Time to talk

A big conversation begins in Newbury

In August last year, I was still finding my way around a new town. After 19 years in West London, I was starting to adjust to a new life in West Berkshire. My frequent forays into my new home town were navigated by landmarks and useful shops, rather than street names. One morning I bumped into a man staffing a very small stall outside the home-wares shop. Above him fluttered a banner all about ‘building community together’, and on his table were leaflets all about ‘community conversation’. Keen to find my way into the local community, I introduced myself as the Minister of the town’s Baptist Church, and suggested that we had a conversation.

One thing led to another, and two more conversations with that man and his colleagues at West Berkshire Council. A training course in restorative practice followed, which provided an introduction to some of the most motivated and compassionate providers of social care I have ever met. After that, a date was put in the diary, a registration completed with the Big Lunch and the Great Get Together, and plans launched with new friends at the Council.

Today sees a Community Conversation in Newbury Baptist Church some nine months after that first encounter. A collection of people drawn from the local community – of all ages, backgrounds and professions, will share their lunch and share their ideas for the town where they live. Like any other conversation, I know about its beginning but not its end. Outcomes may be as varied as the people who scribble their ideas on our table cloths – but it is good to talk.

convopic2

I have been considering the nature of conversation, and reflecting on how differently the phrases below play on the mind:

  • Talks are under way
  • Discussions are being held
  • There was a full and frank exchange of views
  • Negotiations have begun
  • We’re talking now

Although they should all mean similar things, it seems to me that each comes with its own ‘baggage’. In the language of translation methodology, each has ‘collocated meanings’, whether intentional or not. Today’s conversation really is just that. Hosted by a local church, supported by the local council, attended by local residents, it is a conversation – a start, a beginning. At the end of a week where anger has spilled onto the streets, that can only be a good thing.

Have always loved these pieces of coloured glass - hoping for lots of 'reflections' today

Have always loved these pieces of coloured glass – hoping for lots of ‘reflections’ today. CLICK for full size

 

An extended invitation

A review of ‘Home’ by Jo Swinney

Pictured below is Jo Swinney’s new book next to a hedgehog house in my garden. Please note that it is a hedgehog house and not a hedgehog home – since it cannot really be the latter until it has an occupant.Years ago, when I was new to both ministry and published writing, I wrote an article on small groups and insisted that the word ‘homegroup’ rather than ‘housegroup‘ should be used – since home was ‘more than a description of location’.

I have a feeling Jo would agree. Jo has had, to coin a phrase, more ‘homes than I have had hot dinners’. Both during her childhood and since, she has moved far, wide and frequently. Along the way she has picked up not only the self-awareness and wisdom which infuses the book, but she has also caught on the wind the distant sound of a melody which we choose to call home. This book is really an extended invitation to join her on the quest for that elusive melody.

In the book, Jo will take you with her to Canada, Portugal, France, Africa and…Surbiton!  Don’t expect a travelogue, though – this is something far more profound. Jo writes with a disarming and, at times, uncomfortable candour – but the net result is a warm and engaging read. Ultimately the book is a call, in her own words, to ‘re-embrace where I am’, which will find a resonance for many. This may be especially so when, as Jo puts it ‘people are scattered like dandelion seeds in a gale, far from the soil they grew in and sick with longing to get back’. All of this is anchored with an analysis along the way of King David’s quest for home in the Biblical accounts.

Jo writes as a Christian, with faith stitched into her very words as it is woven into the fabric of her life. That said, it is a long time since I have read a Christian book with such an honest invitation to readers of other faiths or none to join her: ‘I hope you’ll stick with me and engage with the book and with me, even where we might see things differently‘. Well done to her for writing it, and to Hodder for printing it.

Jo writes that Christians look for, and find ‘the fingerprints of God’s provision, goodness and kindness in every aspect of their lives’. I trust that many will find this book to be a help in looking for them. I did.

HOME

Virtual but not virtuous?

