5 years on

It was around five years ago that I had my farewell service as a church minister. Five years on the 2nd of March, I started my new role.

Some things that have become clearer over the 5 years:-

1: People are unutterably beautiful. When my world was church and church was almost everything, as much as I tried, I still think I defined people largely by their church involvement. It still concerns me when I hear ministers in a church refer to ‘key’ people. I know why they are saying it, but if people are indeed made in the image of God, then everyone is ‘key’.

I think I see people as more ’rounded’ now. I’m grateful for that change.

2: I can’t last without church. Many chaplains are so bruised by church that they largely cease being involved: I couldn’t understand why that would be the case when I was a full time minister…. until I found myself in that same situation.

For a while I largely stopped going to church, although I found my way back, yet I’ve let go of almost all of my commitments. However, I find I can’t live a full life without being in worship (even if it isn’t every week): being forced to be with others, knowing that I am not ‘self made’ yet loved, being forced to confront failings, knowing that seeking justice & fairness even to my own cost is the right way etc etc is essential to me; and I am not alone…

3: I don’t miss the ceaseless activity. I guess that every role always has a lot to do: more than can be done in the time available and where- if you are not careful-‘busy’ is a signifier of worth. I don’t miss the aspect of being ‘busy’ 6 days a week and several nights a week, feeling responsible and being unable to stop.

4: Christians are (generally) kind. Yes I’ve seen the rank hypocrisy and abuse scandals nationally (and tragically, close at hand..), but in general, people who are part of a church/other faith community seem to give more of themselves to their area and those around them than others.

It doesn’t stop me disliking even more ‘evangelical mansplaining’ where it happens  though…

There is more, but I’ll save that until next Sunday.

 

 

3 questions:3

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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pHNbHn3i9S4

‘I once read a newspaper article, watched a film, a tv programme, heard something on the radio. It made me feel very…… and I decided to….. which I had never done before.’

When I saw this question written down (read back & find 1 and 2 in this series), I thought of music. I find it impossible to live without music: not music that sounds like ‘aural wallpaper’ that in my darker moments I refer to ‘music for people who don’t really like music’, but music that reaches deep into you and takes more then a cursory listen to appreciate it. I am happy to admit ‘After 30 years, I’ve become my fears; I’ve become the kind of man I always hated’ (James ‘Come Home’ , but you knew that) and I’m a musical snob.

I was maybe 9 or 10 when I bought my first proper LP: ‘Revolver’. Even now, despite owning over 600 albums, I’d still say that it was my favourite & there is a tang of nostalgia every time I play my original LP. It was hearing ‘Tomorrow never knows’, however, that made me feel differently about music.

I think that the first time I heard it, I was immediately gripped by the feeling that music could be different; it didn’t have to be immediately accessible to be good. I didn’t understand it at first, but I kept playing it- and the whole album- again and again until I began to do so. It taught be that good art often has to be worked at to fully appreciate it.

That foray led into Sgt Pepper’s and then I was off in my teens through early 70s prog rock, and as I got still older onto other musical roads less travelled.  That journey still continues; at its most positive always trying to find something new and imaginative- at its most negative, if everyone else likes something , trying to be different. It was ‘Tomorrow never knows’ that began that. Even now, although Paul McCartney’s songs in the Lennon & McCartney partnership are lovely and wondrous, it is the more off kilter Lennon songs that I keep returning to.

My first listen to that song opened my eyes to the power of music to move and to change perceptions- good music is never merely an anodyne ‘nice’-but something stranger, richer and deeper.

3 Questions:2

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‘I once went to….. where I saw……which completely changed the way I think about….’

We all have stories lodged in our brain: isolated fragments that we return to that define how we interpret the world. In one of mine, I’m in the early years of primary school & my class are all together. The teacher is asking ‘Who wants to be in the school play?’ I really wanted to be in the play, but I was painfully shy and I longed to put my hand up, but didn’t.

I regretted it, because the memory stuck with me and became a metaphor for ‘feeling the fear and letting it take you over’, so when the preacher gave us all the above question, I began to alter it…

‘I once went to’ at this, I inserted the name of someone who is active in the church and the local amdram society. ‘where I saw’ I changed this to ‘where they said’ and remembered the gist of what they’d said: ‘You can do this’. They asked me to be part of a murder mystery; that childhood memory came back, but now I heard ‘You can do this’.

