Social History: George Olliffe at Fort St George, Madras, India

In 1905 (100 years ago) my grandfather George Olliffe was serving with the British army in Madras (now Chennai) at Fort St George in India. I have blogged his story here. He was a bandsman in the Leicestershire Regiment (1Bn) and was posted to British India in 1903 at a time when the Raj was at the height of its powers on the sub-continent. He left India in 1906.

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Lt-Colonel Webb’s 1912 ‘ A History of the Services of the 17th (The Leicestershire) Regiment’ records, ‘The regiment sailed from Durban on the 7th November 1902 for Madras (from fighting in the South African Boer war), and arriving on the 30th, disembarked on the 1st December and proceeded to Fort George‘. Bandsman Olliffe arrived in Fort St George from Britain four months later on 6th March 1903.

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In October 2014, I went to Chennai. One of the highlights of the trip to southern India was to visit the Fort St George military compound, some of which still houses units of the Indian military.

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It was thrilling for me to walk through part of the Fort where Grandfather must have drilled, to view his old parade ground and perhaps even to look at one of his old barrack blocks.

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This is a photo record of my visit to this evocative place within our own family history:

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The Parade Ground and Drill Square at Fort St George

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Some of the vast walls and ditches surrounding the Fort.

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Another part of the compound adjacent to St Mary’s Anglican Church, the first English church built in India (1678-80).

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The thought that Grandfather may have set foot, perhaps for a parade service, in this very same church was very moving.

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Review – The Song of Songs: Exploring the Divine Romance

Charlie Cleverly is a fine devotional writer. As well as being Rector of the well-known St Aldates Church in Oxford, England, he is rapidly taking his rightful place among the best of our contemporary writers of faith. Every time Cleverly publishes a new book, I wait with some anticipation.

This latest book on Solomon’s Song of Songs is very good, but perhaps for me, not as impactful as his earlier, ‘Epiphanies of the Ordinary’, which to my mind was extra-ordinary – and a unique contribution to modern devotional writing.

Song of Songs

However, we should be grateful to Charlie for opening up again what, to so many, is an inaccessible book in the Bible. I was brought up on the poetry of the Song of Solomon. My father loved it, but in the tradition of his day, regarded it purely as an allegory describing Christ and His church. Of course, it’s far, far more than that and Cleverly cleverly brings allegory and reality together, ensuring that the book is once again made relevant to today’s church and to wider society.

For my part, I think I’ve always regarded the biblical book as far more than allegorical. As an adolescent growing up in a rather rigid church environment, the text of the Song of Solomon was often an exciting and (yes, I’ll admit it!) earthy distraction in an otherwise dull church service! It was possible to be seen reading the Bible, but to be enjoying it at the same time, perhaps for all the wrong reasons!

I read Charlie Cleverly’s new book on holiday whilst staying at a couple’s only resort. The upside of the many attractive qualities of human love was clearly evident around us! His celebration of human sexuality together with the divine romance as laid out in Solomon’s ancient song is very beautiful, as is the biblical text itself.

Cleverly’s writing is wise, clear, deep, evocative and contemplative, much as in the Song itself. One detects shades and hints of the Puritan Divine in his writing. Here are eighteen chapters covering the eight chapters of the Song of Solomon in some considerable depth. In strict terms, this is not really a commentary, but more a devotional exploration of the Divine Romance and the ‘Kiss of God’.

If anything, the book may be overly long, perhaps relying too much on quoting swathes of text from the Church Fathers. Cleverly is at his best here in his application of the Song of Songs to the Church in today’s culture. I valued his perceptive point that ‘society is obsessed by sex and the Church obsessed by marriage’– and that both such emphases are wrong! He is clear that true marriage is a ‘passionate monogamy’ and has ‘exclusive permanence’. However, he is sensitive to singleness and celibacy, but oddly silent on the persistent matter of homosexuality in human relationships.

Cleverly’s notion of the pressing need for ‘Finding your voice’ (or helping to express yourself intimately) in life and relationships is also powerful and telling, and worth the price of the book alone. He writes movingly of the winter of loss and bereavement, and of the ‘dark night of the absence of God’.

I appreciated his profound insight that churches may be better if ‘presence-led’ rather than ‘purpose-driven’! The final chapter is a wonderfully uplifting rehearsal of the truth of the Maranatha future return of Jesus Christ.

