allowing yourself to be dislodged

23 11 2014

When I went to university to study theology, lots of people made that sucking noise, pulled a worried frown, and asked if I thought my faith would survive it. My response was to look slightly quizzical, because I thought that if our faith doesn’t stand up to rigorous questioning, it’s probably not a very good one. 

My faith did survive university, just. Whether it was the theological study or just part of growing up, I did my best to ignore it, despise it, forget it, but God always came back to me, faith small as a kernel clinging to my soul. But now, as then, it doesn’t take much to dislodge me from the rock face of faith. God didn’t call me to be a vicar because I am titan of immovable faith. But I still can’t – and don’t want to – shy away from the difficult questions. They can’t be glossed over. They just can’t. 

This is why personal faith is so important to me, rather than religion. I don’t follow Jesus because the Bible is “inerrant” and the rules make for a great life; I follow him because deep down I know he is who he says he is, even when I don’t want him to be, when it sounds ridiculous to me, and when one simple question from a teenager can cut the safety rope.

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This week I was asked to be on an interfaith ‘question time’ panel for 100 year 10s from 4 Sutton schools, as part of Interfaith Week. This is a tough proposition, as I’m sure you can imagine. Mainly because I have the tendency to say something silly when under pressure. It’s a strange dynamic, being on a panel with a Muslim, Hindu and a Jew, you either feel you’re the beginning of a dangerous joke or specimens in some kind of zoo. 

We had no idea what the questions would be, apart from some educated guesswork, which was partly right, however the first question nearly threw me, as it was more real than the theoretical and issues-based questions I was expecting. Here are the questions:

1. Have you ever had a religious experience? 
2. Should children be forced to follow the religion of their parents?
3. Does homosexuality go against the Bible?
4. Does religion fill the gaps left by science?
5. Is killing a person ever justifiable, thinking specifically of euthanasia and assisted dying?
6. Do you ever question aspects of your religion?

What I found so encouraging was that the questions were top and tailed by the personal, as so often in apologetics we are talking about our faith as if it is ‘over there’, behind a wall, when actually my faith is in me, it is me, I can’t talk about it without it also being about who I am.

I was able to talk about the religious experience of prayer, hearing God speak and seeing him give me pictures and words, and guidance; the ‘buzz’ of a great worship session or the presence of God in silence, on my own; of God leading me to the depths of sobbing or the heights of joy, and a whole lot in-between. If by religious experience that is what you mean, then yes, absolutely, and it is available to all of us.

As far as questioning my religion goes, I was able to show the vulnerability of our faith, that we are not asked just to follow rules or other external signs, but are called to follow from the heart, as who we are; so we don’t have to be happy with everything our faith represents, and we are free to question and debate; we are not robots of God, but friends of God, and sometimes critical friends are the best ones.

Even though it can be frightening, it is good to be dislodged from the rock face of faith sometimes.





Band Aid 2014 and the selfie-generation

18 11 2014

Some truths: 1. BandAid is generally A Good Thing. 2. Bob Geldof is a genius at marketing it. 3. To quote Sir Bob, even if you think it’s crap, that’s not the point.

“Ebola is just a plane-ride away from you.”

That being said. What struck me this time round though was how Sir Bob sold it to the X-Factor generation. Previously, he knew what people needed to see was evidence of the need, hence the famous shots of Ethiopian children in the 1980′s. Then, that was new. Now, that is not enough. His script was heavily laced with the knowledge that whilst the world is so large and accessible to young people, their own world’s are increasingly small. Unless it affects us, it doesn’t matter. 

Ebola is just a plane-ride from you. That was his take. In a way, it’s genius, because it taps into our natural human fears. Our selfishness. But I thought – isn’t that the opposite of charity? Charity, linguistically related to love, is about self-giving, not self-interest. We should give to others because of their need, not because of our own need. This isn’t a neutral philosophical debate like the entire episode of Friends devoted to trying to find a ‘selfless act’. No.

