Lessons On The Way 6: Nothing’s that important

Most churches run on the fuel of volunteers. As I’ve alluded to before, working with volunteers can be one of the unsung pressures of the paid church leader. It’s often hard to shake the feeling in your gut that because volunteers are … well … volunteers you can’t expect them to be as committed to the church as you are. Or you feel guilty about asking things of them. You may have moral or spiritual authority, but there’s very little actual positional authority to draw on in relation to volunteers. You live with that nagging sense that they can leave at any time; and sometimes they do.

Which is why church life often gets so busy, with programmes and courses and events which need volunteer hours to run. Give people a target to work towards, then people are more likely to buy in and give their time and energy and money. In addition, the more good stuff your church runs the less likely your fickle church members (and thus your pool of volunteers) are to head off to the slick, busy, mega-church down the road with a large staff team.

All this needs vision. Vision is good; it provides a clear sense of where we’re going, as well as where we’ve been. It gives direction and momentum. People buy into vision. People will give time and money, blood, sweat and tears to vision. Keep the vision compelling, front and centre and people are more likely to stay around and get involved.

Vision is – or should be – God-given. I don’t mean by that it descends from on high like the Law, but that it’s worked out in community under God in a process. Sometimes it needs be steered to a greater or lesser extent by the leadership of the church, but it should come from God. Vision is a blessing given by God, and when it’s received and handled aright, it can be deeply significant. But it’s not God.

We people have a nasty habit of turning blessings into gods, Isaacs in idols. It’s very easy, disturbingly easy, for vision to subtly creep into spaces it shouldn’t be in. I’m sure it would be easy to write one of those ‘8 signs you’re replacing God with vision’ type of posts. That’s not really my concern here.

My concern is this. That people are burning out. That could be the clergy, it could be paid lay-staff, it could be volunteers. Frankly, the way people of all 3 of those categories burn out in church life is frightening. No wonder we have a generation cynical about church if they look at it and see bruised reeds being broken. I recently read the following in another blog: “For example, a well-known mega-church pastor once advised me to think of people in seven-year terms. He explained that people generally burn out after seven years. And if I wanted to build a big ministry for God, I would need to leverage those seven years“. You may need to re-read that a couple of times to grasp the full, disturbing nature of the statement. Not find a way to stop people burning out, but leverage the volunteers until they do so.

This doesn’t stop with volunteers. Frankly, I’ve seen employment practises for church staff (including the senior pastor) that are abusive. Sometimes this is justified by the fact that unlike volunteers, staff still need to ‘give time’. Nonsense. If church is your job, you don’t need to ‘give time’. You need to rest, away from it. If people are burning out, they are not responding to God; that may be their own brokenness causing it, or it may be driving people to a vision rather than calling people to God. 

I understand why happens. For the leader, and often for other over-committed staff, church takes up so much time and energy that we have to make sure it works; whatever that means for us. So we pour into it, and expect others to do so too. If we don’t, we might fail.

It’s so hard not to do this, and it creeps into my own life, thoughts and deeds insidiously. Far too often, when someone’s unable to do something or does something in a way I don’t like, I respond with angry words in my head, moaning at lack of commitment or vision. Nothing should be that important, but that doesn’t stop me needing ‘success’ to prove myself to myself or others … and needing the overwork of others to achieve it.

When I get it right, this is what I do. I tell people to find an area of church to serve in that gives them joy and life and energy, and then to do it. If it stops becoming a joy, stop doing it. If that means we don’t have Sunday School one week, or the church is a bit messier, or the music isn’t what it has been, then so be it. God will still be on His throne and Jesus will still love us and want people to come to Him and will work through us anyway. Something about jars of clay, I think.

Of course there will be moments. Moments when we all need to chip in because there’s a crisis, or something especially unusual or occasional that needs to be done. Sometimes we do need to move outside the space of our strength and joy just to use a different muscle for a bit. But those are all the exception; no less real because of it, but the exception for all that.

There’s nothing in the Bible about being driven beyond what we’re capable of, moving beyond natural healthy human limitations, following God so recklessly that relationships, health and spiritual life suffer. Live life as God calls me to; that’s my daily challenge. The rest is God’s responsibility. Not mine.

Also In This Series:

1: I Don’t Have To Do It All

2: How To Make Sure Your Church Leader Doesn’t Turn Into A Psychopath

3: The Dangers And Offensiveness Of Grace

4: Tables And Chairs Are Spiritual

5: I’m (A Bit) Like St. Paul


Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Captain America has to be one of the least inspiring superheroes. Like Batman he doesn’t have very impressive powers, but at least Batman has style, brooding menace and moral complexity. On the face of it all that distinguishes Captain America from the rest of humanity is that he’s a bit more the classic All-America kid than the average boy. That and his name winds up everyone who’s not American.