Could his book have been shorter? Possibly, but actually I’m glad that it isn’t as there is much to go over again in the future. Overall, a more than worthwhile book for anyone involved in the intricacy of life’s often complex relationships.

THE SONG OF SONGS: EXPLORING THE DIVINE ROMANCE

CHARLIE CLEVERLY (HODDER FAITH)

ISBN 978-1-444-70204-0

Review – Latest Spirituality Titles: 10 to Watch – Summer 2015

Here is a personal selection of my top ten ‘to watch’ Christian titles from the many hundreds published in the current sales period:

BLESSING 

To ‘bless’ someone is spiritually powerful, but what does it actually signify? In this accessible paperback (part of the Faith Going Deeper series), Andrew Davison lays out a comprehensive framework covering the theology and practicalities of Blessing. Superb – I loved it – if with a rather unimaginative jacket!

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DEEP CALLS TO DEEP – SPIRITUAL FORMATION IN THE HARD PLACES OF LIFE

Tony Horsfall is a past speaker at CRT, and an accomplished leader of spiritual retreats. This new book of reflections is based on the Jewish Psalms, and of particular help to anyone going through difficult times. It’s also a book for group use, with material and questions designed for this purpose.

Deep calls to Deep

DELIGHTED IN GOD: GEORGE MULLER

Roger Steer’s biography of Muller is a classic. Published again as part of CFP’s HistoryMakers series, this book recounts the amazing story of this Victorian Christian who built five large orphanages in Bristol, relying on the scriptural principle of faith to raise the necessary funds.  A ‘must-read’.

George Muller

THE GOOD SHEPHERD: A THOUSAND YEAR JOURNEY FROM PSALM 23 TO THE NEW TESTAMENT

Magisterial – the only word to describe Kenneth Bailey’s books. Now this very welcome addition. Bailey writes in a unique way looking at scripture through Middle Eastern eyes. He’s one of those few authors who, in whatever they write, are always worth reading. Simply wonderful. I loved it.

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HILDA OF WHITBY – A SPIRITUALITY FOR NOW

The North Yorkshire fishing port of Whitby rates as one of my favourite UK places. I’ve long been fascinated by the haunting ruins of its vast cliff-top Abbey. Nearly 1400 years ago, St Hilda, a Celtic nun, established the northern centre of Christianity here. This is Hilda’s inspiring story, expertly told and a pleasure to read.

Hilda of Whitby

JESUS WITHOUT BORDERS

I enjoyed this book although it’s terribly American.  However, that’s the point. This is a collection of travel stories as the author journeys from the USA Bible belt to a dozen different countries, looking at Church life and meeting with Christians. The chapter on his visit to England will make you smile!

Jesus without Borders

POPE FRANCIS: THE AUTHORISED BIOGRAPHY

Jorge Bergoglio or Pope Francis has been in office for two years. The only authorised biography to date, this book fleshes out the man and his ministry in a series of revealing conversations. Written by two journalists, it provides a clear and comprehensive picture of this most unconventional of Popes.

Pope Francis

THE THIRD TARGET

Written by a New York Times best-selling author, and in the style of Spooks and Homeland, this novel pushes all the buttons for a gripping read. Highly topical; ISIS, Al Qaeda, Israel, America and Syria are all in the story. There is not that much fiction on our shelves that appeals to men, but this is one such novel that can be recommended with confidence.

978-1-4964-0531-9

THE THOMAS THE TANK ENGINE MAN

2015 marks the 70th anniversary of TTTE. Who doesn’t love these stories and who cannot recite the names of most of the engines? Yet we know a lot less about Thomas’s creator, Reverend W Awdry. Here Brian Sibley, the best-selling biographer of C.S. Lewis, unlocks Awdry; train enthusiast, storyteller, family man, eccentric, pacifist and pastor.

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WHERE IS GOD AT WORK?

Has the Church given the world of work short shrift over the years? This book explores the importance, indeed the imperative, of taking your faith to work with you. The author, an ordained C of E priest, is also a tax specialist in a major corporation. He reflects on the challenges and opportunities provided to Christians by their working environment. Innovative and practical.

