In the wilderness, but it’s not so bad:7

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I have seen others taking this route (Chaplaincy) losing their respect for/belief in scripture. I understand that; being able to step back from being a community’s spokesperson/shaman/preacher allows a bit of honesty; you don’t ‘need’ to believe on behalf of others any more.

I think I was just lucky; I always found scripture fascinating; even the bits that seemed to make no sense, obviously contradicted or seemed extraneous and best left on the cutting room floor. In that respect, its messy unpredictability seemed more true to life than anything else. Calls to ‘systematic’ theology, the ‘plain truth’ of scripture or readings that disregarded the untidy story in favour of hermetically sealed truth never did it for me, so I hadn’t got that to lose or be ‘converted’ from. The Bible seemed full colour even if evangelical theology at its worst excesses made it seem like an angry, pale man in a 3 piece suit.

The Psalms do it all the time for me and increasingly so. The mix of joy, lament, vengeance, praise, belief, disbelief, humble acceptance, anger and so many many more themes often fill me with a sense of everlasting life. Mornings when I pause, as my NHS computer tries to load up, and I try to keep stillness and prayer and a Psalm can be times when the veil between heaven and earth seem very thin. There is no silence of an empty church, but rather the whirring of a fan over an ageing hard drive and the chatter of people passing wherever I’ve managed to hot desk that day.

Sometimes the stories of an ancient people and an inspired, sometimes dissonant library seem more real in the ‘real world’ that I inhabit.

10 random thoughts from a listener.

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You will have gathered that I sit and listen more to preaching than I’ve done for at least 20 years. Some observations (some of these apply to any public talk I’ve listened to); most of which make we wince- I was guilty of many of these:-

1: Reading from a script (with no eye contact) does not raise much interest- it usually kills it- particularly if your voice sounds like you are just reading.

2: Talking without a script is great, but not so good when it comes across as aimless and without structure.

3: Most people can’t speak for more than 10 minutes without being boring, so why bother with 20. Some people can’t manage 2 or 3 minutes…

4: How is it possible to be a trained preacher and not know how to speak in front of people?

5: Can you summarise what you are going to say in one sentence? If you can’t, it generally makes it harder for your audience to know what you are saying.

6: The ‘language of Zion’ used repeatedly tends to obfuscate, not enlighten.

7: The person who rarely attends, the guest or the one who is ‘just looking’ is the most important person in the room; not us regulars. If you can’t speak to them, stop.

8: Your honesty and how the passage connects with you is really appealing. If I know what makes sense/fires/puzzles you, I’ll listen.

9: Generally the thoughts of cultural figures from the 1950s who are long dead don’t communicate to us today.

10: I don’t expect to be entertained, but neither do I want to be bored to the point of fury by irrelevance.

Short of saying ‘nice tie’ I don’t know what to say to a preacher when I experience everything apart from number 8. I mean: I’m sure you’ve spent a long time preparing and it is tough, but….

In the wilderness, but it’s not so bad:6

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‘can you feel the silence?’

I don’t preach much at the moment: there are unresolved issues (that are not likely to be resolved soon/ever) that preclude that happening. But there is something else: I really like the silence.

Actually; I really need the silence. I think of all the words that I have used in 20 years of regular preaching. I was adept with words and I fear that I used them too much. Whilst the preparation for a sermon was good and forced me to face my doubts/hopes/despairs/dreams, the delivery often went on too long. I believe the Jewish people used to have a belief that a word had form and wasn’t just uttered, but existed forever. Put that way, my public speaking is enough to fill several rooms with waste words.

I need the silence as words came too easy and sometimes too glibly. Faced with a beautiful story and the thin, fragile veil between us and eternity we preachers rush to fill it with words and explanations when silence and mystery would often be a better response.

And if I’m asked to respond in public to a question in church, often I don’t. Not because I can’t think of what to say, but merely because I have so much to say. Sometimes it does you good to listen to what others are saying (and not just hear enough to give a different view) and keep silence for a while.

Maybe the words will come again and I’ll preach them frequently, but just now ‘fasting’ from them and thinking carefully when I do is the necessary thing.

Helpline preaching

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You don’t really like phoning helplines.

