No silver parachutes

An introduction to Restorative Practice

Last week I found myself in an Elizabethan mansion house surrounded by social workers, foster carers and two trainers. Over the next three days I would learn how to cross my arms the wrong way, unravel a forest of in-house social-work acronyms and move across the social discipline window from ‘not’ to ‘with’.  If that all sounds a little ‘muddy’, perhaps I can explain…

I was attending this course on Restorative Practice as the the guest of West Berkshire Council.  Inspired by the success of such a shift elsewhere, they are moving their emphasis to working restoratively across the board as part of their ‘building community together’ programme. In order to sustain such a radical change, it is important that both values and praxis are ‘anchored’ in the wider community. Hence, my presence as a local faith leader.

Restorative practice is the child of restorative justice, and recognises that doing things the way they have always been done (in justice or social care) will bring the results it has always brought. In the ‘social discipline window’ below, it seeks to move from doing things for (or to) people towards working with them:

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CLICK for full size

To work in this way not only fosters positive working relationships, but furnishes long-term, sustainable results which reduce the need for continuing external input.  With the right support and encouragement, people can find the solutions to their own problems for now, and learn how to find them in the future.  This way of working has been rolled out across schools, social work teams, and even whole cities – with great success.

Those readers who are familiar with the Hunger Games will have watched as tributes in the arena scan the skies for signs of a silver parachute. These parachutes, sponsored by wealthy observers of the games, drift down from the sky with some small gift attached which might sustain life in the brutal arena for another few hours. They can, of course get lost, stolen, or misused. Once opened, and their cargo consumed, they leave their recipient scanning the unforgiving sky for another and another. Like many other elements of the Panem trilogy – it rings uncomfortably true.



Needs in the social care arena will increase rather than decrease, without a doubt. Not only that, but resources available to meet them will diminish over time. Anything which can help people to find and devise their own resources, whilst also investing in a quality of relationship which makes it good to be human gets my vote.

Find out more here.

Throop, erf, glig-glug

An onomatopoeic sermon?

This Sunday I found myself, unusually, adding to a sermon on the very morning when I preached. I knew it would be a tough one. I knew I would need to explain that just as a gold sovereign has two sides, so does the theological concept of sovereignty:

  • If God is sovereign he can do the impossible
  • If God is sovereign he may choose not to.

After some thought, I chose to describe this as a theological coat which is too big when first presented. Like our first blazer at school, we grow into it, with our arms creeping imperceptibly down the sleeves and our body gradually filling out the garment until it fits. All the same, there are prayers which don’t get answered and people who don’t get healed – so where’s the gain in that? Wanting to say that we grow in the moment of suffering, the following phrase suggested itself:

‘There is a refining to the essence of humanity which happens in the crucible of hurt’

Every individual word was chosen for nuance and timbre – like a cabinet-maker choosing veneers.

This is the moment which brings me to the curious title of this post. Driving along shortly after the sermon, I listened to a discussion of onomatopoeic words in comics, where the different words for liquid splashing were discussed:

  • Blop ( a small droplet of liquid)
  • Bloop ( bigger drop of same)
  • Blawp  ( drop of viscous liquid)

Once you think about it, they make perfect sense – and the images they generate in the mind are disarmingly precise. This set me thinking – if a comic-writer devotes such care to choosing the right word for a drop of liquid – how much care should a preacher take when choosing words?

I am not sure I could preach an entire sermon (*) onomatopoeically, but choosing words more carefully would certainly be good.


(*) Throop – soft cover Bible opening

Erf – preacher draws a nervous breath

Glig-glug – pouring out the liquid word of God, and hoping it is the good stuff

Enjoying the mess

The tale of an olive tree

When I was inducted to the role of minister at Newbury Baptist Church on October 1st, the children and young people of the church presented me with an olive tree. It was arguably one of the most sacred and solemn moments of the entire service. You can read more about it here.

I am pleased to report that the tree with which I was presented is alive and well. Not only that, but it is growing (a small miracle, given my horticultural abilities). olive1

However, if you compare the pictures of the day when it was presented with the way it is now – it is a dreadful mess:

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CLICK for full size

It has lost its neat round shape and there are branches sticking out in all directions. Isn’t that the way churches should grow, though? A church is a glorious collection of flawed people in the process of transformation. As they are transformed, both individually and together – so the growth comes. It comes in dramatic bursts and tiny steps. Some of it is plain for all to see, and other elements are seen only by the few. It comes, though – as one plants, another waters, and God gives the increase.

I find the responsibility of tending both this plant and the church which it represents to be a huge and breath-taking responsibility. However, I do not carry it alone. In the end, it is the one who put the tree inside the olive who puts the growth into the church.

Is your #journey really necessary?

What does Journey: the way of the disciple have to offer?

Forty- two months after the commission to write it, Journey: the way of the disciple is nearly there. Editing and typesetting is complete, illustrations are sitting nicely within the text, cover design is polished, and very soon the presses will turn to produce the first copies. The book marketplace is a crowded one, though, so what does this one in particular have to offer?

A book about walking, born of running. My interest in all of this was originally piqued when Olympic fever was sweeping the country. All those athletes going faster, higher, stronger made me think about pilgrims prepared to go the distance in the walk of faith.

A book about now inspired by then. Five years before I started writing the book I came across the start of the Chemin des Templiers in Northern France. What made those people cross the English Channel in a rowing boat and walk all the way to Spain, I wondered? Then again, what makes over 200,000 people do it every year now?

A book which starts with the old but proceeds to the new. People of faith have been journeying ever since Adam walked out of the garden of Eden. Throughout the pages of scripture, right up until the last breath, there is a palpable restlessness. Has that restlessness been quelled by the sedentary life of the modern disciple? Have we forgotten our roots, like a Romany who parks his caravan in the back garden of his two bed semi and looks wistfully out of the kitchen window as the creepers grow over it?

A book which echoes the big journey in the small step. All along the aim has been to translate the lessons of the pilgrim’s path into the reality of the walk to work or the ride on the bus. Could we dream the same dreams on the way to Camberley as once were dreamt on the Camino? Could we breathe the same spiritual ambition on the way to Jedburgh as a pilgrim once breathed on the way to Jerusalem?

What others are saying?

 ‘Through personal anecdote, and reference to the writings and observations of others spanning the world and many historical periods, he draws together a case for the walked pilgrimage as the right thing for our times and shows how we might make sense of our lives by living them at walking pace. This is precise, accessible and enjoyable text rather than academic treatise’ Linda Cracknell, author

‘The author helps us to understand walking as a spiritual act. This is a vital insight in a world that might die of over consumption’.Rev Ray Simpson Founding Guardian, The International Community of Aidan and Hilda

‘Richard Littledale writes with wit, imagination, and heart as he unpacks the metaphor of the Christian life as a pilgrimage, providing a travel guide to help us make this momentous journey our own’ – Lisa Deam PhD

‘Anyone wishing to understand more of what walking with God might entail would be well served by reading this excellent and inspiring resource’ – Roy Searle, Northumbria Community.

To order your copy of the book, click here.

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…


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.


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.

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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!


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:

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CLICK for full size

There are cork shepherds, cork sheep and a Fresian cow

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CLICK for full size

A cork Mary and Joseph look proudly on:

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CLICK for full size

A cork angel stands as sentinel:

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CLICK for full size

And, of course there is a (half) cork baby Jesus:

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CLICK for full size

This is, without a doubt, the most precious nativity set I own – made with love.