Wordless elegance

Words are what I do. As a preacher, as a writer and as an occasional broadcaster, they are my currency. Once in a while, though, they seem to dry up.  There are times when the attempt to articulate ends up obfuscating.  There are occasions when a quest for clarity results in clumsiness.  As a peddlar of words I take my hat off today to cartoonist Bruce MacKinnon, of the Halifax Chronicle Herald for his cartoon the day after the Ottawa shooting.

I need say no more:

Image - independent.co.uk

Image – independent.co.uk

…tells several stories

Yesterday I paid a long awaited visit to a little railway in Wales.  I visited it online before I got there, paid for my tickets using the latest chip and pin technology and then sat back to enjoy the slow ride up into the mountains.  The locomotive was hissing and belching steam, as they should.  Every bit of brass was gleaming and every bit of greased steel was glistening. It whistled noisily at every crossing and took its time to climb up through the gorgeous autumn trees to Devil’s Bridge at the top of the line. Once there, the nostalgia continues, as you can see with this vintage AA phone box:


However, it is the picture below which appeals especially. It could have been taken at almost any time in the 112 years since the railway was opened. It shows an engineer in his boiler suit waiting for the locomotive to turn around before heading back down the mountain. Look a little more carefully though, and you will see that he is checking his smartphone as he does so! I may have altered the colour on the photo, but this is not trick photography. We may love a bit of nostalgia, but the chances are we will tell people about it using the latest technology. What would  Stephenson have done with today’s technology, I wonder?


CLICK for colour version

Chemistry unveiled

When I was first taught to preach I was told that the relationship between preacher and word was analogous to that of a cutter and a diamond. A cutter does not make a diamond precious or beautiful, since it is both those things already. Rather, his job is to cut facets in such a way that the diamond catches the light and its true beauty is revealed for all to see.

This morning I came across a project at the University of Technology China entitled Beautiful Chemistry. In essence, it is seeking to do the same thing for science as a preacher does for the Word – in other words, to reveal the beauty which has been there all along. Inspired by German biologist Ernst Haeckel’s depictions of nature over a century ago, the team behind beautiful chemistry have used the latest 4D technology to depict some of the world’s most ordinary chemical reactions in extraordinary detail. Who knew, for instance, that precipitation could be beautiful?

No more words from me – just the video below, which speaks for itself:

Preaching as accompaniment

Yesterday I had the enormous privilege of preaching at a service of believer’s baptism for three teenagers. On such an occasion, preaching plays a key role in articulating what is happening and calling others to truly participate in it. On this particular occasion, my preaching ‘agenda’ was set by the testimonies of the young people concerned, who all had something to say about their sense of God’s timing. The sermon below was preached immediately after one of our oldest church members  had read out Ecclesiastes 3 v. 1 – 11. [CLICK where highlighted for further resources]


The time is now 

Time is a peculiar, elastic thing.

  • When you are 6, and waiting for your birthday, every day lasts about a month.
  • When you are 16 and trying to finish an essay under exam conditions – every minute lasts about 10 seconds.
  • When you are 36 and waiting for feedback from a tough appraisal, every minute lasts about an hour.
  • When you are 86 and enjoying a precious few hours with your grandchildren, every minute lasts a few seconds.

Of all the passages in the Bible about “time” this is certainly the most famous.

1. Time is limited

Nobody has an infinite supply of time. “Threescore and ten” is a  biblical shorthand for an average lifespan.  Of course that lifespan is now getting longer and longer, but the Bible is very clear that all of us only have so much time to live  – whether short or long it will not last forever.

v.2 Time to be born…time to die

v.7 Time to tear & time to mend

All around me in this affluent place I see buildings being torn down and others put up in their place.  At the time these buildings were the latest in architecture, design and style – but now they must make way for something else which accommodates contemporary tastes. As the buildings which looked so permanent rise and fall, they are a reminder that nothing lasts forever.I draw the line at keeping skull on my desk like Elizabethan man,  but it is good good to be reminded that time is not infinite.

In the 2011 film “In Time” (Justin Timberlake) ,set in 2069, everyone lives until 25 without ageing – but then has only 365 days of time left – which they can buy., sell, trade or barter. It is a distinctly disturbing concept, but underlines an important truth.

