Hand-stitched narrative

A review of ‘The mountain in my shoe’ by Louise Beech

In other hands, this book would be a disaster. It would be a gritty and depressing read slipping into the grey mists rolling off the Humber. In the hands of a tabloid writer it would be full of wasted kids, bad mothers, faceless social workers, tarts and a string of foster homes. In Louise Beech’s hands it becomes something else entirely. It becomes a narrative of exquisite intricacy where tension and tenderness are stretched like an Aeolian harp across that same river. Plot then plays across those strings with a haunting melody which keeps you listening and listening.

In some ways, Louise’s fiction reminds me of a Brueghel painting – a canvas inhabited by all sorts of people who are somehow connected. The difference, however, is in the sympathy with which they are portrayed. Sometimes there seems to be a cruelty to Brueghel’s work which is entirely absent from Louise’s. Look hard in these pages, but you will not find a single two-dimensional character. Each is shown in a warm light which appreciates their humanity.

Other times Louise’s work seems more like tapestry than fiction. Her characters stand out from the page, like those embroidered onto a tapestry. Like the seamstress behind the tapestry, she has worked hard to put those characters in place. Every word-stitch has made them more vivid, believable and engaging.

I feel I should apologise for the picture below. A book cover should never be shot against such a ‘busy’ background. In this case, however, the ‘busyness’ is just the point. In a world of tabloid-ized cliché and lazy stereotyping this book stands out. Not only that, but I have every reason to believe that it will do some good for those who find themselves serving in a social-care system more often vilified than appreciated.

Thank you, Louise.

CLICK for details of the book

CLICK for details of the book

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Cleared for launch

To catch your star

Exactly one month from today, almost five years after it was first written, Littlest Star launches. Various review copies are already finding their way across the country.

You can ‘catch’ your star by pre-ordering it here or here. Better still, why not speak to your local bookshop and ask them to order it in? Times are tough for independent booksellers, and your custom could make somebody’s day. The Littlest Star makes a number of friends on his journey, and you might well do the same.

In the meantime, here is a little bit of sparkle from Lion Children’s to whet your appetite…

 

 

The calculus of prayer

More multiplication than addition

I have now been in my new role as minister of Newbury Baptist Church for twenty days. There are at least 150 people in the church I need to get to know. There are services to be planned, small groups to visit, key players in the town to greet, a host of users in our building to meet and 101 things besides.

You might be forgiven, then, for thinking that the hour I took yesterday to assemble a large map of the town from 36 sheets of paper was ill spent. Would you feel that more, or less if I added in the time taken to plan the subject matter of the meeting and source 24 electric candles for those who came? Whilst you are at it, would the fact that about a dozen people attended make it seem a better or worse use of time?

CLICK for full size

CLICK for full size

The thing is, the value of prayer is not measured in numbers. The value of time spent in prayer, surely, is not to be found in the numbers of people either attending or praying? It is not as if we can add up the combined lengths of all their spoken prayers and use them to tip the balance of God’s favour in our direction.

CLICK for full size

CLICK for full size

On Sunday morning I was telling the congregation the tale of Peggy and Christine Smith – two elderly ladies on the Isle of Lewis whose faithful prayers played such a key role in the Hebridean revival in 1949. It would take a very skillful mathematician to equate the prayers of the two with the bent knees of the hundreds who were affected. Prayer, it would seem , is more about multiplication than addition.

That said, I am praying for addition upon addition to the numbers as one prayer meeting leads into another. Care to join me?

New broom

Old role

In the three weeks since I started in my new role at Newbury Baptist Church, there have been a number of small, visual changes. Two old hymn boards, no longer used, have come down off the walls. One has been replaced with a gorgeous banner no longer needed in the church for which it was originally made:

 On the walls, five out of six noticeboards now carry a large poster depicting a local scene and a Bible verse. Rather like the Biblefresh photo competition, they are designed to show the word in the world and the world in the word.

 Essentially, neither of these things are new. The church where I now serve has been following the path of Jesus and discerning the word in the world for well over 350 years. The essence is the same, but sometimes a new presentation of it makes it seem fresh once again.

It is in this spirit that the Preacher’s Blog has undergone a renewal. The contents is the same, and the purpose is the same . It is differently packaged, that is all.

Hope you like it..

