Thursday, November 08, 2018

Thought for the Day

Apologies for minimalist posting here recently. Got a bit swamped in admin if I'm honest. I can do a brilliant job of the day to day admin of ministry unless some family admin intervenes, on top of which bleaugh for the last three days. Anyway, managed to squeak out a TFTD at BBC Radio Bristol this morning and here it is:

The Bible is big on remembering. A theme of the Hebrew scriptures, what Christians call the Old Testament, is the assumption that if things have gone badly people must have neglected the Law. And vice versa.

In a shorter piece called 'History Lesson' the poet Steve Turner wrote:

History repeats itself.
Has to.
No-one listens.

This week we move clumsily from one piece of recall:

Remember, remember the 5th of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot

To another:

At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them

Are we listening to history?

My Dad joined the RAF in 1941 aged 17. He could fly before he could drive. He flew Wellington bombers and Dakota passenger transporters. His emotional relationship with Remembrance Sunday was complicated. I never sussed it. My family didn't do conversations about feelings.

I reckon he missed his mates who died, dealt with the trauma of war by forgetting and forced himself to watch the wreath-laying service from the Cenotaph every year. He behaved disrespectfully to any wreath-layers who hadn't served as he did. And he had no time for anyone who voiced the idea that they were showing more respect than others.

I wonder what he would have made of the recent tendency to make art of poppy installations.

Strangely, it has become my job to try to articulate the complex emotions of remembrance. What is the lesson of history that we need to learn? Before we even think about telling someone off for not wearing a poppy let us take time to be silent.

In fact two minutes quiet to stop and think might be a great way to respond to anything we disagree with.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Bible Book Club - Further Reflections

Bible Book Club met for the third time last night. A group of six of us met in a pub and discussed the Book of Jonah. It has been harder to put out of our heads our apparent familiarity with the story this time and the group did well in spotting that a better title than Jonah and the Whale might be Jonah and the Assyrians.

This brief reflection is on one question which our group has found more fascinating than we expected. A classic Book Club questions is, 'If this were a film, who would play the parts?' It leads to much discussion about how people see the characters in their mind's eye. I for one, have Robert Powell's Jesus stuck in my head from the 1970s movie Jesus of Nazareth. When I read the gospels that is what pops into my head. So an answer to the question does impact your future reading.

Who plays Jonah? A young man? A fit man? No. A man who is grumpy. A man who jokes without laughing. A man who finds humour in the relentless inevitability of the nature of God. 'I knew you'd forgive them. Kill me now.'

Our Jonah, is Jack Dee.

We are moving on from the great Hebrew stories. Our next book is the Gospel of Mark. We meet again on December 12th. Contact me if you are interested. Steal the idea if you are not local.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Need Resources?

I have no idea when it happened, but some time over the last thirty years we, where we are the people of the Christian community, have managed to convince ourselves that we need a 'resource' in order to do anything.

It's been quite a handy thing for me since, having never used someone else's resource in my life without completely redesigning it, I have spent some of my ministry selling the things I have already done to the Christian market so others could do them too. I even sold a book twice by rewriting it in a different order and, get this, the people who paid me the second time knew that was what I had done.

Still, I have no truck with resources. Jonny Baker used to be fond of telling people that only 5% of people ever have an original idea. I think he might have got that from the same place that I got '67.3% of all statistics are made up', but we'll let it pass. Come to think of it that was another Johnny, the Vegas one.

Later I heard h-less Jonny say that originality is forgetting where you found something. So I guess we can add him to the list of self-deprecators we know.

My point, my point? Ah yes. If you need a resource then there are plenty about. I've no idea how you tell which one to use but I want to pass on this bit of wisdom. When faced with a group you want to train, a problem you want to solve or an idea you want to generate, try and have a go yourself first as if no resource exists. We all hate preachers who have read every commentary and background book but not the Bible passage. We all recognise guys wearing badly fitting off the peg suits. Likewise it is easy to see through the person who has bought a resource that is not quite the best fit and then they train a group in not quite the right thing.

Talk to some people who are stakeholders. Find out what the problem really is and what sort of solution people might buy into. Use space, prayer and tea as your main tools here.

Write up an idea for an answer and see if people can add to it, tweak it or bounce off it. Be open. Leave ideas up in the air and accept lots of contributions.

Assume that the wisdom to solve the problem might be in the room rather than the Christian Resources Exhibition (CRE), for now.

When staffing the Church Pastoral Aid Society (CPAS) stand at CRE a wise old sales manager (Hi Clive) taught me a great open question to use to greet people who visited our stand. It was 'What area of ministry are you looking to resource today?' It took me into many fine conversations but also helped me to point people who were on the wrong stand, seeking something we did not sell, to a more likely source of help. Their only memory of CPAS will be that a nice young man (I was then. Young I mean; I'm still nice) saved them wasting time.

But if you spend a good chunk of time detailing what you need you will always stop short of buying an inadequate resource marked 'Ready to use'. It will only be ready to use if your situation matches exactly the one the writers envisaged. And you may realise that you can fix the problem yourself. Then you save money and everyone feels better about not needing help.

Steve Tilley's book 'How to avoid buying unnecessary resources' has been remaindered.

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Narrow Wins

I got called an elitist. I think I may own it for a bit.

A narrow sporting triumph has stayed with me over the years even though the specific details are hazy. It was a Team GB rowing eight in the Olympics, winning a final against Australia in the 1990s. Sir Steve Redgrave was one of the crew. What I recall is this. The two leading boats were neck and neck but not taking their strokes at the same time. So the lead alternated. If the race had been either 1995 or 2005 metres the Aussies would have won. But at 2000 metres it was Team GB who were ahead, just. This struck me as a brilliantly exciting way to decide something as arbitrary as the colour of a medal, when it was the sport of rowing that was clearly the winner.

However (I've been watching Great British Menu, forgive me). Is it really the most sensible way to decide anything of national or international importance?

I do not feel able to comment on how Brexit is going or how we should progress it. Watching something happen I all along thought was a stupid idea and still do leaves me feeling frustrated, sad and pretty empty. I am fuller of  'if onlys' than I have ever been.

If only Cameron hadn't staked his country's future on a single throw of pitch and toss.
If only it had been treated as an advisory referendum.
If only the closeness of the result had influenced the way the government responded and used it as a chance to deal with the issues people felt the EU was to blame for.
If only the new PM had not said 'Brexit means Brexit' so soon.
If only the new PM had said 'No Brexit is better than a bad Brexit'.
If only we had some big hitters with power and influence and not oh I'm bored but you get me.

I don't believe it would be particularly sensible to change our minds and go back because I think the Brexiters would not take defeat as democratically as the remainers. We can't go back because the less smart people will throw things through windows if we do. Shout project fear and anti-people all you want, but everyone I know who wishes the referendum result could be changed wants it done democratically rather than by turning cars over and setting them on fire.

But I guess my question is this. If a second referendum is deemed to be against the spirit of the Brexit vote for the moment, then when is it not? How soon is not too soon? If it doesn't go at all well, when is the right time to have another think? The fittest rowers have another shot every four years. The 2016 referendum was the second after a 40 year gap. So the answer must be somewhere between about two and forty years.

I know the spirit of the smarter people in our country will prevail and we will somehow make the most of this. We will never know if the most of this is better than the what we had. Why? Because I'm part of the liberal elite that's why. We talk. We vote. We make messes better. Bloody elitist me.

Light the bull touch-paper. It's red and raggy.

Thought for the Day

In the mess of the ugly, untidy industrial landscape, James Tilley and Rachel Willetts ended up living next door to each other in 1873.

Last week I went to the wonderfully named Bumble Hole in the Black Country where James and Rachel, who became my great grandparents, lived. I liked the idea of my family being mineral prospectors searching for wealth. But, I discovered, that as the Dudley coalfield was explored, all sorts of service occupations moved in. There were many Tilleys in the area - painters, shopkeepers and publicans. Not many of my family did mining or foundry work.

I live near Tyntesfield now and love its time-capsule nature. There's nothing romantic about the Gibbs family heritage either. It's built on guano. Bird poo to you and me.

Recent discoveries under the floorboards, we hear today, have added to that sense of the house being a place in which real people lived and worked. Bits of old magazine and a dropped box of matches are interesting - because they reveal actual humans to us.

In my church we've been studying some of the great characters from the Bible who heard God give them a mission - Abraham, Moses, Samuel and Isaiah all got serious jobs to do believing God had given them that task.

It's weird, having such a sense of calling. Not many get it. Most of us just follow the money.

So how did I end up a vicar in North Somerset? Well if you believe my family history it's because it's indoor work with no heavy lifting.

