Body shock

Handling sadness in church

In 27 years of ministry I cannot remember a week quite like the one through which I have just lived. In the space of six days there have been two sudden deaths in the church where I work. Both have left behind a shock-wave of sadness and grief. Yesterday it fell to me to mark the passing of these two men – one a former church member and the other the husband of the church’s Families’ worker. The deaths would have to be acknowledged with everyone, of every age, present in the service – with the particular challenges that presented.  As I anticipated that moment, I tweeted the following over breakfast. Would it really be so?


In the end, it was. There was shock, sadness and heartache in abundance – but they were expressed in the safe place of worship amongst a group of people committed to one another. That same group who burst into spontaneous applause when a little girl returned to church after a serious illness swam through yesterday’s emotions like a shoal of fish guided by some unseen lodestar.

What about the children, though? They had heard me announce the deaths at the start of the service – but what else should I say to them? Should I ‘carry on regardless’ and tell some uplifting story? In the end, I decided not to. Not only that, but I decided to talk about dying. Sometimes we tie our children up in unnecessary knots by using the euphemisms which adult language has developed. Here is what we did.

At the front of the church we opened the lid of the story box which I usually use only to discover that it was full of rubbish. We took a little time to get out all the bits of rubbish and pile them up.

   In amongst the rubbish was one precious item – a small stone bearing the natural image of a cross which I had found on a beach in Somerset last year. When I asked how many stones there might be on a beach, one little boy suggested the huge number ‘seven hundred thousand million’.
     Looking at the stone, and remembering how it had been hidden amongst so many others – we remembered the rubbish from which we had taken it. In a horrid week, full of nasty things like people dying, we have to look for the presence of God. He is there – somewhere hidden amongst all the rubbish and nastiness, if we look hard enough. The children nodded solemnly and we prayed together, hands joined. A little later their parents heard these words from a text written by one of the people bereaved:

We don’t have to ask ‘where is God in all this?’ We see it in every message and text over the last 36 hours and we’ve seen it in every generous act over the last 4 months.

Together we sang, and prayed – and then the mellow notes of a solo cello led us into the song below:


I thank God that the church did indeed lift hope on the shoulders of faith.

…and not an image in sight

Those who read this blog regularly will know that I am a big fan of the power of story. I write books about it, I teach about it, and I get excited when I see other people using it. However, once in a while it is good to be reminded of its power first hand.

Last night I went to visit some friends to discuss an upcoming meeting. However, in my case I had a brand new children’s story which I wrote last week. Since the two small children in the house had not yet gone to bed – I asked the family if they would be kind enough to act as guinea pigs. The children nodded with excitement – especially when their mum told them that they were the first children ever to hear it. So, we sat around the kitchen table with its chequered tablecloth – three adults and two children. Around us was all the clutter of family life and three steaming mugs of tea and coffee.

Within the first two sentences something magical happened. The room went quiet, the children went still, and the surroundings fell into a kind of soft focus as the story worked its magic on all of us – including the person reading it out. There is a qualitative difference to the silence when we are captured by story. It is so much more than an absence of noise. It is as if the noise within is calmed too, and we allow ourselves to be willing participants in the story’s adventure.

On reading the last sentence the first thing the children wanted to know was when they could buy the story book. Sadly, that is a question I cannot answer, but I’m working on it.


The journey begins…

Tailor made?

A funeral that fits

Every once in a while, ministers get asked to conduct a funeral for a person they never met. They are not obliged to accept the request, of course – but it offers an opportunity to reach out to a family in a moment of need. Once the request is accepted, the challenge is to make the service as personal and helpful as it can be. The pointers below have been gleaned from my experience, and my many mistakes, over the years:

  • Do ‘hoover up’ as much personal information as you can about the deceased.
  • Don’t feel obliged to repeat it all at the funeral.
  • Do try to find some biblical material which will help.
  • Don’t feel you have to fit it to the person’s background in a contrived way.
  • Do make use of edited highlights of the information you have received from family and friends.
  • Don’t attribute it directly.
  • Do make the funeral in general and the address in particular as personal as you can
  • Don’t claim to know the person when you did not.
  • Do pray, pray and pray again – you need help with this.