 

 

Not a cheap imitation

Hand-crafted

Most readers of this blog will know that I have recently moved. Within the last two months I have packed and unpacked well in excess of 100 boxes. This being so, it is hardly surprising that one or two things should go astray. The loss of a 300-year old book which I never read would hardly seem like the highest priority! However, I really wanted to find it before concluding my preaching lectures at Spurgeon’s College on their ‘Equipped to Minister’ course.

The book in question is  beautifully bound copy on ‘The Imitation of Christ’ by Thomas a Kempis. As you can see, the woodcuts today are as fresh as they were on the day they were printed.

CLICK for full-size

CLICK for full-size

However, it is not the content of the book, nor even the wonderful illustrations, which are my reason for taking it to my lectures on Saturday. I shall be passing the book around the class and encouraging each student to hold this old book in their hands. As they do so, they will realise that the hard leather of the cover has actually been shaped by the hands of old which have held it. Preachers get shaped – by their successes, by their failures, by their moments of heaven-splitting triumph and their moment of face-palming embarrassment. What is more – that is the way it should be. The preacher’s journey is one of discovery – both discovering ourselves and discovering the bottomless well of God’s strength made perfect in weakness.

CLICK to see how the cover is worn

CLICK to see how the cover is worn

A harvest of stars

The growth of an idea

Today marks the beginning of a new chapter in my life as a minister. This morning I shall sit down at a new desk in a new church, responsible for the care of a new group of God’s people…and with only a slender idea of what happens next! One of the pictures which has travelled with me is a gorgeous original illustration by Croatian artist Dubravka Koalanovic. When I asked her for it, I told her that it would hang on my wall as a reminder that a little idea can grow and grow if it is God’s little idea.

Some readers of this blog will be familiar with that little idea. In November of 2011, I wrote a children’s story The Littlest Star. With the help of some generous and creative people the book was locally published and placed on sale 29 days after writing. Sales went far and wide, and the book made over £1000 for children’s hospice, Shooting Star Chase.

Littlest Star is now set to fly all over again. Illustrated by Dubravka and published by Lion Children’s, it will be on sale throughout the United Kingdom in time for Christmas this year.

When I came back from holiday two days ago, a letter from Lion was waiting in amongst the post. Knowing what it was, I could not quite bear to open it until all the other jobs were done and all the boring letters opened:

Could this really be it, the moment when my little story came to life?

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Sure enough, there in the envelope, together with a scattering of silver stars, was The Littlest Star -more beautiful and spectacular than I had dared to imagine:

CLICK for full size

CLICK for full size

Today, as I hold it in my hand, I am more reassured than ever that a little idea can go a long way if God is behind it.

On such a morning as this, I am counting on it – and hoping that God has many good ideas up His sleeve for Newbury Baptist Church! After all, as the angel says to the Littlest Star

angel

Spring Harvest in Wales

… not that one

Just before my new ministry at Newbury Baptist Church begins, I have been spending a few days in the Black Mountains, outside Abergavenny. It is place of majestic views and moody magnificence.

 CLICK for full size

CLICK for full size

Everywhere the evidence of a rich spiritual heritage is to be seen too – often with big churches sitting opposite each other across a main road. In Blaenavon I visited St Peter’s church – lovingly tended by its congregation and with a church member on site to greet visitors like me. He pointed out evidence of the town’s iron-making past, such as the plaque below illustrating Jesus’ well-side encounter:

CLICK for full size

CLICK for full size

Yesterday, I never made it as far as church. I stopped, instead, at a bend in the road where a little spring tumbles down the mountainside. A simple Christian soul, Issui, had stopped here some 1500 years ago. He established a hermit’s cell on the mountainside, and would welcome travellers to share the shelter and the fresh water with him as they passed by. One of them took exception to Issui’s attempts to share not only his lodging but the Gospel with him – and murdered his host. Issui was remembered as a saint, a church was built further up the mountain in his name, and a well at the bend in the spring where he once lived.

Today, the well is still believed to have healing properties, and many visit it. All around the simple well-head there are offerings of the kind you may not see in church: brightly coloured scraps of material, a cuddly heart, coins pressed into the trees and the badge below:

CLICK for full size

CLICK for full size

Interestingly, ‘fod’ means simply ‘that’ in Welsh, which is more than a little enigmatic. Why do people feel more comfortable expressing spirituality in physical ways here, in this wooded glen, than they might in church? What draws people to these ancient sites of worship when they fight shy of contemporary church? Few of the offerings here were faded, and the steps down to the well bore many muddy footprints made before mine early on a Bank Holiday Monday. This is a place of contemporary, and not just ancient, spirituality. What lessons are there to be learnt, I wonder?

