All posts by tallandrew

wolf tide

Wolf Tide

The latest novel discussed in our book club was an accomplished first foray into fantasy fiction from established author Catherine Fox.

Anabara Nolio is a young private investigator in the city of Larrity trying to make her way in business, life and love. The world she inhabits is one filled with sub-species of humans each with their own attributes and traditions. Anabara is half Gull, half-Galen which means she can fly, although she isn’t supposed to within the confines of the city. It is also a world filled with charms, magic, faith and fairies – only these fairies are not ones you’ve ever dreamed of. Less Tinkerbell and a little more vampire.

When Anabara is appointed to investigate the disappearance of books from the university library and to report on the broken charms in the stained glass windows, she makes a solid start. But as she delves deeper she discovers layers of deception, corruption and injustice, even by those she loves.

I’ll not say any more as that would give the plot away.

This is a new style of fiction for Catherine Fox. I first was alerted to her when I was an undergraduate at Durham, and I was told that there was this new author, a former student, who had written a novel about theological students in Durham, and if you knew the place you could actually pinpoint where in the colleges the characters were. I didn’t really read novels at the time, but I gave Angels and Men a go and loved it. Her next two novels were in the same style mixing keen observations of faith, strong characters, humour and love together  - this time following female vicars as they took their first steps into ministry. Wolf Tide is quite different but doesn’t disappoint. Anabara is a well rounded female lead character. She is good at her job, she obviously is looking for love but is not overly obsessed with make-up or appearance, yet there is enough that is vulnerable or uncertain about her 17-year old self which makes her quite believable. She relies day to day on St. Pelago, who is key to the organised religion of the town, and he usually comes through for her.

This is certainly a good addition to this genre. I was able to imagine the world quite well and I liked the central characters – always important to keep you reading. And in the plot Fox keeps the pages turning too. If I was being really picky, i might have liked a little more distinction between the human sub-species – Gull, Galen, Tressy, Zaarzuk. Their difference in character between the groups were described well but I had a little difficulty imagining their general differences in appearance. But that is being picky. Despite, I think, not being the intended demographic of readership, I enjoyed it a lot. I hope there is a sequel and I will certainly read it if there is.

On it’s release Catherine Fox told the Greenbelt Blog a little about how she came us with the idea.

 

(Photo from Greenbelt)

 

bill hybels

Hope of the World

bill hybelsI recently came across these notes I made of Bill Hybels’ talk at the 2013 HTB leadership conference. Some useful thoughts on vision and team.

———————-

The local church is the hope of the world. There is nothing like the local church when it is working right. The local church will only work well if it is fed well and led well. Can’t talk about leadership without vision

Vision casting – often we start by describing the place we want to go. This may not be the most useful way to bring people with you, however well you cast the vision of that place. People like it ‘here’. They know ‘here’. It’s comfortable ‘here’. You might need to start showing them exactly what is wrong with the place you are currently. People need to see the problems. And they need to realise that we cannot stay in the place we are.  Then a solution can be received. Start by building an airtight case of all the reasons why you can’t stay here.

Vision is most under threat in the middle of the project. Initial enthusiasm has died down and the end is not yet in sight. Need to remind people how far you have come in order to keep going. This also might be the point at which leaders are most vulnerable.
Team
How do we attract, develop and maintain a great team. Leaders need people to share the vision with, and to include others in. Looking for people with the five Cs: Character, Competence, Chemistry (someone you get on with), someone who fits in the Culture of the church, and someone with Calling from God. You will regret it if you compromise on these.
Need to take the time to define the culture of the church. What’s unique about it? At Willow Creek (Bill’s Church), they want people who are incessant tinkerers, who will tweak and tinker in order to improve things.
Figure out who are the most important people in the team. If calamity struck, who would you not want to lose. Who could you cope with losing. Why are they the people you’d not mind losing?  What needs to change? What has changed to bring them to that place (assuming they were important to you when they were hired)? Sometimes you realise though this that you are under using people. Make sure people are not under challenged.
We lead people but the toughest person to lead is yourself. It is our own job to keep ourselves refreshed and healthy in our leadership.  We need to find ways to replenish ourselves. Need to find the rhythms to help ourselves remain full. If we’re a pastor the best thing we bring is ourselves filled with the Holy Spirit, where we have life, patience, and humour.