This is about looking at the world outside of ourselves. Outside of our own needs. Life is bigger than what I can fit in a selfie. It is about putting ourselves in the shoes of people in desperate situations and being moved to help them just because. You could call it incarnation. We do it because it is the right thing to do. Because we are humans, precious and loved by God. Not because it might soon affect me. 

We give because even though they are poor, far away from us, they matter just as much. I wish Bob Geldof hadn’t used this emotional blackmail on the X-Factor. But maybe he needed to. And if he did, then we as the generation who are their parents have got a lot of work to do to communicate selfless love.

Young people learn by having it modelled to them. It’s time to get modelling.

Many organisation have been working with Ebola victims for a long time, for example Medicin San Frontiers, and you can also give directly via the Disasters Emergency Committee.

Watch this on iPlayer to find out more.





church ≠ damage limitation

16 11 2014

The Holy Invigilator stares at the class, pacing, watching, eager to make the eternal boredom of heaven worth it by catching someone cheating, or not letting them go to the loo, quietly chuckling at their terrified expressions as the clock slowly… ticks… tocks… ticks… then the bell goes, out comes the red pen, and the fun of marking their pitiful lives truly begins.

This is basically how many see God. Life is an exam and being a Christian is the art of avoiding getting in trouble with God, appeasing him with good behaviour, keeping our heads down. Which is weird, as Jesus was the exact opposite. He even said I didn’t come for the goody-goodies, but for the dubious

But. The parable of the talents. At first glance it seems to corroborate the exam paradigm. But it doesn’t. Jesus is talking about people who have been entrusted with something of great value. A ‘talent’ was a huge amount of money, maybe 15 years salary for a labourer, so roughly £187,000 on the minimum wage. Two servants take a risk, one doesn’t. He was scared of falling foul of the master, so instead of doing something productive with the money, he went for damage limitation. He buried it.

Jesus is saying that the Pharisees have been entrusted with the treasure of God, but have been so scared of losing it they’ve buried it in the ground. It is not lost, it is preserved, but nobody benefits from it. At least you don’t get into trouble for losing it, right? Wrong. 

When we meet Jesus and follow him, we are entrusted with a great treasure. What are we going to do with it. Bury it, for fear of losing it or getting it wrong, or take a risk with it? It’s like any sort of training – running, cooking, discipleship. Practice, and you get better. But if you just sit around, you will not. We may have been given faith, but if we don’t practice it by actively living it out, it will not grow. To those who have, more will be given. Bury it, and you’ll lose it.

The point of this parable is not that we must work hard to avoid being told off by the Great Invigilator in the sky. The point is there is far more to our faith and this life than we can ask or imagine, but if we bury the treasure in the ground we will not discover it. Church is not meant to be the place we celebrate damage limitation by showing off the dusty treasure we buried that hasn’t changed in years. God help us, but that’s what it can seem like sometimes. 

Church is where we gather to say ‘look at the risk I took and the mistake I made and the blessings I discovered’. Church is an encouragement not to be lazy, but to grow in our confidence, and to see the treasure grow and grow and grow.

Don’t bury yourself in the ground. Take a risk. Dare you. 





banishment, statelessness and the cost of love

14 11 2014

Love may cover a multitude of sins, but wouldn’t prison be better? Or if not prison, the good old days of banishment, when sinners were cast out of the city walls to fend for themselves. Guilty or not guilty, being suspected was enough to pacify the mob. Send them out! Scapegoats, if you like, carrying the sins and fears of the community on their backs. Out of sight, out of mind.

The struggle against fundamentalist jihadists is a real problem for our liberal democracy. Many are genuinely reaching the end of their liberal tether of benevolence and free speech. Deeply and firmly held beliefs about a god other than Economy terrify the policy-makers and the tabloids and therefore everyone else. So if someone sets out to destroy – or even challenge – the way that we live, increasingly the reaction is as fundamentalist and those we are ‘against’.

