Do you want your shoes back now?

The age old saying goes: “You can’t understand someone until you have walked a mile in their shoes” (or variations on that theme). I get what it’s saying, but I don’t think it’s right. It’s not enough. Walking a mile in someone’s shoes is about us experiencing life as they do, but only to do it for a mile makes it temporary. And I assume that once I have walked the mile I can put my own shoes back on. They can’t, and it’s permanent for them.

I reflect on the horrific experiences that friends of mine have shared with me and realise that I can’t claim to be able to walk for a mile in their shoes. I have never experienced what it is like to receive the abuse, discrimination and be the subject of the hate crimes that they have been through. Even for me to suggest that I could try to walk in their shoes seems patronising and woefully inadequate.

I find myself challenged and inspired by these friends in equal measure. Challenged to consider my own actions and behaviour and inspired to do more, to be more… but more what? I can’t experience how it feels to be called hideous names, but I can be outraged about it. I can’t know how someone feels if another person crosses the street to avoid meeting them, but I can be broken-hearted by it. It feels beyond patronising for me to suggest that ‘I know how you feel’ when blatantly I don’t.

I have started to wonder about what Paul wrote to the church in Rome: “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” (Romans 12:15) What if I extend that to things like: “Scream with those who scream; rage with those who rage…” That feels a bit more empathetic, but it still doesn’t feel enough. So I read the wider context of that verse:

“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.”

Romans 12:14-16

Hmm… so the empathy Paul is after comes in the context of likely persecution and the potential for division on the basis of status in the church. That complicates it a bit because it reveals how dangerous it was for the early Christians (especially in Rome) – and that was a shared sense of danger. I don’t experience that sense of danger in the same way as my friends, so what can I do? I want to be there for them, I want to help, I want to show them that they are not alone and that they matter. And it seems that the Christians might have been a bit class-conscious and were not being as inclusive as they should, particularly ignoring the underprivileged. But as a middle-aged white cis-gendered heterosexual male human living in England I am one of the most privileged people on this planet. There’s not a lot of danger for me and a lot of potential ways in which I might exclude others.

So then I notice that Paul urged the Christians to ‘live in harmony with one another’. Harmony is the opposite of discord. It doesn’t require everyone to sing the same notes, but to complement and augment each other as we sing the same song. If they are singing a soulful lament, there’s no harmony if you are singing a bouncy pop song. And you have to be there with them to be in harmony, you have to be present with them. To be in harmony you have to listen to the tune the other person is singing. You have to find ways of weaving your music into their music, being responsive to one another and allowing your singing to be shaped by their singing so that the voices blend. Replace ‘song’ with ‘life’ and you get the idea. That’s how we rejoice when they rejoice, mourn when they mourn, scream when they scream and rage when they rage.

And then if we read the whole of Romans chapter 12 we see that Paul seems to be urging the believers to intentionally be aware of themselves and their potential impact on God (‘living sacrifices’) and on other people. If we remember that it’s written to a group of Christians not an isolated individual we see that it’s an extremely collaborative thing, this church business. We collectively need to think about our impact on God and on other people, and to do the latter there is a lot of ‘one anothering’ to be done.

A while ago in our church we looked at the ‘One anothers’ in the New Testament and discovered that all of them are aspects of love – ways of putting love into action:

Love one another in the way that Jesus loves: bear with one another; encourage one another; build each other up; serve one another; forgive one another; honour one another; be devoted to one another; live in harmony with one another; offer hospitality to one another; live in fellowship with one another… and more.

That requires us to have an intention to faithfully put one another above ourselves, to be there for one another, to listen, to seek to understand, and to stand with one another. To give [of ourselves] and not count the cost.

I’m still working on this but I hope it’s becoming less patronising than a short walk in the wrong shoes. Perhaps it’s a step in the right direction.

Playfully creative

This is the sixth and final value that our church has recently adopted. The process by which we discerned and distilled the values was using an exercise I call ‘The Ideal Church Exhibition’. Groups, made up of diverse people from across the church, worked together to draw ‘The Ideal Church’ – where the only limit is our imagination. Behind what was drawn are values, so we looked for consistent themes across the different drawings and then looked to express those values in words.

There were drawings of people enjoying themselves.

There were drawings of people expressing themselves artistically.

The drawings that showed the imagination of those who drew them.

So ‘playfully creative’ became a value. If I am honest I wasn’t expecting it, but I love it.

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. 

Photo by Scott Webb on Pexels.com

God has given us life, and he longs for us to enjoy it. I know that life can be tough, but my experience has been that it is sometimes those who have the toughest circumstances that have the broadest smile. I think of my time spent with a church in a Harare township and those people LOVED life! What I have seen and realised is that if you have never had video games, computers, TV and mobile phones and if all you have is some dirt to play in then you use that dirt imaginatively. It can become a football pitch, a crocodile-filled river, a place to fly over…

If you’re going through one of life’s dark valleys at the moment then I understand that this may feel difficult for you, and I would hate for you to feel guilt because of what I have written, that’s not my intention. If emotional illness or mental ill health is clouding your ability to see the light, then I pray that you will have people around you who will come and simply be with you. Perhaps in them you may see a glimpse of the playfully creative Jesus who loves you without limit.

