Friday, 29 May 2009

Idiot Psalms from Down Under

Sean Winter has got a great series of 'Idiot Psalms' written by Scott Cairns on his blog, or you could visit It includes the following which I think should be adopted by BUGB Council and Church meetings up and down the land.

A psalm of Isaak, whispered mid the Philistines, beneath the breath.

Master both invisible and notoriously
slow to act, should You incline to fix
Your generous attentions for the moment
to the narrow scene of this our appointed
tedium, should You—once our kindly
secretary has duly noted which of us
is feigning presence, and which excused, which unexcused,
You may be entertained to hear how much we find to say
about so little. Among these other mediocrities,
Your mediocre servant gets a glimpse of how
his slow and meager worship might appear
from where You endlessly attend our dreariness.
Holy One, forgive, forgo and, if You will, fend off
from this my heart the sense that I am drowning here
amid the motions, the discussions, the several
questions endlessly recast, our paper ballots.

Thursday, 28 May 2009

Smelly Church

I just came across this quotation and thought it worth the sharing:

The church is something like Noah's ark.
If it weren't for the storm outside we couldn't stand the smell inside.

Imagine the delight when I found a cartoon by Dr. Dorothy B. Thompson to match it.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Poetry, Preaching, and People

Next Sunday I am due to preach on Ephesians chapter 2, the first ten verses. For various reasons I want to focus on the last of these verses 'we are God's workmanship.' The word is 'poiema' we are God's poem, God's artistry, God's masterpiece.

This is a powerful image for me, especially in the light of Walter Bruggemann's work in 'Finally Comes the Poet' where he persuasively argues that both the poet and the preacher have a vocation to see and speak of the world differently, indeed to recreate the world into something different. It is poets and preachers alike who Bruggemann says must 'dare a new phrase, offer a new picture,' and as the liturgy of the Iona Community states, it is the task of uncovering 'things previously hidden' and discovering 'new ways to touch the hearts of all.'

And I don’t think such a poetic edge is to be restricted to our preaching. This is surely at the core of our worship ... where we discover the paths of the alternative to the empires of the world, namely kingdom of God. It is at the heart of our discipleship too where we learn together to live according to the ethical demands and spiritual support found in the community of God's Kin-dom.

This is the new reality that comes to us in Jesus, the kingdom of God he proclaimed to be among us and as Bruggemann says all this requires 'a poet to point the way not a moralist.' Because church people are just like other people, we are not changed by new rules, we are not inspired by regulations, 'The deep places in our lives – the places of resistance and embrace – are not ultimately reached by any instruction. They are uncovered and released by stories, by images and metaphors, and phrases that reveal the world differently.'

I was mulling all this over in the back of my mind this morning as I was listening to an interview on Radio 4 relating to the Oxford Professor of Poetry debacle. (Later on i found that Tim at had been listening too.) Anyway my mind was only half on such things but a gut reaction of objection was provoked by the comment that somehow poetry was supposed to be above all the skull duggery alleged to have occurred between Ruth Padel and Derek Wallcott.

'No, no no!' I shouted at the radio whereupon my daughter (almost aged 2) mistook my upset to be a strongly phrased parental command! I tried telling her that Poetry is not supposed to be above anything, it is instead to be a distillation of life's realities, even those of Oxford Academics, its task is to give us all a heightened awareness of the reality of our present world, not extract us from it, but to take us deeper in. I tried to tell her that something similar could be said about church, about our preaching, our worship and our discipleship ... it's bad enough that they take God out of our world without doing it to poetry as well, but she'd already moved on, looking for a piece of toast that she had mislaid earlier. Maybe we'll pick up the conversation when she's older.

Until then I am reminded of Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Rymanov who once said that 'human beings are God's language.' and of the prayer which switches the metaphor but remains true to the spirit of poetry:

Christ, the Master Carpenter
who, at the last,
through wood and nail,
accomplished our whole salvation
wield well your tools
in the workshop of your world
so that we who come rough hewn to your bench
may here be fashioned
into a truer beauty of your hand
We ask it for your own name's sake

Monday, 25 May 2009

Lessons from Flying

And while we are doing Pause for Thoughts, here's the one from the Day before.
Lessons from Flying
Most of us, will have flown somewhere in our lives and no doubt moaned along on the way. I do feel sorry for travellers over six foot tall … there’s not much leg-room on a standard plane … but even so we’ve come a long way since the pioneering aviators: men and women who took to the sky in flimsy flying machines, folks for whom safety checks meant remembering their goggles: people like Amy Johnston.

