Author Archives: revnev

so loved…

John 3:16 (ESV)

For God so loved the world, 
that he gave his only Son, 
that whoever believes in him should not perish 
but have eternal life.

If you give most Christians the first clause of that verse, they will complete it for you.  Many non-Christians would also be able to recite it.  Here’s a little exercise for the day…

God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

Henry so loved his hamster that he spent nearly all of his pocket money on treats and food for him and got up early to feed him and clean his cage.

Sandra so loved her Harley that she spend every weekend cleaning it and polishing the chrome – and showing it off to the world at bike shows.

Roger so loved his collection of designer-label shoes that he kept them all polished and dusted and ordered by the colour-spectrum in a special locked wardrobe.

Nicola and Simon so loved Formula One racing that they spent all their spare cash and holiday time travelling the world to watch the grand Prix season.

Dave and Peter so loved their adopted son that they sacrificed everything to help him realise his dream to become a world-famous snowboarder.

(Insert your own name)  so loved God that s/he  (complete the sentence.)

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Whence the power?


Acts 4:32-37 (CEV)
Sharing Possessions

The group of followers all felt the same way about everything. None of them claimed that their possessions were their own, and they shared everything they had with each other. In a powerful way the apostles told everyone that the Lord Jesus was now alive. God greatly blessed his followers, and no one went in need of anything. Everyone who owned land or houses would sell them and bring the money to the apostles. Then they would give the money to anyone who needed it.

Joseph was one of the followers who had sold a piece of property and brought the money to the apostles. He was a Levite from Cyprus, and the apostles called him Barnabas, which means “one who encourages others.”
 

Note the flow of this passage. We are told how the group of followers shared with one another everything they had – THEN we are told that they shared the Gospel in a powerful way.

Many commentators reflect on the communitarian features of the early church – and then talk about their preaching being powered by some special filling of the Holy Spirit – as if the two things were separate.

I wonder if that is the best way to understand this.

Could it not be that the action of the Holy Spirit leads them to a sharing and giving lifestyle – and that it is that lifestyle that gives their Gospel-sharing words power?

This rings true to our own experience, doesn’t it? My words only really have power if the listener perceives that they are LIVED words – or to use older language – that I practice what I preach.

So what is God trying to say to me this morning? I think it might be this:

Hey – Phil – If you are not living a Christlike life, all of your words sound hollow and there is no extra power I can give you to make them less so. Get on with the task of living a Christlike life, though, and your words will be infused with all the power I can offer you.

(or summat like that!)


Christmas is back!

Luke 1:26-38 (CEV)

An Angel Tells about the Birth of Jesus

One month later God sent the angel Gabriel to the town of Nazareth in Galilee with a message for a virgin named Mary. She was engaged to Joseph from the family of King David. The angel greeted Mary and said, “You are truly blessed! The Lord is with you.”

Mary was confused by the angel’s words and wondered what they meant. Then the angel told Mary, “Don’t be afraid! God is pleased with you, and you will have a son. His name will be Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of God Most High. The Lord God will make him king, as his ancestor David was. He will rule the people of Israel forever, and his kingdom will never end.”

Mary asked the angel, “How can this happen? I am not married!”

The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come down to you, and God’s power will come over you. So your child will be called the holy Son of God. Your relative Elizabeth is also going to have a son, even though she is old. No one thought she could ever have a baby, but in three months she will have a son. Nothing is impossible for God!”

Mary said, “I am the Lord’s servant! Let it happen as you have said.” And the angel left her.

Even if you haven’t yet started planning for Christmas 2018 – the church has!  You can’t suddenly produce a baby in December unless you get busy in March/April!  So the lectionary marks the feast of the Annunciation – when (in the CEV translation) Mary says “Let it happen as you have said.”

Let it happen!

I was reflecting on this during my morning prayer and it occurred to me that quite a lot of what I think my calling is involves me planning stuff and trying to make stuff happen.  Yet – here is Mary saying “Let it happen.”

