A thin book from a wild coast

A review of ‘Sealskin’ by Su Bristow

When I am coaching students on preaching, I occasionally promote some of the books I recommend on the basis that they are ‘thin’. This usually raises a smile, not least since the students are all holding down other jobs in addition to training to preach. For most of them, any time for study is strictly limited.  ‘Thin is good’, I say, with a knowing smile…

It is in a different fashion entirely that I describe Su Bristow’s book as ‘thin’. Celtic theologians like to talk about ‘thin’ places – where the veil between heaven and earth is so thin that the one can be felt through the other. In such a place, the wind of heaven can blow through fingers outstretched on earth, as if standing by an open window covered only in the thinnest gauze.

Su Bristow’s book, set on the wild Scottish Coast, is a ‘thin’ narrative. In it, the veil between legend and reality, magic and medicine, past and present is so thin as to defy description. Like taking a walk on an exposed clifftop above a stormy sea, this book is sure to ruffle your feathers more than a little. Like that same walk – it will leave you with a clear head and an appetite for more. In its pages you will find mystery, cruelty, kindness and community jostling for space in your imagination.

It is rare indeed that turning the last page of a book makes me want to turn the first all over again – but it happened here.

Karen Sullivan, whose publishing house Orenda, has brought this book to market, has an unparalleled talent for seeking out literary treasure and giving it the exposure it deserves. Like any other treasure-hunter, this is doubtless a combination of a good nose to find it, a brave heart to commit to it, and a back bent to the task of excavating it. Long may the excavations continue!

Sealskin

More sermon than advert

A lesson from the Himalayas

A little later this morning I shall preach on one of the more troublesome passages of Matthew’s Gospel. It includes a paranoid monarch, the wanton death of small children, and a family running for their lives. In it, a man whose character is barely two-dimensional risks all to protect a child who is not his own, and thereby preserves the plans of God. This is Joseph’s finest hour.

I have been reflecting on it as I watch the Samsung advert below, currently taking India by storm. It is probably Amit the repair man’s finest hour.

Watch it and see what you think…

Made with love

A corker of a nativity

Three weeks ago, I sat on the steps at the front of Newbury Baptist Church surrounded by children, telling them a traditional Christmas tale from Mexico. In it, a poor girl is wracked with anguish because she cannot afford a gift to take and lay at the manger in church on the night of Christmas Eve. A kindly Uncle reassures her that any gift, if given with love, will be made spectacular in the giving. In desperation, she stops on the way to church to pluck a posy of weeds growing at the kerb. As she hands them over at the manger, they turn into the glorious red and green of the poinsettia – transformed with love. I had no idea at the time that the tale would be re-enacted in my own experience.

In the intervening three weeks, life has been very challenging. Also, during those three weeks I have talked in church and elsewhere about my collection of nativity sets from around the world. Yesterday, I acquired another one. It turns out that three of those children who had been sitting on the steps had spent all day on December 22nd making it for me.

As you can see, the whole thing is constructed from discarded corks, even the star hanging overhead:

CLICK for full size

CLICK for full size

There are cork shepherds, cork sheep and a Fresian cow

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CLICK for full size

A cork Mary and Joseph look proudly on:

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CLICK for full size

A cork angel stands as sentinel:

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CLICK for full size

And, of course there is a (half) cork baby Jesus:

CLICK for full size

CLICK for full size

This is, without a doubt, the most precious nativity set I own – made with love.

Who’s looking?

A switch in perspective

Around this time of year somebody like me is bound to be asked something like this: ‘don’t you disapprove of all the stuff and nonsense surrounding Christmas’?  In fact, I was asked something very similar on a live radio show a couple of weeks ago. My answer would generally be that I do not disapprove. After all, if God could be found ‘in amongst the mess’ on the first Christmas, why should the same not be true now? A God who can be found in a feeding trough of a borrowed shed on the back of a pub could surely be found in amongst the tinsel too?

