Friday, January 30, 2015

Raindrops on Roses?

I don't really see the world in terms of favourites. I was in a group setting recently where we were taking it in turns to share our favourite song and favourite Bible passage. Rabbit in the car headlights time.

I make a list of my desert island discs but it changes regularly. I like lists. But making the final decision as to which one record I would take. Hard.

Many of my colleagues were making their decisions on the basis of emotional or sentimental attachments - memories. Lots of my memories are attached to bad music so that's not on the list.

I've just got back from my Mum's, a woman who wouldn't throw away an envelope if it had a dead person's writing on it. I don't mean she gets mail from the dead; just that she keeps mail a long time.

Reasons to be cheerful - I can do that and posted about 200 a few months back. But choosing one. Ridiculous.

Today I was particularly cheered by a bacon double cheeseburger and fries. But I could manage without ever eating another one.

You don't have to have a favourite everything, or indeed anything. And sentimental attachments to things? You'll live out your old age surrounded by crap. If in doubt; chuck it out (which strangely, was the motto of the insurance claims department I used to work for).

Now, where did I put my lucky handkerchief?

Thought for the Day

As delivered at BBC Radio Bristol this morning:

Tonight I am very much looking forward to the annual dinner of the Nailsea Mountain Rescue Team. What's that you say? There are no mountains in Nailsea? Quite so. But if any should appear we will be one of the few low-level towns in the south-west that is prepared.

I suspect you smell a rat. And you would be right to do so. It is a spoof organisation consisting of a bunch of people who like a bit of a drink and then to walk off the calories. It's a joke, made all the funnier by the absolutely straight-faced way the members explain what they are doing.

Last summer, on one walk back, the team discovered a couple in the middle of a field who looked in need of rescue. Closer inspection revealed that their horizontal position was intentional and the presence of the team undesirable. Oops.

We all need a bit of fun. Even Shakespeare's greatest tragedy King Lear has a fool in it to remind the king he is flawed. Writing to the Corinthian Christians St Paul adopts the style of a fool and boasts of his weaknesses. The jester reminds us we are all human and full of frailty.

We can get a bit over-serious about bad news. Tourist offices closing. Medical money misused. School league tables drawing attention to failure. All doomed.

So tonight, as the coxswain of the Backwell Lifeboat joins us as our special guest I will take my chaplaincy duties responsibly and then enjoy the company of a bunch of folk who, from time to time, don't take life too seriously, and make sure they have climbed every mountain in Nailsea. Please don't call me early on Saturday morning.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Poetry Challenge

Last night' s Cafe Create poetry challenge was to write a poem about silence featuring the words:

Wind
Water polo
Alternate
Beagle two
Castanet
Psycho therapy

I woke up, couldn't hear the wind
My ears had sinned
All input binned
Tinnitus - tinned

The sound is slaughtered
Over-watered
Decibels quartered
Ear-holes mortared

It is a no no
If you go low
You should say woah
Under-water polo

I tried to see
If there might be
Another key
A noise to set my panic fee

The taps flow rate
A soundless date
The shower sedate
Maybe I could alternate

Turned on the news
But missed all cues
Unshared views
No Humphrys bruise

I think the noise
Often annoys
Ruins my poise
But I didn't want to lose its joys

Now I get
A dreadful threat
No rhythm set
A silent castanet

So let's see
What becomes of me?
Psycho-therapy
Can't raise the fee

Farewell laughter my old friend
I think you got me in the end
The prophets subway walls just send
Me round the bend

What's a guy supposed to do?
It feels like glue
My ears are through
There's more response from Beagle 2

Change?

Four groups:

Traditionalists support change as soon as it has been repeated twice and become a tradition.

Hesitants support change when most people support the change.

Early adopters support change as soon as they see the benefit or potential.

Mavericks support change.

Where do you put yourself?

Where should a leader put themselves?

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Thought for the Day

As delivered at BBC Radio Bristol this morning:

I was chatting to a group of young adults about what they call 'the old days' and I call my past.

They couldn't grasp how I used to meet up with friends without a mobile phone. 'Well' I said in a patronising, fatherlike voice I save for such occasions, 'Each time we meet, before we leave, we fix the time and place of the next gathering and then go there at that time.'

They all looked gobsmacked. How awkward. What if you are late? They could agree to meet in Dundee on Saturday, tweak the arrangements right up to the last moment and agree a precise meeting place once there. It's a luxury.

I showed them a picture of the first office I ever worked in. A busy insurance company. On each desk just a phone and a load of files. No computers, yet.

If I was to have a word now with my twenty year old self the array of communication devices in this studio would be utterly baffling as Twitter feeds, autocues, Facebook updates, texts, calls and live material are seamlessly linked. Well, usually.

The young me understood bullying, had even suffered a bit of it, but would not have a clue what I was talking about if I mentioned cyber-bullying.

We can end up thinking that this is a very 21st century problem needing a very 21st century solution. It isn't and doesn't. All it needs is the age-old rule to treat others the way you would like to be treated yourself. So old, it's in the Bible.

Online is just another place where people hang out. The good and the evil. There, as anywhere else, people should be respected not bullied.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Short Term 12

This is a lovely little film directed and written by Destin Cretton (new to me) from the autumn of 2013.

It is set in a centre / care home for troubled children and young people. None of the cast were particularly familiar to me.

As Nate is introduced to his new co-workers over the opening credits we are led to suspect this will be about a fish-out-of-water posh kid learning to understand deprivation for the first time. In fact Nate isn't the star of the show; the whole cast is.

We visit a team of caring care-workers - sometimes working with the therapists who offer more directed interventions into the young lives and sometimes kicking against them - and we observe day-to-day interactions. We are left to marvel at the patience shown by thousands of such employees around the world day-by-day. This film is a counter to the bad stories about abuse in such establishments.

