Friday, 22 June 2018

That Coat.....

I really don't care. Do u?

That coat. Of all the bad fashion choices. Of all the inappropriateness of the statement..... this is probably one of the worst. Wearing your heart on your sleeve? Why not wear it on your back? Why would you want a coat that looks like it has be graffitied anyway? 

I really don't care. Do u? 

On the back of a week where children and their parents have been separated at the southern border of the US, Melania Trump has worn a coat that has confused us all. It seems she has expressed all that we have been thinking that the Trumps have been thinking with one strange fashion choice.

I really don't care. Do u?

Well, actually, generally I don't care what people wear. It's up to them, however, some clothes do make a statement, and this one it certainly does..... but is our reaction to the coat diverting our attention from what is really going on? Is the shock over the bold statement written in what looks like white paint on the back of a coat distracting us from the cries of the children who may or may not re-united with their parents depending on what happens next... what rule change is next. 

I think that Melania Trump asks us all a valid question, which should challenge us all. As we stand and we point fingers, as we raise our eyebrows and tweet and rant and write blogs.... we have got to ask ourselves the question.... do we really care? 

The problems on the US border are so far away we can express our devastation from afar but we know we don't have to get involved. Even our own Prime Minister who rarely speaks out against Trump has said that the hostile environment that is separating the children has gone too far....

Hang on a minute. Hostile environment?

Do you care?

In the wake of the Windrush scandal, where people who have lived in this country for decades have been sent back to a home that never was a home, in the wake of the inadequate action taken to settle children under the Dubs scheme, in the wake of the fact that there are still people dying trying to cross the Mediterranean, in the wake of the fact that there are still many many people camping on the coast of France in conditions that we wouldn't believe and even contemplate..... Do you care? 

What are you going to do about it? What are you going to do about this hostile environment where in the US children's cries are heard as they wait for the what next.... What are you going to do about this hostile environment that labels people as 'the other' so we can leave them in any conditions and danger that we want? 

Do you actually care? Or might that coat actually suit you too? 

I'm challenged that I am not doing enough. I am challenged that I sit in my study in suburbia and I write, but as I write I feel helpless, what can I do? 

The Joint Public Issues Team has launched a campaign to challenge the government's approach to illegal immigration which is leading to destitution, discrimination and distrust. The campaign challenges us to take action, starting by writing to our MPs. I'm going to do that when I have finished writing this blog. It seems like a tiny step, but I believe any step is a start. 

As we hear the stories from the US. As we read that ridiculous coat..... We should be challenged.

Yes I do care. Do you? 

“If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?”
James 2:15-16

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

As the ground shakes.....

There is a constant banging in Ramsbottom at the moment, and as you get closer to the source of the noise, the floor actually vibrates. For anyone sensitive to ground movement or sound it is a bit of a nightmare because it means that it agitates and it stops normal life feeling normal. 

They're building some houses - but I'm guessing the ground where they are building needs some work - and the constant banging is them making a breakthrough - them creating the foundations to make those houses safe. 

If you hit long enough and hard enough the ground will give way. 

The process is painful, but it's getting somewhere. 

Part of my calling as a minister is to help church move forward and change - move on from the past and be faithful to what it is to be called to be a church in the world today, not holding onto the things that could be moved, not holding on to the rocks that weigh us down, not burying ourselves under concrete, but to be released to be the people we could be as we seek to be serving Christ in this community. 

I believe that new can grow from old - that the foundations of the past are something that the new can grow in. You can see it when flowers spring up from the cracks in the paving stones. You can see it when that new life begins to spread and impact the old around. 

But sometimes it can feel like there is a layer of concrete to drill/bang our way through, before that new can really explode into life. Sometimes it can feel like we are that machine that is banging and banging to make way for the new. Sometimes that concrete is difficult to crack. Sometimes all the work seems pointless and you don't feel like you are getting anywhere.....

But... if you go on long enough and keep being persistent, where the Holy Spirit is guiding, the ground will give way. It might mean finding others to be persistent with you. It might mean doing it in relay - that passing on the baton can provide new energy to continue and new eyes to spot where the breakthrough will be.... but the work that has been done already, and the work that we are doing now, and the work that will be done in the future on breaking that ground all matters..... Like the day by day persistent banging breaking ground on the building site in my town at the moment. 