Where is God

Metadata for these titles: Author ISBN
Blessing (Faith Going Deeper) Andrew Davison 978-1-84825-642-2
Deep Calls to Deep Tony Horsfall 978-1-84101-731-0
George Muller: Delighted in God Roger Steer 978-1-84550-120-4
Hilda of Whitby: A Spirituality for Now Ray Simpson 978-1-84101-728-0
Jesus without Borders Chad Gibbs 978-0-310-32554-3
Pope Francis: The Authorised Biography Rubin / Ambrogetti 978-1-444-75251-9
The Good Shepherd: from Psalm 23 to NT Kenneth Bailey 978-0-281-07350-4
The Third Target Joel C. Rosenberg 978-1-4964-0531-9
The Thomas the Tank Engine Man Brian Sibley 978-0-7459-7027-1
Where is God at Work? William Morris 978-0-85721-628-1

This article was written in March for publication in Together Magazine (May to June 2015).

These titles can be purchased via any good Bookshop or from clcbookshops.com

Travel – Auschwitz and Birkenau Nazi extermination sites in Poland

May 30, 2015 4 comments

No words can fully explain the horrors and inhumanity that took place over three long years (1941-1944) at the two Nazi Auschwitz sites in Poland. I have decided to let my photos speak for themselves as, having visited this week, I am still trying to come to terms with the horrendous atrocities committed on the soil of Europe by a ‘Christian’ nation which had experienced both the Enlightenment and the Reformation.

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The stark juxtaposition of the bright clothing of the school parties and the sinister watchtowers and buildings of the Auschwitz 1 Nazi extermination site in southern Poland.

How was it possible that IN THIS PLACE – KL Auschwitz and KL Birkenau – 1.1 million people were gassed to death in truly hellish circumstances?

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These two camps are on a vast scale. Both were designed to kill as many people as possible as quickly and as efficiently as possible, Auschwitz 1 is on the site of an old Polish army barracks, with its large and substantial brick built buildings.

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Camp 2 at Birkenau, 2 miles away, was built on a far larger scale with hundreds of wooden buildings (resembling chicken sheds) in rows and rows stretching far towards the horizon. Now all that is left are the skeletal remains of the brick built chimneys and fireplaces, with the woodwork having long since rotted away.

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The Auschwitz complex had seven gas chambers and five crematoria. The first was at Auschwitz 1, operating from 1941. The gassing process (using Zyklon B pesticide) meant that it could take from between 15 to 20 minutes for these victims to finally expire, in a bare concrete room with a low ceiling, and with up to 2,000 souls packed tightly together as they died.

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WP_20150527_067What terrible things were seen from this actual window (below) in the early 1940’s? How must it have felt to look out at this fence and the guard post? Even today, the whole place has a dreadful sense of oppression, evil and malice.

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Personal possessions (below) – stripped and taken from those brought here for extermination – were collected, stored in huge warehouses (named ‘Canada’ on the maps) and then sold on by the Third Reich.

Here are some of the many, many enamel bowls and pots, suitcases, wicker baskets (my mother had one such) and the shoes stolen from the victims. The worst ‘exhibit’ was that of masses and mounds of tangled human hair, now grey and faded after all these years. I could not bring myself to photograph such a dreadful sight.

Each item represents a person, a family, a community. Weep as you view these pictures. This is truly awful.

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Birkenau camp is approached across the greenest of green Polish fields. The watchtowers give a sense of the horrors which lay beyond.

WP_20150527_107 (2)The entrance gateway to Auschwitz, known as ”Hell’s Gate’, and the electrified ceramic of the barbed wire fences.

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WP_20150527_096Birkenau was built by Adolf Hitler specifically as a place of extermination and execution. Victims came from over 20 nations (some as far away as the Channel Islands) – among them Roma people and Poles, but 90% of those murdered were Jewish. This is the horror of the Holocaust as commemorated so memorably at Yad Vashem in Israel today.

There is little left of the buildings today, but those that remain are a place of memorial. One can only imagine what life – and death – must have been like in the stench and filth of these dreadful huts.

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WP_20150527_094From the top of the entrance tower, some idea of the vast scale of this Auschwitz 2 camp can be viewed.

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WP_20150527_100The poignancy of this solitary silent railway track which, in 1944, led to the terror of the camp’s ‘unloading platform’.

