A day off from cricket to be a chaplain…

Image result for CORNSHED BEER FESTIVAL

It is hard work, but someone has to do it…

I have been asked (yes really..) to be the ‘official Cornshed chaplain’ at their last ever event: their beer festival…tickets still available…

I am used to ‘loitering with intent’ and did it for the last 9 Cornsheds: sometimes when people are relaxing and out of their normal way of being, emboldened by a bit of alcohol, they want to talk. They have friends, they are connected, but speaking with someone else helps. Most often, pace ‘Catcher in the Rye’, I just ended up ‘shooting the breeze’. I began to learn the basics of my current full time job by being at The Cornshed.

Until this day, I have never been to a beer festival in my life: standing around for long periods of time in a venue surrounded by many many delicious beers is something that would be too much temptation for me.

Yet here I am today, by the grace of the festival founder, to loiter with intent for 9 hours wearing my Cornshed ‘Godsquad’ shirt….. to talk, to listen, to drink beer (without getting trashed).

It is a tough old life…

 

Me at the Cornshed

Random snapshots of the ‘official chaplain’ over the years.

-From someone who has never been to any church I have ever led but knows we live in the same village: ‘You are my pastor’.

– A long, long conversation with a 20 year old about his drug use and what did I think about it?

-More conversations with those I have conducted family funerals for than I could shake a stick at.

-someone wanting prayer before they took to the stage in drag.

-a long conversation with someone I hardly knew about the emotional strain of fertility treatment.

-A lengthy chat with someone about their growing Christian commitment.

-Lots of random banter about wearing a t shirt with ‘God squad’ on it.

All these, and many, many more about those times when I realised I was actually doing something really useful..

Eulogy for The Cornshed

I suppose I could write a eulogy for the amount of money this festival raised for charity, the dedicated team that gave up their own time to run it, Judy Kitching and her family, the music, the community it brings together, the ‘rite of passage’ it represented for local youths or a whole host of other aspects.

I could and it was all that, and more.

But I want to say a big thank you for the effect it had on my faith and ministry. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the music, the beer , the people and everything, but for me there was always something extra.

I was asked to be ‘official chaplain’ 8 years ago. I had no idea what that meant- I felt uncomfortable with hanging around, being ‘useless’, helping out so that I could at least earn a hearing. In hindsight it had a massive influence on me getting my current job: I had discovered something of how a chaplain acted- you are always on someone else’s territory by permission, not by authority. Gradually I got used to it and got to know the wonderful team that run it. I have lost count of the number of drinks I have made for them or the number of attempts I have made to do heavy manual labour…

…but I have also lost count of the number of people who have opened up their lives and spoken in depth about things that have troubled them, the number of prayers I have prayed and the sheer privilege of being around people and sometimes being invited into their space just because I was there at the right time.

Oh: and I shall miss the beer and music too…

When to stop

Tonight is the last Cornshed ever.

It started in 1987 to raise money as a way of saying thank you to the hospital where Jim Kitching died following a farm accident and it just grew. This one is the 30th and last one. It will also be the biggest: yesterday sold out (700) a week ago and tonight (1000) should be sold out. It has raised over £250,000 for charity and Judy Kitching-the founder- has an MBE.

But it is finishing.

It could have gone on for many years I guess: it had a niche and a following, but circumstances change and sometimes we have to say ‘enough’ or ‘it was good, but now let’s give thanks and stop’.

I could learn from that. These last 18 months have been a time of stopping and of change. Some of that stopping has been hard, but necessary: after all- new things cannot begin until the old has died.

But tonight-as with so many others- I will enjoy it. Even though the feeling will be tinged with sadness as well as gratitude.

Friday Music

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I don’t really like this song.

Aside from the mindblowing imagery (have you ever tried to set sex on fire? And how would you?), there is the innate predictability of where the song is going. Or maybe I am just a musical snob, mind dulled through an overexposed song. Heck: what do I know- they have sold millions and I can barely play 3 chords.

But I digress.

I am putting this up as it is ‘The Cornshed’ tonight: my 9th year of being the ‘official chaplain’. I can bet that I will hear a bad cover version of this several times over the weekend. When I do, I will make a sly comment or try and drop a witty aside.