Mary doesn’t really have to do anything – she doesn’t even have to go out and get pregnant – it’s all done for her – she just has to let it happen – God is the mover here, God is doing the heavy lifting.

This is a real challenge for me!  I could very easily read this as a charter for doing nothing, but I don’t think that’s what God wants me to take away from this (sadly!)  I also like to feel like I am in control – I’m the one with the plan – I’m the one taking steps a, b and c to make x happen.

So maybe a step back.. What DOES God get from Mary?

I think God gets quite a lot.  It is often said that you can’t be a bit pregnant.  Mary commits to being all-in, 100% committed.  She says to God – here I am – I’m all yours – I’m in.  Whatever the consequences of that are – let it happen!

And it seems to me that this is what God has to ask me today.  “Phil, are you all in?”  And the answer God is looking for is, “Yes God, and whatever the consequences of that might be – let it happen!”

Happy Christmas!

Until then – a great opportunity to share this poem again…

An angel came to me
and I was unprepared
to be what God was using.
Mother I was to be.
A moment I despaired,
thought briefly of refusing.
The angel knew I heard.
According to God’s Word
I bowed to this strange choosing.

A palace should have been
the birthplace of a king
(I had no way of knowing).
We went to Bethlehem;
it was so strange a thing.
The wind was cold, and blowing,
my cloak was old, and thin.
They turned us from the inn;
the town was overflowing.

God’s Word, a child so small
who still must learn to speak
lay in humiliation.
Joseph stood, strong and tall.
The beasts were warm and meek
and moved with hesitation.
The Child born in a stall?
I understood it: all.
Kings came in adoration.

Perhaps it was absurd;
a stable set apart,
the sleepy cattle lowing;
and the incarnate Word
resting against my heart.
My joy was overflowing.
The shepherds came, adored
the folly of the Lord,
wiser than all men’s knowing. 

 (Madeleine L’Engle)

Phil’s Top Five Easter Day Tunes

As I did a Top Five for Good Friday – I thought I should also do one for Easter Day lest I be thought of as a predominantly morbid soul!  (I am!)

Truth is – I do prefer mournful music – but that doesn’t mean that I can’t tolerate a bit of joyousness on occasion – and what better day for that than Easter Day?

The “joy” of Easter Day is a deep, lasting, eternal joy – and I suspect this is harder for musicians to capture.

I have included pieces that I find are just infused with irresistible, infectious JOY and are also specifically inspired by the resurrection. (and I may have cheated!)

Here we go!

1. The Oscar Peterson Trio: “He is Risen” (from Peterson’s “Easter Suite”)

Oh Yes! No words needed!

2. Handel: “I know that My Redeemer Liveth” (from the Messiah)

Good old Kiri te Kanawa! She needs no introduction.

3. J.M.C Crum’s “Now the Green Blade Riseth”

Love is come again, like wheat that springeth green.

4. Prince (artist formerly known as!): “The Cross”

Possibly should be on Good Friday but it’s too loud for most contexts! So it’s here, sue me!

We all have our problems
Some big, some are small
Soon all of our problems
Will be taken by the cross.

Still one more to go?? Strewth, this is hard! 🙂

5. (Traditional) “This Morning When I Rose”

Sing it sister!

If this isn’t about Easter Day – then it should be! 🙂

OK – can I get back to my mournful sings now?  🙂

Easter Day Sermon. Noli Me Tangere!

(Noli Me Tangere, Paulo Veronese, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Grenoble.)

