[Review] Digging for Diamonds by @CathyMadavan

cathy-madavan

I met Cathy at Spring Harvest in 2013, and have enjoyed chatting with her on Facebook, and occasional face-to-face meetings every since, so looked forward to reading what she had to say!

Often known as ‘Bargain Bex’, I soon highlighted the sentence:

Good quality doesn’t usually come cheap, ethically sourced is not often a bargain and bespoke is never ever budget.

Those things that are worth cherishing (wisdom, intimacy and trust) take time to dig and uncover. The title of the book comes from a paperweight that winked upon Cathy’s desk – highlighting different facets of thinking – reminding us that we may be frail but “Christ is alive in us, no matter what challenges we face or how fragile we feel at times.”

How often have we probably had ‘gems’ scattered around us and probably not noticed them – in a busy season in our life? How then will we take the time to dig beneath our lives to discover what is hidden beneath – for identity, strength, character and purpose?

Stories of diamonds, and the properties of diamonds are woven into the book – how the pressure creates something so beautiful. We are reminded of our value (Deut 7:6) – if we looked in a mirror – what value would we place upon ourselves? Some over-value themselves, some under-value themselves, but we needed to be reminded that we are valuable – surrounded by the unconditional love of God:

When living in a culture that thrives on the image of unattainable success and beauty doesn’t exactly help our self-perception, much of our own sense of value is shaped, for better and for worse, by the significant relationships and experiences in our lives.

Cathy talks of being introduced to the unconditional love of God by a Brethren chapel in Plymouth … a church with no bells and whistles, but full of genuine love and welcome! They soon suggested that she join a large Baptist church with a strong student ministry, where she learnt that “I didn’t need to be constantly trying harder to be good enough for God.” To truly reach something valuable, we have to dig deep, often to a foundational level:

Despite our feeble attempts to build our esteem upon the shallow base of achievement or approval, God knows that his foundational truths are the only rocks that can permanently underpin our sense of value and give us strength.

a-word-of-encouragement-718811Often the things we value most highly are more important than their actual cost … tied to the memories and the relationships that they symbolis(ed) – reminds me of Lucy’s book earlier this week!

As we build memories and share experiences, our lives become inextricably linked with others’, creating priceless relationships and adding value to those around us.

Why do we wait until funerals do tell people how wonderful they are, how valuable those people are to us? Let us give more kindness/words of encouragement every day – impact can be long lasting. It is easier to offer such words of value to others when they come from a place of valuing ourselves (but not from a narcissistic quest of self-gratification) … we can notice, value and unlock the potential in others too!

Ah, another great quote used:

mother-teresa-quote

We can remember that each of us is writing a one-off story. “As each of us accept that God has not made a mistake in his design of us … we can stop striving to be what we are not and embrace who we really are.” (Check out Gal 6:4-5). Drawing upon coaching thinking – we are encouraged to think about where we feel most alive and in our element – where we can “become fruitful and fulfilled. We are often more efficient and hardworking because we love it and it comes naturally to us.” (Romans 12:6-8). And another great to draw upon:

C.S. Lewis once said that the church is a community of people, each of whom is gifted to be able to see a different aspect of God’s beauty in a unique way.

We are challenged that God has given each of us particular resources to steward – are we prepared to change “to grow beyond the expectations of others” to be all that God would dream of us to be.

We are to be a vibrant, risk-taking and radical collection of people who have embraced our own unique calling as disciples of Jesus wherever we are.

We need a climate in which we are both encouraged and challenged – carefully balanced! Particularly if someone (yourself or other) has ever said that you are a mistake or a disappointment – we are reminded that you were lovingly made by God – he doesn’t make mistakes – and thinks you’re pretty special! Made in the image of God – you also have creative DNA – stuff those who say that creativity is a ‘profession’ – it’s something that’s built into all of us – we may not all be Van Gogh’s, but don’t let that stop us (I definitely paraphrased that last bit somewhat)! Remembering Eph 3:20 – maybe some of us need to ask for more imagination as we present our creativity before God.

