Monday, 27 April 2015

A Birthday Lesson

Two years ago, give or take, I was beginning a challenge. The challenge was to learn, or have the courage to do 25 things that prior to turning 25, I was either unable to do, or had never undertaken. I wrote a long, rambling post about it, and given that I have only blogged once in the meantime, it's just a few scrolls down. If you can't be bothered to scroll, it's here.

I'd like to say that the sparse posting has been because I have been completing all the tasks I set, and that even though it's taken me two years instead of one, I have now finished them all.

I'd like to say that, but I can't.

I failed.

Those who know me well will be unsurprised to hear this. I am an 'ideas-person', not a 'completer-finisher'. Consequently I started a few of the things, and even finished one or two:

2. Make a short film - Completed! I think my previous post counts.
4. Run a marathon - Completed! In 4hrs, 2mins, success!
6. Swim across the river - The river in question was the Wear in Durham. I got halfway and turned back because all my friends had stolen both my shoes. Long story.
7. Go to a regular party in fancy dress - Completed! I went as Mario if you're interested.
9. Join a political protest - I donated some money to a political party, but that hardly counts.
10. Read or watch the complete works of Shakespeare (all the plays) - Again, I watched some, but nowhere near all. Barley even some if I'm honest.
11. Learn how to ballroom dance - A little, we had about 5 lessons, which I've now almost completely forgotten.
16. Learn to ride a horse - I half learned. I can do a very successful 'rising trot', and a far less successful 'canter'.
17. Build an item of furniture - I built some Ikea kitchen cabinets, but that's probably more in the 'assembled' category than 'build'.
24. Plant a tree that will live longer than me - Completed! I planted some Yew trees at a Medieval Church we're building at work. (Yes, I mean that - this is what I do).

Four and five halfs doesn't make 25.

As I said, I failed.

But, I have done some other things since turning 25.
I bought a house, and in the process conquered my fear of the 'death pledge' (literal translation of Mortgage).
I got a job which I mostly love, working in the sector I'm passionate about.
I started to get on much better with my Dad, and my brother and I went on holiday just the two of us and, despite some arguments didn't kill each other.
I got engaged, planned a wedding and married my wonderful wife.
I've managed to admit that I failed in completing something.

All of that to say:
I made a list of stuff I planned to do with a bit of my life.
I didn't do most of that stuff.
I did other stuff.
The other stuff I did was often good, sometimes great stuff, just not the stuff I planned or expected to do.

Speaking to older and wiser people, I think that maybe that's how life goes.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

The Places We'll Pray

To prefix a sermon on 'Patient and Penitent Prayer' at Church a few weeks ago I wrote a spoken word poem, called 'The Places We'll Pray'.

Then with the help of a number of very talented and helpful people, we made a film of it. It was far more popular than I'd imagined, and a few weeks later I still had occasional people coming up to me and saying they found it powerful - it's a real blessing to feel so encouraged.

If you've found this post I imagine you've already seen it, but just in case, here it is:

Seeing as more people have been interested than I anticipated, I thought I'd take the opportunity to explain a little bit of the thinking that went into it. I can't really say much about, or take a great deal of credit for the film. That was mostly from the creative mind of Crystal, aided by Hannah and Seymour who, with very little input from me, created something fantastic. I can, however, say a little bit on the words.

Hopefully it won't seem arrogant if I explain a little bit of my understanding of spoken word poetry.

I have almost no experience of having seen it live. Mostly my experience has been gleaned from spending a few hours watching the likes of Harry Baker, Sarah Kay, Phil Kaye (who aren't related - they have a joint poem about that, called 'An Origin Story') and Anis Mojgani. I am no expert. I have only an inkling as to what the differences between 'Slam' poetry and 'Spoken Word' poetry are. I even have a couple of each that I've written, although I don't really have that much of an idea as to a definition of either of them. But, I do know what a good poem feels like. I can't remember the words to many of my own poems, never mind anyone else's, but I can remember how they made me feel.

