Wednesday, 26 November 2014


I think that this is the most difficult time of year for many. Yesterday I asked a neighbour how he was, knowing that he had suffered with both his eyes and depression. When he told me he was not very well, I asked was it his eyes? No, he replied...anxiety. And from what he told me it seemed to be anxiety in the defined mode of that condition. Not particular fear (which circumstances might or might not allay) but anxiety that clouds everything we do and think, and darkens who we are. My view is that this condition often stops short of full blown depression but is still terribly real and horrible.

Sometimes there is a bit of each. My friend Terry is currently living in fear of failing his eye test that will ban him from driving. It gets all mixed up because in this week when he visits the optician for that decisive test, he is due to have an operation on the eye that is never known to have been good. Because he lives in a village without good bus service he fears isolation, and who can blame him. But on top of that is a generalised anxiety state about his own health, his son who is undergoing chemotherapy, and his attitude to his age. Dear me! I think the best thing I can do is simply listen to him, becoming for him a piece of psychological blotting paper to absorb a little of his tide of woes.

As I explained yesterday, tonight is my address about Advent and in particular Advent Joy.In the midst of so much melancholy there is an urgent need to seek the light and turn away from darkness. The latter will overtake us all too easily (the television and newspapers will do their very best) and each of us needs a very purposeful search for the things that will deliver joy. It will mean turning away from some matters, turning towards others in eager expectation. Advent itself is really the Christian's 'Festival of Light'. Light coming into our world, light to be turned on in each of us, light to be searched for as we look out from ourselves. I hope my friends this evening will help complete the picture of something altogether necessary for most of us in these winter days.

My 'Little Book' on these topics with its 50 gathered insights is virtually complete, but already my usual doubts are making their presence felt. I am finding the title a little difficult, but that is no excuse. Also ready is the little book about our church's external giving programme but I cannot allow my doubts over that to prevail, simply because it has been commissioned and its arrival is expected next week.

And having used that word 'Winter' let me remind you that it is but 34 days to the year's shortest day. 

Tuesday, 25 November 2014


Yes, coming quickly, Advent Sunday just 5 days away. I think churches should make more of Advent and the celebrations that go with it. Being concerned just now with the booklet I have written for our church's 50th Anniversary, and the contribution to 'outside causes' (almost £80,000) my mind turns to the need to be a servant church. This is what Advent is all about- the arrival from "outer space" or "outer time" of a cosmic visitor, straight from the heart of creation, to save the human race from itself. And, of course, the wise were fooled because instead of arriving in splendour it happened in the most human way possible- a baby. Now which science fiction writers would have put that at the heart of the plot?

In writing this piece today I am not primarily concerned with big issues or large funds. The approach of Advent makes me focus first on our understanding of God.I am very keen ( as you will know!) on the 'bird's eye view' of many matters. Well, take a bird's eye view of the Gospel story (If only we could take these thematic views we would get on a lot better with the Bible) and it clearly reveals the grown up Nazareth baby as a servant. Not only the wonderful healings, not only the self sacrifices so evident in the narrative, but the direction of his teaching about living for others in order for them to find wholeness.

It is a long time since I visited Coventry Cathedral but the Chapel of Christ the Servant  displays a dominant rough hewn Cross of Thorns which envelops a cross, pierced with three nails and hangs over the altar. At the base are inscribed the words " I am among you as the one that serves". The story of a Cardinal is relevant here.He saw a young priest trying on a mitre, and said simply 'You will wear a mitre one day but it will be a crown of thorns'.

Likewise is one of the most powerful symbols of this servant ministry...the washing of feet. Someone once said that washing people's feet is a most dangerous business, because you risk being kicked in the teeth. We need to learn again what we need to die to, and what we need to come alive to. I think it might be summarised in a lovely and challenging verse:

Thou art God; no monarch thou
Throned in easy state to reign
Thou art God, Whose arms of love
Aching, spent the world sustain.

And so it is, and ever will be. The throne of Christ is his cross, his crown a crown of thorns.

As I look for renewed Advent joy again this season, I will also have the mystery of the servant nature of God himself to ponder, wrestle with and seek fresh and liberating understanding.

Monday, 24 November 2014


Some of you may have read the recent Report commissioned by the 6,500 family lawyers about the effects of divorce on children. I would have expected the findings to be dismal, but they were worse than I thought they would be. The survey covered 500 young people and reveals the emotional distress and its effects. Almost two thirds of children said that family break up affected their GCSE results, a conclusion long known to teachers in schools. Divorce appears to trigger drinking disorders and possible drug abuse.

Each year there are 230,000 divorces in Britain, involving 100,000 under 16 years of age.Nearly one in three claimed that one parent attempted to turn the children against the other parent. Almost one fifth said they never saw a grandparent again. So the distress is clearly widespread, and apart from the devastation for children, the wider effect (e.g.the grandparent one) is very sad.