Our world presents a picture of ‘perfection’, but if we look at diamonds – each has unique idiosyncrasies known as ‘inclusions’ – they are an accepted part of its identity … flawlessness is an unattainable ideal… and in fact our identities are formed by the ‘knocks and bumps of life’. Why do we magnify our own inadequacies, turn away compliments, or chastise ourselves for not being ‘just a little better’? We can be surprised at how often our biggest strengths are tied to our biggest struggles … as we form. If we accept those ‘mistakes’ and ‘failures’ then we can spend more time building our strengths rather than trying to circumnavigate our weaknesses (oh yes, check out Marcus Buckingham).

Turning to relationships – we all long for deep and genuine relationships – Cathy asks whether we are guilty of demanding transparency from others whilst remaining opaque ourselves… consider the need for mutual vulnerability, whilst recognising that hurting people hurt people so this is not risk free. And amen to this “Transparency, however, is not the same as unfiltered unspokenness” (especially online, I must add!)! There is a need to identify safe spaces – we look to the example of David who poured out his raw and unedited emotion before God, but also a close group of friends where we can share compassion – as we learn to do this, we create safe spaces for others to do this with us. Cathy does then go onto consider what she thinks Jesus would have done with social media – thanking God for the benefits, but aware of the drawbacks… although I would question the implication that ‘real life’ can only be lived without an internet filter… it’s real, but in a different way – and if it’s all we have, then we probably need to look again! Our desire for meaningful relationships is often limited by a lack of time .. time and effort are definitely required to maintain them!

What happens when life gets tough? “A diamond is basically a piece of coal that has handled stress remarkably well.” We only learn resilience through experiencing life – not cutting ourselves off – how do we encourage more in ourselves and others?

The people who inspire me most are those who have had to build up their resilience muscles through grief, health challenges, or redundancy, for example, and who have grown stronger through it, gaining wisdom, perspective on other smaller crises, and a compassion for others who are still struggling on the journey. They might still have their own battles to fight, but they know how to try and fight them.

We need to remember that God loves us and meets us in the middle of the dark times – and there’s no need for the emotional guilt that is laden upon the disabled, depressed and discouraged that the church sometimes loads on. Love this saying on a poster Cathy spotted “Faith isn’t faith until it’s all you’re hanging on to”.

We get lots of insights into Cathy’s life, what she’s learnt from it, and the theology that she has drawn upon:

In a hundred little choices that you and I will make today, we have the opportunity to show the kind of integrity and authenticity that declares that we want our life to line up with what we believe and who we are, wherever we are.

We are encouraged to think about what we hold upon materially – we may not have to de-clutter to a level of poverty, but how do we remove our addiction to ‘more’ stuff – particularly for ourselves – how do we share more? Richard Foster says “We crave things we neither need nor enjoy”. Cathy:

When we are able to both look after what we have been given carefully and share it generously, it gives God as much pleasure as it gives us.

In understanding that our entire life is an act of worship to God – which should adjust our focus upon the world – we learn to earn ethically, spend wisely, save carefully, and give regularly and sacrificially. And it’s not just about money, but time, wisdom, attention and prayer. How do we look back to our past, be thankful for the positives, but seek not to repeat the negatives… reproducing God’s values – especially amongst children (whether parent, youth worker or teacher or other influential adults – spot echoes of Raising Children in a Digital Age there) – and being counter-cultural disciples in the world.

We need to consider whether we will shine more brightly if we had less ‘facets’ to our lives – are we trying to ‘add more sparkle’, and in doing so deadening that which is already there? This is not another list of ‘musts’ with a spoonful of guilt:

Guilt is never a good master and the pressure of others should never define us or be our motivation, no matter how compelling the case we are presented with.

If we know what our unique values, skills, etc are, then we are more aware of what God made us for – we can therefore pass on those things that do not add to our mission in the world to others who would do it better, without feeling threatened! We are reminded that our setting matters, and that at times we may be encouraged to step out differently – allowing God to shine more light through us. This may take time and effort, but the end result will be worth it. One person, one action may be all it takes to make a big change…

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[Review] More TV Vicar? by @vahva

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After seeing reviews in The Times, The Church Times, The Sunderland Echo, various radio shows, others blogs, and the Daily Mail, finally time for me to get around to my review of Bryony’s book. I am privileged to have known Bryony for several years, to have supervised her recent BA dissertation, and to have heard ideas and early drafts from this book! Once again, this book made it onto my pile for my recent #staycation … and I read it on part of the train journey from Manchester to Winchester! It’s a ‘seriously’ tongue-in-cheek book, in which each story is given as much space as it deserves, rather than forced into a fixed length.