Although I carry with me a deeper sense that I know a bit more about where I come from and have arrived where I am meant to be - for now.

Friday, September 21, 2018

But is it really work?

A few years ago I wrote a piece about the weirdness of clergy work. Find it here. It is based on a number of conversations with my friend and previous training colleague, Bob Clucas. The early Apple spell-checker suggested he was Reboot Clichés - I wish that had stuck. As with many of these ideas, which I usually wrote down but he also initiated, neither of us remembers, or cares, who deserves the most credit. So we tend to share it.

I have read a few posts on social media recently from new clergy trying to make sense of activities such as doing the laundry or cleaning on a day off and what to do when the mind wanders, during such activities, to work-related matters.

Firstly, well done for spotting it. And now to the idea. It is the difference between real and apparent work. And this, if my previous experience is anything to go by, will transform the lives of about 20% of the people who read it, whilst the rest will say 'That's crazy.' To the 80% I say, please allow the 20% to be crazy but happy. What follows ain't illegal. Here we go:

There will be things you do that come under the heading 'duties of office' (clergy are office-holders, not employees) which you enjoy and would do anyway, paid or not. For some this will be hanging around in coffee shops or going to parties; for others writing improving articles in the church press and for still others fixing guttering. These are work, apparently, but don't feel like it to you.

Then there will be things you do in your down-time or on your rest-day that you would rather pay someone else to do. For some this will be gardening; for others ironing, washing or shopping. These are leisure, apparently, but don't feel like it to you.

The trick, if trick it can be called, is to recall that clergy do not have to avoid domestic chores every day they are on duty. If ironing is work for you and it has to be done, do it on any day except your rest day. Glebe management is part of your responsibility so it is OK to do gardening whilst on duty. In fact it is required as part of your duties.

If you cram all the leisure activities that feel like work into your day off you won't feel like you've had one. If you trade them for one or two bits of your duties that don't feel like work you will.

To summarise, try and make sure your duty days are a mix of real work and real leisure, or apparent work and apparent leisure. And fill your days off with real leisure and, if necessary, apparent work.

'I once shared this with a group of clergy who were what is known as 'training incumbents' (TIs). One guy, who I know for a fact had ruined the lives of several curates, responded, as if it were the last word on the matter. 'Well that wouldn't work for me.' He seemed quite shocked when I suggested that I was not asking it to work for him but that it might be an option he shared with his curate in case it was helpful for them. At this very idea, sharing something he didn't personally find helpful, he gave the room a look which encompassed all the ranges of amazement in the known universe. Teaching the doing of things exactly the way he had done them for thirty years wasn't the only thing that worked? Really?

If you were his curate I doubt he told you this. Sorry if it's late.

Same time next week?

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Bring on the Walls

I was having a bit of a chat with my new ministry colleague about what we do when we hit a wall. I'm not really sure that an ample theology of wall exists within the church. The problem is, I reckon, that most people choose the metaphor of hitting it. Which is not the way I deal with walls, by and large. The couple of times I tried, it left scars.

Marathon runners speak of 'the wall'. For them it is a description of something psychological. Your mind tells you to stop but your body isn't finished with it yet. I know a bit about this. Some years ago I was told by a neurosurgeon that my chronic back pain would decrease if I exercised. Trouble was, exercise really hurt. I was slowly and gently introduced to the psychological idea that pain, real as it was, had ceased to be an indication of something wrong. I was causing myself no further damage when I exercised and the pain was unnecessary. I had to retrain my body to keep going even though it hurt. Took about 18 months but it worked. Hardest thing I ever did. No question.

Real walls, without doors, have to be climbed or circumnavigated but remember, you should be able to see them coming. Prepare yourself for any walls with appropriate equipment.

Metaphorical and psychological walls require a whole different set of techniques. You can seek a hidden door. Jump them. Blow them up. Walk though them. Dig under them. Leave them for another day. Give them to somebody else. Attach them to a balloon and float them away. Attach yourself to a balloon and float over. Get a really big ladder out of your shoe. Join with the Roadrunner (beep beep) and draw a hole in it. Jump through and erase the hole as Wily Coyote leaps. Fun, isn't it? As the great Dan Reed said, 'To daydream properly takes immeasurable amounts of imaginary time.' The decision is yours.

The problem with walls is that they aren't walls. They are obstacles which you have deemed insurmountable. It isn't the worst advice to ignore them.

Got too many things in your head? Put some down for a bit. Diary them for next week and forget about them.

Got a thing coming up you don't know how to deal with. Get input. Talk it over. Break it down into smaller bits. If you gotta eat a slug you want that critter thin-sliced.

Got too many actual jobs? Renegotiate some deadlines.

Wondering about your entire sense of self-worth and ability? That kid needs therapy. And probably not from the person who gave you the deadlines or relies on you hitting them.

What sort of mental ability does it take to willingly go to your death by crucifixion? I'm not going to get into theories of atonement or a quest for the historical Jesus - I want this to be useful to more than the faith community. I simply ask if you could go that way knowing you could avoid it and knowing that no-one would ever know that you did, or criticise you for it. From where does that sort of inner strength come?

Walls. Time to come tumblin' down.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Thought for the Day

As delivered at BBC Radio Bristol's Breakfast with Emma Britton and keeping a miraculously straight face during the previous item about a man with an enormous cucumber:

I am happy to be identified as a Christian but often have to make sure that people understand - I am not a Bible-basher, creationist, trendy-vicar or Jesus-freak.

When my sons were young, from time to time a friend or relative would say about one of them 'Hasn't he grown?' It was awkward. Firstly, because the answer was 'of course'. Secondly, as it happened so slowly, we didn't notice it as much as those who visited us twice a year.

Today's stories all have this amazing 'Hasn't he grown' connection.

Any of us who were once used to putting all our clothes in the wash after a night at the pub because they smelled smoky will have noticed our cleaner public air.

Anyone who has had half an eye on technological change will be aware of how much progress we've made over the last twenty years of computer science.

We have such an eye to medical progress today that we can investigate muscle-loss by sending Bristol worms into space.

And we are far more aware of mental health issues than we ever used to be. Plus, we can fix a lot of them.

Things get better.

But there's loads to do. Smoking still kills people. Minorities are under-represented in the tech industries. Mental illness isn't going away any time soon. And Bristol worms-in-space or not, medical research takes time.

Progress is great. It's absence frustrating. The journey essential. So in my theology I am happiest being a seeker-after-truth and sharing occasional clues as to how my understanding has grown. As the late Terry Pratchett once said 'The presence of those seeking the truth is infinitely to be preferred to the presence of those who think they've found it.'

Friday, September 07, 2018

Training News

Those of us who consider it part of our duties to train other people have many stories to tell. TCMT and I have many fine conversations about this because I am married to someone who also has to train. And so to our story for the day. I've tweaked a few details and missed some out. People in the know will know but hey, I've tried.

Some years ago TCMT was a regional manager for a large chain of shops. The organisation was taken over by a holding company who did not, in their guts, believe that being a woman and being a regional manager were compatible. Furthermore, in whatever organisational situation she found herself, being a retail regional manager who did a good job (kept profits up and staff happy) was certainly incompatible with the European Working Time Directives (soon to be RIP'd I guess). So she and I had a bit of a chat, surrendered a bit of our joint income and she took the 'sod-this-for-a-game-of-soldiers' line and resigned.

But. and there is a but, she likes playing shops, helping customers and the retail environment. If there is a finer placater of the hostile and angry in this world then they probably work at ACAS or the UN or summat.

So she went back to a part-time shop-floor job with a different employer and got back her mojo.

Recently the store manager left and there is a gap before the new one arrives. The chain she works for doesn't do 'assistant manager' so they thrive on the sort of chaos you get when no-one is in charge. They also (and this is loving husband speaking) may take just a teensy bit of a liberty with the fact that, although low paid, TCMT could run the store and turn a profit with her eyes shut. She simply doesn't want to any more.

But from time to time she accepts that there is nowhere else for the buck to go and carries it along for a bit.

I expect you're wondering about training. Well spotted.

So yesterday was a day of being accidentally in charge. I think TCMT is an inveterate trainer. That is to say she likes moving people towards the required standard of competence by observation, conversation, direction, advice, correction, review and input. (I made that up. Like it?)

This chat ensued?

TCMT: You know that thing you were going to take upstairs?

Junior: Yes.

TCMT: But you left it at the bottom of the stairs to remind you?

Junior: Yes.

TCMT: (Knowing that it had been left approximately three feet from a sensible place) Did you think about where to leave it?

Junior: Yes.

