intentional disillusionment

12 02 2017

Leadership. Wow. So many models. CEO, manager, teacher, mentor, shepherd, autocrat. Cultural life these days is like a case study in leadership, or mis-leadership. From leadership in sport to politics, church to the media, the judiciary to education, you name it,  it’s probably been dissected, criticised, humbled or idolised. Coe, Corbyn, May , Trump, Welby, Hodgson, Ecclestone, Murdoch.

I am currently reading about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor-theologian in the 1930s-40s who was martyred in a concentration camp. Stay with me, there is a link. He wrote about leadership. In his context, writing in 1933, he was addressing a Germany in pieces, desperate for strong leadership, of any kind, to pull it out of its post-WW1 mess. A culture was growing around the need for a strong leader, any leader, who would bring change. Any change, just to do something. Ring any bells? And I’m not talking about the England football team.

This concerned Bonhoeffer, and he preached this, in 1933:

A true leader must know the limitations of his authority. If he understands his function in any other way than as it is rooted in fact, if he does not continually tell his followers clearly of the limited nature of his task and their own responsibility, if he allows himself to surrender to the wishes of his followers, who would always make him their idol – then the image of the Leader (German: Führer) will pass over into the image of the mis-leader… The true Leader must always be able to disillusion… He must radically refuse to become the appeal, the idol, i.e. the ultimate authority of those who he leads… He must let himself be controlled, ordered, restricted.

Wow. Bonhoeffer here is calling for substance, not personality; for leadership rooted in principles of humility not just for the sake of power.

We have a crisis in leadership at the moment. For many good reasons, the status quo is being challenged, authority is being questioned. However, we must not let that gap be filled with low-grade ideas, cheap populism, or personality cults. For him, all authority ultimately comes from God, so we cannot place ourselves on a pedestal above God. For me too, that is the case; if you don’t believe in God, I think the principle is still the same. Pedestal? Off.

Humble leadership, in which we intentionally disillusion those who would make us idols, is the solution to ultimate-authority leadership. Humility is not weakness, and it encourages collaboration, shared power and a servant-heart. That is true across sport, politics, church and the media.


I end with a poem I wrote about leadership in the church, which can be particularly pedestal-hungry, originally posted here, entitled I am nothing:

I am nothing
I am just me
I have no divine right to speak for you
or to you
I have no pedestal I can call home
Though some would try and barricade me on one
And have me live their faith for them
I am nothing
I am just me
I have no certificate of authenticity
Or qualification
I have nothing from my ordination that sets me apart from anyone
I am nothing
I am just me
I have no power residing in my fingertips
I cannot command holiness to appear at will
I cannot pray in a way that bypasses the queue
I am not owed any favours by God and
I cannot command him with my whispers
I am nothing
I am just me
Anything else I appear to be
Any power
Any wisdom
Any heroic tendencies
And that recurring pedestal of owning holiness
Anything I appear to be
That is beyond anyone else
I repent of
All I am is because of who He is
And I claim nothing as my own.





kindfulness

8 02 2017

Kindness is considerably underrated as a characteristic. Not as elegant as love, as risqué as passion, or as productive as activism, kindness often sits somewhere around beige in the colour-spectrum of attributes. It just sounds a bit… boring.

kindness-inspire-others

Kindness. It’s so everyday, though. Love is special, passion is exciting, activism is life-changing, but kindness…? Those little everyday things. Holding a door open. For the third person that pushes through. Not scowling when the parent pushes the pushchair out from between the parked cars to cross the road – smile and wave them across. Clearing away someone else’s coffee cup in the staff room. Checking the person you fouled in football is ok. A kind word, a hello, noticing people.

Like the socks that prevent your feet from chafing, the sip of water that eases your voice, or a glimpse of sunshine on a dull day. Nothing major. Probably not many people will notice.

But these everyday little things are so very important. That’s why kindness is nestled in the middle of the things called the fruits of the spirit in the bible, between patience and goodness. It’s not a hierarchy. It’s called living, in community, living looking outwards, seeing others, noticing them, and just being kind.

We live in a busy world amidst so many demands and so much impatience and so much unkindness. To live well within this world, and to challenge it, I think it is good to practice inner calm, through mindfulness, but also to spread calm through it’s outward-looking twin, kindfulness. It’s only small. But small is good. Start now.





5 things to thank Trump for

31 01 2017

It might seem early days to mark a debt of gratitude, but in a spirit of generosity and hope there are several things about this Trump presidency, even after a week like this, to be thankful for.