Sometimes a barrier is broken by shared artwork; sometimes by rhythm and rap. It is about being incarnational and looking for connections.

That said, all is not well. Even the carers have their demons and through gentle dialogue and a number of scenes where 'show' is used much better than 'tell' we learn more.

This is a tough place to work, a tough place to grow up and yet, because the problems are real, the redemption, when it comes, is too. So a troubled young girl can help a worker, who has buried her own past, to deal with it.

The book-ending of two, almost identical, scenes is a lovely framing device to start and finish. That they mean different things is all to do with context.

Great performances. Only 96 minutes of your life needed and I rented my copy from Amazon for 99p. Best use of money this year.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

If everyone is good, good is average

My fascination with statistics has developed over the years. Possibly because I am a bit nerdy; maybe because as an intuitive by nature I need to remind myself constantly that statistics are counter-intuitive and need to be studied to reveal their secrets. As I am fond of saying, a mugging victim will find it hard to believe that crime is down in the moments after the attack.

I read another example of this in the excellent 'Thinking Fast and Slow' by Daniel Kahneman this week, discovering the delights of 'regression to the mean'.

Which is better? Shouting at the poor performers or praising the good?

Time's up.

What is your gut reaction? Probably that there is a place for both stick and carrot.

Now let me tell you more. In an organisation where everyone is on top of their game - say it is sales - give or take, most of the team members sell 100 units a week, most of the time. One week a sales rep shifts only 23. You are the team leader and you have that person in your office and give them a dressing down. They can offer no explanation for their poor sales and so you assume they didn't try hard enough, missed some leads or allowed private affairs to get on top of them. After a stern talking to and threat of disciplinary action, you send them packing.

Next week they come in with 105. You pat yourself on the back for your management skills.

Another week a second member of the team pitches in with 342 units. You invite them to your office, praise them, give them a bonus and a 'sales-person of the week' award and an afternoon off.

Next week they come in with 95.

Which is better? Shouting at the poor performers or praising the good?

Time's up.

Obviously the counter-intuitive conclusion from these results is that shouting works but praise doesn't.

Wrong.

Your intuition was right at the beginning.

You see, all things being equal, from time to timely average performers will produce above average results and below average results. They average out. Rarely, but occasionally, very bad and very good results will crop up. Remember that in this organisation everyone is on top of their game. I told you that. So circumstances will conspire to have an occasional customer who wants to buy loads of your product as a one-off, giving you an outstanding week. And sometimes all the good customers stay away at once. It just happens like that because averages are, well average.

The shouted at will put extra effort in and do slightly above average next week but they won't keep that performance level up. The praised will be encouraged, slightly complacent and try slightly less hard.

It all reverts to the mean.

So if neither make a big difference, ask yourself this. Will my workforce do better in an environment where the good is praised and the bad understood? Or in one where the bollocking is the only tool?

Friday, January 09, 2015

How to compare two things.

I read just now that:

'Gordon Taylor has apologised for comparing the Hillsborough tragedy to the Ched Evans rape case.' (Source - www.bbc.co.uk)

I wish he hadn't. Apologised, that is. Because that was not what he did. No such comparison was made. What he did was to give the Hillsborough case as an example of people being thought to be guilty and found innocent. Simply an example of something that does happen from time to time and that is a miscarriage of justice.

Now I am not making any pronouncement on the innocence or guilt of Ched Evans. He has been found guilty by a court; he continues to protest his innocence. We shall have to wait and see.

And of course I am bound, at this stage, in accordance with the rules of the game of language as currently played, to say that rape is rape, rape is serious, rape is a crime and the rapist is to blame. Otherwise I will be offending people who will think I am not taking it seriously enough.

Here's my problem. The world currently seems to take the view that putting two things in the same paragraph is comparing them. It isn't. And it is educated journalists, who should know better, who are making sure people who were never meant to be insulted fully understand the non-nuances of the insult that wan't made so they feel insulted.

Strewth.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Why Retreat?

From time to time, those who have pretty ordinary working lives look across at us clergy and wonder why it is necessary to take sabbaticals or go on retreat quite so regularly. 'Chance would be a fine thing', you almost hear them say.

Don't get me wrong. Retreat time as part of work is a privilege and not one I take for granted. I also get to worship and pray as part of my working life. Equally nice.

Someone once, in a fine evangelical sermon, used the example of the two biblical seas. The Sea of Galilee receives and gives and is alive; the Dead Sea only receives and is dead.

It reminded us all of the need to serve and be served if we want to live as Christians. I have met followers of Jesus who were out of kilter in both directions.

If you only give, only serve, especially as a preacher and teacher, you will soon not only dry up, but cease to exist. A sea that doesn't receive will soon be a place where the water used to be.

So I am away for a few days. I am with a friend who shares a comfort with the routine and timetable we have established over the years. We set aside times to talk - about what we are reading and about our ministries. We set times to eat and times to read and even a time to nap in the afternoon.

It is a luxury. But our churches would not want to experience us trying to minister without this six monthly half week away. It is not holiday. It is an investment in our being better by stepping back. To this end it would be a useful addition to the annual timetable of many senior leaders in industry. Stopping to think is not actually a luxury. It is a necessary. Many walks of life would be the better for those responsible having not just holiday, but thinking breaks.

You can often better reflect on your situation by getting out of it for a while. Get away.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Jesus, Virgins and Christmas

Andrew Lincoln was one of my college lecturers and gave some ground-breaking New Testament expositions. This book, a detailed and academic look at the doctrine of Jesus' virginal conception, is quite simply one of the best works of theology I have read.

I confess to using my theological library as a point of reference rather than as a set of tomes to devour from beginning to end, although I am trying to change. I read this book from cover to cover, stopping many times to ponder or look up references. It is now covered in highlighter pen.