John 20:17 (King James Version)

Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: 

but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, 
and your Father; and to my God, and your God. 
 “Noli me tangere” – “touch me not”.  It has been a popular subject for artists, and many early examples show Mary Magdelene stretching out to touch Jesus whilst Jesus performs a very impressive side-stepping swerve manoeuvre with an accompanying “BACK OFF!” hand gesture.
It seems harsh, doesn’t it, for Jesus to behave like this towards Mary Magdalene of all people.  She had seen him cruelly crucified; she thought she had lost the only one who helped her make sense of life; she was in the depths of grief over a man she had loved and lost.  And here he is standing before her, close to the tomb where she thought his cold, dead body lay – and she reaches out to touch him to check that he is real, that this is not a dream or a mirage.  Perhaps her tears are making the world a bit blurry and she cannot entirely trust what she sees; perhaps she worries that her lack of sleep and her stress and anxiety and worry have made her prone to hallucination; perhaps, having lost him for ever, she just wants the reassurance of feeling his warm, human, compassionate, solid presence.  Whatever, it matters not, she instinctively reaches out her hand to touch…
BACK OFF!
DON’T TOUCH!
Maybe it reminds us of our childhood and those dusty old-fashioned museums where every single exhibit, that was not encased in glass and barrier-ed off with rope, had a sign on it that declared “Do not touch!”  Museums are different now!  Kids of today are positively encouraged to touch exhibits and engage with them.
I recently went on a 25th anniversary reunion of the people I trained for the Ministry with.  We went to the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. They have a fabulous geological display of fantastic crystal and rock samples – huge slabs.  One is moon rock.  It is on a plinth – and you are positively encouraged to touch it.  It is fantastic! 
But that is not my memory of childhood – and I suspect it isn’t yours either!
BACK OFF!
DON’T TOUCH!
 It seems at odds to hear Jesus saying this to Mary Magdalene, doesn’t it?
Where there is a mystery, there are people willing to explain it!
The internet is a fabulous place – but not a place for the unwary!  All of the following I have found from the keyboards of preachers and christian apologists from around the world.
  1. Jesus tells Mary not to touch because he is still a bit sore after the crucifixion.
  2. Jesus tells Mary not to touch because he has just risen from the dead and left his grave-clothes folded in the tomb and he is naked.  Any touching would be impure and inappropriate at this point.
  3. Jesus tells Mary not to touch because he now has a resurrection body that is different to an ordinary body and can’t be touched.
BACK OFF!
DON’T TOUCH!
This is not an OUCH! do not touch!

This is not an OOOH THAT’S EMBARASSING! do not touch!

