“Well, I got this guitar and I learned how to make it talk…..”

Far away from the winter woods and the winter light on the beaches I had the house to myself……and Steely Dan on the stereo. Particularly the album ‘The Royal Scam’ and the guitar work of Larry Carlton. Mr. Carlton’s session work is well documented and the list of sessions he has played on is almost endless. His solos on the opening track of this album (‘Kid Charlemagne’) are surely worth its inclusion in the greatest guitar solos of all time (as ‘the composers’ note in their sleeve note that accompanies the ‘Scam’ album; “Here comes a guitar solo – Larry Carlton, no problem there”). But let’s not forget his work (I think) on ‘Don’t Take Me Alive’ where the feedback sustain lasts just long enough and then we’re off again. Or ‘Green Earrings’ where I think both Carlton and Walter Becker solo. The trouble is that five guitarists are listed in the personnel but no detail as to who plays on what – ‘the composers’ are at it again!!

Listening to Carlton’s guitar work on this and other albums by the Dan reminded me of his work as a member of The Crusaders (particularly on the albums ‘Southern Comfort’ and ‘Those Southern Nights’ – the track ‘Spiral’ on the latter has another jaw dropping solo). It also reminded me of one of my all time favourite examples of his work – there is a song on Joni Mitchell’s album ‘Court and Spark’ called ‘Help Me’ which features the musicians from the L.A Express and there is the background is Mr. Carlton (he is listed on the personnel), his solo from about 2. 50 onward is a delight, understated and totally in service of the song, but a delight.

It seems to me that Larry Carlton has appeared in some form or other on most of my favourite albums. Whether he solos or just provides a guitar part that is, in the vernacular, ‘in the pocket’, he speaks as a player schooled in whatever genre you like to mention. He also brings that subtlety and expertise that jazz and blues players often bring to other people’s records. Witness the Dan’s exhaustive roster of players drawn from the jazz world, and Joni Mitchell’s move in that direction, initially with the L.A Express (which features another fine guitarist in Robben Ford) and later with members of The Crusaders, Jaco Pastorius and Pat Metheny. To repeat the words I borrowed from Bruce Springsteen, he makes the guitar speak, in any language you like.

(The line from Bruce Springsteen is from the song ‘Thunder Road’ on the album ‘Born to Run’).

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Advent Wisdom….

“…..and a little child shall lead them”. Isaiah 11; 6.

In the coming days Christian Churches of all persuasions will be full of words of wisdom – perhaps the mysterious wisdom of the scriptures as we eavesdrop on Matthew and Luke reflecting on their own experience in order to frame a story for their communities. And as we listen too to the way that inherited words written in one historical situation suddenly find new meaning in the crucible of the Incarnation. Either way there will be lots of words! For me the mystery of incarnation is best approached through the medium of poetry and hymnody – poems and hymns have an ability to reveal the riches of this season that the often static reading of the gospel stories can obscure – especially when most people just want to hear a sort of scriptural ‘mash – up’ that may tick the box but denies the subtlety of the gospel artists……any way, here are a couple of examples that always get my pulse racing – even on a winter’s solstice in an uncertain age. The first is from the pen of Christina Rossetti, and the second from Charles Wesley;

“Christmas has a darkness,
Brighter than the blazing noon,
Christmas has a chillness
Warmer than the heat of June,
Christmas has a beauty
Lovelier than the world can show:
For Christmas brings us Jesus,
Brought for us so low.

Earth strike up your music,
Birds that sing and bells that ring;
Heaven has answering music
For all angels soon to sing:
Earth put on your whitest
Bridal robe of spotless snow:
For Christmas brings us Jesus,
Brought for us so low”.

******

“Glory be to God on high,

And peace on earth descend.

God comes down, he bows the sky,

And show himself our friend:

God the invisible appears:

God, the blest, the great I AM,

Sojourns in this vale of tears,

And Jesus is his name.

*

Him the angels all adored,

Their Maker and their King,

Tidings of their humbled Lord

They now to mortals bring.

Emptied of his majesty,

Of his dazzling glories shorn,

Being’s source begins to be,

And God himself is born!

*

See the eternal Son of God

A Mortal son of man

Dwelling in an earthly clod

Whom heaven cannot contain!

Stand amazed, ye heavens, at this!

See the Lord of earth and skies;

Humbles to the dust he is,

And in a manger lies.