Andrew, Portland Professor of New Testament at the University of Gloucestershire, shows how much weight we have heaped upon the two short stories at the beginning of Luke and Matthew's Gospels. He goes on to explain why this might have been, what sort of writings they are and how it is possible to have the highest possible Christology without knowing anything of, or relying at all upon, these accounts, referencing John, Paul and Hebrews.

He then, helpfully, advises all of us who might find it hard to say the creeds if we are required to be saying history, of the manoeuvres we make all the time and every day, to interpret things in different ways whilst saying the same thing as each other.

He also helps us preachers keep our integrity whilst preaching the birth narratives at Christmas.

But, as someone said to me after a carol service this year, maybe more people would come to church if they didn't feel they had to swallow all this nativity stuff as history? Maybe indeed.

Christians share one faith, even if Southern Baptists are rather closed-minded about what that faith is.

Great stuff.

The Chair

When Meredith Belbin produced his ground-breaking work 'Management Teams: Why They Succeed or Fail' he identified the key role of chairing. Except most of the time he didn't call it that. He called it 'co-ordinating'.

If you come across someone who is a good co-ordinator (in my time monitoring Belbin test results I have only experienced one person who had this as their headline preference) then their skill will be to use the gifts and skills of the rest of the team to achieve the desired results.

A good co-ordinator may bring nothing to the party. They may never have an original idea. They may not solve any problems. They may not know anyone who can help. But they will probably know who can. Someone in their team.

They are often very humble people although very 'in control'. Maybe the right place for the control freak is in the chair.

So one of the great things to see is a good chair announcing success. They will use the language of 'we' all the time. Whereas a control freak without the co-ordination skills will tend to take credit for success.

Here's the question. I expect you knew by now that there would be a question.

Is the Prime Minister the co-ordinator of the country? And if (s)he is, why do we need her or him to be charismatic?

The answer is something to do with democracy and ancient memes. We feel instinctively uneasy at voting someone into power who can't eat a bacon sandwich properly, forgetting, of course, that 99 photos of correct bacon-sandwich eating were disposed of until that one was found.

The best person for the job may be the least charismatic; the one who stands up afterwards and says 'My team did this - not me'

Monday, December 29, 2014

Football quiz of the year

Flex your own punditry muscles in this annual quiz.

1. 'He is well respected because he is a football man.' What is Neil Warnock on about?

2. Name any controversial, on-pitch incidents that Arsène Wenger saw last year.

3. Discus the anatomy of a footballer with special reference to:
A) Leaving your leg in.
B) Putting your head in.
C) Having an arm in an 'unnatural position'.

4. In a conversation between Lee Clark and Stephen Gerrard who would be bored first?

5. 'If you're not interfering with play what are you doing on the pitch?' In relation to the current offside law interpretation how fast is Brian Clough spinning in his grave?

6. Place in order of my nervousness:
A) West Brom one up in the ninetieth minute with three minutes of injury time to play.
B) West Brom two up after ten minutes.
C) Alan Irvine indicating he wishes to make a substitution.
D) Anyone except Saido Berahino stepping up to take a penalty.

7. 'It is the duty of all players to avoid being fouled if they can.' What would pundits make of this early clarification of the rules of the game?

8. Ashley Young is touched in the stomach. Indicate by use of diagrams the part of his body he will rub as he falls.

9 Recall a game in which Newcastle's Steven Taylor wasn't stupidly brave.

10. In which episode of The Football League Show did Steve Claridge avoid saying 'There's no doubt about that'?

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Before We Get Too Excited

Well they were queueing to get in at Trendlewood Church on Christmas Day as we hastily added more and more chairs to our usual 90 or so. Eventually, with a watchful eye to emergency potential, we crammed 131 into Golden Valley School Hall. Nothing makes things go well like a crowd.

There were some new or irregular guests, for which we give thanks, but mostly, like those cicadas that time their breeding cycle for prime numbers of years so they hatch when the food is plentiful and, from time to time, all coincide, all our families came home at once.

The thing that is great though is that this bunch of people returning to families for Christmas lunch, were raised by the informal Anglicanism of Trendlewood Church's ministry. They don't bat an eyelid that instead of a sermon on Christmas Day the children have made a Lego video of the nativity. They willingly accept the vicar wearing a VW badge around his neck and encouraging them to make clay bling. They share communion around tables and include the children who enjoy running for a grape when the wine comes around. They end with another nativity video which is poignant, funny and not a little South Park edgy.

Everyone is encouraged by a crowd. Re-union conversations are going on long after we have finished at a service where we offer no refreshments because we expect people will want to get home.

I was encouraged by our little crib service on Christmas Eve, started last year so that we now have two, simultaneous, crib services in the parish. This year we advertised in the school newspaper and picked up a fair few local families who came for our short telling of the Christmas story, in its simplest form, with some carols, prayers and mince pies. Our numbers were up on last year so that we had over 50 in attendance.

Today we are meeting as a church but not so much to worship (we will a bit) as to chill together. We will have coffee and croissants, Sunday papers, a break for carols and prayers and then mulled wine and nibbles. You can come for the whole morning or just for a bit.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Thought for the Day

Well Good Morning and a very Happy Christmas to you all.

This is a recorded thought. Vicars are in demand on Christmas morning. Later on a member of my lovely Trendlewood congregation in Nailsea will taunt me. 'It must be hard for you to have to work on a Thursday' he will say.

Cheek.

After I have finished my duties today, cooked the family lunch and had a bit of a sleep, I may finally get round to reading some cards and newsletters from friends.

One terribly sad thing happens around this time of year. One of our early cards is addressed to Mrs J. Armstrong (I've changed the names).

It is always signed:

To Julie and Rob and girls

From Jim, Tricia and girls

There is no sender's address.