We all have same amount of time in every day:1440 minutes, or 86400 seconds.What matters is how we use it. This is why Jesus said to his disciples that “night is coming when no man can labour”.

2. Time is critical

This photo was taken by 79 year-old Surrey photographer Kim Albury. In it he usses “very very fast” flash to freeze movement in his studio at home.1000ths of second earlier and the frog would still have been in the water.  1000ths of second later and the  butterfly would have gone away. The Bible has a lot to say about CRITICAL time- kairos rather than chronos. The kairos or “God-moment” is a freeze-fame instant where something eternal takes place. It is the quality, rather than the quantity of such moments which matters. Its not how many moments you have but WHAT you do with them which matters

Abd-ar-Rahman III reigned as Emir and Caliph of Cordoba from 912-961 and wrote this towards the end of his reign:

I have now reigned about 50 years, in victory or in peace.Beloved by my subjects, dreaded by my enemies and respected by my allies. Riches and honours, power and pleasure have waited on my call. Nor does any earthly blessing appear to have been wanting to my felicity.In this situation I have diligently numbered the days of pure and genuine happiness which have fallen to my lot.They amount to……14.  Perhaps he should have met Pharrell Williams!

Time is CRITICAL – and we can use it for good or ill

This is the part of the book where you might normally expect to find a short passage dedicating it to someone. I am not going to do that as the book recounts an episode in my life which I am not proud of, and represents part of my life which I am trying desperately hard to leave behind. I therefore see no point in dedicating it to anyone or anything – Nick Leeson, from the introduction to Rogue Trader.

Time is limited, but time is critical too – we have to make critical decisions about how we spend it if we are to find abiding happiness. We live in an era where interest in spirituality is higher than ever. I was asked on camera recently whether I thought it was because we all watch Vampires and read Harry Potter. No – it is because we all read the news …and ask questions about presence or absence of God. It is because we look in mirror and see a man or woman who cries out in the very depths of their soul for there to be something more. Augustine of old said “thou hast made us for thyself and our souls are restless til they find their rest in thee”.

v.11 says exactly this – that God has put eternity in our hearts and therefore we must seek him out.

Our time may be limited, but it is also critical – like the moment of action arrested in the photo. This day or this hour may hold the flashbulb moment where we can decide for God or not

3. Time is NOW

Some of the phrases in the Ecclesiastes passage seem a little odd:

v.8 A time for war? – it surely feels that way if you live in Kobane on Syrian/ Turkish border

v.4 A time to weep? – yes, if life and emotion have caught up with you.

v.5 A time to scatter stones ?- a way of sabotaging a neighbour’s business.

v.7 A time to be silent? – a good one for a person who talks for a living!

v.8 – Love and hate in same sentence?

These are all part of the warp and weft of living, but – when it comes to making a decision for God we know that time is limited. We know that time is critical too – where this moment or this hour may mean more than the one either side of it because of what we do with it.

Bible says that the time is not just limited or critical…but that it is now. NOW is best moment to respond to God. Jesus would often speak that way:

NOW is day of salvation

NOW Kingdom of God is near

Paul later picks up on it to say that NOW is the hour of salvation.

NOBODY has “all the time in the world”, but if we want it to count for God – NOW may be the right time to do something about it



I din’t use the video below, but it would have been perfect…


Carried away by words

I’ve been thinking a lot about metaphor these last few days. I find myself half way through writing a book about pilgrimage as a metaphor for discipleship. The deprivations, the effort, the companionship, the provisions, the rules of the road and even journey’s end all carry meanings for the disciple’s life of faith with or without the pilgrim’s staff. A meta-phor is, quite literally, something which should carry us with it into a realm of deeper meaning.  This is certainly my hope for #Journey.

Consider the paragraph below:

Its a jungle out there, but there’s an elephant in the room and we’re balanced on a knife edge.

The boss is digging his heels in, but we’re all climbing the walls. I thought I saw a window, but in fact it’s just roadblocks all the way.

If we’ve jumped the shark then we might as well step aside and let the fat lady sing.