  1. people suddenly care about refugees
    Following an EU referendum campaign and US election campaign that shamelessly played heavily to fear and xenophobia about refugees, suddenly there are mass protests saying “let them in”. This rebalancing of public opinion – and the reporting of it – is a good thing.
  2. people suddenly care about racism and sexism
    For a long time we have pretended racism and sexism were relics from a bygone era, whilst knowing they really weren’t, especially those of us who are white middle-aged men. After all, we are the least affected. But Trump’s behaviour and policies have forced us to be vocal about challenging both, clearly and confidently, because they are wrong. This is a good thing.
  3. people suddenly care about news bias
    We know the news we read is filtered through a bias all the time, but we conveniently forget. The Trump presidency has highlighted the issue of ‘fake news’, aka lying, propaganda etc…, and made us reassess everything we read. Once we know that whether we read the Daily Mail or the Independent, watch Fox or the BBC, everything is given an angle and we need to switch our brains on. This is a good thing.
  4. people suddenly care what is Christian  
    Huge debates are being sparked in the Christian world, as the ‘evangelical right’ is hijacked by Trump to an extreme even they can’t handle. Old divides are cast aside as Christians stand together to condemn xenophobia and racism, and claim Jesus’ words about love and welcoming the stranger. Can you really claim to be pro-life, yet condemn the living to death? The old ‘moral majority’ are no longer the vocal majority. This is a good thing.
  5. people suddenly agree that some things are just wrong 
    In our increasingly relativist culture people have found it hard to say things other people do are wrong. Live and let live, it’s up to them, everything happens for a reason… Well, thanks to Trump suddenly people are rediscovering a confidence to say some things are just wrong. Claiming to grab female genitals, boasting about sexism, lying, not paying taxes… some things are just wrong, morally, and people are being more confident in saying so. This is a good thing.

I find it hard to agree with much of what Donald Trump says or does. He is not my enemy though, because that language is not helpful; but I have found myself talking about him as if he is, getting enjoyment when things go wrong for him, and feeling self-righteous that I am not like him.

So, I offer these as reminders that whilst we can’t change him, we can change ourselves; that how we behave matters and what we do matters; and if a Trump presidency can raise us from political apathy and despair into a force that challenges oppression in all its forms then let’s celebrate that, even as we check Twitter again.

Because we have all fallen short and need grace, not just him.

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The Women’s March. From BBC News, Getty Images 





in.awe.guration

27 01 2017

There was a fine sense of timing last weekend as a very large inauguration speech  was followed hot on its heels by a very small one. Well, the text we looked at in church anyway.

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

It is interesting to compare the two. One spoke to a massed crowd of 1.5 million 250,000 750,000 a bigger / smaller* [*delete according to TV channel] crowd than Obama’s lots of people. The immediate discussion was how many. My crowd’s bigger than your crowd. Size matters. Especially for boys.

Jesus spoke to a crowd of virtually nobody. And those that were there were just working fishermen. No power. No influence. No money.

One speech used revolution language to talk up power and influence. To make an impact. Enforce law. A lion marking his territory.

Jesus speech began with one word. Repent. Meaning, turn around. Change your ways. Admit you’re wrong. Admit your frailties. Vulnerabilities. Show your weakness. Come, follow me.

One message was one of national self-interest, of protecting our own, of putting ‘our people’ first above all other considerations.

Jesus’ message is one of outward-looking action; his kingdom is one that reflects the Jewish theology of being a blessing to the nations around, a light that shines in the darkness. We repent and then we are to be a blessing to others.


I say this not as a comment on US politics. This is not about that. Rather, we use it to highlight the kingdom of God’s alternative way.

The way of weakness, not strength.
The way of humility, not boasting.
The way of vulnerability, not power.

We all find this hard. We are all drawn to strength. We need strength and power sometimes.

But maybe we could use these turbulent and troubling times of shouting and protesting and flagrant displays of power to think about how we live our lives. We may not be people of much influence. Maybe we are. That does not matter. Jesus invitation is to all of us, from Presidents to the poorest: repent, turn around, change, admit your weaknesses. Stand up to power and stand up for the weakest. Don’t stand for yourself. Place other people’s needs before your own. Maybe even your enemies…

Yes it’s a foolish way to live. I am in awe of anyone who manages it. Jesus’ plan of gathering 12 nobodies to inaugurate his kingdom with him was surely not wise.  It was worth it though.

And as inauguration speeches go, I know which one I am most in awe of.

7775cb8eb3ca6216b92cdfa15cd49731

 





legal. tender.

25 01 2017

There isn’t much tenderness in public conversation. Human lives are reduced to economic units. Economic units are
traded
bought
bargained.

Given value. Have value taken away.

whatislegaltender

Some people have larger economic value. They tend to be in charge. Society values economic value. It proves something about being successful. In collecting units.