We have lived in our house for over eight years. The previous occupants, one of whom was Julie, left no forwarding address. I was led to believe that the relationship ended in separation and certainly, just before the house was purchased, there were more than just daughters living here, suggesting that a new family had begun and two sets of children were merging. Mail arrives for people with two different surnames.

So, the senders have not heard from their friends for eight years, don't know they've separated, formed new relationships and moved, yet continue to send a quick card (early, to get it done with). They add no address, no news and no clues.

I wonder how many times this story is repeated around the country.

And I ask myself. Are we really keeping in touch with each other's lives? As you read your cards this year spare a thought, and maybe a prayer, for the senders.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

My Alternative Career

I was ordained pretty young, by today's standards, although at 29 I felt I had been made to wait too long. I have now been thirty years in this ministry. I have tried to follow the Spirit's leading and to take good advice and this route has meant that I have never been an incumbent (Rector or Vicar) of a parish.

But I have done some interesting jobs which were useful, to some extent successful and bore some fruit.

It is clear now what I should have done. To all intents and purposes I was a bright young thing who could have achieved seniority within the Church of England.

After my first curacy (during which I should have stood for election to Diocesan Synod) I should have either undertaken a short chaplaincy, a five year team vicar post, or served abroad.

I did a long second curacy which might have been called Team Vicar in different circumstances. I should have done a Masters during this period.

After this, eight years in (and trying not to swap diocese too often), I should have done an incumbency with more synodical responsibility, including standing for General Synod, and taking an interest in a specific area of diocesan work. I should have avoided being outspoken, critical or terribly effective the while, leaving any church exactly as I found it with goodwill from the Usual Sunday Attendance. I should have chosen to generate a particular area of theological expertise and never avoided using such services as are authorised by canon. I should have developed liturgical, rather than informal worship, expertise.

Age 42 I would have been ready. It may have taken a while, it may not have happened at all, but that would have increased the likelihood of my getting on a preferment list.

In fact I then worked for a home mission agency and spent ten years helping the Church of England with youth ministry. Then, drained and ill, I wrote for four years whilst working part-time for a parish. A conservative-evangelical by background and training, my theology became more liberal as it became more biblical. I reached the age of 51.

For the last eight years I have been doing missional stuff back in the front-line and at grass roots as minister of a planted church which is now hoping to plant again.

Every post has involved investing time and energy in future leaders and growing the Church of England's talent pool. I can, off the top of my head, name eleven people in ministry and leadership as a result of this work - roughly one every three years.

Think how good I would have been if groomed for future major responsibility? That's right. Not at all. Those who are worth giving further responsibility to have already invested a considerable amount of time and money in their own development.

By the way, I am really happy in my work.

Hot News

The Christmas Letter 2014 is available.

Enjoy.

Thought for the Day

As delivered this morning at BBC Radio Bristol:

A Bristol GP recently told me he had never known a period so busy in his surgery. Not with any particular ailment. Just a lot of patients with different problems.

So we try to relieve pressure on our Health Service. Don't visit your doctor with a cold. Don't take bumps and bruises to Accident and Emergency if you're tipsy. Buy your own headache remedies.

Many of us see the doctor seeking reassurance - tell me this lump isn't cancerous - sort of thing.

Ambroise Paré in the sixteenth century said the physician's duty was 'to cure occasionally, relieve often, console always.'

So we might applaud local businesses coughing up cash for a Drink Tank - a place to keep inebriated people safe while nature takes its course. People who don't need a doctor; they need a sleep.

Jesus, amazingly, was quite short with the sick. He is reported as arguing with one Canaanite woman that he didn't heal outsiders. St Mark writes of an occasion when Jesus came down to a crowd of sick people at his door. His reply 'Let's go somewhere else'. He had something more important to do.

Our National Health Service has left us all feeling as if we ought to be well all the time.

I wish you the best of health in this week before Christmas. It's rubbish being ill at this time of year. But also a sober and realistic assessment of what it means to be well. I have known some very poorly people who simply didn't let their illness be the most important thing about them.

Health, someone once said, is what you have when you don't notice it.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Thought for the Day

As delivered at BBC Radio Bristol an hour ago:

My worst night's sleep ever followed a midnight call from the custody sergeant at the police station. 'Your son has been arrested for burglary.'

As we may well recall, Jo Yeates, a young Bristol woman, was murdered four years ago by Vincent Tabak, who is now in prison for the crime.

The film about her landlord, Christopher Jefferies, a two-part TV drama which concludes tonight, has been the subject of much conversation.

So although only helping police with their enquiries, having been arrested on suspicion of murder, a lot of journalistic digging took place, as if he was guilty. Can you remember what you thought at the time? The Sun called him 'Strange Mr Jefferies'. Unjustified rumours about his sexuality were published. He was described as a peeping Tom.

Jefferies has received an apology from the police for the distress caused during the investigation. He has successfully sued a number of newspapers and given evidence to the Leveson Enquiry.

My son was not charged but released, within 18 hours, having been caught up in something bad a crowd of young men did. He slept with the door open for a few days after that - because he could.

The police were great. CCTV cameras were part of the process by which innocence was proved and no journalists asked me about the gap between my example as a vicar and my parenting skills. Thank goodness.

Being eccentric is not a crime.

Being a young man near a crime is not a crime.

And crucially, being arrested is not a crime.

Beware of jumping to conclusions of guilt.

'Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.' A persecuted, innocent man said that.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Thought for the Day

As delivered at BBC Radio Bristol this morning:

You probably wouldn't sleep very comfortably with your head in the cooker and your feet in the fridge, but if a statistician came along they'd soon convince you that on average you were comfortable.

Well? How do you feel about your personal finances? Hot or cold? Warm or cool? Or does it all depend where you decide to stick the thermometer?

One of the difficulties of responding to an autumn budget statement is that of arguing from the particular to the general. If you have lost your job recently it is hard to be convinced that things in general are picking up. A mugging victim will be slow to agree that crime figures are down.

