Dead Kennedys or the death of integrity?


So Charles Kennedy, leader of the Liberal Democrats (Britain’s third-ranked political party), has resigned … officially because his colleagues can no longer work with him.
The decision came after Kennedy’s admission at a news conference that he has a drink problem. He wanted to continue but, one by one, his Parliamentary colleagues turned their back on him.
Suddenly he became “dead man walking” and his fitness to lead was questioned by people who, so they said, had been nursing doubts for some time.
Funny how it comes out the moment a man has the guts to admit to a problem.
Politicians and the media collude in the myth that people in positions of authority should have no weaknesses; that they are somehow not really human. I say that as someone who has been a journalist since the age of 17 and made editorial decisions that exposed political wrongdoing.
So what did Charles Kennedy do wrong? It seems that, having attempted to keep a personal failing private, he told the world.

Not one Liberal Democrat MP has come out and promised to stand by the man – or at least if they have it hasn’t been reported widely.
Is it the nature of politics that the least sign of weakness is to be treated with such savagery?
I fear the Liberal Democrats – and I am not a party member – have damaged themselves irreparably. Sadly it would serve them right.

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Resolving

I hate resolutions. I hate the idea of the New Year being a new start … and yet every year I find myself thinking about how things can be different. This is, of course, strongly encouraged by the Methodist practice of holding our Covenant service at the start of the calendar year. So what am I resolving to do with 2006? Do I stubbornly refuse or do I see this as an opportunity to go somewhere new with God? My churches have asked me to stay on two years after the end of my initial 5-year appointment so I have 32 months more in North Cornwall. What am I going to do with it?

  • Am I going to try to leave a calm, ordered circuit for my successor?
  • Am I going to have a tidy study?
  • Am I going to get all my admin done on time?
  • Am I going to visit everybody on the pastoral list?
  • Am I going to try to ensure no one is falling out with anyone else by the time I leave?

Or could I risk:

  • Going with God’s vision for this area?
  • Moving ahead, even when people withdraw themselves or their money (should that be, especially when …)?
  • Developing the untidy and confusing Cafe Church experiment?
  • Writing more hymns?
  • Trying to excite more people with the mystery and uncertainty of faith?

The second lot is nowhere near as popular and, for some people, not what proper ministers ought to be doing with their time, but it’s infinitely more satisfying … and, I would suggest, more real.

Christmas album review

I have fairly recently started doing review of albums for BBC Radio Cornwall’s Sunday morning show and Naomi Rowe, the presenter, asked me to do a Christmas Day reflection. This is what I said … can’t add in the tracks I am afraid.

So this is Christmas and what have you got? Another year over and another season of carols, mince pies and Christmas cards and another year of working out how to tell the story of God becoming flesh in Jesus …

Almost everyone, regardless of who they are, remembers snatches of carols and you couldn’t go shopping without being accompanied by all the pop songs we know and love … and some we don’t.

Well, I am a child of the 70s and I do love most of them. I enjoy shopping to the strains of Jona Lewie, Mud, Paul McCartney and, of course, Slade.

But what about music that carries the real Christmas story?

One teenage memory – I remember in the 1970s listening to Steeleye Span on Top of the Pops singing Gaudete and realising that it was OK to let the Christian story, even in Latin, be a part of a teenager’s Christmas.

The truth is, of course, that the Church is almost trapped. Those people who only worship with us at Christmas expect carols and so we repeat the same dozen or so every year because we like them too. But then where can the new hymns and songs be heard?

As a hymnwriter I’ve found one solution in writing new words that fit well-known tunes so that the tinsel and tradition can be challenged by new thoughts and ideas.

But there are contemporary writers who take this age-old story and weave in new ideas. Graham Kendrick’s stunning CD Rumours of Angels tells the story of Mary and Joseph hearing God and trusting their lives to him.

Just last weekend I used a PowerPoint presentation with one track – Thorns in the Straw – which develops the Bible line about Mary pondering all the events. On the song we ask if Mary saw, in the straw by Jesus’ head, a thorn, symbolising the pain and the Crown that was to follow.

Kendrick’s song does what many modern-day writers do – ties the Nativity to the Cross – because Christians know you can’t have Bethlehem without Calvary. But, from an unusual source, comes a plea not to rush away from the stable so quickly.

