Author Archives: philsteer

Talk: God’s Call to Littleness

In January I had the honour of speaking at Emmanuel church, Billericay, on God’s Call to Littleness.

If you’d like to, you can listen to my talk here.

Thank you for your interest!

Up Escalator

Stange Kind of Love

On the up escalator
You’re on the up escalator
But you’re living in an upside down world

Up Escalator by Love and Money
From the album Strange Kind of Love

Love and Money are, to my mind, one of the most underrated and neglected bands of the late 80s and early 90s.

A rock/soul/funk band formed in 1985 in Glasgow, Scotland … in their initial nine years together they recorded four moderately successful albums … and had six chart hits in the United Kingdom. (Wikipedia

I have been a fan of their music ever since I first heard the superb single Halleluiah Man on my car radio sometime in 1988 – I couldn’t get myself out of the car till the song finished, and then couldn’t get it out of my head.

I have two of the four albums – Strange Kind of Love (1988) and Dogs in Traffic (1991) – and listening to the former recently I was struck for the first time (in nearly 30 years!) by the lines quoted earlier:

On the up escalator
You’re on the up escalator
But you’re living in an upside down world

The songs protagonist is climbing their way to worldly “success”, crushing anyone who steps in their way. But their climb to success is actually a descent to the depths, because they’ve got their priorities all wrong – they’re “living in an upside down world”.

What struck me was the fact that we are all of us living in an upside down world. Because ultimately this world is God’s kingdom, an upside-down kingdom, a topsy-turvy kingdom, in which:

  • the first are last and the last are first;
  • the one who rules is like the one who serves;
  • those who seem to be weaker are indispensable;
  • those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted;
  • the greatest is a little child

Hence, in order to go up in this upside down world, we need to go down in the eyes of the world. To humble ourselves as Jesus did. Seeking not to become Something or Someone, but rather seeking to serve, as one of the least and the last.

Willing to walk the way of littleness, to greatness in God’s kingdom.

Because we’re living in an upside down world.

Do you want to go up in the world? Click To Tweet We're living in an upside down world. Click To Tweet

I explore this idea further in a chapter from my book, which you can read here.

For a Biblical basis for the above, see Mark 9:35, Luke 22:26, 1 Corinthians 12:22, Matthew 23:12, Matthew 18:4, Philippians 2:5–8.

I apologise James Grant, singer-songwriter of Love and Money, if I have misused his lyrics for this post – I can only say that this is what came to me as I listened to them for the umpteenth time.

 

Christmas is for the children

Advent calendar

“Christmas is for the children.”

Certainly it’s true that children embrace Advent and Christmas in a way that few adults are able to do. And little wonder, when there’s so much for them to get excited about!

There’s the timeless story of the Nativity, with the shepherds and the angels, the wise men and the star, Mary & Joseph journeying to Bethlehem and finding ‘no room in the inn’, the stable with its animals, and the baby Jesus, laying in a manger.

There’s Father Christmas, in his workshop in the frozen north, with the elves preparing the presents that Santa will deliver on his magic sleigh, pulled through the air by a team of reindeer, guided by red-nosed Rudolph.

There are all the Christmas decorations, the trees and the tinsel, the baubles and the lights, strung across streets, hung from the houses, winking from the windows.

There are Advent calendars to count down the days, with windows to open revealing pictures or chocolates, each open window a sign that Christmas is getting closer.

There are cards to make and to send & receive, perhaps via a post box in the school foyer (does this happen anymore?!) There are carols to sing and perhaps a play to perform (be that a traditional Nativity or something more ‘unusual’!)

There are treats and sweets and good things to eat, and of course there’s the anticipation of Christmas morning, with the thrill of presents to unwrap (recognising that, sadly, not every child is so fortunate).

So yes, Christmas is for the children. But must it be only for the children? Couldn’t it be for us adults too – for the child within us all?

Because we need ‘the spirit of Christmas’ just as much as the children do – and arguably more so.

It’s all too easy to become weighed down by the inevitable cares and concerns of adulthood – to become jaded and hardened and cynical.