Of course, the person speaking is not actually climbing the wall, nor squeezing past an elephant to see out of the window. When we use this kind of language we allow it to paint pictures on the canvas of our minds, which then cause us to re-examine the realities which gave rise to the language in the first place. This is where a graphic enabler can really come into his own – turning concepts into visual realities, so that people tackle the concepts like concrete challenges.

As the pace of writing has picked up again, I have found one or two people asking me what the book is for. Essentially, I want to use the lens of pilgrimage to look at discipleship all over again. How can the lessons learnt on the pilgrim’s road help those of us whose path lies elsewhere? As the journey of writing the #journey continues, your company is greatly appreciated…



A snippet of a much bigger picture about the journey, by Josh Gifford

A tale of love

Regular readers of this blog will know how keen I am on stories.  I believe that they are one of the most powerful weapons in any communicator’s arsenal.  Finely honed and streamlined to perfection, they can sneak in past the listener’s defences, releasing their full communicative potential close to the heart where they matter most. This means, though, that I must become something of a ‘story hoover’ – collecting them up wherever I see them and storing them for the day when they might be needed.

Years ago I read a story about a woman who clung onto a bell’s clapper to prevent it sounding and thereby signalling her lover’s demise.  Last year, I was crossing Chertsey Bridge, made famous by this year’s floods, and noticed out of the corner of my eye a statue which appeared to depict the story. On Wednesday night I attended a hand-bell ringing workshop, was reminded once again of the story, and went to investigate:


The story runs like this. The year is 1471 and Chertsey girl Blanche Heriot’s lover, Neville Audley, is on the run from the Yorkist forces, whom he has been fighting in the wars of the roses. He seeks refuge in the Abbey, but is arrested by Yorkist soldiers and condemned to hang at the sound of the curfew bell the next day. His only hope is a ring, once given to him by a Yorkist nobleman in recognition of the moment when Audley spared his life. A local man agrees to take the ring to London and see if the nobleman will return the favour by sparing Audley’s life. As evening approaches, there is still no sign of the messenger. At last he is spotted the other side of the river, but is held up by waiting for the ferry to cross. Blanche climbs up the belfry and clings onto the clapper of the bell as it swings to and fro – thereby preventing it from sounding. By the time she is found out, the messenger has arrived and her lover’s life has been spared. Shortly after this, Blanche and Neville are married.

It’s a wonderful tale, don’t you think? Not only that, but there is a wonderful little statue to commemorate it. When I visited the statue yesterday, I discovered that Autumn had been to visit – with a spider’s web across Blanche’s lovely face and a leaf behind her ear. I think it only enhances it, don’t you?


CLICK for full-size image

 Women breaking barriers

Women talking about equality is not new.  The insidious appearance of  sexism – like a tobacco stain leeching again and again through layers and layers of new paint, is not new. Attempts to address it in surprising ways are not new. When a little girl wrote to Lego complaining that the girl minifigs only got to do boring things whereas the boys got to have adventures, they listened. Somebody even came up with the amusing fundraiser of the @legoacademics Twitter account. Two years ago I reported on a particularly inept attempt to address gender imbalance in science. It was not the first and will probably not be the last.

A bright, articulate, passionate young film-star talking about sexism is not new either. What might be new, or at least unexpected, was her call for men to be part of the conversation. In her speech at the United Nations Headquarters last week Emma Watson she asked ‘how can we effect change in the world when only half of it is invited or feel welcome to participate in the conversation’ .  She went on to point out out some of the shocking imbalance in the availability of education for girls which means that at current rates ‘it won’t be until 2086 before all rural African girls will be able to receive a secondary education‘. I applaud her words, and her gracious invitation – though struggle a little with the title of the campaign #heforshe – which may in itself appeal to a kind of chivalry which teeters, unknowing, on the brink of sexism.

Just four days after Emma Watson’s speech, Indian photographer Manjunath Kiran published the photograph below of celebrations at the headquarters of the Indian Space Research Organisation when they successfully put a satellite into orbit around Mars. The front and centre of the image features women who were front and centre of the programme to put the satellite in place.  They are not there because they prove a point or redress an imbalance but because they are brilliant at what they do. Not only that, but there is something about the expressions on the faces of their male colleagues which echoes much of the aspiration in Watson’s speech. The recognition of the skills and talents offered by women worldwide gives the whole human race, rather than half of it, cause to celebrate. You can read more on the story behind the photo here.

