Monday, December 18, 2017

Advent Thought 16 and Cash

Share it fairly but don't take a slice of my pie. Yeah, money sure makes the world go round, but can't buy me love (that's three if you're keeping up).

I don't care too much for money. I like having enough to be able to be generous with it. I tend to do that rather than save it for a rainy day so I am not very good at providing for my future at the expense of somebody else's present.

In 1973 my first month's pay-cheque was £63. I noticed that my colleague, who had been at the company two years, got £100. It seemed like a fortune.

I gave some money to my parents for my keep, lived pretty well socially and saved enough for a mortgage deposit in four years. If you had told me that one day my net salary would be £1800 and I wouldn't have risen to seniority at that employer I would have laughed at you.

We moved from Advent hymns to carols yesterday. And we had some Christmas readings.  It is hard to pick the Victorian parenting advice from the theology. Even harder to pick the history from the myth in the readings.

What we can do is dwell on the things put on the lips of the characters by the gospel authors and ask ourselves why. Why does Mary say 'Let it be to me as you have said.' Because the response to God's message at Christmas, angel-deliveroo or dawning realisation, is obedience.

Whatever circumstances you find yourselves in, even as weird as being with child without the fun of conception, accept that it is you, you are here and it is your circumstance. You probably won't be able to move on until you have settled into being the you to whom it must be.

Maybe choose one begger not to ignore today. It could have been you.

And that was much deeper than Monday morning 7.00 a.m. was ever meant to be, I'm sure. Lot's to hold in your heart and ponder. Have a good day.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Advent Thought 15 and Number 1729

For anyone who has come to these thoughts late, and hasn't gone back to the beginning, I am trying to offer a series of reflections which engage with those who experience the world by numbers more than by words. If you make dull periods of time pass quicker by finding things to count; if you play the Countdown number game using hymn-boards or if you love finding patterns in the day, week, month, year (like that) then these might be more helpful to you than for people who consider themselves wordily normal and you weird.

It is the third Sunday in Advent. On this day I am happy to be an outsider to a strange debate about the colour of candles which break out around the Christian world. Not experienced it? Google 'pink candle', 'gaudete candle' or 'Mary candle'. It's a forest fire out there. Wax meltingkly hot.

My church tends to save its smirk for next week when an outbreak of the two Ronnies infects the lighting of candle four.

I used to annoy my children. It is because I pretended to be a great mathematician but really was only good at remembering numbers. When an interesting number came up such as:

147 or 180 I would  note that they were the maximum break in snooker or score in darts with three arrers.

Slightly more obscure was a knowledge of  'squares'.

'625, that's 25 squared. Everyone knows that.' Son looks baffled.

I taught anyone who would listen a short cut to the 11 times table.

If any member of my family had cared they would have become the mathematician I never got the chance to be. As it happens the boys channelled their energies into my other loves - music and words. They also picked up excellent social skills due to the strength of their mother's personality and genetic material. Today both also have to be numerate for a living in divers ways. I digress.

So why 1729? It's the smallest number that can be expressed as the sum of two cubes in two different ways. Sometimes called Ramanujan's number.


And it makes me stop in my tracks and want to hope and pray more than a sunrise, a painting or even (and this is going some) the sight of a puppy.

My life is brilliant
My love is pure

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Christmas News Letter 2017

If you go here you will find some writing on the theme of us and 2017. It's dull and lengthy. Previous years were better and you can read them too. We peaked around the mid 90s when the deadpan wit and satirical undertones of our breeding project contributed.

Happy Christmas to all readers anyway, whether you are family, friends, followers, lurkers or anonymous comment writers.

Have a good time.

Advent Thought 14 and Number 2



I know nothing about computer programming but if I were a betting man I would take a punt on some version of if... then... being important.

If I press the x key then a letter x appears on screen. Bongo, which is like bingo only typed wrong.

A lot of people conduct their relationship with God this way. I'll do this for you 2 3 if you do this for me 2 3. The gospel of the business deal. We end up not understanding why our surgery had complications 'because we prayed about it'. Whereas believing God, somehow, in all the mess, has a bigger picture and will be faithful, liberates us from only trusting him when things are good.

Which brings us, rather niftily, to covenant.

The Christian gospel is not if... then... It's, 'I'll do this for you, whatever.'

What difference would it make to your relationships today if you covenanted not to make your behaviour towards the other person be if... then... but 'I will'?

... words will never show
The you I've come to know

Friday, December 15, 2017

Advent Thought 13 and Number 13

Was it because of the thirteenth and last god in the Viking pantheon? Maybe the number of times the Israelites are said to have murmured against God? That the Code of Hammurabi reportedly omitted a 13th law? Or perhaps the number of people at the last supper? There are all sorts of reasons why 13 is deemed unlucky, although I reckon the last one is unfair on the women who almost certainly  prepared the food.
Whatever, our first house after marriage was number 11 and the next door neighbours were numbers 9 and 15. Bryants the builders would not sell a number 13 in the 1970s. Don't know if they do today. Frankly I wouldn't have been bothered if we'd bought number 13 on Friday 13th and stapled a black cat and a sweep to the door.

In my imagination
There is no complication

Superstitions are determinative. You read your own bad luck back into the circumstances. You tend not to have easy power of recall over the many times you spilt the salt and nobody died.

We can even treat our prayers as if they were a superstition. 'I prayed about it and things still went wrong,' I heard someone say only this week.

So why not take a moment today to drift into your own Advent destiny, in control of the response to the circumstances, which may be lucky or unlucky. And trusting in a God who has a bigger picture. That ladder you need to walk under? Do it, rather than step into the road and risk being knocked down.

Trust me when I say, as a Christian minister, that any day you aren't crucified is your lucky day.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Advent Thought 12 and Number 3 (again)

I have a soft spot for 3. For some reason it was decreed at some time or other that the best evangelical sermons should have three points. The best vision statements seem to wind up focusing on three targets and strategies.

It is a tradition rather than a rule. A bit like knowing the conventions in order to occasionally break them. I have preached a 26 point sermon. The congregation's faces when I announced that (possibly a mistake) still live with me. That said it was a good sermon and was well received. Each point lasted but a few seconds.

My church currently has three priorities. The danger, as we planned that out, was of stopping when we reached three rather than allowing our minds to think if there might be a fourth, and greater, call on our time.

My deanery has three priorities but we were very clear from the beginning that we had scope to prioritise four streams of ministry. It's just that the first three came easily and we couldn't agree on a fourth. We have left a gap in the fourth box so that we have time and energy to add something.

Then there are the initialisms, acronyms and tautograms (what you call it when all three points begin with the same letter) which often follow these phenomena around. Another danger - I can only make a fourth point if it begins with, say, C.

That said I am rather pleased with my four point approach to incoming correspondence:

Do it
Delegate it
Diary it
Dump it

A few years back I offered feedback to a group. I said 'I have three things to say. I don't know what they are yet because I can't think until I start talking.'

An audience member interjected; 'Why not hedge your bets and go for five?' Thanks Bob. Happy birthday.

Good point. I love three points but always carry at least a four point strategy planner around in my head and a willingness to go to five. Douglas Adams' increasingly improbably titled fifth volume of the Hitch-Hiker's trilogy refers. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit will be proud.

