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Christmas Playlist

A plague on the X-Factor, with its manufactured music and manufactured hype to get the Christmas Number One. (Not that any of these things are new.) So a campaign to usurp it, like the previous one to get Jeff Buckley‘s version of Leonard Cohen‘s ‘Hallelujah

up the charts, rather than Alexandra Burke‘s, is something I would welcome.

Except I can’t really go for Rage Against The Machine‘s ‘Killing In The Name‘, with its proliferation of f-words. Sorry.

But more positively, it set me thinking about what would be on my personal Christmas playlist.

Sufjan Stevens‘ 5-EP collection ‘Songs For Christmas‘ contains so many gems.  How about his version of ‘Come, thou fount of every blessing’?

For fun, you have to have Dylan. Yes, really: the old goat is laugh-a-minute. The recent ‘Must be Santa’ has to be in there:

Bruce Cockburn‘s ‘Christmas‘ CD from the 1990s was pretty stunning. ‘Joy to the world’ is but one of the gems – unfortunately, I don’t seem to be able to add the video into WordPress either directly or indirectly, so click here or possibly here to see it. Anyway, you won’t be surprised to find Cockburn in this list, since this blog’s name is inspired by him!

Back to the daft, and I have an irrational affection for ‘I Want An Alien For Christmas’ by the Fountains Of Wayne:

And for real Christmas kitsch, there’s nothing like a pseudo-Phil Spector sound, so over to Bruce Springsteen for ‘Santa Claus Is Coming To Town’:

Or for the real thing, Darlene Love and ‘Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)’:

I mean, you just don’t need Mariah Carey, do you?

Of the mainstream big Christmas hits, there’s something I like about the guitar sound on Chris Rea‘s ‘Driving Home For Christmas’:

But where’s the Christian stuff?  Randy Stonehill has written a couple. I can’t find a video online of ‘Christmas Song For All Year Round’, but someone has put pictures to the poignant ‘Christmas At Denny’s’:

For Christian cynicism about the commercial season, I can’t trace a video by Larry Norman himself of his song ‘Christmastime’, but here is Stonehill’s version, complete with the immortal lines

Christmastime is coming and the kids are getting greedy
They know it’s in the store because they’ve seen it on the TV

Well, that’s just some random stuff from me. What do you love at this time of year? What can’t you stand?

Back Home

I’m back from hospital, and now have two weeks’ convalescence where I must not mix with many people for infection control reasons. I have been ordering Bob Dylan CDs from the library to keep me occupied, along with my books. 

Things began well yesterday morning. I was one of the earlier patients taken to theatre. The modern anaesthetics are amazing. One moment I was talking to the anaesthetist and his assistant, the next I was waking up bright as a button in the recovery suite. I have suffered no pain or nausea after the surgery, either. 

Not everything was straightforward, though. The bleeding from my nose took longer to halt than expected. The nurses decided this was connected with the fact that my blood pressure was misbehaving. So instead of coming home last night, I was kept in, just in case a nasty nose bleed started up. 

As it happens, all that occurred was that I didn’t get a single second of sleep. The operation leaves patients with highly bunged up noses, largely with congealed blood. You are not allowed to try to remove it, because you could expose the work of the surgeons underneath. It would be like a child picking a scab on a knee before the new skin had formed. This left me finding it hard to breathe sufficiently deeply for sleep. Breathing through my mouth didn’t work either, because I had a sore throat from the tube that had been placed down it during the surgery. 

However, at least the blood pressure was a little more co-operative this morning. Combined with the fact that the only bleeding I had in the night was the result of a sneezing fit, my discharge today became routine. 

So I phoned Debbie and arranged that she would pick me up outside the main building at the drop-off point. We agreed on 9:15 am. Come 9:20, she still wasn’t there. My mobile vibrated in my pocket. “Where are you,” she asked, “I’ve driven past the entrance and you’re not there.”

“I’m outside the pick up and drop off point.”

“But I’ve been past A and E and didn’t see you.”

A and E? St John’s Hospital doesn’t have one. She had gone to Broomfield Hospital, eight miles away.

But before I leave this topic, I must include praise for all the staff on the ward. Their advice and care was first class. The NHS may be far from perfect, but give me that system ahead of a national private insurance scheme any day. 

The rest of the day has included some joys at the children’s achievements. Mark won a special effort sticker in assembly today for always getting on with his work straight away, and at swimming after school he swam a width without armbands for the first time. We have promised a family meal out when he managed that, and with Friday being a non-pupil day at the school, that will probably be our day. Rebekah, too, has done well, going up another stage on the reading scheme today.

