I have known him for a while; someone who seems to do a lot, yet ‘be’ a lot and doesn’t shout about what he is doing. I respect him enormously.
Last week we were around a table in a pub and he asked us ‘What inspires you, fires you as a Methodist minister?’ After a few had spoken he began to speak about his real passion which was spending time with people outside formal church with only the faintest flickerings towards faith. He had realised that an increasing number of people wanted to get married or baptised in a church that had pastoral charge over (that is one of our quaint phrases, but I like it better than ‘his’ church or ‘my’ church; it is not- it is God’s church).
He began to visit them. Always his first words were ‘Yes of course, love to’. But his second words were ‘Shouldn’t you check us out first- see if you are happy? How about finding out more so that your day will mean more?’ I have heard others say something similar and it always seemed a bit disingenuous. This person, in contrast, is totally sincere.
So people did, and gradually, often after the event, he asked them if they wanted to know more. Some did. He began meeting with them. I had heard many say ‘But I haven’t got time for that; I wish I had.’ By any measure he hasn’t; but months in advance he began to block weekly evenings. Slowly, prayerfully, but never ‘hard sell’, he began to invite people. I asked him if he used anything: courses, techniques etc. ‘No, just the lectionary; we pray, someone reads the passage and it would just go from there’.
I loved listening; he wasn’t brash and had a depth, realism and a trust that warmed me. Sensitive to God, his area and context and not flashy. And he has made me think so much….
Really, really helpful posting at http://www.backyardmissionary.com/2012/01/failure-success-perspective.html. Written by a bloke of a similar age and with some parallels in background. The whole article repays careful reading. What sticks with me as my thought for today is:-
‘My vision of success wasn’t in blessing and serving a community and seeing God’s kingdom come. It was in growing and expanding a church (albeit of a different kind to the norm) that would do some good things but that would ultimately make me look pretty good’.
…and that is the goal and the battle…
My youngest son is 8 today: ‘Does that mean because it is my birthday I don’t have to go to church?’.
He is very proud of the fact that he is 8.
And so am I.
This went viral:-
Ok, it is flawed- goes into jargon and a bit simplistic. Plus ‘religion’ as understood as a group of followers trying to keep the story alive as part of a Grace filled, loving a serving community is good IMHO…which he points out (Even if when one of my friends says ‘You are religious’ I tend to say ‘No’ and then add ‘Religion is when God, like Elvis, has left the building’. That is by Bono- but you knew that). Plus if we take ‘Jesus’ out of that community then we are free to mould him into a paler, better version of us…
Although religion as bigotted, uncaring, narrow and judgmental which is what the guy is getting at; well… And in this video ‘religion=right wing moralism’- I love the way he speaks to his culture.
I loved this couplet:-
‘If grace is water, then the church should be an ocean,
It’s not a museum for good people but a hospital for the broken’.
Still, he makes me think…
Just because my son is 8 this weekend and he likes this.
Just because he took the CD into school this week and sang it in front of his class when everyone else was bringing in mass produced, corporate, music-lite.
Just because this is fantastic.
Mind you, I tried and failed to explain ‘the Madchester baggy swagger’ to him.
I arrived early for a meeting. That in itself is unusual; I rarely am early.
The church building was in an area that was so unlike the area I live in, it could have been in another continent, let alone another country. ‘Poor’ where I live is generally what happens in other countries, ‘poor’ in that area meant a weekly struggle to afford the basics. I was expecting a ‘make do and mend’ building, but I was astonished at the quality and the newness.
I was more astonished by the ordinary church members. They did not see the church building as many see it; as akin to a Temple and bearing more relationship to Old Testament Temple theology than the new. They spoke, without boasting, of how the building was a means to an end, of how it was used and how it offered service and a home. They talked of plans to use it more. They spoke of how a worshipping community was growing through service.