This is not an IT’LL BE A BIT WEIRD! do not touch!
This is Mary!  Not long before this she was kneeling, wiping her tears from his feet with her hair and anointing him with perfume.  Jesus is not afraid of physical intimacy with Mary.  
This is Jesus! The same Jesus who later on INVITES or CHALLENGES Thomas to touch.
So, there must be something else here.  Of course there is!
It may not surprise you to hear that the King James Version is perhaps not the best translation of these words.  Scholars would encourage us to hear this nowadays not like a forbidding command, like DO NOT WALK ON THE GRASS! – “don’t touch!” – but as “Don’t cling onto me.”  It’s not a one off gesture – but an ongoing gesture – don’t keep holding onto me – don’t cling onto me.
Jesus saith unto her, don’t stay here clinging onto me; 
for I am not yet ascended to my Father: 
but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, 
and your Father; and to my God, and your God.
Mary has work to do – Jesus wants her to go and tell the disciples – the first evangelist was a woman, the first witnesses were women.  The men won’t believe her and will have to come and check for themselves – but still that is her task – to go and tell the good news.  In one way it is a bit like the disciples on top of the mount of transfiguration.  “Shall we build shelters and stay up here in your presence longer?”  No, says Jesus – don’t cling to this place, don’t cling to this moment, don’t cling to me here – we need to go back down the mountain to a hungry and thirsty world.
If anything it reminds me of those moments at nursery or the primary school gate at the start of a new intake – toddlers clinging to a parent’s leg, parent desperately trying to persuade them that they need to let go – that there is a world beyond the clinging relationship they have now – parent will still be there – parents will assure toddlers that they will always be there – but don’t cling on – you’re growing up, there is more to discover.
But I think it is more than Jesus telling Mary she has a job to do.
It’s also about Jesus wanting Mary to see that what she has so far experienced of Jesus has only been a tiny taster of what is to come – there is MORE.  Jesus wants her to grow and expand and spread her wings and discover everything she needs to discover. So far she has only experienced the earthly Jesus – and great as that has been, Jesus is telling her that he is going to ASCEND!  The Spirit will be poured out – there is so much more to come.  CLINGING on to this limited experience of Jesus – wanting to stay there – wanting it all to be as it was before – that will stop you really being set free.  And all that is condensed into “Don’t cling onto me now, Mary”
I imagine that Mary and the risen Jesus DID embrace – of course they did!!  This isn’t about not touching.  And she understood, even if the King James Version didn’t!
But all of us CLING ON to a limited experience of Jesus.
We might be clinging on to a Sunday School faith that reassures us but doesn’t really help us deal with the complicated issues and decisions that confront us in our adult lives;
We might be clinging on to an expression of our faith that moulded church life in the 1950s or 60s or 70s, but doesn’t see to resonate in 2018;
We might be clinging on to attitudes that were once seen as embodying christian principles, but now have been shown to be oppressive and damaging to human life;
All of us CLING ON to a limited experience of Jesus.
and Jesus is ALWAYS telling us NOT TO CLING ON!
There is ALWAYS more truth and light for us to discover if we will only do as Jesus commanded Mary – “go to my brethren and tell them!” – or as Jesus told the disciples on the mount of transfiguration “we’re going down the mountain and heading for Jerusalem.”
There is MORE to come!
Analogies are never perfect – so take it as it is – but at this moment, it is almost as if Jesus is telling Mary that what she knows of him is a bit like this party-popper.  What she has seen so far is something new and exciting – full of potential.  Wrapped up in this human life – walking, talking, touching, living, breathing is something explosive that will change the world.  She knows that – she has felt that – and she wants to hang on to that – she wants to keep the party popper.
But Jesus says – there is MORE!  Go and tell the disciples – for in a few days time I am going to pull that string and you have no idea what will be unleashed!  Just wait and see what happens at Pentecost!  What you are clinging onto now is just the beginning.
so – don’t cling to me – GO! – run and tell everyone!
(set off popper)   AMEN!

Phil’s Top Five Good Friday Tunes

Good Friday
Good Friday is a highly emotional day and has inspired some of the most emotive and passionate music you could ever want to hear. I have something of a reputation for making people cry on Good Friday at services of meditation and reflection at the foot of the cross – not by reveling in gory details, but in bringing out the emotion of the characters around Jesus – the hatred, the love, the vilification, the tears, the mocking…

I never apologise for this as our experience of the emotion of Good Friday only serves to heighten our joy on Easter Sunday.

Music can be a big part of this, so here I offer five pieces that you might pause to listen to on this painful day. I have tried not to pick pieces from the same work, and I am sure that if I chose again next week I might pick five different pieces – but these are my choices for today.


1. The opening of Bach’s St John’s Passion.
(The opening track “Herr, Unser Herrscher” – “Lord, our Ruler”)

Lord, our ruler, whose glory
is magnificent everywhere!
Show us through your passion,
that you , the true son of God,
at all times
even in the most lowly state,
are glorified. 

2. Gregorio Allegri’s “Miserere mei, Deus”, “Have mercy on me, O God”

It was composed during the reign of Pope Urban VIII, probably during the 1630s, for use in the Sistine Chapel during matins, as part of the exclusive Tenebrae service on Holy Wednesday and Good Friday of Holy Week.

Have mercy upon me, O God, after thy great goodness: 
according to the multitude of thy mercies do away mine offenses. 

3. Handel’s Messiah “Surely he hath borne our griefs”

Surely He hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows! 
He was wounded For our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; 
the Chastisement of our peace was upon Him. (Isaiah 53: 4-5)




4. Karl Jenkins, Stabat Mater: “And the Mother did Weep.”

And the Mother did weep.
And the Mother did weep.
And the Mother did weep.
And the Mother did weep.
And the Mother did weep.
Vehaeym bachetah (Hebrew)
Lacrimavit Mater (Latin)
Warkath hahi imma (Aramaic)
Kai eklausen he meter (Greek)


5. The absolutely unmissable Pergolesi setting of “Stabat Mater”

Stabat Mater dolorosa
iuxta Crucem lacrimosa,
dum pendebat Filius.

