Monthly Archives: March 2009

Sabbatical, Day 59: Google Hoaxes, Tim Keller And A Poorly Wife

Given that tomorrow is April Fool’s Day, here is a record of Google hoaxes in past years.

I find it a useful practice to read an evangelistic book every now and again. However, it’s a long time since I read one. Last week at Lee Abbey, I noticed they had cheap copies of Tim Keller‘s books ‘The Reason for God‘ and ‘The Prodigal God‘. I haven’t yet read the former, which is a book of apologetics, but I have completed the latter this morning.

It is a winsome and powerful meditation on what Keller calls ‘The parable of the two lost sons’, for both the younger and elder brothers in the famous parable are are lost. The younger is lost in devotion to selfish pleasure, and the elder is lost in self-righteousness. God is the true Prodigal, being reckless with generous love and grace. Only that unconditional grace changes people, and only that gives a healthy motivation for sacrificial service and a life of justice. I warmly recommend it.

Since finishing it today, I have begun to read ‘The Reason for God’ in between clearing down some of last week’s accumulated four hundred plus emails and – more seriously – a poorly wife. Last night, Debbie struggled with a vicious headache. This morning, she was washed out and has spent much of the day in bed. Tonight, she took her temperature at 39.5°C, so we’ll hit that with Paracetamol and keep an eye on it. At bedtime this evening, Rebekah said to her, “I wish I had a wish, because I would wish you back to normal.”

Sabbatical, Day 58: Nosing Around


Lee Bay from the rear of Lee Abbey

Lee Bay from the rear of Lee Abbey

I’m opening up today’s post with a few final photos from last week’s photography course at Lee Abbey. All of these were taken last Thursday, on the final full day of the course. This is Lee Bay from the rear of Lee Abbey. It’s wonderful to look out on this view every day when you come down for an early morning cuppa. 

Seat in the grounds of Lee Abbey

Seat in the grounds of Lee Abbey

Here is a seat in the grounds of Lee Abbey, where you can relax. They chose the right email address for general enquiries: it’s relax AT leeabbey DOT org DOT uk. (I am not being paid for all this promotion of the place! I have simply been there five or six times over the years, and it is one of my favourite ‘thin places‘ in the world.)


Lynton and Lynmouth Cliff Railway

Lynton and Lynmouth Cliff Railway

I spent Thursday afternoon in Lynton and Lynmouth. I took the Cliff Railway down from the former to the latter. It is another reason why I would like to take Debbie and the children there. We did visit the area for a few hours one day some years ago when Rebekah was tiny and we were on holiday elsewhere in North Devon, but I think the kids would love an attraction like this. Especially since at the bottom in Lynmouth there are some great shops for clotted cream (Debbie would love that) and clotted cream ice cream (we’d all love that). Not only that, there is a fish restaurant that sends the most wonderful aroma into the local atmosphere. 



River and Bristol Channel at Lynmouth

River and Bristol Channel at Lynmouth

Lynmouth itself is small, but pretty. There is a river which runs through the town and out into the Bristol Channel, as depicted here. I also caught various scenes of the river flowing under bridges and houses and hôtels built on the steep bank between the river at the bottom at Lynton at the top. 

But at this point, I think I’m going to leave my memories of the Lee Abbey trip, at least so far as the blog is concerned. I might have wished for further ‘input’ on the course in terms of some theological reflection or some further inspiration on technique (although it was specifically advertised as not being a ‘technique’ course), but overall I am glad I went.


On finally tonight to some personal news from today. I wrote in January about an out-patient appointment regarding my nose and sinuses, then earlier this month about the CT scan I subsequently had. Well, today was the follow-up appointment. I agreed to have the surgery, called septoplasty. It will happen some time in the next three months, involve an overnight stay in hospital and two weeks off work. The scan also showed some information I need to relay to my dentist, because the surgeon quite thought my sinuses were being interfered with by a tooth on the right of my mouth! 

