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.

Baptism for the hesitant

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I led a baptism service yesterday and I’ll lead another one next week. I think it is around 5 years since I’ve led one: I no longer lead churches and I’ve only been able to lead these two as the ministers of the 2 churches have allowed me to.

Someone once told me that a measure of a ‘good’ minister is that when they leave, they are not missed; if they’ve done their work well, others have been allowed to grow & they are not needed. However, I conducted both couples’ weddings and I guess that they felt some connection with me so they asked. I feel more than slightly uncomfortable with praise, yet a small part of me feels gratified and humbled. It is wise though to keep John Wesley’s 18th century maxim in mind : ‘If thou art constrained to bless the instrument; give God the glory’.

It’s a peculiar feeling going ‘back’ to something I left. The first feeling is one of strangeness: I’m slightly rusty at something that I once got into a routine of doing. Then there is a tinge of a feeling of being a bit of a ‘fraud’: I’ve had a paradoxical relationship with my parent denomination since I left pastoral charge- I sit on no meetings apart from the handful I’m supposed to attend so I’m welcoming the children into something I have mixed feelings about. I guess there is also a bit of nostalgia: this used to be me and some small part will always miss that.

Most people these days who want to get their children ‘done’ seem to do it for a mix of reasons, but under them is often a paradoxical relationship with faith and church. They remember ‘home’: a place where they might have gone as children but have never found as adults. They are often reaching out for something that they cannot always articulate. Often the small seed of ‘faith’ remains but it is dormant. Perhaps someone who has faith and is conflicted about the church may sometimes be the best person to connect with. That seemed to be the case yesterday and I hope it is this Sunday.

Maybe I wasn’t so bad as a minister after all…

 

 

Funeral 3: some deeper thinking.

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….I don’t think I’m a heretic, but it is one of those labels shouted when understanding and listening has broken down ( see also the use of the ‘pejorative adjective’ in the current General Election campaign)

My question as a Christian is; how best do you honour people, really honour people? Each vicar/priest/pastor/minister has to make their choice. I’m at the stage of I’m not here to compel (this is where I perhaps divert from many ) or get through a set order as ‘that is what is written’, or even to convert when I lead a funeral (although sometimes that might be appropriate if that is what is requested). To try and do anything apart from honour the person who has died, support those who are grieving and be true to yourself (people can see through an act)is all that can be expected from a celebrant.

Sometimes I have even jettisoned the language of ‘religion’ if that was what is appropriate: I’m here by invitation and ‘invitation’ precludes ‘trespass’. Besides, I reckon that if God is God that is ok and God is bigger than any form of words. Many times the songs that people want in a ‘humanist funeral’ often refer to ‘angels’ or ‘heaven’ or ‘seeing you later’ anyway. Also, in general when people say ‘humanist’ they talk about religion more when you discuss what they want.

As a minister (and now a chaplain roaming all over a county) I’ve always been a person who is part of a community , often acting as a representative person in contexts that are not necessarily ‘religious’ (I loathe that word!) . These situations awoke me to a reality beyond church and often they have been converting and challenging. As a chaplain, I’m in those situations all of the time- I have no safe space and cannot exist in a silo. Occasionally doing non faith funerals challenges a lot of my preconceptions, changes my language and enables me to see God where I would have thought him absent.

Now nearly 5 years away from church ministry, I sometimes wonder just how much ministers are missing out by staying away from funerals as they are ‘too busy’ or only doing Christian ones. Society and the funeral business are moving rapidly away from using church ministers: it seems because there are fewer of them, sometimes it is hard to get them to return calls and a minority seem unbending (this is the view of funeral Directors I have spoken to: not mine). Most funeral directors rarely bother; sticking to celebrants whose quality they can guarantee. If I was in church ministry, would I lead non faith ceremonies? Yes:there is a world there where we are not; lamenting over that and not trying to engage seems a pity.

Besides; I only believe that you grow when you encounter boundary situations…

Funeral 2: to humanist or not? A history.

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It was several years ago now. The  village doctor had died tragically early. As to ‘faith’, he was an avowed and passionate atheist. The local vicar, broadly a traditionalist who had been in post for over 30 years insisted that his humanist funeral be held in the parish church, only having the Lord’s Prayer as the dying doctor insisted because it was ‘your church’.

This wasn’t quite a ‘road to Damascus’ moment for me, but it came close. Someone (the vicar) was so sure of his faith and thought his God was big enough to encompass even the absence of faith.

I’d experienced a growing feeling of being unsure that when it came to funerals, sometimes people seemed to be ‘christianised’ by the ordained person. I’d become aware that people wanted some element of Christianity, but not the full package. Also that as you were a ‘known person’ in a community, you wanted that person to take your funeral, even if you had no faith.

Gradually, from that day, I began to say ‘yes’ if a ‘humanist’ funeral was requested. Many times what was intended by ‘humanist’ meant some acknowledgment of Christian faith: a prayer, The Lord’s Prayer, but nothing more. Sometimes the family came with negative experiences of religion: the church or a religious figure had put them off, but still wanted ‘something’. They didn’t want their loved one drowned in a ‘one size fits all liturgy.’ I still remember conducting a funeral with no apparent faith content & when I bumped into the family several months later being acknowledged, without irony, as ‘Here’s our vicar’.

