Christian ministry and disappointment

16 09 2016

“There’s a lot of disappointment in Christian ministry.” It was a passing comment made during a conversation in the pub. But it stuck in my head. It’s one of the great unspokens, because we are not meant to feel disappointed. Not only can disappointment undervalue the achievements or encouragements, but it feels kind of disloyal to God.

At its best, Christian ministry is the most profound and amazing role, a privilege and blessing and yes, there are those times.

But it’s worst, it can feel like trying to flog a dial-up modems to kids with 4G mobiles.

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Selling a product nobody wants, let alone needs. Blank expressions of pity, or just… blankness. In early-church days, everyone believed in (a) god(s), so telling them about your (better) one made sense. Like going to a football match and telling people about the new team you’ve discovered that are way better than this one. And the pies are enormous. People will be interested. You just have to win their loyalty.

These days in this place it can feel like telling people about the new football team. Except you’ve gone to the pet shop to do it. At night. Dressed as a pelican.

We have this amazing message of hope and transformation, yet nobody gets it. We have the best ideas for social cohesion yet struggle to organise a an hour-long Sunday service. We celebrate when a few people come to church, when the other 19,000 in the parish don’t.

In Christian ministry you have to be able to genuinely celebrate small things, all the time hoping for greater things. You have to be able to manage church-envy, because no matter how good yours is, someone else’s will always look better run/resourced/taught/supernatural or just won’t have the same old crockery.

Yes, there is a lot of disappointment in Christian ministry. It is an incredibly labour-intensive project, but that’s how God works. In terms of farmers sowing seeds, God still operates in the old ‘fling it out a see’ method, no matter how much we try to adopt intensive-farming methods to streamline, make efficient, guarantee success.

It comes down to this. God is. And he calls us to exactly the same as Jesus called his friends to. And they called theirs to. Conversations, communities, the slow-burn of incarnation, of relationships, of lifestyle. Of being seeds in the dirt, that may or may not burst into life right now, or  next year, or in a decade.

Feeling disappointment isn’t failure. It doesn’t mean you’re in the wrong job. See Elijah. It’s being honest. To feel disappointment is at least to feel something, to know there’s more, to be a person who believes in hope.

It is when we fail to feel anything that we are in the wrong job.





prayer and the absence of god

13 09 2016

How do we pray when we don’t feel like praying anymore? Why should we pray when we feel like we are hurling our words down an empty well, and all we hear are the echoes of our own sadness?

Stop praying? Give up? Pray something different?

God sometimes answers prayer in a straightforward way. We ask for something, he says yes, and we get what we asked for. Happy days.

God sometimes does not answer prayer in a straightforward way. Like we say to God please can I have £20 and he says yellow, and we walk off looking confused.

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Part of the problem is the way we talk about prayer.

Answered?

We talk about prayer being answered. Put this in a different context and see how strange it sounds. When did you last have a chat with your friend? Did they answer? Have you spent time with your family recently? Brilliant, did they answer?

Prayer is much more profound than answers. That type of prayer treats God like a divine Siri and church like a subscription to Amazon Prime – put your order in, wait for it to arrive. Grumble at any delay or delivery charges.

But then life happens, and no matter how much we can deny it, we know God does not operate like this.

But it was never like that.

A truth: God is.

Whether he gives us what we want or not, he is. He is above our mood swings, our doubts – we do not destroy God by not believing in him, or being angry with him.

Another truth: God wants us to talk to him.

Prayer is the word we give to the thing we do with our family and friends – conversation, hanging out, spending time, getting to know. The way that you can get to know how your friends and family will think, that is what we can do with God. he knows us, and we can know him, begin to think as he does.

Which is not something we do so that we can get what we want fro him when things go wrong, like sucking up to your boss so you get a promotion or the best desk or the shift you want.

But what about the times when we are angry and disappointed and he does not save the people around us from illness or despair or death? Yes, they are tough. Those are the times we wish we could build up credits with God, and cash them in for good health.

There is no cashing in. But it is ok to be angry.

I know despair, I know anger. I know the feeling of deep sadness that only the death of a loved one can bring, like constantly falling from a great height and never landing.

Where is God then? In the valley of the shadow of death he is with us. I firmly believe that.

Most of the time.

Giving us strength, hope, raising us from despair. But not always saving us from it.

Does that help you? Does it help you if your son is diagnosed with cancer, or a friend commits suicide? Or if life is just rubbish?

Maybe it helps to know you are not alone in feeling that God is absent. Maybe it helps to be given permission to be angry.