*

We, earth’s children, now rejoice,

The Prince of peace proclaim;

With heaven’s host lift up our voice,

And shout Immanuel’s name:

Knees and hearts to him we bow;

Of our flesh and of our bone,

Jesus is our brother now,

And God is all our own”

*

First, Christina Rossetti’s poem ‘Christmas Eve’ (her poems ‘In The Bleak Midwinter’ and ‘Love Came Down at Christmas’ can be read with profit at anytime of the year!). Second, Charles Wesley’s breathtaking hymn from his ‘Hymns for the Nativity of our Lord’ (1744). One commentator, struck by the line “Being’s source begins to be” says that here “we encounter audacities, imaginative abstractings that….ought to leave us gasping (though apparently they don’t!).

This writer comes back to this hymn time and again – perhaps we should be careful, some have entertained angels (even at Christmas!).

Scrooge and George Bailey.

“…..darkness is cheap, and Scrooge loved it” Charles Dickens ‘A Christmas Carol’.

I heard this morning that Frank Capra’s 1946 film ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ has been voted the most popular Christmas film in this country (according to the views of seven thousand people no less!). This is not news to me as I have loved this film since I first saw it when I was much younger but what I love about it is not the feel good ending that ties up all the loose ends but the way that the film deals seriously with the importance of individual actions and choices, and with the need for darkness. This might seem strange but this film was ‘dark’ before it became fashionable – I still find that close up of James Stewart’s face when he realises the truth of his predicament one of the most chilling things in cinema! ‘Life’ needs darkness and the ambiguity of Bedford Falls – without George Bailey – in order to better appreciate the light that breaks in at Christmas. And darkness is still around, it is over used as a device in books and comics but still there in the choices that the powerful make and the plight of those who find themselves at the mercy of those choices. ‘Life’ works because it is sentimental but also because it reminds us of the importance of everyone – even George Bailey (and especially Uncle Billy and his bird!). I suggest that we need to hear this message especially when we are surrounded by images of the rich and powerful, the important and the pampered which are juxtaposed with the images of the poor and marginalised in charity adverts. This is because the true Christmas message is that God works God’s work through the every people we have left in the dark, those whose lives we trust will not make a difference but who offer the most resonant challenge to our amnesia.

George Bailey is a truly heroic figure in a film full of heroes, and so is Ebeneezer Scrooge. I once got into a little trouble for suggesting Scrooge’s heroism in a Christmas sermon some time ago but I remain convinced. He is often maligned as a skinflint, a miser who is out of step with everyone around him. But, without rejecting the way that Charles Dickens draws him in the early part of the story, and without removing the tremendous power of the visions he experiences, I want to reflect on the way that Scrooge changes and the way that his visions reveal someone who is open to change. He is more than just a carrier for the fierce anger that drove Charles Dickens’ polemic – through his use of the word ‘humbug’ Scrooge dismisses all the stuff that surrounds Christmas – what I referred to in a previous post as flummery (a word that the spell checker cannot cope with!). Some of this stuff diverts us from what Christmas is really about – the need to change the way that the world works – and this must begin with personal change, as Bono and U2 put it in the song ‘Rejoice’;

“And what am I to do?
Just tell me what am I supposed to say?
And I can’t change the world
But I can change the world in me
If I rejoice”

Of course ‘A Christmas Carol’ is a story about conversion – Scrooge’s night time adventures change his view of the world and because that happens, everything else changes, not least in the way that Tiny Tim Cratchit DID NOT DIE. Similarly George Bailey’s snowy epiphany changes everything – in fact things in Bedford Falls are not just changed but improved for everyone and especially for Clarence!

Year after year I am struck again by a line from the carol by Philips Brooks, the line is easily missed but I suggest it is of vital importance as we reflect on the meaning of this season. Brooks writes “Cast out our sin and enter in / Be born in us today” suggesting that only the personal change brought about by faith can unlock this mystery through the mystery of new birth. The Catholic mystic Angelus Silesius (Johann Scheffler) reinforces the point; “Christ could be born a thousand times in Bethlehem – but all in vain until He is born in me”.

This does not mean that everyone should consider born again Christianity – or even be ‘born again’ in that way, but it is a challenge to change, or at least to be open to possibility of change. In their stories both George Bailey and Ebeneezer Scrooge celebrate this possibility and seek to draw it out from those who watch and read. To paraphrase the slogan used by animal charities Christmas is not just for Christmas – it can and should become a continuing miracle spreading light everywhere. And as John’s gospel reminds us “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome (or understand) it”

(‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ is available everywhere, as is ‘A Christmas Carol’. The quote from Johann Scheffler is included in the book of Christmas meditations ‘When Time Was Fulfilled’ which comes form the good people at Plough Publishing. The words in the prologue to John’s gospel are read many times at this time of year).

