The One About The Actress, The Prince And The Bishop

pexels-photo-261848.jpegIt won’t have escaped your notice that there’s a wedding on Saturday; one of the royal variety. A British prince is marrying an American actress and a lot of people are very excited about it. I’m not that bothered about it, to be honest – I’m neither royalist nor republican, and have no special interest in dresses or any of the other questions surrounding the big day. As a clergyman, however, there is one aspect of the whole thing that piques my interest, with which I shall make sure that I catch up at some point. The sermon. Clergy like checking out the sermon on a day like this, because it gives us the opportunity to do to someone else what we imagine goes on in the lounges and kitchens of our church members after every service; discuss the sermon. This was given an extra twist this week when the identity of the preacher was revealed; the couple have requested that the sermon be delivered by Bishop Michael Curry.

I’ll forgive you if his name means nothing to you. It’s true that he is an eye-catching choice; not because he’s American. That makes sense, what with the bride being American. That he’s a person of colour is perhaps more notable and welcome than has been discussed; but that’s not what I’m talking about. The issue is that the branch of the global Anglican church which he leads is on the theological naughty step for a while as a result of a decision it took (and which Bishop Michael supports wholeheartedly) to bless the marriages of same-sex couples. There were consequences to this, hence the naughty step – sitting out various meetings for a period of time.

Same-sex marriage is, to put it mildly, an explosive issue in the church these days; and people on all sides of the debate can’t help but read something into this decision; those who support same-sex marriage are delighted because this feels like a vindication. Those who oppose it are dismayed and feel he shouldn’t have been allowed to take part (ignoring the fact that in the UK, royalty outranks Anglican clergy and we have to do what we’re told). Those who oppose Bishop Michael’s presence were further enraged by the Archbishop of Canterbury’s warm statement about the news  – feeling that he should at least have taken the opportunity to highlight that Bishop Michael’s church was still in trouble.

I’ve never heard Bishop Michael preach, but everyone who says he’s pretty good at it – lively, Jesus-focussed and very passionate. I’m looking forward to checking out the sermon at some point for myself. However I find the reaction to all this disturbing – even if it is understandable. Many of us seem to think that preaching at such an event is and should be a political statement; and that this represents a not so implicit encouragement to those who support same-sex marriage. It may be that, I suppose; but what if it isn’t? What if the Archbishop’s statement was meant to be taken at face-value – that he’s pleased to welcome such a passionate and able preacher to such a high-profile occasion? What if it’s possible to disagree – deeply – with one area of a person’s theology, and yet still see that God can and does use that person?

Such a view is not regarded warmly by many of my fellow evangelicals; for many, the doctrine of marriage is a line in the sand. Change that, and we’re no longer appropriately faithful to Scripture, goes the argument. We must, it is said, take a stand on this. All this will look rather embarrassing for evangelicals if, as expected, Bishop Michael preaches up a storm at the wedding and points people to Jesus without even alluding to same-sex marriage. It’s almost as if some of my brothers and sisters are willing him to fail, to make some big mistake so that they can be proved right all along. I’m sure they aren’t doing so, but that’s how it can feel from here.

The inconvenient possibility for many of us is, though, that is may be rather less important to God than we think it is. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul didn’t seem too worried about the motivation of those preaching the Gospel – he just longed for Christ to be preached (Philippians 1:18). There’s no mention there of the details of doctrine; just the longing that Jesus is preached. Those opposed to same-sex marriage say that this is a matter of Biblical authority and interpretation; with which I agree, but I also say that this is true of every point of doctrine. As long as we’re not changing the crux of salvation, we’re free to differ. What if the Holy Spirit is big enough to use people with whom you and I disagree? What if we’re wrong? Do we hold to this so tightly that we can’t even entertain the possibility that we may be wrong? Will those angered by Bishop’s Michael invitation to preach rejoice if he preaches a Jesus-focussed sermon Saturday? I hope that he does, and that they respond appropriately.

