Triathlon Chris

Over the past year and a half, I have become steadily more excited about being healthy. Lots of people seems to think that being vegetarian means that you are automatically more healthy: they forget that vegetarians are allowed to consume their body weight in cheese every day.

Since August 2013, I have lost around 18% of my body weight (about 16kg) and have become steadily more enamoured with cycling.

I’ve even started running: not exactly frequently, but somewhere in the middle ground between regularly and occasionally.

As part of this exciting new me, I signed up to do my first ever Sprint Triathlon, the XTERRA Buffelspoort LITE

Training

I decided firmly to do the triathlon in around mid December, giving me 6 weeks to train. And I kinda did, vaguely racking up some time in each of the three disciplines:

Swimming

Ultimately, doing 80 lengths of a 5 metre long pool feels a bit ridiculous.

My swimming training was pretty rubbish – I only managed around 4 swims in my 6 weeks. I did a few practice swims at Sodwana Beach, but the current there is insanely strong, and the waves are pretty ferocious, so it wasn’t the best preparation for a flat lake swim of 400m.

I also tried to do some practices in local lodge swimming pools – but these ranged from 5m to 10m wide, making them not very practical for working on my front crawl. Ultimately, doing 80 lengths of a 5m pool feels a bit ridiculous, and I got more tired from constantly turning round than from swimming.

Cycling

wpid-1421077162864_fact_1.jpgThis is definitely my strength – as you know, I love cycling. In the tri, I need to do 19.6km on tricky off-road hills. I bought a second hand Rocky Mountain Element 50 in Paarl, and it flew with us back to KZN.

I’ve had some lovely little rides on it, up Paarl Rock, Table Mountain, Signal Hill and a few decent ~20km trips around Mseleni. I also went after work on day to False Bay Park and spent a few hours rocketing around, as you can see in the picture on right.

Running

I’m steadily starting to appreciate running more in my life, and I went on around 1-2 runs a week. The triathlon involves a hilly, off-road 6km trail run: a good fit for the undulating off road territory around Mseleni hospital.

I generally aimed to do runs around 6-8km, although I think doing a few longer ones would have been a good idea. My favourite run was probably the one up Paarl Rock, where I was able to sprint back down the hill at a ridiculously fast pace.

The Big Day

We are staying with our lovely friends, Paul & Debbie, in the exciting township of Soshanguve. Buffelspoort is around an hour’s drive from Sosh, so we ended up leaving horribly early – 4:40am. Whilst my friends took part in the trail run, I had several hours in which to fix a rather annoying puncture of my back wheel. After a rather exhausting hour scrounging tools (and experience) from some helpful strangers, I finally had a fully inflated back wheel.

By 8:30am, we were at the starting point, and by 8:50, I was in the water surrounded by nearly 400 other men in leotards. Soon the ten second countdown began, and off we went!

Swimming

It turns out that swimming in a tight triathlon suit for the first time, whilst surrounded in every direction by hundreds of other swimmers, is quite stressful. I struggled to get my breathing rhythm sorted, and then, when I tried to stop, had people trying to clamber over me.

I actually began to panic a little, but after a minute or so, I switched to breast stroke, and made my way forwards. After the initial crush, the field thinned out, and I was able to get some space, calm down, and switch back to front crawl again, overtaking some of the people who had shot past me.

Getting out, I nearly tripped over a few times, but soon got my balance and jogged into the first transition.

Time: 400m in 10:21

Transition 1

Putting on tight cycling socks with wet, sandy feet is always a challenge. I was still a little disorientated after the near drowning, so somehow I wasted nearly half the time I spent swimming just getting changed over.

The guy who won the event did both his changeovers in around 40 seconds! Anyway, soon enough I had my bike, and was off past the start line.

Time: 4:37

Cycle

Buffelspoort-XTERRA-LITE-MTB-ROUTEIt felt good to be in the saddle. The first half a kilometre was on a sandy road (see route on right), and I began to relax.

Just as I was starting to focus on my cadence, we moved onto some tricky singletrack, and there was a traffic jam. Everyone had to stop and shuffle along for a bit until the crowd had dispersed a bit. During this time, the leading girls (who set off ten minutes after us) overtook, which was a little depressing.

After a few minutes, things had thinned out again, and off we went. Generally I found the terrain quite tricky, but only had to dismount briefly maybe 20 times over the 19.4km, pretty similar to many of the guys around me.