The playlist is the thing…..

As a sometime user of a music streaming service I was interested to see that ‘they’ (or their algorithms) had compiled a playlist for me called ‘Your Top Songs 2018’. I was intrigued by this and, having put aside the slight creepiness of some computer looking at my choices – I listened intently – I was familiar with most of the tracks that had been ‘curated’ for me but there were some pleasant surprises, for example I could not remember listening to ‘Honey Don’t Leave L.A.’ by James Taylor – except for Lee Sklar’s bass and Russell Kunkel’s on the money drumming, but that could be just the recent passing of a significant birthday!

Playlists remind me of the pre – digital phenomenon of the mix-tape; as many will know these were compiled as the moment took you, because you wanted to impress someone, or because you wanted to remind a loved one of ‘our songs’. I made loads of these (for some of the aforementioned reasons!) but mostly because I wanted to listen to as much music as possible without having to find the money to buy it – taping from the radio is not quite a lost art! In fact it is possible to come across a real gem that was taped years ago (or the result of taping over something important!) and which is ripe for rediscovery! But in my opinion picking out individual tracks can be a double blessing; it does alert you to new discovery, but it can also edit out the stuff that wasn’t as good but which should be reappraised. Music is always being revisited and a lots of albums that I listened to in the 1970’s and then discarded (onward and upward!), I am revisiting and coming to realise that they were great all along. But that could just be an old man and his music!!

My daughter made a playlist for me recently, it is made up of stuff that she is listening to and it is a pleasure to hear singers I have yet to discover (for example Ferris and Sylvester, and a marvellous song by Sara Bareilles called ‘Armor’). Some of these singers owe an acknowledged debt to past singers, but open ears are important whenever you listen!! In fact Rebecca’s efforts remind me of the reason why I started to listen to music seriously as a teenager – it opened up horizons not glimpsed and moved my heart, mind and body (not necessarily in that order!). In his recent memoir ‘Born to Run’ Bruce Springsteen writes of his reaction to hearing The Beatles; “Every Wednesday night I sat up in my room charting the weekly top twenty and if The Beatles were not ensconced each week as lords of all radio, it would drive me nuts…..Nothing against ‘Satchmo’, one of the greatest musicians who ever lived, but I was fourteen and on a different planet. I lived for every Beatles record release”. Perhaps there isn’t that much distance between Bruce’s bedroom in Freehold, New Jersey and my own in suburban Stockport!

So if playlists are the thing (to catch the conscience of the king!) than what would my ‘this moment’ list look like;

XTC ‘Dear Madam Barnum’ (thanks Rebecca!).

Joni Mitchell ‘River’.

Kurt Elling ‘We Three Kings’.

Duke Ellington ‘A Spoonful of Sugar’ (because the remake is out!).

Sting ‘Soul Cake’.

Jethro Tull ‘Greensleeved’

Chicago ‘Sing a Mean Tune, Kid’.

Steely Dan ‘Kid Charlemagne’.

The Beatles ‘Back in the USSR’.

Peter Gabriel ‘In Your Eyes’

Kate Bush ‘Babushka’

Hall and Oates ‘Is It A Star?’

Elbow ‘Newborn’

Bob Dylan ‘I Guess I’ll Have to Change my Plans’.

Ella Fitzgerald ‘The Secret of Christmas’.

John Coltrane ‘Alabama’.

Bruce Springsteen ‘Born to Run’.

Van Morrison ‘Cyprus Avenue’.

The Brad Mehldau Trio ‘Blackbird’

Greg Lake ‘Humbug’.

(Bruce Springsteen’s memoir ‘Born to Run’ was published by Simon and Schuster in 2016 – the quote comes from page 51 – other music streaming services are available!). What does your ‘this moment’ playlist look like?

 

 

 

‘Tis the most subversive time of the year!

“God entered our world not with the crushing impact of unbearable glory, but in the way of weakness, vulnerability and need. On a wintry night in an obscure cave, the infant Jesus was a humble, naked, helpless God who allowed us to get close to him” Brennan Manning .