‘which completely changed the way I think about’ I added ‘acting’. I could do it: I wasn’t very good at it- few are when they try something which they’ve never done- I remember completely ‘blanking’ when I did the first rehearsal without a script: the empty stage seemed massive and the lights were so bright.

But ‘You can do it’. I could; I can. I am unlikely to be brilliant, but several productions and twelve or so years later, I’m still doing it and people laugh when I do comic parts.

That childhood memory still comes back, but this time I’ve got my hand up and I’m cast and something that scares me no longer does. I’m content.

16

When our first child was born, wise old sages said ‘Enjoy this time; it will soon pass’ & I thought ‘You are old- you know nothing’.

I was wrong: they knew everything. That child is now a man and in China for a year with a charity (at the moment: the situation changes from day to day). His younger brother; taller and stronger than both parents, is 16 today.

The wise old sages were doubly wise ; even though my younger child, looking at me now says ‘You are old- you know nothing’, with the all the acuity & clear judgement that only a 16 year old males possesses….

3 questions: 1

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The Methodist Church is on a year of ‘telling stories’ (I hope I’ve got that right: I’m so far out of the loop  that what once seemed familiar is fast becoming a mystery) ; getting people to talk about their faith in a way that is natural and doesn’t sound like an automaton or an embarrassed salesperson trying to sell you 6 impossible things before breakfast.

I was in a church service a few weeks ago and the person leading it gave us a sheet of paper with 3 sentences with blanks in them. The idea was that you filled in the blanks and tried to tell your story. This was the first sentence:-

‘I once met with…… who said……..and that made a big difference in my life.’

The blank page, or even a page with blanks in used to make me feel nervous: how could I start? Now I see it more as an invitation to create and to dream; the blank page is my friend.

Suddenly, I was 17 again and studying for A levels and I remembered my Maths teacher. I wasn’t a great mathematician and A level maths, although I passed was a step too far: I’m inordinately proud of my ‘A’ at O level but it lulled me into a false sense of security.  I began the sentence with ‘I once met with Mr Stoeter who was my maths teacher’. I remembered: it was a lunch time in the canteen and he sat on our table and listened to us and began to talk with us as most teachers did at VIth form- we weren’t yet adults but were taking our first hesitant steps in that direction.

‘Who said…. and that made a big difference to my life’. The thing is, I don’t have a clear memory of what he said although I remember the general sense of it. He talked of how his faith made sense and how it was real. I had a church background; never really left, but it seemed disconnected and embarrassing to how I lived my day to day life. Plus, I was 17, left wing and cynical of anything that smacked of indoctrination.

Normally I would have listened- we learn more my listening- walked away, analysed it and thought ‘No: not today- in fact: not ever’. Even though I don’t remember the detail of what happened, there was no ‘hard sell’ or abuse of authority. But there was something about his coherence, his authenticity, that got through. From that moment, I knew that I wasn’t a Christian and there was something different to what I knew and what a Christian was.

There was no ‘conversion’ then, but just the beginning of a questions and the start of a searching that would take well over a year. In fact, the more I reflect on it, I’ve never stopped searching since.

I’ve often gone back to that conversation when someone has talked about Christianity as ‘bronze age superstition’ or for the gullible , the naive or stupid and thought ‘Not in my experience… not at all.’

Part 2 to follow soon, and it is not specifically about faith….

Why I love village pantomimes.

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I’m in the current village pantomime (the above is a shot from the 2013 one). We’ve had two performances last week and we are entering our final run from tomorrow (Thursday, Friday and twice on Saturday. If you are interested click on this line          ) .

It is part of the tradition of villages round here. In the past, several put one on in the period from January- March and people from different villages would go from panto to panto. Now, a lot have died out although some still remain. I’m biased, but I think ours is one of the best (I really think it is the best, but I’m trying to be modest): six paying performances and around 800 ticket sales in a village of 1800 people is pretty good (even if a fair few people come from the areas around to watch it).