Ricky Ross, lead singer of 80s band Deacon Blue, has captivated me during this year with a quite stunning album Pale Rider. It is shot through with Christian reflection and is without doubt my album of the year.

One track, Calvary, is about the birth of Jesus but tells us we need to stop seeing the manger as a quick stop on the way to the cross. It’s a song about getting ready for Christmas but then taking time to let the enormity of this event sink in.

Our Bible readings tell us that this is where Jesus, the living Word of God, became a human being. Ricky Ross sings:

the baby comes, folks don’t sleep
those shepherds keep you up later than you meant to be
one child grows and people notice
he’s breaking chains
and making poor folks’ lives so heavenly
(the way it’s meant to be)

Then the chorus comes in, ending with the line: I’m not even trying to get as far as Calvary.

Well, I’m with Ricky here. Don’t tear yourself away from the stable too soon. Kneel there appreciate the gift and don’t try to get to Calvary … at least, not just yet. Merry Christmas.

How far do you go?

Any votes for your album of the year? I’m torn because ther have been some good ones and a few great – one of which is “Pale Rider” by Ricky Ross (he of Deacon Blue).
I thought the 80s were the worst decade for rock/pop music and I took a 10-year sabbatical but some people have matured into songwriters you need to listen to.
Ricky Ross brought out Pale Rider earlier this year and it is shot through with lyrics that bring you up short. It’s possible to hear God in so much of this album and, as we get perilously close to Christmas, these lyrics are a great reminder of something really important … don’t let the Incarnation get swept away so that all we see is the cross.

Easter will come, has come, is still coming … but Christmas is still where God became human.
Spend time with this song. As Ricky says: “
i’m not even trying to get as far as calvary” … not yet. Take time to stop at the manger, to see the Lord appear to men.


calvary

it’s late in the year
and the leaves are fallen down and swept clear
and tonight i’m going to have start thinking hard
about christmas
how i don’t care
whether what we have happened here or there
or something wild and wonderful came out into
the sky just to please us

night fall’s still a broken step
this old mule’s legs
will take you many days from here
tired limbs and ruddy cheeks
will bandage up your aching hands and feet

i don’t need to know what everyone sees
different roads can take you where other paths lead

i’m not even trying to get as far as calvary

as the sun goes down
and the lights go up in hilltop towns
and the boys and girls are gathered in and asked
to make a wish come true
and i’m driving round
some bleak mid-winter tinseltown
i see you sleeping at the bus stop with nothing
but a blanket between the moon and you

the baby comes, folks don’t sleep
those shepherds keep
you up later than you meant to be
one child grows and people notice
he’s breaking chains
and making poor folks’ lives so heavenly
(the way it’s meant to be)

i don’t need to know what everyone sees
different roads can take you where other paths lead
i’m not even trying to get as far as calvary

George Best


I know George Best was an alcoholic and weak. I know he wasted so much of his talent. I know he was not anything like the ideal role model … but he was my footballing hero.
Quite simply, he was the best player I have ever seen, so today has been a sad day. His death was inevitable and I suppose we have to accept he brought it on himself but that somehow adds to the poignancy. He was a footballing genius.
There have been lots of clips shown of George scoring spectacular goals but my abiding memory is not of a goal but of a particular match. I don’t know who Man Utd were playing or what the score was but it was on a snow-covered pitch and everyone but George was falling over. I’m sure that David Coleman was commentating because in my head I can hear his voice marvelling at how this one man could remain on his feet and still show all that fabulous skill in taking on player after player. It was like watching a prima ballerina teaching a group of six-year-olds what was possible if you only dare dream and then work to fulfil it.
Best was one of the highlights of my schooldays: I never wanted to be anyone else when we played football … except maybe Bobby Charlton …

Shrek revisited

Well, I had a great day looking at the Shrek film with a bunch of preachers and worship leaders.
We talked about our own
ogres in the forest – the things that frighten us away from communicating our faith.
We tackled the question “is our king too small?” – do we somehow limit what God can do by not being prepared to risk letting the richness of the Gospel get into the public arena?
I shared a parable by a friend of mine Gerard Kelly who uses the image of a teapot which starts out as something in daily use but eventually becomes so precious that it’s never taken off the shelf and no one is allowed to handle it in case it gets broken. We discussed what bits of our church worship we should risk breaking … and we imagined the possibilities if we dared to take more risks.
It was a really positive day and about 40 of us dared to dream some dreams of how the Church could be.

