Please… shoot the messenger!

October 14, 2016


I haven’t added to this blog for over 5 years. Today something happened that made me look for somewhere to express my feelings. This seems as good a place as any.

On my way home from a brief shopping trip in Croydon, I walked to West Croydon tram stop and was approached by two men handing out small bits of paper. Out of interest, I took one. As I suspected, it was a home-grown religious tract.

‘Religious tract’ has to be a loose description, it was religious… it was a tract… but as a piece of communication it was a dismal failure any way you look at it. And it was being distributed on behalf of a major Christian denomination.

It was a scrap of paper, roughly trimmed to about one-eighth of a sheet of A4. On the paper was a stream of apparently unconnected scripture verses and comments. Scripture references were abbreviations – unhelpful for anyone unfamiliar with the Bible.

Perhaps it was designed, not as a medium for sharing the gospel but as a talking point – a conversation starter? No. As soon as I took hold of the note they dashed off to distribute more of these bits of paper elsewhere. No attempt at conversation.

Normally we say “don’t shoot the messenger” – meaning the person carrying the message is only doing his duty… faithfully delivering information. And if you have a problem with the message you take it up with the sender. In this case I have to seriously question what message has been delivered.

Let’s look at what has actually been communicated. Firstly, the words themselves, though mainly scripture, do not engage the reader – there is no ‘story’, nothing to help the reader relate to the content. So if the tract is connected to the church, it communicates that the church has nothing to say, no point of common interest with the reader. The tract ends “If you are interested and would like to join xxxxxxx, please contact…” Why should the reader be interested? Nothing interesting has been said. Secondly, the quickfire  manner in which the leaflets are distributed says “we have no interest in you, we just need to get these pieces of paper out to as many people as possible”.

So, shoot the messenger? I commend the individuals for recognising that the message must be delivered – and for being prepared to do something about it when so many Christians are too complacent or frozen with fear to share the Good News. However, I do not believe that all publicity is good publicity, and that to communicate badly can undermine the message.

The real point of this I suppose is the challenge it faces me with. Like many people, I do not find it easy to share my faith ‘cold’. And while I firmly believe in the value of good communication tools I have to concede they are just the medium – the message is best passed on person to person from personal experience. It’s going to mean reaching beyond my comfort zone but who says comfort is important anyway?

What is the Good News? Ask me.

What a riot

August 10, 2011

Reeves Corner - Wed am

The wanton destruction of parts of my hometown has moved me to put fingers to keys once again.

We first became aware of the unfolding unrest on Monday night. A text from my daughter at 9pm got us to switch channels to watch the live news pictures of Reeves Corner furniture store burning to the ground. We could smell smoke from the burning Croydon buildings from where we live in Addiscombe.

A tragedy – under any circumstances. More so because of the stupidity of the act. What has it achieved apart from destroying a family business and putting 15 families out of work? Some fame and kudos for the 21-year-old arrested in connection with the incident. Incident… that word makes it sound so trivial!

A teenage girl says ‘we were showing the rich and the police we can do what we want’. She clearly does not have the common sense to understand that people doing ‘whatever they want’ will ultimately put her own life in danger as anarchy rises. Is that really an environment she wants to live in? To whom will she turn when she is threatened if there are no police… and there is no rule of law?

I do not believe that this looting has a coherent strategy for the majority of troublemakers – most of those involved will not have thought this through even if they have the capacity to. ‘Showing the rich and the police we can do what we want’ is just a convenient banner under which to march. For most of the rioters and looters, involvement will have been spontaneous – because it felt good to do something rebellious – on the level of having a cream cake whilst on a diet. ‘Let’s go out tonight and have fun’!

That is one of the very worrying aspects of this – that those young people are not able to see how horribly inappropriate this sort of ‘fun’ is.

Many commentators will offer political and social explanations, but at the root of this, most of those involved will have become involved because it felt good.

Despite appearances, the rioting didn’t just happen. The link to the Mark Duggan shooting in Tottenham is extremely tenuous. It is more likely the shooting was a convenient springboard for a strategy devised by a few, worked out in advance, that took advantage of the power of social media. A criminal flash mob.

