In pursuit of church

Four images of church

Church is not what it was. Then again, life is not what it was either.  There are flickering glimpses of church right now which flash past like the images on a zoetrope, but somehow the movement fails to animate them.

Here is a steward welcoming you at the door, welcome restricted to the eyes since a smile cannot be seen beneath the mask and a handshake cannot be given.

Here is a moving tapestry of faces on a Zoom screen, each one a window into another’s home and life. If we try to sing together, the inevitable lag means that we cannot hold a shared tune in time.

Here is a home communion : bread and juice, set out within reach of my hand and just out of camera shot.

Here is a pulpit with wires and leads and a camera and audio recorder, but a congregation nowhere to be seen.

Here is somebody sitting before that pulpit on a kitchen stool, and another in a hotel room far from home.

Reflecting on all these, different historic images of church have come to mind:

Here is the church as ‘Ekklesia’ – people in small numbers (at least to start with) called out from the world to gather together, Here they pledge their loyalty to Jesus and seek to understand what it means. Like the Jewish synagogues of the first Century and beyond, even a small gathering was enough to constitute a congregation. This is the original understanding of the ‘gathered’ church.


Here is the church as ‘Tabernacle’ or even ‘fortress’.  This is a physical statement of the presence of God, serving as a witness to those without and a fortress to those within. Some, far more permanent than the travelling tabernacle, mark the skyline of towns and cities still. The church seen this way is a solid and tangible statement of faith and belief.


Here is the church as ‘monastery’ – eschewing the physical presence of the former in the thick of things, and going further up the mountain for a better view. This is a calling to be apart from the world…for the sake of the world.


Here is the church as ‘skete’ – a concept begun in the Coptic church and later adopted by Celtic and even new monastic communities. Here the participants farm or fish or pursue their daily calling, but abide by a rule of life, sharing the same values, worshipping as a rhythm of daily life and only occasionally coming together. They are still participants in a community of faith and witness, bound to its rhythm and values, but they pursue it in their individual callings.


All have strengths, and all have different appeals, but I cannot help wondering whether the ‘skete’ has unexplored potential for our current circumstances. We live, work and play behind our own front doors, yet nurse a yearning for connection. We want to be identified with this great cause, part of this great kingdom – but cannot stream through the doors of a physical church to declare it as we once did.

Just how tied are we to the need for a physical building, I wonder? Would our discipline hold firm enough to adhere to a rule of life where only God and we were watching?

These are only initial thoughts, and this is an invitation to conversation, but I would love to know what others think.




A book of delights

Thea Muir’s journalling Bible

I have been reading the Bible regularly since I first received a Gideon New Testament at the age of 12 in Secondary school.  That little book started a revolution in my life which would lead eventually to finding a Christian faith for myself. One thing led to another, I was ordained as a Baptist Minister in 1992, and I am never without a Bible. In fact, a Bible is so much part of my working toolkit, that I have to replace them every few years when they fall apart from use. I read it, meditate on it, preach from it, and write books inspired by it.

All this being so, you might think that the addition of another Bible would leave me cold.  After all, what can possibly be new?  However, in Thea Muir’s case, that is not true.  Her warm and charming illustrations, drawn out of a place of real hurt and self-understanding, are a precious addition to this version.  Who could fail to love  a phrase such as ‘I am outrageously loved’ for instance? As a person who both writes and reads a lot of books, I am ashamed to admit that I usually skip over the front matter.  However, the very first phrase inside the front cover of this remarkable Bible really gave me pause:

The things that we believe are like seeds that we plant in our hearts. Our hearts are like fertile soil that grow whatever is planted in them.

The words, like the illustrations which accompany them, are simple, profound and simply profound. I have a feeling I shall look at them again and again.  Not only that, but there are also suggestions on activities which might help any reader to feel more certain of the love of God which Thea feels so deeply.

In addition to these activities, there are also wide margins which encourage the reader to add their own illustrations or jottings. In this way, the Bible becomes entirely personal. For those who feel that the Bible needs no enhancement, either from an illustrator or a reader, I would point out the falling levels of Biblical literacy in the UK. We urgently need to fall in love with the Bible again, and Thea might just help us to do it.