When we went onto the smoother tracks, especially uphill I was pleased to find I was much more bike fit than the group around me, and was able to power past people, overtaking a lot. Sadly, on the technical downhills I was much too much of a wimp, and a fair number of people overtook me each time (but less than I was passing on the uphills).

I suspect this is probably a result of lots of guys enjoying a little Saturday afternoon MTB, where they drive to a tricky trail and whizz around for an hour, but they don’t do very much long distance: the complete opposite of me.

Cycle Triathlon

Anyway, after a nerve wracking technical descent, I completed the bike course, and went into transition 2.

Time: 19.4km in 1:13:52

Transition 2

Second TransitionThe automated chip on my ankle didn’t record my entrance time into the transition, and combined it with my cycling time, so I guessed that I made better time than the first one, given that I wasn’t wet, and didn’t have to change my shoes.

I did apply lots of sun tan lotion, but managed to forget to put it on my back, leading to a nice burn that has left my race number, “1505” in white skin surrounded by tan on my shoulder. I was a little disorientated, and initially tried to apply the sun lotion as a deoderant, since it was in a spray can. Needless to say, my armpit did not get sunburnt.

Time: 3:00 (probably)

Run

Run RouteShortly after leaving the starting line, I started to get a pain in the left side of my chest, with a very rapid heart rate, around 180. I decided it made more sense to walk for a bit than to die, so it took me a few minutes to get going again. Most of the runners around me were in a worse state than me, and after my myocardial infarction had settled down, I began to pick up the pace.

To my surprise, I had a lot more energy left than the people around me, and I was able to steadily overtake for the rest of the run.

There was a very steep gradient on one uphill, which I walked part of, but aside from this, I didn’t need to stop for the rest of the race (except a brief moment to eat some fruit gums and grab a glass of water from a refreshment stand).

The last kilometre was very enjoyable, and my pace picked up more, the closer the finishing line came.

Running home

And then I was done, the race complete!

Time: 5.8km in 37:28

Results

Winners MedalMy overall time was 2 hours, 9 minutes, 19 seconds. I came 173rd, out of 585 racers (29% centile), or 144th out of 389 men (37% centile). Given that I was aiming for 60% centile, I’m pretty happy.

Given that running is really not my forte, I was very happy with that side of things: compared to the Puma trail run results from earlier in the day (which did the same route), if I had entered that and run the same time, I’d have come 20th out of 234 runners (9% centile) – and I’d already done the first two parts of a triathlon!

All in all, I had a fantastic time, and definitely plan to do lots more of them. I think I need to get a fair bit more training in, but just on the swimming, cycling and running parts.

January 17th, 2015

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Making a MediaWiki Theme

I love MediaWiki. I’ve been using it for MedRevise since 2007.

After 3 years of using a hacked up version of someone else’s theme, I decided to make my own theme. It was a big learning process, and I decided to share my knowledge… Unfortunately, 5 years ago, I stopped writing this how-to halfway through. It was for MediaWiki version 1.17.

Since then, there have been like 7 new major versions, and everything in “Code” I’ve written is hopelessly out of date. But the first three sections still have some value: Planning, Designing and Layout – so I thought I would publish it anyway.

Make your own Mediawiki theme

Ever thought it would be nice/useful to have your own wiki? There are lots of different bits of software out there for running a wiki, but the big one is MediaWiki – the same one used by Wikipedia. Now, your problem is that there are only so many ready made themes for MediaWiki. And there aren’t many good tutorials on doing it yourself. The tutorials out there are sparse at least.

So I’m going to give it a go, and I’ll explain it to you as I go. I warn you, this is aimed at an intermediate level. I am not going to explain how a div works, how to use CSS or much of that. Go to the amazing w3schools website for tutorials on these basics.

First things first.

