James’s Blog: The Dark Side of Being Blessed.

James’s Blog: The Dark Side of Being Blessed.

The end of a year is a natural time to look back and count your blessings, right? Except sometimes I think that I’m not sure what is a blessing and what isn’t. Sometimes I read these end-of-year letters that people send round and when they say, “God has blessed us in 2015” what they really mean is, “No-one had to go to hospital, the kids are doing well in school and we’re a year closer to paying off the mortgage.”

When Gabriel appeared to Mary he met her with the words, “Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you.” In other words, he proclaims Mary to be blessed, but her response is to be ‘greatly troubled’. When I was at university I had to read Fear and Trembling by the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard makes the observation that after this meeting, Gabriel did not then pop next door to the neighbours and say, “Do not despise Mary, something extraordinary is happening to her.” Instead Mary had to bear the stigma of pregnancy outside of marriage, and all the shame and misunderstanding that went with it. “Greetings, you who are highly favoured…” said the angel, and then he left. That is why Kierkegaard writes, ‘And is it not also true here that the one whom God blesses he curses in the same breath?’ Mary knew what was going on. Greatly troubled.  She understood.

God is gracious to us in our needs and in our wants. Being well-fed and at peace is something to be thankful for, but do we understand that true blessing comes with pain, because true blessing is always about being used by God, furthering the Kingdom and becoming more like Christ? These things carry with them a sharp edge and a responsibility. This is what was in my mind when I wrote ‘Gifts’, a story that appears in The Listening Book. It is also, no doubt, what was in C.S. Lewis’s mind when he wrote the following: ‘We are not necessarily doubting that God will do the best for us; we are wondering how painful the best will turn out to be.’

Here’s to a blessed 2016.

James’s Blog: Time for a Christmas Poem

James’s Blog:  Time for a Christmas Poem

For no reason other than because it’s Christmas, I’m going to post here one of my favourite Christmas poems, by a former Poet Laureate:

 

Christmas by John Betjeman
The bells of waiting Advent ring,
The Tortoise stove is lit again
And lamp-oil light across the night
Has caught the streaks of winter rain
In many a stained-glass window sheen
From Crimson Lake to Hookers Green.The holly in the windy hedge
And round the Manor House the yew
Will soon be stripped to deck the ledge,
The altar, font and arch and pew,
So that the villagers can say
‘The church looks nice’ on Christmas Day.

Provincial Public Houses blaze,
Corporation tramcars clang,
On lighted tenements I gaze,
Where paper decorations hang,
And bunting in the red Town Hall
Says ‘Merry Christmas to you all’.

And London shops on Christmas Eve
Are strung with silver bells and flowers
As hurrying clerks the City leave
To pigeon-haunted classic towers,
And marbled clouds go scudding by
The many-steepled London sky.

And girls in slacks remember Dad,
And oafish louts remember Mum,
And sleepless children’s hearts are glad.
And Christmas-morning bells say ‘Come!’
Even to shining ones who dwell
Safe in the Dorchester Hotel.

And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall ?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me ?

And is it true ? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

*Award Winning!* James’s Blog: The Man who Sold me a Pear

*Award Winning!* James’s Blog:  The Man who Sold me a Pear

We were in the supermarket to buy a pear for Imogen. She’d been asking for one all day, ever since she saw a picture of a pear in the morning and been reminded that they existed. There were no pears at home, so I found myself in a supermarket, a single pear in my hand, queuing up to pay.

And I felt embarrassed.

It had been a tough six days, on top of a tough six weeks, which had come off the back of a tough six years. I was tired, and had been worn down by the harsh reality of living and moving and having my being in this tainted world. We had returned to the UK from Australia just under a year ago, and were gearing up for our fourth house move in as many months. I had been wearied by the dehumanising journey of simply trying to secure a place for my family to live. I had spoken to countless robotic voices, and a fair few human ones, giving and taking various details. I had been dragged through the mill, weighed on the scales and been found wanting; judged by our absence from the country and by our inadequate income. Whenever I described our situation I encountered awkward pauses, credit checks and patronising explanations as to why we needed to jump through a dozen impersonal hoops. After all that suspicion and contempt, my embarrassment made perfect sense.

You see, there I was, surrounded by shoppers with bulging trolleys and heaving baskets, holding one pear. Do you understand? We were wasting their time, me and my pear. Me, the less than human, offering something that was barely worth their while to sell. What would be the response of the worker at the till? Mockery? Contempt? “One pear? Couldn’t you have at least bought two or three?” Would I even be worth any emotion? It’s a difficult thing to find yourself in a place where the best that you can hope for is to be ignored.

I was called forward to a till. An older man, not old, but older than me, with a scattering of awkward teeth left in his mouth, like Stonehenge after an earthquake. I prepared myself for the worst.

