Monday, October 11, 2021

Thought for the Day

As delivered (pre-recorded) on BBC Radio Bristol Breakfast this morning.

Last time I had a job other than vicar I worked as a writer. I once got paid for eight words. A building services company were happy with my slogan: 'Large enough to cope; local enough to care'.

That was my past. But we all become better carers when it is local. When the need is on our doorstep, or involves someone we know.

Our stories this morning on BBC Radio Bristol are linked by the word 'caring'.

A charity that helps families to look after a child, when their parents can't.

A support group for people with a rare skin condition

Raising money for, and awareness about, a cancer

Caring for the environment by cutting out waste.

The challenge my faith, through my Bible, sets me is 'Who is my neighbour?' The Bible describes us as one in Christ Jesus. Whilst grateful to those who raise awareness of needs into which they have been thrust by circumstances, being a carer regardless of background is a deep and biblical call. For we are all part of one race.

My slogan needs amending. We sometimes need to cope even though we are small. And care for those a bit further away.

Monday, September 06, 2021

Thought for the Day

Having written and recorded this yesterday I almost forgot that it was delivered this morning on BBC Radio Bristol's Breakfast Show with James Hanson:

The Bible has a very here-today-gone-tomorrow approach to life. We're fragile, vulnerable and like grass in a puff of wind.

One job of a church leader is to have an understanding of risk. In fact that's true in any organisation. People get stewed up about insignificant things and fail to get alarmed by significant ones.

'Yeah, Joan took her mask off for a while but you left chairs blocking the fire escape to tell me.'

If you have had to do a risk assessment you know that you can accept very common minor matters with small consequences but should be ready for uncommon events with serious consequences.

It reminds me of the risk assessment we took of a young people's caving trip. The version that did not go to press said 'If you are unlucky you will get very cold and wet. Normally, everyone is unlucky.' That was the fun bit. We could live with that but were much more careful not to drop young people into fast-moving streams or deep potholes.

These thoughts go through my head when I imagine what it must be like to be a head-teacher in an age of COVID. My prayers are with you. Have a safe term.

Wednesday, September 01, 2021

Thought for the Day

One of my store-cupboard (recorded well in advance and generic) TFTDs was used today to cover for someone who had pulled out late. Here is the scrip a played on BBC Radio Bristol this morning at 8.43 a.m. by James Hanson:

Wonder how you feel about grammar pedants? Those who correct even the slightest mistake in text, tweet or email? Apostrophe bandits seeking the unwary.

Thing is, it can be important how we say things. I'm very aware that on radio, people only have my words to latch on to. Mannerisms, hand gestures or other clues are missing without a studio cam.

So there is a big difference between 'James walked on his head in the air', suggesting a contortionist and 'James walked on comma, his head in the air' which tells of a proud morning radio presenter.

The M5 service station which offers 'coffee available inside 24 hours' is probably not trying to say it takes almost a day to deliver the drinks. We need to read the context.

And if I had English as a second language and didn't understand the name we give to the reflectors in the centre of our roads what would I make of the apparently heartless Somerset village I drove through the other evening, proudly announcing 'Cats eyes removed.' Wraxall. What are you like?

God so loved the world he gave his only son. God so loved the world he gave his only son? Sounds different as a question than if it is a statement. What do you think it is?

Friday, August 13, 2021

Thought for the Day

As delivered on BBC Radio Bristol to James Hanson's Breakfast Show just now:

What is the point on which the soul should fix its intellectual eye? Not my question, but that of author, Mary Shelley, a talented teenage writer who wrote of Dr Frankenstein's creation. The House of Frankenstein in Bath takes the visitor into an experience of her times and the world she created.

The attraction includes an enormous model of Dr Frankenstein's creature. Mary Shelley wrote it between the ages of 18 and 20. As she said, 'There is something at work in my soul which I do not understand.'

Philosophy Professor Patricia MacCormack says that the Creature addresses the most fundamental human questions: 'It's the idea of asking your maker what your purpose is. Why are we here, what can we do?'

In the book of Job, a tale of suffering, a comforter comes along who, in his own words, waited until last to speak because he was the the youngest. He then gives Job better advice than his first three comforters and yet is completely ignored. The book never mentions him again.

I wonder if, in order to ask questions about her own purpose, Mary Shelley created a creature to ask for her. Such good questions that, 200 years later, we still discuss them.

Thursday, August 05, 2021

Thought for the Day

I pre-recorded this one for BBC Radio Bristol on Tuesday and then the story I based it on was bumped from the Breakfast Show because of a rescheduled balloon mass ascent. So it went out today. Apologies to my fan who I misinformed on Sunday.

We had an interesting discussion in our house. I was gently nursing our ancient dishwasher through its final few tasks before it went to the domestic appliance graveyard. My family laughed at my efforts to turn the water off as the programme finished, which involved squeezing into the cupboard under the sink with a pair of mole-grips and a torch.

After a few days without our labour-saving device our privileged position is to be able to afford a new one. But washing up by hand was annoying because we'd filled the labour-saving time with tasks, not leisure. More fool us.

Once my ancestors would have fed the scraps to the animals, washed up in the river and hunter-gathered the next meal.

Today I look at relative scarcity on the supermarket shelves and remind myself how fragile our grip on life is.

'As for people', the psalmist said, 'their days are like grass,
they flourish like a flower of the field;
the wind blows over it and it is gone,
and its place remembers it no more.'

Pretty bleak thought. Good job the next verse says:

'But from everlasting to everlasting the Lord's love is with those who fear him...'

Good news. Good God. Good morning.






Thursday, July 29, 2021

Influential Books

I love reading the question and answer interviews in Sunday supplements. Given how unlikely it is that anyone will ever want to publish my answers I thought I'd have a go at the question about 'influential reads'. I reckon all books influence me, even if it is to eliminate the author from my future enquiries. But what tomes really changed me? If we are honest they are rarely the books alleged to be 'improving'.

Here are ten. They may not be quite the top ten because I didn't want to overthink. I may do ten more later. The order, by the way, is the order in which I read them:

Aboard the Bulger
Ann Scott Moncrieff
1935

Not very old I was taken to Selly Oak library by my Dad. Here I was amazed. We didn't have many books in our house but Dad was always reading. So this is the secret. Borrow them and take them back. For nothing. Wow. This was the first book I borrowed. I read it wrapped in an eiderdown on my bedroom floor in front of an inadequate electric fire.


The Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy (Increasingly improbable trilogy)
Douglas Adams
1979

Adams probably stands in a long line of great word-play authors but I had slowed my reading habit between the age of 12 and 18, perfectly undoctrinated by a school literature list which failed to move this adolescent teenage male at all. I read nothing but cheap thrillers from 1973-1979. Then this. Someone told me I should read it so I didn't because I am a recommender not a recomendee. Then I did. If writing can be like this, breaking the rules once you understand them, then it made me want to write. A few years later I had a go.

'The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don't.' One of my favourite lines of all time.


Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Robert M Pirsig
1974

The Late Review used to be tagged on to the end of Newsnight but I saw some precursor of it around the time this book was published. I probably (aged 19 or 20) thought the discussion was a load of pretentious rot. I can't recall. It would have been late night midweek and once I started work I only ever stayed up midweek to watch the footie.

