A moment of creativity

When I  put out a plea a few days ago for help with illustrating #journey, I had not anticipated the generosity which numerous artists would show by donating their time and talents. I am immeasurably grateful to them.  I had not anticipated, either, that I would get to sit down with one of them and witness the moment when pen and ink gave birth to an idea on a piece of paper right there before my eyes.

Yesterday, I sat with photographer and illustrator Max Ellis at his old oak dining table. Around me were works of art of every description, and outside the remains of the props from last year’s squirrelfest photos. Steaming mugs of tea pushed to one side, the conversation turned to #journey.  With a scratch-scratching of pen dipped in ‘antelope brown’ ink, a pair of old boots emerged on the piece of paper before me as we talked about the pilgrim’s possessions. Next on the list was the penultimate chapter of the book ‘around the campfire’.  The pen scratch-scratched its way across the paper again, and all I could see from the wrong angle was a series of hatched blobs and a flame rising. That is when the magic happened. With the paper turned around, I found myself looking at the silhouettes of three pilgrims leaning in towards their conversation around the fire. How did that happen?

Today we have all manner of digital aids at our disposal when it comes to creating works of art. We can manipulate photographs and images of just about every kind in just about every way.  To do so is not to cheat – it is simply extending the creative process. However, there was a rawness and simplicity to yesterday’s moment of creation which I shall savour.

Many people who write of their pilgrim travels talk about encounters on the road which enhance them in some way. They talk of meeting people whom they would never have met had it not been for the shared objective of the road. In that moment of encounter every difference falls away, to be replaced with a kind of rich humanity unfettered by nationality, background or even language. Yesterday, I had such an encounter – and I am a richer man because of it.

A snippet of a sketch for #journey

A snippet of a sketch for #journey

Are you?

The longer I go on researching and writing for #journey, the more convinced I become that the pilgrimage of faith is one best made in company. Somebody earlier this week commented on my draft of a cover design (below), saying that it was open to question, since the disciple does not walk alone.  This is both true and not. In one sense every disciple must make their own pilgrimage, and can no more do anybody else’s than Peter could ask about John’s fate in John 21 v. 22. In another sense, every Christian disciple leans on those who walk beside them. Sometimes we rely on our companions to pick us up when we stumble and other times to keep us on the narrow way. When asked in a radio interview this week about the lessons writing the book has taught me, the first one which came to mind was the value of companionship.

Just a draft...

Just a draft…

It is in this spirit of collaboration that I am coming to you now. Those who have followed this blog for many years will know that The Littlest Star and the Little Owl could never have come about without creative collaboration. Both were brought to life by a combination of talents and gifts.

Do you have a gift for simple line drawings?  If so, I would love to hear from you.  Each of the chapters below requires a small chapter-head illustration to bring it to life.  Could it be yours? I am not in a position to pay you, I’m afraid – but I would be delighted to acknowledge your work and to give it a ‘shop window’ in this book. It would be lovely to get several people involved so that the diversity of illustration can reflect the diversity of those who walk the road together.  Why not take a look at the selection below, see if one of the topics captures your imagination, and get in touch for the full list?

  • Journey
  • Leaving home
  • Provisions
  • Communications
  • Companions

Medieval pilgrims on the route to Santiago de Compostella had a word used in songs and in calling out to one another – ‘ultreia’.  The approximate translation is ‘Keep going and walk further ‘. Will you shout it to me by offering your drawing skills?

Thanks for reading, and please get in touch via the comments box if you would like to help.

Looking for answers

After a long journey which started with a peeling noticeboard in 2008, via a contract in 2013, #journey – the way of the disciple, is moving towards submission to Paternoster Press.  Towards the end is a chapter entitled ‘around the campfire’. Here is an excerpt:

Towards the end of his journey along the Camino to Santiago, journalist Jack Hitt found himself savouring a kind of mellow shared humanity in a way that he had never done before. His last night before entering the city was spent camping in a field with many others- some of whom he had met along the route and others who were strangers. Here this hard-nosed journalist waxes lyrical as he recalls the experience:

After suffering and hazards and quarrels they found in a thing as plain as an apple or a piece of bread awe, wonder and humility.

Around the campfires in that field people from all kinds of nationality, background and social status saw each other differently across the dancing flames. They sat as equals, telling their tales and sharing their experiences.In these next few pages, I have assembled just such a group. They come from different church backgrounds and nationalities. In fact, some have come from different centuries. In their different ways they tell their tales of the journey and what it has taught them.


