Category Archives: Travel


I promised a post about our trip last week to Disneyland Paris. In order to be a man of my word, here it is. Three different rambles follow below.

Any increase in British visitors will be matched by a reported increase in the number of mortgage applications. Make no mistake, it is every bit as expensive as you are warned it will be. More so, actually. It makes motorway service stations look like charity shops. How much should a lunch-time cheeseburger, fries and bottle of water cost you? Did I hear someone suggest ten of our finest British pounds? Why, you would be right, sir.

And the other costs are equally appalling, be it food, drink, ice cream, gifts or small necessities. The place is capitalism red in tooth and claw. With a captive audience (like the motorway service stations), they pick a number out and charge it. This is not a complete rant against capitalism, but marks what unrestrained sin can do. Not that laws can make people good, but if there is no competition present to rein things in, sometimes there need to be other constraints. Of course, there won’t be any restrictions on the Mickey Mouse Empire while it rakes in so many Euros for France. And yes, this is small fry compared with far more pressing needs in the world. It’s just one example of what happens when greed runs rampant. No jokes about bankers, please.

I also found the behaviour of the French interesting. Like any culture, the dominant characteristics were both good and bad. The hôtel staff couldn’t have been more obliging. On the other hand, many of the punters flouted the smoking bans and shoved anyone out of the way, children included, to get on a bus. I know it’s said that queuing is a peculiarly British thing, but to me it enshrines a value about fairness and equality. I know too you could  make similar credit and debit remarks about we Brits, and that none of these statements should be taken as blanket criticisms, as if one could stereotype everyone. However, it remains curious to me that certain positive and negative traits exhibit themselves within a culture. Maybe Pam BG could shed some Girardian light on this?

In one park there is a statue of Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse holding hands. Beneath it is a plaque with some words from Michael D Eisner, who was Chief Executive of Disney when the Paris operation was opened in 1992. Eisner says that the company wanted to set up a park in Europe, because it was European folk tales that had originally inspired Walt. It was therefore a ‘coming home’ of sorts.

That is at least to some extent true – think Pinocchio or Peter Pan, for example. I’m not sure how they justified their expansion to Japan, mind you!

However, one thing you inevitably can’t escape in Disneyland is the notion of story and narrative. In the Frontierland section, you realise how Disney used to tell a story of the Wild West that wasn’t sensitive to Native Americans. But it’s OK, because then they discovered Pocahontas. On the ride called ‘It’s A Small, Small World’, you travel on a boat past models of children from all around the world in their different costumes and cultures, all singing the song after which the ride is named. It becomes a narrative: everywhere, around the world, however different we are, we are really all the same underneath. (To which the Christian wants to answer both ‘yes’ and ‘no’, I think.)

It reminded me of the importance of story. So many live by a big story, be it the ones told by capitalism, communism, Islam or Christianity. Others – fearing the postmodern suspicion that these stories are power-plays to include the privileged and exclude others – choose instead to populate their lives with little segments from here and there. But the privilege of the Christian witness or preacher is to help locate people in the story of God – the story of God’s redeeming, sacrificial love, which because it is sacrificial is not a power-play. God finds each one of us and places us in his dramatic, epic story of love. We then become facilitators, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to do the same. What a privilege.

Sabbatical, Day 74: Father And Son

Today, Rebekah headed off for a two-day sleepover with her old childminder, ‘Aunt’ Pat. She will be spoiled rotten have some belated birthday treats, including her first ever ice skating trip and her first visit to the cinema. Debbie took her down to Kent today, leaving Mark and me to have ‘boys’ time’ together. I never want Mark to feel he has a distant father – I’ve seen the damage that causes – so this was a great opportunity.

Our time was constrained by having to wait in for a Tesco delivery, but after that arrived and I had put it all away (no help from Monkey Boy, who was too busy reading and writing), we decided upon an early lunch and a trip to town. 

One snag: Debbie had driven off with both the children’s car seats in her car, leaving me unable to drive Mark safely and legally into town. However, we made a virtue of that. I researched bus times, and we walked to the nearest stop to catch one into the bus station. 

(In passing, Chelmsford’s bus station was infamous when it was first opened two years ago. Someone had the splendid idea of locating it almost opposite the train station. Someone else made the mistake of designing it so that buses couldn’t turn properly. A blame game between the Borough Council and the County Council proceeded. Fortunately, it’s fine now.) 

In readiness for our trip to town, I had printed off a map of the town centre from Streetmap. Mark wanted to indulge his current favourite pastime: spotting CCTV cameras. My task as his humble assistant was to mark every single one he saw on the map. He also likes to spot burglar alarms and satellite dishes, but thankfully he didn’t look for them as well today. As it was, every few seconds, he would point, jump and squeak in a frequency more congenial to canine ears, “CCTV!”