Anyway I found a copy in St John's College Library sometime around 1983/4 and, as an enquiring theological student, felt that it was rebellious to read something not on any lecturer's book list. Zen Christianity has accompanied me ever since and I swear that having a cool head in a crisis is something I decided to have rather than was born with.

I also learned that there is usually a good reason why some books get reviewed and others don't.


Illywhacker
Peter Carey
1985

College, despite my previous post, did get in the way of reading for pleasure. Then, in my first curacy in Nottingham, I met some lovely new friends who helped by lending some books they had enjoyed once I had announced at a dinner party that I was fed up with the quality of my reading. At the same time I started enjoying bookshops (libraries were going a bit downhill) and (yes, design does matter) the boxed-out Faber and Faber logo always caught my eye.

This epic narrative about coming-to-terms with what Australia actually is, narrated by a confidence trickster and liar, was a lucky find. It meant a lot that, despite Carey being a double-Booker winner and well-known, I had not heard of him before I bought this book and, having now read everything he has ever written and only found one book I didn't really enjoy, feel I discovered him for myself. I always recommend him, knowing that the reaction will be a bit Vegimity.


Dispatches from the Front Line of Popular Culture
Tony Parsons
1994

This sat on the shelf above my desk for many years when I worked in the late lamented youth department of the Christian home mission agency CPAS (Church Pastoral Aid Society). All the other staff bookshelves seemed to be full of things conservative evangelicals are supposed to read. All you imagine they ever learned was the result of a massive echo chamber. It seems to me that teaching people to live the gospel in contemporary society is pretty hopeless if you have no clue how contemporary society works, what it means and who the movers and shakers are. This set of columns, articles and essays from 1976-1994 was a priceless journeymate. What does it mean to be a Christian amongst this?



Passage to Juneau
Jonathan Raban
1999

Robert Runcie - The Reluctant Archbishop
Humphrey Carpenter
1996

The Case for God
Karen Armstrong
20009

These three books changed my attitude to genre. If all travel books were written like Jonathan Raban writes I would read them all. I would read about anything if Jonathan Raban held my hand. Even a yacht journey from Seattle to Juneau.

Likewise Carpenter taught me to read biography if the biographer can write and Karen Armstrong renewed my sense of enjoyment in theology


Unapologetic
Francis Spufford
2012

Some books help like a session of psychotherapy. You rarely know which one it will be. Spufford's sub-title is 'Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense'. As I read I found that he had written what I wanted to say. Christianity does give me a place of emotional safety from where I can explore the intellectual complexities of doing theology. If I had spent the first term at College reading this it would have saved a lot of time.


Thinking Fast and Slow
Daniel Kahneman
2011

Having read a book that explained to me who I am this was the book that helped me understand everybody else. What is going on when people make decisions? How do we choose? Why do we decide some weighty matters without all the necessary information?

Well, to use a technique that the book describes, I'll answer an easier question than those. Should you read this? Yes. In fact you should study it.



Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Lesley Tilley RIP

For those who might be interested, this is the eulogy my sister and I prepared for Mum's funeral:

Lesley Joan Tilley 1928-2021

Lesley Base was born in Birmingham on 18th March 1928. Apart from a brief time, when she was evacuated during the Second World War to North Wales, she lived her whole life in the city.

She became adept at giving travel directions using landmarks that had been demolished, saying things such as ‘Turn left where the Bristol Cinema used to be. You know. Opposite where they knocked down that church.’

Her parents, Dennis and Janet, were lovely people although her father was somewhat strict and austere. They had to cope with several miscarriages and so Lesley was a much loved only child. She was devoted to her parents and looked after them with care in their twilight years.

She had an aptitude for art and design. Steve recalls finding his art homework much improved by her hand overnight, once.

She attended Margaret Street Art College in Birmingham where she trained as a dress designer. Some of her original drawings survive but this career was short lived. One left-over from this career was a dressmaker’s dummy which lived in an attic room for many years and scared occasional visitors if the light was gloomy.

She loved fashion and clothes and was always very smartly turned out.

She met Jim Tilley after the war when he was still in the RAF.

She was engaged to someone else at the time. But a mutual male friend brought Jim along to meet Lesley one evening. They married at Edgbaston Old Church in 1950 - the marriage lasted 49 years until his death in 1999.

The relationship introduced her to Dad’s sister Brenda, a kindly woman with what today would be described as learning difficulties. She lived with the family until Jim’s death. It also began her 50 year relationship with Jim’s family home, 107 Oakfield Road - a huge Victorian house maintained, just about. She therefore found herself looking after part, then all, of this rambling place. The existence of rooms over the garages and bells in each room in the main house suggested that the building had been used to a team of staff. She developed as a cook and did a Cordon Bleu cookery course. Jim was a very traditional eater so pasta and curry never got a look in. But meals were always great.

It was an exciting playground for Steve and Jacquie to be born into in the 1950s and Lesley admitted that she loved being a mother.

She was one of the few people to have hated the day when the kids went back to school at the end of the summer. Steve and Jacquie’s school friends speak of her kindness and welcome.

She loved having young people around her and Steve and Jacquie were encouraged to invite friends round and they were always greeted enthusiastically. Jacquie remembers endless school holidays spent with friends running around in the attic rooms and playing French cricket in the garden. Steve's football skills spoiled many fine flowers and shrubs.

As the children grew up and became independent she gave herself to entertaining and charity work, hosting many fund raisers for various causes. She was particularly active raising awareness and funds for Kidney Research; at the time a not very fashionable cause.

She was a keen supporter of both children’s chosen careers, vocally and emotionally supporting Jacquie when she went away to Art College and Steve when he was ordained.

When grandchildren came on the scene in the 1980s she threw herself into being a grandma. Ben and Jon recall how excited she always was to see them. Spending holidays with grandma and grandpa involved many days out and, of course, that house to explore.

She was part of the fellowship at St Stephen’s, Selly Park and much in demand as a baby-sitter, not least by the clergy.

She also enjoyed occasional travels - especially a trip to see her cousin Doreen in Los Angeles.

Jim died after a stroke and she was devastated. It took sometime to persuade her to downsize but she made a new home in Kelton Court. She made friends and joined the community here at St George’s for a few years. She was happy here until it became clear that her increasing confusion was the onset of dementia.

She was first cared for in her house by regular care visitors and fine neighbours. Eventually she needed residential care and Neville Williams have looked after her for the last few years, patiently dealing with a client who insisted on being known as Mrs Tilley, not Lesley.

Grateful thanks to all, paid and unpaid, who have rallied round. After having her two COVID jabs she tested positive although remained symptomless. She seemed somewhat indestructible but then on June 13th she fell asleep in her chair for the last time. Let’s face it; it’s how we’d all choose to go.

Steve Tilley and Jacquie Clinton
June 2021















Tuesday, July 06, 2021

Holiday Reading

Here are the results of my holiday reading this year. The mark out of ten I offer is not related to literary merit or any sense of genre importance. I use it simply to tell you how diverting the book was as a holiday read:


Pete Paphides - Broken Greek (8/10)
Pete is a music journalist from a Greek family based in Birmingham. This autobiographical book covers his childhood and early teenage years. The pull of the music industry was strong but the peer pressure that formed his early opinions was also influential. As a Brummie who recognises both the landscape and the chart-music of my young adult years (I am older than the author) I loved this journey.