How much more do we need the things that Advent and Christmas offer us: the anticipation and the excitement, the wonder and the awe, the joy and the laughter, the mystery and the magic?

Now, some might contend that the Christmas celebrations far too commercialised, that they ignore ‘the true meaning of Christmas’, that what they offer is artificial and superficial, rather than true mystery and magic and joy.

And perhaps there is some truth in this. But as adults are can become so closed to such childlike things that we need something to open us up again.

The ‘artificial and superficial’ of Advent and Christmas can help to change our minds and soften our hearts, and so make us more receptive to the real thing,

Of course, you cannot pretend to a childhood naivety that you no longer possess. You cannot truly see Christmas as a child.

But perhaps you could start by recalling your childhood, and remembering what you found special about Advent and Christmas?

Perhaps you could revive some Christmas traditions – or create some new ones?

Perhaps you could allow the children themselves to show you this season afresh, through a child’s eyes?

Whatever you do, try to set aside your adult reservations and scepticism, open yourself to the ‘spirit of Christmas’ and seek out opportunities to enter into all the good and childlike things this season has to offer.

(See here for a few suggestions of materials that might help you journey more intentionally through the coming season.)

Materials for Advent and Christmas

Advent resources

Prompted by Tanya Marlow’s Advent Resources 2016 post, I thought I’d share some of the things I read and watch and listen to during Advent and Christmas. Even if none strike a particular chord, perhaps you could consider what might help you journey intentionally through the coming season?

Email series

Each Advent since 2013 I have signed up for Brian Draper’s Advent 20 email series. The daily reflections and suggested responses inspire and gently challenge, and help me to keep my focus amidst all the busyness. The series is shaped by the replies Brian encourages and receives, and which he shares with those taking part. In this way there is very much a sense of us as an online community, travelling through Advent together. I’m looking forward to this year’s journey – why not join us?

Books

For the past couple of years I have appreciated the daily poems and reflections of Haphazard by Starlight by Janet Morely, but this year I am looking forward to Malcolm Guite’s Waiting on the Word (both books mentioned by Tanya). I wish I had the time and head-space and heart-space for both!

Advent calendar

I don’t think there’s been a year when I haven’t had an Advent calendar (and I’m almost 52!) As well as taking me back to the excitement of childhood, it’s good to notice and mark the days’ passing. I like a calendar with a traditional nativity scene (as my mum got me when I was a child) ideally with images from the Christmas story hidden behind the windows, and certainly no chocolate!

We also have an Advent candle, which we try to remember to light each day – and to extinguish before it burns down too far!

DVDs

I aim to watch the BBC mini-series The Nativity in weekly parts throughout Advent (although, if I remember correctly, I did once end up watching it all at once on Christmas Eve!) Some might argue with the way the tale is told (particularly, perhaps, Joseph’s reaction) but for me it brings the various (sometimes conflicting) strands together in a way that emphasises the reality of it all – even if it didn’t happen exactly the way it’s depicted.

Nativity!, Elf (of course!) and Arthur Christmas have also become family traditions – and each, in its own way, reflects something of the spirit of the season (as well as being great fun!)

Music

On Christmas Eve I listen to the A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge on BBC Radio 4, whilst wrapping presents with a Whisky Mac to hand.

For traditional carols with a more contemporary twist I enjoy Annie Lennox’s Christmas Cornucopia (as does my teenage daughter, but not my wife or sons!)

I will also be listening to two CDs by the early music vocal ensemble, Stile Antico – Puer natus est: Tudor music for Advent and Christmas and (recently ordered) A Wondrous Mystery: Renaissance Choral Music for Christmas.

 

However you spend the coming season, may you have an enjoyable, meaningful and blessed time.

Advent reading

Current CoverThere are lots of great Advent books out there, written by authors far better than me. But if you’re still looking for something to read during the Advent season, how about As a Child: God’s Call to Littleness?

After all, at a time when we remember and celebrate the Incarnation – when God “made himself nothing … being made in human likeness”, being born as a baby in Bethlehem – when better to consider Jesus’ call that we too “change and become like little children”?