The height of the obsession was when we passed a jeweller’s in the High Street. Mark recognises the yellow sign warning burglars that cameras are fitted at a premises. He saw the sticker on the door of the jeweller’s, and dragged me in to find the cameras. I don’t know what the staff thought: was a four-year-old casing their joint? Or was he a stooge for the strange man with him? 

Eventually, after a roundabout ride, visits to both branches of Waterstone’s and a bag of doughnuts, he tired and wanted to head home for some milk. 

So what do we make of his behaviour, and how can I use it as a sermon illustration? Is he: 

(1) showing early signs of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder? If so, does this reflect the things we obsess on in churches?

(2) majoring on minors? Again, think about the subject of church disputes.

(3) providing a prophetic critique of a troubling phenomenon in our society that shows how little we trust each other?

Oh, by the way. I’m not serious.


More personal news briefly: first of all, two of the key books I wanted for researching views of ordained ministry finally came today from Amazon. Will Willimon‘s ‘Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry‘ and Ritva Williams’ ‘Stewards, Prophets, Keepers of the Word: Leadership in the Early Church‘.

Secondly, my life on Twitter has exploded since last night. It all started when Maggi Dawn began following my feed. (Heaven knows why she wants to, let alone how she’d come across me, but I’m grateful.) I started looking at who followed her and whom she followed, adding quite a few as I went. All sorts of other followers then started appearing. I’m keeping an eye to make sure they’re not the Twitter version of stalkers. Hopefully not. A number of the people I’ve found provide genuinely useful information. For example, Religious Intelligence has all sorts of interesting news story about religious issues from around the world.

And with that I’ll bid you goodnight as I check the last few tweets that have come in before logging off for the night.

Sabbatical, Day 65: Jesus Clears The Temple, We Visit London And The Lolly Stick Cross

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “Damaris Trust Holy Week 2009, Monday:…“, posted with vodpod

Here is the second Damaris Trust video for Holy Week. Tony Watkins talks about the surprising display of anger shown by Jesus as he cleared the temple courtyards of merchants. He discusses why Jesus took such offence to what he saw, and what that might mean for us.


A belated birthday treat for Rebekah today. For months, she has wanted to visit London, and today was the day. Leaving the car at the main Methodist church in town, we walked to Chelmsford train station, caught a connection to Liverpool Street and a tube to Victoria.

Once we arrived at street level, we asked around to find the bus stop for The Original London Sightseeing Tour. This company is one that offers open-top double-decker bus tours of London’s sights. You buy tickets that are valid all day. You can hop on and off. You receive earphones for a detailed commentary. Children also get a special fun pack.

Knowing that Mark would be young enough to go free, we calculated that two adults and one child would cost us £56 for the day. We used some Tesco Clubcard vouchers towards the tickets. For every £2.50 in Clubcard, you receive £10 in vouchers. Therefore we exchanged £12.50 to get £50, and expected to pay the balance of £6 in cash. But I was charged £60: I didn’t realise the prices had increased on 1st April. We could have exchanged a further £2.50 in vouchers and not have had to pay a single penny. Dang, to quote my American friends.

It was an ideal day to sit on top of an open bus. 15° Celsius (59° Fahrenheit), and sunny, so great weather but not hot. The tour would take us all across central London. We saw Hyde Park, Marble Arch, Park Lane, Oxford Street, Marylebone Road and ground to a halt on Regent Street. With Mark getting extremely bored and both children struggling to keep the adult-sized earphones in their ears, we elected to jump off. Using McDonald’s for the only thing it’s worth (their toilets), we dived into Oxford Circus tube station and headed for St James’s Park station, from where we headed for the park itself and enjoyed a picnic. The park squirrels were tame, and the ice cream from a kiosk was good. (There is no connection between the squirrels and the ice cream.)

From there, we walked down to see Buckingham Palace, which was the place Rebekah most wanted to see.  Despite being a Londoner, I’ve never seen it in the flesh before, either. Neither Debbie nor I are avid Republicans (the thought of a President Blair or – worse – President Mandelson is scary enough), but we are both instinctively ambivalent about royalty, so it is never a place I have been worried about seeing. However, Becky was delighted, and from there was content to head home.

While in St James’s Park, she repeated a question we’d had to defer the other day: why was Jesus crucified? I tried to give her a simple answer on two levels. One was about how good people can upset bad people. The other was about the kindness of a friend who takes the blame for us. (Yes, I know that latter one can be pushed too far in some models of the atonement, but it was a place to start that she could understand, but I’m following people like Tom Wright here who accepts a form of substitutionary atonement while rejecting the ‘Pierced for our Transgressions‘ school. I also know there are problems with that particular article of Wright’s, but I’m interested here more in what he affirms than his attitude to certain partners in the debate.)