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70 years on, let this sign at the Auschwitz camp speak as to the depths of the true horror perpetrated here, and of ‘man’s incomprehensible inhumanity to man’.

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For me, it was intensely moving to stand at the door of the tiny basement starvation cell (No 18) which had held the Polish Franciscan Priest, Maximilian Kolbe. I had read David Alton’s account of his sacrifice several years ago (Signs of Contradiction, Hodder 1996). Kolbe died in this prison cell after voluntarily taking another man’s place in a group of prisoners sentenced by the Nazis to starve to death.

David Alton also records, how to our shame, the British government in 1942 refused to grant asylum to 1,000 Jewish orphans, aged from 4 to 14. Denied sanctuary in the UK, all of them subsequently perished in Auschwitz. Alton goes on to say, ‘We are so familiar with the names of those who did speak out (like Kolbe and Bonhoeffer), it sometimes disguises the millions who did not. There were not many people prepared to be outlaws’.

Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy. 

These photos were taken on a Nokia Lumia 920.

The Parable of the Four Soils – Mark 4: 1-20

May 24, 2015 1 comment

V1Jesus began to teach beside the Sea of Galilee’.

Galilee was an inland lake. The crowds were so big that Jesus had to get into a boat and teach from it. The boat was his pulpit. It doesn’t matter where you speak from. Buildings are not that necessary! Look at John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, who like Jesus preached to the crowds wherever he went. Don’t get hung up on buildings, they are not the Church. We are the church – the people, not the buildings.

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Jesus made much use of ‘parables’: ‘Earthly stories with Heavenly meanings’ or a simple story that holds a spiritual truth. Note: Mark records fewer parables than Matthew.

Four types of soil described in this ‘Parable of the Sower’

  1. Hard soil on the path edge. Seed remains on the surface
  2. Rocky ground without much soil – little depth for growth
  3. Thorny ground – good soil but infested with weeds
  4. Good soil – fruitful and yielding a variable harvest

Hortus_Deliciarum,_Das_Gleichnis_vom_Sämann

V10 – Jesus was now alone with his disciples. They were confused and didn’t understand his words to them. He speaks of the ‘mystery’ of the Kingdom: The powerful manifestation of the reign of God in human lives, often attended by mighty works. This is Good News – the Gospel.

V13f – Jesus explains the parable to his disciples:  It’s about the sower, it’s about the seed and it’s about the soil.

Seed is the promise of a future harvest. This was an agricultural economy. Life itself depended on the seed that was sown. The sower depicted here is Jesus himself. The seed is the Word of God – the gospel, the message of the good news from God himself. The ground described here is people – you and I – our hearts and our lives. Jesus is asking how we receive the word of God into our lives.

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V15 Hard path = Unresponsive person – someone guilty of being frivolous with God’s word. Treating it lightly and of little value. A spirit of indifference, and sometimes of hostility to God.

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V16-17 Rocky soil = Impulsive person – acting on the spur of the moment without fully thinking through the implications. Note the word ‘immediately’. Their enthusiasm soon wanes. The presence of trouble and persecution badly affects them. Tom Wright translates this as ‘short-term enthusiasts’ or fair-weather folk, unwilling to suffer and persevere. It’s striking how trials and hardships can confirm the faith of some but then dent that of others?

NB: Plants need the sun to grow but that same sun can kill if they have very shallow roots.

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V18-19 Thorny ground = Preoccupied person – Good but infested soil is a danger to plants and to the harvest. The same is true of our hearts and lives. Worries and wealth can thwart the impact of the gospel message. Notethe desire for other things’. Addiction – some things in our lives are entirely legitimate but the ‘desire’ for them can be at the expense of everything else. Thorns choke. We all struggle at some level with this issue. Possessions, prestige and pleasure can all choke us spiritually.

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V20 Responsive person – good fertile soil, well prepared hearts. Neither shallow, hard or preoccupied, but receptive. These people hear because they want to hear. They reflect on what they hear. They put the gospel into practice and bear fruit. Gradually, the Kingdom of God comes in their lives. Spiritual fruit-bearing is the mark of a true believer in Jesus. Do note there are differences in the degree of fruitfulness here. We are not all equally patient, caring, loving, loyal, courageous and prayerful. We are all different.