You often get frustrated: the person on the other end seems so ready to pick the first phrase that fits into their list of ready prompts that they do not listen to what you want to say. You get frustrated: frequently. Often you end up raising your voice (of which you are not proud) and saying ‘Please; stop talking and just listen’.

These days, when you make it, you end up listening to more preaching than doing it. You know what a tough gig it is: to even attempt it takes time, soul bearing, conquering your demons and listening to the mess, contradictions and inconsistency in the passage. It is never easy and can never be so: those who sit there and listen face enough mess, contradictions and inconsistency in their own lives. Those things cannot be fixed, but held, honoured and bought into contact with the Story of Grace.

Sometimes you feel that much of the preaching you listen to is like ‘helpline preaching’: you are struggling to see how the text has been been listened to, sat with and then wrestled with. Sometimes the first word that has been read or concept that has been deduced is the peg on which a whole sermon rides; you experience an ‘everything I know about x’ talk. The passage sits outside, alone, unheard, sad: you usually get bored and disengage. To paraphrase the Smiths ‘The words that are constantly said, say nothing to me about my life’.

You long for preachers to listen more and say less. You stand in the presence of deep mystery; I know that you know that…but don’t be scared by it. We who listen want that.

I’m preaching today: watch me ignore all of this….

In the wilderness: but it’s not so bad:5

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There was a time that if you offered me a prayer meeting or a special service, I’d be there. In hindsight, I grew immensely through the experience of doing so and being there. If you offered me one now, I’d most likely not go and I’d be thinking about how time is precious and I would not want to ‘waste’ it (working 9-5 ‘ish’ , juggling teenagers and getting older does that to you).

Yet if you offered me connection; real connection with people, I’d be more willing to make the effort than I ever was.

As soon as it percolates into you that your time is really your own, it is a heady feeling. There is no external or internal voice telling you that you ‘should’ go to something when you’ve already been out 3 or 4 nights that week. You come to realise that you were gradually allowing yourself to be drained by ‘shoulds’; your internal voice has gradually begun to change and be more affirming. After a while you end up positively choosing – as opposed to being a rebellious teenager-what you want to do.

Years ago this would sound very, very selfish. But you also get twinges of guilt about the times you laid false obligation on tired people to do the same. You know you preached a gospel that talked about engagement with the world where you lived, but you also felt responsible for running an Institution.

You ask yourself; ‘Is this a sustainable way for a church to function?’ In your current form of engaging with the institution, no. Do I feel guilty about that? No; not anymore- I can only do so much with the time, energy and inclination that I have. If there is a call to be more ‘busy’ or active, it will come…but it hasn’t yet.

Maybe, you realise; you are still coming to terms with ‘Institutional church PTSD’ and the things that you believe that you experienced will never lead to the old ways coming back.

And maybe that will be ok.

Easter Sunday

I struggle with Easter Sunday, or at least some church expressions of it.

A few days back I was listening to a programme on Radio 4 about the increasing use of funeral singers. During the course of the programme they wheeled out a vicar who talked about music that they weren’t too keen on having in a funeral: ‘My Way’ was mentioned (I’ve had it once, and generally struggle with it myself). They then went on to talk about music they were ok with. The Vicar mentioned ‘Always look on the bright side of life’ and felt it was ‘close to the gospel’ as we try and look on the bright side.

During the same week- Holy Week-I went to two funerals. Both people had died from cancer leaving teenage children. My grasp of the gospel was not strong enough to look on the bright side….

It would be that aspect of Easter that I struggle with: the faux triumph and forced jollity that seems to come into some evangelical celebrations; the darkness, doubt and silence that happened between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday has been avoided, Lent has been ‘Eastered’ out and now you just get ‘loud’.

Meanwhile, for you, the doubts are mounting & you are not sure what/if you believe and you want it verbalised/held/not necessarily answered, but your church just gives you noise or an insipid suburban blandness. Perhaps you might get a heady cocktail of both: life may be bad, but cheer up and look on the bright side!

If Easter means anything, for me it includes the hope sometimes felt in the middle of pain, the strength to live out resurrection despite the odds or even the smile I experienced from a man with dementia who knew he was fading, yet whose face lit up as we recited the Lord’s Prayer together and said ‘I remembered that’. It has to be something that has lived/is living through Good Friday and Easter Saturday.

