#firstimefriday: What Beyoncé, the Boss and Taylor Swift might have to teach church leaders about vulnerability

“He likes you because you’re really … real.” This was said to me about 20 years ago, not long before or after I was ordained to ministry in the Anglican church. I’d been at some party with family, and my brother-in-law fed the comment back to me about a non-Christian friend of his. It might seem like an odd turn of phrase, but it’s meant positively. He had expected a priest to be distant, removed, somehow inaccessible. He seemed to appreciate sharing a beer with a priest at a party, shouting a conversation over the loud (almost certainly Britpop) music, about football, life, death and other things. It’s a phrase and an idea that has kept coming back to me at different points over the last 20 years or so. How ‘real’ am I supposed to be? How vulnerable? How much of myself do I share in sermon and other ministry? How should I dress? Some people seem to think pastors are battery-farmed; should we be organic? Free-range?

Which brings me to this week’s #firsttimefriday (the viral sensation where I write about films I’ve seen for the first time). 3 films this week. Specifically, Netflix’s trio of exclusive concert films released over the last 6 months or so – Bruce Springsteen, Taylor Swift and Beyoncé. Yes, dear reader; I watched all 3 of them in the space of 24 hours. Unashamedly, I had a blast.

erin-biafore-660296-unsplash

Photo by Erin Biafore on Unsplash

On the face of it, they couldn’t be more different. Springsteen’s is one of his nights of residency at a Broadway theatre; him and an acoustic guitar and occasionally a piano. He gives a long, rambling, funny, moving spoken word autobiographical introduction to a song; which he then plays. It’s stark, intimate, brilliant and compulsively vulnerable; the nature of the show, and the idea of a long residency of Broadway shows, seems to be quite unlike anything such an artist has attempted before. He’s in his late 60’s, and never sounded better. The Taylor Swift film is at the other end of the live music spectrum. A solo female pop star, on the closing night of her tour, in her home territory of Texas. Her music is the sort I would have dismissed; but now I have a 10-year old daughter and I’m forced to pay attention. I don’t think Swift has the greatest voice, but when she gets a song right, she gets it very right. Some of her best songs are borderline perfect pop songs, with a gift for melody and lyric-writing that many artists would sell their souls for. She also shows an admirable ability to challenge herself musically, flitting between genres. The show filmed here is the classic big pop production; about a million costume changes; big screen videos; a band that manages to keep up (although it took me most of the film for me to realise that the keyboard player was not actually in a dark underground lair). It’s not a brilliantly shot or directed film; but you get a sense of what Taylor Swift means to her fans; and as I said, at her best the songs are irresistable. Then we come to Beyoncé’s film, Homecoming; a film of her already legendary show at American music festival Coachella in 2018. It’s frankly staggering. Laced with behind the scenes footage of rehearsals – it took 8 months to rehearse for one show  – this is an adrenalised jet pack of energy, celebration and empowerment that leads to an inevitable sense that this show has changed something in the air. Beyoncé’s voice could be one of the natural wonders of the world; if weaponised, it could cause the planet to spin off its axis or bring about world peace. Or both. She’s backed by a brilliant band of percussionists and brass instrument players in a pyramid-shaped bleachers behind her; she also has a troupe of frankly astonishing dancers. The film is beautifully shot and edited, and manages one head-spinning visual trick which convinces you her costume is magically changing colour (it isn’t – Google it). 

Which of these you enjoy the most is really down to what your musical poison is. But I would suggest giving all three a go, the better to get a sense of how different artists and types of music function live. What links the three is, for me, a sense of what is real – and searching to make that available. On the face of it, Springsteen’s performance is the most ‘real’ because … well, he tells his story, there’s no big production. But from early on, Springsteen is keen to point out that, in his words, he’s fraud; he’s built his career on a magic trick. He’s seen as the great poet of the American working-class male, and yet he’s never worked a day in a factory. So is he really a fraud? I would argue not. In the story-telling, artistic business, truth is rarely literal. Springsteen connects because people see themselves in his songs. Take The Rising, a song and album written and released as a response to the 9/11/01 terrorist attacks. The title track is performed here; written from the point of view of a firefighter killed in the attempt to rescue people inside the Twin Towers. Clearly Springsteen hasn’t experienced this; but is it truthful? Listen to it here, and judge for yourself.  

Taylor Swift’s show is covered in performance and production, so she can’t be truthful, right? Well, not so fast. At one point she says to the crowd that what connects them all is that ‘we all like the feeling of something real’. This is, of course, to an extent part of the performance. But not completely. Listen to Shake It Off or Blank Space; watch a young girl respond to them, and you start to see that along with the melody and pop sensibilities there’s an invitation to something truthful and in some songs, a neat subversion of the expectations layered on women. If she’s a fraud, then so is Springsteen. But they’re both connecting with people who find something real in them both.