With similar interests in culture and communication, I will freely admit that I don’t have as much TV knowledge as Bryony… having not had a TV til I was 18, although that’s no excuse for the fact that I’ve never seen Broadchurch and Bluestone 42 – both recent TV shows! After three years at Cranmer Hall, however, I have seen how insipirationally human vicars are, and many of the themes pulled out are very recognisable from the books I have read! Bryony combines her academic research and thinking in a text that is designed to be accessible to the everyday reader (yes, I do know people who have it as one of their toilet books!). She looks at how the TV is both a mirror and an influencer of our lives.

Over the past five years I have enjoyed teaching on MediaLit, and in the earlier years we often asked who came to mind when we thought of Christians on TV. Dot Cotton was frequently the first name to come to light, with a noticeable sigh of relief when Rev was released, as demonstrating the very humanity of clergy! These kind of conversations are taken to a different level within Bryony’s book, using a simple framework of ‘the good, the bad and the quirky’ – whilst acknowledging that these are not perfect, they give an enjoyable shape. Bryony asks how believable such TV characters are, and why they still have a place? Within my PhD, I have a particular interest in nostalgia – why do we still remember the posters from the Second World War, and why was the village church so central in images of the Britain to be protected, and the vicar invited to be the moral voice in VD posters? How powerful is satire and comedy within the British context – and which subjects are suitable for this?

Nostalgia is powerful (we can see this with Keep Calm and Carry On) – it makes us feel warm, to deal with the difficult (economic?) times, and the diet of bad news on the TV – and therefore it can’t be too real! Bryony originally started playing with some of these ideas on ‘Tea and Cake… or Death’ (from Eddie Izard), which then emerged as the popular Anglican Memes. Bryony draws upon Kate Fox’s Watching the English – a book I also love (and read last year on holiday, reading bits out to my slightly bemused Irish friend!) – as with that kind of book – it takes someone “within” to poke gentle fun at what is going on … something that is highlighted in many of Bryony’s comments about TV series.

siscott121I did love The Vicar of Dibley, and we gain a sense of the importance of this programme in relation to our thinking about women’s ordination (and why it wouldn’t be made now). It demonstrates how influential popular culture is, including offering openings for conversations. Dawn French had been uncertain about playing the character until she visited a female vicar who had a mug with the quote ‘Lead me not into temptation, I can find the way myself’!

We see stories of how contemporary clergy (including our friend Robb) are featured in the media, and how contemporary drama such as Broadchurch highlights the centrality of the church in times of tragedy, whilst Bluestone 42 confuses with an attractive, female, vicar (surely not possible!). Rev attracted lots of public comment, but Bryony emphasises that although it is recognisable, it is not reality (reality makes for boring comedy!) – and the church in particular often expects too much from this kind of programme.

Padre Mary in Bluestone 42 is questioned as to why she would choose this job. As Bryony, a vicar herself, would say, it makes no sense to most people to be a vicar (especially if giving up other lucrative, status-imbued, careers), but most vicars I’ve met would speak of how this is not about them, but about a calling which they may have resisted for some time.

The ‘bad’ vicars had me wincing and uncomfortable, but it was comforting to hear how their sheer unbelievability is essential to the humour. Atheist comedians, however, often speak/write from a place filled with poorly made assumptions which are essentially fundamentalist in nature – they are not neutral, and their lack of religious literacy means that they often cause even more offence than they may expect – losing humour in the process. Offence, as Paul Kerensa would say, should be the sign of a good moral compass – it gets you to think.

As we get onto the ‘quirky’ collection, we understand how Father Ted was so much a product of its time – drawing upon affectionate satire – before so many child abuse revelations. Loved a little mention of Imposter Syndrome on p101! We also see The Simpsons, although American, incredibly influential in the UK! We get to see the importance of Dot in Eastenders – her faith is integral to her everyday life, rather than a ‘character trait’ as in so many other representations. Her character gets the opportunity to deal with the big moral questions – but we need to recognise that she cannot represent the diversity of faith … but also many of us would find it boring to see characters ‘just like us’. In looking at Rowan Atkinson, Bryony identifies how he moved from gently poking fun to much more offensive and irrelevant representations – although what we might find offensive may not be the elements of comedy that he would expect – but he does recognise the comedic potential that such a long established institution such as a the church offers.