It could be argued that words are cheap most of the time, but at this time of the year the hollow sentiments pile up like the snow that many enjoy or struggle with at this time of the year. I think this is a delicious irony because in this season Christians celebrate that eye popping, jaw dropping sentence that John of Ephesus drops into the prologue of his gospel; “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory”. This ‘logos’ carries the echo of philosophy and the resonances of Hebrew history and scripture – but here, as in the stories that Matthew and Luke tell, and in another irony this ‘word’ cannot speak for himself, but is submitted to what Brennan Manning calls “weakness, vulnerability and need”. In the very stuff of humanity God is shown -and for years I have wondered what this says about our ideas of God. He (or she) may well be miles away from our ‘comfortable’ ideas of omnipotence (and just about any other ‘omni’ you can think of!).

But this is also deeply subversive because this story (and whatever events happened to seed the story in early Christian communities) holds up a powerful challenge to all our notions of power and influence. It is no wonder that the church has struggled with this and that it wasn’t long before Jesus was transformed from a humble person to an emperor figure locked in mosaic (and in some representations, a soldier!). Yet this coming feast dares us to stay with the manger and look at the baby, to stand in that moment of birth and all its promise and risk. No matter how much we want to move on, to fashion a Jesus after our own image, the gospels challenge us with this infant word who is born for everyone and whose vulnerability allows us into the very heart of God, that is, if we have the patience and the faith!!

And if we doubt the subversive nature of this time then we should perhaps take a look at the beginning of Luke’s gospel. Not the second chapter that is often read at this time of the year, but the song that is recorded in the middle of the first chapter. When Mary meets her cousin Elizabeth, she sings these words out of her sense of blessedness; “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour”. But then the song becomes decidedly more subversive and it isn’t long before we are reading these words;

“…he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty”.

It is no  wonder that these words do not readily find a place in Christmas worship because they strike at the very heart of our settled notions of the way that society is ordered. I suggest that this is nothing less than a statement of kingdom language – a taste of what the grown Jesus would say about God’s just and gentle rule, the divine ‘kindom’ that unites heaven and earth by exalting those who are of no account. But that is to get ahead of ourselves; for now we have a story about the divine entering the human experience. But not in the polished halls of a tyrant’s palace, or in the armed might that keeps a populace in its place, not even in the carefully crafted words of a consummate politician, but in a baby beginning his journey through life. Don’t worry, he’ll grow up soon enough!!

I began this reflection with words, and when I was thinking about writing this I came across some words written by Rowan Williams in the Guardian newspaper. He is reflecting on the words ‘peace on earth’ and their repetition these days. He writes; “For Christians, the coming of Jesus into the world spells the beginning of a new awareness of human possibility. It is an exhilarating promise – but not just a matter of ‘comfort and joy’, because it demands honesty about the depth of suffering caused by war, and courage and patience in confronting it”.

The Word became flesh, spoken both plainly and with great mystery. The question is, are we listening?

The Brennan Manning quote comes from his book ‘Shipwrecked at the Stable’. The words from Luke’s gospel come from the New Revised Standard Version and Rowan Williams wrote in the Guardian on the 14th December 2018.

Words for walking…..

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“Hope is the thing with feathers

That perches in the soul

And sings the tune without the words

And never stops at all”

Emily Dickinson.

“A paradox. The things you don’t need to live – books, art, cinema, wine and so on – are the things you need to live”.

“If you think something is ugly, look harder. Ugliness is just a failure of seeing”.

“Language is euphemism. Love is truth”.

Some thoughts from the section ‘Advice to a Human’ in Matt Haig’s novel ‘The Humans’ (this is a deceptively easy read, which among other things celebrates the poetry of Emily Dickinson!).

***

“Biblical Christianity is concerned with our will, with changing the will. Everything touches this, all the instructions (renouncing the world, denying one’s self, dying to the world, and so on, also to hate oneself, to love God) are connected with this fundamental idea; the transformation of the will”. Soren Kierkegaard.

“O Holy Child of Bethlehem,

Descend to us we pray;

Cast out our sin and enter in;

Be born in us today!

We hear the Christmas angels

The great glad tidings tell,

O Come to us, abide with us,

Our Lord Emmanuel”.

***

“Who knows whether the faithfulness of individuals here below to their poor over- beliefs may not actually help God in turn to be more effectively faithful to his own greater tasks?”. 

 ….“where is it this present? It has melted in our grasp, fled ere we could touch it, gone in the instant of becoming”. William James. 