Genesis 2 is a useful passage – since most of us find it easy to believe that the image of God was reflected in a person we loved. Psalm 56 is a useful reading too – with its assurance that no grief goes un-noticed by God. A funeral is not a place to evangelise, in my view. However, if we share Spurgeon’s view of the Bible as a lion which simply needs to be released from its cage, then our job is to undo the catch and let an appropriate piece of Scripture do its job on, or after the occasion of the funeral. God’s word will find its way without us leading it by the nose.

Yesterday the passage to which I introduced you last week found its public airing. At a small funeral in the presence of family only, Psalm 23 was heard in French for the funeral of a woman born and raised in France. This particular personal touch seemed to be appreciated by all present. If you click on the image below you can hear it again – and may God bless all who seek to serve Him in this way today.



A cautionary tale

I frequently use PowerPoint when I preach. In a very visual age it can help the right brain people to stay engaged, and a savvy use of few words or a single arresting image can help the left brain ones too. Note the italics (which it might be hard to do on a slide from the back of a church). Much as I like to use PowerPoint, I do not use it as a matter of course. A speaker who cannot be interesting or captivating without it will never be either of those things with it. Not only that, but as Andrew Smith pointed out in an article yesterday, it may render both speaker and listener more than a little dull. He describes the software as ‘being relentlessly linear and encouraging short, affirmative, jargonesque assertions: arguments that are resolved, untroubled by shades of grey.‘ Click here to read the whole thing (not a bullet point in sight).

On Sunday evening I attended a church service where the preacher was an able theological thinker and an incisive church historian. With all that intellectual equipment he should have been more than equal to the task of tackling one of the more poetically disturbing events of the Old Testament – the prophet Isaiah’s terrifying encounter with a vision of God. In may ways he did just that. He analysed the vision and its implications – and went on to set out some of the implications for those who would dare to step up as servants of God. Sad to say, though, that his effort was considerably hampered by…PowerPoint. The slides bore a set of thought-provoking images which seemed to bear little relation to the subject matter, pedestrian descriptions of his main points, and were changed at random moments which bore little relation to the progress of his argument. In other words – they undermined him.

In his book The End Of Words published 7 years ago, Richard Lischer raised precisely some of these issues. He even asked what Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech might have looked like as a PowerPoint presentation. I have only just noticed that the book is a write-up of Lischer’s lectures. I may be wrong – but I suspect they were lectures without PowerPoint. CLICK for the whole thing! CLICK for the whole thing!

A review of ‘How to be brave’ by Louise Beech

Whenever I am trying to teach aspiring narrative preachers about the creative use of language, I get them to play an ancient Norse game – the creation of kennings. A kenning is new noun made up of one noun and one verb-based noun. Thus:

Skull + splitter = skull-splitter (axe)

Tree + shaker = tree-shaker (wind)

Once the concept is grasped I give a list of words to convert into kennings. They generally include preacher, prophet and storyteller. My favourite ever kenning was the description of a storyteller as a ‘word-weaver’. This term must surely apply to Louise Beech, who not only weaves words with enviable dexterity, but narratives too. This is a story set in two places, two eras and at least two dimensions. Take a sick girl, an anxious mother, an absent father and a group of dying seamen, and you would not feel that you have the ingredients for a heart-warming book. In Louise Beech’s hands you do.

The book’s title is deceptive – as it makes it sound rather like a self-help manual. Whilst it may prove to be of help to many – it is nothing so pedestrian. It is intriguing, deftly crafted and captivating. Not only that, but here is a story about stories which bears testament to the transformative power of stories.

I have a feeling that I have not read this book for the last time.



Is anything new?