Gospel according to Shrek


I’ve spent some time this week reflecting on a children’s film … and trying to spot some Christian themes. Shrek is such a rich film for exploring faith. I’m leading a preachers’ workshop next Saturday and plan to use it as the framework for the day, asking questions such as:

  • When it comes to worship, who is the ogre in the forest? What are we frightened of?
  • Is your king too small? Do we reduce God – and the possibilities of him being able to change us – to our level? Are we only willing to let God do what we are comfortable with?
  • Beautiful or what? How do I see myself in the light of God’s love?

We live in an age when traditional worship is failing. It fails to inspire people to action and it fails to communicate the full magnificence of God. I fear we have made our God too small.

Catching a wave for surfers


Any surfers out there? Ever fancy the opportunity to catch a wave and then chill out in a cosy coffee bar which gives the rest of life as much energy as the stuff on the waves?
Want to prove that surfers are not just beach bums but real people with hopes and dreams just like anyone else?
Check out http://www.tubestation.org where we set out the beginnings of what we hope will be a brand new style of Christian mission.
We want to set up an outreach project in the Cornish holiday village of Polzeath which recognises surfing as a sport that attracts thinkers. As the months go on the site will grow, but so will the project.
By next Easter it’s hoped to have a full-time surf-mad Christian to bridge the gap between Church and surf.
Want to support us? Know someone who could put their weight behind such an idea?
Check out the site and then spread the Word.

Prayer works?

Here’s a poser – bit of a riddle maybe. How many people need to pray before God can act?
Possible answers:
a) None. God can act as and when he chooses.
b) One. God hears and answers all prayers.
c) Loads. The more people pray the more urgent the request sounds to God.
It’s my theological puzzler for the day. Thanks Neil.

De-composing

Well, the songwriting workshop went well … one of the organisers tells me there were positive comments after it so I must have said something worth listening to. I must say I spent hours thinking about lyrics that move me and why that should be. I highlighted a few writers who really helped me to understand the power of good songwriting.
One of them was Bono. U2 is a band that I can’t say I was totally sold on for a long time, and that’s partly because I took a timeout from pop/rock in the 1980s … just about the worst decade in my opinion. Anyway, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb is a wonderful album and the song Crumbs from Your Table brought tears to my eyes.
I guess you can wonder about the target of a songwriter’s lyrics but I am sure that America is in Bono’s sights in this stanza:


You were pretty as a picture
It was all there to see
Then your face caught up with your psychology
With a mouth full of teeth
You ate all your friends
And you broke every heart
Thinking every heart mends

What a great image: this pretty face with a mouth full of death-dealing teeth.
I said in my previous blog that Paul Simon is a genius with words. How about this as an image of rich meets poor:

She’s a rich girl
She don’t try to hide it
Diamonds on the soles of her shoes

He’s a poor boy
Empty as a pocket
Empty as a pocket with nothing to lose

“Empty as a pocket” – great line.
But for me, if you want someone who creates pictures with words you turn to Martyn Joseph. He uses rhymes in a way that are unusual, working with unexpected combinations of words and giving every impression of taking time to craft a song worth presenting in public.

The light or the shade, concealed or displayed
Enemies, friends, opposite ends
Bitter or sweet, ruffled or neat
Feathers or lead, silent or said
Generous or mean, corporate or green
Vagrant or lord, the dove or the sword
Distinct or obscure, prosperous or poor
Devil or saint, we are and we ain’t

Intricate mysteries
Life’s secret code
Cul-de-sac signposts
On yellow brick roads
Ambiguous answers
The question’s still “Why”
Thunder and rainbows
From the same sky

Champagne or dust, banquet or crust
Authentic or fake, angel or snake

Flower or thorn, pristine or torn
Desert or sea, the throne and the tree


I love his way of reminding us that we have to keep asking the questions and not expecting simple rose-coloured answers. “Ambiguous answers, the question’s still ‘why’.” Of course it is.
The only slightly embarrassing moment was during the “open mic” session at the end of the afternoon when I had to sing one of my songs … but had virtually no voice because of a cold. The fact that I was following a teenager who grunted (a la pig!)
God Save Our Gracious Queen at least meant I had everything in my favour!
Anyway, keep asking the ambiguous questions … and expecting ambiguous answers.

… and I'm looking for the key