The cult of self

I have just returned from the captivatingly beautiful city of Venice. Everywhere you look there are magnificent vistas and little corners of artful dilapidation. Even as a keen photographer it is very hard to do it justice, and I opted for lots of details instead. You can see some of them here if you are interested.

That said, you cannot really take photographs of Venice without encompassing the Basilica Santa Maria della Salute. This magnificent structure, with its vast cupola, dominates the city’s skyline:

CLICK for full size

CLICK for full size

In 1630 it was agreed that if the city were saved from the terrible plague ravaging its population, such a church would be built. The city fathers were true to their word, and the church was constructed. It was an enormous undertaking, preceded by the insertion of over one and a half million wooden stakes into the bed of the Lagoon to form a platform on which it could be built – a process which took two years. Now it soars into the skyline, and plays host to works by Titian, Tintoretto and others.

When I sailed past it on a water bus last week, I watched a young woman try one, two, three and then four times to pose herself just right with her phone and selfie-stick to ensure that the Basilica formed the perfect backdrop to her smiling face. I wonder what the church’s architect, Baldassare Longhena would have thought of that? Such a magnificent place of worship serving only as pictorial wallpaper for a self-portrait might have caused him some concern, I think.

Don’t we sometimes make our places and times of worship all about us, though? We might draw the line at taking selfies during a service (I think) but nonetheless it is easy to slip into a form of worship where God shows up to meet our needs and we expect a certain kind of ‘soul-bump’ from the worship on offer.

If we do so, then it may just be that we are looking the wrong way.


A porter at Ferrovia

… or a pig in a poke, as we used to call it

Earlier this morning I was offered a playing card-sized pack of blank cards in a special presentation box in a sponsored tweet. The idea of these cards is that they are used to write down creative ideas for a project or as part of a discussion. The cards can then be spread out, shuffled, reorganised and packed up for a second look at will. They come in a range of colours, apparently:

  • Sunshine Yellow,
  • Peacekeeper Blue
  • Apple Green
  • Conscious Orange

Sunshine, peacekeeper and apple I can see -but why is orange “conscious”? Prices for the cards range from about £10 for the playing-card size to over £30 for larger ones.

Now I am all for physical interaction when generating ideas. Whenever I train preachers I advocate the use of two pieces of paper and a pencil in their preparation. The two pieces of paper allow hermeneutical (what does it mean) and homiletical (how shall I say it) notes to be kept apart from each other. The pencil is to encourage messy and vigorous thought, connecting and reconnecting ideas until a clear picture emerges. I wholeheartedly endorse the move away from the screen and onto bits of paper or card in order to free up thinking from that little illuminated rectangle at which I am staring just now. I am sure many who buy these cards will find that they encourage their minds to come out and play in the wide open spaces of free thought.

Do we really need bespoke items to achieve that aim though?

Whatever happened to the back-of-an-envelope?


A word from the roadside

As some will have read last week, I am about to embark on the biggest physical challenge I have ever undertaken: cycling 100 miles around the Ride London circuit. Training has been slightly interrupted, but it has been good to be out in the bike again today. On today’s relatively short training circuit I stopped to explain my reasons for doing the ride. Care to have a listen?

Lots more rides like that one to come before the big day. Why not click here to make it all count for people who need it most?



A review of Word Drops by Paul Anthony Jones

If words were calories, this book would have you breaking the scales. To support my outrageous claim I refer you to urban legends which assert that certain brands of savoury snacks have ‘something in them’ which makes the brain crave more and more until the whole packet is gone. Whatever that something is, Paul Anthony Jones has imbibed plenty of it before compiling this endearing little book.

Let’s be honest, quirky word compendiums are as numerous as the dictionaries upon which they draw. What makes this book unique is the way in which it is put together. Take, for example, the following set of entries:

  • Casablanca means ‘white house’.
  • In the nineteenth century, shoemakers were nicknamed ambassadors of Morocco.
  • The Atlantic Ocean is named after the Atlas Mountains in Morocco.
  • Ocean derives from okeanos, the name of a great river the Ancient Greeks believed encircled the Earth.
  • An epirot is someone who lives nowhere near the coast.

As you can see, they have been arranged in such a way that each leads to the next, which leads to the next and so on. Like the crisps in the packet, each snaps with a satisfying crunch in the brain and has you reaching for the next one.