There are four key stages to making any website:

Planning

You need to ask yourself some questions:

  • What is your website for? If there is a lot of information, you need to give prevalence to the content section, if there are lots of sections, maybe the menu needs extra prominence.
  • Who will use it? Is it going to be aimed at people new to the web, in which case it needs to be very clear and understandable. If its aimed at geeks, you maybe can play with the appearance more.
  • What will code put in? Database driven sites such as a wiki will need to import information. This information is usually of different sizes and lengths, in which case you will need to have an expandable or scrolling area for this information. Examples are menus, footer tags and content divs. Once you have really thought it out, get a piece of paper, and start sketching out some ideas, taking into account all your stuff above. Once you have a good idea, you can start…

Designing

Get yourself a good web graphics program. Photoshop isn’t really ideal here, lacking many of the measurement, image optimisation and slicing options that Fireworks has. But yeh, that’s my plug over. Get designing, and put in all the elements you think you need. Put in text and everything, and try to have all the text on a separate layer, so you can show the layout later without it. (If you don’t understand this, you’ll get it in the next step). Here is my first design for the new MedRevise:

Mockup of the design for the site.

Now, that is really very lovely. At least I think so, and its my site, so blah! And while I’m on the subject of accepting criticism, now is the time to get friends, families and geeks to look at this and give you feedback, before you spend hours putting it in code and everyone hates it. If you need a geek to ask, feel free to contact me.

Once your mum has finished telling you to add more flowers, and you are happy with your design, you can move onto…

Layout

You now need to turn your image into a web page. The first step is getting rid of all your text. Simple click the “eye” symbol next to your text layer, and you should end up with something like the image on the right:

Now, this step is complex, time consuming and laborious. It involves making all your divs and everything. I have chosen a very complicated design here, and I will not explain how to do everything. I will upload a tutorial at some point explaining how I got my middle div working, because I’m quite proud of that.

But basically, you want to end up with a site where you have your template design set up, with text tags saying “Insert Menu Code Here”, and “Insert Content Code Here”. In my case, I have decided to have a difficult left hand menu, so I will have to manually code changes to it, rather than having the option of mediawiki manually inserting the code for you.

Either way, you should end up with somewhat that looks like this… Screenshot of the finished template You might notice that I have moved my footer bar into the middle, as I realised it will work better there. Aside from this, I have kept it relatively close to my original design. I have also tested in in Firefox, Chrome, IE6, IE7 and IE8, to ensure that the majority of people accessing the site get to see it correctly. Use browsershots.org to do this yourself (its awesome).

Code

The final stage is making your theme do the things you want it to do. This can often take you as long, if not longer than everything else put together.

First off, go and read the MediaWiki manual on skinning.

Then start working through the article, changing it as you go through. I began by tackling the preheader. I used the following code:

/**
* MedRevise skin
*
* @version 4.0.0
* @author Chris Lowry (http://allaboutchris.co.uk / me@allaboutchris.co.uk)
* @license http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/ Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported
*
*/

// initialize
if( !defined( 'MEDIAWIKI' ) ){
die( "This skin file is not a valid entry point.\n" );
}

#Only needed for older MediaWiki instances
#require_once('includes/SkinTemplate.php');

// inherit main code from SkinTemplate, set the CSS and template filter
class SkinMedRevise extends SkinTemplate {
function initPage( OutputPage $out ) {
parent::initPage( $out );
$this->skinname = 'medrevise';
$this->stylename = 'medrevise';
$this->template = 'MedReviseTemplate';
}
}

class MedReviseTemplate extends QuickTemplate {
/* hijack category functions to create a proper list */

function getCategories() {
$catlinks = $this->getCategoryLinks();
if( !empty( $catlinks ) ) {
return "<ul id='catlinks'>{$catlinks}</ul>";
}
}

function getCategoryLinks() {
global $wgOut, $wgUser, $wgTitle, $wgUseCategoryBrowser;
global $wgContLang;

if( count( $wgOut->mCategoryLinks ) == 0 )
return '';

$skin = $wgUser->getSkin();

# separator
$sep = '';

// use Unicode bidi embedding override characters,
// to make sure links don't smash each other up in ugly ways
$dir = $wgContLang->isRTL() ? 'rtl' : 'ltr';
$embed = "<li dir='$dir'>";
$pop = '</li>';
$t = $embed . implode( "{$pop} {$sep} {$embed}", $wgOut->mCategoryLinks ) . $pop;

$msg = wfMsgExt( 'pagecategories', array( 'parsemag', 'escape' ), count( $wgOut->mCategoryLinks ) );
$s = $skin->makeLinkObj( Title::newFromText( wfMsgForContent( 'pagecategorieslink' ) ), $msg )
. $t;

# optional 'dmoz-like' category browser - will be shown under the list
# of categories an article belongs to
if( $wgUseCategoryBrowser ) {
$s .= '<br /><hr />';

