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.

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know hope | the hopes sessions #10

20 05 2016

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

Know Hope skatepark .001

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

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


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





bus stop | the hopes sessions #9

17 05 2016

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

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a place a lot like church, really.





bench | the hopes sessions #8

1 05 2016

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

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

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

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

 





no, hope | the hopes sessions 7

27 04 2016

No hope. Scrawled across the floor at the skate park. Not your average graffiti. I don’t know what it means to the person who wrote it. Or those who ride over it. Maybe it’s a deep statement of existential angst. Maybe someone just kept falling over. Maybe it’s the name of a band.

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It spoke to me. Because it is just, there. Slipping it’s message into the minds of those who see it. Pulling down. Sucking out the colour in life.

We are hope people. We might be hope people by hanging out with kids at the skate park. We might be hope people by playing football and trying to model a different way. We might be hope people by standing on no hope and praying. We might be hope people by trying to bring hope with our words and our actions and not just our thoughts.

We must be hope people. The message of no hope is insidious, taking root like bindweed, tearing apart identity and character and repeating itself across generations.

The message of hope puts the colour into the monochrome, breathes life, brings a smile each time you skate over the old graffiti. No hope? No, hope.





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.

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





scratched into my skin

5 05 2015

scratched into my skin
with flint
are the ancient sins
scar tissue from generations
of hurt
of self-loathing
of 
inadequacy

scratched into my skin
with flint
some still weep and bleed
sores that open again with
every harsh word
every angry voice
every failure

scratched into my skin
with flint
some scars long-dried
yet my skin bears the lines
permanent scars like tattoos
bearing testimony to
my failed past
which will be
my failed future.

This is what I have sensed as we pray for our neighbourhood: that so many wear the sins of generations like scars. So often in evangelism we begin with telling people they are sinful, but here I sense people already know. Given a moment to think about it, without using those words, we all know. 

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We are anaesthetised to it, so we deny we can feel the pain of the scars, but like Judah in Jeremiah 17 our sins – and those that have gone before us – are engraved on us as with flint. I see around me families that bear the generational scars of their fathers – sometimes literally – and wear them like tattoos, sometimes literally. 

With every harsh word, short-temper, every “f@&king shut-up” to a 2 yr old, every hopeless over-tired family of spikey porcupines, every emotionally-deprived man and strutting teenager, we show the world that we are desperately in need to love, and to be loved. 

The lies that have been spoken over so many, lies of inadequacy and failure and uselessness, these are the sins scratched into skin, permanent reminders of the damage we humans do to each other in generational sin. We need these lies to be erased, the flint scratches healed, the scar tissue replaced. 

This is our prayer for where we live. For skin grafts to replace those hurting and painful scars; this is what sin and its judgement are: seeing where we have gone wrong, judging it for what it is, and knowing God has broken the flint that scratches, replaced our sinful nature with love. This is why we are not afraid to be judged. Judgement brings healing. 

this was painted for our day of prayer

this was painted for our day of prayer

The inspiration for this poem, Jeremiah 17, has one of God’s awesome ‘buts’ (pardon the expression). Changing from the image of sin scratched with flint, God continues with these words, which were the theme for our recent Parish day of Prayer:

‘But blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord,
whose confidence is in him.
They will be like a tree planted by the water
that sends out its roots by the stream.
It does not fear when heat comes;
its leaves are always green.
It has no worries in a year of drought
and never fails to bear fruit.’

There are many such trees in this place, and many households full of love and hope. May there be many, many more. 





hopeless despair and a neutered santamentality

17 12 2014

There is a time and a place for hopeless despair. When 132 children are massacred in a school, that is one of those times. A friend of mine who grew up in Pakistan changed his profile picture to plain black. It was a truly back day.

