Sermon illustrations and a nice letter

By , 26 September 2008 6:40 pm

Another week flies by. I will treat physicists far more seriously when they can account for a) the missing 80% of the mass of the universe and b) why time goes by so much faster than it used to.

Young Simeon continues to do well and is now – six weeks after his birth – back to his birth weight. That is progress. Thanks for praying.

Searching for a sermon illustration this week I came across the following: “Irish novelist and playwright Samuel Beckett received great recognition for his work — but not every one savored his accomplishments. Beckett’s marriage, in fact, was soured by his wife’s jealousy of his growing fame and success as a writer. One day in 1969 his wife Suzanne answered the telephone, listened for a moment, spoke briefly, and hung up. She then turned to Beckett and with a stricken look whispered, “What a catastrophe!” Was it a devastating personal tragedy? No, she had just learned that Beckett had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature!”

It is a fine illustration of how jealousy works and as it focuses on a man who was pretty anti-Christian, quite a satisfying one. But when I read the story something about it didn’t quite ring true and I did some homework. The reality it seems is thus: In October 1969, Beckett, on holiday in Tunis with Suzanne, learned he had won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Suzanne, who saw that her intensely private husband would be, from that moment forth, saddled with fame, called the award a ‘catastrophe’. On this basis, far from being an expression of jealousy, Suzanne’s comment seems to have been a sensitive statement of concern for her husband. (What is beyond doubt is that it seems to have been a fairly stable marriage, continuing until her death twenty years later.)

I suspect the sermon illustration is at fault; partly because I have heard all too many exaggerated statements from the pulpit, particularly where non-Christians are concerned. Exaggeration in the case of unbelievers seems legitimate. Hmm. Can I make a plea that if you do preach or write you check your sources? In the age of the World Wide Web and Google it’s not hard. Honestly is important.

Finally, yes I know the books aren’t doing very well and most people have never seen a copy let alone heard of them. But even in the darkness I get the odd ray of light. I had the following this week.

“Thank you. I just finished reading The Infinite Day tonight. I wrote you about 9 months ago. I read aloud all three of your books to my children, age 10 and 6, as a bedtime story. We spent some time discussing the characters, reading perhaps a half chapter per night. I tried to relate the moral decisions the characters face to biblical characters as well as our own temptations and opportunities to serve Christ. I never thought we would read a book series that we would enjoy as much as the Chronicles of Narnia, but I must say, you proved me wrong. I hope your works will become as timeless as those of C S Lewis.

“Although no eye can see, no ear can hear, nor any heart imagine what God has planned for us, I was brought to tears by those last pages of your work. I can not wait to see and experience even more than what you have imagined. The picture painted by your hand is an encouragement to me and my children to live every day for our Lord because of his great love for us. I know we will lean on the memories of your books for support when we are facing the trials of life. Thank you Chris. If not in this life, we look forward to giving you a big hug when we are together in ‘above space’.”

It makes it all worthwhile.

Have a good week


By , 19 September 2008 9:42 pm

Here’s a question for you. Is routine a good thing or a bad thing?

I ask because, as happens in a teacher’s life about this time of the year, routine has settled in. Last week, I had an entire change of timetable and five new students. This week I have had merely one change of room and two new students. Next week I suspect neither rooms nor students will change. I even vaguely know where I ought to be at any one moment and without consulting my colour-coded timetable. Looking ahead over the next nine months or so which is all that the teaching year realistically is, I can broadly sketch out the highs and lows ahead. After four years full-time in my college I pretty much know what is going to be on my desk every week or so. Routine has set in.

Now don’t get me wrong: there is a lot to be said for routine. The regular cycle of the week, without crises and changes, is surely good for us. To be honest, as I get older, I find I can manage without crises. All the medical evidence seems to be that it really isn’t very good for us either. And who doesn’t ultimately like that monthly pay packet? You could even argue that the institution of the Sabbath in the Bible sanctifies routine with its call for ‘six days work and one day off’. Repeat ad infinitum.

And yet… isn’t there something rather soporific about it? Something terribly, worryingly, deadeningly numbing? Doesn’t routine force us to stare at the road immediately ahead of us and to neglect that distant (but perhaps not that distant) horizon where this world ends and eternity begins. I suspect we need to be wary of routine and its accompanying myopia. Forgive me, incidentally, if you are in finance; this has not been a routine week. Yet one of the curious effects of routine, it seems to me, is that it deadens us not just to our own relentless march to heaven or hell but to the trials of others. We stay locked in the furrow of our daily labours. Perhaps the words of the writer to the Hebrews ought to come to mind: ‘For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.’ (Hebrews 13:14) Just so.

Simeon continues to make good progress by the way; thanks for all your prayers. The books alas, need something to generate more interest, but I know not what.

