An experiment in biblical engagement

Last week I began preaching through a series entitled “How is this the word of God” We looked at the history of the canon, the significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls and talked about the thorny issues of inerrancy and infallibility. If you would like to know more, there are details here. This Sunday we took a look at one Biblical genre, and it led to one of the most remarkable experiences of engagement with Scripture which I have ever seen.

This week we tackled the first of several Biblical genres by looking at poetry. We looked at some differences between the Psalms and other poetry.

Upward not downward – most of the Psalms are addressed to God, rather than to the reader

Multivalent rather than polyvalent – the language used in the Psalms may work on more than one level, but there is not the artifice and intentional ambiguity which you might find in other poetry.

Context and rubric  – unlike other poems, the psalms often include some background material in the italics or ‘rubric’ written just under the Psalm number in English versions. This may be a back story, as in Psalm 32, or an instruction that the psalm should be used in communal worship, as in Psalm 46.

We noted how the Psalms tend to fall into the categories of orientation (life is good, such as Psalm 1 ), disorientation (life has gone wrong, such as Psalm 13) or reorientation (life was wrong but now it is getting on track, such as Psalm 30). Often the Psalm will follow a pattern of:

Report (this is how I feel)
Recall (this is how it used to be)
Restate (this is what I know to be true about God)
Resolve (this is what I will do)

At this point, people were invited to choose a category of Psalm and then write their own in the first person singular, using the four Rs above and taking no more than 10 lines to do it. You can download the sheet they used here.  Inviting people to do this was a calculated risk. Some might think it was an invitation to add to scripture, and thereby undermine it. Others might find it simply too personal. However, I explained that the exercise was not an attempt to add to scripture, and that we could think of a psalm simply as an expression of God’s eternal presence in our temporal situation. Not only that, but writing a Psalm might be the best way to understand them as originally written…

The church fell silent as people scattered to the four corners, sat on the floor or sat at coffee tables to write. A little later, they were invited to share their psalms, and about one third of those present did so. The results were personal, poignant and deeply moving. They provided an experience of true biblical engagement of a kind I have never seen.

Care to try it?

 

pew

 

A closing address to the Council of Global Connections

Earlier today I spoke at the Council of Global Connections, where I have served for the past nine years. What do you say to a room full of high-powered mission professionals in such a context? My answer to that question follows below.

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I will not be here this afternoon as I shall be in a radio studio elsewhere in London. Given that I shall be recording five 2- minute scripts and that I was asked to provide ten minutes now, it was quite tempting to simply stitch them all together and read them out to you. I have resisted the temptation, though. These 5 recordings will take me to over 150 scripts overall.

It has been an interesting experience.  There was my first ever live radio broadcast on BBC, where a light had unexpectedly been switched on above the pulpit, and I was unable to read my script inside the clear pocket where I had placed it.  There was the time I was called into the studio to record a New Year’s Day script on December 16th. Visiting the toilet just before going into the studio, the light pull came off in my hand, which provided something of a moral dilemma about who to tell and when! There was the time I bumped into James Corden on a narrow temporary staircase at the studios without having a clue who he was. More recently, I appeared on a live talk show to chat about one of my little children’s charity books, only to discover that my fellow guest was the man behind Live Aid!

Through it all, though, I have learnt one thing above all: TONE IS KING. The wrong tone can ruin a good script and a good tone can lift an average script.  During my first ever live broadcast – the person at top of the programme was told by the producer to “put a smile in her voice” and it really worked. TONE IS KING.

I can’t believe I have been on Global Connections Council for nine years. I have sat through a lot of meetings. I have eaten a lot of Chinese food. I have seen an awful lot of stats. I have asked a lot of (awkward) questions. I have learned a lot of things about way world is and way it could be. However, I have been struck by this: how easily the conversation about missions strategy becomes infected with the language of combat. Put a group of high-powered missions experts in a room together and before too long we start talking about battle, territory, conquest, target, force and frontlines. These are all words that would not have seem out of place in the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst.  In some of our discussions such language may be inevitable. However,there must be a constant call, an insistent ringing bell, to call us back to our roots.

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

13 This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. 15 If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. 16 And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.17 This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. 18 There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

19 We love because he first loved us. 20 Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. 21 And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister. (1 John 4 v. 7 – 21)

As Christians we are new creatures in Christ, and the selfless gene of love is now attached indelibly to our DNA (v.7).  This is not a concept of love as airy as the latest fad – but a love encapsulated, inhabited and demonstrated by Jesus – in his words, his works, his life and his death. I have been in conversation this week with film-maker who wants to interview me for an 11-16s documentary on paganism in Britain and its relationship with Christianity. One of the questions (and my answer) follows:

• How do you believe Pagans differ from Christians?