Ben Machell - The Unusual Suspect (9/10)
Ben is a newspaper columnist and feature-writer. This is the account of Stephen Jackley. He was an Asperger's student so his decision making was unconventional. Channelling Robin Hood he began, in 2007, a life of crime designed to help the poor by robbing banks and building societies. It didn't go as well as he expected.


Simon Mayo - Knife Edge (7/10)
Yes, that Simon Mayo. Page-turner, thriller, bit short on likelihood but ticked the boxes for a quick read.


Bill Bryson - The Body (7/10)
A very entertaining account of the different bits of our bodies and how progress into understanding them was made. No need to read in one go. Fit in a chapter here and there between novels. And rejoice that you were born when you were.


Val McDermid - Still Life (8/10)
The very undisputed queen of the police procedural at the top of her game.


Francine Toon - Pine (7/10)
Slow-developing, ghostly gothic Halloween weirdness in a Scottish community. Delightfully creepy with portentous moments regularly spooking the reader.


Catriona Ward - The Last House on Needless Street (9/10)
Two children, a weird guy and a cat take it in turns to narrate this story. All are unreliable witnesses at one time or another. Not so much a whodunnit as a who did what to whom and when? Brilliant.

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Reliability

I'm pretty sure that most people would prefer those in their employ to be reliable. I have worked with a  few crazy creatives in my time and their unreliability was something we took into account because we wanted their genius ideas on our side. We didn't mind that they occasionally forgot to wash, their desks needed police incident tape and their punctuality for routine meetings was a thing worthy of having an office sweep. I have woken two people in my working life who were asleep near their work, surrounded by pizza boxes.

If you are unreliable you will not be missed for days. Seriously injured in a ditch will become dead in a ditch unless you are unreliable but lucky. Gosh how I love chaotic but lucky people. Also, they live longer.

I am spending more waking hours than is healthy these days pondering things that may be worth handing on. The trigger was when I was asked to do an awkward burial of ashes because 'You're a safe pair of hands'. I guess I am. I am punctual. If I am late people tend to ask if everything is OK rather than look sternly at me. Which is nice. Reliable people are late sometimes. But they have good will to be so. If I say I will do something I usually do it. I got reminded in a meeting the other day to do something that was on my list to do next. Really irritating although we may note in passing that control freaks don't trust anyone, even reliable people.

A speaker at a conference I was at said that people who use trains are usually punctual. It is true but it sounds wrong. People who use trains regularly have to get themselves to a station at a particular time or they are late. Trains are sometimes late but the person was there to catch it. We generally only hear that someone has come to an event by train if they are late and explaining. Most trains are on time. Most train users don't usually feel the need to say how they travelled.

But reliability isn't only about punctuality. As a professional writer for a few years I used to hit deadlines. Had to. I wanted the fee. Part of being reliable involved, from time to time, phoning a commissioning editor and asking if there was any flexibility in the deadline. It was usually fine because they'd built in some time for emergencies. Once or twice I encountered a strict deadline and had to stay up late finishing. Because that's what reliable people do. By the way, if you want something from a writer first thing in the morning make the deadline the previous night. We consider a deadline of Monday means Monday at 11.59 p.m. You will get it before Tuesday.

Reliable people feeling they might disappoint, warn those who are depending on them at an early stage. No-one will be cross with you if you tell them you are going down with some illness and may not make it. But give the expectant recipient an extra 24 hours to make plans. Reliable people hate letting others down. The memory of so-doing haunts us.

Once you have a reputation for unreliability it will be hard to shake off. You will feel nagged. If you are unfortunate enough to be in that position my advice would be to over-communicate yourself out of it. 

'Hi Fliss, I'm just calling to say I'm getting on with that piece of work you gave me and it will be finished in a few days.'

'Hi Fliss, just checking in to say the piece will be with you at the end of the week.'

'Hi Fliss. I've just posted it first class.'

Of course, because you're now reliable, these statements need to be true or you become real lieable. Not good.

On a much larger scale, the Japanese worked tirelessly and ceaselessly on acquiring a reputation for reliability after the expression 'Made in Japan' began to be used as shorthand for shoddy in the 1960s and 70s.

If a product becomes unreliable in the eyes of the public it may well be withdrawn for a while and returned with a different name. It's a label nobody wants.

Reliable people do what they say they will do. If they think they will be unable to do something they don't offer to do it, or negotiate the arrangements. Try 'I'll do this for you if you take that off my hands'. From time to time you can put people off by charging a lot. If they call your bluff and agree to pay it either sub it out for less or decide that for that amount of cash you'll stay up all night to finish.

Reliable people don't offer wisdom about things they know nothing about. That sort of bluffing comes back to haunt you.

Reliable people are usually busy and seem to fit a lot into a day.

The word 'reliable' doesn't crop up until the sixteenth century or so. It may come from old French and Latin with its roots in 'binding back'. That word religare also gave us religion. In the Bible it is sometimes used to translate the Greek word pistos but that word encompasses faithfulness and belief. When 2 Timothy 2:2 talks about entrusting Paul's teachings to pistois people it means those who share belief and trust in Jesus.

If you are embarking on a calling to ministry don't over-commit early doors but deliver what you say you will, well and on time.

Wednesday, June 09, 2021

Thought for the Day

As delivered (pre-recorded) to the Breakfast Show at BBC Radio Bristol this morning:

In 1895 history was made when a statue was erected to commemorate Edward Colston, some 174 years after his death. A year ago history was made when the statue was deposited in the harbour by some people - frustrated at a failure to acknowledge the truth of the despicable slave-trade which made him wealthy. A dramatic event moved the narrative on.

I was taught much that turned out to be wrong. The teachers weren't trying to confuse me. But their handle on the truth, then, was short of perfect.

Once people saw the Bible as true story. Then theologians and biblical scholars developed skills and found that it contains history, drama, fiction, poetry, proverbs, biography and the wonderfully named - apocalyptic. Source material for historians - yes; but not all strictly factual.

Once people thought the Earth was flat, the planets revolved around it and God lived up in the clouds.

Those things were never true. God-locating is notoriously tricky.

It is not for Thought for the Day to pronounce on controversial matters. But it is the job to remind us all to revisit things we have always thought true. Otherwise historians will enjoy reminding the world that we were wrong.

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Thinking Foreign

Students of languages will tell you that there comes a moment when you know you have 'got it' because you did not translate what you heard back into your mother tongue before replying. You were actually thinking in <insert name of language>.

Adapting to change is similar. Those of us old enough to recall the day our currency went decimal will also remember the few months/years after when we still had to calculate the price in 'old money' before we knew if it was expensive. Sample conversation:

Me: Mum, It's only 25p
Mum: That's five shillings. It's a lot of money.

Now it is second nature. For anyone under 50 it is first nature.

Likewise thinking in centigrade and kilograms. Much easier systems but how many over 40s have to translate back before we actually know how hot or heavy it is.

I'm writing this because I have had to learn, along with many others, to think in Covid. Last night I entered a bar. I knew what to do and was getting out my track and trace app (how long would it take to explain that sentence to my pre-decimal self?) when I spied some friends. Old instinct cut in and I walked straight over to them to say hello. I was hailed from the meet and greet counter that I couldn't do that until I had signed in. Old thinking. Will it become new thinking? Permanent change? Who knows?

