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.

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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.

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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.

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allowing yourself to be dislodged

23 11 2014

When I went to university to study theology, lots of people made that sucking noise, pulled a worried frown, and asked if I thought my faith would survive it. My response was to look slightly quizzical, because I thought that if our faith doesn’t stand up to rigorous questioning, it’s probably not a very good one. 

My faith did survive university, just. Whether it was the theological study or just part of growing up, I did my best to ignore it, despise it, forget it, but God always came back to me, faith small as a kernel clinging to my soul. But now, as then, it doesn’t take much to dislodge me from the rock face of faith. God didn’t call me to be a vicar because I am titan of immovable faith. But I still can’t – and don’t want to – shy away from the difficult questions. They can’t be glossed over. They just can’t. 

This is why personal faith is so important to me, rather than religion. I don’t follow Jesus because the Bible is “inerrant” and the rules make for a great life; I follow him because deep down I know he is who he says he is, even when I don’t want him to be, when it sounds ridiculous to me, and when one simple question from a teenager can cut the safety rope.

IMG_3703

This week I was asked to be on an interfaith ‘question time’ panel for 100 year 10s from 4 Sutton schools, as part of Interfaith Week. This is a tough proposition, as I’m sure you can imagine. Mainly because I have the tendency to say something silly when under pressure. It’s a strange dynamic, being on a panel with a Muslim, Hindu and a Jew, you either feel you’re the beginning of a dangerous joke or specimens in some kind of zoo. 

We had no idea what the questions would be, apart from some educated guesswork, which was partly right, however the first question nearly threw me, as it was more real than the theoretical and issues-based questions I was expecting. Here are the questions:

1. Have you ever had a religious experience? 
2. Should children be forced to follow the religion of their parents?
3. Does homosexuality go against the Bible?
4. Does religion fill the gaps left by science?
5. Is killing a person ever justifiable, thinking specifically of euthanasia and assisted dying?
6. Do you ever question aspects of your religion?

What I found so encouraging was that the questions were top and tailed by the personal, as so often in apologetics we are talking about our faith as if it is ‘over there’, behind a wall, when actually my faith is in me, it is me, I can’t talk about it without it also being about who I am.

I was able to talk about the religious experience of prayer, hearing God speak and seeing him give me pictures and words, and guidance; the ‘buzz’ of a great worship session or the presence of God in silence, on my own; of God leading me to the depths of sobbing or the heights of joy, and a whole lot in-between. If by religious experience that is what you mean, then yes, absolutely, and it is available to all of us.

As far as questioning my religion goes, I was able to show the vulnerability of our faith, that we are not asked just to follow rules or other external signs, but are called to follow from the heart, as who we are; so we don’t have to be happy with everything our faith represents, and we are free to question and debate; we are not robots of God, but friends of God, and sometimes critical friends are the best ones.

Even though it can be frightening, it is good to be dislodged from the rock face of faith sometimes.





sacred static

5 11 2013

The sacred static is the noise you hear
from the heads of those so attached to how things
never were.

The sacred static is that which hasn’t always been
but feels like it ought to have been
and if we tell ourselves it has then we will believe it.

The sacred static is the sound of dust falling
onto things that once moved with life
but now feature in a museum of an imagined age.  

The sacred static preserves memory like the ashes of a loved one
in a golden urn upon the shrine of how things were
that cannot be moved or questioned.

The sacred static is the sound you hear 
when you ask the question:
so how about this worship we do that doesn’t reach anybody
and hasn’t for years; shall we do something different…?

Sacred static drowns out creative conversation
and the faith of our children’s children
with it’s fear of all but the most familiar.

Sacred static is like staring at the telly in the old days
when it went off air but you were so lonely
you just kept watching the meaningless dots.

Sacred static holds things as they are
nailing them to the floor and
claiming them as eternal
yet ensuring their mortality with the very same nails.

Sacred static is all that has been and cannot un-be. 

The sacred static is nothing to do with moving pews
or updating hymnbooks  
but everything to do with safety and familiarity 
and being anchored in a bewildering world of change
where it is ok to change homes, jobs, supermarkets, TV’s and partners
But do not change my church.

The sacred static is the sound of the Spirit
breathing out for the last time.  

 
 
This lament was inspired by a conversation with a friend who is a vicar in Cornwall, and is exactly that: a lament. I do believe there is hope, and the church is doing new things in Cornwall. But sometimes you just need to lament. 




inside outside

11 06 2013

One voice says I should spend all my time with those outside church. Another voice says I should spend all my time with those in church.  A third voice say too many ‘shoulds’ leads to a hardening of the oughteries. I need a lie-down. 