Rainy spells are good for umbrella makers. Doctors earn money because we get sick. Self-curing concrete (an invention highlighted on the programme) sounds astonishing, but, if successful, it will force the manufacturers of conventional concrete to change.

So politicians look at the country on average - in general - regardless of who is doing well and who badly.

When I had dependent children I looked forward to the day when I could have more disposable income. Now I am fortunate enough to be able to save but my money earns next to no interest. And anyway, even thirty something children ask for occasional handouts.

The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.

I hear Jesus' words as told by Luke, 'Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a person's life does not consist in the abundance of their possessions.' And I remember that, as we approach Christmas, it is better to give than to receive, nicer to contribute than to moan, and far, far more comfortable to sleep in the bedroom than in the kitchen.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Not liver but Allen keys

A while back I posted about a strange set of circumstances in which things had gone wrong. Read it at http://stevetilley.blogspot.co.uk/2009/11/les-choses-est-contre-nous.html

It involved a particular person turning up at one of my Quiet Days brandishing a bag of liver. No, really.

So yesterday the same person told us at lunchtime that he had decided to go for a cycle during the first period of quiet. But, getting on his bike, he reached into the pocket of his coat and found a set of keys he did not recognise. After a bit of a ponder he realised that he was wearing the wrong coat. One of the other guests had a similar one.

He swapped coats and all was well.

At going home time my bike-riding guest said that If I happened to find a particular Allen key around the house it was he who had lost it. At which point (are you there yet?) the coat-swap victim suggested 'Have you looked in my coat pocket?' He did, and there it was. We all chuckled, knowingly.

What will live with me for a while is the look on the face of the person who had come to fetch one of my guests and joined us for a cuppa. 'What sort of a meeting is this?' his expression asked, without words.

We didn't say, immediately. Better to leave the mystery sometimes.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

RIP Phil Hughes and some thoughts on his passing

So sad to hear that Australian cricketer Phil Hughes has died following a blow to the head by a cricket ball. A cricket ball travelling at ninety miles an hour is a dangerous thing but the huge advances in protective equipment worn by players makes such occasions incredibly rare. But if you have never cradled a cricket ball in your hand you ought to. It is a very solid projectile. One once broke my ankle. I look down at the scar between the fingers of my right hand where a ball split the webbing. I caught it though.

I have been pretty focused on the Old Testament for the last few months. Morning Prayer lectionary readings took us through 1 and 2 Samuel then 1 and 2 Kings. My church has been studying Exodus and my small home group, Genesis.

Many people observe dramatic differences between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New. I observe dramatic differences between the people of the Old and the people of the New (and the people of today). A collection of books (which the Bible is) containing stories spanning two millennia will inevitably show some major cultural change.

The sport of the Middle Bronze Age was war. You tested your strength against the neighbours in a time when land boundaries were being stretched, established and fixed.

What does Goliath say to David? Not much more than 'Come and have a go if you think you're hard enough.'

Saul has killed his thousands
David his tens of thousands

This too is a football chant.

Our leader is better than the King.

The sport of kings is a description often made of hunting pursuits. The Romans fixed combat as a sport by building huge stadia in which people gathered to watch warriors try to kill each other. Combat, jousting and contact team games are all anteceded by warfare.

We have moved on. We (by which I mean society) still like team games and one-on-one competition. Boxing and wrestling are the two where the focus is most on hurting each other but subtle rules make sure the pain is limited and the potential damage minimal. But boxers are maimed and die from time to time.

Rugby has an unbelievable care for rules and opponent. Witness the huddles after games of mutual appreciation. But when the whistle blows there is much made of the 'big hit'. Hugely perfected physiques try very hard to stop each other with extremely violent blocks and tackles. American football is the culmination of this process; guys hit each other much harder than they otherwise would because their own protective clothing becomes not a defensive matter but a shock-absorber which allows them to thud and crunch into each other with greater power, velocity and personal safety.

Football also has its nuances. It is often forgotten that page one of the introduction to the game specifies that football is not a physical contact sport but the nature of the game makes some physical contact inevitable. And we are discovering that brain injuries caused by heading an old water-soaked case-ball were more common than we thought. (See the 'Justice for Jeff' campaign re the West Brom striker who died relatively young, probably as a result of heading footballs too often.)

But cricket is complex. Much is made of the failure of outsiders to understand the rules and subtleties. But when a fast bowler has, in his armoury, the possibility of projecting the ball at great speed at the opponent's head, deliberately, you have to say that this will only serve to intimidate or unnerve the opponent if it carries with it the prospect of serious injury or death. Hard to imagine that players used to face such a barrage without helmets but I am old enough to remember the days.

So, did Phil Hughes die because of a failure of protective equipment? Possibly, and it may be the case that even more protection will be offered. But this will greatly increase the weight of a helmet and may make avoiding the ball harder.

No. Phil Hughes died because part of the game of cricket, and some other games, involves trying to kill each other. It rarely happens but it is a possibility. It is sad but true. I am sure he knew the risk. Combating a dangerous bowler who was trying to maim him was part of the attraction.

I wonder if the bowler will be wanting to try and kill again though? Because if that's not what he's trying to do, why aim at the head?

Monday, November 24, 2014

Quote of the Day

Thank you for being with me. I have now finished the job of indexing my quote book. It loomed at me as a massive job I would never get done. But by chopping it into small bits and indexing ten a day for five days a week I have finished in about a year.

Now all I need is a weekly reminder to transfer any new quotes into my book and to index them when ten are there.

I call this system 'Eating a slug'. If you absolutely have to eat slug you want that critter thin-sliced.

1227. Modern agriculture, with its push toward vast monocultures, is as likely to produce environmental harmony as a call centre is to produce social harmony.
(Guy Watson, Riverford News Letter 19/5/14)

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Guess Who is Coming?