On the left is an image of the new Apple pencil, launched with much fanfare yesterday. A tech write-up described it as ‘able to sense both pressure and tilt, enabling creatives a lot of freedom when it comes to content creation.’ On the right is an image of the oldest pencil in the world, once tucked behind the ear of a German carpenter, and then left in the loft of a 17th Century house. I suspect that it could also ‘sense pressure and tilt’, though the content creation its owner had in mind was probably a little more 3-dimensional. As the writer of Ecclesiastes wrote in the 9th Century BC, there is ‘nothing new under the sun’.

Images: pencil pages and Techcrunch

Images: pencil pages and TechCrunch

Sometimes, though, the old can seem brand new. Earlier this week, for reasons I shall blog about on another occasion, I asked a French speaker at our mother and toddler group to record Psaume 23 (Psalm 23) for me – which you can hear below. To her, the words were brand new, and she was struck by their beauty as if fresh from David’s pen. Maybe they will seem new to you as you listen to them in this different way.

All for Tommy’s

Although I said that I had posted my last #richard100 post, I wanted to say an enormous THANK YOU to all the generous sponsors who have enabled me to raise £1719.75 for Tommy’s. It would seem that my 28,000 revolutions have become over 171,000 pennies – working out at about 6p for every turn of the pedals! Those pennies will find their way into research centres in London, Manchester and Edinburgh where they will fuel the fight to reduce the number of pregnancies which end in miscarriage or still birth. They will roll down the phone lines where worried mums and mums-to-be can phone Tommy’s and speak to midwives for advice. Each penny truly will make a difference, and I thank you for contributing all 171975 of them.



And finally…here’s a little bit of #richard100 video to make you smile. Can you spot rider number 40763 in the Tommy’s vest?

Companions on the way

Those who read this blog regularly will have noticed that it has been a little quiet on here lately. Those of you who read this post will know why.

You may also be aware that things have ben very quiet so far as the progress of my book  Journey: the way of the disciple , is concerned. The typescript is now making its way through the editorial process. However, I had some really exciting news yesterday about the book’s illustrations.

Back in February I put out a plea for illustrators to help me bring the book to life. A number of people got in touch, and every chapter is illustrated. I received confirmation yesterday that these illustrations will now find their way into the finished work. The artists who have joined me are:

Max Ellis – a photographer and illustrator, working on everything from majestic photographs of stags to caricatures of musicians.

Ryan Cartwright – a computer worker by day and an illustrator and children’s book author by night.

Ashley Fitzgerald – a multi-media artist whose Jewish roots and personal experiences inform his art.

Rachel Morrison – an artist and illustrator living in Teddington.

Danielle Somerfield – an independent graphic designer and artist.

Maureen Kerr – an illustrator currently working as a cook at the Army Base on the island of St Kilda

You can see a snatch of their images below, although you will have to wait for publication to get a feel for how captivating, warm and imaginative they really are.

Today a brave young woman, the wife of a friend of mine, will be laid to rest. In the past two years her faith has been radiant to the point of brilliance in the face of adversity. As I look at these images again, I find myself re-reading a segment from the book’s penultimate chapter ‘Scattered ways and new monks':

When these secret pilgrims find that journey’s end hoves in sight they will point it out to each other instead of looking the other way.  They will remember, like the imprint of a forgotten childhood moment,  that this is where they were heading all along.  It will not seem so strange, or foreboding or dark as they might have imagined.  Rather, their spirits will soar at the prospect of it and they will urge each other on.  When at last one or another walks through the city gate into the city the others will wave fondly knowing that the footsore pilgrim is home, and that their turn will come when the time is right.

I look forward to sharing the rest of the book with you when the time comes, and pass on my thanks to those wonderful artistic companions who have helped to bring it to life.

pics jpegcollection



For #Richard100

Yesterday I preached a rather unusual sermon. It was not unusual in that I preached from a small passage of scripture. It was not unusual in that I illustrated it from ‘real’ life. It was unusual in that I used my experiences of Ride London as a lens to examine this particular passage of scripture in Hebrews 12 v. 1- 3.  Last week, as I travelled across London at 6am in a train packed with bikes and nervous cyclists I told the man in the seat next to me about my ‘day job’ and confessed that it felt rather illicit to be missing church. Having ‘bunked off’, the sermon was a way to make the experience count.  The letter to the Hebrews was written to people who had risked everything to follow Jesus, and for whom the race of faith was at times almost too much to bear.