Something unplanned would flare up and die away – the persistence of this disorder suggests an organised attempt at creating chaos. The media reported groups of people at East Croydon station directing ‘would be’ troublemakers to the locations of the disturbance.

Just as a child pushes the boundaries to see how far he can go, the looters have tested the police and it appears that the ‘long’ arm of the law does not stretch far enough these days. Is it inconceivable that someone is watching closely and noting how large a crowd and how many simultaneous riots it takes to push the forces of law and order beyond the limits of their capability?

Sinister forces are at work today.

Christmas spirit – it’s an illusion now

December 26, 2010

Well, Christmas has come and gone with all the grace of a hit and run driver. For a while a distant rumble – then the sudden impact followed by a fading silhouette rapidly disappearing into the distance.

With each year the more prepared I should be for this phenomenon – the less prepared I am. There is much I look forward to in Christmas and much I enjoy. The most precious is time spent with friends and family.

But there is much I despise about the season. For instance, the commercial machine that creates pressure to buy, buy, buy.  Eat, eat, eat. Drink, drink, drink. And the myth of Christmas spirit.

Well it is Christmas…” – when one needs an excuse to do someone some good. “Where’s your Christmas spirit?” – when someone else clearly prefers not to.

Why Christmas? Shouldn’t we do good all the time? Why cordon off a small area of the year for going the second mile? Perhaps it’s that we are confronted with, maybe even humbled by the account of God entering this world as a baby in less than comfortable circumstances. But I am confused. We know it is doubtful that Jesus was born on 25 December, and quite possibly the date corresponds with Roman or pagan festivals. So insisting that Christmas is Christian property doesn’t necessarily ring true. More likely the association is due to the enterprise of someone who saw an opportunity to build a Christian celebration on the back of a jamboree that already existed in the social calendar.

I’m all for taking opportunities. But I wonder whether the truth of the incarnation has been too heavily overgrown at Christmas now with the weeds of commerce and myth.

The birth of Jesus is a wonder and a miracle, and in no way depends on Christmas or any other occasion for its seal of authenticity. Is it heresy to suggest that our celebration and proclamation be moved from the bed of weeds and planted in good soil elsewhere – away from the confusion of legend and half-truth? Or, to change the metaphor, is it too tightly stitched into the fabric to be unpicked at this late stage?

What is Christmas spirit? What is the true meaning of Christmas? These days there doesn’t seem to be a clear answer. It can be what you want it to be.

I’ve had a lovely day with my family. I’m no Cromwell or Scrooge. I’m just reflecting for a few moments before turning out the light.


Good news: If nobody sees you, it’s not a crime

November 22, 2010

Sunday Times journalist, Matt Rudd reports on the new ‘cyber-anti-parking’ measures being introduced in the UK.

Centrally operated CCTV cameras are being used to spot illegal parkers and penalty tickets are being issued without a traffic warden being anywhere near your car.

It seems there are some who feel this remote approach is not ‘cricket’ – you can’t negotiate with a camera, you certainly can’t threaten it!

Head of the AA’s roads and transport policy, Paul Watters, says “…it simply isn’t fair if you’re getting a ticket from a camera you may not even have noticed.”

The sort of argument has been applied by those caught by out-of-sight speed cameras. “It’s not fair, if I had known there was a camera, I would have kept to the speed limit.”

Aren’t we missing something? If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? If an illegal act is committed but no-one sees it – is it still wrong?

Can we imagine the courts allowing a defense of “I’m sorry I didn’t see the policeman/camera/traffic warden.” “OK, just be more careful next time – make sure nobody’s watching you.”

Surely wrong is wrong whether it is observed or not.

A walk in the park

August 8, 2010

Had a delightful Sunday afternoon stroll through Crystal Palace Park – how I love the Victorian architecture, or what’s left of it. What a pity it’s been allowed to go to ruin (I don’t suppose the fire in 1936 helped much). Even the presence of summer Sunday visitors seems not to diminish the aura of mystery surrounding the arches of the Italian terraces and sphinx.

From there to the maze. Apparently one of the biggest in the UK, it looks so inviting from the outside. Once in, all sense of direction is lost. Then there are choices to be made – turn left or right, double back or keep going. It is tempting to find someone who looks like they know where they are going and follow them – until you meet someone equally determined coming from the opposite direction. Are they going in the wrong direction or are you? The proof will be in who finds the centre. A bit like life really.

