Welcome to …

…the home of the under-gardener

That is not something I ever thought I would say.  Then again, I never thought I would find myself talking on BBC radio all about gardening either.  These past few years have seen the garden become a place of solace, inspiration and hope for me in so many ways. If you would like to know more, please click on the image below.

Tales from an Under-gardener

God’s autograph?

A reflection on ‘God speaks’ by Ruth O’ Reilly-Smith

Many years ago, when I was at Primary school in fact, we had a hobbies’ exhibition. A friend of mine had a collection of autographs, and I was rather envious. He had them from pop-stars and statesmen and everything in between.  Some were accompanied by the letters from those for whose autographs he had asked.  I especially remember one from Leonid Brezhnev, with a swirling hand.

It was many years later that I discovered another meaning for the word  ‘autograph’.  An autograph could be that very rare thing – a piece of writing or a musical score handwritten by the one who made it.  They often command the highest price.

Despite its elegant cover, tasteful illustrations and clear print – Ruth’s book feels very much like an autograph. It feels like the kind of thing written down, by hand, in a much-loved journal whose place is as assured in the day as a first cup of coffee or the last rays of the sun.  This is a labour of love, and the book is merely the record of it.

Each beautifully crafted page is an invitation in what feels like God’s own hand, to the reader.  These are tender words of encouragement and challenge.  Here is strength for the journey and rest for the traveller. I had to pause and think about that description – because surely God’s words are already written down?  Then again – what do I do every week as a preacher, if it is not to take those words already written and weave them together into a tapestry for the listener?

These words are followed by a scripture verse, illustrated, and then some journalling space to encourage interaction with what has been read. I have a feeling that this book will become a beloved companion for many.

Maybe I should have got mine autographed?


Puzzled but hopeful

A sermon for Easter Day 2021

Preached at Newbury Baptist Church April 4th 2021


The edge of the sky is showing the faintest hint of pinky light against the purple, as if the night is giving up the unequal struggle with the rising sun. Silhouetted in the garden is the figure of a woman – monochrome in the half light. Her head is bowed – whether in prayer or despair it is hard to tell. Around the hem of her dress, the dew has left a ring- like a rising tide to wash her away. There is a tide within too – an old and insidious darkness which she had thought was banished for ever. His voice has been enough to make it disappear – like the sun rising now to rub out the last shreds of night.
What now though? What now that his voice was silent? Would it come again?

Her thoughts are interrupted by an angel, an angel of all things! ‘Why are you crying’ he asks – this other worldly creature of molten light. She barely registers him.
In her voice there is none of the fear or reverence which people reserve for angels. Instead, in the monotone which always lingers on the edge of tears, she asks where he has gone. She knows he is dead, of course – many had seen him die. All the same, to see his lifeless form might have quieted the storm brewing within. It might have been enough, at least to steady her boat, lest the waves overturn it and drag it under again.
She had been there before – and the thought of returning filled her with a thousand terrors.
A man is there now – she did not see him come. He, too, asks her why she is crying. Understanding more than the angels he asks who it is she is looking for. She likes the sound of his voice, it lulls the gathering storm within, at least a little.‘Please tell me where he is’ she blurts out. ‘And I will fetch him’. She doesn’t know how she would do it, and the thought of carrying his lifeless form would fill her with dread -but what else can she say?

Then, the rising storm within, and the ground wobbling beneath her feet all stop – with just one word. ‘Mary’.Not ‘woman’ or ‘that woman’ or ‘the mad one’ or ‘her’ –
but Mary. In that instant she knew it was him – like a lost fledgling knows its mother’s voice or a salmon knows its way home. This was the voice which had changed everything, and she leant towards him, as she had been doing since the day he first said her name.

People who come to faith – no matter how long it has taken them or how far they have come, will talk about the sensation of coming home.  Theirs is that moment of recognition, felt by Mary here, that this is exactly the person they were looking for.
Of course, ironically – he was looking for her too. The risen Jesus- with disciples to wake up and a global mission to launch and an ascension to come – was nonetheless in the garden, looking for her. In truth, when we find him it is only because he has found us. He comes to her, walking in the garden – as his father had done so long long ago in another garden far away.
It seems like a very quiet way to start a revolution really, doesn’t it? The two disciples, Peter and John, have run off -as if the empty tomb were proof enough. Mary, though, stays and ponders as if she can’t quite take it in. To her, in her quietness and her puzzlement – Jesus comes.