The thing is, though, Christmas is surely more about God finding us than the other way around? It is all about Him going to inordinate lengths and crossing an inconceivable gulf to find us. Christmas is about God speaking our language that he might be understood. It was in order to make exactly that point that I used the advert below during last night’s carol service. See what you think…

In memoriam

Peter Edward John Littledale

For those who prayed, and supported from afar – here is today’s funeral address, with my thanks.

_________________________________________

If you didn’t know it before , you would know it on looking at today’s order of service: dad was a photographer. ‘Photography’, he would have told you  is “drawing with light” – and he was very good at it. The walls of the home he and mum shared for so many years are adorned with his work – printed, glazed, framed.

When we lose someone we love it is as if the picture has fallen from the wall, and lies there shattered in a thousand shards at our feet. Pick them up and look, though – and you have the makings of a new picture – a mosaic of memories.

  • Here’s a 17-year old schoolgirl who fell in love with the sound of his voice, then found that she rather liked the rest of him too, and married him, going on to raise 2 sons together and
  • Here’s another one, with Dad on the road far from home looking for work and writing letters back to the one he loved because there was no telephone.
  • Here is a work colleague who talked of his utter reliability
  • Here is a nurse who called him a ‘gentleman’
  • Here is a doctor who called him a ‘lovely man’
  • Here is a former assistant who described him as “kind teacher and lovely man”.
  • Here is a hotelier who would host him when down in West Country on a ‘firing trip’ for work– who commented that if anyone ever fired her, she would like it to be Peter as he would do it so nicely!

I have some memories of impish good humour too. There was the time that I was touring Scotland with a student theatre group and a letter arrived from Dad. Out of it fell a small pile of Chinese bank-notes and a letter. In the letter he explained that I was probably broke, but that if he sent me more money I would just be broke all over again. The Chinese money was money I could not spend – and therefore I would not be broke!

Often our neighbour would dismantle his car on the drive over the weekend, and Dad often threatened to slip an extra nut or bolt through the fence during the process. When the car was put back together the ‘mystery’ piece would have caused no end of consternation. So far as I am aware, he never actually did it.

There was a very generous side to Dad too.  Years ago, we were queuing at the supermarket behind an elderly gentleman who was paying in cash. He seemed a little short, and his levels of anxiety and embarrassment were rising. As he turned away to pat his pockets down one more time, Dad winked at the cashier and took the right amount of money from his own pocket to add to the pile on the conveyor belt.

His lasting legacy may be more to do with time. I have with me a visual aid- an old timer which has sat in Dad’s darkroom in the loft for many years. With it, he could time to the second how long a photograph was exposed in the enlarger, or how long a print sat in the developer. One second either side could make all the difference between an image which was arresting, and one which was dull and disappointing. Its all about time.

Most of dad’s hobbies over the years needed time. Gardening, painting (both watercolour and acrylic), photography and walking were all things which could not be hurried.

Two days after dad died, the  cover for my next book arrived, and I so wish he could have read this paragraph about him:

In his youth my father was a very keen walker, travelling great distances between youth hostels with his canvas knapsack on his back. Years later, when my brother and I came along, he was still keen to walk. With our much shorter legs we often found it hard to keep up. What was a pleasant stroll to him often felt like more of a route march to us, and I frequently struggled at the back. Realizing this, he took me on one side and explained that the secret to enjoying a long walk was not to concentrate on the distance, but on the contents. In other words, it was better to savour the sights and sounds as you passed through, rather than spending the whole journey thinking about its end. In this way, the miles passed more quickly and the journey was a whole lot more pleasant

Today, the 300-strong London Hospice choir will release a cover  of ‘The Living years” Do have a listen, but not without a box of tissues by your side. The chorus says :: “I wish I could have told him, in the living years”. Don’t wish – do.    Use time wisely , love deeply, don’t leave good things unsaid. And enjoy the journey, as he did – step, by step, by step. There truly is a time for everything.

