Perfect People Need Not Read This

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I will assume if you are reading this, that you like myself are flawed.  I personally have imperfection down to an art form. But the good news is that means we can improve.

Helmut Schmidt, the former West German Chancellor put it well when he remarked, “The biggest room in the world is the room for improvement.”  Most of us have loads of potential, and with opportunity and encouragement, growth is not only possible, but probable.  If I did not believe this I would be neither a teacher or minister.  My entire professional life is based on encouraging others to do better, to grow, and to come one step closer to “perfection.”  Okay, I did have the one school prefect that reversed the letters on her badge to read “PERFECT,” but most are still making their way there.

It is our failures and setbacks in life that show us the way.  If we were convinced of our perfection then we would have no motivation to try new things, or to face challenges. After all, it you are perfect, nothing would ever be a challenge. Right? Benjamin Franklin put it thus, “Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement, and success have no meaning.”

So flawed individual, how shall we proceed today?  May I suggest taking on one small challenge.  If we master it, grand.  If not, use it as the measuring rod of what to achieve next.


Responding to the Voice

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There are many cases in scripture where a prophet was addressed by the Almighty. While this at times came through the agency of an angel, there are other times when the contact was more direct.

In Genesis 6 we read, “13 So God said to Noah, ‘I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth. 14 So make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in it and coat it with pitch inside and out. . . .  22 Noah did everything just as God commanded him’.” There is no conversation.  Noah hears God, and obeys.

Similarly in Genesis 12: 1f, “The Lord had said to Abram, ‘Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. . . .’ So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Harran.” Again, speechless obedience.

This is not to say that Abram/Abraham did not speak to God.  There is the example of Genesis 18:16-33 where the patriarch pleads with God. But his obedience is shown time and again, culminating with the sacrifice account of Genesis 22:1-19.

Samuel gives us another insight. In I Samuel 3 we read, “The boy Samuel ministered before the Lord under Eli. In those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions.One night Eli, whose eyes were becoming so weak that he could barely see, was lying down in his usual place. The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the house of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called Samuel. Samuel answered, “Here I am.” And he ran to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.” But Eli said, “I did not call; go back and lie down.” So he went and lay down.Again the Lord called, “Samuel!” And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.” “My son,” Eli said, “I did not call; go back and lie down.” Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord: The word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. A third time the Lord called, “Samuel!” And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.” Then Eli realized that the Lord was calling the boy. So Eli told Samuel, “Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place. 10 The Lord came and stood there, calling as at the other times, “Samuel! Samuel!” Then Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

“SPEAK, FOR YOUR SERVANT IS LISTENING.” Three times he runs to attend to his teacher and master.  He was attentive, conscientious, and loyal.  And the Lord spoke again.  He was ready.  He was listening.  He heard and responded to the Voice.  Are we that open to a call.  Noah, Abraham, and Samuel were ready.

Isaiah  goes a step further. He too listened. But not only obeyed, but volunteered!  “Then I [Isaiah] heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I. Send me!'”

How will you respond when called?  Are you listening?


Using Journalism Tools in Public Speaking


How do you grab them from the beginning? Maybe by trying a “Nut Graph.” A nut graph (or graf) is an editorial tool used in journalism. It starts a sentence or paragraph that tells what your story is about (a kind of summary), but then builds with elaboration, counter arguments, and twists which bring your full message into focus.

Your introduction is the hook. The audience is immediately thinking, “This story, presentation, or address ‘is for me.’” This is called the “lead.” In traditional news reporting it tries to answer the who, what, where, why, and when briefly and succinctly. In a speech, it need not contain all these elements, but it still needs to capture you listeners’ expectations of relevance.

Remember to tease and entice. The lead is not the whole of your magic. So don’t give away the ending to your story in the nut graph. Then as you develop it, think what points your listeners will want to know next. Be sure to address these points. It might be useful to outline these yourself in the preparation stage for your speech.

In doing this though, remember flow, don’t over burden the content. Make the message yours, but in a way that they are teased into thinking, it’s “theirs.”

Finally, have fun. If you are enjoying it, it gives your audience a good reason to keep listening.

The Nut: Lead, hook, develop and entertain.


