If the last Q combo was a chronological mismatch of artist and poet, this one is seasonal. Today’s still been pretty warm for a British September day, so it’s perhaps rather incongruous to be thinking about winter. But a dear friend and colleague, Jennifer, sent me this all too brief poem last week, and so I felt it was a perfect combo contender.
I’m glad. In fact, if you didn’t, I’d be quite concerned for you! But be warned. This isn’t for the faint-hearted. It will try your patience and frustrate your sympathies. You’ll definitely have days when you’ve had enough. Perhaps months. So you’ll shrug that you did everything you could but to no avail. [There are only so many hours in a day, and you’ve got your own issues.] So you’ll assume it needs someone else to take up the baton. If that’s the case, then may I make a gentle plea with you? Don’t get involved in the first place… Read more
So here’s the 3rd Q Combination. I don’t know how well known these two geniuses are beyond British shores – but they are true 20th Century greats. In their different ways, both articulate a deeply earthy, incarnated spirituality. Read more
So I’ve been pondering a lot on the fact that Bono has called Songs of Innocence a personal album. Here he is in Rolling Stone last week:
“We wanted to make a very personal album,” Bono told Rolling Stone‘s Gus Wenner the day before the press conference in an exclusive interview. “Let’s try to figure out why we wanted to be in a band, the relationships around the band, our friendships, our lovers, our family. The whole album is first journeys — first journeys geographically, spiritually, sexually. And that’s hard. But we went there.”
Last summer, I wrote a series of posts on the highly pretentious sounding ‘dehumanising metrics of modernist ministry’. Don’t be put off (although in fairness, I have to say I was quietly pleased by the alliteration there) because the more I’ve thought about it, and the more I’ve chatted with folks, the more I think there are some crucial things to discuss. This is certainly not the perfect analysis nor last word. But I hope it will at least present something of what troubles me these days. Read more
For me, though, the standout of Francis Spufford’s reading memoir The Child That Books Built is the chapter entitled The Island. For it is here that he waxes lyrical about Narnia. It is not just because he chimes with the countless numbers who loved C S Lewis’ books (despite the likes of Philip Pullman and Polly Toynbee). It is the fact that he grasps something of their theological wonder (which will come as no surprise perhaps to those who have enjoyed his Unapologetic). Read more
We’re right in the midst of Advent now (i.e. it’s not officially Christmas yet): carol services by the tonne, twinkly lights passim (Oxford St lights brought to you courtesy of Marmite – you read that right – MARMITE = end of civilisation as we know it), consumerism at its peak. But we kicked off the month a few weeks back with an Advent carol service – taking the obvious theme of waiting. We tried to shake things up a little (in our somewhat amateurish way, trying various multimedia bits and bobs). Read more
I’ve been spending quite a bit of time recently with a dear friend, Malcolm, who is dying of cancer. In fact, he has already lasted a lot longer than many predicted, despite not having eaten anything for several weeks. He has been an inspiration to me and others, and so have his family. He came home from the hospice a few weeks ago or so, and has been hanging in there. Most striking has been his resilient faith in the face of his inescapable mortality (about which we talk often). Which has inevitably got me reflecting on the subject further. Read more
Yesterday was one that will be hard to forget: the funeral of an extraordinary man of God. It was an occasion full of gratitude and even joy, but also overwhelming at moments to say goodbye to Uncle John (or as we were reminded in the service, it is only Au Revoir). There was great pathos to think that, as his coffin was carried out, he was leaving All Souls for the last time. Read more
Last month’s Wired UK Carried a host of mini-articles by various techie, business gurus and Apple groupies about the phenomenon that is Steve Jobs. One of the standouts though was Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish, an account of his address at Stanford University in 2005. Read more
I’d never heard of Arthur Stace before a week ago. But that’s because I have never visited, let alone lived in, Sydney, Australia. But he left an extraordinary, even weird, but compelling legacy. For he was converted to Christianity as the result of walking into a Sydney church in 1930 and hearing a sermon by R. B. S. Hammond. Two years later he heard another sermon from John Ridley entitled “echoes of eternity”. Read more
A good friend of mine, Drew Wolff, has recently got back from a trip with his family to help on a Habitat building programme in Tijuana, Mexico. He sent these great pics. You’ll see at the centre of the first is a rather interesting biblical reference – which will be well known to U2 fans the world over.
Jeremiah 33:3 ‘Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know.