Every vote is precious

May 8, 2010

ballot boxAs I write, Great Britain has a hung parliament. Deals are being struck; we await the outcome with some trepidation.

One of the greatest tragedies in this election was the number of people prevented from voting through no fault of their own. To stand in a queue for over two hours and then to be turned away without having voted is frustrating in the extreme. By all accounts, such a large turnout was obviously unexpected.

If we are a democracy, and a fair society, then every vote is of value and every vote must count. That is why the voting arrangements must be made on the expectation that every voter will turn out, rather than a guess at how many might come and vote.

I am surprised that in this age of IT that we are still required to scratch a cross with a 2b pencil on to our ballot sheets. I don’t doubt a move to electronic registration of votes would be expensive, and of course, there would be security issues to overcome, but the benefits would be enormous. Picture the scene…Fred Bloggs walks to his nearest polling station (could be around the corner from home, or close to work). He puts his polling card through a card reader, which verifies his identity, ward, and right to vote. Then he makes simple selections on a touch screen in his booth, removes his card and hands it to an official to ensure it isn’t used more than once. Hey presto, vote cast! At the end of polling the results are uploaded to a central office where the votes are counted electronically and results collated. The reduced number of people needed to run the operation, at least in part, would mitigate the cost. Ah well, next time maybe.

I am fascinated by how people arrive at their decision as to who to vote for.

Self-interest. Voting this way will provide the best material future for me and my family.

Heritage. My dad voted thus, my granddad did and now so am I

Identity. People like me vote this way, to do anything else would be a betrayal of my class or roots.

Prejudice. I don’t like the other lot, I’ll vote this way just to prevent them getting in.

Ideology. This party stands for the things I hold dear

Policy. This party will carry out policies that are in the interest of the nation as a whole.

Integrity. I trust this party to act honourably. Not to say one thing and do another.

My suspicion is that many, if not most, will find their reasons nearer the top of the list than the bottom.

The cloud of unknowing

April 30, 2010

Hoarding seen on the outskirts of Tavira. Haven’t a clue what it’s advertising but you would have thought a bit of sensitivity was in order. Couldn’t they cover it with a sheet or something until all the stranded tourists had gone home?

I thought it was St Francis, but according to Wikipedia it was Reinhold Niebuhr who wrote,

God, grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
The courage to change the things that I can;
And the wisdom to know the difference.

I have just returned from the longest ’short break’ I have ever had. Iceland – not content with providing economic gloom for those who had invested in their banks – surprised us again with a different sort of gloom in the shape of a cloud of volcanic ash that grounded planes destined for Northern Europe from all over the world.

We planned to snatch a week’s break in Portugal, leaving on 12 April with every intention of flying back home on 19 April.

We arrived to some of the worst weather the Algarve has seen for a long while and whilst enjoying a mid-week, mid-morning, mid-rainshower coffee in Tavira, we overheard a group of travellers discussing the volcanic ash crisis which had just erupted.

‘No worries’ we thought, ‘still 5 days to go, it will all have blown over by the time we are ready to head home’. History proved us wrong! Come the departure date our flight was cancelled and a further ten days was added to our stay.

In these litigious times, our reaction is to look for someone to blame. But on this occasion there is no obvious candidate, there are only those who made the situation better and those who made it worse. For some time to come we will hear the stories of the heroes who made sacrifices to help reunite families, and of the opportunists and profiteers who did quite nicely at the expense of everyone else thank you.

For me, perhaps, the greatest surprise was how I felt on being told that ten days hence was the soonest our airline could provide us with a flight home. We didn’t accept their offer immediately, expecting there to be an alternative. We tried a car hire firm who made it clear they wouldn’t let us beyond the outskirts of the town (don‘t even think of trying to drive home!) So off to a local travel agent where we met a couple who had been told that train tickets to Paris were booked up until 28 April. The travel agent shook his head and explained that his contacts were not picking up their phones. The local bus station was rumoured to have been besieged by a crowd of hundreds trying to get from Faro to Lisbon to Madrid…

Within two hours we had snapped up the air tickets previously offered and arranged with our travel company to extend our hotel booking a further ten days (they weren’t prepared to make any concessions on cost, so we ended up paying a higher rate).