In that way I think that poetry is like drama, and especially like a Shakespearean play. One where you can barely understand the words, much less remember what the last line was. But in watching the play, it will still make some sense, you'll still catch the thrust of the story, and still know whether it makes you feel sad or happy, frustrated or relieved, or whatever other combination of emotions. By accident I ended up including a Shakespeare line in most of my poems (I always have to look one up - I don't know them off by heart!), and it acts as a reminder to me when writing that it's ok for the words to wash over people a little, but the pull of the tide should be tangible.

So secondly - what about 'The Places We'll Pray'? What is the pull of the tide of that poem?

The title is shamelessly taken from Dr Seuss' 'Oh, The Places You'll Go!', which is a very poignant and inspiring little book. It talks about how easily and naturally a successful life will come to the protagonist, except... that it has a recurring line which brings us back to the ground with a bump: 'Except when you/they don't, because sometimes you/they won't'. It ends with the question and promise 'Will you succeed? Yes indeed! 99 and 3/4% guaranteed'.

My appreciation of it was made all the greater when I learnt that it was the last book published in the lifetime of Dr Seuss (the pen name of Theodor Seuss Geisel), who died in 1991 aged 87. He'd written 46 children's books over nearly 60 years, and had lived through both World Wars and the great changes in life that the 20th Century brought - and yet, this book has a universal appeal and relevance. It felt to me like the sum of almost 90 years of wisdom, final words of advice drawn from seeing several generations born and grown. And I like it very much (it even has a place in my bookcase of books I love).

It is fundamentally a children's book though. It has helped to offer a wry smile at some of the unanswered prayers and seeming injustices of life, but little more than that.

There are somethings that even a wise, pithy saying or a weary sigh can't help with. For me one of those things is feeling like my walk of faith is an uphill battle, whilst others breeze by on their walks as though they were free-wheeling. Many of these are lovely, kind, dear friends of mine. And they present me with a challenge. Should faith be hard or easy? It seems the answer is both - it is both an easy yoke and a weighty cross. I know this. But I don't often feel it.

The challenge is not dismissing those who find the walk hard when I find it easy as lacking in their understanding of grace and salvation. And, conversely not scoffing at those who find joy and worship easy as being naïve and without experience of the harshness of life.

On a separate shelf on the same bookcase is a book written by my (now) good friend Andrew Byers. It's called 'Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint', and it introduced to me a concept which I believe is deeply Biblical, full of spiritual wisdom, and makes the practical, day-to-day walk of a Christian possible as a whole-hearted surrender to Christ and a brave step into the battle of life. The concept is 'Hopeful Realism'. You should check out Andy's website, as well as his books.

But for now, let me share with you a paragraph which has a lot of influence over the writing of 'TPWP':

I am contending for "hopeful realism". This is a perspective that embraces the dual realities of contemporary evil and forthcoming redemption. It lives in the tension of creation's groaning and its imminent restoration. Idealists claim that we are in the suburbs of Eden. Cynics claim that Eden is a farce. Hopeful Realists claim with joy that a new Eden is just around the corner and that fresh green sprouts are faintly pushing up through the cracks and crevices even now. Hopeful realists are still groaning with all of creation, but they can detect in the air the sweet fragrance of renewal released by the opening of Christ's tomb. The Fall in Genesis 3 nullifies idealism. New creations nullifies cynicism. (Faith Without Illusions, Byers, 2011, p202).

With 'TPWP', I also am contending for 'hopeful realism'. Primarily with myself. I think everyone is prone to lean towards either idealistic hopefulness or cynical realism. The battle I'm fighting with myself is to allow hope and realism to co-exist, more than that, to co-depend.
To be honest, I am far more likely to be cynical than idealistic. I can be idealistic for an hour or two, but I soon remember that training to do something, that fighting a battle of endurance, that faithfully serving someone or something, takes longer than a montage in a film. I am quick to become cynical when I find life doesn't come with a rousing soundtrack, or that the glory of being a faithful servant tarnishes quickly unless polished. Such a view isn't without reason - the lament listed in 'TPWP' are things that I have experienced in one way or another:

When all my work is lost and I am left to rust,
When I can’t find the food to feed mouths that yearn and plead,
When someone’s son leaves behind a widow and a baby child,
When we have prayed for years for healing to arrive and yet she dies.
When always seems like never, delay seems like for always, and prospered feels accursed.

