Art to savour, just in time for Christmas

Allow nothing in your home that you don’t know to be useful… or believe to be beautiful.

Hannah Dunnett draws cards and posters that illustrate Bible truths and verses and are gorgeous as works of art.

She is of course not the only one and is heir to a long tradition, going at least as far back as the sumptuous decorated manuscripts you can find in the British Museum. — some of our nation’s greatest treasures– or even,  allowing for tradition to pivot a little, to the art of iconography or stained glass.

Someone sent me one of her cards recently, so beautiful, and recently I bumped into her at an exhibition. I was able to tell her how much I admired her stuff, and she kindly gave me a poster. A medical doctor, she set aside that career after her art began to sell and with kids at home.

What I love about her work is that it is beautiful.  Personal taste comes in here of course but in my eyes her work is absolutely as concerned with being a visual feast as it is with celebrating the good news of the Kingdom of God. Because it’s about both, both strands reinforce each other.

Soon, I fear, she will pass in our small Christian world from ‘beautiful surprise’ to ‘I fell ill and I got the inevitable half dozen Hannah Dunnett cards’. But not quite yet, at least not in the backwaters I live in.

I don’t get any commission here and I am perhaps given to over-statement. But I am just delighted to meet someone doing their job so well (to my inexpert eyes). Buy now before everyone does.

12 rules for giving to charity

It’s an art, and a science, and a gift.

Feeding birds

  1. Give. It’s just good.  Even if you haven’t much money. Even if you’re not sure it’s being spent well. It’s a way of saying ‘thanks, I’m alive’. It’s about being human — not just a recipient, not just a barely-manager, a giver. One tenth of our income is a principle that many have found life-giving, not as a rule, but as an opportunity or an aspiration, even if we are very poor or on benefits.
  2. Don’t be stupid. There is a bit of a line here. It’s not automatically stupid to give most or all of your possessions away sometimes. But I don’t think giving should be pushing you into debt, and shouldn’t make you dependent on others, and you need to look after your loved ones. Wise advice might help here, clear your head.
  3. Even in debt, you can give something. Giving away money, even just your 10%, might not be wise in those circumstances. But you can still give something–practical help maybe, a smile, a meal, whatever-and your generous heart will help heal both your struggles and the other person’s.
  4. Get organizations to give. Your company; your sports club; your church; your nation. You have a voice here, however small. Argue for generosity and humanity. It isn’t all about us.
  5. Plan most of your giving. Find some causes you like and believe in, and give to them steadily, year after year. It doesn’t have to be much, or showy. Just get stuck in. Do it at the beginning of the month or the end of the week, before the cash drains from you.
  6. Index-link your giving. If your income goes up, so can your giving. If it goes down, so can your giving.
  7. Get good value. It isn’t enough for a charity to have a heart-rending appeal. How efficient are they? What do they spend their money on? How much do they pay their chief executive? Do they mention that in their publicity? Charities range from fine to terrible. Orphanages, for example, aren’t brilliant. They are easy to set up in some countries, can be unaccountable, aren’t necessarily full of orphans and at the worst can be places of abuse. Our responsibility doesn’t end if we give to a charity just because it’s a charity. We have to think about value, or give to things we trust.
  8. Keep some money aside for spontaneous, one-off, gifts. Some kid you know wants sponsoring. Somebody’s rattling a tin in your face for some good cause.  Not your cause, not really your kid. Still, you’d be pretty hard-hearted if you didn’t set aside something for this kind of thing.
  9. Review every so often. Maybe other causes have caught your eye. Maybe your interests have changed. Maybe one of your current recipients doesn’t seem to be spending its money so well any more. Move on. Keep it fresh.
  10. Beware creating dependency in the people the charity is for. Are your gifts helping people grow, making them more like you, or are they dooming them always to be the needy person while you are the generous benefactor? None of this is easy and many charities struggle with it internally. But we have to try. (This is also why I don’t give money to homeless people on the streets in the UK.)
  11. Beware of creating dependency in the charities themselves. Don’t respond to charity appeals. Honestly. Or hardly ever. It just encourages charities to make more appeals. They become dependent on sending out ever more gruesome descriptions of need, a race to the bottom. Don’t let them do it to you. Give steadily, regularly, whether or not there’s been an earthquake. There’ll be another one tomorrow.
  12. Be a bit light-hearted. Giving is beautiful, as beautiful as great art or great science. Unlike art and science, however, it’s within the reach of all of us. It’s a kind of gift.