# get a big array of the parents tree
$parenttree = $wgTitle->getParentCategoryTree();
# Skin object passed by reference because it can not be
# accessed under the method subfunction drawCategoryBrowser
$tempout = explode( "\n", Skin::drawCategoryBrowser( $parenttree, $this ) );
# clean out bogus first entry and sort them
unset( $tempout[0] );
asort( $tempout );
# output one per line
$s .= implode( "<br />\n", $tempout );
}

return $s;
}

/**
* Template filter callback for this skin.
* Takes an associative array of data set from a SkinTemplate-based
* class, and a wrapper for MediaWiki's localization database, and
* outputs a formatted page.
*/
public function execute() {
global $wgUser, $wgSitename, <span style="color: #ff0000;">$wgTitle</span>;
$skin = $wgUser->getSkin();

// retrieve site name
$this->set( 'sitename', $wgSitename );

// suppress warnings to prevent notices about missing indexes in $this->data
wfSuppressWarnings();

Now, I’ll be honest, I didn’t understand most of that. However, the Mediawiki walkthrough explained it nicely, and pretty much all I did was change the FooBar and foobar tags to MedRevise and medrevise. I also added $wgTitle to the execute function. I needed that for my login menu later. That done, it was time to chuck in the HTML header:

/* compose XHTML output */
?><!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Transitional//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/xhtml1/DTD/xhtml1-transitional.dtd">
<html xmlns="<?php $this->text('xhtmldefaultnamespace') ?>" <?php
foreach( $this->data['xhtmlnamespaces'] as $tag => $ns ) {
?>xmlns:<?php echo "{$tag}=\"{$ns}\" ";
} ?>xml:lang="<?php $this->text('lang') ?>" lang="<?php $this->text('lang') ?>" dir="<?php $this->text('dir') ?>">
<head>
<meta http-equiv="Content-Type" content="<?php $this->text('mimetype') ?>; charset=<?php $this->text('charset') ?>" />
<?php $this->html('headlinks') ?>
<title><?php $this->text('pagetitle') ?></title>
<?php /*** general style sheets ***/ ?>
<style type="text/css" media="screen,projection">/*<![CDATA[*/
@import "<?php $this->text('stylepath') ?>/<?php $this->text('stylename') ?>/main.css?<?php echo $GLOBALS['wgStyleVersion'] ?>";
@import "<?php $this->text('stylepath') ?>/<?php $this->text('stylename') ?>/contents.css?<?php echo $GLOBALS['wgStyleVersion'] ?>";
/*]]>*/</style>
<?php /*** media-specific style sheets ***/ ?>
<link rel="stylesheet" type="text/css" <?php if(empty($this->data['printable']) ) { ?>media="print"<?php } ?> href="<?php $this->text('stylepath') ?>/common/commonPrint.css?<?php echo $GLOBALS['wgStyleVersion'] ?>" />
<link rel="stylesheet" type="text/css" media="handheld" href="<?php $this->text('stylepath') ?>/<?php $this->text('stylename') ?>/handheld.css?<?php echo $GLOBALS['wgStyleVersion'] ?>" />
<?php print Skin::makeGlobalVariablesScript($this->data); ?>
<?php /*** various MediaWiki-related scripts and styles ***/ ?>
<script type="<?php $this->text('jsmimetype') ?>" src="<?php $this->text('stylepath') ?>/common/wikibits.js?<?php echo $GLOBALS['wgStyleVersion'] ?>"><!-- wikibits js --></script>
<?php if($this->data['jsvarurl']) { ?>
<script type="<?php $this->text('jsmimetype') ?>" src="<?php $this->text('jsvarurl') ?>"><!-- site js --></script>
<?php } ?>
<?php if($this->data['pagecss']) { ?>
<style type="text/css"><?php $this->html('pagecss') ?></style>
<?php }
if($this->data['usercss']) { ?>
<style type="text/css"><?php $this->html('usercss') ?></style>
<?php }
if($this->data['userjs']) { ?>
<script type="<?php $this->text('jsmimetype') ?>" src="<?php $this->text('userjs' ) ?>"></script>
<?php }
if($this->data['userjsprev']) { ?>
<script type="<?php $this->text('jsmimetype') ?>"><?php $this->html('userjsprev') ?></script>
<?php }
if($this->data['trackbackhtml']) print $this->data['trackbackhtml']; ?>
<!-- Head Scripts -->
<?php $this->html('headscripts') ?>
<!-- Cufon Scripts -->
<script src="<?php $this->text('stylepath') ?>/<?php $this->text('stylename') ?>/js/cufon-yui.js" type="text/javascript"></script>
<script src="<?php $this->text('stylepath') ?>/<?php $this->text('stylename') ?>/js/Blippo.font.js" type="text/javascript"></script>
<script type="text/javascript">
Cufon.replace('h1');
</script>
</head>

