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 whats 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.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

It Was Better Yesterday

I am still reading my way, very slowly, through Daniel Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow. Each chapter is so profound and informative that, if it wasn't for the annoying statistic that 60% of the population of the UK do not read one book a year, it should be compulsory reading for everyone. Notwithstanding the alleged beauty of democracy it does seem abundantly clear that smart people know more than thick ones.

Hoping to finish it this sabbatical. So here's the latest lesson.

Most of us know that we have a tendency to idealise the past. We recall the good and forget the bad. In massive general terms this leads to sentences such as 'It was better in the old days' even though people got rickets and polio, children died in infancy and there was a war on.

The Match of the Day and Football on Five pundits should all read it as a condition of their contracts. Put simply, they are lazy. Which is not as rude as it sounds because it means they are using System 1 thinking (in Kahneman terms) as it is easier than System 2 and we all do that.

So when they say 'A top striker has got to be putting that away' when a gaping goal is missed, they are fooled by highlights' packages. They have in their heads every goal of last week's top four tiers and those showed, time and again, strikers putting away simple chances. System 1 recalls that. What they do not have is ready head-access to the hours of footage of appalling football. System 2 would do the hard thinking necessary to find that. Highlights are highlights. Lowlights packages don't sell, although this was recently voted the worst twenty seconds of football ever and it is compelling.

So pundits recall many occasions when simple chances were taken and not the far more numerous occasions when they were not.

Someone who cares more than me, enough to do actual research, watched hours of football clips of top strikers recently and found that 'simple' chances were taken on less than half the occasions they presented themselves. Put simply, missing easy open goals is more likely than not.

If our history is told only as a series of 'good things' then we will look back on it more positively.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Pooh sticks

Warning. There will be a lot of crap gags in this post.

For readers under sixty, allow me to introduce you to a delight to come your way. Shortly after your 60th birthday you will receive a bowel cancer screening kit in the post. This will involve you taking three samples from three separate stools on three separate days (going through the motions?) using a small cardboard stick and smearing some of the result on a small slide. You will then seal this (pretty damn carefully) and post to the screening service agency.

Roughly 20% of the UK's population of 65 million is over 60. 13 million. Assuming an equal distribution of birthdays, and noting that this test is repeated at two year intervals, that makes, again roughly, 20,000 kits a day with six smears of delight in the post.

I have recently received my second kit. I followed the instructions as previously but received a letter back in the post 'insufficient sample'. I had smeared it too thin. Damn. Go again. I went again (and again, and again) and resmeared. (That a word?)

I received a reassuring letter back in the post saying that although it was probably piles or cracked lips (anal lips, my dear arse) there was a trace of blood in my sample and would I go again three times.

We may have a problem with junk mail, but there is far more crap in the post than we think.

Losing It

A word of advice to businesses who get enquiries from stupid customers which are nothing to do with a transaction; how you deal with such queries will help your sales. A story:

Last Friday TCMT lost her wallet. It had either been stolen (but no use had been made of her credit cards) or left at a particular place. We had only been to one place where she used her wallet.

A phone call to this place received the response, 'No-one can help until Monday.' Detecting that this was slightly less than helpful she decided to pay a personal visit, a ten mile drive. After all it only had to be established clearly that they did not have the wallet there and it was time to be cancelling credit cards.

They were slightly more enthusiastic but insisted the wallet had not been handed in. They allowed her to escort them to the place where her wallet might have been lost. It wasn't there. Whilst waiting for one assistant to get another to help she heard herself described thus, 'It's that stupid woman again'.

She returned home and once more we turned the house and car upside down. No joy. Then bank cards were cancelled and an awkward thirty minutes was spent trying to replace only one of our two cards on our National Trust account (we are planning to visit a lot of properties next week).

The main sadness for TCMT was that the wallet was a gift from a son and much cherished.

This was the day before our ruby wedding anniversary and we had planned to spend it chilling and enjoying each other's company. The lost wallet took the edge off it.

The next day, Sunday, we felt a bit better and returned home after a morning out to a voice-mail message from the place that had assured us it didn't have the wallet and couldn't help until Monday. It had the wallet and had called on a Sunday.

It had been put somewhere it shouldn't have been put by the person who had found it on Friday evening. Nothing sinister. Just incompetence.

Losing a wallet can happen to anyone. It is a one-off stupid act. In failing to help us the place we lost it has won the stupid battle at least 3-1. And we would, if we had been really helped, have been singing the praise of the establishment that understood the predicament. As it is we preserve their anonymity.

It's a nice wallet, sentiment is resurrected and replacement cards have arrived.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Thought for the Day

I was allowed to use my BBC Radio Bristol slot today for an unashamed plug for tomorrow's Community Festival. This is the script:

Some choose solitude and live as recluses or hermits. Most don't.

Unless we opt out, part of being human is relationships. We are social beings.

Where I live, in a modern part of Nailsea, the estate builders had a different idea. No public meetings space. No heart to the community. Houses built so neighbours don't bump into each other.

But in two years running of royal events that led to street parties folk were keen to meet. So a few people decided, back in 2013, to trial a community festival. A big party where the local talent - music, craft, classic car owners, food and drink - could get together and meet.

I am proud that members of Trendlewood Church, where I am vicar, played a huge part in this. It was repeated in 2015, this time for free due to sponsorship. The third one is tomorrow. Golden Valley School Fields. At noon. Still free.

All the stories in today's show are about people needing people - illness, therapy, benefits and protests. There will be a time in our lives when we all need help. It is good to have met people in advance of this. Someone often knows the person who can help you.

I recall a day when Jesus saw a huge crowd and had compassion on them and began to teach them. When they were hungry we are told he found a miraculous way to multiply food.

We'll have food. Lots of it tomorrow. Also advice in the form of talks on things such as debt, parenting and looking after the environment. As well as meeting some impressive people who have made a great effort at improving the world for those less fortunate.

Worth meeting them?

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Talks Tent

I'm excited to have been given the opportunity to curate a talks tent at the Trendlewood Community Festival this year. There are people in our local community doing interesting stuff around the world. From 2.00 - 5.00 p.m. a selection of them have twenty minutes to present something of their passion.

Here's a flavour of the topics:

What can a local radio station do for the community? (Joe Lemer, BBC Radio Bristol)
Who can help you with your money? (Tim Moulding, CAP Money)
Who can help you with your parenting and your marriage (Ian Wills and Trevor Watts, CARE for the family)
What can a local church do for a community (me, Trendlewood Church)
From Trendlewood to Uganda to educate children (Mark and Megan Walters, Hope for Life, Katanga)
Nailsea's best kept s
ecret (Nancy Elliott, Nailsea Community Trust)
How green is your estate? (Pat Gilbert, Friends of Trendlewood Park)

Got one more surprise guest up our sleeves too. I hope. Do plan in to your visit the chance to listen to some of these excellent speakers.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

New Popular Culture

I haven't listened to much new music for the last few months. I feel the loss but it was a decision, of sorts.

