Soles for souls

I have just been preparing my latest session for the preaching module in the Equipped to Minister course at Spurgeon’s College. It is always a privilege to teach the course – since I find myself faced with a group of individuals so motivated to learn that they will devote two whole Saturdays to lectures and many hours to writing assignments in order to do so. We cover both theory and technique; both preparation and delivery. At some point the question of what to wear usually comes up. My rule of thumb has always been ‘don’t let it be the thing which people remember’. The rule applies to both overdressing and under-dressing. What about footwear, though?

  • Should I wear trainers, designed for speed so that I can race through the sermon and hardly feel the impact?
  • Should I wear hiking boots – stout and supportive enough to keep me going for the long haul?
  • Should I wear wellies, sure to protect me from anything messy through which I have to wade?
  • Should I wear something which makes me just a little taller – a centimetre or two above contradiction?
  • Should I wear combat boots, tightly laced and ready for battle?
  • Should I wear sandals, since they were (probably) good enough for Jesus?
  • Should I go barefoot – and rely on confidence to get me through, like a firewalker on hot coals?

Centuries ago tribespeople in the Amazonian forests discovered that latex tapped from a tree could make a good covering for the foot. Once dry, it could form a shoe like a second skin. Oddly, though, it is only if held over fire long enough to vulcanize that it would be hard-wearing. I wonder who, if anyone, first stretched their feet to the fire and left them there long enough to find that out?

Preachers need to grip the ground beneath them well enough to make sure that they do not slip – especially as they may have many people roped to them when they do so. They need to wear something with thin enough soles that they can feel the rocky ground on which everyone treads. Maybe they need something shiny enough to see their own (slightly distorted) reflection when they look down? Whatever they wear – it must be proved in the fire, like those early Amazonian boots.

If you preach today, may you be sure-footed and shod with soles for souls.

feet

A look at Jacob Frey’s ‘The Present’

When I was researching my little book on Jonah, one of the most memorable descriptions of it was by Professor Yvonne Sherwood, who described it as ‘a tiny text virtually capsizing under the weight of interpretation’. I’m not sure the same could be said of animator Jacob Frey’s little gem below. That said, the number of times in which he subverts expectations and stimulates emotions in the space of four minutes is more than that of a film ten times its length. When you watch the film, do it more than once – looking for different things.

  • Note the points at which your perception of dog and boy change in turn
  • Track the film’s progress only through the facial expressions of boy and dog
  • Note the narrative as told by the gait of dog and boy respectively
  • Watch the film without any sound and see if it holds you differently

Jacob Frey is near the beginning of his career as an animator. I’ve a feeling that the thing which will make him truly great is his skill as a storyteller though, don’t you agree?

 

RIP

Grateful for the brave

We often talk about the brave as those who bear arms on others’ behalf,  who enter a burning building to save others, or who fight some private battle with tragedy. Bravery wears many faces, though – and today we have seen one of them.

I am grateful to live in a place where the brave can pit their skills against the grinding face of poverty to push it back.

I am grateful to live in a place where Members of Parliament are freely elected to represent the people.

I am grateful to live in a place where those with a dream to serve can pursue it all the way to the Houses of Parliament.

I am grateful to live in a place where those who inhabit the corridors of power also make the effort to meet their constituents.

In short I am grateful to live in place occupied until a few hours ago by Jo Cox MP.

Peace be with all who loved her tonight.

Image by Brendan Cox

Image by Brendan Cox

Moses’ commencement speech Deuteronomy 4 v.25 – 31

I have been preaching through a series on the promises of God, and have now reached Moses’ promise in Deuteronomy 4 v.29 – uttered from the crest of Mount Nebo.