But it’s Christmas. This is no time for the hard-hitting reality of a life that can be painful, brutal, touched by evil. Is it? Enforced smiles, kittens in Santa hats and children singing Christian rhymes. Hide reality with a Christmas card myth of white Christmas and roasting chestnuts, of nostalgia and made-up stories and the fat guy in the red suit.

132 dead, though. That’s like all the kids singing in my son’s Christmas play yesterday. Dead. What does Christmas santamentality have to say to that? And this is my greatest problem with the neutering of the power of Christmas. Yes, there’s loads of issues about the actual event, Jesus not born in a stable etc… but my Big Problem is not specifically about that. It is this.

Real Christmas has an answer to the utter pain and emptiness of hopeless despair. Real Christmas looks the massacre of 132 children the eye and says I am God, and I take your pain, I take your anger, I know it is real. Because real Christmas is not dressed up in sentimentality or nostalgia. There was nothing sentimental about giving birth among animals, fleeing in fear of your lives, or the massacre of Bethlehem babies. 

Real Christmas doesn’t demand that bad things don’t happen at this time of year; real Christmas takes bad things that happen and places them at the heart of the story. They are the bloody point. When we take the truth of god becoming human and taking on the evil in our world and reduce it to a twee children’s story with no enduring truth we do vandalism to the incarnation. 

Christmas is not a time for hiding from reality because reality is real and shit happens even at Christmas so let’s give ourselves permission to feel hopeless, to be angry and to rage against whatever evil causes people to murder children, or whatever pain and outrage we feel today; and let’s take that into the story with us, feeling the pain of brutal Roman occupation, of dashed hopes, of fearing for your life as children around you are murdered and your tiny child is the answer of God to your cries for justice and revolution and freedom: 

This staggering God
Takes his first steps towards us
On feet that will grow strong enough
To carry a cross

It will change the way we tell the story because Christmas isn’t a story by itself. It will change the way we do Christmas because Christmas really is every day for us who believe in it. And it is an answer to hopeless despair that a neutered Christmas santamentality can never be. 

……..

Other posts about Christmas:
talking angels and elephant dreams
a christmas theology of political power
the biggest, most divine total blunder (’twas the night before Christmas)
the weakness in [christmas] love
the nativity that needs saving





too much hell for halloween

29 10 2014

What’s Halloween got to do with the church, I was asked last week. Makes you think, doesn’t it. 

We live in a society of escapism. Much of our society does all it can not to think about things that don’t make us feel good. Like death. Especially death. Instead of facing it with confidence, maturity and hope, we suppress our fears, then binge on it at Halloween. We make it ridiculous, outrageous, therefore disempowering it from having a hold over us. Hahaha, we say, look at ghosts and ghouls and axe-murderers and blood and fear and how we are not frightened of you. You’re not scary! You’re only in films! Evil is all made up! Touch wood.   

We show how so not frightened of evil we are by facing it in costume. Like soldiers dressing for battle or Batman donning his mask, we feel emboldened by hiding ourselves and becoming other. We dress as the deformed or the mentally ill or the demonic or simply those that strike fear into the hearts of everyone else – not us, of course – and we laugh in the face of evil. Or we would, if we believed it had a face. 

I believe it has a face. That is why I cannot join in.

It has a face, and especially this year. Not in the way the tabloids find an individual and call them the ‘face of evil’, as they periodically do.

Evil has a face when millions in Iraq and Syria and Central African Republic and Sudan are forced to be refugees, when hundreds of thousands are killed in war, are murdered by ISIS; when there are so many dead we cannot count them.
Evil has a face when children in your and my neighbourhood are abused.
Evil has a face when domestic abuse happens round the corner.
Evil has a face when corporations evade tax yet pay pittance.
Evil has a face when the disabled are discriminated against.
Evil has a face when people look at child abuse images for pleasure.
Evil has a face when a teenager is stabbed on a bus in broad daylight.
Evil has a face when someone is raped.
Evil has a face when I look in the mirror.

