Category Archives: identity

Cobblers Column: Character

Today’s match day column for the game against Shrewsbury


I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who watched with amazement last season as Liverpool, spearheaded by the deadly duo of Suarez and Sturridge, got within an inch of the Premiership title. Suarez was in the form of his life and was pulling defences apart on an almost weekly basis. After the controversies of the season before, he was finally making headlines for the right reasons.

And then we watched this summer as an innocuous challenge turned into something ugly during a World Cup group match. For the third time in his career he sank his teeth into an opposition player. On the one hand, I couldn’t believe he’d bitten someone again. On the other, it didn’t surprise me at all.

I recently read an article by an author who summed up our public lives like this: Character is King.

Our character – the traits and qualities that determine how we think of and treat others – can be our biggest strength or our greatest weakness. All of us have positive aspects to our character as well as negative. Unfortunately, in pressure situations it is often the negative characteristics that come out. We can all think of the “otherwise good bloke” who loses his head from time to time, or the office manager who loves putting others down. Left unchecked, these negative aspects can destroy us. They are worth working on to ensure that they aren’t what people remember us for.

Sixteen years ago, another young footballer was punished after an act of petulance on the pitch on the world stage. Afterwards, he received death threats, was booed at every away game up and down the country for the rest of the season, and was vilified by the press. But four years later, his reputation had completely transformed. He had gone from being seen as the cocky young kid who’d been sent off and had got his celebrity girlfriend pregnant, to a devoted husband and father, and a man who always worked 100% for the team. Earlier this year David Beckham spoke about it like this: “That sending off made me as a person”. It was quite clear to see in the years following the incident how he buckled down and attempted to change his ways.

Sadly we won’t be seeing the silky skills of Louis Suarez in the Premiership this season. He’ll be sitting out this weekend, serving his suspension, as his new teammates in Barcelona kick off in La Liga again. But I do hope he works on that biting thing. It would be nice to remember him not just as a great player, but one who achieves success after reforming from his very public mistakes.

Best of luck to all the lads out there today against Shrewsbury. May they demonstrate their very positive characteristics of determination, discipline, and teamwork in order to take all three points!



IMG_0113I was talking to a local minister who works on a UPA estate the other day, and he was telling me about the make up of his community. In his area, people have very strong social bonds with their extended family group, who, by-and-large, haven’t moved far away from the home they grew up in. A number of such groups exist on the estate, and there is little crossover between them. The result is that if you get to know one or two members of a group you then get access to the whole group. In his case, a couple from one group started coming to his church, and soon enough most of the group were coming. This reminded me of hearing about some historical cultures, and some  tribal cultures today, where the religion of the tribe or group depends on the religion of the chief. Still today, some orthodox Christians in Ukraine date their conversion to 988, the year King Vladimir was baptised in the River Dniepr. As the king goes, so goes the country.

Often Fresh Expressions of church focus on building community, and that is exactly what we are trying to do here. A sense of community is something tangible that new-build developments often lack, and people notice it most when they stop work and have their first child. Their previous social networks are closed to them or more difficult to access so other local and child-friendly networks are needed. But this is a middle-class area, which is different to UPA areas. It seems, as you climb higher up the social ladder, finding a meaningful community which springs out of the locality becomes increasingly difficult.

This is something that Trystan Hughes picks up on his recent book, The Compassion Quest. Isolation is seen as something to be sought:

We are taught from an early age, either consciously or subconsciously, that detachment is something for which we should aim. It may even seem to us that the more successful we are, the more we earn the ‘privilege’ of privacy. We may well begin our adult lives in a terraced house, but then we work hard so that we can ‘upgrade’ to a semi-detached house. Then our dream is to purchase a detached house. If money is no issue, we might then buy a house with a large garden surrounding it, separating us from our neighbours. Worse still, for security reasons we might then erect large fences and gates around our shiny new house , which shut us in and shut the rest of the world out.

There is talk in Christian circles of a return to community living (or at least community principles), and there have been experimentations in ‘New Monasticism’ – a community which lives by a rule of life (and which may or may not live together). But contemporary expectations in housing, and even in the design of our new developments are often at odds with community-building. For instance, how do you live i community when all you have to work with are distinct single-family dwellings? Development design is slightly better than it was twenty years ago, but only marginally. Houses are designed as mini-castles. Now, the front garden, a place where you may have once sat outside saying ‘hello’ to passers-by, or where you may have done the gardening, are commonly replaced by hardstanding parking or removed altogether. (Most of the houses on my development have only a few feet of front garden). Outside space is now only in small, private, back gardens. In many cases, parking is at the back of the house meaning that people don’t use their front doors – another opportunity to bump into your neighbours is gone. In a neighbouring development (20-30 years old), there is no public place to meet besides the play park. At least we have a coffee shop and, hopefully soon, a community centre.