Loss is a physical ache – and like generations before us , we must look beyond ourselves to soothe it:

As for man, his days are like grass;
As a flower of the field, so he flourishes.
For the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
And its place remembers it no more.
But the mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting
On those who fear Him

(Psalm 103 v.15 – 17)

Dad will be missed, without a doubt.. However, as we put the mosaic back together in minds and hearts, each one different for each person – let us be grateful for the true goodness which was there.

Photo by Mark Littledale

Photo by Mark Littledale

A flare-path for advent

Continuing the Delp theme

Those of you who visited this blog on the first Sunday of Advent will have encountered one of my theological heroes – Alfred Delp. This courageous young Jesuit captured the theological essence of advent from his prison cell with a brilliance like no other. At the time, I mentioned the idea of creating an advent calendar which might incorporate these tiny explosions of theological clarity. When advent has particular challenges, be they of stamina or hope, these insights might be like a flare path to guide the weary traveller home to Christmas.

I have now bought an advent calendar with 24 pockets. I have cut 24 pieces of card to fit those pockets. I have selected 24 phrases from Delp’s book, Advent of the heart. This is where you come in. I believe that the calendar would be far more powerful as a ‘tapestry of hope’ if each phrase were written in a different hand. Could you pick a phrase, write it out (by hand) , and add a photo via the comments box below or tweet the picture via @richardlittleda ?  Between us we could create something rather special, I think.

I will then post pictures of each one on the relevant day through advent next year. Care to help me light a flare path. Pick a phrase from the 24 below, and then send your photo in using the ‘upload image’ button below the comments box.

Thank you – and may your advent be filled with hope.

______

1.     In Advent an expectation becomes tangible, breaking through all encrustation, calling inflexibility into question

2.     Man is a creature of Advent. He is under way.

3.     The golden threads running between Heaven and earth during this season reach us;

4.     The threads that give the world a hint of the abundance to which it is called, the abundance of which it is capable.

5.     I understand very differently than before those ancient promises of the coming Lord who will redeem us and set us free.

6.     To wait in faith, for the fruitfulness of the silent earth and for the abundance of the coming harvest,

7.     Advent centres on fundamental principles and fundamental attitudes of our lives, of life in general, and of existence in general.

8.     He is dependent upon an angel approaching and touching him with the wing-stroke reminder of a higher message.

9.     Set up lights of recognition in our lives, and, from the center, master life’s gloominess.

10.    Light the candles wherever you can, you who have them.

11.    The prayers and messages of Advent push man out beyond every surface

12.      Advent means remembering the freedom of God and then abandoning ourselves to the divine unpredictability.

13.      So Advent means a heart that is awake and ready,

14.       Advent is one of the primeval tides of the human soul

15.      If man sets out upon this Advent road, he will be granted the great encounter.

16.      The promises of God stand above us, more valid than the stars and more effective than the sun.

17.       Once we accept the night, light will come.

18.       In the darkest cellars and the loneliest prisons of life, we will meet Him.

19.       Let us hike and journey onward, neither avoiding nor shunning the streets and terror of life.

20.      Something new has been born in us, and we do not want to tire of believing the star

21.      How would our own lives, and life in general, be different if we remembered that life’s greatest hour was when God became man, a child?

22.    God becomes man. Man does not become God.

23.     Let us trust life because this night must lead to light.

24.     You must let people notice that you know about the end and have grasped that one of the essential features of life is called advent.

