The power of incidental spaces

Talking packaging is no  longer a new thing. A number of years ago food and drink manufacturers realised the power of the first person singular when it came to the wrappings and cartons their products are sold in. From Innocent smoothies, with their zany sense of humour, to organic products which bear personal testimony to how wholesome they are, packaging has become a platform for engaging with the consumer at a personal level. 

Recently I’ve noticed a great idea being pioneered by Activia yogurts. There’s a subversive sense of satisfaction in licking a yogurt pot lid, and Activia have been capitalising on this by writing little pithy messages, penned by their consumers, which have either a piece of proverbial wisdom or a personal experience to share. Somehow the manufacturers have managed to filter out the saccharine and overly sentimental so that the lids carry genuinely endearing words. 

Activia have grasped a concept which is as old as human writing – the importance of incidental spaces for reminding us about what matters. The locations where the eye rests can bring thoughts and concepts which are good for us to keep in mind back to the surface

Biblically this was something that Israel, as the Old Testament people of God, were alive to. Deuteronomy 6:9 speaks of writing God’s law on the doorframes and gates of people’s homes, serving as an everyday visual reminder of what God had revealed. All of the prescription and promise of the law, its divine precepts and inherent beauty were to be inscribed on the incidental spaces, the mundane locations of everyday life. Israel were to see God’s word as something that was relevant to normal life and something to be borne continually in mind. 

And we can honour and embody this in our own lives too. I have strong recollections from my childhood of elderly relatives whose homes were adorned with Scripture references. A great aunt and uncle, who had lost both of their children, had ‘Jesus himself drew near and went with them’ (Luke 24:15) mounted on a beautiful piece of wood and hung in a place of prominence. How that silent testimony must have informed the newly childless silence of their home over and over again – Jesus was walking with them through all of this and the wall was as good a place as any to record that grand truth. 

Today our incidental spaces might be our living room wall, or it might be our cover photo on Facebook, or the wallpaper on our smartphone or tablet. We might record promises or points for prayer on the old medium of cardboard and place them within clear view where we wash the dishes, or on our study desk. Either way these incidental spaces can bring God’s truth into the vital areas where we live and breathe and have our being. God’s word was never intended to be merely lifted and laid in segregated times of devotion, but it is to be carried with us and placed before us continually, the live truth of our great God earthed in the everyday and the humdrum. And what power it can have to transform our drudgery, direct our hearts in the midst of temptation, turn us to prayer and bring us promises which light up the most normal or traumatic of circumstances. 

God’s word was never intended to be merely lifted and laid in segregated times of devotion, but it is to be carried with us and placed before us continually, the live truth of our great God earthed in the everyday and the humdrum.

Probable Cause – some thoughts following the death of Jo Cox MP

The tragedy of yesterday’s news about the cold blooded killing of British MP Jo Cox is difficult to put into words. The images and words posted by her husband Brendan in the hours following her death, along with the sincere sense of shock portrayed by colleagues at Westminster, give some sense of the dreadful loss that has been sustained, as well as the moral incongruity of an MP engaged in public service being callously murdered by a member of her constituency . One feels that this is a moment in our national life which will linger long in public memory, and leave an aching void in the lives of those who knew Jo Cox best.


Along with the tragic tones of this atrocity have come notes and strains from the media which demand more scrutiny. Within a short time of the murder the British press were reporting ‘eyewitness’ accounts of people who claimed that Jo Cox’s alleged murderer shouted ‘Britain First’ whilst committing his crime. Coming after a weekend where the world reeled at events in Orlando, the idea of a politicised or ideology-driven murder strikes a chord in the hearts of many, pointing again to the very real dangers of people swallowing wholesale the radical ideas of others propagated via new media. This twist seemed to lend the story an edge in last night’s news coverage, suggesting a bigger picture behind the seemingly mindless killing.