I will be the first to admit that looks pretty awful. All you need to know is that you leave it basically untouched, simply adding the correct path to your style sheet, if necessary (I just had to rename mine to main.css), then add any scripts you want to add yourself at the end. I use cufon for font replacement, so I chucked that in at the end.

Next comes the nitty gritty, making individual bits and pieces appear exactly where you want them. I first decided to tackle the search bar, altering the code in the tutorial, and simplifying it because I only want one search button, not two.

I then worked out my login details section, and wrote some conditional code to do one thing when logged in, and another when logged out.

Thanks for reading, I hope its helpful to anyone who needs some (rather dated) hackery!

Crispy Potatoes Recipe

We all have Christmas traditions, and often that revolves around food. Katherine and I have spent our 6 years together slowly perfecting our Christmas selection.

I thought I would share how we make our awesome crispy Christmas potatoes (you can eat them when its not Christmas too, if you want!).

Disclaimer: I am a proud member of the chuck-it-in-it’ll-be-fine school of cooking. I firmly believe a happy cook just throws stuff in a pan, rather than measuring 18g of this and 3.5 medium egg yolks of that; so take my measurements with a pinch of salt, so to speak. This recipe makes as many potatoes as you need. I usually plan for 1-2 large potatoes per person.

Cooked Crispy PotatoesIngredients

  • Potatoes.
  • Flour.
  • Olive oil.
  • Salt and Pepper.

Recipe

  1. Peel and chop up your potatoes. You want biggish lumps – cut big potatoes into 4 pieces, small ones into halves.
  2. Boil up your potatoes with a little salt in the water (helps them get softer).
  3. Check them after about 15-20mins: you should be able to stick a knife in them, but you don’t want them completely soft either.
  4. Drain the water.
  5. Chuck some in a metal colander, so there are about 8 pieces of potatoes in it (use a big bowl if you don’t have a colander). If you have lots of potatoes, you might want to do them in a few batches, 8-10 at a time.
  6. Jiggle the colander for about 10-20 seconds. This bashes up all the edges of the potatoes, making them uneven. This leads to lots of extra crispy bits.
  7. Have a bowl with olive oil in, and one with flour in.
  8. Potatoes before BakingRoll each potato in the oil, so its covered, then roll in in the flour. Oil + flour = more crispy.
  9. Sprinkle a little more oil on top, and grind loads of salt and pepper all over it.
  10. By now, your potatoes should look something like the photo on the right (click for bigger picture).
  11. Cook them at 180°C ish in the oven. You’ll want to take it out a few times and stir it around with a spatula so that it gets cooked evenly.
  12. When they are golden, with some crispy brown bits, cover them in gravy and eat them all up.

If you don’t like gravy, then I’m afraid you are a bad person, and you are not allowed to make my potatoes.

Low Cost Holidays – unbelievably bad customer service

lowcostholidaysA few years ago, me and Katherine went on holiday with a low cost company that managed to pretty much ruin our holiday.

They are called Low Cost Holidays. I think a more apt name is Low Quality Holidays, with terrible customer service thrown in

A bad start

Our apartment had:

I contacted the company after our third night with no sleep, after my wife started crying because of how little fun she was having. The representative I spoke to was friendly and understanding: “Go find some other accommodation, keep the receipt, and we will fully refund you on your return”.

That got worse

Our next week of holiday, in a self catering flat next to the beach, was great. My experience with Low Cost Holidays, on returning back to England, was less good.

They flat out denied my request for compensation. Repeatedly.

They denied that their customer service representative had spoken to me, or authorised me to stay in alternative accomodation. Even when I provided them with itemised phone records showing the exact time, date and duration of my 35 minute call to their number, on my mobile from the Canary Islands, they denied that the offer had taken place. They were uninterested in the photos documenting the poor quality of the hotel, nor my hotel stamped initial complaint letter.