Once home, Rebekah wanted to show me something she has been making since yesterday. She has wanted to make a model of the Cross on which Jesus died. I have to tell you it is made out of pink and purple lolly sticks from a craft set, but don’t be put off. At one stage yesterday, she wanted to make a Jesus to go on it, using furry balls, but that part of the project had evidently foundered. Nevertheless, the cross was decorated with the words ‘Jesus was crucified’ and a series of hearts.

But while there was no body of Jesus on the lolly stick cross, there was something else: a montage of triangles, soaked in glitter. 

“That’s the star,” she told me, “the star that led the wise men to Bethlehem.”

She gets it. At the age of six, she knows in a simple way that the incarnation and the atonement cannot be divided. Oh that more of us would.

Sabbatical, Day 63: My Half-Empty Glass

With the school holidays kicking in today, Debbie has been planning all sorts of activities for our pair. Swimming, sleepovers, an Easter party and a trip to London (because Rebekah wants to see ‘the Queen’s house’) all feature.

Last night, she suggested I research the Wat Tyler Country Park on the web, with a view to visiting it today. Like Joshua and Caleb’s colleagues who reported on the existence of fearsome giants in the Promised Land, I told her after some surfing that by all means let’s go, but be prepared for a possible short trip, because our children were too young for much of what was mentioned on the website. What would a motorboat museum mean to them? A scuplture trail? Somewhere else I saw mention of bird hides – again, not something they would be ready for: how would they stay quiet and still? I didn’t mind trying it and admitted that the train sounded good, but I was pessimistic.

And this is where Debbie and I are so different. I have the kind of personality that looks for the problems. I figure you have to be ready for them before you leap in. Debbie, though, is a ‘can do’ person. She ploughs into something and worries about obstacles if and when she encounters them. When I foresee trouble, she hears that as me not wanting to get on with the task, and it frustrates her. It then frustrates me that she thinks I’m trying to find excuses! It happened yesterday when we were clearing out the garage. She kept giving me more things to cram in the car for the trip to the dump. I was worrying how I’d get them all in a small car safely; she saw no issue with just for once driving with restricted mirror vision.

It’s hard for each of us to cope with the other’s different approach at times. Each of us has to compromise and show an appreciation of the other’s strengths and concerns. It doesn’t come naturally, but it’s something to work on.

Such differences aren’t limited to married couples, they occur everywhere that human beings have to work together, churches included. We are under some illusion if we think it was all rosy in the apostolic Church, for example. Arguments over provision for widows, the place of the Gentiles, whether John Mark should get a second chance at mission, whether Paul should heed a prophecy about imprisonment – all these conflicts appear in the Acts of the Apostles. We need a lot of grace.

What happened in the end today? Setting out while there were still clouds in the sky, gradually God Photoshopped them out and revealed blue heavens. It was one of those beautiful Spring days that foretold the coming summer. We weren’t short on things for the children to do, because there were plenty of things at the park not mentioned on the website. Adventure playgrounds, craft shops, an ice cream kiosk. And the train was free today, because they were testing it before the summer season starts properly. The RSPB might well have hides on the marshes, but they also had activities for younger children. Our two decorated egg cups, and Rebekah was disappointed we didn’t have time for her to have her face painted as a princess.

Because we ended up spending so much time there. The motorboat museum can wait. And next time, I’d like to carry my camera bag there, as well as our picnic in my rucksack.

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 21: The Farm, Air Miles, Slow Broadband And Good Bible Commentaries

We decided to take advantage of Mark’s improving health and a fine day to give him his first proper trip out since he contracted the tonsillitis. So with his sister we paid a trip to Marsh Farm Country Park. An hour or two there late morning was very pleasant. Once he said he’d had enough – around the time we were devouring jumbo sausages in rolls – we headed back. Mark and Rebekah played beautifully while we were there. Becky even gave her brother a ride on a tricycle made for two when he didn’t cope well with riding a solo trike.

All that good behaviour was to change when we got home. They turned into monsters, making the visit of Gemma, our family friend hairdresser, interesting. Both went within a whisker of losing their bedtime stories, but just about held on. At least it’s a sign Mark is a lot better. He just needs to regain some strength now.

In other news: the first credit card I ever had that came with a rewards scheme had Air Miles attached to it. There weren’t any other games in town at the time, so I signed up. Over the years, I racked up nearly three thousand air miles and didn’t fly a single one. Today, I had a letter from Air Miles saying they had changed the terms and conditions of the scheme. Those who didn’t add any miles in two years would have their accounts closed and forfeit their miles.