I think I have discussed previously the rule, as it relates to those of us with limited time to engage with cultural activities, of cyclical proficiency.

In case you haven't come across it, the rule suggests that developing knowledge of one area of culture can only be achieved by disregarding some other area temporarily.

Do you have a hierarchy of culture? I think I do, although it has flexibility. I read every day. I make sure I haven't gone to sleep without reading some of a book. Even if it's only a chapter of a pappy thriller before lights out, it is a rule of life for me. No TV or tablet in the bedroom last thing at night.

Secondly there is sport. In particular football and cricket. Not so much live these days but I make sure I keep up with the weekly TV updates.

What else is there? Theatre, cinema, music, art. I love all these things.

So it becomes quite awkward, when I am already lamenting that I haven't been to the cinema for six months or so, when something new and demanding pitches up. Podcasts are it.

I let them pass me by for a while, apart from occasionally catching up with a Radio 4 show I had missed. Then I started noticing reviews of podcast shows in the weekend newspapers. About Easter time this year people were writing and talking about S-Town. Presented by Brian Reed of This American Life (a programme on Chicago public radio that became a podcast once it could) it is a wonderful seven part story that introduces people not normally given air time so positively, heads off in all sorts of strange plot-twist directions and ends with a nice resolution.

It wasn't long before I discovered Serial, another spin-off which goes into an old news story in more detail over a longer period. It hunts for miscarriages of justice, or at least the truth about controversial carriages of justice.

Now I am into twenty two back years of This American Life and I may be gone some time. It is what is on the headphones as I walk about these days, or playing in the car on long journeys. Getting inside the skin of the USA and introducing intelligent, thoughtful stories is a real antidote to the news from Trumpton.

If it's OK, please nobody invent any new culture for a bit. Thank you.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Thought for the Day

Came off the substitute's bench to do this TFTD at BBC Radio Bristol this morning:

How did the older son know his prodigal brother had come home? He heard the sound of music and dancing.

Where does the Bible tell us Jesus did his first miracle? At a wedding reception.

I used to work with a colleague who would, as the saying goes, celebrate the opening of an envelope. There is so much bad news in the world, he used to say, that we should celebrate the good.

If we had a big project he would divide it up into sections and mark the achievement of each part.

He liked to party.

It is funny how we celebrate numbers ending with 0 or 5 with special enthusiasm. So we have a silver wedding anniversary and then ignore 26-29. 49th and 51st birthdays are similarly unpopular. You don't get a memento for being in a job 19 years.

I've always felt that we mark some strange things with a party. The greatest gathering of all my friends in history will be after my funeral. Hmm.

I have to admit I didn't know about the Therapy Bell - a bell in the children's cancer ward at Bristol Children's Hospital which is rung by patients when they no longer require treatment. But it felt to me that it is a lovely thing to do. It is simple, momentous and appropriate. Bells also help us to remember that not everyone gets through cancer treatment.

It is good to mark that there is a tomorrow when previously there wasn't. And important for all of us to resolve that when the shadow of death falls across the lives of others we must not waste any of the precious time we still enjoy.

Have a happy Monday everybody.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Thought for the Day

As delivered at BBC Radio Bristol this morning after a brief plug for the Trendlewood Community Festival on August 26th:

I've heard fantastic singing in churches. Singing that would raise the roof. Surprisingly it is often best at funerals of church members. But not always.

A few years ago I was leading a funeral service. The atmosphere was low; the singing disappointing. The first hymn was The Lord's My Shepherd, a version of Psalm 23, to the well-known tune of Crimond.

We reached the end and I felt I had been singing largely solo throughout. The organist continued. No, I thought, he thinks there's another verse. Then I became aware that some people were singing, albeit quietly. The last verse. The verse I'd finished.

I got one of those adrenalin rushes you get when you know you've made a mistake. How many verses did I sing wrong? One? Two? All of them?

When you make a blunder the only thing to do, once you've established that somebody noticed, is to eat humble pie. I messed up. I fessed up.

It's 50 years since Bristol was rocked by the sound of the sonic boom as supersonic jet engines, which later powered Concorde, were tested over the city. The 'boom' damaged buildings.

The MOD even, I am told, paid compensation to a church whose roof cracked.

Churches have been part of the landscape of our city for many years. Many of them predate the bicycle, let alone sonic booms in the sky. They represent a time when the most up anybody could achieve was to climb the steeple.

Cracked roofs or dodgy singing vicars, churches represent an abiding hope in a God who was the shepherd of shepherds when King David wrote his psalm. And they remind us, if we heed it, to give glory to the God of sheep and technology; of buildings, planes and people.

Monday, August 07, 2017

Book Review

Slowly Downward by Stanley Donwood. This is a weird book. Well weird. Even the juxtaposition of author and title seems somehow not quite right but it is hard to pin down what is quite wrong.

The sub-title - A Collection of Miserable Stories - gives up the first secret. Amazon suggests '..clarity and minimalism like that of a haiku genetically spliced with propaganda leaflets and air-sickness-bag instructions.' This is the second, also telling us that Amazon reviewers are clever. The back cover includes a commendation from Thom Yorke and inside the cover we learn that the author has something to do with Radiohead's artwork. Ah, I see.

So we have a series of very short not really stories, more like ideas, any one of which a jobbing author should be able to mine for gold.

There is a lot of death, injury, hopelessness and general misery. To finish this review in the style...

I realised I couldn't write. In despair I walked to the kitchen, noticing the single word 'coffee' on the shopping board.

Monday, July 31, 2017


A number of you will already know that I have been granted a period of sabbatical leave in the autumn. Many colleagues have sent helpful wishes and comments; many others have expressed jealousy that this is not available in their line of work.

Without wishing to get over defensive, may I try to offer a brief summary of what and why.

Sabbath is essentially a biblical concept. We are encouraged to rest one day in seven. The root of the word can be found in Latin (sabbaticus), Greek (sabbaton) and Hebrew (shabbat). It is all about ceasing. But in the Hebrew Bible book of Leviticus the fields are to be given a rest one year in seven - a fallow, sabbath year.

Essentially rest is at the root of the idea. The fields get their breath back and they can grow more and better crops in future. People get their breath back and focus on their creator (today we have tended to separate a day of rest from a day of worship as people often only work five days a week). Organic farmers tend to use this system today. The late Nigel Lee, a colleague in Christian ministry, took great pride in telling me that he was spending his sabbatical doing almost nothing.

