The problem with labels…

Two recent, apparently unrelated, news stories have troubled me for similar reasons. The first concerns the Church of England’s new guidance on tackling bullying in its schools. The Archbishop of Canterbury writes that everyone should be free to explore their identity without being labelled or bullied, including allowing boys to wear tutus and tiaras to wear superhero costumes.

This all sounds very laudable: let’s not label anyone simply by their appearance. However, the context of the report (countering a reported rise in transgender bullying) risks automatically labelling any boy to exercises his new found freedom as “transgender” when he may simply want to see how the other half live. And by implicitly labelling such boys, they are more likely to be exposed to the very form of bullying the measure is designed to defeat. (Ironically, no one has mentioned the more obvious and statistically more common label of “transvestite”)

The observant among you will have noticed I keep referring to “boys”; should we not also be concerned about the welfare of transgender girls? Indeed we should. But when so much of modern high street fashion is based on historically male clothing, who will comment on a girl wearing boys’ clothes?

The second problem with labels is that by definition they define people. If a boy takes the Archbishop’s advice and tries on a tutu, he may be labelled “transgender”, and thereafter consider himself as such. He may then fell under pressure to conform to other transgender behaviours. If this seems a little far-fetched, read the story of deaf singer Mandy Harvey, who has received death threats from some deaf people for “promoting oralism” – the idea that deaf people should lip-read rather than use sign language. These people do not see the irony of this accusation when Harvey band members are learning American Sign Language to better communicate with her. Nor do they recognise that she is demonstrating an amazing capability to “hear” music through touch that many fully hearing people cannot accomplish.

We certainly do need to fight the tendency to bully those who are different, whether because of their gender expression, disability or unusual dress sense. But if we do this by assigning them to a labelled community, we are in danger of reinforcing the very bullying we seek to oppose.

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Hold your feet to the fire

“Your feet are freezing!” This cry often escapes my lips as my wife offers her toes for a warming rub. Even on the warmest days she can get cold feet. 

I sometimes get cold feet too. One Christmas I was due to accompany a choir on the piano in a Carol Service. On the day, I woke up with a sore head and blocked nose. I backed out of the event, leaving the choir to find a replacement pianist. However, as I sat alone in my flat, I realised that it wasn’t the head cold that prevented me playing; I had got cold feet. Cold feet are often the cause of missed opportunities, leading to disappointment and resentment. When God brought the Isaralites out of Egypt, Moses parted the Red Sea and led them to the borders of Canaan. After spying out the Promised Land, Joshua and Caleb told the Israelites that with God’s help they could conquer the inhabitants and claim their inheritance. Instead the people were swayed by tall tales of marauding giants. They got cold feet and died in the desert. 

But our feet should never be cold if we are filled with the Holy Spirit. Paul writes that “the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.” ‭‭2 Timothy‬ ‭1:7‬ ‭NIVUK‬‬. 

So next time you start to feel your feet turning cold, hold them in the fire of the Holy Spirit, and step out in faith to the future God has planned for you. 

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What’s in a name? Challenge entry – 12 October 2017 – Advanced – Topic: Storm

In November 2015, Abigail stormed into the west coast of Scotland to join an elite but growing club. Having seen an increasing number of severe weather events in the preceding years, the British Meteorological Office (known as the Met Office) began naming winter storms which were forecast to cause significant damage and disruption. Desmond and Frank surrounded Christmas with gales and severe flooding. Thousands were evacuated from their homes, as power lines crashed and bridges crumbled under the onslaught of wind and water.

It is said that if you name your sheep you identify it as part of the family, and you won’t be able to kill it when you need the meat. The Met Office began naming storms for a similar reason: to help people identify with them, to recognise them when they make landfall and hopefully take precautions before the storm reaches them.

Aside from meteorological events, we face other storms in our lives: sickness, financial loss, bereavement. Many people in our world have lost their homes through war or persecution. The Jews would have identified with these storms as they lamented the destruction of their beloved Jerusalem.