Do not put pressure on yourself to produce more than you are able. You cannot be another Christian. You are you. You are accepted in God for who you are. He loves you – very much. Be fruitful and you will grow deeper into God. Spirituality is a journey we are all on. Be unwavering to the cause of Christ. Desire to grow.

The growth in fruitfulness – 30x, 60x, 100x – is all about maturity. As we develop in God, so we grow spiritually. You will not be the same tomorrow as you are today. Yes, there is the probability of going backwards as well, but if we stick close to Jesus, we will continue to grow in Him. You cannot see yourself developing Christianly, but others see it in you.

A farmer friend of mine said that he stores enough seed potatoes in his barns in NE Scotland – without planting them – to feed his whole family and his local community for a year, but if he plants them, he is then a major supplier of salad potatoes to the major supermarkets – and thus can help feed a nation!  It’s like that with us. We must sow the seed of the word of God in order to feed our nation. It needs to hear the word of God and to understand more about Jesus and his Kingdom.

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Not everyone we speak to will respond positively, but do not keep the message of the Kingdom to yourself.

In Isaiah 55:11God says … so is my word that goes out from of my mouth. It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it’.

This passage is not just about people outside of the church. This passage is about all of us. Every time we hear the word of God – or read the scriptures – we each have these same four options. What kind of soil will God’s word find in our lives? This is a daily choice for every one of us here today. We must face the fact that keeping our faith alive is a matter of clearing the weeds and tending the soil – every day.

Let’s pray for grace – and for God to help us to grow daily.

This sermon was given on Sunday 24th May 2015 at the Church Centre, Liphook in Hampshire. 

Leicester – Visiting the City of the English King, Richard III

March 17, 2015 Leave a comment

I travelled to Leicester on business in August last year. With a couple of hours on my hands between trains, I headed for the Cathedral. St Martin’s church has been on this site for over 1,000 years but has only been a Cathedral since 1927. Named after the early Christian soldier and saint, St Martin of Tours, the church has been in the news recently due to the controversy following the historic exhumation of the remains of the English King, Richard III, from underneath a local car park. After a protracted legal tussle between the cities of York and Leicester, Richard III is to be re-interred in Leicester Cathedral in 2015 on Thursday 26th March.

040 Richard III statue

King Richard III died at the Battle of Bosworth Field on 22 August 1485. Aged 32, he had been King for only two years, and was the last in the line of Plantagenet royalty. St Martin’s has been the place of Richard’s memorial since 1980. This is seen locally as a great honour for the city, as only one memorial stone is permitted for each English monarch. All of this history has placed Leicester firmly in the national and indeed, international spotlight.

On the day of my visit, a large area surrounding the Cathedral was swarming with builders, machinery and workmen. Even the sacred interior of the Cathedral itself was not immune from the noise and bustle as the new tomb and its surrounding ambulatory is readied (at a cost of £1.5m) in time for this year’s high profile ceremony.

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What was striking was how, right on 1pm, the builders’ hubbub and the clanging of scaffolding poles subsided, giving way to the quietness and peace of the lunchtime Eucharist. I decided to stay. Incongruously, the service took place in St George’s Chapel, with its strident memorials and brass plaques of the Royal Leicestershire Regiment. It was packed. The priest delivered a thoughtful homily, having first read Bible passages from Ezekiel and Matthew.

Sitting under the flags of past empire; the draped colours of the ‘Tigers’ reflecting the power and dominance of Victorian England, the incumbent spoke of society’s ‘need to align with the values of the Kingdom’. He drew attention to the original manner of the disposal of Richard III’s mortal remains as being so undignified, but that this was the way of all human life returning as we all do, regardless of status, to the dust of the earth.

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Interestingly for librarians and booksellers, Richard III whilst King, passed a law protecting the English book trade, enabling education to be pursued. In 1484, at the only Parliament of his reign, Richard devised the first piece of legislation for the ‘protection and fostering of the art of printing and the dissemination of learning by books’, which, as far as I’m concerned, puts Leicester right up there as a ‘notable book-trade site’!

