gerrard stamps, but still sets an example

23 03 2015

If you saw Steven Gerrard’s red card on Sunday, and if you know anything about football, you’ll know how out of character it was. But that 38 second substitution appearance wasn’t the only remarkable thing to happen involving the Liverpool captain.

Courtesy of BBC sport

After the game, he gave an interview during which he did something so rare for public figures, from politicians to sports stars. He apologised. But that happens all the time doesn’t it? Yes, but he apologised for what he did, not just for the consequences; and he took responsibility for his actions, instead of blaming someone else.

Top-level football is in desperate need of role models, and although I do declare an interest as a Liverpool fan, his loss at the end of this season will be remarkable. For his passion without petulance; for his loyalty to local club over big-money moves; for his quietly powerful leadership skills; yes, but for me, it moments like that apology that mean just as much.

As someone who has led youth football up until recently, and still play, I see the corrosive influence of top-level bad behaviour replicated in the park. It is hard to stay calm, but it’s possible; it’s hard not to lash out, but it’s possible not to; and it’s hard to take responsibility, maybe that’s the hardest of all, but it’s possible.

We’ve all seen red when playing sport. But having the humility and grace to admit it, apologise and take responsibility? Among the many lessons Steven Gerrard teaches, this is one of the greatest.  Read the rest of this entry »





the values vacuum

22 03 2015

The person or people or God you look up to, value, worship; that is where your own core values are likely to come from. We build up on those fundamentals as we develop our own thinking. 

Maybe it is the self-made rags-to-riches kind of hero we look up to, value, worship; and so commend, approve, and emulate. Hardwork, financial success, personal gain, self-improvement, becoming something from nothing. Sacrifice, for personal gain.   

Or maybe its the self-made riches-to-rags kind of hero we look up to, value, worship; then what we commend, approve and emulate might look very different. Self-giving, personal loss, uneconomical generosity, becoming nothing from something. Sacrifice for someone else’s gain. 

Two polar opposites, to make a point. 

values vacuum

My core values come from who I believe God to be. God, as the creator and foundation of everything, including me; his character deeply influences mine. Forms mine. God who does not clutch power like a toddler; God who made himself nothing (Phil 2.6-7); God who endured humiliation. My internal script, my blueprint, my drivenness; they honour and respect this type of God, as revealed in Jesus, who entered the community he cared for, lived in it, listened to it (John 1.14), died for it, rose again for it.

Where do yours come from? Certainly not from a neutral vacuum. 

These values necessarily affect our politics. They have to. And maybe in unexpected ways. Because unlike our current politicians obsession with tiny variations in numbers, being £700 better or worse off over a year does not override all other values. Because of our values, we may have to make political choices that do not directly benefit us, which goes against the visionless politics of ‘what’s best for me’.

Can we do that?  I plan to explore some of these over the next few weeks, putting out questions and challenges to myself, and maybe to you.    





comic relief | conscience relief

14 03 2015

At face-value, Comic Relief is A Good Thing. I’ve supported it since the first one, although being 11 in 1988 I gloriously missed the point and made my own red nose for free. Comic Relief has moved on since those early days… or has it?

Back then the passive telethon-style fund-raising – entertain me, show me a heart-rending film, I give money – was all the rage. It worked. And it still works. But should it?

There’s something missing from Comic Relief. It isn’t comedy, or relief, that’s missing. It is a sense of social justice, corporate responsibility; currently it’s the perfect consumer-poverty experience. It demands nothing from us, the viewer, other than the simple text donation. £5 text sent, 2 mosquito nets bought, job done. Conscience relief.

Particularly for the African segments, the presented narrative is very old-school: terrible poverty, money needed, problem solved. There’s little mention of long-running projects, usually run by churches or Christian charities (never mentioned in Comic Relief, except to poke fun at); and there’s no mention of the underlying causes of the poverty.

These days we know the world is interconnected. We know about Fair Trade, trade justice; we  know about multinationals exploiting local labour and dodging taxes. Comic Relief, for all its good points, and there are many, I think could take a much stronger line on this. We, the public, need to be reminded that every time we shop, we contribute, positively or negatively, to poverty. Challenging poverty is more than buying a red nose. Sainsbury’s take note. Challenging poverty involves challenging my lifestyle. 

