millions of hedge fund

19 09 2013

I’m hedging my bets that although I know what a hedge is and I know what a hedgehog is, I don’t know what a hedge fund is. Which isn’t a privet joke, I’m just telling you where the leylandii lies. 

This week 3 of us in our little church took on a hedge so way out of control it wasn’t so much a hedge round an edge as a wilderness extension.  The root network that extended 2 feet across the pavement was 2 inches thick. Years of abandonment saw nature gradually take over and grow 10 foot high. 

After walking around it and tutting like everyone else, I came round to the fact I should offer to cut it. Then faced all my insecurities like a) the owner (who I have never met) might be offended at my offer, b) if I did it the neighbours might ridicule me, if especially c) I failed miserably to tackle it effectively.  Easier not to bother. 

Thankfully God prompted me in a big way. Mrs Vicarage offered my services. So I went round and they were incredibly grateful. A couple of hours of hacking, cutting, trimming, wheelbarrowing, a few cuts and scratches later 3 of us got this

     IMG_2153   to this       IMG_2154.

In the grand scheme of things, it’s tiny. It’s not solving Syria. But during those 2 hours I spoke to 5 neighbours I’ve never spoken to before. I had conversations about baptism and  “why are you doing that?”. I failed miserably to articulate a decent answer that would please the arch-critic in my head, and nobody fell at my knees asking to be saved.

But by facing some of my fears of ridicule  (nobody did call me a self-righteous go-gooder, but there genuinely were twitchy curtains), I think we did a good thing for the kingdom. What does that mean? In a community where the church is almost totally absent from people’s lives, they saw us doing something unnecessary for somebody else. It is fine for us to think good things; to give money to good things; it is good to talk about good things in our gatherings. But we must do good things where it matters most – not by posting sentimental cliches on Facebook or retweeting worthy Christian speakers – it’s where we live, through relationships, in our streets. 

It’s investing in the hedge fund. Investing by those who loaned us the equipment, those who give me the freedom to cut hedges as part of my ministry, and those who have their time to help. I think those investments are always worth it. Cut the hedges, pick up the dog poo. Because we love our communities. Yes, other people should do it. Of course. But for myriads of reasons they won’t, don’t, or can’t. If we can, then we must try, even if we experience ridicule, or apathy, or obliviousness. We might not be thanked, we might not see people asking how they might be saved… we do it anyway. 

This is our hedge fund and it’s all about investments with no guarantee of any returns. And we might be left with millions of someone else’s hedge in our back garden. Can we face that?   

cut off

9 05 2012

When one of the older ladies shouted out ‘castrated man’ from the back row during my sermon, I got the feeling it was something she has wanted to do for ages. Thankfully it wasn’t her opinion of the vicar or a new feature from the liturgical commission, but an answer to the question ‘what is a eunuch?’ The eunuch story is one of my favourite passages. 

From a sanitised, wholesome and avoiding-awkward-rawness-of-life perspective, it’s inconvenient for church. If only it was the Ethiopian nobleman, or the Ethiopian king, or even the Ethiopian farmer. But no, it is the Ethiopian eunuch. The story of a castrated man. Why do we need to know that? It seems a little unfair that of the sparse details we are told about this man, this is the one we know. Maybe some of us can identify with being known only by our origin and our disabilities, where we are from and the way we look.

I had to be careful with pictures for this one

We are not told why this man was a eunuch. Castration was sometimes done to slaves as a punishment, to subjugate them, or to make them ‘safe’ so they could faithfully attend to the King’s women. Royalty could also promote them without fear of them producing children who might try to usurp the throne. Eunuchs were mocked, ridiculed and despised as sexless and pointless. This particular eunuch had risen in the ranks of his queen, become treasurer; but was still known by his willy. Or lack thereof. 

So why was this black African from what would have an exotic foreign land – actually modern-day Sudan – doing worshiping the God of the Jews in Jerusalem? He was probably a Jewish convert, or had been a born a Jew. He had come all this way, and when he got to the Temple, he would only have been allowed into the outer courts. The man was excluded from the covenant community, alienated from God’s household – and unable to produce a household of his own. Pretty desperate and lonely situation. 

 So we meet this man, on his way home, reading aloud from Isaiah. And he was reading this section:

 “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him… nothing in his appearance that we should desire him… he was despised and rejected by men…” (Isaiah 53)

 This man understood what it meant to despised, rejected.