I have not read Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, largely because I have been so irritated by the quotations from it in other sources. When men use it to justify a kind of polite repression masquerading as liberty,  I have little inclination to read it.  It seems now that women might be going to Mars, rather than coming from Venus. If so, then Earth can only gain from it.

Image: BBC






Defiant art at the city’s heart

Art changes things. Whether it is a single hand-swept daub of ochre on a cave wall in Lascaux or the statuesque enormity of Mount Rushmore, it changes the location where it is found. Yesterday I went to visit Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red by Paul Cummins and Tom Piper at the Tower of London. Much though I love it, the Tower of London has always looked a bit like a Disney set to me. Surrounded by palaces of finance, rocked by trucks passing by and tube trains underneath, staffed by extras from Gilbert and Sullivan and looking like a remnant from Shrek’s Duloc. However, one of the things which struck me about the poppies’ installation is how they change that. All the surrounding buildings – from today’s steel and glass to yesterday’s wrought iron grandeur, now seem to be dwarfed by the spreading sea of poppies. Note how the spectacular Shard is no more than a bit part in the image below:


It is as if all the thrusting arrogance of these later buildings must step aside for a little while, like a busy labourer stopping to bow his head as a cortege passes by. I was struck, too, by the way the installation interacts with the created world. The poppies seem to tumble forward like an unstoppable tide, but still the autumn leaves tuck in amongst them on an irrepressible quest for shelter:

For me, the most poignant image was the one below. Every day the installation is growing by the efforts of an army of willing volunteers. To participate in the construction of this spectacular artwork is a privilege for which many have been keen to offer their services. Of the 888,246 war dead whom they commemorate, though, few were volunteers…


…one voice

Regular readers will be aware that I am part way through an evening preaching series on the title ‘how is this the word of God’?  Last week we looked at the Psalms and the previous week at how Scripture came together. This week, the synoptic Gospels came under the microscope. We started with 15 random facts about my life dotted around the church. People were invited to use them to compile a short life story. They could use those facts only, add in other ones which they knew, work together or alone. The one thing they could not do was to ask me! The results were a blend of the accurate, the inventive and the unrecognisable. However, it did help to give an understanding of the different ways in which a life story might come together.

We then looked at some information about each of the three synoptic Gospels in turn.  We considered the likely date, the themes and the character of each Gospel. Following this, people were invited to choose a table according to their Gospel of choice, talk about it, and produce a ‘back cover’ for it. The results, every bit as engaging as last week’s DIY psalms, are below, with images from Wikimedia Commons and Miss Street. CLICK each to read the definition:







We finished by looking at the stereoscope – a brilliant device which creates a three dimensional image by looking at an image from two very slightly different viewpoints.

Next week…John!

The rebirth of a phrase

Words belong to everybody.  The power to form them, describe reality with them, and frame the un-imagined by them is the birthright of humankind.  Every once in while, though, they seem to become so indelibly associated with a particular cause or character that it is hard to move them on. Last week I watched the video below. It is one of many moves by British Muslims to clarify the distinction between Islam as a religion and IS as an entity.

As I watched it I was drawn in by the simplicity, honesty and passion of the speakers in it.  Their concern, and indeed their anger, is obvious for all to see.  As I watched, though, there was a nagging question at the back of my mind about the phrase “not in my name” and its origins.  Where was it that I had first heard it?  In fact, the phrase had entered our shared vocabulary during the co-ordinated global protests against the invasion of Iraq in 2003.  Given the causal links between that conflict and the current situation in the Middle East, there is an irony to the ‘hashtagging’ of the phrase, don’t you think? I am not at all sure that it robs it of its power, though. Arguably the re-use of the phrase, complete with all its recent historical implications, might make it even more powerful in the video. It depends whether you feel the phrase its indelibly marked by its prior use or invested with redoubled meaning by its re-use.

What do you think?

Image: platypus1917.org

« Older entries