We need to be connected yet in many ways, our current society makes it more difficult than ever to form close communities. It remains a challenge for those in Christian groups to build community and live out our interconnectedness. God is connected to each one of us and we find we share in his riches better together than alone. In fact, the desire for connectedness and relationship is an integral human need. We are hoping that our connection to God demonstrates itself in the way we relate to other people. The first two commandments that Jesus affirms in Mark 12: are actually two sides of the same coin. There can be no love for God without love for one another, as he is Father and Creator of all. It is also He who informs, guides and enables our love for others.

One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

 “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions. (mark 12:28-34)

Dear Joey Barton…

joey bartonYesterday, you, Joey Barton, tweeted this comment (which was followed by a barrage of criticism).

I’m not going to criticise you here but I am going to answer your question. Why would people pray? Does God care about the outcomes of a match? As 140 characters does not seem enough to answer such a big questions I thought I’d write this. I’m going to leave aside the question of whether God actually exists or not, and for the purpose of this, assume that he does.

Many sportspeople pray before a match. In the football world, Brazilian legends such as Kaka and Lucio are well-known for it. At the final whistle of the 2002 World Cup final, the victorious Brazilian team all knelt and prayed on the pitch before celebrating. Daniel Sturridge, Kieran Richardson, and Bobby Hassell are all others who show their faith publicly, sometimes during a match. Some former professional footballers have even gone on to become pastors (Graham Daniels, Gavin Peacock).

Why would sports people pray before a game?

We cannot assume that they are praying to win, although this might be the case. However, it is not the case that God grants all the wants or whims of everyone who prays to him. In any case, there may be others on the opposing team who are also praying to win – whose supplications should God listen to? Which team should win?

The Christian God is a relational God. He is not a great ‘Santa’ in the sky who hears our pleas and decides whether to answer them depending on how good we have been recently. He is a God who created humanity out of love and who wants to know us. Therefore we pray to connect with him, just as you talk to a partner or friend in order to connect with them. Sometimes the prayers include asking for things, sometimes they don’t. But in either case, when we pray we relate to Him and are more likely to understand who he is and what he is like – again just as in talking to a friend you understand more about them. So some prayers before games might be praying for a result, a fair game, or a good performance. Other times it might simply be that I will use the talent and character God has given to the glory of God. For it is God who gives all of us gifts and abilities, and it is up to us how we use them.  But win or lose, the person of faith would want to glorify God in how they act and in what they say. Often we learn more about God, and about ourselves, when we lose.

Your second question: Does God care about the outcomes of a football match? Ok, Joey, so those weren’t your exact words but I think that the gist of the question. In one sense the answer is No, and in another it is Yes. No, because God doesn’t support any particular team (although if he did it would be Newcastle). And Yes, because God cares about the smallest details of his creation. There’s a verse in the Bible which tells us not to be anxious about our life because “God has numbered the hairs on your head”. He knows how many there are, therefore he surely knows our needs before we speak them. He is omniscient – all-knowing. So Yes, he knows, and he cares about the outcome of the football match, but the reason he cares is because he cares for the individuals playing. Perhaps by losing one of them would get closer to God, would learn more about themselves, or would drive them to change something about their life. Perhaps a loss would enable them to recognise that the only acceptance that is constant and unchanging is from Him and not from the shouts or jeers of a fickle crowd. Or perhaps by winning there would come the confidence (such as with Kaka or Kieran Richardson) to say a little something about their faith and therefore encourage others who may be struggling.

So there’s just a few answers for you. I hope they help. I speak of someone who has always been fairly rubbish at sport, but who enjoys it. I won trainee-clergy snooker tournament once whilst at college studying how to be a vicar. I should add that on my way to winning that, I fluked the blue and pink in the semi-final to knock out the favourite. It’s a good job my value doesn’t rely on my ability, because if that’s the case I’m stuffed.

My top posts of the year.

blogger registration plate numberAt the end of another year, it’s time for another review. According to the wordpress software, This blog had 18000 hits in 2012. Top hits continue to be older posts and simply reflect the most searched-for terms on search-engines: The Best Caramel Shortbread from 2008, footballers Lucio and Kaka show their faith from 2010, and You can’t help who you fall in love with – a reaction to a news story in 2009.

