Ethically motivated

This is Mutley Baptist Church’s third newly-adopted value. The text explaining what we mean by ‘Ethically motivated’ says:

“Like Jesus: unashamedly and relevantly speaking God’s truth, striving for justice, caring for the environment and actively challenging the abuse of power, wealth, status and privilege.”

Ethics ith not the county to the Eatht of London, where I lived before being called to serve my brilliant church in the only county that rhymes with ‘heaven’.

I would define ‘Ethics’ as the internal mechanism we use to evaluate whether what we are doing is right. I rather like Colin Brown’s succinct summary of Biblical Ethics in his book, “Living in love and justice” (sadly not in print). As followers of Jesus we try to do what is loving and what is just. If there are possibly different loving and just options, err on the side of love, which is God’s nature.

We recognise that our faith in Jesus needs to show in the way that we engage with the wider world. How we act makes a difference to others and they should see a Jesus-like ethical approach to how we are as well as who we are.

The prophets in the Old Testament had no qualms about speaking God’s truth to power. Jesus was outspoken on many occasions, but especially when he was challenging the corrupt ethics of those in charge.

Caring for the environment is a justice issue (the poorest are hit hardest by climate change), as well as fulfilling the very first commandment in the Bible – to take care of the planet. It is right because it is loving, it is right because it is just.

What might all this look like? Well, I would expect that we will be engaging with our national and local political representatives as churches and individuals on matters of justice – economic, political, environmental, social, gender and many other areas in which it is absent or diminished in our society. This week I have written to the MP for our church location about the impact of fuel price rises and local councillors about the impact of suggested changes to local parking.

I hope that it will show in how we trade – always seeking a Fairtrade option if there is one, ensuring that we minimise waste – especially non-recycylable – and looking to use local businesses if we can to reduce the carbon footprint of what we use. We will always seek to treat businesses fairly.

We are looking to achieve an Eco Church Bronze award in the near future, but then looking at what we can do to achieve further awards in the future – not because we like awards, but because they are tangible ways of us measuring how we are taking care of God’s astonishing and marvellous created world. Eco Church awards not only focus on our collective carbon footprint as an organisation and premises, but also each person who is a part of us.

Perhaps we will take part in campaigns on justice and ethical issues at local, national and international level.

We’re going to be exploring this value further on Sunday morning, which is our harvest celebration as a church. More may come out of my preparation for that…

Be blessed, be a blessing

Lovingly Inclusive (part 2)

We recently put up these banners outside our front door, on a main thoroughfare through Plymouth. They are 12ft tall! If you zoom in you can see our newly adopted values.

It has correctly been pointed out to me that the steps are not inclusive of those who have mobility difficulties. There is a ramp, just to the right, which is not in the picture, but it illustrates how inclusivity embraces such a wide range of issues

This bloggage explores the second of our values which Mutley Baptist Church has adopted. The full text is:

Jesus calls us to love God and love people, and to be a community of his followers who are:

Lovingly inclusive

Like Jesus: celebrating and affirming every person and refusing to discriminate; valuing everyone and being accessible to all; ensuring everyone has a safe place in God’s family; and especially caring for and welcoming those who have been marginalised.

By ‘lovingly inclusive’ we mean that we want to be inclusive of everybody, regardless of ‘difference. That includes disability, economic power, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, learning disability, mental health, neurodiversity, or sexuality – the list comes from the Inclusive Church Network website.

For far too long churches have been known as places that exclude others for various different reasons. But when I look at Jesus he seems to be on the opposite trajectory. He tried to break down barriers and rules that religious people had put in place to try to protect God from people or people from God. Yet God’s character and nature of limitless love and grace seem to be all about inclusion and embrace, not keeping people beyond arm’s length.

When we look at Jesus in the gospels he breaks social and religious rules about gender, ethnicity, economic power, health and much more. In his death he destroyed the myth that God wants to keep us away from him: signified by the supernatural tearing from top to bottom of the vast curtain in the Temple that kept people out of the Holy of Holies.