Lawyers and family arbitration specialists urge a larger awareness of the problem and recommend better arrangements to make possible more comfortable, less upsetting consequences. It left me wondering about this sort of family situation in the life of the Christian Church?In the first place there are clearly not as many, proportionately that is given the minority going to churches these days. But apart from that, is it also true that the 'norms' of Christian life facilitate readier understanding, and possible reconciliations? Why , you may ask is this so? In response to that I offer two Graces of a Christian's faith.One is forgiveness, the other humility. I have quoted previously  grandparents who had fallen out with children, and as a consequence did not see their grandchildren. I urged on them a humility that allowed them to be wrong. I also suggested that forgiveness of things said in haste(and probably not deeply meant) would be helpful.

I know this is not divorce, but it was a family dispute causing much pain. So once again I return to my familiar theme that Christianity is a way of life, a code of conduct, an application to life each day, and if practised can iron out some of life's perplexing situations. We should not be ashamed of that. Instead we should be proud of who we are and all that we stand for.There is another aspect concerning children and divorce. Whilst the parents split and grandparents may end up in a wilderness place of separation, membership of a big and lively church (usually of the evangelical variety) offer a large extra family of love, belonging and care. There are not many churches like this, but how wonderful when they do exist. It reminds me of an idea I had several years ago- a 'Night Club' for teenagers, with the best music in town, exciting decor , desirable but guarded membership. I only lacked the energy,  the money and the premises!

On Wednesday I am to talk to our fellowship group about the challenges and joys of Advent. So you can expect to hear much of this from me, mainly how desperately we need the joy and light that Advent should bring.

Sunday, 23 November 2014


I have been thinking about  trying my hand with a paint brush. Not the sort I have been using this week on the kitchen ceiling, but the smaller variety that paints pictures on paper. I was inspired to think about this(thinking was all I am up to so far) by reading two famous  men who found painting extremely therapeutic. One was our war time Prime Minister who, on being defeated in 1945, needed something to distract and calm him.It was in 1915 at a very low point in his life that wandering through his garden the future prime minister saw someone painting. He was immediately attracted and from that point on it became an important part of his life and sanity.

Indeed his daughter wrote about him that she was convinced that the therapeutic aspect of painting played a fundamentally important role in his life, observing that this hobby played a real part in renewing his great source of inner strength. It enabled him to confront storms, ride out depressions and rise above the rough passages of political life.

And only recently I read about a recent past President of the United States who now paints several hours each day. For him the painting has enabled him to deal with a new way of living when the weight and responsibility of office was removed from him.

And what are they but distractions,albeit in both the cases above major ones. Perhaps I am looking for distraction too, underlining how important they are. Distractions sound trivial matters- they are not. Used correctly they are a major weapon in the search for peace of mind and happiness. But we do have to search them out.

I know that the former prime minister drew inspiration from another painter, but do not know how the former President was inspired, But we all need inspiration, whose close relation is encouragement.God Bless the world's encouragers. They have so much to answer for. It seems that some people find encouragement easier than others do. Perhaps their past has not brought encouragement to them. or they do not recognise how powerful it can be. Occasionally I think that proud people cannot bring themselves to encouragent lest it raise others at the expense of themselves.

On the other side of the equation, there are many people who badly need encouragement. Sometimes just an affirmation of something said or done, a recognition of a contribution or worthwhile effort.I have come to recognise that just to say to someone who has coped with difficulty, hardship or responsibility is a form of encouragement.(I recall telling a young minister that she had been asked to do the impossible. She said 'You are the only one who has said that to me'; it was a form of encouragement to her). Encouragement helps people overcome self doubt, and may strengthen them in what they are about. Certainly when someone has coped valiantly with difficulty it is an encouragement to recognise this. They may not realise it themselves.

I suppose encouragement is all about rebalancing, in that attitudes and conduct move between what we think of ourselves and what of others. To encourage is to take a little off our own stock and add it to that of another.

So keep on encouraging. It can change people's lives- and our own as well.

And finally.....another cause for my encouragement and celebration. Robin Knox Johnston arrived in Guadeloupe tired but well. 20 days after setting out on his 4,500 mile solo voyage.Nor did he simply arrive- he came third.

Saturday, 22 November 2014


I read a tragic report in today's newspaper about a 42 year old woman who apparently took her own life after her beloved 20 year old horse had to be put to sleep. It seems that she was found in the stables with a strand of the horses mane in her hand. This news takes me into all sorts of thoughts about humans and their animals, be they horses, dogs or cats. I have lived in two areas of life over the years of ministry so in that sense can understand those who do not have pets, and those who do. I recall being told that so and so had just lost their dog or cat. I recall feeling sorry, but thinking that it is only an animal.Then we had a dog of our own and my understanding of pet owners was transformed.

I can understand the devastation of the woman cited above. The same thing happened this week when a neighbour called to tell us that their 14 year old spaniel had died.Both man and wife were very, very upset. And two years ago we had a young psychiatrist came to see me (note the order of this!) because she was so distraught when her dog died when she was away on holiday. Then I was told of an elderly lady whose beloved cat died. In the months that followed she went steadily downhill and is now in a nursing home.