Picturesque Castle Combe


CC Village 4

Castle Combe in Wiltshire is noted as being one of the most picturesque villages in the Cotswolds, if not in all England.   It was famously used as a film location for the 2011 movie War Horse.  

Its medieval market cross, and local stone house give it a yesteryear charm, and the church has an exhibit based on the War Horse experience.  The river runs down one side of the village, and the Cotswolds provides a wonderful backdrop.

The Castle Combe in and its neighbour The White Heart provide good food, and a place to have a cuppa and to take in the pleasant village surroundings.  Though it is a bit of a hilly walk, Castle Combe provides discoveries of architecture and nature for those willing to seek them out.  Several of the small businesses and residents in the village centre offer local produce, jams, and honey for sale.

Castle Combe Pump

For hikers, photographers, and travel enthusiasts this is a location to put on your travel map.


All Equal

In Amos chapters 1 and 2, the prophet quotes God with a recurring phrase, ““For three sins of [country], even for four, I will not relent.”  People of God are often quick to note the sins of the world, but are at times blind to their own failings.  But here in Amos, Judah and Israel are given the same warning as Moab, Gaza, and Tyre.  God will not relent over their sins.

In the same way that Jesus told the gathered crowd to let the one without sin cast the first stone, so to should we in “glass houses” avoid doing so.  God sees our iniquities as well as those of those who have no relationship with Him.  Our act, so to say, should be all the more together, as we are what the world sees of God’s message.

Do as I do, not as I say goes along way.  Let us be that shinning example today, and remember apart from grace ““For three sins of [your name here], even for four, I will not relent.”


Soft Power


Paul writes in 2 Timothy 1:7, “For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.” Here is a man writing from prison, admonishing Timothy to live with power.

Today religion in general, and Christianity in particular are seen as personal lifestyle choices, and in many places in the Western world are not so much despised as they are ignored as irrelevant.

The challenge for Timothy and Paul was an open hostility to the message of the Gospel.  But, Paul here notes that this was not to make them timid, because it was difficult.  He also noted that the characteristics necessary to make advances in such a world were provided by the Spirit: love and self-discipline.

Isn’t this still the case with us?  We are called to not be timid of our calling, just as Timothy was.  Our views, or at least the world’s perception of our views may be unpopular.  Here is where the love and self-discipline comes in.  In John 13, Jesus said,  “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”  This testimony of love should be an overriding principle in our lives.  We need to live beyond our narrow theological differences, by finding what we share.   And this does not mean we should be accepting of blatant sin, but rather to address these issues in a spirit of love. This is even more true of issues of interpretation. In living accordingly by love, many of the perceived “intolerances” attributed to us will be shown to be false perceptions.

So we should not be timid with the Gospel, but we also need not to be bullies with it either.  Soft power goes a long way. Francis de Sales put it well when he said, “Nothing is so strong as gentleness, nothing so gentle as real strength.” 

Here the self-discipline come in.  We need to live the life we profess.  Our example is more powerful than our words.  In acting in a controlled, spiritually focused way we don’t send mixed messages.  It also means that we live a life controlled by love.  We are not here to condemn others.  It’s not our job.  We can teach, even admonish, but ultimately we need to show.

Let us not be timid in showing His and our love. That’s where real power lies.




Yad Vashem

I had the honour of studying at the International School for Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.  This is an evocative campus to study in.  The bright white and honey coloured stones, and the brilliant Israeli sunshine stand in contrast to what is remembered and taught there.

The central memorial and museum is one of the world’s great collections of archival history and artifacts of the Holocaust.  The millions of visitors are given heartrending and thought provoking testimonies by the survivors and in the legacy words of the victims.  These latter accounts left via diaries and letters are all the more powerful because of their authors’ absences.

The surrounding campus is dotted with memorials, from the Warsaw Square to the Children’s Memorial.  The Valley of the Communities in its honeyed stone records the locations of Jewish communities lost in the Shoah.  In some cases all that remains of these communities is the name written in Hebrew and in the native language of the locality.

The Avenue of the Righteous (and garden) commemorates the non-Jewish heroes, who risked lives and livelihoods to hid, aid, and rescue Jews in those terrible days.  Many know of Oscar Schindler, and Corrie ten Boom, but there are so many more Righteous Among the Nations remembered here.