Not to be sniffed at

A review of Autumn , by Melissa Harrison

Like the editor of his book, I have always loved Autumn. Justin Hayward’s mournful song was often on my teenage playlist, and the love affair with the season has not ended. I love the changing colours, the sense of the earth ‘settling down’ for Winter and the softness of mist hugging the world. There are writers in this book far better able to describe all that than I – such as Louise Baker with her description of Autumn as:

Autumn is bold bursts of colour that leap from every corner of the landscape; it is golden yellow, fiery red, bright orange and rich chocolate brown.

See what I mean?

Maybe that kind of writing is inevitable in such a collection, though. What I appreciate about the editing of this book is the inclusion of more surprising entries. There is the writer who describes the world of small invertebrates partying beneath a rotting log – and another who recounts a sorrowful encounter with the predator who was stealing her chickens. We meet a lonely writer who finds friendship through volunteering at a nature reserve, and join in with an apple harvest in all its autumnal glory. I read the last chapters of this book in a tiny Welsh cottage with rain battering the window and I could not have been cosier.

In years to come, I have a feeling that Melissa Harrison will be responsible for the introduction of a whole new cohort of gifted writers to the English language. In collections such as this we shall encounter them first – and then go looking for them in the wide world, like a squirrel seeking out the shiniest acorn for his hoard.

Talking of squirrels, I had some help with reviewing this book, as you can see below. The book is available from Elliott and Thompson and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

CLICK for full size

CLICK for full size

Of hearts and oceans

A review of Open Hearts by Kate Bull

Why would you read a book about surgery for congenital heart defects in children? The short answer to that question is ‘because Elliott and Thompson invited me to.’ Over the years the books they have passed my way have often challenged, occasionally amused and always enriched me. This book is no exception.

As an expert in the field of paediatric cardiology at a flagship hospital, Kate Bull is in the perfect position to talk down to her readers.  From the godlike position to which many patients and families exalt their doctors she could patronise, confuse or lecture. She does nothing of the sort. This meticulously researched and beautifully written book is suffused with an honesty which makes it hard to ignore and a warmth which makes it hard to put down, even when blinking back the tears. Consider this phrase, for example:

Fearing this book would be a triumphalist account of the history of the treatment, one mother challenged me to include some not-so-good-news stories.

She does just that, and touches on subjects as raw as the bullying experienced by children with ‘weak’ hearts, and as awkward as the transition teenagers experience from consultations with their parents in attendance to meeting their consultant alone as young adults. There is  a real admiration here for the patients whom the author describes. She talks about her awe at the way children ‘just deal with whatever turns up’. Despite her own enormous expertise, she also describes patient support groups as the ‘best medical invention’ of the era.

The book is not an easy read, either emotionally or intellectually. It will tug at the heart strings with accounts of real human suffering. Detailed descriptions of heart procedures will demand a careful reading, although helpful schematics provided at the back of the book make them a little easier. Overall, it is a book about the fruitfulness of surgical intervention in the lives of those whose hearts have let them down.

I should perhaps explain my title: of hearts and oceans. What I loved more than anything else about this book was the sense of wonder it retains. Neither the book’s historical and anecdotal research, nor the author’s own years of practice, have robbed her of a sense of wonder at what can be done. She still talks about ‘the audacity of open heart surgery’. I love that, and I am reminded of a line from a Lee Ann Womack song in 2000 ‘I hope you dance’:

I hope you still feel small when you stand beside the ocean

Kate Bull does – and I suspect she is both a better author and doctor because of it.

heart

 

On all fors

A recurring theme

Those of you who call into this blog regularly will recognise the image below. When I closed my office door in Teddington Baptist Church for the last time, I left it on the noticeboard above the desk. The phrase was one made famous by Mother Teresa of Calcutta. In the nursery of her home for the sick and dying in Calcutta, often the noise rising from the rows of cots would reach such levels that speech was impossible. Signalling to each other across the room the nuns would hold up five fingers, four fingers, and then point skywards: all…for…Him. It was a simple but profound reminder to each other as to what motivated them.

My new office in my new setting is just about completed now. Along with all the books and folders and other things, I have written a message on my squeaky clean new whiteboard. You can see it below. Ministry, in whichever church and out of whichever office, has to be all for Him.

Minister's Office, Teddington Baptist Church

Minister’s Office, Teddington Baptist Church

Minister's Office, Newbury Baptist Church

Minister’s Office, Newbury Baptist Church