But God has taken steps to identify with his people. Through Isaiah God declares: “Can a woman forget her nursing child? Can she have no pity on the son to whom she gave birth? Even these may forget, but I will not forget you. See, I have marked your names on My hands. Your walls are always before Me. (Isaiah 49:15-16 NLV)

So whether you are naming a storm of life, or simply recalling the latest hurricane, be confident that no matter how rough things get, God will not lose track of your name.

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Don’t get caught napping! challenge – 27 July 2017 – Advanced – Topic: Snooze

When I got an alarm clock with a Snooze button, I thought I was in heaven! Years earlier, my wind-up alarm would ring at 6:30am, to wake me for my paper round. I would hit the silence button and roll over. I just wanted a few more moments in my bed. Thirty minutes later, my dad would shake me awake and chase me out of the door to avoid being late. With my new gadget, I could hit the snooze button and be woken again 10 minutes later. No chance of oversleeping now!

In time, I realised I could repeat the process twice more and get an extra half hour of sleep. But with no parents to wake me, I would then have to scramble around to get washed, dressed and breakfasted, then run full pelt to the station. Hopefully, I would still arrive at work on time. If I failed, my boss would have something to say. Judicious timing meant that I never quite reached the point of being sacked from my post.

It reminds me of the story Jesus told about the 10 virgins preparing for a wedding. When the bridegroom didn’t show on time, five of them trimmed their lamps to save oil. The other five let their lamps burn out. Jesus doesn’t say so, but we assume they all went to sleep. In the middle of the night the cry went up, “He’s here! Get ready.” The first five girls were out of bed in a flash, their lamps rekindled and ready for the main event. The other five took their time responding, almost as if they had hit the snooze button. When they came to their senses they discovered their lamps were empty. By the time they’d got back from the nearest market stall with fresh oil, everyone was inside and the door barred against them. Jesus warned his hearers, “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.” (Matthew 25:13)

God calls each one of us to come to him in humility and repentance, to be forgiven and put right with him through Jesus’ death and resurrection. It’s easy to assume that there is plenty of time, that I don’t need to respond just yet; that’s like pushing the snooze button on the alarm clock. But as surely as there is a deadline for arriving at work, or a moment when the bridegroom will appear, God has appointed a time for us to meet him face to face. By then it will be too late to change your mind. Make sure that you don’t push the snooze button, but take the opportunity to respond to God’s invitation right now; then you really will be in heaven.

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Learning to live the dream challenge – 20 July 2017 – Advanced – Topic: Sea-change

Landing with a thump on the floor finally woke Sam up. He thrashed wildly for a few seconds but he was cocooned in the duvet which lay in waves around like rolling hills in comparison to the wild mountains of water in his dream.

Falling back into the softness of the quilt, Sam waited for his racing heart to still. Gradually he discerned another sound above his heartbeat: a rhythmic drumming of waves against rocks as the Atlantic breakers pounded his island home.

“Need to escape the hustle of city life? Come and enjoy the outdoor life by the sea,” he declared, remembering the seductive advert in the travel magazine. “Seems like my dream home is turning into a nightmare.”

Three months earlier, desperate to forget his recent loss, Sam had responded to an appeal for new residents on a remote Scottish island. Dark brooding mountains, crystal clear waters, and a landscape with more sheep than people seemed could not have presented a greater contrast to the cramped and rundown neighbourhood he’d left behind.

A persistent tapping brought his attention back to the present. “The boat!” One by one, Sam reluctantly extracted his limbs from the bedding and made his way to the kitchen. His old waxed jacket and walking boots were still wet from his earlier trek home last evening.

Sam headed for the slipway, leaning into the teeth of the wind, shielding his eyes from the driving rain as he peered into the darkness. Surging waves helped him drag the boat up the beach, but the retreating water threatened to pull it from his grasp.

As his strength was about to give out, a figure loomed out of the rain. Strong hands grabbed the gunwale and hauled the boat to safety, then hustled Sam back into the warmth of the cottage kitchen.

“Thanks,” Sam said, closing the door behind them. “Is it always like this up here?”