The book contains 20 short chapters (if you include the Preface) and so fits neatly into the run-up to Christmas – a chapter per day, with a few days to spare! Each chapter focuses on a single word from a relevant Bible passage, and explores what that word, that concept, that idea might mean in the context of this call to childlikeness.

The book is available in paperback, Kindle and other eBook formats from the usual online suppliers. Wordery has the paperback available for £5.96 with free worldwide delivery, whilst the Kindle version is available for £1.84, $2.99 or equivalent (prices correct at time of writing). Links to other suppliers are available here.

Whatever you read (or don’t!) this Advent, may there be time to step aside from all the busyness, and prepare yourself for the coming Christmas. (On which note, I would thoroughly recommend Brian Draper’s Advent 20 email series – do take a look and join us on the journey.)

Interview (a lesson in littleness)

Paris Tuileries Garden Facepalm statue

I had a job interview yesterday. It didn’t go well!

I left my last job a few months ago, having decided it was time for a  change. I intentionally left without another role to go to, in order to take a bit of a break (after 30 years of work) and to make the time and head-space to consider my next move.

I’d been told that the interview was to be in three parts: a hands-on Excel (spreadsheet) test, a short written test, and a face-to-face interview. I guessed I might struggle with the written test, as it would probably relate to the business itself, which was an area I’d not been involved with before. On the other hand, I’ve used Excel extensively for years, so that would be no problem at all; and the face-to-face interview would then give me an opportunity to highlight what have to offer and hopefully alleviate any concerns about the gaps in my knowledge and experience.

Or so I thought. The written test and face-to-face interview went pretty much as expected. But the Excel test was a disaster! The task was (not unreasonably) based around the company’s business – but this being an area I am not especially familiar with, I spent far too long trying to get to grips with the questions and formulating an appropriate approach to answering them. In the end I didn’t complete the task, and what I did complete was not particularly good.

This was one of the main skills that I would bring to the role, and I completely failed to demonstrate my claimed (and indeed, real!) aptitude and ability!

This was, naturally enough, rather disappointing. The role had looked interesting, and (from what I knew) I felt I’d be able to do it well, once I’d learnt a bit more about the business. What’s more, I would have been working within walking distance of home, avoiding the need for a daily commute – which was certain a great added attraction. Without doubt the unmitigated disaster that was my Excel test will have put paid to any chance of me being offered the job.

But it wasn’t just disappointing, it was embarrassing! Indeed, embarrassment was probably my over-riding emotion. To say you are good at something – and to be good at something – and then to fail at it so miserably and so publicly (even if the ‘public’ was only the three people conducting the interview) – that is embarrassing.

I talk a lot about the need for childlikeness and littleness (as you are probably painfully aware!) But such an approach to life involves more than things like play and wonder and joy and awe. It also involves having a a childlike humility – a willingness to set aside our abilities and our achievements, our positions and our power; a giving up our desire to have and our desire to be; a giving up, even, of what we have and what we are.

This is certainly not something that comes easily or naturally. I might truly believe that it is important, but that doesn’t mean it is something I am eager to do. Truth be told, I want childlikeness and littleness on my own terms, and under my control. Which is not what it’s about at all.

Which is why some good came out of yesterday’s Excel test. Yes, it was disappointing; yes, it was embarrassing. But it also gave a glimpse of what it is like when we don’t have what we need, when we can’t make it happen, when we can no longer put on a show of competence and control (recognising that the circumstances were hardly earth-shattering and my discomfort slight).

I’d not have chosen the experience – but it was a little glimpse of littleness.

(You can read my further reflections on childlike humility here).


Image by Alex E. Proimos (http://www.flickr.com/photos/proimos/4199675334/) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Wonder Moon

SupermoonIt surely can’t have escaped your notice that tonight there is to be a supermoon. This phenomenon occurs when a full moon coincides with the Moon’s closest approach to the earth, causing it to appear bigger and brighter than usual.

Tonight the full moon will be closer to earth than it has been since 1948, generating a great deal of interest and anticipation, with many making special plans to see the sight (weather permitting, of course.)