This is where we the church are way ahead, and can show the way. We’ve been involved in trade-justice, in micro-finance, in child-sponsorship, in medical provision for decades. And lifestyle challenge forever. Comic Relief doesn’t seem to have realised.

I love Comic Relief. This is constructive-criticism from a friend, not cheap shots from an enemy. But it’s time for the BBC, so often accused of being lefty, to change their approach. Children – and adults – need to recognise our responsibility for poverty, our contribution to global injustice. It’s not as straightforward as the tried and tested method. It is political – but not more than the old-school generous-but-disconnected philanthropy it currently is, in which we (the wealthy) give hand-outs to them (the helpless poor).

78 million changed lives would make even more difference than the (frankly amazing) £78 million. Challenging our lifestyle would treat us like adults, the recipients like equals not underlings, and then will actually be Comic Relief, not just conscience relief. 





speaking in circles

13 03 2015

We – the church – do not always say it well; we do not always say it to the right people; we do not always say it at the right time;  we don’t always say it coherently; but we do say it. Honest.  

Speaking in Circles

We – the church – are deeply involved and engaged in so many issues in our local and national and international communities, and speak out and act consistently on a wide range of issues. Many of these do not fit the media narrative, so are ignored, culminating in an ironically self-fulfilling prophecy  of the church only speaking about certain things, then being criticised for only speaking about certain things… speaking in circles, anyone? 

Find out more about what the church actually speaks about here:

Archbishop of Canterbury
Church of England
Joint Public Issues Team (Baptist, Methodists, URC, Church of Scotland)
Theos Think Tank
London Institute for Contemporary Christianity
Ekklesia
Archbishop Cranmer/God and Politics
Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East (Canon Andrew White)
TEAR Fund
Stop the Traffik 

This is nowhere near an exhaustive list!  





umbrella

5 03 2015

I drew this about myself, but maybe you can see yourself in it too. I think that so often I blame God for things I need to take responsibility for. There are changes we can make to take the umbrella down. Or at least poke a hole in it. Or perhaps the Spirit will blow it out of our hands. Maybe now is the time.  

umbrella





transcendence and tent pegs

15 02 2015

There seem to be two obvious extremes in religion. You either go rules-based and practical, clearly labelled and top-down authoritarian; or you go mystical-transcendent, about self-discovery and waftiness. With Christianity, both are clearly present, though Jesus embraces neither. But neither does he reject them.

Unlike vast swathes of the church in his name, Jesus very rarely, if ever, got caught up into either a dominant-authoritarian or a mystical-candlelight narrative. He didn’t carry a clipboard and checklist; yet neither did he waft around carrying tea-lights and pebbles. 

One of the events that holds this tension clearly for me is the transfiguration. Usually in encounters with Jesus, everything is quite earthy. There’s people, walking, eating, touching, speaking, all quite easy to visualise and translate into our present reality.  But in this event the very ordinary –  a walk up a hill with Jesus (what is it with him and hills?) – becomes extraordinary, a strange, mystical event, with brights light, clouds, voices from heaven… It isn’t something that can be easily explained, especially for rational evangelical minds.

The event could be in danger of disappearing up it’s own transcendent artiness… I can imagine the disciples talking about it and wanting to add bits, to make it even more dramatic. The arrival of Elijah and Moses could be bolder, unconventional, maybe swirling in on chariots of fire; instead of covering Jesus, the cloud could make an arrow, and as the voice speaks fireworks could burst from the centre… I mean, if you’re going to have a spiritual experience like this, why not embellish it a bit?

But they don’t. In the middle of this mystical encounter with the long-dead, Peter asks (out loud) whether he should build a shelter for them. I can imagine them re-telling this story, and wondering whether to put this bit in. It’s a bit silly. But maybe for Peter this is an authenticating moment, one that proves that as a hardened, working fisherman, he wasn’t dreaming, hallucinating; he had his wits about him, he was really there. And his brain was engaged.