A little later today I shall be speaking on Premier Radio, asking all about other people’s experiences of pilgrimage. Would you like to tell me about yours? One of the blessings of the pilgrim’s road which people often mention is the quality of the companionship they encounter along the way. I shall look forward to yours…




#journey continues

In fact, the people helping me most recently with the compiling of #journey have not really been friends – since I do not know them well enough. Rather, they have been strangers met along the way who have shared their best.

Last week, as some will have read yesterday, I visited the ruins of Strata Florida monastery, tucked away in a beautiful valley nestling beneath the Cambrian mountains. Stepping out of the car on a bleak February afternoon, my eye was drawn to the crest of a distant hill where an enormous figure could be seen – back bent against the wind, staff in hand – striding as if towards the monastery. Maybe because of all the time I have spent editing #journey recently, the figure looked to my untrained eye just like a pilgrim, and I tried to take some photos. As you can see below, my attempts were not an unqualified success, since the figure was so far away.

CLICK for full size

CLICK for full size

On returning to my holiday cottage, I sent out the picture above on Tiwtter, with a request that someone should help me to identify it. Straight away, somebody told me that they thought it was called “pilgrim” and somebody else not only told me the name of the sculpture but the artist who created it – Glen Morris. Within a day, Glen Morris and I had been in touch with each other and he told me the sculpture’s story as well as sending me a set of beautiful photos of it which he had taken.

The piece was made in 2012 as part of an exhibition arranged by Professor David Austin of the University of Wales Trinity St. Davids. Sculptors from the Welsh Sculptors group, Sculpture Cymru, were asked to make a piece in as a response to the Abbey and its surroundings. Morris’ piece is huge, constructed out of old railway sleepers it stands tall and can be seen for miles around. There are little tufts of sheep’s embedded the wood – constantly tugged and buffeted by the winds. They stand a s a reminder of the importance of sheep in the Welsh landscape, and their importance for the monastery in particular. Commenting on his work, Glen Morris says:

The idea of a figure toiling against the weather, rugged landscape (and perhaps life..) appealed to me. I also like the idea that it was not immediately obvious and would be rather distant and perhaps come across rather by chance.

The piece was originally intended to be temporary, but thankfully it appears to have become a more permanent fixture.

To have come across such a figure,in such a way; and to have received such help with identifying and displaying it has been quite an experience.  One of the key contentions of #journey is that every Christian is on the pilgrim’s journey – whether on their way to work or striding across the Cambrian mountains, staff in hand. Moments like these only serve to underline this particular truth.


Photo by Glen Morris – CLICK for full size

Watch this space for more news of #journey…



…and the spirit of place.

I have spent this week in that gorgeous corner of Wales which is Ceredigion. It has been wonderful to walk beneath the big skies, hear the crashing waves and breathe the wincingly chilly air on the tops of the mountains where the snow still lies. It has been good, too, to visit some old old places, where the spirituality of those who have gone before has almost seeped into the rocks themselves.

In Ysbyty Cynfyn stands an unremarkable chapel, nestling into the folds of the hills as if cradled.  A cockle shell motif on the churchyard gate hints at its ancient past on the pilgrimage route to Strata Florida monastery nearby, and to St David’s on the Pembrokeshire coast. In centuries gone by pilgrims who had crossed the steep ravine behind the church by a simple rope bridge could pause here to seek refuge from the Knights Hospitaller, who ran a simple hostel on the site. Even then, some might have noticed that others had been there before them. Embedded in what is now the wall of the churchyard are standing stones – one of them almost 3 metres in length. This, it would seem, was an old place, even then:

An old stone amongst the headstones

An old stone amongst the headstones

On over the mountains and in another valley lie the ruins of the Cistercian monastery of Strata Florida (floral valley). This was once a wealthy place – with crops and sheep on the hills as far as the eye could see belonging to the monastery. Little of this impressive building remains now, although the magnificent West Door still frames the valley from which the monastery took its name:

West Doorway, Strata Florida

West Doorway, Strata Florida

In the place where the side chapels once stood, some of the original coloured floor tiles remain – their colours bright even after centuries. There are griffins and fleur-de-lys and geometric patterns, as well as the ‘man with a mirror’ depicted below. As the monks knelt on this cold tiled floor praying for the wealthy patrons who had paid them to pray for their souls, I wonder whether this image of vanity made them smile? Seeing the photo earlier this week, somebody quoted words over 2000 years old from the Book of Ecclesiastes to me : ‘vanity, vanity, all is vanity – says the preacher’. (Ecclesiastes 1 v.1).

