real puppets

There are some things that shouldn’t work. Today I was listening to the Radio 2 Breakfast Show when Elmo came on. For the few of you who don’t know who Elmo is, he is a small red fluffy muppet from Sesame Street who speaks in the third person. Embed from Getty Images

And Elmo was on the radio. It should not have worked. Elmo is predominantly a visual experience and radio is audio-only. But because he has a distinctive voice and because the characterisation is so strong (and funny) it did work. It brought a smile to my face and I reckon that was replicated across the country. And it seems that Elmo was there in full character, not just his voice, which made it all the more real.

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Stew after having cut a Head Teacher’s tie in half, and failed to restore it

I don’t know what it is about puppets but they seem to have universal appeal, especially if they have a character to which people can relate. I have a puppet friend, Stew the Rabbit, who helped me in school assemblies and also helps me in magic tricks. (He is going to be taking part in the show I am doing on 23rd May (shameless plug) carrying out his most dangerous illusion to date.) There is something about his character that children and adults both love. In fact he was so popular in one school I used to visit that when the Head Teacher greeted me on arrival the first thing that was said was, “Is Stew here?” and only then, “Nice to see you Nick”! (They gave Stew an enormous gift-wrapped carrot when we moved away).

Sometimes clever children (never adults) will say, “He’s just a puppet.” My response is, “Yes, but he’s a real puppet.” That flummoxes them because it is nonsensical and yet seems to be a fair response to their observation. Stew may not work on radio as he only whispers in my ear so I can repeat it to the audience. But even though (speak it quietly) he is a puppet he is able to communicate with people of all ages and they remember it because it was from a puppet and they warmed to him.

“Where’s this reflection going?” I hear you thinking. And I was not sure when I started writing. I guess I was so captivated by Elmo on the radio that I wanted to create a bloggage about it. And I think that’s my point. There are some things we see, some experiences we have, some people we meet who are so captivating that we have to tell other people about what happened.

I find the same experience when I read the gospels and re-discover Jesus of Nazareth. It should not have worked. He was the uneducated, illegitimate son of the local odd job man (aka carpenter) from a backwater town in a Roman-occupied territory. He was a complete nobody for the first 30 years of his life, probably the butt of local jokes. Yet when he started a public ministry crowds flocked to him, astonishing things happened, he gave teaching of a quality and profundity that belied his impoverished background, and he caused such a stir that he became a threat to the powers that be… so much that they conspired to have him executed.

That would be remarkable enough a life for a Hollywood blockbuster. But he claimed to be more than a good teacher, and proved it by his resurrection. His few frightened followers were transformed by their encounters with him after his resurrection into fervent witnesses – and now are numbered in the billions.

It shouldn’t have worked, but it’s even more amazing than Elmo on the radio! Have you met him yet?

Be blessed, be a blessing.

specific searches

I have been looking for a new member of the family. It’s nothing as noble or significant as adoption or fostering, I have been looking for another puppet. After Stew the Rabbit’s close encounter of the inky kind the deacons at the church I have just left kindly gave me a gift with instructions to find a new puppet friend.

So I have looked online and have found someone. He’s on his way now, and I may well introduce you when he arrives. But while I was looking online I decided to see if there was any possibility of getting a new ‘Stew’ puppet. I searched in every possible way I could for the puppet, using the manufacturer’s name and code, the name they sold him under and even a description and there was nothing. Just the gentle hiss of static electricity as the internet looked blankly back at me. So I am now going to see if I can give Stew the Rabbit a bit of a clean up as he’s a bit grubby after about 19 years of use. But he’s not going in the washing machine, even if I tell him there’s carrots in there!

frustratedAfter I had given up looking for an exact replacement bunny I wondered what would happen if I put the words ‘stew the rabbit’ into my search engine. It was not pleasant. Rabbit stew recipes everywhere! Then I wondered what would happen if I put ‘”Stew the Rabbit”‘ (in quotation marks) into the search engine and lo and behold mention of him on this blog was the one of the first things that came up! And if I did an image search with the same subject a picture of him was on the first page! Stew the Rabbit is not famous but “Stew the Rabbit” is!