Sabbatical, Day 57: Lee Abbey Photography Course, Part 2


The Three Crosses at Lee Abbey: view from below

The Three Crosses at Lee Abbey: view from below

Wednesday’s expedition in search of photos saw me consulting a map of the Lee Abbey estate in order to find the location of the famous three crosses the community erected many years ago. They were not difficult to find. Unsurprisingly, several of us on the photography course took pictures of them, although nobody was there at the same time I was. I simply needed to let a group of pilgrims who were following some guided prayers around the land finish ahead of me.

For this first shot, I deliberately took the image from below, in order to include in the foreground the cow pat on the left and the treacherous hole in the ground on the right. Crosses are ugly and dirty, not shiny happy jewellery.


The Three Crosses at Lee Abbey set against a background of sky

The Three Crosses at Lee Abbey set against a background of sky

For the second photo I have included here, my aim was a little more pragmatic. You will see that again I am below the crosses with a wide-angle lens, but I have included a large amount of featureless cloudy sky. This was one of several pictures I took, thinking they might be useful as backgrounds for PowerPoint or SongPro slides. On the surface, that may not be the most spiritual reason, although I would like to think that if this is used in public worship, it will play a small part in enhancing people’s devotion. However, I castigated myself for moving on all too quickly from the crosses in order to take more images. I think I share the general weakness for moving on as quickly as I can from the foot of the Cross. I certainly did so last week.


Lost sheep among saplings in putative orchard

Lost sheep among saplings in putative orchard

This third shot is one I might use as a metaphor sometime. The sheep shown should not be in this field. It has escaped from the rest of the flock, and is roaming in a field planted with saplings that will eventually become an orchard. Next time I want a ‘lost sheep’ image, I may pull this one out.

The week was not all about the photography, though. On Thursday morning, one of the host team, Chris, recognised my name on my badge. I had thought he looked familiar, but he didn’t prove to be who I thought he was. Chris turned out to be the son of two people I had known in an ecumenical church in my last circuit. When I knew him, he was about eleven. Now he was eighteen, and spending a year in community while offering for the Anglican ministry. I must say, he looked a natural up in front of a large group of people from different backgrounds and generations. I gave him my email address before leaving, and asked him to tell me how he gets on.

Sabbatical, Day 56: Catching Up On Photography At Lee Abbey

I got back from Lee Abbey last night. As I expected, there was no Internet access, let alone wifi, for guests, but the place is as beautiful and spiritual as ever.

Setting off on Monday morning after the school run, the weather got progressively poorer the further west I drove. The most direct approach to Lynton and the Valley of the Rocks where Lee Abbey is situated requires slogging along the A39 and tackling two 25% (1 in 4 in old money) hills, one at Porlock, the other at Lynmouth. The latter is also combined with a hairpin bend. I chickened out, looking forward to a drive instead across the rugged beauty of Exmoor.

What a mistake. As the rain increased, I found myself driving through low cloud, in fog-like conditions. The 1 in 4s would have been less problematic!

After an initial welcome on Monday night (and my by now customary poor first night’s sleep – this time waking at 4 am and not slumbering again), the course kicked off on Tuesday morning. Our leader was Paul Judson, communications officer for Durham Diocese and editor of their online newspaper. A trained artist and photographer, he is ordained and married to a vicar. His theme, based on the Emmaus Road story, was ‘And their eyes were opened’. Each day, he took a theme from a Paul Gauguin painting and gave us just a few thoughts to set our fingers twitching on our shutters. 

So it was that on Tuesday I walked down from the back of Lee Abbey to the rocky cove at Lee Bay, shooting whatever I fancied, and inspired to look more closely at some features. I found some surprising features. 


Stones at Lee Bay

Here, for example, is a collection of stones I liked on the beach. I didn’t move them about or do anything fancy with filters either on the camera or in software, they just looked like this and I found the arrangement appealing. I hope you do, too.


Colourful branch washed up at Lee Bay

Colourful branch washed up at Lee Bay

And I liked the colours here, too. This branch and the green net appeared to have been washed up in the bay. What had made the wood go orange, I wondered? I’m sure there is a simple answer, but again, I have applied no digital trickery to the shot. This is more or less just how I saw it. 

