… to sounds like these

If I have understood it correctly, the story of yesterday’s scientific discovery runs something like this:

One billion years ago a very long way away, two black holes collided. The resulting shockwave travelled across the universe, getting weaker all the time. By the time it reached a research facility in Washington State, the resulting audio disturbance could be measured at less than the size of a sub-atomic particle. Nonetheless, the scientists at LIGO were listening, and have recorded the sound of that much-travelled wave.

Not surprisingly, they are thrilled at this scientific discovery. To be found listening at just the right moment with just the right equipment to an event which happened one billion years ago is, to say the least, fortuitous. With a typical marriage of science and poetry, Gabriela Gonzalez, from LIGO, announced that ‘we have heard the universe.’ It truly is a remarkable sound, in every way.

I have to confess, though, that for me it is not the most remarkable sound in the universe. That particular honour goes to the fragile sound of a human baby’s cry – the noise of the very species which made the discovery announced yesterday. A baby’s cry is the herald of limitless possibilities and the sound of defiantly wonderful humanity. I was talking about it on the radio earlier today. As long as there are babies whose voice cannot be heard because pregnancies fail to go full term, there is something wrong with the universe. My heart, and my admiration, goes out to those scientists who are working to make it a less and less frequent occurrence.


Oh no it’s not

Having preached at the rate of at least 90 sermons per year for over 25 years, the last thing I would want to do is diminish the value of the Gospel. It has power to challenge and transform, and often acts as the lightning conductor to channel heaven’s power to earth.  However, there are times when it would serve us well to interact with the Gospel in same way that a pantomime audience interacts with the key players on stage.

Consider Matthew’s account of the calling of the first disciples, for instance – on which I was preaching yesterday.  When Jesus promises that Simon and Andrew will be ‘fishers of men‘, a knowing panto audience might shout out ‘oh no they won’t’.  Andrew, Peter and their companions singularly failed to live up to this description during the lifetime of Jesus. They were hesitant, unsure, incapable sometimes of providing the healing for which people sought – and often as surprised by everyone else in the audience by the teachings of Christ! A preacher responding to that panto shout-out would go on to explain that the call of God can take a long time to bear fruit.  These men would be key players in the birth of the Christian church but not yet – not by a long chalk.  Like William Carey working away in India for seven years before seeing Krishna Pal, his first convert, come to faith – the call of God often comes with elastic sewn in.

I was once taught that the great value of using puppets in worship was that they can ask the questions everyone is thinking but no-one is voicing. Introducing puppets into an adult sermon is fraught with all kinds of difficulties. How can we encourage an intelligent and humble interrogation of the text, though?

Fishers of men?

Fishers of men?

Enough said

Words are what I do.

Sometimes I move them around on the page to make patterns where the discerning soul might see a picture.

Sometimes I stack them up into high towers where the brave mind might climb for a better view.

Sometimes I roll them up into a child’s toilet-roll-telescope to see what I can see.

Sometimes they are the windscreen wipers of the mind, swishing away each drop of muddle before the next one falls.

Often, there are too many of them.


I am struck by how economic the speech is of God. ‘Let there be’, was all it took to hang stars in the sky or fill the oceans with fish.  ‘Let them go’ was all it took to loosen the iron grip of a Pharaoh on a people. In the end one word, ‘come’ will be enough. Today, I shall preach on Matthew’s story of Jesus calling his disciples. To change their world it took just three words: ‘come, follow me’.

Enough said.

One big change

A little over 100 years ago, a courageous  woman by the name of Rosa Parks was born. By the simple gesture of sitting on a ‘whites only’ seat on a bus in Alabama, she sparked a revolution in the USA. Sometimes one small thing can start a big change.

Last week at the Nuremberg Toy Fair, Lego made a small gesture themselves. They produced their first ever minifig of a disabled person.  After heeding previous customer concerns about gender bias – it would seem they have listened to other customer feedback too.  Wouldn’t it be great if the little chap below was the harbinger of all sorts of other toys which reflect diverse abilities?

If you think so, why not let  Lego know?

Big Dreams

Last Saturday I had a chat with Anna Cookson on her show, the Big Breakfast, all about The Note. Premier Radio have kindly supplied a copy of the interview…and you can hear it by clicking on Anna’s smiling face below.