However the word does usually mean taking an extended period of leave in order to achieve some goal. In academia this might be travelling for research or writing a book.

When I worked at the Church Pastoral Aid Society (CPAS) I was granted two months leave from other duties to study contemporary culture. It was fascinating and different work but it still felt like work and I had to produce a long paper for my employers with recommendations for future behaviour in the light of my findings. This would have been in the late 1990s.

When I worked at St Paul's, Leamington I was granted an extended holiday as an acknowledgement that their over-use of my part-time hours had infringed on my other part-time work as a freelance writer and thus they gave me the hours back. I wrote full-time for that period in about 2005 or 6 for seven weeks.

I have had a sabbatical dangled before me for three years now. I have left the fruit on the tree twice. Once to get Trendlewood Church's independence completed. Once to get Andy's (our congregational plant joint with St Andrew's, Backwell) off the ground. As a neighbouring parish is in vacancy I considered postponing it once more but a wise archdeacon said there would always be reasons not to do it and they can drown the reasons to do it, so I should go for it.

If I am honest, after eleven years in the same job, I am a bit drained and need to fill myself again. Whatever your opinion of the necessity and style of full-time Christian ministry there can be few doubts that over the long term it is gruelling. I stood alone in front of an all-age congregation yesterday trying to get the dial to go up to eleven. It was tough. The tank's empty. The ideas are thin. I'm as tired as a pick your own rhetorical device.

I have had to devote a lot of extra time to making sure the things I normally do will be OK. Services are almost covered up to and beyond Christmas. Things I simply do without thinking about them (I have no secretarial or PA help here) such as our weekly communications and social media updates need not only to be passed on but others need to be trained in them.

So now, after thirty three years of ordained ministry, I am taking three months, from September 11th - December 10th inclusive. I intend to write. I have two books conceived and hope to finish one of them. Neither currently has a publisher although I have some contacts and have had  three previous books published. One is a spiritual book about the nature of faith; the other a novel.

I am looking forward to this with a sense of purpose and guilt. I know there are others who work hard who don't get the opportunity - although these days many demanding jobs offer career breaks in the contract and pay enough for these to be affordable. I will try not to waste the time. I accept that it is a privilege. Thank you if you have contributed to making it possible.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Thought for the Day

As delivered at BBC Radio Bristol this morning:

'Our youth love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority, disrespect for older people. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble their food and tyrannise their teachers.'

So said Socrates in the sixth century BCE.

So the police have sent out guidance to schools to pass on to parents about anti social behaviour during the summer holidays.

Where I grew up a ditch separated the back gardens of two rows of houses behind my home. One game was trying to get from the bottom of the hill to the top by navigating the ditch, occasionally crossing gardens when it became private property.

In the school holidays my friend and I tried to do this but reached a garden where an owner was outside.

Waiting on the corrugated roof of a shed for the coast to be clear (as you do) I became aware of a creaking sound. This turned to a cracking noise and I plummeted into the shed through the collapsing roof.

A belated apology to the owners of number approximately 24 Serpentine Road for the shed reduction provision.

Most of us did something in our teenage years that, if caught, would have seen us charged with anti-social behaviour.

The school holidays are times for exploring barriers - adventures stopping one short of mischief. We will do well to occupy our children's time with activity. Writer Garrison Keillor praised:

'Selective ignorance, a cornerstone of child-rearing. You don't put kids under surveillance: it might frighten you. Parents should sit tall in the saddle and look upon their troops with a noble and benevolent and extremely near-sighted gaze.'

If you are without sin please feel free to cast the first stone.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017


This paper tissue bears a single word. It is the punch-line of my best joke ever.

TCMT was finding her holiday sleep disturbed by a noisy dog.

She purchased some ear plugs to help her sleep better.

She later asked if the dog was barking because she couldn't hear it.

I said it was not barking, currently.

She couldn't hear me.

An hour later, when the dog began barking, I woke her up and showed her the tissue.

Monday, July 17, 2017


I have caught up with a few sci-fi films recently such as Interstellar and The Martian, but Arrival was the best of the bunch. Why?

Well let me ask you a question. Have you ever met someone so unaware of world geography that they might say something such as, 'I wouldn't want to go to Africa because I don't speak African.'

So the premise of this film is that when life forms from another world arrive they may not come in a single craft to explore, or as an invasion fleet to attack. They might come in a small fleet and all distribute themselves around the earth.

The 'arrival' happens in the opening scenes after a brief back-story concerning the lead character, a linguist called Loiuse Banks, which we need to know. And the different nations that are visited engage in various ways and are reluctant to share their learning.

It occurs to me that I hope someone, somewhere has drawn the conclusion that if we are ever visited by another world the only response possible and sensible is a peaceful one. Any life form that has worked out how to do space travel will, we must assume, have vastly superior weapons technology.

Note also, in passing, that we should discard old ideas very slowly. On entering an alien space craft the team need to know if the atmosphere, which appears OK, will harm them at all. So they take a budgie.

And if we ever get to a planet with intelligent life on it we might bear in mind that more than one race might live there and some of them may be welcoming and some not.

Made I think.

Saturday, July 08, 2017

A Word about Warning

Warnings about Brexit recession were wrong

It behoves those of us who try to write from time to time to be very careful criticising misuse of language for we can be very sure we will be the next to be guilty. On the basis that when I err I try really hard to take it on the chin, permit me a grumble.

Here's a bit of dialogue:

Dad: If you don't look both ways before you cross the road you'll get knocked down by a car.

(three years later)

Dad: Hello son. You haven't been knocked down by a car. I see my warning was wrong.

Now. Can we all pick some holes in that please. Good. The son was not incredibly lucky. Nor was the warning wrong. More than likely a change in behaviour prevented the thing being warned about from happening.

A prediction can be proved wrong. A prophecy (if time limited) can be judged false. A warning is designed to change behaviour so as to avoid the thing that might happen. It isn't wrong if it works.

Few warnings about Brexit recession were couched in a time-frame. It is possible, maybe even likely, that important people have taken action to adjust economic behaviour in order to avoid recession.

So the warnings weren't wrong.

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

The Emotions of Voting

Slightly longer essay today, addressing a question I have been pondering since last year.

I have been voting since 1973. So I have been trying to have a think. About how people feel. You see I am part of the liberal chattering classes. People who talk about stuff and enjoy doing it. And our political views tend to cluster around the centre. I have a lot of time for the Owen Joneses and Paul Masons of this world and the way they argue their cases. They may have seen something in anti-establishment post-capitalism that others have missed. If they are right the whole edifice of political understanding is going to topple in the next few months/years. At minimum they are on the side of the poor and that's no bad place to be.

