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.





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.

93736387_washingtonmarch

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





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.





we will stand

27 02 2016

Death.
She came.
With her long fingers reaching.
To snatch.
Dispatch.
Scratch out the life
drawn out in the pages of our plan.
Without fear.
Or negotiation.
Just the stark finality
of death.

Death.
Why she?
Everything about
sudden death is
unexpected.
Wrong.

Life.
Over.
Stripped from us
with callousness.
Carelessness.
Casual disregard
for the good.
The right.
The fair.

Death.
We do not fear you.
Do not get ideas.
Though we fear
Today.
Tomorrow.
And the sheer
Desperate emptiness
Of the hole
In our being.

Hope.
Resurrection.
The defeat of death.
That is for then.
Not now.
Now.
We stand.
Cowed.
Battered.
Disbelieving.
Surviving.

We will stand.
Again.
The valley of the shadow
of death.
Is dark.
But it does end.

Just not yet.


 

A good friend of mine died suddenly last week. Michael Etheridge, aged 41, a husband, father of 4. A church minister. A friend of 20 years. Sometimes in church leadership because we deal with other people’s grief all the time it can become a bit casual.For me, I mean. My friend’s death shocked me. Knocked me for six. And my grief, as a distant friend, is nothing to that of his family.

There are no simple answers. There is no bible verse or theological truth that will bring comfort to them. Michael and I met studying theology as undergraduates, so I wouldn’t demean his memory with easy cliches. It’s just crap. Utterly, totally, uncomprehendingly crap. One of my responses is to write, and that is what I wrote.

michael_etheridge2-e1455827808612

For you and your family little Mikey. May God bless them, in the deepest, least cliche-ey sense.





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

IMG_0033

 





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. 





a hustings in search of hope

21 04 2015

Our local election hustings (Carshalton and Wallington) was in many ways a great success: 5 candidates, over 350 people, well hosted by St Helier Radio and organised by local vicar Warner Pidgeon. It was well-behaved, a few heckles, nothing serious. What was serious, though, was a lack of vision, of hope, of imagination. 

today I shall wear grey

today I shall wear grey

They are from left to right: Tom Brake MP (LD), Matthew Maxwell-Scott (Con), host David Blackmore from Radio St Helier, Ross Hemingway (Green), Siobhan Tate (Lab), Bill Main-Ian (UKIP). 

As a local resident on the St Helier estate, and vicar of the parish with one of the highest levels of deprivation in the borough, I am interested in hope. I am interested in what these people say they are going to do for those at the bottom of the pile, those who can’t speak for themselves, who are not part of the vested interests or corporate power struggles. What I want to hear from them at a hustings is their vision for the future. I went home disappointed. 

I played 2 games of bingo, won one lost one. The first was ‘blame’ bingo, in which the past is blamed for the present, e.g. ‘the mess the previous government left us in’. Tom Brake and Matthew Maxwell Scott revelled in that one, especially the latter. When your vision-setting begins with an excuse, I’m afraid you don’t inspire hope, especially when your government has made things worse for working-poor.  

The second bingo was ‘immigration bingo’, which happily I lost. It wasn’t really mentioned, even by UKIPs Bill Main-Ian, who I christened “32 Bill”, as all problems can apparently be solved with the £32 billion saved by leaving the EU. 32 Bill spent that money at least 5 times in the evening, solving education, the NHS, and housing with it, because clearly in his world the only thing that solves problems is money. And lots. Of. Pauses. 

Siobhan Tate, a teacher, also didn’t excel in her presentation, but did at least draw people’s attention to Tom Brake’s bizarre ‘Save St Helier’ petition, which has been going for years, but it addressed to nobody, and is never handed in. It is not clear who  he is saving it from, or for what, but it looks good for an MP to save a hospital. Meanwhile she claimed he votes for anti-democratic NHS policies.

