On learning from Nineveh

One midsummer evening, many moons ago when I was still living in Bath, I left a wedding party and discovered that the extremely ugly shoes I was wearing were incompatible with the steep gradient of the streets below me. Descending and returning home evidently meant taking off those shoes. I never wear heels, so it was a once-off experience, an exciting journey of discovery across smooth Georgian pavements, gritty modern tarmac, the wooden boards under the old train station roof, a sense of intimacy with the place itself, feeling the very ground of my city beneath the soles of my feet.

Which of course is completely preposterous. Bath is not MY city. In Bath you can see all the layers of history and you have to know your place. Georgian Bath, with its elegant crescents and long-gone Assembly Rooms shenanigans, shows no interest in modern Bath with its shoe shops. Victorian Bath seems pretty oblivious to both, and underneath all of them are the green waters, worn stones and scratched prayers and curses of Roman Bath, which, one feels, might reasonably prefer to relocate to Rome proper if only it could. And beyond them all, dimly, is King Bladud with his pigs.


He was King Lear’s father, apparently.

Of course people of the present community in Bath should feel that Bath is Their City. People walking those streets every day should feel that they belong in their city. People who know that ground well from sleeping on it every night should feel that they belong in their city. Children playing and teenagers getting pissed on the Royal Crescent should feel that they belong in their city. But if anyone in Bath were to say, “I just want my city back”, history responds, “which city exactly? in what sense yours?”

Bell - Bath

This is the Bell Inn on Walcot Street in Bath, where Nigel Farage and a film crew were once told that they were welcome to come in for a pint but not to hold hustings.

As with cities, so with countries. In Italy, looking across the Strait of Messina to the lovely skyline of Sicily, I feel an odd disconnectedness. I hope this is just a lack of relationship: I haven’t got to know these mountains yet, and their presence still takes me by surprise. I hope it is not because of a lack of ownership. I hope my affection for English countryside is a matter of relating rather than possessing. But I wonder how you can be sure you’ve rooted out an ancestral instinct to swan around sticking flags in places, and whether that instinct might not also arise in relation to the place you first came from.

How did that song go?

We want to see Jesus lifted high
A banner that flies across this land
That all men might see the truth and know
He is the way to heaven

Step by step we’re moving forward
Little by little we’re taking ground
Every prayer a powerful weapon
Strongholds come tumbling down and down and down

I did not really need to ask myself how the song went. I know exactly how it went, and the actions too. I can’t think or remember now how much of the Christian discourse I’ve heard and spoken all my life has had this Onward Christian Soldiers bent, this impulse towards taking and claiming, winning the nation or the nations for Jesus. Not long ago, someone in a Prophetic Encouragement session looked at my Doc Martens and told me that God would give me every place where I set my feet. I have prayed this idea myself on behalf of friends who happened to be facing insuperable odds at the time. Of course we’re not talking about anything actually colonial, are we? We don’t mean real weapons or real armies, and calling the church youth group ‘Joshua Generation’ just means that you see them as strong, very courageous and younger than the Moses and Caleb generations. It’s meant spiritually, isn’t it? Ephesians 6 and so on?

Well, I’ve had enough of it. An overwhelming majority of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. Mind-boggling numbers of my Brothers And Sisters In Christ were willing to put their support behind the idea that a rich man can have whatever he asks for, whatever his history of racism and misogyny, whatever the outcomes for vulnerable people and a vulnerable planet. It is not possible to think of all those who call themselves Christians as one united army standing together in love and unity for God and what is good. And I feel like anyway I should have stopped before now to question all this triumphantly marching forward seizing territory stuff. The children of colonists ought to question themselves at the very least before developing any metaphors about taking ground.

Do not get any gold or silver or copper to take with you in your belts – no bag for the journey or extra shirt or sandals or a staff.

Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst.

Take nothing for the journey except a staff – no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. Wear sandals but not an extra shirt.

I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling.

Take nothing for the journey – no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra shirt.

Then Joshua fell face down to the ground in reverence, and asked him, ‘What message does my Lord have for his servant?’ The commander of the Lord’s army replied, ‘Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy.’

