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.
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.
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
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’.
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…
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
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?
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.
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.
Warning. This bloggage contains images of natural beauty that has the potential to make you jealous.
As you will know if you have followed this blog that we have moved down to Plymouth in Devon, where I am now serving as the Minister of Mutley Baptist Church. The church are being so lovely and welcoming and have sent us lots of ideas of places to go and explore in the area. Now that the boxes are unpacked and most things have found their new place in the manse we decided that last Saturday we would do a little local exploring.
We went about 10 minutes away, to Plym Bridge which, as the name suggests, is a bridge over the river Plym – whose ‘mouth’ gives our city its name. We got out of the car and walked a few metres to the bridge. And we stopped.
It was almost overwhelming. A combination of appreciation of the beauty of the spot, the proximity to where we’re living, and the fact that God has called us to live in such a place led to us just stopping. There may have been some tears. I certainly uttered a quick ‘thank you’ prayer.
These photos give you an idea of our wonderful experience. We walked a couple of miles alongside the river (up one side and back down the other) and basked in the tranquility, enjoyed the calming effect of the burbling river bouncing off the stones and rocks on its way to the sea, nodded to and greeted other walkers, listened to peregrine falcons, and chatted. As they say around here… bootiful. Proper job.
I am originally from Devon so this is something of a return to my homeland for me, but Sally has only lived here for a year (when we first got married) yet she regards Devon as one of her ‘happy places’. Saturday just confirmed all of that too.
And in the midst of all of that I had an encounter with God. Not a loud booming voice or a brilliant white light. Not even with any discernible message. Just an awareness that God was close. Enjoying his creation brings us closer to the Creator. And I reckon he enjoys it too. After all, doesn’t Genesis 1 echo with God’s reflection that ‘it was good’, and finish with him pausing to look at everything and declare it ‘very good’?
It’s relatively easy to do that when we are walking in the Devon countryside, but what about those who live surrounded by bricks and concrete? We can still see glimpses of God in the way that grass gently and persistently breaks through concrete and tarmac; in the birds and even the urban wildlife.
But most of all we get glimpses of God in other people. The Bible tells us we’re made in God’s image – not that we physically look like him, but we bear the maker’s marks and we can see him in each person we meet. In the person who held the door open for you when you had your hands full. In the person who caught your eye and you saw each other over your facemasks. In the person who made you a cup of coffee. In the destitute person asking if you have any spare change. Even (and sometimes especially) in the person we least like or admire. If we look for him he’s everywhere.
So are we looking? And if people look at us, what glimpses of God will they see?
What have I been pondering? I’ve been pondering what “Football’s coming home” actually means (from the iconic England anthem Three Lions written for the Euro 96 tournament by Frank Skinner, David Baddiel and the Lightning Seeds). I know the sentiment that it is invoking, but it actually doesn’t make any sense.
“Of course it doesn’t,” I hear you retort, “it’s poetic.” Yes, I accept that. But the message of the song seems to be that football has been away from home for a long time and now it’s coming back. Does that mean that in all that time football matches played in parks with jumpers for goalposts, in non-league grounds, in League grounds and in big Premiership stadia weren’t properly football?
Yes, I am being petty and pedantic. But it’s my blog, so I reserve the right to be petty and pedantic when it suits me. But thinking about Three Lions got me pondering the use of other songs in sport. Why do we play national anthems before some sporting occasions, and not before others? There were no national anthems at Wimbledon, for example.
And why do England Rugby Union fans sing Swing Low, Sweet Chariot – a song with its roots in slavery (if ever there is a country that should not adopt such a song it’s England with its historical involvement in the Transatlantic Slave Trade)? I read on the BBc website that it started when England Player Martin Offiah scored (he was nicknamed ‘Chariots Offiah’) but does its current use promote cultural awareness and diversity or is it inappropriate?