Be filled with the Spirit.

John Stott from his Commentary on Ephesians.

When Paul says to us, ‘Be filled with the Spirit’, he uses a present imperative implying that we are to go on being filled. For the fulness of the Spirit is not a once-for-all experience which we can never lose, but a privilege to be renewed continuously by continuous believing and obedient appropriation….

To the defeated Paul would say, ‘Be filled with the Spirit, and he will give you a new love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness and self-control.’ To the complacent Paul would say ‘go on being filled with the Spirit. Thank God for what he has given you thus far. But do not say you have arrived. For there is more, much more, yet to come.’

 

20.8.04 Blythburgh Free Range PorkFree Range growers.

Don’t say a word.

20.8.04 Blythburgh Free Range Pork Free Range growers.I came across two stories from Jesus’ life in my reading this morning (in Mark 5). The first is the restoration of the demon possessed man, the one known as Legion, and the second is the raising of a little girl back to life –  the daughter of Jairus the synagogue ruler. We recently thought about the second passage in one of our family services at our church.

Jesus is on the Gentile side of Lake Galilee when he encounters the man with the demons. They recognise Jesus as once and beg him for mercy. After the demons are expelled (into a local herd of pigs), the man who is restored is given the commission to “go home and tell them about how much the Lord has done for you, how he has had mercy on you” (5:18)

After a quick boat ride back across the lake, Jesus is teaching a crowd when Jairus comes and begs him for help. Jesus is now on the Jewish side of the lake and Jairus holds a respected position in the faith community. By the time Jesus gets to Jairus’ house the little girl has died, but Jesus encourages them to have faith and he goes into the house and raises her back to life. Then comes the instruction “He gave strict orders not to let anyone know about this” (5:43).

So  - two miraculous events, but differing instructions on whether they are supposed to talk about it. Why would he say one thing to one person and another to the other group?

In a way, I can understand Jesus telling Jairus’ family not to say anything. Jesus was already having trouble moving around the area due to the large crowds that wanted him to heal. Gods new kingdom has come. Jesus is demonstrating how the world should, and will eventually, be. There are a number of things, including death, that are not as they were. The world is turned upside down as will be demonstrated ultimately through Jesus death and resurrection. His whole life (and death and resurrection) is a testament to that, not just the miracles. Jesus knows that  a yearning for great and flashy miracles does not result in a secure faith.  The result is people always wanting to be amazed instead of a more secure step-by-step everyday faith.

But I also wonder (and I’m just thinking aloud here) whether part of the difference had to do with the audience being Gentile on the one hand, and Jewish on the other. Religious on the one hand, and non-religious on the other. God often uses miracles to get people’s attention. Many people have had divine intervention to get them started turning their lives around. After that, once on the right path and walking securely with God, the miraculous become more infrequent. Perhaps Jesus expects the Jews to recognise signs of the new kingdom coming in, not just in the miracles he does, whereas the gentiles perhaps needed an added reason to start looking towards Jesus. (Interestingly, their first reaction to Jesus was “Please go home, we’re scared” – 5:17 ). Maybe I’m wrong here, but I wonder if new converts to the faith experience more miraculous signs in their early faith than those who have grown up in the church. (I have no evidence for this, it’s just a hunch based on hearing testimonies and anecdotes). Is this for the same reasons perhaps?