Not expecting to fly in the foreseeable future, I was about to put the letter in the shredding pile when Debbie noticed small print that said the miles could be redeemed for other things, too. Tonight, we’ve been searching the site so that we can use up most of the miles on a few attractions in London. The kids are desperate for a trip to London, especially Becky, who wants to see ‘the castle where the Queen lives’. But it looks like we could get ‘flights’ on the London Eye, along with a London Eye River Cruise, and keep some miles over to visit Thorpe Park and Chessington World Of Adventures. So if we can combine these with vouchers from Tesco Clubcard, then we ought to get a few good family days out – especially if there are any Clubcard vouchers for sightseeing bus tours in London.

On the technical front from yesterday, I’ve been tracking things down a bit more as to why our broadband speeds are so slow. Reading through support pages on our ISP’s portal, it looks like constant slow speeds indicate an IP profile that has got stuck low. Having performed various checks, I have to run the BT Speedtester three times at different times of day. However many times I tried on the desktop PC, and whether in Firefox or the evil Internet Explorer, the test got stuck. I was so thankful for my laptop. Connected via Ethernet cable to the router, the test worked first time. To abbreviate some technical statistics, our line ought to be able to connect at around 2.5 Mbps, but we have somehow been artificially limited to 0.1. Once I’ve completed those two further speed tests, I can give more information to our ISP, and hopefully someone will look into it.

Finally, one brief piece of the0logy. Anyone who sees my study will notice – apart from the mess – that I love to have a range of commentaries on the books of the Bible. I don’t have less than two on any one book, so that I can read more than one opinion (if I have time!), and in the case of John’s Gospel I have – ahem – ten. So there I was going through some old blog posts I hadn’t read, especially enjoying Chris Tilling‘s musings on theology and trivia, when I happened upon his link of the day from a fortnight ago. He had come across a website called Best Commentaries. It is in the process of aggregating reviews of commentaries. It has begun with some very conservative sources, but the webmaster left a comment at Chris’ post indicating he’s open to suggestions from other backgrounds, too. If you like finding good commentaries and dislike the expense of buying guides or subscribing to this journal and that, then this site might well be worth a look.

Sabbatical, Day 18

Thank you to everyone who has offered prayers and advice regarding Mark’s illness. He has now been clear of vomiting for two days, but the problem has moved to the other end. He remains reluctant to eat, which brings back all the fears of the two years (only recently ended) during which he barely picked at food. However, it could just be the bug. He also remains pretty tired.

Today, I drove to Kent and picked up Rebekah from her sleepover. She had been rather subdued, but was much closer to her usual more-bouncy-than-Tigger self today. Pat, her old childminder, has come to stay with us for two days.

On the way back, we were coming over the new bridge-like slip road from the A2 to the M25 when we hit one of those first-gear-if-you’re lucky traffic jams. It did not surprise us remotely when it cleared the moment we got through the tolls at the Dartford Crossing. Tolls were introduced here with the south-to-north tunnels and the north-to-south Queen Elizabeth II bridge. Once the bridge was paid for, they were due to be abolished.

But governments are good at lying. Or at least of playing along with a previous administration’s policy, and then changing when it suits them. So, as is well known, once the crossing was paid for, the tolls were kept in place. Now it is supposedly a congestion charge. So let’s just call that the lie that it is. When the tolls cause traffic to stack up in the way they do, fuel consumption worsens badly. Therefore they do not save environmental damage, they cause more pollution. It can hardly be argued that the tolls work by deterring people from taking that route and that if they were abolished more people would use it for two reasons. Firstly, those on the route often have little practical alternative. Secondly, the few who might change would be on the roads anyway. No, the Dartford tolls only increase greenhouse gas emissions and human tempers. So let’s just call the government a big fat teller of porkies. I know people will find it hard to believe in a dishonest government, but there you go.

So little has happened on sabbatical topics today. However, I have just noticed this report on the BBC News site: the Vatican says that the two sexes ‘sin in different ways’. Never mind personality differences, there are sex differences in terms of preferences for the classic seven deadly sins. For women, the popularity of sins comes in the following order:

1. Pride
2. Envy
3. Anger 
4. Lust
5. Gluttony
6. Avarice
7. Sloth.

For men, it is 

1. Lust
2. Gluttony
3. Sloth
4. Anger
5. Pride
6. Envy
7. Greed.

So now you know. The top three in the men’s list sounds very much like the profile for certain seedy men’s magazines, such as Zoo and Nuts (which I’m not going to dignify with links).

The Vatican is reacting to a decline in the practice of personal confession. One third of Catholics no longer consider confession to a priest necessary, and one in ten consider it an obstacle to their relationship with God. All this, despite the fact that the Catholic Catechism still states that 

“immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into Hell”.

The objections to confession sound vaguely similar to traditional Protestant objections to the rôle of a mediator between humans and God other than Jesus Christ. All this at a time when some streams and traditions emanating from Protestantism are rediscovering the importance of accountability groups, which may not have the formalised place for the priest, but which can respect the injunction in the Letter of James that we should confess our faults to one another. I don’t suppose we’re going to wave to each other as we pass one another going in the opposite directions, but isn’t this one of those cases where it would be good to listen carefully to one another and pick out strengths and weaknesses from the various traditions? 