One of the great dilemmas of the church leader is this: who do you spend more time with? Those in the church, or those outside of it? Pastoring and discipling believers, or making disciples of unbelievers? Bishop Nick Baines said this at my licensing: you are not a chaplain to a congregation, but vicar to a parish. 

the community is out there

the community is out there

It’s hard not to spend all your time with Christians. Committees, groups, studies, friendships… It’s easy – so easy – to find yourself in a bubble where you forget everyone else has life and work outside so actually might not be so concerned with the minutiae of church life as us. Thank God!

On the other hand, most vicars see a lot of people outside the church, or on the fringes. At funerals, baptism classes, school assemblies, pastoral visits, community panels, school governors etc where people aren’t even interested in our coffee rotas. How rude. 

Some of us are more comfortable throwing ideas around amongst those with a strong faith already, pushing at the boundaries of conceived thinking and creatively sharpening each others prophetic giftings. Some of us are more at home with those who are undecided or lapsed or simply never thought about faith – convincing, living it by example, making Jesus known where he is not…

And most of us do a lot of both. I spend a lot of time with people with fledging faith, or fragile faith, or no faith at all. When I was in a different church we spent a lot of time sharing ideas. I miss that. But I hardly knew anyone outside church. Now, I don’t get so much sharing ideas, but a lot more encouraging those on the edges. I will miss that too, whenever our next calling comes.

I know a lot more people now who don’t follow Jesus than I ever did before. Like everyone else in church. 

Some vicars, controversially, are even able to make time to be in clubs outside church (here’s to you Sutton Runners!). They’re obviously not working hard enough (is what the inner voice says). How wrong is that voice. But how loud.  

Where would you rather your leader spend their time? Pastoring and discipling (and organising) believers, or making new disciples? Because what we do with our time impacts you.

 





clinging to what we knew

7 06 2013

Our culture is obsessed by feeling. We are encouraged to let our feelings lead the way. So our feelings are used to justify any opinions, actions, and some of the worst cliche-ridden auditions on talent shows. Just because you’re singing in memory of your grandma, doesn’t make you a good singer.

When we let our feelings lead us, we are blown around like the wind, and spend our lives like hormonal teenagers craving feeling good, and despising or avoiding anything that doesn’t feel good. But in the words of Skunk Anansie, just because you feel good doesn’t make it right.

I was thinking about this because today I took the funeral of a man who had committed suicide. What do you say to a family, many of whom are Christians, who have lost a husband, father, brother, grandad and friend so suddenly, so inexplicably. Suddenly we are ambushed and surrounded by feelings and emotions, crowding round and jostling us and clawing at us; or to use another image, our ship is suddenly tossed in a storm far from port and God who is our rock appears to turn to sand and disappear. 

hope

hope

What we do is turn to what we know, not what we feel. Feelings can be great, but if we follow them all the time, they will lead us a merry dance. In grief it can feel like the end of the world; it can feel like God is very distant; and it may be that we feel alone and abandoned by God. 

That is why we must trust what we know. We know that God does not abandon us. We know that God always loves us, even when we are in a dark place. We also know that God does not always intervene to stop terrible things happening, and that can make us angry. We know God is big enough to receive our anger and our grief, big enough to catch all our tears in a bottle [Psalm 58.6]. 

So whilst we may feel alone – and in the moment it truly feels that we are – we cling to the knowledge we are not. We cling to what we knew about God – he never abandons us, but walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death. When we have lost someone we love we grieve deeply, and rightly so. But we do not stop there, not forever, because we have a hope that transforms even the darkest black into resurrection life. 

We may not feel that now, but we know it because we knew it. This is why we need to strengthen and deepen our faith in-between crises so when the crises come we know God, not just know about him. This is why, for all its faults and imperfections, church is important, home groups are important, prayer is important. Because faith needs depth. So then when life goes belly up we can cling to what we know, not just how we feel.

None of which makes it feel any easier, of course.  





to breathe in the woods

14 05 2013

One of my monthly disciplines is a quiet day. This is a day I try to do life differently. And as the name suggests, it’s meant to be quiet. Life in ministry is rarely quiet, so hearing myself think, let alone God speak, can be tricky. Sometimes on my quiet days I walk the parish, or go to London. You can find God in the urban. It’s from this that the Lent Sessions (1,2,3,4,5,6,7) came, from images of our parish estate.

