which generalisation are you?

Any of you who don’t use Facebook you will have been spared the seemingly endless succession of pseudo-psychological ‘tests’ to analyse your personality.

Which sandwich are you?

Which Disney character are you?

Which Reformation leader are you?

Which Greek god are you?

Which Hobbit character are you?

and so on…

ad…

nauseam…

(which Latin phrase are you? Aaaargh, stop brain stop!)

taking this test may alarm you
taking this test may alarm you

When I see these come up on Facebook I have two reactions. One is, ‘Oooh, I wonder which I am’. The second (and it usually comes a split second after the first) is ‘I am not a [insert noun from the question here], I am an individual.’

Yes, I know that these are intended as a bit of fun. I get that. And yes, we must always remember that we are unique: just like everyone else. But we cannot be defined by a few inane questions that identify us most strongly with one of a range of options.

For a start the list of possible outcomes is finite so the answer is limited. The person framing the question has also framed the answer. It is like the old story about the interviewer who asked a visiting Pope whether he would be visiting any nightclubs in their city during his stay. The Pope replied, “Are there any nightclubs in your city?”

The newspaper ran the headline the next day, “Pope asks ‘Are there any nightclubs in your city?'”

You may have chosen from the options, but someone else chose the options from which you chose.

I think I also have a reaction against these sort of quiz because the answers are based on generalisations and stereotypes. That is inevitable given the nature of the quiz. They are picking up on answers and making assumptions about the answers that filter us and pigeon-hole us. If your favourite colour is blue, you can eat at least six jelly babies in a minute, you have visited more than three non-European countries and you wear glasses then (wait for it) you are Nick Lear. (If you are, by the way, I apologise profusely!)

Yes, I still know that they are just a bit of fun. I still know that we are not meant to take it seriously. But there is a trend within our culture to pigeon-hole people. There is a trend in our culture to group people together and treat them as one. I do not subscribe to any of these views but I have heard them expressed: ‘People on benefits are all lazy scroungers’; ‘Women are all over-emotional’; ‘Readers of certain newspapers are all bigoted’; ‘Christians deny science’.

None of those is true. All of them are abhorrent. But if you listen to people it won’t be long before you hear one of those, or other stereotypes that are siblings of prejudice. Racism, ageism, sexism, classism, religious discrimination, and any other prejudice is fed by generalisations and stereotypes. One of the most powerful pieces of television in recent years was when Tommy Robinson, the founder and leader of the English Defence League, agreed to spend some time with Mo Ansar, a Muslim who was campaigning to ban the EDL. As they got to know each other understanding, respect and ultimately friendship replaced fear, prejudice and hate. As a result Tommy Robinson quit the EDL. (It’s not available on iplayer at the moment but this page on the BBC website gives you a flavour).

If you enjoy the ‘what [insert noun here] are you?’ quizzes please don’t let me deter you from continuing to enjoy them. But perhaps each time you do you will also listen to these words of wisdom from Psalm 139:

13 For you created my inmost being;
    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
    your works are wonderful,
    I know that full well.

and later:

23 Search me, God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my anxious thoughts.
24 See if there is any offensive way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting.

Be blessed, be a blessing

the other side of the door

clocksThis morning I had a check-up by the Dentist. Thankfully he was only checking my teeth. The appointment was at 10.55 but there were plenty of people waiting when I arrived and many of them weren’t seen before 11.30. A general air of disgruntlement spread across the waiting room (not helpful by the usual ubiquitous dread of seeing a Dentist). There was plenty of deep sighing, watch / clock checking and people even started talking with strangers about how long they had been waiting – British reserve and reticence to talk to other people goes out of the window when we have weather to complain about or are subject to delays.

As I sat quietly trying not to check my watch too often or sigh too deeply something struck me. Thankfully it was only a thought, nothing physical. We were all having gruntle extractions (being dis-gruntled) but once we were the other side of the dental door we would not want our dentist to rush or skimp. Those having anaesthesia prior to treatment would not want the dentist to say that because he was running late he was not going to bother. Those who were experiencing pain would not want the dentist to ignore it and push them out of the chair as quickly as metaphorically possible. Once we were being seen we would want the dentist to take all the time she or he needed.