Finally tonight, something that should have drawn a comment from me yesterday. I visit an osteopath every couple of months, as I have previously written. Yesterday, I saw Tom again. In addition to treatment for my usual neck and back issues, I mentioned that a practice nurse at our doctor’s surgery had recently diagnosed some pain in my heel as plantar fasciitis.

Tom being Tom, he not only proceeded to treat it and give me some exercises to do, he launched into an explanation of the condition and the physiology. He told me how the plantar fascia is like a mesh that changes shape, tensing and relaxing, in relation to the movement of the foot and pressure on it, and said something about energy storage that I confess I don’t now understand. He explained how the fascia is linked to the calf muscle. When the latter is tight all the time, it puts strain on the plantar fascia. Therefore, he prescribed some gentle stretching exercises for the calf muscle that would release it and therefore relieve the plantar fascia. He said that unless we started to work quickly, the condition would set in for months and months. 

In the midst of the explanation about how things should work in this part of the body, Tom suddenly said, “He thought of everything, didn’t he?” Now Tom knows my profession and has dropped hints before about believing in God. It was he and not my previous, Christian, osteopath, who told me that the discipline was founded by a Christian, Andrew Taylor Still. However, one thing Tom has never suggested to me that he is a Christian or a disciple of any other faith.

I imagine he might be one of the many who hold to a belief in God without ‘formalising’ it, but my concern here is less with theorising about his convictions. My point is that I wasn’t ready, even within a friendly, warm relationship to make an appropriate response. Sometimes I am so into building a good relationship with someone and avoiding the preachiness of my Christian youth that when an opportunity for spiritual conversation comes up, I blow it. Someone must know how to keep a good balance!

Sabbatical, Day 12

Yesterday, Olivia Newton-John. Today, the Rolling Stones. Mixed emotions, that is.After breakfast today, I helped another minister lead a communion service for the college body in the chapel. She had found some excellent material in Andrew Pratt and Marjorie Dobson‘s book ‘Nothing Too Religious‘, including a powerful retelling of the institution of the Lord’s Supper that we used as a thanksgiving prayer.

An intriguing morning either side of coffee with Nick Helm, the Bishop of Sheffield’s Advisor in Spirituality. He lectured us on spiritual direction. Quite a lively debate ensued about the similarities with, and differences from pastoral care and Christian counselling. The second half was less lively, being a rather protracted history of the movement. That could have been shortened and we could have got into more meat, I think. But stimulating.

This afternoon, though, Phil Meadows once again led us into powerful and painful places, spiritually. His subject was Anabaptist Discipleship. He emphasised just how radical their rejection of infant baptism was, because it also conferred citizenship of the state. Rejecting it in favour of believers’ baptism was an act of civil disobedience. Hence, given the (unholy, in my opinion) alliance between the Magisterial Reformers and the state, vicious persecution followed. This was the first example of Protestant persecution of other believers. Phil shared with us two stories, including that of Michael Sattler. To hear the details of the persecution reduced some of us to tears: me for one. Hearing about their children just did for me.

Phil’s point was that we don’t have tongue screws attached to prevent us preaching the Gospel, so what are our metaphorical tongue screws? What things have colonised our minds and hearts to prevent us sharing the Good News, at the risk of lesser persecution? Clearly, the Anabaptists held strongly to believing that Jesus was Lord of all creation, way above all earthly rulers.

I was relieved we had a coffee break followed by the MA students having tutorials and library time. So I wandered out of college into the nearby village where I found a craft and gift shop. I shall be returning tomorrow with little presents for the family.

This evening, a session in which Stephen Skuce argued that what he called ‘evangelism in the power of the Holy Spirit’ – namely, evangelism where there is a clear demonstration of God’s power (for example, healing) – is the normative form of Christian evangelism. Another debate on that one. Nobody here seriously doubts that God can and does work in that way, but an interesting and passionate discussion about the relationship between evangelism and signs and wonders, also bringing in the question of large-scale missions versus one-to-one sharing. We covered a lot of ground.

In between all this, I seem to have earned the reputation as the techie on the course for the week. I have been in demand to help people with what to me are simple tasks, but which to others are daunting. Installing a Java update and uninstalling earlier ones for security reasons. Discussing phishing emails. That kind of stuff. I’m only too conscious of those friends who know far more about this than I do, but I’m glad if I can put my moderate knowledge of the area to use in helping others.

I shall be leaving here after coffee tomorrow. The MAs have a final question and answer session, but there’s no point in me staying to that if the consequence were to be hitting the M25 at Friday rush-hour time, so I’m looking for an earlier getaway if I can. I shall be said to leave behind the teaching and spirituality of this place and the people I’ve met. However, I’ve missed Debbie and the children, and I’m looking forward to a happy reunion.