You might also have read that this so-called supermoon is perhaps not so “super” after all. (If not, please stop reading now, bookmark this page, and come back after you have enjoyed the spectacle.)

Contrary to claims that the moon will appear around 14% wider and 30% brighter than usual, in fact it will only be around half that. (The exaggerated claim makes a comparison with a full moon’s furthest approach to earth, not the average.) Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium, has remarked:

“I don’t know, but if you have a 16-inch pizza, would you call that a super pizza compared with a 15-inch pizza?”

I do understand the impulse to correct such misapprehensions and misunderstandings. But why do we find it so necessary? And what might we lose through this obsession with being correct?

In his book View from a Bouncy Castle, Adrian Plass tells of his young daughter, Katy, holding a bluebell in her outstretched hand, shouting “DAFFODIL!! DAFFODIL!!”. Having corrected her gently (“I am as tediously obsessed with accuracy as most parents”) his daughter simply continued, “BLUEBELL!! BLUEBELL!!”. Adrian Plass remarks:

Katy’s joy was being part of the morning and having a beautiful flower, not in anything so trivial as being right.

Fortunately, Katy was too young to be bothered by the correction: “it didn’t change anything important.”. But sadly we adults tend to be rather less resilient when it comes to such things.

How many, I wonder, will have lost something of their excitement on learning that the supermoon is apparently not so “super” after all? Some might even have abandoned their plans for this evening, deciding that it’s not worth making any special effort. And what a pity that would be. It is always worth looking up to the Moon – as people have done throughout human history – and a full moon in particular is always a special sight.

All of which reminds me of a few lines of a poem I wrote some years back:

But now it seems much harder to enjoy such simple things;
To receive with open hands and heart the gifts that each day brings.
No longer just accepted with unconsidered pleasure,
But analysed and categorised, I miss the hidden treasure.

Yes, of course there is a time for analysis, and learning, and understanding (and, indeed, the more we know, the more there is to wonder at).  But there is also a time simply to receive what is set before us; to open our eyes and ears and heart to wonder and awe, and to the joy of being part of this wondrous universe, “not in anything so trivial as being right.”


Image of supermoon by Biswarup Ganguly (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

In days like these?

Newspaper - What's Next?

In my book and on this blog and through my daily life, I try to encourage us to all to become more childlike. Indeed, perhaps more than encourage – urge even – because it is, I believe, absolutely vital for us as individuals and as a society.

But how can we be childlike in days like these? Not simply, is it possible, but is it right? When there is so much pain and suffering, instability and turmoil, uncertainty and fear – surely to be childlike is both impossible and inappropriate?

But I would turn the question around: in days like these, how can we not be childlike? With the world as it is, we need childlikeness more than ever.

This is not to say we should be wilfully naive about what is going on in the world. Sending out his disciples, Jesus tells them to be “as shrewd [wise] as snakes and as innocent [harmless] as doves” (Matthew 10:16). In other words, we are to see what is happening with the wisdom and understanding of adult, but then respond with the goodness and grace of a child.

To be child-like is not to be child-ish. Indeed, much of what is wrong with the world stems from our childish nature: insecure, self-centred and manipulative; easily irritated, angered and offended; petty, resentful and spiteful; and so on… and so on…

This is not what the world needs right now – or, indeed, at any time. Rather, it needs people who will respond with a childlike heart – humble and joyful, and grateful and graceful, and playful and full of wonder.

But how can we be childlike when so much would seem to conspire against it – in the world, in our lives, and in our own childish nature? There is, of course, no easy answer. But I truly believe that we can become more childlike, if we recognise our need and then consciously pursue it.

A couple of things to consider…

A relentless diet of (predominantly bad) news – along with endless speculation about what it might all mean – will almost inevitably suck any childlike spirit from us, and fill us instead with fear and gloom. Without sticking our heads in the sand, we need perhaps to recognise how we are each affected by the news media and moderate our consumption. Certainly we need to ensure that bad news is not the only thing filling our minds. St. Paul, writing to the church at Philippi, gave this instruction and advice:

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. (Philippians 4:8)

And cultivate a playful spirit, by encouraging and welcoming playfulness into your life. Play connects us to the child within, and encapsulates much of what it means to be childlike. Think about it: you cannot be childish and playful – when the tantrums start, the play stops! The more playful we become, the more childlike we become.