Doctrine matters, of course. I don’t wish to suggest anything else; but over the years I’ve been in ordained ministry, I’ve been humbled to realise that God seems to bless the ministries of those with whom I disagree with alarming impunity. I hope I’m learning to rejoice in that. Knowing some of these people well has challenged my doctrine and my practice, and has put some previously closely held ideas more in their proper place. I still believe much the same as I always have done about Jesus and the cross and the empty tomb; on much else, I have my own views (some of them unchanged, some of them changed) but seek to hold them with humility and grace towards those different to me. The wind of the Spirit blows where it will; it’s not for me to dictate the direction or the force, but rather to pray and join in where I find the Spirit moving. Even if – and perhaps especially if – that means I find out that I’m wrong, or that something I felt was important is of less significance than I assumed.

So I will pray for Bishop Michael, and for all who listen to him on Saturday. That he through him, the wind of the Spirit might blow, and that many may make much of Christ. If that happens, I shall give enthusiastic thanks.

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Bored With Church

Bored With Church

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I get bored quite easily. People close to me – be they parents, my wife, or whoever happens to be on the receiving end at the time – have grown well used to me saying so, or displaying the symptoms. Restlessness, not focussing, disturbing others from the no doubt important things they’re doing, sighing, puffing of the cheeks. You know the score. I have a 9 year-old who does the same. I understood a bit of why I do this when I was diagnosed with ADD last year, making sense of my inability to settle unaided by medication.

In truth, many of us know the feeling – a weariness with what we need to do or should be doing, a sense that there’s something better and more stimulating just out of reach. I’m in my mid-40s now, and it can be something of a stage of life thing for many of us; we’re no longer young, but the finishing strait is a long way off. That can be a wearying, deadening thought for many of us; hence, perhaps, the famed mid-life crisis that some crash into, a desperate attempt to make life interesting again, often bringing others down with us into the bargain.

There can be spiritual, church-based ennui too. Especially, I think, amongst those who (like me) would call ourselves charismatic Christians. Our flavour of faith can often seem attractive because we can be seen to offer drama: ecstatic experiences, prayer for revival, things to ‘push in to’ and the like. That reels us in, and gives us a lot of momentum. I’m not saying that these things can’t be genuine or important, but they can end up inoculating us against how things often turn out to be. When the life of the church isn’t one of constant breakthrough, success and answered prayer, boredom can set in. Worship services can seem repetitive; the life of faith just a little more run of the mill than we felt we were led to expect.

At this point people like me – people who lead churches, that is – often start to berate ‘consumer Christianity’ and get a little shouty. It’s not about what you can get out of church; it’s about what you can give. Church isn’t about getting, it’s about giving; it’s not about me, it’s about others, and the audience of One. There’s truth in this, and I’ve said it myself in the past; the trouble is, it can all start to sound a bit too much like a list of ‘should’ and ‘ought’; alarmingly lacking in the winsome grace that draws us to Jesus in the first place. Add to the mix the wearying litany of church leadership scandals, and it can seem to very difficult to make it all seem attractive. The result is that good people; good, gifted, wise people start to opt out of church with all the implications that has for various aspects of the church’s life.

One of the reasons this can be so difficult is that church leader is often bored too. It can be quite dull ‘running a church’; or it can be very hard and costly and you can just get wearied and worn down by the cost of trying to bring to birth what you think God is inviting into being. Either way, the result can be the same – tiredness, cynicism and boredom. You opt out – in spirit, if not in body.

So what’s the answer? Of course it’s too complicated for there to be one silver bullet to fix it all; but I think part of the answer may be in reminding ourselves that Jesus doesn’t drive people. Rather, he invites, calls, beckons. We want to push people, drag them into deeper commitment and involvement; Jesus, on the other hand, seems to make an invitation that’s so attractive and luminous that people are compelled to follow. We often talk of church leadership in these terms  – ‘The Call’; but what about the rest of us? Do we create a culture where each person gets to consider what the invitation, the call of Jesus is for them? Are people called to our churches, as we are as leaders; or do they simply fill a seat, a space on the rota, until they no longer can? This seems to me to be the art of spiritual direction, preached, prayed and discussed over coffee. Of course, there’s a responsibility on the individual there too – is she searching, listening, asking? Or is she allowing herself to atrophy? But that in turn asks questions of the leader; do we expect God to call people; do we structure church solely in terms of the event that will convert or create drama or crisis for people; or do we, through worship, word, prayer, sacrament, conversation take people with us in to the deeper life of God, where the self is redefined and the life reoriented? Do we expect that to happen – perhaps even multiple times – in the life of the disciples in our care?

