how to be content when you don’t feel like you’re achieving anything

13 09 2013

“How do I grow spiritually?”
“Well, I wouldn’t start from here.”

It’s hard to measure spiritual formation. It’s not all relative – that would make it meaningless. But it does depend where you are starting from, and what else is going on in your world. How do we measure spiritual formation in someone with mental health problems, or who’s life is consumed with complex parenting, or who has no reliable relationships? Or all 3. Or more.  

So easily we use measures that are, well, measurable. Bums on seats. Numbers in home groups. Baptisms. Retweets? 

Small churches in deprived areas can be hard to organise, to develop, to grow. People often have multiple issues in their lives, and also an outlook often unfamiliar with ideas of progression, change, development, responsibility and leadership.  So forget detailed programmes of discipleship courses based around growth and professional development.

Sometimes you have to accept that standing still is an achievement. Really? Is it possible to be content with standing still? I didn’t want to hear that when I was at college. But yes, it is, if the ground beneath you is constantly dragging backwards. That is how it feels for so many people. Aspiration? How can you aspire if simply not going under is an achievement. 

Can we be content with this? When all around us books affirm growth and development and ‘success'; when our very being is one that yearns for and believes in God’s power to transform and redeem. And what we mean by that is lives led less chaotically, listening to the Spirit, families at peace, worship lifting the ceiling and the gaps in the rota filled voluntarily. And what we get, for the most part, is tiny incremental moves and an unreliable PA system nobody knows how to fix.

Is that ok? 

I imagined asking Jesus this and him replying with “How are you?” Trust him to  have a left-field perspective. 

A universal must of ministry [that especially applies in a deprived area?] is character. Am I consistent? People don’t expect it. Am I trustworthy? People don’t expect it. Do I lead by example? People don’t expect it. Do I only talk to people because I want them to come to church, or do I actually care? People don’t expect it. Do I model a faith rooted deeply in Jesus, yet expressed and lived honestly and in the same world as those among whom I live? Have I let go of my internal markers of ‘successful ministry’ that grind me down with their voices of comparison and criticism and simply let God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – be the most important things in who I am and what I do.

Because we are building the Kingdom, not churches. Though churches are easier to measure.

Then my eyes are opened to what God is doing that I simply couldn’t see before. That the tiny increments are a massive deal for those they happen to. My world can be so churchy. I’ve been working out my faith all my life. Many of my people have not. It is new to them. 

Forgive my haste. Grow my character. Build your church. 





psalm following an overdose

24 06 2013

Our faith has to be real, sometimes gut-wrenchingly real. We have to look it in the eye and stare it down and not be afraid. Questions unspoken become questions too big to speak. Never let them. How can I talk about Jesus who brings sight to the blind whilst one of us slowly loses theirs? How can I teach sing silly songs about Jesus healing a disabled man whilst one of us learns to walk with only one leg left? How can I talk of peace and healing whilst some are in the depths of  depression? How can I talk of new life when so many mourn the death of their children? 

This is how.  Because God is real and it’s not all about me. I can’t explain everything, and I don’t need to. This is not my faith. It is our faith. So, I learn from you. You learn from me. We question together, we cry together, we laugh together, we rest together, we continue clambering up the bloody mountain of faith because it is real, not because it is easy, or just because it is there.

The following is a poem, a Psalm, written by someone we know the day after she took an overdose, last week, 25 years into her journey through depression. She has given me permission to share it with you because we thought it needed a wider audience. That faith can withstand this astounds me and blesses me and confuses me and gives me hope. This is church, this is discipleship, this is our cry, and we cry it out together.   

My Psalm Following an Overdose

God….

Are you my God?
I hurt so much inside.
Like my whole heart will just bust.

Are you here?       
For me?
For my family? 

To me, all seems bleak.
No point in this…
No point breathing….
Or living.

I hide indoors too scared to go out
Too scared to stay in.
Alone.   
Lonely.   
Safe?!   Really?!

I won’t deny you’re in my life.
I can’t do that.
But I ask, I scream, I cry…
WHY, WHY, OH GOD – WHY? 

Once, I thought you’d freed me.
Unlocked the chains that held me.
I feel more in bondage now than ever.
Did I go back into that prison out of choice
Or did you make me go in?
Putting a new, stronger, lock on? 

I love you.
I do think you love me,
Well, most of the time!

I see you there though, just sitting by,
Watching me being punished,
Hurting, crying, screaming, “JESUS, HELP ME”

 You don’t listen………………. Why?

What have I done to be so tormented?
I want to die but you don’t allow that.
Will my life be one of torture or
Will I get a break?