Christianity as a belief system is all centred around the person, words and works of Jesus Christ – a historically identifiable individual. Christians see him as their means of connecting with God. Pagans, on the other hand, may worship many gods, or embrace a kind of belief which sees God in everything

The Roman Emperor Julian in 267 AD, found that paganism was haemorrhaging Roman citizens to the new upstart religion of Christianity, and the only way to stop it was to beat them at their own game and start loving each other more and better.The ultimate litmus test of any agency, church or network is the extent to which we stay true to these principles. When we get to heaven, the question may not be “how many” but “how well”?

I have been in ministry for 27 years, and for the past dozen or so combined it with other comms interests – in broadcast, written and digital media. Through it all TONE IS KING.  Lots of people in churches…and organizations …like to call themselves “radical”.It’s a hipster label we like to wear on our soul much as others might wear one on their jeans. The REAL RADICALS are the champions of love.

– They are the ones who neither court nor relish the fanfare – They are the ones who neither seek praise nor pout at criticism – Like a tuning fork struck on the harsh reality of life they vibrate with the tone of Jesus

Whatever you do without me – don’t have too much fun, and make sure that the tone of the king…is king.

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In praise of simplicity

Regular readers here will know that I am a big fan of simplicity and elegance when it comes to communication. Often verbal communicators (such as preachers) multiply words whilst dividing clarity.  This is one of the reasons I always encourage them to look at the creative output of other communicators, especially those in non-religious contexts. Yesterday, I came across the Livegreen campaign to keep Toronto tidy. Their poster campaign is made up of high resolution images of …rubbish. Each photograph puts together two pieces of litter in such a way as to ‘say’ something about the person who dropped it. The adds are simple, poignant, and memorable.

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Meanwhile, the IKEA advert below rehearses an old cliche about how we all need to get back to the good old book. The book in question is, of course, their catalogue. However, they do it all with such elegance, and the presenter narrates it with such puppy-dog enthusiasm, that it is hard not to smile, don’t you think?

To slow you down

Whenever I teach courses on the use of storytelling I tell people about a little strand of self absorption in our psychology.  If we are shown a group photo in which we feature, no matter how large the group, our eye will always be drawn to our own face. This is the principle behind the parables of Jesus, I believe. In them we recognise ourselves – in a desperate widow here, a contrite tax collector there, or a good Samaritan here. People are fascinated by people. This is the way that tabloid newspapers sell, and this is why people stories always communicate.

The Belgian government are in the midst of a major crackdown on speeding. They have employed everything from hard-hitting videos to crowdsourced suggestions on locations for speed cameras.  They have also invited members of the public to submit their own photos for use on speed displays. Instead of the emoticon style sad/ smiley face we see in this country for driving under and over the speed limit, real faces will be shown. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then these should be worth two thousand, I suppose. Thankfully, I only got as far as taking my photos, rather than uploading them,as my limited Flemish could make no further sense of the instructions. This may be just as well, as the photos below were more likely to cause an accident than prevent it!

There is a serious lesson for communicators here, though. The entire Belgian ‘zero’ campaign has been aimed at drawing people away from the statistics and towards the real-life stories associated with speeding. Every speed-related death is a personal tragedy, not a statistic.  The best way to do this has been to give the issue a human face…or even several of them.

How do you ‘humanize’ your communications, I wonder?

Joining in with John

After 727, 958 words (at least in English translations) the Bible comes to an end. What is the final flourish? How is the curtain brought down after battles and miracles and calamities and healings and Gospels and everything in between?  With one diminutive Aramaic word:

Amen

To its Old Testament users it meant ‘I do solemnly swear’, much as we might say in a legal ceremony today.  In the New Testament it could also be used rather less formally to say ‘I really mean this’. Either way, it provides the finale to John’s Book of Revelation, and thereby to the Bible itself.

Reading the passage over 20 years ago, it struck me that no-one could echo John’s little word of endorsement without putting their weight behind all that he stood for. To say ‘amen’ along with him is to set our soul’s compass on the return of Christ and to wait eagerly and purposefully for his return. At the time I wrote a responsive version of the Apostles’ Creed, and it first saw the light of day yesterday. I reproduce it here in case others would like to use it:

I believe in God the father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth.

I will honour him and cherish his creation.

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only son, our Lord.

I will serve him as master and Lord.

I believe he was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, and was buried. He descended to the dead.

I too will follow the path of obedience, wherever it may lead.

I believe that on the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the father.

I will exalt and honour him, even as God has done.

I believe in the Holy Spirit.

I will welcome his ministry in my life.

I believe in the holy catholic church, the communion of the saints.

I will seek to serve it and do all in my power to preserve it through tolerance, through gentleness and through generosity of Spirit.

I believe in the forgiveness of sins.

I will live daily in the light of his grace, forgiven again and again.

I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting

I will trust God for all that is to come.

 

"Amen"

“Amen”

 

 

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

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