Of geese and sages

A second postcard from the landscape of grief


I am learning that it is full of surprises, this landscape of grief. Some of its arduous climbs are undulating slopes, and some of its easy vistas are beset by hidden crevasses – just ready to swallow the unwary. At times I like to think I shall swoop across it like the Grey Goose – flying nobly on alone, as if untroubled. Other times I cross it more like a snail – propelled along on a trail of sorrow and a danger to anything that grows!

Sometimes it contains a mirror, this strange landscape – and you catch sight of yourself as you go by. They must be such narrow mirrors though, for they only show one person – never two. Like feet on an inexperienced pilgrim, you ache – but mainly in the heart. To experience grief as a physical ache has been a surprise.

And then there are the people you meet along the way. Many of them are unable to speak the language here. Some don’t even try – they resort to the universal unspoken gestures of the foreign traveller – a smile, a hug, a tear shed in sympathy. These things are instantly understood, and received with thanks. Others speak as if they have an old phrase book and are urgently thumbing through to find the right page.  A bit like the phrase book – you usually know what they mean, even if it ends up sounding slightly off kilter, as if you want to travel by hansom cab or pay for your shopping with dubloons!

Others find themselves in this place promoted to the rank of prophet without ever knowing it. One such was the six-year old who presented me with the bracelet below. At a children’s service on Sunday, each child was making an ‘advent bracelet’ with different coloured beads to represent the different elements of the Christmas story. The idea was that these bracelets should be taken home and used in the weeks leading up to Christmas to retell the story. He came across, sat down next to me and explained that his had another purpose:

I have made this for you, because you don’t have Fiona any more. She has gone to heaven. 

I thank God for all the people I am meeting in this strange place – but today I thank Him especially for that small prophet.




Steadfast and true

In memoriam: Fiona Littledale

Address given at the thanksgiving service for Fiona Littledale, November 16th 2017


Consider this awkward moment if you will. You are driving home from Cornwall and there is nobody in the car except for you and your terminally ill wife. The conversation turns to what must be, to the thanksgiving service which also must be; and to what will be said. “What one word would you use to describe me?”, she asks …

I thought back over our 30 years of marriage, the birth & raising of our three magnificent sons. I thought back over four ministries with good times and bad. I thought back over seven  years of cancer – with repeated rounds of chemo, surgeries, and knock-backs of every kind.  I thought back over her dedicated years of work in healthcare information. I remembered her support for her friends (which would keep up until she was no longer able to hold a phone and text them), and I said…“Steadfast” and waited for the reaction That beloved smile about which so  many have written spread across her lips and she said  “that’s the nicest thing anyone ever said about me”

Fiona was proud to wear that label of “steadfast” – as wife, mother, colleague…and above all as woman of faith.

It is very rare at a thanksgiving for the person at the heart of it all to speak. However, on this occasion it is possible. Earlier this year I was teaching a course on the Disciple’s Way, with each week illustrated through personal story. On the week where we talked about dying and journey’s end, Fiona was supposed to share her story.  It turned out to be the week when she received her terminal diagnosis, and so it was just not possible. Instead, I pass her own words onto you now:

In the shadows, ordinary objects can look much bigger and scarier than they really are. But I once heard someone describe how the shepherd would bang on the rocky valley sides to guide the sheep and we have been aware throughout that we are not on our own in this distorted landscape. We have been conscious of God’s presence guiding and sustaining us and of the prayers and love of his people.

In the shadows, it is also easy to lose things and I have lost many things over the last few years. Tangible things like my hair, various internal organs and the feeling in my feet, and less tangible ones such as the expectation of a normal lifespan and all that would accompany that. But I have gained an appreciation for the here and now, and as an inveterate forward planner the ability to live and enjoy a life segmented by scans into 12 week blocks. The Danish think they invented the concept of hygge, hunkering down and enjoying the simple things, but actually we did.

