rearranging the flowers

29 07 2017

Of all the possibilities, clearing away the dead flowers wasn’t one I’d thought of. I started furtively, feeling guilty, choosing which floral tributes still had enough life to be considered tributes, and which had withered and shrivelled into a parody of their original purpose. What if someone saw. What if they were offended. After all, this was one of the main Grenfell Tower fire floral tribute areas, adjacent to the Latymer Community Church. Emotions are very heightened. Not least my own. The last thing I wanted was to be accused of desecrating a shrine.

The kingdom of god is a complicated place. Someone still has to throw the rubbish away. Being available for a dramatic and extensive community response and outpouring of grief – as this small and remarkable church near Grenfell Tower had been – is a messy business. Disaster relief coordinated by post-it note and WhatsApp, the pastor said. I was privileged to be there just for one afternoon, insignificant in the grand scheme, able to respond to a request for help to help the volunteers, whether that was making tea for distressed residents, emptying the bins, or as it turned out, rearranging the flowers.

Strangely for me, not someone who often uses this language, it felt a priestly thing to do. Not vestments and communion type of Priestly. But priesthood of believers, standing in the gap between the grief of the people and the grief of god, soaking up the pain, rearranging the mess of peoples broken hearts, sorting and sweeping and refreshing and watering, all the while unnoticed, better unnoticed, for the best incarnational priestly things are hardly seen.

I left that afternoon with a deep sense of horror at what had happened that awful night; the blackened and burned tower can leave you with nothing else except its scarred imprint on your eyelids and its stamping feet all over your heart. Yet I also left with a renewed sense of hope and wonder and pride in humanity; the same humanity that can cause such a crisis can also be so wonderfully, indiscriminately generous, so desperate to fill the cracks in the lives of strangers with flowers and sleeping bags and nappies and anything which will bring a moment of happiness or even, perhaps, be useful.

It’s never been such a privilege to rearrange the flowers. Serving is never and never should be about the glamorous; that’s why it’s called serving. In serving we might only rarely see the results of our labours, instead we do what we do, regardless of what follows us. Like burying treasure in a field for someone else to find.

Let’s go bury some treasure.


With thanks to staff and volunteers of Latymer Community Church and Eden Ladbrooke Grove for doing what they do, day in and day out, and for being the buried treasure that others have stumbled across when they most needed it.

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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.





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.





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.





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.

Hope letters montage.001

Hope letters montage.002


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.





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.





leaves

18 11 2015

working for the kingdom of god
is like sweeping up leaves on a windy day
as your son kicks over the already-disintegrating leaf pile
and then steals the rake
and you try to remember that it is
the act of being there to sweep that matters
not how many leaves end in the bucket

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blindspots and horizons

21 09 2015

One of my roles is a Trustee/Director of Sutton Schoolswork, our excellent local Christian schoolswork organisation. This is a spoken word vision of the future I wrote for and delivered at our annual Thanksgiving Service, for which I thought I’d get thrown out, but instead have been asked for copies. Who knew. Maybe it wasn’t provocative enough after all.


blindspots and horizons

we the church suffer from an honesty crisis
and I guess it shouldn’t surprise us
when you think about the average ages
in our congregations
which isn’t something to beat ourselves up about
except to say that if we put as much effort into schoolswork
as we do coffee mornings and playgroups
there’d be more schoolswork

we the church suffer from an honesty crisis
and actually it should surprise us
when you think about all the time spent
in our buildings
compared with time spent at work and in school
by me or you
that we focus so much on what happens in church
when most of us are mostly everywhere else

it’s a blindspot
a dark patch
the part we can’t see
when we plan all our outreach
and where to plant seeds
we think we’ve got kids sorted
because of kids church and the youth group…
yes youth work is exciting because the kids come to us
and they’re ours, our little flowers
it’s not that we’re selfish it’s just
that they’re important
an investment
the future of us
well – the present don’t forget
to be theologically correct
so yes big shout out to kids workers and youth workers
and to old sofas and hoodies

but let’s lift our eyes from the blindspot of inside
to the horizon that is outside
because I’ve seen the future and it’s much more exciting
let the workers out into schools it’s not that frightening

on the horizon I can see churches passionate for schools
so they’re equipping their youthworkers with all the tools
needed for assemblies about Jesus and forgiveness and hope
and lessons about Easter and resurrection and more hope

in the future we all know what prayer spaces are
And RE days and CUs and recognise the far far
reaching nature of teaching about Jesus
from someone who believes it

in the future the PCCs and deacons meetings and leadership teams
are sharing in the excitement of realising the dream
and releasing the potential we like to keep neat and tidy and clean, inside,
for our kids

in the future the numbers become even more astounding
than the fact that we reach nearly all the 35,000
children and young people in the borough of Sutton
which kind of puts into perspective how many people we’re normally preaching too,
doesn’t it

there’s all these kids sitting ready to listen in classes
meanwhile we spend all our time sitting on our…. vases
as most churches spend more on flowers than they do to schools work

now I will confess to you I’ve got a vested interest in sutton schoolswork
and it’s not because i’m a director
it’s not because i’m a dad
it’s not because I do schoolswork and would be glad
of some help
I’ve got a vested interest because I follow jesus
and I know how little kids know about Jesus
or the world beyond their own noses

I see the future when we’ve raised our eyes from the blindspot
to the horizon
when every school and every child hears the message of Jesus
form someone who truly believes it
where we can do more than skim the surface
with a fleeting assembly
but go deeper, and further – that’s the future:
can you see it? will you make it happen?
Will you walk with us from the blindspot
to the horizon?