Readers with stamina will recall that my best friend is Bob. We conduct this relationship without feeling it necessary to communicate or meet for great chunks of time, then go and live near each other for ten years or so until we're sick of each other. We go away on reading breaks together and carry on where we left off. We're fine with that. Whoever dies second will conduct the other's funeral incorporating a flip-chart exercise of suggesting words that could not be used to describe the deceased. If it's his funeral then 'organised' will probably be suggested. If it's mine he'll forget the flip-chart.

Bob is able to disappear from society for great lengths of time then come back with a sentence or observation of such precision and wisdom that you wish he'd go away more. Mind you the second sentence is often almighty drivel so don't wait around for that.

Anyway, to cut a longish story shortish, I have spent some chunks of my life waiting for Bob, knowing that it would be worthwhile.

It is almost Advent, a time when Christians look forward to the return of Jesus Christ with hope and expectation. As this is a bit weird we pretend that we are looking forward to Christmas.

In the local Wetherspoons pub, The Glassmaker in Nailsea, where a pint of 'Sorry not available' is quite cheap, I was visiting for breakfast (I know, I have a tough life) when I observed that 'Sorry not available' has been replaced with a friendlier sign.

Wikwar Brewery of Gloucester produces a beer called 'Bob'. (You can guess where this is going.) The sign on the tap says 'Bob is coming soon'.

The reason for this post is that I texted him today to point this out and enquire about his health. No reply. His wife will see this and read out any amusing bits. It may lead to us communicating. It's a long shot but it's his turn to arrange the next retreat.

Quote of the Day

1209. Socrates, in Plato's Phaedrus, argued that the invention of writing meant people would '...cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful'. It seems likely that we'll get over internet distraction soon enough.
(Oliver Burkeman. Guardian Weekly 21/6/13)

Monday, November 17, 2014

Quote of the Day

1199. In a democracy there is not that class with the leisure to acquire discernment and taste in all the arts. Without that class, art is produced to suit the taste of the market, which is filled with its own doubt and self-importance and ignorance, its own ability to be tricked and titillated by every bauble.
(Olivier in Peter Carey's Parrot and Olivier in America)

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Seasonal Produce

Is this how the retail world sees the year?

January 1st - February 14th
Valentine's Season

February 15th - March Sunday (annual variation)
Mothers' Season

March Sunday (annual variation) - Easter Day (annual variation)
Easter Season

Easter Day (annual variation) - 3rd Sunday June
Father's Season

3rd Sunday June - mid July
Currently vacant

mid July - mid August
Silly Season

Mid August - last Sunday August (or first September, regional variations)
Back to School Season

Last Sunday August (or first September, regional variations) - mid September
Currently vacant

Mid September - October 31st
Halloween Season

October 31st - 2nd Sunday November
Fireworks Season (overlap Poppy Season)

2nd Sunday November - December 24th
Christmas Season (colloquially marked by launch of John Lewis advert)

December 25th - December 31st
New Year Season (overlap Holiday Season)

The criticism of displaying Christmas produce too early is avoided by labelling such aisles 'seasonal'. The commercial understanding of such displays has been that, for the purposes of retail, 'seasonal' means 'next season'.

Quote of the Day

1186. We think the purpose of a child is to grow up because it does grow up. But its purpose is to play, to enjoy itself, to be a child. If we merely look at the end of the process, the purpose of life is death.
(Alexander Herzen, quoted by Edward St Aubyn in 'Mother's Milk')

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Quote of the Day

1175. ... religion ... - it is the asylum to which all poor crazed sinners may come at last, the door which will always open to us if we can only find the courage to knock.
(James Robertson, The Testimony of Gideon Mack)

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Quote Book Index

1166. In a world where entire meals are consumed in forgetfulness, there's something powerful and evocative about focusing attention, gratefully, on one tiny morsel.
(Dave Tomlinson, How to be a Bad Christian)

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Bedsit Disco Queen

It is not easy choosing music as a couple. If you both like music but one is much more enthusiastic and generally curious than the other it is likely that that one will do a lot of the choosing. But then to keep a relationship going it is best for that choosing to be exercised in the interest of both parties, when both are around. It follows that I have a number of albums that must not be played in the presence of Mrs T.

It further follows that we have a few 'special' acts who have accompanied us on our journey together. In about 1996, when we took our first holiday for some years without children, we were accompanied by the Everything but the Girl album Walking Wounded including the Todd Terry remix of Wrong.

We had a sort of where-have-we-been? moment. We had kind of ignored the lo-fi acoustic stuff this duo had produced before but from that day on with the light drum 'n bass feel we were hooked.

We saw EBTG at Wolverhampton Civic Hall which remains the finest experience we've ever had in Wolverhampton and that includes Baggies away wins.

Tracey Thorn (half the duo with partner Ben Watt) is an English graduate and writes like a dream. The prose never gets in the way of the story.

What I love is the ordinariness from which this catalogue of dreamy pop emerged and to which, in order to raise a family and do conventional household tasks, it returned for a while. There are now solo projects which we have enjoyed though.

I've recently read part two of Danny Baker's autobiography and he too demonstrated a wonder that he became who he was without having to do too much to make it happen.

What is it that makes this occur for some people? Of course there is talent. That pretty much goes without saying, but there is also a sense that no decision was ever taken to try to be a star; just a decision to do the next logical thing that came along.

I love Tracey Thorn's pop career so much more than the ones of those wannabees who queue to audition for the latest audience elimination programme; as if saying 'I've never wanted anything so much' makes it more likely. Because what she did was have a voice and some songs and got them out there and we liked them. I'm delighted there was some success but, reading the book, get the impression it wouldn't have mattered that much if there hadn't been. The music demanded it be made.