There is no ‘just’ to just looking

A review of ‘Into the tangled bank’ by Lev Parikian

As a writer, I am never overly comfortable with people ‘summing up’ the books I have written.  After all that thinking, writing, editing and re-writing, it seems a little unfair. Even so, I am hoping that Lev Parikian will forgive me for summarising his book in two words:

Just Look

I do so because that is the essential message of this book. With gentle humour and self-deprecating wit the author urges us to do that.  He encourages us to look at the birds, or the flowers, or even the spider – and see what is really there.  He also uncovers the peculiar anthropomorphism of our relationship with nature, whereby we invest some species with positive characteristics -such as a ‘cheery’ robin, or others with more negative associations, such as a moth.  It takes a writer of outstanding skill and patience to make me think that a spider might be anything even close to worthy of a second look – but he has done it!

The book is somewhere between travelogue and a nature journal, with a bit of Bryson-esque humour thrown in. Its sparkling quality is its tone.  This book is not ‘preachy’ or ‘worthy’ or intense as nature writing can sometimes be.  Plunge in and let this skillful writer take you on a walk or three with him.  You won’t regret it, and you’ll probably want to go out yourself for further exploration too.

As an inveterate early-morning walker, I leave you with Lev’s description of that time of day. If poetry is the art of bending words into shapes which make us see the world differently, then he should add ‘poet’ to the list of his many skills.

‘There’s that heady feeling of being a conspirator in the hatching of a new day, the knowledge that whatever the ensuing hours may hold, I’m giving it my best shot’.


Less than blissful ignorance

Dying Awareness Week 2020

Why ever do we need a dying awareness week?  We are all aware of that other great certainty, taxation – but we don’t have to chat about it!

The thing is, when it comes to dying, we probably do.  Research last year commissioned by Sue Ryder revealed that 7 out of 10 adults have never talked to their loved one about what might happen when they die.  The result is either a hurried conversation when brain or body are beyond it, or no conversation at all, followed by silence and regret.  This particular conversation is one which my late wife and I had many times.  Sometimes we talked about the last days and how they would be.  Sometimes we talked about her legacy amongst family and friends.  Sometimes we talked about her funeral. The main thing is that we talked. The spectre of death is robbed of some of its power as we talk about it.

I have been talking a lot about it since.  It has been my privilege to assist with the launch of two national campaigns for Sue Ryder: a better grief and a better death. Working in partnership with Authentic Media, I wrote Postcards From the Land of Grief, and have seen many touched by its honesty.  The book charts my journey through the first year of bereavement – with all the strangeness, challenge and reassurance which it brought. I have also spoken about the subject numerous times on air, to the extent that a friend in the radio business described me as ‘the death guy‘.

That is most definitely not a moniker I would have chosen. However, to act as some small kind of catalyst in these conversations has been a real privilege. To take a little bit of the terror out of having ‘the conversation’ has felt like a good thing. One of the advantages of the ‘postcard’ format has been that it encourages a ‘dipping in’ approach. Like flicking through a collection of postcards in a shop,  you can pick something up when it seems to speak to you.

I close with a quote from the book, and an invitation to read it this week. After all, dying matters.

It continues to surprise, this land of grief. Its topography is so hard to read – like the shifting sands of the desert. To climb a tiny hill can feel like scaling a mountain – leaving the lungs gasping for air at the top. Once scaled, the view behind may be spectacular, but the view ahead is hidden, at least for now. Some of the valleys which look like no more than a ditch prove to have sides so steep that they all but blot out the light.

Postcards front cover


A small thing of beauty

A review of ‘All things bright and beautiful’ by Jean Claude

Just before I picked this book up to review it, I read a message from somebody in lock-down urging people to share some small thing which lifted their spirits in this grey and heavy time.  I believe that this book will do just that.

I have now been a Christian minister for over 30 years, and yet I learnt Cecil Alexander’s hymn before I even had a faith to call my own. Sitting cross-legged on the hard wooden floor of our primary school assembly – someone would hammer out the tune on the tired old piano whilst the redoubtable Mrs Preston would urge us to enunciate each word to perfection!

In this gorgeous book, Jean Claude has taken a hymn which is over 150 years old and made it accessible and attractive to those of yet another generation. Each page is filled with rich colour – and enough detail to keep you coming back for a second, third or umpteenth time.  There is a special surprise with the ‘trees in the Greenwood’ too – although I shall leave you to find it for yourselves!

