Finding the Unique Person that is Me



Like all of us, I have lots of skills and some gifts. But baking is definitely not one of them.  The alchemy of mixing flour, fat, eggs and sugar, sticking it in the oven and creating a wonderful cake totally bamboozles me. But I found myself recently in the position of volunteering in a weak moment to provide some home-made cookies for a get-together. Why did I do that? I now had to find something suitable to make.

Many of you will know of the wonderful Nadiya Hussain, winner of last year’s Great British Bake Off. She had a recipe in the Times colour supplement for Chocolate Florentines. Here was my salvation.

For those of you that wouldn’t recognise a florentine if it sat next to you on the bus, they are a simple flat cookie, consisting solely of flaked almonds and cherries, glued together with a little boiled sugar, butter  and cream, and then coated on the bottom with a thick layer of chocolate. Sorry, this isn’t a recipe; I’m just trying to give you a flavour for florentines.

In true Bake Off fashion, I set off in my endeavours to produce 36 (as prescribed in the recipe) identical biscuits. My portion sizes went a bit awry and I ended up with 29 cookies, all of different shapes and sizes. In other words it wasn’t quite going to plan. When these delicious-smelling morsels are cool, you turn them upside down and cover their bottoms with chocolate. However, there are holes in the texture of some of the florentines, (sorry, in my florentines) resulting in some of the chocolate seeping through to the top surface. Hmm, the photo of Nadiya’s didn’t show this seepage. Anyway, as I slogged tirelessly over cooling trays, mixing bowls, and melted chocolate, I began to realise that the florentines were a great metaphor for us as human beings.

The metaphor went something like this. Every one of my creations was a different shape and a different size. And some were a deeper colour than others, from pale to dark. There was some mortality here too, for only 29 of the 36 made it to maturity. And I realised the chocolate on the base was in fact the shadow side of us all, that part of us that we are ashamed of and hide away underneath from others. But in some instances it seeps through occasionally to the surface for the world to see. And then the metaphor of their similarity to humanity was complete when I realised some of them had oddly-shaped bottoms.

The moral here was that all of these creations were totally unique, just as we are all unique as human beings. And there is of course the realisation that we are so unique, that there are certain things in the world that only we can do, a complex and unique set of skills, circumstances, motivations and life experiences that mean in all of the world there is only myself that can do this. That may be something simple like befriending a needy relative or neighbour. Or it may be those special set of combinations that made Einstein sit down and fathom out a few basic truths about the nature of the Universe. The point is that they are things that only you can do, only you, because you have the heart for that needy neighbour, you live close by, you like them and have the time, energy and inclination to be there for them.  Or you may just be really good at mental arithmetic and finally figure out that e-mc²

It’s an interesting thought. But as Psalm 139 tells us, God knit us together with a plan, so why are we surprised by the uniqueness of our journey and our calling? The more I thought about this, the more I realised exactly what my calling and vocations are in life and how I am a unique creation. And as far as my own calling goes, I am prepared to confide in you that it’s not baking.

So my meditation on the florentine has brought me new insights into life’s purpose. I recommend it to all. Sit down with a cup of tea and a florentine, real or imagined, feel it, taste it, look at it, and think about what unique thing you have to offer the world. You will realise that your calling has possibly been with you most of your life and that it is in operation at this very moment. But realising what it is will help you to focus on that calling and bring you an understanding of the unique offering that God has created in his kitchen and that you now have to offer the world on the sweet trolley that is life.