Westward leading, still proceeding
Guide us to your perfect light

As you wait, hope and rest today consider what limitations numbers from the past place on your thinking about the future.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Advent Thought 11 and Number 12

On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love gave to me, 12 drummers drumming.

So, by the time that had all finished, of what did I have the most?

Take a break and have an intuitive think. Don't do maths.

In fact the answer is a tie between geese and swans. On seven days I got six swans and on six days seven geese. Making 42 of each. The total is:

12 partridges
22 turtle doves
30 French hens
36 calling birds
40 gold rings
42 geese
42 swans
40 maids
36 ladies
30 Lords
22 pipers

Which makes for a splendid sequence. Well I think so. If there had been a thirteenth day the swans would have won clearly with maids and geese sharing second place.

Forgetting for the moment that the twelve days of Christmas is nothing to do with Advent and is a period running from Christmas Day to the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6th, my question to you is this. How good are you at guessing numbers?

And does it make a difference to how it feels to wait, hope, rest and pray? Today, find someone who might love this piece and consider if it communicates deep truth to them differently to emotionally charged words.

What does a Bible study for maths nerds look like? Some people, floored by an opening question to do with how we all feel, are longing for one. Count on it. We hate the way the world brings, as John Oliver put it, 'feelings to a facts fight.'

The majorette? A ha ha ha.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Thought for the Day

We interrupt the daily cycle of Advent TFTDs to bring you this one as delivered at BBC Radio Bristol an hour ago:

One of the most common themes linking daily stories on BBC Radio Bristol is change.

Things people want to be different. Change as improvement.

Learn about sepsis or online grooming so bad things don't happen again.

Things people want to keep the same. Change as the enemy.

Don't let the dry dock be turned into housing.

We are all guilty of becoming more interested in issues when they affect us. A wise vicar friend of mine once told me that Christians should not be in the business of shouting for their own rights, but speaking out for the rights of others.

In Advent Christians prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. The story of Jesus' birth as a baby is a story of change. It marks a specific time when Christians believe the boundary between earth and heaven was crossed and God appeared on earth in the flesh.

The Christian understanding of God is not of a remote observer who watches and mocks at the mess the creation gets into, but who joins in and experiences life in all its fullness. Parties, miracles, free food and great teaching with a side order of hunger, pain, thirst, dirt, blood and death. God who understood suffering by suffering. Incarnation in anything means full involvement.

As a universal story we can all place ourselves in it. For God did this for us, whether or not we like or acknowledge it.

And it places a responsibility on those who take the story seriously to be the change we would like to see in other places. For if we have heard the story of Jesus and it hasn't left us wanting to make a difference in this world. Well I'm afraid we haven't really heard it properly.

Advent Thought 10 and Number 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21...

People think writing is important but its first use was as a way for traders to record increasingly complex business deals. Sumerian record keepers between 3500 and 3000 BCE kept themselves strictly limited to facts and figures. Our oldest record is of one called Kushim's record of his barley receipts.* 50 Shades of Grey was a way off.

Fascination with numbers over letters was dominant for approximately two further millennia.

Fibonacci was an Italian mathematician born in 1170 in Pisa. He posed a simple problem about how many rabbits there would be at any given time if gestation took a month and maturation a month. In other words he introduced a lag factor to exponential growth (2,4,8,16,32...)**

It turns out his sequence describes a lot of things in nature from petal patterns to the development of snail's shells. Da Vinci saw it as a divine proportion.

The sequence is constructed thus:

0 + 1 = 1
1 + 1 = 2
1 + 2 = 3
2 + 3 = 5
3 + 5 = 8
5 + 8 = 13
8 + 13 = 21

...and so on.

So, when you see nature, what sort of beauty do you see? God's invisible qualities inferred from what has been made (Romans 1:20)? 'Nature red in tooth and bloody in claw' (a phrase popularised by Tennyson)? Or lovely, simple mathematics?

Bitter-sweet and strange
Finding you can change

* Source - Sapiens - Yuval Noah Harari
** click here for source

Monday, December 11, 2017

Advent Thought 9 and Number 11

Today is the 11th of December. On the 11th of September I sat down and breathed a deep breath. It was the first day of a three month sabbatical.

Thirteen weeks later it is over and I am back on duty. I was wise enough to leave my diary clear today so it has been a gradual dip in the ministry water.

Mainly I have been reading and archiving emails but also catching up on what has been going on. The phone has rung again. The undertakers were the second call so people have carried on needing to be buried.

I also went to the gym because I usually do that on a Monday. And one person I know said 'I thought you were supposed to be back at work'. He had a twinkle in his eye. I think.

So today is the tale of two 11s. But the interesting thought is that, on the one hand, thirteen weeks have raced by. And on the other it has been a slow autumn of reading and writing by contrast with which today is a blur And tomorrow, which has appointments in it, will feel like the merry-go-round once again.

Standing in the shadows
Where the in crowd meet

Think of your time. Which bits drag and which bits rush by? And is Advent a long or short wait?

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Advent Thought 8 and Number 87

How predictable are we? Derren Brown works his magic based on a brilliant reading of people's 'tells'  - those little involuntary facial movements we make when we recognise something - and a sound knowledge of psychology.

Pick a number between 50 and 100. Sounds random enough but a surprising number of people choose 73 or 87.

If asked to choose a number between 50 and 100, with both digits even and different, David Blaine reckons 68 is then a banker. In fact there are only six possibles:


0 isn't seen as even.

87 is an unlucky number for some cricketers because it is 13 shy of 100. And therefore more wickets are lost at this number than you would expect because it makes bowlers try harder and batters over-cautious.

Your numbers and, by extension, your passwords are predictable. Change them today. Advent is a predictable time of year - we know what's going to happen or, at least, we think we do - so try and let it shock you. Change a tradition.

The effect is 'Mmmm' whan a daisy grows in your mind.

Saturday, December 09, 2017

Advent Thought 7 and Number 6

1. I survived childbirth. Tougher in 1955 than today.

2. I clung on by my fingertips when climbing by myself aged 9 and slipped. Long drop.

3. Measles and chicken pox were not always so trivial.

4. Serious car accident aged 14. Lost some teeth.

5. Had a drink in the Tavern in the Town the night before the Birmingham pub bombings in 1974.

6.  Had serious asthma attack aged 24.

How many times can you say you've diced with death? Was it luck, divine providence or both? And what does it teach you about the risk of the incarnation? Was it luck, divine providence or both?

Hide away from the bad
Count the nine lives that you had.

Friday, December 08, 2017

Advent Thought 6 and Number 42

It is some years now since the late, great Douglas Adams forced the number 42 into our collective imaginations. If you managed to avoid the fact that the computer Deep Thought was a key player in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, well done. Your culture avoidance is impressive. How are the rest of the Amish?

But, asked to give the ultimate answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything, the computer came up with 42 and then had to be reprogrammed to come up with the question as well because nobody was smart enough to know what they had asked. I hope plot-spoiling thirty-seven year old novels isn't a bit off.

In our Christmas letter of 1997 I described myself, on reaching that eponymous age, as being at sixes and sevens. Possibly my favourite maths joke sneaked into the family news.

Here's the thought. There may not be an answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything but what, for you, is the question?

Let your thoughts meander like a restless wind.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Advent Thought 5 and Any Number You Like

Here's something I find hard. It's a question that begins 'What is your favourite...?' Some people seem to have a ready answer to such probing and are able to name their favourite book, film, shirt, song or food without breaking stride. Me. I go off on an internal monologue for hours, which is bad luck on the other guests at the dinner party.