TCMT: So what is the problem with where you left it?

Junior: Maybe someone carrying a box down stairs might not see it and fall over it?

TCMT: Anything else?

Junior: Well I guess in a fire you might not see it?

TCMT: So why did you leave it there?

Junior: You know, I thought of you as I put it down.

Whilst it must be kinda tough having a co-worker who knows almost everything, someone who knew, intuitively and then actually, as they placed an object in the wrong place, that it was wrong and furthermore dangerous and that an experienced colleague would call them on it, STILL DID IT!

That deserves the rare accolade of an exclamation mark I believe my friends. At least I get to train the trainable.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Thought for the Day

As delivered at BBC Radio Bristol Breakfast with Emma an hour ago. If you click on the link you can go to 'Listen Again' if you really want to and hear the intro and outro badinage and repartee:

The Bible has a lot to say about food - fish, bread, red wine, wedding feasts, great banquets - but I had to think for a long time to recall references to exercise.

It's that time of year when our TV schedules are about to challenge us as to what sort of couch potatoes we are? Watching people making bread and cakes or getting strictly exercised on the dance floor?

Sit and sponsor Emma as she gets running? Or be encouraged to run too?

Take our places at the roadside as the lycra-fit guys on bikes come through? Or take up our cycles and stretch our legs?

Regular listeners to this spot may have heard me a lot but never seen me. I am of slender build although pretty fit for a man of my age. I had the blessing of not putting on weight in my early and middle years. One friend told me I wouldn't get fat if I ate a greased pig. Another that I only wore clothes so people could see me. Well with friends like that...

In his wonderful book Sapiens (A Brief History of Humankind) Yuval Noah Harari says:

'Consumerism has worked very hard ... to convince people that indulgence is good for you, whereas frugality is self-oppression.'

He has a point. Al Murray's pub landlord is fond of saying that people who think they have slow metabolism actually have a fast pie-arm.

In fact the biblical material about exercise is indirect, but blunt. Look after your body. Treat it like a temple says St Paul. That way, say I, you'll, maybe, give your friends and family the gift of living with them longer.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Thought for the Day

So, after five years and 130 thoughts the gang at BBC Radio Bristol gave me some theme music, although it was in homage to the very poorly Aretha Franklin. Still, I felt welcomed. Today's thought:

Some cyclists and some pedestrians not playing nicely eh? What to do?

Do we heed the advice of the Bible, which calls us to be slow to anger?

Yesterday I was behind a very large lorry which, presumably due to a satnav error, was on a single track road where the passing places were too small to allow anyone by. Through the power of telepathy and reversing lights the whole queue, including the lorry, squeezed back up to allow the oncoming traffic past. In the midst of this one car, without thought for the possible cause of the delay, overtook the whole line of stationary traffic and then had to do a long backtrack of shame, avoiding eye contact with all of us smug drivers who had been patient.

Earlier I had been driving along another lane when I came up behind a pedestrian. My car runs quietly but I was amazed he hadn't heard me. Then I saw the headphones. I contemplated a toot on the horn but chose instead to move closer and rev louder. Vicars really should be good at revving. The guy noticed and stood on the verge. I drove by. We both waved and chuckled.

This is not simply to demonstrate what a fine member of the community I am. Anyway, I have a radio slot to tell my stories, which is one way of not getting angry.

I am telling you this because your anger is in your control. Stupid cyclist / pedestrian or not, never say 'You made me so mad'. They may have irritated you but your anger is not in their gift. And saying it is, is to give the other person too much power.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

God, Boris and the Truth

It is a while since that New York Mayor, Mario Cuomo, quoted by Leo McGarry in The West Wing, said 'We campaign in poetry; we govern in prose.' 1985 in fact. And I guess we were all fine with that as long as we understood that it meant that big picture vision statements were the stuff of rallies and nitty-gritty detail the stuff of day-to-day running of a city or country. We got that.

But I don't think that's how it's interpreted anymore. We accelerated very rapidly through 'We campaign in hyperbole...' and are delivered to where we are today, campaigning in lies. Whopping great porkies painted on buses, printed on leaflets and photo-shopped on social media.

I was at an interesting panel discussion on fake news recently when the American grass-roots Republican position was summarised as 'Trump's a liar; but he's our liar'.

Hold that idea; here's another one. It's to do with our brains. I am not a neurologist.

When someone puts you in danger or stress the amygdala sends a signal to the hypothalamus that leads to a flight or fight response. We can have a false response when stressed at work because constant low-level irritation of the system overworks it and leads to other health problems. Find the medical stuff explained here.

It has recently been discovered that the same signals are triggered when someone opposes your long-held views. It takes experience and training not to shout at, or even punch, someone if they suggest you have voted wrong all your life or been a racist without realising.

This places us in difficulty. If you can't counter a lie with the truth without starting a fight, and can't disabuse someone of a falsehood  because they assume everyone is dealing in falsehood, where do you turn?

Well let's turn to Boris Johnson for a while since I put him in the title. As I write he has not apologised for his reported observation that a burka-wearing woman reminded him of a bank robber, or a letter box. If you are in doubt about the precise difference between a hijab and a burka then BBC Newsround have a useful guide. But the cat's out of the bag. Any apology will be for political effect. I doubt he will mean it or have seen the error of his ways. It was the sort of joke/comment that I would have heard at my parents' dinner parties in the 1960s and 1970s. I imagine BoJo's parents had more dinner parties than my family so a wider selection of racist friends were available. Those of us who enjoyed a liberal education learnt soon after that such 'jokes' were inappropriate and in the 1980s political correctness, for all its negative press, was a  desire to make sure a minority group had not been overlooked or accidentally oppressed. As the late Miles Kington wisely pointed out once, the over-reaction was when people treated the disadvantaged as if the disadvantage itself conferred dignity. It is perfectly possible to be a wheelchair user and an arseshole. And US wheelchair users can be assholes.

We turn to free speech. This is one of the great values of liberal democracy. People are allowed to say stupid things. People are allowed to be rude. They can make bad jokes. If they write lies then the civil courts offer the chance of an action for libel (although few of us could afford that route). We try to put as few limits as possible on the right of free speech. But in the UK we decided that incitement to racial or religious hatred should be a crime and this was enshrined in law in 2006. And, of course, employers will want to police the language of their employees. If your position at work makes you 'known' then you forfeit some of the rights to private views if they contradict those of your employer.

The question we may never know the answer to, this side of eternity, is whether Boris is a devious and manipulative tester of the rights of free speech - or an arsehole. Does he actually realise that some horrid people will take his words and see them as authoritative on a nastier scale? Does Boris' position require of him a higher standard than that required of others? Does his stepping back from one of the great offices of state have a bearing on this?

His recent Telegraph article, which I have read in full, has had a bit ripped out of context. He was chastising the usually-liberal Danes for banning the niqab and burka. He did include a small observation that he thought such face covering looked daft and, yes, he did say it reminded him of a post box. The bank robber comment was slightly more ambiguous:

'If a constituent came to my MP’s surgery with her face obscured, I should feel fully entitled – like Jack Straw – to ask her to remove it so that I could talk to her properly. If a female student turned up at school or at a university lecture looking like a bank robber then ditto: those in authority should be allowed to converse openly with those that they are being asked to instruct.'

You may recall the expression, 'I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.' (S.G.Tallentyre 1906)

Boris disapproves of the burka but supports the right of people to wear it. We ought to support the right of Boris to say what he thinks even though we disapprove, unless, unless, unless...

Unless it is incitement. Unless it is part of a state of the art divide and rule policy. Boris has form when it comes to allying himself with the 51%. And unless it is not the position of the governing party to which he belongs - then he should rightly be disciplined.

I also brought God into the title. This is awkward for readers who now have to disagree with everything I've said so far because I belong to the faith community and they don't. That said, the Bible has very much higher standards for the use of language than incitement legislation or the libel laws.

Ephesians 4:29 'Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.'

James 1:19 'My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.'

The presence of these two correctives to the behaviour of mainly Christian hearers or readers tells us that the early church was far from perfect. People were becoming followers of Jesus before realising that it had some implications for their behaviour.

Which may be why John, writing his Gospel later than many of the New Testament letters, put the words 'I am the truth' on Jesus' lips. It is easier to have a person to follow and trust than a manual to try and understand.

Turning to Christ is more of an answer than turning to legislation. If you do, you will want to try to be people of the truth, seeking forgiveness in genuine humility when you fail.