Photo courtesy of @WarnerPidgeon


Sutton Schoolswork are in our 20th year, and are celebrating this with an exciting plan for growth, which includes the appointment of a brand-new post of Schoolswork Director. See the website for more details, and to find out how you could get involved in supporting us as we aim to increase the knowledge and understanding of the Christian Faith and support students in their spiritual, social and moral development.





theology & the warm fuzzy feeling

4 09 2015

what we think about God is usually birthed out of our story,
our biography,
our experience;
not from a deeply thought-through and thoroughly developed theology.

we preachers, church leaders, theologians, might need to read that twice.

sometimes we try to re-interpret our story to fit our theology,
making what we think we ought to think about God fit into our experience;
or what we are told to think,
even if we don’t really think it
(but don’t tell the vicar).

perhaps insisting people understand theology
(important though right theology is)
isn’t the catalyst for changed lives or a revitalised engagement
or understanding of God.

perhaps helping people to understand their story,
and God’s role within it – is;

God’s role neither as
passive bystander or autocratic micro-manager;
as causer of bad things for educational purposes
or perennial sender of blessings;
but as the source of all life,
as the breath we breathe,
as the essence of presence and the pinprick of light
that prevents darkness being darkness at all.

God as Jesus,
not the swear-word or chintzy china doll
not the pithy Facebook meme of bland truisms
or the bloodied sin-drenched sacrificial voodoo doll –

but Jesus, who was and is,
the invisible God and the visible man and the resurrected presence;
he who spoke and pooed and walked and sweated,
who was alone in a crowd and crowded with loneliness;
he who is in our story, my story, your story
his story in history.

Jesus who isn’t a book to take to bed with you
or a manual to live your life by
who isn’t your Sunday morning diary appointment

but is the ink in the story of your life
written on your pages

pages that speak of groaning hips and decaying eyes
and splintered families and the gnawing loneliness of being
the only one left in a once-full home;

pages that speak of the pleasures of a bargain-saver in Lidl
and a surprise visit from a friend
and the kindness of a stranger that caught us unawares;

pages where normal is normal
and much the same happens today as yesterday
and the exceptional is the exception and rapidly slips away;

pages where we rarely write about our views of atonement
or what our theology of anything is but we do know
that when we go to church something feels better
and though we don’t always understand the words
they make a connection with the deeper parts of us

and we feel
we feel

we feel our story being shaped and challenged and carved and sculpted
we feel a connection with You, the Other, the One Who is Bigger
and we describe it as a warm fuzzy feeling
because putting into words things that don’t happen in words
never quite catches it

so please don’t dismiss the feeling
because sometimes and often and for more people
than we church leaders like to think

it is all that we truly, really have
and it matters.


After quite a long break from writing, I have come back with this one, which is a bit longer than usual. Is it a poem, a stream of consciousness; is it even coherent? I don’t know, but it’s what fell out of my head as a I was re-reading the excellent Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense by Francis Spufford.

Because I think I have a tendency to dismiss the ‘feeling’, and want people to ‘get it’, to ‘understand’, to grapple with deep truths and be better and deeper and holier for it. There’s a place for that. But there’s times when I just need to let it go and embrace the warm fuzzy feeling, and let others do it to. 





why the church should care about top gear

17 06 2015

With Chris Evans revealed as new Top Gear presenter – the world’s worst kept broadcasting secret especially if you watched TFI Friday – that pillar of blokey TV and payer of Dave’s bills is back on the front pages.

Groan, you may. 

I know a lot of people who don’t care about Top Gear. It is derided as chauvinistic, childish, sometimes offensive and often simply irrelevant. A friend of mine tweeted that they had ‘no interest at all in who is or is not presenting a show about motorised toys.’

The trouble is, Top Gear is massive. Globally. Especially in a certain demographic. And that demographic happens to match the one that the church consistently fails to reach. 

Men.

So perhaps we should think a little about what makes Top Gear so popular. After all, it’s got no sex, no girls, virtually no swearing. It’s loved by children and their dads. And granddads. It’s not exactly wholesome, but it’s not Game of Thrones either.

Popular Thing Number One – Humour
Love them or loathe them, the main thing that made it work – and the challenge for Chris Evans and his new team, which will include a female presenter – is that the presenter chemistry worked. They were mates, they were funny; they did cheeky banter, they took the mick out of each other. Yes it was scripted, to a point, but we know that. Humour goes a long way in a making something essentially not very interesting to most people – a new car – into something interesting. Church leaders have a lot to learn from that. It’s not about that scripted sermon joke, but about relaxing, playing to your strengths, seeing the comedy around you.

Popular Thing Number Two – Normal Language
But perhaps more importantly for us, they talked about cars in the way most normal men talk about cars. For a bit, in not too much detail, with enough to satisfy car geeks but not too too much to alienate the casual watcher. For a preacher with a mixed audience of new Christians who don’t know a Hosea from a horsepower, to church geeks who need the original Greek quoted in every sentence, it’s a tightrope we walk all the time. To talk about faith in a way normal people talk about it. Ditch the hifalutin language and church-speak and ridiculous outfits.

Popular Thing Number Three – Humour (again)
The presenters were experts who didn’t take themselves too seriously. Experts? Well, they knew more than me, they could fix stuff, break stuff, make stuff. But they could laugh about it. They knew they were geeks, and it didn’t matter. We church leaders can take ourselves so seriously sometimes. In our suits or robes with pious words and an air of superiority, when actually people  – not just men – relate to us being normal, laughing at ourselves, admitting our mistakes, knowing when we’re being dull because we love the subject but no-one else cares… 

So perhaps instead of dismissing the most popular TV programme for our missing demographic – blokes and their sons – we should pay attention. Maybe there’s more to learn that we thought.








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