It’s amazing the difference that those quotation marks made. To the computer they made the difference between searching for occurrences of the words stew and rabbit (it ignores the ‘the’) in any order, leading it to find all sorts of ways to cook a rabbit (I hope Stew never googles his name!); and searching for Stew the Rabbit exactly as it is written, leading the computer to find the little white bunny.

I wonder whether in our praying we ought to be as precise? I don’t mean putting ‘air quotes’ around our prayers. What I mean is that sometimes we can be a bit general – God bless all those who are persecuted for their faith, feed all the hungry people in the world, stop the spread of Ebola. I am sure God hears and honours those prayers but they are so general that we may never see the answer to those prayers. However, if we are more specific the easier it will be for us to see the results. That does mean that we need to do a bit of research, finding out about people and their needs, but I believe that if we do we will be encouraged by how we see God at work. And our praying may be more meaningful to us because we will be praying about people not just issues. (Do pray for the big stuff too!).

Don’t think that you will always get what you pray for – God’s not a spiritual slot machine where if you put in enough prayers you get what you want – but you will see evidence of God’s will being done and his kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

severing the ties

20141021_112126 (2)Earlier this week Stew the Rabbit and I took some assemblies in a local primary school. It was our last visit.

Stew had decided that he wanted to perform a magic trick and had come across a trick where it looks like you have cut someone’s tie in half and then restore it. So he invited the Head of the Upper School to come and help.

Between the two of us he wielded a large pair of scissors and proceeded to cut the tie in half… the children thought it was hilarious that the teacher’s tie had been cut in half.

They thought it was even funnier when Stew confessed that he had not read all of the instructions. He had only read as far as ‘cut the tie’. So we were left with a severed tie.

To give Stew his credit he did apologise and I forgave him (which was the theme I was trying to get across). But I also made the point that if you are trying to do something for the first time it is worth reading all of the instructions.

Yes, I know that blokes have an innate sense of how everything works and that we don’t need instructions, but Stew’s experience suggests otherwise.

It puzzles me how many people have only read a little or nothing of the Bible yet claim to know all about it and all about God. Severed ties anyone?

Be blessed, be a blessing

blessed by a bunny

>what do I do?This morning I was taking two Primary School assemblies with my trusty side-kick. We were asked to talk about compassion so Stew the Rabbit (left) and I told a version of the Good Samaritan where Stew responded graciously and compassionately when he came across Bonnie the Bunny (who had bullied him by calling him names, pushing him in puddles and taking his carrots (brilliantly loud gasp of horror from the children at the taking of carrots – they know how much Stew loves carrots!)) after she had fallen off her bike and hurt herself. Her friends had left her and her sister couldn’t cope with the sight of blood so it was left to Stew the Rabbit to save the day.

I was tempted to twist the story further than Jesus did by having Stew ignore her too, or even stand there laughing. I might have done that if it was a church setting, but as I reckoned most of the children would not know the story I kept it conventionally unconventional and Stew wrapped a handkerchief around her leg, helped her up and pushed her bike home while she hopped beside him.

At the start I asked the children to think whether what Stew did was good. At the end I asked them, and was surprised that in the Assembly for the older children some of them said, “No!” It seems that they felt that Stew should not have been kind, gracious, compassionate and forgiving but should have taken his revenge.

Now the story really came alive!

At the start of the second Assembly the teacher leading it introduced how they were finishing their current theme that week. I imagined she would say ‘compassion’ but it turned out that the theme was ‘courage’!

So I quickly adapted the story and emphasised that Stew was frightened of Bonnie the Bunny (and presumably her sidekick Clyde) and how it had taken real courage for him to stop and help her.

And then it struck me. The story of the Good Samaritan is about loving your neighbour, but it is also about courage. It is about having the courage to do what you know is right in the face of danger (the thieves could have been hiding, it could have been a trap); it is about having the courage to overcome prejudice and fear with love and compassion; it is about having the courage to set aside your priorities and risk being out of pocket or having to change your schedule to help those in need.

So Stew the Rabbit taught me a lot today as well.