These are some reasons why I like it:-

It knits a community together. The sight of people known in a community parodying their own roles is part of the warp and weft of community life that ties people together: it stops us being atomised individuals. As it is a form- pantomime- with set rules and rituals, audiences generally come together not just to watch but to take part. At its best , the ‘4th wall’ is knocked down and we become ‘we’ and not just a collection of individuals.

It gives people a chance. There are some very talented amateur actors of all ages who take part, but there are many of us who do not fall into that category: for some it might be their first time on stage. Conversely it might be the last time they ever do this, which is fine; they’ve had a go. It gives non actors with little talent like me, the chance to fulfil childhood dreams.

It is an exercise in temporary community. I think that we only ever truly know ourselves when we are part of something: I never quite got on with the Cartesian ‘I think therefore I am’. There is something powerful and lovely when people come together to produce something greater than themselves (and sometimes argue and fall out: that is part of community).

It involves ‘buy in’. Society seems to be going further down the route of ‘I consume, therefore I am’. Something like this-like any voluntary activity- involves ‘buy in’: you are no longer on the sidelines, watching, but you become involved. Some people go through life never being involved, but only buying; life seems richer when you take part in something and ‘give’.

It is fun. Yes it is hard work whether up front or behind the scenes (more so the latter, I think), but it is also a lot of fun. It is ‘democratic fun’ as well: apart from the £10 membership fee, it doesn’t cost anything so anyone can take part. I’m sure Douglas Coupland in ‘Generation X’ wasn’t thinking about village pantomime when he wrote ‘Purchased experiences don’t count’, but he could have been.

I could give many, many more reasons, but I’m due on stage, dahhrlings…

Epiphany

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Today does not feel like an epiphany moment. I guess many of us feel the dulling sensation of having to get up early, go out into the dark and go back to what we left a week or two ago. I’m fortunate; I love what I do, but this day- this dark day- of getting back to ‘normal’ always feels hard.

Epiphanies tend to be imagined as happening when we have some kind of serenity or stillness; when everything feels ‘together’ or calm; not dark, cold or tired (It still irks me when I hear a preacher say ‘Let’s seek God in the silence’: I want to say ‘Is he not in the noise, then?). The formality of the above picture doesn’t help: I like the TS Eliot poem ‘The journey of the Magi’ better.

Years ago, the story of the 3 wise men seemed simple & they seemed bland (most parts of the nativity story read back through the lens of school nativity plays do); it now seems really complex. I guess that many reading this will know there is no number mentioned, they weren’t kings, they were likely to be a type of astrologer and probably Zoroastrian (You’ll recall that Freddie Mercury had a Zoroastrian funeral; I’ll bet though that they weren’t as good at singing or had such voracious sexual appetites..): everything that is an anathema to your good and faithful Jew like Matthew who wrote the story down (or maybe created it to make an important point).

Anyway, they come into the story, meet Herod, find Jesus…and leave…. and that’s it: the rest is unknown- they seem like bit part characters.Well; it is not strictly it, as their interventions lead to a massacre of small children. That’s the bit that is sanitised out of nativity plays and most Christmas services:  it’s a pity as I reckon if it was in the depiction of Christmas in Western culture it would be less sanitised, more gritty and truer to life. Grubby realism, questions, suffering and pain are never far away in the Bible; most of us filter them out.

This got be thinking about epiphanies: maybe they happen just as much in the noise, confusion, darkness and uncertainty of everyday life as in those rarified moments when everything is still and ‘connected’. Perhaps like the Magi, that tends to be partial and uncertain: we don’t know where they went to or what the result of this epiphany was for them.

Often epiphanies may come through situations where we are profoundly uncomfortable and we don’t know the way. Also; an epiphany might not be in any sense a final breakthrough but be just enough light to go on with now….the darkness will still come back, but that faint sense of hope may still linger-there may well be a new direction, but it is still hedged with uncertainty and can be painful. It can be that ‘epiphany’ is only grasped in hindsight many years after: at the time it felt like anything but.

I might read this again mid afternoon when all I want to do is sit in a warm room, eat another mince pie and bing on netflix and feel festive….