Pixellated pilgrimage

When Simon Reed wrote the foreword to my book Journey earlier this year, he included the following:

Richard is himself the embodiment of what this book is all about. He admits that he has
never been on a pilgrimage himself and has only experienced it through others. The fact
that he can write about it so insightfully and in a way that is so rooted in the stu; of
everyday life is proof of what this book sets out to do – to help us all to journey with God,and to travel well.
In the light of that, you may not be surprised to find a new addition to my collection of apps. Look carefully, and you will see that it sits right there alongside others for neighbourhood news, local police alerts and local events: Camino 360:
The app is slickly produced, supported by Spanish Tourist Board, and makes the most of VR technology. I came across it through medieval spirituality scholar Lisa Deam However, I have to confess that it is likely to only a temporary resident on my home-screen. There is something slightly uncomfortable about an app which encourages the user to ‘put on interactive boots, put on virtual reality glasses, and put yourself in the shoes of a Pilgrim.’ As you can see from the screenshot below, it allows you to ‘choose your camino’ at the touch of an icon:
There is no doubt that this will introduce many people to what the Camino has to offer, and may encourage some to embark on it for real.  What if it does the opposite, though? What if a virtual pilgrimage becomes every bit as virtuous as a real one? My contention in Journey was not that we should choose between the extraordinary life of the pilgrimage and the ordinary life of the everyday, but rather than the one should become the other:
 CLICK for more information

CLICK for more information

In the week that the story has broken about Uluru appearing on Google Street View, maybe I should just accept the inevitable and click my way through the Camino. What do you think?

Specs not blinkers

Pentecost on the morning after

Today is Pentecost Day. Thousands of churches will mark today as the occasion when the Spirit of God is poured out on the faithful who turn their hearts and faces to God. Those who have read this blog for some years will remember that I like to associate Pentecost with an explosion of colour. I was fully intending to do so today. Inspired by a fellow Baptist Minister, I decided to go with the colour theme again, and conduct a little polychromatic experiment.

It seems to me that when the Spirit came, all the promise which was there in the prophets, all the anticipation which was there in John the Baptist, all the grace which was there in Christ came cascading down on the hopeful crowd. For the first time ever, all the rainbow colours of God’s grace could be seen in a way which was only monochrome in anticipation. The colours were there all along in the waiting – but nobody could see them.

Today I shall issue lenses from these glasses to the children and ask them to look at the light coming in through the church’s plain windows:

I shall then ask each child to find an adult and then ‘bring them in’ on the wonderful surprise:

CLICK for full size

CLICK for full size

On Pentecost day, a hope so often seen in bland monochrome is washed in glorious colour.

The big question, of course, is whether I should ‘change the script’ on the morning after another terrorist attack. I believe that I should not. After all, Pentecost is the day when the Christian church expresses the belief that ordinary people given extraordinary blessing have both mandate and capability to change the world. Pentecost is not the day when the church looks at the world not with blinkers to shield it from the nastiness. Rather, it is the day when it dons the spectacles of faith and sees the most glorious possibilities even in the darkest corner.

Out of Egypt

A visit to the trailblazers

Some time over 370 years ago, a group of Baptist believers started meeting in Newbury. After meeting for some years in a room above what is now the Camp Hopson store, they moved to a new site in an area of the town improbably known in the 1700s as ‘Egypt’. They built a simple meeting house there, and acquired a small plot of land as a burial ground. The site was far from ideal, occasionally prone to flooding, and offered only the simplest of facilities. Singing was a cappella, with a tuning fork to start them off, and later a wooden pipe to accompany them. Over the years, some of the faithful were buried in the little burial ground, and others within the building itself, including one beneath the pulpit.

In 1859 the congregation moved to a new building in the town’s main thoroughfare. The building was much better suited to their purpose, and included a chandelier with ‘no less than 62 gas jets’ according to an early historian. The old building was acquired by the Brethren, who then worshipped there until 1998.

It was after they left that the building and land were cleared to make way for a new development, and the graves of those early Baptists were found. They were re-interred that same year in a cemetery outside the town, with a monument erected in 2000.

Yesterday evening, with bright sunshine slanting across the gravestones, I visited that memorial.

CLICK for full size

CLICK for full size

I found it humbling to stand and look at this diminutive memorial. Like the people it remembered, it was neither brash nor grand. Like their witness in ‘Egypt’ of old, it was simple. As Pastor to the Newbury Baptists, I inherit the Gospel ‘torch’ which they faithfully held and then passed on. Like them, I am still asking questions about how best to serve the town and people where I am placed. The inscription at the base of the memorial speaks volumes:

CLICK for full size

CLICK for full size

I trust that I can do the same…

Tweet, untweet

A cautionary tale

In the light of Monday night’s terrorist attack in Manchester, Twitter was doing all the things it at which it is both best and worst yesterday. On the positive side, it was helping to fuel the #roomsformanchester initiative and providing a ‘virtual noticeboard’ for those looking for loved ones. On the negative side, it was providing the usual portal for those intent on spewing half-truth and prejudice of every kind.