Puzzlement is a pervading state of mind right now, I suspect. True, it does jostle for position with fatigue and sorrow – but puzzlement is definitely there. Why is this thing still here? Why has the world been brought to its knees by a virus too small to see?
Why have so many had to endure the loss of a husband, a wife, a daughter, a son or a friend?  Why must Easter be so muted again?  There are answers to very few of these questions.

Instead, we stand like Mary by the tomb – on the very doorstep of God’s greatest act, but hanging our heads in puzzlement and waiting for him to speak. Maybe, like her, we don’t really take in the angels – their brightness eclipsed by our own shadows. Like her, we need hear his voice. The sound of it will change everything – banishing the shadows, ushering in the light, calming the storm within, and making everything seem possible – as it should on Easter Day.
I’ve been reading book recently. Its quite an old book – but it stands the test of time. In it a son, who is a professor of theology, and his father, who is an agnostic, exchange letters about the existence and character of God. They range over subjects as diverse as judgement, personality, history and suffering. Given the heavyweight nature of the material – it is a surprisingly tender book. The problem for me is that it is so desperately dry. It is like trying to eat a meal of cream crackers with not the slightest sip of water permitted. The arguments are cogent and reasonable and very very clever – but they leave me entirely unmoved. I think, like Mary – I just need to hear God speak in a voice which piques my attention.

As the years go by – I become more and more convinced that God is not done with incarnation just yet. We see Him at his most intense when he wears human clothes.
I see him in the lives of those who receive neglect but dish out compassion.
I hear him in the voices of those who endure despair but sing the songs of hope.
I sense him when he walks among us in small but glorious ways. Many of those ways have been refracted with greater brightness and intensity in this tough, tough year.
I see and hear those things and I can say with confidence, like Mary, ‘I have seen the Lord’.


Saltburn 031



The Christmas Stone

A new story for Christmas

There is a tree on Greenham Common which has inspired me in many of the hardest moments in recent years.  At some point it has been all but blown flat by a storm.  However,. It keeps on growing and flourishing despite the odds.  I call it ‘The Courage Tree’, and the stone on which this story is based was found tangled in its upturned roots.


Many many hundreds, or probably thousands, of years ago, a big piece of rock was formed from lots of tiny bits of things left behind. As the years went by, the big piece got broken up into smaller pieces, and one of them found itself in a field of wheat.  Nobody knew the stone was there when the wheat was sown.  Nobody knew it was there when the bright green stalks pushed up through the earth.  Nobody knew it was there when the green stalks ripened and turned to gold, like the sun.  Nobody knew it was there when the stalks were cut and tossed on a heap to dry.  Nobody knew it was there when the heap was taken from the back of a cart and spread on a stable floor, but that is where our story began.

The stable was not a big place.  Its walls were rough and bore the scars of many a hoof and the sheen of many a woolly coat.  There was room for one or two animals, a manger, and not much else.Tonight was different though.  Tonight, it was busy and full.  Tonight, the animals were quiet, and the humans were noisy.  The little human was especially noisy.  The man and woman had come into the stable for shelter earlier that night, looking so very tired.  And now the little human was there – a baby boy all tiny and new.  His mum wrapped him in some cloths, and his dad looked around for somewhere to lay him.

He spotted the old manger, propped up against the wall, and thought it would do just fine.  He was not to know that it had one wonky leg.  Pushed up against the wall, it was sturdy, and everyone could feed from it.  Out in the middle of the tiny stable, though, it wobbled and wobbled every time the little baby moved.  His mum was worried, in case he should fall out – and that would never do! Looking around, the man spotted our stone lying in the straw.  He picked it up, weighed it in his hand, polished it against his clothes, and slid it under the wobbly leg.  It was a perfect fit!  The manger wobbled no more and the baby boy slept peacefully with a smile on his little scrunched up face as special visitors came and went.  The baby’s name was Jesus, and one day he would be like a rock to many people the whole world over.  For tonight, though – the little rock helped him out.