But whatever I say about the lack of any software manipulation, I hit a severe problem that night when I reviewed my shots for the day on the laptop. A couple of marks that I could see in the viewfinder, and which I had thought were just dirt there, appeared in every photo. I didn’t have any blower, brush or lens cloth with me (and I knew it wasn’t a lens issue, because they appeared regardless of the lens I was using). I borrowed a blower and a brush from someone else the next day, but didn’t think I’d got rid of them. Someone else kindly offered to lend me his laptop that had the latest and greatest Photoshop CS4 on it.

I was rather nervous about playing with such high powered and exalted software, and explored other solutions – although I felt at one point like jacking in the course and coming home, because I thought all my pictures were going to be ruined. I thought that especially when I also noticed that shots from Rebekah’s birthday party last Saturday had also been afflicted. Debbie suggested on the phone that since that party had been at a pottery painting studio, maybe clay dust had got into the camera. That would have explained the difficulty in removing the dust, because it would have been more moist. Worse, given the lime component in clay, such dust could have been a nasty irritant inside the camera. The friend who loaned me the blower and brush found an advert in a magazine for Colchester Camera Repairs, and suggested I visit them on my return.

Meanwhile, leafing through my Nikon manual, I thought I had found a solution. I had never installed the accompanying Nikon Capture software. The manual said that if I took a reference shot of white in RAW format and took all other shots in RAW, then the software could compare the two and remove the blemishes. It wouldn’t solve Tuesday’s photos, which I had shot as JPGs, but I could prevent problems with future pictures. So I installed it onto the laptop from the CD. Problem: it needed to be version 4.3 or later, and Nikon had kindly only given me 4.2.

So I thought that on Wednesday, I would drive into Lynton with the laptop, install mobile broadband and download an update. Problem – big one: mobile broadband was so slow that the update would never have completely downloaded before my laptop battery would have expired. I gave up, and decided I’d download when I got home.

Meanwhile on Wednesday afternoon, Paul gave a lecture on using Photoshop. Now Photoshop is far too expensive for us, although we have Photoshop Elements 6 on the desktop here at home. I didn’t have the latter on my laptop for licensing reasons, but as Paul talked about the ‘clone tool’ that will take a colour from somewhere in a photo and apply it over something you want to remove, I wondered whether I had anything like that in any of the free or open source software I had put on the laptop.

Step forward to the rescue, The GIMP 2.6.4 and IrfanView 4.23! Both have such a tool. I removed the marks from all of Tuesday and last Saturday’s images. You wouldn’t know now they’ve had a problem. And although I said I hadn’t engaged in digital trickery for the photos above, both of them were doctored with The GIMP’s clone tool to remove two blemishes.

Maanwhile, none of Wednesday’s pics seemed to have the marks on them at all. So maybe my friend Sedge’s blower and brush had worked, after all.

More on Lee Abbey in tomorrow’s post.

Sabbatical, Day 55: Shirky, Chapter 11 And Epilogue

Final instalment from Clay Shirky today.

Chapter 11 Successful social tools have a complex interaction of promise (why), tools (how) and bargain (rules). There are various ways in which the promise can be attractive and workable. The tools must fit the job and what people want, so need not be the latest technology. The bargain may be offered initially by one side, but modified by the users.

Dilemmas often centre on whether and how much governance is put in place. Do we use contracts, for example?

Do we have a tendency in the church to jump to governance before going through the other stages?

Epilogue The new tools don’t create new motivations, they amplify existing motivations. Once people have used them in extremis, they will use them in ordinary day to day life. They are adopted one person at a time. 

Activists who have tended only to protest rather than be constructive may need a form of ‘incorporation’ (embodiment) that is different from current corporate law, by allowing gatherings in the virtual world, not just face to face. 

The future belongs to those who work with the present, where these changes have happened.

If this is the new and coming reality, how serious are we about adapting to it in a Gospel way?

Sabbatical, Day 54: Clay Shirky, Chapters 9-10

Fourth instalment from Shirky below.