If Moses had known the hymn “Abide with me”  he would have been humming it to himself a little sadly just now.Truth to tell he would have been humming very quietly as he would be out of breath by the time he walked up to the top of Mount Nebo. What a view when he got there though. To one side lay all the land where the drama of his life had been played out. There was the Nile, where he almost perished as a baby. Not for from that was the Pharaoh’s palace where he had grown from boy to man. Then there was the scrubland where the angry young man had fled after his temper boiled over. A little closer was the Red Sea where the waters had stood up like soldiers on parade to this side and that and all had passed by safely. Beyond them the shifting sands of the desert where they had wandered these many years – a cloud before them by day and column of fire by night. And there below him, the glittering ribbon of the Jordan, and beyond that the hazy expanse of the Promised Land.  Many a night he had fallen asleep dreaming of its valleys and hills – he’d woken to the taste of milk and honey in his mouth, but never seen them. And now, there it lay – beyond him forever as God had told him he would not cross over.

With a meaty, calloused hand he claps his arm around Joshua’s shoulders, thrusts him to the fore, and tells people to trust him as if he were Moses himself. Then come his words of wisdom. This is Moses’ ‘commencement speech’.  I have always found it odd as name – since such a speech spoken when people graduate, and therefore is more about ending than commencing. It is, though, the beginning of the rest of their lives.  Consider some samples:

J K Rowling

The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift.

Matt Damon

I hope you’ll turn toward the problem of your choosing … Because you must. I hope you’ll drop everything … Because you must And I hope you’ll solve it. Because you must. This is your life, Class of 2016. This is your moment, and it’s all down to you.

Barack Obama

You won’t always succeed. But know that you have it within your power to try. That generations who have come before you faced these same fears and uncertainties in their own time. And that through our collective labour, and through God’s providence, and our willingness to shoulder each other’s burdens, America will continue on its precious journey towards that distant horizon, and a better day.

What does Moses have to say? There are two home truths. (Or more precisely one home truth and one heavenly truth)

  1. You will fail

We often make a joke about “I can resist everything except temptation”…see it as bumper sticker.  It’s not really so funny though. To yield to temptation is to let God down.

To yield to temptation is to forfeit lasting blessing for passing pleasure. Moses can see clearly that they are likely to get settled/ easy/ sloppy once they cross over into the promised land. Without the daily battle of desert survival to occupy them; without the unifying force of fighting a war to occupy them – other things will surely crowd in.

v.23 “be careful”

v.26 – 27  They will lose this precious land for which they have travelled & longed and fought and of which they have dreamed.They will be scattered to the four winds (which has happened)

v.28 They will end up with simple gods fashioned by their own hands, whiich can do NOTHING for them

Not so much of a positive home truth, you might think. Consider the more heavenly one though:

 

2.You will find Him

This promise is made all the sweeter by two words in v.29: from there

From there – flat on your faces as you realise your idols are useless.

From there – scattered to the four winds because you have forfeited the promised land.

From there – far from the land of promise and driving your car on the petrol vapour of bygone good times

After the “home truth” of saying they will fail …comes a glorious promise: “you will find him when you seek him with all your heart and all your soul”. This is similar to other promises of finding Him, – but this is set deliberately in the context of failure & faithlessness

Margaret Thatcher famously turned the u turn into an insult.  However, God’s people are a people of grace who know all about the 2nd chance. the whole of Bible from flood onward is a second chance. People like Moses (who had messed up). People like Paul (a violent, destructive, opponent of Kingdom) were outstanding proof of just that.

Asked in a recent live radio interview about the church’s attitude to marriages in general and second marriages in particular, I replied that : I’m a Christian and its all about second chances.  There is nothing like being put on the spot in a live broadcast to reveal what was under the surface anyway!

Our fundamental beliefs about grace are built on promises like this long before Christ came on the scene.  Moses could see the future for these people far more clearly than anyone giving a commencement speech can see the future for the students sitting in front of them.

He could see a landscape of promise stretching way beyond the land.  He could see a place where the catastrophic failure of God’s people would not even put a dent in God’s grace.

It is a place which I am pleased to call home.

sands

 

 

Made of different cloth

Flags will be flying high in London and across the United Kingdom this weekend. Many will fly them to mark the birthday of a monarch who has made frequent and honest references to her personal faith. Had I been around at the coronation I think I would have struggled with some of the ‘sacred’ aspects of what is a constitutional act. That anyone should vow to ‘maintain the Laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel’ from on high is a point worth debating, though possibly not this weekend. As familiar red, white and blue flags flutter on a summer’s day, a flash of secondhand gold foil has caught my eye.