But one has to question how helpful all of this is. The case of Omar Mateen in Orlando has surely highlighted the difficulty attached to attributing larger political motives to what may be individually motivated atrocities. In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy in the Pulse nightclub ISIL was quickly evoked, but this was made more complex by revelations that Mateen himself may have frequented the club as a patron in the past. How can we find an effective label for someone who has sympathies with radical Islam, but who is harbouring feelings which run contrary to the whole belief system which he has espoused?


Perhaps the answer is that these easy labels don’t always work. There can be a complexity of issues which motivate an individual to engage in acts of terror or murder, some of which may not even be understood by the assailant themselves. Our world of hashtags doesn’t really work when we are handling a criminal act of such severity and gravity as the taking of another’s life. Instant explanation can easily become mitigation, making an act which should burst our categories and break our hearts understandable within a bigger matrix.

Instant explanation can easily become mitigation, making an act which should burst our categories and break our hearts understandable within a bigger matrix.

Sometimes people kill for mindless reasons, sometimes they commit attacks for political motives, sometimes their illnesses have gone unchecked or untreated to their own detriment and that of society, and sometimes we are face to face with undiluted evil – with the unmasked image of the human soul in its depravity and sin. In any case, immediately positing probable cause, or placing a banner or a flag in the bloodied hands of those who cruelly take human life, does little to help our understanding of human nature, or the depth of our brokenness as people. What we need is not a hashtag or handle to pigeon-hole our public tragedies, but open hearts to weep with those who weep, patience with police while they thoroughly investigate the individual and their motives, and a clear eyed view of what we are capable of as human beings.

The Conductor (an imperfect preaching analogy from a lunchtime recital)

Of course everybody here already knows the score. These notes and nuances are part of the fabric of what has been learned and played and practiced for generations. But with all of this familiarity there remains the expectation of something fresh, and living, and new, to come from sounding it all again.
The discordant notes seeking pitch ebb to silence. The conductor stands before the hall, back turned on the world, his manuscript the effective bridge between him and the waiting orchestra. The silence swells beneath the baton before bursting into overture, the combined force of each part building and cascading now, the whole musical body finding its flow and fullness in the shared notes.
There is no dispassion or irony here, no cool intellectualism or scholarly distance. The conductor knows the background, can plot the biography of a Haydn or a Schubert, has spent time in the grain and history of the work before him, has a good sense of the life situation that has brought this piece to birth. But all of this he now wears lightly, this moment is not one of pure academia, but applied scholarship, the studied art of the immediate and the extemporary.
He has mastered the score so that he can now be mastered by it, and its flow is now working its way through him. His every movement pulses with the contours of this piece, an arm which carries the sweep of the sonata, a movement of his shoulder sends and receives the punctuation of the horn, a trembling palm the thunderous drama of the drum. Everyone has the manuscript before them, can see for themselves the lay of the land, but he brings them to it, and carries them through it, and reminds them of their location in this unfolding drama. Everything here is at once objective and subjective, not a note will be missed, the fine tuning of the Master’s composition will be honoured in every detail, but it is a living thing, “felt along the heart”, pulsing with life and joy and resonance. Tabulation and emancipation are married here, there is strict adherence, and yet an applied confidence that this base line allows each to be reached, enabled, enlivened to play their part. 
He is the conductor in every sense, being directed by the music which transcends him, and channeling this now for those who keep their eye on him. They are all part of something bigger than themselves, and few will leave this place with the movements of the conductor in their minds. Strains of melody and majesty will play through them all in the hours and days to come, the organic life of the text now has voice and application, the received has been realised, the latent energy of the music now voiced in a way which can be applied and carried and lived.

A prayer before preaching

Lord take these fragments
And make them fragrant.

Lord, take the victories,
And devotion of this week
And work through my failing efforts.

Lord take the words from this page,
These thoughts and prayers,
This exposition and application
And fill our company
Fill our hearts and lives,
With the certainty of your Truth-speaking.