But for the sake of this piece I want to use a working assumption that the people who think and talk about stuff balance each other out. It's good to talk. But getting an emotional change is important.

What have been the emotional turning points of the many elections I have witnessed?

In 1974 I lived in a true blue Conservative household. My parents ran fundraisers and were personal friends with our MP for Birmingham, Selly Oak, Harold Gurden. Another Harold, Wilson, had been PM 1964-1970, and was seen as the enemy by my parents and their friends. Wilson won a small victory (a minority government ensued). A West Indian, vox-popped on the TV news said he was voting Labour because it was '...about time someone got rid of pompous Mr Heath.' Heath wasn't awful but the wage demands he faced were gob-smacking. As a classical music conductor and highly experienced yachtsman he had leisure interests that were not exactly working class. I think the emotional trigger was indeed pomposity, perceived rather than real.

Wilson went to the country again later that year and came away with a very small majority of 3.

I had voted once aged 18 and once at 19.

In 1975 an advisory referendum was held re continued membership of the European Economic Community. Do you know I simply can't be certain how I voted, if at all. My views were probably swayed by my parents although I recall a vociferous geography teacher who I respected. I recall him. But not his views.

I voted Tory one more time in 1979 helping bring Thatcher to power. The trigger was those Saatchi and Saatchi posters showing dole queues - 'Labour isn't working'. That the unemployment figures never fell, were never that low again during Thatcher's rule and communities were devastated emotionally made it very hard for me to ever vote Tory again. I felt duped by about 1982.

But the left couldn't pull it back. In response to the '79 election Michael Foot took Labour away from the centre left. In 1982 Mrs Thatcher sent a task-force to win an unlikely military victory over Argentina in the Falklands and Foot was derided for wearing a donkey jacket at the Cenotaph. He didn't, but I think the newspaper reports that he did were the moment he lost in 1983.

The centre-left fell apart and some departed Labour. David Owen, Bill Rodgers, Shirley Williams and Roy Jenkins formed the Social Democratic Party and the 1987 election was Thatcher's third consecutive victory. Neil Kinnock pulled Labour back to centre-left and resisted the advance of the SDP, they in election alliance with the Liberal Party. He won more seats but it was still a Tory landslide. Those SDP/Lib votes cost Labour a few marginals. I voted SDP in one which the Tories won by 300 or so. I was rebuked by my Labour-voting friends. The popular press convinced swing voters that Labour was soft on defence, still riffing on Cold War themes. I can recall no one image that achieved this but I read that one Sun headline was 'Why I'm backing Kinnock, by Stalin'. An abiding image of Kinnock, which I still have in my head but couldn't date, was of him walking on the beach with his wife and being knocked over escaping a small wave. Turns out this was in October 1983 when he was elected leader of the Labour Party. It was used against him a lot.

Which gets us to 92. Thatcher had gone, knifed by her own party in 1990, and John Major was in. Against all odds he won. He went around the country with a soapbox and met people. Kinnock got a bit presidential. At a huge campaign event at Sheffield arena he went for the fist-pumping instead of a statesmanlike entrance. In his own words 'I inhaled'. He believed he had won and forgot to do the things that had got him to almost winning. Again the Sun hit him hard 'Will the last person in Britain please turn the lights out' they headlined. There was a massive swing to Labour but not enough. The pollsters were wrong (unusual then). But the small Tory majority of 20 disappeared in several by-elections and they couldn't shake the accusation of being sleaze-ridden. They hung on for five years, during which Major offered to accept a leadership challenge which he fought off. The emotions of the campaign, and the time leading up to it, was that eighteen years of Tory rule had run its course. Tony Blair won a landslide in 1997 having rebranded his party New Labour and convinced the city and the Murdoch press that he was to be trusted.

Quite soon afterwards he had a chance to express the feelings of the nation and he found the expression 'The People's Princess' to describe Diana, Princess of Wales after she died. He seemed to be able to do this regularly although once, commenting on breakthroughs in Irish politics he said 'This is not a time for sound-bites; I feel the hand of history on my shoulder.'

In 2001 Blair won a quieter landslide (he lost five seats) in a low turnout election. William Hague was the leader of the Conservatives at this time. I think the country looked at him and saw a number of set-piece images of someone who didn't look prime-ministerial. The emotional memory I have stored is of Hague and his advisors wearing team Hague baseball caps and getting wet at an amusement park water-ride.

Until the Iraq war New Labour was quietly getting on with things. Trusted but not loved. In 2005 they saw their majority cut from 160 - 66. The Conservatives under Michael 'Are you thinking what we're thinking' Howard picked up some seats but the anti-war votes passed to the Lib Dems under Charles Kennedy, a popular figure. The Lib Dems picked up 22% of the popular vote (6 million votes) but it produced a disproportionate number of seats at 62. What would they give for 62 seats now after their 2015 wipe-out?

The much-heralded passing of the Prime Ministerial baton to Gordon Brown took place in 2007. I always felt his dour manner and partial-sightedness were not in any way relevant to his ability. Indeed I recall him breaking his first holiday after many months, on day two, to chair the response to a new outbreak of foot and mouth. That it was contained (unlike the previous outbreak) was hardly reported. Then came the financial crash. It is clear that Brown and a few other key players took some emergency decisions that averted an international financial meltdown. That the Cameron Conservative campaign in 2010 managed to pin him with responsibility for the recession that followed, rather than foolhardy investment bankers, led to his downfall. That and, in my opinion, the  moment when he was rude about a woman he had just met whilst not aware he was still mic'd up. She didn't hear his insult but a journalist felt it was in the public interest to make sure it was delivered to her. I would have liked to have experienced a longer Brown premiership.

But the country had still not turned to the Tories. They managed to form a government in coalition with Nick Clegg's Lib Dems who had kept their 22%, increased their vote by another million, and lost 5 seats. Go figure.

The coalition lasted a full five years but Lib Dem supporters never forgave Clegg for campaigning on no university tuition fees and then surrendering that pledge in coalition. In 2015 Cameron got a small majority, the Lib Dems lost all but 8 of their seats and the Scottish National Party wiped out Labour (distancing itself from New Labour now) in Scotland. If a country gets an image to wrestle with it was one of Labour leader Ed Milliband eating a bacon sandwich badly. Which of us could say that a photographer would always catch us eating daintily? It contributes to the behaviour of those seeking election, whilst in the public eye, being far from normal. Would you want a man with sauce on his chin leading the country? Well? That was what the election came down to. That and the Ed stone, about which the less said the better.

During the coalition a referendum was taken on introducing an alternative vote system. Laughably it was argued that first past the post produces strong government.