When we were talking about filming the poem, we contemplated me playing 'Realism'. But I said I didn't want to. Partly that was because I could imagine Seymour doing it so well. Mostly though, it was because I didn't want to see me play that half of my character, and therefore appear to give it more weight. Because, there is hope. All the victories in 'TPWP' I have experience or believe to be true too:

When patient prayer and waiting, precede a joyful trusting in salvation,
When provided is provision from a source we know not of,
When a child thought dead and gone, awakes with nothing at all wrong,
When God becomes a foetus to bring to pass all death's defeating,
When He takes nails through His palms to end sin's reign of pow’r.
Then, Hope you are not slain but brought to life and strength again.

It is not easy to live balancing Hope and Realism. Even when you think you've struck the balance there are always challenges to it. Only a few weeks ago Andy and I had breakfast and added a number of items to our individual lists of laments. There will never be a time this side of The Day when being a hopeful realist is easy.

But we must persist in it.

Another of my favourite quotations comes from Harper Lee's 'To Kill A Mockingbird'. When Jem complains that his father Atticus sent him to read to a lady Jem hates, Atticus responds:

I wanted you to see something about her - I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It's when you know you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway, and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.

'TPWP' came out of my fighting that battle - no one comes out of prayer feeling courageous. In prayer we're bruised when we see that we're tiny in comparison to God, and we can be broken by not seeing answers we expect. But we pray anyway, because sometimes we're built up again, sometimes we see amazing answers to prayer. On our own we don't win, but we push on through our loosing. Picking each other up and dusting each other down, because the hope we have is based on more than just us, it is on the defeater of death, the subjugator of sin, and the saviour of sinners.

And it's in His name that we pray, whatever places we find ourselves in.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

My 25 things...

It's been a while. During that while I've been getting older. I imagine you have too.

This post has been a long time coming. Just over six months ago (on the 21st October 2012, at about 12:30pm to be precise), I had a conversation with my good friend Robyn Trainer. She's about 363 days older than me, and was telling me how, since being 25 she had found the world to be a more difficult place to get by in, that things which used to be easy were now harder. I, in my relative youth, had little sympathy for this argument.

Another good friend of ours, Chris Juby, joined in. He's about 2935 days older than me, and added that after 30, life is not disimilar to the beach scene in Saving Private Ryan (that wasn't exactly what he said, but the impression was comparable). It was thus determined that you are at your peak from 21-24, and that things are downhill from there (or uphill, depending on how you take your metaphors).

Life after 24

It just so happened that the 21st of October was exactly six months before I turned 25, thus giving me only six months within which to achieve anything. I was not happy with this. I was, and am, determined to prove this hypothesis wrong.

Therefore, I have spent six months coming up with a list of 25 things to do after I turned 25, with the intent that this would show life as more fun, and me as more able to enjoy things than before turing 25.

Some of them are difficult, some are easier. Some are stupid, some are more sensible. Some are common 'bucket-list' items, others are more obscure. They are all united by the simple fact that, they are things I have never done before.

So, in no particular order (apart from the order that I wrote them down):

25 things to do whilst 25 (that I’ve never done before):

1. Road-trip the length of the country, from John O’Groats to Land’s End, without using motorways.
2. Make a short film
3. Compile my family tree
4. Run a marathon
5. Learn how to code
6. Swim across the river
7. Go to a regular party in fancy dress
8. Learn how to plaster a wall
9. Join a political protest
10. Read or watch the complete works of Shakespeare (all the plays)
11. Learn how to ballroom dance
12. Be a vegan for a week
13. Have a pint in all the pubs in Durham
14. Learn to juggle and ride a unicycle
15. Attempt to become a member of Mensa
16. Learn to ride a horse
17. Build an item of furniture
18. Cycle across the country
19. Memorise Pi to 31 significant figures
20. Learn a foreign language
21. Learn how to sail
22. Learn how to do a backflip
23. Finish The Times prize crossword
24. Plant a tree that will live longer than me
25. Invest some money

Thus far it's not going especially well.

I am training for my marathon, and turned up at Chris' door last week asking for a lift home (he lives about 2 miles away, and I was nearer his house than mine) because I had run lots (though not a full marathon) and was in great, great pain. This does not bode well.