Some thoughts for the night before (and the night after) a General Election

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I’m not going to tell you how to vote: you are intelligent and have already weighed carefully what to do. I might not agree with your decision, but I respect it. This blog is not about that.

These are some random observations about this campaign ; my biases are evident. I’ve always voted Labour in a national election. If I lived in a seat where I had a chance of unseating a Conservative, I’d vote tactically for any other party to do so. Part of the reason is that I am a Methodist minister: we tend to see things through a Left/Liberal lens (see for example the above prayer. I find it hard to see how any Christian with a working knowledge of The Magnificat* could do otherwise), another reason is one of my children’s’ godparents is standing for Labour. There are many, many other reasons which are of no consequence here; I just wanted to be honest about my biases.

Here goes (I’m guilty of some of these points):-

1: Please can we retire emotive phrases like ‘the will of the people’ , ‘Britain has decided’ or ‘the people have spoken’? The most any governing party has ever got of the popular votes since 1948 is 48%. Most governing parties gain between 37% to 45%: that is not even  a majority of the 65-75% who vote. As soon as you recognise that, it would be a good idea to be less strident & have a little more humility.

2: ‘We won and you lost’. Is the kind of phrase that I’d expect to hear on the lips of a 9 year old boy, boasting in the playground and not a grown adult. It over simplifies, ramps up the emotions and…have we learned nothing about the divisiveness of this phrase on social media post 2015? Also: see number 1.

3: Too many of us share things on social media that are not true– but we desperately want them to be so due to the way we see the world. In this election this reached almost epidemic proportions. Check your sources: it is a shame there is not a search engine- we could call it ‘google’ or something- to do this. By the way: did you know that Tesco are giving out £50 vouchers: please share…

4: Hyperbole: beloved of leading politicians and used unwittingly by us. For example: if this is a ‘once in a generation election’, given recent elections I must be around 226 years old. Please stop: my head is hurting.

5: Most aspiring politicians believe in what they are standing for and have the kind of integrity that you or I have. They are not all corrupt, ‘muppets’ or standing against ‘the will of the people’ (see number 1 again); labelling them as such damages us.

6: If you have any kind of intelligence and expect me to listen to you on social media, please drop the ‘pejorative adjective’. As soon as you talk about ‘the racist Johnson’, ‘the anti Semitic Corbyn’ or go on to say ‘all Tories are c**ts’, ‘Rees Mogg is a b**tard* I stop listening to you and wonder who gives you the right to talk about another human like that. Express annoyance and anger, but like you are talking about another human being and not like you have disappeared down the rabbit hole of your own echo chamber.

7: If you feel aggrieved about the result don’t label people who voted differently to you as ‘stupid’, ‘idiots’, ‘ignorant’ . Likewise, don’t blame ‘old people’ if there is a heavy Conservative majority; the clue is in the 2nd part of that: ‘people’- you and I will be old one day. I’d hate to be considered less of a person just because of the way I voted.

8: Stop playing ‘racism olympics’. On surveys (which is only one measure), all parties have members that have racist opinions. Although Labour’s measure tends to be lower than other parties and has arguably declined in the past few years, that is not cause to play ‘whatboutery’ (yet, in the antisemitism furore, it was a constant source of joy to me that people on the right with little previous record in anti racism suddenly became very interested in and zealous about Labour and antisemitism…). No party can be complacent until racism is eradicated: I hope that the EHRC investigation into Labour will underline this and I look for similar investigations into other parties.

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That’s about enough and double the length of my usual posts. I’ve not mentioned my doubts about the BBC, wondered ‘what a time to be alive’ that in a world with Hamas, the AfD, an increase in Far Right terrorism, Isis etc that Jeremy Corbyn is still apparently the number 1 danger to Jews, speculated about the level of lying that came out of BoJo and the Conservative campaign, the fatuous and disingenuous nature of ‘Get Brexit Done’ and… that’s enough, apart from one specifically Christian one:-

9: How distant I have become from many evangelical analyses of ‘a Christian guide on how to vote’. I’ve read quite a bit on ‘right to life’ (which is important), personal morality (ditto: although Boris seems to get a free pass) etc, but very little on the vast increase in foodbank usage, the blaspehemy of Austerity (I do not use that word lightly- but when you seem to ignore the image of God in the real human cost and the deliberate choice to cut from those with little, ‘blasphemy’ seems appropriate) etc as ways in which your vote might be guided. I’ve practically stopped reading you: particularly when you seem to be ‘genitally obsessed’ with the way that you read culture.