Strangely though, I can take this (despite the attempts of ‘happy’ Christians to put uplifting beats and twee graphics in many of the versions I saw on youtube and despite the readiness to post this on Good Friday (‘help: pain and unanswered questions; let’s avoid them!’)) especially if it is played on Easter Sunday, for in many ways we are still in Good Friday:-

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A blessed Easter: Sunday’s coming.

 

In the wilderness, but its not so bad:4

In the theological tradition that I was formed in, cognitive knowledge and right belief were very important: did you believe the right things, was a church ‘sound’ etc etc. I remember a conversation a few years back with someone who owned and lived in 3 homes about how they were not going to a particular church as they though that the teaching was not ‘sound’; I wish I’d said something to them about how they defined ‘sound’…

A few years ago I can remember becoming bored with most Bible studies: they seemed to be an exercise in keeping others at a distance and emotions in check. Yes it has some importance to know why a passage in John’s gospel has 153 fish in it, but arguing over why exactly it is there? I’d sooner be down the pub: the conversation can be more honest and revealing.

I’ve found that this wilderness place has a good deal more honesty and openness to it. Give me my once a year weekend on an uninhabited island with a theme of ‘how is your soul?’ (alongside copious swearing, prayer, whisky and crudity), visits to a spiritual director and conversations where the light breaks in and the moment becomes full of space and I’m broadly content. People; fellow dwellers of the wilderness, have been vital. I no longer have to get people to do jobs or fill offices in a church; it is easier to see the glory and wonder in an individual human soul.

Most theological arguments really don’t matter after all: sound and fury, they signify nothing apart from a desire to spar; real human connection seems too threatening.

There is wonder here.

On sparring with a ‘racist’.

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I used to be silent when people shared ‘Britain First’ etc posts; we all want a quiet life and it is hard to put your head above the parapet. If you don’t believe me, watch your ‘likes’ on Facebook go from a good double figures for a picture of your cat wearing a trilby (and I don’t have a cat) to the digital equivalent of tumbleweed when you share an anti racist post. Most people are just scared.

In recent months I’ve stopped shrugging my shoulders and bemoaning the badness and started posting replies (the one post that really gets my ghost is the one that goes something like ‘Ex servicemen get £26 per month, old people less than that, whilst a family of immigrants get £80k a year, a yacht and a new house’…but I digress) ; particularly to those people who are so stupid/unwitting as to repost things that fuel hate. I hope those replies are graceful and irenic, but I’m not sure; I have little tolerance for the ‘I’m not a racist, but…’ kind of post.

Alongside that, I’ve been trying to keep following people on Twitter with whom I would not necessarily agree with; I’m getting tired of virtue signalling and living in a silo- social media seems to encourage this. My urge to ‘flame’ at targets grows. however. It happened last week: a photoshopped picture of a woman in a hijab and some asinine comment and I was off.

I thought no more about it until the person got back to me and he wasn’t complementary. I was just about to repost something equally vitriolic when I paused: I’d never met this person before and I didn’t know what they were like. I posted a more measured reply and a hope that the person had a nice day. He posted back that he hoped I didn’t so I posted again saying that was a genuine wish, posted something ‘fly’ about his football team and hoped he had a lovely evening.

A dialogue of sorts began; he opened up a bit more and a human story began to emerge about why he posted what he did (which I still disagree with). I think I learned the following:-

-Virtue signalling in your own silo is a waste of energy; it persuades no one of anything and largely confirms your own prejudices.

-Calling someone a ‘racist’ does not initiate a dialogue and stops you seeing the other as a human being (don’t call me a ‘snowflake’ a ‘Remainer’ etc etc: I am so much more and it just annoys): it mostly just makes you feel better.

-Sharing posts that just demonise or stereotype your opponents does little to move anyone forward. I struggle with this (Particularly with Boris Johnson, Jeremy Hunt etc), but I’ve tried to stop sharing posts which do this.

-Life is too short: disagree with the issues by all means, but your opponent will live, love, struggle, laugh and eventually die- just like you.

In short, just being angry or disrespectful about your opponents makes your feed monotonous and joyless: never forget that the sun still shines, nature is still glorious and there are plenty of good things as well.