#Journey crests the last hill

The boy who couldn’t keep up

Fifty or so years ago, a little boy used to ride often along the lanes in a seat on the back of his father’s bicycle. Legs grew longer, the boy learned to ride a bike – and then came the problem of being the one at the back trying to keep up. The same thing happened initially with long walks in the countryside – younger legs meant that longer walks were a challenge.  I know, because the boy was me.  My father had a solution to the problem, and it found its way into the opening chapter of Journey: the way of the disciple:

In his youth my father was a very keen walker, travelling great distances between youth hostels with his canvas knapsack on his back. Years later, when my brother and I came along, he was still keen to walk. With our much shorter legs we often found it hard to keep up. What was a pleasant stroll to him often felt like more of a route march to us, and I frequently struggled at the back. Realizing this, he took me on one side and explained that the secret to enjoying a long walk was not to concentrate on the distance, but on the contents. In other words, it was better to savour the sights and sounds as you passed through, rather than spending the whole journey thinking about its end. In this way, the miles passed more quickly and the journey was a whole lot more pleasant. It is in such a spirit that I write the following chapters.

____

My father died on Sunday. His long legs will never step out on a country walk again, camera clasped in hand. Two days after his death, I received the final cover design for the book, which you can see below.  I love Glen Morris’ bold figure – leaning into the wind and striding off the page towards the reader. I like to think that Dad, legs itching for another walk and a photographer’s eye for composition, would have loved it too.

CLICK for full size

CLICK for full size

Lighting the fuse of advent

Light in darkness

For many years, I have collected nativity sets. I have them from many cultures, in many styles and of many eras. Some are minimalist, like Oliver Fabel’s offering. Some are visually stunning:

Zulu nativity

Zulu nativity

Others are quite simply bizarre, such as this one featuring three wise bishops and a triangular chicken:

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

This year, I am almost tempted to switch my attentions to advent calendars. If you had the budget to stretch to it, you can find them with everything from pictures and sweets to beauty products and bespoke gins hidden behind those 24 little doors. A positive view would be to say that it is all about anticipation, though a cynical one might say it was all about marketing.

I am seriously tempted to take the sayings of my favourite advent theologian, Alfred Delp, and hide them behind 24 doors. Take a look below, and see what you think. These words were written by a young priest in Nazi Germany, imprisoned for knowing too much. He wrote them with his hands in irons, and had them smuggled out of the prison in his washing. This kind of defiant hope is what advent should be all about, surely? I have placed five quotes below, but I am sure I could find 24…

 

  1. To wait in faith for the fruitfulness of the silent earth and for the abundance of the coming harvest, means to understand the world- even this world- in Advent.
  2. Advent is one of the primeval tides of the human soul, in which we become conscious of reaching out to grasp eternal things.
  3. The promises of God stand above us, more valid than the stars and more effective than the sun.
  4. Light the candles wherever you can, you who have them. They are a real symbol of what must happen in Advent, what Advent must be, if we are to live.
  5. This is the deeper sense of Advent: that we scrutinize this centre, little by little, and set up lights of recognition in our lives, and, from the centre, master life’s gloominess. 

 

Better than an autograph

A precious manuscript

When I launched Littlest Star ‘officially’ on November 4th, I put together a little ‘roadshow kit’. It included a jar of stars, a star-shaped dish, an apple, a knife with which to cut it and a number of printed documents.

Into the kit went the first A4 typed version of the story, the first A6 homespun version (complete with clip-art), the 2011 version brought together by a wave of creative generosity…and of course the finished book. There was, however, one document missing. I rarely write directly onto computer – so somewhere there must have been a scrappy bit of paper where I scribbled the story down. It is gone now.

Imagine my delight, then, when I encountered the document below. Look carefully and you will see that a child who has enjoyed the story has begun to write it out. This precious document means more, I think, than any review. That the story is being enjoyed, and that it is encouraging someone so young to put pen to paper, is enough.

My roadshow kit is complete.

autograph

Beware of the goat

A Scandi-warning on stereotypes

Before you watch the video below, you need to bear one thing in mind – it was made by Norwegians. In fact, it was made by The Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ International Assistance Fund. They know how to laugh at themselves.

This is what French playwrights of old would have called ‘rire dans l’ame’ (laughter in the soul) though. As we laugh, we are aware that we may actually be guilty of the very things which seem ridiculous in others.

This little film definitely deserves a place amongst the Christmas videos of 2016, don’t you think?