As I write this, the banging has stopped. It may be that ground has been made and it will move onto the next bit (in fact it just has), it may be that the machine needs a rest because it is hot and tired..... it may be that the ground beneath has been revealed  or cleared and the building can begin. 

So often building means stripping back first... and some stripping back is more energy draining and time consuming and irritating and seemingly pointless than others. 

But I am confident, like the builders, now making the town vibrate again, that in the end it will be worth it and those new houses, those new ways will be embedded into the community, and the learning of new ways of living and serving can begin once again. 

When God is involved.....

"The desert and the parched land will be glad;
the wilderness will rejoice and blossom.
Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom;
it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy"      Isaiah 35:1-2a

Thursday, 14 June 2018

Tent Pitching - Some Thursday Night Dream

After spending an afternoon dreaming of what we could do, and then an evening frustrated at what we can't, I was reminded of one of my favourite quotes......

"A church which pitches its tents without constantly looking out for new horizons, which does not continually strike camp, is being untrue to its calling.... [we must] play down our longing for certainty, accept that which is risky, and live by improvisation and experimentation" - Hans Kung 

Just imagine if we lived and moved like this - constantly looking forward, constantly looking onward, not settling but dreaming, determined to follow in the ways of Jesus, without dragging our feet or digging our heels in. How different things might be..... 

You only live once, carpe diem, seize the day…… before it whistles by. Be unbound by the binds of institution and of fear and of comfort and of self consciousness, because there is more beyond….  So much more….. 

“God can do anything, you know - far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams! He does it not by pushing us around but by working within us, his Spirit deeply and gently within us” - Ephesians 3:20

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Leadership is hard (but at least we're not dead yet!)

This morning I've been stuck in the world of the first Christian martyr, Stephen. Acts 6 and 7 tells the story of him being enabled as a leaders because of the potential that was seen in him, him flourishing in the role he was commissioned into, him being taken to trial by those who saw him as a massive threat, him defending his life with an impassioned plea and defence of what he had been doing and then finally with his death....

This is all we really know of Stephen. A promising leader, enabled by the early church, but whose time as a leader was cut short by those who were threatened by the things he was saying and doing. 

And that's where I came up with the title to this blog.... it was going to be the title of my sermon but I think it's gone another direction..... 

Leadership is sometimes hard. As a church leader I'm called to lead the church forward, but am pulled back by the ones who want to keep it the same. I'm the person who needs to be there when it hurts most and the person who it is most OK to say what you want to, however much it hurts me because that's part of my job. I have a thick skin, but even those with a thick skin have points where the skin is a little bit thinner. 

Leadership is hard. We're trying to keep up with the world as it moves at a speedy pace, but slow down and be and help others to manage the speed when they are injured or flailing or simply struggling with life. 

Leadership is hard, and the expectations we place on our leaders often make it so much harder....

I've begun eating my lunch in car parks too often recently. Sometimes going from place to place and not having time to do a 'big shop' or the inclination to be organised at home means that I have experienced some interesting places to eat (I think I'm probably just a bit disorganised with lunch). But then, this week I have had a number of people tell me that they haven't even been able to make time for lunch because the tumbling waterfall of meetings has meant that it has all become a bit of a sprint. 

And the not eating lunch is just the tip of the iceberg. Underneath the surface, the paddling, for many, is frantic and keeping up with the demands of those they lead and also those who lead the leaders is something that simply cannot be sustained. 

One thing you can say about Stephen, in a time of continuing change, is that he never let up in doing the things he was called to. In fact he was called to do the things that were too much for the apostles to do.... and if he had lived perhaps he would have needed to raise leaders to do the things that were too much for him to do as the church changed and grew. 

So here's the thing.... as we reflect on the difficult job that we have been called to in leadership - whether that is in church or other work, we need to make sure that we don't get to the point where our legs are so tired we can't paddle anymore - and don't even get to the point where we end up in the waterfall that means we can't even reach out and grab some lunch. 

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week, and seems an appropriate time to raise the issue of self care. If we are to be effective in what we are being called to do, we must make sure that we are given enough time to process, to work through, to eat, to be.... that incessant paddling to keep our heads above water? It's not good for us, it's not healthy and it doesn't make for a leader who is able to be who they have been called to be. 