You see it depends. Let's take film. How could I choose a musical over an action adventure? Or a dialogue rich narrative over a mystery? Some days I fancy The Blues Brothers to keep me company; others Where Eagles Dare. Sick on the sofa I might enjoy Pulp Fiction. One day I will watch The Sixth Sense again because I loved it but it was disturbing and I have to be in the right mood to be redisturbed. It depends.

The same sort of choice presents itself between Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency and The Book Thief. Illywhacker and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Choice depends on time, place and mood.

It's not the right day for that favourite shirt. I need to wear this one.

And should I consider carefully why all my favourites seem to be the work of men?

Maybe my existential circuits are broken. Choose damn you, choose.

It's not necessarily always the same favourite in your head. Sometimes the band you're in starts playing a different tune in there. Well, mine does.

So. Do you have a favourite number? What do you do with that information? And why?

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Advent Thought 4 and Number 45

Who would have thought that so many people would find themselves entertained by putting numbers in boxes?

The trend for Japanese number puzzles which began with Sudoku shows no sign of ending. Far more people now are familiar with there being only two ways to express 12 as the sum of four different integers than there were ten years ago.

24 is 7+8+9
23 is 6+8+9
22 is 5+8+9 or 6+7+9

And so on.

And as each of the nine squares, columns and rows must contain the digits 1 to 9 once and only once we know that each row, column and square must total 45. Much closer to the ultimate answer than 42 ever was.

What is the fascination? For me I think it is keeping the brain ticking over in order not to think about other things because, peculiarly, it is when I am not thinking about other things but am thinking that solutions to other things tend to occur to me.

It is a very zeitgeisty way to wait, hope and rest.

Don't know what a slide rule is for
But I do know one and one is two

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Advent Thought 3 and Number 1

We went to the Wells Cathedral Advent Carol Service on Sunday afternoon. It was by candlelight. My favourite hymns of the year both feature minor-keyed Advent longing. Here, juxtaposing some new choral pieces based on the great Advent Magnificat antiphons with the words of poet Malcolm Guite, Name of Names gave me long gaps between the treasures to ponder my personal illumination.

A tapered white candle with a skirt to protect my precious fingers from wax,  once lit, became a slender angel at best and a danger to the flowing red locks of the woman in front of me at worst. When she sat down spectacularly and flamboyantly at the end of hymns I developed a knack of holding the candle over to the left ( I was on the end of a row). Be alert.

Because I was exposed to the draft my single candle burned fast. Whilst others in the row held their nine inches proudly above their service sheets my waxy extravagances went through various stages of silhouette.

First the angel developed arms; one raised and one lowered, beckoning me. Then the raised arm dripped down and joined the other. Maybe 'Angle with Backpack' will stir the creativity of a sculptor somewhere. Although 'Angel Attacked by Giant Caterpillar', the next morphosis, is a bit too sci-fi for church.

From there things proceeded quickly and my angel first reduced to the size of Yoda then disappeared into itself covering my thumb with hot wax through the central hole in the skirt just as mortal flesh was having silence suggested. I jerked and the last angelic drips deposited themselves on my right thigh.

'Don't rub it' said the knowledgeable Mrs Mustard. I expect she has seen Aladdin and didn't want an angel popping out of my trousers with clouds descending.

So I learnt (she has a degree-level qualification in domestic art) to place kitchen roll under the wax and brown paper over it and then a tea towel over that and to iron it.

Today's question. How do you occupy yourself when trapped in something you are not enjoying? Can you make plans for such occasions?

Conditions of a shared belief
Is it always binary?

Monday, December 04, 2017

Advent Thought 2 and Number 27

Do you have favourite numbers? Do you like 25 because it makes you think of Christmas? 

I was born on the 27th. Has it made any difference to the way I see the world? I find that an interesting question. Whenever the number 27 comes up in conversation I am reminded of my birthday. But has it meant, for instance, a willingness to buy products that are over-priced at £27? I'm not sure I can say.

I have lived at numbers:

107 for 22 years
11 for 4 years
1 for 3 years
3 for 4 years
16 for 5 years
82 for 14 years
29 for 11 years and counting

When those numbers crop up do I treat them more favourably than I should?

Adjectives add mood. It was a day. What sort of day? A very grey day. Now we have a picture. It was December 4th, a very grey day. Feels like we now have precision.

If we treat numbers merely as adjectives we will have our favourites and that might cost us.

'I'm counting out time,
Got the whole thing down by numbers.'

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Advent Thought 1 and Number 3

The first took place in 1975. The woman I've been married to for the last forty years told me that I needed to sort out my faith if I wanted to sort out my life with her. It was  a brave thing for her to say. She didn't want to lose me but risked it. Amazed that for her there was something more important than me (I was an arrogant kid) I did the necessary thinking and sorting.

Three years later came the second. Challenged to wok out what I was going to do with my life I accepted the suggestion to offer for ordination. This has now been my path for thirty three years and, furthermore, has helped me psychologically to accept that I didn't make the decision caused by the first conversation just to get the girl. This one took place in a gym store cupboard.

The third was when a wise rector asked me, about three years into a second curacy, if there was anything else I wanted to do that I hadn't done yet. I said I fancied trying my hand at writing and he arranged for me to have a short project and the inside of a week to complete it. About 1990 that would be. I have considered myself a writer of sorts ever since and have had several years of employed ministry where that was the lead task.

Your words have immense power to change lives. So. Advent thought and spiritual (or non-spiritual if you don't share my perspective) exercise 1. What three conversations have been most influential in your life?

'The formula for heaven's very simple.'

Friday, December 01, 2017


The season of  Advent begins on Sunday 3rd. I know Advent calendars have gazumped things a bit and see it as all the December days before Christmas, but the faith community is slightly different.

Advent is a time of waiting. We wait for Christmas, yes, but we remember the deeper groaning and longing for all manner of things to be well that has another perspective.

Advent is a time of hoping. As long as we have breath left in us there is hope. And it is not blind optimism but sure and certain. Maybe bling optimism is a more appropriate description of what the world is up to.

Advent is a time of resting. We have to do a deal with the devil to tell the Christmas story before Christmas, largely because nobody is listening during the actual season of Christmas. But technically in Advent we wait, hope and rest:

They that wait upon the Lord will renew their strength...

They that hope upon the Lord will renew their strength...

They that rest upon the Lord will renew their strength...

...all equally good translations.

Meanwhile time keeps on slippin', slippin', slippin' into the future.

Since the present, the future and the days of Advent are about counting I will be posting a slightly alternative advent spiritual exercise each day from Sunday as we take a chance to consider the numbers that make up our lives. Join me if you wish.

Day one - three conversations.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Sights Part 1

What is the greatest sight you have ever seen? It's a somewhat strange question and if, like me, you hate those questions that require making comparisons between qualitatively different things then you are allowed to make a list in no particular order.

As a very wordy person it is good for me, from time to time, to meditate on sights. What comes to mind? Replaced into roughly chronological order it is these images:

My family went to the seaside on holiday. So I managed not to experience the English Lake District until a youth group holiday in 1977. It was a hot summer and we lodged in a cabin on the edge of Derwentwater. It is hard to imagine the shimmering perfection of green right down to the water's edge and then overhanging, enclosing a perfect lake, small enough to look lovely and to see it all, large enough to be impressive and have islands. If I ever visit the area and don't get to experience looking along the lake from the shore, Cat Bells to the right, I feel cheated. You can walk to this viewpoint from the centre of Keswick in ten minutes. If you see me do not disturb.