These are big questions, not easily answered. But the boredom people – leaders and lay people alike – experience is real and needs to be addressed. No one ever promised the life of discipleship would be exciting; Jesus did promise a cross and a yoke, albeit an easy-fitting one – hardly images to engage the thrill-seeker. We have a difficult balance to strike between fostering holy expectancy of anything at any time, and the slow business of walking a hot and dusty road behind a man on the way to his crucifixion (and later, his resurrection). The question remains: are we, leader and lay person alike, listening for the invitation?

On running, walking, losing weight and receiving grace

On running, walking, losing weight and receiving grace

pexels-photo-1003685.jpegThere are many losses associated with chronic illnesses. I’ve written about this before, so it’s really nothing new. One of them, for me, has been taking part in sport that I love. First is was football – which at one stage I was playing twice a week. When you have a disease like Ankylosing Spondylitis, a contact sport like football really isn’t a great idea; before I was diagnosed I would end every game with what I thought were excruciating shin-splints. I haven’t played any sort of football since then; even kicking a ball too and fro for 10 minutes with my foster son will now leave me in significant pain later in the day and into the next. Then there’s a running. I was never the sort of runner who would take part in races or even run that far in the scheme of things. But I did do it, and I did enjoy it. However eventually the resultant leg and ankle pain became too much and I had to take a pass. Then there’s the gym; which I also quite enjoyed – but the advent of foster children meant we could no longer afford that.

So what to do about exercise? As it turns out, not much. Apart from walking a bit, nothing really. It turns out (who knew?) that a lack of exercise, especially when combined with combatting depression with food, isn’t great for me. You’d have thought I’d have noticed my ballooning waistline, and I kind of did, but I’d been too preoccupied with becoming a parent, dealing with stress at work and in other places to notice. Now that one or two (but by no means all) of those stresses have lessened, the issue has been forced to my attention by a confluence of factors which I can’t really talk about here. When I asked my therapist why I suddenly found myself dealing with this now when it seems like it’s been an issue for a long while, the response was simple; it’s the next thing on your list, and now you can get to it.

As a result, on Saturday morning I found myself awake much earlier than I would otherwise have chosen to be, on the path around a local park with about 900 people, the self-penned refrain of ‘You’re fat, ugly and disgusting and everyone will be laughing at you’ careering round my head. It was my local Park Run. There are 1000s of these round the world and they are, it seems, undeniably a Good Thing in the democratisation of a sport which can seem reserved for Other People. Park Runs are free, community organised 5km runs for people of all ages, abilities and backgrounds; there’s probably one not too far from you. For me it was more a Park Waddle – like many, I walked the whole way. I didn’t exactly enjoy it, but neither did I hate it and there was a pleasing variety of dogs along for the ride with their owners.  Sadly, there was none of the post-exercise adrenaline high and mental stimulation that I used to get. What it was, was a welcoming, non-judgemental, relaxed environment – which for at least a morning got the recurring litany in my head to shut up. Maybe that should be enough of a high for now.

I need to go back, to make this regular – and more than once a week. The day I’m writing this is the Wednesday after the Saturday, and I haven’t done much since. I won’t be able to go this Saturday as I have a pre-booked meeting I can’t (and shouldn’t) get out of; but I should be back the week after.

Having lived, and preached, and prayed for many years now I know experientially as well as intellectually that I’m not accepted because of my bank balance or preaching ability or ministry amongst the poor or my health or my looks or my weight or anything else, but simply because of what Jesus has done and says about me. Every time I think I’ve grasped it properly, another layer is peeled off to help me realise I haven’t and I like everyone else am addicted to earning approval and love instead of receiving grace. Here I go again, battling to receive what’s free and desperate to earn what I’ll never properly get.

One of the supposedly little things that makes it harder is that it feels like so many people I know run, and run effortlessly. At least 2 people I know have just completed an Ironman Triathlon. It feels like I can’t move in my social feed without details of someone’s run: a map, distance, time, calories burned etc. You know the drill. If they can, the lie goes, I can. And should.

Maybe I can, maybe I can’t. I want to stick at it; I hope I will. I don’t know if my AS will allow me to run, or if my park run will forever be a park walk. Hopefully it won’t be a waddle for too long. If I lose a little weight, and allow myself to receive grace a little more and strive after acceptance a little less, then it will be worth it.