In 2016 the referendum on leaving the European Union took place. It was an appalling campaign. The energy was with those who wanted what came to be known as Brexit because it is much easier to campaign for change than to keep things the same. Even though most people don't like change but this may have been about changing back. A campaign for Scottish independence had failed roughly 55% to 45%. But the much reproduced lie, written on the side of a campaign bus driven round the country and on a leaflet posted through my door even on the day of the referendum long after it had been denounced and disowned, that £350m a week could be given to the NHS rather than the EU, seemed to convince the electorate. The outcome to leave 51.8% to 48.2% showed a divided country. And thus it has remained.

Cameron resigned. None of the leading lights of Brexit stood for leadership and a staunch remainer became PM. A year later Mrs May went to the country to seek a stronger mandate to negotiate and lost her majority completely. Emotionally her lack of emotion, spontaneity or encounter with real people hurt her. She also produced a manifesto that many of her party did not contribute to. She chugged out bland phrases -strong and stable; Brexit means Brexit - Jeremy Corbyn, fighting his first General Election as Labour leader got out and about and seemed to speak human.

And now, in 2017, we have a minority government, propped up by the 8 seats of the Ulster Unionists. We don't know how Brexit negotiations will go. We suspect that the majority view in the country has changed to remain (which would only involve 2 in 100 changing their minds). And we worry that the nasty, anti-foreigner sub-class is being fed false hope for its obnoxious views.

Obviously there was far more going on than these freeze-frame moments; but for me they carried more weight than a single image or incident ever should have done.

I read recently that the part of our brain which is activated when we are physically threatened is the same part that lights up when when long-held views are challenged. Our response to argument is therefore based on flight or fight. Anyone who has faced vehement opposition in debate only to discover later that the opponent has quietly changed their mind will be familiar with this.

What does it mean for campaigning? Big adverts, lie or not, don't change the minds of any but they cement the views of the already loyal. Mind-changing happens when there is an emotional breakthrough. When I look at someone and decide I can trust them.

There is some irony in the fact that Jeremy Corbyn, who campaigned for Remain but was criticised for failing to put his heart and soul into it, may only be able to put his renationalisation and subsidisation social democracy into effect outside the constraints of the EU. But he is hoovering up votes from young people who were 75/25% Remainers.

It is worth remembering that a liberal was originally a free person. Liberal chatter was that which was denied to the owned, to slaves, for fear that if educated in liberal ways they might realise a way out and learn to organise themselves.

Those of us who love being part of Europe, in more than just name but in Union, are wondering how it came to this. And what we can do about it. Our emotions are more stirred than at any time in our personal history.

When the Lights Went Out

Andy Beckett's longish book is a history of Britain in the 1970s. Having lived through that decade, aged 14-24, it was fascinating to understand more of what was going on.

Becket sets out the dark days of the seventies - strikes, power cuts, three day weeks - against the backdrop of a country trying to learn to live within its means and using public sector (much larger in those days) pay restraint as its only real tool. No-one had a huge majority in that decade. Heath had 30 in 1970. Wilson had a minority government in the first half of 1974 and then, in a second election on the same year, a precarious majority of 3. No-one was quite sure what would happen in '79 but  Thatcher came out on top over a Callaghan administration that had become, by the end, closer to New Labour than socialism. She won with a majority of 43. The combination of luck, a memorable campaign and a tiredness that left a desire for change, led to a decade of change - some drastic and much-needed but some cruel and unnecessary.

It was a decade of IRA terrorism, inflation and industrial unrest and where monetarism pushed post-war Keynsian economics aside.

Beckett uses archive material well but also travels extensively interviewing those players who are still alive and sensible. He was researching and writing 2003-2008 and the book was published in 2009, his conclusion being set in the days of the banking crisis.

Someone once said that to prophesy is difficult, especially regarding the future. Someone else said that the only good test of a prophet is whether or not their words come true.

This is bang on:

'The Liberal Democrats, their shadow chancellor Vince Cable apart, are rather timid, over-disciplined, and close to the Tories in many of their ideas.' Less than two years later they were bed-fellows for five years.

But how hard it is to learn from history. This paragraph didn't see Brexit coming:

'These days Britons no longer mourn their empire. They are more comfortably European. They are more relaxed about race, sexuality and gender.' Really?

Some of us wonder if the lights might not go out again, soon.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Holiday Reading

So here are the books I read on holiday. I remind readers that the score is an indication of how much I enjoyed reading them as part of my holiday; not a mark for literature, ground-breaking thinking or great prose.

The Visitor - Lee Child (7)
Start your holiday reading with a light page-turner. I will eventually have read all the Jack Reacher books and will have to wait in the airport lounge bookshop of doom for an annual fix until the franchise is over. Meantime 500 pages pass in the blink of an eye and we do eventually find out who is killing people in baths full of army-issue green paint. And why.

Razor Girl - Carl Hiassen (7)
Another author I will read completely. In fact I am up to date and this is the latest Florida-based thriller comedy full of trademark grotesques. Disgraced cop now food inspector Andrew Yancy, failing to observe the requirement to butt out, investigates a weird kidnapping. If it exists you'll never want to eat in Key West.

Breakfast at Tiffany's - Truman Capote (6)
Ignorant me had seen the movie but never read the book. Discovered it wasn't even a book but a short story and, to be honest, I enjoyed the other, shorter stories in this collection more than the eponymous longer one (more a novella). They were:

House of Flowers
A Diamond Guitar
A Christmas memory

Each genuinely short, perfectly constructed and nicely delivered.

But back to  Holly Golightly. She wanders across the pages. We don't really know what she is up to, how she makes her money, where she is from or where she is going. But our narrator is infatuated with her - probably because of the mystery. Even her door plate says 'travelling' where an occupation might have been expected. She is cool, chic, sophisticated - yet a glimpse into her bedroom reveals a laundry disaster. Intriguing. 

Sisterland - Curtis Sittenfeld (8)
My second book by this female author. I love her style, the way she builds a tale, the slow reveal of a thing and yet a page-turner. Twin sisters with an unusual gift - but they don't both exploit it. And an interesting (parallel) reminder that prophecy is useless without context, assessment and validation.

Capital - John Lanchester (9)
My favourite book of the holiday. John Lanchester wrote a wonderful guide to the financial crash of 2007/8 called Whoops! Clearly at the same time he was constructing this novel as the various residents of a London street have their lives affected by the same. A fascinating insight into economic migration, family relationships, the history of houses and the ultimate inter-connectedness of all things.

The Sellout - Paul Beatty (7)
I like to read Booker prize winners to see what the fuss is about. And this is incredibly clever; a satire on racism. Seeing his town wiped off the map our narrator aims to put it back on by re-introducing segregation; harder even than it sounds in an apparently all-black neighbourhood. It is a commentary of contemporary USA. I maybe got half the jokes (but they were excellent). I particularly loved one riff on why white people's skin-tones are never described in the detail given to people of all other colours. But it didn't quite hold my attention all the time. Hard work for the beach. I'd commend it for study more than holiday reading and for that would give it a 10/10.

