Category Archives: life

Cobblers Column: Thanksgiving

From the NTFC vs Stevenage programme on 22nd November.

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In the last couple of weeks we’ve had some things to be thankful for at Northampton Town. The victory over Wimbledon saw us end a five match winless run in the league, and added to that we witnessed Alex Nichols’  first Cobblers goal since his return from that awful career-threatening injury sustained in a win over Port Vale in October 2012. Being out with injury is always difficult, and the extent of Alex’s injury must have put doubts in his mind as to whether he would ever play agin. But thankfully, after a 21-month rehabilitation, we are all delighted to see Alex back on the pitch and scoring goals.

For the Americans among us, this week is an important one. On Thursday they celebrate Thanksgiving, a national holiday which they regard as almost as important as Christmas. All over the country, people make plans to get home to enjoy family time over a turkey lunch, usually served with roast potatoes, green bean casserole and with pumpkin pie to finish. Some supplement their main course with something called Sweet Potato Casserole – sweet potatoes, mashed with cream and sugar and topped with marshmallows. Yuk.

The very first thanksgiving was celebrated in 1621 between the first white settlers and the Wampanoag Tribe in the new settlement of Plymouth, Massachusetts. The previous winter had been very hard for the settlers, unused to such temperatures and without the knowledge of farming in that new climate. Many had died the previous winter, but during 1621, the Native Americans had shown the new settlers what to grow and how to cultivate the soil. Following an abundant harvest, the two groups celebrated together and gave thanks for the produce that would see them through the next winter. After the previous year, thankfulness was the only appropriate response.

Being married to an American, Thanksgiving has been a part of my life for the last ten years. This year we’ll be celebrating with our church community and others from the neighbourhood, enjoying the company and food. We’ve made it a tradition that we each go around the table and name one thing from the previous year that they are thankful for, however big or small. Sometimes people are thankful for a new job, new friends, relationships, or family.

In our culture, we often find it quite easy to find something to complain about. But, constantly dwelling on what doesn’t go well can lead to stress and unhappiness. When we start taking even a short time to remember the good things in our lives, we can find this immensely freeing, as we realise how many of the things we enjoy we do so out of an act of grace. I’m sure we can all list quite a number things – family, children, partners, experiences we may have shared – that we are extremely grateful for, and, when we think about it, these are often the things that we have not had too much direct influence over in the first place. The birth of a child is a prime example. When that little life is introduced to us for the first time, we are bound to think beyond ourselves, to the bigger picture and Source from where that life came.

GK Chesterton wrote “Gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.’ ~ GK Chesterton”. We all need happiness in our lives. And we all need wonder. In sort, gratitude helps us realise that life truly is worth living.

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Cobblers Column: Persistence

For the Matchday programme for tonights game against Hartlepool United.
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It was certainly an exciting end to our last home game, against Exeter, ten days ago. The second half performance was, in my opinion, excellent, and but for a good performance by the 19-year-old Exeter goalkeeper, Christy Pym, the winning margin could have been a lot more. But credit to our lads who stuck at it, and wave after wave of attacking pressure finally paid off with Marc Richards’ acrobatic winner. This was the third last-minute goal we have scored so far in this campaign and has been followed up by an excellent away win at Dagenham.

I’m sure this sort of persistence will stand the team in good stead as the season progresses. But this makes we wonder: What might this attitude look like in other aspects of our lives? If we want to be good at something, clearly we need to put the time in to practice and keep the effort up. When we see an amazing piece of skill on show on the pitch, like Marc’s bicycle kick, it is certainly the result of talent, but it is also the result of a lot of behind-the scenes hard work. Practice makes perfect, as they say. And in sport, the results of practicing are there to see. But what about at work, at home, or in our relationships?

For things that matter, it is worth stopping every so often to assess whether what we are putting in to them is giving us the result we want. And if not, what do we want to change? For many of us the question will come down to where we spend our time – does this accurately represent the priorities we have in our lives?

In our church this autumn, a few couples are committing to set aside time to talk to their partners about a different aspect of their relationship each week for seven weeks – like an MOT for relationships. At it’s core, it is simply an investment of time into the most important relationship of their lives – a distinct period set aside to listen and talk to one another. Participants would like their relationships to last the distance, and are therefore being persistent in their efforts along the way. Looking at couples who have been happy in their relationships for many years, it is safe to assume that they have put the work in over the years – to overcome obstacles, re-evaluate expectations and make some new common priorities.

There may be a similar analogy in our work lives too. Where do we want to go? In this case, being persistent may mean looking at the long game. It may result in re-prioritising aspects of our work, or even stopping to analyse what we want out of our careers. Do we need to change jobs, retrain in another field. In either, persistence is key.