***

Although I count myself fortunate to live near some lovely beaches (one of which I walked in this very morning!) I also live near a lovely forest where we walk very regularly – these are some random Advent thoughts, framed in business of walking in the winter wood. As we have not had any snow yet, a carpet of fallen leaves will have to suffice!

Emily Dickinson’s words come from her poem ‘Hope’ available in many anthologies of her work, mine is a Dover Thrift Edition published in 1990. Matt Haig’s wise words are from his novel ‘The Humans’ published in 2013. The quote from Kierkegaard comes from an excellent collection of his thought called ‘Provocations’ and published by Plough Books. One verse from the carol ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ words by Phillips Brooks (1835 – 93). The two quotes by William James come from his book ‘Varieties of Religious Experience’ published in 1960 in the Fontana Library. The soundtrack to this post was provided by an album called ‘If On A Winter’s Night’ by Sting and issued by Deutsche Grammophon in 2009.

A Short Advent Reflection.

20171126_150654‘It’s not what we expected’. Five words which have been on the lips of parents forever! No matter how diligently you prepare it is always different. No matter how much you might think you know about the child it is always different. Babies are never what we expected, and are always, always full of surprises. But those five words could also be applied to another baby, to the child whose birth we are preparing to celebrate in a few short autumn days; the child who, as the carols remind us can only truly be seen ‘through his own redeeming love’ and who waits silently to be ‘born in us’ today.

I was in a church hall a few days ago and sitting at a table nearby were a young couple with a very new and very small baby. As I watched people passing and stopping to look at the child I was reminded of Charles Wesley’s words from his hymn ‘Let Earth and Heaven Combine’; “Our God contracted to a span/ Incomprehensibly made man” – the sheer audacity of those words always take my breath away, and especially in this season.

The baby is not born for us because we are good (or even bad!), he is born simply because that is the human way, and because that is the way that God chooses to work; through the poor and the forgotten, the broken and the abused (and if you doubt this read Mary’s ‘magnificent’ song in Luke’s gospel). Contrary to some popular wisdom our good or bad behaviour has nothing to do with the gift of this baby (or with any other gift we may receive at Christmas). We do not, and cannot ever deserve it, it is simply given and we are invited to respond to it in the best way we can. This is a Christmas challenge for us all to ponder; can we discover Jesus in the children that God gives to us, in all the innocents murdered to keep the powerful secure, and of course in the baby born for everyone, the child laid in a manger so that he might feed us all.

 

 

Three (or four) voices.

The recent 50th anniversary of the album ‘Astral Weeks’ has excited a great deal of interest here in Northern Ireland. Apparently tourists have been seeking out locations that feature in the album (for example Cypress Avenue, Hyndford Street etc.). Van Morrison (who was known as ‘The Belfast Cowboy’ at one stage of his long career) is seen as very much a local boy around here, and particularly in Belfast. I have to confess that the first time I heard the album I couldn’t make head nor tail of it – it took the impulse purchase of his superb live album ‘It’s Too Late to Stop Now’ to take me back to the former record. I could pick out the lyrics (full of Morrison’s usual lyrical themes – the transcendence in the ordinary for example), or the excellent musicians, but it is his voice that sticks out. His way of using jazz phrasing and scat within what a lot of people still think of as a ‘rock’ context. The beauty of ‘AW’ and other albums (like the peerless ‘Veedon Fleece’) is self evident and it is this voice that holds the whole thing together.

To Van’s voice, I want to add Paul Buchanan of The Blue Nile and Guy Garvey of Elbow. In the right context these voices have the ability to bring tears to my eyes. There is a yearning quality there that speaks to the many moods that the music evokes. The great family story here is that when my wife Heather recommended The Blue Nile to me I thought that they were Australian, and was surprised to discover their Scottish origins – every one of their albums is a masterpiece – and I add to that list Paul Buchanan’s solo recording ‘Mid Air’ which is a triumph of gracious melancholy. Guy Garvey’s voice is just as moving but doubly so as his Northern roots are strongly evident and it is always good to hear a Manchester accent wherever it occurs. There is the voice of ‘One Day Like This’ and the voice of songs like ‘Mirrorball’ (from ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’) and ‘Head for Supplies’ (from ‘Little Fictions’), and a two personal favourites at present ‘The Everthere’ (from ‘Leaders of the Free World’) and ‘Lippy Kids’ (from ‘Build a Rocket Boys’).