After that, the day would come when the young couple with their baby would leave, the manger would be pushed back up against the wall, and the straw would be swept up and thrown out.  I suppose our little stone went with it.  Wherever it landed next, one day it would find itself rattling here and there in the hold of a sailing ship.  After that a cart, a pocket, a hole in that pocket, and a long, long sleep in the soft earth of an English common.

Now, it is here in my hand as I write this story for you…


You can also watch a video of the story here.



Virtual immanence

Understanding the presence of God in virtual worship

When I first started studying theology, I was very confused by the word ‘immanent’.  Whenever it was spoken in a lecture, I heard it as ‘imminent’ and could not understand the description of God as someone who was about to show up any minute.  Surely, he was already here?  Of course it was not the word imminent but immanent which was being used – and its point was precisely that God is already here. It is a truth which we shall affirm again and again over Christmas, however we might celebrate it.

That said, it is not a Christmas truth, but a permanent one. Part of the hidden framework upon which Christian worship is built is the affirmation that God is present.  In some traditions that presence is symbolised in sign or sacrament, whilst in others it is somehow sensed in the act of collective worship.

Right now, the sense of anything which we do collectively is changing. Meetings online are so commonplace that we highlight them only if they are a rare ‘in person‘ encounter. Informal chats and formal business meetings now take place online as a matter of course.  Within the past few weeks, the Charity Commission has said that not only can annual general meetings take place by video conference, but that votes registered at such a meeting are valid. The line between online and off is gossamer-thin.

What does this imply for acts of online worship, though? We may be learning to sing and pray together online. We may have found ways to share communion online. We may have settled into the habit of preaching and listening online.  In what sense, though, do we say that ‘God was there’?  What makes us come away from an online act of worship as we may have occasionally done from a service of worship in church and say ‘God was here today’?  I would love to hear from you in the comments box as to how you are answering that particular question just now.

Somebody wrote to me recently that the phrase ‘you’re on mute‘ was the catchphrase of 2020. I hope it doesn’t apply to the one who really has to show up when we worship!




A perfect book for Jolabokaflod

A review of Nancy Campbell’s Fifty Words for snow

In case you don’t know what Jolabokaflod is, let me tell you.  It is a tradition which started in Iceland during the Second World War. At the time, paper was one of the few things which was not rationed – and so people would buy each other books. Jolabokaflod , which means ‘Christmas book flood’  referred to the tradition of curling up under a blanket with your new book and a hot drink on Christmas Eve.  I cannot imagine a better book with which to do it than Nancy Campbell’s Fifty Words For Snow.

Anyone who is imagining a dry lexicographical treatise will be wonderfully surprised. The introduction of each chapter with a different snowflake set on a midnight blue background is a foretaste of the intricate beauty of Campbell’s writing. Whilst the fifty words, or phrases for snow are fascinating (who knew, for instance, that there was a Swahili word for snow?) their true beauty is their function as trap doors. Through each door Nancy takes us into another place and culture for the duration of a short and very readable chapter. With Nancy’s help, you will travel from Finland to Hawaii and Thailand to New Zealand without ever leaving the comfort of your duvet.  I mention the duvet because I found this book, with its accessible chapters, to be the perfect bedside companion. It is hard to imagine a better book for Winter.

It is clear to see that the book is meticulously researched and written as a labour of love. That said, there is nothing dry about it. It has the sparkle of new snow and the stimulating zing of a frosty morning about it. There is no doubting Nancy’s scholarship, but no doubting her poetic skills either.

Out of all the descriptions of snow, my favourite might just be the sun-cups, which can be ‘as tiny as a watch face or larger than the dial of a Grandfather clock’.  What they are, and where to find them, is something you will have to discover in the pages of this wonderful book.


Introducing …The Negativity

A nativity scene for our times?

It will be no secret to many that I am a fan of nativity scenes. Earlier this year my book, ’37 kings and a budgerigar’ was published, featuring 25 of the sets in my collection. I have enough for at least another two books – so be warned!