Because of God’s loving nature, the quality of our inclusivity is loving too. Love that wants the best for the other person, love that is willing to sacrifice our own resources, needs, ambitions and reputation for the benefit of others.

I am delighted to be minister of a church that is seeking to be lovingly inclusive. We won’t always get it right. But when we fail we will humbly seek and offer forgiveness, and we will always seek God’s Spirit’s help to be more like Jesus.

Lovingly Inclusive

This is the second of a short series looking at the new values that we have adopted at Mutley Baptist Church. The previous two bloggages are an introduction and a look at the first one. Our second value is that we are called to be Lovingly Inclusive. The explanatory text reads:

Like Jesus: celebrating and affirming every person and refusing to discriminate; valuing everyone and being accessible to all; ensuring everyone has a safe place in God’s family; and especially caring for and welcoming those who have been marginalised.

It’s really important to notice the quality of the inclusivity. It is loving. There should be tenderness, gentleness, humility and grace in the way that we include people. There should be a place for everyone, if they want it.

(Model of the Jerusalem Temple at the time of Jesus. Photo (zoomed) by Dan Lundberg, used under Creative Commons license)

When you read about Jesus in the New Testament you see him constantly challenging the religious conventions about who was ‘in’ and who was ‘out’. It’s exemplified by the layout of the Jerusalem Temple, which was laid out like an archery target with concentric rings. Each layer or courtyard marked the limit at which some people were able to go towards the centre, which was the Holy of Holies. Progressively non-Jews, women, men who were not priests, and ordinary priests were prevented from getting to the centre and kept away from God’s presence.

There were some who would never have even been allowed through the door into the outer courtyard because of their age, reputation, illness, profession or disability. Jesus seemed to go out of his way to mix with those people. He embraced them (sometimes probably literally). He was criticised constantly by the religious people for this approach. Scornfully they called Jesus, ‘friend of sinners’ – a label I suspect he rather relished. Nobody was excluded from Jesus. Yet sadly there are many who have found that they are excluded from his church.

It is Jesus’ approach to inclusion that this value encourages us to emulate. We want every single person to be able to encounter Jesus with us and in us. The Inclusive Church Network lists a range of ways in which churches need to consider their inclusivity. Their Statement, which lists a number of the ways in which people experience discrimination in churches, reads:

“We believe in inclusive church – a church which celebrates and affirms every person and does not discriminate.

We will continue to challenge the church where it continues to discriminate against people on grounds of disability, economic power, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, learning disability, mental health, neurodiversity, or sexuality.

We believe in a Church which welcomes and serves all people in the name of Jesus Christ; which is scripturally faithful; which seeks to proclaim the Gospel afresh for each generation; and which, in the power of the Holy Spirit, allows all people to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Jesus Christ.”

I love that statement. But it’s challenging isn’t it? It’s meant to be. The range of ways in which we need to take note of our actions and attitudes is broad. It needs to be so because discrimination (deliberate or inadvertent) exists in all these areas. We seek God’s Spirit’s help for us to embody these values, and humbly we seek and offer forgiveness for the times when we fail to do so.

Being inclusive like this is brilliant because we don’t have to agree about everything to belong. There are issues that have led to churches splitting and Christians falling out with each other, where the value of loving inclusivity has been lost in the rhetoric. They are not primary issues – about who Jesus is, what he did and so on – they are secondary issues (‘disputable matters’ (Romans 14:1) where there is room for difference. What makes it possible for us to remain united is not that we ‘agree to disagree’ but we agree that everyone matters equally and love everyone accordingly. I believe, and our church is declaring, that being lovingly inclusive, like Jesus, is crucial.

Be blessed, be a blessing

God-orientated

This is the first in a series of bloggages where I will have a look at our church’s newly adopted values, which you can read here.

So, my first question was whether it’s ‘oriented’ or ‘orientated’. We ‘orientate’ something, so my instinct is to add a ‘d’, but it seems that either is acceptable and ‘orientated’ may be something more common in UK than in other English-speaking countries. So there’s an extra ‘ta’, which is nice. Ta.