25 Things

I’ve been tagged by my friend Jenny Vass on this web meme. This will take a while, so I’ll type a few random things as I remember them over the day, so here goes:

1. I was born in the Salvation Army Mothers’ Hospital in Clapton, north-east London. 

2. I have a big head (I hope only literally), which made my birth distressing for my mother, and explains why my parents waited six years before having my sister.

3. I grew up in the same road that Bruce Forsyth did. Not at the same time.

4. On a school trip to Whipsnade Zoo, my mum gave me nineteen shillings in spending money. When the teacher announced we could only take seven shillings and sixpence with us, I kept quiet. I spent every last penny in the zoo gift shop. Mum was distraught: she had given me the balance of her housekeeping and had only intended the extra sum for an emergency.

5. I became best friends with my mate Jean when he joined my primary school at the age of seven. Nearly forty-two years later, we’re still friends and he was best man at my wedding.

6. Once, while Jean and I were boys, we were stopped by a van driver asking for directions. We made it all up and off he went.

7. Jean is an accomplished guitarist. We used to write songs together, even though I’m not musical.

8. When I was eight and my sister was two, she hit me over the head with my cricket bat.

9. I was the only child from my primary school to go to my secondary school.

10. I hated school, even though I did well academically. The reason? Bullying.

11. Glandular fever-like infections seriously disrupted my schooling at fourteen and fifteen, and a neck problem at eighteen. But for the neck problem, I would have read Computer Science at Imperial College, London.

12. I was a union rep for my office when I worked in the civil service.

13. I used to go to winter nets to practise with my Dad’s cricket team when I was a teenager. I didn’t know until adulthood that the men couldn’t read my spin bowling. I’d have given up quick bowling if I’d known.

14. Theological study: I had three wonderful years at Trinity College, Bristol and three terrible ones at Hartley Victoria Methodist College, Manchester. 

15. On the surface I’m all academic, theoretical and conceptual, but underneath a creative person is trying to break out. That’s why I did a creative writing course at the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity with the Association of Christian Writers in my last sabbatical, and I’m taking a photography course at Lee Abbey in this one.

16. I am left-handed, have blue eyes and have worn glasses since I was eleven.

17. My first computer was an Amstrad PCW 9512. I ditched the noisy, inflexible daisywheel printer, bought an Epson 24-pin dot matrix and installed that instead. I wrote my MPhil thesis on it. I’ve been fiddling with computers ever since. Had the neck problem not hit when I was eighteen (see 11 above), I would have done so from a younger age.

18. My first car was a hideous yellow Ford Escort with a grim gearchange. I backed it into a tree, the boot sprang open, and for a long while I held it down with a friend’s old tie (= ‘necktie’ for my north American friends).

19. I once saw Oasis before the were Oasis. They were called The Rain and were supporting Roachford at a Manchester University gig. They were rubbish. Still are.

20. Our son Mark is named after my favourite of the Four Gospels. We brainstormed four names, wrote them down, folded them up and put them into a hat for Rebekah, then a small toddler, to pick. Both of our children have middle names taken from grandparents. Mark’s is Alan after my Dad, Rebekah’s is Anita after Debbie’s late Mum. That gives both of them full initials that have something to do with flying. Rebekah is RAF; Mark is MAF (Mission Aviation Fellowship). That’s a coincidence, but a nice one, since I come from an Air Force family.

21. I got into SLR photography after a mission trip to the north of Norway in 1981 when I was the only member of the party not to own a camera. Dad has been an amateur photographer as long as I can remember, and he took me to his favourite shop, City Camera Exchange by Cannon Street station in London, where I bought a Minolta XG-1.

22. I once tried to learn the guitar when a church member offered classes free of charge. As a result, I own a Fender acoustic. Unfortunately, the lessons began clashing with essential church appointments and I was unable to continue. The guitar and its electronic tuning gadget stay dormant in its case.

23. I studied Theology under George Carey. Shame he’s an Arsenal supporter.

24. I went from being a rabid teetotaller to a wine lover and now back to being teetotal. Originally, I held to a teetotal view on what I realised were legalistic grounds. Giving them up, I discovered the joys of wine. Unfortunately, medication I’m on for raised blood pressure now recommends I abstain.

25. The most serious surgery I’ve had is a pleurectomy on my left lung to prevent further recurrences of spontaneous pneumothorax. Go look it up. That’s why I inserted the links.

Right, that’s taken far too long on and off. I’m going to tag twenty-five people on Facebook, once this has uploaded to my notes there.