Philip did not regard it as bad luck or socially dangerous to be seen talking with him. Instead, he saw how easy it would be for the eunuch to feel like a lamb with it wool cut off, humiliated. 

What would we do at this point? If we met someone who felt rejected by the community, cut off from society, seen as without usefulness or purpose?

Philip told him about Jesus. He told him that Jesus was despised, rejected, led like a lamb to the slaughter; the Jesus death was on behalf of us all. And that Jesus was raised up, exalted, resurrected, glorified. Shame replaced by honour. Rejection by glory. That we might all be welcomed into the family of God. 

It is an odd family, a family full of everyone, the ordinary and the oddballs. The poor, the disabled, the rejected; the wealthy, healthy and accepted. An odd family, but a wonderful family. Into this family the eunuch was introduced. He was so excited, he was baptised, there and then. Because for him this meant that the centuries-old divide that kept him out was gone. The man was in the covenant community, the family of God.

For what it’s worth, church is a family. We are a place where you will not (should not?!) be known by your origins or your disability, your looks or your circumstances. Being in God’s family means being a child of God, adopted and loved and chosen. 

 I wonder if the Ethiopian eunuch read on from Isaiah 53. If he did, he would have read this in Isaiah 56:

3 Let no foreigner who has bound himself to the LORD say, 

        “The LORD will surely exclude me from his people.”
        And let not any eunuch complain,
        “I am only a dry tree.” 

4 For this is what the LORD says:
       “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
       who choose what pleases me
       and hold fast to my covenant- 

5 to them I will give within my temple and its walls
       a memorial and a name
       better than sons and daughters;
       I will give them an everlasting name
       that will not be cut off. [pun intended]

This is the gospel. This is why it is good news. When people who are on the edge of the covenant community, who are excluded from society, in any of its various forms, discover the welcome of God. My hope is that the eunuch would find such a welcome in our covenant communities. That our politeness and religiosity and piety and genuine desire for holiness would not be the knife that cuts people off and marks them forever as being outside. 

No-one is a dry tree here. 

stuff and nonsense

24 10 2010

stuff and nonsense

Taxidermy is the act of mounting a dead animal for display. Hunt it, kill it, stuff it, display it. Trophies of success. Look at what was alive and is now dead. Look at the power I have. No longer will the animal roam freely, because its freedom is not convenient for me.

The drastic cuts the Conservative Coalition government is bringing in reminded me of this. The poor are a nuisance, an inconvenience. So stuff ’em. Them with their dirty scrounging fingers, a bunch of frauds and benefit cheats. Like foxes who steal our eggs. The welfare burden is so great that we must reduce it; we will change the rules about what constitutes illness, striking fear into the disabled community; we will punish childbirth by not increasing benefits according to the size of the family, striking fear into large families. We will caricature poor communities as lazy and we will say that we support ‘hard working families’ (code: middle class, who prove their worth by their income), no matter that people on (less than) the minimum wage often work the hardest for the least reward.

Hunt it, kill it, stuff it, display it. Stuff the poor, so those in wealth and power can stay comfortable. Christian activist and anarchist Philip Berrigan once said this:

The poor tells us who we are, the prophets tell us who we could be. So we hide the poor, and kill the prophets.

For our current situation I suggest this:

The poor make us feel bad, the profits make us feel better. So we blame the poor, and we keep the profits.

If we are passionate about justice – if we really believe that Jesus meant what he said about speaking good news to the poor, freedom for prisoners, sight for the blind and liberation for the oppressed – then we must be concerned and in more than a ‘hmph’ kind of way. Passion comes from the Latin ‘pasi’, which means ‘to suffer’. Passion involves suffering. If we are not poor, and passionately believe God’s heart is for the poor, then we must be prepared to suffer for them.

So if we are ok for money, instead of protecting our assets and income how about shouting “tax me!” If it is a choice between reducing welfare payments to dangerously low levels, or me paying a few hundred a year more in tax, tax me! And if that doesn’t work for you, then be generous in your charitable gifts, in your  actions, in your opinions. Not some “Big Society” nonsense, but Kingdom of God sense.