Of the posts I wrote this year, here are the six most popular:

1. Am I  Coward? My Reaction to Mark Driscoll’s comments.  Early in the year American mega-church pastor Mark Driscoll angered Brits by saying that there were no good young well-known Bible teachers in the UK who were preaching the truth of the gospel. This caused a furore and my thoughts were written up here.

2. The Power of ‘lol’ *wow* and ‘hun’. A five-minute pice on the use of shorthand to express emotion on social networks.

3. Praying for Fabrice Muamba. In March, Bolton Wanderers footballer Fabrice Muamba collapsed on the pitch during a game with Spurs suffering with a cardiac arrest. His heart stopped beating and doctors claim he was technically dead for 78 minutes. He has since made a full recovery, but has had to retire from professional sport.

4. A good Quote from Mark Driscoll on Manhood found whilst I was researching a talk on the topic.

5. Whilst writing a sermon on the atonement I was reminded of a passage I read from the U2 frontman in the book, Bono on Bono: Bono on Grace and Karma.

6. Some thoughts about risk following a nurses revelation of the top five regrets of the dying: When is a risk worth taking.

Dark Eden by Chris Beckett

Imagine the human race starting again on another planet, from two people, in a very different world. Dark Eden is about exactly that. Two people, Tommy and Angela, were stranded on Eden after a discovery mission from Earth went wrong sometime in our future. Three others attempted to take a damaged landing vehicle back to the main ship in order to return to earth to get help, but they hadn’t been heard of since leaving. Now it is five generations later, and the two have multiplied into 580, and trouble is brewing in their hunter-gatherer civilisation.

The planet is not like earth. There is no sun giving light from above, and consequently no day and night, and no heat from above. All the light comes from trees and is borne deep underground, where life on Eden begins. The trees flower and the flowers produce heat and light as they pump up their boiling sap from below. As a result, forests are warm and permanently light; everything else is dark, cold and snowy. Animals have evolved to either develop their own source of light from a part of their body, or they can see in the dark.

Five generations later, the human inhabitants of Eden are starting to get too large for the small patch of forest that they happen to have been placed in. Food is getting scarce and space is becoming cramped. They are surrounded on three sides by dark, snowy, impassable mountains, and on the other the stream makes its escape through a narrow gorge and huge waterfall.

The novel picks up the story as a young man, John Redlantern, merely a teenager, starts to challenge his community, known as ‘the family’ into leaving their little forest. His actions are not popular and threaten the unity and identity of Eden.

At this point I should say that I don’t usually read Science fiction. But here, Chris Beckett has written a marvellous book, which I urge you to read. His writing is lucid and brilliantly opens up this other world to your imagination. I’m going to write about the themes of identity which evolved from a common story, and the issues of leadership from a headstrong and impulsive young man. If you plan to read the book (and you should) you might want to stop reading here and come back afterwards as there are spoilers coming.

The Writing

Firstly though, about Chris’ writing. Eden is a world that has to be completely reimagined, and he has thought through it brilliantly. What would a world be like where you have to start again? There is no technology, materials are new and different. The memories of things remains and is passed down, but the ability to build them has been lost. What would we do if future education began with only what a couple of people know and can remember? Tommy’s advice to their descendants is to ‘keep building boats and eventually you will work out how to build a boat that is capable of flying home to earth’. This is true, and this is how the process of innovation can happen provided people push at the edges. For the people of Eden, five generations later they were still building very basic boats.

What would a world be like where there is no rising and setting up the sun? We mark our time through the passing of days, weeks and years. We can tell when a day is over because it gets dark. But in a world which never gets dark and thus, ‘a day’, ‘a week’ and ‘a year’ have no meaning, how do you count? What unit of measurement would you use? The one that Beckett picked as readily available was the human gestation period, known in the book as a ‘wombtime’. John Redlantern, at the beginning of the book, is about 20 wombtimes old. He is known as a newhair, not a teenager. (I’ll let you work that one out).

Beckett has also thought through the implications on a society that would have emerged from just two people. Tommy and Angela, the first father, had four children. With no other humans around the third generation was a product of the second. As you can imagine, relationships, which are not monogamous, quickly become incestuous with the expected effects on the subsequent generations. There is a high number of people with cleft palates, club feet, and infant mortality is high.

The main story is about John and a group of his followers who take matters into their own hands, destroy the sacred places of the family and set of over the snowy dark mountains in search of another place. In doing this, they find answers to the story handed down through the generations.

Story as identity
The story of Tommy and Angela and how they came to be on Eden is the thing that drives the identity of all people, even five generations later. They are wedded to the belief that eventually Tommy and Angela’s three companions would have somehow got the message back to earth so that eventually earth would come and rescue them. The possibility that the message didn’t reach earth does not bear thinking about. Consequently, the family are a people in waiting, waiting for rescue, and people who feel they do not belong in their land but yearn for another place, the place with the big light in the sky. They do not move far from where Tommy and Angela originally got stranded, So that, they think, earth will be able to find them when they come.