It was about album seven that the world took notice (the one we heard). She says, 'My greatest stroke of fortune was to be given success when I was old enough to enjoy it and not take it for granted, or fritter it away, or be contemptuous or arrogant or supercilious about it.' I love that. It's a humble book.

Over the last few years I have followed Tracey (@tracey_thorn) and Ben (@ben_watt) on Twitter, have had occasional inter-actions about things as disparate as recipes, footie and bird-watching and feel delighted that they seem to take as much pleasure in the ordinary things of life as the sublime music they have gifted me.

This is a very good book.

Trying not to be Frustrated

The meeting is due to start at 7.45 and finish at 9.45. Opening, the chair suggests that this short agenda will not take too long and we should finish early. We over-run by twenty minutes.

A reminder to all who ever have to chair meetings containing people not likely to be energised by the meeting itself:

1. After two hours reluctant attenders will vote for anything to get home. They will have no emotional energy left.

2. Never raise expectations of a shorter meeting than usual unless you are sure you can deliver.

3. If you have to go over two hours, take a break at some point.

4. Limit the amount of time you are going to spend on trivial items.

5. Charge smaller groups of people, or individuals, with doing some tasks and reporting back if not everyone needs to be involved in a discussion now.

6. Editing is not a committee job.

7. Neither is proof-reading.

Monday, November 03, 2014

Quotes of the Day

For those not appreciating this exercise, can I reassure you that we are within two years of the end of the book I am indexing. Two to ponder:

1121. Retribution is of two kinds: first, social, also known as justice; and second, individual, also known as revenge. The mark of a civilised society is that it promotes the messy frustrations and delays of the former over the false and instant consolation of the latter.
(Amol Rajan, theIpaper 19/4/12 on Norway's response to Anders Breivik's court behaviour)

1135. ...there are many kinds of wealth money cannot buy. You can buy education, but you cannot buy intelligence; you can buy designer clothes, but not style; cosmetics but not beauty; sex, but not love.
(A.C.Grayling, The Heart of Things)

Saturday, November 01, 2014

It Didn't Really Happen.

Having been converted by conservative evangelicalism I was pretty wedded to the 'All the Bible is history or it wouldn't be true' party. I didn't know any better. Trouble is, I was never very convinced by talking snakes, whale-stomach prayers and a God who kills people on the basis of a bet with the devil. Not really very godlike that.

Nobody helped me. It was skirted round at college. I was even told by one evangelical Christian organisation that people don't get out of bed worrying about historicity in the Bible. As if that clinched it.

But slowly and surely, through study, researching and repeat reading the texts I have become what my conservative evangelical mates would call a liberal and I would call more biblical.

I think it was largely due to my improving as a short story writer and teller. I saw, for the first time, the power of story to influence. So a prototype story of how evil got into the world, such stories told by almost all cultures that have ever developed in some way or other, is more meaningful, more powerful and more influential if you do not insist on its historicity.

I have done this before so read back if you want to know my theology of Genesis 1-11, Jonah and Job.

But, because I was a convert and have no deep Sunday school background full of stories - where they are told as stories and work best - I still come across the great handed-down myths in the Bible which are so clearly fiction it blows my mind that anyone has ever been asked to believe they actually happened. In fact it appals and disappoints me in equal measure.

Here's the latest. In Genesis 19 there is a story about Lot's daughters getting their Dad pissed and taking turns in having sex with him so they can get pregnant. They both succeed, first time, and give birth to children. One of these families becomes the Moabites and the other the Ammonites.

In my, English, western culture we do this from time to time. As a rather crude example, sex using an unusual orifice has been described either as the French way, or the Spanish way. The insult doesn't need cashing out and it is rarely used these days, although I chanced to hear it during a documentary on the sex industry a few months back.

So what is the answer to the question, 'Where do Moabites come from?' It's what happens if you have sex with your Dad, says the Bible. It's a local joke. It also explains why the Bible, which usually redeems itself if you pay attention, later makes much of the goodness of a Moabitess called Ruth, who is listed as one of Jesus' ancestors.

I love that. The Bible is more real and true for me than ever before because it includes a racist insult or two. These are real people we are talking about, not saints. And of course, in case you are really slow, that is not where Moabites came from.

Why can't we admit it? I have just been reading Lesslie Newbigin's excellent commentary on John's Gospel 'The Light Has Come' as preparation for a speaking engagement. On John 17 he says:I

The prayer is not a free invention of the evangelist; nor is it a tape recording of the words of Jesus. It is a representation of what Jesus was doing when he prayed in the presence of his disciples during the supper, a re-presentation which rests upon the authority of the beloved disciple guided by the Holy Spirit in and through the continuous experience of the community which gathers week by week to rehearse again the words and action of Jesus on that night when he was betrayed.

It is as if Newbigin can creep up on the words 'Jesus didn't actually say this' but can't quite bring himself to say it so bluntly.

I think we should. People would respect us more. More people should get out of bed worrying about historicity. It is OK.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Quote of the Day

1114. When we contemplate the cross of Christ, we are always living with fragments. Not literal splinters of wood, but fragments of understanding, glimpses of heart, mind and experience. As long as we recognise they are only fragments, they can help us.
('Touch Wood', Meeting the Cross in the World Today - David Runcorn)

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Quote of the Day

1106. Blaise Pascal said, 'Can anything be stupider than that a man has the right to kill me because he lives on the other side of a river and his ruler has a quarrel with mine, though I have not quarrelled with him?'
(Quoted by Brian McLaren in A New Kind of Christianity)

Thought for the Day

As delivered just now at BBC Radio Bristol:

It's St Jude's day today. Based on one of the final lines of his letter, 'Be merciful to those who doubt; snatch others from the fire to save them...' he is called the patron saint of lost causes.

Are libraries becoming a lost cause? Not enough of us using them.