I remember hearing John Piper speak  on suffering, and he noted that in the book of Acts the disciples and followers were given a command to spread the gospel “in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” There were many miraculous signs given to the early church too. Yet by the beginning of chapter 8, pretty much all believers were still in Jerusalem. It took persecution and suffering to get them out into Judea, Samaria and further afield. Miraculous signs are great, and we are encouraged to pray for them, but a walk of faith through suffering is often a more powerful testimony than a miracle.

jarius daughter

Only sleeping

jarius daughterSome thoughts/questions on the account in Mark 5:35-43 of Jesus raising a young girl from death back to life.

- Jesus is demonstrating his authority over death, to add to the other authorities that Mark presents. The girl is not raised with any magical formula but with a very normal “Up you get!” – the sort of thing a parent might say to a child who they are trying to wake up from sleep. To him this is normal and well within his power.
- In spite of this, there is no sense of triumphalism, with Jesus again reminding people not to tell anyone about it (as he does after a good number of miracles). Could this be because great miracles alone are not the basis of faith, but a secure walk in his footsteps. Miracles alone may lead to a shallow faith, always wanting to be amazed. He wants engaged followers who are always listening and acting.
- But what about all those who die that Jesus doesn’t raise? Off the top of my head, in the gospels I can only think of Jarius’ daughter, Lazarus, and the widow’s son whom he raises to life. There must have been many others who died. Of courses, Jesus’ own resurrection from death is different, defeating it, coming through the other side and initiating a new order of things, unlike Jarius’ daughter et al who were restored to the old order.
- Therefore, part of what he is demonstrating is the initiation of a new kingdom, when all the usual foes and fears (including death) get turned upside down. In this sense it is a signpost to his own resurrection and this overcoming of death is open to all, not just those he happened to meet and raise in the flesh.
- I’m also thinking a little of the final scene from the Disney movie frozen, where love conquers death.
frozen

Frozen

frozenDisney’s latest animated musical offering, Frozen, has been well-spoken of since it first came out before Christmas. I started watching the movie on a transatlantic flight, but unfortunately the plan landed before I could see the end. With the DVD release, both me (and my children) were able to find out what happened. It gave us a few surprises. Some plot spoilers follow.

Why I liked it:

1. Disney has gone back to their best with a great story interspersed with songs that you will keep singing around your house, and in your car for days after you hear them.

2. It contains a loveable reindeer and a talking snowman.

3. The movie depicts strong capable women who aren’t afraid to be who they need to be. They aren’t waiting around for a man before their life can begin. When Anna sees a problem which needs addressing, she goes off to sort it (dragging Kirstoff behind in her wake)

4. The storyline gears up for the day being saved and the curse being lifted by an act of true love, which we are led to believe will be ‘true love’s kiss’ – like Snow White, Sleeping Beauty etc. etc. etc. With two leading men and two leading women (sisters) in the plot you are left guessing who is going to end up with whom. But the ending is so much better than that. The act of love which breaks the curse is self-sacrificial sisterly love which Anna shows for Elsa.

5. Near the beginning of the movie Elsa forbids Anna from marrying Prince Hans, whom she has just met that day at a ball. This leads to the sisters falling out, but it is good advice. You cannot marry someone you’ve just met. And the guy in question turns out at the end of the movie to be a little bit nasty.

6. It is a story of salvation, redemption, and forgiveness. The character of Kristoff (the ice trader) exhibits a lot of these, putting himself out to protect Anna, but ultimately it is Anna who saves Elsa (and the kingdom) in giving her life. Now if I could only think of another story which has such themes? Hmmmm.

7. Love Conquers death. As mentioned earlier the love is a self-sacrificial and sisterly love. It has appeared that this act of love was the end of Anna’s life, but like many great stories (and the greatest story), love is stronger than that. Life wins.

8. It has inspired a whole load of youtube parodies like this:

and this:

and definitely this:

photo

Neighbouring

photoWhen asked by one of the teachers of the day which of God’s commandments was the greatest, Jesus gave this answer which silenced them.