If we want to honour Jesus, we cannot stand in triumph over anything. We cannot look at any piece of territory and say, I’m claiming that. We cannot look at any nation, including our quote own close quote, and say, this is mine. Weakness, repentance, grace, is the one place we get to call our home. We cannot take ground, but we can take off our shoes.

What does repentance mean? What on earth does repentance look like when people like me go and fight a crusade, build an empire, turn away the stranger, trash the environment or vote in Donald Trump? This ought to be basic stuff, the groundwork the church goes over all the time, over and over as with unfailing determination we prolong our remarkable history of making a pig’s ear of everything. Instead, we seek out obscure connections between the EU and the Book of Revelation, notice that the quality of post-service coffee has substantially improved in recent weeks, or wrestle with anxiety about whether this or that person might have been offended by this or that thing we said. Knowing about repentance is meant to be our gift and our pilgrimage; instead we vaguely expect ourselves to be more moral than other people, and collapse entirely on finding that this is not the case – or never find out, which is worse. We need to know what we are commanded to bring to Jesus that we never knew we were collectively guilty of. Then we may be able to walk in weakness alongside the weak, stand with them, and be there with them when the strong are shamed and the mighty are cast down from their thrones.

Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.
Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.
Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.

Have mercy on the fact that I have written about what I don’t practise but only had some thoughts about while sitting on the lungomare watching the waves crash in the wind.


Posted in Jesus, Life, Outgribing, politics | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

22 TEFL-y things

I am delighted to report that a hand of friendship has been extended to this blog from the TEFL blogging community. Elly has nominated me for an ’11 Things Blogging Challenge’, so we are going to have a short break from church-related pondering and awkward moments while I don my teacherly hat. If you are not at all interested in English language teaching, you’d better stop reading now.

monty python

You can decide who has the most teacherly hat here.

Step 1. Acknowledge the nominating blogger.

Elly is an inspiring teacher, an example of commitment, enthusiasm and imagination and generally all-round fantastic. Any teacher who finds they have the privilege of, for example, having a Saturday coffee with her at Le Pain Quotidien will certainly find themselves more motivated, energised and stocked up with ideas for the next week. She is also a skilled artist.


Step 2. Write 11 random facts about yourself.

  1. My favourite animals are penguins. I never thought about this before teaching, but one needs a favourite everything.
  2. My favourite film is The Lion King. See above.
  3. My favourite colour is green. See above.
  4. My least favourite phrase is ‘it depends on the situation’. My teenagers had to be banned from saying that it depended on the situation.
  5. I have been genially mocked by students for saying ‘OK’ too often, saying ‘indeed’ too often, and always tapping the same rhythm on the whiteboard with the marker.
  6. I’m still proud of the class of competitive 7-year-olds who learnt to shake hands at the end of every board rush and say “good game, good game”.
  7. My left hand quite often looks like this  DSCF3696
  8. and my right hand quite often looks like this  DSCF3697
  9. but I did manage to teach for three weeks with only my left (non-writing) hand available due to a right olecranon fracture. My students were very nice about this and would often look up while I was scrawling on the board and say “Maybe I will do it for you?”
  10. My seminars for teachers always include some allusion to Monty Python.
  11. The number of seminars for teachers I have so far given is two.

Step 3. Answer 11 questions.

Why did you decide to become an EFL teacher?

Amongst other reasons, I had just spent a year being a Creative Writing student, that is trying to become a poet, with other poet-hopefuls, and some professional poets, and some people who had signed up to be novelists and looked rather twitchy at poetry seminars as if the “pure poets” might suddenly call them second-class citizens and chuck them out. “Poet” seemed an uncomfortable label involving too much self-consciousness. “EFL teacher”: much more manageable.

(Of course, I later discovered that “EFL teacher” comes with its own stereotypes, for example that an EFL teacher can be easily identified by his/her rucksack, or that it’s unsurprising if thirty-odd EFL teachers attending a vocabulary workshop could all guess the word ‘inebriated’ in a gap-fill but only one or two could guess the word ‘abstemious’.)

Who inspires you (personally or professionally)?

If you’re reading this blog and I know you, you inspire me. If I don’t know you, I’m sure you would inspire me if I did.

What blogs do you read? Would you recommend them to others?

I don’t read blogs much. If you have one, by all means put a link in the comments and I will read it ASAP.