But I will secretly love it; The Cornshed is one of my ‘happy places’.

I may have done something like this before:1

…if so, forgive me: I am old and rather tired at the moment.

Recently, I got to thinking about what propelled me to change jobs/vocation (since 2/3/15, I have ‘left’ the church…well not really- I work for the NHS as a mental health chaplain), or persuaded me that I would be ok in doing so.

Back in 2008, the person who runs our local rock festival asked me to be the ‘official chaplain’. I said yes- I had hardly any clue as to what that meant, but I liked the person who ran it, liked music and was starting to become disillusioned with Revs who spent more and more time in church and consequently had no real friends outside the church. Plus it was summer, and I was on sabbatical.

Someone asked me what I did as Cornshed chaplain and I said ‘loitering with intent’. A lot of time I just spent doing general help, making tea etc, but I also got chatting. Initially that was just banter, but I also learned confidence in an environment where I had little. That is why I do not fully believe people who say ‘I don’t do small talk’- you can learn.

After a while, people began to talk, both in the crew and in the festival- I had become familiar, ‘safe’, maybe. Occasionally that got ‘deep’- you are in a festival, normal rules don’t apply and alcohol loosens tongues.

On reflection, that is pretty much what I do on wards (minus the alcohol); there is a lot of hanging around, joining in, making the first move to find common ground…then doing it again…and again…and again until you become ‘known’.

Some of the time, like at The Cornshed, you wonder what the hell you are doing and then- sometimes instantaneously, but most often because you have been around for a while, there is a crack and the Light gets in. That can be with someone who describes as ‘Christian’, ‘spiritual’ or is almost completely hostile to faith- you are ‘safe’ and you are there and in that moment you are allowed to become incredibly valuable to someone…

I love this job.

 

The same thing…

Although much of what I do is not predictable, the year has a certain rhythm to it. This week is ‘The Cornshed’ week in the village where I live.

For those who don’t know, ‘The Cornshed’ is a local rock festival. On Friday night there will be around 500 there and on Saturday around a 1000. It began 27 years ago as a fundraiser for a local charity, following the sudden death of the festival founder’s husband. Now it is bigger, but still has the same ethos of cooperation, community and fundraising. Occasionally we have a ‘name’ there, but it doesn’t seem to matter. The founder, Judy Kitching (M.B.E!), is still at the helm, but supported by a large team of volunteers- many professionals in their field- who give their time free to run it.

This week, on and off, I have been going in to help set it up. Why? Well it is big, on my patch and I am (since 2008) the ‘official chaplain. Someone asked me what I ‘do’. I never seem to ‘do’ much; I try to ‘be’ a lot. So here is a flavour:

  1. Make teas, talk, empty dishwashers and occasionally do heavy manual work. I have the average superhuman strength of a weedy minister who sits at  desk and drinks tea. Sometimes I suprise myself: this week I lifted some concrete blocks and did not scream at the effort or cry with pain (ok: I did that later in the car whilst no one was looking). Anything just to be around people, learn their names & their stories.
  2. I eat food and drink beer. I like doing this. People tend to talk when they are doing these things (see 4 though).
  3. At the Festival I wonder round and talk to people; mostly it is just random, everyday stuff, sometimes it goes deeper. Maybe it means that some people I natter to get enough confidence in me to talk elsewhere during the year. Most times as people talk I have that sensation that Moses did: ‘take off your shoes, for you are on holy ground.’ Sometimes people ask me to pray. It is best to try step 3 between 2 and 4 pints for most people.
  4. People buy me drinks or offer to buy me drinks (I shouldn’t write this: they will stop)….I have to develop the knack of saying ‘No thanks; I have had enough.’ Sometimes I find this very difficult (Maybe that was too honest: sorry, I will slip back into character).
  5. People try and wind me up. I never mind this: at least you are talking. I can cope more with opposition, banter and difference than people who are sheened in middle class niceness.
  6. I have a lot of fun: people, noise, live music: what is not to mind?
  7. Sometimes I wonder ‘What the hell am I doing here?’ & I haven’t got a clue what to say or do. ‘Loitering with intent’ is sometimes very lonely.