The Bible is full of lament, that pouring out of grief and anger and questions that happen when life goes wrong. In fact, if you want a metaphor, a picture, for how you might feel sometimes, see Lamentations. The clue is in the name.

He has made my skin and my flesh grow old
and has broken my bones…
He has barred my way with blocks of stone;
he has made my paths crooked…
he dragged me from the path and mangled me
and left me without help…
He has broken my teeth with gravel;
he has trampled me in the dust… (from Lam 3)

God is. And we pray.

Not just for what we want, but to know the heart of God.
Not because we want God to micromanage our lives.
Not because we believe we have a divine right to health, wealth and happiness.
But because God is.

Jesus calls us to persistent prayer. Yet knowing that the purposes of God – and of life – are greater than the well-being of my life or yours. Which can be hard to hear in these times of selfie-sticks, instant gratification, same-day delivery and the importance of my personal happiness.

Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness. (from Lam 3)





the snowdon challenge

31 08 2016

You cannot understand the world without understanding religion. Ok, perhaps some would dispute that. But? Think about it. Probably 90% of the world adhere to some form of religious belief. We in secular Europe like to deny that; we may think the beliefs are wrong; yet, there it is.

Young people are growing up in a world that misunderstands religion. Seen through cynical media eyes it is newsworthy only at times of abject failure, or accidental comedy, or when the Queen does something dressy.

Yet religion changes the way people behave arguably more than most other factors. Yes that can be negative – extremist fundamentalism – and also positive – food banks, youth clubs, debt counselling, schools, hospitals…

Despite being the fastest growing A-Level option, and the one subject that tackles the big questions of life from primary right through secondary, many RE teachers are non-specialist. Many know their stuff, but many, especially in Primary school, have no background in RE at all.

This is why I support Sutton Schoolswork, even enough to run 22 miles over Snowdon! Yes, you may argue I have a vested interest in promoting the good understanding of religion. Yes, I do, as I do in the good understanding of sport and geography and maths. Even maths.

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Sutton Schoolswork work in schools, by invitation, to support teachers in the delivery of the RE syllabus; to give assemblies on topics ranging from Christian festivals to anti-bullying; to run i-Wonder Days for primary schools and RE 6th Form Conferences on Human Trafficking; they support teachers and pupils, and work with local volunteers to run lunch-clubs and after-school clubs. They do this across 45 primary schools and 11 secondary schools with just 2 schools workers, a recently-created post of Director, and p/t admin support, alongside local volunteers.

The critics in my head say there are better places for money to go, better charities to support. Yes, there are many good ones. Yet helping children and young people to understand the world they live in is a vastly underestimated value. Thinking deeply, discussing gracefully, learning from a conversation not a textbook… all these contribute to a world in which we don’t just shout statements at each other from entrenched and unknowing prejudice, but we seek to understand each other, to work together.

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So on Saturday 3rd September I am taking part in Man V Mountain, to raise money for Sutton Schoolswork. As a Trustee-Director and a local vicar who works in both primary and secondary schools, I think this is a great cause, and if you are able to join in supporting it, then please follow this link above to do so.

Thank you.





sunglasses over my soul

30 06 2016

there’s a reason I wear sunglasses
over my soul
you know, that deep place
within us that
sees
truly sees when people hurt

sunglasses because I don’t want
to see, fully
sunglasses because I don’t want
to know, really

I know I could just shut my eyes
but then I can’t see
I might fall over
and we can’t have that

the sunglasses are for protection;
dark enough to shield me from seeing fully
but not so dark I can’t see anything;
dark enough that you can’t see my eyes
but not so obvious as if my eyes were shut

what might you think of me then?

if I take the sunglasses off
i can see your pain and it hurts…
me
I don’t want your pain in my life
because it makes mine seem so…
small
and I feel ashamed
and so I hide
as your pain cuts me deep

it cuts me, but nothing like you’ve been cut
it offends me, but nothing like you’ve been offended
it violates my life, but nothing like you have been violated

perhaps all I can do is remove the sunglasses
that dull me to your pain
so that I simply know
and you know that I know
so that I can see you with open, unshielded eyes
and you can see into my soul through mine.


I hope this poem speaks to you about how we see other people’s pain, and try to hide from it. I wrote it during a 6th Form RE Conference on FGM/C (Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting) & Child Marriage with Sutton Schoolswork, amid questions about what we can actually do about it.

There’s a lot of pain in this world, now more than ever; pain in our communities, now more than ever. Sometimes seeing, and showing others that we have seen and we care, is the first step to doing something about it.





we are place

23 06 2016

If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.
Bad relationship advice, of course. But what if it applied to place?