Therein lies the attraction of this account for me. It balances the mystical and the practical, because both are real, both are true, but neither should dominate the other in our narrative. Our faith isn’t just about doing things, following rules, and life isn’t just about eating and feeling and seeing. But neither is faith an escape from those earthy practical moments into a incense-fuelled mystical trance of other-worldliness. Jesus takes the ordinary and infuses it with the mystical, where we can get caught up in the Spirit but not leave our brains at the door. 

Or the bottom of the hill. 





i am nothing

27 01 2015

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.

In response to the ordination of Libby Lane as the first female bishop in the Church of England, one of my friends commented “Women bishops? The jury is still out on male bishops“. And that got me thinking about church leaders of all shapes and sizes and flavours, and how each of us find ways to elevate ourselves, or those who lead us. The greatest gift God can give those with responsibility and authority is humility. Because all of us are nothing without Christ.

God bless Libby Lane, and all who serve and follow Jesus, in all forms and with whatever badges, with grace, patience and humility. And, hopefully, a sense of humour.   

 





dodging the telegram

21 01 2015

I was running when I got the phone call telling me my granny had died. A few weeks short of her 100th birthday, this was a blessed relief for her, living as she has been in a fog of dementia and sightlessness; and she would probably have been embarrassed to receive The Telegram anyway. 

this is not my granny

She dodged The Telegram, and instead got the Book of Life, and maybe even my grandad, although having told him on his deathbed 8 years ago that she would see him soon, he may well be a bit cross she took so long. 

As a vicar I take a lot of funerals, so I am used to the talk of hope beyond death. But there are precious few times that I believe it fully and wholly for those I meet; by which I mean I always have hope that God receives all, but that there is no doubt for those who follow Jesus, or ‘have given their lives to him’, or ‘are saved’, however we choose to put it.

My granny committed to following Jesus 90 years ago, and served him faithfully ever since, through the highs and lows of life, being married to a post-war Baptist minister for over 60 years, through the death of her daughter and the treasures of her remaining children and theirs, and theirs, through birth and adoption. 

She was faithful to her husband, to her family, to the church, and most of all to her God, on whom her life was grounded. I know she was far from perfect. But she was a great example to us, from a generation that knew true hardship, and terror, and sorrow – at Remembrance Day I still show the machine-gun bullet that came through her window during the generation-defining WW2. 

As I continued my run after hearing the news, God worked through the shuffle playlist to play Awake My Soul by Mumford & Sons, with some appropriate words that made me chuckle as I ran:

In these bodies we will live, in these bodies we will die
And where you invest your love, you invest your life
Awake my soul, awake my soul
For you were made to meet your maker

The legacy of my granny lives through me, and the rest of her family, and I would like that not to just be the shape of our noses or the names that we bear, but this: where we invest our love, we invest our life. That won’t always make us popular, and as I also have a life in ministry I know the cost investing your whole life can bring to your family. And I know it can be exhausting. 

But I take comfort – which literally means ‘with strength’ – from the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life, which is not a vague and fuzzy optimism, it is not a half-baked hope of being a star in the sky that twinkles, but it is the costly life to which we are all invited. For we are made to meet our maker, and we do not have to be afraid. 

My granny was one of the few people I know who was utterly convinced of that.  





why are religious people so easily offended?

13 01 2015

I don’t like being described as religious. But when religious-inspired catastrophe happens, I find myself guilty-by-association. Us God-botherers with our irrational beliefs and Kalashnikovs. Justify yourself and your medieval sensibilities!, I hear the secularist voices shout.

It’s crap. I can’t explain why some people kill others. But perhaps I can give a glimpse into why “we” – religious types – get offended, and can react all out of proportion. This is not to justify it, but to give an insight into it.  

To outsiders, non-believers, religious belief seems like a moral or ethical decision. A choice, that can be questioned and debated without any real challenge to our core being. When I studied theology at university with mostly non-religious people, to them questions about God and belief were an interesting exploration of human character; to me, sometimes an assault on my very being. An assault I willingly put myself through, because I wanted to test my beliefs to the limit. Not everyone wants that. Not everyone invites that. 