Today, my eye has been drawn away to another flag hoisted high in the capital city. It is called ‘The New EU flag‘, an art installation by Slade School student Mariana Bisti. The flag is made from four foil blankets formerly wrapped around the shoulders of refugees on the island of Lesvos. Arriving cold, bedraggled, frightened and in danger of hypothermia – these blankets are symbolic of their first welcome on a new continent. Stateless as they are, Bisti’s flag flies over them wherever they may be.

What are your reflections as you look at the flag, I wonder?

Image: ucl.ac.uk

A review of Foxes unearthed by Lucy Jones

If you are looking for the answer to Ylvis’ question, then this book is definitely not the place to look – since it is a book entirely devoid of anthropomorphism. Instead you will find a potent combination of journalistic investigation, historical and literary research, and heartfelt nature writing. Don’t be fooled by the gorgeous cover which would not look out of place in the kind of ‘contemporary living’ shop where you buy a book for the way it looks on your coffee table. Lucy Jones’ book packs a serious and intelligent punch. Her meticulous research takes her back into Indo-European literature and contemporary linguistic analysis, and her journalist’s nose takes her out into the countryside with hunters and saboteurs alike.  You have to respect any researcher prepared to get covered in mud head to foot for her craft!

For me, one of the most fascinating chapters of the book is the one dealing with portrayals of the fox in print media. As I read the chapter, I was reminded of Dwight Bolinger’s book Language: the loaded weapon. Like Bolinger, Lucy Jones made me think about both the language I consume and the language I create.  Below I cheekily steal some of those ‘loaded’ fox words to describe Lucy’s book:

  • Cunning – like the legendary cunning of the fox, Lucy draws her readers in. Don’t be fooled into thinking you know what this book is before you finish it.
  • Courageous – fox hunters (apparently) like to talk about the courage of their foe. Lucy Jones is a writer prepared to show considerable courage in pursuing her investigation.
  • Sleek – like a well fed fox with a gorgeous red coat, there are passages in this book polished to an almost poetic sheen.
  • Shy – in the best way possible, this book tells you more about its subject than its author.

Last week, I took this book away on holiday with me. I started reading it early one morning, and then slipped out of the cottage where I was staying on a farm in Wiltshire.  As I made my way up the farm track, mist rolling away from the fields, my head was still full of the ancient fox legends about which I had been reading. Just then, an elegant fox made its unhurried way across the path in front of me. Its coat was a deep mahogany colour, with a pristine white tip to its brush.  I felt, as I always do, a sense of wonder at proximity with such a beautiful wild creature. This time, though, I also felt I knew something more about it. The two of us went our separate ways that early morning – one to hunt and the other to ponder on what a Finnish fox has to say about the Northern Lights. That’s another story though…

foxes

CLICK for further details from Elliott and Thompson

Every lectern tells a story

As a preacher, a lectern or pulpit becomes like a familiar friend.  It represents the place where you exercise your gifts and express your calling. You land up familiar with every nook an contour of it.

In the Eglise Evangelique at Marche-en-Famenne, where I first learn to preach in 1984, the pulpit was a flimsy plywood affair. It was fine for propping up my (handwritten) notes, but no use at all for leaning on, as it wobbled alarmingly.

In Hertford Baptist Church, the lectern was borne on the back of a magnificent eagle, originally made for Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, which then landed up in Hertfordshire instead.

In Purley Baptist Church, with a congregation facing me from two directions, I used the solid wooden pulpit which afforded eye contact with all.

In Teddington Baptist Church, I have always preached from a simple, solid wooden lectern.