Tomorrow’s Sermon: Going To The Father

John 14:1-14

‘Are we there yet?’ If you have ever had small children in a car, you will
be familiar with that persistent question. ‘No,’ you say, and try to encourage
them not to be impatient, even though you know you’ve only just set out and
have hours to go. You will have planned a route, knowing where you are starting
and where you intend to arrive. Perhaps you will also have thought about
stopping places on the way.

And life is a long journey, too. Noticing the Old Testament
language of pilgrimage, we speak of the Christian life as being on a journey. However
certain we are of our faith, we have not arrived yet. We are still travelling. In
the spiritual journey, we again need to know where we are going, where we might
stop and how we get there.

I believe these verses from John 14 are to some extent about
that journey. These days in the Church, we don’t spend so much time thinking
about our ultimate destination. We so focus upon the ‘now’, with our concerns
for social transformation and the like, that we forget something important
here. Where we are going, the stopping places and the overall route will all
affect how we travel now. So this passage – which overlaps so much with the
main Gospel reading at a funeral – should give us direction, as well as the
comfort it provides at funerals. I want to bring together, then, both what we
do now with where we are going for eternity.

1. Destination
Jesus says he is going to the Father. It’s important to get the destination
right. You will go off course if you plan to head for the wrong place. If I think
I have booked a summer holiday in the Mediterranean, but end up in Moscow, I am
going to have all the wrong clothing with me!

In the spiritual journey, I want to suggest we sometimes
mistake the final destination. Just to say we expect to go to heaven when we
die is not to anticipate our final
destination. That may sound strange, if not a downright heresy, but let me
explain – and let me also assure you I am still going to talk in this sermon
about where we go when we die.

According to that great New Testament scholar Tom Wright, the current Bishop of
Durham, John has in view in his Gospel the death, resurrection and ascension of
And something similar is what the New Testament has in vision for human beings
and the whole creation. The Book of Revelation looks forward to new heavens and
a new earth, with a new holy city where resurrected human beings will worship

Our overall destination, then, is not simply heaven: it is
an utterly recreated universe. We shall have resurrected bodies, just as Jesus
had. The idea that the body is just a shell and that the real person is inside
is not a Christian one, however much we repeat it. Historically, it comes from
strains of Greek philosophy, which disdained the body. If the body had little
or no value, then it didn’t matter what you did with it. Abusing it didn’t
matter. Infidelity and perversion were of no consequence. Only the soul

But the biblical hope is different. It sees people as
integrated bodies, souls and spirits. What we do in the body is a spiritual
issue. That’s why many Christian ethical issues are about physical actions. The
body matters to God. He created it, and he made it good. Fallenness and sin
have damaged it. It rots in the grave, or is burned in cremation. But God’s
plan is to restore it. We believe, as the Creed says, in the resurrection of
the dead. We shall have what Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 calls a ‘spiritual body’ –
not just a spirit, but a spiritual body, a body animated by the Holy Spirit[2],
again just as Jesus did at his Resurrection.

And in a sense, God plans something similar for creation –
there will be new heavens and a new earth. The new holy city will come down out
of heaven from God. The Bible may begin in a garden, but it ends in a city. You
can understand the appeal of the rhyme that says you are closer to God in a
garden than anywhere else on earth. In the city, the dirt, noise and violence may
make you feel far from God. But God is in the business of renewing and
redeeming cities. Our ultimate destination is citizenship of God’s new holy

Now is this pie in the sky when we die? Only in the sense
that we are eating some of the pie now! It is cake on a plate while we wait! My
point is this: if our ultimate destination is resurrection to a body animated
by the Holy Spirit, and citizenship of the new holy city in God’s new creation,
then that has practical implications now. The pie and the cake are not all in
the future. We anticipate them now, by our lifestyle. This is why we care about
healing and social justice: because God will make all things new. It is about our Christian hope.

Not for us the bleak vision of a Dylan Thomas who wanted to
rage against the dying of the night and urged us not to go gently into that
dark night. For Christians, we pray for healing knowing that even God heals
someone, they will die later. But that is not the end. There is the new
creation to come. Healing is a foretaste of the resurrection body. Likewise, we
may campaign to correct social injustice, and we may or may not succeed. Even if
we do, our achievements may later be reversed. But again, we are anticipating
God’s ultimate future. Social justice is a foretaste of the new earth. Our final
destination motivates our action today.

2. Wayfaring Stations
Every now and again, Rebekah brings up the subject of death. She knows I deal
with it quite a lot, given the number of funerals I take – especially recently.
She doesn’t want anyone to die, although we explain to her that God will bring
them all back to life one day. It’s our equivalent of when I asked similar
questions as a boy of my parents. My Dad would say, ‘Imagine the bank [he
worked for NatWest] sent me to work in Australia. I might have to go there
ahead of you, but one day you, your Mum and your sister would all join me in
the house I had been living in, and had been preparing for all of us.’