Julian Barnes - Talking It Over (7)
The three members of a love-triangle take it in turns to narrate their position. Sometimes you can see something coming, know it isn't right and yet can't change the direction or pace of the circumstances. A reflection might follow on the inevitability of sin.

Amusing Ourselves to Death - Neil Postman (8)
Writing in the mid 80s Postman (no longer with us) reflects on what TV has done to the way we process information. Sesame Street didn't, he says, teach kids to love education; it taught them to love television. So eventually the news became entertainment. He looks back at the days of the nineteenth century when presidential debates could last eight hours and an audience were comfortable with this. As we live in the age of social media it behoves us to reflect if this is having another, major effect on the way we think.

As I publish I am halfway through I Am Charlotte Simmons by the excellent Tom Wolfe. Looks like a 10 to me but I only managed 350 of the 700 pages before the end of holiday rudely interrupted.

Thought for the Day

I sit on the editorial panel of a small magazine. Our regular meeting was yesterday. We were thinking about the next issue's theme - Hope in Uncertain Times.

There can be no doubt we live in uncertain times. On an international stage we are uncertain about future European relationships, threats from terrorism and climate change.

On a national stage we are uncertain we have provided safe housing for many who live in high-rise blocks with modern exterior cladding.

The local issues with which BBC Radio Bristol regularly deal include, today, uncertainty about care for sick children, provision of accident and emergency care in hospitals and the protection of an ancient tree.


Yet certainty is often less available than we think. I took for granted that this studio chair would take my weight. That the journey in would last the regular length. Emma trusts her alarm clock day by day (although her Twitter followers know how she feels about getting up). But there is no certainty.

We all live a little bit by faith, hope, trust. Without it we would disappear into a black hole of checking and double-checking. Checking everything all the time. Never trusting anyone or anything.

The Christian story is of a man who put his trust in God to such an extent that he died refusing to believe that this was anything other than God's will. Abandoned to die on a cross. Yet somehow still part of the plan.

Those of us who follow that man, Jesus Christ, must determine to do all we can to bring hope in uncertain times, to be servant as well as supervisor, good news when news is bad and light in the darkness. And that is the Gospel my friends.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Slender Blender

When TCMT worked in furniture retail I have to confess that occasional bargains came our way having been returned by dissatisfied customers when the product was really OK. I am sitting on a fine leather sofa as I type (heavily discounted) and am looking at a set of dining room chairs which came out at about £9 each. We have fourteen of them. A dear, late-lamented member of this parish once broke one and, trying to be kind, got a quote for £90 to fix it. We passed.

TCMT has moved to a kitchenware outlet. We'll preserve its modesty and call it Pond Country. She has to wear an outfit that can best be described as Dolly Parton's away strip.

Now I am the proud owner of all sorts of devices I had learned to do without by failing to be aware of their existence. Garlic skinner. Herb stripper. Perforated cling-film. An unsqueezable mop. I own these things. They are not all entirely without merit.

But. But. But. The deal with the returned items at the new employer is this. Refunded mail order products are sold by enveloped bid to staff and the money goes to charity (cool).

One such product was a Vitamix. This is the DeLorean of blenders. If there are moments in your day when your ornaments move along the shelf of their own volition and then something drowns out the local airport then maybe your neighbour has one.

Being a bit cheeky as the product costs £500 - a moment's silence while we note that there are people who pay this much for a thing that makes food smaller - we agreed to bid £80. We now own a Vitamix.

This baby turns fruit and ice cubes into sorbet. My stale bread has never been so quickly crumbed. On full power I swear it would make you a smoothie out of avocado stones, mango cores and paving slab without breaking sweat. And when you've finished? Fill it with warm water and a dash of washing up liquid and it cleans its own crevices. It comes with a plastic rod to push stuff down if the blades are not engaging but it is designed so that it is impossible to blend that. And I tried.

Jesus clearly hadn't anticipated the existence of the Vitamix when he said it was difficult to get a camel through the eye of a needle.

There is a 'pulse' button. I haven't needed it yet but if you are an amateur seismographer you'll probably know when I do.

I think I am in love with a piece of kitchenware. But I do miss my mop.

Thought for the Day

As delivered at BBC Radio Bristol this morning:

'We never heard a rabbi with such authority', said the people who had the privilege of listening to Jesus teaching.

'Your ideas are strange', said the people who listened to St Paul preach in Athens. 'We want to hear some more.'

We want to hear some more.

I too learn by listening. Maybe you could have guessed that from someone who is clearly friends with the radio. But it was a while before I grasped it.

Recently I've been listening to a lot of podcasts - TED talks, back editions of science programmes and radio shows. Not everyone wearing headphones is listening to music. I actually feel I'm getting smarter as I walk along. Insert your own punchline.

I love the fact that Tom Pearson, physics teacher at Nailsea school, has a chance to experience astronaut training in Alabama. Tom has a podcast. And writing about that, amongst other things, helped get him selected for his training experience which will help him as an educator. That and the NASA flight suit he will get to keep.

For all the fantastic advances in teaching methodology there is little substitute for listening to someone being interesting about something you know little about and they love. It may also explain our enduring love for John Noakes and Blue Peter.

I'm no scientist. But I enjoy listening to those who are. And maybe one of the secrets of being a parish priest for many years is enjoying hearing people's stories. We all love to listen to well-informed and passionate people. And everyone is well-informed and passionate about themselves.

A wise mentor once told me that the reason we have two ears and one mouth is so we can do twice as much listening as talking. So I'll shut up. Thanks for listening.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

How Much Longer?

Here's a thing. Those of us, not just Christians, who look round churches and cathedrals from time to time, have all seen boards listing the names of office-holders. Previous Rectors and former Church-Wardens are often ornately charted, carved in wood or occasionally set in stone.

Two things grate.

Firstly, when the board has clearly not been updated professionally. A fine calligrapher has listed every parish priest since Norman times, from (I'll invent these) Roger de Sainbillier (1075-1091) to Fred Smith (1999-2004) and then the latest name, Jenny Jones, is added in a childish scrawl of attempted mimicry. It's helpful social history of the backgrounds and genders of the clergy, but a terrible witness to care and attention.

Secondly, when a relatively recent new 'honour's board' has been produced with a distinct lack of imagination as to how many more vicars of this parish will be installed. The list goes from the sixteenth century and leaves space for three more. It's a comment on the parish's vision for the future.