“There’ll be many a storm afore the summer comes.” The voice was hoarse with a thick accent, but the ruddy face smiled back at Sam.

Watching Sam putting the kettle on, the stranger asked, “Are ye thinking of leaving already?”

Placing two chipped mugs of steaming tea on the table, Sam sat down and sighed. “I can’t. After paying my bills, I only had enough for a one-way ticket to the land of my dreams. Now I’m stuck here until I can save some money to get off.”

“Sometimes dreams take a little work. Survive the winter and you’ll never leave.” Thrusting out a hand, he continued, “The name’s Angus, by the way.”

Sam took the proffered hand, “Sam.”

Angus turned Sam’s hand over and stared at the angry red grazes on the fingers and palms. “You need a decent pair of gloves or you’ll tear your hands to shreds. Take these, I’ve got plenty.” Angus pushed a pair of heavy leather gloves across the table.

Picking them up, Sam noted the profusion of scuffs and creases. “Thanks,” he said.

“Gotta look out for each other.” Angus rose. “Thanks for the tea. If you need anything, I’m just across the way.” And he let himself out of the house before Sam had risen from his chair.

During the winter Sam worked alongside Angus, shovelling cow dung, restacking logpiles, repairing roofs, unloading the weekly supply boat, and drinking coffee or beer in the cottage that served as shop, cafe, pub and church. His pale face turned deep red, callouses appeared on his hands and stubble grew on his chin. At first the other islanders stared at Sam as he went about his business. But soon they just grunted at him, as they did to each other.

The first clear morning of spring, Sam found himself side by side with Angus on the quayside in a golden sunrise, watching the supply boat manoeuvre into harbour.

“You built up enough money to leave yet?” Angus glanced sideways at Sam.

The younger man lifted up his arm and prodded the biceps. “No, but I reckon I’ve built up enough muscle to stay.”

“Need at least another year for that,” replied Angus, a smile spreading across his lips.

“I guess you’re stuck with me for a while then.” Sam grinned as he stepped forward to meet the approaching vessel.

Each caught a rope tossed from the boat and tied off to the bollards on the quayside. Working seamlessly with the crew, the two lifted and carried until the boat was empty, then fell into matching strides as they set off side by side for the pub.

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To beach or not to beach, that is the question. challenge entry – Advanced level 3rd place – 15 June 2017 – Topic:Relax

Lying under a parasol on a sun-drenched beach with a good book in hand is not relaxing, according to
my wife. For me, it’s a welcome opportunity to immerse myself in another world free of demands and
responsibilities. After an hour, she wants to browse the local market, visit an ancient house or drive into
the mountains. Perhaps she has a point. After all, holidays in the sun only occupy a small part of the year.
The rest of the time we must find other ways to escape the pressures of daily life.

The Jewish Sabbath was intended as a gift, to break the drudgery of work, to allow space for family and to
demonstrate trust in God. Jesus went further, offering his followers an opportunity for rest (or at least a
measure of ease) within work:

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and
learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is
easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30 NIVUK)

So while I dream of lying in the son with the latest mystery novel, I’ll try trusting in the Son who can
offer me a more relaxed way to go about my daily work. 

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​More than just words… Challenge – 25th May 2017 – Topic: Texting – Advanced
Christians should be careful when texting. I don’t just mean in exchanging messages with friends, though many of us have regretted a response sent in haste that was misunderstood. Rather, I have in mind the occasions when we share a prayer or Bible verse intended to support or encourage a fellow traveller on the difficult journey of life. 

Certain key promises in the Bible, taken out of context, are offered as panaceas for all kinds of ills. For example, “I will restore to you the years the locust hath eaten” (Joel 2:25, KJV) is used to imply God will compensate for a loss of wealth or relationship. But this prophecy anticipates a restoration after God’s warning of punishment for sin and a subsequent repentance by the Israelites.