 

In the wilderness: but it’s not so bad: part 3

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You were used to running a church. It was never ‘my church’ and you’ve often avoided those who talk in that way of a group of people as their own possession.

Yet all the same, you remember the feeling of never quite being ‘off duty’ and somehow your faith was symbiotically linked to yours in a way that just being part of a church ever was.

And then that goes: you no longer have a church/churches and you are ‘free’. Some in your role rarely if ever go back: the scars hurt too much, but eventually and haltingly you do.

I confess; I went through a few months when I hardly went to church. I liked the space and the bruises (not from the people in the churches that I once led) from the organisation still caused me to wince. Besides, it was lovely to be able to watch my children play cricket and to be around them without feeling that my time was not fully my own. To put it more crudely, the wife of a minister once said to me ‘Other people’s husbands have the right to be a dick: mine doesn’t’.

A new minister came to the church I once led: he was ‘whole’- he didn’t seem to need to display his ego in a destructive way when he stood in front of people and he seemed to have emotional honesty. We got involved again; I was asked to take part in things, but never to the extent that I felt ‘used’. I got to see just how lovely those people in the church were, when I wasn’t in charge, and we fell into going again.

But this new pattern is different; it is not regular. We try to get there every week and we don’t always manage it….but just being there…among people (mainly elderly) and seeing their faith is often enough. The question ‘Is your church a good church?’ has increasingly piqued me: as long as people pray, lean on each other, try and apply sacred truths to life as it is lived, isn’t that ‘good’ enough? Plus; it really helps if they are the people in your community that you normally see; church isn’t a place that you commute to.

For now anyway; one of the many things that this time is teaching me is that nothing is fixed or definite and nothing lasts forever.

On venerating your child

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Our youngest child was selected for the Cleveland Schools’ cricket squad in the last week. In addition he is coming to the end of his second close season spell with Yorkshire Pathways Bronze level; that puts him in the top 80-100 children of his age group at cricket in this county. He bowls leg break & googly (if you don’t know what that is, look it up! The picture above, of England’s Adil Rashid, gives some idea of the contortions neccesary) , which is the ‘holy grail’ of bowling; at one time it was as rare as hen’s teeth. It is notoriously difficult to master and when he is on song, it is a beautiful thing to watch as the ball swings one way through the air, pitches and then moves the other way. At times I have watched him in the nets & seen good batsmen frequently flailing at thin air in frustration as they cannot ‘read’ him.

Of course, with sport, it could all end at any time. Teenage years kick in, injuries happen,the selections get tighter and someone doesn’t ‘make’ it, academic pressures become more intense etc etc, but at the moment, both children have a combination of academic ability, opportunity) and sporting gifts that I never had.

I could go on for longer; naturally I am proud, but at the same time something in me doesn’t feel right to talk in this way. In the same way, when our oldest child did better at GCSEs than we expected- in fact did really well- I did not post the full details on social media; it doesn’t feel right to crow in this way.

I’ve had this passage underlined in a book for a long time:-

‘The problem for someone like me who desires that his children lead successful, competent lives, is knowing that the cost of this may at times be insensitivity to others, that in urging them to do well I may be urging them to be inconsiderate, lacking in thoughtfulness about others. In other words the Christian values of community and equality are not the easiest standards to hold up when you’re also interested in perpetuating your privileged situation in society through your children and your own behaviour’. (Robert Coles in Hirsch & Hirsch  (2010) p163)

There is a temptation in those of us who have faith to live lives of ‘practical atheism’; as long as you do your ‘religious duty’ the rest of your life is your own business. I exaggerate of course, but when I hear discussions among middle class believers about finding a ‘good church’ (which is what exactly?) the words of an old Divine Comedy song come back to mind:-

‘The cars in the car park were shiny and German,

Distinctly at odds with the theme of the sermon’

which puts the point rather more succinctly.

No answers at the moment, apart from trying to avoid the ‘competitive dad’ huddles as parents jockey for position, teaching your children to be proud, yet not to crow,  look down on others or be envious of those who have more gifts,being a bit more thankful when you are tempted to whinge at life and realising that all of this is temporary and could grow or cease at any time and lots of good, wholesome things like that. etc etc

Yet at the same time thoughts dog you; is this enough? Have you got it right? Or are you really doing anything differently to anyone else?

…maybe not…