The vast majority of church leaders seem to be good at leading funerals: there are a minority though, if stories are to be believed, who are not. Their ‘no’ is remembered long after the event. Digging deeper into the stories that you hear, ‘no’ seems to sometimes owe more to the need for personal power than any desire to uphold orthodoxy. Sometimes the best evangelism when people are incoherent with grief is simply to be kind without conditions.

I realised that I had fully crossed the rubicon when, with a retired bishop I conducted a humanist funeral in a village chapel, because the family wanted something in their community led by people that they trusted.

Now, as a chaplain, and not minister in a church, I’d be expected- if asked- to do whatever it took at a funeral as long as it did not breach my conscience: but to be honest- that has never happened.

My name is Graham: I’m a heretic (see part 3)

 

Friday (Nick Cave) music…

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Xhr7j1zukY

Nick Cave’s music has often reached me in a way that much other music fails to: he is an unlikely artist to fill enormodomes- the usual territory of music that is fine in itself but is unlikely to scare or challenge anyone.

Sometimes music reaches so deep into you that other things seem to fade away: this experience is so powerful that it threatens to consume you. I got this sensation when I first started to listen to Ghosteen; it has never quite left me. Others have written more volubly and ably about this work, I see it as a series of meditations on thoughts and feelings arising from the death of his 16 year old son, Arthur. Like the best art, this is rarely direct and is even more moving because of that.

The whole album is shot through with so many things such as: loss, pain, joy, hope and redemption. It doesn’t leave us with easy answers, but I feel better for having played it.

I could have featured any track, but here an extract from ‘Bright Horses’. A high, spectral voice, talk of bright horses (who appear throughout the album as a kind of metaphor for hope) with manes of fire and the protagonist holding someone’s hand, before the mood turns and this is sung:-

‘And everyone has a heart and it’s calling for something
We’re all so sick and tired of seeing things as they are
Horses are just horses and their manes aren’t full of fire
The fields are just fields, and there ain’t no Lord
And everyone is hidden, and everyone is cruel
And there’s no shortage of tyrants, and no shortage of fools

Then the mood turns again- as it often does on this album: there may be something more, something ‘other’:-

And the little white shape dancing at the end of the hall
Is just a wish that time can’t dissolve at all’.

And then something heart-wrenching happens: that sense that often comes in deep grief- the person who has gone may still be there:-
Oh, oh, oh, well, this world is plain to see
It don’t mean we can’t believe in something, and anyway
My baby’s coming back now on the next train
I can hear the whistle blowing, I can hear the mighty roar
I can hear the horses prancing in the pastures of the Lord…
….and so it goes on and on… and that car you see on the A19 with the driver choking back tears may just be me…
Few people can be vulnerable & express things that might not be ‘complete’: just look at your social media feed where it often seems full of gleaming good times and people are talking only about their strength, or somehow hiding. Nick Cave takes the counter intuitive route and i’m so grateful that he did.

 

Funeral:1

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If I lead a funeral (which is much rarer than I used to do), a common response is:

‘I couldn’t do what you do’

In my head I’m saying ‘I think you could; I think anyone could, given time and training: what I do is nothing special’. This is what I attempt to do: others will have different ways:-

You have to learn to listen; really listen when people tell you about the person who died. listen to what they say and what they don’t say (this is sometimes more important). You learn to watch body language and try and ‘read beneath’. Often, you let the silence of grief go on and don’t jump in.

If there is a specific request that you don’t understand or is out of your comfort zone, you have to practice taking a deep breath and avoiding a reflex ‘No’: it isn’t your funeral, you are not in command, you are honouring them. A ‘No’ from a minister/celebrant is remembered for years: in some families for several generations. That ‘No’ often seems to come from being unsure and not being able to cope with being unsure; sometimes though, it seems to come from a misplaced sense of power.

Then you go away and do nothing on the funeral for at least a day (ideally- but I’ve evolved this pattern as even at my peak, I only did 30-35 funerals a year); you let your subconscious do the work- you think, you pray and you see what happens. Eventually you write, preferably in a couple of sittings: this is going to be precious to those who hear it- you may make mistakes, but you try not to. Avoid euphemisms: yes it is important to celebrate and give thanks, but ‘they are not gone from us’, ‘gone to a better place’ or ‘no longer with us’; ‘they have died’.

You are human. This is obvious; but from some of the stories I’ve heard some people forget that. This can never be just a job; reading out a script with no inflexion, trace of humour, sadness, warmth etc comes across that it is just a job. Some measure of the grief always hits you; sometimes obviously and when you are not expecting it -you try not to show it- it isn’t about you.

And ultimately, this is not about you: this is not ‘your’ funeral. You have to fade away and the person who has died and the people that their story was intertwined with become the centrepiece. You have to be so sure of ‘you’ that you don’t need any applause or acclaim.

You could do what I do; more accurately-you could do it in your own way.