Frank Sinatra was known for many years as ‘The Voice’. He brought together the jazz phrasing of singers like Billie Holiday with the big band tradition of singers like Tony Bennett and Vic Damone – and whenever I heard his voice I am instantly reminded of my father’s love of Sinatra and of Sunday mornings when I would hear this voice coming from the living room as I considered getting up. All of these voices remind me of the power of song to move and inspire, they speak of hope in a increasingly dark time.

Step into Advent.

“Good news: but if you ask me what it is, I know not/ It is a track of feet in the snow/ It is a lantern showing a path, / It is a door set open”.

The writer and author of the ‘Father Brown’ detective stories G. K. Chesterton wrote this short poem called ‘Xmas Day’ in his notebook in the year 1895. Chesterton, along with Charles Dickens, is one of the writers I reach for at this time of the year. In many poems and stories he reflects on the meaning of the Christmas season with his customary wit and eloquence. There is wonder at the mystery of it all and there is joy and celebration at the way that in this season of all seasons we are invited to discover that God is very close to us. For me, there is also the sense that the Christmas story invites us into a greater story. Like John Byrom in the hymn ‘Christians awake’ we ‘trace’ “the Babe, “who hath retrieved our loss/ From His poor manger to the bitter cross” and of course beyond to the mystery of new life itself.

But to return to Chesterton’s poem, Advent and Christmas are above all an invitation, as he describes it, it is “a lantern showing a path” and “a door set open”. At this time of the year, if you are fortunate, invitations are everywhere. Our commercial society teems with invitations to spend money and to eat, drink and consume far too much (the television advertising campaigns seem to begin earlier every year!), but Chesterton, like other Christian writers, reminds us of another invitation. This is the invitation to discover the divine purpose in the most unlikely circumstances- in the birth, and vulnerability of a baby, and most embarrassing of all, in an executed man dying in a place where there is no hope at all. G.K. Chesterton was alive to this- he wrote about Christmas as a paradox. In his essay ‘The Christmas Ballads’ published in ‘The Daily News’ on Christmas Day 1901 he wrote these words; “The exciting quality of Christmas rests, as do all the other examples I have mentioned, on an ancient and admitted paradox. It rests upon the great paradox that the power and centre of the whole universe may be found in some seemingly small matter that the stars in their courses may move like a moving wheel round the neglected outhouse of an inn”. The season of Advent and the feast of Christmas is an invitation to enter into this paradox, to journey in faith into the loving purpose of God with festivity and delight. And to quote John Byrom again, it is to “Tread in His steps, assisted by His grace, / ‘Till man’s first heavenly state again takes place”.

(G.K’s words are taken from an excellent collection of his seasonal writings ‘The Spirit of Christmas’ edited by Marie Smith (Xanadu Publications, London 1984). John Byrom’s hymn ‘Christians Awake’ is in many hymnals – or on the ever present interweb, like all Advent and Christmas hymns it is worth reading closely as well as singing).

In the reading group.

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My retirement has allowed me to fulfil a long held ambition; to be part of a reading group (this may not sound like a big deal but hear me out!). I always wanted to be part of such a group and there have been groups in the various places we have worked and lived over the years but the diary has not always coincided with the meetings. However here in Coleraine I was able to join such a group. We have read a variety of books from Peter James’ ‘Perfect People’ (a take on the territory profitable mined by Aldous Huxley’s novel ‘Brave New World’), to John Steinbeck’s ‘East of Eden’ (a story that manages to provide a provocative take on American history and re – write the book of Genesis!) and each book has brought its opportunities and its challenges. We were recently discussing Celeste Ng’s novel ‘Little Fires Everywhere’ – which is not a book I would normally read (which is the part of the reason to go to a reading group!) and I was struck again by the singular quality of what happens when a group of people sit around a text. The conversation and engagement with the text summoned up a time of real communication, and the bridge was the text. I have also noticed this happen when people sit with a story or a text from the bible; something amazing happens. There is learning and understanding and it all takes place as views, opinions (and disagreements) are exchanged – in fact I think out of all the work I’ve done as a minister the best work of all has been the privilege of sitting with the bible in the company of others. Reading has always been important to me; it has given me comfort, challenge, illumination and above all it has opened out the world (or worlds) for me. The reading group has become a valuable place for me, and having books chosen for me has brought its own challenges and opportunities. So here’s to the next book!

(Thanks to the members of the reading group at Coleraine Library, and to Charlie Henry for suggesting this subject for a post).