even have set foot inside. At the back of the building, I saw an old fading photo of George Town at the time (1905) he would have been there, so very different to today’s Chennai’.

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The great Lutheran Pietist missionary, exemplar and intermediary, Christian Friedrich Schwartz (born 1726) arrived in India in 1750. He is remembered in India fondly and in the stirring epitaph at the base of the large white marble sculpture in St Mary’s (by John Bacon Jr, 1807).

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Schwartz was truly the first Protestant missionary to India, not William Carey as often supposed. Carey arrived in India two years after Schwartz’s death at Tanjore in 1798. Schwartz died a rich man but he left all his wealth to the SPCK for its work in India.

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Reflection – Enjoy Today ….

September 13, 2015 1 comment

Like so many of us, I’m guilty of living way too much in the future – planning, thinking, dreaming, hurrying – and today somehow can seem far less significant. This attitude can be like; let’s just get through today as, in our heads, it’s already past, and move urgently onto the next thing!

Living like this means I have almost certainly missed some of the key events in the life of our family, something I now regret. Mother Teresa is quoted as saying, ‘Yesterday has gone, tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today’. 

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This is what the Bible has to say in James 4:

‘Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that’.

It’s ‘WHO’ you are today that counts. It’s ‘WHAT’ you do today that matters.

Do enjoy TODAY.

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