The first film was, unnervingly, quite good. Not startlingly brilliant, but more than passably entertaining. The second film, like most superhero movies, faces the problem of how to make a superhero film genuinely exciting. We all know the central character isn’t going to die; so how do you make it interesting? Christopher Nolan managed so in all three of his Batman movies by pointing up the moral complexity, and in the last movie giving us a frighteningly believable villain/urban terrorist. This Captain America movie brings us up to the present day, with a few obvious man out of time jokes for the newly awakened hero; thrust into a role in Marvel’s every expanding popular culture universe. This is a story that overlaps with other Marvel movies as well as the Agents Of SHEILD television series; none are anything like essential to enjoy the film, but do give more context and understanding.

The plot that unfolds is one that is in every respect deeply contemporary – a central plot strand is a barely disguised dig at America’s drone programme; government bodies are inherently untrustworthy; nationhood is a confused concept; Robert Redford is brilliantly cast against type as a worryingly morally slippery agency chief. All this is this movie’s answer to how to maintain genuine audience engagement when we’re unlikely to believe any real threat to the central character. Make him cynical, questioning the status quo and morally uncertain.

It’s a clever trick, and one that largely works. Like many films of its type it loses footing in the last act, the earlier subtlety lost in large-scale, technically impressive but numblingly over-long action set-pieces. The Winter Soldier himself is strangely absent for much of the film also; I couldn’t shake the feeling that with a little more work he could have been a convincingly chilling counterpoint to the increasing suspicion and cynicism of Captain America.

Alongside that there’s the unshakeable feeling that this is all existing for the sake of supporting the increasingly over-blown quest for pop culture dominance from the Marvel Universe. There’s much that’s interesting and fun in this universe, of course. It’s not all intrinsically necessary, though. Less is more, of course, but don’t expect that truth to be grasped any time soon. Still, if we have to a superhero called Captain America, then this is what he should be. It’s a good stab and a difficult character, with a pleasantly surprising dose of political subversiveness.

I rated this film 7/10 on imdb.com and 3.5/5 on rottentomatoes.com

Welcoming the mysterious ‘they’ and the undeserving lowlifes. Like me.

This may or may not come as news to you, but between the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and the wisdom of St Paul, it turns out that the Bible is right. Paul is often at pains to point out that salvation – relationship with God through Jesus – is not something we earn, but something we’re given precisely because we don’t deserve it and we’ve admitted as such to God.

On the face of it this is deeply offensive to everybody, apart from really evil people like mass murderers and the people who stick chewing gum on the underside of desks. We’re not worth it, but God loves us anyway and makes us worth it by what He does in Jesus. It’s mind-bogglingly offensive to my sense of my own goodness and worthiness. If we lose the offence of this, then we’ve missed something crucial about the gospel.

There’s a great worship song that manages to unpack some of this. Ignore the tune if you’re not into folk music – it can be translated into something very different on the piano – what this does really well is talk about the offensive welcome of God. It’s the sort of worship song that’s really comforting until you start to pay attention to all the words: God welcomes anyone who’ll come. That includes me, and people I may like – debaters who’ll disagree with me and still allow me my own view and materialists with season tickets to the football who just happen to lend them to the vicar; and people I may not like. The most potentially inflammatory of these in the song are people of ‘every orientation’ or perhaps ‘abusers’. We’re all comfortable with welcoming the abused; churches do that, right? We have prayer ministry and inner healing courses for that. Every church like to welcome the abused. But the perpetrators? If I haven’t stopped to consider that even ‘they’ (whoever my particular ‘they’ might be) will be welcomed by God and redefined by Him if not by me, then I haven’t got a big enough picture of God or His gospel. God is less concerned about His reputation than I am.

Which leads me to giving money to people who beg. All of us who don’t live outside have probably wrestled with this in some form. If someone who is probably homeless is asking for money, what do I do? Should I give indiscriminately? What if ‘they’ spend it on drugs or alcohol or something else ‘they’ are addicted to? How do I know ‘they’ won’t squander it?