We explain what we mean by ‘God-orientated’ as: ‘Like Jesus: a prayerful God-focused people who seek and celebrate God whether we are gathered together or dispersed; doing everything to honour and worship God; listening to God through the Bible; and responding to the innovative prompting of the Spirit of God.’

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

There’s a LOT to unpack here, isn’t there. The first thing is that our prime example of each value is Jesus of Nazareth. If we want to know what it looks like we can see it in him. He was, undoubtedly, prayerful. As well as recording the (pattern for) prayer he taught his followers to use, often in the Gospel narratives of his life we read of him heading off on his own to pray. And when he was facing his ultimate challenge, his impending arrest, trial and execution, he literally sweated blood in prayer.

That’s quite a challenge. In our own individual following of Jesus we know we could be more prayerful. And together as churches my experience is that church prayer meetings are often the least-well attended corporate gatherings. Of course, prayer happens in many other occasions and in many different groups, but I wonder whether we have reduced prayer to such an apparently mundane activity that it doesn’t energise or excite people to gather. Or by defining a meeting as a ‘prayer meeting’, have we reduced its scope from what God would like to do? I don’t have a definitive answer, just some ponderings.

Being God-orientated, or God-focused, means that we recognise that God wants to be involved in our whole life. The Hebrew word, Avodah, is apparently both the word for ‘work’ and ‘worship’, which to me gives an idea of the scope of this concept. Everything has the potential to be an act of worship to God if we want it to be and are willing to shape it accordingly. And then, together or on our own, we offer all we have to him and seek to include him in it all. It means that we attempt to be conscious of God through the day (which is something the Spirit helps us with) and intentionally do things with God in mind.

Listening to your Bible won’t usually provide you with much audio stimulation (aside from, perhaps, some rustling of paper). But we use the image of listening because we experience God ‘speaking’ through the Bible. When we read it, the same Spirit who inspired it to be written (and translated) applies the words to us in a real and living way. For Christians the Bible is not an instruction manual, it’s the prime means of communication between the Creator and the created. It’s both a written document and a living encounter. It shapes our thinking and actions and is God-inspired. But Christians disagree about some bits that are in there. How is that possible if we are all listening to the same Spirit who inspired the writing?

I came across this recently, and it ‘spoke’ to me in a new way:

Romans 14:1 – “Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters.”

Paul, who wrote the letter to the church in Rome to help them out with a number of issues with which they were struggling, recognised that there are some aspects of faith about which it was possible to disagree! If you read on in the chapter you see that disputes existed over what could be eaten, and which days were holy. They were not primary issues, they were secondary issues over which Christians could disagree and on which the best thing that could be said is that we should be gracious and gentle with people who have a different view on those issues – not falling out with them. Not insisting that we are right and that they have to agree with us or be ostracised as heretics. The primary issues are about who Jesus is, what he taught and did – they are not up for discussion, but there can be (and perhaps always will be) ‘disputable matters’. I wonder how different church history (and present) would be if we paid more attention to this?

Be blessed, be a blessing

Fresh values

As mentioned in the last bloggage, at Mutley Baptist Church we have adopted a new set of values. We discerned them after an exercise I call ‘The Ideal Church Exhibition’. We got into groups of different ages around tables, were given a big sheet of paper and some pens, and were asked to draw the ideal church. There were no limits on what could be drawn (except the size of the paper) and no financial or planning constraints.

What the church came up with was a wide range of different drawings, words, diagrams and concepts. And what we find, as we look at them, is that behind the images are values. For example: a drawing of a church with a big cross shows that we want Jesus to be at the centre of things; a community space shows that we want to serve the people around us.

From those drawings we discerned six values, which we then adopted at our next Church Meeting:

Jesus calls us to love God and love people, and to be a community of his followers who are:

God orientated

Like Jesus: a prayerful God-focused people who seek and celebrate God whether we are gathered together or dispersed; doing everything to honour and worship God; listening to God through the Bible; and responding to the innovative prompting of the Spirit of God.