Way back on this day in 1930, she finally landed in Australia after an epic 19 day flight from Britain. She travelled more than 11,000 miles with a compass as her only navigation aid, over deserts, jungles and oceans and all without a radio.

You’ve got to admire someone who’s prepared to take such risks, just for the love of life and the thrill of adventure.

Of course the point for Amy Johnson was not just to get to Australia, she could’ve done that on board a ship, It wasn’t even to get there faster than the sea would take her. The thrill was in the risk and journey itself: In attempting to do what hadn’t been done before.

Some people may complain that all the great adventures are now done … every place has been explored … nowhere is beyond the safety of the satellite telephone and there is some truth in that … but there’s still a lot that we might dare to do …
if we have the courage.

Our adventure may be something massive, like making poverty a thing of history,
But most of us will probably need to start just where we are planting what Jesus would’ve called the mustard seeds of courage, praying that they will flourish over time.

Which for some might mean just getting through today with its journey to the hospital or bank. Others might discover the strength to not repay one wrong with another. It could make today the day you name your greatest fear or tell someone you love them. Either way there is so much waiting to be done by those who find the courage for the challenge.
The next BBC stuff I'm doing is a week of Prayer for the Day on Radio 4 in early July ... of Joy it's the week of John Calvin's birthday and the London Bombings

Nevermind the aliens

Occasionally I do some Weekend Pause for Thoughts on BBC Radio Two: They go out early in the morning and so thankfully are pre-recorded. Here's the text of the one from Sunday:

Nevermind the Aliens
A few weeks ago I visited a local high school to discuss some contemporary issues with the students. We covered a number of things based on their religious studies course, including one question about whether there was life on other planets. Now, UFOS and extra terrestrials weren’t strictly part of the syllabus, but the teacher let the conversation run and I was glad he did …
because it got us all thinking some wild and wacky things:
if there are some aliens out there watching from afar …
what do they make of how we live on planet earth?

Is our small blue globe on the top ten cosmic tourist destinations? Or do Martian mothers have sleepless nights when their children plan a weekend to earth.

I was thinking of those conversations again today, remembering that it’s just six years ago that NASA first received the data from a probe they sent to Mars. One of the objectives was to look for signs of life … not so much expecting little green men with ray guns, but hoping for some basic elements like water. Almost as an after-thought came the fascinating photographs of earth taken from our neighbour … 35 million miles away. The probe gave us stunning images of how others might view our world.

Back down to earth and closer to home, seeing ourselves as others see us can come a quite a shock. We may have no idea that friends think of us as bossy, difficult or grumpy. We could be surprised to discover that our colleagues think we’re cheerful, kind and helpful. Either way this can be an education.

Which is why the golden rule that Jesus spoke of is still so relevant today.
Do to others as you have them do to you.
Think of others as you hope they’ll think of you.

Never mind the aliens …
if we could only see ourselves as friends and family see us …
who knows what we would learn
and what we’d change.

Voices from the Grave and MP's Expenses

The Oran Chapel on Iona stands in the middle of a graveyard: it is the final resting place of numerous kings and nobles, but last week I was again drawn to the grave of John Smith, the former Labour Party leader, who loved the island. In a week of ongoing revelations from the daily Telegraph about the the lives and purses of our MP's, it was salutory to re-read his epitaph:
"An honest man's the noblest work of God". .

I know that many MP's expenses will be legitimate, within the rules of the Parliament and even in the eyes of heaven, and I am not convinced that the self righteous indignation of the Telegraph comes from any higher a motive than the same taudry hopes of increased revenue that have inspired the more dubious MP's expense claims. I also know not to judge too much, lest I be judged accordingly. But it seems to me that the greatest Labour Prime Minster this country never had, still has comment to make on the politics and politicians of today.