Maybe there really is nothing ‘new under the sun’. On a day when I shall preach about dying – which has been the lot of humankind since the beginning of all beginnings that feels like a good thing. God who was there at the beginning will be there at the end – and in the meantime his Word abides.

CLICK to see the man with a mirror

CLICK to see the man with a mirror

A whale of a collaboration

Last night it was my joy to participate in a Youth Service here at the church. Three weeks ago, it was felt that something around the idea of facing up to God’s uncomfortable challenge might be good. We lighted upon the story of cowardly, ultimately defiant, little Jonah – and set some hares running.  Two of the church’s teenagers talked last night about the challenges they face. To my great delight they did so in the light of the lessons they had learnt from Jonah.  ‘He seems a bit like a stroppy teenager’, they said. They went on to talk about the pressures brought about by other people’s (often unwelcome) expectations and how they felt that Jonah could identify with such a problem.

The sermon looked at Jonah’s reaction to God’s call. In many ways he seems shell-shocked – without visible injury and yet totally disorientated by his experience. How can we avoid reacting that way when God comes knocking?  We should, of course, ask the question ‘is it God’? If it might be, then we should probably go on to ask the question ‘is it possible’? Truth to tell, we should probably not linger too long on that one – since God delights in doing the impossible. If we go on to ask the question ‘is it really me’ – then the chances are the answer will probably be “yes” – since God uses all sorts of unlikely people like Joseph, Gideon, Mary, Peter, Paul…and me. We finished with the demolition of one of my favourite motivational phrases – Nike’s ‘just do it’.  It turns out that the phrase was inspired by double murderer Gary Gilmore in Utah in 1976. Facing the firing squad he said ‘let’s do it’.  Nike then adapted the phrase with the replacement of ‘just’ for ‘let’s’.  With that phrase in tatters, I turned instead to the utterly brilliant #thisgirlcan campaign. When God comes knocking, this girl (or this boy) can…

Then it was time for some interactive feedback. Let’s be honest – that doesn’t always go so well. Feedback can be beset with reluctance and fail to deliver the data you are looking for. The questions the young people had set for the congregation were excellent:

  • If God called you to go into a war zone and spread the Good News to the people there, what would you do?
  • Would you obey God if you were faced a problem like Jonah’s?
  •  Do you find it easy to make decisions? Why?

How to get people engaged, though? In the end, I used magic whiteboard paper, carefully cut into four sections for the four tables, and assembling into the whale artwork which you see below. When the service was over, I saw people doing something they had never ever done – taking photos of their own feedback.


CLICK for full size

Why was this, I wonder? Maybe it was for no other reason than that it was fun.

This is where the darts come in. On Saturday night I came across the feedback technique below from a healthcare professional and I was inspired:

CLICK for full size

CLICK for full size

The moral of this story? Look for inspiration in unexpected places, and remember that an element of fun can contribute to a serious debate…

Keeping the pulpit clear

Years ago, when my children were small and Postman Pat was a familiar friend, I used to love the story entitled ‘Postman Pat’s rainy day. It was fairly typical for the eponymous delivery man – navigating the small hazards caused by the rain in his Yorkshire village. However, when he came to deliver letters to the Rev Timms in the village church with its leaky roof, he was told by the vicar to “put the letters in the pulpit – there are no drips there“. It would appear this week that the Archbishop of Canterbury agrees with him. Addressing evensong at Trinity Wall Street, New York City last week at the opening of a conference on ‘creating the common good’ he said the following:

The old sermons that we have heard so often in England, which I grew up with, which if you boiled them down all they effectively said was: “Wouldn’t the world be a nicer place if we were all a bit nicer?” We are, by contrast, as Christians to be caught up in a revolution of expectation and of implementation. That is the kind of moral claptrap that Jesus does not permit us to accept. You can read the full text here.
The word claptrap originates from the 18th century theatre, and described speeches inserted into the script of the play with the sole intention of eliciting (trap) applause (clap). This was an abuse of the relationship between playwright and audience, and frowned upon by many. It turned theatre into a shallow, manipulative and unfulfilling experience, and was to be avoided. I suspect that Justin Welby would want to avoid preaching being all those things too.

Sadly, so much of the debate on the Archbishop’s comments has focused on the length and style of preaching, rather than its content. Preaching should be an act of smelting – exposing character and experience to the white heat of God’s word and the blast of his spirit that kingdom steel might be forged.  It should be an anvil on which ancient word and contemporary doubt meet with such force that sparks fly and the darkness is illuminated. It should be an act of composition, where human words and divine melody combine in a new song for all the world to hear.