Just look at the reaction to the Occupy movement in Parliament Square over the last few weeks. Ordinary people challenging the priests of Economy, faced with detention and arrest. For what? Standing? And if we cannot cope with dissension from within, how on earth will we manage dissension that is far, far more serious. Like returning jihadists.

The option the Government want is more powers. Powers to barr them from entry, to take passports, effectively to render them ‘stateless’, someone else’s problem. Banishment. Suspects, that is. Whilst I understand the thinking behind this – how can we welcome home people who have engaged in a war on the other side to ourselves? – love steps in.

Love? What’s love got to do with it?

Love – love as action, love as intentional choice, love as principle – love says that the rights of those we disagree with are just as valid as those we agree with. Love says that a citizen of this country is exactly that – a citizen, therefore afforded the rights of a citizen, which include innocent until proven guilty (remember that?). We are not a totalitarian dictatorship intolerant of dissent or free-thinking; we are a liberal democracy with all the freedoms that brings. And a consequence of that freedom is people are allowed to exist who disagree with us. Who even want to destroy us. 

We cannot allow ourselves to arrive at a place where people can be arrested or de-citizened for being suspected of something, without going through the proper criminal justice system. It can be hard to understand how frightening this policy is unless you put yourself in the place of someone it might apply to, which is unlikely to be the standard middle-aged white males in an office who write this stuff (stereotype alert, apologies). 

Whilst it may pain us to stand up for the rights of people who are different from us or who we vehemently disagree with, love commands us to do so, because love is not sentimental mush but a hard-core challenge to our desire for self-protection and to look after those who are ‘like us’.

Instead of increasingly oppressive edicts from above, the Government needs to work hard at local community level to get alongside and understand what makes young men go to fight in Syria. One way this could have been done is through statutory youth work provision, but the priests of Economy think that is too costly. Sutton’s local council youth budget was cut by over 50% in 2011.

But love is costly, love takes the long view. And love does not banish. 





jeffrey jelly baby learns about peace

13 11 2014

You’ve never been caught taking close-up photos of jelly babies? Now’s the time. One of the challenges of church leadership is telling the same stories well, or finding new ways to tell the same stories that engage a varied audience. This is something I created for our all-age Remembrance Day service, and have used in assemblies alongside telling it with actual jelly babies on a table. I put it here in case it prompts or inspires you to have a new idea, however strange you feel when you first have it. And remember, the best visual illustrations are edible ones. 

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remembering forwards

2 11 2014

Most of us have a dark chapter in our story. A time when we grieved for someone, or something. A time we find hard to look back on. We are not always very good at telling that part of our story.

But those parts of our story are important. We don’t tear those chapters out. Because we believe in a God who is involved in our story, and we continue to tell the story of God, even with the difficult bits. The Bible is full of honest grappling with the dark parts of our story – of family fall-outs, or childlessness, of death. The Psalms in particular do not shy away from yelling at God when we feel life has dealt an unfair hand. But in that, we remember that though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, God is with us.

Holding that in tension is part of remembering forwards. Remembering forwards means looking back to the dark chapters with a confidence that comes from knowing the future. It’s a bit of time-travelling Jesus-style, less Doctor Who and more Doctor no-longer-required. It’s embracing that part of us that hurts, not burying it in the sand. Because though we are sad, we are not abandoned to sadness. Though we are thirsty, we are not left parched. ‘To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life.‘ 

When death hits us, we may feel like we are stranded in a desert with no water, with all that is familiar gone. Many of us simply do not know what to do. So we live in denial, employing various tactics from the stiff upper lip, to humour, to making shrines, all of which can have their place, at the right time… but, when we are thirsty, none of these things are drinking from the water of life, they’re just re-arranging the sand.

But in remembering forwards,  we know we have a hope, we who believe and trust in Jesus Christ. A hope that marks us out. For we do not believe death is the end, because we believe Jesus is coming back, and when he does we will be raised with him. Yet this hope is not reserved for the end of time. We do not sit here in our grief, thirsty for hope, left to yearn for some distant future when everything will be ok. That future hope breaks into our present; that is what Jesus talked about when he talked of the Kingdom of God breaking in. He began his ministry talking about bringing freedom for captives, sight for the blind, release for the oppressed, comfort for the mourning.