Chapter 9 The Small World principle: when two strangers meet and find they know someone in common, it’s because within each different circle there is a small number of people who are highly connected. These people are the ones who are known by the two strangers. Social networking sites work on this principle: the sharing of a common interest (amplification) on the one hand and those who don’t share the interest (filtering) on the other. Today, software such as IRC, wikis or web forums can provide bridging capital and bonding capital more easily and cheaply than institutional methods.

Which is good reason for moving from institutional approaches to the new social tools.

Chapter 10 How do we tolerate failure and use it creatively? The open source movement isn’t necessarily more successful than the commercial realm, it just has a better way of tolerating failure. Not owning the source code means lower overheads. The ‘long tail’ of the ‘power law distribution’ also means that the single contribution made by the thousands are as valuable as the many contributions made by hundreds of programmers. 

Activists in the church often complain about those who seem to do little. Does the ‘long tail’ validly challenge this attitude or not?

Sabbatical, Day 53: Shirky, Chapters 7-8

Here is the next instalment from Clay Shirky.

Chapter 7 The key battles in protest movements are the ability to grow protests without state clampdown and documenting any opposition to cause an international outcry. That was true before the advent of contemporary social tools; now those same tools that can be used for fun can be used for political campaigning, even apparently banal tools like Twitter. They have shifted the ground from advance planning to real-time co-ordination that cannot be anticipated by opponents.

This of course is what terrorists have done, too. Hence government desires to see the electronic records of ISPs. But as the church moves more to the margins of society, this means we have just as much opportunity to influence and campaign as ever, just in very different ways.

Chapter 8 Social capital has been declining, but social tools make it possible to build it up again. Services such as make it possible for new groups to gather, existing groups whose transactional costs had soared can meet again, and latent groups can now set up without worrying abotu social disapproval.

Professionals lose out due to mass amateurisation. Existing social bargains (e.g., ‘who are the media?) are called into question. Networked organisations are more resilient, even the more objectionable ones.

Social capital and small groups should surely be central to church life rather than institutionalisation. Is this not a way forward, especially if we need to transition into ways naturally used by generations largely missing from traditional churches? 

Sabbatical, Day 52: Clay Shirky, Chapters 4-6

A few more thoughts from Shirky today.

Chapter 4 Economically, old media filtered information, and then published. Social media does the reverse: the process is now ‘publish, then filter’. And whereas one could do small things for love and big things for money, it’s now possible to do big things for love. People are no longer passive consumers, they are symmetrical producers. 

‘Publish, then filter’ has enormous implications for our instinctive desire to want things we don’t like banned. How do we cope if things we don’t like are already out in the wild?

How might we ‘do big things for love’?

It’s easy to treat church members and others with whom we ministers come into contact as passive consumers. Some are happy to be treated that way (especially in a consumerist culture). But what about those who want to be symmetrical producers? 

Chapter 5 Wikipedia works on the ‘publish, then filter’ principle. Hence criticism of errors, but Wikipedia is a tool (wiki) plus community, and it ‘self-heals’ on this ‘publish, then filter’ basis. It is a process, not a product. There is an unequal distribution among the contributors – a ‘power law distribution’ whre a few make a lot of contributions, and most people only make one contribution. This works, because people have a non-financial motive for contributing.

Often we complain about the ‘power law distribution’ in churches, where a small group of people do most of the work. But in the world of social media, this isn’t a bad thing. Discuss!

Chapter 6 Social tools and the Internet have made it easier for protest groups to assemble and campaign. It’s not so much about the latest technology, but about using that which has become commonplace.

This should be good news for the Church. TEAR Fund deploys its SuperBadger campaigns this way, but they are centrally driven. Maybe more might rise up from the margins.

Sabbatical, Day 51: Clay Shirky Chapters 1-3

Not being sure how much chance I’ll get to be in range of wifi or mobile broadband signals this Monday to Friday while I’m at Lee Abbey, I’m preparing a few short posts on Clay Shirky‘s book Here Comes Everybody.