                           Museum                           Valley of Communities               Ave of the Righteous

This truly is a place to visit, contemplate, and remember.


Grabbing Their Attention

Grabbing attention comes in many forms. For some it is a matter of how you present yourself, the theatrics of the moment. I once made a sermon on “how not to sale” something, entitled “Would You Buy A Used Chariot From This Man?” If the title didn’t catch attention, the fact that I came attired (in the late 1990s) in a loud 1970s vintage plaid “used car salesman” blazer.

For others, it is the all about your own excitement on the topic. Enthusiasm is contagious. Your pitch, body language, and your true belief in your message, often captures the mind and mood of the audience.

But, “for more bang for the buck” try silence. Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson captures this approach. “Wilson stopped and stood silent. Inattention dies a quick and sure death when a speaker does that.” Better still it works. Not too long mind you, 5 seconds or so will do. Any longer and it seems an eternity (at least to the speaker), and any shorter and the audience may think you lost your train of thought. But a well measured, purposeful pause will often pay off.

Give it – – – – – – – – – – a try.




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Illustration of Twain at the Lotos Club by Pierre Brissaud from ad for Old Taylor Kentucky Whiskey
from Feb. 1937 COUNTRY LIFE
from the Dave Thomson collection

Marrakech: Of Mosques, Markets, and Orange Juice

One of the places I had always wanted to see and experience was Marrakech. It did not let down my expectations.  The beautiful mosque, the tile-work, and life more generally were a wonder to behold.

The Jamaa el Fna was full of life.  I enjoyed the fresh orange juice from the vendors, and had couscous at a street cafe.  I watched the colourful water-sellers, henna ladies, dancers, and snake charmers.  I was approached by the one-eyed basket salesman offering straw hats and wicker ware.  Even the donkey-drawn rubbish wagon was a sight worth notice.  I sat in the street cafe and watched it all unfold.

Later I ventured into the markets to pick up some gifts and souvenirs. This was just as rich an experience.  My step-daughter had wanted an “Aladdin Lamp,” and I readily found one but even after the barter was a little short.  So off to the cash machine (ATM), this was an adventure itself.  It was a longer walk than expected, but more interestingly the stall-holder rather than missing the sale, was waiting for me on his moped next to the bank.  He had the lamp already wrapped and ready, repeated the agreed price, then added, “For 100 more I give you the genie.”

This entrepreneurial spirit was also shown when I went to find a tablecloth. My wife and I had admired one at a North African restaurant in England, so I was tasked with finding a similar one on my trip.  After checking several shops and stalls, I was told by a vendor, that his cousin had exactly what I had described.  So again a long walk through alleys and market stalls.  When we arrived, the cousin indeed had a cloth very similar to what I sought.  The problem was it was rectangular and my table round.  When I pointed this out the cousin was quick off the mark.  He picked up a large pair of shears and said, “Is okay, I will make it round.” I bought it as a rectangle.

Marrakech lives up to its “bucket list” reputation, and I look forward to the opportunity to someday add Casablanca to my “done list.”


A Brief Visit to Jozefow

Travel isn’t always about leisure.  Sometimes it has an element of discovery, self-discovery, and reflection.  Jozefow, Poland is one such destination.

Jozefow is a relatively small village in southeast Poland.  It is near two lakes now largely used for recreation by those in the district, and has large areas of forest nearby.  It was thrust into infamy in the 1940s, however as a one (of the all too many) killing operations perpetrated by the Nazis.

The particular case of Jozefow was used as the backdrop for Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland.  This book and its thesis that the perpetrators of the Holocaust were by in large “ordinary men,” has been debated by Goldhagen and others, but the underlying events remain the same, no matter what the motivation.

The Jewish community of Jozefow was rounded up taken to the nearby forest and killed. What modern Jozefow leaves us is a synagogue now used as a library, a disused cemetery, a memorial in the forest, and a dark legacy of human inhumanity.

It is a sad to me that hundreds of people use the leisure facilities of the nearby lakes apparently oblivious to the events that occurred only metres away in the forest. Fair enough, it was “a long time ago,” but for those of us “in the know,” let’s not let the memory be lost.