“Just one pear today,” I said, offering my feeble excuse to the God of the Till, hoping to stave off his wrath. If I make light of the situation perhaps I can escape with just a disdainful smile. I think I could handle that.

“Just one pear,” he repeated, but there was no judgement there.

I handed him the fruit. It was duly processed.

“Fifty-four pence, sir,” he said, without a trace of sarcasm.

Was that expensive for just one pear? I didn’t care, because he called me ‘sir’. Did you hear that? ‘Sir’! Me, with my solitary Forelle pear! Surely I did not deserve a ‘sir’, not for fifty-four pence, but it was given anyway.

Emboldened by this kindness, I passed over a five pound note.

“Thank you, sir,” he said, as though the tedium of having to count out four pounds and forty-six pence worth of change was a precious gift that I was passing on. How much effort would he have to expend for my pittance? How much of my fifty-four pence would make its way to his pocket? Surely none, and yet…”Thank you, sir,”

He passed over the handful of gold, silver and copper shrapnel. I received it as though I were receiving a communion wafer.

“There you go, sir. Would you like a bag?”

Nowadays you have to pay for the privilege of a bag, but not then.  In those days, they were free.  And he makes the offer.  A free bag for my one pear!  What generosity of spirit!  What grace!

“No, thank you,” I said, smiling as I passed the fruit straight on to my delighted daughter.

No bag, but the gesture meant more to me than a thousand bags.

“Have a good afternoon,” I said. I meant it.

“You as well, sir,” he replied. He meant it too.

I swear to you, in all seriousness, there were tears in my eyes as I walked from that till-bound saint and out of that supermarket. Until that moment, I hadn’t realised just how bruised I was, and neither had I realised just how hungry I was for a little kindness.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened,” said Jesus, “and I will sell you a pear.”


This post won the 2016 Good Samaritan short story award with ACW and Street Pastors

James’s Blog: A Song for Christmas.

James’s Blog:  A Song for Christmas.

For a long while my favourite Christmas carol was Hark the Herald Angels Sing. Apart from the rousing tune, I considered it to be one of the more theologically robust Christmas carols. That kind of thing has always been important to me, but I’ve mellowed a bit over the years. In the past I was so zealous that I even hesitated to sing the line ‘Veiled in flesh the Godhead see…’ because I thought that it flirted with the heresy of Docetism.

One song that didn’t ever get a look in was Little Drummer Boy. Adding a child with a drum to the nativity story didn’t seem to add anything, except bizarre anachronism and dubious collaborations between David Bowie and Bing Crosby. I could do without any of that.

A couple of years ago I was introduced to a version of the song that didn’t suck (by a guy called Sean Quigley) and as a result I actually started reflecting on the words, which I’d never really listened to before. I began to realise that in many ways this was the most Christocentric of all Christmas songs. While a lot of the thumping Christmas carols may have us declaring great (or possibly insipid and dubious) theological truths, Little Drummer Boy is a song about the personal response required by these truths. It’s like the difference between a poem about the majesty of the ocean, and a poem about swimming in the sea. It has become especially poignant as I have seen my book edge its way towards publication. “Shall I write for you?” I say, and the baby Jesus nods. Like the little boy in the song, what I bring may seem paltry compared to other gifts that are laid before him, but, just like the little boy, the passion of my gift is what really matters. ‘I write my best for him’ and he smiles. He likes it when we make him smile.

James’s Blog: Writers Wot Have Influenced Me – Part 4 of 4

James’s Blog:  Writers Wot Have Influenced Me – Part 4 of 4

Charles Williams.

Poor old Charles Williams. An amazingly talented scholar, poet and writer, and he gets no love just because he happened to be a lesser-known member of the Inklings and an Oxford contemporary of glory hogs C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.

I certainly hadn’t heard of him myself, not until I moved to Australia and he was mentioned by a chap called Les Follent. Les talked about a series of, what he called, ‘Christian Horror’ novels that Williams had written. Well, my ears pricked up because the closest I had come to that genre was the Left Behind series, which I found horrific for all the wrong reasons. A few years later, when looking for a book to read, I got hold of the first of the six novels that he had written, War in Heaven.

Williams himself described the books as ‘Spiritual Shockers’, and they would probably be classified today as ‘Supernatural Thrillers’, though because they were written in the 1930s and 40s by an Oxford lecturer today’s modern, desensitized natures may be tempted to turn their collective noses up at his work.

To be honest, his stories are best described as ‘a mixed bag’, but when he’s good then he’s very good. There are some brilliant high-concept plot ideas here. War in Heaven is about a rural parish priest who discovers that an old communion chalice that has been gathering dust in a cupboard in his church is actually the Holy Grail, and that a secretive practitioner of black magic is on its trail. That’s an idea that’s just waiting to be ruined by Hollywood. The Greater Trumps is about what happens when a selfish, manipulative Romany fortune-teller gets his hands on the original Tarot deck. The Place of the Lion is about what happens when a cult summons Platonic Forms into existence that begin draining reality from our world. That last one might sound a bit confusing, but if you have a basic grounding in philosophy then you might be thinking, “That sounds like the plot for the best film EVAR!!!”.