I am always on the lookout for something new to add to the collection, the more quirky or thought-provoking the better. This year, my son may have just found it for me.

The Negativity was the brainchild of artist and musician David Nedrow. Talking with his sister and niece back in 2012, the subject came up of a family friend’s negative attitude to Christmas, and they joked that he should display a ‘negativity scene’ at home. That year, a hand-made version was given as a gift to the artist’s niece and a tradition was born. The set is now available to buy, with each figure hand-painted.  As you can see,they are a glum lot. [Click on each image for full-size picture]

Negativity 1

Mary is very unimpressed with things:


And even Jesus seems less than happy:

negativity 4

However, I have to confess that it was the cross sheep who won my heart:

negativity 2

I have no doubt that some will love this and others will hate it.  Some will see it as disrespectful and others will enjoy it. My question here is whether it is more or less appropriate as we approach Advent in this troubled year? I tend to agree with the artist himself who says:

When things look the darkest…it’s time to lighten up.

Do you agree?

Images of church (II)

More than meets the eye

Last week I posted some initial thoughts on here regarding different historic images of church, and how they relate to the way we see it now.  Since then, my conversations have led me to believe that it might be helpful to develop each of them a little further.


Ekkelsia/ synagogue

Like the logo itself, the strength of this image lies in its sense of gathering. Here are people called out of their immediate community and into a gathering for the worship of God. With it, the calling brings a sense of security and aspiration: ‘God wants us here’. Gathered under such a banner, the church has withstood much violence and oppression down through the centuries. The sense of belonging has also been a motivator for what we might crudely term ‘recruitment’.  Since belonging is a good thing, and brings benefits both temporal and eternal, we want others to share it. It was the gathered church in Antioch, for instance, which felt overwhelmingly convicted to send out its brightest and best that others might be called. (Acts 13 v.2)  The negative side of this image is that it reinforces a divide between ‘us’ (those safely on the inside) and ‘them” (those exposed on the outside). It is a short step from the thoughts of such division to the language of exclusivity, which compounds the problem.



Tabernacle/ fortress

There is no doubting that the tabernacle was a powerful physical statement. These people travelled with God, and neither they nor he were to be messed with. You have only to stand beneath the shadow of a soaring cathedral spire, or even a fairly modest church building, to see a similar statement. The people who erected this building were prepared to put money, time , labour, and not a small amount of love into this physical demonstration of their loyalty to God. Standing, as they still do in many a town, city, and village – their witness lingers on. However, like anything with walls they can keep people out as well as holding them in. The reassurance we derive from the fact that our church stands, may detract from the obligation which we have to stand as well. In these Covid-times, when we can enter buildings only under strict limitations, and use them only in limited ways this particular image sits awkwardly with our current experience..




For many of us, this is the least familiar image. The monastery, high up the mountain with its view of God above and the world below is alien to us.  That said, many have found that their home has become their ‘cell’ in the most positive sense.  From it, they have looked out on a world wracked by impotency in the face of the pandemic, and prayed for it as never before. The world has listened, for instance, to the UK Blessing in unbelievable numbers, as they might once have done to the voice of the monks who pray for them whatever their own personal beliefs. Maybe we have learnt to take on some sort of responsibility for a world in need during this season, as we have not done before?



In my discussions of the initial post, it is this image which has brought about the most conversations.  This is partly because the term, and the concept are unfamiliar. To many, it feels like a description of the way things are. Here we are, all pursuing our Christian calling in our own way, and yet belonging to something greater. We log into video calls or prayer meetings or even communion on an occasional basis.  In the meantime, we all try to live by the calling and covenant which binds us.  However, to say that this is a description of how things are is not to say that it is a description of how people would like them to be. Not only that, but if this were to work, then our sense of ourselves as a covenanted community would have to be a lot stronger than it is now.

The church is, in Calvin’s words semper reformanda, or forever changing.  How do these images cause you to reflect on current changes within it, I wonder?