What are your talents and gifts? Don’t be shy, admit them to yourself. You may not be a world-renowned artist, a famous actor or even a fair-to-middling illusionist. But there are things you are better at than other people. You are certainly the world best at being you. But you may be an encourager, a supporter, an esteem-builder, an imaginer, a story-teller, a joke-teller… what are you good at? You can take those things and offer them to God as an act of worship as you perform them – if you like, taking what he’s given you and celebrating it with him.

You may be able to use the unique blend of gifts and talents that are yours to help others see God in you.

Martin Luther (the Reformation chap, not Martin Luther King) is reported to have said, “If you’re not allowed to laugh in heaven, I don’t want to go there.” Well, my hope is that we can get in lots of practice together as church now.

People focused

The next value we have adopted is a church is that we are called to be 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.

Again, the crucial two words here are ‘Like Jesus’. As his followers we want to emulate his example and follow his teaching. There are countless examples in the gospels (well, okay, you could count them but I can’t be bothered and there are lots) of Jesus being people focused. In fact you could easily say that his coming into the world is because God is people focused.

In preparing for this Sunday’s sermon on this theme, I reflected that the two words ‘caring’ and ‘loving’ are indivisible. They aren’t so much two sides of the same coin as two ends of a kayak paddle. If you don’t have one you end up going around in circles.

Caring is often seen as a practical thing, whereas loving is a more emotional thing. But we care because we love. As I have mentioned before, this is not a mushy romantic love, or even the love you have for family members. It’s a dogged decision to seek the best for another person because of their innate value. That’s the sort of love God has for us. And we express it in practical ways as we care for others.

Caring for someone should involve us in praying for them, which is immensely practical, and in offering practical support and help.

But whom do we care for and love? To use another water-based image, consider ripples that are spreading outwards from dropping a stone into a pond.

At the start of the book of Acts Luke tells us of what Jesus said before he ascended into heaven. He told his friends that they would be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth. They were in Jerusalem (local). Which was in Judea (nearby). To the north was Samaria (further afield). And then there’s the rest of the world (the rest). Ripples flowing outwards from the immense splash they would make when the Spirit of God empowered them.

For us, our Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth is: our local community in Mutley, to Plymouth, the UK and the wider world.

What’s yours? How might a people focused Jesus want you to care for and love people in those different arenas?

Be blessed, be a blessing

Generously big-hearted

The next value in our series is another way in which we express our love for God and for people.

“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.”

In a world where success seems to be measured in terms of the amount of power, prestige, popularity and pounds accumulated generosity is counter-intuitive. A generous person is vulnerable to exploitation from those who would take advantage of them, but we are prepared to take that risk because God takes that risk with us. He risks that we will seek to take all that he offers and keep it for ourselves rather than share it with those around us.

Recently there has been a lot of talk about so-called ‘trickle down’ economics. The idea is that if you allow the wealthy to keep enough of their wealth they will spend it in a way that benefits those who are lower down in the pile, and they will spend it in a similar way, until those at the bottom of the heap benefit. In my view it’s a vile and inhumane approach that makes assumptions about the altruism of the wealthy which don’t seem to be mirrored in reality, and those who are poorest should be grateful for whatever finally dribbles into their outstretched hands.

Imagine, for a moment, that Wealthy Wally has £1billion. He spends £1million on a luxury yacht, bought from Happy Harry. Happy Harry is happy with this, and his employees continue to get paid their wages while he pockets the £200,000 profit. At this stage the employees are no better off, but Happy Harry is. From the £200,000 profit, Harry buys a car from Dodgy Dave for £50,000. Dodgy Dave is happy that he has sold a car, and his employees continue to get paid their wages, but are no better off. Dodgy Dave makes £10,000 profit on the car. How much of that £10,000 will reach Poor Pat who is homeless and struggles on Universal Credit? Ahh, they say, the profits are taxed, as are the employees wages, which pays for Universal Credit. True. But when our government is reducing the tax burden on companies (and had planned to reduce it for the wealthiest until they realised how unpopular that would make them) the trickling down is reduced. And Wealthy Wally, Happy Harry and Dodgy Dave all have massively more money and benefit significantly more from Wally’s wealth than Poor Pat. Wealthy Wally and those below him in the pyramid spend on themselves in maintaining their luxurious lifestyles without a thought for those who have nothing. There is no generosity here.

That is a VERY crude model, I admit, but I remain convinced that the ‘trickle-down’ approach to economics is iniquitous and inequitable. It is (from my research online) unproven as a model and requires no altruistic intent or planned provision for the poorest.

Yet that is almost the model that God wants us to employ! What? Surely you aren’t serious?

I am (and don’t call me Shirley).

Yes.

The significant difference is that it’s not a trickle-down that may benefit those at the bottom of the pile, it’s a deluge down that is aimed at supporting those who have the least. Rather than a little bit dribbling to the bottom, God wants us to reflect the divine generosity we experience. We are to give using the same measure with which we have received, to bless because we are blessed.

This prayer from St Ignatius of Loyola seems to express it rather well:

“Lord, teach me to be generous;
Teach me to serve you as you deserve;
To give and not to count the cost;
To fight and not to heed the wounds;
To toil, and not to seek for rest;
To labour, and not to ask for reward –
except to know that I am doing your will.”

That’s what we mean by being generously big-hearted. We do it because we love God and love people, not to serve our own ends and hope that somehow someone might benefit eventually.

Be blessed, be a blessing

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