It is still 1977. Although time and vocation have played a few tricks since, I was able to take out a mortgage on a property aged 21. Shortly after moving in, and surrounded by furnishings and decor that had yet to do justice to my taste and represented only my available cash, I sat in an old armchair and looked up at the ceiling. I was overwhelmed briefly by a sense of gratitude that it was now my ceiling. This feeling recurred some years later when, after eight years of living in clergy property, we found ourselves in our own house once more. The shower had a leak. I enjoyed, briefly, the feeling of not having to phone a diocesan property department to ask if it could be fixed. It may have been a leak, but it was my leak. With that I think I have strayed from visual memory to emotional so I must claw my way back.

1978, and in our early days of marriage we had an unreliable, but delightful, green 850cc Mini. We part-exchanged it for a new VW Polo (red). UOF 247S, I clearly recall. It was our first new car and the most, apart from the mortgage, we had ever spent on anything. I can see it sitting on the drive now.

In the demarcation exercise of setting up a home and family I have rarely been in charge of the gardening. Some of the heavy lifting has been delegated to me but otherwise my work has been indoors. However whilst at college, between 1981 and 1984, I was given charge of one small bed to grow alpines, which I love. Over the three years I tended that bed like a favourite child. As the plants grew to maturity and all merged into each other, we moved out. I can still remember it with fondness though.

Alex the black labrador, is asleep by an open fire. I have never seen a more beautiful creature. Alex was raised in kennels as a show dog and then fell at the last (wonky tooth). He was trained to go to sleep at 8.30 p.m. Crazy for many other reasons he would be exploring the house and joining in (usually by sitting and looking hungry) family activities. At 8.30 p.m., often it seemed whilst in mid air, he would collapse in a heap by the warmest thing he could find. It was adorable. Occasionally two boys and a dog would be lying in a row, apparently all watching TV. This would be about 1986.

In passing 1990/91 I notice the interior of St Mary and St Cuthbert, Chester-le-Street. It is Christmas morning and packed. There is a sense of awe and fun. The children are allowed to sit on the Lumley Warriors around the outside of the nave when it is full. Alan the verger is spilling an over-full cup of wine. Being on a spot where Christians had worshipped since 883CE on this of all days. Great sight.

I find myself on the towpath of the Shropshire Union Canal in the mid 1990s. Looking along the bargeless grey-green water I see a flash of blue. I trace it coming towards me and, pivoting, follow it into the distance. It is kind enough to fly over the nearby bridge rather than under the tunnel and, against the brick background, I am able to confirm I have seen my first kingfisher.

Transported to 2009 I am in Japan and sitting looking at a caramel coloured wall in a perfect Zen garden. There are thin streaks, like contours, of black running through the mix. My guide explains that the builders would pour oil into the middle of the wall as they built it so that, over the next two hundred years or so, it would leach out and stain the outer surface.

Say it slowly. Two. Hundred. Years. The trouble with the planters of oak woodland around Fountains Abbey or Rievaulx, leaving surprise views to appear as the trees matured? Their vision, achieved within a generation, was too short-term, I now know.

Obviously, if you live with the one you love, it is likely that there is something visually attractive about the holder of that office. Might I suggest that this be a test question (not to be answered aloud) for those taking stock of a partnership. The one I live with? I like looking at her. Always have. There are some days when I actually just watch and prefer it to touching. Do you mind if we don't cuddle and I stand back to get a better view? Why? Because I can. The promise of the curves? Mixing matrimony and Eucharist I am able to say 'This is my body.' All my favourite pictures of her are in my head and can be accessed at any time.

Finally it is time for my holidays. Since 2000 we have been regular visitors to Gozo, the smaller island next to Malta. It has become a special place although it is not packed with special sights or sites. When I find myself needing a time out I take myself there mentally and have a coffee and a sparkling water in a little cafe. It is hot, dusty, smells a bit and we get it. The island, not the coffee.

I expect when I re-read this in a few months time I will need to do another list. Thus the title.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Sabbatical News

It seemed quite a downer the other night to head off to bed knowing that I only had three more weeks of this sabbatical leave to go. Then a little voice pulled me over into the corner (do your little voices do that?) and reminded me that this would be longer than any holiday I had taken in the last twelve years. Thanks, little voice.

I have met a few people over the last couple of weeks as I wandered around town. The way the questions are phrased can be interesting. There are very different, qualitative answers to:

How's it going?

Are you looking forward to coming back to work?

How have you got on?

Pretty soon after the sabbatical began I knew that I should not beat myself up about outcomes. I have done lots of writing, but far more reading than I anticipated. That was a surprise but not a problem.

But with a work of fiction to try and finish (now plotted out and ready to be completed), being in the company of Peter Carey and Jim Crace can be depressing. Why would anyone ever attempt a sentence again while these two walk the earth?

I'll do it.

One thing I know I will need to do is be careful going back to conversations with groups of people. I haven't done much of that. Over this last weekend there were a couple of points in a small social situation when I wanted to run away. I had clear things to say and was interrupted and then the interruption was interrupted and by the time four more minutes had passed it felt rude to continue 'As I was saying...' Too self-important. Ten weeks free of small talk has been a blessing. Making someone who hates parties go to church to celebrate every Sunday has been crueller than you can imagine.

Just because you have cleared your head don't expect everyone else will have done so.

So to answer my questions:




Going away for a few days retreat next week. Catching up with friends for the weekend first.

In the air tonight

Reflecting on styles of leadership I recall another four box diagram that has followed me around for a lot of my time in ministry.

It was shared by Canon John Finney, an evangelism adviser in Southwell Diocese, back in about 1983/4. I think the context was a St John's College Evangelism Week.

He described congregations as if they were planes preparing for take off. Plane 1 is heading off into the sky looking for excitement ahead. Plane 2 is taxiing along the runway and will go next. Plane 3 is on the ground and not yet moving. Plane 4 is not yet loaded.

(Love the reflection of my hands in the image -  so unprofessional.)

Now, he said:

Plane 1 represents those members of your church who want to move on and are looking for new things.

Plane 2 represents those who will go with a new idea once they get it but will have hesitations at first.

Plane 3 represents those who are happy as things are and are change averse.

Plane 4 represents those who want to go back to some expression of the past when all was well.

Then he asked this. Assuming you can only communicate with adjacent planes, which metaphorical plane should the leader appear to be on?

There isn't necessarily a 'right' answer, because it's an artificial construct to get us to think about our leadership. But it sets out the dilemma.

If you avoid being on a plane at all and stand between them you can only communicate with two and one will probably run you over.

If you go on 4 you can't communicate with 1 or 2. If you go on 1 you can't communicate with 3 or 4.

So the choice comes down to this, assuming you want to keep in touch with the maximum number of people. Do you travel on plane 2, hopefully encouraging the very slow adopters in plane 3 and keeping a slight brake on plane 1's load of over-enthusiasm? The traditionalists in plane 4 may leave.

Or do you travel on plane 3 communicating constantly with plane 4 and encouraging plane 2 to go faster. Plane 1 may go somewhere more lively.