This has been a long-winded way of saying 'play nicely'. And I'm still not much further forward in understanding how to debate with people who have a trigger-happy amygdala. But I'm going to hang in there, slow to anger, and look for the good, even in Boris.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

What We Call Stuff

I have mused here previously on the delight we felt at Trendlewood Church when the independence of our lively and unusual congregation, who have met for 29 years without a building, was blessed by the diocesan legal team with the name 'Conventional District'.

A few years back a sign in a church in Ufton was drawn to my attention, praising a former Rector who, in the nineteenth century, 'preached here without Enthusiasm for fifteen years'. It had to be pointed out to me that this was high praise, then.

Earlier this month the Church Times clergy obituary column featured someone described as an 'Extraordinary Fellow' and I almost didn't bat an eyelid (other things to do with eyelids are available). You don't, obviously, need to be an extraordinary fellow in order to be an Extraordinary Fellow.

I was driving home from the ordination rehearsal last month, trying to explain to the husband of my soon-to-be curate what a precentor does. Best answer so far - he is the one who centors before the others... and I found myself chuckling at the enthusiastic, unconventional, extraordinary life this fellow leads.

On Tearing Things Up

The late, great Douglas Adams once described the day of a writer as 'Writing a really good sentence first thing in the morning and then tearing it up later that day.' (Younger readers should note he was working with paper.) He also described deadlines as things that made a lovely whooshing sound as they went by so budding writers wishing to earn money maybe don't copy him unless you can write extraordinarily good sentences.

But the important lesson, hiding in that convoluted opening paragraph, is that scrapping work that isn't good enough and starting again is not always a disaster. A case study:

The Diocese of Bath and Wells has received enough money from central church funds to make nine pioneer appointments. That sounded good and I wrote a quite brilliant account of why Portishead Deanery should have one of them. It ran to two sides of A4 because, as you know, if you can't say it on two sides of A4 it isn't worth saying. 

I showed it to two people. One (probably someone who gets me) thought it was astonishing the other (who doesn't, but is working on it) not so much.

So it wasn't enough. I was asked if I was aware of the guidelines for those wishing to apply for such posts. I was, of course, although that awareness didn't extend to having read them so I did. I say 'read' but if the truth be told I lost the will to live by about page 26 of 78.

Nevertheless I redrafted, aware of the critique that our proposal didn't necessarily need more detail but it needed more scenery. In the back of my head I knew that all that meant was that it needed to be longer. I put up stage flats around my document and added geographical, historical, pastoral, supervisory and theological context. Actor folk will know that stage flats add scenery and hide crap.

I added the comments of the Deanery Mission and Pastoral group as an appendix along with our Deanery Mission Action Plan (regularly cited as an example of succinctness), Deanery Prayer, links to our sources and Diocesan Papers plus my original A4 document, which still rocks. Yes it does. Trust me; I know when I writ good.

In discussing this latest document with the diocese we discovered, as early as their introduction, that the posts needed to be spread about and so, because we had the misfortune to be in the most missional archdeaconry in the diocese, it was unlikely that we would succeed in our bid. The Diocese is taking the view that these posts need to be hubbed together and also distributed widely. Good luck with that.

As this 'discussion' was taking place (I use parenthesis because we were told that our simple opening question required a half hour answer) I felt increasingly uneasy. Instead of working out what we wanted and how to fund it we were working out how to word a successful funding application.

We have now decided that we would do better to model a deanery that values and hotspots (apologies for new verb) many different pioneer-type ministries. This excites us.

So I append my two sides of A4 (which I wrote in 45 minutes before breakfast one day) and if you fancy coming and setting up camp with us, do pitch up. We'll have to be a bit cool to find the money from other sources but thankfully being a bit cool is not beyond the grasp of Portishead Deanery. You may want to apply for a vacancy in our Deanery as it is advertised (watch the relevant space) and come and be a pioneery type in a traditional setting. Again, unconditional love from the Deanery Leadership is all we can offer.

I think it needed the Diocesan Staff to be the Assyrians in this story of our deanery's salvation history.

Original 2 Sides of A4

A Vacancy for a Pioneer 
(A Discussion Starter) 

I am prompted to write this following a conversation with someone yesterday.

He asked me if I thought Portishead Deanery had a vision for one of the possible pioneer appointments for which funding has been procured.

The train of thought took me back to 2008 when the Diocese announced it was selling the Holy Trinity Rectory. 'I think we ought to buy it' I said to the PCC. There then followed a period of time where fund-providers wanted a clear vision for how their money would be used whilst the obvious thing to me was that we couldn't do anything if we didn't buy the house.

There followed a series of passionate and exciting meetings where a bunch of us (who all got it) tried to write a vision sufficiently specific to satisfy the money-givers but sufficiently vague that we might not be tied to any particular outcome.

It worked.

And once we had the building saved for the parish we were able to plan a wide and flexible use and refurbish it to that end. But that was part of the contribution to a wider vision (reaching Nailsea for Christ) not the vision itself.

Now to pioneering. I was ordained in 1984 and was charged with preaching the gospel afresh to each new generation. Pioneering words they. My ministry has survived a Decade of Evangelism, an outbreak of Fresh Expressions and now has discovered the church embracing pioneer language. Throughout, and I don't mean to sound more arrogant even than usual, I have made no change whatsoever to my basic philosophy of ministry which is to work out how to proclaim the gospel afresh in each new generation.

In the middle of the 1990s Kevin Ford's 'Jesus for a New Generation' was seminal for me.

He asked how we might preach commitment to Christ to a generation that was becoming suspicious of commitment – parent's marriage vows, and government electioneering had both showed up as phony. If everyone else campaigns in poetry and governs in prose how do we know you're not, preacher?

It used to be that painting a positive view of Jesus trumped all the negative views people had collected. But now we have to paint a different view of commitment.

Go figure. (I still am.)

So what might a pioneer post in Portishead Deanery look like? The top line needs to be 'We don't know'. We don't know because pioneers, by definition, get out into the hills and look for gold in response to rumours. If they find none, they move on. If they find something, settlers follow. When it all gets settled the pioneers get itchy prospecting fingers.

The question is therefore not whether we have a post for a pioneer but whether we have the network to support a pioneer. To this I answer absolutely, yes.

In myself and my questioner we have two experienced missional practitioners who would love to support, encourage and define some new ministries. In Portishead the idea of someone engaged as a parish pilgrim, to work in the community and outside traditional church structure is established. In Nailsea Local Ministry Group my own appointment was to be one of the first mission enablers in the diocese and as such the Mission Enablers group and Pioneer community have both embraced my presence and (I think) acknowledged that I know some stuff. The Deanery employs a creative youth worker who operates in local schools.

There are some distinct areas of duty that a pioneer could be invited to pick up and run with – Andy's Congregation in Backwell, Cafe Create to name but two. But these would not be more than 50% of a job. The other 50% might be, in the words of management guru Tom Peters when asked by a competent employee what he should do next:

'Something great. Do me something great.'

Portishead Deanery would be a wonderful place for a pioneering self-starter to do something great. We would love them. We have not got a great job for the right person; we would be a great place for the right person to do a great job.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Ruth - A Further Thought

One final thing about the Old Testament Book of Ruth which we discussed at Bible Book Club last week.

Fairly late into the conversation I introduced the contextual material from Genesis 19:30-38. The myth told there about the origins of the Moabites was that the daughters of Lot got their father drunk and had sex with him in order to continue the family line. The answer to the child's question 'Daddy where do Moabites come from?' is that Moabites are what you get if you have sex with your father. It's not pretty and it's not complementary. The Bible is terribly xenophobic in places.

It means that the Book of Ruth is, to some extent, the parable of the Good Moabite and anticipates Jesus' Parable of the Good Samaritan.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Bible Book Club

We launched a Bible Book Club in Nailsea last night. It's like a normal book club (read a book, get together over a drink and discuss it) except that we use books of the Bible. No faith necessary. No previous Bible reading experience necessary. No church allegiance necessary. No lectures. No context (at first).

My preliminary conversations had led us to believe that it might appeal to:

  • People who liked book groups
  • People who found Bible study notes and reading in ten verse chunks difficult
  • People who liked to meet others for a drink

We decided to start with some stories so six of us got together having read the Book of Ruth (or listened to it as an audio-book in previous days). We agreed that this group needed to understand that there were no right answers. We could all contribute (we did). We had a lively hour chatting about patriarchal cultures, the significance of genealogies, whether Naomi was a devious and manipulative Jewish mama and how to stage 'Ruth - the musical'.

We meet again in the Ring O Bells on Wednesday August 22nd at 8.00 p.m. to look at Esther if you would like to join us.