Have a good week


Latest news

By , 12 September 2008 9:05 pm

First of all many thanks to those who prayed, because things are now a lot better with young Simeon, our young and somewhat ailing grandson. On Monday the diagnosis of CAH (Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia) was confirmed (although there are various different types). Anyway Simeon will have to be on steroids for the rest of his life, but the specialist is quite encouraged and encouraging and it sounds like he should be able to live a normal life. His parents will however have to do quite a bit of chemical juggling early on and there will be some fairly regular blood tests. At the moment he is still in hospital but merely to see his weight built up. But the outlook is good. Thank you Lord.

What else is news in this part of the world? Well, today was something of a small but significant landmark for me. I taught nothing but geology today in all four 1.5 hour teaching slots. In other words I have enough students who want to do geology that I now have two groups at AS level (year 12) and two at A2 (year 13). In fact my total student numbers are now around 70 which is a college record. Clearly I must be doing something right. This, of course, feeds into the whole issue to do with writing. Yes, I would love to do nothing but full-time writing but teaching provides a regular salary and frankly this year I am probably going to make nothing whatsoever from my fiction books. Not only that: I am apparently quite good at what I do as a teacher. My college is also actually a pretty good place to work; a fact brought out by the kindness and sympathy of my colleagues in the last week. So I really don’t know when you’re going to get this promised Seventh Ship manuscript. I also seem to be preaching almost every Sunday for the next couple of months as well. I really must learn to say ‘no’!

A good friend and sometime reader of this blog sent me an article from the British newspaper The Guardian pointing out that in a recent survey of nearly a quarter of a million university students geology achieved the highest satisfaction level with 95% of students being happy with the subject. Why this should be the case is not immediately clear but I suspect several factors contribute to it. Geology is very varied and you never stick with one topic too long, we do lots of nice field trips and at the moment there are lots of jobs available at the end of the course. There is one other factor and it is this; geology has resolutely resisted postmodernism and almost all of types of modern philosophical outlook. It is something of – to use an apposite phrase – a dinosaur. Unlike some geography departments (on whom be peace) we do not do such things as ‘Concepts of Lesbian Space’ and ‘Masculinity and Maps’. Geology departments are much more prosaic, and again to use an apposite phrase, are ‘down to earth’. They centre on facts and the training to use those facts in life outside the campus. I suspect there are implications here for Christian ministry but at the end of the first full week of teaching I am too tired to draw them out.

Blessings on you all.

A family crisis

By , 6 September 2008 9:40 am

I suppose it takes me around ten steps to get from our bed to the phone in the hall. So when, around three o’clock on Thursday morning it rang, I was already partly awake and prepared for something unpleasant by the time I picked it up. No one except Swansea drunks getting a wrong number calls at that hour unless it’s an emergency. And emergency it was: our grandson Simeon, 15 days old, was in intensive care, anaesthetised and ventilated, with something unknown, but serious, wrong with him. Three hours drive away, all we could do was pray and lie awake hoping that there would not be a second phone call.

Thursday was the first proper day of teaching for me and I can assure you it was not a good one. However I do have to say my colleagues were universally superb in their sympathy and support. Bit by bit during the day the details came out and a tentative diagnosis (still not fully confirmed at the moment) made of what is called CAH or Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia: courtesy of the web you can read all about it. But over the last couple of days Simeon has gradually recovered, being shifted first to high dependency and then to a normal ward while he recovers some weight and, I presume, more tests are done. If it is CAH the prognosis is reasonably good although with current technology he will have a lifetime of being dependent on replacement steroids. Which, as someone said, means that he will probably be ruled out from ever competing in the Olympics.

Let me make three cautious observations. The first is that we have come to take for granted the wonder of childbirth and healthy children. When you think about it, it’s a pretty amazing for a baby to shift from being effectively a parasitic creature taking food and oxygen from the mother to being a (more or less) self-sustaining and self-regulating organism. Somehow we have come to consider it to be a right that this proceeds automatically and without trouble. We shouldn’t do so. Two of my colleagues have had neo-natal fatalities recently.

The second observation was that things like this make you realise the true importance of family, friends and the faith. As I lay in bed my thoughts turned to last week’s blog on the iPhone and the whole topic seemed pathetically insignificant. Perhaps being reminded of one’s true priorities is no bad thing.

The third observation is that contrary to what you might expect I don’t think I ever once rounded on God and angrily demanded ‘Why Simeon?’. I suppose if things had turned out worse (and of course he is not out of the woods yet) I might have done so. I think – intellectually at least – I have come round to the view that being a child of God does not exempt you from suffering. I think I would almost be embarrassed to be in a situation in which I was granted immunity from the world’s woes. No one respects those who dodge military service or jury duty through family influence. In a world full of wounded people perhaps we need to have scars.

Anyway I will keep you in touch. Have a good week.

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