It will be an early night tonight. Goodnight, all.

Taking Off My Suit

Sunday night. I took off my suit and clerical shirt. No robes, cassocks, preaching tabs or anything like that for me. And definitely no cassock-alb – technically known in the congregation as ‘that white thing your predecessor wore’. A clerical shirt and collar is hard enough for me to cope with sometimes. As an Anglican friend once said of himself and me, ‘Not so much low church, more like subterranean.’ I changed into casual clothes, and thought, ‘I won’t need that suit or those shirts until 10th May now.’

It wasn’t a morbid thought along the lines of ‘Mama, please take this badge off of me, I can’t use it anymore’, as Bob Dylan sang at the beginning of ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door’. Instead, it was a case that I had taken my last Sunday service before my much-anticipated sabbatical, which starts next Sunday. I shall have to put my mind into proleptic mode this week to prepare worship for 10th May. I shall also have a number of important appointments this week, not least including a Church Council and an away day for the Circuit Leadership Team. But unless a crisis occurs, the suit, clerical shirts and collars are sharing fellowship with the mothballs for the immediate future.

Realising I would now be wearing civvies for quite a while, I had another thought: ‘Great. I can be myself now.’ When I dress as a minister, I am putting myself in a rôle. That’s both bad and good.

It’s bad in this sense. If I have to put myself in rôle, like an actor putting on a costume ready for a performance, then I wonder whether something dishonest is going on here. This is not the real me, I’m not meant to be an actor portraying a different character. Ministry can only come out of who I am in Christ. Who is this guy in the clerical collar? It doesn’t look or feel like me.

But it’s also good, and the reason it’s good is like the obverse face of what I’ve just described in saying it’s bad. There are times when, to fulfil my calling, I have to play a rôle. I don’t mean that I’m pretending in the sense of trying to deceive anybody. I mean that it gets me into the rôle God has called me to take.

And that’s important for me, because – as anyone who knows me reasonably well will be aware – I frequently feel a dichotomy between who I am as a person and the fact of my calling to the ministry. I resisted the call to the ministry for ages, thinking I didn’t have it in my sensitive personality to cope with people’s deep problems. I still find that, like the majority of ministers in the historic denominations, I’m an introvert, and many congregations want an extravert. The latter is an issue I’m going to spend some of the sabbatical exploring.

I don’t like dressing differently from the rest of the church. Theologically, I have always recoiled from it. I find it undermines the priesthood of all believers and disempowers people when that doctrine and the related one of the Body of Christ calls all disciples to make a contribution, and not to honour the more obvious ones above the others. For the same reason, my stocks of calling cards have never had the word ‘Reverend’ or any abbreviation of it printed on them. They say I’m a Methodist minister, but titles give me discomfort, because it’s another dubious sign of status and superiority.

Personally, I dislike it, too. I’m just a guy who doesn’t like dressing up. Until recently, our four-year-old son Mark would always protest at having to dress up for fancy dress parties. ‘Can I wear ordinary clothes?’ he would ask. (Having said that, he’s starting to change.) But that’s me: ordinary clothes. I even resisted a suit for years. Looking smart, complete with a tie to strangle me, was something I associated with unhappy memories of school. Why repeat that? It took a long time to see I’d developed a self-esteem issue, and that scruffy appearance was an outward sign of feeling pretty scruffy inside. Feeling better about myself smartened up my appearance more than any harshly applied rules. There’s a lesson there, you know. I even began to enjoy buying suits and building a collection of striking ties. It dawned on me what I needed to do: buy shirts with collars half an inch bigger than I really needed. Then I could be both smart and comfortable. That was a winning combination I never expected after school uniform days.

But despite my theological objections and personal reservations, I still wear formal minister’s attire for formal occasions. Sometimes I admit it’s just to keep the peace. Some older, more traditional folk just wouldn’t understand my message if I didn’t wear it to take services, and especially not ones particularly associated with the ministry, such as the sacraments, weddings or funerals.

At other times, though, wearing the gear is a reminder to myself that yes, this is my calling, despite my periodic bouts of incredulity at that thought. ‘What am I doing as a minister? Should I continue? Wasn’t I right all those years ago to think I wasn’t suited?’ – these are thoughts that orbit my brain and occasionally land for a while. And that’s when I need reminders. 