Notice how quickly the nameless ‘they’ creep into our discussions. When I’ve led groups in consideration of this question, I’ve often tried to change the terms of the discussion. Let’s imagine a person with a name. Give him or her a history, a path to this point in time. Give her a passion. Give him a sports team to love. Give him a life’s path from this point on. Usually the life’s path leads to a premature death of some kind. What follows is often an uncomfortable silence, and a re-imagining of the conversations around money. For some it no longer matters what the person may do with money handed over or help given; what matters, suddenly, is how that person has been treated in the interaction.

There are many people in our area who live outside. I don’t know many of them. One or two I know well. Ricardo is one of those.

He’s a bright, witty man with a winning smile. He lives on the streets. After a year or so of us getting to know each other, he asked if he could sit down with me and my wife and just tell us his story because ‘I’ve never told anyone before’. So he came round one night for a bowl of pasta and talked for hours about the story of his life. He still lives on the streets, but now he assists my wife on her photography jobs and sometimes he drives our car. Apparently this is shocking to some; I’m not trying to make us out to be something special. Really I’m not – it’s only shocking to me if he’s one of ‘them’. He’s not. He’s my friend Ricardo. He’s going to come round and watch a movie soon, because that’s what I do with friends who have names.

Does he deserve it? No. Might he go ‘off the rails’ at some point and take advantage of us? Possibly. Am I just encouraging him to stay on the streets? Perhaps.

Have I ever spent money on something I shouldn’t have?  Have I ever done things I shouldn’t have or taken bad decisions? Have I ever taken advantage of the kindness and goodness of other? Next question, please.

Did I deserve someone whose name I didn’t know to die for me? I suppose I should probably stop hedging and start answering. No, I didn’t. Might I go ‘off the rails’ at some point and take advantage of that? Yes I do, often. But you’re in no place to judge; you’ve departed the rails on occasion yourself. Does that grace just encourage me to sin all the more? Sometimes, yes. If you’re honest, you do too.

Does any of that change God’s welcome of you?


Coriolanus (2011)

Coriolanus is a long way from being one of Shakespeare’s most accessible plays. The Roman plays in general have a not entirely fair reputation for being full of long speeches and low on plot; it’s tempting to meet the title with a shrugged ‘who’ (or ‘what’?); it’s not a very regularly performed play anyway, so it doesn’t have many opportunities to make a bid for the limelight.

So on the face of it this is strange choice of material for Ralph Fiennes on his directorial debut; especially when you consider that he’s also the star. In Fiennes and his adapter’s hands the play becomes a sleek, streamlined political drama with visceral action sequences Transported to “a place calling itself Rome” that plays more like a wartime Bosnia. Coriolanus is heroic general, feted with praise and encouraged, or forced, by his mother (Vanessa Redgrave) to seek the powerful position of Consul. He finds himself unable to play the political games with the people required to get the post; his anger on not getting the position leads to a riot and exile. In exile he forms an alliance with former enemy Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler) in order to take revenge.

It’s a tense and gripping watch; the new setting lends greater immediacy and sense of threat, the edits give clean lines a plot that fairly zips along. The action sequences are fine; not outstanding, but suitably brutal to maintain the law of the jungle sense of ancient Rome. The air is suffused with testosterone, with men not backing down from each other. The female characters are cleverly dressed to look more military, if not masculine then at the least not emphasising femininity. This is a male environment, with the smoke of combat never far away. That approach explains the choice of Gerard Butler for the role of Tullus; which would make sense if he didn’t appear so dramatically out of his depth. He alone amongst the cast doesn’t seem comfortable with the language, brooding too much and forgetting to back-up his physical presence with words that are threatening or venomous.

Which is a huge contrast to Fiennes in the lead role. Battle-scarred and, for most of the film, bloodied, when he’s not fighting he’s a caged tiger. It’s clear why men will follow him into battle; haranguing bullet-ridden corpses for a lack of commitment, his men fight for and with their leader. It makes sense of his unwillingness to stay around to hear the story of his exploits; this is a man of deeds, not words. When he’s finally bought face-to-face with his estranged family in a climactic showdown he’s largely silence, trying to keep a crumbling facade in place.

Which all works well as far as plot and the themes of power and alpha masculinity go, but does mean that the film has precious little emotional heft; even in a denouement which should at the least brush the heart, it becomes more of an action movie showdown with much better dialogue. It seems a hard criticism, but ultimately it’s the fruit of the understandable choices made with the plot and style of the film. The updating convinces; the drama grips; the action impresses. It’s just a shame there’s not more heart to go with all the guts.

I rated this film 7/10 on imdb.com and 3.5/5 on rottentomatoes.com

I watched this film at home on tv.