It was one of those days when Twitter was constantly ‘on’ in the background, and I saw the notification of Roger Moore’s death shortly after hearing that Manchester’s youngest victim had been named. Straight away, comparisons started to form in my mind – his urbane sophistication against her childish innocence. His many adventures lay behind him whereas hers will lie forever unfulfilled before her. Reacting to all of this, I posted a version of the tweet below:

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After about 30 minutes I took it down, and here are some of my reasons why.

  • It is a mistake to assume that loss is on any scale of merit – loss is loss is loss
  • The actor’s family will be missing him just as the little girl’s family are missing her.
  • It is human life itself which is precious – old, young, famous, obscure, all are indescribably precious to somebody.

I write this because I want the digital landscape to be a kind place. I want it to be a place where the air is clean and opinions can exchange without any need for shouting. I want to believe that people will make it that way by policing their own content, as I have done. It is to that end that I have written about this very small episode of mine – we learn by mistakes.

To all who grieve – today, and whatever day you may read this – may you find comfort and peace.

 

More than binary

Anticipating a bigger conversation...

Not long after moving to Newbury last Summer, I fell in love with Joseph Hillier’s sculpture ‘binary conversation‘. Most days I pass by the sculpture, and see the two heads locked in some permanent but silent conversation. It is impossible to read their expressions, and yet the space between them buzzes with some unheard exchange. Theirs is a conversation at once both attractive and exclusive – I want to join in but I cannot.

CLICK for full- size

CLICK for full- size

In truth, my fascination with conversation goes back way beyond my arrival in Newbury. In 2011 I wrote a communications handbook entitled ‘Who needs words’, and conversations were a key element:

If we see communication as a gift from God and a reflection of his nature within us, then there is a sense in which every interchange – be it a conversation about last night’s football or a discussion about the end of the world, is a sacred exchange. We are talking creatures, because God made us that way, and as such we should not take any form of communication lightly. Our stories should be wholesome, our sermons should be honest, our reporting should be accurate, our listening should be keen and our speaking should be beautiful.

In an age where many of our conversations take place in the sterilised space of digital exchange, it is easy to forget how much genuine conversation depends upon more than words. We need to see each other:

Whether in a large gathering or a one-to-one context, the ‘face recognition software’ which is part of the human psyche means that we can soon read from others’ faces whether or not communication is working. It might be that we see a light in the eyes as understanding dawns. Alternatively, we may note an animation to the facial features, a creasing round the eyes as a smile spreads, or a furrow of the brow as they listen hard. Even a sceptical raised eyebrow suggesting that the listener does not agree with our argument or accept our facts is evidence that they are engaged with what is going on. These and other micro-gestures of the face tell us that the person is truly participating in the communication. The enlivening of their faces means that they are willing to join in the dance of communication which animates the space between us.

In short, when it comes to conversation – I am a fan! When the opportunity arose to facilitate a community conversation in the town where I live, I could not have been happier. After months of preparation, that conversation is now in prospect on Saturday June 17th at noon.

  • It is a conversation whose setting is informal – a shared lunch on a weekend when many communities are getting together.
  • It is a conversation whose invitation is broad – to all who will come
  • It is a conversation whose remit is open – what is good and what could be better about living in Newbury
  • It is a conversation whose style is messy – scribbling thoughts and ideas on tablecloths as we go
  • It is a conversation whose aspirations are high– finding identifiable issues and projects where the community can work together to address them.
  • Its is a beginning – set within the context of restorative practice, this conversation could prove to be no more than the hors d’oeuvre to a banquet of genuine community cohesion.

It is a conversation which I anticipate with great enthusiasm. Care to join in? Click on the image below for details.convo

What can I do today?

A response

When I was little, my father would occasionally produce an (increasingly dog-eared) book called ‘What can I do today’? It was full of ideas in response to that very question. Ever since the last post on this blog, many lovely people have asked pretty much that question – what can I do? You will find an answer if you click on the photo at the bottom of the page.