Presumptions in the Oran Chapel and sermons that bear God's voice

I've just come back from a wonderful week spent on the Scottish island of Iona: home down through the centuries to St Columba, Benedictine monks and iconic centre for the modern Iona Community. I experienced a lot, much of which, I suspect, will only become clear in the coming weeks, months (or even years) ...

I have been a frequent visitor to Iona over the years and have developed a mini ritual of going straight from the jetty to the small Oran Chapel next to the Abbey to simply offer prayers of thanks for the journey. But this was my first visit with my daughter and getting the family up to the Abbey and settled took some time. So it was not until after evening worship that I finally said to my wife 'I'm just going over to the Oran chapel to pray, I'll only be five minutes.' Half way over to the chapel it suddenly hit me: was my maker going to be so elated that one of heaven's creations had condescended to turn up for the briefest of conversations that the purposes of heaven for my life would be unfolded in 300 seconds flat!

Yes I rationalised, this was simply an opportunity to give thanks for the journey taken that day, not a 40 day Ignatian retreat ... but all the same it struck me how often we might limit God to the constraints of our diaries and agendas. The worship service must be over in an hour ... the prayer meeting must be done by 9 pm, the new evangelistic programme must be up and running by 2 pm next Tuesday... etc etc.

Of course Iona is a place that celebrates the presence of God in all things, at all times, in all places ... so it would not be unexpected if God were to reveal heavens' purpose while I was washing dishes, playing on the beach, or having a conversation over a drink but would you believe it, God did speak, both loud and clear, and it happened in the oddest of places, in the Sunday sermon! That this still happens is an encouragement to those of us who preach week in week out, and I hope it may enthuse those who listen to us too, for clearly God still uses sermons not just to give people information about God, but to change the direction of their lives.

For all that I am sure God spoke I am not exactly sure what was being said ... not in detail anyway ... God rarely makes it that easy ... but suffice to say that there remains much with which I need to wrestle and work and pray ... and its going to take much longer than five minutes

Stomping good night with Seth Lakeman

On Saturday night a few of us had a great night out listening to Seth Lakeman at St David's Hall in Cardiff. While the sound desk guys left a little to be desired there was no questioning the quality and energy of Seth and the band. (The bass playing was phenomenal)

For those of you who haven't come across him Seth is the up and rising star of British folk music. Growing up in the Devon his (newish) third album ‘Poor Man’s Heaven’ charted at number 8 in the UK on it’s release ... which cannot all be down to the many female fans who gathered in awe of his great looks and single status! He is a very talented musician and song writer: he carries the burden of folk music well ... recollecting the painful stories that have shaped his land and people with passion and empathy: but he does so with alot of guts and relentless rhythmic riffs that are infectious to the ear and the tapping foot. In the show we were treated to some of the best of his established work like Kitty Jay and a smattering of new songs which bear witness to the fact that the muse has not deserted him.

This was the first time I have seen him live ... and once i got over the fact that when he plays the fiddle he stomps around the stage in a manner reminiscent of my 2 year old, it was a sheer delight to watch and listen to five guys clearly enjoying what they do best and very well: making fine music. But for all the excellence of the band it was when he stood alone: fiddle and voice and soul that his talent shone through the best. You could do alot worse than to spend an evening in the company of this man.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Will they play the Blues in heaven?

As well as Leonard Cohen I've also recently received the new CD from veteran Irish folkie Christy Moore: it includes some great new material, some covers and a live version of Rory's Gone, a tribute to Irish blues legend Rory Gallagher .

The lyrics for the unfamiliar go as follows:

And Rory's gone,
To play the blues in heaven.
Above the clouds,
With all the angels singing there.
His records scratched,
Like his beaten-up old Fender,
But the songs are strong,
And the notes hang in the air.

Gone with Steve Ray,
And Jessie Ed Davis.
They died too young,
And much too premature.
Another rock'n'roller,
Gone but not forgotten,
As his old guitar still mourns and plays,
And wails and screams the blues.

It sings for Mississippi Fred,
And Muddy Waters, Son House, Sleepy John,
And the Nighthawk too.
Blacks, whites, blues and greens,
All the colours mixed together
Now Rory's gone to Heaven.
Since Rory's gone to Heaven,
To play the blues.

And Rory's gone to play,
The blues in Heaven.