Losing Christian Privilege

I blame Jesus. If he hadn’t said that stuff about being blessed when you’re persecuted, then I don’t think we’d be where we are today. St Paul’s not much better, who made a great show of listing all the persecutions and opposition he faced as somehow ‘proving’ something about his ministry. Yep. It’s God’s fault.

When I was training to be a priest (20 years ago), it was often observed at the conservative college at which I trained that Christians in Britain were too lukewarm; they took their faith for granted, were wooly on some important doctrines, too much drawn to liberalism, weak on evangelism and generally a bit of a let down. What was needed, it was sometimes touted, was a good dose of persecution. Some people even prayed it would be so. People actually prayed that the country would change so much that Christianity would be illegal and that people would die for their faith. It seems an odd thing to pray, to say the least, when this is the daily reality of actual people in some parts of the world, but there you have it.

20 years later, it seems a given in some conservative quarters to state that these prayers have been answered. According to some, the recent court decision in London to put an exclusion zone around an abortion clinic to prevent prayer and protests outside is seen as a threat to religious freedom. The BBC, some insist, is blatantly anti-Christian and – worse, in the eyes of those who protest thus – promoting a gay agenda. Here in South Africa, some Christian groups are loudly defending their God-given ‘right’ to physically discipline children; to disallow that, is to threaten the freedom of the church, it is said. In America the religious right have hitched their wagon to the lucrative gun lobby, and assured anyone who’ll listen that the Constitution’s second amendment enshrines a ‘God-given’ right to own assault rifles.

Pointing out facts is, it seems, unpopular. No one’s threatened with serious trouble over graciously and peacefully (and there’s the key words) presenting a ‘pro-life’ perspective; you don’t have to search the BBC website for long to find stories and programmes which show the Christian faith in a positive and realistic light. I could go on, but the point is probably obvious by now – this isn’t an argument about facts. It’s about perception. Christians feel like they’re losing ground; the Bible shows us we’re blessed if we’re persecuted; look – we’re being persecuted!

The reality is that in all 3 of these countries – and many others – that we Christians are losing ground. And that’s OK. For many years, way before the current generation was born, we were living in a ‘Christendom’ reality. This is the idea that Christianity is assumed as deserving of a preferential hearing. Christianity was the privileged religion, and it was treated as such. These were Christian countries, it was assumed. As the world changes, society is globalised and the influences are more diverse. Suddenly, Christianity is no longer assumed to be primary; it is questioned, in many cases found wanting, and certainly no longer deserving of privilege.

Which is as it should be. Be it in post-apartheid South Africa, levelling the playing field between men and women, or giving other religions than Christianity a share of the platform, the loss of unearned privilege can feel like persecution. But it isn’t. It’s just the lop-sided playing field levelling itself. If the Gospel is as winsome and powerful as we think it is, then this should not worry us and we should not protest it. Jesus and the early Christians were not known for protesting their own rights or demanding a privileged hearing; they were rather more focussed on the rights of others – and in Jesus’ case, emptying himself of all he was really, truly entitled to.

In fact, there’s more to say still. The Gospel tells us that we have no rights of our own before God, but he graciously gives us all things in Jesus. He was all about laying down his rights. If the playing field really is levelling to all religions and world-views, then we should welcome it as a chance to be like Jesus and empty ourselves of all unearned and undeserved power and privilege and see a real demonstration of the power of the Gospel to which we claim to adhere. Further, if we really think we have a God-given right to protest outside abortion clinics or to own a gun or to hit our children (3 very different things, of course), then we need to be asking ourselves some serious questions as to how far we’ve drifted from the Bible we claim to hold in such high esteem.

Maybe, in some mysterious way, God has answered those prayers. He hasn’t given us persecution – though, of course, he remains perfectly entitled to do so. He has simply taken away a privilege that was never ours to begin with; it only ever belonged to him. Let’s let him worry about getting the hearing he deserves; our role is to, like Jesus, empty ourselves of power and simply serve him – where we find him. Which will so often be in the form of the people we were previously loudly protesting against.