Lord take us,
A body of broken believers,
Beleaguered by the realities of a broken world,
Frustrated with ourselves,
With our sin
With our setting in a planet of terrible beauty,
And grant us life from Christ,
That we might live for Christ.

Lord bless me,
Bless your people,
Bless us,
In spite of us,
And magnify Your name,
For Your own sake,
In the worship of your people.

Not if, but when

There is no way to get through the Christian life unscathed, there is no immunity from adversity, no free pass from the frequent pain that living in a broken world brings to our door. Anyone who tells you that trusting in Christ brings protection from problems and pain and life shattering things is either sincerely misguided, or is the cruellest of liars.

And the Bible doesn’t give a false manifesto when it comes to the consequences of sin, and the nature of belief. While certain sections of Scripture (Psalm 91 for example) show the blessing the believer knows from the sweeping judgement of God, even here we are promised trouble which God will preserve us through, not from.

In terms of suffering the Bible speaks not of ‘if’, but ‘when’ we face hardship and disappointment and breakdown.

These ‘whens’ are so helpful in our hurts, they dispel so much of the crude thinking which puts an ‘equals’ sign between our deficiencies as believers and the difficulties we face. Sincere Christian people will suffer, at times enormously, and this pain is not automatically proof of disobedience, or God’s displeasure. ‘When’ we suffer is the Scriptures’ pastoral refrain, with neither footnote, nor small print, nor exception. And in that ‘when’ we find liberty to face our heartaches and trust our God, even when the squall of suffering is all around us.

The Psalms abound with ‘whens’, and these two captured my attention recently:

‘When I thought, “my foot slips”, your steadfast love, O Lord, held me up.
When the cares of my heart are many, your consolations cheer my soul’
– Psalm 94:18-19 (ESV)

This nameless Old Testament songwriter had lived in and through the ‘when’ of Christian suffering, they had known those moments of internal mayhem where life’s co-ordinates seem hopelessly thrown, and they had experienced ‘who’ could help them ‘when’ trouble came.

I’m sure that all of us have had those ‘foot-slipping’ moments in our lives; those times when the ground seems to go from beneath us, where our stability and our integrity, our whole sense of being on the terra firma of faith seems undermined. The Psalmist had felt this slippage, they had come to question their standing and their strength, and in that moment, when all seemed chaotic and unsure they had found a rock solid certainty ‘your steadfast love, O Lord, held me up’. This loss of personal traction is followed by a moment of personal trust – they might fail or fall but God will not, God cannot. God is faithful by character and by covenant, his person is unchangeable, his purposes unbreakable, his commitment to us as long and sure as eternity. When the ground gives way, God doesn’t – and that’s enough to stabilise a stumbling believer.

And when care and concerns are legion, God is there, with a cheering voice. For every care there is consolation, for every burden there is strength, and just ‘when’ we feel at our most weak, God’s strength becomes most evident to us (2Cor 12:9).

I’m grateful for Scripture’s clear-eyed perspective on our broken lives in a broken world. It’s not if we suffer, but when – it’s not if God will sustain us, but when. It is in this tension that we live and thrive under a sovereign God’s care.


The Value of Old Books in a Brave New World

Ours might be a new era in Christian history, but it is not unprecedented. The work of Christ and His Kingdom might presently be assailed by fiery challenges, but we are not unique in our concern for the future of the Church. As the sands of culture shift around us, as hedonistic materialism with all of its concomitant threats to the welfare of God’s people increases in influence and ‘reach’, it is good to be reminded that the Church has faced tremendous difficulty before, and found rich succour in the goodness of her sovereign God.