I do love it: this year I am the official MC in the second venue. Can’t wait….

Being in the same place

I read somewhere that one of the simplest ways to be ‘missional’ (it’s a Christian jargon word: previous definitions of ‘mission’ and ‘evangelism’- which in themselves can conjure up images of slightly scary people with no self awareness who just do not listen- have around them ideas of the church as a castle; occasionally the drawbridge is lowered, the believers sally out, bash some pagans and then ride fast back into the castle) is simply to pick a place in the community and ‘hang around’ regularly.

This place could be a coffee shop, pub, bowls club, darts night, gym, book club etc. Anywhere that is ‘you’ (‘cos most of us see through actors) and you simply become part of it, listen, serve, pray and wait. If you want easy answers and safety: don’t do it- join a large church and spend most of your free time there (there may be irony there).

Many people in churches do that automatically; we have not been terribly good and recognising this as Kingdom work (oops ,more jargon)  or preaching and teaching on it. Why many of us who are professional godbotherers need to hang our heads in shame is that in our unconscious actions we have portrayed an image of holiness that is just around being in church and doing Christian activities. Sometimes we do it in our conscious actions: our language is ‘churched’ and the only way you can really serve God is by doing church jobs.  Mea Culpa….I know: there is probably another post to be written on those who believe but have no active involvement in any Church.

My last observation on ‘The Cornshed’ this year…… the person who runs that festival, generously lets me do that. Of course I turn up during the week from time to time and help get it ready- but not as much as most. This year I washed up, ran a couple of errands, made innumerable drinks and- a first- I painted signs (my Methodist forebears would be turning in their graves; the words I painted were ‘Tombola’ and ‘ale bar’). But I turn up and hang around….. and even though half the time I frantically pray and am not sure what to do or why I am there (I think that is a feature of chaplaincy anyway), I have realised more and more the value of ‘presence’ of ‘being around’.

I like to think that although some people may think ‘What a *&%$- what the &*+£ is he doing here?’, still others think ‘Oh the church is here’.

They remember the ‘no’

I am gradually coming round from my two nights as ‘official chaplain’ to the Cornshed Festival. At my age it takes ages…

Between the talking, the booze, the music and (often) the frantic praying (yes- to all my friends who see me- I actually do a bit of that on top of schmoozing and freeloading) I got talking to loads of people: many I knew, albeit vaguely, although some I had never met.

I think most of those were intrigued by the official shirt with ‘Godsquad’ on the back. One thing that came across was the number of people who remember the ‘no’. They may have met many graceful and loving people of faith, but the one thing they will recall is the one- usually the authority figure- who said ‘no’.

Over time these stories have no doubt been shaped and refined- we all do that with stories that have made us- but the ‘no’ came out pretty strongly. The Vicar who imposed conditions that seemed harsh on a wedding or didn’t allow a baptism, the Christian who seemed to have little love etc etc.

Even when any active faith had practically gone the memory of the ‘no’ remained.

At first I mused as to how many of these leaders had been seen as ‘strong and decisive’ by their own congregations, but then I began to think about another leader who talked about not judging lest I be judged. And then I began to think of that same leader: he seemed to say ‘yes’ to people who were ‘outside’ and I began to realise why…..

It’s that time of year again

All through the last week, although not as often as I would like it, I have been helping at ‘The Cornshed’- it is our local rock festival. It has grown but is still relatively small: around 1400-1500 in total over 2 nights.

It has become part of the community where I live and a temporary community of helpers spend around a week there setting it up. All kinds of people come and give their time free. Last year, the founder, host and boss, Judy Kitching, was recognised with an MBE: tens of thousands have been raised for charity.

This will be the 6th year that I have been ‘official chaplain’ to the event. If you have read this regularly, you will know that I have an official t-shirt with ‘Godsquad’ on and I walk around the event, talking, making links, listening (a lot is said between the 2nd and 5th pint), occasionally ‘giving a reason for the hope that is in you’ and sometimes even praying with people.

I love it; most of my friends make frequent jokes about my ‘work’, but this ‘loitering with intent’ is something that I get a lot out of. My the time you read this though, I will be very, very tired….