For it superimposed onto the Gate number at CdeG Airport Paris on the cover of their 2001 album, All That You Can’t Leave Behind. And it also gets a nod in one of the best songs of the last album (IMHO), No Line on the Horizon, Unknown Caller. It is particularly fitting for the latter because of the title (though note that the numbers are fiddled around a bit because obviously, there’s no 33 o’clock!).
I thought this one was pretty poignant, too. I struggle for ways to stretch my imagination but it seems to describe the Christian life. The bleakness of what is in the foreground is not changed. However, behind it all is the bright light that dominates the picture. It helped in trying to imagine the light that illuminates everything in the New Jerusalem as described in Revelation. And also in the foreground, is a group of believers helping build a house. A good metaphor for God’s answer to everything
I’ve enjoyed Oliver Sacks’ books before (especially his best, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat) and have got much out of Musicophilia. I wouldn’t say it was as good as some of the reviews made out – rather too bitty and uneven – but it is rescued by occasional flashes of his characteristic compassion and the ability to make fascinating connections.
I was profoundly affected, however, by his chapter on Music and Amnesia. His focus was almost entirely on English musician Clive Wearing, who found himself, as the result of a brain infection, with a completely destroyed memory. Consequently, he had a memory span of only a few seconds. He was the subject of a BBC documentary by Jonathan Miller, Prisoner of Consciousness, and his wife Deborah wrote a book about their life together. She describes the affliction:
His ability to perceive what he saw and heard was unimpaired. But he did not seem to be able to retain any impression of anything for more than a blink. Indeed, if he did blink, his eyelids parted to reveal a new scene. The view before the blink was utterly forgotten. Each blink, each glance away and back, brought him an entirely new view. I tried to imagine how it was for him… Something akin to a film with bad continuity, the glass half empty, then full, the cigarette suddenly longer, the actor’s hair now tousled, now smooth. But this was real life, a room changing in ways that were physically impossible.
… It was as if every waking moment was the first waking moment. Clive was under the constant impression that he had just emerged from unconsciousness because he had no evidence in his own mind of ever being awake before… “I haven’t heard anything, seen anything, touched anything, smelled anything,” he would say. “It’s like being dead.” (pp 202-203)
As Sacks adds:
In addition to this inability to preserve new memories, Clive had a devastating retrograde amnesia, a deletion of virtually his entire past.
This can be seen in the devastating, eerie journal he kept (some of which is quoted on the Wiki entry on him). The reason that Sacks spends so much time reflecting on Clive’s tragic predicament is that the two things that made his life liveable were his wife and music. Somehow, he had a deep awareness (almost but not quite like a memory) of her and his dependence on her. He needed her. But music helped him too. He had been a conductor and expert on several composers, especially Lassus. And in fact when he performs or conducts, all his abilities and creative expression prove to be intact – and the music’s momentum will sustain him longer than his memory – for as longs as the piece lasts.
The momentum of the music carried Clive from bar to bar. Within the structure of the piece, he was held, as if the staves were tramlines and there was only one way to go. He knew exactly where he was becuause in every phase there is context implied, by rhythm, key, melody. It was marvellous to be free. When the music stopped Clive fell through to the lost place. But for those moments he was playing he seemed normal. (p 225)
Memory fascinates me. But the thought of not having it is truly haunting, unbearable even. Yet it strikes me that, as a culture, we have lost our memories. The causes are many and complex – shifts in hermeneutics and epistemology have had profound, debilitating effects as we no longer have any confidence that truth is knowable. As I’m fond of quoting in talks, Donald Drew of L’Abri once put it like this:
People today are dazzled by the last 24 hours, confused by the last 24 years, bemused by the last 24 centuries.
It strikes me, though, that we need to regroup. We need to regroup around the old music of the grandest story of them all. For we are all part of the greatest story – and this can give the momentum that an amnesiac desperately needs. It is no accident that as Moses speaks to Israel’s second generation on the verge of Canaan, in what would be his last will and testament (the Book of Deuteronomy), the little word Remember is repeated 16 times. Remember what came before you in the story – so that you can play your own part in the story.
If we don’t remember, we are condemned to be confused every time we blink.
You wouldn’t expect John Stott to change his tune in his 89th year. And of course he hasn’t. The Radical Disciple is his 51st book – and while his thinking has developed and deepened over the decades, he has never changed direction. He’s always faced Jesus – and he does so all the more eagerly in the twilight years before the eternal dawn.