Grief is hard, and can seem never-ending when you’re in the middle of its waterless desert. But. We can be people who trust in Jesus, in and through our confident remembering, and allow him to lead us confidently forwards to that place where we can drink freely from the spring of the water of life.





too much hell for halloween

29 10 2014

What’s Halloween got to do with the church, I was asked last week. Makes you think, doesn’t it. 

We live in a society of escapism. Much of our society does all it can not to think about things that don’t make us feel good. Like death. Especially death. Instead of facing it with confidence, maturity and hope, we suppress our fears, then binge on it at Halloween. We make it ridiculous, outrageous, therefore disempowering it from having a hold over us. Hahaha, we say, look at ghosts and ghouls and axe-murderers and blood and fear and how we are not frightened of you. You’re not scary! You’re only in films! Evil is all made up! Touch wood.   

We show how so not frightened of evil we are by facing it in costume. Like soldiers dressing for battle or Batman donning his mask, we feel emboldened by hiding ourselves and becoming other. We dress as the deformed or the mentally ill or the demonic or simply those that strike fear into the hearts of everyone else – not us, of course – and we laugh in the face of evil. Or we would, if we believed it had a face. 

I believe it has a face. That is why I cannot join in.

It has a face, and especially this year. Not in the way the tabloids find an individual and call them the ‘face of evil’, as they periodically do.

Evil has a face when millions in Iraq and Syria and Central African Republic and Sudan are forced to be refugees, when hundreds of thousands are killed in war, are murdered by ISIS; when there are so many dead we cannot count them.
Evil has a face when children in your and my neighbourhood are abused.
Evil has a face when domestic abuse happens round the corner.
Evil has a face when corporations evade tax yet pay pittance.
Evil has a face when the disabled are discriminated against.
Evil has a face when people look at child abuse images for pleasure.
Evil has a face when a teenager is stabbed on a bus in broad daylight.
Evil has a face when someone is raped.
Evil has a face when I look in the mirror.

I cannot celebrate that. I cannot bring myself to gorge on the Dark Side, to wallow in that which brings hell and death, because though it might seem like innocent fun like wallowing in a mud bath suddenly we realise it is a bath of crap and we’re covered in it. 

We Christians tell a different story. A better story. In our story we take our masks off and look evil in the eye – even when it is within ourselves – and know that Jesus has the victory over it. It will not win. We do not need to make a mockery of evil and death in order to deal with it, because we face it confidently and maturely every day, by not burying our head in the sand but getting involved in the world in which we live and being a part of bringing the kingdom in. 

What has Halloween got to do with the church? All Hallows Eve reminds us of the presence of evil and hell and death, but more than that it reminds us of it’s imminent destruction because of Jesus. We celebrate salvation and we celebrate the goodness and grace of God, for he is the light of the world that casts out evil and darkness and death. Focus on the light.

There’s too much hell in real life to make a joke of it. 

….

See also Harmless Halloween by me and Halloween: Harmless or Harmful? by J John.





I have come to replace you

24 10 2014

I have come to replace you. That is what babies are really saying when looking adoringly into your eyes. And, of course, where’s my lunch? Though perhaps then it’s not the eyes they are looking at.

I have come to replace you. When put like that, it sounds like a sci-fi film. But it is reality. We will not live forever. This is not our world to clutch hold of tightly like an angry toddler. Instead we are guardians of it, like parents, tending, caring, nurturing, but the whole point is we then let go.

I have some to replace you. Here’s the nub. Are we brave enough to embrace and nurture those who will change everything? Because that’s what we do with babies. They will take our jobs, our money, and yes, our church. Yet it is our responsibility to nurture them. So, do we make it easy, or make it hard?