I find it helpful because it often feels within a church setting that there is just one more group of people than you can realistically deal with.

All passengers for the church of the future. Please go to Gate J.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

True History of the Kelly Gang

Peter Carey has given me more pleasure over the last thirty years than any other living author. As soon as I can I buy his new books.

Yet strangely I have never got round to this one, which won him the Booker Prize for a second time in 2001. He has been nominated on two further occasions.

I purchased this in hardback. Carey's books are not for those who read twenty pages a night before turning the light off. But hardbacks are too physically heavy to transport on foreign holidays.

I started it once before and realised it needed time and commitment. Two months into a three month sabbatical seemed the perfect opportunity.

And what a joy. Eschewing commas, and using the word 'adjectival' to avoid swear words, or simply replacing letters with asterisks, Carey gives a genuinely believable voice to Australia's famous outlaw. He paints a sympathetic picture, more of a poor son of an Irish immigrant caught up in inevitable, and escalating, crime, than of a deliberate baddy.

The story is largely told by Kelly himself with an explanation, from the beginning but developing, as to how we come to be in possession of his manuscript.

And the story of life in bush-ranger poverty in the second half of the nineteenth century leaves me almost guilty as I read in a favourite comfortable chair with a coffee by my side.

If you have books to finish on your bucket list, add this one.


Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Four Box Trick

We (me and Mike Peatman) were playing with this little grid. Every situation in the church can be analysed with four boxes, carefully labelled of course. Welcome back into the Mustard Seed Shavings massive generalisation vortex.

Is the pastor an activist? Is (s)he driven to do stuff, or a person who prioritises faith and prayer over dirty hands? That is the bottom scale. We've called it faith / works for ease of labelling. You can choose your own.

Now. Is the congregation largely active? Do they prefer doing to being? Do they love getting on with jobs or do they prefer quiet mornings and sagelike contemplation?

Illustration 2 takes a wild guess at what a church would look like if the criteria were extreme. We haven't labelled illustration 1, mainly to annoy you.

So, a church with an activist congregation and an activist vicar. Driven will be the watchword. All go. Vision and goal-setting until you all die of overwork.

Illustration 2
A church with a gentle, prayerful pastor and a congregation that likes to do things will be very busy doing nothing. Bit of that, bit of this, jumble sale, coffee morning, one-off fundraiser, all feeling nicely pastored but without any sense of direction.

A driven leader and a compliant, direction-seeking congregation will take you into cult territory if you're not careful. Or off on many pilgrimages and prayer walks.

A meditative minister and a peace-seeking congregation sounds like the Quakers to me.

So, for your leadership team or just for fun:

Where is your church now?

Is there an ideal place that it should be? (Clue: probably not bang in the middle.)

Sits and Thinks

Sometimes I sits and thinks; sometimes I just sits. That is often attributed to A.A.Milne's character Winnie the Pooh but it wasn't him. It first appeared in Punch Magazine at a time when Milne was contributing - but as a cartoon caption. Not sure we can credit it any better than that.

We bought a vicar friend a bench with it as an inscription once. He was not the sort of guy with a reputation for enjoying solitude so it was a cruel gift.

After eight weeks of largely solitary sabbatical I have returned from a visit up north last weekend and two days at a conference with a mate. Before I return to work I have another weekend away and an inside-of-a-week reading retreat with two friends.

I needed to remember how much more whole, how much more together, how much more effective and insightful I am if I sits and, occasionally, thinks.

Mustard Seed Shavings

When Bible Reading Fellowship (BRF) published my book for new Christians and seekers in 2012 they liked the title of the blog at that time and asked if we could use it as the book title. I agreed.

Now, after an unspectacular sales history, the book has been remaindered. They are gentler than that on the BRF web-site and describe it as 'currently out of print', although when I first attempted that sentence it came out as 'currently out of pint' which is more regularly true. I guess if you loved the book enough to cough up for a further print-run they would see you. The follow-up volume is still available. Click on the side-bar image to buy.

And if you want a copy of Mustard Seed Shavings I have bought a few which can be yours for £5 plus postage

Anyway, enough of this nonsense. I'm having my blog title back. It feels good to have it home after a disappointing journey.

Noises Off

Heard an interesting Crowd Science podcast about noise today. They explored the whole idea of  the word, which clearly has pejorative overtones. There are sounds, which are neutral. Then there is noise, which is unwanted.

I am interested because my attitude to sound has changed over the years. I am obviously deafer than I once was. Those familiar sounds, such as close family members talking, are easy to miss. I often fail to grasp the first few words of a sentence and have to ask for a repeat. It doesn't help that I have a life-partner who talks to herself pretty much constantly and so I tune that out then discover, from time to time, that it would have been wiser to have been listening.

Aged seventeen and eighteen I had music on almost constantly. I did history at A Level and a coursework essay could be endured with five sides of LP. About 100 minutes for 500 words.

But today I am far more likely to prefer silence whilst reading or writing. Music accompanies cooking or ironing. My parents were kind enough to endure piano practice, something I played forward with a son learning guitar. Chase the mistake anyone? I have music or spoken word on in the car when I drive but usually turn the radio off when trying to locate a new destination.

I grew up near the centre of a city. There was a background hum that never went away. The comforting, familiar sounds of home included Birmingham University Clock every quarter of an hour, and on the hour throughout the night.

On the Crowd Science programme they interviewed people in one of India's largest cities often dubbed the noisiest place on earth. Drivers in Chennai sound their horn as a matter of course for very minor reasons. A family who lived ten feet from a busy railway line explained that house-guests never sleep. 'But after four months you hardly notice it.'

In downtown New York everything has to become louder to drown the noise of cars. One expert said 'Make the cars quieter and everything follows.'

But it isn't as easy as that. Electric cars could be perfectly silent but pedestrians are used to having their ears as an early-warning system. Electric cars have to come equipped with some noise, to reassure drivers and warn the jay-walker.

You see we don't like silence as much as we think we do. We like sounds. Your bank's cash dispenser doesn't need to make a noise as your money rolls out, but we like it to. Equally deceptive is the software that makes a shutter sound on a digital camera. Totally unnecessary. But we are now self-programmed to respond. We like those clicks and whirrs. Most of you, if you have a printer in your house, will know when it is making the right noises pre-job.  It is a little dance of preparedness. I am doing what you expect me to do, it tells you.

When I first moved into my current home, a modern dwelling, I was weirded out by all its noises. But the clicks of those expansion joints as the sun comes round is a good thing. At half past two on a spring afternoon our conservatory wakes up. It is a cracking sound telling me everything is working as it should be.

We all get used to the sound of our home's heating system. Not noise.

I rejoiced at the arrival of quiet carriages on trains. Pretty soon I realised that I was more maddened by rule-breakers in those than the noise in the others.

I had an interesting discussion over the weekend  about sound quality on vinyl music. Is the presence of surface noise or left-over studio sounds an imperfection or part of the reality of construction? And do you tend to listen for the imperfections or to the tune? A member of my family is a musician whose main instrument is computer. No extra noises there. The music is good but it is a monocultural landscape without hedge or ditch. All sound and no noise. It was interesting the way someone such as Burial introduced industrial and surface noise sounds to his music to make dubstep. Improved by imperfection.

How do you take your noise? One bump or two?