Vintage Prose and Pithy Clarity
If you’re familiar with his writing and speaking, then you won’t find anything surprisingly innovative or any marked departures – and much of what this book contains he’s said before in other places. But that’s not the point. What matters is that he has picked these characteristics of Christian discipleship to expound – despite calling them ‘selective’ and ‘somewhat arbitrary’ (p137). Each is touched on lightly and briefly, but with all the hallmarks of Stott’s vintage prose and pithy clarity of thought still firmly in place:
- Non-Conformity: “we are neither to seek to preserve our holiness by escaping from the world nor to sacrifice our holiness by conforming to the world” (p19)
- Christlikeness: “we are to be like Christ in his incarnation, in his service, in his love, in his endurance, and in his mission” (p38)
- Maturity: “may God give us such a full, clear vision of Jesus Christ, first that we may grow into maturity ourselves, and secondly that, by faithful proclamation of Christ in his fullness to others, we may present others mature as well.” (p53)
- Creation-Care: “God intends our care of the creation to reflect our love for the Creator” (p65)
- Simplicity: “All Christians claim to have received a new life from Jesus Christ. What lifestyle, then, is appropriate for them? If the life is new, the lifestyle should be new also” (p71)
- Balance: “We are both individual disciples and church members, both worshippers and witnesses, both pilgrims and citizens. Nearly all our failures stem from the ease with which we forget our comprehensive identity as disciples.” (p102)
- Dependence: “We are all designed to be a burden to others… The life of the family, including the life of the local church family, should be one of ‘mutual burdensomeness.‘” (p113)
- Death: “If we want to live we must die. And we will be willing to die only when we see the glories of the life to which death leads. This is the radical, paradoxical Christian perspective.” (p135)
He chooses these because, as he reflects on western (which I suppose primarily means UK & USA Christian culture), he is anxious about their dwindling importance. We’d be utter fools to ignore the observations of so wise an elder statesman. Their challenge is straightforward and unavoidable – not least because John practises what he preaches. It is quite something, is it not, for a man in his 9th decade to be making an appeal for people to be radical?! Retirement is usually the time for conservatism and comfortable ease, not the prickly and disturbing calls for Christ-like discipleship.
The chapters are not even, in the sense of being similarly structured or equally expository:
- the Christlikeness chapter takes a topical approach, touching on various aspects of Christ’s life and character we should emulate;
- the Non-Conformity and Creation-Care chapters are also topical, but show a sustained awareness of contemporary issues: hence his helpful articulation of 4 challenging trends in the former (pluralism, materialism, ethical relativism and narcissism) and 4 ingredients of the current ecological crisis (population growth, depletion of earth’s resources, waste disposal and climate change). Not bad going for someone who’s 89 in April.
- the Simplicity chapter is essentially a publication of a statement issued after a Lausanne consultation led by John and Ron Sider in 1980. The whole statement plus commentary is online: An evangelical commitment to a simple lifestyle. I’d not come across it before and was profoundly challenged by it.
- the Balance chapter is somewhat unexpectedly an involved exposition of 1 Peter 2:1-17 – but I’d never quite seen before the way Peter mixes his metaphors in the chapter and this was illuminating (as newborn babies we are called to growth, as living stones to fellowship, as holy priests to worship, as God’s own people to witness, as aliens and strangers to holiness and as servants of God to citizenship).
Pastoral Reality with Personal Candour
But despite the chapters’ varieties of style or approach, they are always biblical and theological, and yet also pastoral and real. It is so helpful to have thumbnail sketches of people he’s been challenged or influenced by, some widely known, others not so, some British, most not. These ground the book.
What is new, perhaps, is that as the book draws to a close, Uncle John becomes increasingly candid. He’s always been an honest and humble man, but no one could remain unaffected by the poignancy of the last 2 chapters particularly. I well remember that Sunday morning in 2006 (described in chapter 7) when he was getting ready to preach at All Souls, but tripped in his flat and broke his hip, which resulted in an emergency hip replacement operation. We were involved in the All Souls week away down in Devon that weekend, but heard about it very quickly and we were all shocked. But it still didn’t prepare me to read his own agonising account of that morning:
I knew at once that I had broken or dislocated my hip, for I could not move, let alone get up. I was able, however, to push the panic button I was wearing and kind friends immediately came to my rescue…
… as this chapter progresses please do not forget my earlier experiences, spreadeagled on the floor, completely dependent on others. For this is where, from time to time, the radical disciple needs to be. I believe that dependence involved in these experiences can be used by God to bring about greater maturity in us.