 So I have no choice but to sit
Or scream or cry or…..?

‘til you’re done with me, I suppose 

© Anonymous 2013





inside outside

11 06 2013

One voice says I should spend all my time with those outside church. Another voice says I should spend all my time with those in church.  A third voice say too many ‘shoulds’ leads to a hardening of the oughteries. I need a lie-down. 

One of the great dilemmas of the church leader is this: who do you spend more time with? Those in the church, or those outside of it? Pastoring and discipling believers, or making disciples of unbelievers? Bishop Nick Baines said this at my licensing: you are not a chaplain to a congregation, but vicar to a parish. 

the community is out there

the community is out there

It’s hard not to spend all your time with Christians. Committees, groups, studies, friendships… It’s easy – so easy – to find yourself in a bubble where you forget everyone else has life and work outside so actually might not be so concerned with the minutiae of church life as us. Thank God!

On the other hand, most vicars see a lot of people outside the church, or on the fringes. At funerals, baptism classes, school assemblies, pastoral visits, community panels, school governors etc where people aren’t even interested in our coffee rotas. How rude. 

Some of us are more comfortable throwing ideas around amongst those with a strong faith already, pushing at the boundaries of conceived thinking and creatively sharpening each others prophetic giftings. Some of us are more at home with those who are undecided or lapsed or simply never thought about faith – convincing, living it by example, making Jesus known where he is not…

And most of us do a lot of both. I spend a lot of time with people with fledging faith, or fragile faith, or no faith at all. When I was in a different church we spent a lot of time sharing ideas. I miss that. But I hardly knew anyone outside church. Now, I don’t get so much sharing ideas, but a lot more encouraging those on the edges. I will miss that too, whenever our next calling comes.

I know a lot more people now who don’t follow Jesus than I ever did before. Like everyone else in church. 

Some vicars, controversially, are even able to make time to be in clubs outside church (here’s to you Sutton Runners!). They’re obviously not working hard enough (is what the inner voice says). How wrong is that voice. But how loud.  

Where would you rather your leader spend their time? Pastoring and discipling (and organising) believers, or making new disciples? Because what we do with our time impacts you.

 





broadly christian

2 05 2013

People are very polite, but I often feel like I’ve walked into the wrong room. Like an astronaut in a fruit market, people haven’t a clue what I’m talking about. Assemblies, weddings, funerals, baptisms. I talk about Jesus, but there’s a radical disconnect between what I am saying and what people hear; and between what lies behind what I say, and what people hear.

Last weekend I spoke at a local Scouts District St George’s Day parade. I was asked to give an address that was ‘broadly Christian’. I understand why. I told a friend, who laughed and said,

“How can you be broadly Christian?! Surely you’re either  Christian, or not?”
“You obviously don’t know much about the Church of England,” I replied.

IMG_1552_Snapseed

this isn’t me

I know why I was asked, though. I don’t do being ‘broadly Christian’, but I can do being a Christian sensitively. You get me, you get my Jesus-ness. Asking me to be broadly Christian is like asking me to be broadly human. I either am or I’m not. I just might choose not to flaunt my humanness to the goldfish, though it’s my humanness that keeps it alive.* [* hopefully this metaphor will be forgotten in 7 seconds] 

How do you do speak in a ‘broadly Christian’ way? In the Scout context, I talked about working together for community and how this plays out for a follower of Jesus: servant leadership, like Jesus; caring for the unloved, like jesus; loving our neighbours, like Jesus. 

I may have slipped from being ‘broadly Christian’, into being specifically Christian, because I am specifically Christian. But hopefully sensitively Christian. There’s no explicit evangelism, no altar-call, no telling people what they should or shouldn’t do. No points-scoring. Jesus was always publicly much harsher and much more challenging to the leaders within the faith than he was to the followers on the edges of it. 

But I am not just a motivational speaker, a self-help guru, a comedian (!), a children’s entertainer – I am a church leader, one who represents the church – who represent Jesus – to the community. So what I say has to be specific. It can never be bland platitudes. Talking about following Jesus as if he’s real seems a good place to start, even if people don’t quite get it. Yet. 

Addendum (!?)

After reading this, one of my friends said Eddie Izzard summed up what she thought was ‘broadly Christian’ – only watch if you can handle a bit of mocking and some bad language. Consider yourself warned. 

  





the missing page

6 01 2013

I talk to myself. Sometimes out loud. On Sunday though it was in my head, because I was preaching at the same time. Not a case of being bored with my own sermon or getting in touch with my inner Gollum; but as I turned from page 2 to page 3, I had a  conversation a bit like this:

“That’s a strange link.”
“Yeah… how do you get from the last sentence on that page, to the first one on the next?”
“I don’t know.”
“It’s almost like there’s a page missing.”