I hope to keep you updated as to how my progress is going, both in the marathon and the other things.
(Cheeky plug for

I'm more likely to do this now, because Robyn and her husband Phil, have just moved to the lovely climes of Gloucestershire, and I'd like to prove to her that I am doing this thing, and that getting old doesn't mean getting boring.

Here's to hoping that I'm not wrong.

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Promo Shots

A few weeks ago, my friend Robyn, the multi-talented photographer, illustrator and florist behind Floral Footsteps (she also is an accomplished musician and somehow manages to control the world's most enthusiastic Spaniel), took some promotional shots for us while we were sound checking for Kings' Guest Service (see the post below).

These are some of my favourites:

Great work Robyn, makes us look like we know what we're doing - hopefully the sound will live up to that.

p.s. Robyn and I have planned a video for a song I'm writing which we can film in the summer. Watch this space!

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

If you're in Durham on Sunday evening...

... come and join us at a Guest Service my Church is doing. We'll be playing a song there, and will be joined by our friend Hazel, who'll play violin (oh yes) with us.

It's in the student's union at 7:30pm (until 9), more info here.

Hope to see you there!

Friday, 6 January 2012

Spreading Out

In an attempt to make the music more accessible, I'm making an effort to spread across the internet. So...

Just uploaded a few tracks from the EP to the myspace - have a listen at

Created a facebook page at

And finally, we now have a Twitter account. Follow us @NBWHS.

Hope you'll join us!

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

The Long Winter - a second taster

Hope you've all had lovely Christmases (a word I've never written down, which looks quite strange...) and are looking forward to good an exciting year!

For me the last few weeks were slightly strange, as my Dad and brother came to my (grown-up) house, and I didn't go back to my parents for Christmas only the second time ever. The reason for this, my mum's death, was the same reason that I wrote this next song. The song, called 'The Echo', is written from a place of great suffering, and begins with a cry of pain from man. The second half is written from God's point of view, and recognises that in all the mess of the world, we don't cry out alone. We cry out with God. And the order there is important. God's pain and anger at evil, suffering, and this world's brokenness, comes before, and is deeper than ours. In this, even the most heart-felt, gut-wrenching cry of pain from man, God has been there before, and our cries, they echo his. For me, this provides little relief, but great solace and comfort.

Oh Heaven don't you know, I wasn't built for this?
The holes in my skin, let the rain into my soul.
I float just beneath the surface of the sea.

And it would be, so easy just to sink.

Oh Heaven don't you know, I wasn't built for this?
The holes in my skin, let the rain into my soul.
I float just beneath the surface of the sea.
The shadow beneath, creeps frightfully close.

And it would be, so easy just to sink.
Without your arm around my waist.

'Son I know, and your tears,
Your tears they echo mine.

Son I know, and your cry:
'This can't be right'
Your cry it echoes mine.'

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

The first EP - The Long Winter

Finally, NotBuiltWithHands have recorded and released our first EP. It's called 'The Long Winter', and is, in part about Christmas. Over the next few weeks, I'll post some of the tracks on here. The front and back covers look like this:

As a first offering, here is possibly my favourite Christmas (or more accurately, Advent) song. Sung beautifully by Jo Walter.

If you'd like to buy a copy of the EP (£5), then post a comment below saying so, and depending on interest I might sent up a paypal.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011


Today I am doing some bits of recording for an EP/demo, which I will sell (a limited number of copies of) at a Christmas market organised by my friends Robyn and Elena. I laid most of the tracks down last week, but today should see it mostly finished. This is exciting.

If you're in Durham on Saturday, do pop down and have a look. I'll get round to selling any left over copies via the blog later on next week.

And here is the inside of my bedroom, decked out in it's 'home recording studio' gear:

Thursday, 24 November 2011

CREATE! (Part two)

Here is the second part of the seminar I did on being creative Christians in music. In this half we looked at some Christian and secular music videos (and obviously listened to them as well!), and asked a series of questions.