The end.

 

(* See Luke chapter 2- google it. It is also referred to as ‘Mary’s song’)

The ecstatic ending.

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I’ve noticed it before and in my past I practiced it; the ‘ecstatic ending’.

I think we sometimes do it in conversation when what we are hearing is too hard to process and we just don’t know what to say;’Never mind, eh: things’ll get better’. Sometimes there is a time to cheer people up, to direct them to some hope, but more often  there is a time to listen, to be silent and to hold.

More particularly in church, shit has happened, the words of scripture have been words of lament & there seems to be no ‘gospel’, yet you end a service, a conversation, anything vaguely Christian with an ‘ecstatic ending’. For example; ‘we know that it says here ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’, but let’s just think of all the good stuff that God does’. Or even: ‘We’ve heard some sad news about Mary this morning, but people: God is faithful!’

I remember once reading a book about the writer being in a church, listening to the worship and the leader said something like ‘we are going to have some silence’ and through the party wall separating the church from the neighbouring house came the sounds of the occupant beating up his wife. The worship leader looked uncertain and.. then ordered the band leader to strike up, but louder.

When this happens:-

Sometimes it feels like a jarring major chord at the end of a song with loads of minor chords: it destroys the overall effect of feeling so connected, that your pain and that of others has been listened to, felt and understood even when there are no answers.

Sometimes it feels like the leader of worship has no real trust in the Divine, and has to impose a happy ending so that it is all ok.

Sometimes (or often!) life is imperfect, there is pain, loss and no sense of a resolution. While we need hope and a crack of light in a dark sky, it is isn’t healthy to be closed down in an ecstatic ending.

Sometimes it is not ok, it will never be ok; but acknowledgment of that is all that is needed.. and that is ok.

 

 

 

No pattern..

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I left church ministry in February 2015: nearly 5 years ago.

I had a pattern before I left- I knew where church was , knew my place in it, knew was was ‘expected’. For the most part I liked it: it sustained me as well as being a job. I knew how life was going to pan out until 67: given health and fitness, I’d be a full time Methodist minister and move around the country every few years. There is a lot that I miss, but not in a way that I think I’d ever want to go back; in the end the cost was too great.

When I left, I had an idea that I’d find a new pattern; different , but somehow related to the old one. I think most of us unconsciously have the idea that when we start something new, it will be like the old, but somehow better. However, I’ve never quite found a pattern or a way of being that bears much resemblance to the old one.

Even before I worked full time for a church, I had a pattern; I worked full time and gave a lot of time to the church. I was younger then, we had no children and I seemed to have a lot more energy and time.

Now, I work full time, preach only occasionally (and then by invitation), hold no church office and no responsibility within it. I have no idea how life will pan out and no real plans…and I like it.

I work full time as a chaplain in  mental health settings: I have so much more time with people and no agenda when those encounters take place. I think I find God more- not less- within that setting. I’m frequently humbled by the lives and stories that I encounter, like never before. I go on a yearly wilderness retreat, I see a spiritual director every two months or so and I still read/cling onto the Psalms,.

When I’m in church, I’m moved more by the ordinary people that share their lives than the ‘show’ (I never understood the evangelical obsession in finding a ‘good’ church which often seemed to owe more to consumerism than humble faith) and that is about it. I help out from time to time with church things when I’m asked, but have no long term post. I admire those who give time to ensure that church shines and keeps going; but I have no (current?) desire to be involved.

It is the first time since I’ve been a Christian that I’ve lived like this. In the past, I would have labelled those who lived like this as ‘selfish’ (and privately and sometimes passive aggressively and publicly I did); that was wrong- i never realised what it felt like to be burnt out in church leadership/involvement felt like. I expected a pattern to arrive- it hasn’t, yet the feeling of liberation grows more profound as the years deepen.