Eventual success

Over the course of a year, I wrote 6 letters, and spent around 10 hours of my time on the matter. Eventually, after threatening to take them to the small claims court, they finally agreed to pay the £300 they owed my for the accommodation- but refused the £300+ that I was claiming for my time and expenses (such as filing small claims, lost time doing freelance work).

I decided that it was no longer worth my time fighting any more, and laid the matter to rest until…

A ridiculous request

In September, I received an email threatening legal action from the formerly mentioned untrustworthy holiday company. In the email they said:

Links from your site have been identified to us as malicious or spam content and we request the immediate removal of any links directed to lowcostholidays.com

We request immediate action or our legal team will seek removal. Please notify us with an email once action has been taken.

I explained that the link was probably in a post complaining about the terrible service I received. I asked they simply pay the money I was still owed, and links would be removed.

Making things worse

A month later they went to my excellent, high quality hosting company, and tried to get the links removed. In this email they lied and said “we haven’t managed to find the correct contact details for the site owner“, and asked them to remove the links.

In going over my head, and lying about previously contacting me, they clearly broke the law, as well as proved themselves to be the scumbag, disreputable company they had already proven themselves to be.

And then even worse…

They then offered my hosting company money to remove the links without my permission! Pretty sure that’s totally illegal, and definitely immoral regardless. They offered £25 per link. At this point, I was a bit angry. I think you can understand why.

However. I am currently volunteering in Africa, and I could do with the money, so here is my response:

Dear Low Cost,

In the above post, you can clearly see that your behaviour has been, at best, shady, and at worst, actually illegal. You still owe me around £350 for my time spent chasing your company after you broke your word.

That said, My family and I are currently volunteering in South Africa to help some of the poorest people in the world with healthcare. I don’t officially have a job yet, so I could do with a little extra income.

You offered my hosting company £25 per link. There are currently 14 links = £350. You already owe me £350 anyway, in case that wasn’t clear. Pay me that which you owe me, and I’ll remove all the links to your company, and, beyond an acknowledgement of your gracious behaviour, never publicly comment on the matter again.

How does that sound? Pay up, and I may even consider going on holiday with you again…

Regards,
Dr Chris Lowry

Couch Surfing: my first experience

couch_surfingBack in 2013, I had to work all weekend in Grantham. Considering that I finished at 11pm, I didn’t really fancy over an hour of driving back to Boston, only to have to return a few hours later. So I decided to stay there.

This left me with three options;

  1. Camping,
  2. Sleeping on an empty hospital bed, or
  3. Spending rather a lot of money to stay in a Travelodge.

Uninspired by all of these, I went for hidden option number 4: Couch Surfing.

For those of you who haven’t heard of couch surfing, its based around a website: CouchSurfing.org. Its a simple concept: Someone puts up their couch on the website, you contact them, and then you go and stay with a random stranger. Its slightly scary, but also tinged with an excitement that the Travelodge rarely imbues to a trip.

What is couch surfing?

Before I tell you about my experience, here are a few quotes about the concept…

Couch surfing isn’t just a means of accommodation; it is an entirely new way to travel. You get to see the world through local residents, not hotel concierges or guidebooks. But what is most profound about the whole experience is the trust that naturally exists.
Time Magazine

Overall, my couchsurfing experience was amazing, and I would highly recommend that people give it a shot at least once.
Brendan’s Adventures

I cannot surf. Something about that spring up from the belly onto the board eludes me and I always end up losing my balance, crashing into the wave instead of riding it, and often also knocking myself in the head with the board.

Couch surfing, however, is another matter completely. At that, turns out, I am a natural.
Huffington Post

So, how did it go?

In summary, it was fantastic. I rocked up, late at night, to the house of a complete stranger, and felt ridiculously welcome.

The house was very unique – it had no heating – but a delicious wood burning stove in the lounge that warmed you right through. The lady kept pet chickens, and I was very interested in her excellent steel chicken feeder – a much better solution to the problem than the rubbish plastic one we had at home. (Looking back, a year later, I realise that we bought both a wood burning stove, and a galvanised chicken feeder as a direct result of this visit!)

For breakfast, she generously made me this amazing Indian grain breakfast. I’ve never had a spicy breakfast before, but its definitely something I could come round to.

