A view from above

In the place where I pray each morning in the church, there is a view just now across the houses to a huge tower crane rising above the roofs.  In a little while the driver will be up there in his cab. A friend of mine who spent all his working life in the construction industry once told me that the people who operate tower cranes were ‘ a breed apart’ – used to their own company high above the construction site.  I have to say, in this empty church this morning, I feel something of an affinity with him.

  • He is lowering things in from a great height, whilst I am looking to a great height
  • He is constructing a building in the heart of the community, whilst I am reaching a community from the heart of this building.
  • He must work alone, and so, on occasions, must I.
  • He cannot do his job without support and instruction from the ground, and nor can I.
  • From his perspective he can see how far there is to go, and how much impact the building will make.

I hope you have a good day, Mr Crane-Man.

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Anna Drew reviews Jonah: poet in extremis

On 8th November 2011 the Scrimshaw Group was born. I was writing a book on Jonah at the time, and I wanted to  demystify the process by inviting others in as I wrote. I remain very grateful for the encouragement which this provided. In October of last year Jonah: poet in extremis was published on Kindle and in June of this year it came out in print form. One of those whom I invited to review it was Anna Drew, Lead Media Officer at The Methodist Church. Her review follows below.

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There is an awful lot of really bad Christian writing out there – and an awful lot of badly-designed Christian book covers. I review a fair amount of Christian ‘stuff’ (books, CDs, films… once a Christian fitness DVD) for radio and more often than not the material has me groaning in despair.

So it was a huge relief when I received my copy of Jonah: Poet in Extremis, written by the Revd Richard Littledale. Let’s start with the cover (vanity, yes – sorry). The cover, gorgeous in its simplicity, is something I’m proud to have sitting on my bookshelf. But, of course, we all know that it’s what lies betwixt that matters most. Knowing that Littledale is a pastor, preacher and pragmatist I had high hopes. And I wasn’t disappointed.

Littledale guides the reader chapter by chapter, through the story of Jonah, with a good dose of background detail as well as his own reflections on the text.

Jonah’s story is one of those in the Old Testament with which I struggle most. I find it difficult to see past the whale. The first question in my mind when approaching the text is always one of ‘yes, but that’s not actually possible… is it?’ Littledale deals elegantly with this challenge, neither allowing it to dominate this slim volume, nor pitching his tent in one particular camp.

Whatever your take on the literal/ mythical/ allegorical nature of the tail (Ha! Sorry), Littledale gently shows his readers that that is a great deal we can learn from shipmate Jonah if we allow ourselves to see past the fish.

Touching on issues in Jonah’s journey that affect all our lives – fear, self, self-esteem, duty and prejudice, to name but a few – Littledale urges us to sympathy with our protagonist and demonstrates a pastor’s understanding of the real challenges his story presents.  He doesn’t shy away from the messiness either of our own lives or of Jonah’s and calls us to live in the unanswered questions posed by this tale.

This slim, accessible volume is undoubtedly a great resource for seasoned preachers and non-theologians alike. A great balance of Biblical scholarship, accessible language, poignant stories and pragmatic faith.

Anna Drew, August 2014

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For the love of selfie

Years ago, I was fortunate enough to learn my photographic skills at the hands of a master. My father was a patient teacher, helping me to learn all about composition and the ‘rule of thirds’ as well as more technical aspects of depth of field and exposure. Of course, almost anyone knows that the difference between a landscape and a portrait shot is the way up they go…or is it?

I am just back from a week on the shores of Lake Garda. The Lake is surrounded by majestic mountain peaks and every town and village is a riot of ochre walls and purple flowers.  Everywhere you look there are landscape photos just itching to be taken, and everywhere you look there are people taking selfies, some even equipped with an extendable ‘selfie Stick’ to make it easier. (Click here if you don’t believe me).  It is a trend which I do not altogether understand. Of course, everybody likes to have a souvenir of their travels, and I am no exception. My album is a record of the places I have been and I love to pore over it. Why the obsession with the selfie, though? Somehow it seemed almost to cheapen the majestic landscape by treating it as no more than the photographer’s canvas backdrop in a studio of old.

  • Maybe it is the rise of instant photo sharing through instagram and snapchat which have made the pictorial status update de rigeur.
  • Maybe it is our lives as homo connectivus which mean that we must have instant proof of our whereabouts.
  • Maybe it feeds a kind of atavism which was always there but now we express it differently.

How do you explain it?

Malcesine, Lake Garda

Malcesine, Lake Garda

Just a little boat

Just a little boat

 

… and 26 words

I turned fifty yesterday. Throughout my adult life I have been fascinated by language and communication. In particular, I love to watch as the surface of language shifts and undulates – a sea of words whipped into different shapes by the winds of time and culture. This morning I have been reflecting on how numerous words have changed in this relatively short time:

Afghan – a thigh-length sheepskin coat.