I've sung along to this in concert halls and on ipods for years but suddenly it hit me;
if someday every tear will be wiped away ...
will they sing the blues in heaven?
What will become of the genius of Rory, Muddy, Stevie Ray et al.

And suddenly I'm back in Bournemouth discussing the Whitley lecture over dinner and pondering the question: 'Are disabilities healed/ made whole in heaven?' I think what i remember of the conversation brought us to some consensus that disability was only a burden in a society unable to accommodate its difference and so in heaven the tears of disability are indeed all wiped away, but the physicality of who we are, complete with what are now seen as 'imperfections', remain a part of our eternal existence.

Which leaves me wondering about some of my favourite music: if all our causes of pain are themselves transfigured in the eschaton what are the blues singers going to sing about? I fear that endless happy clappy shiny music would leave me hankering for the woundedness of earth ... (maybe that will be their inspiration) ... but even the majesty of my favourite classical works need regular supplementing with the bended strings of an electric guitar.
it seems to me that God has got the work cut out ...
could this be the biggest challenge to the Almighty
just how do you go about resurrecting the blues?

Vocation Envy

When I started blogging I given to understand that it was free. Not so ... reading other people's recommended choices of books and music has helped me help Amazon to survive the economic downturn. Even with the chance to 'try before I buy' for the music on Spotify, it is still a pricey endeavour. Maybe this says much about by consumer mentality and the need to possess but more of that another day. The point is, the various reviews have finally pushed me out to buy 'Leonard Cohen live in London.' And I've got vocation envy.

Cohen is manifestly gifted and surely called by God to offer his sometimes less than optimistic commentary on the world, in the hope that some of us will wake up and discover what's been going on around us. He is a poet and a prophet, with a gift for language and perception as well as a strong melody, and I must admit that I am jealous. Jealous in the sense that the 2 CDs I've been listening to, cover the lifetime of his work (there's a few songs I would have liked to be included but were not) and they stand the test of time ... touching thousands of lives. Now I have no ambitions for filling the O2 auditorium when i am 70+ years old, so that people can listen to my top 10 sermons ... ( yes i know you will be grateful) but I do wish there was something less ephemeral about the words I try to script and deliver every week. Maybe I should follow Jim Gordon's advice and leave a Haiku summary of the sermon on every chair.

I do remember Martyn Joseph singing at my ordination and I recall what he said in his prelude: He reflected that he did not envy the preacher's task at all ... he only had to write 10 or 15 new things a year and then got to deliver them over and over again ... not for him need to come up with something fresh and insightful 2 or 3 times a week for every week of the year. I guess I'm somewhat jealous of the way the words of songs like Turn me Tender can touch me and others again and again and go on doing so for a life time.

But then again, by being present every week in the same place and with the same people I am privileged to watch the fellowship I serve, change down through the years. I am part of deepening relationships and growing commitment and regular expressions of grace that I am not so sure I'd know if i were in London tonight, Manhattan tomorrow and then Berlin on Friday.

So maybe I am not so jealous after all ... maybe I am glad that each of has their own calling and that i have my own 'small corner' in which 'my light must shine' and if the light from others occasionally finds its way to me ... then i should pray for them and hope that some of what just might shine out through me, will find its way to others too. After all, the gifts God gives us and the calling heaven issues, are not supposed to place us in a league of competition. The secret is to give thanks for our diversity and to inhabit who we are.

As Mary Oliver says of Praying

It doesn't have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just

pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don't try
to make them elaborate, this isn't
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

Monday, 11 May 2009

Dancing Scarecrows

In this ever expanding virtual universe I'm often fascinated as to the reallife stories behind the titles chosen for a blog or website:

But there are no prizes for the thinking behind Dancing Scarecrow ... not from me anyway ... and that's because the good people behind it will tell you all about it on their new (in fact so new it is still under construction) website The title comes from that wonderful Brian Wren hymn that contains the lines.

Here hangs a man discarded
A scarecrow hoisted high,
A nonsense pointing nowhere
To all who hurry by

Can such a clown of sorrows
Still bring a useful word
Where faith and love seem phantoms
And every hope absurd?