Monday, November 06, 2017

Thinking Better

I may have been quoting from this book for many months now but I have recently finished it. In the beginning I thought it would be a work of popular science (the sort I can understand, in other words) but rapidly worked out that it had many more secrets to give out if I read it as advised on the jacket 'slowly'.

I wish I had been handed this book on starting out in adult life and told that a week reading it would make me richer and wiser. It would have.

I am not going to review it. I am going to say that you should buy it and read it.

And here are some things I have learned:

  • There are ways of asking a question that make yes more probable.
  • We are naturally lazy thinkers. We should, at minimum, develop awareness of the sort of situations where we might intuit the wrong answer.
  • The curse of 'manager of the month' awards is simply regression to the mean.
  • Anchoring shapes answers. If I ask you if the world's tallest building is higher or lower than 2,000 feet then ask you how tall it is I will generally get a higher answer than if I ask you if it is taller than 1,000 feet, first.
  • We over-assess the risk of events that have recently occurred.
  • We are risk-averse. No-one should take out any extended warranties if they have more than three appliances that might qualify. Put the premium saved in your own appliance-replacement-fund instead.
  • To demolish a case, raise doubts about the strongest favourable arguments. To discredit a witness, focus on the weakest part of the testimony.
  • Beware of outcome bias. We are poor at calling to mind non-events (times when things didn't happen).
  • Algorithms outperform experts but this is probably not what Michael Gove was getting at.
  • We tend to anticipate more regret than we will probably feel.
  • Do not passively accept the way decision problems are framed.
  • We have organisations because their checks and balances ensure fewer mistakes than individuals would make. Which is why Trump will probably kill us all if left unchecked.
The two papers cited by the Nobel Prize Committee are fully reproduced as appendices. They are completely readable for any one who has made it to the end of the book. Indeed the author comments that we may be '...surprised by how simple they are.'

I love experts who can explain their expertise simply.

Friday, November 03, 2017

Jon Sopel - Notes from Trump's America

Jon Sopel has been the BBC's North American Editor for the last three years. Interesting times.

This book caught my eye. I always enjoy his broadcasts, pieces to camera and insights and usually end up informed.

Here he reflects on his hosts under interestingly predictable chapter headings such as guns and god. But there are some far more unexpected themes. I enjoyed anger and anxiety.

It is populist writing and easy to read. Having expected to browse and dip in I promoted it to the front of the queue and finished it quickly. I didn't have to look up any words.

To some extent it is an almanac of recent writings and thoughts. You will recognise all the people and events if you watch or listen to any BBC News output.

What I found interesting was the reflection on the differences between US culture and British or European. Why is the idea of a national health service seen so negatively over there? Why is the gun lobby so dominant? To what extent does the Democrat/Republican divide mirror our Tory/Labour one? Other, surprising, areas of difference include the volume of alcohol at parties, patriotism (which apparently works in an entirely different way to ours) and the quality of TV (US win on drama; we win on everything else). We note, in passing, that the print media is largely Democrat in the States but Conservative in the UK. Fox News isn't quite as bad as we think it is from the tweeted highlights. I recall my confusion that Democrats wear the blue accessories.

Jon Sopel also self-analyses the difficulty of being a fair reporter of situations where your gut feeling is tugging you to one side. During the Trump presidency the BBC has been tagged with the 'fake news' label. Carrying on doing your job in a balanced way in such circumstances is clearly very tough. Sad.

Short news items are helpful but we can fail to understand the big picture. This is the big picture. So the final chapter on truth reflects on where on earth we go now. And, to be truthful, none of us educated, articulate, liberal, chattering folk has the first idea any more. But I will take this book on the journey.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017


My perspective right now is Christian, C of E, and, if you'll forgive me, liberal and evangelical. Deal with it.

I have been observing social media whizzing past shouting Reformation jokes out of the window in a nasty outbreak of drive-by Lutheranism today. Some have been quite good although, as ever,  Archdruid Eileen (excuse me) nailed it.

But it is worth taking a moment to ponder the appalling atrocities that were inflicted upon theological dissenters down the centuries, whatever the nature of their dissent. TV's Gunpowder (see previous post) has left the smell of burning, treasonous heretic on the breeze and, frankly, roast Christian doesn't really do it for me. My particular gift has been to be a slightly controversial minister in times when that has been a safe thing to be.

Silence and respect to all who stepped on to the gallows on matters of doctrine or ethics.

But, after centuries of conflict, Catholic and Protestant Anglicans have a gentle truce which only occasionally overspills into minor jibes at diocesan conferences. Here at ground level we rock on pretty well and all pray together nicely. Puritan abstinence and higher tracts are both under the ecumenical umbrella these days. No bad thing.

Most times we don't change the church from the top down.

My concern for the LGBT gang wasn't imposed upon us from above. I like people. Well, most of them.

My desire to occasionally not wear robes is now legal but I have been doing it for thirty years or so. All that happened was that General Synod legislated that it was OK for the ship to sail after it had voyaged a few thousand times, returned and been sold for scrap. It has a reputation for that kind of speed. I need some new not robes.

My reading of the Bible leads me to christocentricity, co-operation, conversation, broad inclusivity, welcome, hospitality and creative exploration of ways to do and demonstrate faith. One supply of  water to return to but few fences to stop me roaming.

I think that is the nature of my Christian belief 500 years on from the Wittenberg church door becoming the centre of attention for a bit. My church don't own a door.

Monday, October 23, 2017


We began to watch the much-trailed new TV series, Gunpowder on Saturday. Opening, as it did, with the horrific scene of the cruel execution of a Catholic woman for treason (hiding a Jesuit Priest) we chose to turn over. Maybe it is an age thing but I find it less and less entertaining, or helpful, to have to watch inhumanity.

Recently a song I love stopped me in my tracks. I must have sung When I Survey the Wondrous Cross a thousand times. I have even performed it.

I love lines such as:

Love so amazing, so divine
Demands my life, my soul, my all.

But I realised, for the first time, that I didn't like the word wondrous. Which victim of execution, looking towards the gallows, would be glad to imagine the method of  their destruction becoming an object of worship?

Gratefulness better than gaudiness, methinks. When I survey the empty cross, anyone?

Time for a bit of a rethink maybe. The writers of Gunpowder say they wanted the viewers to understand the level of anger that led to the Gunpowder Plot. Did it need to be that graphic? Reviewers are divided. I think they could have demonstrated the cruelty with more dialogue and less  screaming. Sometimes a cutaway says more than a lingering camera.

So why is this about empathy? In Karen Armstrong's excellent Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life she has a chapter on empathy and shares this quote:

'...when we look at the crucifix, our hearts break in sympathy and fellow-feeling - and it is this interior movement of compassion and instinctive empathy that saves us.'
(Peter Abelard)

Now I imagine my extremist evangelical reader has probably gone elsewhere now, but should any new ones be around I know that we are saved externally, not by any action of our own. By grace and by God. But take a moment to ponder that any saving that has happened round here was not worth a thing without a response that makes the world less a place of suffering and more a place of love.

Grace and Peace My Friends

Writer, speaker and broadcaster Rob Bell has been a useful resource to me over the years. He was the creative muse behind the NOOMA series of short discussion starter films. Click here for an example.

His books have intriguing titles such as Velvet Elvis, Or Jesus Wants to Save Christians. They are always nicely laid out with lots of white space. Easy to read for those who don't read a lot. Plenty of points at which you need to stop and say hmmm though.

