The Secret of Life of Mascots


The Teddy Bear is named after the 26th president of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt – affectionately known teddy-bearas Teddy. Roosevelt was one of America’s most beloved Executive Chiefs. His grandiose personality merged opposites – combativeness and playfulness, tunnel-vision and curiosity, grumpiness and cheerfulness, fairness and stubbornness, shrewdness and innocence – and his furry mascot captured all that: a cuddlesome and dangerous predator, a creature that in the wild causes gasping terror but in the crib brings soothing comfort. For over 100 years, Teddy has helped children, and maybe a few adults, chase away nocturnal fears and fall into untroubled sleep, while for millennia real bears have done the opposite.

Roosevelt’s close friend and political ally William Taft succeeded him in the world’s highest office – indeed, Taft’s presidential win had much to do with Roosevelt’s unwavering support of him. The friendship fell apart 3 years later – one of billy-possumhistory’s saddest political fallings out. But before that rupture, when Taft was still only president-elect and the two men were still close friends, an Atlanta toymaker created a mascot for Taft that, they hoped, would replace the Teddy Bear in the affections of children. It was called Billy Possum.

It was a pointy-faced, beady-eyed rodent.

And it was an epic fail. Doris Kearns Goodwin, in her magisterial The Bully Pulpit, writes, “…expectations that Billy Possum would rival the Teddy in popularity were swiftly dashed when the stuffed creature, resembling a ‘giant rat,’ caused children to cry.”

And that was the end of that.

It’s got me pondering three things. One, what might be an appropriate stuffed toy to represent America’s current president-elect, Donald Trump? But all my thoughts on that turn cynical and gloomy, and so I best not pursue it.

So the second thought: what might be an appropriate mascot for me? If I had to represent myself as a stuffed toy, what would it be – what animal, or creature, or mythological beast? I know the ones I would flatter myself with: lion, horse, eagle, centaur, Jedi. I favor the noble, the majestic, the just, the wise, the strong.

But what might others suggest?

I think, maybe, a small loud dog. One of those wiry kind with a sharp bark. But maybe a small loud dog in recovery – a small loud dog trying to become a large quiet dog, a yappy Maltese aspiring to be a dignified Mastiff. The first part of me life has been about overcompensating for numerous deficiencies. The latter part has been about trying to stop doing this. I’m currently somewhere in the middle.

Which leads me to the third thought: what might Jesus’ mascot be?

That’s actually simple: a lion and a lamb. His life merges these extreme opposites. He is fierce, wild, kingly, dangerous. And he is gentle, tame, meek, vulnerable. He roars, and he baas. He conquers, and he bleeds. His growl is awful. His bleat is heartbreaking. He is not safe, but he is good.

And this: the more I meet him in both guises, the lion who rules, the lamb who was slain – the more I fear his terrible beauty and yet draw near to his tender weakness – the more I am freed to become my true self.

Who knows, I may just end up that centaur after all.

Confessions of an Imperfect Sabbath-keeper




My wife and I and daughter Nicola lived in Wales for 4 months, in winter and spring of 2012. Sarah, our other daughter, joined us for the last few weeks (alas, our son Adam was unable to get away from work). It was part of a sabbatical that the church I was serving then graciously gave to us.

We had been to the UK before, on brief visits, but my haste on those trips, trying to cover much ground and take in many sights in slivers of time, reduced my experience, and my subsequent memories, to blurry fragments. That’s the irony of trying to see too much too fast: it often renders everything forgettable.

Our time in Wales was different. It was a lingering sojourn. We traded houses, and vehicles – and even churches – with a pastoral couple who were just beginning their retirement. We had only met them, through a mutual friend, via email (and then face-to-face, for 30 minutes, at Gatwick airport in London, where we quickly exchanged greetings and keys). View from Kitchen windowTheir home sat high on a green hillside overlooking the endlessly twisting Teifi River and, beyond that, the tiny stone village or Pentre-cwrt, a place even most Welsh people are stumped to locate on a map. The house bordered a sheepfold, and every morning when we stepped into the kitchen to make our coffee, a dozen or so plump and skittish ewes, sometimes a haughty surly ram, then later in spring a few spindly and curious lambs, stared at us through the window, though scattered at our first greeting.

It was magic. I think of it now – I thought of it then – as my season in Narnia. The days unfolded with unhurried ease. I learned to drive under the speed limit. Life’s slowness, its stillness, its deep quiet, made us, not drowsy, but fully awake. The stillness enhanced everything, made each colour brighter, every sound sharper, all movement more dramatic. Looking back on it now, almost 4 years later, I remember almost every walk we took, meal we ate, conversation we had, drive we drove, church service we attended, visit we enjoyed, with photographic precision. It lives inside me vividly.

That’s also what Sabbath is meant to do. It slows everything down, and so brightens everything up. It creates space and time – a stillness – for us to linger, to savour, to notice. It is one day, rung like a tuning fork, that makes all the other days sing on key.

I wrote a book many years ago – actually, while I was on my first sabbatical, given to me by the same generous church that let us go to Wales – on Sabbath. It’s called The Rest of God. I wrote it when I was still a rank beginner, stumbling through my first clumsy steps, babbling my first garbled words. The book did well in spite of all that, and for the past dozen years I’ve been asked to speak often on the topic, treated as something of an expert on the matter.

The truth is, I’m still mostly in a rush. I still wrestle wild impatience. Most of my days still go by in a blur.

But it’s not all that. I’ve been keeping Sabbath, in at least some cobbled-up way, for 14 years now. And it’s made a difference. It’s making a difference. The weekly slowing has made more room inside me. I listen better. I notice more. I’m more curious, more thankful, more receptive, more generous. Admittedly, I’ve a good stretch yet to go. And other things, including painful things, have helped in all this. And there are some areas in which I’ve made, it seems, little progress – maybe even fallen backward. But generally, Sabbath has been for me a long obedience in the same direction, to quote Eugene Peterson (who was quoting, improbably, Friedrich Nietzsche).

I remember reading many years ago something by Henri Nouwen in which he described his hurt over a friend accusing him of insensitivity and uncaring. Nouwen admitted to these faults. His defense was simply this: Yes, yes, I know, I’m sorry – but please, imagine how much worse I would be if I were not also a man of prayer.

I still move too fast. Still listen poorly. Still grow impatient over minor things.

Yes, yes, I know, I’m sorry. But please, imagine how much worse I would be if I were not also a Sabbath-keeper.