What’s the most challenging thing you’ve ever done?

You can read about my most challenging teaching situation ever if you click here.

Have you always been a teacher? If not, what did you do before?

Immediately before becoming a teacher, I was the annoying person in the train station café who hadn’t done the all-important Cappucino Training Course yet. First Great Westerner cappucino enthusiasts have reason to rejoice at my career move.

What’s something new you’ve tried this year? Would you recommend it?

I did a lesson on Religion and Beliefs with a Pre-Intermediate class. It was a cover lesson and the coursebook wanted them to discuss psychic powers. I didn’t want to discuss psychic powers, and I wanted to know how the students felt before I introduced the topic. So we spent the whole lesson on “useful language for explaining what you believe and why”. It was challenging for the students, utterly terrifying for the teacher, and no, not recommended. But I do think, as it was a small group with a good friendly atmosphere, that they enjoyed the opportunity to talk about deeper topics than our coursebooks typically permit.

Where’s your favourite place you’ve visited?

In connection with teaching, this half-tumbled-down church which popped up out of nowhere two or three hours walk from the site of our summer camp.


What do you do to relax?

Banter, laugh at the students’ jokes, laugh at my own jokes, sing a song, do a dance or alternatively make the students do everything so I can just sit on a chair. Or did you mean outside lessons?

What did you find most scary/difficult as a new teacher?


What advice would you give your younger self?

When the kids come into the room for the first lesson looking so sweet and innocent and nervous…. don’t be fooled. Clear expectations. Discipline. Routine routine routine.

What, for you, is the best thing about teaching?

Students. (But I like my colleagues as well.)

Step 4ff. Sadly I will be unable to provide 11 more bloggers with 11 more questions, because (as mentioned) I don’t read many blogs. If you have stumbled upon this post and you are a TEFL blogger yourself, please leave a link in the comments so I can broaden my horizons. If there are 11 of you, so much the better.


Posted in Teaching, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Dragons and Pearls

In a cupboard full of books, mostly in Russian, all looking somehow both worn and unread, and out of reach except by stepladder, my next-door-neighbour made a surprising discovery: a book in English by John Wimber, of Vineyard Movement fame, called Power Evangelism.


“blink detected”

It’s a curious feeling when you find an abandoned English book in a Moscow krushchovka that hails from roughly the same Christian camp as yourself (in my case, according to some unexpected Wikipedian terminology, evangelical and neocharismatic). It’s as if you’ve found, not only a book, but an unknown friend across the generations of short-term tenants. And not, I hasten to add, because neocharismatics are united in the belief that only neocharismatics will be saved and that everyone else’s Wikipedia pages will be taken down and recycled as cat memes. It would be curious in the same way to find a plectrum in a dusty corner, or some literary criticism, or an empty jar of Sainsbury’s reduced salt yeast extract.


Marmite is just not good enough.

Of course the church is a far more complicated tribe than the tribe of all Sainsbury’s reduced salt yeast extract enthusiasts. After about a page of Wimber’s book I was feeling generally spiritually inadequate and planning a book of my own called Weakness Evangelism. Reading on, I wondered sometimes how Christian writers manage to be so sure about everything, and at other times, how I managed to be so unsure about so many things. I had a particularly sharp disagreement with pages 39 and 40 and considered removing them from the book altogether before allowing it to fall into anyone else’s hands. It’s still on my shelf, but looks as if it doesn’t know whether it’s really welcome there, while I don’t know whether the surreptitious glances it keeps giving me represent the indifference of effortless superiority or a secret wish to call a truce.

These frosty silences are naturally more painful with books than with people. (After all, it seems to be only Wikipedia that actually calls anyone neocharismatic.) But denomination is a problem, whether you were born into it, or achieved it, or had it thrust upon you. I remember attending my first ever C of E Sunday morning service, having no idea how to share the peace, and my friend apologising about the infant baptisms. Around the same time, she privately objected when our Religious Studies teacher ticked the phrase ‘As I am an Anglican’ in her exercise book as if it was remarkably intelligent and insightful. ‘We’re like iron sharpening iron,’ said my cessationist Baptist friend after a flaming (ahem) row probably about speaking in tongues. At Cambridge, I attended a college Chaplain’s Lunch for religious society organisers, wearing my CICCU Rep’s Hat, a very uncomfortable invisible garment designed to help reps defend the evangelical corner at all times, so that I would have sat in terrified silence throughout the meal, had I not been kept in civilised conversation by the kindness and good manners of the representative of the Catholic Society. More recently, I was approvingly called a progressive liberal Christian by a friend probably unaware of Christian contexts in which ‘liberal’ collocates with ‘woolly’.