The book will be treasured my many, and will add to the enduring quality of this wonderful hymn.



Marvin the Maple

When only a story will do

In the past few days, I have been in conversation with one of those people whose blend of compassion and skill makes the NHS the wonder that it is. Kath is the Director of Children’s nursing at St Barts hospital, and acutely aware of the impact that Covid-19 is having on those of all generations. In particular, she made me aware of the impact on children from the loss of a significant adult in their lives. This little film will help you to understand a little more about it: As the numbers in this pandemic mount, so the needs increase, and capacity to meet them diminishes.  Who will sit and talk to the children, and how will they go about it?

Sometimes, a story can be the greatest tool to enable the hardest conversation.  Some of you may remember The Tale of the Little Owl , and the remarkable collaboration which brought it about.  The story was written to help children deal with the loss of a sibling, so something new was required for the new challenge.

In consultation with Kath, I have written a new story today -all about a little tree called Marvin, who loses one of the big trees who always looks out for him. You can read a tiny excerpt below. I am appealing for help in getting this story illustrated as quickly as possible. We shall then try to make it available as an ebook as soon as we can. The ebook route avoids the complexities and timescales of print publishing. It also means we can get the story into the hands of those who need it with no worries about infection control.

Could you help me to find an illustrator?  Could you offer any other skill to get this off the ground?

If so, please contact me via the comments box here, or on Twitter @richardlittleda

Thank you

April put her head on one side, the way blackbirds love to do – and she could see the problem.  In the night, the old oak tree had fallen – and it would not stand tall again.  There would be no more snow building up on its branches, and there would be no golden leaves when Autumn came.  Landing gently on Marvin’s lowest branch, which bent beneath her weight – she tried to explain.

‘I think he was tired’, she said.  ‘Maybe it was time for him to lie down now, instead of standing up’.  The little tree shivered at the thought.  ‘Even the biggest trees fall sometimes Marvin’, she chirped gently. 

UPDATE – an illustrator has now been found, and is working on the project, although help with creating the ebook would still be appreciated.


A love song…

… to the idea of church

Yesterday I attended a seminar on ‘spiritual abuse’ – something about which I knew very little. One of the key hosts,Professor Lisa Oakley, opened my eyes to what can go wrong in communities of faith with a disarming honesty and humility which really made me think.

Reflecting on the lessons of the day, I wrote the words below. I have called them a ‘love song to the idea of church’, which I hold very dear:

I want to be in a church where I can be the Beta version of me, knowing that something better is on the way.

I want to be in a church where service is given, not taken.

I want to be in a church where words about the Word are always words of life.

I want to be in a church where forgiveness is always necessary and always possible.

I want to be in a church where communion is shared always and visible sometimes

I want to be in a church where the spelling of fellowship may be wonky but the grammar of love is absolute.

I want to be in a church which He is happy to own.

Would you like to be there too?



A blaze of light

A shepherd remembers

(Preached at Newbury Baptist Church on December 22nd 2019)

I want you to imagine, if you can, a dark hillside. At first – it looks uniformly dark but as your eyes adjust – you see the indistinct, moving shapes of sheep begin to come into focus. Look harder still – and you will see what appears to be one older shepherd sat on the ground. One arm holds a staff, and the other seems to make a tent to one side.
Look harder now – and see that a boy, aged 8 or 9 is snuggled into that tent – eyes on his grandfather’s wizened face as they are caught up in an animated conversation in the moonlight. Creep a little closer and you can hear what they are saying.

The grandfather is telling him the stories of shepherds from long, long ago.  There is father Abraham with his many many flocks and above him the canopy of God’s sparkling stars. There is David, fearless with wolves, bears and giants. There are others – the old man’s face twists as if tasting something bitter when he talks of shepherds gone by – leaders who trampled their flocks and left the lambs for dead.

These are not the stories the boy wants to hear. Tugging insistently at the old man’s robe he pleads with him. Tell me about that night – the night the skies lit up.

The old man stops, looks at the boy’s pleading face, then looks away to the edge of the hillside as if to focus on something in the distance as he speaks. You have to understand, my boy, that we were the outcasts. Nobody trusted us with anything other than their sheep. The rich ones would wrinkle their noses when it was time to bring their lamb to the gate for slaughter. The priests would wring their hands and wash over and over again at the horror of touching us when they took the Passover lambs at the temple gate. This hillside was bedroom, bathroom, toilet and home for months at a time. Even when we did go home, others would cross the village street so as not to be downwind of us.