Lovingly inclusive

Like Jesus: celebrating and affirming every person and refusing to discriminate; valuing everyone and being accessible to all; ensuring everyone has a safe place in God’s family; and especially caring for and welcoming those who have been marginalised.

Ethically motivated

Like Jesus: unashamedly and relevantly speaking God’s truth, striving for justice, caring for the environment and actively challenging the abuse of power, wealth, status and privilege.

Generously big-hearted

Like Jesus: becoming vulnerable in serving others, and generously reflecting the generosity of God – giving our time, gifts, expertise and resources to serve God and others.

People focused

Like Jesus: caring for and loving people of all ages, from the youngest to the oldest; through our words and actions embodying and bringing the transforming love of God to our local community in Mutley, to Plymouth, the UK and the wider world.

Playfully creative

Like Jesus: enjoying and appreciating life in all its fullness, using our God-given talents to express ourselves and to communicate his truth, and looking imaginatively with the eyes of faith to discern and follow God’s will.

We seek God’s Spirit’s help for us to embody these values, and humbly we seek and offer forgiveness for the times when we fail to do so.

It may be worth pointing out a couple of things. First of all, our overarching aim as a church is to love God and love people. That may be simplistic, but it’s a succinct summary of what the Bible teaches us about what Jesus-followers should be doing.

Secondly, each value is focused on Jesus. When you look at him in the Bible you see him showing and teaching these values, and we want to be like him as a church family. He is both our example, our guide, our teacher, our friend and our Lord (to use a Bible word). As his followers, we seek to be more like him, as his Spirit helps us.

And that’s point 3 – we can’t do this on our own. We need God’s Spirit’s help to change and embody these values, and also we need to recognise before God and with each other that there have been, are, and will be times when we fail to live up to them. At those times humility, forgiveness and reconciliation are essential.

I’ll probably unpack these over the next few weeks.

I wonder what your values are – as an individual and as a church (if you are part of one).

Be blessed, be a blessing

Fresh starts

Yes, it’s been a long time since my last bloggage, and I am sorry. However, I am hoping to be able to do this more regularly now (stop groaning). And what better way of making a fresh start than writing about fresh starts?

As you can see from the picture, at Mutley Baptist Church we have decided to call the first Sunday in September ‘Fresh Start Sunday’. There are two reasons for this:

The first is to recognise that for children, young people and staff, this marks the start of a fresh academic year. There may be new schools, new teachers, new people to get to know, and (my favourite) fresh new stationery and unspoiled exercise books and folders. On Fresh Start Sunday we’ll be marking that and will pray a blessing on all for whom this is a fresh start in that way.

But the second aspect of Fresh Start Sunday is a recognition that, especially after the summer vacation, this may be a good time to make a fresh start with us as a church and with God. As part of the service we will share communion together and part of that will be an opportunity for us all to make that fresh start.

I think a third aspect of FSS (see how easily it has become abbreviated, in just a couple of paragraphs of bloggage) is that as a church we’re making a fresh start with some fresh values. I’ll post something about them soon, but while they are not new ideas (we believe they reflect how God wants his people to be) we adopted them at our last Church Meeting and are now seeking his Spirit’s help to live them. Our Autumn morning services will reflect on each of them.

Of course, we don’t have to have a special church service to make a fresh start with God. His grace is so incredibly all-encompassing that he’s always ready for us to make a fresh start with him. If I am honest, I need to do that daily (or even more frequently sometimes) because it’s really easy to forget him, take him for granted or ignore him. I find that when I take a breath, a pause from busyness, I can sense his Spirit nudging me gently and reminding me that he’s here for me.

Be blessed, be a blessing

where is God?

Photo by Matti on Pexels.com

Like so many people I have been looking with a breaking heart at the images of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. I don’t understand why it is happening. I can’t begin to understand how it feels to be in a country as the leader of another country uses force to fulfil his ambitions and impose his will.

I am conscious that what I am about to write may seem trite or even patronising in the context of the suffering, death and destruction that is being inflicted on the Ukrainian people and land, but I have found it helpful and share it here in case you do.