Against Exeter the persistence of the players paid off. Today I’m hoping it will do the same – but before the 89th minute please, to save all of our nerves!

Cobblers Column: Character

Today’s match day column for the game against Shrewsbury

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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!

Cobblers Column: A new Start

I’ve been asked to write a column in the Northampton Town F.C. match day programmes for some of the home games. Here’s todays offering for the game against Mansfield.

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sixfieldsI’m sure no-one will disagree with me when I say that last season was difficult for Cobblers fans. A poor start, some injuries and a bit of bad luck led to us spending 7 months in relegation zone. We ended on a high after our great escape and a good run of form at the right time, and condemned poor Bristol Rovers to life in the Conference. They only spent 70 minutes in the relegation zone all season, but it is the place at end of the season that matters. 

But that was last season, and here we sit at the start of a new one with a new sense of optimism. We get to start again with a clean slate. Mathematically at least, everyone has the same chance of finishing in the promotion places. Last season is history.

It’s not often we get to start again with a clean slate in our own lives. Our history, good or bad, becomes part of us and it follows us around. Cleaning our slates is more difficult. Grudges get picked up and are hard to shed. Reputations are hard to restore. Actions cannot be undone. There may even be things we want to erase.

Difficult but not impossible. For a new start, we need to acknowledge our past in order to start again.  Words like ‘I’m sorry’ or ‘I forgive you’ can help heal relationships. ‘I made a mistake’ can restore integrity. ‘I don’t hold it against you’ can help us drop grudges. These recognise the past without making light of it. The past does matter, but we do not have to be bound by it. We can make steps towards a fresh new beginning.

Like all of you, I will be cheering the lads on this season, starting today with the visit of Mansfield. Last season is history and I’m sure we’ve learnt a lot from it. This season we have a whole new opportunity.

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.

 

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”.

Never too late.

AK-47_type_II_Part_DM-ST-89-01131

A couple of weeks ago I came upon this story in the Independent newspaper: The Dying Remorse of Mikhail Kalashnikov.

Kalashnikov invented the infamous automatic rifle, the AK-47, and as the article says, it’s the “weapon of choice, for revolutionaries, drug cartels, terrorists, kidnappers, pirates and soldiers”. Despite the 100m weapons in circulation, Kalashnikov made surprisingly little money from his invention. It was simply designed and easy to copy. Still it has been responsible for who-knows-how-many millions of lives to be cut short.

Earlier in his life, Kalashnikov justified his invention like so: “It is not my fault that the Kalashnikov was used in many troubled places. I think the policies of these countries are to blame, not the designers.”. He may have half a point. The designers of a bread knife cannot be held responsible if that knife is used in a fatal attack. Yet an AK-47 is not a bread knife. It was designed in order to put together and shoot quickly and repetitively. It’s purpose is to kill.

Yet still, the burden of this knowledge must have become a weight upon him. At the age of 91 he first entered a church, and asked to be baptised.

“My spiritual pain is unbearable. I keep having the same unsolved question: if my rifle claimed people’s lives, then can it be that I… a Christian and an Orthodox believer, was to blame for their deaths? The longer I live the more this question drills itself into my brain and the more I wonder why the Lord allowed man to have the devilish desires of envy, greed and aggression”.

The same day I read this article, I happened to be reading a section of Matthew’s gospel, and the parable of the workers in the vineyard. A landowner is looking to hire labourers for a day’s work on his land. He goes down to the market place (the job centre of the day) and hires some men who have not yet found work, promising them a denarius for their day’s work – this was the going rate for a labourer at the time. A little later, around lunchtime he goes down again and hires some more men. And twice more, in the mid and late afternoon he finds some more men. At the end of the day the men line up to receive their pay, starting with those who came last. Those who had worked only a few hours received a whole day’s pay – one denarius. As did those who were hired in the afternoon and at lunchtime. When the turn came of those who were hired first to be paid, they thought they may  be entitled to more, but they received exactly what was promised to them – one denarius for a day’s work.

It seems the Church is there, as it should be, for the spiritually broken, no matter how severe the crimes or burdensome the guilt or how late in life they come. This is the point of faith, that we all have messed up and called far short of God’s standard, yet through the sacrificial death of Jesus, we can hear the words “You are forgiven” and be welcomed into God’s family. We all get the same reward, whether we’ve been trying to follow Christ for our entire lives, or whether, like Mikhail Kalashnikov, it takes us until our tenth decade to discover him.

Well done to the Orthodox Church for welcoming him in, declaring his sins forgiven through Christ, for easing his guilt. He has received the same reward available to all who come to Jesus.