Concentration

There's a moment in Pulp Fiction where Samuel L Jackson and John Travolta (Jules and Vincent) confront some minor hoodlums in a small apartment. These guys have taken something that belonged to a Mr Big who can afford really good muscle to get it back.

Whilst one of the punks is trying to blurt out an explanation Jules shoots his buddy on the sofa saying 'I'm sorry. Did I break your concentration?' Yes. That worked.

I think I have pretty high powers of concentration. Eighteen years of my life spent in open-plan offices probably made me better than most at blocking out distracting noises. Once at Eagle Star Insurance someone backed a lorry containing girders through the office window. That was a Jules moment. But conversation and background buzz? I could ignore that.

But recently I've got worse. Used to working at home alone most of the day the pandemic has delivered me with first one, and now two companions. Planning for our retirement next year we have been trying to concentrate enough on finding a place to live. Our other housemate is also house-hunting. Both of us may have been successful. We're waiting on completions. My final year in ministry is not quite the walk in the park I had planned. My concentration got shot.

To all intents and purposes I am doing OK but for two months I wasn't able to read. I'd pick up a book and read a chapter but then have no idea what I just read.

It's getting better. The habit of regular diaried reading days has been part of my DNA for 20 years now. Even if I only manage a few short chapters of some simple, but improving, books it keeps me ticking over. Not 200 pages a day with studious notes, but maybe 75/100 and some progress, a few quotes written down and a sense of personal development. 

One thing that I find helpful on these reading days is variety. I'll pick 7 or 8 of the 30 books I have on the go at any one time and read a chapter from each. I'm amazed how often these chapters inform each other and feed into a grand thought about something altogether different. I begin with the shortest chapters because then, psychologically, I'll have dome three books in the first hour. I'm an easy person to fool, me.

Sometimes I share this insight with others and it is dead marmitey. Some look as if I have changed their lives for ever; others as if I am no longer connected to my trolley.

One of the cave rescuers who performed an endurance dive to rescue some lads a few years back was interviewed. The interviewer asked 'I suppose when you get to that point where you are not sure you can make it you rely on your courage.' He was corrected, and quickly. 'No. You rely on your training.'

The habits and skills you develop over your lifetime in your chosen profession will hold your hand when your concentration is no longer with you. It's your training. And with that I will pick up today's first book. Enjoy your Marmite.

Friday, May 07, 2021

Thought for the Day

As recorded yesterday and played on BBC Radio Bristol this morning:

From the streets of Bedminster answers to 'What would you do if you were mayor?'

We all have hobby-horses, pet peeves and vision for our city.

In the Jim Carrey film 'Bruce Almighty' Bruce has been made God for a week while God takes a vacation. Fed up of all the prayer requests he arranges for them to arrive as emails. Then he replies with a keystroke, 'Yes - to all'. Suddenly, thousands of people share a tiny lottery prize. Every sports game ends in a draw.

One day Jesus was faced with a queue. He'd been up early getting some holy space and, returning to the village, found the sick and needy waiting for him. His reply is shocking. 'Let's go somewhere else.' Mark 1:38 if you don't believe me.

We pay our leaders to make decisions when competing demands are rushing at them. They simply can't say 'Yes to all'. If you were mayor for a day how would you cope when people said 'You haven't been listening' just because you weren't going to do what they wanted. Maybe you'd say 'Let's go somewhere else'. Who would blame you?

Whoever is mayor at the end of today they deserve our prayers and support.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Sticking to your Principles

Today's sermon was on Mark 5:21-43. It is an interesting passage. Mark uses the story of one miracle, in two parts, as bookends for another miracle. My sermon is going to be on our church YouTube channel shortly.

In passing I noticed this:

Jairus, a synagogue leader, who reported that his daughter was close to death, did not seem to care if Jesus, a holy man, risked ritual uncleanness by visiting his dying daughter, and maybe being with her once dead. He should have; but he didn't. His principles did not survive desperation.

The woman with the show of blood tried to touch the hem of Jesus' garment so that she didn't cause him to become unclean. She needn't have worried; but she did. Her principles survived desperation.

Libertarians, who do not believe any citizens should ever have to carry papers saying who they are, are wondering if that holds true post-pandemic. Should we have vaccine passports?

Authoritarians, who do not believe that crowds should ever be allowed to gather in a pandemic, are wondering if that holds true when the Queen's husband dies. Should that be an exception?

Desperation tests your principles. It sometimes tells you that they weren't principles after all.

Thursday, April 08, 2021

Thought for the Day

As delivered, pre-recorded at the moment not live, at BBC Radio Bristol this morning on James Hanson's Breakfast Show:

My Christian master is a teacher, happy in crowds. Yet, I've worked from home most of my life. From, not at.

But a decree went out that we must all work from home if possible. For a while it pleased some people greatly. Although others, who built stuff, cared for the sick or processed food to name but three, had to go to work.

'Honey, I'm back.'

'What's that cow doing here?'

'Well I'm working from home tomorrow. Those pies don't make themselves. I'll leave it on the dining room table for now.'

No. That conversation never happened.

Those who could stay (probably undistracted by others working in the same house or kiddies needing education) enjoyed the absence of commute and the dress-down. For a bit.

Then the realisation. Friendships are formed in a thousand photocopier or water-cooler moments. Chat over a sandwich. Drink after work. Working at home perhaps something was lost as well.

Yes, many of us would prefer to go to fewer meetings, but a real flesh and blood boss with vision is motivating.

Most faith communities value precisely that - community. Helping and teaching people. Hermits need nothing. Community needs shepherding.

Friday, April 02, 2021

The Last Hour

People have booked. Everyone who has booked is here five minutes in advance so we could start. Seems wrong though. An hour at the cross should be 2-3. We have a track and trace list. Socially distanced seating. A Zoom link for those who cannot be here. We have covered the pictures of the children on the school hall wall. This is peak 2021. This is weird.

I have no part to play. It has been conceived and is being delivered by a placement student from the local Theological College. He has not been to an hour at the cross before and I have deliberately not told him too much about what happens. I am enjoying being led by someone I have helped train and now utterly trust. I can let the hour carry me along, journaling, as is my preference when listening to a well-known tune remixed. This is not weird.

But it is Good Friday. A day we need to remember is meant to be weird. The Romans invented a cruel-spectacle execution for those it wished to use as an example. The gallows is too quick. Insurgents would not be put off by a quick death. Crucifixion is slow. It is said Jesus died in six hours - relatively quickly. The business of breaking the legs of the crucified was to prevent them from pushing themselves up to grab a breath. It hastened the slow death of suffocation. Those executed were not always taken down once dead, as Jesus was. Some were left at cross-roads and other public places to be picked at by carrion. A visual aid. This is what we will do to you if...

We have been following the story of Jesus from Mark's Gospel this year. 'The Tabloid Gospel' we have called our series although that is a bit harsh on a mainly eye-witness account containing much on which to reflect. 'Who is this man?' it keeps asking, telling stories of astounded and astonished crowds hanging on the every word of this unpredictable preacher.

And at some point in his life the destination of his journey became clear to him. One whose family knew nails and wood intimately. And at some point after his death followers tumbled to what his life meant, piecing together prophecy, preaching and pain. 'It is finished.' What is, Jesus? What?