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Review – Latest Spirituality Titles: 10 to Watch – Spring 2015

January 11, 2015 2 comments

Whoever said that Christian books are boring? Not so . … here is a personal selection of my ‘Ten to Note’ Christian titles from the many hundreds published in the current period:

40 Days, 40 Bites: A Family Guide to Pray for the World

Simply superb! If you missed this, you’ve missed a treat. This is Operation World Lite for all the family. Colourful and informative, a really outstanding package which deserves to do well. The maps, charts and prayer points enable adults and children to learn together whilst praying for the world.

Footsteps of Jesus: Pilgrim Traveller’s Guide to the Holy Land

Despite the perceived and sometimes real dangers, people still travel to Israel. I went there last year and I’m sure I would have benefited from this new BRF guide. The truth is that, alongside a Rough Guide and the Lonely Planet, you need to take a spiritual guidebook as well. This should be the one.

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In God’s Hands – Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book 2015

At the heart of Archbishop’s Tutu’s faith is an unshakeable belief in the infinite value of every individual. This, coupled with his unwavering declaration of the love of God for everyone regardless of colour or faith, makes this paperback a profound reflection for the forthcoming season of Lent.

Love so Amazing: 40 Reflections on my Favourite Hymns

I love hymns. I collect books of hymn stories. Hymns are in danger of being lost to our culture. BBC TV’s ‘Songs of Praise’ has probably done more than most churches in keeping hymns alive in the national consciousness. Presenter Pam Rhodes selects her personal choices in this small hardback.

10 to Note In Gods hands10 to Note Love so amazing

Miracles

Sub-titled, ‘What they are, why they happen and how they can change your life’. Is this rather hefty hardback the definitive work on the subject of Miracles? You must judge for yourself, but it comes with some weighty endorsements, and attempts to navigate the middle ground between the extremes of enthusiasm and scepticism.

The New Rules for Love, Sex and Dating

I heard Andy Stanley preach at his mega-church in Atlanta last year. He is the son of the better-known Charles Stanley. Above all, Andy Stanley came across as sensible, realistic and down-to-earth, with none of the usual trappings of American superstar preachers. This book deserves to do well.

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On Rock or Sand: Firm Foundations for Britain’s Future

The Archbishop of York always seems such a joyful, solid character, and a far better role model for this country than so many of our politicians. In this book, John Sentamu edits various contributions looking at the essential values required to build a just, sustainable and compassionate society for the Britain of the future.

Presence and Encounter

I met David Benner at a counselling conference in Singapore. He had the most extraordinary impact on my life, introducing me to the constancy and beauty of God’s presence. I view that moment as a clear spiritual turning point. Anything written by Dr Benner is well worth reading – very slowly!

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When God Breaks In

Yes, it’s the same Michael Green – back again with a fascinating book of how Christianity is thriving and growing around the world. For me, the interest lay in his chapter of how spiritual renewal came to Singapore. Sub-titled ‘Revival can happen again’, this is truly a faith-building and timely book.

The Wisdom House

Hodder Faith do produce attractive books. This title is elegantly packaged and makes a lovely gift. I enjoyed this book of ‘life-lessons’. As a grandparent, so much of what Rob Parsons writes resonated with me. This is vintage Parsons: thought provoking, faith-full and wise. This really is a significant book.

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This article was written in November 2014 for publication in Together Magazine (January to February 2015).

These titles can be purchased via any good Bookshop or from clcbookshops.com.

Bibliographic Metadata        
Title Author Publisher ISBN
40 Days 40 Bites: A Family Guide to Pray for the World Trudi Parkes Christian Focus 9781781914014
Footsteps of Jesus: Pilgrim Traveller’s Guide to the Holy Land Perry Buck BRF 9780857463456
In God’s Hands (ABC Lent Book 2015) Desmond Tutu Bloomsbury 9781472908377
Love so Amazing: 40 Reflections on my Favourite Hymns Pam Rhodes Lion Hudson 9780857215703
Miracles Eric Metaxas Hodder Faith 9781473604766
The New Rules for Love, Sex and Dating Andy Stanley Thomas Nelson 9780310342199
On Rock or Sand: Firm Foundations for Britain’s Future Editor: John Sentamu SPCK 9780281071746
Presence and Encounter David Benner Brazos Press 9781587433610
When God Breaks In Michael Green Hodder Faith 9781444787962
The Wisdom House Rob Parsons Hodder Faith 9781444745665
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