Those units are described as money. Legal tender. But there’s not much tender about it  in public conversation.

Being every job lost or gained, there are people with a story.
Behind every business growing or struggling, there are people with a story.
Behind every Foodbank client, there are people with a story.
Behind every Brexit promise of prosperity or poverty, there are people with a story.
Behind every cleaner struggling on a ‘living wage’ cleaning the offices of the wealthiest bankers, there are people with a story.
Behind every ‘workplace assessment’ there are people with a story.
Behind every commuter’s season ticket, there are people with a story.

When talking about what is legal tender we need to talk more tenderly. Because it is never just numbers, economics, figures. It’s part of someone’s story.
The economy is not an ‘it’, it is ‘us’.
It is not over there, it is in here.
It exists only as a collection of human relationships and decisions.

We are not subservient to it, we are inherent within it.
We are relational humans, not neutral units.

We do well to remember this, in a world that separates people from the economy we serve, and prizes the collecting of units above all else. It is legal tender, so let’s tender it, legally, with tenderness.

Because people are not units to be
traded
bought
bargained.

We should give each other value, not take it away.

 

 





the pregnant pause | a Christmas poem

25 12 2016

The Christmas story always appears to me to have two distinct sides
that we emphasise differently depending on what we are looking for
On the one side there’s the wondrously mystical-sounding story
of wonder and excitement and angels singing about glory in the highest
on a hillside to fluffy white sheep
waking up the good-natured shepherds from their sleep
while a magical star lights the sky for exotic camel-riding astrologers
who’ve been crossing borders
for months or maybe years to see this stable tableau
bathed in subtle angel glow

the word became flesh
the divine enmeshed
he who created light in the beginning
is spinning a new kind of story
of darkness overcome
and they have come
to be among
the birth of the divine son

this almost magical tale suits best this candlelight
of Christmas night
a beautiful ethereal sight
in softer sight

but there is a flip-side

like a kite string that prevents this simple story from drifting off
becoming disconnected
alienated
separated
from what it is really all about
these simple words that put the mythological-story brakes on
There was a man sent from God.
He was called John.

Suddenly our story is about a person, not an idea
It’s about a real family being terrified and escaping to Egypt in fear
It’s not about the eternal cosmic battle between darkness and light
Well – it is, but rooted in history
with dates, places
real times and real faces
And you know as well as I do the centre of the story isn’t John
but that’s where the story starts from
in the gospel of John
anchoring the ethereal mystical word
preventing it from drifting off into the absurd
because the word was God
but the word became flesh
the divine intertwined
into the mess of us
in the body of a baby called Jesus

two sides to a story
light versus darkness
taxation and a census
angels and dreams
newborn baby screams
stars leading astronomers
God becoming one of us
Herod’s indignation
a refugee migration
innkeepers, animals, strangers with gifts
you can’t pin down this story it constantly resists
being claimed, held down, owned
controlled

this is a truly beautiful night
an amazing night
beautiful with candles and songs
but not because of candles and songs
they are just handles to open the door
to a humbling, life-changing
transforming birth of a King
not born on cushions of velvet and set on a gold-plated throne
not in a self-named luxury hotel with a lift made of gold
but born among the poor
born for the forlorn
the care-worn
set only on straw

So join with me in celebrating with awe
this story
of glory and wonder
and rooting it firmly in the fact
that god slipped under the radar
in so much more than a fairytale fable
but got itchy in a stable
to enable
the untenable
the indefensible
us
to be holy with him
to be holy as this holy night
that we might have eternal life.

And that is the third of the two sides sides of this transforming
heartwarming this-night-dawning
don’t let me catch you yawning
absolutely never boring tale of Jesus born in
a stable with donkey’s ee-or-ing
because the character
you may have never before seen
in that nativity scene is you
this is a story that you’re in

Come, kneel in this story with me
Come, join the wealthy travellers and shepherds fighting off poverty
Come and see Joseph so weary and Mary,
Come sit with Mary
Come, gaze upon this child
come and sit in this pregnant pause
for all that Jesus came to be and to do
all his inheritance as creator, King and son
can be yours

so much more than a fairytale fable
he was born to enable
the untenable
the indefensible
us
to be holy with him
so be holy as this holy night
for he was born that we might have life.

Happy Christmas


This was my spoken word for the Midnight Communion 2016. It works better when real aloud!





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.

christian-ministry-can-feel-like-trying-to-flog-dial-up-modems-to-kids-with-4g-phones

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.

prayer-and-the-absence-of-god

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.

2016 Snowdon Challenge.002

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.

2016 Snowdon Challenge.001

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.








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