At, the Cross her station keeping,
stood the mournful Mother weeping,
close to Jesus to the last.

Anyway – now I’ve set myself off again listening to all these gloriously mournful and Passion-full tracks… I hope they have moved you somehow today.

Easter Items

I came across this advert today, it made me smile, but it also made me a little bit sad.

I’m not interested in the origins of Easter Eggs and Easter Bunnies or whether Pagans once ate them or dressed up as them, nor whether if we claim they did we are also interested in the religious practices that accompanied them – no! – as you can see there is absolutely no way I could ever get easily drawn into a discussion about that! 🙂

It did make me wonder what MY list of “Easter Items” might look like:

  • Whip
  • Bloodied cross
  • Nails
  • Crown of thorns
  • Spear
  • Empty Tomb
  • Discarded graveclothes

(None of them sealed – though the tomb once was; all well used.)

I don’t know which list of Easter Items is most attractive.  My list looks a bit less fun, I guess.  It reminds me of Steve Turner’s poem:

Christmas is really
for the children.
Especially for children
who like animals, stables,
stars and babies wrapped
in swaddling clothes.
Then there are wise men,
kings in fine robes,
humble shepherds and a
hint of rich perfume.

Easter is not really
for the children
unless accompanied by
a cream filled egg.
It has whips, blood, nails,
a spear and allegations
of body snatching.
It involves politics, God
and the sins of the world.
It is not good for people
of a nervous disposition.
They would do better to
think on rabbits, chickens
and the first snowdrop
of spring.

Or they’d do better to
wait for a re-run of
Christmas without asking
too many questions about
what Jesus did when he grew up
or whether there’s any connection. 

Happy (hoppy?) Holy Week!

Barabbas and Co. speak out.

Three characters, a donkey owner, Simon the Zealot and Barabbas speak their minds about some of the events of Holy Week…

(Written for a Palm Sunday service at Muddiford URC.  Barabbas is included because once again a crowd gets swept away on a tide of emotion…)