Future rants may include:

  • Portraits in vestries of previous clergy demonstrating the approximate date of the invention of colour photography.
  • Acclamations of the three hour ringing of a double-back handed quarter muffled peel on the accession of some long-forgotten monarch.
  • Memorial brass plaques thanking a generous benefactor for a gift that is no longer in use. Spirit duplicator. Overhead projector. Microphone system. That sort of thing.
  • Cuddly toys of a grubby nature in children's area that carry the likelihood of several communicable diseases and may explain a lack of children in church.

I'll get on with my work now.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Broadcasting to the Nation

Not unconnected to the ear problem, now sorted, I struggled with my headphones recently. The volume seemed particularly low even though it was at max. Deafness creeping in?

I ran a quick test as to whether one ear was better than the other by taking each ear-piece out in turn. The sound was very faint either side. But I noticed one strange thing. For a brief moment, when one ear-piece slipped in my grasp, I had nothing in either ear and yet could still hear.

Ladies and gentlemen I solved the problem by inserting the jack into the socket just a little bit more. After a click the sound now came out of the earphones rather then my pocket.

For many hundreds of metres I had been broadcasting to the nation the hip and happening sound of a podcast of BBC Radio Four's science programme The Infinite Monkey Cage.

I am so cool.

Sunday, May 14, 2017


In case there are those who do not follow my live tweets/FB on Eurovision here is the feed from last night. Thanks to those who joined in.

Happy to be offering the usual service of watching #Eurovision2017 so you don't have to. Expect sincerity without diplomacy.

'Expect repetitive flashing images'; music not dissimilar #Eurovision2017

Did everyone get the 'wear black or white' memo? Who was meant to tell Spain? #Eurovision2017

Comedy timing hard in a second language - don't think timing is all our three hosts need though #Eurovision2017

Let's start out with depress mode #Israel feels alive? a liar? a lot? #Eurovision2017

'No one has ever won from position number 2.' Song and dress mainly see-through plus wind, smoke and fiddler #Poland #Eurovision2017

Predicted text prefers walrus to #Belarus hey hey hi i i o o #Eurovision2017

Running on air you can push me down but I'll just get up again. How that work? #Austria #Eurovision2017

#Armenia #Eurovision2017 Already forgotten it. Will probably win.

And welcome the key change please. Big voices. #Netherlands #Eurovision2017

Dresses which got bigger. There's a novelty. Mamma mamma don't bistro now #Moldova #Eurovision2017

Lone dancer, lone fiddler, flames, rap in native tongue and Gareth Bale's missing topknot #Hungary #Eurovision2017

I'm sure those backdrop images were on my doctor's wall yesterday. One or two words in Italian. Dreadful. #Italy #Eurovision2017

Never ever wear a frock in a waterfall. You won't have to sing 'You know where I am' #Denmark #Eurovision2017

Please return my jacket to 1986 and the song to My Fair Lady #Portugal #Eurovision2017

A ladder, a chalkboard and a song about a skeleton. Man with animal head at top of ladder. What could go wrong? #Azerbaijan #Eurovision2017

A man of many parts. None of them small. #Croatia #Eurovision2017

Who knew eyebrow paint was a thing? Everyone has it. But only #Australia have clown shoes and a love that don't come cheap #Eurovision2017

That's the worst response to 'Guys, give yourselves a cheer' I have ever heard #Eurovision2017

The Eurobynumbers department decrees an annual 'throw everything at it' tune. #Greece #Eurovision2017

Never heard it before and got the drum-join bang on. Clap your hands and do it for your lover. #Spain #Eurovision2017

When changing key always agree the key to change to #Eurovision2017

#Norway #Eurovision2017 When it's all or nuffin, put your nerves in the coffin. Cool.

Here's the Brexit test. OK but Midge Ure did it better #UK #Eurovision2017

Let me be your gravity. Science lesson needed. Song not without merit. #Cyprus #Eurovision2017

Rap and yodel. No. Come back. Come back. #Romania #Eurovision2017

The four favourite Euro chords - rhythm Every Breath You Take by The Police. Stands a chance. #Germany #Eurovision2017

Band piercing a plenty. Song less so. Heavy man. #Ukraine #Eurovision2017

Quite under-stated. Nice. Bit like a theme tune to scandinoir #Belgium #Eurovision2017

Is it OK to say frickin? #Eurovision2017

Frickin slick or is it freakin? Tune Beverley Hills Flop #Sweden #Eurovision2017

Quite an accomplished performance for 17. Stands a chance. #Bulgaria #Eurovision2017

Changed direction faster than a Compass in a magnet factory. Legs should win some votes. #France #Eurovision2017

Well done Ukraine for hammering through 26 songs in two hours #Eurovision2017

We're still loved by Iceland then. Trying to hold off the cod war #Eurovision2017

I think a new tension-cranking device has been introduced #Eurovision2017

To finish, I was delighted to spot that Bulgaria stood a chance. They came second. Had no idea that Portugal would walk it. Enjoyed the new voting system so you genuinely don't know who will be winning until right near the end.

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

The Latest Book Review Ever

In the mid 1970s, probably staying up to watch football and waiting for it to come on, I caught what must have been an early version of the Late Review or Newsnight Review. Given that my house was a liberal chattering classes free zone I had never watched the programme before. Anyone invited round who was not a true blue Conservative was explained to me before and afterwards, 'Well they are socialists you know', as if that made everything they said and did irrelevant. They probably lived in one of the slightly cheaper detached houses on the other side of the road and lectured at the university.

And that night one of the books being reviewed was Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I can't recall much of the discussion except that my interest was caught. I don't think I knew that books could have titles like this.

I did nothing about it.

Fast forward ten years. In that time I had moved out, married, had two children and headed off to train for the ordained ministry. I wasn't much of a studier. Scary. I worked out how to write acceptable essays and pass exams. I captained the football team, co-wrote a musical, met some people who were actually politically engaged and I enjoyed their company.

How little I knew myself then. I swear that, given my character and knowing what I now know, if you had deposited me in college for three years and told me to find out what I thought I needed to know to be ordained I would have made a fist of it.

The study days I remember best, and learned most from, were those when there was no essay to be produced or exam to be passed. They were days when I pursued reading on a subject that had made me curious.

One such day was the day, browsing in the library, I came across Robert M. Pirsig's book. There probably was an essay deadline on something else looming but I would have had an intuitive sense that it was not so near that I couldn't take some time out to skim this book.

As I recall I read the first page standing at the shelves, the first chapter back at my upstairs library study cubicle and the whole book pretty quickly.

As a Christian with a conversion experience I had already had my life changed more than most and, if I'm honest, more than I wanted. Yet here was I reading a book with a sub-title:

This book will change the way you think and feel about your life

I think the Christian truth that sometimes you need to wait, hope, rest and pray came home to me more deeply by reading this book than it had through years of Bible study. It taught me what Rob Bell today calls punk wisdom. If you can't make sense of the information coming at you don't hide - take in some more. If the Director wanted you to know what that scene was about she would have told you. The greatest skill available to anyone, for free, is that of observing the surroundings and making connections.