“Eeeek, I think there is a page missing!”
Frantic scrabbling around among various papers ensues.
“Poo, there’s a page missing.”
“Where is it?
“I think it’s on a printer, or maybe I dropped it… or…”
“Does it really matter?! It’s not here. What are we going to do?”
“Try to remember what the missing page said. You did write it, didn’t you?”
“Yes but my memory is saved for useful things like the words for Bon Jovi songs from 1992.”
Frantic scrabbling around among various memory synapses ensues. 

All that happened during one spoken sentence. Isn’t the brain amazing. More amazing than my waffly half-remembered words that followed. 

Yes, I write on parchment. Doesn't everybody?

Yes, I write on parchment. Doesn’t everybody?

This is what the missing page actually said:

So, Jesus, the King, the Light, was born not in a palace in Jerusalem but in a peasant house with the animals. The first people to visit were Jewish peasants who would have been very at home in that environment. And the next people Matthew tells us about who visited… were they important Jewish priests? Were they religious locals? No, they were foreign, of a different religion, drawn by the stars. 

I wonder what we think about foreign people. Maybe we are foreign here. What would we think of foreign people in our own country? Especially foreign people of a different religion. What kind of God, who has previously seemed quite territorial and protective of the Jewish identity, chooses to announce the birth of the Messiah to non-Jewish followers of another religion?

A God whose grace extends beyond boundaries of race, of culture; a God who pulls us to stand above prejudice about foreigners or exclusiveness of religion. A God who doesn’t limit his communication to being through particular priests of the religious elite. A God who shouts from the rooftops, through Jewish peasants and foreign aristocrats, through religious scholars and an illiterate underclass, that the light has come. Where the marginalized foreigners are brought to the centre, and those usually at the centre – the local religious priests – are marginalized. 

I think that page has been missing from lots of Christianity over the years. Maybe if we took a bit more notice of the people at heart of the incarnational story our attitude to foreigners, and to other religions, might be different. We may argue they shouldn’t be here; we may argue their beliefs are wrong. But we can’t contend with the fact that God chose to place such people at the centre of his salvation story. Imagine if our attitude to Arabs of another religion was influenced by how much God unexpectedly placed them at the centre of the salvation story we tell every year.

We can’t hate. We can’t despise. We can’t simply condemn or ignore. We can’t allow our faith to be adopted by nationalists or racists. But we can live in hope for God’s unexpected plan, and wait to see how they might point us to Jesus.    

Interesting. Unnerving. Liberating? 





harmless halloween

31 10 2011

Halloween is harmless. We all know that. What harm can dressing up as witches and ghouls and zombies do to anyone? So let’s stop being grouchy Christians and let them get on with it. Let’s allow our halls to be hired for Halloween parties. Let’s light up the pumpkins. Let’s slap on the face-paint and join in.

That would be the easy call anyway. And the one most people make.

Part of me wants to believe that. Part of me knows that there’s a whole load of fun to have. I’ve just read the 4th Harry Potter. I love Shawn of the Dead

But I can’t let it rest like that. I don’t have a well-developed theology of demons and spirits and the rest of the dark-side. But I know it is there. I have prayed in people’s houses for evil spirits to leave. I have prayed for spiritual oppression to leave an area and felt it go. And I do, after all, follow Jesus who broke the power of sin and death defeated the Great Deceiver and so I have to believe there are dark forces. Not like the Frank Perretti books of old first taught me. But it is real.

And so to glorify the dark side cannot be right. Even for comedy value. It’s not about being kill-joys. It‘s about knowing the hold darkness has on people, knowing that Jesus can and does and is breaking that hold, and not wanting to undermine that or mock it. I know so many people who live in my area go to spiritualist churches. I want to be a part of breaking this hold. And not to be seen to be condoning it. This is not to be taken lightly.

Jesus is not harmless. Jesus takes us to dangerous and uncomfortable and difficult places, and he loves us and carries us through. So Halloween cannot be harmless. Focusing on the darkness cannot be harmless.

No matter how much we want it to be.





killing the irreligious god

27 07 2010

I’m not religious, people say to me when they think I expect them to go to church. Good for you, I say. I am not religious. They look confused. You ought to be religious. Surely? Nope. Jesus was very religious. But unlike most religious leaders, he did not expect his followers to be as religious. Not religiously, anyway.

