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A piece of serendipitous theology

Ever since writing and delivering The Disciple’s Way earlier this year, I have become more and more convinced that the journey of faith can only be made on foot. We cannot overfly the territories of faith, gaining a bird’s eye view. We cannot whoosh through it in a train, rattling along the tracks which others have laboured to lay down for us. We cannot drive through it, with some zooming through in sports cars, others gliding along in the coach-built elegance of limousines, and still others plunging off road in their 4 x 4s. No, the road of faith must be walked – step by step by step. As one weary traveller put it on completing a walk along the Great Wall of China ‘it is worth it every lousy step of the way’.

With all this in my mind, I had my moment of theological serendipity. Trapped in heavy traffic, I tuned into a radio station I would not normally listen to, and heard Cambridge academic Robert MacFarlane talking about his latest book ‘The Old Ways’. In the book, he talks about some of the oldest pathways in Britain, and discusses the rhythm of the walker. For him there is something almost spiritual about our relationship with the land through which we pass. In fact, there is no ‘almost’ about it:

The term spiritual is culturally contraband.

But I’ve searched and searched, and there

are no better words. Religious language is all

we’ve got.

Interesting, don’t you think? Maybe Isaiah was thinking with the mind of a spiritual plodder when he wrote his famous promise for the young and the old that they should ‘not grow weary’.

Tonight, as many in the United Kingdom look back over six decades, we shall be doing the same in church. Many will share spiritual milestones from their walk of faith. Some will seem so ‘domestic’ as to barely translate to a wider audience, others will resonate more widely – but all will represent genuine footsteps of faith.

One of the best moments in along walk is the momentary pause when you look back and see how far you have come. This is especially gratifying, of course, if the walk has been uphill.

Will you take a pause today?

Image: maidengreen.co.uk

Hopefully not

From next week this blog is moving to WordPress.org, where it will be hosted on richardlittledale.me.uk.  I can assure you that this is not a bid for internet stardom, the launch of a Richard Littledale brand, or anything of the sort. Ever since I launched this blog in the Autumn of 2009, my intention has been that it should be a discursive place. I have sought to create an environment where ideas and opinions can be aired, free from the obligation to polish them before putting them on display. When I first started blogging, I was told by a far more experienced blogger that I would “know you are getting it right when people start disagreeing with you”. And so, in the words of the King James Bible – it came to pass!

It is really the discursive nature of the blog which has led to this change.  Last month I published a post on here about the dangers of offensive humour online, and one commenter responded to me pointing out that the very point I was making was undermined by the adverts surrounding the post:

Hi Rev
Who is responsible for the ads on your blog?
The one I got was LMFAO Sexy and I know it.
Then it changed to something else.
Kind of undermines the very good point you make in the blog

Since the adverts have been invisible to me, as site administrator, I was unaware of them until they were pointed out – a bit like a dodgy brake light on your car which you never see. That comment set off a chain of investigations about how I could free the site from the blight of unwelcome, and maybe unsavoury advertisements. The net result has been next week’s move to wordpress.org. This is in itself a good demonstration of blog as interactive community and not just static site

Some people make the move because they want more control over the appearance of their site, or the flexibility to include more widgets and even market goods from it. For me, these things are less important. What matters is the integrity of the site and its content – and for that I have made the move.

If you are a regular visitor to the blog, you might like to amend your bookmark to  richardlittledale.me.uk . Otherwise, just follow the usual address and you will be redirected.

Here’s to the onward journey…

Image:inhabitat.com

Paragraph planet

Tomorrow I have a short story (75 words) appearing on Paragraph Planet – one of numerous ‘flash fiction’ sites available. These sites encourage people to write micro-fiction which can then be distributed on the web. I’m all for this, in that it encourages creativity. I’m all for it too, when 75 words seems a lot more attainable than the 20,000 I have yet to write on my next book.

Can you really say anything worthwhile in 75 words, though? Maybe we’ll let Indira Ghandi, Winston Churchill, Mother Teresa, Franklin D Roosevelt, John F kennedy, Neil Armstrong and Nelson Mandela answer that. Below is a wordle made up of just 75 of their words. Can you pick them out?

Just 75 words…

My friend Professor  Mike Graves says that any piece of writing, including a sermon or story is just “26 letters strategically arranged”. The trick, of course, is in the arranging.