The finish is of the quest for further clues. You can either conclude that life is meaningless or see the answer on a cross. A man, so clearly divine that his chroniclers called him 'Son of God', abandons the otherness of the spiritual world he inhabits to become one like us. There is no glib Christian answer to suffering, just a bow to its inevitability. Demand your money back if anyone sells you one.

'If you must bang your head against a wall...' said my doctrine tutor and hero Tom Smail '...bang it against the mystery of Jesus. Relevant martyrdom.'

Look no further.

Accept no substitutes.

Like no other.

No art, theology or music can do justice to this event. It is the thing that gives all other things the right to happen. They change meaning when juxtaposed. This lovely, messy, unfair world is a place we are free to inhabit because somehow God inhabited it once. We loved him yet also treated him unfairly, messily. We even have the freedom to ignore the story or take it no more seriously than an Easter food ad.

I don't send Easter cards. Well OK, one, but that is for other reasons. This is not a time for commerce. I take this hour (this year) and commit to serving this mystery for another year. I've done this for 37 years, one year at a time. This will be my last time. From next year my time is my own and need not be committed to anyone. Nine more months. Here you are.

Nine more months to the one who knows how insincere, two-faced and hypocritical are my hints to others to have faith. I call no-one. I invite them to investigate what I have investigated as thoroughly as I have and to work out how to respond after doing their own deconstruction.

Put to death by the unspiritual for allegedly claiming to be a human king.

Put to death by the spiritual for allegedly claiming to be divine.

As I try to make sense of the competing imagery I hear some Tallis, see a dead sheep or Christ on a cold, cold stone. And I hear mockery even now, that I would dare to find this important. Because it's not science, it's not cool, it's not very now and it's not monetizable. And I wonder if most people understand what the meaning of life, the universe and everything should look like. For what, if anything, do they search?

Matthew, Mark, Luke and John took some liberties with history. We do well to get that out onto the table. Not with the truth but with the reality. Mark took fewer. Some of the stuff they made up was designed to illustrate the truths they had glimpsed. They knew no other way.

Every now and again a chord seems exactly right in an 'If I knew what it meant I'd have said it not painted it' sort of way.

The music of Good Friday must be minor. The art abstract. The theology metaphorical (as all language is). Today is not a matter of history. It's far more important than that.

(Silence)

Good Friday
2021

Friday, March 26, 2021

Back to Back

We have two fridges. One in the kitchen for regular stuff and one in the garage which contains rarely used cordials and aperitifs, some vegetables and a lot of beer. We call it the back fridge. We call it the back fridge because the other fridge has always been called the back fridge even though it is not in the back. It is, as I have told you and paragraph one is mighty early for repetition, in the garage and the garage is in the front of the house to be near the driveway.

The second fridge became a thing in our previous house when we got a new fridge before the other one died properly. We put the old one, with the freezer, in an unused downstairs room which was a bit like a cellar. It was a three story Victorian terrace and the third floor (lower ground) was not visible from the road. The lower-ground front room in that house had no natural light and we used it as storage space. Others who bought such houses in the street made an access space for natural light and made an extra living room but were plagued by damp problems unless they spent a fortune.

Did you spot the weird thing in that little section? I passed over it quickly but I said, quite clearly, that the cellar room with the fridge in was the 'lower-ground front room'.

Which means, by my calculation, that although from the kitchen the cellar room was often behind you, it was never in the back. It has always been the front fridge and has been misnamed for over 25 years. We're going to start calling it by its proper name. We'll try, anyway. I wonder how long it will take. Would you bother to change your language if it was proved to be completely inappropriate? Would you work at it?

It's a good question, and why this little piece is about far more than fridges.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Storm Calming Tips - Mark 4:35-5:20

We have been working our way through Mark's Gospel at Trendlewood Church.  My latest sermon is on our YouTube Channel should you so wish.

We've been looking at the way Mark depicts this urgent good news of the astonishing Jesus spreading as he acts and speaks.

After two weeks exploring parables we returned yesterday to miracles. The passage has two different types of miracle - a nature miracle and an exorcism. Two very different experiences of the world back then.

Both have a great simplicity - a bad thing happens and Jesus stops it.

It is another occasion where the chapter breaks, not part of Mark's original work and don't get me started on the sub-headings, help us spectacularly to miss two things that are connected. The two, apparently separate, passages  are 4:35-41, where Jesus calms a storm and demonstrates himself Lord over nature, and 5:1-20  where Jesus heals a man who is 'occupied' by so many demons he is called 'Legion'.

What the chapter break helps us miss is that another storm, this time an internal one, can be calmed by the power of Jesus.  In fact it led me to my title. Despite their differences, what we see is Jesus calming 'Two Different Storms'.

To follow Jesus, I concluded yesterday, is to follow an uncomfortable, unpredictable lead through the eyes of gospel-writers who had points to make about who he was and is. Don't let our modern, numerical punctuation obscure this.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Thought for the Day

As heard this morning on the BBC Radio Bristol Breakfast Show:

I was once challenged by the BBC Radio Bristol presenters to base my thought on a strange item about whale vomit. I'm sorry if you're eating your breakfast. Could I? I did.

Today I had a feeling of deja vu. The story that stood out is of Ian from Weston-super-Mare who shares his house with his partner and a pretty large Dalek he made himself.

We understand the idea of evil. We can name Bond villains such as Blofeld and Scaramanga. Even evil in the Bible is personified as Satan or Beelzebub. But the pantomime villains who made us hide behind the sofa as children are the Daleks. They capture the imagination. My school friend, another Steve, loved Dr Who and in his retirement seems to have a Dalek in the garden. Bless.

What is going on? I think it's a product of our humanity. We don't like to acknowledge that our worst enemies are things such as poor hygiene, aggressive behaviour and impatience. We want an enemy we can kill, not one that makes us change.

So if you look at that Dalek, remember to look at yourself afterwards. There's an enemy within and a story of triumph over that as well. It too can be exterminated.

Sunday, February 07, 2021

Thought for the Day

They've changed the system at BBC Radio Bristol. Too many dodgy phone lines has led them to ask us to pre-record our contributions, which have been trimmed to 200 words from 275/85. This left me forgetting to upload to the blog having delivered it, last Thursday. Here it is:

Jesus spoke about not sewing a new patch onto an old garment. Because, he said, when you wash it, the patch will shrink and the hole will be worse.

I'm going to take a punt that some BBC Radio Bristol listeners will remember when jeans were sold as shrink-to-fit. You had to wear them in the bath, until they fitted. Then try to take them off.

We can fool ourselves into thinking that the world has got worse but there are many ways it has improved, not least pre-shrunk clothing.

I am fascinated to learn that archives from the seventeenth century and the reign of James I tell us that people were chronicling the greatest snow ever and the highest water of all time.

Previous generations had storm and tempest too. And plague without vaccine.

This is not going to be a count-your-blessings thought. That is not sensitive to those who are genuinely struggling.

This is straight from Mark chapter 2, on which I am preaching on Sunday. Jesus said that you can't simply add the things he has said onto your own pre-suppositions and carry on. He's not a patch for a life lived wrong. He's a new way to approach your life entirely.


Thursday, January 07, 2021

Review of the Year

For the last six months I've been posting a weekly Facebook link to my highlights of the week in popular culture. Or maybe unpopular culture would be better? You know me.