A more important reason for exercising caution in quoting Scripture verses is that the “Word of God is living and active” (Hebrews 4:12). Used correctly, it will both challenge and empower us. In his Pentecost sermon, Peter quotes Psalm 118:22 “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” (NRSV). Jesus used this verse of himself in prophesying his death and resurrection. Some years later, Peter applied this verse to the believers who, having been rejected and persecuted for their faith, will become “living stones” in building up God’s spiritual house, the Church. 

If we apply this verse to the 21st Century, who would be the rejected? Depending on our situation, we might include (or exclude) the poor, uneducated, unemployed, young people, single parents, dementia sufferers, refugees and asylum seekers, or any other group or person that does not fit our spiritual ideal. Taking Peter’s analogy one step further, why can we not see such “rejected stones” filling key roles in our Christian fellowships? 

Scripture should be handled carefully, for if we approach it in true humility, “it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12b), often leaving us unsettled and in need of transformation from the inside out.

So next time you are tempted to quote a favourite Bible verse, remember: Christians should be careful when texting.

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A faint glimmer of purpose Challenge – 18 May 2017 – Topic: Dull

“I hate Maths, it’s so boring!” Sarah slams her rucksack down on the kitchen table and grabs a cola from the fridge. “Why is it the last subject on a Friday afternoon? It ruins the weekend.” She pops the ring pull and slumps into a chair, taking loud slurp of drink.

“I always enjoyed maths,” replies Dad from the corner by the oven. “What have you been learning?”

“We’ve been revising for the exams next month. A different Topic in Maths every day: fractions, decimals, factorials, simultaneous equations, and something named after an Italian bloke; Flippin’ nasty, we call him.”

“That’ll be the Fibonacci sequence. So what’s the problem with learning all this stuff.”

“Well, it’s no use in real life, is it?”

“Isn’t it? Dinner’s ready, go and call the others. And wash your hands.”

Five minutes later, Mum, Simon and Sarah are seated round the table. Dad puts a plate of smiley potato faces and a bowl of beans on the table, and brings over a pizza cut into six slices.

“So, there are six slices here and four of us. How much do we get each?”

“Duh! One and an half slices,” Sarah replies, rolling her eyes.

After Dinner, Sarah approaches her Dad. “Can I have my pocket money? I want to get a magazine from the shop.”

“How much are you expecting?”

“£5, of course.” The eyes roll again.

“But I bought you a cake on Tuesday and you said you’d pay me back. That was £1.55. How much is left.”

Sarah looks at the floor. “£3.45, I guess.”

Dad hands over £2.45, then tosses the other pound coin in the air and traps it on the back of his hand. “Heads or tails.”

Sarah smiles at the game. “Heads.”

Dad reveals the coin. “Tails. I get to keep it.”

“Best of three,” Sarah shouts.

Two more attempts come up tails. Sarah groans, and turns to leave. But Dad calls her back and tosses her the coin. Sarah leaves the room with a grin.

Next day, the family sets off in the car, all wearing the same football tops. Sarah and Simon hang their scarves out of the window. As they get nearer to the stadium, Dad asks Sarah, “Remind me again, do we need to win today to take the championship?”

“I’ve told you already. If we win, we get the cup. But if we draw, and City win, they get the cup. And if City draw, we would need at least three goals to take first place.”

After the match, lined up with the rest of the fans to cheer the new champions, Dad points to a weed beside the road. “Don’t you think t’s fascinating, the way the stem divides to create that umbrella of tiny flowers?”

Sarah grunts and looks back to see the team bus departing. They head for the nearest burger bar to celebrate.

Monday morning, Sarah appears for breakfast and dumps her rucksack on a chair. “Boring Maths again this morning.”

“What were the topics again?” Dad asks with a smile.

“Fractions, decimals, factorials, simultaneous equations and Fibonacci sequence.”

“Why don’t you think of them as pizza, pocket money, heads and tails, league tables and flower stems? That should be much more interesting.”

Sarah frowns, and then a slow smile spreads across her face. When she leaves for school, there is almost a spring in her step.

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God is keeping his soldiers fighting!