As I have seen images tanks crushing cars and shelling residential apartment blocks; footage of millions of displaced people fleeing for their lives and hear of people struggling to survive without food, water or power in cities that are under siege I have asked myself, “Where’s God?”

What I think I am asking is “Why isn’t he stopping this?” And I don’t have a fully formed answer to that, so I go back to the first question: “Where’s God?” And this is a partial answer:

He’s in the underground bunkers with those sheltering from shelling and air attacks, experiencing the fear and anxiety.

He’s in the defensive lines of frightened Ukrainians – soldiers and conscripted men – knowing how indignant they are at the invasion and how public statements of bravery may mask dread of injury or death.

He’s on the trains and in the queues of the millions of displaced people fleeing for their lives, sharing their terror and the pain of separation from loved ones.

He’s in the refugee centres and temporary shelters being set up across the neighbouring countries – seen in the acts of sacrificial love and unconditional welcome for those who have nothing but the clothes they stand in.

He’s in the Russian tanks with soldiers who are following orders they may not understand or agree with – feeling their conflicted nature. He is also with those who believe they are doing their patriotic duty and not expressing any doubts.

He’s with the Russian people who are being fed disinformation and propaganda and not being allowed to see or hear the truth – refusing to blame them for believing the lies they have been told by their leaders.

And he’s even in the Kremlin – whispering words of peace in the ears of those who have ordered war.

He’s everywhere. The difference may be whether or not individuals are open to experiencing his presence, listening to his voice and responding to his prompting, receiving the comfort of his Spirit. Because he has given us freedom to choose whether or not to be open to him he won’t force anyone, but he won’t stop whispering, being present by his Spirit, and loving. And that may be part of the answer to the second question – do we listen and respond to God’s prompting or have we closed ourselves to him?

leadership

In the light of the items dominating the news and social media at the moment I was going to write something humorous, scathing or pithy about politicians, wine, garden parties, meetings and apologies.

But instead, after pausing to ponder, I want to offer a positive vision of what leadership could be, based on my [ahem] years in church leadership and local, regional and national level. There is more than enough negativity around at the moment. Those who know their Bibles may recognise them:

I believe that the most powerful form of leadership is servant-leadership, whose purpose is to empower, enable, enhance and equip others. People will follow such a person through choice rather than because they have to.

Integrity in leadership is shown through being a positive example for others to emulate.

Servant leaders honour and value all whom they serve above and beyond their desire to be honoured and valued.

Everyone matters. Leaders should lead for the benefit of all whom they serve, especially those who are most disadvantaged.

Leadership is a responsibility given not a right seized: a privilege given by permission not an entitlement to be exploited.

Leaders listen.

Inspiring and encouraging is far more effective than admonishing and cajoling.

A good leader knows they are doing a good job when those they serve are growing and flourishing.

Leaders notice people, and let them know they are noticed.

Sometimes leadership is more about encouraging and supporting someone to hold firm than to move forwards.

One of the ambitions of a good leader may well be to do themselves out of a job in the way they equip, resource, train and inspire those around them to use their gifts and talents and take over from the leader.

A good leader seeks to bless more than they are blessed

Be blessed, be a blessing

an amazing deal

Next week I have to have a battery changed. It’s inside me. I have an Occipital Nerve Stimulator inside me that does an astonishing job of preventing me from experiencing a constant migraine and frequent cluster headaches. It’s my favourite piece of technology in the world. But the ONS battery needs replacing.

The operation will be at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neuroscience, which is in London. They do all sorts of amazing things to help people with all sorts of different ailments. Based on my previous experience of this operation I’ll be out of action for a couple of weeks afterwards to recover but will remain virtually headache-free, which is an amazing miracle of medical science.

A couple of weeks ago, in preparation for the op, I had to go to London for some tests, so I decided to let the train take the strain. I went to the Great Western website and chose the train I wanted – a return from Plymouth, Devon to London Paddington. I went to the payment page and was startled to see how much they wanted to charge me for a return ticket. How much do you think?