On balance it is worth doing this as well though. I like trying to work out what was the best of the year, especially last year which didn't have many bests in it.


Music

My favourite individual tunes of 2020 are on this link to Spotify. It seems to have been a year when my spirits were raised by three chords and jangly guitars. Nowt wrong with that.

For album of the year I often struggle. New music is simply music you haven't heard before. As I do not listen to much radio I quite often 'discover' music that's been around a bit. Which meant it was great to find the Billy Franks' back catalogue and Man Alive by The 4 of Us (which I had on cassette in the car in the 1990s) make their way onto Spotify. But that said I enjoyed:

EOB - Earth

Foals - Collected Remixes

HAIM - Women in Music Pt. III 

Khruangbin - Mordecai

Surprise Chef - All News is Good News

Westerman - Your Hero is Not Dead

Zapatilla - Zapatilla


Reading

I read more books in 2020 than any year since records began (1988). But how many were written in 2020? Not many. Plaudits to:

Fiction

Andrew Hunter Murray - The Last Day

Daisy Johnson - Sisters

Catherine Lacey - Pew

Fact

Adam Rutherford - How to Argue with a Racist


Screen

In TV/Film I caught up with many box-sets during lock-down using a Prime subscription and latterly Netflix. Like many others our favourite film of the year was Armando Iannucci's spirit-lifting The Personal History of David Copperfield.

But I found the year much-improved by Better Call Saul, Peaky Blinders, Bones (plots become increasingly improbable by Season 5), The Good Fight and Brokenwood.


Food

Wapping Wharf
I only had three or four meals out all year but all were nice. My usual haunt of WB at Wapping Wharf is always good but Gambas Tapas just along from there is also excellent.

I missed my couple of times a year at the Pony and Trap at Chew but found the yurt version at Breaking Bread on the Downs very acceptable for a wedding anniversary. In April the Pony and Trap at Chew is changing its focus to a foraging and training centre with meals for volunteers on the estate. But they are opening a restaurant in Bedminster. Hooray.


Clifton Downs Yurts
On a north Wales holiday I discovered that Cadwaladers ice-cream in Criccieth was as good as ever. Also that Grasmere Gingerbread can be mail-ordered.






Here's to better things to review away from home in 2021.


Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Misremembering, Cricket Shots and Your Personal Narrative

I once caught myself embellishing a story to a friend who would find out what I had done. Not willing to spend the rest of my life telling two separate stories to two separate people and making sure they never met, I fessed up and rolled the story back a bit. Memorably, and forgivingly, my friend said he understood because, 'The narrative demanded it at that point'. It was a kindness. I've tried to hold off exaggeration and dishonesty ever since. One of the reasons is that your lies become your truths over time. You misremember hyperbole as fact. Not the greatest sin in the world, especially for those of us who like to think we can spin a tale, but good to be aware of what you are doing.

I've told a tale from time to time about the greatest cricket shot I ever saw.

For a few years in the summer, aged about 12-14, I went after school to Edgbaston, the Warwickshire County Cricket ground, with a few friends. I was a member but you could also get in cheaply after tea. Watching two hours of cricket was infinitely preferable to history essays and over the years I found many excellent ways to use the time after school and before eating that had nothing to do with homework. I was sitting behind the bat slightly to the left. About fine leg and five or six rows back.

And the way I have told the story I saw England and Surrey opening bat John Edrich hit a ball for six so hard that instead of lofting it a long way over the boundary it went in a straight line.  I can still see the ball going from bat to row C, remaining six feet off the ground the whole journey. I have described this shot as a hook all my life. But if I close my eyes again I can't recall the delivery or the ball hitting bat, just the trajectory of the ball which my young eyes saw clearly.

John Edrich died recently aged 83. The first thing I noticed above the obituary I read in The Guardian was a picture of him playing a shot. He was playing the shot he must have played when I saw that 6. He was a left-handed bat. Left-handed.

So, I was not sitting at fine leg but third man and I did not see a hook. What I saw was more remarkable. As obituarist Peter Mason wrote on Christmas Day, Edrich was '.... a ruthless dispatcher of bad deliveries, using his strong forearms to punch the ball to midwicket or through the covers.' I saw Edrich punch the ball through the covers for six. Imagine Ben Stokes' winning shot at Headingley against Australia after that mega last-wicket partnership with Jack Leach, only played slightly higher and later so going for 6 not 4. Unbelievable. But I saw it with my own eyes. Least, I think I did.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Thought for the Day


Privilege to do TFTD on BBC Radio Bristol for Christmas Eve today. Here's my script:

I'm married to a visual merchandiser. My home always looks lovely at Christmas. Mostly this is to be welcoming to guests. Not this year.

Stories on today's show are about plans being changed. Food delivery not party. Adjusting down your feast. Lack of demand for buses.

Are you good with change? I've always been comfortable with routine yet try to vary it. It drives the aforementioned partner bonkers that I will do three jobs at the same time – for no reason! Emphasis, all hers.

My Mum had Christmas planned to the finest detail but afterwards always fixated on the bit that hadn't gone well. Perfectionism is certainly not genetic.

What thought am I digging out of all this? Well, this time last year we had no idea that 2020 would be spoken of in the same list as the Black Death, the Great Plague and Spanish Flu.

The day before the birth of Jesus nobody expected a story was about to be born that would change the shape of human history for the next two millennia.

Theologians disagree about whether Jesus was born in a stable, a guest room or an ordinary house. Whatever, the child grew to be so extraordinary that no-one could imagine his birth had been anything but special. Yet he required feeding, as hungry babies do. Required shelter as homeless people need. Required love. Don't we all?

So, even if you don't feel that the Christian story has anything but myth in it I urge you to allow the mystery and mess to make you more concerned about others than any awkwardness in changing your plans. Merry Christmas.







Sunday, December 13, 2020

Christmas 2020

Happy Christmas to all my readers, lurkers and followers. The family Christmas letter is now available along, if you're into that sort of thing, which is unlikely, with an archive of the same since 1985.

Saturday, December 05, 2020

Desert Island Intros

I think we can all agree that we need a bit of distraction right now. So let's have a row about something completely unnecessary. A song's intro is a thing of beauty in its own right. It grabs you by whatever you don't like being grabbed by and says, listen. I've never attempted a top ten of these and this is my first go; the ones that sprang to mind. Some have stories; others not so much. Lots of my favourite tunes don't count because there isn't enough intro before the vocals start. One of my first live experiences was Alvin Lee yelling 'One of these days boy...' and then following it with a guitar chord of such monstrous power that Birmingham Town hall was nearly no more. No intro.

So, counting backwards, here we go:

10. Silver Liner. Ethan Johns 2015. The chords make you think he might be about to burst into a cover of Argent's Hold Your Head Up (no bad thing) but then something much moodier and trippier breaks out.

9. Sensual Thing. The 4 of Us. 1992. Bass, guitar and drums in 25 seconds of perfect control. You know that the vocalist could say anything and it would be fine. As it happens he wants to electrify his senses, stretch his nerves and save his soul, which is a fine plan.

8. Course of the Satellite. The Vryll Society. 2018. Distorted keys start to make sense as the rhythm kicks in. That's as it should be. 35 secs for old DJs to link from the weather.