Chapter 1 We now have what Tim O’Reilly calls ‘an architecture of participation’. Human tendency to work in groups plus new social tools means vastly reduced overhead costs. Institutions won’t disappear, but their role as a barrier to group action has collapsed.

So why do we still bother putting so much energy into church as institution?

Chapter 2 Social networking sites like Flickr have reversed the old principle of ‘gather, then share’ into the much more inexpensive ‘share, then gather’, thanks to tagging. The old state versus commerce choice assumed people couldn’t self-assemble. Now through social tools they can. They can 1. Share; 2. Collaborate; 3. Take Collective Action.

This has the potential to launch a new Reformation, undermining not just the Catholic priests of 500 years ago but all authority/institution figures today.

Chapter 3 Today’s social tools with their ‘mass amateurisation’ attack professionalism on two fronts. First of all, professionals control access to scarce resources. Blogs and the like mean that in the media, resources are no longer scarce. Secondly, professional depend on the recognition of fellow professionals. That too is blown apart when everybody is a media outlet. 

What implications might this have for the professionalism we cherish in the church?

Sabbatical, Day 50: On Not Taking Family For Granted

So today is Mothering Sunday – ‘not to be confused with Mother’s Day’, as Wikipedia says at the top of its entry. A time to remember our mother the Church, the Bride of Christ, as well as a time to honour those in our families who often more than anyone else have epitomised the selfless and sacrificial characteristics of love.

Today in the UK it is poignant to do so, given the death last night of Jade Goody, leaving her two small boys to remember Mothering Sunday as the first day of their bereavement each year. I imagine that if Jade could have hung on through today, she would have done. It is popular to talk of terminally ill people hanging on through certain events and then giving up. My father-in-law said he never wanted my wife and her sister to witness him die, and he slipped away just after they left visiting him at the hospital. Somebody else I know died thirty minutes after the midnight that signified the end of her husband’s eightieth birthday. 

But it is not always possible, and Jade Goody was taken from her sons at a most cruel time. When I heard of her death this morning, I had a deep sense that our children should never take their mother for granted. Right now, in their young ways, they don’t. I hope they never do. 

It has been hard to focus on Debbie today, because it is also Rebekah’s sixth birthday. And in a true sign of motherly love, although we gave her some presents and cards, Debbie has deferred the attention and focus of the day to our little girl. 

Rebekah with her '6' balloon for her birthday

Rebekah with her '6' balloon for her birthday

Here she is, taking great delight in the balloon we bought to mark the occasion. She derived pleasure from all her presents, large and small. She is still at the age where the cost of the gift is not the issue. Long may it last! 

Several relatives and friends sent money for her, so we put that inside another present, a purse, and rather naughtily took her Sunday shopping. Now that she is doing some basic addition and subtraction at school, we hope it will be an early lesson in financial management!

We allowed Rebekah to choose the venue for lunch out. To our relief, she didn’t opt for the children’s interminably regular haunt of Pizza Hut, but another low-cost venue, Wetherspoon’s. Student friends of ours see it as a great place for low-cost booze (surely a curse in our society), we see it as a good venue for cheap meals. OK, you can tell they’re not prepared from fresh on site, but when funds are limited, a location where the four of us can feed for £20 is welcome. We have developed a family grace for mealtimes where we thank God for each member of our family, as well as the food. We then amend it when there are particular things to be grateful for: today was one of those days.

Back home now, Rebekah is enjoying the first High School Musical film on DVD. She had acquired numbers 2 and 3 as presents, and is watching the first one again to get back into the story. I’m going to wrap up the blog post a little early today, because this evening I shall be packing for tomorrow’s drive to Lee Abbey, and helping Debbie sort one or two domestic issues before leaving. 

dsc_0041So I’ll just close with this picture of Rebekah from yesterday. Here she is, in her birthday sash, and wearing a princess crown, waiting with Mark to greet her guests at her pottery party at The Glazed Look.

Happy Birthday, little girl – it’s been six amazing years since that foggy morning when you came into the world courtesy of an emergency Caesarean when induction drugs were sending your heartbeat all over the place. Look at you now – kind, clever and fun!

Mum and Dad love you so much.