Life stirs in the UK church

A place where God is ‘forming a family out of strangers’ … all over the place

Lovely piece from 24-7 prayer founder Pete Grieg in the current Premier Christianity magazine, about stirrings of new life in the church in the UK.

Dynamic new churches are being planted in many traditions. The Methodists have partnered with the Pioneer Network to renew dwindling congregations and repopulate empty buildings. Vineyard churches are multiplying fast. Anglicans are replanting vibrant congregations in depleted parishes. The bishop in my own diocese just announced plans to establish 100 new worshipping communities in the next ten years (this would have been unthinkable five years ago).


The Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) has planted 720 churches in 20 years from Newport in South Wales to Southend-on-Sea, and they regularly gather 40,000 people to pray all night at London’s Excel Centre.


We fed 100,000 hungry families in the UK last year and provided the biggest network of debt counsellors by far. We run thousands of schools, clubs and hospices, more than 50 per cent of all toddler and parent groups, and the majority of the nation’s extracurricular youth work.

With such a track record, perhaps we should walk a little taller through the corridors of power. As the American theologian Stanley Hauerwas says, “The most interesting, creative and political solution we Christians have to offer our troubled society…is the church. We serve the world by showing it something it is not, namely, a place where God is forming a family out of strangers.”

Prayer is at the heart of it. Pete points out:

It wasn’t so long ago that you had to go to Buenos Aires or South Korea to witness such things. These days you can stumble upon all-night prayer in Burton-On-Trent, Biggleswade, Bangor, Biggar, or Bournemouth.

Here’s the whole article.

How to give to charity (1)

The fundraising industry and charities can become co-dependent

moneyA while ago I looked at  an American site called Charity Navigator.1 A charity itself,  it looks at the financial efficiency, governance and transparency of charities in the USA, providing a star rating and all kinds of information. What a good idea. It highlights total clunkers. For example, the Cancer Survivors’ Fund which spends just 8.1% of its income on its programs; 89.2% on its fundraising. It must be congratulated on giving professional fundraisers a new purpose and meaning in life.

However, try the ’10 best charities everyone has heard of’ list and take a bow, Samaritan’s Purse.  Samaritan’s Purse puts 88% of every dollar it receives into its charitable programs. (Though it still manages to pay Franklin Graham a to my mind eye-popping annual salary of $443,000. Compassion International’s CEO Santiago H Mellado scrapes by on $130,000 less. Compassion turns over half as much again as Samaritan’s Purse ($0.8bn compared with $0.5bn) and hands over 83% of its income to the poor.)

Others are still good but not quite so good: Oxfam America burns through nearly 14% of its income in fundraising and pays its CEO nearly  half a million dollars a year. Its turnover is a mere $90m.

A very few charities– fewer than 1%–get perfect scores on Charity Navigator for their financial policies and their accountability, openness and integrity. Most are small. In the evangelical missions space, just one manages it: step forward The Outreach Foundation which ‘seeks to engage Presbyterians in Christ-centered evangelistic mission for the salvation of humankind.’ Expect Presbyterians to be good with with accountancy and souls.

Here in the UK I know of no similar charity. Does anyone? Instead, we are assailed by various groups in various ways with no very easy way to figure out whether we are dealing with the gruesome UK equivalent of the Cancer Survivor’s Fund or the more uplifting examples like Samaritan’s Purse or The Outreach Foundation.

How things between men and women are very inefficient but that’s the way it is

I am reading a book whose title I just couldn’t resist: Chasing Slow by the blogger and interiors-stylist Erin Loechner. It’s gorgeously designed book and often beautifully written and due to be released in February. (I’m seeing an advanced review copy.) At one point she writes something like this:

What I said:

  • I hate my job
  • I hate Los Angeles
  • I hate this house

What I meant:

  • Are we going to be OK here?

I quoted this to my wife and we had the following conversation:

Me: How is anybody supposed to understand that?

Cordelia: How can anybody not understand that?

Me: If she’s worried about whether or not they’re going to be OK, wouldn’t it be better to say something like, I don’t know, just to pluck a random example out of the air, ‘Are we going to be OK?’ I mean, wouldn’t that be a bit clearer?