Bite (byte) – something you took from an apple.

Core – see above, and no Pentium or processing involved.

Drone – referred to a person who went on and on.

Ethnic – had nothing to do with cleansing.

Fish – was spelt with an ‘f’ not a’ph’.

Gig – was something you went to not a unit of storage.

Hybrid – was something found in a garden centre rather than a car showroom.

Isis – was an Egyptian goddess

Jihad – was a word as foreign as the concept.

Ka – was the name of a snake, and not a vehicle.

Lol – was something you did on a lazy day.

Mouse – was a cat’s arch enemy and unlikely to be found near a computer.

Nine eleven was an innocent combination of numbers.

Orange – had pips and not masts.

Profile – referred to a face seen sideways on

Quidditch – was as unheard of as Baptist ministers reading stories about wizards.

Reality TV – would be a TV you really had

Spinning- was something done by a gymnast or a dancer, rather than a publicist

Troll- lived under the bridge, not in a computer.

Upcycle - would have sounded like the description of riding a bike uphill.

Virus – was something which you might refer to a medical doctor.

Windows – came in a variety of shapes and sizes on Play School.

X-factor – was a mystery ingredient and had nothing to do with Mr Cowell.

Yew tree – was a pure source of gorgeous orangey-brown wood.

Z – was the letter you always used to finish lists like this one.

 

What would be on your list?

50

…but the TV is still on

Whether he said it gazing wistfully out of his office window, or during a chance encounter at the Foreign Office, it seems certain that British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey did say at some point during the first week of August 1914 ‘The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time.’  Tonight public buildings and private households are being encouraged to douse all but one light at 10pm as an act of remembrance on the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the  ’Great War’. The thing is, that one light is likely to be the flickering blue-ish glow of the television.

On it, at some point after the reports from Mons, Westminster and Liege, there will be yet another report from Gaza. As military music from Europe fades into the background, screens will fill again with the pathetic human flotsam and jetsam of a merciless urban war. Many an old soldier from the Somme would shudder, I suspect, at the terror rained down upon children in schools and medics tending the sick.

Dare we invest so heavily in remembering whilst we still continue to forget, I wonder? It has been my privilege to visit many of the battlefield sites of Northern France. I have stood in the cool shadow of the gargantuan arch at Thiepval. I have looked at the ‘danger tree’ from the trenches at the Newfoundland Regiment memorial. I have stood on a blustery day at the Chinese cemetery in Picardy and remembered those who died from the flu whilst digging trenches for another man’s war. It is impossible to visit these places without being moved by the mind-numbing scale of what took place in them.

And yet all the while, on the other side of the world, in the very lands in which the words of Judeo-Christian heritage were first penned, the destruction of homes and lives continues.

A member of the Accrington Pals battalion, from which only two members survived after the Somme, was once asked by a TV interviewer if he blamed God for what had happened. He was nonplussed at the question and replied ‘it weren’t nowt to do wi God – it were folk

In every sense it is down to ‘folk’ what happens next, don’t you think?

Canadian cemetery, Beny sur Mer

The importance of the autograph

When I was at school in the 1980s, everybody had to “do” the First World War Poets at some point.  Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Own were something of a rite of passage for adolescents waking up to the fact that the world was not nearly such a nice place as they might have imagined.  From our tidy classrooms in the Home Counties we were transported to scenes of almost medieval carnage played out on the battlefields of Europe. That was then, though, and I have rarely visited the words since.

In an age where almost any words from any period of anybody’s literature can be summoned at the click of a button it is surprising that the ‘actual words’ in the author’s own hand can cause such a stir. Siegfried Sassoon’s original wartime notebooks, complete with encrusted Somme mud, have just been made digitally available for  the fist time by the Cambridge Digital Library. Their meticulous digital curation has done us all a great service. These, unlike the scribble of a felt marker on a photo or programme, are autographs that really matter. To see Sassoon’s account of his raid on an enemy trench complete with his almost childish drawing is to feel connected to the man himself. These are not just words, as read in school textbooks, these are writing – the visual trace of a mind’s journey through a landscape of horror.

Image: BBC

That these have been released on the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War One is of course no accident. However, the fact that they have been released during a period of relentless warfare in the Middle East is unplanned. Just at a point where our saturation with images of suffering from Gaza has reached a point close to immunity, these childish sketches reach out to us. Though few would care to admit it, we do reach a point where courageous reporting and brilliant camera work can move us no further. That is precisely the point where words outlast images.