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matt 22:37-40)

Few today would argue that there are any better commandments than this. It emphasises a love for God with every fibre of our being, heart, mind and will, and a love for all those around us, even those we may disagree with, as Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan illustrates. Implicit in the two commandments is a love for oneself.

The question, “but who is my neighbour?” is a good one. If we are supposed to love our neighbours, who are they? In one sense everyone is our neighbour – people of different nationalities, creeds, ethnicities, religions, sexual orientations, and ages. This is true, but sometimes an answer like this is not practically useful to those wanting to live out a life of “loving their neighbours”. If we are to love everyone, where specifically do we start?

This is where Jay Pathak and Dave Runyon’s book, The Art of Neighbouring, can come in useful. Looking at American suburban society in particular (the book is not limited to this setting but is primarily written from this point of view), they saw that, in fact, people often don’t know those who live immediately around them. I think this is true in the UK too, especially in new-build developments which don’t have a lot of history or long-term residents. Their answer to “where do you start?” is to look at other residents of your area.

They begin by asking you to think of the people who live immediately around you. Can you picture them? Beyond that, what kind of relationship do you have with them? Do you know their names? What sort of person are they? What do they like doing or talking about? Do you know what their desires or concerns are? With this in mind, Runyon and Pathak saw the great potential for impacting community cohesion, security, and general welfare of society for the better, simply if Christians took this command seriously with their literal neighbours. The idea is not to set out with a mission to convert them, but simply to share something of God’s kingdom-goodness with the world by creating loving and peaceful communities. Think about it, how much of your town would be impacted if every member of your church made a commitment to get to know, befriend, and be involved in the lives of those who live around them? I also have no doubt that a side-effect of this will be to open up opportunities for people to find out about and discover faith. When people are confronted with God’s goodness, some will respond.

It is an easy read, with that one central point running through it, and full of suggestions of how to out the greatest commandments into practice, but as always, it will need some adjustment to the individual context. It is a simple premise which, if a number of churches in one city commit to, could have a big impact.

Green Mamba

Accusation

Green MambaFrom one of Nicky Gumbel’s talks:

If it’s the Holy Spirit pointing out something that’s wrong in our lives, he will be very specific. We’ll know what it is, and we can repent about it and deal with it.

And after that we’ll feel at peace.

If it’s condemnation, it’s a nebulous feeling of guilt we don’t know quite what we’re feeling—that’s the accuser. Because St. Paul writes: There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

 

greek island view

The Magus

greek island viewAs this 1966 novel was chosen as the latest offering in our book club, one of our members exclaimed, “I’ll talk about it but I’m not reading that again!”. This didn’t bode well for the The Magus, by John Fowles. But I was willing to give it a go and to get to the end. It isn’t often I don’t finish books and this one was no exception, but 656 pages later I was more than a little frustrated.

It follows the story of Nicholas Urfe, an Oxford educated public school teacher in his early twenties. After a year teaching at an English public school and a short but intense affair with a young Australian air hostess in London, he decides to travel to Greece to take up the post of English Master at an exclusive boarding school on the tiny island of Phraxos. Initially bored, due to the lack of company of his own age, he soon finds himself in the company of a wealthy elderly gentleman, Conchis, one of the few English speaking people on the island. He is invited to visit most weekends, during which he begins to hear the story of Conchis’ own personal history. Soon though, he realises that he is caught in an intricate psychological, mythological, and emotionally perverse game – the godgame. Over the course of the year, he is introduced to a bizarre cast of characters, including beautiful English twins, also in their early twenties. He begins to fall for one of them. Questioning everything he is told and experiences, caught inside an ever increasingly bizarre situation, he is overcome with curiosity, anger and the search for truth and cannot bring himself simply to walk away and has to see this macabre game out until the end.