Drinking in the world

A little while ago on here I featured the work of Thinkbox and their brilliant one-minute commercial on the power of TV advertising. That particular post received quite an airing, and the video found its way into one or two worship services, and even a major Christian conference. I wonder whether the one below will do the same?

The answer is ‘probably not’ – because we find it distasteful. This little 48 second film, put together by BalanceNE, reminds us of an uncomfortable truth – that young people are bombarded by aggressive alcohol advertising wherever they go. The effects of under-age drinking on social and educational development would be hard to exaggerate. The video has been released as a plea to encourage a petition to the UK Government on amendments to unregulated social media alcohol advertising to the young. You may want to sign it here.

Every once in a while we like to arch our eyebrows and declare that we are immune to advertising and that only stupid people are taken in by it. That is simply not true. If it were then billions of pounds and ten thousands of creative hours would not be spent on it. Advertising does work – which is all the more reason to ensure that it is used responsibly.

Don’t forget, you can sign the petition here.

More than diamonds

The next few days will see a wave of royal fervour and nostalgia sweep the United Kingdom such as few have ever seen. Hot on the heels of a massed military parade will come a river pageant and musical spectacular on the River Thames with 1000 boats, 20,000 participants and watched by one million people on the river banks. This will be mirrored by hundreds of smaller events as the trestle tables come out and the bunting goes up. Towns and villages up and down the country are ‘blossoming’ in red, white and blue, as Union Flags are displayed in shops, homes and other places. Somebody tweeted to me earlier this week that they were seeing so much fluttering red white and blue that they were starting to wonder whether this was an eye condition!

There is no doubting that Queen Elizabeth II’s has been a remarkable reign. She has presided over political, technological and social changes which her forebears could never have imagined. When she acceded to the throne there were 3 million cars in the UK – now there are 31 million.  In her coronation year, 30% of the population were able to watch the event on a television which they owned, whereas that figure would now be 99%. A postcard of the event could be posted then for 19p, whereas now it would cost 60p. Average income has climbed in those 60 years from £7,500 to £24,700.  The Queen has presided over all these changes in society whilst also experiencing no small degree of emotional upheaval in her own family.  Through it all she has maintained a keen sense of duty, and has not shirked from speaking on occasions of her Christian faith.

However, jubilees are much older than the House of Windsor. The original idea of the jubilee dates all the way back to the days of Moses in the Old Testament. Every seven years the land was allowed to rest, and every seventh seven year period, a year of Jubilee was declared. On the great day trumpets and Shofars (rams’ horns) were sounded, and it came as music to the ears of the poor. Those who had debts had them forgiven, those who had given away family land to satisfy their debtors had it retuned, and those who had sold themselves as slaves were set free.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there could be some element of that to this jubilee? Information disclosed by Tearfund earlier this week reveals that Africa loses a staggering £3000 per second to corruption in the oil, mining and gas industries. This means that in excess of £16 million will be lost during the time it takes the pageant to make its royal progress down the Thames. The number of hospitals, schools and clinics which could be built with that money beggars belief. As in the days of Moses, the divides between rich and poor are harsh and deep – but they should not be insurmountable.

Do you remember the  Jubilee 2000 campaign, calling for relief of the debt owed by the world’s poorest countries by the year 2000? Sadly the needs were not met, and so it was re-branded as the  Jubilee Debt campaign. The struggle is far from over and the jubilee has not yet come.  Why not visit Tearfund’s Unearth The Truth Campaign to see if you can’t help build a more lasting jubilee for all?

Image:thejewishmuseum.org

This story is also discussed on the website of Teddington Baptist Church

Something for the sole

There are many mysteries about Google, including why they have workstations in cable cars, how their algorithms are formed, and the dark arts of SEO. However, the screenshot below is surely more than a merely technical mystery?

If you type “Christian” into Google, then the follow-me facility will ensure that exclusive shoe-designer Christian Louboutin cones to the top of the list.( Try it now) Click on the image below and you may find that the next page of said website makes you even more uncomfortable with the result!

There is no doubting that the shoes, with their distinctive red soles, are elegant in the extreme. An exhibition at the design museum describes them as the embodiment of ‘style, glamour, power, femininity and elegance.’ Providing you have the right budget (over £500 as a starting price) I am sure that they are all that and more.