£60?

£80?

£100?

£200?

Nope.

I couldn’t believe it.

5 pence!!!!

Yes, you did read that correctly.

I really couldn’t believe it. Surely there was some mistake? But everything looked correct so I went on to the payment page: wondering at what point the system would tell me I had got it wrong. And sure enough, when I tried to pay it wouldn’t let me. I was not surprised. Except…

…the reason the system wouldn’t let me pay was not because I couldn’t have the ticket but that the minimum amount the system would let me pay was 50p. I thought about it for a moment and then went back and added a Travelcard to enable me to use the Underground network once I arrived. That would cost £13.90.

I selected it, and then expected the total cost to have gone up nearer the £80-£100 I was expecting. Nope. £13.95

But that meant I could pay. So I did. And it accepted my payment. I was to collect the tickets from the railway station as the journey was still several days away.

A few days later I went to the station to collect the tickets but the machine wouldn’t give them to me.

‘Aha!’ I thought, ‘The system has realised that there’s an error.’ I went to the ticket office to ask about it and was told that the reason was that the machines were all offline and I should try again on another day. So the 5p travel was still possible.

The next day I went back to the station and collected the tickets from the machine. No problem.

Surely there was some mistake? It couldn’t be THAT cheap, could it?

On the day of the journey I went early and checked at the ticket office that my 5p tickets were valid.

“Oh yes, there’s not a problem” said the nice lady behind the counter.

I went to the ticket barrier, still expecting it to be rejected, and the barrier accepted the ticket and opened to let me onto the platform area.

Oooookaaaayyyy…

The train arrived and I got on, sitting in my reserved seat. |However, I still expected that when the train manager / ticket inspector came around and looked at my ticket there would be a problem.

The train manager came. He inspected my ticket. I held my breath.

He smiled and said, “Thank you” and went off to inspect the rest of the tickets. I released my held breath.

And so it continued through the day. Each time I went through a ticket barrier or had my ticket inspected I fully expected there to be a problem and to be told that the ticket wasn’t valid, and each time it was accepted without question.

Like me, you may be disbelieving about this 5p return journey to London. So here’s the proof – the receipt for the tickets when I collected them…

I have redacted some key elements to prevent anyone copying the ticket

Everyone I have told about this has immediately asked me how I did it. They have been amazed, impressed, astonished, speechless, and so on.

The truth of the matter is that I have no idea how I did it. I didn’t knowingly do anything different from when I have booked train tickets online before. I doubt it will ever happen again. But I was seriously blessed.

And what’s the point of this tale? Well I wonder whether the way that churches have talked about Jesus may well have undersold him. We may talk about going to heaven when we die or being ‘saved from our sins’ but that’s only a small part of what he is offering. Jesus talked about bringing ‘life in all its fullness’. I don’t think that’s life without pain or problems. I think that’s life with pain and problems but knowing that we’re not alone in them. It’s life with struggles and sticky patches but being aware that he gives us the grace and strength to cope. It’s a full-spectrum rainbow of life, which includes darkness and shade as well as brightness and light. It’s almost too good to be true! But somehow we have not shared the good news in such a way that people realise that.

I wonder what people’s reaction would be if they knew that what we’re talking about is much more than an eternal life insurance policy? Would they be as surprised and interested as when someone buys a return rail ticket from Plymouth to London for 5p?

Have I underestimated in my own mind what an amazing thing he is offering? If so, perhaps it’s not surprising that I may not have portrayed what he is offering to other people in such a way that they are as interested in Jesus as in a 5p rail ticket. Have I undersold Jesus and what he offers?

I wonder what people’s reaction would be if they knew that what we’re talking about is SO much more than an eternal life insurance policy and get-out-of-jail free card?

Be blessed, be a blessing

happy to be unsound

Photo by Sathyaprabha Rakkimuthu on Pexels.com

I used to be theologically sound, but I don’t think I am anymore – and I am glad. When I was much, much younger I was ‘sound’ because I repeated what I had been told was ‘sound’ by others who told me about Jesus. I hadn’t really thought about it, I just accepted it. I accepted it because I respected those whose opinions, teaching and orthodoxy I was replicating. Nobody told me this is what I was supposed to be doing, it just seemed like the natural thing to do because things were usually presented to me as answers rather than questions.