Woolly laptop obstruction.

And then, denominational confusions aside, there is the question of what to do when you just seem to be generally inclined to disagree with things. If you’re with me on this, you may even have flinched a bit or started muttering to yourself at some point while reading this blog. It’s ok; I’m the same. Maybe we do it by sheer force of habit, or because everyone else is always so terribly positive-spirited about everything, or from some confused notion that if we work at this bit of grit for long enough it will eventually turn into a pearl.

One example from me, but please do replace it mentally with your own. This article by Robert Fergusson, a Hillsong pastor, justifies the line ‘Even when it hurts like hell, I’ll praise you’ to those who might raise eyebrows over it: ‘We live in a desperately broken world. Occasionally, it feels as if hell itself has been unleashed. Of course, we know our victory and safety is in Christ, but it still hurts.’ Disagreement answers immediately that the problem with the line is not that it exaggerates suffering but that it trivialises suffering. ‘It hurts like hell’ is a rattling contemporary adult’s equivalent to ‘it hurts like billy-oh’, like Eustace Scrubb losing his dragon’s skin. Stubbed toes hurt like hell. But I only bothered to think about this because I happened to read Robert Fergusson’s article.

So perhaps the solution is to stay off the Internet, avoid conversations, try not to think too much and focus on practical service. To act justly, and love mercy, and walk humbly before God, and lose sight of the fact that the third line of verse two in such-and-such a song was definitively appalling. To trust in the Lord with all your heart, and not lean on your own understanding. And all God’s people said, “Yes, we’ve heard Proverbs 3:5 plenty often enough before”.

It’s unavoidably easier said and heard than done. I’d always let the sentence stress fall naturally on ‘understanding’, leaning on understanding even in telling myself not to lean on understanding; read in this way, and taken in isolation, the verse might come to sound like you’re really not supposed to be thinking too much about things. But then I discovered that I could lean on a different word. Do not lean on your own understanding; do not try to support your self against your self, because you will fall over; understanding is fine, in fact, this is Proverbs after all, so get wisdom for all you’re worth, but do not depend on your own understanding, depend on understanding, but not your own, someone else’s, there is a better and broader and stronger understanding that can take the weight and lift you.

At this point, having theoretically cast all our anxieties on Him, it would be nice to float gracefully into a concluding paragraph before my remaining readers’ attentions are drawn away elsewhere. But conclusions are rather too easy, and the church is still rather complicated. It seems fitting that, if you search for pearl oysters on Google Images, all the pictures that show real oysters look disgusting, and all the others look fake. There is no illustration of Eustace being un-dragoned, but the illustration of the newly dragoned Eustace is repeated on Google many times; in one photo, it has been reproduced as a tattoo on someone’s leg.

pearls two


pearls one



eustace dragoned

Eustace, dragoned

What I really wanted to find, by way of representing the church, was the illustration of Reepicheep the mouse in conversation with Eustace at night:

On such occasions, greatly to his surprise, Reepicheep was his most constant comforter. The noble Mouse would creep away from the merry circle at the camp fire and sit down by the dragon’s head… There he would explain that what had happened to Eustace was a striking illustration of the turn of Fortune’s wheel, and that if he had Eustace at his own house in Narnia (it was really a hole not a house and the dragon’s head, let alone his body, would not have fitted in) he could show him more than a hundred examples of emperors, kings, dukes, knights, poets, lovers, astronomers, philosophers, and magicians, who had fallen from prosperity into the most distressing circumstances, and of whom many had recovered and lived happily ever afterward. It did not, perhaps, seem so very comforting at the time, but it was kindly meant and Eustace never forgot it.

But this picture of encouragement and mutual grace seems not to have found its way onto Google Images.





Posted in Church | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments