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.

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

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

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’.

buzz off

A while ago my car developed an annoying buzzing. When I started I thought it was a fly trapped in the car and buzzing against the window, but there was no obvious sign of any insects. Then I wondered if a wee beastie had got inside the driver’s door (because it sounded like it was coming from that side of me). However, unless the wee beastie was extremely long-lasting or was breeding offspring at an unprecedented rate I ruled out the wildlife concept after a couple of days.

I concluded, therefore, that something must have worked itself loose inside the door. Finding the cause was proving tricky, however, since the buzzing only occurred when the car was in motion and even then was intermittent. I tried lowering and raising the window, but that made no difference. It did suggest to me, however, that the cause of the buzzing may not have been the window winding mechanism.

Being unable to find and resolve the problem was irritating me, and the intermittent buzzing felt like a taunt when it occurred. I began to make a mental note of when it occurred and realised that the buzzing did not happen when the car was on smooth, freshly laid tarmac. However, since there was no chance of only driving on freshly laid tarmac when I wanted to get anywhere that revelation did not resolve the problem.

I had the car serviced a while back and toyed with the idea of asking the garage to resolve the problem. But not knowing how long it would take to find the cause of the buzzing and stopping it meant that this could be expensive at the hourly rate they charge so I didn’t ask them. I decided that when I had the time I would take the door card off myself and see if I could find the problem and sort it out.

I did often have the time, but whenever I thought about it I was deterred by the thought that it could lead me to making things worse as I didn’t really know what I was looking for, so I never actually got around to it.

Then, a week or so ago, I was driving with my wife and the buzzing started as we drove over a less than smooth road surface. I listened hard, once again, and it seemed to me that the buzzing wasn’t coming from directly beside me, as I had previously thought. While concentrating on the driving I tried to isolate where the sound was coming from and it seemed to be in front of me, but to the right.

That’s when I realised what was causing the buzzing.

I have a small clear plastic clip that is tucked into the bottom corner of the windscreen so that I can tuck parking tickets into it when I need to display them. Over time the ‘sticky’ has become slightly less sticky so that now, on less than smooth roads, the minor vibrations cause it to vibrate against the windscreen – doing an impression of a fly that is buzzing against the window. The solution? Tuck an old ticket into it so that the plastic is not touching the glass.

Phew. Silence. The ‘fly has been banished’.

And PHEEEEWWWW, I didn’t spend a lot of time or money getting the buzzing sorted by taking apart the door. And imagine the embarrassment if the mechanic had found that it was the parking ticket clip after all!

I don’t imagine any of you have been bothered by pesky unfindable sounds in your car, have you? You would have found it right away, wouldn’t you?

The lesson? Always check out the possibility that something small can resolve irritation for yourself, or for someone else – a piece of paper in a ticket clip, an apology, a note of appreciation, the toilet seat put back down…

Be blessed, be a blessing

cruel to be kind

Have you heard that phrase? Has anyone said it to you to justify their behaviour or words? Have you used it to explain why you acted or spoke in a certain way?

Apparently the phrase first appeared in Shakespeare’s Hamlet where he justifies cruel behaviour to prevent a greater harm. Nick Lowe released a song with that title in 1978:

Oh I can’t take another heartache
Though you say you’re my friend, I’m at my wit’s end
You say your love is bonafide, but that don’t coincide
With the things that you do
And when I ask you to be nice, you say

You’ve gotta be cruel to be kind, in the right measure
Cruel to be kind, it’s a very good sign
Cruel to be kind, means that I love you, baby
(You’ve gotta be cruel)
You gotta be cruel to be kind

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I sort of understand what’s going on here, but it seems to me that much of the time cruelty has none of the apparent moral high ground that is claimed by ‘cruel to be kind’, even if someone thinks that is the case. Most of the time it is ‘cruel to be cruel’, ‘cruel to diminish another’ or ‘cruel to make ourselves feel better’. You only have to look at the comments sections on websites to see that enacted time and time again. Personal, hurtful, racist and LGBT+phobic comments are poured out without mercy and without any thought of the impact on those who will read them. I don’t think I have ever considered such comments to be framed in a ‘cruel to be kind’ manner. There is no excuse for them.

I wonder what motivates anyone to think such things, never mind to write them and make them public. Is there a rage within that is like a petrol-soaked bonfire just waiting for something they consider to be incendiary to set it ablaze? What sort of distorted reality are such people inhabiting that they feel justified in being cruel to someone else? Does the internet and social media make people think that they have some sort of online invisibility cloak that means they don’t think anyone will know it was them, or perhaps the scale of the online world makes them think that their few words won’t matter? Is there a sense in which there is a ‘safety in numbers’ approach that if other people are writing such things then it must be okay, and like a wildebeest in a vast herd being hunted by lions, the chances of being caught are slim? Or is it something else? I don’t know the answer, perhaps it’s some or all of those in some sort of toxic cocktail of hateful vitriol.

Hmmm, I seem to have got slightly off topic! Back soon to ‘cruel to be kind’… but the reason for the detour is to emphasise how easily ‘cruel to be kind’ can lose any sort of moral justification (and also, if I am honest, to ‘vent’). ‘Cruel’ always has the propensity for violence and to overshadow or blot out ‘kind’.

The idea is that to prevent greater harm you have to inflict some lesser harm. I suppose it’s a bit like someone who pushes another person over (causing them to experience cuts and bruises) so that they are not flattened by a runaway bus hurtling down the hill. I get that. But in that case there is an urgency to the action which requires the rough intervention. How many times when someone is ‘cruel to be kind’ is there that sort of urgency?

In Hamlet, the eponymous lead character is unkind to his mother in order to dissuade her from a course of action that he considers to be dishonourable. (Follow the link for a more considered analysis). But can a good motive redeem a bad action in this case? ‘Cruel to be kind’ may be an attempt to excuse a lazy response to something that we think could be improved. I may be wrong here but it seems to me that there is almost always a ‘kind to be kind’ option if we look hard enough for it. It may take more thought. It may be more difficult. It may take greater empathy and patience. But ‘kind to be kind’ must surely be possible, mustn’t it?

An example I came across may serve to illustrate what I mean. Someone was suggesting that direct criticism is good, albeit painful to receive, as it enables the person to have a clearer understanding of their performance and thus motivate them to improve (eg a sports coach). But isn’t a kinder approach (assuming the person wants to receive any sort of assessment) to offer feedback that accentuates positives and seeks to build on them and at the same time recognises what needs to be improved – offering practical steps and support to help the person to improve?

In the Bible ‘kindness’ is listed as one of the qualities that God’s Spirit grows in people, especially those who are looking for them to grow in them. ‘Cruelty’ is never listed as such a quality.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

words almost fail…

Speechless!

Shocked!

Traumatised!

Atrocity!

Hideous!

Unimaginable!

These words and many others have been uttered and thought in Plymouth over the past couple of weeks since the Keyham killings. While it was not on our doorstep as a family or directly near our church building (although there are several Baptist churches very close by) we as a church have felt some of those things too as the victims, their families and the Keyham community are our neighbours literally and spiritually.

I have been deeply moved by the way that the community, and the community leaders, have come together and offered support.

I have been touched by the tributes given to those who died and the ways in which they have been honoured.

And I was impressed by the emergency services who rushed towards the incident when everyone else’s instinct would have been to run away.

This sort of horrendous event often raises all sorts of questions, doesn’t it? And one of the problems is that it often raises unanswerable questions that leave us dissatisfied: just because a question can be asked doesn’t mean that it should be, or that there is an answer. Sometimes a question is rhetorical and an expression of anguish and lament.

Another difficulty is that sometimes the time for asking questions is not right. I struggle with the intrusive questioning of friends, neighbours, and family by reporters who are looking for a human interest angle on the ‘story’ when actually what is happening is a real life tragedy that should not be exploited for journalistic hubris.

Some of the questions asked are looking for someone to blame, someone to complain about, someone whose fault it is when actually what people want to do is vent their anger, their frustration and their pain and they can’t do that when the perpetrator has taken his own life. There is a time and a place for investigations and lesson-learning, but that’s not in the street outside the police cordon, or in the news media.

Sometimes we have to hold the questions and carry them with us as part of the way in which we work out our own how we are feeling. Forensic answers won’t do when what we actually are expressing is an emotional response. There’s nothing wrong with asking questions at a time like this, but we need to think about why we’re asking them and what we need to happen as a response.

So, how are you feeling? What questions are you carrying? Do you want someone to reply, or do you need to be heard? Do you want answers or do you need to work through what lies behind your questions?

And whose questions can you listen to today?

And we continue to hold our questions, those who are most keenly affected, those who mourn without feeling comforted and offer them all to God in prayer.

Be blessed, be a blessing

Framed

About 9 years ago I went on a retreat as part of Sabbatical Leave and one of the things that made a significant impact on me was a picture that was in the chapel at the retreat centre. It was a print of a painting by Sieger Köder who was a Catholic priest and artist. The painting depicts Peter refusing to allow Jesus to wash his feet, which you can read about here.

I was captivated by the picture and spent a long time looking at it, allowing God to speak to me through it. I was so captivated that when I got home I found out where I could get a poster of the painting and ordered one. Since then it has occasionally come out, but has spent most of its life rolled up in the tube in which it was delivered.

Now that I have wall space in my office at the new church I am serving I decided that the time has come for me to get the picture framed properly. We took it to a local framer and they showed how it would look with different surrounds. In the end we chose a black surround and frame as it seems to offset the colours in the painting beautifully. What do you think?

The purpose of a picture frame is to enhance the picture in it. If the frame becomes the object of attention it has failed in its purpose. And in that one concept is so much about what it means to be a follower of Jesus. We are called to complement the teaching of Jesus. We are meant to enhance people’s experience of him, not get people to focus on us.

If you look at the picture above you will see that there is a reflection of my study in the glass of the frame. Our surroundings are actually part of the picture. When we come into a church service we don’t leave our problems or experiences of the week at the door, we bring them with us as part of our encounter with God’s Spirit in worship – they form part of the picture.

Be blessed, be a blessing