Meditation of a donkey owner
They were ‘avin away with me donkey!  Two of ‘em, bold as brass, in broad daylight!
OI! You – geroff me donkey!
They looked at me, calm as you like, with smiles on their faces.
The master needs it.
I racked me brain.  The master?  What master?  Whose master?
Then it came back to me – the deep, intense bloke who’d spoken to me a few weeks before  – out Jericho way – they must mean ‘im!
I’d been going about me business, ordinary day, when I’d come across a crowd looking up into a tree.  There was a tiny bloke up there looking embarrassed and wishing the leaves would swallow ‘im up.  Some were laughing and pointing, but others were also watching a preacher-guy who was shouting something up at the tree-guy.
The little guy climbs down and the crowd follows as he and the preacher guy wander off to a house and disappear inside.
The crowd started to disperse – but I got chatting with an olive seller who I knew from years back and he said that the preacher guy (Jesus) had spotted the little guy (Zacchaeus) up the tree while he was preaching.  Apparently Zacchaeus was the local tax collector – scum! – and Jesus had spoken to him and asked if he could go round his house for tea.  Zacchaeus had agreed and had half climbed/half fallen out of the tree and set off with Jesus – and here we were.
We chatted about other stuff for a bit – and then out comes Zacchaeus all in a flap – and he’s promising to give away half his possessions to the poor and pay back anyone he had cheated four times over!  Jesus is smiling and shouts “surely salvation has come to this house today!”
As you can imagine – there was a bit of a scrum – Zacchaeus gets mobbed by folk claiming to be poor and wanting his stash right now!
And as the crowd’s attention is distracted, Jesus picks me out – looks right at me – and walks over.
“I’ll be needing a donkey” he says.  “I understand you can help me.”
How did he know?  I don’t have a rent-a-donkey hat (though, come to think of it – that’s a very good idea!) – he didn’t know me from Adam.
I stammered and stuttered – errr…  when, what, where, how…  errr…  what?
“You’ll know” he said…
And then he was gone.
The master needs it….
Of course – take her – she’s all yours – least I can do!  Err…  bye!!
The master needs it….  The master needs me…  ME!  Wow!  He needs me!
Meditation of Simon the Zealot
They weren’t there by accident, you know – those crowds.  That was a LOT of hard work.
I still had connections to the zealots in Jerusalem, and of course all the old crowd were in town for the Passover – no better time to sign up new recruits.  Judas helped me – he could see it like I did – Jesus needed a push, probably not a big one – if he really wanted to help the poor, then agenda item number one was throwing off the evil yoke of Rome, being our own masters again.
We worked hard – working the traveling crowds – passing on the word.
Jesus had sent two of the others to get a donkey – we knew he’d be coming down from Bethphage and the Mount of Olives and in through the North East gate – so we could make sure there would be a crowd – kick up a bit of a storm – it would be crazy to let the opportunity pass – maximum impact – maximum attention – Jesus would realise that he only needed to say the word…
It worked a treat!  We had palm leaves – they’d make the Romans take notice – Jewish rabble waving palms and singing that psalm “Hosanna!  Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” – the stuff any Jewish nationalist demo was made of!
We’d surpassed ourselves – there were more there than we could ever have hoped – waving palms, singing, throwing cloaks in the road.  Me and Judas and some other guys worked the margins – encouraging a chant here – getting the singing going there… giving out palm leaves to those on the edges – encouraging them closer…
All Jesus had to do was seize the moment.
All Jesus had to do was find the right words and that crowd was his.
I wasn’t carrying – but I knew plenty of guys who were – I saw several Sicarii – the really violent wing of the Jerusalem Zealots – they all had little knives concealed in their cloaks – and they were ready to use them.
But…  no.
Jesus did nothing.
We kept the noise going as long as we could – but as the procession got near the garrison, folk started melting away.  The sight of nervous Roman guards tooled up to the hilt is a bit of a turn-off when it comes to casual demonstrating.
When we got to the temple, only the children were singing…
He’d let us all down, I was gutted, it had all been for nothing.  Coward.
Of course I know different now – but that’s how I felt then – and so at the time he needed me most, I was sulking and resentful.  Judas felt it harder than I did, I think – maybe that’s why he did what he did – I’d never have gone that far – but in the end, it was never Jesus who let me down – but ME who let HIM down. 
Meditation of Barabbas
Freedooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooom!!!
That’s how I felt!
It was a near death experience!  I’d said my goodbyes – I knew there was no escaping it this time.  Crime: insurrection; Verdict: guilty; Penalty: death.
There were others like me in the jail – some of them caught with knives over the festival – they’d been out at some demonstration at the North East gate – got drunk and caused trouble later that night.  Never try and stab a Roman guard whilst under the influence is my motto – it’s hard enough when you’re sober – believe me – they’ve got body armour and big stabby swords!  I have a couple of notches on my CV, though – folk know who I am.
No escaping this time though…
Then I heard it..
“Free Barabbas!  Free Barabbas!” and jeers and shouts and cheers…
Yeah, right, I thought – very touching and all – but stupid!  You’ll only get yourselves arrested demonstrating for my release – we’ll hang together!  Knock it off!  Muppets!
And then – from the cells on the other side – there’s a prisoner getting dragged out and flogged.  It turns out this was Jesus – the bloke from the North East gate demo.
I’ve no idea what’s going on – I can still hear the chanting – “Free Barabbas!  Free Barabbas!”  As if!  As if the romans are gonna release ME – at Passover of all times! ME! Strewth – folk can be thick as mince!
Then they’re dragging Jesus past my cell and out into the courtyards – he’s barely conscious now – covered in blood – I’ve seen prisoners not survive those floggings…
It turns out that Pilate was offering the crowd some kind of warped choice – as a special favour – a Passover tradition that I’d never heard of!  Who did they want to release – me or him – me or Jesus!
I have no idea how it came down to me or him – there’s other folk in there who have done nowt – but that’s what was going down – a choice – me or him. And they’d chosen me.
But Pilate had given it another go – he’d had Jesus flogged – and now he’d dragged the unconscious, bleeding Jesus in front of them – maybe now he’d get the sympathy vote.
But no! the chants are even louder – “Free Barabbas!  Free Barabbas!”
And then: “Crucify!  Crucify!  Crucify!”  It was chilling – even to a hardened killer like me.
And that was it.  The guards dragged me out of the cell – gave me a kicking and threw me out of the back door.
Freedoooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooom!
And the other guy was crucified.
Here’s the thing, though.  Knowing what I know now, I reckon that while they chanted ““Free Barabbas!  Free Barabbas!” – Jesus was probably joining in.  I reckon he’d have chosen to save me with his very last breath.
It’s enough to make a hard man think…