And greater childlikeness is certainly what the world needs, in days like these.

 

Remember, remember!

Firework Night bonfire

Remember, remember!
The fifth of November,
The Gunpowder treason and plot;
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!

On the night of 4th November 1605, following a tip-off, a search was made of the undercroft beneath the House of Lords. There the search party discovered a man, later identified as Guy Fawkes, guarding 36 barrels of gunpowder – and so foiled a plot to blow up the building during the State Opening of Parliament the following day.

Had it been successful, this would almost certainly have killed the king (James I of England and VI of Scotland) along with many other senior figures (royalty, aristocracy, judges, bishops and members of the House of Commons). Bonfires were lit across the land to celebrate the king’s survival, and a few months later the introduction of the Observance of 5th November Act enforced an annual public day of thanksgiving for the plot’s failure.

Whilst most people in the UK probably know at least something of the story of the Gunpowder Plot, few if any would now give much than a passing thought to the reason for the festivities around 5th November. It is more often referred to Bonfire Night or Firework Night rather than Guy Fawkes Night, and it is increasingly unusual to see a Guy atop the fire. And this is no bad thing. Changing attitudes led to the repeal of the Observance Act in 1859, and 400-plus years after the event it’s certainly time to move on!

As a child growing up in the 1970s I lived in a small close of fourteen houses. These were new builds and many of the occupants were, like my parents, couples with young families. I have very fond memories of us all gathering together on cold, dark November nights for a communal bonfire and fireworks, warmed by hot jacket potatoes with crispy skins and fluffy insides smothered in melting butter.

Fast forward forty years or so, and on Saturday evening we met with a group of friends for our annual Bonfire Night get together. Our regular hosts supplied the hospitality and the fire and the food, and the rest of us came with fireworks and liquid refreshments (as well as some rather wonderful ‘bonfire cakes’ made by one of our friends daughters).

There is something rather special about standing close to a bonfire, staring into the dancing flames, feeling the heat and smelling the wood-smoke. Something special about the sights and sounds and smells of fireworks, the slight frisson of excitement as we ignite them, and the oohs and aahs as they put on their display. Something special, too, for me, about this continuing tradition, and the ongoing link with my childhood in this annual celebration with family and friends.

Of course, not everyone is fortunate in having a happy childhood – and many, indeed, are scarred for life by their early experiences. But even if this is the case for you, perhaps there is some thing, some person, some time, some place, some activity that evokes a happy memory? Or, if not a happy memory, a yearning even for what you never had?

Such memories (or yearnings) can link us back to our childhood self, to the child who is still a part of us. Not to the childish self – immature, insecure, self-centred, attention seeking, and manipulative – who even now makes his presence felt more often than we’d wish, but to the childlike self – eager, engaged, fascinated, wholehearted, open, awed, playful, humble –  who we all too often keep locked away, out of sight and out of mind.

We need that child. As adults, we are incomplete without them. Indeed, Jesus tells us that we need to ‘change and become like little children’ (Matthew 18:3) So we need to do more than simply remember our childhood self, we need somehow to recall them into the present, to welcome them into our lives here and now, and so recapture something of the childlike spirit we have lost (or perhaps, sadly, hardly ever had).

For me, Bonfire Night is such a time – when I remember my childhood and am childlike once again. But Bonfire Night happens just once a year – and is certainly not special to everyone. So, the question is, how might each one of us introduce more and more childlike moments into each one of our ‘ordinary’ daily lives?

Think back. Remember, remember! What did you love as a child? What did you do as a child? What did you wish you could have done? And what could you still do, now, if you allowed yourself the freedom to do so?

The smaller we are…

The smaller we are, the larger our world.

The smaller we are, the larger our world.