Today’s reporters from the front keep their notes in smartphones and tablets. The closest we could come to the recaptured immediacy of Sassoon’s notebooks might be to look at their live-tweeted timeline after the event.

I wonder whether in 100 years’ time curators will be writing out those tweets by hand with a similar reverence displayed by those who handle Sassoon’s diaries?

In images of elsewhere

Years ago, before anyone had heard of the internet, I used to pass the phrase above sprayed as graffiti on a trackside brick wall on the main line into Paddington station. Recently, I have been reminded of how true it is.

In 2008 I was contacted by a church in Davao City, over 7000 miles away in the Phlippines, to say that they had been using the podcasts of my sermons in their services, and could I supply notes? Sadly, I was unable to supply the notes – but told them I was delighted the sermons could be ‘used again’ in the way that they were doing. I figured that it was God’s word, and not mine, and therefore they should feel free to use it. My only request was that they should stay in touch.

Davao

Over the years they have done just that. They have gone on to use the podcasts both in their services and on the radio station run by the church. Every few months Pastor Luciano brightens up my inbox with a report on a special service or outreach the church has run.

The image below tells a story all of its own. On Friday 13th June I wrote a sermon in my office at Teddington Baptist Church. Two days later, I preached it at the morning service. On Monday 16th June the podcast was uploaded to our website. On July 27th, a group of young Phlippinos invited their friends to a Youth Service where the podcast was used. As you can see, a number of people came to faith on that occasion.

MOMENT

Sometimes people talk about technology in church as if it were a regrettable necessity. Not only that, but they like to separate it from the ‘real’ church, which consists of people motivated by the Spirit. My experience with this distant partnership has been quite the opposite.  God is at work in these things every bit as much as our faith and openness will allow Him to be.

‘Far away is near at hand in images of elsewhere’ seems truer now than it ever did spray-painted on that brick wall. What distant partnerships will you enjoy today?

Making our mark

I come from a church tradition where the entry of a processional cross into a morning service is virtually unheard of. However, yesterday I broke with tradition and carried just such a cross to the front of the church to begin our worship.  This is no ordinary cross. It is one of two metre-high wooden crosses which began their journey at the Baptist Assembly in May of this year. Since then the two crosses have been travelling around the country from church to church. Every surface now bears the name of the churches they have visited along the way. Some are neatly printed and others are almost scribbled. Some are in bold marker pen and others in spidery biro.

When the cross reached the front of our church my two colleagues and I added the words ‘Teddington Baptist Church’ on the arm of the cross, as you can see. Writing on such an object felt almost sacrilegious, and yet it is precisely the writing on this cross which makes it beautiful.

Later on the same day, as our small evening service drew to a close, we gathered around the cross to send our photographic greetings to the next church which will host it. By the time it completes the journey I suspect that there will be hardly any space left for writing anywhere on the surface of this cross. Between them these signatures – brash, spindly, colourful and careful tell the story of the diverse life of those churches they have visited. I am pleased to have played host to this cross, and more pleased still that the colourful and often chaotic church of Jesus plays host to me.

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N open question

I sit today and type this freely in my office in a Christian church.  Later on, I shall return to a house where my neighbours know I am a Christian, and will not treat me any differently because of it. In the time it takes me to write and publish this post, the chances are that another Christian will perish in Mosul. Christians have been hounded from their homes and those who have been unable to flee are being forced to recant their faith or face the most drastic of consequences.  The image on the right below shows the Arabic letter ‘N’ for ‘Nazarene’ daubed on the outside of a Christian house in the city, marking it out for eviction or destruction.

Oddly, I had heard nothing about the letter until I saw it in the glowing, sanitized form you see on the left. When I asked a friend why he had replaced his profile picture with it, he explained all about the unfolding story in Mosul. A significant number of other people have done the same – replacing their own photo with this symbol as a gesture of ‘solidarity’ with their Christian brothers and sisters in Iraq. Like the girls who once held up placards declaring “I am Malala” it is a means of shrinking the distance between ‘them’ and ‘us’ and declaring that we stand together. It has clearly worked to raise the profile of the story – since I find myself writing about it today. That said, it makes Twitter a confusing place since so many profile pictures look the same.

 

The letter N - here and there

The letter N – here and there

To what extent does it actually work as a gesture of solidarity, I wonder? Will they ever know about it? Does it matter if they do?  The ‘intrusion’ of this symbol into our lives here is an appropriate one in so many ways I am sure. That said – it can make for some banal juxtapositions, as seen in the Tweet below. The content of the tweet seems at odds with the symbol of suffering and courage which adorns it. Then again, is that the point?

These are genuinely open questions, and I would welcome your answers!

 

 

 

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