Bubble wrap and whisky marmalade

A review of The Shadow Doctor by Adrian Plass

My introduction to Adrian Plass came in 1996, when his Sacred Diary was first published. It was funny, revealing, challenging and ultimately showed a real affection for the very things he gently mocked. His book was a rounded stick with a cushioned end which served if not to poke our sacred cows then to nudge them and make them moo for their supper!

One of the lines from the Diary which I have now remembered for over 30 years is Plass’ description of Christian paperbacks as being ‘like Chinese meals – nice at the time but not long before you need another one’.  Shadow Doctor is not such a book. For a start, it is in hardback – but the difference runs far deeper than that.

This book will jangle the nerves of anxious Christendom. Some will toss it aside in disgust, and others will read it quietly and see themselves reflected in its pages. In this, it is much like The Shack, by W. M Young – whose commendation appears on the cover. Ultimately, it is the language of this book which will set it apart. Who but Plass would talk about an ‘evangelistic eczema‘ which needed to be scratched? There is real pathos in the description of an hour as ‘sixty minutes dragging me down like a necklace of lead weights’. For me, the most memorable description is of the words of comfort offered to others as being ‘like bubble wrap. The little air pockets go pop as soon as I apply pressure to them‘. To find out who says that, and why, you will need to read the book.

If I had one criticism, it would be that the book feels rather like the first two acts of a three act play. With deftness and understanding the author sets the stage and introduces the characters. On turning the page I felt rather as if they had departed a perfectly dressed stage and left me staring at it as they exited to the wings. Then again – maybe that is how I was meant to feel? I should ask the Shadow Doctor about that…

shadow

CLICK for details of book

 

Mrs Mopple’s big adventure

An outing for National Storytelling Week

Yesterday morning found me taking a phone call from a radio station shortly after 8am. In that phone call, the presenter laid down a challenge for the launch of National Storytelling Week. Could I take a set of ‘story ingredients’ supplied from listeners’ texts, and combine them into a story live on air?  I accepted the challenge and waited for my call back.

Just over an hour later, the presenter called me back live on air and presented me with the following story elements:

  • windy weather
  • an umbrella
  • Mrs Mopple

At this point, I took a deep breath and launched into the story of Mrs Mopple’s adventurous and unexpected journey to secure a pint of  milk for her early morning cup of tea. If you click on the picture below you cane hear how it went.

CLICK to listen

CLICK to listen

The question, both then and now, is why I would bother to do such a thing? There are several answers. The first, and simplest, is that it was fun! Secondly, I believe in the power of story, and will take any opportunity to promote it. Thirdly, like a professional in any other field, I need to exercise my skills in order to keep them. The ‘storytelling muscle’ will waste if not used. Finally, it has been my experience that far more people have the ability to weave stories than might be imagined. If my rather stumbling little outing live on air with Mrs Mopple encouraged someone to ‘have a go’, then it was a good morning’s work.

Will you tell a story today?

 

 

Not such a lonely planet

Disciple’s Way begins at Newbury Baptist Church

This is a journey which began with a fading sign on an overgrown path in a silted- up port in Normandy. Spotting the sign below in the Summer of 2008 in Port a la Duc, I got to thinking about what might make people row across the English Channel and then walk all the way to Santaigo de Compostela on pilgrimage.

templier

Out of that came the Disciple’s Way course. Out of that came a sabbatical studying pilgrimage in different contexts. Out of that came the commission to write a book for Authentic – which will see the light of day in a couple of weeks.

CLICK for full size

CLICK for full size

Out of all that came the Disciple’s Way course with Newbury Baptist Church, starting yesterday. Over two sessions we had over 80 people, with ages ranging form the teens to the eighties. There was raucous laughter, heartfelt testimony, brow-furrowing study and genuine insight on offer. For me, the most revealing part of the evening was when people wrote their own ‘advert’ for the Disciple’s Way. After considering the cost of ‘leaving home’ they were asked to consider how they might ‘sell’the benefits of doing so. Answers ranged from the enigmatic ‘Jesus’ to the quirky ‘its not such a Lonely Planet‘ . Answers are all contained in the wordle below.

CLICK for full size

CLICK for full size

A friend then put the phrases into a cognition tool, with fascinating results. Amongst the things it said about this group of disciples were:

  • You are altruistic – you feel fulfilled when helping others, and will go out of your way to do so
  • Your choices are driven by a desire for discovery
  • You are self-controlled- you have control over your desires, which are not particularly intense
  • You think it is important to take care of the people around you

All of these are quite predictable, perhaps. What about this one, though?

  • You consider both helping others and independence to guide a large part of what you do

How much independence does a disciple truly have, I wonder? In the West we tend to see ourselves very much as individuals who have ‘signed up’ for the journey of faith; only to find that we then make the journey in company. In other cultures, I suspect it may be different.

Comments welcome…

 

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

CLICK for full size

CLICK for full size

A cork Mary and Joseph look proudly on:

CLICK for full size

CLICK for full size

A cork angel stands as sentinel:

CLICK for full size

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