I don't like motor cycles. I like the way Pirsig describes taking them apart. He likes looking around at the scenery as he rides long. I like looking out of the window. Sometimes, when I do that, I catch a glimpse into my soul. It's not that bad.

Pirsig died recently. Here's a key thought. It's a life-changer. He discusses fixing his bike. At the top of the page of notes (it can be an imaginary page) he writes:

Problem: fix bike's electrical system

This is a mistake, he says. Even if he is 90% certain that the problem is in the electrical system and it is the first thing he is going to check, he may have taken a major wrong turning. He should write (and again the page can be imaginary):

Problem; fix bike

Followed by:

Theory 1; check electrics

Then, when he finds the electrics working, he won't have run out of ideas.

The same sort of thinking applies (I now apply this thinking) to idea-generating. If a group of people are bouncing ideas around do not put the first idea generated in the top left hand corner of the flip-chart page. If you do that you impose an order on the ideas that, psychologically, suggest that the best one comes first. Start in the middle and work out. Make the connections and collate after all ideas are out. If you are doing an ideas-generating session without a flip-chart or other visual display I can't help you any more.

I have more important things to do than write this piece but, as it happens, while I was writing it one of the problems I should have been attending to solved itself and went away.

I described myself as a Zen-Christian once, this upset some people from the Hezbollah wing of the Church of England so I stopped.

But hear this from chapter 25:

I think that if we are going to reform the world, and make it a better place to live in, the way to do it is not with talk about relationships of a political nature,...

...or with programs full of things for other people to do,...

...The place to improve the world is first in one's own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there.

Christian sentiment; Zen expression.

Oh and this. If you believe in the ultimate inter-connectedness of all things. Yesterday there was a bit of fuss on the news about a female red-winged blackbird that had accidentally found its way across the Atlantic to the Scottish Isles. I just re-read page 1 of the book and there is a father trying to impress his eleven year old son by pointing out a red-winged blackbird. The son is unimpressed.

Five years after reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance I became a bit interested in birds. Female red-winged blackbirds don't have red wings.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Thought for the Day

One of those days where, due to traffic, I dashed into the studio and delivered and then dashed out again. Time on the road 85 minutes. Time at BBC Radio Bristol - 8 minutes.

'Amen, Amen.'

Or to translate. 'Truly, truly.'

Jesus was fond of the phrase 'Truly, truly, I say to you.' In the Bible he uses it to respond to old teaching.

'You have heard it said... but I say to you...'

There have been a lot of falsehoods peddled in campaigning recently.

Brexit campaigners offered £350m to the NHS.

President Trump denies climate change is a thing.

Both lies. Soundly disproved.

Elections for the role of Metro-Mayor take place on Thursday - with the candidates promising new bus schemes, travel plans, car shares and more.

What is the status of a promise? Only one candidate ever gets to deliver on their promises. Those not elected can shelve their promises for another few years.

Meanwhile the one elected, cynical me says, has to work out how to ease back on any of the more grandiose pledges made whilst electioneering.

Christians don't, of course, have a monopoly on the truth but we can point to one who claimed to be the truth. And the central attribute of understanding yourself as a Christian is not to get your identity from any earthly structure or promise but from Jesus.

For humans can be unreliable. Can lie. Can let us down. And if we get our identity from people we follow or support we will suffer a crisis when they disappoint.

An identity based outside this world's structures, treasure in heaven and citizenship based there, strangely keeps our feet on the ground. For when I am empty and nothing; then God can use me here. For I rely not on my own strength but on the one who strengthens me. And that's the truth.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Thought for the Day

As delivered at BBC Radio Bristol an hour ago:

One of the ideas most commonly used by members of the Christian community for their experience is that of a journey.

I am here. And I want to get there.

I was looking for something and I found it.

We have just celebrated Easter, the culmination of Jesus' journey and the promise of resurrection. A final destination if ever there was one.

It is true, of course, that at the time the Bible was written, journeys were complicated. The fastest you could get anywhere was on the back of an animal. A trip of ten miles needed planning. If it required walking then there and back took a day.

Today we can get Chinese food to take away and vaccines to cure illnesses - all in the seeming blink of an eye. Isn't it interesting that so many of our stories on the show this morning are about journeying? Taxis to get home from the railway station. Bus or rail links to the airport. And yet those we call 'travellers' find themselves with a bad reputation.

What can we conclude?

Well when I was a child I was impatient. 'Are we nearly there yet?' the rear-passenger chorus line.

When I was a young adult I thought I had arrived and knew everything.

Now I'm getting on I realise that I probably won't change the world but I can make a difference and I don't have to rush.

The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard was right when he said 'Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.'

Which is me finished and left with a day's journey to two school assemblies in an hour's time. Isn't progress great?

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Let's Agree to Disagree

I am quite happy to agree to disagree with you about the identity of the greatest band of all time, the location of the finest restaurant in the known universe and, at a push, the best way to drive from Nailsea to Wells although on the latter your logic may be at fault but I'll let it go. Preferences are simply that. No one person's favourite necessarily has to be everyone else's.

But the other day my timeline on Facebook was invaded by this:

And the person posting had said 'Onwards and upwards, lets make Brexit successful.'

I posted:

OK I'll rise to it:

1. We were and still are.
2. We just jumped ship from an agreement by 27 states to agree to play by the same rules (I should have said 28).
3. Glad you agree it's not fair now. Shall we take more refugees?
4. We were and still (just about) are.

To which I received the reply:

We'll have to agree to disagree on this one, obviously I'm very happy with the referendum result along with 17,410,740 voters.

I gave up with a:

Don't I know it.

But I don't agree to disagree. I disagree. I made, I thought, clear and valid objections. And in those circumstances I'd like to hear reasoned, or even emotional, arguments for why you are right and I am wrong.

Sometimes it's necessary but 'Let's agree to disagree' is too often lazy. And that Conservative poster is not a plan for Britain. It's a bunch of meritless slogans and emotive catch-phrases at best. In its suggestion that everything is endlessly broken apart from when the Conservatives are in power it is nasty, demeaning, passive-aggressive rallying.

I don't pretend that other parties all behave fine. Not for a minute do I do that. But I insist that sloganeering codswallop followed by 'Let's agree to disagree' is no way to demonstrate to the world how to use social media well and wisely. It's the equivalent of shouting over the wall and running off.

Next time you shout over my wall be very afraid. I might invite you in for a cup of tea and a chat. I'd like to listen to your reason.