The reminders can come in many forms. At one especially dark time when I felt very close to jacking it all in, Debbie said to me, ‘What about all those ways in which you knew God had called you? If you quit, you’re denying all of them.’ I knew she was right. When I was exploring what the call of God on my life was, I had written down all the little hints of what it might be and the evidence why I thought God was saying that – Bible verses, striking passages from books, comments by friends, and so on.

That kind of reminder works well for me. They are like pieces of data that can be assembled to make a rational case. But visual reminders serve well, too. They work well for me because they are out of the ordinary in terms of the way my brain usually works. I like logic, theory and principles. Much as I can enjoy photography, you don’t see many photos on this blog. It tends to be words (apart from some video clips from time to time). The visual comes from outside my normal experiences of validation.

In using something that’s outside my conventional learning style, God creeps up on me. In speaking through something about which I have theological and personal qualms, God catches me unawares.

But no, I’m not planning to wear it at all during the sabbatical. Because first and foremost, before I put any sense of identity and self-worth in my calling to be a minister, I’m going to enjoy my primary calling.

And that’s the primary calling of all Christians: to be a child of God.


We arrived home at the weekend from a fortnight on the Isle of Wight. I thought I’d type up a few highlights. No, please keep reading: this is meant to be more than those boring ‘let me show you my holiday pics’ conversations. I’ve tried to offer some reflections in what follows. If any of my stories or observations are helpful, feel free to pinch them. You might also smile or laugh – I hope.

Friday 15th August A wild fox entered the garden of the bungalow we were renting. The children (and we) were full of wonder. We are used to direct encounters with tame animals. Meetings with wild animals are usually managed or mediated, such as at the zoo. A direct encounter with the wild is not encouraged in our society – nor in our church. Was it Brennan Manning who called Jesus ‘wild’?

Saturday 16th We’re doing our little bit to make our break as eco-friendly as possible. Although we had to drive here and take the ferry, Southern Vectis Buses do a great ‘freedom ticket‘: £40 for two adults and up to three children for a week. I know friends would advise cycling, but I have a poor sense of balance and can’t ride a bike.

Sunday 17th A return trip from last year to one of the most family-friendly churches we’ve ever come across: Shanklin URC.

Meanwhile (not during the service!) I’m finally reading Tom Wright‘s ‘Surprised By Hope‘. Great quote on page 87, recounting part of Oscar Wilde‘s play ‘Salome‘. Herod the tyrant wants to forbid Jesus from raising the dead. He asks his courtier, ‘Where is this man?’ The courtier replies, ‘He is in every place, my lord, but it is hard to find him.’ Jesus is elusive in so many ways – not just the sense of his absence since the ascension but yet present by his Spirit, also the way that we no more than Herod can control him.

Monday 18th Two newspaper articles over the weekend bring out the dark side of the Olympics. Matthew Syed in The Times points out that the modern Olympics were founded with an elitist bias and they remain so, especially in favour of western sports and the privately educated. Ian Gallagher in the Mail On Sunday tells an awful story of how one Chinese pistol shooter managed his best ever score. He won bronze, only to be humiliated on national TV for not winning gold. And before we get too snooty about the Chinese (who clearly used the Games rather like Soviet Russia and the USA before the Berlin Wall fell), let’s remember the ritual humiliation the British press has handed out to sports stars like Tim Henman in the past.

Tuesday 19th We’re waiting at Ryde bus station to catch either the number 2 or 3 back to Shanklin. Rebekah and Mark have been frustrated that only Mum and Dad have had a bus timetable. They find a box of them on the ground. A customer assistant walks over to take one for a passenger who has made an enquiry. Beautifully, she asks our children if she may take one from the box. ‘Yes,’ replies Mark, ‘but you must put it back!’

Wednesday 20th A trip to Amazon World: not only a chance to see some animals, but the opportunity (if the kids let us read the displays, ha ha) to learn more about conservation projects and the plight of the world’s rain forests. In the gift shop, Rebekah’s eye is taken – as always – by bright and sparkly things. In this case, they are small chunks of rocks and minerals. Since they are only £1.50, I agree she can choose one. She selects Pyrite, a.k.a. ‘Fool’s Gold’. She spends the rest of the holiday desperate to take her Fool’s Gold everywhere. I’m sure you can find your own parallels …

Thursday 21st Fired Art Ceramics Café in Ryde is our venue to decorate a bowl ready for my parents’ golden wedding anniversary in October. We didn’t notice the café bit, but the proprietor was warm and welcoming. She struck the right balance between needing to protect delicate and hot items, yet children feeling safe and happy. Now there’s a challenge for our churches.