As we head into questioning ‘What would Jesus watch?’, Bryony sees a positive challenge to be more creative as the church – rather than as a ‘coercive’ minority who feels owed a living. Jesus would probably fit more in the ‘quirky’ section of the book – he was a master of challenging communication. I sniggered at the final sentence of the book … consider writing a strongly worded letter to Points of View!

The book highlights so much whether we focus upon our differences versus our common interests … why I love social networking so much … there are so many possible connections to be made!

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[Review] #ForgetfulHeart by @lucymills

forgetful-heart-lucy-mills

Another book that I was given in 2014 … and has taken until late 2015 to read – but which I enjoyed reading on my #Staycation … I read it on the train journey on the way back from Winchester to my new home in Manchester!

Lucy draws on a mix of prose, poetry and Biblical reasoning to question how fully we throw ourselves into our Christian lives, or how often we forget God! As in yesterday’s book review, we are reminded that God wants all of our hearts, minds and soul! Lucy doesn’t preach, but speaks from her own experience (as with all the best writing, offering up vulnerability) … with some strong challenges accompanying many tongue-in-cheek moments … and lots of encouragement to keep stepping forward.

As I wrote in my PhD thesis:

Tosh claims that history is ‘collective memory, the storehouse of experience through which people develop a sense of their social identity and their future prospects’.[1]

Lucy weaves in a range of thinking about memory – how it creates our identity – both as individuals and as a group. The Biblical cultural context adds insight around the themes of memory. I noted that Lucy said she doesn’t put God on her ‘to-do’ list, as that seems rather demeaning … I actually do – with ToDoIst – along with other friends who I want to intentionally arrange to see! Helps me remember – along with other technological tools! On p18, Lucy engages in a discussion about modern technology/retaining information – but as I teach in my workshops – right back to Socrates – there have been worries that technology (in that case pencil/paper) would lead people to rely upon outside support rather than their own memories – does technology maybe even free up our minds/memories to be more creative? Discuss?! 

Lucy has written frequently for BigBible, so I know she’s got an interest in online interactions too. I loved her description of how grace shaped an online conversation with an atheist:

I once had an intriguing Twitter exchange with an atheist who was convinced I was delusional and that religion was the root of evil. I didn’t rise to his comments and conversation progressed. I asked questions; he replied. I challenged him; he challenged me. We even thanked each other for being respectful. ‘I still think you’re wrong’, he said at the end. But in one of his last tweets he added a smiley face. That little emoticon indicated that it was indeed a gracious disagreement. Even if he thought I was deluded. Even if I thought him misinformed. Even if neither of us changed our minds (p126).

This is part of a larger chapter considering how grace shapes our reactions: “Trying to focus on God and what he wants of us in moments of hurtful negativity takes a great deal of strength and practice.” The word practice is important here – we need to practice so in the more difficult times we are more naturally able to respond grace-fully.

In our world – western culture has told us we can only rely on ourselves, we place too many hopes in frail humans, we spend too much time working to society’s definition of success, rather than God’s – not understanding that our greatest times of growth are often in our times of waiting. We spend so much time waiting to be noticed, that we fail to notice others. We question what our hopes are in … because that is what we will become subject to – whether that is the world, or God’s way of being. Tiredness and fear are two of our biggest enemies – skewing things out of shape and messing up our priorities. We have grown used to the idea that we are all ‘tired’ – how do we challenge that and stop living in cycles of energy boom and bust? Fear often swamps our mind with trivial, mundane things that don’t allow us to face up to the bigger issues fighting around inside of us – forgetting that God is our refuge and strength. Encouragingly Lucy says “There is nothing flimsy about our faith, even if we’re clinging to it by a single thread.”