7. Speak to me/Breathe. Easy Star All Stars. 2003. A cover version should not simply be an attempt to recreate the original with precision but should add something. No-one adds more than these guys with dub reggae versions of classics. 90 seconds of sound effect intro that manages to surprise you when the offbeat kicks in. I hope the Floyd would approve.

6. A Haunting. Roots Manuva. 2005. Rodney Smith takes a minor key melody and becomes rebel eye with fortitude (come see the dude exude). Spooky.

5. Riot Radio. The Dead 60s. 2005. I love ska. This is an infectious start. One of those occasions when the first track on the first album was never bettered.

4. Jane. Jefferson Starship.1979. Eight bars of swirly keys, (pre-riff in bar 8) then crashing guitar chords for eight more to vocals. Perfect intro.

3. Money for Nothing. Dire Straits. 1985. When you're this big you can get Sting to do backing vocals on your intro. Perfect example of how to build to a climax with drum work absolutely key to this. Everything stops dead before the song starts.

2. Stay with Me. Faces. 1971. This one has a story for me. It's summer 1972, the end of my 17th birthday, and the mainstage at the festival has over-run. I am too tired to stand any longer and go to bed. From my sleeping bag I hear the opening chords of Ron Wood's guitar chop into my slumber and I get back up and enjoy two hours of Rod Stewart and the Faces singalong pub-rock madness.

1. Woke up this morning. Alabama 3. 1997. D. Wayne Love's (RIP) monologue as he walks home following three days of drinking and reflects on his mortality. Listening to John Coltrane's Epitaph he realises that his taste has moved on and he has woken up. Two minutes of story-telling intro as the theme of the song develops slowly,

Let the mayhem begin.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Thought for the Day

As delivered to James Hanson at BBC Radio Bristol just now:

What, can you think, is the first thing in the Bible described as 'not good'?

In the Book of Genesis six days of creation are described. At the end of each of the first five there is a little mantra 'and God saw that it was good'. After day six this creation is described as very good. Then comes the answer to my question. The first thing described as 'not good' is loneliness. It is not good for people to be alone.

Forget for the moment those like me who love curling up in the corner with a good book (beat) because lots of other people make that possible. We are social creatures.

Last Remembrance Sunday the residents of our local streets chose to stand outside to mark the silence. They asked me to lead it, which was a privilege. Then we had a brief outdoor social gathering. I met Gordon aged 85 and Lewis, 7 days.

Gordon told me that on his birthday the neighbours had stood in his front garden and sung to him.

My little corner of Nailsea is lovely, but I invite us all to consider how we can fix the thing God is said to describe as 'not good'.

What little happening can you arrange to put something other than loneliness in the memory banks? Here in my corner of Trendlewood we're planning a switching on of our home Christmas lights event with carols and a nativity story.

I get to join in. We're curing loneliness and inventing Christmas liturgy. Which, amongst other reasons, is why I love being a vicar.

I now realise I used the same introductory question for a Thought back in June, although I did draw a different idea from it. I blame the editors. After 160 of these there may be a little repetition.

Saturday, November 07, 2020

Short-termism

Big old churches are not really my thing but I respect those who chose to erect something worthy of the God they sought. Rowan Williams described churches and other faith groups as 'custodians of the long-term questions'. He observed that they were so because their vision of human nature was not in allegiance with political fashions and majorities. (Being Disciples)

It is hard to be popular if you are a long-term thinker. Investment in the future involves paying now for something you, or maybe somebody else, will get and enjoy then. Oak tree woods may have been planted by visionaries but they are enjoyed by the following generations, not the planters,

But today we have all grown up with credit, hire purchase, loans and mortgages. Paying then for something you get now. Investment spending is a difficult sell. 

Thus populism, as a philosophy, finds it easy to demonstrate that people may keep their freedom during a time of a pandemic. Saves thinking about that awkward business of  being dead. Short-termism wants now what may be compromised if we don't show a willingness to delay gratification. Short-termism says it won't wear a mask now but will risk the hit later. Which would be a perfectly reasonable and acceptable gamble if the person doing the betting was the person who would take the hit. Trouble is the non-mask wearers are gambling with my life, without my permission. The Darwin Awards shouldn't cause collateral damage

'History tells us what happens when economics in decline, with mounting social and economic anxiety, are captured by oversimple populist slogans which cast out those who don't agree or are deemed not to look or sound right.' (Susie Orbach, Guardian Review 26/1/19) Indeed it does. Tragically.

Short-termism is usually late to the party. Short-termism met someone interesting on the way and valued them more highly than the pre-booked appointment they were heading for. 'Running a bit late' they text as you carry on with the book you always have handy if they are in the diary. 'Lateness is a lack of respect for the structures.' (William Challis) 

Short termism will not acknowledge climate change. It sees climate change as somebody else's problem. It wants the oil and the gas and the coal out of the ground so people have jobs and money now. If it was the sort of person to ever show its working it would say that the grandchildren will be better able than us to work out how to survive floods, hurricanes and drought. Short-termism, Stefano Hatfield reminded us, means '... we are lumbered with perennial government by opinion poll, without vision.' (The ipaper 18/8/14)

But no. I'm into the huge unpopularism of the long-term. 'Instead of looking at what is and asking how to maintain it (we) should look at what ought to be and ask how to bring it about' (Mark Ashton: Christian Youth Work). We must learn to look beyond what has already been accomplished. And we must embrace dissatisfaction with the status quo wherever we find it for that will be contain within it the birth throes of change.

I do not accept the obvious as the limit of the possible. Never have. If you ever get three wishes ask for more than a bottomless biscuit tin. You're not six. This generation (in the grandest terms - those on the planet now) know more than any previous one about the effect we are having on the future. Fixing it will cost us. We must pay.

I am writing this listening to the report on the US Election 2020. It seems that the US has rejected short-termism. That is good news for the world in the future. It is probably bad news for a few people now.



Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Thought for the Day

As delivered to the BBC Radio Bristol Breakfast Show just now:

If you found your hotel was on fire and you hastily read the exit instructions on the door you would not like to find this:

'Here beginneth section one of the instructions appertaining to the exiting of this accommodation in the event of a situation of combustion, fire, tempest, storm, wrath, damnation and other such incidences. Thou shalt proceed with all due haste to the end of this corridor, and be ye sure that ye tarry for no man neither greeteth any man on the way, lest thou be consumed and all thy maidservants also.'

No. In case of fire I want to know how to get out. Clearly and quickly. And not in the language of the King James' Bible.

Someone once went up to Jesus and asked him what the greatest commandment was. He said thou shouldst vouchsafe to prioritise God with thy aortic rhythms, ego and id, cerebrally and muscularly. Only kidding. He said that the guy should love the Lord his God with all his heart, soul, mind and strength and love his neighbour as himself.

Which, because Jesus was good at that sort of thing, successfully summarises the first four commandments at a stroke and the last six even quicker.

Is the Bible's big message clear.

How about:

God created
We rebelled
God loved
Jesus died
We live

Ten words. One Gospel. We can talk about the small print later. Track and trace me if you'd like a chat.

So. For what is this a metaphor? Well. If you want to say something important. Say it clearly. Please. And now back to the voice of clarity herself.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

What are Museums for?

A few years ago I heard the story of a west coast US firm who did driveways. Interviewed, the Company Director was asked what he would do when every driveway in California had been done, 'Well I guess we'll do garages. Or windows' he said '...doesn't really matter'.