There are so many people where we live who own a dog, and often they are single. Clearly the pets mean so much to them, company in lonely lives. This is not to mention the dogs that lead the blind, or are hearing dogs. For some time I have thought how inadequate our pastoral understanding is if we have no feeling for the bereaved. 

But what does it all mean? I think it says more about the owners than the animals. It tells me how much love we humans have to give, most usually to family and friends, but other times to their pets. I suppose all I am saying is that we need to understand those whose main love is an animal. Loneliness is a terrible problem often deeply hidden from view. We need to realise how much people need to give and receive love.

From many years ago I recall a young woman on a chat show. She was on her way to a  far Eastern country and intended to work on the streets of the capital city. The people she would help were nicknamed 'The dust of life' because they literally blew from street to street. She was asked why she wanted to do this. I recall even now her reply: 'What is life but the giving and receiving of love?' Exactly.

Friday, 21 November 2014


My regular music magazine arrived today, the main theme being 'A Choral Christmas'. Now me, who complains about early advertising in this season of joy and peace does not mind this at all. And why? Because the sacred is for once coming first and I will be able to celebrate something the magazine describes as 'Britain's Glorious Cathedral Choirs'. So far I have only had time to glance at the articles, but one in particular caught my eye. It was an interview with a world famous violinist who suggested that audiences for live classical concerts would decline unless the performers proved their passion for the music rather than than looking bored with it.

Leaving music aside, I think that in our work in the world we too need passion. Recently I wrote about 'Imaginitis' as a recurrent complaint from which I suffered. It refers to a feeling for people I will never know who are hungry, cold, in pain, homeless, tired. I wish I had that feeling more often than I do because it becomes a springboard for action. It is very closely related to having passion, the close relative of compassion. Over the next few weeks we are going to hear many appeals for funds(and some strange devices to secure our money like the free gift tags that arrived in the post today). But the appeals, whilst necessary and worthwhile lack one thing- passion.And taking on the Christian perspective which, I guess, many of you share isn't it about new wine rather than cold tea.

The blandness of so much around disturbs me. Today I have had a conversation with a trustee of L'Arche, who directed me to the Liverpool Workshop  where they make cards and candles. She was obviously full of passion for the work of this wonderful worldwide community, and as I warmed myself in her enthusiasm I hope I returned a little of my own. I explained about the beginnings of Just Connections almost 35 years ago. I described how it began with a baby. It is  a small world, and this lady meets regularly with a L'Arche member who was the first headteacher at the school where our now 34 year old son first attended.

I will turn a corner  on to another topic, but one still imagination related. I have been following the fortunes of my 75 year old sailing hero who should have reached Guadeloupe this week after sailing solo from France. In following this up I saw an interview with the harbour master in Guadeloupe who spoke of the benefits the transatlantic race brought to the island. Investors were knocking on his door anxious to invest in harbour development. In this month of November my imagination has fed on the picture- a sunny island; a brave sailor; possible economic development for a poor country. I must find out if there is a L'Arche community on the island!

And, who knows, one day soon I may well be saying: 'Is there anyone out there who will join a team to build a .......?'

Thursday, 20 November 2014


We have recently had the kitchen re-tiled, a long overdue operation. We had a chuckle this morning because the cooker has fused and the electrician can only come on Monday. By 'fuse' I do not mean one bang and usual adjustment but keep popping. A campfire in the garden will take me back to childhood adventures.We also think that the fridge freezer must be nearing the end of its life. We chuckled because beyond the superficial there are hidden problems. and life is like that. people present brave and smiling faces but beyond there is problem, perplexity and pressure. Like our kitchen, the superficial view is misleading.

I have been painting in the kitchen, probably the one aspect of DIY I can perform with a modicum of satisfaction.But I recognise my severe limitations in these matters.And there is a psychologically important word...recognition. Its uses and implications spread in many directions. I suppose it means thinking again(i.e.cognition) about something we have encountered before. For me it means seeing something clearly, and this morning it was my DIY limitations.

Kitchen thoughts then. First in the recognition must not be defeatism. It is all too easy in life to simply give up because we cannot find the will to try.I could easily close the door on every DIY activity but I must not. Nevertheless it is so important to come to terms with what we cannot do.Only this morning a friend told me he had decided reluctantly to give up on an enterprise dear to his heart but felt he simply could not continue.

Then there is the tendency we sometimes have to blame everything else(including God) for what might just be our fault. In my illustrious DIY career I have often blamed the brush( too supple) or the paint ( too runny) or the hammer(hits things at the wrong angle). We need to take our fair share of blame in life's little adventures. I recall the story of a three generation family living under one roof. There were many arguments and one day the grandfather brought a wooden box for everyone to look in. 'In here' he declared 'Is the likely problem and solution'.In the box was a mirror.

The other reflection from the kitchen is that having completed my marathon painting session(30 minutes was all my patience would allow) I reflected on work done. Not too bad...but no bad thing to review who we are and what we do. Criticism from others may be hard to take, but gentle self criticism can help and lead to further improvement.

Surprising where a little painting can lead us.