Instead of being all religious about religion Jesus was about taking the walls of religion and blowing them wide open. Religion so easily looks inwards and takes care of itself as religious people do their best to be religious, and do religious things in order that God notices and gives them religious points. So we inside who are apparently religious brush up nice and pick up heavenly brownie points by negotiating the Total Wipeout course of religious observance hoping that we don’t negotiate everything only to bounce off the huge balls at the end as God looks on and laughs. “]

Jesus told a story about a religious father who according to his religion did lots of things wrong, when his irreligious son demanded his inheritance and ran off with the money. He should have said no; then he should have punished him; then he should have disowned him. He should never have welcomed him back. Religion says so. Innate human desire for fairness says so. The religious older brother certainly said so. By their religious standards the religious community should shun and disown the religious father for his reckless and irreligious behaviour. Unfortunately, the irreligious father represents their God. Unfortunately later on they really did shun and disown and kill the irreligious god.

Thankfully God is not a religion and God is not fair. He is wonderfully and beautifully not fair. Or religious. God says love me with all your heart soul mind and strength and love your neighbour, love me enough to turn around from your old life and turn to me and I will welcome you whether or not you tick the boxes and do the stuff and look all religious because that is peripheral to being real in fact to be honest I can’t stand all that stuff it’s all just fluff and bubble and pointless when what I want is your heart. Love me, don’t label me. Come to me, don’t categorise me. Feel me, don’t fillet me. Dance with me, don’t dissect me.

At least, I think that’s what he said. I wasn’t really listening. Not religiously, anyway.

21 “I hate, I despise your religious festivals;
I cannot stand your assemblies.

22 Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
I will have no regard for them.

23 Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.

24 But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!

(Amos 5)



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eastenders: gay, pregnant and religious

27 04 2010

Religion is a harmless bundle of old ladies superstitions, like the tangled knitting of an old baggy jumper no-one will ever wear.

Religion is the hardened dogmas of narrow-minded dangerous hypocrites, like sharp stones flung in self-defence at a too-fast changing world.

Which is it? You decide.

EastEnders is doing religion at the moment. The harmless old ladies religion of Dot Cotton has been replaced by something far more dramatic. This time they are portraying the worst sides of 2 religions at once. A double whammy. A Christianity and Islam hypocrisy-sandwich, with a hefty slice of bigotry and a dressing of moral outrage. Watch this episode from Monday 26th April 2010 to get a flavour…

happy couple?

happy couple?

In one corner of the dock is Islam. A Muslim called Syed Masood is married to Amira, but is gay and having an affair with a man (ironically) called Christian. Syed’s otherwise liberal and nominal Muslim family are less than impressed. When it was revealed at a family ‘do’, words like “shame”, “disgrace” were thrown around.

hypocrite?

In the other corner of the dock is Christianity. Part-time church pastor Lucas, who killed his ex-wife in the allotment shed, is threatening his daughter Chelsea with judgement from “the scourge” if she has her planned abortion, if she chooses not to listen to him, god’s messenger. Proper hell-fire and brimstone. Thou shalt not kill, from the mouth of the murdering pastor.

Part of me is glad it’s not just Christianity being portrayed like this. Part of me feels religion-solidarity with Islam because we’re both in the dock. Part of me thinks it’s ok because this is how a lot of people experience religion: angst-ridden, judgemental hypocrites. Part of me sees it as just ordinary people trying to live their lives and not finding it straightforward, balancing their history and their culture and their family and their convictions and it all going belly-up.

I know it’s just EastEnders. I should ignore it. But Lucas’s attitude to abortion is very real. The Masood’s attitude to homosexuality is very real. It happens all over the place. In Islam, in Christianity, in places where there is no religion at all. People are forced into sham marriages because of attitudes to homosexuality. This is a very real issue, and it is brave of EastEnders to portray it.


I don’t mind a bit of anti-religion gip from the tellybox. I know it makes a good story. I just wish that sometimes a softer side of “religion” was given. Not the weak side, not the Dot Cotton superstition or the Aled Jones cheesy smile side, but the strength-of-grace side.

Sometimes there are people of religion who stand by girls facing the abortion decision, look them in the eyes and feel compassion and love and not hell-fire judgement. Sometimes there are people of religion who stand by people who are gay and don’t shout abuse and feel shame and disgrace, who feel compassion and see the love and do not give hell-fire judgement. This is not wishy-washy liberal thinking, it is hard, thought-through, and very real.

I wish it could be known that sometimes there are people who follow Jesus who wrestle with these big things and come down less on the side of law and dogmas and stereotyping and more on the side of love and grace and peace and that sometimes people who follow Jesus do not follow a book of shouted rules but a person and that person is alive and the faith is dynamic and brings social life not social death because that person is life.

That is what I wish.

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