For anyone wanting to steal the idea we used some generic book group questions to help us:

  • Did you enjoy the book? What part did you like most? What least?
  • Did you engage with any of the characters?
  • Did you follow the plot? What, for you, was the hinge point?
  • If this book was a movie who would you cast?
  • What art work would you put on the cover of the book?
  • Did you have a favourite quote?
  • Would you read other books by this author?
  • What did you think of the length? Too long? Too short?
  • What did you think was the author's purpose?
  • Would you like to read the same story from the point of view of one of the characters?

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Thought for the Day

As delivered at BBC Radio Bristol this morning. One or two changes on delivery to fit in with daily theme and running joke:

Jesus once told a crowd, in Matthew's version of the story, that they should give to the needy in secret. They should not, he added, seek publicity for their good works.

Charity bobble hats. Friends for parents volunteers. Britton's Big Night Out. Three of today's four key stories involve giving in some way.

How do you decide how much to give away? And to whom do you give it?

Those are, of course, entirely your personal decisions.

I had a letter to our church this week from an organisation we used to support. But we've made a conscious, and I think very good, decision, to give more money to fewer causes. So our money really makes a difference. When the Trendlewood Church Council deliberates on these things we are all very much aware that we are giving away other people's money. And the Church itself is a charity, its Council are the Trustees and we have to act wisely and sensibly. But the letter tore at my heart strings. As do the films on Sports Relief, Comic Relief and Children in Need days.

As someone who feels guilty walking past the Big Issue seller I am not unaware of the issues.

A wise mentor, many years ago, suggested to me that we should all live off 90% of what we earn and give the rest away. If you start early then all you do is take only 90% of every pay rise.

The Bible suggests we should give joyfully. I once read that a better translation of the Greek word there would be 'hilariously'.

So my thought. Hang light to money. Use it to bless others if you can. And try not to show off about it.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

A Story, Some Biography and a Life Lesson

The great Frank Knowles of Walter Halls School, Mapperley may have had more than one assembly in him (he was Head-Teacher) but I only heard him do two assemblies ever and he used this story both times.

A man was being driven out of his mind by his family. They all lived together in one room, the man, his wife and their four daughters.

Driven to desperation he went to see the village wise man and asked what he could do to get some peace. After a few minutes deliberation and scratching of imaginary beard, the guru said, 'You should get a puppy.'

So the man got a puppy, but two weeks later he was back at the door of wisdom complaining that the children now chased the puppy, and the puppy messed on the floor, plus it need two walks a day and everyone else in the house refused to do it since he had got the puppy. Things were worse not better.

'The puppy needs its own companion' said the source of all knowledge. 'Get a cat'.

Result. Kids chase dog, dog chases cat, dog eats cat food, gets fat needs more walks. Man exhausted.

Now Frank could expand this story to fill the time available until Lesson 1, adding goats, lambs, cows, small furry animals and a mother-in-law. We cut to the chase.

Man, covered in animal hair and dung and with bruises from mother-in-law's broom (it was the 1980s - be gentle with him)  goes to tell the wisdom-dispenser that he is rubbish and is fired.

As he leaves he hears a final apology, 'I was wrong. Get rid of  .'

The man does so and two weeks later he is at the door again dispensing his own wisdom. 'Whatever made you think that all those extra creatures in my house would give me peace. They've all gone now and it is wonderfully quiet. I can hear people speak, the children are playing nicely together in the corner. My wife has time to make tea even more delicious than before and the girls help her.'

Well when our friends who were doing 'Women's Studies' at Nottingham University had finished with Frank and the bruises were healed he played Joni Mitchell's Big Yellow Taxi  and we all reflected on not knowing what we got til it's gone.

So. I was a busy clergyman and became Assistant Rural Dean, then Acting Rural Dean without the admin support the previous Rural Dean had enjoyed and without an Assistant Rural Dean because the old Assistant had got himself promoted in mysterious circumstances. Then the water system played up and we regularly, for six weeks, couldn't get a shower (at no notice) and Diesel the dog came to stay and got himself lame. Yet today the fault with the water system has been identified at last (I did that with a Saturday afternoon's curious experimentation. Dead proud. The engineer now calls me Inspector Clouseau) and is being fixed, the dog is better and is going home, I have found some administrative support from an unexpected source and I have a new colleague who is competent, self-starting and looking for jobs. Paradise will be unpaved as soon as the drilling noise stops.

Tuesday, July 03, 2018

Thought for the Day

As delivered at BBC Radio Bristol this morning:

Jesus once had a weird conversation with a Samaritan woman. It started being about water - he was thirsty - but it ended being about faith. Jesus described himself as living water. You can get a different sort of drink from him. He will refresh you in a way other spiritual teachers cannot.

Well what kind of a guru are you anyway, she didn't say as Jesus continued to freak her out by knowing things about her family background that he couldn't have known by normal means. Not an everyday Messiah, is the Bible's point.

So. A few weeks into hot dry weather and we start talking hosepipe bans and shortages, although it's reassuring to learn we are not at that point yet.

I've just come back from a holiday on a hot island where it doesn't usually rain from March to September. The weather is predictable and, as the saying goes, scorchio.

Of course on hot Mediterranean islands they are content to live with the earth turning brown and dry in the summer. Irrigation is saved for crops. Lawns are not watered. Cars have a healthy covering of dust. The sparrows drink from the swimming pools, when nobody is looking.

Water is a scarce commodity. We live in a land where it sometimes comes in floods and torrents and sometimes doesn't come at all but most times it just comes out of the tap. Our varied climate makes our people resourceful and adaptable. It may be a key to creativity. It also makes us mad when it's missing as we assert our apparent god-given right to water our gardens and clean our cars.

So take a moment to savour a glass of water today. And gaze into the heart of one who can deal with a deeper thirst.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Wave Pictures at The Fleece

Ever since Junior told me I'd enjoy this lot I've been mugging up. Seemed like perfectly acceptable country/rock/blues for a Monday evening out, but I had low expectations.

Wow! I had to search for the exclamation mark on the keyboard I use it so rarely.

Learning new music live is a wonderful business. And so support act 1 - Vinegar get filed under 'interesting; look out for more' and support act 2 Snails can crawl slowly away.

Interesting observation from Junior. 'The bassist is too good for Snails (she was very good). If they had a rubbish bassist at least we'd applaud them all for having a go.'

And so to Wave Pictures. Los Lobos meet Dire Straits at a blues fest in honour of The Modern Lovers.

I want to applaud an excellent gig-by-numbers. This is how to do it:

Open with a big song. Either the best new one or a strong back catalogue number.

Introduce any other new songs in the first half of the set. This is also the place for audience banter. Sample banter:

Front-man: I wrote this next song during Blue Planet. I hate it but if I watch it with my girlfriend then she will watch The Big Bang Theory. I don't understand why everyone likes David Attenborough.

Audience: (Murmur of disapproval)

Front-man: See. Everyone likes David Attenborough. Do you all like him?

Audience: (Cheers)

Front-man: The best place for an animal is on the end of my fork.

Audience: (Louder murmur of disapproval)

Front-man: Thing is, that was a quote from Quentin Crisp. So you're really booing me for being well read.

At about the half way stage leave shorter gaps between songs, stack up the well-known crowd favourites, tell everyone when the last one is about to happen and do two encore songs without going off between them and then go home.

Brief nod of respect to the sound crew who made the vocal mix for Wave Pictures clear enough for us to be able to sing along to tunes we had never heard before, by the time of the second chorus.

Singer/guitarist David Tattersall is quite a virtuoso - he channelled Mark Knoepfler and David Gilmour but his style is also very much his own. Franic Rozycki played a couple of lead lines on bass with some aplomb and drummer Jonny Helm was joined by a guest (and permanently grinning) percussionist who added much.

There's a gig on YouTube but it doesn't beat seeing them. Oxford tonight if you hurry.

Holiday Reading

Here is a my annual service for those for whom the words 'activity' and 'holiday' belong not on the same sun-lounger. Scores represent the holiday escapism factor and nothing necessarily to do with literary merit. Slightly light list this year due to presence of other members of the family week one and football week two.

Lee Child - Trip Wire (6/10)
It all began back on June 7th and finishing the last 100 pages of a Jack Reacher thriller whilst waiting for a plane. Given there are several more books in the series beyond this one you will deduce that our hero wins again. Not without being shot in the chest though. Not easy this lone-wolf crime-fighting stuff.

John Le Carré - A Legacy of Spies (5/10)
The usual slow-paced, developing narrative as a former intelligence officer is invited back for a chat about an operation many years ago that may have been a bit more, or possibly less, than described at the time. Someone in government has the papers and wants to see heads roll. A spy's career is never behind them. Just a bit too slow for me and the end didn't satisfy. But if you've read le Carré you'll know what to expect.