The book can be consumed at numerous levels, since some entries are one-liners, whereas others give more explanation for those who would like it. It can be dipped into, to see what comes out of the packet next, or you can line all the verbal snacks up in a row and consume them like linguistic dominoes. If you are logofascinated (‘spellbound by language’, according to the book) you may find it very hard to tear yourself away.

This book is no more a serious etymological reference work than my packet of crisps is a Michelin-starred meal. It is a treat for the curious mind, and should be read as such. If you are interested, I suggest you do not perendinate (couldn’t resist) but buy a copy today.


Sorry about the copy, Ellliot and Thompson – click on image to buy an intact one



Reflections on the London Consultation

Ukraine is a bloody and unholy mess, with over 1 million internally displaced persons and abuses of every kind wrought upon its people. Not only that, but it is a bloody and unholy mess with the veneer of holiness about it – as soldiers kneel for a priest’s blessing beneath the sign of the cross on their flag and a new church is dedicated to the martyrs of the Russian Special Forces.

Set against such a backdrop, what use are a bunch of people talking in the elegant panelled guardroom of Lambeth Palace, surrounded by its jewel-like gardens? The answer, I believe, is to be found three verses into the Bible ‘God said’. God has taught us the value of speech from the first page of scripture until the Spirit’s last words in Revelation.  Ours is a speaking God, and we do well to imitate Him.

What BMS and Mission Eurasia did yesterday was a gesture of solidarity, described by one speaker as ‘a forgotten virtue in public discourse’. What they did was to put significant people in a room together whose combined insights allow them to speak about Ukraine’s conflict with passion and insight. Seated around the table were Orthodox churchmen in their flowing robes, a Byzantine Catholic with his neatly trimmed beard, British academics and European humanitarian agents. In short, this was a conversation between people who care and people who know. Seated around them were 25 observers, myself included, to see what was done and how.

On display around that table were political acumen, vehement passion, heartfelt sorrow, and faith of the truest calibre. Listen to some of these voices:

  • Seeking causes for the war in Ukraine is a waste of time
  • The best response to war is our unity
  • The situation in Ukraine is knocking on the door of Europe
  • We believe that while we wait, God is working, and God’s love never fails
  • Most important of all is not to lose hope. God is always greater and God is always stronger.
  • The Word of God, even in hopeless situations, brings us hope.

Whether the declaration signed by yesterday’s participants has any lasting value, only time will tell. However, to bring these voices together in a place of prayer and to speak the unspeakable under the watchful eye of a God whose creative speech fashioned a universe could only be a good thing.

Please God that the conversation continues and that the London Consultation is a doorway to hope for the Ukraine.


A new place for prayer?

When the flash fiction movement was born, I embraced it with great enthusiasm. When its cousin, flash-point fiction,came on the scene, I loved it even more. The whole idea behind flash-point fiction was to render a location different, even on a temporary basis, by creating a piece of site-specific fiction and leaving it behind. I tried this with a post box, and a rubbish skip. The stories would not last – either weather or people would carry them away. Before that happened, though – somebody would surely see them and smile, or sigh, or think.

What if we could apply those same principles to praying? The church where I work has approximately 500 visitors every week. They come to give blood, play football, read books, learn to dance and many other things. What if there were some gentle way of letting them know that every guest is treasured and prayed for? Last night, during a prayer evening, members of the church set about the building with a pad of sticky notes and a pen each. As each note was written so each location was prayed for. The notes will not last. Some off them will fall down very quickly. Until they do, though, they will stand as a visible reminder of those invisible prayers.  There are two pictures below. One shows the prayers in situ, and the other allows you to read a selection of them.

CLICK for bigger size

CLICK for bigger size

CLICK for bigger size

CLICK for bigger size

Here is my question. Could this start a new ‘flash-point’ prayer movement? Could you leave a prayer at the bus stop, or on the gate post, or at your seat in the cafe for somebody to find? These little prayer notes could make all the difference to somebody today.

Care to try it?

This time its for Tommy’s

Click, click, click, tap – just like that it was done. A few clicks later and I was registered for my place in the Prudential Ride London cycle-ride along the 100 mile Olympic route from Olympic Park out to the Surrey Hills and back to London again. All being well, I shall pedal up the Mall some time on the afternoon of August 2nd. I am looking forward to it – my memories of Nightrider 2013 are still with me, and I am ready for the challenge. It will be hard work, of course. I am expecting to see a lot of the view below over the next 100 days. I am anticipating sore knees, a stiff back, and a cyclist’s behind! The thing is, we all put up with discomfort for the sake of the things we love, and we rarely expect gain without a degree of pain.

What happens, though, when the pain brings no gain? What happens, for instance, when all the months of discomfort and weariness associated with pregnancy fail to produce the exultant joy of childbirth? It happens too, too often. Parents who have made changes, bought buggies, decorated nurseries and held their breath for far longer than my 100 days (280, on average) find that the moment never comes. The sadness of a pregnancy which fails to go full term and the numbing grief of a still birth defy description. And yet it happens far too often. 4000 babies are stillborn in the UK every year, many without explanation.

Tommy’s, for whom I am cycling, are committed to funding research into still birth, early miscarriage and premature births. Not only that, but they provide all manner of support for parents affected by this issue. When the months of anticipation turn into something very different, Tommy’s are there -offering support, advice and a cast-iron commitment to reducing the number of times this happens.

Last time #Richard100 made an outing, I was able to raise an amazing £3000 through the generosity of my lovely sponsors. Could you help me this time, I wonder? Please click here to sponsor #Richard100.

Thank you.


Social interaction writ large

When we had the first truly warm of Spring last week, somebody tweeted ‘on behalf of the internet':

Leave your computer alone, come outside and play -I’ll still be here when you get back

They were quite right, of course. However, when you look at the mind-boggling graphic below, it makes you realise quite how much life is on the internet, every single second.


Click the animation to open the full version (via PennyStocksLab).

Its all a far cry from the internet as depicted on a certain sitcom:


CLICK to watch as “the internet” is revealed…


Strong light and weak glass

There’s an awful lot of the science I learnt at school which I have forgotten, for which I apologise profusely to Mr Berrington, my science teacher. I do remember, though, the weeks we spent learning about the behaviour of waves. We learnt all about reflection, refraction and diffraction. Today, as I contemplate preaching on a subject which is liable to touch many raw nerves, I am reminded of refraction – those scattered rays of light broken up by imperfect glass and spilling across science room benches and ceiling:

I often feel as if the Word is a brittle thing

With my boxing-glove hands I hold it up for inspection

Hoping to catch some light

And petrified of dropping it

In truth it is not so

It is preacher, rather than word, which is brittle

And it holds me.


CLICK for story behind this image



Interactive insights

Whenever I am training preachers, one of the things I talk about is the need for every preacher not only to provide inspiration for the people in their charge, but also to draw it from them. I have been doing just that this morning as I review the ‘homework’ sent to me by a group of young preachers whom I was training in the Philippines (via Skype) at the weekend. Consider this, for instance, from Angel as a picture of preaching : the preacher is like the fist ant…passing the truth onto one, who passes it to another and another. Who would ever have though of seeing it that way?

CLICK to see the detail

CLICK to see the detail

Over the past twelve months or so I have been experimenting with interactive learning in the (smaller) evening services at my own church. We have done everything from round table discussion to interactive games. However, having not done it for a few weeks over the Easter period, there was a degree of scepticism from people when they arrived and saw the tables out last night. This was to be the launch of a new preaching series on ‘problems with prayer’ – and each table had a number of the aplphabet cards displayed below on it.

   After an initial talk about the reasons why we maybe don’t pray, each table completed five or six letter cards with insights on prayer. The results are below. As you can see, it was a rich ‘seam’ which brought far more depth and colour to the service than I could have done on my own. Cards were then returned to the tables later so that people could use them as prompts to pray for each other’s prayer life.

Adoration Bless Believing Christ Celebration Confession Closeness to God Communion Comforting Challenging

Diligent Devotion Deliverer Daily Extol Easy Emotional Exhausted Excited not Exhibitionist Exasperated Faith(ful) Frequently (God as) Friend Friends (praying for)

Grateful Greatness Help – for me, for others Intercession

Joyful Jesus not Judgemental Justification Justified Kneel Know (who you’re praying to) Laud Love Longing Learning Life Light Longsuffering Long

Majesty Mercy Mystery Nearness Not yet? Obedience

Please (very British) Praise Perseverance Patient Private Pounding the door Pleading Quiet Question … why? Repent Regular be Real

Supplication Short and to the point Sacrifice Salvation Self-judgemental Silence Shouting at God  Trust Thanks Time Understanding Unique Useless

Victory Virtue Worship Watchful (for answers) Will (act of) Whenever Wherever (you are) X … love ( “kiss”) EXalt

Yourself Yearning Zealous


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