The poor must not be stuffed. They are not a plaything, a trophy, something we use to display our power. They are our sisters and brothers, our people. Anything else is stuff and nonsense.

barbed wire and trampolines

15 09 2010

I wonder what is is that makes you smile. I wonder what it is that makes you belly laugh. Ministry in St Helier provides plenty of those opportunities, once you learn to bend and flex and go with the flow and understand that unpredictability is the new predictable and bewildered is the new normal.

Mrs Vicarage and Marigold the Lodger were sitting in the lounge last week when an 8ft trampoline came walking down the drive and plonked itself outside our front door. Along with about 8 teenagers.

“We brought you this”
“Oh. What for?”
“For the youth club.”
“We don’t have a youth club.”
“Where will we put it?”
“In your garden.”

hello, I'm your new trampoline

I came home from the running club to find 8 kids bouncing on a trampoline outside my front door. Some rapid thinking ensued (which is tricky after doing 7 steep hill repeats) and we lugged it over our fence into our back garden. You have to laugh!  These are the same kids we have had problems with broken windows, broken vents and broken trust. Every day since then they have knocked on our door and asked to have a bounce. Some quickly drawn up rules and safeguarding meant this was fine, and we have loved seeing them behave like the children they so often aren’t able to be, and I  have enjoyed being given permission to bounce like a loon and pretend I’m in Glee. Even Mrs Vicarage had a go.

This is ministry, this is being church, this is being love, by God’s grace being able to flex like a trampoline even and especially when unexpected things happen. Because Jesus calls us to be a part of people’s lives and not apart of people’s lives, so when good things happen we relax into it and thank God that we see glimpses of the kingdom.

Yesterday things unexpectedly went belly up and some were extremely rude to our Scout leaders and obnoxious to me and the neighbours. It all ended in the church door being kicked and broken and the Police called. Sometimes the unexpected is the trampoline walking down the drive, and we laugh and enjoy it and share their laughter. Sometimes the unexpected is the anger and pain and the frustration at life which seems to end in the building suffering and the Police earning their stripes. And the trampoline of our grace being flexed to the end of its elasticity.

This is ministry, this is being church, this is being love, by God’s grace being able to flex like a trampoline even and especially when unexpected things happen. Because Jesus calls us to be a part of people’s lives and not apart of people’s lives, so when bad things happen we relax into it and thank God that we see glimpses of the kingdom.

When I saw this sunflower pushing through the barbed wire of our garden fence it seemed to me like a picture of the beauty and the pain of ministry, of living and working on St Helier, and of life for so many. The beckoning smile of the sunflower and the cruel sharpness of the wire. So there we are. Barbed wire and trampolines. An unusual combination for another unusual week…

faithworks 2: dirty hands or helium balloons

10 03 2010

I’ll stand with arms high and heart abandoned
In awe of the one who gave it all
I’ll stand, my soul Lord to you surrendered
All I am is yours

What can I say?
What can I do?
But offer this heart O God,
Completely to you

I was listening to this song by Hillsong today, a song I love and have had many ‘moments’ whilst singing, when I realised the direction it faces. Upwards. Always. We offer abstract things to God, like ‘all I am’ and my ‘soul’, my ‘heart’. Perhaps it would be more realistic to sing What can I do? Offer my money, my attitudes, my house, my time. Maybe that’s what they mean. But there is a real tendency in modern theology to offer abstract things, to sing abstract things. It’s safer.

At the Faithworks Conference Brian McLaren spoke of our theology getting exactly the results we get – we talk about extracting souls from earth to heaven, via church, which is like a big soul-warehouse where we are stored until death. So, we care and sing about souls and eternal destiny; we say soul because it sounds better than saying self, but really we mean self. God exists to extract my-self from here to there, via church, whilst stripping me of my money, and presumably any sense of fashion. We look up, forgetting Jesus came down because God so loved the world.

It’s another example of what I talked about in my earlier Faithworks post – the salvation and liberation that Jesus talked about and that the early church talked about was this but was so much more. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. We are freed to be his grubby dirty hands, not to be his helium balloons floating gracefully away.

what must i do to be freed?