On Friday I visited the old Saxon parish church in Coln St Dennis, Gloucestershire. The church has many fascinating features, both inside and out. However, for me the most fascinating of all was the lectern, pictured below. Unless I am mistaken, it shows the disciples in a small fishing boat. I am not sure, though, which of the waterborne stories it depicts. Is it the frightened disciples who see Christ coming across the water towards them, defying every law of physics but calming the storm? Is it the beginning of the miraculous catch of fish, where one word from Christ is enough to transform the entire fishing trip? Either would be an appropriate metaphor for the preacher, perhaps. Once in a while we find ourselves foundering and we sorely need a helping hand from the Lord who rule the waves. Then again, we are also looking to be fishers of men…

Which would be better suited, do you think? Please let me  know via the comments, or get in touch if you know more about the lectermn itself. Thank you.

lectern1 (2)

CLICK for full size to see the detail

 

Tapping a source of goodness

Yesterday evening I was continuing a series on the promises which provide the foundation for our Christian lives. Last night’s was the blessing to Asher in Deuteronomy 33 v.25 that ‘as are your days, so shall your strength be’.

Early on in the service everybody wrote down a burden they were carrying, and placed it in the brass dish of an old set of scales. Talking about how one of the Hebrew words for God’s glory is ‘Kabod’ (or ‘weight’), I then placed a 1 kg weight on the other side. Even if there had been 1000 burdens – it would still have outweighed them. ‘As are your days…

Later on, after considering the promise and its implications, people were invited to write a blessing for someone using the formula

May the God of (an attribute of God) + bless you with (something in particular) + a time frame (tonight, today, forever etc)

After that we tipped the burdens out of the bowl, put in the blessings, shuffled them up, and then read each other’s out. A selection of them are below , and it made for moment to savour as we shared them.

Why not try it for yourselves?

 

DSC_0036

CLICK for full size

 

May the God of grace bless you with heartfelt assurance

May the God of saving grace bless you with joyful and confident faith

May the God of all faithfulness bless you with hope as you trust in Him

May the God of all hope bless you with patience and endurance

May the God of all assurance and comfort bless you with confidence in Him and for the future

May the God of grace bless you with his strength as you learn to rely on Him

May the God of faithfulness bless you with peace today and every day

May the God of creation bless you with prosperity now and forever

 

 

Day 52

Deep breath required

Those who have read this blog over the years will know that I have a particular fondness for the Old Testament character Nehemiah. Click here to learn a little more about the places he and I have travelled together.  I have always found his story of courage, persistence and leadership in adversity to be a source of inspiration.

Today, though, he is troubling me. Ever since I announced my move to Newbury Baptist church, I have been running a little ‘countdown’ app on my phone. It keeps me aware of the time remaining in my current church and helps to focus on the task in hand. The years here have been rich ones – with giant steps of faith for many individuals, and bold shared projects for the church. We have laughed, cried, prayed and celebrated together. Today, though, is day #52:

Today I have 52 days left here at Teddington Baptist Church – which is where Nehemiah comes in. Nehemiah took 52 days to galvanize a weary and fearful unskilled workforce into rebuilding the ruined walls of an entire city. Inspiring though that is, it is also a little intimidating.

What can I do in the next 52 days, with God’s help, I wonder? If you are a person who likes to pray, then your prayers would be hugely appreciated. Thank you.

No substitute

Last weekend I spent a very pleasant Saturday morning with a group of people keen to be involved in different ways with leading worship and preaching. As I always would with preachers, I urge them to perfect the art of reading the Bible, reading themselves and reading the congregation. When it comes to the latter, there are all sorts of tools and devices at their disposal. However, the most powerful source of feedback, more powerful than any survey or questionnaire, remains conversation.  There is simply no substitute for looking another person in the eyes and talking to them.

Ever since I read Gulwali Pasarlay’s book, I have been enthusiastically advocating it to anyone who will listen. This story removes the refugee crisis from the realm of statistics and frames it within the experience of one young boy. One day I sincerely hope I can look Gulwali in the eyes and thank him for such a work of courage, honesty and warmth. In the meantime, I am indebted to Amnesty International Poland and the DBBTribal ad agency for the powerful film below.  It needs no further explanation from me, except to give you this warning: reach for the tissues before you watch it.

 

 

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