The thought that had struck me has embedded itself in my brain and has been germinating: in what other ways do we change our attitudes significantly when it affects us? I suspect that many of the people whose view of those on benefits are that they are scroungers and layabouts would change significantly if they were suddenly reliant on benefits themselves. Those who complain about immigration might change their views significantly if they had a relative living overseas who wanted to come and live with them here. People who dislike those who do not share their sexuality or ethnicity may change their minds if a family member declares that they don’t share that sexuality or are marrying someone from a different ethnic group. And in case you are getting excited about me bashing of these unknown nasty people and are cheering me on, the thought started growing in a way that brought it uncomfortably close to home.

Do I have negative attitudes about others that I would adjust significantly if I was in their shoes? If I would, I think it is fair to say that it is hypocritical and perhaps even amounts to prejudice!

Dear God, please help me to see everyone the way that you see them; to have your grace, compassion and generosity of spirit; and to act accordingly. Forgive me for my prejudice and bear your Spiritual Fruit in my life.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

the parable of the good…

Some thinking required
Some reflection required

If Jesus was telling the parable of the Good Samaritan to a church today (recognising that he had a religious audience) who would be the characters in order to have the same shocking impact as the Jewish victim and the Samaritan hero? It’s worth noting that even though the Samaritan was the hero of his story that does not mean that Jesus agreed with him on every point. He was merely a shocking illustration to show what a good neighbour looks like.

The parable of the hoody Samaritan? An old lady is mugged in the street and the hero turns out to be a hoody-wearing teenager who has previously been making fun of her.

The parable of the good muslim. A racist man throws a petrol bomb at a mosque and is injured by the explosion. The Imam takes him into his home and tends his wounds.

If these are not sufficiently disturbing for Christians, let me try this version:

A fundamentalist Christian was preaching in the street. He was denouncing all kinds of evil in society: especially condemning the British Government for introducing legislation to legalise same sex marriage and being particularly scathing about gay men and women.

As he spoke he suffered a sudden serious heart attack and collapsed to the ground, unconscious.

“Serves him right,” said one onlooker. “He should not be such a bigot.”

“Thank goodness that he has stopped preaching,” said a passing vicar. “He’s ruining the reputation of Christians.”

But a gay couple stopped where he lay. One gave cardiac massage while the other called for an ambulance. The man regained consciousness and one of the couple took off his coat and made a pillow on the ground while the other spread his coat over the stricken preacher to keep him warm until the ambulance arrived.

Jesus said, “Which of these do you think was a neighbour to the man who had a heart attack?”

[insert your answer here]

Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.”

If that does not make you feel uncomfortable (which may or may not be a good thing) how about this question for reflection: Is the ‘do likewise’ about being kind and nice and helpful?

Or is it actually about asking for his Spirit to help us to overcome our prejudices and living graciously?

And if you want to feel really uncomfortable, try this question for size: who might Jesus make the hero of the story if he was telling it to you?

Be blessed, be a blessing.

coat tails of the unexpected

I was walking through Colchester this morning on my way to take a school assembly. I walked along Crouch Street and then through an underpass under the main road. At the bottom of the underpass are some plaques commemorating different aspects of Colchester’s history: for example one reminds us that Colchester was originally called Camulodunum by the Romans who made it their first capital of Britain.

A Start of a RunnerAnother commemorates the Crouched Friars, after which Crouch Street gets its name. I wondered what had happened in order to give the Crouched Friars this unusual name and decided to do a little research when I got back home in order to find out. Part of me hoped that there was something about them that caused them to develop a stoop. Perhaps they spent so long in a penitent prayer position that they were permanently leaning forward. Maybe they believed that a crouched posture was the most appropriate for someone whose life was devoted to Jesus. Perhaps they only admitted people who had back problems. Maybe they lived a life in the starting block position because they wanted to be ready for when Jesus told them to go somewhere. Perhaps they felt it was important that their coat tails should drag on the ground and walked in such a way as to make that possible.

It got me wondering about other unlikely names for religious orders. Perhaps there could be Tiptoeing Nuns, Hopping Monks, Crawling Clergy, Prostrate Priests, Drenched Baptists…

From the source of all knowledge in the world, a.k.a. Wikipedia, I discovered that the Crouched Friars are so called because they used to carry a staff with a crucifix on the top. ‘Crouched’ is a word that is a derivative of ‘crucifix’*. It was nothing to do with their posture at all. I confess to being somewhat disappointed.