‘The next children’s classic’? Who knows…

CLICK to hear the interview

CLICK to hear the interview

Sad but…

A question of perspective

I am very sad about the death of Terry Wogan. He was a brilliant broadcaster who understood the intimacy of radio as a medium better than anyone in my lifetime.  As is often the case – it takes a cartoonist to capture a moment of sadness without the clutter of words – as in the image on the left below.

However, the image on the right has eclipsed it. A pastor stands in ‘the jungle’ in Calais clinging to the cross which once stood at the heart of the makeshift church which served his congregation.  Apparently he clung to it whilst the police dismantled his church around him. I have no words…

CLICK for full size

CLICK for full size

A narrative sermon on a storm stilled

Whenever I teach about narrative preaching, I cite the episode in C. S Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawntreader where the children find themselves ‘drawn into’ a picture on the wall:

I’ll smash the rotten thing” cried Eustace, and then several things happened at the same time. Eustace rushed to towards the picture. Edmund, who knew something about magic, sprang after him, warning him to look out and not to be a fool. Lucy grabbed at him from the other side and was dragged forward. And by this time either they had grown smaller or the picture had grown bigger. Eustace jumped to try to pull it off the wall and found himself standing on the frame, in front of him was not glass  but real sea, and wind & waves rushing up to the frame as they might to a rock. He lost his head & clutched at the other two who had jumped up beside him. There was a second of struggling & shouting , and just as they thought they had got their balance a great blue roller swept them off their feet & drew them down into the sea.

 CLICK for full size

CLICK for full size

In essence, the nature of narrative preaching is just that – to plunge into the story and experience its power.

Yesterday, after a long break, I  employed the narrative technique once again on Matthew’s account of the calming of the storm


After the harsh words on the beach, the boat was like a refuge. None would catch the other’s eye as the words of Jesus bounced back and forth and back again in their heads

Click-clack, rattle rattle rattle

Nowhere to rest
No safe haven
Let the dead bury their own dead

What an earth had they signed up to? Who was this man?

To be honest, it was a relief to see him sleeping now. At least asleep he could not squidge their certainties and snap the elastic of their minds as he had been doing.This was their place now: their waters; their element. Rocked in it like a babe in a mother’s arms everything seemed a little better now. The creak of the boat and the slap of the waves was as familiar as the ticking of an old clock on a grandmother’s mantelpiece.

Tick – tock


Creak- creak

Tick tock tock tock tock tock

Suddenly, the clock was running wildly out of time – hands whizzing round like a mad thing. Gentle breeze whipped up into screaming banshee in seconds. Comforting waves were now like the back of some beast disturbed beneath the boat and rearing up to wreak its revenge. An old terror of the sea – passed on with the blood from their fathers’ fathers ran cold in their veins now. Even in sight of the land, their graves could be here in this evil, broiling water. And what was he doing? How was he helping? Asleep in the stern as if nothing had happened he was no more than cargo on this tiny boat. “Wake up” they chorused “We’ll drown if not”

An open eye, another too, and then a word which sounded like ‘coward’ …and he was fully awake. Standing in the prow of the bucking, rearing boat he looked at the waves, swept his arm across the troubled sky and told it all to stop- which it did. Instantly. Who is this man? , they mouthed at one another, as the boat resumed its course to the other shore.
On the far side, two men knew just who he was. Their skin was filthy and covered in scars. Their hair had not seen any water but the rain these many years. The place of the dead was home to these semi-living things. Their mouths had long since given in to the devils within. As if on auto pilot someone, something inside roared ‘what do you want with us SON OF GOD’.

We all know what he wanted. It was the same thing he always wanted -to set free,  to poke Satan in the eye,  to live up to the ancient description of him as one who would

‘open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness’

This is our Jesus, and we know all about it. We would have drowned out the squealing of the pigs with our clapping and cheering if we had been there. Or would we? Would we have curled up in the hull of the boat with a disciple who maybe wished it would all go away? Would we have joined the crowd asking Jesus to please move on and do his disturbing breed of magic elsewhere?Would we have gazed wistfully at the now-calm sea and wished that things could have been the way they were before the before?



Swimmers in Lake Garda -click for full size

…measure the depth

As a preacher and occasional trainer of preachers, it has not escaped my notice that many of them love the sound of their own voices. Some of them seem to work on the premise that if they speak for long enough, the mundane will become profound, the dull will sparkle and the pedestrian will quicken its pace to a brisk trot. In this they are mistaken, I believe.  Oddly, though, congregations often collude in the myth – measuring the value of what is said by length rather than depth. If fewer words, no matter how well-chosen, have been said – they feel short changed that there were not more of them. Presumably, such people would endorse the sentiment of the hoarding I spotted at a a station yesterday:


CLICK for full size

Former BBC correspondent Martin Bell would probably agree. One of the things which propelled him out of journalism and into politics was his frustration with the restrictions of condensing a traumatic story into a tiny segment of television news.  Seeing his own face on a working television in a bombed out pub talking about the reasons such bombings occur made him consider a career change. Some things should not be condensed.