My issue here is not with M, Louboutin. My concern is that somehow the most radical, life-enhancing, world-changing message in the world has fallen at the SEO hurdle to a haute couture cobbler! Right now, as I type, there are programmes motivated by Christian faith which are  feeding the hungry, comforting the bereaved and consoling the prisoner, to say nothing of salvation and forgiveness.

And yet…

Image: Google. Click to see MORE

Lulled into a false sense of immortality

On Friday Vicky Beeching set a hare running across the Twittersphere about the idea of digital legacy. It clearly struck many a chord and provoked quite a debate.  It is a matter which has crossed my radar before. I touched on it briefly when the “ifIdie” app was born – which reminded me how uncomfortable I was with the tremendously popular “museum” (or was that mausoleum?) of me.  I also wrote about it when a memorial company in the States started installing QR codes on gravestones.  These codes act as gateways to a personalised digital archive for the deceased – with everything from still photos to pre-recorded videos.

As I write today – there is a soundtrack playing in my mind. It is the sound of a Brahms lullaby played out on the tinny chimes of a baby’s cot mobile. It is not a soothing sound though. It is more like the sound played over an empty cot or looking into an ominously empty child’s bedroom in a crime drama. What should be soothing has become inexplicably sinister.  Something is wrong…

Could it be that our digital omnipresence is a lullaby which hushes the sounds of our mortality?  As a Pastor it is my privilege to be involved with people’s lives at those milestone moments of ‘births, marriages and death’.  This means that the rhythm of human life, with all its possibilities and limitations is always there in the background for me. If my digital presence allows me to be in many places at once, does it dull my awareness of my limitations?  To take Vicky’s debate a little further – if I ensure the curation of my digital legacy in perpetuity, am I striving for some kind improper immortality?

Don’t get me wrong – I am an enthusiastic and noisy advocate of the possibilities of human connectivity afforded by the digital realm. These technologies allow us to cross borders and transcend geographical limitations in ways never before possible.  If theology is, as Anselm described it, ‘faith seeking understanding’, then our connections with each other can only improve that process.

Despite all that, though, the lullaby is still playing – the jaunty colours of the cot mobile still spinning in their empty space.  If we lose our connection with the basic limitations of humanity, then we lose our most valuable asset in any quest for theological understanding, surely?  It is as human beings – limited by space and time, that we seek after God.

In baroque paintings a scholar or nobleman was often depicted with a skull on their desk. It was said to serve as a reminder of their own mortality.  Such a macabre symbol is not something we would want now, I’m sure – but what are we doing to maintain our awareness of our limited and wonderful humanity in the face of our increasingly limitless digital presence?

Image:eshop.dadsbabyshop.co.uk

A story for Pentecost

The full version of this narrative sermon can be read in my book, Stale Bread. It is illustrated here with an original graphic by the very talented Jason Ramasami.

Jason is a cartoonist, illustrator, RE teacher, and his book ‘Jesus Comic’ will be released in the UK and USA in November. It already exists as an iphone app – which you can see here.

________________________

The wind had been a long time coming…a long time coming.  Before there was man or beast, before time itself had been chopped into hours and minutes – it played across the soupy surface of the planet as it slurped and bubbled.  At God’s command it had warmed the lifeless bodies of doll Adam and doll Eve, and they had walked and skipped in the garden of Eden.  

Later, when the gates of the garden had slammed shut it had found its way out into the world.  It had blown sand in the face of God’s enemies, whipped up the waves and washed them away. It had breathed on the sparks of God’s mercy and made a fire from floor to ceiling to light them on their way.  Later still it had blown dust from the scrolls of God’s law in a temple storeroom.  It had tugged at the robes of a prophet here…ruffled his beard there.  Once it had bucked and dived through the valley of bones – in and out of the carcasses, bringing life wherever it went.  And the glory of God had ridden on its back into the temple, like a conquering hero on his mount. 

On the darkest day it had held back, along with the Sun and the angels as God’s terrible mercy was etched on the tree.  Now, down there, in amongst the thousands milling to and fro, there were some waiting for it to return.  “Wait inJerusalem” the Lord had said – and in obedient puzzlement – that’s what they had done. Through tears…disappointment…even terror, they had waited, like faithful sentinels told not to leave their post.  And now, at last…it came. 