…There is another aspect of the dependence which I experienced which was new to me, which I am tempted to gloss over, but which my trusted friends have urged me not to conceal. It is the emotional weakness which physical infirmity sometimes brings to the surface and which finds expression in weeping. (pp104-105)
There are few who would be prepared to turn so private and painful an experience into so public and challenging a lesson.
This really is John’s last book! His previous one – The Living Church: Convictions of a Lifelong Pastor – was heralded by some as his last but he seems to have known that he had one more in him. But there really are no more – and he concludes the Radical Disciple with a poignant farewell to his readers.
However, it is fitting, I think, to see these last two books as of a piece. They have a neat symmetry to them, as he concludes a long ministry.
- In The Living Church, he expounds the key hallmarks of what constitutes Church life, in all its diversity, challenges and joys.
- In The Radical Disciple, he expounds the key hallmarks of a Christian’s life, again in all its diversity, challenges and joys.
Of course, there will be things that people disagree with, no doubt. Some of the areas in the books are hot topics (e.g. Christians and the environment). And some have criticised what is seen as an obsession with balance when things are supposedly more complex or wrinkled. In neither of these books will we find in-depth analysis or argumentation to make his case.
But then why should we?! John has spent a lifetime doing just that, thinking, teaching and writing, often at great length and with great care (see this non-exhaustive bibliography). But these two books are more a summation, a last will and testament. They form a fitting conclusion to his legacy, one which it will probably take decades fully to appreciate.
It remains to be said that if this legacy is to be sustained and grow, then people need to give themselves to it deliberately. One way is for people to pray for and give to the Langham Partnership – for which he appeals at the end of the Radical Disciple – you can do that here.
But the best way is surely for us to live just as we are called to in these two books… just as, in fact, he himself has sought to live.
This is quite simply the strangest, most provocative, beguiling and fascinating book I’ve read in a long time. In fact, EVER. SUM: Forty Tales from the Afterlives does exactly what it claims. It’s about death – and what happens after death. In just 100 pages, we’re offered 40 versions – parallel universes, parallel narratives, parallel afterlives. It has the wit and deep ingenuity of a Douglas Adams (every now and then, I was reminded of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe), a relentless logic and above all a fearless creativity. It is certainly not derivative (even if the odd one of these tales evokes some sort of precedent) and crams an extraordinary diversity into a very small space. A bit like the Tardis I suppose. It’s captured the imagination of countless people – and perhaps inevitably, when Stephen Fry twittered approvingly, amazon sales went through the roof (and as a direct result, Radio 4’s Today programme did a piece on it).
David Eagleman is an American neuroscientist who studied literature as an undergraduate. A powerful and unusual combination – I guess that makes him a scientist who is as articulate with words as he is with equations (which you don’t find very often in my limited experience). He crashes up against the walls of human creativity and imagination – and that’s one of the most fascinating things about. Because in the end, it seems that one of his principle reasons for cynicism about orthodox convictions about eternity is that it is impossible to imagine.
Anyway, read it! I thoroughly recommend it if you’re after something short but mind-bogglingly mind-bending.
If you want a bit more of an in-depth reflection, then check out the article I’ve just written for Damaris:
This is how I broke it up (and gave it cringingly contrived alliterative headings):
- Acts 1: Mission Momentum
- Acts 2-6: Bound Believers
- Acts 7: Heinous Hostility
- Acts 8-15: Aliens Accepted
- Acts 16-20: Gospel Guardians
- Acts 28: The Story Doesn’t End Here… (an all age talk for the final morning, not recorded)
There was also an optional evening seminar on Acts & The Holy Spirit. The aim of Cornerstone is both to be a chance to go more in-depth than is ever possible back at All Souls, as well as to have a holiday. So we have an intense start to the day – each session is 50-60 minutes long, followed by 30 minutes of small group discussions – then the rest of the day is for fun and jollity.
For those who are have been asking, the most helpful book in preparation was Chris Green’s brilliant guide to teaching Acts, The Word of His Grace. It’s one of those books to sell your shirt for (though Amazon currently says its temp. out of stoke – I do hope that’s not a bad sign). What I particularly valued in Chris’s stuff was his big picture approach (invaluable for what we were trying to do this summer). He’s plugged away at Luke’s overall structure and purpose and seen how that works out along the way. Because my brain is especially prone to working that way, I particularly found his tables helpful – some of which i nicked, adapted or developed for the handouts.