God on the Building Site

2015-05-31 10.43.49This was the picture of Derby Cathedral at Holy Communion this morning. The redecoration project is in full swing. For the present, Sunday services are held in the nave, narrowed by the huge scaffolding structure that fills this holy space. This narrowed space means that today we have to sit next to each other and talk to our neighbours, which is counter to our true Anglican tradition, where we space ourselves out, have a roomy pew all to ourselves and leave the first three rows empty.
But today the cathedral is an incongruous sight. Or site may be more apt word because we are worshipping on a building site. It has that feel. And the smell of fresh paint and wet plaster in the air lends credence to its nature as a place of work. It would not have felt out of place if the processing clergy had been wearing high-vis vestments, hard hats and safety boots.
And yet, God was here on the building site. Okay, the hymns and chants, the Eucharist and prayers gave lots of clues that we were church-encased. But here was a new cathedral within a cathedral that now enveloped us, a magnificent structure of scaffolding poles and planks. Here was a new work of art of geometrical intricacy, a patchwork of triangles, squares, oblongs, cross braces and ladders, a holy tower of strength and stability, crafted with the sole purpose of lifting up those descendants of Michelangelo to rise heavenwards to paint the ceiling. Okay, I’m getting carried away. It isn’t going to be the Sistine chapel, more like a couple of coats of Dulux Trade Emulsion, but you get the drift.
But it did not detract from God’s presence. He was here in this place, just as he is on every building site, in the call centre, the retail outlet, the offices, the classrooms, the hospitals and the factories. It is easy for us all to associate God’s presence far more readily with sacred places and find worship only there. And yet we miss so many opportunities to worship, to pay homage to our God in the everyday event, the everyday place and to acknowledge that God is in all things, in all places, at all times.
At the end of today’s service, we crossed the road to the cathedral cafe where coffee and biscuits were being served in their interim location. I’d rather hoped for cheese and pickle sandwiches and a good hot mug of builder’s tea. Somehow it would have complemented so nicely my meandering thoughts of God in the workplace and God in all things.

Do Dogs Go To Heaven?

Resized scan0017Always go for the lively one, was the advice I took when we chose our puppy, a decision I often rued. He was a feisty Lakeland terrier, who graced our home with love, mischief and naughty deeds for 14 years. Always in trouble, always in the doghouse, always he bounced back with unconditional love. His most ruinous deed was when an unsuspecting house guest accidentally opened the door to the postman, someone Rolo had been after for a couple of years. The dog warden came to see us shortly afterwards and now our mutt had a criminal record. Bang went his dream of becoming a police dog.
But he had many Christian qualities. After a good talking to, he would always lick your face to say ‘I’m sorry I did it again but I can’t help it, it’s just my nature.’ I reckon that is exactly like us when we pray.  And his ability to forgive was without doubt much better than ours. So did he make it to the other side?
If I were setting a theology exam, which I have to say is completely unlikely, I’d include the question – Do dogs go to heaven?   Whether or not there are wagging tails and celestial lampposts in the heavenly realm should produce some good theological debate.  And in truth, it’s a daft question but in reality, all doggy owners and all children want an answer to it. I googled it, just to check it out. I like googling spiritual questions because the Web can’t provide any clear answers. I like that uncertainty in our data-driven world.
The good book is a bit short on veterinary theology. There’s a few clues. We know Revelations mentions a white horse in Heaven. Proverbs 12.10 tells us a righteous man cares for the needs of his animal.  And Ecclesiastes actually poses the question about animals in heaven, (3:21 for those keen ones amongst us) ‘Who knows if the spirit of man rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?’ But Isaiah gives the best answer in 11:6-9. ‘The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat….They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain’. That tends to suggest Rolo will lie down with the postman, which rather goes to prove what a marvellous and miraculous place Heaven must be. And of course Jesus tells us that not a single sparrow will fall to the ground without your Father knowing it, which tends to clinch it for me.
I got a brief glimpse of what the animals in Heaven debate might be like last week on holiday at Centerparcs. For those who are unaware, this is a holiday park that majors on a top notch swimming dome and other delights, all set in a conservation forest. As we sat for breakfast on the patio outside our chalet, we were joined one morning by an ensemble of 2 ducks, a pheasant, a squirrel and a robin. It was surreal. We were expecting them to burst into a Disney dance chorus any moment. And as we walked along the footpaths of an evening, there were rabbits everywhere, totally unfazed by our proximity. And there were geese, lining the pathway every 200 metres or so, their hopeful pleading eyes like those of a homeless beggar on the street. Here was nature, red in tooth and claw, being jolly matey with us human beings and hoping to cadge a free meal in the process.
1125 Rodney - CopySo, when I set that question in the theology exam, I shall make it a multiple choice question. Do dogs go to Heaven?  – Yes, No, Don’t know. Like many questions in our spiritual walk it comes down to faith because hard answers are not always there for us. But just so you know where I stand, I shall be ticking the Yes box.