To the leaders who are paddling hard at the moment - reach your arms up and ask for help to be lifted out of this never ending cycle because you can't keep it up forever. The expectations on you at the moment are clearly too great. Don't go to that meeting, cancel that appointment... those things they will wait...  Don't begin anything new until you've either done or crossed out everything that is on your list and you can begin again. It's not a sprint, and we all need time to refresh. Take your day off!

To the leaders of leaders who are watching the paddling as you paddle - reach out and hold your leaders up. Reach out and together get out of the fast flow. Just because you work at a pace that can manage all this, it doesn't mean that everyone else can too. Just pause for a moment.... there are some things that will wait....  just pause, and be. And lead by example... make space for lunch, for days off, for holidays, for refreshment.

To those being led, take care of your leaders. They are not invincible, they're human. Check they are getting the space to eat, to relax, to sleep, and if they're not hold them to account - ask them why.... and then when you've asked them why, do something about it. Stop complaining and encourage. Affirm their position, their calling and be positive. You may not agree with everything a leader asks you to do, but there are ways of saying it.... check your tongue and stop sending those e-mails past 9pm. 

Stephen died because he was doing what he was called to do, enabled by the Holy Spirit to care for the church and to share the good news with those he met. We must release our leaders to do just this, to do what they have been called to do, and thankfully, because we live in a different time to Stephen, we can hopefully be sure that they will then go on to flourish and grow and help to release others to continue the work they began. 

If you are struggling right now, with stress, with workload, with worry, with anything else, then don't struggle alone. There are people who will stand with you, walk with you, listen to you, hold the load for you. We are not made to be alone, and no-one should ever need to do all of this alone. My prayer for you is that you will find companions and helpers on the journey who will carry you as you need to be carried, hide with you as you need to hide and shield you from whatever comes your way. Ultimately, God is carrying you through this and you can find shelter in him. 

Saturday, 5 May 2018

Navigating the Magic Roundabout

A few weeks ago I came across a very special roundabout. A Magic Roundabout. Not the Magic Roundabout but one of four so-called 'magic roundabouts' in towns that have grown rapidly and the road systems have grown rapidly with them.... I don't know what it is about rapidly growing towns, but roundabouts feature heavily. 

The Plough Roundabout in Hemel Hempstead is one such magic roundabout. Not only has it got a large roundabout in the middle, but it has six mini roundabouts round the outside. Look at it as a newcomer and it seems like a logistical nightmare..... but step away from the bigger picture and take its roundabouts one at a time, treating each roundabout as a new challenge to be completed then you quickly get to where you need to be going. 

Look at the beauty of it in this video.....

To step back and see how it all works is inspiring - whoever thought this all up and made it work in the way it does had some wild imagination.....

But to arrive at the entrance and only look at the big picture could, I imagine, cause panic. 

I've been talking to a number of friends recently about the challenges of life. It seems that as I and many of my friends approach one of the big ages, negotiating life has become more difficult. Choices are not as simple as they used to be and there are a number of mini roundabouts to contend with before we can get to the other side. 

Yet with hindsight, when we look back and see how we got to the other side we see the beauty of the dance of the magic roundabout. 

I'm yet again in the middle of a number of review processes - in my own church, in the Methodist circuit, at the end of my Newly Accredited period, in my own head, and sometimes the process can seem overwhelming. 

However, in mind of the bigger picture, if we take each mini roundabout at a time, the way ahead will become clear and open. And we'll get there, with God's help, the one who writes the road signs, we'll get there..... and when we stop to evaluate the big roundabout, the beauty of it all will be dazzling.

There's a time for everything, a season for every part of the roundabout

A time to stop and a time to go
A time to drive on and a time to pull back
A time to go round and a time to go over
A time to zoom out and a time to focus in
A time to panic and a time to dance
A time to try things out and a time to evaluate
A time to just get on with it and a time to just stand and watch
A time to shout GO ON THEN and a time to quietly nudge on
A time to love the moment and a time to approach in fear
A time to simply negotiate the roundabout in front.....
And a time to soar and see the beauty of the dance.