Often I go to the countryside. I’ve always loved the rural outdoors. Sometimes with a friend, sometimes on my own. Often I see things that spark my thoughts. Today I was thinking and trying to pray about life, how it is so full, of good things and hard things, important things and things I wish weren’t important, like rotas and not being the Messiah myself.

It can be hard to see the wood for the trees, as Jesus would have said if he’d lived in England and been less obsessed with corn. 

wood for the trees 1

A quiet day can be like walking in the woods and approaching a clearing. Everything can feel a bit enclosed, dark. But ahead are glimpses of daylight. 

wood for the trees 2

As you walk towards it, you can see the scenery begins to change. The trees becomes thinner. There is an end to the mud.

wood for the trees 3

For me, I am drawn to clearings. Openings. Places where daylight penetrates. This of course is more than a clearing. It’s a beautiful valley. 

Seek out the places that give you life. If that is walking the pavements, do it. If it is escaping to the country, do it. It gives you the chance to see a different perspective, a different view. Then when you look back to where you’ve come from, and to where you will return, it somehow can seem more manageable. Even beautiful. 

wood for the trees 4

Because you must come back. And you cannot live longing to be in the clearing. It can give you new life to go there, but you must be able to breathe in the woods.

Oh! May the God of green hope fill you up with joy, fill you up with peace, so that your believing lives, filled with the life-giving energy of the Holy Spirit, will brim over with hope! (Romans 15.13, The Message)





elephant pee

22 03 2013

I walked nervously into the lion’s den that is the year 8 RE lesson. I like the challenge, but as the tyre leaves a skid mark under heavy braking, it comes at a cost. You need a certain robustness of faith – and attitude – to handle the questions that range from the serious to the cynical to the silly. I manage to undermine my own faith with questions about 300 times a day, I don’t need any help from 13 year olds talking about elves and that their friend is really a fish.

What struck me though was the mount of questions about the fantastical, the out-of-the-ordinary. I know it’s to be expected from over-stimulated teenagers with their defences up against the weird religious man talking about Jesus, but nevertheless…

  1. do you believe in ghosts?
  2. can you see into the future with ouija boards?
  3. do you believe in spirits?
  4. my friend believes in poltergeists, do you?
  5. what’s the thing about the rapture?
  6. don’t you believe that at the end there’ll be a huge battle between all demons and angels?
  7. can you see angels?

This was interspersed with various “I don’t believe in God I believe in science”, “I believe in Santa Claus”, “Why do you wear the collar thing?” and a general feeling that I had come from the planet Og to talk about believing in a Fairy-Wizard made of elephant pee. It’s quite a different feeling from Sunday church. It’s another part of the front-line. It’s hard. It’s the place to be. 

my fantastical alter-ego

my fantastical alter-ego

Usually I try hard not to be mundane. But here I felt differently. I said that although it can be fascinating to look to the fantastical, exciting to think about angels and demons and battles and poltergeists, what I wanted them to know about Easter is that it means Jesus is with us through the mundane of everyday life. Because most of life is ordinary, it’s eating and sleeping and sitting in lessons, and that is when Jesus is with us because of Easter, because of the resurrection.

One of the boys asked what the point in life is: we are born, we go to school, we go to work and we die. That is the crux of it. That was possibly the most honest question. Where is God when everything is mundane? Where is God when life has no colour and the music is on mute? He’s not far away in a galactic battle of spiritual powers, he’s not busy moving Victorian candlesticks around the mantlepiece when no-one’s looking, and he’s not as remote as a Fairy-Wizard from Og made of elephant pee.

He was raised from the dead and he is here.

I know it sounds loony, I said. It sounds just as loony to me as to you.  So at least we can agree on that. 

Please pray for people like Sutton Schoolswork who do this sort of thing everyday, in primary & secondary schools. 





magnetic attraction to stigmatised people

10 10 2012

Several comments and conversations after yesterday’s post, I want to offer some depth to what I was feeling, because I’m just a local vicar trying to work out my faith rather than being a politician or an economist, and I’ve always aimed to have something positive to say rather than just being another angry blog voice. 

So, here are some stories. 