Angels at the Car Crash

2014-04-14 17.15.41 (7) - CopyIt was on this Monday a year ago, on a bright sunny afternoon as we returned from a weekend break in Yorkshire that a large articulated lorry drove into the side of us and pushed us off the motorway. In those awful few seconds of grinding metal upon metal, I lost control of the car and we skidded in a spin in front of the articulated lorry. In that brief moment of terror, I braced myself and waited for the next impact, like you used to do as a child on the dodgems at the fair. I was certain that we were going to be killed. It was in that instant that we both cried out to God. By a miracle, we both walked away from our wrecked car. It was all over in about 20 seconds.
As you can imagine, we told the story many times over the weeks following. People said “The big man was with you!” “There were angels there that day.” “Someone was looking after you.” One of the traffic cops advised us to go and buy a lottery ticket that evening. He said he hadn’t seen many walk away from such a tangle with a lorry. The car was a write off, with £10.000 worth of damage. But we walked away. Bruised, aching, but with no serious injury, just an incredible emotional trauma for both of us.
If ever there has been a time in my life when I felt God’s hand on us, believed in divine intervention, felt our guardian angels were with us, however you want to express it, it was at that moment.
Life is precious. Life is a gift. Life is sacred. But it is easy for us all to get bogged down with the petty issues in life, the niggles of everyday existence, the awkwardness of folks, the little annoyances that get blown out of all proportion.
I’m reminded on this anniversary day how we, as human beings, get embroiled and distracted by all of this petty stuff all the time, every day. And I’m also reminding myself as I write this of the fundamental truth I’ve expressed above, that life is precious, life is a gift, life is sacred. So, my thought for the day on this anniversary morning is thus. Live life to the full, give thanks to God for being here and for the sacred gift of life; love your family and your friends and let them know you love them. And keep a sense of scale as every new day begins.
The following morning, a neighbour having heard out tale kindly pushed a couple of lottery tickets through our door. We didn’t win, but hey, you know what, I think we’d had our share of ‘luck.’

Re-arranging the Deckchairs on the Titanic

deck-chairAre our churches caught like rabbits in the headlights of progress? Sometimes the phrase ‘re-arranging the deckchairs on the Titanic’ comes easily to mind. a chilling yet apt description of taking meaningless action in the face of impending disaster.
In the Anglican Church in the UK, we are rejoicing in the appointment of the first women bishops. Alleluia! And yet it was in 1975 that the Sex Discrimination Act came into force in this country. It has only taken 40 years for the church to agree that women are capable of taking on the mantle of becoming bishops. For the secular world, it must beggar belief that half of the population has been barred from this office. Whilst many in the church are rejoicing at the headline announcements of the first female bishops, many outside of the church culture are saying ‘So what’s the big deal?’ and will see an organisation well out of tune with modern thinking and one that really does not deserve any attention in their busy and noisy world..  And sadly, many in the church are still not happy with such a decision.
Large organisations are unwieldy things. They create complex hierarchies, rules and protocols and become self-satisfied. Most dangerously they become inflexible in their attitudes and ability to adapt to changes in the world. And the history of commerce is littered with stories of once successful organisations that died in the face of agile competition and fresh thinking. We only have to look at the decline of the UK’s car industry over the last 40 years to cite a perfect example of an organisation doomed to failure, its renaissance occurring only through foreign intervention.
In the gospels I read, Jesus never said anywhere go forth and create large inflexible hierarchical male-dominated organisations that invent complex rules and exclude half of my flock from rising through the ranks. He went and met the people at their point of need and we as churches sometimes forget that and get bogged down in PCC decision making on the state of the guttering, pew retention and personal agendas.
 There is much good taking place in the Anglican Church and many are working hard for a fresh approach to getting across the message of hope and love that Christ brought into the world. The Titanic was a large and unwieldy structure, unable to respond quickly to avoid its impending disaster. And the thought of passengers re-arranging the deckchairs as that disaster approached is a good metaphor for our beloved church. Let us not look back in 40 years’ time and coin a new phrase, ‘re-arranging the pews in the nave.’