I have come to replace you. As we get older we often fear change more. As Christians, who follow a God of change, who journeys with his people through desert and sea via occupation and liberation and ending in resurrection, we do not need to fear change.

I have come to replace you. Whatever position you hold in your church, look at those who will replace you. They may be much younger than you now. Don’t fear them. But consider how you can nurture them, encourage them, and how you can shape the world they will take over from you. Why? So that when they do, they will be grateful to you. That’s dangerous thinking for grown-ups who like to clutch church like angry toddlers, rather than letting the real toddlers in. 

I have come to replace you. Yes, and you are most welcome.





(funda)mental health

7 10 2014

Many people who are a part of church have mental health problems. One of the reasons for this is that churches are – generally, frequently – places of kindness. Places of welcome. Why? Because we try to follow Jesus, who wasn’t a malevolent warrior, a political obsessive, or a brainwashing control freak. 

We follow Jesus who went to those on the fringes, the edges; to the broken, the hurting. Our hope is that that Jesus is reflected in the everyday life of churches. What we do is rarely glamorous, or violent; it is rarely newsworthy. We are not generally world-conquering fundamentalists who want to kill anyone who isn’t like us; neither are we hotbeds of scandal. What we do is mostly under the radar, but it is not secret. It is revolutionary, but not political. 

What we do is welcome all who want to come. Serve all who want to come. We invest in communities through coffee mornings, toddler groups, youth clubs, food banks, debt counselling, curry nights and yes, being a place of welcome and kindness for those with mental health problems. We welcome ‘them’ – us, you - as we welcome anyone. Yes we get it wrong. Yes we don’t always understand. Yes we can be impatient. Yes, long-term illness of any kind can bring out the worst in any of us. And for that we are sorry. After all, we all struggle with poor mental health at one time to another. Maybe we are struggling right now and nobody knows.  

But if you struggle with fragile mental health, whether briefly, occasionally, frequently or every single long and frightening day, I hope you feel welcome not just ‘in church’, but as part of the church community. Know you are loved. And please, come as you are, and when you feel able to. If you have a mental health problem you have a lot to offer, a lot to teach, and church is worse off without you.  

Church is where the knowingly broken gather to walk life together. Forgive us for the times we forget that.

October 10th 2014 is World Mental Health Day. Please take some today to think how you can support those you know who suffer from mental health problems.
Here are some helpful links:
MIND
Samaritans
Friendly Places 





things jesus didn’t say #9 | touch wood

7 10 2014

“I pray that it works out for you, touch wood.” At which point you find the nearest wood or wood effect furniture (does that still work?), or for comedy value, touch your head. Yes Jesus was a carpenter, but that was his trade, not his prayer ministry technique. The only time he would say touch wood it is if he needed you to hold a speck whilst he took the plank out. 

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Is it a harmless phrase? Yes and no. Yes, because there is no spiritual power in wood, so invoking its power is harmless. No, because there is no spiritual power in wood, so invoking its power is harmful. Harmful as it contributes to the eroding of trust in God as the one to whom we pray. And harmful when we touch our own heads, as we do ourselves down and reveal a disturbingly negative sense of our own worth.

We believe in an actual real God who actually really answers prayer. Not in magic or superstition – or worse, a God who doesn’t listen unless we touch a particular type of natural material (or wood-effect laminate – again, does that work?).

I know most people don’t really believe in the power of touching wood. It’s just words. But words are never just words, are they. They carry a meaning.  Do we trust in the mysterious and magical power of wood (or wood effect…) to look after us, or do we trust in the God who made it.

Let’s mean what we say, or not say it at all. 

More in the cartoon series of things jesus didn’t say:
#1: stronger // whatever doesn’t kill you can only make you stronger
#2: dreams // follow your dreams and believe in yourself
#3: reason // everything happens for a reason
#4: harder // prayer harder
#5: third // on the third day, nothing important happened
#6: handle // I won’t give you more than you can handle
#7: other // other your neighbour as you other yourself
#8: tolerance // …faith, hope and tolerance. And the greatest of these is tolerance.








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