In pursuit of church

Four images of church

Church is not what it was. Then again, life is not what it was either.  There are flickering glimpses of church right now which flash past like the images on a zoetrope, but somehow the movement fails to animate them.

Here is a steward welcoming you at the door, welcome restricted to the eyes since a smile cannot be seen beneath the mask and a handshake cannot be given.

Here is a moving tapestry of faces on a Zoom screen, each one a window into another’s home and life. If we try to sing together, the inevitable lag means that we cannot hold a shared tune in time.

Here is a home communion : bread and juice, set out within reach of my hand and just out of camera shot.

Here is a pulpit with wires and leads and a camera and audio recorder, but a congregation nowhere to be seen.

Here is somebody sitting before that pulpit on a kitchen stool, and another in a hotel room far from home.

Reflecting on all these, different historic images of church have come to mind:

Here is the church as ‘Ekklesia’ – people in small numbers (at least to start with) called out from the world to gather together, Here they pledge their loyalty to Jesus and seek to understand what it means. Like the Jewish synagogues of the first Century and beyond, even a small gathering was enough to constitute a congregation. This is the original understanding of the ‘gathered’ church.


Here is the church as ‘Tabernacle’ or even ‘fortress’.  This is a physical statement of the presence of God, serving as a witness to those without and a fortress to those within. Some, far more permanent than the travelling tabernacle, mark the skyline of towns and cities still. The church seen this way is a solid and tangible statement of faith and belief.


Here is the church as ‘monastery’ – eschewing the physical presence of the former in the thick of things, and going further up the mountain for a better view. This is a calling to be apart from the world…for the sake of the world.


Here is the church as ‘skete’ – a concept begun in the Coptic church and later adopted by Celtic and even new monastic communities. Here the participants farm or fish or pursue their daily calling, but abide by a rule of life, sharing the same values, worshipping as a rhythm of daily life and only occasionally coming together. They are still participants in a community of faith and witness, bound to its rhythm and values, but they pursue it in their individual callings.


All have strengths, and all have different appeals, but I cannot help wondering whether the ‘skete’ has unexplored potential for our current circumstances. We live, work and play behind our own front doors, yet nurse a yearning for connection. We want to be identified with this great cause, part of this great kingdom – but cannot stream through the doors of a physical church to declare it as we once did.

Just how tied are we to the need for a physical building, I wonder? Would our discipline hold firm enough to adhere to a rule of life where only God and we were watching?

These are only initial thoughts, and this is an invitation to conversation, but I would love to know what others think.




A book of delights

Thea Muir’s journalling Bible

I have been reading the Bible regularly since I first received a Gideon New Testament at the age of 12 in Secondary school.  That little book started a revolution in my life which would lead eventually to finding a Christian faith for myself. One thing led to another, I was ordained as a Baptist Minister in 1992, and I am never without a Bible. In fact, a Bible is so much part of my working toolkit, that I have to replace them every few years when they fall apart from use. I read it, meditate on it, preach from it, and write books inspired by it.

All this being so, you might think that the addition of another Bible would leave me cold.  After all, what can possibly be new?  However, in Thea Muir’s case, that is not true.  Her warm and charming illustrations, drawn out of a place of real hurt and self-understanding, are a precious addition to this version.  Who could fail to love  a phrase such as ‘I am outrageously loved’ for instance? As a person who both writes and reads a lot of books, I am ashamed to admit that I usually skip over the front matter.  However, the very first phrase inside the front cover of this remarkable Bible really gave me pause:

The things that we believe are like seeds that we plant in our hearts. Our hearts are like fertile soil that grow whatever is planted in them.

The words, like the illustrations which accompany them, are simple, profound and simply profound. I have a feeling I shall look at them again and again.  Not only that, but there are also suggestions on activities which might help any reader to feel more certain of the love of God which Thea feels so deeply.

In addition to these activities, there are also wide margins which encourage the reader to add their own illustrations or jottings. In this way, the Bible becomes entirely personal. For those who feel that the Bible needs no enhancement, either from an illustrator or a reader, I would point out the falling levels of Biblical literacy in the UK. We urgently need to fall in love with the Bible again, and Thea might just help us to do it.