He is American and Bible-based. But he is neither Bible Belt nor Brian McLaren. He prods all evangelicals with a stick but does it gently. He was once asked to leave a church because of his attitude to women. But not how it sounds. Turns out he was far too enabling and promoting of them for the likes of his eldership.

Now I have found The RobCast. If I might start with a criticism it is that he starts with 20 minutes material and crams it into an hour, but it is a light hour and feels like someone chatting to you in his shed. In fact for the most part he is in what he calls the back house - which I'd like to imagine is a shed.

The episodes are a bit like an interesting uncle chatting about life and faith in the corner. You can phase in and out of concentrating.

But he also has guests with whom he has conversations. Pete Rollins is a delightful guest. Pete's delightful Belfast accent totally baffles Ron when he talks about seeing a cow from a car. Both nouns sound the same. Identical even. Pete is also an ace Christian thinker. Sometimes I think he has read and memorised everything. But as Rob gets him to open up, and to explain the tricky bits of theology and philosophy, we all learn.

My favourite guest so far has been the episode where Rob's wife (Christen, I think) turns the tables and interviews him. And in overhearing this conversation we are party to the amazing happenstance of the marriage of a creative communicator and an editor. She is clearly the one who makes his books more concise than his podcasts.

I commend this podcast very highly,. If you have not found it already, seek it out.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Which Festival?

Figure 1
I have been mining some of my of pre-iPad note books for gold.

And a warning. Incomplete thinking in progress. This is what blogs are for.

Recipients of my training technique will know that there are very few problems that cannot be better understood by reducing them to four boxes.

I am grateful to the unidentified (in my notes), and no longer recalled, conductor of the Bath and Wells pre-Advent retreat in 2012. I took jottings as the addresses began and then I disappeared, as I often do, into a world of my own. Quotes from the saints became imaginings from the St.

S,o let's imagine that we divide the church's year into two parts. Those that focus on memory and those that focus on hope. By 'memory' I mean those festivals that look back on some key biblical Christian event. By 'hope' I mean those festivals that look forward to something happening in the future.

I am aware that many festivals, with good preaching, can do both of these things but stick with me.

Now let us make a further division. We divide those festivals that look upon that thing with thanksgiving and gratitude (something has been or will be done) compared with those that require us to be penitent (we are sorry it happened, or will happen).

This gives us Figure 1's four box grid.

Figure 2
Now let us look at the church's year and see which festivals fill the boxes. Top left (Figure 2) we have Lent. We look back on our lives, on Jesus' temptation in the wilderness and, starting in the dust of Ash Wednesday, we proceed slowly and gently, head down, with humility and restraint.

Lent is a time for reflection, for looking back and for adjustment of behaviour in the light of the journey to the cross.

There is little thanksgiving and only the hope of death in the air.

Advent (Figure 3) is a shorter time for reflection. It is largely replaced, in the eyes of the world, by Christmas, a season which runs from the day the John Lewis Christmas advert first airs until the first whiff of a sale is in the air.
Figure 3

Christians reflect while the world rushes past. Upon what do we reflect? Firstly the incarnation - the truth that this story of a baby somehow universalises God with us. Secondly a look longer ahead to a time when we will be revisited and encompassing the desire not to be unprepared for that. It is hope but it is penitent hope.

We try and put the brakes on the world giving thanks until Christmas Day. We fail, but we keep trying. No-one wants a confessional at the office Christmas party, even if it is being held in Advent 1.

The parables of the kingdom fit here. Wise and foolish virgins. Tenants in the vineyard. Wedding banquets where folk don't turn up.

Figure 4
So when do Christians do happy? Ideally, and primarily, on Easter Day (Figure 4). The memory of what happened to Jesus on the third day is a thing of great joy. We look back on what the hymn writers see as the greatest day in history. We have a corporate memory to be thankful for. Thine be the glory, risen conquering son (we find it hard to shake off our military metaphors though).

Of course all these festivals are, really, is us telling our great stories again. Stories told in and of faith. About faith. For faith. The stories are all set in history - they grew out of a particular time and in a particular place, but their historicity is not completely available to us. It is what the stories are for that is important, which is why we ought to be able to point to a festival which adds hope to thanksgiving (Figure 5).

But no one Christian event gives us access to this combination, easily.

Figure 5
I wonder if this was the place where the great evangelistic rallies used to fit. They are largely replaced by the Alpha Course these days. Summer camp talks on how to find 'The Way' were an annual marker in my Christian walk for many years. They were certainly occasions of  thanksgiving for a new future and hope inserted where previously there had been none.

But I tentatively ask this question. Is there a festival we should make more of because it fits best in the bottom right box? All Saints?

If not then we need to remember that each one of our three markers, Lent, Easter and Advent, needs unpacking by preaching, that it may point to the future and do it with hope.

What does what has happened have to say to us about what will happen?

Comments gratefully received in any of the usual places.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

13th Joke

A guy, born on the 13th of the month, proposed to the 13th woman he went out with. She accepted and they eventually married on the 13th. After a 13 day honeymoon on the 13th floor of a luxury hotel they returned to live in a new home - number 13 of course. After a blissful 13 months of marriage she eloped with Wigan Warriors.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Weird Weddings and All That

I took myself away again to another church as part of my sabbatical. Tried to sneak in quietly but was outed and welcomed from the front, 'But don't talk to him about religion'.

In the Church of England lectionary churches are still working through Matthew's Gospel. Towards the end of this book we reach a number of parables of the kingdom and yesterday it was 22:1-14 - known as the Parable of the Wedding Banquet although it is by no means the only thing Jesus is reported as having said or done with the context of weddings. More wine anyone.

Dick Lucas, who has devoted a lot of his ministry to helping preachers successfully handle the word of truth, has a number of key questions for the preacher to use in preparation. One of them is 'What seems odd to me?' When you have lived and breathed the scriptures for as long as I have it is hard to take this question fully on. Nothing much seems odd to me anymore. But, trying to be a newcomer to this passage (the preacher, in a place where the tradition is of short addresses only, gave us some helpful context about Matthew but not about culture) I wondered how odd this parable would be to those unfamiliar with the culture of the big, society wedding in Jesus' day.

(Friends I know every day is a Jesus day, that was shorthand.)

Here is an odd wedding.

1. It's the son of a king getting hitched. So it's special.
2. The banquet is prepared. Banquets in those days were prepared in the guests' absence and cooked in their presence.
3. The servants go to get people who have been invited. Invitations in those days were probably word of mouth. Once invited you got ready to come when you were told. It was not 7.30 for 8.00 on Tuesday 5th.
4. They don't come. This is outrageously rude. The king would normally be respected and it would be the well-to-do who had been invited, countrywide.
5. They are re-asked, reminded that the food is ready to be cooked. It isn't 'on the table' but the butchery has taken place and there are no fridges,
6. The invited guests kill the servants who have invited them. OK, now it gets really odd.
7. The king sends his army to destroy the city of the rude guests. That escalated quickly.
8. Then he invites anyone who is hanging around - good and bad - to come in their place.
9. Then he seriously chastises a guy who is not wearing the right clothes. Maybe he didn't have any? Where did the others get theirs from?

So what, apart possibly from all of it, seems odd to you?