May God give us all the courage to do what he wants even if we are afraid of the consequences. May God give us all the courage to see our own prejudices and fears and act despite them rather than because of them. May God give us all the courage to prioritise the needs of others rather than ourselves.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

What is real?

Stew The Rabbit and I are off to take a school assembly soon. I hope he is ready for this. I have told him what it is I want him to say and do, but he has a mind of his own and sometimes ad libs in ways I am not expecting.

There have been several occasions when I have been asked if he’s a real rabbit, or told that he’s not real. These comments usually come from children (but not exclusively – you know who you are!) and I have developed a response that usually either satisfies or silences them, depending on the intent behind their question / comment.

“He’s a real puppet,” is how I respond. It’s a sentence that is truthful, yet without meaning. What does it really mean that Stew is a real puppet? Yes it’s obvious that he’s a puppet, and no he’s not actually alive, but I hope that through my puppetry and conversation with him he has personality and ‘life’. I guess in that sense he’s real.

The phrase was meant to obscure and confuse, but it also seems to disarm and delight. Some people want him to be real and I don’t want to disillusion them.

I think Jesus has a way of doing the same sort of thing with his parables. They were not true stories in the sense that they were not news reports or recounting of actual events. But they were true because they contained truth about life, about God, about who Jesus is and about how faith. I wonder if a wide-eyed child ever asked him, “Mister, is that a true story?”

And would he have replied, “It’s a true parable”?

I like to think so.

So, what’s your favourite parable Jesus told? And what’s the truth within?

Be blessed, be a blessing.

The prodigal son in the key of F (I first saw a version of this in ‘Frogs in Cream’, you can find it in lots of places on tinternet)

Feeling footloose and fancy-free a featherbrained fellow forced his father to fork over his farthings. Fast he flew to foreign fields and frittered his family’s fortune, feasting fabulously with floozies and faithless friends. Flooded with flattery he financed a full-fledged fling of “funny foam” and fast food.

Fleeced by his fellows in folly, facing famine, and feeling faintly fuzzy, he found himself a feed-flinger in a filthy foreign farmyard. Feeling frail and fairly famished, he fain would have filled his frame with foraged food from the fodder fragments.

“Fooey,” he figured, “my father’s flunkies fare far fancier,” the frazzled fugitive fumed feverishly, facing the facts. Finally, frustrated from failure and filled with foreboding (but following his feelings) he fled from the filthy foreign farmyard.

Faraway, the father focused on the fretful familiar form in the field and flew to him and fondly flung his forearms around the fatigued fugitive. Falling at his father’s feet, the fugitive floundered forlornly, “Father, I have flunked and fruitlessly forfeited family favor.”

Finally, the faithful Father, forbidding and forestalling further flinching, frantically flagged the flunkies to fetch forth the finest fatling and fix a feast.

Faithfully, the father’s first-born was in a fertile field fixing fences while father and fugitive were feeling festive. The foreman felt fantastic as he flashed the fortunate news of a familiar family face that had forsaken fatal foolishness. Forty-four feet from the farmhouse the first-born found a farmhand fixing a fatling.

Frowning and finding fault, he found father and fumed, “Floozies and foam from frittered family funds and you fix a feast following the fugitive’s folderol?” The first-born’s fury flashed, but fussing was futile. The frugal first-born felt it was fitting to feel “favoured” for his faithfulness and fidelity to family, father, and farm. In foolhardy fashion, he faulted the father for failing to furnish a fatling and feast for his friends. His folly was not in feeling fit for feast and fatling for friends; rather his flaw was in his feeling about the fairness of the festival for the found fugitive.

His fundamental fallacy was a fixation on favoritism, not forgiveness. Any focus on feeling “favoured” will fester and friction will force the faded facade to fall. Frankly, the father felt the frigid first-born’s frugality of forgiveness was formidable and frightful. But the father’s former faithful fortitude and fearless forbearance to forgive both fugitive and first-born flourishes.