All in all, free food, free wifi, a free bed, and excellent conversation: if I’m ever travelling alone, Couch Surfing is going to be my first choice

The New Friars: Book Review

The New FriarsI’m not a huge fan of the established (read “out of touch”) church, but there’s always been something powerful to be about the concept of redeeming some of the really powerful aspects of the historical church.

The concept of community has excited me for years too. In the last decade, there has been a move of interest in both these fields. The result? New Monasticism. Taking the radical, biblical, REAL stuff out of the dusty old things we see caricatured in the world.

Its about asking questions; for example, what impact would a vow of poverty have on my life? What if we sold all our possessions and lived together? Can Acts 2 (below) be a practical application to our individualised, materalistic lifeview?

All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.

Acts 2: 42 & 43

Whilst on the CMF course a couple of weeks ago, I went on a little bit of a book buying binge, mostly thanks to chatting to my friend Jon… That means I have a huge pile of books to read, roughly in the area I’ve talked about above: but I’m vague about the specifics of what they are about.

I decided the easiest way to find out was just to pick one up, and the easiest way to remember what I’ve read is to write a quick book review…

The New Friars: The Emerging Movement Serving the World’s Poor.

Scott Bessenecker, the Associate Director for Missions at InterVarsity, has written this beautifully researched book looking at the traditional phenomenon of “Friars”. He starts with a story of visiting a modern day Franciscan monastery, and being disappointed:

We asked the brother leading us on this tour of the monastery about the cable TV in every room. This was 1979 when cable was a relatively new luxury—one that our middle-class family did not enjoy. “The brothers take a vow of personal poverty,” our guide emphasized. “These things are actually owned by the monastery, not the brothers.” Apparently, as long as it was communal wealth, at this monastery a Franciscan could live in luxury.

He talks about St Francis of Assisi, St Clare, Brigid of Kildare, and then, in the same breath, talking about modern day Friars, people like Ash & Anji Barker, Viv Grigg, Chris Heuertz and hundreds more:

What new friars like Faye and Cami and old friars like Francis and Clare excel at is breaking out of the padding that separates and protects us from the harsh realities of poverty by embracing it voluntarily and stepping into relationship with the poor without the power dynamic that is normally present between the poor and nonpoor.

He attempts to lay out some of the key principles that, intentionally or accidentally, were apparent in tradional friar orders, and I feel he is saying are evident in modern day movements (such as InnerChange, Urban Neighbours of Hope and Word Made Flesh).

I could try to summarise the points, but he’s already done a great job of that, so I’m just going to wholesale quote him – although I have trimmed it a bit…

Incarnational. First and foremost, these orders were incarnational.

They sought not simply to bring the gospel to the lost or oppressed from the outside, as if by remote control, but to be the gospel by becoming part of the communities of dispossessed they sought to serve. They took their cues from God, who, rather than saving humanity by asking us to become like him, chose instead to become like us.

Devotional. Second, these orders were radically devotional.

Each order was organized around a set of spiritual commitments, or a “rule,” to govern their walk with Jesus, with one another and with the community of lost, poor or broken souls into which they had grafted themselves. They vowed themselves to principles of holiness and purity that went beyond the common practices of the faith, then held each other to these ideals quite rigidly.

Communal. Third, these orders were communal, living together and sharing many of those things that they held privately before joining the order.

I’m not speaking of personal luxury items simply renamed communal luxury items. Given their commitment to incarnation, most of these communities were quite austere. I’m talking instead about living in a way that goes beyond the principle of the single-family dwelling, where traditional Western society begins and ends its understanding of a shared property.

Missional. Fourth, the historic orders were missional—at least the ones that went to communities on the geographic fringe.

These were communities on the move, responsible for stretching the borders of the church into the dark corners of Europe. Celtic monks, for instance, were known to board a small boat, raise the sail and pray that God would direct their vessel to some barbarian tribe where the gospel had not been heard. The cloistered (or inward) and the missional (or outward) forces in these various monastic communities were often held in tension, some emphasizing one over the other.

Likewise today we find both cloistered and missional communities cropping up. The New Monasticism, as it is being called, often consists of households of Christian men and women planted in dying inner-city communities within their home country, attempting to live the Christian ideal among their neighbors, drawing the lost, poor and broken to themselves. They resemble more the cloistered order. The new friars, on the other hand, have something of the spirit of mission-driven monks and nuns in them, leaving their mother country and moving to those parts of the world where little is known about Jesus.