Michael J. Malone - House of Spines (7/10)
Spine-tingling ain't really my bag (must read a Stephen King some day) but this caught my eye as a cross-dressing narrative. Starts with 'guy inherits possibly haunted house' premise but does some wonderful things with the idea. The 'spines' of the title are the book jackets of the house's library. The super-natural is a girl who likes listening to stories. Then there are some people who think the inheritance is flawed. Nicely done.

Jon McGregor - Reservoir 13 (9/10)
I do seem to have filled my bag with slow-paced narratives this trip. But if you need to take your time on a journey then McGregor is great company. Never a word out of place and an ability to describe things we don't normally see - the spaces between people, the seasons changing in the background, the relentless cycle of village life. A girl goes missing. Time passes slowly. I note the Broadchurchy subtext that your sins will find you out. An investigation into a big crime often uncovers some smaller ones along the way.

Lisa McInerney - The Glorious Heresies (7/10)
What a yarn. Felt like I was discovering the missing connections between Father Ted, East Enders and Breaking Bad. Great characters. Mainly perfectly horrid so who do you root for?

Daniel Kehlmann - F (A Novel) (7/10)
Translated from German this story explores Arthur who has a life-changing experience after reluctantly going on stage for a hypnotist. We mainly see the world through his sons who grow up to be an art-forger, a dodgy financier and a fat unconvincing priest.

Fate, forger, fiddler and faithless. Whose fault is it all? And which is the 'F' of the title?

After this I started Jim Crace's Arcardia, which I know will be good because it 's Jim Crace. In between I read chapters from Tim Harford's Messy but haven't finished yet. However I know now why Le Corbusier's innovative clean architecture wasn't popular with the workers it was built for and why they put gnomes in their gardens. Also, why CPAS's clean-desk policy was a knife in the side of creativity. More on this later.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Traffic Jams

We have been paying some attention, whilst holidaying here in lovely Gozo, to the many and various ways the M5 south through Somerset can find to get itself closed. Caravans overturn weekly throughout the summer but there do seem to have been some vehicle fires and load spillages adding to what we call normal in the south-west. This allows the rest of the country to describe it as holiday chaos even more readily than usual.

I have often joked about Gozitan drivers. What does a give-way sign mean? Nothing. What should you conclude if a vehicle is indicating right? Nothing. What does a pedestrian crossing signify? Nothing. How big a gap can a tower crane driver negotiate in the rush hour? 0.001mm as long as you pull your wing mirrors in quickly. In effect that means less than nothing until you increase it.

You don't let vehicles out, they barge in. The person who chickens should not offer a friendly wave but a resignation of defeat.

So, from time to time (and I am pretty brave now) I stop for another car to come through a gap only to be overtaken by a vehicle behind me unprepared to wait and then taking six times as long to pass the other car as it would have taken my car using my scheme.

On Monday the ultimate consequence of this took place. Our rented farmhouse is at the residential end of a narrow street and the road winds on down behind us in a single track with sharp bends and passing places. We were sitting by the pool reading when the level of noise from the street outside grew steadily. After a while we took to the flat roof (a common feature in such properties) to observe. There were two queues of traffic stretching for 400 yards in both directions and in the middle two vehicles bonnet to bonnet, almost touching. Alongside one of these two was a taxi, pulled in to the side of the road.

We surmise that the taxi had pulled over (and if a taxi driver chickens here you know there is a reason, they never blink) and the vehicle behind had overtaken only to be confronted by another car head on with no room to pass. None of the vehicles who arrived at the developing queue, clearly visible from Space after a while, left any space for others to reverse or manoeuvre. After a few minutes people were on their phones calling friends and telling them to avoid the scene.

In the midst of this George, a local taxi driver we know, shouted from the road that he was here to take us to the ferry. Our reply 'We're here another week' was probably taken as a comment on the likelihood of a car ever getting away rather than the truth that he was here a week early.

And then, after much gesticulating and shouting (no violence here) someone found a spare millimetre and one line of traffic made it past the other and within five minutes all was quiet and still once again. We later discovered that the road had been closed in one direction during this time apart from access for residents and businesses but every car had decided it was there to 'render a service' and had ignored the restriction.

Nailsea car-parking is a breeze folks. A breeze.

Monday, June 04, 2018

Thought for the Day

As delivered this morning (I was an emergency replacement) at BBC Radio Bristol's Breakfast with Emma Britton:

For a few years in a previous life I made a decent living re-writing organisations' publicity material into plain English. It struck me as amazing how few people ever asked someone from outside to do this. More than one person told me that there was no way I could ever understand their organisation because I was an outsider. After a while I smiled sweetly (I can do that with a run up) and asked 'So what chance have your customers got then?' Well it got me some work (beat) plus a few new enemies.

Yesterday, tapping into my previous life-skills, I drew a time-line on the wall of our church meeting room using a long strip of lining paper. And in five minutes I did the whole 2000 year back story of Jesus from Abraham to Bethlehem.

More than a few people told me they had understood something for the first time. Why? Because it was simple and visual.

Fact is everyone, and the church may be one of the worst offenders, ends up with a bit of insider language to use as a short cut - radio studios, the medical profession, TV shows, even auction houses and clock decorators. We all use fancy language which only insiders understand.

Yet when a problem comes along like an unpaid debt our language gets very simple - pay me what you owe. Kids get this. Number one child complaint in the whole world (all together now) 'It's not fair.'

So pay what you owe, figure out Jesus and try to be fair. Pretty basic thought for the day. Also (as someone once said):

Don't use a big word when a singularly unloquacious and diminutive linguistic expression will satisfactorily accomplish the contemporary necessity.

And having made it through that much-rehearsed final sentence I raised both hands in the air (which doesn't really work on the radio) and headed to the gym.

Saturday, June 02, 2018

A Parable for our Times

There can be fewer more satisfying feelings in the world than pulling up alongside a car at traffic lights - that car which overtook you back down the road travelling at excessive speed. One of the few occasions in life when being compared to a tortoise is satisfactory.

Hold that thought.

I have little time for mindless, unnecessary retail. I carry on with semi-defective items much loved and unreplaced - old pants, worn-out kitchen utensils and functional but dated gadgets keep me company. Bear in mind however that I have been married to unnecessary retail for some years now and it has kept the door lupine free and the table bread-covered. But no-one else could have kept her and their sanity so long. I see her as a sort of rescue-wife. The intention is that she reads that paragraph and laughs. If you see me again it went well.

Two years or so ago I was given a gift of a new peg bag. No catch in the title: it's a bag to hold pegs. Observing the way I pegged the old bag to the line and then spun the line round (it is a rotary one; I am not stupid) TCMT purchased from the shop at which she works a new peg bag which saved labour by hanging round my neck. It caused the local observers much amusement and this picture was taken. I was, and remain, unamused. Having developed a way of doing things I approach labour-saving devices the way Mrs Doyle approaches a Teasmade.

Still, not wishing to cause offence... no that's wrong. Wishing to cause offence but deciding not to, I started using the new bag. About this time my wooden pegs were replaced with some natty plastic ones. Those seabirds ain't gonna kill themselves. As you do I put all the wooden pegs and the old bag in my box of things that may one day become a youthwork activity. It did.

This week the new peg bag was taken back to the shop to be replaced because it is defective and the strap has broken three times in two years. I had stapled it back together each time because THAT IS WHAT I DO! But I am told it must go back. The shop in question will replace it because they do that sort of thing to keep customers whose average age ensures they will die before needing a second replacement. Bag for life? Sounds like a fair swap.

So, I discovered all my new pegs had been put in a 5p, plastic bag. I suppose it was intended to be used in some way as a temporary replacement but it wouldn't peg to the line properly. So I have replaced the replacement with a pleasant, if a little faded, peg-bag from my youth work resources box. And I am as smug as a fully working smug metaphor. And I am sitting in my car at the traffic lights waiting for the new Pegbag gti turbo to challenge me and old faithful to another race.

It's a lovely day in North Somerset and the washing is dry.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Ian Dury, Woke up this Morning and a Bit of Bad Language

I don't know why I woke up with Ian Dury on my mind yesterday. I was searching for a lyric, I think.

For those who are too young, Ian Dury and The Blockheads had some success in the late 1970s and early 1980s with some cracking singles such as Hit Me with your Rhythm Stick, Reasons to be Cheerful Part lll (that 'Part lll' in itself a tease that you had missed parts l and ll, which you hadn't) and Wot a Waste. His lyrics had a certain nursery rhyme quality, albeit rhymes you would not want your children to learn before their teenage years. His backing band included the extremely talented Chas Jankel on keys and guitar, and the best bass player I have ever heard live (and I heard Leo Lyons, Jaco Pastorius, Tony Levin and The Ox), Norman Watt-Roy.