Monday, 30 April 2018

Intergenerational Church and Food

I'm currently involved in planning and taking part in a series of workshops exploring Intergenerational Church with the North West Baptist Association. Last time we talked about Intergenerational Church and food.... here is a slightly shortened version of what I said... 

Sitting around the Boxing Day Buffet with my family - fourteen humans (three generations) ranging in ages from 2 to older, four dogs (one a puppy) wander around under the table. An abundance of food. The hands reach out and fill the plates. My oldest nephew gets up and walks round to the other side of the table so he can reach the cheese board. The vegetarian sausage rolls are divided up between me and my sisters before a meat eater mistakes them for the real stuff. My brother reaches for the homemade pickled onions and we watch as his eyebrows raise with the sharpness of the vinegar and the strength of the onions. My youngest niece begins the inevitable climb onto her mum's lap and the food she knocks off the table is quickly eaten by the one dog we though was sleeping. As the food gets consumed and the movement around the table gets more chaotic, the conversation flows. We listen and we learn. We laugh and we argue. We might even throw things. 

Family life - in all its beauty and chaos - around the table all of our uniqueness is lived out.

A couple of years ago I visited Tatton Park and there was an exhibition on called ‘Guardian Angels’ by the artist Cristina Rodrigues. I blogged about it more here.

As I walked into the kitchens  - one of the installations really struck me.

The description of the piece explained how it is reflecting on the fact that we now spend less time gathered round the table which stood at the heart of our homes. The red ribbons are like blood – energy lines that bring life and tell a story. The ceramic hearts connected by the ribbons show how we connect to one another. The table being in the kitchen was also significant because the kitchen was the heart of the house, making the house a home.

It inspired my thinking around church, around church family and how we gather as a family, and it inspired my MA dissertation on the role of food in building faith community. People think I’m obsessed with food – I’m not, honestly. 

When we think about intergenerational church, it's perhaps a bit like my boxing day family. Gathering as intergenerational church round the table is like when the whole family - when weird Aunties and trantruming toddlers, grumpy Granddads and 'I'm just coming in from cutting down a tree' brothers gather together on boxing day for tea. That moment of gathering cannot expect to be controlled. It's going to be messy and chaotic but it can do some much for the family - for the community it is worth doing. 

In my research I’ve been comparing how the early church, beginning with the church in Acts, met together and have been contrasting that with projects that meet in that way today. The projects I have researched have included a number of things, but one of the things that has been key around the table in these projects is that all of them have had some kind of intergenerational element to the way they gather – some were intentionally intergenerational, but some have become so because it is easy to include all the generations as we gather around food. At my own church we have developed our all age service to become cafe worship – a kind of all age, all circumstances messy church where gathering around tea and cake has meant that conversation has flowed and families have learned to worship together – I believe it has been key to a change in outlook and growth in faith as a church. 

In Acts 2 we see the early church gathering together each day and eating together. They did this in the context of worship and as the table brought the people together, they were brought together with God, but just as eating has become less important in family homes, it has become less important in churches over time. As the early church grew from that time in the early accounts in Acts, they grew too big for their homes, or too big to recline around the dinner table, so they began to meet in separate rooms, or in community buildings and then food became less important and churches lost something of their identity.

At the time of Acts, eating together was a normal thing to do – it was how people gathered – it wouldn’t have been strange to invite people round to your home to eat and then have a philosophical discussion together. However, the church was also countercultural in the way it met, and as we read through the early church letters and the accounts in Acts we see some of the opportunities it brought and some of the problems it caused.

Although that society ate together, it was normal to have a strict rule of hierarchy at the table – the one with the highest status would recline at the top table and get the best food. Slaves, women and children would rarely make it to the table, and those at the bottom of the guest list would get little food. In 1 Corinthians 11 we see that some people were getting more food than others because the early church was living up to the expectations of society. Paul challenges this and tells everyone that they need to make sure that food is distributed equally.

What linked the diners in early Christian communities was faith, which transcended above social structures and social and ethnic differences. Acts tells us they shared everything – their food, their possessions, their money… making sure that no one was left without. This was countercultural, radical, kingdom living. It meant building a new kind of community – one that centred on Christ as it put everyone on an equal footing. Eating together forces us to take those things we are convicted about from being abstract concepts and means we need to work them out with the people we gather round the table with. 