Despite the sinister subject matter, each one is grounded in the assumption that God, and the cross, are the ultimate reality. Indeed, there’s so much wisdom in the message of each book that you know that you are in the presence of a master. Williams avoids the gore and perversity-for-perversity’s-sake that characterizes much of the genre these days, and injects subtle horror into his work. I remember reading a Stephen King comment about how the most terrifying horror is when the writer manages to twist the everyday aspects of life into something else; to turn the mundane into the malevolent. Williams manages this by capturing how our eternal character depends on those tiny daily decisions that we make; how tiny seeds of hate can eventually kill us; how little strands of lust or jealousy can grind down our souls until we cease to be human. Beware those mundane, everyday things! Indeed, Descent into Hell contains the finest temptation scene I have ever encountered, and demonstrates perfectly how our essence can hinge on the smallest of nails. This is the kind of truth that should chill and unsettle our modern, desensitized natures.

Williams has influenced me by showing that it can be possible to write intelligent Christian literature in all genres, and that it can be done in such a way that it can cross over into the mainstream. The truth speaks to everyone.  If I ever attempt anything that approaches a ‘Supernatural Thriller’ then I guarantee you that it will be done with Charles Williams in mind.

James’s Blog: Writers Wot Have Influenced Me – Part 3 of 4

James’s Blog:  Writers Wot Have Influenced Me – Part 3 of 4

Fred Craddock.

I’m cheating a little bit here. Fred Craddock has influenced me not so much by what he has written, but rather by the way that he has said what he has said.

I hadn’t heard of the diminutive American pastor until my preaching classes at Spurgeon’s college, where we were exposed to one of his uniquely crafted sermons. For me, it was love at first sight…well, at first hearing anyway. He was, beyond doubt, one of the greatest preachers of the twentieth century, and many of you have probably never even heard of him.

There’s a collection of his sermons (The Cherry Log Sermons), the style of which I slavishly attempted to emulate for my long-suffering congregation during my later years at Hayward’s Heath, but it’s the volume Craddock Stories that has shaped my own writing. The book is a collection of stories that Fred used in some of his sermons over the years, and they’re fantastic. Not just the stories, but the way that they are told and the truth that is drawn from them. Fantastic. He tells countless anecdotes from his rich life, but if he ever lacked a suitable story he would just make one up. I don’t mean “Did I ever tell you about the time I had dinner with the Archbishop of Canterbury…” made-up, I mean a skilfully constructed parable of the imagination made-up . Let me give you an example:

I remember one night, sitting in a little rural church on a Sunday night. It was a summer meeting, so it was hot, and the window was open beside my pew. The minister was preaching on his favourite text, “Be not the first by whom the new is tried, because a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, and it’s better to be safe than sorry, because fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”

I was listening to him drone away when a man came by the church building and stopped by the window and said, “Psst, psst.”

I said, “What is it? I’m listening to the sermon.”
He said, “Come with me.”
I said, “Where are you going?”
He said, “I know where there is a pearl of great price that’s more valuable than all the other pearls in the world.”
I said, “There’s no such thing.”
He said, “In fact, where I’m going, there is treasure buried in a field.”
I said, “You’re kidding!”
He said, “Where I’m going, bums are invited to sit down at the king’s table.”
I said, “That’s ridiculous.”
He said, “In fact, they give great big parties for prodigals who come home.”
I said, “That’s stupid.”

Well, I listened to the rest of the sermon and after it was over, I told the preacher about how I was disturbed and that I hoped it didn’t upset him during the sermon.

He said, “Who was that?”
I said, “I don’t know. Telling me all this fancy stuff.”
He said, “Well, was he getting anybody?”
And I said, “Well, none of our crowd went, but I noticed he had about twelve with him.”

I had never heard anything like this before, at least not in a sermon, and therein lies Craddock’s influence on me. Stories make good sermons all by themselves but imaginative stories make powerful sermons. Let us try harder than to just pull out the same tired old illustrations that have been doing the preaching rounds since year one. Let us let our imaginations run rampant. Why should the devil have all the good flights of fancy?

Of the four writers that I am mentioning in this blog series, Craddock has had the most blatant impact on The Listening Book. There would probably be no book if it weren’t for him. It contains more than one tale where I am self-consciously trying to ape his style of storytelling. Hopefully you won’t be able to spot them! I’m finding my own voice now, but I don’t want to ever forget the influence that Fred Craddock had on me.