  • There was a woman who sold sex. Not by choice. She could only hang out with others ‘like her’. Though she wanted to worship, she was always stigmatised for not having a proper job, a proper life. Scum, slag, whore. One day some people came along and actively sought to engage with her, and not for sex. Instead of humiliating her publicly as was the sport of their day, they humiliated the pious who stood in judgement over her. They showed her love.
  •  There was a woman who had had multiple partners. She was stigmatised by others who would not spend time with her. Multiple fathers for your children and a substance abuse problem lost you friends, made you defiant, lonely and stuck in a spiral of hopelessness. The community had given up on her. Failure. Alkie. One day some people came along who would not allow her to be defined by society’s labels even though their own reputations were at stake. That was part of the change that turned her life around. They showed her love. 
  • There was a man who was disabled. Society pitied him and those who could, supported him. He knew it was especially good to beg near where the religious gathered, as they were known to be generous. One day instead of begging outside the gates, he was able to dance in. Someone forgotten, abandoned, judged and shunned suddenly placed at the centre of God’s healing of the world. He had been shown love. 
  • There was a man with mental health problems. He was a bit wild, lived alone, and was stigmatised and best avoided. Loon, head-case, failure. One day some people came along who listened to him even when he ranted at them, who welcomed him into their homes and even bandaged his wounds (well, put a plaster on his toe). For a time he was part of their community, though he was very difficult to love. But he knew he was welcome.  They showed him love.  
  • There was a young man who had grown up with money, and did his best to be good. What he didn’t understand was that being good and showing love are very different. When he was told a story about love for your very different neighbour, it was too much, because given the choice between his personal wealth and loving his neighbour, the wealth would probably win. Showing love is costly. 
  • There was a parent who hadn’t worked for 15 years, who was de-skilled, who struggled with debt, with substance abuse, and was therefore difficult to employ. Accidentally coming across some people who cared about him even though society labelled him, stigmatised him and gave up on him – with good reason – he began to see hope, began to receive training, and maybe one day will work. They showed him love. 

All of these stories are about Jesus; some of them are old real stories, and some of them are new real stories. I tell them not because they ‘prove’ any political point. I tell them because time and time again Jesus had a magnetic attraction to stigmatised people. He came to show the world that God had not abandoned them, and he did that by going to the abandoned and showing them love. It was a love that challenged them (go, and sin no more), but it was first and foremost a love that went to them before the challenge. To challenge someone, make sure they know they are loved. 

We can’t go to Jesus for a model of politics. But we can go to him for a model of society. Not colluding in conversations that stigmatise and demonise another group is a start, because if Jesus were to walk in on those conversations or read those blogs he would probably start talking about specks and planks and humiliate us in front of our friends. 

Our society is heavily in debt, and the government need to do something, of course. Whatever they do, we are the people on the ground, we are the people who can help the people. The church is the biggest people-movement on the planet. The local church is the hope of the world. Let’s be hope. 





lampposts and landrovers

4 03 2012

I was out with my running club the other night. It’s something I do from time to time to confirm the stereotype that skinny people are good at long-distance running. Anyway, we were doing this horrible training run where you run hard up a steep hill, then turn round and jog back slowly to a fixed point. And repeat it as many times as you can in 30 minutes.

I say fixed point. You see, often with these runs we use lampposts as markers but the pavement was being dug up so we used a parked car as a landmark. A Land Rover. Which was fine. And very appropriate.

Trouble is, on the 2nd repetition the Land Rover (predictably) disappeared. It threw me momentarily. It reminded me of the time I was walking over Kinder Scout in the Peak District, lost my way and took a compass bearing on the only fixed point I could see. A cloud. I know, not good. But we survived. 

Following fixed points when following Jesus sometimes feels like he has got in the landmark and driven it away. Jesus refuses to be pigeon-holed or boxed. Which we deny, time and time again by making him into fixed point. Turning a parked car into a lamppost is fine if you want to light up a tiny area but not go anywhere.  

I mean, there are fixed points. I’m not saying there aren’t. But the Word of God is person not a book; a personality and not a sentence. Being dogmatic about Jesus is like catching a cloud in a jar to ensure your compass reading is accurate. We don’t really know where Jesus really stands on contemporary conundrums from banking to sex to fig trees to being gay. Ok, we know about fig trees.

We think we know; we make leaps from principles to practice which we may well absolutely believe are true to Jesus. And they may well be. But… Sometimes he drives the landmark away. 

So when we obsess over fixed points, be they about homosexuality and marriage or about anger or adultery or fig trees (and other gardening issues) let’s try and remember that Jesus always – always – saw the person, and the bigger picture; always put loving people first. 

He operated on fixed points. Of course he did, he was a devout Jew. But he also moved them. Redefined them. And to steal from Rob Bell, Jesus didn’t say get out of the box. Because there is no box. This doesn’t get us off the hook when it comes to living well. It doesn’t mean we don’t aim for holiness.

But it does mean we don’t just stand still and admire the small pool of light the lamppost makes around us. Because Jesus has just driven away.  








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