The boy’s face crumples with sorrow as the old man says ‘nobody wanted us near…and nobody trusted us’ .‘But God did’, the boy whispers, caught up so much in the story that his usually loud voice is hushed. Looking momentarily shocked at the use of the sacred name – the old man looks down kindly at the boy and nods. ‘He did’, he says ‘He did’. And continues the story

That night the darkness was a thing you could feel – like a thick, old velvet curtain draped about the hillside muffling the sounds and dulling the stars. When it started, it was as if someone had poked a hole through from the other side – a sharp needle prick letting through the brilliant light beyond. Then there was another and another and another – 10,000 pinpricks of light – pouring through on those who least deserved it.

The boy looks hurt that his grandfather should describe himself so – but lets him gather himself before the story goes on.I cannot tell you whether it was a voice, a trumpet call or a choir stretching to the sloping edges of the sky – but I know what it said.
GLORY to GOD IN THE HIGHEST it said – the hillside beneath us shuddering with every syllable AND ON EARTH PEACE.  ‘To those on whom his favour rests’ the boy continues – for he has heard the story before.

The old man doesn’t hear him. He has stopped talking and his hand is clutching at tufts on the hillside -as if searching for something he has dropped there. He is biting his lip and the boy has never seen him like this. He tugs anxiously at his sleeve as if to ask what is wrong

We went to pieces, boy. We fell to the ground and waited till all the holes in the dark blanket closed over again and we were alone. We were afraid. No-one ever spoke to us – so why should God himself tell us such a thing? Had we imagined it? Had the years on the lonely hill made us hear the thing for which we longed the most? The boy shakes his head vigorously at the very thought, and the old man tousles his hair.

If you had been there, you would have been the first on your feet, boy. The bravest of us did just that. He stood up, tightened his belt like a man on a mission, and told us we should go and see for ourselves. After all – a babe in a manger would be such a thing that it could only prove the words we had heard.

And so it was. We went, we saw, we worshipped and we KNEW both God and ourselves as never before. We had imagined NOTHING.

We had been TOLD – personally told that the world had changed. That night we told everyone we saw – even the ones who wanted to avoid us. The news was bigger and better than us, you see?

A cast member prays before a Wintershall nativity performance

A cast member prays before a Wintershall nativity performance

A dog’s view of loyalty

Ginny speaks

Readers of this blog who preach will be familiar with the sermon-put-to-bed-but-what-about-the-children feeling. I was struck by exactly that feeling as I laced my shoes on for a dog walk yesterday morning. This was the result, shared this morning and very warmly received.


Yesterday morning I looked at Ginny as I put my shoes on, and she looked back at me, willing me to hurry up. I said to her : ‘what shall I say to the children tomorrow morning about loyalty to Jesus?


This is what she said – or would have done if she weren’t a dog.


Always walk together, because together is good.


Always listen just as hard as you can to him.


Don’t run too far ahead of him.


And don’t lag too far behind him either.


If you get separated from him – be sure to hurry right back.


Hold on tight to him when things are scary.


You can always be yourself – just the way you are, with him.


Try to help him with the important things if you can.


Pay close attention to the Bible.

Do all that – she said, and you will know what loyalty is all about. Simple!




On sacred space

Memory and loss

Yesterday, I visited a cathedral of sorts. Like most of its kind, the soaring height and sweeping beams seemed to engulf the visitor – turning them into a small part of something bigger. Inside, there were relics, preserved in glass that the faithful might see them as they shuffled by. Here were pieces of folk art and more formal tributes all woven together into a single narrative – a tale of good and bad, heroes and villains.

As is often the case, for me, the space outside seemed somehow more sacred – a spirituality which blossoms beneath the open sky, perhaps. The memorial below took my breath away with a reaction so visceral it almost floored me.  Here was a picture of loss like no other I have ever seen. Millions of tiny droplets fall down and down and down – swallowed up into a black hole from which they never return. Here is loss, and loss and loss – ever receding and never returning.  Like a waterfall of tears they fell – catching the Autumn colours as they did.

In this first week of November, again, I am glad to have seen it.3FA1E24E-A6AE-4098-98ED-A36DB000C2FE