For the three secular songs I chose ‘Every Teardrop is a Waterfall’ by Coldplay, ‘The A-Team’ by Ed Sheeran, and ‘open arms’ by Elbow. All three are great tunes, and deliberately chosen as fairly recent releases. We asked the following questions of all three:
What strikes you in this song?
What do you like / dislike about it?
What emotions does the song provoke?
What are the messages of the song?
Summarise these messages into a few sentences, i.e. the song’s Worldview
How would a Christian worldview respond?

The first three are really interesting to talk about, but not so much when it’s just me telling you what I like, so for the purposes of this blog entry, I’ll just put a summary of what we discussed for the last three points.

Lyrics here.

We said that this song is heart wrenching, particularly with the video, and that here we see a song which cries out at the injustice of the world, and how hopelessly someone can be entrapped, enslaved by drugs. The song is tragic, but the girl’s death at the end (and start) becomes a kind of release once you’ve seen her suffering life. We pointed out that a Christian worldview offers release through Christ, who came to set the captives free, to break the yoke of slavery. This doesn’t make the situation any less tragic, but actually more so, because of the freedom offered in Christ which the girl doesn’t get to have. Very interesting is that Sheeran replaces the ‘We’re just’ with ‘We’re all’ seeming to suggest and emphasise that the entrapment is more widespread than, well, I’m not too sure what. I might be reading too much into that…

Lyrics here.

It took us a little while to work out what this song was about, but with a bit of discussion, we decided it was saying something about numbing the pain and difficulty of life with loosing yourself in music, and shutting everything else out. I’m not too sure about the latter half of the song, and whether the ‘emerge blinking’ is a reference to coming out of that world of numbness, to where things do hurt, but that’s my hunch. Either way, the Christian message would be ‘yes, the world is hard, but no, the response shouldn’t be to cut ourselves off from hardship. We must grapple with the issues of the world, and that, ultimately, Christ offers an explanation, a strength to endure, and a coming restoration. A challenging thought from Coldplay as to how we deal with the hardship of the world, plus a great riff…

Lyrics here.

Our discussion of this was slightly different, in that it was noted that this song is a real mirror of the Prodigal Son parable, but without the father figure. Obviously a Christian worldview would say that we return not to ‘everyone’, but to the father to find comfort, healing and restoration. An interesting thought about Elbow was raised by my friend Chris, at another event, that Elbow seem to find ‘the holiness of the everyday’, which is a great way of saying that, in this song, the joy, power and to some extent, spirituality, of a fairly normal episode – a party, is celebrated. Fascinating to see the combination of part of a biblical parable and truth, manipulated, but joined to the mundane…

We then looked at a couple of Christian artist, more to get the creative inspirations firing as to what is possible in creating Christian (non-worship) music. We could have looked at loads, Sufjan Stevens, Owl City, Rosie Thomas, but I chose just two:

Lyrics here.

Josh Garrels tends to sing more overtly Christian songs, which is interesting. I’d be intrigued to know whether people who aren’t Christians would listen to him. I’d hope they would, as I think he has a great style and is very flexible as a vocalist. Here we see clearly not only a Christian Worldview, but also obvious truths about the gospel sung.

Lyrics here.

Conversely, if you didn’t know Athlete were Christians, the meaning of this song would not be obviously Christological. I wonder whether the embedded nature of their faith is what has led to them being more popular? I’d guess not considering how big Sufjan Stevens is, and how blatant his faith was in his earlier stuff. What this Athlete song does so beautifully, is give the emotive joy and sorrow of needing to be rescued (and being sure it is coming), without distracting people with overtly Christian language which might stop people from engaging with their hearts, and limit to arguing against the lyrics in their heads.

Ultimately we decided that a lot of different forms of engagement in all ranges of music is a very good, even a vital thing. As Christians, our faith should influence how we listen to, and are affected by music. If we make music, whether it be for communal, sung worship or for others to listen to, whether the gospel truths be obvious, or the music simply tells something of our hearts as Christian musicians, we are bound to be influenced in what we write by our faith, and that is a good thing to be embraced, not something to be avoided.

In a related note, I’m hoping to get some stuff recorded and edited this week, which will be aimed at sharing some of my life as a Christian in the muck of the world. Watch this space (i.e. do follow this blog…)