And then suddenly…all went quiet. We phoned but were kept in a queue for an hour and a half as we tried to get confirmation of our flight from the travel company. “Sorry. All our engines are busy helping other toddlers,” said the recorded message cheerfully – or that’s what it sounded like. We never got connected.

The emotional impact was far greater than I ever would have expected. Powerlessness, helplessness, abandonment… possibly even bereavement, all seem exaggerations now but at the time were very real. Uncertainty…would we face a further cancellation at the end of ten days? The meagre news reports available informed us that there was another volcano that could blow at any time. Anxiety – who would we be letting down?

I clutched at the straws of history to find comparisons. The displaced Jews of World War 2, the Israelites in Egypt, my father’s family flung into a civilian POW camp in Shanghai 1941 when the Japanese took over. All of these are of a profoundly different magnitude, but they helped me earth my experience in something.

Necessity found us in a launderette, where we got talking to a young couple who had been similarly stranded. They did not have the plastic or the financial flexibility that we had and had been forced to relocate to the cheapest accommodation they could find and to get a loan of several hundred pounds from the boy’s mum back home to see them through. There must have been thousands more who did not even have that sort of resource to fall back on.

By nature, I am not a patient person. So perhaps the greatest challenge to me has been to find the serenity to accept the things I could not change. Maybe, just maybe, this testing has stretched my ability to be content in whatever circumstances I am found.

As for the people who made the decision to close the airports of Northern Europe – who can blame them? Whatever decision they made someone would be unhappy. At least erring on the side of caution may have prevented some loss of life.

Wonderful weather made the extension of our break more bearable, which was then clouded by a painful ankle – sprained on the cobbled streets of Tavira on our penultimate evening. A sort of cloud, within a silver lining, within a cloud.

God sent an easter egg

March 8, 2010

I’m feeling rather nervous. Following my brutal criticism of inane church posters (see blog of Feb 19), I have been asked to produce – you guessed it – a poster for our Easter services! So my friend Martin and I got our heads together and came up with the above. I mention Martin because not only was he a great help but he is also someone to share the blame egg with.

The poster is 4 feet high, so this little thumbnail does not really do it justice. The white writing beneath the headline reads:

The buzz from a chocolate egg will last a little while – it may change your waistline, but it won’t change your life. At Easter we celebrate the death and resurrection of someone who can change your life… forever. Jesus. Taste the difference!

So what do you think? Have we fallen into the same trap as so many others or have we managed to create something a little different? Your comments will let us know.

The knock at the door

March 1, 2010

This might end up as a bit of a rant.

I have just walked the entire length of the house and down the stairs to answer a knock at the front door. It was a woman who wanted to ask me questions for ‘market research’ purposes.

I would have minded less if exactly the same woman had not called with exactly the same request less than a week ago, and that the purpose of her visit was not to collect information that would be useful to people who wanted to send me information about things I don’t want!

I told her the first time “No thank you, I was busy, I didn’t want to participate and coming back later with the same request would not be acceptable”. Seems she didn’t make a note of that.

Marketing tactics have taken a not-so-subtle turn from plain advertising to enquiries that can be downright intrusive.

Frequently, despite the little yellow notice under my door bell saying I don’t want anything, someone will call saying, “I’m not trying to sell you something…” a half-truth if ever I heard one!

The conversation goes something like this…

Visitor: “Hello, my name’s Tracy, I’m not trying to sell you anything…”

Me (not convinced): “Oh really?”

Visitor: “Are you the homeowner?”

Me: “Why do you want to know?

Visitor: “We have a team of surveyors in your area this week, inspecting the walls of properties like yours and I would like to arrange for you to have a free inspection”.

Me: “What will you do if you find the wall is less than perfect?”

Visitor: “My firm will come round and coat the wall with a special polymer paint to make it weatherproof”.

Me: “Free?”

Visitor: “Well…no”

Me: “So you are selling something!”

Visitor: “Well, no, I’m not…”

I haven’t got a conclusion. I just wish they’d tell the truth.

More talk

February 27, 2010

I have created a new page which contains posts based on talks given over the years. At the top of the column to your right, click on talks, or pick a topic. I will add to these from time to time.