A tale of distant love

Every year it happens. I resolve that I will not get sucked in by the big budget Christmas adverts – and yet every year I do. This year’s John Lewis offering is no exception. In a departure from the cutesy animated creatures and fluffy penguin of previous years, this one evokes a message of love across the generations and across the miles. If you click on the still below, you can watch the whole thing.


CLICK to see the whole advert

Apparently, John Lewis did not send a film crew (and aged actor) to the moon to make it – but took over film studios formerly occupied by the residents of Hogwarts. Much has been made of the partnership with Age UK in the advert. In reality, though, they get no mention on it – although the sales of mugs, cards and gift tags will generate profits for the charity. Other related merchandise will aim to raise awareness, rather then funds – although customers are encouraged to text and give. Amongst the merchandise is the curiously named item below. What exactly is ‘certified Christmas wrapping paper’, I wonder?

    In the end, the advert is two minutes’ of rather beautiful filming, and I take my hat off to those behind it. At least they avoided replacing Jesus with a handbag, unlike another Christmas ad. Two things strike me though. The first is that the idea of sending a gift at Christmas to assure someone far away that they are loved stretches all the way back to a baby’s cry in a manger. The other is that the advert’s most arresting line is the one on the still above – the Christmas story is, indeed, to ‘be continued’.


From mindscape to soundscape

You will find many paintings on this blog, of many eras. You won’t find many by Rene Magritte though. The fact is, I find many of them disturbing, and downright strange. However, I have always loved the one below, and the narrative it tells of the progress from idea to reality. It is called ‘clairvoyance’ and depicts the artist’s clear view of what he sees.

Image: wikiart

For the past six weeks, I have been living with a little story in my head. Late on the night of September 24th, I jotted down some preliminary notes:

Five days later, the story had its first experimental reading, with adults and children:

     Since then, it has undergone numerous transformations, including the addition of a lovely cover by Rachel Morris:

Final cover pic

Yesterday, tucked away in the crèche of the church where I work, it went through another transformation, as a high quality audio recording was made:

It is now in the hands of those who will finalise the audio and add original music to bring it spectacularly to life:

   The next transformation is anticipated when the finished item is made available to the public for digital download – hopefully in time for Christmas.

However, the biggest and most important transformation of all is yet to come. This is the moment when the story in its final form is heard by adults and children alike. At that moment, like Magritte’s egg in the painting above, there is no telling what pictures will be seen in the minds of those who hear. I hope they will be good ones – and that the Note will sound in their imaginations for a long time to come.


The Note comes to life

The title of this post sounds rather like the name of a musicians’ pub, but in fact it refers to a magical moment.  It is the moment when the lights dim in an auditorium, the audience falls silent, every eye in the orchestra turns to the rostrum, and the conductor taps his baton on it.  In that moment the conductor’s baton becomes a magic wand – summoning a magical soundscape from nowhere which will fill the room and paint pictures on the minds of all who listen.

As I write, I feel that I stand on the brink of just such a moment. A little over a month ago, I wrote a story all about The Note. It is a magical little note whose sound is heard at some of history’s greatest moments, before scampering away into obscurity like a child playing hide and seek. Sometimes it is there, just within reach, other times no-one can find it.

The story seems to have been loved by everybody who has heard it, from the family who listened in silence to it, to the editor who described it like this:

‘It has something of the Little Prince about it’ – Fiona Robertson, Watkins Publishing

Tomorrow is the conductor’s tap moment for The Note. Under the watchful eye of songwriter and musician Elliott Frisby it will be recorded. It will then whoosh across the ether to Andrew Stamp, who will compose and record original music to go with it. After that, it will hope to find its way into the global auditorium via a publisher and iTunes in time for Christmas.

You will notice on the lovely cover designed by Rachel Morris that the story will be sold in aid of Tommy’s. Why is that? All too often The Note of a child’s voice is silenced far far too soon. Neo-natal death is the source of untold anguish – a symphony cut off at the first note. Still today, one in four pregnancies in the Uk result in miscarriage or still birth – a tune whose first note is never, ever played. Sales of this little story will help to change all that – funding research centres into the causes of such sorrow.

Please let me know via the comments if there is anything you can do to help The Note on its way.

Final cover pic

CLICK for full-size

A review of ‘the secret life of God’ by Alex Klaushofer

If you are going to travel into uncharted territory, it is best not to do it alone. I am a Christian. At the age of 16 I made a conscious and rational decision to live my life as a disciple of Jesus Christ. I am still working out what that means, and I often find new depths in unexpected places – like turning up some forgotten trinket in the back of a drawer which needs to be emptied.

To open Alex’s book is to embark on a spiritual quest. Your guide is a warm and honest human being. Like the best tour guides, she will tell you about where you are headed and then point out the best features along the way. You will get to know each other – you two travellers, and appreciate the journey quite as much as any destination.

For me, the journey started in familiar territory – namely British non-conformity. I recognised the values and ethos straight away. Having said that, the critique which Alex offered is amongst the most insightful I have ever read. Note her question as to whether ‘non-conformity had lost much of the muscle that comes from swimming against the tide’  . I am reminded of Robbie Burn’s injunction  ‘to see oursels as ithers see us’.

After that we were off to the slightly stranger shores of monasticism and pilgrimage (less strange since writing #journey) before diverting into the surprisingly warm and welcoming world of a modern hermit. After that, I really needed my spiritual passport as we were off to places I have never visited – such as druidism and Islamic Sufism. I walked a little closer to my guide at that point and she did not let me down. She continued as a warm, questioning and very human guide.

I won’t tell you where the journey ended up as you will have to find out for yourselves. When I commented to Alex that it was odd to enjoy both journey and company so much whilst arriving at a different destination, she seemed pleased and commented that ‘spiritual destinies are shaped by place and personal experience.’

I read most of this book whilst on holiday in the Autumnal splendour of  the Forest of Dean – a place with which Alex is familiar. On my last day I visited Kevin Atherton’s spectacular sculpture ‘cathedral’. Hanging high in the branches it catches the light just so, and draws attention at once to the subject matter of the window, the skill of the artist, the light which brings it alive and the trees which give it context. Like Alex’s book – it shed light and diffracted expectations. I suggest you try both.

CLICK for full size

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.

motherjones.com CLICK for the whole thing!

motherjones.com 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.

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