Jonathan, one of my sons, works for The Christie Charity – a world leading expert in cancer care, research and education, based in Manchester. Just before Mothering Sunday he wrote the post below, and I reproduce it here with his enthusiastic permission. If you would like to help The Christie answer that perennial ‘what can I do’ question in the face of cancer, please click the photo of mother and son below! Thank you.

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In my first year of university my world was suddenly spun on its axis as my Mum was diagnosed with Bowel Cancer. She had always had such a strong personality, and had been such a tough individual – that the news really knocked us for six! Since that first diagnosis, her bowel cancer went metastaatic and affected her lungs, her adrenal gland and is now back in her bowel again.
 
She battled through operation after operation, and numerous rounds of chemotherapy. I remember visiting her in hospital one time and was convinced there was more wires than there was of her. But with every knock back, and every treatment that left her in bed for the next week – she kept on fighting on. And kept returning to work between rounds of treatment. It made me realise that I had to do something and fight too!
 
I started off by taking part in a few charity events on my summer breaks at university and raised around £5000. And was eventually inspired to get involved in charity work myself post university. I’ve worked at a few places since then, but I’m so proud to finally be working at The Christie now, raising money for us to be at the forefront of cancer research.
 
They originally gave my Mum 2 years to live, and that was 7 years ago. She continues to defy expectations, and inspires me to work today. I’m sure the Scouser in her tells her not to like Manchester – but I know secretly she’s very proud! I’ve used the picture from my graduation, as she went against doctors’ orders and came along to support me. She really inspired me that day – and continues to do so!
Click to 'do something' for The Christie

Click to ‘do something’ for The Christie

Indefatigable hope…

…still there

Earlier today my wife and I sent this update out to many far and near.

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As most of you are aware, Fiona has suffered some serious health problems in recent years.  Some months ago, it became clear that her cancer had become active again and that there was no further effective treatment.  Until now this has not had a significant impact on our daily lives, but recent weeks have been more challenging and so we felt that it was time to share this news.

In April 2012, Richard wrote a blog post called Easter and the Second Shoe.  Written at the time of Fiona’s first relapse (and followed by Advent and the Third Shoe and Treasures of Darkness) it speaks of the Christian’s ‘indefatigable hope’.  Five years later we retain our confidence in the power and purposes of God, and ask you to join with us in praying for courage and wisdom in this new season.

Teaspoons and tears on the Disciple’s Way

Reflecting on six special weeks at Newbury Baptist Church

Yesterday I finished teaching all six sessions of the Disciple’s Way course at Newbury Baptist Church. Each session has been taught twice, to different audiences afternoon and evening. Ages have ranged from under 20 to over 90, and over 80 different people have attended. The course was originally written in 2012, and later led to the research and publication of Journey: the way of the disciple, earlier this year.

Together we have laughed, cried, studied, reflected and pondered. We used teaspoons as a visual prompt to prayer (thank you, sorry, please) we wrote postcards to St Paul, we planned a shared journey around the world and we wrote a ‘disciple’s code’. We listened to 54 carefully selected songs, watched 20 videos, read lots of Bible stories, critiqued a sermon, listened to 11 live testimonies and prayed together. We even had people dressing up as pilgrims, complete with staff, scallop shell and floppy hat.

We collected people’s wisdom about what made the journey worth it in the first place – as seen in the wordle below.

Wordle of key reasons to embark on the Disciple's Way

Wordle of key reasons to embark on the Disciple’s Way

We collected ideas on a ‘Disciple’s code’, intended, like the countryside code, to enable safe passage for all:

WORDLE code

During yesterday’s closing session, we thought about the importance of maintaining momentum all the way from leaving home to journey’s end. On reading Paul’s lonely final words from prison in 2 Timothy 4 , we decided to write him a postcard to keep him going.

You can see a selection of the completed cards below, with messages both funny and sincere. However, the one phrase I would pick out is this: we have enclosed a mirror – take a look in it and you will see a good and faithful servant. This kind of warm, human encouragement has been the oil which has kept the wheels of this course turning.

CLICK for full size

CLICK for full size

To teach any such course to those who been have long on the journey is a danger. Will they have heard it all before? When one of our older participants said to me yesterday ‘I have been a Christian for 67 years and this has been such a help’, I was reassured.

When the course grew into a three-year research project which then grew into a book, my aim was always to ensure that every disciple’s journey becomes a pilgrim’s journey – no matter where they tread. Hopefully, that dream is coming true…

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