Behind all this was an unavailable at first (in this country) tune called Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll. Dury's first album only began with that track if you bought a US pressing—which I did, of course, what do your take me for? It was a classic album for not playing to the fine and upstanding members of the Christian community we regularly entertained. Randomly, one of the tunes began with 'Bollocks, arseholes, f******* c**** and pricks.' We always turned it off before answering the door.

I hope you are OK with the words I chose not  to bleep. I was talking to someone the other day who was upset at the amount of times Bishop Michael Curry blasphemed in an interview about 'that' sermon. So I expect some will be disappointed. But  this is me so don't take it too hard.

I couldn't recall the lyric I was seeking but improvised a snatch of the type of poetry it might be, my tribute if you like:

I went on quite a bender
With a barmaid name of Brenda
She turned out pretty handy
With a pint of larger shandy

Which helped me pin down the tune - Billericay Dicky. And the actual lyric:

I bought a lot of brandy
When I was courting Sandy
Took eight to make her randy
And all I had was shandy

Down with this sort of thing? In the world and not of it? Never really found the time to be offended by swearing? You?

Thanks for your time.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Thought for the Day

On the 30th anniversary of the demolition of Canons Marsh Warehouses (now the harbourside site of Lloyds Bank) this thought occurred to me and was delivered at BBC Radio Bristol's Breakfast show:

No-one, said Jesus, puts new wine in old wine skins. The skins will just burst. No-one, said Jesus puts a patch of new cloth on an old garment, When you wash it the patch will shrink more then the old cloth and make another, bigger tear.

He was talking about the newness of his teaching. It didn't fit well with the old way of doing things.

There's a wonderful exhibition at the M-Shed at the moment of seven decades of Bristol music. I went on Saturday. It's amazing how the very new seems so different to the sounds of the 1950s and yet decade by decade the music changes subtly, gradually.

Likewise the skyline of a city. Old harbourside wharfs are converted into museums or bars. People probably lamented the end of the Canons Marsh warehouses thirty years ago, but the Bristol Harbourside today is a vibrant place - a mixture of old and new. I love wandering around it.

And so a city develops with the old and new side by side. Old trades in old buildings, new trades in old buildings and both old and new trades also in sweepingly modern buildings. The old trade of banking now stands in a new building where Canons Marsh warehouses stood. The waterfront next to it also provides an arena venue for outdoor gigs in the summer. And a haven for skateboarders.

Cities are busy places, bustling and on the move. They are never one thing for very long. Always changing.

The old, old teachings of Jesus and his wonderful illustrations still make their way in the modern market. He amazed crowds then with a timeless message of love for the individual whether they find themselves in old or new buildings. Still does.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Journalism in a Post-Truth Society

As part of the Bath Festival I went to an interesting discussion on Tuesday, titled as above. It roamed a little freer than I would have liked so I think I will capture the atmosphere better with some quotations, scrawled as hastily as I could.

Julian Baggini is an author and popular philosopher (by which I mean he writes philosophy for an untrained reader). Good places to start include The Pig That Wants to be Eaten, Welcome to Everytown or Do They Think You're Stupid? He said:

‘People didn’t vote for Trump because he was telling the truth. They think all politicians are liars but he’s ‘our liar’.’

‘People don’t think Boris Johnson is great but he has managed to appear genuine - as have Farage and Corbyn (who has held the same views for 40 years).’

‘Philanthropy may come to the aid of local journalism. It may be the only hope.’

Heather Brooke is a Professor of Journalism at London City University. She said:

‘People have not had the journalistic training to assess the truths on the internet. But you could do a one day course in how to spot bullshit.’

‘We are seeing the consequence of the lack of local journalism - it may have caught Grenfell early.’

‘Local journalism holds power to account at a quite detailed and forensic level.’

James Ball, journalist and author, was the chair and also the most engaging speaker. He had to shut himself up a lot ('I'm meant to be the chair') but I wished he had said more:

‘In focus groups people say they want more foreign news and less celebrity. But if you do that, sales plummet.’

‘Newspapers need to make an assumption now that their intelligent, millennial readers are renting their accommodation.’

‘People go to fact-check sites to check stories they don’t want to believe.’

Stephen Bush, who  writes for the New Statesman - a centre-left publication - and occasional columns in broadsheets, wasalso there. I had looked forward to hearing him but he seemed a little disinterested on the day and  was following something on his phone to begin with.

The whole discussion was full of general agreement that we are where we are and we will have to see how things pan out. It felt pessimistic. The public debate is populated by people who have no rules of enagagement. Naturally they were all protective of journalists although it is clear they meant 'jouirnalists like us'. Apart from the insights about the local press I wasn't taken a huge way on in my thinking but it was an interesting snapshot.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Wedding Sermons - a Pondering

Much has been said about Bishop Michael Curry's sermon at Saturday's wedding of those we now know as the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. If you haven't heard it yet listen here. But I recommend reading the text here and then listening to the delivery second.

Afterwards there was an outbreak of corporate shock. One tweet summarises the response. Ed Miliband (@Ed_Miliband) said this: 'Rev Michael Curry could almost make me a believer'. A man from a Jewish family background but currently operating as a person of no faith, acknowledges, OK tongue-in-cheek,  that passion gets your argument quite a long way.

I think we are at an interesting hinge-point in our nation's history. If you check the sermon text you will find nothing very surprising. There were no references that may not have been used by many other clergy preaching at weddings that day. I've used some of them myself.

What was surprising was the passion, the energy, the vehemence of the delivery style.

If occurs to me that people are fed up of cerebral leadership. They don't want to hear what is right, rigorously argued; they want to hear someone lead them with power, charisma and drive.

Now this can go two ways. A people crying out for dynamic, strong, passionate, emotional, charismatic leadership might get a Nelson and might get an Adolph. They sure got a Donald.

The day to day of small-scale and large-scale political life is detailed, complex and can be mind-numbingly dull. We need people who can do the dull and yet can also passionately envision.

Passion did Brexit. It is hard to argue for the status quo (however good it is) passionately. We need to watch out for where passion takes us next.

Dead Dirty - A Poem for Pentecost

And another poem I wrote a couple of years ago but have never used, published or performed:

Dead dirty

Before the water you are thirsty
You are thirsty
As you approach the baptist you are thirsty
Your thirst to be quenched if you drink

As a sign of trusting the saviour you trust the baptist
To give you safe water
And refresh you
If you don't you stay parched

Before the water you are dirty
You are dirty
As you approach the baptist you are dirty
You will only be clean if he washes you

As a sign of trusting the saviour you trust the baptist
To wash you
And make you clean
And if you don't you stay dirty

Underwater you are dead
You are dead
As the baptist holds you under the water you are dead
You will only live if he releases you.

As a sign of trusting the saviour you trust the baptist
To let you go
And release you back into the wild.
And if he doesn't you are dead

Thirsty, dirty and dead

The English Revolution

Wrote this last week. I was waiting in the car having arrived early for an appointment. A sample from the Disposable Heroes 'Television' came on BBC 6 Music and I mistakenly started humming 'The Revolution Will not be Televised'. In fact that is a Gil Scott-Heron tune. But somehow it got me thinking that in this day and age the revolution, indeed any revolution, probably will be televised and thus this:

The English Revolution 

The Revolution will be televised 
The Revolution will be live-streamed and podcast
The Revolution should be bookmarked - visit 
The Revolution will be reported 
The Revolution will be commented upon and analysed 
The Revolution in pictures will be on pages 3-17 
The Revolution will be written up and sold back to you in 24 weekly instalments
(buy issue 1 get issue 2 absolutely free)
The Revolution is now available in paperback but eventually
The Revolution will be discounted on Amazon

How was the Revolution for you? 
The Revolution will be seeking feedback
Could you hear?
Were you warm enough?
Did you spend any money on the T-shirt?
If we did another revolution would a different day of the week be more convenient?
Would you like a revolution in your area?
Please state preferred method of dictator overthrow or tyrant assassination
Can you think of other people in your locality who might enjoy a revolution?

The Revolution fails to understand that the English public do not require permission to give feedback:

Dear Sir,

I hope that no tax-payers money was spent on the Revolution. I will not condone this until my green bin is consistently emptied on the correct day

Dear Editor,

I was appalled and shocked to discover that the Revolution was delivered with so little publicity. I was unable to participate due to a long-planned visit from my in-laws. Please would you make sure that more notice is given for the next one.