Friday 22nd If you’re ever in Shanklin Old Village, you have to buy an ice cream at Pearly Boise. An unbelievable huge range of home made flavours. It’s three months to the next dental check-up. More on ice cream in the next few days’ entries: you’ll see why.

In the afternoon, we take the children for their (and my!) first ever experience of live circus. Jay Miller’s Circus does not use animals, so we are happy. It’s not the biggest one you’ll ever see, but there were some astonishing acrobats, and we were ringside – which meant that Debbie and Rebekah got covered in spaghetti and custard pie from Peppi the clown. They weren’t distressed: Mark was.

Saturday 23rd Rebekah has an invitation next month to a ten-pin bowling birthday party, so we thought we’d better introduce her to its delights. At least it proves to be a delight to her when she wins, but not when she is second or lower. It turns out that on Ryde Esplanade there is a branch of LA Bowl ten-pin. Finding details before we went to the Isle of Wight had been frustrating. Tourist information sites listed the bowling alley, and it’s mentioned on LA Bowl’s home page, but not when you click ‘locations‘! They have a visibility and communication problem – not unlike the church.

Sunday 24th My sister and her boys come over from Hampshire for the day and meet us at Dinosaur Isle. (I’m a theistic evolutionist, not a creationist or Intelligent Design guy.) The Isle of Wight is rich in fossil history. It was over the heads of our kids, who still haven’t grasped that dinos are extinct, unlike my ten-year-old nephew, who fancies a career as a paleantologist. One section of the exhibition invites you to put your hand inside slots in a box and guess what you are feeling. Unfortunately, the first thing Mark feels is dino poo! We hear for the rest of the holiday about how it should have been flushed away.

Later, watching the BBC Ten O’Clock News, James Reynolds reports on the closing ceremony of the Olympics. He opens by saying, ‘In a state which has no god, the Olympics have been a religion.’ He closes with the words, ‘Now these people will have to find something else to believe in.’ Perhaps G K Chesterton was right all those decades ago when he said that when people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing, they believe in anything. Or as Bob Dylan said, you gotta serve somebody.

Monday 25th Rain makes us reverse our plans. An afternoon visit to The Old Smithy at Godshill becomes a morning visit. Instead of gorging ourselves on the finest cakes we’ve ever found in four holidays on the island, we settle for morning scones. Still stunning.

Then we make a return visit to Robin Hill. We’d been the previous Monday, and if you return within seven days, you get in free. Bad news: no longer do they sell New Forest Ice Cream, they’ve gone over to Minghella’s. The latter has apparently won forty-four awards, and was described in the Sunday Times as the best tasting ice cream ever. Could have fooled us. It melts in seconds, is indistinguishable in taste from ordinary stuff, and costs £1.70 per cone instead of £1.40 for New Forest. The biggest taste in Minghella’s is the hype.

Tuesday 26th We’re in Newport when Debbie suddenly sees a bus for Alum Bay. Now I’ve wanted to go there all holiday, I just can’t take her sudden and impulsive plan-changing approach to life. We won’t have time for everything there in a couple of hours. But we do get to the spectacular chairlift. Debbie and Rebekah, the family daredevils, love it. I have to restrain my intermittent vertigo to be safe person for little Mark, who is frightened at first. Sometimes that’s what I’m called to do in other ways as a minister. Churches don’t like looking down at the drop sometimes, but rather than staying on terra firma, I have to encourage them to get out on the chairlift, even if I too am frightened at the thought of looking down.

Wednesday 27th The Isle Of Wight Zoo And Tiger Sanctuary (‘Home Of ITV’s Tiger Island‘, we are repeatedly told) is much smaller than our much-loved Colchester Zoo. Enclosures are overgrown, with some plants even growing up the sides, making it difficult to see some animals. We have overgrowth in the church, making it hard for people to see Jesus.

More light-heartedly, we were watching some lemurs when one spontaneously urinated in front of everyone. Rebekah launched into an instant chant or rap: ‘Do some wee! Do some wee! We want you to do some wee!’ Thank goodness they didn’t know I was a ‘vicar’.

Thursday 28th On an X40 Island Coaster, returning to Alum Bay. The bus is crammed with people most of the journey. We stop en route at Ventnor. The bus driver calls out, ‘Anyone for Ventnor?’ Not thinking everyone has heard he even climbs out of his cockpit and comes upstairs where we are. He repeats, ‘Anyone for Ventnor?’ ‘No!’ cries back Rebekah, obviously thinking she has the right to speak for everyone. Do you know people like that.

Well, I think that will have to do. Hopefully this has raised a few smiles and given the odd pause for thought.