In praise of snowflakes

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the next generation will be criticised by the generation that immediately precedes them. You heard it from your grandparents most probably – the repeated complained comparison about what it was like ‘when we were young’. How exams were harder, jobs were more scarce, world wars more likely.

The current generation to be on the receiving end of this is the millenial generation. Roughly speaking, these are the people born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s. The perceived truth is that this a generation that has never had it so easy – technology, healthcare, no conscription, travel, and so much besides, are all more free for them than for their forbears. Thus criticisms come – of a snowflake generation in desperate need of safe spaces, scared of giving offence and easy to offend. You can’t move on Facebook for memes about how easy they have it, and how despairing my generation (Generation X) or the one above (Baby boomers) are. It’s no wonder that they are leaving Facebook in droves or just not signing up for it; it’s not a safe space.

Whether it’s true to say, or whether it’s a perception bought about by social media, it seems that the millenials may be the most criticised generation in history. It would be nice to be able to say that Christians were showing a different way – more encouraging, more kind, more willing to see the good. And I’m sure that some are; but by and large what I see and hear from Christians my age and older is much the same as what I see and hear from those outside the church – complaint and criticism. If it’s little wonder, then, that millenials are leaving Facebook, then it shouldn’t surprise us that they’re also largely absent from our churches. Now this is a complex issue – I’m not suggesting that inter-generational criticism is the only reason that millenials are not in church with us; but it seems to me that it is one of the reasons. Would you want to go to a church if it was full of people who regularly and loudly criticised you or people like you? Of course not; history shows us that where this happens, people leave church and don’t come back – or start their own expression of it.

We all need to be called out on stuff every now and then; we all need wiser heads to come alongside us and help us take a good, long look at ourselves. But we all know that people win the right to do that if they have first spent a good time being with us, knowing us, loving us. You don’t just walk up to someone you’ve never met and tell them they’re weak (at least I hope you don’t … ); no. You build a relationship, you point out what’s good about them – and you do that a lot; then eventually you find you have won the right to say “Have you ever thought about … ?”

I see much that’s good in this generation. This is the generation, after all, that’s willing to walk out of school to protest the right to attend school without the fear of getting shot; this is the generation willing to run with #metoo; this is the generation of Malala Yousafzai, for goodness sake. Of course, there are things to criticise, as there are in every generation. It would be better, though, if people my age and older were more willing to listen, more able to confess their own failings and help those that follow us learn from our own mistakes; it would be wonderful if our churches saw the stirrings of faith and courage coming from the younger end of the spectrum and gave space to them to flower and flame into life; that we were humble enough to learn, slow to speak, quick to listen.

After all, it’s written somewhere that a little child shall lead them.

On winning the battle, for once

It’s hard to pin it down to a moment. For me, depression is not something that I encounter in an instant. It has crept up on me. Like my decision to become a Christian, it’s something that I gradually became aware of rather then felt turn itself on in an instant. Like my faith, it ebbs and flows. I may have been in this round of depression for more than 4 years, but like my faith my depression ebbs and flows. There are days it’s there, but I’m still scarcely aware of it (shamefully, in the case of my faith; joyfully in the case of depression). There are days it snaps at my heels occasionally, like the arrow prayers prayers I remember to shoot off in a moment of particular need. Then there are the days when I wake up and its all I know. These days are few and far between in terms of my faith – the days when my faith consumes, envelops, enfolds me. Similarly, there are a few days when depression is all I know. Make no mistake, they are there. The black dog isn’t so much snapping at my heels occasionally as it is demanding to be taken for a long walk, curled up unmovingly on my lap, or snarling and spitting in my face. Like the days when my faith just happens joyfully and freely, I can rarely point to a reason or a trigger for the depression overwhelming me. It’s just there, and I have to accept its reality.
Those days are hard, nightmarishly so. If they were the whole of my reality these last few years, I wouldn’t have been able to function at all. Mercifully, they are relatively few. But just as I can’t point to one reason for their coming, neither can I fully explain the experience of the last few weeks.
Because for the last few weeks, for the first time in years, I’ve felt like I may be winning the battle. Not that the battle is won. Nothing like that – yet. But that we may may be travelling in the right direction. There are a few triggers that I think have contributed. A time of prayer with a friendly, godly soul (hardly the first I’ve had, so what makes this one different, I don’t know). A dignaosis of ADHD, and the treatment that has gone alongside that. Slightly warmer weather. But in other respects there is no rational reason for an upturn; our financial stresses have, if anything, got worse not better over this time. I still have my other chronic conditions with which to wrestle. My father’s state of health has worsened. I still have a tendency to melancholy.
So it feels odd. One of my medications has been lowered in dose. A small, but nice, moment. Temptations to suicidal thoughts or other self-punishments still come, but it’s as if they are kept in a box rather than erupting all over me and those around me. I have no way of knowing if this will last, or if I will stop here, or if I will continue to make more positive progress from here. But for now I’m enjoying the sun on my back, the taste in my mouth and the sense of walking more lightly.
As the prophet sang, walk on, with all that you can’t leave behind.