Friday Review: Peaky Blinders

Tommy, Arthur and John Sheldon – “You are now under the protection of the !*&%^#$ Peaky Blinders!”

The three Romani/Irish brothers return from WWI service – broken and shattered.  Tommy is disillusioned and beset with ongoing nightmares, John is numb and prone to casual violence, Arthur has PTSD (known as shell-shock back then) and suffers from violent outbursts and constant mood swings.

They return to Small Heath and a harsh and brutal industrial landscape needing to make a life for themselves and the family – and family is a big thing here.  What emerges is a growing Shelby empire built first on a protection racket and growing through alcohol and gun smuggling and gambling, propped up by extreme violence.  They are known as the “Peaky Blinders” because signed-up members wear caps with razor blades sewn into the peaks.  They are absolutely the Birmingham version of the well-known Mafia-families we are familiar with from our TV screens over several decades – a strange mix of family, loyalty, a “code”, massive acumulated wealth and extreme violence.

We are now in series Four – and it is always the case when you invest in a TV series and follow a family over a number of years that you find yourself somehow on their side.  But then you catch yourself and wonder why it is that you are on the side of a brutal, violent gang of protection racketeers…

The answer is complex.

Peaky Blinders is fantastic drama.  Perhaps, though, its secret is the depth and complexity that it gives to its central characters.  The Shelbies are not simply painted as poor victims of the slaughter and mayhem of WWI whose only means of survival was to drag themselves up by their bootstraps.  It would have been easy for the producers to paint a picture of poor working-class survivors doing their best to beat the system crushingly weighed against them – occasionally doing bad things but only to bad people and never hurting other poor people around them – working class heroes.  But this is NOT what happens.  They ARE truly damaged victims of the horror of WWI – and that is very clearly brought out – but they also have choices and often they make terrible choices for which they are absolutely morally responsible – and they know this and they don’t look for excuses.  They are not muddy-faced angels.

The reason is sustains itself into series four – and a fifth series is planned – is not just because the series are short – but because the characters are complex and real.  It is almost impossible to tease out precisely the motivations for the paths they choose.  Some of it seems inevitable for war-damaged young men, some of it is simple greed, some of it (perhaps most of it?) is a twisted and desperate raging thirst for respect and the idea that wealth and fear will bring that respect and a place at society’s top table.

Cillian Murphy creates an on-screen Tommy Shelby who is mesmerisingly charismatic – a man who is wrestling demons.  The demons often win – but not always – and it is his struggle that keeps us on board.

(Also – it has a CRACKING Nick Cave theme tune!) Add in the brothers slow-mo walking down streets – sometimes with a horse and always with a cigarette – and through steel industrial smoke, flames and sparks – and what’s not to like!)

The bible presents us, similarly, with complex characters – characters with real lives.  King David has Bathsheba’s husband killed off on the front line of battle.  David saw Bathsheba bathing naked and wants her for himself.  Selfish lust and murder – yet this is David, the hero of the Goliath scene and the King presented as the ideal – the shepherd boy plucked from a life of obscurity to become Israel’s greatest leader.

