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

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.



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

The shock of the new

The last time I posted on here it was on the eve of my final sermon in a church where I had served as Minister for 19 years. The service itself was a great joy and a spiritual milestone. To pronounce a final blessing as pastor, looking out at the faces of those whose weddings I had conducted, whose children I had dedicated and whose loved ones I had buried was an inestimable privilege.

Now I find myself somewhere new. I have a set of keys to an unfamiliar office in an unfamiliar building and I am starting to pray through a list of unfamiliar names. In short, life has moved on. The #journey, though, remains unchanged. Every Christian ‘signs up’ to follow the onward call of Christ from the moment they agree to follow him. It is an open-ended commitment, with neither map nor itinerary.

 In a couple of conversations with members of my new church this week, I have talked about the importance of call. To know that you are in the right place allows you to meet the challenges of failure and the joys of success with an underlying sense that all will be well. I have no doubt that I shall make mistakes within my first few months in this new chapter. Equally, though, I know that none of them can rob me of the sense that this is where the path is meant to lie just now.

Talking of the path, it seems to lie beside the most pleasant of still waters …

The Kennet and Avon Canal at Kintbury

The Kennet and Avon Canal at Kintbury


A sermon to summarise

When I am training first time preachers, one of the issues with which we have to contend is eagerness. In itself, of course  – it is an asset. The church of Jesus Christ needs preachers who are keen to preach. The problem arises when a new preacher wants to put everything they have ever thought about preaching into one sermon. In the end, that poor sermon ends up like a little boat inundated by the waves of their own enthusiasm – and takes preacher and crew to the bottom together.

I am not a new preacher, but I find myself facing a similar problem. After arriving in Teddington Baptist Church in July of 1997, I am now preparing to preach my last ever sermon as the church’s pastor. This morning the people who sit before me will be those whom I have married, whose children I have dedicated, whose loved ones I have buried. Together we have met challenges, and sometimes triumphed over them. We have found ourselves engaged in that glorious act of smelting whereby the resolve of God’s people is turned into the steel of the Kingdom. Once in a while we have caught each other’s faces illuminated in the fiery glow of the furnace -occasionally streaked with tears and often bearing the sweat of our labours. We have been bound together…and today our ways part.

Like the first-time preacher, I find myself with far more to say than any one sermon can possibly bear. It is maybe a time to say less, not more. The legacy I leave behind is not in my hands, and will certainly not be changed by one sermon. Instead, I must do what every preacher does – hold tightly to the Word and wait patiently for the Spirit.

Just before I left my (nearly empty) office on Friday, I rearranged the drawing pins on the empty noticeboard into the message below. It was a phrase often used by Mother Teresa to encourage her fellow workers when the going was tough and the human cost was high. This sermon, like the hundreds which preceded it, must be all for Him.


CLICK for full size

Lessons from Thomas

Over the years that I have been a Christian, the disciple Thomas has been subject to an almost total re-imagination. Times without number, I have heard preachers rebuke us for calling him ‘doubting Thomas’. On at least one occasion I have said myself that it is no fairer to call him ‘doubting Thomas’ than it is to call Peter ‘denying Peter’. The fact remains, though, that until his remarkable declaration of faith in John 20, he is not saved.  In John 11 he shows admirable resolve, urging his fellow disciples to quell their fears and head for Jerusalem with Jesus that ‘we might die with him’. In John 14 he voices the kind of honesty for which the other disciple were doubtless grateful – but his honest question will not save him. In the end, neither passion nor curiosity will suffice – only the desire to believe.

Consider it as the story of two logos, below. Apple’s initial logo design was of Isaac Newton – sitting below the apple tree engaged in the pursuit of knowledge. This was a picture of curiosity. The current logo, instantly recognisable around the world, is a picture of desire, like the bitten apple in Eden of old:

There comes a point for every Thomas when enthusiasm and honesty must yield to a wholehearted and unfettered declaration of faith. This is the point where curiosity gives way to desire.


Written on the heart

Years ago, I heard a sermon on building the church entitled ‘building with bananas’.  The preacher’s contention was that building the church was like building with bananas – trying to fit their awkward shapes together into a structure that will last.  In fact, it is far more challenging than that. The church is built with people – every single one of them as capable of love , depth, wonder. folly, generosity and selfishness as I am. People are the gloriously flawed raw materials from which God constructs his church, and it is an honour to work with them.

Five years ago, on the day that the Littlest Star was launched, we started a ‘Teatime Special’ event in the church where I work. Each event consists of crafts, songs, a lovely tea together, and an original story. Writing and reading those stories has been a labour of love for me – and I am pleased to see some of them on their way to a wider audience.


During yesterday’s teatime special, my last at Teddington Baptist, the bunting below was created by all the families in attendance as a parting gift:

Take a look at some of the letters, and you will see that these too have been a labour of love.  I cannot imagine a gift which would have touched my heart more. The quirky colours, the signatures of up to three generations on one pennant, the spidery handwriting of those still mastering the art of letter formation – this is a treasure:


I am humbled and touched by this work of art – and hope that it brings some colour into your day too.


Citizens of another kingdom

As pastor I need to preach to and care for remainers and leavers; the delighted and the disappointed. After much soul-searching, I made the decision to read the statement below as we began our worship today.
 Dear friends

As Christians we serve a Kingdom without borders whose King reigns over it without prejudice. It is a Kingdom of love, peace and hope.

This week has been an unforgettable one in the life of our ‘United’ Kingdom:

• We have seen a vote divide the country almost exactly in half
• We have heard a political figure say that “no bullets were fired” seven days after an MP was shot in the street
• We have seen a British Prime Minister walk away from the podium in Downing Street with tears in his eyes
• We have seen cards in Polish and English distributed outside primary schools in Cambridgeshire saying ‘no more Polish vermin’.

This is a time for us to remember our loyalty to that other Kingdom. Now, more than ever, we are to be ambassadors for hope, emissaries of peace and champions of God’s love. In all our inevitable conversations, both online and off, let us make the King proud of the way we speak and act. One day, when borders and referenda are a thing of the past – we shall be glad that we did.



Cafec des arts, Beaumont


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.


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?


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