That is what it should be – don’t you think Rev Timms?




Got the t-shirt

As regular readers of this blog will know, I love a good advert. As a preacher who often speaks in public uninterrupted for 25 minutes or so, I have huge admiration for the people who can capture my imagination with 60 – 80 seconds. The latest offering from Ikea, by London agency Mother, is no exception. However, when an advertising manager from a furniture store says that ‘unless the t-shirts looked 100% real the audience wouldn’t be able to empathise with them and care about their journey home’ I grow just a little sceptical.

Empathy is a precious emotion.  It is a rope bridge slung between human beings, no matter how great the chasm beneath. Across it I may carry compassion, understanding, and even a screaming frustration to do something about what I saw on the other side. It strikes me that if I waste too much of it on animated t-shirts advertising a desperate need for neat storage in aid of a furniture company, I might find I have used it up for the day when I really need it.

What do you think?


7000 miles in one click

Those of you who read yesterday’s blog post will know that this morning a seven-year long relationship with a church 7000 miles away in the Philippines took a new turn. Today I was invited to preach, from my own home, via Skype to their afternoon service. This is how it went…

0440: Up and dressed

0500: Head to the study with cup of tea and boot up computer

0501: Speculatively turn on Skype to check it is working, to be greeted by sound of singing and Pastor Barquito’s smiling face telling me they are ready to hear the Word of God if I am to preach it.


0502: Start to preach, consciously slowing down as I do so, and trying not to look away from camera too much when reading notes and quoting scripture verses:

0530: With the sermon over, I pick up my cup of tea, only to discover it is luke warm. Just then, Skype rings again, and Pastor Barquito greets me out in the glorious Filipino sunshine before ‘taking’ me back inside to meet the congregation:

I am moved beyond measure to see their smiling faces, and feel overwhelmingly privileged to have been invited to their church today.

As preaching experiences go, it was certainly an unusual one. For the first few moments the video signal was patchy, and even after that the image on half the laptop screen (with my notes on the other half) was not clear enough to really see faces. For a preacher, such a disconnect can be a real problem. After all – a sermon is an act of human communication, and we love to see each other when we communicate. At this point I was grateful for all the time I have spent in radio studios broadcasting to those whom I cannot see. Preaching seated was also unnerving.  I like to move (at least a little) to give emphasis to what I say – but also to feel for myself the dynamic impact of God’s active word. Preaching seated felt almost lazy – although it was necessary for the camera to function.

Overall, this was a good experience. I believe passionately that technology is as good or bad as the uses to which we put it. Ever since Caxton first started using printing presses to print the Bible we have realised that. Of course the best kind of preaching is embodied and organic, as I said yesterday. For the most part it is best done in a context where both preacher and congregation must live the rest of the week with the consequences (for good or ill) of what has been preached. Once in a while, though, it is good to don the seven-league-boots which technology has given us, tuck the Word under your arm, and cross an ocean or two with it.

Can’t wait to do it again…


As a late addition – here is the view from the church in Davao City






An international service

The photo below shows a test-run for tomorrow morning’s pulpit. For the past few years I have found myself connected with a small church in Davao City, in the far South of the Philippines. On a regular basis Pastor Barquito uses podcasts of my sermons, recorded in Teddington, to play to his congregation. In the grace of God they have been used, and last Summer a number of those who listened to them were baptised as believers.


Tomorrow morning at 5.30am UK time, I shall preach via Skype to the congregation gathered there for an afternoon Sunday service. The split screen which you see above has the webcam feed to the left and my notes to the right. To be honest, I don’t really like using electronic notes – but anything else will rustle infuriatingly and get in the way of the webcam!

As a person who sees preaching as an almost organic act – growing out of the lived and messy relationship with a group of God’s people – this is an unusual step. However, the fact is that a relationship of sorts has built up with this Pastor and his people, and a gracious invitation has been extended by him. Technology is meant to connect, rather than divide – and this is a great example of how it can do so. Tomorrow morning I shall use software originally designed by a Dane and a Swede for music file-sharing to address a group of Filipinos all the way from Teddington about words originally spoken in Israel by Jesus.

This is all very clever, but the cleverness is not what matters. As with any act of preaching, what matters is that the timeless word of God impacts the current lives of those who hear, unleashing the power of the Holy Spirit.

I shall be praying that it might be that way, and that the scene below might be repeated again in the warm waters of the Pacific Ocean.


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