The table is a place of sharing, a place of conversation, a place where we can learn. Gathering around the table helps us to grow in faith. As we make time to spend with people who have different insights in faith or are much more mature in faith than we are, we put ourselves on an equal footing with them - we are able to learn from them what it means to follow Jesus. 

When we invite someone to eat with us, we send them a message – that we want a closer relationship with them and we want to open up and have intimacy. If we make time to sit around the table; all generations together, then for those who are not involved in normal decision making, for those who think their voice doesn’t matter, for those who we don’t normally listen to, it sends that message – that they matter. This is key particularly when we are trying to include children’s voices in the mix, but also for much of the church community. Does my voice really matter? Yes it does, and I’m going to sit and eat with you as we share our stories together. Round the table we learn to trust one another, where we all have a role and a purpose, where we can learn to just be together with no agenda but eating.

Of course there are issues when it comes to eating together and the mess is just one of them. Eating together (particularly with all generations together) is countercultural, and to include it as part of normal church life is difficult and sometimes controversial, but I believe it is worth the effort. Long standing church attendees find it difficult; food is an aside, not a central part of meeting together – in some people’s eyes it is seen as ungodly. Feasting is countercultural to church culture; when the ‘feast’ of bread and wine that unites us is less of a feast and more of a taster (and not a good one at that), when we don’t enable all generations to participate in the feast in some way (that opens a whole can of worms) then how can we demonstrate the abundance of God within our communities?

We could question whether eating together is actually that important - I believe it is.... If we are to enable bonds and relationships to be built, if we are to create a culture of learning and inclusion in our intergenerational churches, we need to make sure that all generations are involved in the preparation, the serving and the eating of food.

Church doesn’t work if we don’t talk to one another. Our physical body needs a neurosystem so that the different parts can communicate together. Perhaps the table, in its ability to enable conversation, is the facilitator of the neurosystem that makes up the body of the church – to work, the different parts need to make space to talk together, and a meal is a great place for that.

What if the eye never sat down with the ear and told the ear what it could see. What if the foot never sat down with the hand and told the hand where it would be going. What if the brain stopped sending messages to the hands and feet and nothing got done…..? As we gather round the table, as relationships and trust are built, we see the body of Christ work together much more effectively than if we just sat next to one another in the corridor. It’s a perfect central point for intergenerational church, because whoever we are, whatever age we are, however messy and eater we are, whether we like plain food or the hottest curry imaginable, whether we are a food snob or a McDonalds fanatic.... we all have to eat.... so in our contexts, however we do it, to grow an effective intergenerational church culture, I believe gathering around the table has to be part of that.

Thursday, 19 April 2018

That wall we all rejected.....

And slowly it builds
Brick by brick
That wall we all rejected

And the rhetoric filters through
The drive by threat
They're taking our jobs, our houses

Go home, you're not welcome here

Standing back we listen
We shake our fist
And we go on as it all dies down

And the rhetoric filters through
The chaos of the camps
They threaten our drivers, it's not safe

Go back, you're not welcome here

Standing back we watch
We send our cast offs
And go by as they're all moved on

And the rhetoric filters through
Bring back  our control
Close the doors, put the biggest bolts on.

The door is closed, you're not welcome here

Standing back we hear
As experts cry out
And we go on as it all rolls on

And the rhetoric filters through
Our exit door is open
Now go - the entrance door is tight shut

Even you are not welcome any more

Standing back we hear cries
As blame is dished out
And those we live beside leave in fear

And slowly it builds
Brick by Brick 
That wall we rejected - it's here

As we look out from the UK, we so often see what we hear is proposed to happen across the Atlantic and we despair and shout out and say that 'it wouldn't happen here'. However, as we have seen this week as voices rise up over the injustice over the Windrush deportation crisis we've got to test our own motives, test our own hearts.... and choose to stand up and stop these growing barriers before they become seemingly impenetrable and our society has lost his ability to welcome at all. This article from the Baptist Times talks about why we should be angry over the Windrush Crisis and what to do about it.  

The prophet Amos says these words from God to the people of Israel, challenging their focus:

"I hate, I despise your religious festivals; and your assemblies are a stench to me..... Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. BUT let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never failing stream"  Amos 5:21, 23-24

Stand up for justice. Stand up because God....