His answer was reminiscent of what Jesus says in John 14,
when he promises to go and prepare one of the many dwelling-places in his
Father’s house for us, and then come back to take us there (verses 1-4). But
what does Jesus mean by his Father’s house and the dwelling-places? After all,
isn’t this where we get the idea about going to heaven when we die?

‘My Father’s house’ is an interesting figure of speech. Can
you remember what Jesus also called his Father’s house? It was the Temple in
The Temple, where Jews believed heaven and earth met, had many apartments in
its complex. Pilgrims used these apartments as temporary dwellings when they
arrived in town. Jesus uses these ‘dwelling-places’ as an image of

‘safe places where those who have died may lodge and rest,
like pilgrims in the Temple, not so much in the course of an onward pilgrimage
within the life of a disembodied ‘heaven’, but while awaiting the resurrection
which is still to come.’[4]

So the dwelling-places in the Father’s house signify not our
ultimate destination, but a wayfaring station, a place of rest before we reach
the end of our journey. This would be, then, what Jesus meant when he told the
penitent thief at Calvary that on that very day they would be together in
Paradise. They would be at the divine wayfaring station. It is what Paul says
with different metaphors, when he talks of going to be with the Lord, or when
he and Jesus both refer to death as being asleep. Death is a place of rest
before the resurrection of the dead. Blessèd are the dead, for they rest from
their labours.

What is the practical significance of this for us today? Obviously,
it gives us some comfort to know that our loved ones who are disciples of Jesus
are at peace – especially if their life had been unhappy, they had suffered from
a cruel disease, or the manner of their death was distressing. However, there
is more. In a world filled with strife, friction, argument, bitterness and war,
God wants to grant rest and peace. Again, this gives us a vision for how we may
live in partnership with God’s purposes. Is there a situation where we could
please God by helping to bring rest in place of strife? Is there something we
can do to bring reconciliation in place of fighting, justice instead of war?

3. Route
More and more I find that if people want to come and visit us for the first
time, they don’t ask for directions, they ask for our postcode. Why? Because they
have satellite navigation in their car. They can type in the postcode from which
they are beginning their journey, and our postcode as their destination. Then the
device will guide them through pictures and voice instructions from door to
door. Hopefully, it won’t take them the wrong way down a one-way street, or
down a jetty to a river. Even with perfect sat-nav, we still tell our new
visitors about our house being up a hidden drive.

Our route is also guided by a voice. ‘I am the way,’ says
Jesus (verse 6). He doesn’t simply show the way, he is the way. It is by
listening to his voice and by walking with him that we find the route he has
opened up to our initial temporary resting-place after death, and to our
ultimate destination of bodily resurrection in the new creation. He has already
travelled through death to the temporary wayfaring station of Paradise, and the
Holy Spirit has raised him from the dead. His death and resurrection have
opened up the way to the Father, as he was condemned in our place, freed us
from accusation and brought us new life. Not only that, he shows us the Father
to whom we are going, because if we have seen Jesus, we have seen the Father
(verse 9). If we want to know what the God to whom we are going is like, we
look at Jesus.

Jesus is the route, then. He has cleared the blockages on
the road by his own death and resurrection. The same death and resurrection are
also models for the way we shall travel. And to travel with him, we need to
listen to his voice. The route we take is the way of discipleship. Fundamental to
living in hope in the face of death is that we are committed to listening to
Jesus. Listening to him does not mean we listen and then weigh up whether we
fancy doing what he wants, as if God just made the Ten Suggestions and we can
arbitrate the rights and wrongs. Listening to Jesus only works with a prior
commitment to following him and imitating him. In John 7:17 he says,

‘Anyone who resolves to do the will of God will know whether
the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own.’

We need to resolve to do God’s will, if we are to be true
listeners to Jesus who is our route, our way. There is no point in hearing the
voice on a sat-nav telling us to take a particular road and then ignoring it. The
sat-nav will recalibrate the route in a few seconds, and give some revised
instructions, just as if we fall away from the will of God, Christ will
graciously find a way to get us back on our travels with him. But if we
persistently disregard or disparage the voice of Jesus telling us his way, then
eventually we shall no longer hear the voice.

Our ultimate destination, then, is the bodily resurrection of
the dead to live in God’s new creation. This involves a commitment to social
justice and healing now. Before we get to the resurrection, we rest in death at
the wayfaring station of Paradise. This means a commitment to peace-making now.
To make the journey means a commitment to following the voice of Jesus, who has
built the road and travelled it. And as we follow obediently, we call others to
join with us on the pilgrim way.

[1] N
T Wright, The
Resurrection Of The Son Of God
, pp 445-7.

[2] I
owe this insight to my research supervisor many years ago, Richard Bauckham.

Luke 2:49; John 2:16.

Wright, p 446.

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