It didn't really matter because the firm did not exist to do driveways, garages or windows. The firm existed to provide employment for ordinary Californian guys. I loved that. We exist to give jobs out. Nothing else.

Despite a bit of pressure to sell just one Michelangelo statue the Royal Academy say they have absolutely no intention of selling any works in their collection to save jobs. 'You heartless bastards' shout some. I guess once upon a time I might have agreed with them. I don't any more. Museums are collectors. Hoarders if you like. They exist to collect. They have thousands of things collected but not on view to anyone.

Malcolm Gladwell dealt with this question, although it concerned the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, in his Revisionist History Podcast Season 5. Museums exist to hoard. They employ people to aid this aim. People are expendable; the collection is not. Harsh, but consistent.

Monday, September 21, 2020

What About the Lyrics?

I belong to a Facebook group for fans of Billy Franks and the Faith Brothers. Recently, on the occasion of the fourth anniversary of Billy's death, someone posed the question as to which of Billy's fine lyrics might be our personal favourite. It's a tough question and I might answer in various ways depending on my mood, although I regularly come back to:

The true are free, the corrupt are lonely
That's my belief
(Whistling in the Dark)

Billy never quite takes you in the direction you expect. Seeing lonely as the opposite of free and corrupt as the flip-side of true is a fine piece of poetry. In Billy's hands 'Dressed to kill one cool spring morning' is not about a relationship but an anti-war song.

But to broaden this out a bit, I remind myself that I never engage with rock/pop initially via the lyrics. It always starts with feel. Bob Dylan may have won the Nobel Prize for literature but very few of his songs engaged me by feel alone. In the early weeks of lock-down I made a concerted effort to get to grips with Dylan. I found it possible to make a playlist of a dozen songs I enjoyed but most of his albums didn't invite me in far enough to want to investigate the lyrics.

What am I looking for when I get beyond 'feel'. If it feels good I listen to the instrumentation. Who is doing what? I am a keyboard player so I am usually attracted to those parts early. The lyrics come third, often because they are not clear on first listen and, these days of music-streaming, have to be investigated online rather than on-sleeve. For me a great lyricist is one who leaves me with some work to do. Songs that tell stories (particularly those from the English folk tradition) are great to hear once but I never usually want to hear them again. I know the story. Why re-read? Unless the tune is a banger.

It's why, controversially, Easter Parade, so many Billy fans' favourite, is not mine. I get it. The lyrics are good but the tune is pretty simple. I don't need to hear it very often. I often wondered if he had heard Eric Bogle's Gallipoli song 'The Band Sang Waltzing Matilda':

And as our ship pulled into Circular Quay,
I looked at the place where me legs used to be
And thank Christ there was nobody waiting for me
To grieve, to mourn, and to pity.

Billy said:

I came home maimed
So was kept away
From the Easter Parade

Difford and Tilbrook were a fine song-writing partnership in Squeeze but it's my assumption I have heard Up the Junction enough times now, whereas Hourglass still delivers plenty to ponder:

Take it to the bridge throw it over board
See if it can swim back up to the shore
No-one's in the house all the lights are on
And the blinds are down

I'm sorry, what?

I have spent 35 years as a priest and mine songwriters for seams of sermon illustration. As I do so I have to take it on the chin from time to time.

10CC
Two thousand years and he ain't shown yet
We kept the seat warm and the table set
(The Second Sitting for the Last Supper)

Elton John (probably Bernie Taupin)
If there's a God in heaven what's he waiting for
If he don't hear the children then he must see the war
But it seems to me that he leads his lambs
To the slaughter-house not the promised land
(If there's a God in heaven (What's he waiting for))

And even the beloved Billy:
In an old place for the first time,
I heard the fed talk about hunger,
Telling tales of loaves and fishes,
I heard the wealthy read the Book of Common Prayer
(You Can't Go Home Again)

Ouch. A great Christian leader of the 1980s, Mark Ashton, complained that since the 1960s there had been no great protest song writers. I responded that there were but they didn't get so much publicity those days, especially as the establishment was what was being protested. But what did he think punk was? And when Tom Robinson wrote Power in the Darkness he wasn't pulling legs he was calling to arms. 'Stand up and fight for your rights.'

My favourite current lyricist is James Mercer of the Shins. What are we to make of:

Since then it's been a book you read in reverse so you understand less as the pages turn or a movie so crass and awkwardly cast that even I could be the star
(Pink Bullets)

The lyric sheets tend not to have any pointing. I listen to that again and again, it's one of my desert island eight, and it still delivers. The joy of pondering what on earth it means. Iron and Wine offer a similar experience.

The ability to put things metaphorically, to require of the listener some working engagement whilst being able to enjoy little punchlines along the way, is the skill of the songsmith wordsmith. Convoluting the truth enables it to have slow-fuse impact. Leave the shallow and the blunt for the pop-charts to handle without care. I like my lyrics vague.

The prophet understood a world where trees clapped their hands and mountains did the joyful thing (Isaiah 55:12). But the psalmist accepted that there were times when you just wanted to take the Babylonian babies and beat their heads against rocks (Psalm 137:8,9). Violent not vague.

John Peel's favourite lyric of all time was The Who's 'I was born with a plastic spoon in my mouth' (Substitute). And that's funny. Pete Townswend hoped he'd die before he got old and he was 75 in May. Good thing he's chewed the words many times. They're kinda hard to swallow now. Meanwhile Billy dances with Peter Pan's shadow. I like that.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Expressions and Sell-by Dates

There is a certain wing of the evangelical church which has only one cause for praising a speaker. Were they clear? Clarity is all. Obfuscation is frowned upon. Even metaphor is treated as suspect.

At a training day on Fresh Expressions recently (it's a church thing) we spent the first few minutes, almost inevitably, discussing what the expression Fresh Expressions expressed. Forgetting my long held view to never be part of a group that didn't know what it was doing there, I joined in.

And almost equally inevitably, somewhere along the line, we decided that it depended what words followed the expression. Fresh Expressions of what? Christianity? Ministry? Church?

A few weeks prior to that I had been involved in a discussion about various old election mantras from the major parties. We got on to the 'Big Society' thing that Cameron's Conservatives invited us to be part of. One of the advantages of  an appeal to the county summarised by an apparently meaningless expression is that it generates discussion.

I probably had more conversations about Big Society around that time than I would have done if its meaning had been clear. Was that genius or luck? Probably genius. Cameron was in advertising.

A few weeks after I arrived in this diocese (Bath and Wells) I found myself in a room discussing a little soundbite of a previous bishop - thinking different. Quite a few of the clergy were up in pedantic arms because they thought it should say - thinking differently. Pleased with themselves a few smug titters moved round the room. I was trying not to say anything because I was the new kid but I cracked. 'You only want it to be an adverb' I said because you think 'thinking' is a verb.

There was tumbleweed I swear. No-one understood me so I had another go. 'It's about missing words' I said. If the missing words are 'Are you...' then you need an adverb. If the missing words are 'Is your...' then you need an adjective.

I do myself no favours by putting things in a convoluted way but, in my defence, I really enjoy doing it.

There is a place for pith. But sometimes the absence of it is more effective. A lack of clarity is not always undesirable. May I do my punchline please? Thank you. I've been taking the pith for years.