If you can’t live in the place you love, love the place you’re in.

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The place we are in matters. We may love it, we may hate it. We may romanticise it, we may not even notice it. But it is. And a Christian theology of place says that where we are, we must love. Or try to love. Or to be love in. Because God is in that place. And God is love.

We anglicans have a systematic understanding of place, called parish. We are intentionally territorial, neighbourhood-focused. It means we cannot just focus on the town centre, the streets near our building, or the people we happen to know. We voluntarily take on a responsibility to pray for, be there for, support and protect those within our parish. Which is most definitely not just those who come to church.

Roads. Trees. Parks. Shops. Bus stops. Woods. Canals. Fields. Industrial estates. Schools. Houses. People. Businesses. Networks.

There are so many things that shape our place. I cam across the term ‘ecclesiastical geography’ this week that explains how we understand our – the church’s – place in our place. Understanding the historic factors that have shaped our area  and the people in it, from hills and rivers to mining and industry and immigration and town planning. And understanding the contemporary issues that build on or challenge or supplement those.

A theology of place goes hand in hand with a theology of the kingdom of God. If we believe this world is to be escaped from, then we have no responsibility to love and care for the place, only the embodied souls that happen to briefly dwell within it. We become ‘evaporated Christians’, with no roots on earth just vapour in the sky.

But if we believe that the incarnation of God in Jesus roots the work of God in a place, this place; if his resurrection and ascension means he is Lord over place, this place; if we believe he will return to a place, this place; and if we believe that in the meantime he dwells in a place, this place, no longer in a particular specific Temple or nation but through the Holy Spirit in all who turn to Jesus… then this place, our place, is where the Kingdom of God is coming.


This is why as Christians we love our place, whether naturally or as a choice; whether it’s ‘our place’ or an adopted place, or a place that has adopted us. In that love we want to bring and to be hope, to live lives of hopefulness and to spread hope in our place. Not an unrooted hope, which is just optimism, but hope rooted in Christ.

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Over the last few years the local churches on our estate have established a presence at the local St Helier Festival, organised by residents associations. As well the hospitality of refreshments, amazing cakes, games and children’s activities, we also asked people their hopes for their lives, for the area we live in, and invited them to write them on these 1-metre high letters. Their responses were many and varied, and are a great insight into how people in this place are, and think, and aspire to.

Here is a sample of what was written on them, and our prayer is that they will speak to us about the people in our place. And maybe in your place too.

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The idea of ecclesiastical geography and the reflection on space was inspired by a talk from Revd. Andrew Rumsey, though obviously I’ve reinterpreted it through my own eyes.





celebrating a spirituality of the body

5 06 2016

Our bodies are so precious. No matter what we think of them.
Bodies are at the centre of our faith. No matter how our history has erased them.

Somehow the most embodied faith about a God who was (and is) literally embodied has become disembodied. A faith with an enfleshed Jesus (Gk: incarnate) somehow became about escaping bodies into a ‘spiritual’ heaven. Yet when we neglect our bodies for more ‘spiritual things’ – usually words, prayers, thoughts – we do a disservice to God and to ourselves.

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The early church grappled with this unspeakable notion that the Holy God could be fully human, yet they pursued it and Paul, even Paul the Pharisee, could say our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. No longer the Holy of Holies once a year in the Temple – but you, and me, where God dwells, in our broken and wrinkly crinkly lumpy blotchy flesh and blood and bone bodies.

So, our bodies matter. What we do with them matters. How we treat them matters.

I know this is tricky ground for some. Many people I know, male and female, suffer from serious body image problems, from eating disorders, from other related problems, and from bodies that simply do not work properly. I’m in no way trying to solve those problems here. I am trying to help us see the importance of our bodies, that we don’t neglect them, mistreat them, or simply forget that God cherishes them.

Jesus was very body-conscious. Not in the sense he went to a gym and wore lycra. In the sense that he saw people with broken bodies, worn-out bodies – the disabled, the blind, the bleeding, even the dead. And he hung out with them, honoured them, used physical touch to restore them, when no-one else would go near them. He made them whole, physically, socially, mentally. He hung out with people who sold their bodies to people like us for sex, honouring them in a way slipping them a tenner for a fumble under the table never would.

He also had strong words about how we can misuse our bodies. If your eye causes you to sin, he said, gauge it out, for it is better to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than not at all. He was exaggerating for effect of course, but this was before you could watch hard-core porn on your iPhone during the sermon. What we do with our bodies matters. We can do great good or great harm, to ourselves and to others.