New publications might diagnose our present state, but in turning to old books we find there a repository of gospel wisdom and hope which is unfettered by present circumstance and concern. Take for instance Banner of Truth’s recent reprint of W.S. Plumer’s commentary on the Psalms. Here is old truth indeed – a volume originally published in 1867 – and yet the author’s ‘Doctrinal and Practical Remarks’ carry a sense of relevance and power which is hard to surpass. I am presently combining the Psalms prescribed in the Robert Murray M’Cheyne reading plan with Plumer’s observations. His commentary could not be more exegetically tight, nor devotionally rich, and so often his insights pack punch in terms of our present condition as Christians in a secular world.

Recently, while reading Psalm 89 I was deeply challenged and helped by the following:

‘It is appalling to live in a time of general desolation of church or state. Till a good man knows by experience, history gives him almost no conception of the misery and crime which then appear on every hand. The badges and insignia of authority are despised, the fastnesses of society loosened, malice with her minions and myrmidons slandering and beleaguering all good men, the laws of property set aside, the throne of iniquity framing mischief by a law, the meanest men laughing at the miseries of the most honourable, the finger of scorn pointed at all who do not join in noisy clamour for blood and persecution, vile men exalted to power, fools being counsellors and wise men pronounced to be behind the times, fundamental laws swept away in a moment, strangers and enemies laughing to scorn, wise plans of adjustment and pacification wholly despised, the glory of order and religion utterly obscured, men fasting to smite with the fist of wickedness, and giving thanks for events which fill a thousand dwellings with howling. It is not strange that such scenes should make men old before they have reached their prime, or send them for shame to premature graves. But when they can bring their case before the Lord, they may conclude their meditation with a doxology’

In an age when fools are making play for power, when blood-thirst seems to abound on every hand, and where long standing statutes are sacrificed on the altar of sinful pleasure, the Christian can find in Plumer’s counsel rich ground for faith and fortitude. His is insight mined from Scripture, founded on doctrine and expressed with a force and faith which disarm our deepest discouragements and divest us of the tendency to self pity.

Old books have much to say in our brave new world. In reading them we might find strength for today and hope for our future, tracing the unchanging, unfailing ways of our faithful Saviour – the Lord of time and eternity.

Blogging again

It’s been almost four years since I’ve blogged. I previously set up a site entitled Double Usefulness in 2006 and had run it for a long time, enjoying the process of blogging. As 2012 came to an end I decided to discontinue that project, really for a few reasons:

  1. I worried about it looking like I thought I was an expert in areas I’m only coming to understand for myself, or learning to apply in my own life;
  2. I was concerned about being narcissistic or self-promoting, imagining that the world wanted to know the inner workings of my brain;
  3. I struggle a little with trying to publicise my writing, and building an audience;
  4. Pastoral ministry is a busy place to live, and the blog was often relegated to quite far down my ‘to-do’ list.

As time has passed I have been blessed by invitations to write bits and pieces in other forums, mostly book reviews. It is so fulfilling to make time in my schedule to think out loud about books I’m encountering, or ideas I’ve been mulling over. And yet there has still been a sense of compulsion to write on other things which wouldn’t be worthy of being published anywhere else – short or ephemeral pieces on life, ministry and reading. Over and over again I’ve had itchy fingers to blog again but the above reasons have prevented me from acting on it.

For some reason, now seems like a good time to try again. I want this  blog to serve as a kind of public notepad or sketchbook where half formed thoughts and ideas are aired and worked through, and where I can share some issues which pastoral ministry itself throws up from time to time. In an effort to avoid the concerns which made Double Usefulness a thing of the past, the following are some principles which will underpin everything I post here:

  1. ‘I count myself one of the number of those who write as they learn, and learn as they write’ – this adage from St. Augustine was the strapline of my old blog. It will be at the heart of this new one.
  2. I will try to keep my posts restricted to objective observation rather than subjective experience. I don’t want this blog to be about me, but about God’s work in my life and the things which I see him teaching me in my own spiritual and pastoral pilgrimage

So ‘Thinking Pastorally’ is now underway. I’ll look forward to sharing, interacting and reflecting with those who decide to enter this adventure with me.