My relationship with God is core. It’s not very rational, but don’t be fooled into thinking we all make rational choices except about religion. Why you choose your car, your coffee chain or your partner are rarely based on rational fact-based objective data. I talk about loving God; I also talk about loving my wife. If you tell me I do not love my wife, but am simply a slave to rational chemical reactions and twitches in my synapses rather than the irrational beauty of love then you’re beginning to dispute my core feeling of love.

If you take it further and not only dispute my feeling of love, but insult & ridicule my wife, whom you have never met, yet deem it ok to call her foul names or publish offensive cartoons of her… Now you’ve crossed a line. You’ve offended me. Religious people will often hold our beliefs as dearly as we hold beliefs about family, and sometimes more strongly. And as anyone who watches Eastenders knows, insult me as much as you like, but if you insult our family and we are likely to become irrational.

It’s hard to find something to compare the strength of religious belief and the way it can form our core identity. Ironically for religious debate, sexuality may be one. Or national pride. This is why religious people may not always look wholly in favour of ‘free speech’. But then, neither is our society. We pick & choose. We can support deeply offending Muslims in public cartoons, but not the right of black footballers to send tweets with jokes about race; suddenly our politicians ‘suis Charlie’, but few will highlight the massacres of Christians that have occurred in the last 3 years in Iraq and Syria.

Because we don’t actually mean ‘free speech’, we mean the freedom to be critical, to challenge, to question. Those are hallmarks of an open, free and democratic society, but they are not easy to manage, and neither should they be.  

Je suis Ahmed

As a follower of Jesus, he said when we are publicly offended with a humiliating backhanded slap in the face, we should turn the other cheek. We should not respond with violence, whether verbal or physical. We do not respond to offence by offending back. Jesus said love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. We do not all resort to violence. 

So, us ‘religious types’ may become more offended that seems rational, because our beliefs about God are tied up with our core identity far more than many realise. And maybe we are frightened of being unravelled, just as atheists who have a religious experience are. But it’s your job as a non-believer to pick the threads of our beliefs, and our responsibility to let you. The tapestry of faith looks better with frayed edges.  





natural (s)election 2015

6 01 2015

Darwin’s theory of natural selection sounds quite lovely, as soft-focus nature browses to select the prettiest flowers to match it’s rousing theme music. But is actually part of the cruel evolutionary process of survival of the fittest; or, elimination of the weakest. Funny how we don’t call it that. Such a cruel process of nature, it was one of the reasons Darwin, a ‘sort of’ Christian, began to question faith in the God of natural theology. How could there be such cruelty in a godly world?

We humans like to think we’re above the cruelty of nature, but in these turbulent political times I think it’s clear we’re not. Christians can be unpopular when we talk about humans being innately “sinful”. It sounds unfair, harsh, after all, just look at all the goodness in the world… But it is in our nature to survive, our instinct to preserve our own at all costs. That’s why Jesus’ teaching about actively loving those who are not our kin were controversial then, and still are now. Which is how we get from Darwin to the election.

This upcoming election will not be about the economy, or immigration, or the NHS, although it will look like it is. Instead it will be about innate human selfishness. It will be the election of natural (s)election – the ‘what’s in it for me’, survival-of-the-fittest generation grabbing whatever toys they can and clutching them like angry toddlers. Black Friday in a suit. 

Or can we be better than that? Can we choose to vote for policies that don’t directly benefit us? Can we put our own situation in second place to society’s need? Will wealthy Christian individuals and business leaders openly speak out for intentionally paying tax? Will the capable and motivated campaign for issues that do not just affect them, but the weakest around them?

The Christian story doesn’t stop at the sinfulness of humanity. Our story goes on to speak of the generosity of God, of his grace that transforms our sinfulness into love and kindness and sacrifice. Our story overcomes natural selection to a very unnatural selection, in which our model is Jesus, who did not clutch his equality with God like a toddler, but made himself nothing for us; in which we look to love and support the weakest, not eliminate them.  

May this upcoming election campaign be one that does not degenerate into a selfishness competition, in which our greatest value is tolerance; but one in which outward-looking values of love, generosity, humility and loving our neighbour triumph. To do that, it must begin with us. 

thingsjesusdidntsay8tolerance








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