Yours faithfully

The Revolution will be delivered by properly-trained individuals
The Revolution will be high vis and EU compliant
The Revolution will use up-to-date energy-saving technology and is now going on stand-by
The Revolution will be an equal opportunities malevolent force
The Revolution will be seeking membership from under-represented communities
The Revolution currently needs applicants for whom Revolution is a second-language
The Revolution will not use your data without your express consent

The Revolution will be harmonised and institutionalised
The Revolution will be cost effective
The Revolution will be using SMART goals

The Revolution will be fat free and low cal
Gluten free revolutions will also be available
Once opened the Revolution should be stored in a cool, dry place and used within three days
The Revolution must not be diluted under any circumstances
The Revolution may contain nuts

Monday, May 14, 2018

Thought for the Day

As delivered to BBC Radio Bristol this morning:

'What is this?' said people of Jesus as recorded in the Bible. 'He teaches with such authority.' No matter what you make of the authenticity of the Bible stories there can be no doubt that a picture is painted of Jesus the leader; able to persuade people to follow him. Some left everything to do so.

How do you know if you're a leader? There are many ways. It may say so on your office door. Or in your job description. You could wear the captain's armband.

My favourite answer to that question is - look around and see if anyone is following you.

I don't particularly enjoy leadership. But I hate a leadership vacuum even more. If I'm in a group of people trying to do a job and nobody is being in charge I will, pretty rapidly, become in charge. The sorts of people who become clergy are often comfortable being in charge of projects and meetings.

A group of my friends with whom I used to co-lead once admitted that they often deliberately mucked around to see how long it would be before I took charge.

A friend I co-lead with, and trust absolutely, is happy with our joint leadership statement to our team - whoever appears to be in charge, is.

So I chuckled at the story of the Portishead annual residents' meeting that ended after six minutes because the authority of the person in the chair was not recognised.

It's tough this leadership thing. Are you in charge of stuff? How's it working out? May I commend servant leadership as the Jesus method. It involves juggling being in front, alongside and behind clearing up at various times. Let me know how it goes.

Friday, May 11, 2018

The Bible and History

What do vicars do for fun on their day off? Well I can't speak for the rest but I find baiting the conservative evangelical world a nice pastime. Good morning.

A few years ago I was commissioned by a leading evangelical Christian home mission agency (narrowed down enough?)  to write a long piece on the Bible and history. I wrote it. You can read it here.

If it is too long for you there is a shorter, punchier version here.

The piece was rejected. The line in the rejection letter which stuck with me was, as close as I can recall - We don't think most Christians get out of bed in the morning thinking about issues of historicity.  I responded not by saying they were wrong but that they were right and the article would show people why they should (get out of bed with historicity on their mind and with apologies to Rory Gallagher for whom the problem was bullfrogs).

It was unpublished but they still paid me as I had done what they asked. I imagine the guy who actually commissioned the piece is still in the dungeons. All evangelical home mission agencies have dungeons don't they? During my short career as a writer I can recall three occasions when I was well paid for pieces that were not used.

Why am I telling you this? So, if you heard Today on BBC Radio 4 this morning you will have heard an expert (yes, we still have them) talking about the mismatch between the archaeological evidence and the written tradition in the life of Kings David and Solomon (there is a gap in archaeology between roughly 1000BCE and 800BCE.

Challenged as to whether this presented problems for the readers of the Hebrew Bible he responded that it depended on your approach to biblical interpretation.

So  my intuition was correct. BBC Radio 4 Today is helping more people to get out of bed with historicity on their mind. As well they should. The Hebrew ancient literature is both a national document of self-criticism (Jonathan Sacks) and (if misinterpreted) a theology of land-grabbing (me).

So, with tentativity, here is my course for those wanting to allow the possibility that we can learn about God without having to swallow whales:

The Liberal Evangelical Lectures - The Omega Course

  • Why everything you thought you knew about Christianity is wrong.
  • It's more about what you do than what you believe. If you're not improving the world stop claiming to be a Christian. Creeds should be about making a difference now.
  • There is no dotted line to sign on. There is water not to get too far from.
  • Jesus probably had a real Dad. The New Testament speaks of the seed of David as much as born of a virgin.
  • You can make church what you want it to be as long as it is gathering.
  • Booklist: A new kind of Christian, Love wins, The Case for God, Unapologetic.
  • There never was a garden but anyway, snakes can't hear. The devil ain't all that real but sin is. For many people hell is now.
  • The more I study the Bible the more liberal I become.
  • You can sleep with whomsoever you want except...
  • If you want to know what God's like look at Jesus.
  • Jonah was a story; Job was a play, Noah was a mythos. Some Bible stories are more than true.

This is not a complete course specification.

Like it? How can we make it happen?

Don't like it? Your consolation prize is Rory Gallagher singing Bullfrog Blues live.

Friday, May 04, 2018


Sometime around 1990/91 Gareth Owen, a neighbour and young friend, was the first person ever to say to me 'May the Fourth be with you.' I remember it. It was hilarious.

After a while this became a good greeting and then after another while (say twenty years) people began to wish each other a happy Star Wars Day, having fun noting who didn't understand.

Today several people, without irony or attribution, have said 'May the Fourth be with you.' I think they have expected me to laugh. I honestly have no idea why.

They are closely related to the sorts of people, who wear comedy ties - I know a joke and I'm going to tell it all day (children's hospital surgeons are excluded from this group - they have other, more laudable, reasons).

The secret of good comedy is timing. A forty year old somebody-else's-joke is bad timing. Very bad. Stop it.

Friday, April 20, 2018


TYA 1971 Tour Front Cover
I very much enjoyed last night's gig by guitarist/singer/song-writer Keith Christmas at Nailsea's Ring of Bells pub. The slightly weird bit of the whole experience was this:

I went to a number of 'variety show' gigs with my parents in the 1960s and also saw some bands in the days when they were guests on pantomimes. I can tick off Herman's Hermits, The Bachelors. The Searchers, Freddie and the Dreamers, The Barron Knights and Gerry and the Pacemakers. But these were two or three song gigs with comedians as headline.

Exploring my own taste in music from about 1969/70 onwards I got over-interested in Ten Years After and in autumn 1971 they were my first solo gig, at Birmingham Town Hall. These days I do not buy concert programmes (I worked out they were a rip-off quite quickly), but to begin with I would buy a programme and place it, for safe-keeping, in the sleeve of the album being promoted on that tour. Another use of a vinyl album. So I still have it.

The 1971 line up
The opening act I saw at that first gig was a young solo artist of whom I had not heard. Yeah, Keith Christmas. He was able to command the stage, as I recall, and his acoustic guitar playing was a bit good (although some of you will know I am not a guitarist). A lot of the audience remained in the bar.

I spent a large part of last night pondering on where our journeys had taken us since then. Keith had played with Bowie, opened up for many major bands and recorded much fine music. He describes his career as coming to an end but also seems to have become a prolific song-writer later in life. Some of his new material was outstanding. He has also had two sons and now lives in Torquay. I guess that if, in 1971, you would have told him he would eventually wind down his career playing to 25 people in Nailsea he would have been a bit disappointed, although he genuinely seemed to love the appreciative audience (I knew most of them from the local music scene). Did I ever tell you I had turned down an invitation to play keys in a Wurzels tribute band? Fact.
The autograph

But not half as surprised as 16 year old me would have been to be told that he would end up here as a vicar. Our journeys have been different but it was great to say hello to part of my past.  He has signed my tour programme. Look what he wrote.

Guitarists might like to know that Keith uses a rare B tuning of his own making from time to time. Some of the guitarists in the room seemed to be weeping at the sheer variety of picking techniques Keith used. Lost on me but I pass it on.

I try to go to as many local music events as possible and get to know the people. I have even dared perform at the Folk Club from time to time. There aren't many opportunities for the vicar to walk into a room full of men outside church circles. I love it.

One guy (hi Rob) told me he always enjoyed hearing me on the radio and when I told him I had been on that morning he said he would go home and listen to it on iplayer. 'I'm that sad' he added, with a wink.

Keith Christmas April 2018 
From time to time I have an experience that screams at me. Look where I brought you from. Look where I put you. What you going to do about it?

Thanks Keith, for the memory jog, the great performance and the reminder of the journey.

Health warning. UKIP members probably wouldn't enjoy his politics. 'I'm a bit of a leftie even for a folk singer'.

He once had to break it to the members of Chicken Shack that Stan Webb had gone home from a tour of Germany during the night after a telephone row with his wife. He told the story as his encore.