When I started at theological college to train to be a Baptist Minister one of the things they did early on was make me question everything… if the answer to ‘why do you believe that?’ was ‘because [insert name here] told me’ I was encouraged to go deeper and work out my own answers. That may sound like a recipe for ‘anything goes’ but that’s not the case. By working things out for myself I was able to understand myself better and dig beneath the surface of my understanding of God – rather than wearing the veneer of ‘soundness’ I had adopted for myself. I started to look at questions about God and me, rather than adopt answers.

It was an incredibly uncomfortable experience, but wonderfully valuable and liberating at the same time. It was like taking down a prefabricated building someone else had put up in which I had been living and being helped to build somewhere I could call home that I had created. It’s not ‘anything goes’ because it’s still a building to live in. It’s not ‘anything goes’ because it’s still exploring who God is in the light of Jesus.

I regret now that in my earlier years of ministry I was not so good at helping people to go through the same experience I did. In fact I modelled the answer-giving approach much more than question-giving. Having reached my own ‘sound’ orthodoxy (evidenced by a theological degree and Ordination) I shared that perspective with people who wanted me to share it with them. It seemed to work.

But I have found that it only works for so long for some people. Some just want to be told the answers and find people who will give them questions instead to be irritating and frustrating. There have been courses run by churches for the last 3 decades that have offered exactly that – answers to life’s questions (albeit that they also define what questions you should be asking). I have gladly led such courses and seen people’s life and faith enlivened by them. I don’t have a problem with them, except that they don’t suit everyone.

Ironically, and I am disappointed in myself for not realising this sooner, when I became fully fledged as a Minister I used to work on a ‘one size fits all’ approach: if people wanted to ask questions, let me run a course for them and give them the answers. But what about those who have different questions? Or what about those who want to question the answers they are given? Where was the space for them in our churches? Slowly I realised that I had been perpetuating a model that hadn’t blessed me as much as I thought it did at the time.

Churches can squash questions. They may provide a diet of ready-meal answers and rather than enabling someone to flourish, develop and become the thinking person God has created them to be. They can create clones who will unthinkingly repeat what they have been told is sound rather than encourage diversity and questions.

Uniformity is not the same as unity.

Conformity is not the same as collaboration.

Dogma is not the same as faith.

The former in those statements feel like a tethered balloon – floating but not free. I want to be untethered.

In the last church I led we began to explore this in a group I called ‘Deep Thought’*. The idea was that each time we met we’d look at different questions the group wanted to consider, share our views, learn from one another and deepen our experience of God. No question was considered silly. Everyone’s view was accepted, although we all had freedom to ask questions about those views. I rather enjoyed it and I think those who came along did too. But then I moved on from that church and Deep Thought became a good memory.

Now I am back in a local church again I am minded to do something like Deep Thought again. But I also would like to think that we are a safe space in which we can ask open questions without me giving all the ‘right’ answers. I would like to think that I can help people to do the same for themselves. The church I serve seeks to be one where it’s okay not to be okay. It’s a church that includes and accepts everyone, even those who might disagree with the Minister. It’s a church where we encourage people to have different opinions and to share them. It’s even a church where it’s okay to have doubts and explore them.

There’s still lots that I believe that makes me conventional. I am still a follower of Jesus without hesitation, but I recognise he often answered questions with questions or stories rather than giving answers – I would like to do that more often. I still happily and wholeheartedly affirm the Baptist Union Declaration of Principle – because I am convinced of its truth rather than because I have to. And there’s so much more to experience of God beyond that…

And that is what makes me unsound.

And I am glad.

*Deep Thought is the name of the computer that is created in The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (a trilogy in five parts) to answer the question of life, the universe and everything. It seemed an appropriate name bearing in mind that the only answer it gave was an enigmatic ’42’.