Not even Jesus is presented as Mr sickly-sweet and squeaky-clean.  He breaks local religious laws, he argues with the religious authorities, he gets angry and uses foul language and is accused of being a glutton and a drunkard, he hangs about with prostitutes, he speaks to women on their own, unchaperoned, he runs amok in the temple, violently throwing the furniture around and attacking stallholders with a whip.  Jesus is no Peaky Blinder – but he is every bit as engagingly real and complex.

Whilst Peaky Blinders is essentially about the rise of a Birmingham Mafia-esque family, it is also allows a glimpse into the daily grinding poverty that gripped the lives of entire generations in the post WWI years.  By not focussing on it, but merely allowing us to see it, makes it all the more powerful.  The matter-of-factness of it all – that’s how life is – is devastating.  Jesus lived with exactly the same atmosphere of poverty and grinding oppression, with people damaged by warfare and conflict.  But he had an entirely different idea about how to live life in its midst.

Mastering a post WWI Birmingham accent is no easy matter – there are mixed opinions about how well Cillian Murphy does this.  But for a non-Brummie it is no easy matter as demonstrated by Korean Billy in this masterlass!

Hoots! It’s St. Andrew’s Day!

It’s St Andrew’s Day!  The story of how St Andrew came to be associated with the town – and ultimately Scotland is a strange one (and a little unlikely if you ask me).  You can read a potted version here if you like!

My Sabbatical a few years ago took me to St Andrews and I wrote a little ditty about him and his “presence” in the town and how it was that both he and I got washed up there…

Andrew…
Called from your nets with your brother Peter
washed up on the shore at the feet of Jesus

I bet you never expected to get washed up here…

Andrew…
One of the inner circle
you were the one who told Jesus about the boy with the loaves and fishes

I bet you never expected to get washed up here…

Andrew…
Going out to the ends of the earth
Scythia, along the Black Sea and the Dnipper river as far as Kiev and Novograd

I bet you never expected to get washed up here…

Andrew…
On to Byzantium and Thrace and ending in Patras – crucified
bound, not nailed, on an X not a +, you didn’t want your death compared to His

I bet you never expected to get washed up here…

Andrew…
your bones kept safe in Patras (so the story goes)
treasured relics – handed from guardian to guardian, revered and honoured

I bet you never expected to get washed up here…

Andrew…
three of your fingers, your upper arm bone, one of your kneecaps and a tooth
packed into Regulus’s trunk and setting sail for the western ends of the earth

I bet you never expected to get washed up here…

Andrew…
shipwrecked, washed ashore at Kilrymont, welcomed by Pictish king Oengus
your bones destined to spawn a pilgrim hotspot and inspire the scots to wave your flag

I bet you never expected to get washed up here…

Andrew…
are you here?
The inner-circle disciple, so close to Jesus – you touched Christ
The missionary who took that touch of Christ to the ends of the earth
The dead crumbling bones – what was left of them- shipped to Scotland
The dust of your bones scattered to the four winds by Henry VIII
Are you still here in any real sense?
Were you ever here?
Is this place changed by the touch of your remains that once in turn touched Christ?

Andrew…
if you are here – how watered down is that original touch of Christ?
A handshake with history? Is this the homeopathic saint effect –
so diluted as to be less than negligible?  As if the air holds a mere memory of a passing touch?
it certainly feels so…

Andrew…
you are now the property of the nationalists
who cut and paste the image of your cross all across the land

is this who you are?

I bet you never expected to get washed up here…

Andrew…
the home of golf
proud wrapping paper for electoral success
curiosity for tourists who half-heartedly try to guess the spot your bones might once have lain

I bet you never expected to get washed up here…

but you did – get washed up here – and so did I

May God grant me a measure of that closeness to Jesus that so changed and inspired your life
that you were willing to get washed up wherever God and man might take you in service of the Gospel.

Rest in Peace, Andrew.