There is a difference, though, between condensed and edited. Properly done, a condensed piece of writing or speech has a ‘flavour’ more intense than its more wordy cousins. Consider, for example, BBC Radio 4’s From Our Own Correspondent – with an elegance of format which captures the atmosphere behind a current news story in a matter of moments.

Tomorrow I shall be in a BBC contributor studio recording six two-minute pieces for BBC Radio 4’s Prayer for the Day. They must be 120 seconds long, with precious little leeway either way. In that time they must evoke enough curiosity to be interesting and touch enough of a spiritual nerve to help at least some listeners engage and pray. It is a tall order, and I am indebted to the critical ear and diplomatic skill of the producers with whom I have worked over the years. For some of the thousands of listeners, those two minutes will set the tone of their day – for good or ill!

Years ago, when I was approaching my first set of BBC Radio 2 Pause for Thought recordings, a friend told me that ‘every preacher should be produced’. I now have some idea what he meant. As those who can often speak for as long as they like – the discipline of having someone else tell them that enough is enough is no bad thing!

It does ‘take time to tell the full story’, but sometimes the storyteller’s art is to tell just a part of it, and to set a hare running whose name is ‘curiosity’.  Do you agree?


The pitfalls of language

Earlier today I noticed a controversy breaking around the story of asylum seekers in Cardiff being issued with coloured wristbands to show their entitlement to food at a nearby centre.  Twitter instantly went into outrage mode, as it does so readily…and before too long pictures of yellow stars were being tweeted by way of comparison. The latter seems especially insensitive, in the same week as Holocaust Memorial Day. The infamous yellow stars issued in Nazi Germany had nothing whatsoever to do with entitlement or food parcels.

It is now over a quarter of a century since Dwight Bolinger wrote his fascinating book ‘language: the loaded weapon’.  In it, he examines how easily we are swayed by the emotive use of language.  He cites an experiment where 150 viewers were shown the same footage of a road accident. Those who were asked how fast the cars were going when they ‘hit’ answered with a slower average speed than those who were asked how fast they were going when they ‘smashed’.  Language skews our perception.

Now consider the headline below:

The rights or wrongs of the scheme (now abandoned) are not the issue here. Re-read the quote above, supplanting the words ‘forced to’ with’ ‘given’ , ‘issued’ or even ‘required to’ and see how differently it reads. With tensions running high, the need to carefully choose our words has never been greater.

From a hospital bed

Towards the end of The Note, it says that ‘people still long for its silvery sound. Sometimes they hear it in a church or by a hospital bed’. Yesterday I think I may have heard it at a hospital bed. Le me explain…

Let us suppose that I received the following letter:

Dear Richard

You would not believe the things which have happened in the six months since I last wrote to you. I have learnt so many things and I want to pass them onto you.

Who would ever stop reading a letter at such a point? And yet, we tend to read the New Testament letters in bite-size portions which rob them of their flow.

Yesterday I spent some time at the hospital bed of a church member. Her stay in hospital is proving to be a long one, and boredom is a real enemy. She cannot hold a book or turn the pages for herself, and so people have been taking it in turns to read a novel to her chapter by chapter. To make a change, I decided to read something else to her – Paul’s letter to the Philippians, often named ‘the epistle of joy’. I picked a modern translation, and read the whole thing as one, leaning on the rail at the edge of the bed.

To hear the letter as one, and in such a context, utterly transformed it. Reader and listener were both drawn in and the time flew by until it reached its closing flourish. ‘Rejoice, again I say to you rejoice’ will never sound the same again.  There were numerous factors which made it memorable. Reading aloud always has a qualitative difference to reading in your head – which is why I always time radio scripts that way before submitting them. One person reading to another is different too – where the text becomes an intimate bridge between two human beings. Maybe even the context had an effect – against the harsh white of a bare hospital room the true warmth of Paul’s words came out all the more clearly.

If the opportunity arises, I would urge you to make today a read-letter day too. Find someone to whom you can read a New Testament letter and see how different it sounds.

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