One of the things that amazed me most was, although the church and area were generally poor, the quality of finish was high. Everything about it said ‘you are valued’. Yet I have seen rural chapels with a much richer catchment where the finish is ‘tired’ and the quality based on the ‘make do and mend’ principle…
‘They never spoke to me. I stood behind them in the queue and they never even noticed me.’
Someone was relating a tale to me about a minister they had some aquaintance with and about how they didn’t like them.
And all the time when I was hearing this tale (second hand) I was stifling the response ‘Well; didn’t you try and talk to them?’
Why do some people sometimes imagine we are supernatural?
‘So how do you do it?’ asked my wife. ‘You know; go into a room of people that you have never met and start talking?’
I should explain; I have had a rash of funerals recently (‘rash’ may not be the right word ‘gloom’ may be a better one). Part of a funeral is the tea that follows. I am often asked to pop in. I know others who are asked who don’t go; to go into a room of strangers is hard. I generally go: I like food and talking. I also think that funerals are not just a ‘job’ with targets, times and agreed outcomes and am am paid to ‘loiter with intent’ (one reason why I am becoming increasingly uneasy with any move to make a minister a ‘strategic leader’).
In this environment people talk: it may be their only encounter with ‘religion’. But you have to listen and be aware that lots and lots of small talk is neccesary and also almost ‘sacred’. If someone ever says they don’t do small talk I am tempted to say ‘And you expect to lead and inspire people?!’ Tempted: I am far too passive to say that out loud.
I think it is good for a minister’s soul to do this: to be on someone else’s territory, to play by someone else’s rules, to not be in control; in short to be a ‘stranger and refugee’.
So how do you do it? One of my favourite exchanges from the BBC ‘Pride and Prejudice’ a few years back:-
‘I am not much good at talking to people.’
‘I am not much good at playing the piano, but I practice.’
You just take a deep breath, pray madly, and here is the really technical thing: you talk. And then you listen. And you make sure you do most of the latter. And no; it is not easy.
Some of it is conscious (and unconscious) choice and some of it to do with stage in life: children 10 and nearly 8 and lives full of activity and a wife who seems to work more than me. Things feel a little ‘intense’: lie ins don’t happen at all until term ends and then rarely and I can think of at least one friend whom we haven’t managed to arrange anything with and have promised to do for months.
I hesitate to use the word ‘busy’ as I loathe that word and I have seen many people (particularly ordained) who use the word to say ‘Look, I’m important’ and seem so rushed. But I am approaching ‘busy’ and I don’t like what it is doing to me.
My reading, as in slow deliberate immersion in a text in a systematic and attentive way has largely gone. This is not good. I have just splashed out on a hardback book (a hardback book!), almost as a sacrament and intend to carve out some deliberate time to read.
This is it:-
It is from a writer whom I hugely admire and who has been a voice of sense for me for many years. I am looking forward to it.
I have led a lot of funerals recently: more than I normally do. A fair proportion have been for parents of friends. People say ‘You must find that hard’. I do, but that is but a fraction of the difficulty that the relatives and friends experience; whether or not the death has been a ‘good death’ or the relationships have been clean and whole (and they rarely are: the only song I would ever like to ban at funerals would be ‘My Way’. Many reasons, but I cannot imagine ‘Regrets; I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention’ being true in a majority of lives).
I remember reading an interview with Chris Martin (of Coldplay) who said that of all the songs he had looked at, he found that 18th century ish hymns expressed joy and pain in the same song best. This was from a person who would not ascribe to an established faith. So my hymn today is a traditional funeral hymn that people have chosen a lot recently- many of whom would not profess any allegiance to an established faith (one of whom self described as an athiest). It does for me what Chris Martin described as what the best songs do: holds together joy and pain:-
Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.
Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
Earth’s joys grow dim; its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see;
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.
I need Thy presence every passing hour.
What but Thy grace can foil the tempter’s power?
Who, like Thyself, my guide and stay can be?
Through cloud and sunshine, Lord, abide with me.
I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless;
Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness.
Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if Thou abide with me.
Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes;
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies.
Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.