 In through every window and funnelled down every alley it came.  It rattled and whistled and ruffled wherever it went.  A curtain was torn from its mounting here.  A jar toppled from its table in the street there – shattering in a hundred un-noticed pieces.  A barking dog flattened its ears and whined at this strange phenomenon.  A child stuck out his pudgy arm to feel it, only to be snatched back by his protective mother.  The robes of the priests flapped round the grey heads of their wearers and wrapped them up like clowns in a show.  Many cowered, shielding eyes and faces from the dust. Jerusalem had never been like this before. 

Only a few turned their faces up and smiled.  Their time had come, their master’s promise fulfilled.  What they could see, as others looked away, was tongues of fire, borne on the wind.  They bucked and wriggled, danced and twisted like living things.  And to each faithful watcher – a flame came.  As they stood closer together now, their faces took on the glow of each other’s flame.  The pallor of grief and worry was gone, a golden warmth in its place.  What had looked like a wake a few minutes before now seemed like a birthday party.  Theirs were the faces of excited children, gathered round the candles on the cake for the big moment, ready to sing with glad and simple hearts.  Theirs were the faces of a church made new.  Outside the room the glow of the flames was like a campfire to the onlookers -a beacon for the lost, a warning for the predator.  Borne on the wind, warmed by the flame, the church was on the move.

See more of Jason’s work at saamvisual.com

The journey less driven

Have you ever wondered how different our bodies may look in a few centuries time? In particular it is worth speculating on the changes effected by our relationship with technology. Will we have highly developed thumb muscles from all that texting – and longer necks to facilitate all that bending over the little screen? Often, it seems, we are unable or unwilling to make a journey without the aid of technology.

Mark Shepard creator of the serendipitor app, wants to change all that. The app has just been launched as part of his sentient city survival kit. As with any navigational app, you put in your start and end points.However, once that is done, you select a number of waypoints along the way. At each of them an instruction will  be given which will randomize your journey. This might be ‘walk in the shade until there is none left’or ‘follow someone for two minutes’. In this way, Shepard believes, we break the tyranny of all going to the same place by the same route. In an article on Wired, he asks ‘But why aren’t we asking these systems to make our journeys more enjoyable, or more interesting?’ Why indeed – but couldn’t we do that all by ourselves, without the need for an app?

In Jerome K Jerome’ book Three men on the bummel‘, published in 1900, he tries to define this German word:

‘I should describe it as  a journey’ long or short, without an end; the only thing regulating it being the necessity to get back within a given time to the point from which one started. Sometimes it is through busy streets, and sometimes through the fields and lanes; sometimes we can be spared for a few hours, and sometimes for a few days. But long or short, here or there, our thoughts are ever on the running of the sand’

I spent a lot of time earlier this year talking about ways and journeys on the Disciple’s Way. That particular journey is one with a definite destination – but it is immesurably enriched by the unexpected encounters along the way.

Anyone for a bummel?

Image:4.bp.blogspot.com

Ingenuity in the extreme

Years ago, when he finally returned from his captivity as a hostage in the Lebanon, Terry Waite declared his belief in the importance of ‘redeeming suffering’. In other words, we need to take adversity and do our utmost to fashion it into something which will serve us rather than oppress us. Of this, Mr Waite is a shining example.

I have just come across the story of French motorist Emile Leray. When redirected on his journey through Morocco owing to civil unrest, he decided to make his own way through the desert in his Citroen 2CV. The car broke down, and he found himself stranded a long way from anywhere. With a limited supply of food and drink in the useless car, he made camp. Over the next three days he constructed the motorbike which you see below out of the 2CV, fashioning simple tools from the car itself. It may be a little unorthodox – which is exactly what the local police said when at last he hove in sight on his contraption – but at least it got him home!

Image:chamedaucier.free.fr

You can find the full report, with additional photos, here. My favourite phrase of the whole report, though, is here: ‘Dans le désert, rien n’est définitivement perdu, surtout pour celui qui sait trouver… ‘. (In the desert nothing is entirely lost,especially for someone who knows where to look’.

Ain’t that the truth?

Richard Littledale

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