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Developing a spirituality of the body is not about a feel-good self-help programme indistinguishable from a couch-to-5k phone app; it’s not about becoming a vegetarian; it’s not about yoga or running or being happy with how we look, though it could include those.

It’s about being real with God and ourselves that this sack of flesh we live in matters. That Jesus would have us care for ourselves well. That the sure and certain hope of resurrection to eternal life is all about BODIES; a resurrection gained through the BODY of Jesus, God made BODY, who lives in our BODY by his Holy Spirit.

And if you truly struggle with your body, as many of us do, imagine Jesus sitting down next to you on the bus. Where does he look, how does he judge, and what does he treasure? Evidence from the gospel suggests:

He treasures the whole of us.
Us, as a whole.
Us as we come, broken or whole.
Wholly holy.


 

We are starting a new series with this title at church, and this is a version of the opening talk. Over the series we’ll be looking at eyes, hands, tongues, scars, heads, shoulders and feet as we explore what it means to offer our bodies as living sacrifices, to be temples of the Holy Spirit, and to honour God with our bodies. 





straw men & brick follies | the EU Referendum and why religion doesn’t have a monopoly on control by irrational fear 

1 06 2016

Critics of the religious and our history tend to point to a chequered history of control by fear. Invent a fear, give it a godly theme or a loose Biblical basis, and just keep on repeating it. Through that you will have control.

Rational 21st century people, who have discarded such medieval notions, don’t think like that anyone. We deal in facts, figures, not the straw men and brick follies of invented fears.

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Folly’s are so last century. Aren’t they?

Or. Do we? The EU referendum – or rather, the political posturing around it – appears to show that the religious don’t have a monopoly on control by irrational fear after all. The modern-day priests, people of a privileged caste who serve the god Economy, are prepared to say almost anything that will whip up enough fear among the common peasants in order to prevent them overthrowing the Lord of the Manor, who generously keeps the church Westminster in business.

I cannot excuse the history of my own faith, nor sometimes that we still control by fear. But one good thing about the decline in religious adherence is a near obliteration of the over-confidence by which the church controlled people. Many in the church (especially my own brand the Church of England) haven’t yet noticed that the majority of people don’t notice us, let alone listen to us, anymore. So we have been humbled into realising we cannot control people, and actually that is not what we should have been about anyway.

What we have to do instead is give people vision, hope, something to look to. Because whilst our influence and control has waned, our passion for our message hasn’t. Gone are the days of shouting the ‘turn or burn’ on street corners, hijacking Old Testament prophets or Jesus or Paul for our own purposes. Here are the days of Healing on the Streets and Prayer for Sutton and Food Banks and Debt Counselling and playgroups and coffee mornings and listening to people and living whole lives of hopefulness.

Meanwhile we look on in dismay as our leading politicians go all medieval on us, shouting on street corners wearing sandwich boards with misquoted scripture economics taken out of context to serve their own purpose. It should make us smug, to see how far they have fallen from hope to fear, these priests of privilege. But it doesn’t.

It just makes us weep for what could be so much better.





know hope | the hopes sessions #10

20 05 2016

It’s funny what you end up doing
when you pray.
after the no, hope post
a lady from our church painted ‘hope’
on small stones
and left them around the skatepark
and they’ve all been taken
like hope, scattered

Know Hope skatepark .001

I took the advice of a friend who suggested
instead of a comma making
no, hope
adding two letters
so I did
[in chalk, I hasten to add]
then I got carried away
and added a flower and a heart

we pray that all who skate over this
may know hope
not no hope
but a hope rooted and grounded in
joy and peace


This is my first foray into tarmactivisim. 
I liked it so much I made up the word.





bus stop | the hopes sessions #9

17 05 2016

the bus stop outside church
a place of waiting
hoping
cursing
sitting
meeting
a place to gather to
and then to go from
a place strangers become
fellow passengers
a place on the way to another place
but not the place itself

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a place a lot like church, really.





bench | the hopes sessions #8

1 05 2016

Bench. Outside a hospital.
For paramedics to smoke.
Patients to get fresh air.
Relatives to spot the irony.

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Sometimes hope needs a hospital.
Hope gets ill. Tired.

Sometimes hope is a hospital.
Hope gives life. Strength.

Sometimes hope just sits outside.
On a dirty bench.
Beckoning.
Come sit with me.
I’m not much to look at.
But hope can sit anywhere.
Even here.

 








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