And then there’s the use of Abide With Me at Wembley, sung especially before the FA Cup Final. It was written in 1847 by Devon vicar Henry Lyte, and was first sung at the 1927 FA Cup Final. Apparently it was chosen because King George V had been asked what he would like sung and this was Queen Mary’s favourite hymn. It has been sung ever since. But what has a hymn about God’s presence with us in the darkest of circumstances have to do with a game of football?
I suspect that in most cases the singing is less to do with the lyrical content and more to do with the communal event, the camaraderie of corporate singing, tradition, and the fact that they all have good, memorable tunes.
On Saturday I was Inducted at the church I am now serving in Plymouth and because of the Covid-19 restrictions we were unable to sing together (which I found ironic bearing in mind how loudly 90,000 fans sang Three Lions together in Wembley Stadium the following evening). At the end we used a video of a song that has been written to the tune of Abide With Me. It feels like a manifesto for our church. Have a listen / watch. It’s excellent. It’s a song I can wholeheartedly get behind and look forward to being able to sing with gusto very soon with the rest of the church I serve. Then we seek God’s help to put the words into action!
We have a chair at home from a well-known Swedish furniture store. It is pictured below and you’ll notice that it doesn’t have four legs. Instead it is made of shaped, laminated wood that is both strong and flexible. Indeed, to demonstrate its strength and flexibility the stores had an example in a Perspex box with a machine pushing down on it and then releasing, with a counter showing how many hundreds of thousands of times this had happened without the chair breaking. It was a public demonstration of stress testing.
The chair looks well designed and well built. It looks strong. It looks comfortable (at least I think it does). But the only way you will truly know how well it is built and how strong the wood is is by sitting in the chair. We recently had a visitor who was a little reluctant to sit in the chair and I suspect it’s because they were unsure how well it would hold them (or perhaps because I mischievously suggested that if they sat down too hard they would be twanged back out of it). To test the quality of the chair you have to put it under stress. Only then will you find out its strengths and any weaknesses or flaws.
And I think the same is true of humans. On the surface all may seem lovely and good. All may appear ‘normal’. But under stress we reveal our strengths, our qualities and our faults and weaknesses.
I think I have seen this in the responses that I have seen and heard to England’s men’s football team being beaten on penalties in the finals of Euro 2020 (delayed by Covid). I was disappointed that England did not win, but I do not feel there was any need to apportion blame and single people out. One commentator on the TV made a disparaging comment about the relative youth of some of those who took the penalties. Why? There is a minority of people who have made hideous racist comments about those who did not score their penalties. Did they suddenly become racist, or did the stress reveal this abominable fault in their character? Listening to the radio news this morning I was appalled to hear of the online racist abuse aimed at the players who did not score. But then I heard the announcer telling us the names of the players who had missed – apportioning blame and highlighting them over the rest of the team in a form of scapegoating. That was a deliberate choice to name those players – isn’t that also a form of attack? These attacks reveal far more about those who perpetrate them than anything else. While the attacks are heinous, and I pray for the protection from these attacks for those who have been highlighted, what they really do is reveal the character of those who have made these attacks, looking for someone else to blame.
Now, despite what Bill Shankly once said, life and death is much more important than football. And rather than highlighting the failings of others I find I need to look at myself first and see what flaws and weaknesses in me are revealed when I am under stress. I know that I get grumpy when I am tired. I know that I can lack patience when I am under significant pressure. I know that I can look for people to blame when things go wrong (and forget to analyse my own contribution first). Those are just a few of my weaknesses and flaws.
But I am not content with them. I don’t like them. And as a follower of Jesus I have alternatives – not self-help or therapy (which have their place) but spiritual transformation that God’s Spirit brings about in us. He bears fruit in us that is far more attractive than our flaws. We looked at this fruit in our church recently and recognised that all of them overlap with each other, but in a beautiful Venn Diagram all intersect in love. Love that we see revealed most perfectly in Jesus and is glimpsed in 1 Corinthians 13.