The farsighted father figured, “Such fidelity is fine, but what forbids fervent festivity for the fugitive that is found? Unfurl the flags and finery, let fun and frolic freely flow. Former failure is forgotten, folly is forsaken. Forgiveness forms the foundation for future fortune.”

getting in a stew about the cross (or getting cross about a stew)

Stew the Rabbit and I are about to visit another school this morning. It will be his first visit there and I hope he is well-behaved. He is going to try a magic trick which may or may not come off…

The theme will be exploring crosses. an ‘x’ can be a sign that you got something wrong as well as a sign that someone loves you. Which seems like a helpful way to explain the Easter cross to Key Stage 1 and 2 children.

Last night at Alpha we looked at ‘Why did Jesus die’, and I was pleased that the Alpha material offers four different models of the atonement. I think we seriously underplay the significance of the cross of Jesus if we only concentrate on penal substitution – even in a less aggressive form. It means so much more than that, and if we only focus on that we may also exclude people for whom that model of the atonement does not resonate. Why do we think God inspired people to come up with other models?

I think I may be turning into Steve Chalke! (Except he has hair, runs marathons and Oasis, is much cooler than me and… [insert lots of other differences here]). If in doubt, read ‘The Lost Message of Jesus‘.

I wonder if this is part of what Paul meant when he wrote that he became all things to all people in order to win some for the kingdom of God. To the Jews he used a temple metaphor, to the Greeks he used philosophy… So how are we packaging the gospel today? Which model of the atonement will bless the people you meet today?

I think in some ways it requires us to see things differently – to look at the same gospel through lenses tinted by our culture.

An elderly lady was well-known for her faith and for her boldness in talking about it. She would stand on her front porch and shout “PRAISE THE LORD!” 

Next door to her lived an atheist who would get so angry at her proclamations he would shout, “There ain’t no Lord!!” 

Hard times set in on the elderly lady, and she prayed for GOD to send her some assistance. She stood on her porch and shouted “PRAISE THE LORD. GOD I NEED FOOD!! I AM HAVING A HARD TIME. PLEASE LORD, SEND ME SOME GROCERIES!!” 

The next morning the lady went out on her porch and noted a large bag of groceries and shouted, “PRAISE THE LORD.” 

The neighbour jumped from behind a bush and said, “Aha! I told you there was no Lord. I bought those groceries, God didn’t.” 

The lady started jumping up and down and clapping her hands and said, “PRAISE THE LORD. He not only sent me groceries, but He made a non-believer pay for them. Praise the Lord!”

fishy business

Very soon I will be leaving our house in the company of Stew the Rabbit (pictured on my home page) to take an assembly at a local Primary School. Their theme is ‘special symbols’ and with Stew I will be talking about ichthus and crosses.

I have blogged before about ichthus fish symbols on cars but it has saddened me today as I have reflected that in the early days of the Christian Church, when people’s lives were at risk, the ichthus symbol was a secret sign of their faith and now has been reduced to a bumper sticker.

Why, in a free country, do we keep our faith secret by using the ichthus symbol? Surely we should shout it out joyfully rather than adopting the secret symbol that only those ‘in the know’ will recognise.

I felt a bit judgemental at that point until I realised that there are occasions when I adopt an ichthus approach in conversations with people. I am coy about what I do. I don’t naturally speak about my faith in the same way that I talk about my family or even my favourite football team.

Oops.


A man was stopped by the gamekeeper leaving a private lake. He had with him two buckets of fish.

The gamekeeper asked the man: ‘Do you have a license to catch all those fish?’ 

The man replied to the gamekeeper: ‘No, sir. These are my pet fish.’

‘Pet fish?’ the gamekeeper replied. 

‘Yes, sir. Every night I take these here fish down to the lake and let them swim around. After a while, I whistle and they jump back into their buckets, and I take them back home again.’ 

‘That’s a bunch of hogwash! Fish can’t do that!’ was the outburst from the gamekeeper.

The man looked at the gamekeeper for a moment, and then said: ‘Here, I’ll show you. It really works.’ 

‘O.K. I’ve GOT to see this!’ The gamekeeper was curious now. 

The man poured the two buckets of fish into the lake and stood and waited

After several minutes, the gamekeeper turned to the man and said, ‘Well?’ 

‘Well, what?’ the man responded.

‘When are you going to call them back?’ 

‘Call who back?’ The man asked. 

‘The FISH.’ the gamekeeper said. 

‘What fish?’ The man asked.