Lucy tackles the dark times with compassion – reminding us of the Psalmists who doggedly stuck with it despite difficulties – we have become so used to things being easy that we forget how to cope in the more difficult times – forget to listen out for God’s voice, and forgetting that he’s bigger than we are. In times of darkness we are left with “the honesty of who we are now and how we feel now.” New memories are formed – which can be difficult – but profound. On p47 the topic of anger is raised … something that we are often discouraged from acknowledging, but expressing it in the wrong way – or stuffing it down – can both be unhealthy!

The first section of the book had focused upon us and our culture, whilst the second section ‘An Ancient Dilemma’ draws our attention to the life of Biblical communities, especially the Israelites – who required a collective memory/identity to remind them that they were a rescued/special people. As I noted with the British and wartime propaganda posters, the Israelites were given “ownership of old memories, even though they had not experienced the original event themselves.” Lucy doesn’t shy away from the difficult bits – including dealing with cultural clashes – which reminds me of contemporary debates about immigration, assimilation and globalised culture! We hear of the Woman at the Well, and of course the ultimate act of remembrance – the bread and the wine. We are asked how much of God’s message we are sharing – and how much that reflects our preoccupations, rather than those of God!

The third section considers the ‘ripples of forgetfulness’ – what do our actions demonstrate about our beliefs? The importance is not that we succeed, but that we try, right? If we no longer care about our ‘fruitfulness’, is that when to worry… we just need to ‘plug back in’. Rather than seeing ‘fruitfulness’ as a tick-list of things to achieve – for ourselves – are we seeking the values and fruits of the Kingdom/Spirit – reflecting the character of Christ – even in our limitations? Lucy tackles the question of compassion fatigue – the need for memory to shut down because it’s necessary for our sanity – but to ensure that this doesn’t mean that we become hard-hearted and un-compassionate – it may all seem a little overwhelming – but start with something – it’s not about the numbers – it’s about the attitude of heart behind it… and I would say that social media can make at least raising awareness key – don’t sniff at clicktivism says Simon Willis of Change.org!  Love the end of this poem:

remind me.
that on a painting
composed
entirely of black
one tiny streak
of brilliant white
can change the whole
picture.

By the way – I tend to look at the fruits as kind of individual forms of ‘fruitfulness’ – Lucy reminds us that the flavours are designed to complement each other, rather than to be seen individually! Just before I read this book I had seen Disney’s Inside Out, in which the importance of memories, especially key memories, and the place of sad memories are so important (as I scribbled on p117). We are asked – what does our worship look like – and how do our memories inspire this?

The fourth section looks at ‘the art of remembering’. I found chapter 17 on Faith and Familiarity particularly helpful – lots of nodding, yes and underlining going on there (sorry if you hate people who write in books!)! We are not all knowing (that is God), we live in a time-poor society in which we worship ‘busy’, where faith seems to be something ‘extra’ that we try and squeeze in – rather than central to our lives. Lucy, in suffering from CFS/ME, has had to learn to manage her time and energy in different ways. There’s lots of helpful advice for things to experiment with (as I have learnt to do with Beyond Chocolate – try something (small), if it works, try it again, if it doesn’t, try something different) – acknowledging that we’re all unique. As Lucy says on p.141

Habits are hard to break. We need to start small, find the most manageable thing and not be tempted to overdo it. This tiny moment of space may feel like a huge challenge, yet even when being climbed on by a toddler, pausing between tasks in the office, or sitting in a busy waiting room, we can try and allow our thoughts to focus on God. This will be in a way that we, as individuals, find helpful – be it through running a phrase through our heads, looking at an object or picture, or simply becoming aware of our breathing. It’s not easy. We may not succeed, but we are beginning to try. How can it be worst to try than never to try at all?

productiveIronically, I was reading this on my #staycation. Too tired to book a trip overseas (also rather ££ in August), I wanted to sleep without an alarm clock for 2 weeks, and once unpacked in the new flat, see a few (relaxing) people, catch up on a few books I’d been wanting to read for a while (fiction and non-fiction). Slow our hearts, minds – learn how to rest! See p26:

Resting is not as passive as it sounds. It takes practice. Addictions take some time to overcome, and stress or busyness addictions are no exception. When we go cold turkey, withdrawal symptoms are inevitable. But it’s important, because stress has a negative effect on remembering. Constant stress leads to the release of flurries of stress hormones, and these interfere with the processes of memory. Even at a chemical level, stress is bad for remembering effectively.