Of this story is one they repeat, tell each other, and re-enact at each anniversary. But it is a story without an end. They are the people in waiting.

That situation led me to think of the nation of Israel in its early days. They were people with a very strong identity based on historical story – the calling of Abraham, their subsequent slavery in Egypt, and their rescue by God, led by Moses out of Egypt, across the Red Sea and through the wilderness to the promised land of Israel. This story is a key identity marker in the formation of the people of Israel, and the old Testament is littered with references to it. Look back, they are told, to what God has done for you and for your ancestors. Look back and remember who God is and therefore who God will be to you in the present and future.

Israel was a nation Governed by this story and therefore believed, for the most part, in the hope that this story promised. And eventually, in their next hour of darkness, God rescued them again.

I believe all of us live by a story even today which shapes our beliefs, hopes, and actions. However, that story isn’t one that pervades all society like Eden or Israel. We each have our own, as society is more individualistic. In both Eden and Israel the story was one of national identity as well as individual. In Eden, as the story cuts to the heart of who they were, any alternative stories were vehemently opposed. Dark Eden Explores the outworkings of this as John Redlantern takes a group over the dark cold mountains to another place, and in doing so begins to explore alternative stories and therefore threatens the family’s unity and identity.

Loss of story

So, what happens when this story is threatened? (Some major spoilers here) Firstly, the group is split. A small group goes with John, most of the others stay with the main group. But what was previously an easy, consensual unity in the main group now feels oppressive.

Second, right at the end of the book, after John’s group have made it over the mountains and found a vast, vast forest, easily enough to provide ample hunting ground for a population many times the size, the group make a dramatic discovery – one that affects the whole way they think about themselves, and which justifies John’s actions. Their story is dead.

Here, I started to wonder that happens to a society that loses the story by which it defines itself. The book doesn’t really explore this as the discovery comes in the final few chapters. But what about in history? The USA has a story that it is ‘A Christian Nation’, which sprang up from the fact that it was mostly Puritans who set up the country by escaping persecution in Europe. They also cling to the notion of a ‘Spirit of Adventure’ which came from the pioneers going West. How true are they now? Perhaps not as much as they were. In the UK, I feel we have lost our story, part of which was defined by the English Reformation and the state church, and as the Olympics Opening ceremony so wonderfully reminded us, the Industrial Revolution. But how relevant are they to the story by which we live our lives now? For most people, not so much. Our society has lost it’s story and, perhaps, is sucked into the secular default of self-improvement.

When the nation of Israel wandered away from their story in the Old Testament, it was characterised by moral decline and distance from God. Only when it was obvious that going on their own wasn’t working for them, and the exile happened, did they return to their original story of ‘God as rescuer’. With the loss of the ‘wait for rescue’ story on Eden, it remains to be seem what story they may turn to.


Dark Eden also makes you ponder about the nature of leadership. John Redlantern is a natural leader. He sees a problem, has a vision and is relentless in pursuing it. Only, he is young, impulsive and immature. His actions cause him to be exiled from the rest of the group, and is later joined by others. He doesn’t mind facing opposition in pursuit of his goals.

However, he needs to be the leader. There is one moment during the climb over the dark mountains when it seems that everything is lost. They have lost their source of light and are under attack from an unseen monster. The others start to turn on him and he has no ideas as to how to get out of the situation. Suddenly, one character, a young boy called with a claw foot, who had been separated from the group in the monster attack manages to come back and save the day. Initially, this was a cause for rejoicing, but John begins to see the boy as a threat to his authority. Actually, the boy had no desires to lead the group. But John is still worries, and his reaction is to keep him close as a number two. This is an act genius as the boy turns out to be one of the most intelligent of the group who can turn his mind to solving problems.

But the reality of leadership in John is highlighted throughout the book – negotiating the opposition, grumbling, possible threats whilst keeping as many of the group together to press son towards the goal.

This is probably the best example of contemporary fiction I have read for a long time. Please read it. I am very much looking forward to the sequel!

Donald Miller on love

Earthly love, I mean the stuff I was trying to get by sounding smart, is temporal and slight so that it has to be given again and again in order for us to feel any sense of security; but God’s love, God’s voice and presence, would instil our souls with such affirmation we would need nothing more and would cause us to love other people so much we would be willing to die for them. Perhaps this is what the apostles stumbled upon.

From Searching for God knows what