They also have a blog just started looks like it will be most helpful to the growing number of people who want their worship to consciously connect with real life and not just offer an escape from it. (Yes I know we all need a spot of sanctuary now and then but that's not the only reason why Christians gather and certainly not why we are then scattered back 'into the world' again.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it rather well when he said 'there is but one reality and that is Jesus Christ and in him humanity is offered the possibility of partaking in the reality of God and the reality of the world at the same time, but not in the one without the other.’

So if you are looking for prayers and other pieces of liturgy that can help you and your church enter more deeply into this reality of Christ then its well worth keeping an eye on what Clare McBeath and Tim Presswood are gathering together in Manchester and scattering out as blessings to us all.

BlackBerry Bible

My phone has locked and frozen a view times in the last month and so at the weekend I went to see about a replacement. Of course the adverts and their prices are never what they seem to be, but I did come away with a new phone ... a BlackBerry ... so called smart phone ... ( if its so smart how come it doesn't just know what I want it to do?)

Anyway I used to have an e sword Bible on my (old, possibly redundant) Dell PDA but Mr BlackBerry doesn't seem to like it. Any one out there using a good and easy to set up bible on a BlackBerry?

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Obama was there, I was there, were you?

Well what do you know, but Barack Obama turned up at Bournemouth. OK it was only a quotation from him on the first night ... but even so ... he was there, so was I were you?

Lots of other great people turned up and contributed to the best assembly I've been at in quite a few years. Great venue, (city and centre), great weather, (not really in Didcot's control but appreciated anyway) and the main event worship was much improved than over the last few years (in my humble opinion). Some great preaching / speaking too and for me the top three speakers were all women (see if you can guess). Prism was again excellent despite not having the greatest of spaces, approaching the 5 core values through biography was most helpful. The last talk was especially one that will stay with me for many a year.

I discovered that just like at Edinburgh, the fringe activities often stir me more that the main events. So I spent a lot of time at Prism and was greatly encouraged in a number of the special interest groups, including the insights into Israel / Palestine from the Baptist Peace Fellowship, the talk given by Richard Kidd and Graham Sparks on Seeing Art. Many of the more straightforward talks I'll be getting on CD and am looking forward to Steve Holmes, Nigel Wright and John Rackley in particular ... sorry i wasn't there for the live thing but sometimes the sun and ice cream was too good to resist!

There were of course things to grumble about, (not least the price of drinks) but in the spirit of the last post i am trying to be restrained. I will mention just one that was more worrying the the cost of a pint. Having spent a lot of time encouraging Christians to see their everyday work as vital missional endeavour I was annoyed to hear BMS reps suggest (possibly unwittingly) that those not enrolled to travel overseas where frittering their lives away on things of no eternal value. That may not be it verbatim but it comes close and captures the essence and the fact that it was given a deliberate opportunity to be repeated causes some concern. All the good talk of incarnational ministry, the many words of encouragement such as 'every baptist a missionary' were uncut by what was said. It was an understandably passionate plea for more overseas candidates but the sloppy vocabulary ended up having the opposite effect on many I spoke with.
It was all exacerbated by the comment that not a lot of people came forward this year to BMS and clearly this can't be right. Surely it might have been exactly right in a year of tough budgets. ASBO Jesus thinks about it this way: Rant over back to the good stuff.
Finally we got Real Life worship off the ground.
This is a Faith and Unity initiative I've been involved with seeking to connect our worship with real life living. We did a launch at Assembly and the website is now up and running live. The papers will be unloaded soon. Let us know what you think.

Some people at the launch asked for copies of the final prayer
So here it is:

In a world where so much is false:
From the flowers on the restaurant table
to the shiny happy smiles on the TV
Lord, help us to get real.

In a world where so much else is fake:
from the tan lines on the beach
to the surgically enhanced beauties in the magazine
Lord, help us to be real.

In a world where my banana flavoured milk shake
tastes more banana than bananas
And we still know more about the lives of Posh and Becks
than we do our neighbours
Lord, help us to get real.

In amidst the branded logos
the spin and telepromted passion
Faceless banking,
virtual communities
and help desks where
a computer generated echo
assures us we are valued,

May our worship be real
and may our living be
an authentic sacrifice of worship.

Thanks to my travelling companions and sleeping partner for such good company and conversation.