But on reflection I have decided that actually this is not unlike the way some people encounter church. They will have acquired preconceptions about what church should be. Some will expect church to be like Songs of Praise. Others might expect a church to be dull and boring. Some will imagine cold dusty buildings. Others will imagine that the church’s message is summarised as “no!”

Others will have positive preconceptions: expecting to find joyful people who are willing to serve. They might be looking for a community that will welcome them with open arms. Some will hope for a place of safety and comfort. Some might even expect to encounter Jesus among us.

If the Crouched Friars were still in existence in Colchester today I suspect that they would be regularly explaining the origin of the name and the reasons why preconceptions like mine are wrong. I hope that churches do not have to explain why we do not match up with God’s expectations and preconceptions about church. I hope that people coming into a church will be pleasantly surprised – no matter how positive their preconceptions are about what the church will be like.

It would be nice if, after they have encountered us, people’s reflection is, “it was better than I thought it would be.” Wouldn’t it be fantastic though if they reflection was, “it was better than I thought it could be”? That can only take place if we are allowing God’s Spirit to transform us as individuals and as communities so that we are more and more like Jesus: good free samples of him. We need to allow him the freedom to change us, to challenge our prejudices and to open our hearts so that we can see people as Jesus is and respond to then as he would respond.

Be blessed, be a blessing

* kudos to my colleague Susan with whom I discussed this on our way back from the school and who suggested that it might well be something to do with the link between the words ‘crouch’ and ‘crucifix’.

the shocking truth

http://www.sxc.hu/profile/bigevil600
Used by permission from http://www.sxc.hu/profile/bigevil600

I am not sure what this reveals about me, but there are times when I get an urge to say or do something really shocking. Not ‘end up in prison’ shocking, but something that is not the sort of thing you would normally expect from a Baptist Minister.

My sister is unhelpful in this as she is a source of very funny jokes – but most of them are unusable in a sermon. Yet there is a little part of me that thinks, “Go on!”

The internet is unhelpful in this because it is full of people who do unusual and outrageous things and there is a part of me that would love to post something unusual and outrageous online too.

I think that part of this is because I want to break down expectations, perceptions and prejudice about the clergy in particular and Christians in general. Many people get their ideas about me from a mixture of Revd Timms (Postman Pat), the Vicar of Dibley (but a male version) and Dot Cotton (EastEnders), with perhaps a sprinkling of the Archbishop of Canterbury or their local vicar as garnish. (Many people don’t have a clue about non-conformist churches – I had a call from someone recently who asked if our church was a ‘proper church’).

One of the things I relish is that I have a reputation for doing silly things in school assemblies – magic tricks, conversations with Stew the Rabbit (see ‘about me’), even putting a rubber glove on my head. The children seem to appreciate it and (I think) it makes the assemblies a bit more memorable.

I wonder if, however, I need to keep suppressing these urges to be shocking. It may be that this is simply me wanting to get some attention. It may be that this is me wanting to be unconventional as well as non-conformist. It is probably me wanting to be silly and amusing. It is definitely unnecessary.

I am in the middle of preparing a sermon at the moment from Luke 6, where Jesus preached on a plane. Sorry, plain. In the first part of that sermon he was saying things that looked a bit like the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5) but he went further. Not only did he pronounce blessings on the unlikely heroes, but he said ‘woe’ to those who were normally considered blessed.

Perhaps there’s a message for me: ‘Blessed are the insignificant, for God thinks they are really special. Woe to those who crave attention, your shallow self-promotion has achieved all its ever going to.’

Be blessed, be a blessing.

And now for a really outrageous joke…

A Bishop, an evangelist, and a Baptist Minister were in a row boat in the middle of a pond fishing. None of them had caught anything all morning.

Then the evangelist stands up and says he needs to go to the loo so he climbs out of the boat and walks on the water to shore. He comes back ten minutes later the same way.

Then the Baptist Minister decides he needs to go to the loo, too, so he climbs out of the boat and walks on the water to shore. He, too, comes back the same way ten minutes later.

The Bishop looks at both of them and decides that his faith is just as strong as his fishing buddies and that he can walk on water, too. He stands up and excuses himself. As he steps out, he makes a big splash down into the water.

The evangelist looks at the minister and says,”I suppose we should have told him where the rocks were.”

The Baptist Minister looked back at the evangelist. “What rocks?”

After what I have just been saying, you didn’t really think I was going to tell an outrageous joke, did you?