Siobhan Tate and Ross Hemingway were the only candidates who seemed aware that austerity isn’t working; that the poor are being blamed by the ruling parties; and that St Helier is an area of great need. However, Matthew Maxwell-Scott got away with mentioning the ‘economically illiterate and morally wrong‘ (Daily Telegraph!) expansion of ‘right-to-buy’ to Housing Association properties without being challenged at all on this.

St Helier's silver lining

St Helier’s silver lining

As a floating voter, with a leaning to the left, an interest in the fair distribution of wealth and resources, and a strong incentive to look out for our neighbours, whoever they may be, this hustings left me with these impressions:

Tom Brake MP: Tom is local and likeable, with a good following; however, his hospital campaign is wearing thin, the coalition links him with the worst of Tory politics. I think he is trusting in people preferring the status quo than voting for anyone else. He didn’t cast vision, but was confident he didn’t need to. 

Matthew Maxwell-Scott: sells himself as as local, energetic, smiley and committed, but by supporting selling of social housing and not replacing it, presumably that energy does include protecting the poor on our side of Carshalton. An identikit Tory candidate, still blaming Labour for anything he can find, he didn’t inspire confidence, though he did at least have passion. But being passionate about being passionate smacks of Cameron’s empty ideology. 

Ross Hemingway: the stand-out candidate for me at this event, he had passion and enthusiasm, he challenged the status-quo of current politics, and included broader things such at TTiP. He clearly had an agenda to get across, and did this whatever the questions were about. Whether the Greens have the ability or costings to implement their policies is a big question, but their increased visibility in this election is absolutely A Good Thing for the challenge and breath of fresh air it brings. 

Sioban Tate: Siobhan came across well as one who would represent the area, with good local and work experience. She challenged Tom Brake on the NHS, Matthew Maxwell-Scott on standing up to corporate interests, and the government on their Education policies. She had clearly done her research, but was let down by her presentation, which meant she didn’t inspire confidence if faced with a bigger parliamentary situation. 

Bill Main-Ian: 32 Bill did not come across well at all. Despite the size of their manifesto, UKIP are a one-trick pony and this was clear, as he didn’t have a clear answer to anything at all. Except the £32 billion. 

Conclusions
Sadly, this debate suffered from being the last in a series of 8 or 9 hustings, which meant the candidates has done this  many times before. And it showed. Although not in being a faultless and clearly-presented argument. Which in itself is strange. Practice makes… worse?

I think it was an indication of what is being demonstrated around the country, as pointed out by Aditya Chakrabortty in The Guardian today: that the three main questions in this election are simply being ignored. They are:

How are we meant to live?
Where are we meant to live?
And who is meant to live here?

Only Ross Hemingway attempted to cast a vision for how we are to live; everyone else was just rearranging the furniture.

Maybe it’s the preacher in me,  but I want somebody to cast a vision for a society in which all are able to play a part, in which wealth and resources are fairly distributed, and where we take responsibility for those around us. I want somebody to talk about care and compassion and community and actually mean it, not just a cover-up for accountancy in favour of the wealthy. Our society is selfish, and getting moreso. We need our leaders to lead us into selflessness.  

The status quo is not ok. I am not ok with ok. Politics should be better than this. The only way that change is if we get involved.    





i am not

15 04 2015

I am not the sum of my successes
I am not the sum of my failures
I am not this community’s only hope

I am not the number of people in my church
I am not the number of people who aren’t
I am not God’s employee

I am not holding the future of the kingdom in my next finely crafted sentence
I am not my statistics

I am not meant to grow a hard shell
I am not defined by what people think of me
I am not defined by the fact most people don’t think of me at all

I am not an island, immovable and independent 
I am not a plastic bag blown by the wind
I am not aware enough of my place in God’s heart

I am who I am because of who Jesus is
I am learning to start there
With him.

I am. 

This is something God spoke to me about at Spring Harvest. I forget it so easily. By God’s grace he uses the glorious ruins of ours lives. It’s the counter-cultural order of self-discovery:
1. who God is
2. who I am in God
3. who I am
4. who we are. 

If you appreciated this, you may also appreciate I am the vicar, I am, from the archive.





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 »





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.   

 








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