Because it is a parable. And it tells us what the Kingdom of Heaven is like. And in parables the secret to understanding is often in identification of the characters. I think this parable (which appears in slightly different form in Luke and the rarely referenced Gospel of Thomas) has been through several stages of redaction. The verse about the army destroying the city may have been Matthew's own commentary on what had happened to his people between Jesus' death and his writing.

But if we wrestle with these questions:

1. Who is the king?
2. Who is the son?
3. Who are the servants who have been put to death?

...we will be well on the way but will have no application. If we take this final question we will be there:

4. If I have been unexpectedly invited to something special, and I am 'bad', what do I have to change in order to come in? What is appropriate behaviour, for a guest?

(Thanks to Tom Wright 'Matthew for Everyone' and Geza Vermes 'The Authentic Gospel of Jesus' for the help.)

Friday, October 13, 2017

Sabbatical News

So, how's it going? You may not care but I know some do so here is a wee update. I am coming to the end of week five of a thirteen week sabbatical.

During the first week I was weary. Chatting to a couple of colleagues who had recently enjoyed sabbatical leave I discovered that this was a common theme. People who work with people and spend a lot of time giving out - speaking or listening; writing or reading - invariably survive on adrenaline quite a lot. Take away the deadlines and the stimulation and your body, often for the first time for ages, realises it can wind down. During my first week I successfully tidied the office, went to the gym and had a haircut. That's about it. Although I must say that having only one appointment in my diary for a week was both fun and stressful. I am used to waking up in the morning and running through a mental check-list of what faces me today. I had to keep checking that the answer was really 'nothing'. I also noted that not thinking ahead or planning ahead was weird. I am used to spending downtime contemplating stuff to happen in the future. I wonder at what point in the thirteen weeks I will need to place next spring in the mental sorting tray?

Week two was holiday. We travelled up to the north-east and visited a few old haunts from our Chester-le-Street days. One encounter was particularly helpful. Twenty-five years on, someone, a teenager then, thanked us for our work with young people. 'You made us feel we were the most important thing you did each week but by the time of the Sunday night meetings you must have been knackered.' That was lovely. Also true and we are glad it was noticed.

Returning home for week three I got going on the novel. I have always planned that this time would be about writing and had two ideas for books without a clear notion as to which one to pursue. Shortly before going off duty a new friend had advised me to go with the novel rather than the factual book (the other idea being volume three of my Christian help manuals) as it would be a more varied experience and thus more like a sabbatical escape. It is funny how people who barely know you can give you good advice. I took it.

The novel I have sketched out is a narrative at the moment, not a story. I used a method I read about from Will Self where I put every idea, scene and character on a Post-it note and then re-arranged them into order. Using several colours of Post-it I managed to get the various narrative streams to converge. I read a few chapters I had knocked out some years ago. To be honest the quality of the writing shocked me. It was excellent. Nothing seems to improve style like writing a lot and this stuff was from the days when I was working as a writer part-time. Could I ever get to that standard again? I realised that the answer was not necessarily to get on with the novel but to do more writing about anything (my journal suddenly sparked into life). But the existence of a table of Post-its helped me to begin inhabiting the world of Marco (working title) again.

Week four I read a lot. Not on any theme but in a wide and varied way. I needed to observe others' style and beware of copying any one writer too much. And I had to get some new facts in my head. The ones I had been hanging around with were not good enough. I played with the Post-its. I now had a tale but it was a bit too Dan Brown and my target was slightly higher up the brow. Then I had a moment. What if this (dramatic music in head) became (dan dan daaaan) that! A twist. Not one I ever saw coming so the reader won't either. Clever old me.

On Thursday of that week I wrote a short story in one sitting. It was quite dark and based on one scene of a screen-play I had helped a friend conceive some years back. But it came out quickly and will be finished with a single edit soon. I say quite dark. It was rural January midnight. Where had that stuff been hiding? Oh the sweet catharsis of murdering an imaginary parishioner slowly.

It is week five. No work on the novel but much reading and musing. When I am being a writer I write all the time. This is the point I needed to get to. I wander around constructing sentences, dialogue and writing descriptions in my head.

I have spent little money this month. I bought two DVDs, two books and a new jacket.

Twice in my life I have been given a story. An idea has popped into my head so completely formed that seeing it as God-given is as good a way to describe it as I can muster. With these stories I know they are given to be told and they will help people. They will work. They are probably not to be published for money but shared for free.

This week I have another such story. All I needed in order to write it down was to go and see the world from the point of view of the narrator. I needed to be high up and looking out to sea at an island. Luckily I live where that is possible and this morning I walked up to Cadbury Camp to see what I could see. It is an astonishing place. An Iron Age hill fort. I was alone there. When built it was probably surrounded by sea on three sides. A perfect defensive strategy.

The People of the Island (working title) is on its way.

So, says TCMT, you had two ideas for books and you're writing a short-story collection? Do you know, I may be doing just that. It's fun.

But I have three appointments next week.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Workers in the Vineyard

During my sabbatical break I intend to visit a few other churches. Last Sunday I found myself at Nailsea Methodist Church where minister Deborah handled Matthew 20:1-16.

A straightforward and clear message invited us all to avoid being grumpy when others were doing well if it was not at our expense. It also encouraged us not to begrudge those who came to faith late in life, especially as they might have done so because of our labouring long hours for the same reward. We can all only be who we are and do what we can do, so do that, would be my summary.

But, as ever when pondering a well-known passage, my thoughts drifted to context. Where did Matthew put this tale? What can we deduce from where he put it? It's a story unique to Matthew, which puts us on our guard, knowing that he had an axe to grind and sometimes used his Jesus stories to sharpen it.

We have had teaching on forgiveness, divorce and riches in the immediately preceding material. The last line of chapter 19 has been that the first will be last and the last will be first. So does this expand on that? Yes, to some extent.

First thing to remember is Matthew's axe. His Gospel is all about the status of the law of Moses in the light of Jesus and in the light of the fall of Jerusalem. Any material unique to Matthew is likely to illustrate this point. So, says this story, if you want rules you've got them. A generous contract of employment for a day's work, signed at the start of the day and honoured at the end. The rules are kept.

Second thing, which you maybe do not know, is that this parable is based on a story from Jewish folklore, in which an employer rewards a hard-working employee for achieving more in two hours than other labourers managed in the whole day. His audience may well have been familiar with that.

But what might Matthew's readers have missed about the rules? Because the vineyard owner has to be God in the story. Israel is always the vineyard. And God (who likes to seek and save the lost - Matthew 18:10-14) comes a-seeking for employees.

The Gospel of grace is a new thing. It is a gospel where people who have been waiting all day for work don't get sent home with insufficient money to buy supper on the way. You can play by the rules if you want to; if you do you'll be treated fairly. But if you accept the wonderful free good news of the grace of God delivered in Jesus Christ you will get a better deal than the lawmakers and lawkeepers could ever have imagined.

If you are a follower of Jesus and have committed your life to that for a long time, good on you. But make sure you have ditched the idea that you are in a meritocracy. For the people who come to faith late after a lifetime of sin will know, better than you, that they did nothing to deserve it. Nothing. Thing is, neither, my friend, did you.

And forgive me getting all messianic on you but whenever Jesus calls people 'friend' in the gospels he is about to prick their bubble. So the story ends with Matthew's little coda, again. Lastly beats firstly in the topsy-turvy world of Jesus.