Immediately after finishing the book I tweeted this:

Some spoilers follow from this point

That is the level of frustration that this book left me with. Whilst it is undoubtedly well-written, and the description of the Greek island is beautiful and idyllic, at no point do we get a reason or explanation for the weird sequence of events that Urfe endures. There is a meanness to the game that his played. Urfe’s letters are intercepted. Things are made up and evidence fabricated to make him believe that certain things are happening outside of the island in order to guarantee his participation in the game on it. Conchis and his friends even, somehow, persuade the Australian ex-girlfriend to be a part of it (although we are never told how they persuade her) and they convince him that she has committed suicide, just at the moment that he realises his true and deep feelings for her. He is distraught but the effect of this is simply to entice him further into the trap.

The final straw for me was the ending. Urfe returns to London to try and piece together parts of the story he has been told, and finds even more people who are in on it. When he eventually discovers that his Australian friend is alive, he realises he simply has to wait. He will not find her until they allow him to. The last section is written very well and, in the spirit of a detective novel, leaves you wanting to turn to pages to find out the resolution. you want Urfe and the air hostess to get back together. Sadly you never find out. The book ends with them meeting and arguing, both quite justified in the hurt and confusion that has preceded. Both want answers, as does the reader, but Fowles doesn’t give them. He simple ends the book before it is really finished.

I imagine this is the type of book that lots of people start but never finish. One of those that looks intelligent but sits on lots of bookshelves unread. Six hundred pages, albeit of well-written prose, but culminating in no clear ending or message is severely disappointing. I can’t say I understood it, but it seems that Fowles doesn’t really want us to, and no other reviews I’ve seen can shed much more light than that.

I did come across this letter, reportedly from the author himself shortly after the novel was first published. It seems that he is being deliberately baffling, trying to deconstruct freedom which, he says, results in the rejection of everything except human reason.

fowles letter

Whilst I cannot disagree with the conclusion of the letter – acting humanely to all humans is simple a rephrasing of Jesus’ commandment to love others as we love ourselves – however, “reason alone” is an argument that the new atheists still try to peddle today, and it is flawed. I think that modernism has shown that reason alone cannot help us in everything, and leaves vast areas of life untouched. The Christian would argue that true freedom is only found in God – growing into the people that he has created us to be.

Credit to Fowles for his writing – The Magus certainly leaves plenty to ponder on, but I can’t say I recommend this. It is simple too random, unexplained, and frustrating. And it doesn’t have a proper ending.

 

Keith-Gillespie

How not to be a football millionaire.

how not to be a football millionarie gillespieI don’t usually read football biographies. I do like the odd biography from a notable figure – Nelson Mandela, Tony Blair, or someone of interest. I was sent a copy of Keith Gillespie’s autobiography and was pleasantly surprised. He was part of the Newcastle United team during one of the most exciting times in recent history, during the first management of Kevin Keegan and shortly afterwards. I remember that fantastic European night when Gillespie and Asprilla teamed up and everything clicked in a memorable 3-2 victory over the mighty Barcelona.  Gillespie is famous not only for being a footballer, but for being one of a few who has managed to be declared bankrupt. On the inside flap of the dust jacket he lists the money he has earned, and lost, over his career. Over £7million. It is sobering reading.

Here’s why I liked the book.

  • He’s not boasting as his career is the wrong way round. He began at Man Utd and finished at Gletoran (N. Ireland) and came via Newcastle, Blackburn, Sheffield Utd and a short spell at Bradford. This is no rise to stardom story.
  • It is very down to earth. He does not shy away from talking about the times when he did or said something stupid. There is no cover-up here. He describes all his relationships and how they went wrong. He talks openly about his depression and the support he is getting. It is brutally honest.
  • He is open about the fact that he earned and lost a huge amount of money gambling, and in ill-judged business ventures.
  • He doesn’t pretend to have it all together or to know where he is going. At the end of the book, with his football career behind him, he is unsure what to do next. This takes guts to admit to.

Admittedly, it is not the best-written book you will ever read, but there is something compelling and admirable about a man who comes clean and says, in front of the world “I messed up, I made mistakes, and now I’m trying to put my life back together”.