50 Shades of Day


NottinghamI went on a creative outing last week with Street Wisdom in Nottingham. For the uninitiated, their enticing strapline is ‘Learning Takes to the Streets’ and the general idea is that ‘the environment and people around us are full of wisdom we largely overlook or ignore.’ We were briefed to take a question or problem with us that we were looking to solve and to use the creativity of the cityscape to review it anew. And so we met, a bit apprehensively from my point of view on Nottingham Town Hall steps, having already approached a couple of strangers to ask if they were Street Wisdom and getting some quizzical looks. I eventually found the group. Preliminaries out of the way, the session started with four quick exercises undertaken alone a 10 minute stroll in each case to 1) Go to what draws you; 2) Slow…right…down; 3) Look for patterns; 4) Look for beauty. This gave us the eyes to see and the ears to listen and honed our observational skills for the rest of the afternoon.
 Duly primed, we then went off on our Quest. This consisted of totally free-flow time of an hour, equipped only with a map tucked under our arm of where we were to congregate for our debriefing session, and with our problem to be solved tucked neatly in our mind. We could share our problem with the rest of the Wisdom seekers or keep it to ourselves but were encouraged to talk with people along the way and observe our environment.
 My Quest took me through a student part of the city where I found many new and exciting shops, purveying all sorts of goods and services and ending up in a cracking music shop where I spent a lively time discussing the merits of buying a new drum kit that I’d had my eyes on for some months, and had been prevaricating on the wisdom of so doing. .
 We met up in a pub for the wash up session, which spoke loudly to me. We had all had very different experiences in our discoveries and our adventures. And that’s where the 50 Shades of Day come in. We all found different shadings in the afternoon’s activity and took very different thoughts away from the day.  One of my observations was the detachedness of people in cities. Many were ensconced in their headsets with music or glued to their phones, texting and talking and very much missing that life was actually all around them. The flip side of that was sitting watching a terrier patiently observe its owner as he devoured a tub of ice cream. I had to sit and wait to watch the outcome. In the end, he got to lick the tub out. I was quite relieved as I was going to buy him a cornet if he hadn’t got his just desserts. It was a nice counterpoint, a glimpse of trust and sharing, mutuality and relationship in the frenzy of city life.
So what was Street Wisdom all about for me? You can call this what you like, but it certainly is a creative process, call it mindfulness, prayer, intuition, contemplation – depending what baseline you come from. It is a well-documented process, stepping out of your box to improve your creativity.  Einstein was a big believer in intuition and creativity and found music a great influence in his problem solving. And we all know the story of Archimedes nearly slipping up on the bar of soap as he leapt up in the bath with a flash of insight. Many artists and writers get their insightful breakthroughs on a walk in the great outdoors. Having done a lot of retreats of various lengths in my time, some in silence, it felt a bit like a mini-retreat to me, but with the added advantage of a top flight drum store on tap. And the whole session was free.
 So did I solve my problem? I got a lot of new thoughts and ideas on it and am developing some of them now. And the bonus ball was that I now also know I’m going to get that new drum kit, which one I’m going to get and the store where I’m going to buy it.


Newcomers to Church

I’m never surprised that some churches are not adding to their numbers. My beef is that we fail to tap into people’s real needs, to understand why they have bothered to turn up at our door, or to try to understand their spiritual search.
The cynical side of me sees the strangeness new arrivals can encounter in a typical church service. On arrival, we stuff a hymn book, a service book and a pew slip in their hands, plus a few loose sheets of paper about forthcoming events and volunteers needed for the rotas. The whole experience is now is starting to feel a bit like a trip to the library. They find some empty seats, only to be harrumphed at by a Mrs. Smithers who says she always sits there. And they have to move. Then the leaders appear in their robes and throw an unknown liturgy at them. Everyone seems to know when to stand and when to sit and when to utter the responses.
There is some relief for the newcomer when the end of the service and refreshments arrive. And then they stand around looking lost and feeling panicked whilst we gather round with our peer-group friends to catch up on last week’s gossip. But we do provide a tepid cup of instant coffee. And our expectation is for an instant Road to Emmaus experience for them. That’s not what the instant in instant coffee stands for. Their expectations have not been met at all.
Let’s all have a bit more empathy for the strangeness, the confusion and frustration that many newcomers feel when coming into contact with ‘organised religion.’ God is much bigger than the ceremony and we need to offer lots of other ways for them to meet God and to have their spiritual needs attended to, both during and after the service. Let’s face it, they didn’t come along for the free coffee and to admire our fine collection of ecclesiastical books and attire, they came looking for God. So we need to do a lot more creative thinking about reaching people’s spiritual sides and their immediate needs. Then we won’t be so surprised when they don’t come back next week.