What’s normal anyway?

To those whom much has been given much will be expected – or something like that. It’s the Bible’s equivalent of the maxim directed at Spiderman: ‘with great power comes great responsibility.’ Much what, though?
To two learning disabilities, depression, anxiety, ankylosing spondylitis, I recently had added a diagnosis of AD(H)D. I but the ‘H’ in brackets because we’re not sure yet quite how much ‘h’ there is in me – the hyperactivity of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. I’ve been on Ritalin, the medication of choice for this, for a couple of months now and the effect of it has been transformative. Is this what I’ve been missing out on all this time? Does everybody really have the capacity to sit down and just get on with stuff and not be fighting a permanent battle of distraction? I thought my magpie mind was symptomatic of the human condition, not a quirk of my brain.
There’s often a worry with treating this kind of thing that in doing so you lose some of the spark that makes someone unique, the fire of creativity, the fingerprint of the personality. I’m still learning about that, and how to make sure my whole family gets the benefit of the more focussed me – not just those who happen to come across my orbit in working hours. There’s much for me to learn, and yes I’ve been leant A Useful Book that does actually appear to be useful.
It’s quite a cocktail of diagnoses now. One would be more than enough, but there’s web of corollary, apparently between them. People with A.S. get depressed; people with depression get anxious. People with ADHD have learning disabilities. Chicken? Egg? Who knows.
None of them are going to kill me (I suppose you could argue that depression could, but you know what I mean); all of them are limiting, restricting in some way. It’s quite a collection of limits that I’m constantly learning to live within, to navigate around. Someone said to me that I now have a better idea of what makes me unique and special which is an interesting way to look at it. I’ve been living with me for a long time now and don’t think of me as unique – in my eyes, I’m normal. No matter if I’m normal or unique (or both), it feels as if this collection of defining characteristics is enough to be getting on with. If much is required of whom much is given, then what exactly is the much expected of me? Some days getting out of bed feels like an achievement (I spent 3 hours in a hospital waiting room for someone else yesterday; as a result of the dodgy chairs my A.S. is flaring which makes every moment of ‘normality’ today a victory); some days, filling out a form by hand is too much (thanks, dysgraphia!). Is the much that’s expected of me just to live, exist in a way that most people would recognise? Or is there more? What’s God’s call? To live within the limits, or transcend them like a bad afternoon tv-movie?
If only we all came with some sort of personalised users manual, telling how to get the best out of us. Everyone has to wrestle with these issues, of course – what am I for? It’s just that when you seem to have more quirks than others, it feels trickier to navigate.
We don’t come with user manuals, of course. We do come with an image, an imprint of a creator but that feels increasingly marred and chipped and cracked. And how do you speak of that when there’s so much about you that feels like it doesn’t bear the stamp of a wise and good creator? Is the image of God about perfection because God is perfect, or is it something more complex than that? There’s something there about our calling  – to steward creation on God’s behalf, and that creation presumably includes ourselves. So what does stewarding myself mean when the reflection is warped?
Questions, and few answers. Assuming that I now have the last of the diagnoses – at least for a while – maybe I can start to discern a way forward. Today this is less of dead-weight then it is a challenge to be surmounted, a puzzle to solve. It doesn’t oppress me today, but it does present these questions to which I struggle discern answers.
My only conclusion: normal is an illusion. There is both no such thing as normal; and also that normal is whatever your state is, wherever you habitually land. It’s not a target to be reached; if you see it that way it will always be out of reach. Instead it’s simply what you are.