I recall the excitement I felt as a child when I discovered books. Matched by the wonder of being able to go and borrow three at a time from Selly Oak library, to read as quickly as I wanted. Jennings the schoolboy. The adventures of Biggles the aviator. Summer holidays' stories Swallows and Amazons or Coot Club.

In those days buying and owning books was not the family habit. The only books on our shelves at home were reference books.

I used to work as a writer. One day a week I would be at the library researching. Not yet was all information in the world available from my mobile phone - in those days the click of a mouse would have sounded like some weird magic spell.

E-readers, tablets and other devices have replaced books. I can't easily buy my wife a book for Christmas. She reads electronically so I don't keep up with what she has read.

Maybe book-libraries are disappearing, relics of a by-gone age along with old-fashioned pubs where you simply drink and the sort of churches that smell of Evensong and pigeon.

But the surviving pubs learned to do food and live sport. Growing churches are more guitar than organ. If libraries are information-exchange centres maybe it's not all about books. My local library is popular for internet access.

We don't quite need St Jude yet. But we have him on stand-by.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Quote of the Day

1092. You're worse off relying on misleading information than on not having any information at all. If you give a pilot an altimeter that is sometimes defective he will crash his plane. Give him nothing and he will look out the window. Technology is only safe if it is flawless.
(John Lanchester, Whoops! quoting Nassim Taleb)

General Ignorance

If the three possible ways of going wrong are ignorance, weakness and deliberate fault, I have a marginal personal preference for ignorance. I have indeed found ignorance a much misunderstood skill in ministry.

For instance, I am way smart enough to learn to operate a sound desk, but I have never done so. Likewise the computer projection system in our church. I remain profoundly ignorant. I am never called upon to solve problems with these items, both of which would distract me from the more important work (for me, not in the whole scheme of things) of praying and readying myself to preach or lead a church service.

I can also fall back on the excuse of ignorance when forced to do something which I get wrong. I can either learn to do it right next time or, and this I prefer, the press-ganger can learn never to ask me again.

A few months back I was assisting at a service when our Archdeacon was visiting. Nobody had arrived to set up communion. This is another area where my ignorance is deep.

When people ask me how they should set up communion for me (a question often asked when I am the visiting president at another church) my reply is always 'However you normally do it.' If this is followed up by 'We wouldn't want to do it in a way that would be difficult for you', I quietly explain that that would not be possible, I have no preferences whatsoever about positioning of elements, books and thing. If pushed I often crack and tell the sacristan, or server, or whatever that church calls the setter-upper, to try and upset me and betting that they can't. I cannot say this strongly enough. There is not, for me, a right way to do communion but if there is for you I will try my hardest to do it your way.

So I asked the Archdeacon the question I often get asked. 'Is there any particular way you would like this set up?' He told me what I tell everyone else, to do it as I usually do it.

It may come as a bit of a surprise to many of you ordained readers but apart from my first curacy I have never regularly set-up a communion and I do not have a usual way. I am also unfamiliar with any legalities.

So I put the stuff out in a way with which I would be personally happy and then got this response:

'I think you will find a lot of people will be upset if you do not put everything on a fair, white, linen cloth.'

Really? I could not imagine being upset at this and, although Anglicans have the capacity to become turmoiled rather easily, couldn't think of a single person who might moan. This is probably one of the several hundred reasons why I am not an archdeacon.

I did it again and hope the Archdeacon learned never to ask me again. You can wipe wine stains off the varnished communion table at this particular church, but bio-detergents are necessary to clean a no-longer fair, or white, linen cloth. Ain't that a bit daft?

Ignorance really is bliss. Embrace it.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Quotes of the Day

Missed yesterday so had to catalogue twenty of my quotes today. Here are two of the best:

1079. For the fathers of the Church, scripture was a 'mystery' ... not just a text but an 'activity'; you did not merely read it - you had to do it.
(Karen Armstrong: The Case for God)

1090. Great art exists in the spaces between the certainties. Economically, culturally and artistically, Music Theatre can't afford spaces, only certainties.
(Stewart Lee, Esquire 10/04 quoted in his book, 'How I Escaped My Certain Death')

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Sauce?

If you haven't read volume 1 of an autobiography series that is going to run and run then head off now and get a copy of Danny Baker's Going to Sea in a Sieve. You'll not regret it and, if you don't laugh, I'll consider giving you your money back. Shouldn't cost me that much as only people too stupid to work out how to contact me will fail to laugh.

I am reading Going off Alarming which is volume 2. I was unable to wait for the paperback or Christmas.

If you are unfamiliar with Danny Baker the broadcaster then, seriously dude, what is the matter with you? Radio Five Live on Saturday mornings - make that an appointment.

But if you are that dude you may not know that he offers a segment called 'The Sausage Sandwich Game' in which callers attempt to match the answers of celebrities to various questions, the last of which is about the colour of sauce that person would have in a sausage sandwich.

Now in chapter two of the book Danny Baker (calling him Danny sounds like I know him, calling him Baker sounds too formal, my entire life consists of these minor dilemmas) introduces the idea of a sausage and egg sandwich.

It is funny what catches your attention. Where do our prejudices come from? A bacon and egg sandwich would be good (no sauce at all). A bacon and sausage sandwich would be lovely (brown sauce, although my former colleague Mark insisted, and argued well, that the sauce should be red as it needed to match the bacon, the purer meat product - I can't agree but the logic is compelling). But a sausage and egg sandwich is just wrong. I was so bothered by the idea I had to stop reading for a bit and post this.

If forced to eat a sausage and egg sandwich or die I wouldn't go to the grave, although I would resist firmly any suggestions of sauce with same.

I expect my reader will have stronger opinions on this than any of the recent political or social matters I have attended to.

Volume 3 is promised and I expect the tweets from @prodnose will be entertaining during the wait.