I cannot celebrate that. I cannot bring myself to gorge on the Dark Side, to wallow in that which brings hell and death, because though it might seem like innocent fun like wallowing in a mud bath suddenly we realise it is a bath of crap and we’re covered in it. 

We Christians tell a different story. A better story. In our story we take our masks off and look evil in the eye – even when it is within ourselves – and know that Jesus has the victory over it. It will not win. We do not need to make a mockery of evil and death in order to deal with it, because we face it confidently and maturely every day, by not burying our head in the sand but getting involved in the world in which we live and being a part of bringing the kingdom in. 

What has Halloween got to do with the church? All Hallows Eve reminds us of the presence of evil and hell and death, but more than that it reminds us of it’s imminent destruction because of Jesus. We celebrate salvation and we celebrate the goodness and grace of God, for he is the light of the world that casts out evil and darkness and death. Focus on the light.

There’s too much hell in real life to make a joke of it. 

….

See also Harmless Halloween by me and Halloween: Harmless or Harmful? by J John.





broad church, broken world

22 04 2013

On the face of it it was just another detective story. There are so many on TV it’s as if creative drama ideas have gone into a double-dip recession. And unusually for ITV, it wasn’t a Morse spin-off. But Broadchurch has surprised me – ITV-drubbing snob that I am – by holding my attention across all 8 episodes. 

** plot spoilers ** don’t read if you haven’t seen it yet!!

Broadchurch got better with each episode, as it exposed the flaws in the characters and peeled back the hidden layers. And the final episode was extraordinary, I think, for a 2013 drama. It was told simply, powerfully. The ‘reveal’ was patient, and even though I had guessed who it was 2 episodes ago (never trust the minor character with a speaking role) it actually didn’t matter. This was no Poirot-style shallow quick-fix nonsense, nor was it cliche-driven histrionics.

Paedophilia. There is nothing – nothing – that lights the touch-paper in our culture quite like it. Rarely is the subject covered in anything other than a sensationalist way.  Rarely do we get an insight into the gradual beginnings of unhealthy relationships. Rarely do we get a chance to catch our breath before the mob are shouting about the categorically evil ‘other’ who can do this sort of thing. 

Real life is complicated. Real relationships are complicated. Real life doesn’t contain the simple black and white categories our (predominantly) unthinking culture (and media) would like us to have. Real life is a broad church of broken and breaking people, of healed and healing people, of people with hearts of glass who shatter and cut and who can be – really can be – restored, though always scarred. The scars are important. 

The broad church that we try to be, to hold together, following Jesus in our own uniquely broken ways, this broad church is one in which we sob with the broken. When worlds fall apart, whether through bad decisions or external circumstances, we try to be the ones who find a way to sob too. Sadness is universal. Broadchurch showed families torn apart, and maybe it got to me because that is what I see. 

Broadchurch left me sad, but it did not leave me feeling hopeless. Not just because for once the vicar wasn’t the easy target. But because the story did not end with mob justice, but a community of broken people standing together (I know it was cheesy, but we needed something!). And there was no easy resolution between the two families, because there is no easy resolution in real life. Rarely is a series able to hold these two in tension. Rarely are we, the people, given the trust in ourselves to be able to see this. 

“You wanted easy answers, and scapegoats, and bogeymen. The world’s more grey.” [DI Hardy]

Following Jesus means that we cannot mete out cheap justice. Following Jesus means that we face impossible situations head-on. Following Jesus means that we shoulder the burdens of the world but we do not do it alone. Following Jesus means that we see into the hearts of all people and by the grace of God we can carry on, we can even find love for those we understand the least, for those we want to hate, for those who confuse us because they do not fit, and those who make us angry because, as the question was asked twice: how could you not know? 

Evil is not ‘other’, darkness is not ‘over there’. But in the darkness – from within it, not from outside of it – shines the light. From within the darkness there is always hope for – and even from – a broad and broken world, and a broad and broken church.   

I have written previously about a more personal encounter with this subject in reputation








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