These are available here:
A few months back, I was asked by the folks at NUCLEUS, the CMF student magazine, to write up an overview of the Bible for them, on the back of having done the Hitchhikers’ Guide To The Bible at this year’s New Word Alive.
So now the latest edition has come out, and if you’re interested, you can check it out here:
If you want the original talks free, you can get them from iTunes here.
Have been fascinated by Anneke Kaai’s paintings for a while, faithfully published by Pieter Kwant (of Piquant Publishing – cool name, don’t you think?) over the last few years. She is a Dutch artist inspired in her art by a clear Christian faith and the images she creates are often very striking and have both an ethereal and sometimes monumental quality.
So far, four books have been produced of her work, each of them inspired by biblical or theological themes:
- 10 Commandments
- The Creed
- Apocalypse (inspired by the Book of Revelation)
The great thing, and the reason for posting this, is that the images are now available for use in presentations in church on CD-Rom. Check it out – it’s only £10 +p&p. Bargain! And well worth it. Here is a bit of a flavour from her website:
At last got round to watching Charlie Wilson’s War the other night, having had it on my list for ages. A mixed film – wasn’t 100% convinced that Tom Hanks could be a hard drinking, womanising southern politician on a supposedly moral crusade – but the script was sparkling. Well, one would expect nothing less from its writer, the master of political dialogue himself, Aaron Sorkin. There was lots in there to relish. But this little exchange was a brilliant gem amongst many.
Charlie Wilson is a Democrat congressman from Texas who in the 80s champions the cause of the Afghanistan Mujahideen in their war against Soviet invasion. Avrakotos is his man on the inside of the CIA (brilliantly realised by Seymour Hoffman).
Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman): There’s a little boy and on his 14th birthday he gets a horse… and everybody in the village says, “How wonderful! The boy got a horse.” And the Zen master says, “We’ll see.” Two years later, the boy falls off the horse, breaks his leg, and everyone in the village says, “How terrible!” And the Zen master says, “We’ll see.” Then, a war breaks out and all the young men have to go off and fight… except the boy can’t cause his leg’s all messed up. And everybody in the village says, “How wonderful!”
Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks): Now the Zen master says, “We’ll see.”
There is a great patience about history in Eastern worldviews, even in the more secular, modernist ones. There is a legend about the Chinese Premier under Mao, Zhou Enlai, who was asked in the 1950s about the impact of the French Revolution (back in 1789). He supposedly replied with the classic response:
It’s too early to tell.
Well, even if it isn’t true, it both fits with him, his culture and reality. And if that is the case for human life and history in general, how much more for the cosmos in which God is at work? For God, 1000 years are like a day & 1 day is like 1000 years (2Pet 3:8) SO… no wonder:
- Abraham had to wait till he was about 75 before God lured him away from Ur (Gen 11:31-12:1)
- Joseph spent many years first as Potiphar’s slave and then in prison (incl 2 years after helping the chief cup-bearer – Gen 41:1)
- Moses spent 40 years as a shepherd before the time was right to lead God’s people (Exod 2:23-25, 7:7)
- The Period of Judges (i.e. from Joshua to Samuel) lasted ca 400 years before God was ‘ready’ to raise up a king.
- In Exile, Jeremiah tells the people that they should build homes and plant gardens in Babylon because they’re going to be there a while – a whole generation in fact (Jer 29:5ff) – in fact, they were to pray for the prosperity, not of Jerusalem, but BABYLON! (Jer 29:7-8) Patience was the order of the day.
- After Nehemiah, it would be another 450 years or so before John the Baptist hit the religion scene!
We may think that 2000 years is a long time. But then of course, the period between us and Jesus is almost identical to the period it took God to prepare the world for Jesus from first announcing his covenant promises to Abraham.
Amidst our instant gratification obsessions, our culture has a LOT to learn about patience (and I’m referring to our Christian culture there). And, of course, I speak entirely for myself in that…
Had some fun with this title for a guest service talk on Sunday night. No, this was not an excuse to play Belinda Carlisle’s less than fabulous 80s hit. But it did mean I could play this promo for Richard Branson’s Necker Island resort (starting price is £16,000 per couple per week).
You can hear the justification for using the whole thing in church (!) and rest of the talk here. And remember, what we’re offered is ∞% BETTER!!