Rock ’em Sock ’em Robots – photo by Lorie Shuall at

Submitted to Challenge, Intermediate – 10 May 2017 – Topic: Agree to Disagree – Awarded 1st Place

I recently saw again a toy I remember from childhood: a boxing ring with two robots in red and blue. Players controlled the fighters through joysticks at the side of the ring. The aim was to hit the opponent’s robot in order to make his head pop up, or to “knock his block off,” as we say in England.

This fighting talk has become common in the political arena, with politicians trading personal insults, especially approaching elections. Policies come second in the debates, and many poorer people feel they come last in the war of words.

Sadly, the same can be true of the church. Despite decades of work building ecumenical relations, there is a steady stream of new denominations or individual preachers who are happy to condemn another group for false belief or practice.

Even within congregations, it can be easy to label people for what for what they do “wrong”, and so create a battle or at least unsettle the peace. An early Salvation Army song seems appropriate in some congregations: “God is keeping his soldiers fighting!”*

But rather than contests over what type of music we should sing, which is the “authorised” version of the Bible, and the nuances of atonement theology, William James Pearson had in mind to “tear Hell’s throne to pieces, and win the world for Jesus.

Quarreling among believers is nothing new – it began with the twelve and carried on into the early church. Paul advised Timothy, his young protégé, not to “have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful.” (2 Timothy 2:23-24 NIV)

For a few years, I belonged to a regional group of ministers from a variety of churches who shared a broadly charismatic outlook. We would often joke with one about the number of saints his church venerated, with another that he needed to get baptised and take communion, and with a third about the arcane processes of his denomination. Yet we were all secure in the mutual recognition of our salvation and calling in Christ.

In our increasingly tense and nervous world, people need to hear the voice of peace from the church. So let us graciously agree to disagree amongst amongst ourselves, but unite in fighting the Devil and presenting the gospel of reconciliation to a fragile and broken world.

*Words William James Person (1832-1892), Public Domain. – no. 953 in The Song Book of The Salvation Army, 2015 edition, London: The Salvation Army, International Headquarters.

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Infectious confession

(This piece was originally written for the Challenge – Topic:bug – but I missed the deadline. It is dedicated to the Newland Concert Brass and its Musical Director Paul McKelvie)

Hi, my name is Steven and I have a contagious disease: a serious, long-term infection for which there is no known cure. I can’t be certain when I caught it because the manifestations have changed over time. My first memories of the bug go back to early childhood, and I have not been free of it since then.

I can recognise an outbreak by the onset of noises in my head, which often translate into humming aloud, a rhythmic bobbing of the head and random smiling. A prolonged episode may also include waving of the hands, and in extreme cases jigging or even dancing. In public spaces such as restaurants, the physical displays may be surpressed, but a discrete peek under the table will reveal rhythmic jerking or tapping of the foot.

Thankfully, I have discovered therapy groups that enable me to “let it out”. My current group consists of around 25, most of whom find release through blowing raspberries into metal tubes, whilst a few strange individuals enjoy hitting animal skins with wooden sticks or clashing metal disks together.

In order that no one is overpowered, an expert therapist coordinates the weekly sessions, providing scripts of exercises and synchronising the results by means of a short white wand that he waves in front of us. From time to time members leave the group, perhaps due to moving house or to seek another group more suited to the degree of their infection. Hence we are always seeking new members to ensure a good mix of expressions and to maximise mutual support.

If blowing raspberries is not your thing, there are groups that make noises by plucking or scraping various kinds of wires or cords, blowing through plant stems or even squeezing a bag under their arm. Some groups focus on ordering their noise whilst others are more spontaneous. Whatever form your infection takes, there is a self-help group for you.

We have discovered that some people will pay to listen to our noise making, and will even cheer us when we finish. I’m convinced they are fellow sufferers who have not yet overcome the denial stage. There are even contests in which the sufferers who manifest the greatest control over their symptoms receive a prize. The worst sufferers may even compete at national or international level.

I used to feel embarrassed by my symptoms. But since I embraced my affliction it has been turned into something beautiful that inspires others, which gives me a real buzz. I would urge you not to be afraid, but to admit to your infection and find a new freedom in life as I have done.

Thank you for listening.

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