Marginal. Finally, these movements were marginal.

This is true in two respects: they were on the fringe of the mainstream church; and they sought to plant themselves among people who existed on the edges of society. Almost all of the movements discussed in The New Friars have been born out of a reaction to spiritual flabbiness in the broader church and a tendency to assimilate into a corrupt, power-hungry world.

In the process of pursuing a different kind of spiritual life, they often found company with those who were trapped outside the systems that kept the powerful powerful and the rich rich. They positioned themselves alongside social lepers, economic slaves and political malcontents on the world’s margins, and often found themselves on the margins of the church as a result.

It’s only in writing this review that I’ve particularly noticed the distinction he makes between the Monastic orders and Friar orders – and I don’t feel it matters tremendously, unless we want to be painfully rigid and formal… which I don’t!

Ben & Beth in StreetWhen we look at modern day UK inner city ministries like The Eden Network (see my friends Bill and Beth on the right): do they fit firmly in one box or the other? Not at all, but there is still something to learn from studying the historic differences.

Overall, I found it an inspiring, and thoroughly thoughtful book. There was tons of stuff looking at the spiritual, economic and self-perpetuating elements of poverty, and all of it kept my interest. I would recommend it to anyone on a similar journey to me and Katherine.

Even the appendices are useful, thought provoking and compellingly challenging. I will leave you with a final story, of Heather on an outreach trip to visit some friends in a brothel in Bolivia:

With tears in my own eyes, I had asked her to come with us. Begged her to leave. She stayed.

We had continued on, singing those same carols a dozen times more, receiving skeptical looks from bouncers and applause from drunken men.

The girls were quieter recipients, but in the weeks that followed we would hear gracias a hundred times or more.

Thank you. Thank you for remembering us.

And he does. He remembers her. He comes for her, to her, into the darkest of nights, into her darkest of rooms. He stands with her there and holds her hand. See, your Savior comes.

“It gets darker and darker, and then Jesus is born.”
Wendell Berry 

 

Take some Pudding home…

Thanks for all the friendly offers of a home for our dog. Pudding has been given a home over the next year, so please – no more offers, its heartbreaking having to keep saying no!

This is a heartfelt plea to see if anyone would be able to provide a home for our dog Pudding over the next year.

Myself, Katherine and our children are all off to South Africa from the end of August until July, working in a hospital, and trying to avoid being eaten by hippos.

Unfortunately, its too difficult and expensive to take our two lovely dogs with us for this period. Hezebelle, our 8 year old collie, has a temporary home with a friend for 11 months, so we just need somebody who would like to support our work over this year… by looking after a slightly annoying Labrador.

IMGP1455Pudding is 6. She is half collie, half Labrador, and 75% moron.

She plays well with children, and other dogs – there might be a settling in period for a day or two with dogs – she loves to be with people and animals.

She is a scaredycat – we have chickens, its funny to watch her run away from them round the garden. If you don’t have a chicken, we can lend you one. She will bark at your front door, but she shuts up pretty quickly, and there’s no aggression in her, she’s just saying “OH NO, THERE’S SOMEONE AT THE DOOR?!”.

She is fully housetrained. That said, she is still an animal, and she is known to eat ridiculous things like sticks and frogs, so I can’t guarantee that you won’t have one or two accidents in 11 months – but it shouldn’t be more than that.

She is a food lover. She will eat anything you offer her – and the occasional poorly guarded thing that you don’t – but she is reasonably well behaved. For example, if you put cake on a table and said “Pudding, do not eat that cake!”, you can be pretty sure the cake is fine. If you put a tub of butter on a chair, and just wander away… there’s a reason she is called Pudding. We will pay for her food whilst we are away.

She is lazy. She is happy with 5 walks a day, but she also manages with 2 a week. Half the time we have to call 3 times to wake her up in the morning to go out. She will likely not even notice if you leave her alone for the majority of the day at work, and has been threatening to become wider than she is tall ever since we got her.

She is a much loved part of our family, and I’m confident that she would settle into yours too. If you think this is something you would be able to take on, please give us a call, an email, or whatever. In looking after her, you’d be supporting a young family as they go on mission to help those in need in Africa.

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