Brian McLaren gave an excellent example of freedom and liberation as often misunderstood. Here’s a whistle-stop tour. Read Acts 16. Paul and Silas hang out with mixed-race family, and then a gathering of women at the edge of the city. Women. At the edge. These are not the powerful people. Lydia then hosts them – the first female church leader, and their patron. A slave girl makes money for her owners by predicting the future. She keeps shouting at her owners that Paul and Silas will tell them – not her – the way to be saved. Saved? Does she mean getting to heaven when they die? I think not. She is owned and exploited. They can be free. Paul and Silas are slaves of the Most High; her owners are slaves of the system of oppression. If they are free, she can be free.

They exorcise her evil spirit (as you d0), and are imprisoned for advocating unlawful customs. What customs? Freeing slaves. They are in a Roman colony and are freeing slaves. The Roman economy is dependant upon slaves. In prison, there is an earthquake, and the jailer thinks they have escaped. He is going to kill himself. Why? He knows the system. He knows what happens to jailers who let prisoners go. He will be imprisoned. He knows what happens to prisoners. He knows that death is a better option. He is enslaved by the system.

But they have not escaped. His question: what must I do to be saved? Does he mean getting to heaven after he dies? No. I think not. He means, what must I do to get out of this horrific system of ownership, oppression, fear and slavery. What can you offer me? The kingdom of God breaking into a Roman prison in a Roman colony. How can we have missed the irony?!

Paul says, believe in the Lord Jesus (instead of the Lord Caesar – it’s wordplay, in Greek, kurious iesous instead of kurios caesar). Stop the domination narrative and you and your family will be saved. So the jailer takes the prisoners to his home, washes their wounds and feeds them. This family is having a liberated moment. This is very un-Roman. This is very Kingdom of God. This is beautiful stuff.

The next day, the magistrates want to quietly release Paul and Silas. Hush hush. Keep it quiet. But Paul and Silas engage in some civil disobedience. They refuse to go until the corrupt magistrates, who were only concerned about lining their pockets from the oppression of the slave system, have come face-to-face with their actions.

Summarising this story, Brian made these points:

  • women are at the centre of the Kingdom of God movement
  • women are released from oppression
  • the economic system is challenged
  • the political system is exposed as corrupt
  • low-level functionaries are liberated, along with their families
  • high-level functionaries are confronted with their corruption

set free from what?

So this story is way more than a Sunday-school story about an earthquake and a jailer, way more than telling people how to be saved from this earth and get to heaven. This is a get down and dirty story about the kingdom of God breaking in unexpectedly to a Roman colony, to a Roman prison, to a Roman family, to a female Roman slave. And so it is a story for us as we are called to imagine where we can be a part of the Kingdom of God breaking in to our world.

Do we simply offer our I ams, our hearts, souls and abstract selfs, or do we offer to be slaves that we may free slaves.

Dirty hands or helium balloons.

Helium balloons are fun for a bit, but end up making squeaky voices and popping uselessly. Dirty feet do get dirty, but they get things done, here and now.

What can I say?
What can I do?
But offer myself O God
As a slave to you

We are blessed to bless a world in pieces, loved to love where love is not. If you need a holy pause, download for free We Are Blessed (Bring Heaven to Earth) by Andy Flannagan. Listen, worship, then go. 

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dirty pretty precious

24 09 2009

dirty pretty precious

dirty pretty precious

Treasure!! Oo-arrr. It’s all a bit pirates really. The hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold discovered recently and in the news today, has been officially classified as ‘treasure’ (instead of…??) and will apparently ‘redefine the Dark Ages’ (to “Dark with a Golden-Hue Ages”, perhaps?), I couldn’t help but see some parallels. It ties in with yesterdays thoughts on beauty in unlikely places.  So I wrote a thing.

treasure in a field
has much power to wield over many jealous

with their beep beep treasure detectors
looking for shiny metal reflectors
the treasure-in-a-field collectors

modern day gold prospectors

treasure in a field is buried so no-one finds it and the Man he told a story about it
someone who is so excited when he un-hides it
he sells all he has to buy it
not just the treasure but the whole muddy field

the treasure in a field
all covered in mud and weeds
the kingdom of heaven in beauty revealed
dirty pretty precious

so much more than golden saxon treasure
the treasure of a distant heaven
plummeting to earth and being discovered
in a muddy field
and we discover it was there all along

only we hadn’t noticed

I don’t want the treasure I want the whole muddy field

(Matt 13.44)

your beauty is there to be found...

your beauty is there to be found...

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