1. Witnesses

I came to faith in my teenage years, and it seemed that the word ‘witness’ was used almost exclusively to describe our interaction with those outside the church. If I were to accept too much change in a shop, that would be a bad witness. Conversely, if I could hold it together and not panic during my A levels, that would be a good one. We seem to have vastly under-estimated the value of our witness to each other.  Having spectacularly failed to print my own name on my jersey for Ride London, I found that people would shout out “Go Tommy’s” as I sped by. At about mile 40, with the hills yet to come – somebody shouting exactly that was just what I needed. Equally, a church member shouting “Go on Richard” at the top of his voice at around mile 82 was a tremendous boost. On the last hill I implored the lovely people on the Save the Children cheer point to ‘give a shout out for Tommy’s’ and they jumped up and down and shouted until I made it to the top. Sometimes YOUR word of encouragement to a fellow Christian can be all the difference between them giving up and pushing on. The race has been long and they are not at all sure they can make it to the brow of this hill, let alone the one after that – and they need you.  The picture below was taken by a young man whom I now mentor as a church worker. I had no idea he would be there at mile 80 – but his shout of ‘go Richard’ was very welcome!




2. Each individual’s race

Ride London is a mass participation event, with some 28,000 riders. Everybody was there – from elite club cyclists to retired people to those only just old enough to participate to amateur charity cyclists like me.  Along the way there was lots of camaraderie, and I lost count of the number of times I saw a cyclist pull up alongside another and ask whether they were doing ok. In the end, though, it doesn’t matter how much encouragement there is from the sidelines or the track – every single cyclist must complete their own 100 miles. They must turn the wheels every time, they must make every single pedal stroke and nobody can do it for them. The writer to the Hebrews talks about the race “marked out for us”.(12 v.1) From the day we ‘sign up’ to follow Jesus until the day when we tumble gratefully through the open gates of Heaven – we must complete our own race.  We should neither envy another’s talents nor query another’s destiny – we must complete our own race.

My view for 700+ miles of training

My view for 700+ miles of training

3. Fix your eyes on the goal

I have to confess that by about 4.40 pm on August 2nd I was ready to quit. Everything ached, my legs felt like lead, and I was crawling along Millbank slower than at any other point in the ride. Then I turned left under Admiralty Arch and something amazing happened. The barriers down the Mall appeared like a funnel focusing on the finishing line; the crowd were beating on the barriers and cheering, tears came into my eyes – and I stood in the pedals and sprinted to the finish. Having the right goal to focus upon can enable us to transcend our own weakness and humanity. The writer in this letter urges us to ‘fix our eyes on Jesus’ just as he had once fixed his eyes on the cross and the glory beyond it. For centuries, all the way back to Stephen at the moment of his martyrdom – Christians have found this to be true. Their focus on Heaven’s rewards enables them to transcend earth’s sorrows.


Early on Sunday morning, I handed in my kit-bag at Olympic Park, assured that it would be there and waiting for me at the end. Inside were a change of clothes and rewards for a race completed. Sure enough -there it was at the end -exactly as promised.  Not one tiniest bit of the promises made by Jesus to those who complete the race of faith in his name will be lost.

At the end of the day, I was given a medal for this race. It is probably made of base metal and I shall maybe lose it one day. There is a prize, though, that will never tarnish – and I look forward to receiving it on the finish line one day.






…big message

Take a message which everybody knows, then find a way to communicate it which captures an often jaded imagination.  Fellow preachers will not be unfamiliar with that particular challenge, and may take inspiration from a small creative agency in Lithuania. Clinic 212 were charged with the task of communicating that urban spaces are shared by many creatures, including humans. There tiny road signs draw attention to this more than any amount of carefully crafted prose could ever do. Click on the image below to see for yourselves.

Preaching tomorrow? Don’t forget the little signs…

CLICK to see more of #tinyroadsigns from Clinic 212

« Older entries