Me: (continued, expanding on the theme as, on rare occasions, I have been known to do) Her poor husband is probably already scanning the jobs pages, or the house listings. On the grounds that she’s just said she hates her current ones.

Cordelia (sighing) : Because it’s a kind of dance.

Me: What is?

Cordelia: Conversation.

I’ve been married for 27 years. I’m never going to get this.



Craftsmen! Fight the horns!

Take back control by using the unfair weapons of generosity, wit and grace.

Mercado Medieval‘Craftsman! Fight the horns!’ is not a battle-cry I hear that often, perhaps for obvious reasons. 1

I like it though. You who are Bible scholars will recognize it from the the prophet/poet Zechariah. He talks about ‘horns’ (nasty, sharp, heavy, brutal things) let loose in the nation, but then ‘craftsmen’ come along and de-horn the horns. (Zechariah 1:18-21)

A better translation for ‘craftsmen’ might be ‘blacksmiths’ because I’m told the word is a generic one for any worker in metal.

What I really like is that the solution to the horns is not bigger horns. It’s skilled people, people doing their jobs beautifully and well. The book of Daniel has a ‘little horn’ that undermines the big ones. Same sort of idea, perhaps: in neither case is the solution major horn-on-horn combat. The New Testament takes this further with the simple ‘overcome evil with good.’

2016 seems (to me) like a vintage year for horns. I really want to fight horn with horn, but the fight is against thuggish misconceptions, not people. I have to face the possibility, however slight, that the ‘huddled masses’ who are today ‘yearning to be free (of foreigners)’ are actually good people exactly like me, only with differently configured flaws.

I suspect the best way to oppose the horns is to give humility, courtesy, generosity and craftsmanship a go.

(Which means giving up a lot of really enjoyable malicious humour. Pity…)

The God of small things

The case for being on the back row, third from the left

Though famous speakers and evangelists today can reach thousands of people with one telecast, discipleship is done one relationship at a time by those we will never read about. Their legacy is seen in the lives of those they touched. Perhaps I will never find the spotlight. But my value to the kingdom of God is not determined by my ability to attract or hold the spotlight. Instead, it is determined by my willingness to listen, learn, and be used by Jesus, whenever and however he desires.’

(Losers Like Us: Redefining Discipleship after Epic Failure
By Daniel Hochhalter)

I’m grateful to my colleague Miriam Cowpland for (reading this book and) digging out this quote.


The Netflix ‘chaos monkey’ and the problem of evil

Monkey business

Here’s a thing.

Netflix’s software engineers put into Netflix a program called the ‘chaos monkey.’ Its job is to go through Netflix’s servers, randomly wreaking havoc.
Why do they do this? Because they wanted to be ‘constantly testing our ability to succeed despite failure.‘ Chaos monkey taught them to build programmes that continue to work with bad stuff happening all around. The random, mindless destructivity leads to better systems.

Enter Thomas Aquinas (13th century theological alpha male). He quotes and then adds to Augustine, (fourth century theological alpha male) 1:

Augustine (by Lewis Comfort Tiffany)

Aquinas by Carlo_Crivelli
Aquinas by Carlo_Crivelli

As Augustine says (Enchiridion xi): “Since God is the highest good, He would not allow any evil to exist in His works, unless His omnipotence and goodness were such as to bring good even out of evil.” This is part of the infinite goodness of God, that He should allow evil to exist, and out of it produce good.

Evil is God’s chaos monkey, and the world is better for it.



Peak bookshop

Dig out your book tokens. It’s time. Oh yum.

This is the best time of year to experience ‘Peak Bookshop’. All the titles for Christmas shopping will be in. (Or should be.)

Sort your way past the:

  • Celebrity puff pieces
  • Recipe books
  • Old horses being flogged (regular bestsellers hatching another well-timed Christmas hardback)

… and find the stuff that makes bookshops great. That makes bookshops still great despite being gutted and filleted by Amazon: a curated collection of original, brilliant, beyond-our-experience insight. Storytelling round a global campfire. Human minds on sale, packaged for easy consumption. The best thinking, expressed in the best ways, all ready for us to engage with, dream with, laugh with, lose ourselves in, ponder, be shaped by.

Glory be.