Finally, the valley floor is often strewn with rocks. If you have ever been to Skrinkle Haven on the Pembrokeshire coast you will know that you drop down steeply from the coast path and literally scramble over the rocks on the valley floor before emerging onto the most beautiful beach. A beach really is my happy place, and I think I will have to scramble over some pretty big rocks in my next chapter, but when I emerge on the other side I will be more fully alive than ever before.
How true that proved to be …and how big the rocks were to be as well.   She was steadfast – in love, in service and in faith.  That trait was not shown in any severe way though. Her steadfast resolve was tempered by a rich sense of humour and a deep appreciation of the value of friendship. Amongst the hundreds of letters and cards was one from an 11- year old boy, written in his own hand, which described her as “smiley”, thanked her for always making time to talk to him, and said that he was very sorry she had died. His little sister talked of her“chuckly laugh” – and many others have said similar things.
“Incarnation” means that God was made real in Christ. “Incarnation” means that he is seen again in o so human clothing and wonderfully so. Like Paul in 2 Timothy 4 – Fiona can now say : “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith”
We will remember her in so many ways. Our backs will stand a little straighter when the trials come. Our hearts will stretch a little wider when a friend needs us and we give no thought to our own plans or timing. Our faith will run a little deeper when the cold wind blows. And by the grace of God, we shall all be a little more steadfast because of her. May God make it so…AMEN

From cards and letters about Fiona...

From cards and letters about Fiona…

The landscape of grief

A new topography

I am learning that the landscape of grief is a strangely unnerving place. In part its strangeness is that those things which you had thought would be familiar…are not familiar at all. Grief can turn a soft memory into an unforgiving rock face or a hairbrush into a sword to pierce the heart. Regrets, like injected foam, expand to fill the space you give them. Words spoken or heard are like an old cassette left next to a magnet – muffled by exposure to greater force.

Mourning shadow

Like the picture above, taken on an early morning visit to the cemetery, there is beauty here but it is strange and unnerving. In the end, the only thing which can pass the border controls into this strange new land is the faith which was there before its gates opened. The One who was there on the other side, is here on this side too, as it turns out. God, who created the love which hurts so much, will also give the balm to soothe the rawness of grief. Not today, nor tomorrow, perhaps – but in time.

Early on Monday morning last week, before things began to crumble so dramatically and irreversibly, I took a walk in the frost. The most ordinary things, like the discarded bud below, were turned into delicate works of art by the icy fingers of winter.


I shall continue to look for beauty in this new winter landscape – and I believe I shall find it.




Embellished or enriched?

A review of the New International Version Journalling  Bible, illustrated by Hannah Dunnett

It is perhaps not surprising that over the years I have acquired many Bibles. I have them in many languages and many formats. I have them in Gothic Script, Pitman shorthand, Manga comic strip, tabloidised, Cockney and Lolcat. The oldest is a family Bible, dating back to the sixteenth century. The first Bible I ever possessed, however, was given to me as a baby. It nearly put me off. Below you can see the spine and one of the illustrations from the ‘Bible for Boys and Girls’:

CLICK for full size

CLICK for full size

That picture of the Prodigal son used to scare me every time I looked at it, and I did not open a Bible again until I got my Gideon New Testament in the first year of secondary school.

Illustrations in any Bible are a calculated risk. They may put the reader off, as did the one above, they may distract from the text, or they may clash with it. Hannah Dunnett’s illustrations in Hodder’s new Bible do none of these things. Without a doubt, they enrich the text. Consider the illustration below, for example:

CLICK for full size

CLICK for full size

Because of Dunnett’s particular style, the text is integral to the illustration and vice versa. In the best possible way, you can ‘lose’ yourself in a picture such as this. Right and left brain work in perfect tandem as you travel along the ridges of the text and skim like a sailing boat across the waves in the picture.

This Bible is an antidote to brief encounters with the Word of God. It cries out to the reader to linger just a little bit longer – and even to interact with the text using the wide margins on the creamy pages. I suspect that nothing would please Dunnett more than to see some graffiti in those margins – a response to her own thoughtful interaction with the text.

In a world where we measure everything in minutes or seconds, this is a return to the Bible as a book of hours, and that can only be a good thing.

Fragrance or odour?

The prospect of a digital afterlife

Earlier today a thoughtful blog post directed me to the film below.

The film is touching, without a doubt. However, when I then went on to visit a company who offer me the prospect of a digital afterlife, I was not so sure:


On many occasions and in many contexts I have urged Christians to think about their legacy. Often I have turned with them to the last chapter of Nehemiah, and noted that he wants his influence as a man of God to linger on long after he has gone. Like Spurgeon of old, we should want to leave lights shining behind us after we have gone ‘over the brow of the hill‘.  It seems to me that this is entirely different to the kind of avatar described above, though.

Surely if I am to make the most of it, then I need to accept the limitations of my mortality and work within them? My influence will be as much or as little, as long or as short as God wants it to be. Like many who have published before me – either in pixels or print, I shall leave an archive behind. However, to ‘animate’ that archive with an avatar who speaks ‘for’ me seems very strange. The Apostle Paul tells us that we are to exude the fragrance of Christ, but I feel that such a digital presence may be little more than an irritating odour.


Make room for the elephant!

A  plea for unnatural worship

Yesterday morning I issued a plea from the pulpit of Newbury Baptist Church. It was a plea to make church doors wide enough that people can bring their elephants into the room with them when they worship. I have often struggled with preachers who try to tell me that my elephant is in fact, a mouse – and that anyway I should be grateful to God for it. Sometimes they say that the nature of faith requires me to thank God for sickness, or loss, or calamity. I would suggest that it means thanking him despite those things. Faith does not maintain an awareness of God by ignoring circumstances.
Rather, faith chooses to see God and to worship him despite those things.It is in this way that the cracked and broken voices of the faithful are raised to God even in the midst of trial.

This is the worship of Jonah sitting in the gloom and smelling of whale-bile saying “I will worship him”. This is the worship of Job, with tattered clothes and scabby skin saying “yet in my flesh shall I see God”. This is the worship of Paul and Silas, singing their hearts out at midnight whilst chained to the wall in the inner cell of a locked prison. This is the worship of John “in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day” at the start of Revelation – even though he is far from his friends and exhausted in a labour camp. This is the voice of Habbakuk the prophet, looking around at his meagre prospects, but somehow finding faith:

Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord.

There’s a lot of courage in the three letters of that word “yet”.

If we can only worship God by creating a hermetic seal between the world and the church so that elephants are not allowed in the room – then I am not sure it is worthy of the name.

The book of Habakkuk is actually called the ‘burden of Habbakuk’ in the original. I have such admiration for this plucky prophet – hauling his burden (or maybe his elephant) up into the ramparts with him so that he can look God in the eye and wait for some answers.

So -here’s a question for you. If you go to church – do you take your elephant with you?


Thank you, nature!

The blessing and curse of the worship of nature

Was looking yesterday at the effortless ease with which creation worships its creator as described in Psalm 19. The heavens worship in a way which is constant, unabashed, untroubled by the complexity of words and visible/ accessible to all. To this extent, it functions as a lens to focus what Christian worship should be like. Consider the image below. It has not been enhanced in any way. You will notice, though, how the dark sky stands in stark contrast to the brightness of the boats. The photograph was taken just before a storm, and millions of little droplets of water suspended in the air acted like tiny lenses to focus the intensity of colour. The worship within the natural world functions in just such a way.

CLICK for full size

CLICK for full size

That worship can function like a mirror, too – showing us how different our worship is by comparison. Reflected in it, we may see that our worship is not constant, or unabashed or accessible to all. Lamenting this serves little purpose – since we cannot shed the trappings of free will to find some form of instinctive worship which we imagine to be there for the birds and beasts. That said, the worship which we choose to offer can be a beautiful thing – hand-crafted from folly and wisdom, faith and doubt, base instinct and high aspiration.

One of the most thought-provoking books I have read about the nature of nature, so to speak is A Sweet Wild Note by Richard Smyth, reviewed here.  Birds which fly high in the air have their shrill voice, which carries across the wide skies. Birds which fly in amongst trees or buildings have a lower, voice – which bounces across their environment.

For those who would worship their creator instinctively, the important thing is to find your voice.

Jam but no Jerusalem

Taking the lid off worship

Just started a preaching series at Newbury Baptist Church on worship, and wanted to start the whole thing by looking at first principles.

It is twenty-one centuries since the Roman governor of Turkey wrote to his boss and described Christians as those who “rise early in the morning and sing songs to Jesus as if he were a god”. The thing is – we are still doing it. We do it at different times and we do it in different ways. Some love liturgy and regard impromptu worship as undignified
Some love impromptu worship and see anything else as a straight-jacket. Some love old hymns for their dignity and depth. Some love new songs for freshness and life
Some struggle with the language of old hymns and find it obscure. Some struggle with language of new songs and find it vacuous. Some love the  familiarity of worship which takes same shape every week.Some love the surprise of finding it different every time.

To say what is ‘good’ worship is a bit like saying what is ‘good’ jam. Some like it very sharp and some like it very sweet. Some like it with big pieces of fruit and some like it with the fruit cut up so small it can barely be identified. Some like the colour to be natural and some like it to be enhanced. What we can do, though, is to say what is true jam. In order to be true jam it must contain fruit, it must contain some sweetener, it must be possible to spread it and it must keep.

Can we pin down such truth in worship, I wonder? My opening gambit was to say two things.

It must be personal – arising from the improbable goodness and indescribable generosity of God as experienced.

It must be global – much bigger than a collection of people each having a ‘private moment’ with God alongside each other. To worship is to join a crowd of people which stretches across centuries and continents.

What would your TWO vital ingredients be of the worship jam? Let me know via the comments box below. After all, jam is meant to be spread…


This book smells

A review of ‘Maria in the moon’ by Louise Beech

This is the third novel I have read by Louise, and each one underlines my belief in her as a truly exceptional writer. This book, however, should come with a health warning. It smells! It smells of houses drying out after the floodwaters have receded. It smells of uncomfortable childhood memories -lingering like the whiff of mothballs at the back of an old cupboard. It smells of smoke and coffee and perspiration with just a hint of despair. Above all, though, it smells of humanity.

Louise has a singular talent for depicting even the most unsympathetic character with enough sympathy to engage our attention. She never excuses cruelty or unkindness or selfishness, but she gives us pause to see the person displaying it so that we are less inclined to dismiss them with a self-righteous ‘tut’. Not only that, but for the characters who are more central to the book, there is a real love. To these characters, Louise is Geppetto to Pinocchio – depicting them with such warmth yet still almost bemused when they spring to life. I am still not sure whether this is Louise or one of her characters talking:

It occurred to me that we are all perfect in our imperfections, unique in our failings

When Louise talks about the most flawless love of all towards the end of the book she does so without a hint of idealism, but rather with a deep sense of realism. The smell of humanity is here and it draws us in. Years ago the staff trying to end a prison riot did so by wafting the smell of frying bacon and onions across the barricade. In the end it had more effect than many other approaches – smell can be so evocative.  Breathe deeply of Maria in the Moon and you will not be disappointed.

The book has humour, humanity and intrigue in abundance.  It also has a Christmas tree with the kind of decorations you are unlikely ever to find on mine, but you’ll have to read the book to find out what I mean!maria

Whale 3 ways

An encounter with Fuelcast

A few months ago, I was approached by Fuelcast, a new ministry aiming to bring a Bible-based, devotional video to subscribers’ inboxes every weekday. Prior readers of this blog will not be surprised that my mind went to Jonah as source material for three such films. The soggy prophet and I have a long shared history, and there was a certain puzzle which deserved rather more of an airing.

In the last week of June the small film crew of three arrived at Newbury Baptist  Church to film the videos with me. There were two things which struck me immediately about them. The first was their professionalism – in a new environment they set about the task of setting and lighting the shoot with a practised ease born of experience. The second was a deep- rooted sense of mission. These busy people add their work for Fuelcast on top of other commitments because they believe they have a calling to do so. As they set up the cameras, as they edit the footage, as they publish it to the library – heart and mind are set on the people who will watch the films. Those people might be in a messy kitchen, a minister’s office or on a busy train – but all may be in need of inspiration, and Fuelcast are there for them.

The three films below are my first venture before a camera, and I’ve a feeling I have a lot to learn.All the same, I hope you find some inspiration in them…

  1. No cardboard villains

2. A psalm is born

3. Worms and worries