Plenty of challenging material in this book, accompanied by lots of gentle encouragement and suggestions for action!

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[1] Tosh, J., The Pursuit of History: Aims, Methods & New Directions in the Study of Modern History, 1991 (Second Edition), p.1. Tosh, J., The Pursuit of History: Aims, Methods & New Directions in the Study of Modern History, 2002 (Third Edition, Revised), p.1 rephrases this as: ‘All societies have a collective memory, a storehouse of experience which is drawn on for a sense of identity and a sense of direction’. At first glance this appears to make the same point, but is no longer noting that this is history, making the further point that ‘professional historians commonly deplore the superficiality of popular historical knowledge’.

[Review] Let Me Fall by @bethpensinger

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I met Beth at the Revolution Conference in 2013, picked up the book, and read it fairly quickly. I kept meaning to write a book review – as Beth says in her book (and as reflected in this Facebook post) – reviews (especially on Amazon – see US reviews), make a huge difference to who Amazon highlights the book to, and the exposure it’s given … as well, of course, as one’s friends getting to see a book that you’ve appreciated and ‘trusting’ your judgement!

On my #staycation week last week I re-read it, and enjoyed it afresh! Beth presents a mix of ‘real-life’ vulnerability in the first half of each chapter, and a figurative journey with God in the second half of each chapter, as she visualises what it means to truly ‘let go’ and fall into the full life that Jesus promised. There’s an incredibly patient Holy Spirit accompanying her on her journey as she learns to submit her thoughts and actions in a way that is incredibly freeing.

I have always been fascinated by how we create our images of God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit – often deeply influenced by our cultural context. One of my favourite @bigbible posts was this one by Rev Kate Bruce, in which she takes the time to sit still and allow her vision of God to make its way onto paper – what would (s)he look like for you? This was something Sheridan Voysey and I addressed in our culture sessions at Spring Harvest in 2014 also! The Holy Spirit in particular can be difficult for people to picture in any way, so I loved Beth’s image of an adventurous abseiler!

Another particularly strong image is that of the devil (p82), who has managed to side-track her with a beautifully comfortable bed, her favourite films, activities and food, but is suddenly exposed:

The devil acts very much like the snapping turtle. He is as patient as he is deceptive. This is easy to understand considering he’s the quintessential predator. He fights dirty. Below the belt is the only place he aims. He is so good he has some people convinced the prison in which he’s entrapped them is far better than what is outside. They’re aware of their captivity, but it’s what they’ve always known. So they fear anything else.

The Holy Spirit is gently, but deeply, challenging … on page 121, as in many others pages, he draws upon Biblical passages, reminding us that what God wants is all of our hearts, minds and souls, not the formal religious actions that look good to the world, but are meaningless to God. There’s a challenge to those of us who tend to over-intellectualise our faith. As Beth seeks to understand grace, the Holy Spirit asks, if someone gave you a watch, would you figure out how it worked before you would accept it? Why, therefore, do we insist on trying to understand grace before we will accept it… and there’s no need to continue living like “an escaped convict in hiding” (Les Mis!) fearing punishment from God.

The text is full of contemporary cultural references including Disney, the Hunger Games and Lord of the Rings. We get a sense of a difficult journey full of mistakes and redemptions, but the bottom of the cliff is not the end of the journey, but the start of further adventures together! On the surface an ‘easy’ read, but many challenges about what our journey with God looks like.

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Top Tips for Running a Church Website with @Reform_Mag

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Reform is a fresh and challenging magazine exploring theology, ethics, personal spirituality and Christian perspectives on social and current affairs’ published by the United Reformed Church. They asked what my top tip was for an excellent church website, and I said:

Reflect the church you are
Ensure that your website reflects the church that it serves; visitors should not be shocked by a disconnect between what is “advertised” and what they experience. This means that website content should be considered in every aspect of church life, which not only gives information for church regulars but also gives a powerful opportunity to show the life of the church. Use a clean, fresh design and KEEP IT UP TO DATE!

See what six others wrote, and what would your top tip be? Don’t forget that you can also enter the Premier Digital Awards to celebrate good digital engagement!