So to Beyoncé. In part this concert was significant even before it happened; the first black woman to headline one of America’s biggest festivals. But in conception and performance, from the way cultural tropes and traditions are appropriated in to the show, to the choreography and musical arrangements, to the songs themselves, everything is about celebrating black (female) American culture in the days a white supremacist sits in the White House. At one point I found myself thinking that some of the dancers looked to be far more ‘normal’ and varied body shapes than I am used to seeing on a stage like this; then in one of the interludes we hear Beyoncé say ‘I want every person who has ever been dismissed because of how they look to feel like they’re on that stage.’ For all the dazzling production, that’s real; I found it so refreshing to see people with normal bodies on stage. Why does it all matter? Because here, on one of the biggest stages in the nation, a black woman was taking control and making things bend to her will; not being who people think a black woman should be. Her lyrics and choreography are at times explicitly sexual; she is often criticised for this (usually by white men) and told she can’t therefore be a feminist. Which, as far as I can tell, is to miss the point. For myself, I didn’t find it erotic; the whole show was just a joyous, intoxicating sense of someone being only who she wants be, not defining herself by what others tell her that her sexuality, her politics, her anger, her relationships, her art should be. Take the remarkable Formation (with ‘adult’ lyrics), a highlight of the show for an example.

beychella

All three of these concert films present us with performers who are in different ways a layered in artifice and production; yet each of them are their own kind of ‘real’, connecting with people who see themselves in the show in front of them. Back to being a real pastor; what do people want in pastor? In my experience, it’s someone who’s both real and yet not; strong and weak; vulnerable and strong. I don’t really have an answer; I do know that when I am open with my own vulnerabilities and weaknesses, some people are helped, and some are troubled. In recent weeks I have done some of my preaching from a sitting position due to elevated levels of my chronic pain, and it changes something in the room. No doubt it’s good for some, not so good for others, neutral for still more. Ultimately, our example is one who is profoundly real; who takes on flesh and moves in to the neighbourhood, as one New Testament translation puts it, that God may have a body that sweats and bleeds and smells and everything else normal human bodies do. I’m no Jesus, and neither is any other pastor; and whilst there must be an appropriate awareness of context and self-care of keeping some things for just a few to know, the example of Jesus – and these 3 performers – is to allow myself to be seen for who I am, not project a version of who I’m not or would like to be.

For me that involves little in the way of singing, absolutely no dancing, very few costume changes; but the simple reminder that I am here to help people Jesus, and that it’s promised that happens best through weaknesses rather than strengths and successes. It’s likely to attract far fewer crowds and rather less money; but the ripples will run longer and further and deeper, and are gloriously independent of my skills and abilities.

God In The Slow Lane

It’s often said that the urgent can drive out the important. From responding to emails to health issues and much in between, there’s evidence to suggest this is true. Our attention is automatically – and often necessarily  – diverted to that which is most pressing. If your house is on fire at the moment when you’d set aside time to work on your tax returns which are due in a month’s time, then you’d be a fool to do anything other than deal with the urgent, important as tax returns are.

How do we discern which is which? Rarely are faced with such a binary or obvious choice. The minister by whom I was trained told me many things which have lodged in mind: one of them was the importance of discerning the difference between a good idea and a God idea. It might be – for example – a good idea to introduce a church service led by the youth to the programme of services; but is it the right idea at the right time? Are the youth ready? Is the rest of the church ready? That’s the leadership decision; Victor Hugo is paraphrased as writing that no-can resist an idea whose time has come. There’s truth in that.

What makes this leadership decision so difficult much of the time is that people have very different ideas of what’s urgent and what’s important. I’m always hesitant to blame the still-new tool of social media, but certainly Facebook and the like can amplify this tendency – the louder you shout or the more dramatic the news or the tighter the deadline, then the more likely you are to get heard. And there does seem to be an awful lot of shouting. The ticking time-bombs of climate-change, American mid-term elections, Brexit and the like all scream for attention. Not to mention the varied issues that are – or appear to be – related to these and other situations; the gap between rich and poor in various countries, volatile economies, diplomatic relations strained to near breaking point, racial tensions, the rise of political extremism. It seems that something must be done on each of these, now.

We bring this to church, too. Can you give me 5 ways to improve my prayer-life? What’s the best way to read the Bible? Can we have a course to improve marriage/parenting/surviving as a single person? The need screams importance and urgency; set up a solution, now.

autumn autumn leaves branches danger

Photo by David Whittaker on Pexels.com

The problem is that God seems to work to altogether different timetables. The God who defends the poor and is concerned for justice and liberation seems to wait most of Moses’s long life-time before finally sending him to lead them to freedom … which in the end turned out to be 40 years of wondering apparently aimlessly in the wilderness. Jesus waited for 30 years of presumably normal education and manual labour before doing much that was worth recoding for future posterity. As the letter-writer says in 2 Peter 3: ” With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” That’s to say – God is not so much concerned with any one thing we do or don’t do as He is the state of our souls, our relationship to Him. He’s prepared to give us a lot of time.

All this is somewhat fraught with problems. It may seem quite easy for me to say that God is patient and is biding his time for my eternal sake; but unlike some who live in this city, my house didn’t just burn down leaving me homeless and shorn of resources. The mid-term elections have a date on them, as does Brexit. If I were to receive a terminal diagnosis tomorrow (there’s no likelihood that I will), then every day would suddenly take on new weight. We’ve become so accustomed to having much of what we want or need on demand that we expect the same of the spiritual life and the faith communities we are part of or lead. Added to that, one of the perpetual burdens of leadership is to be able to see with clarity the gap between where an organisation is and where it could or should be. This gap between our time-bound urgency and God’s slowness seems to be a recipe for human frustration and angst.

What to do, then? I’ve never understood prayer, and am rather suspicious of anyone who claims to do so. I am aware, however, that when I am able to pray, two things happen – often simultaneously – something changes in the situation or person I’m praying for, and something changes in me. So I should pray, then. That’s all well and good, but in this period of my life – children, not great health, full-time job and the like, I don’t have much time. I pray a version of the daily office some days; I fire off prayers at some points in the day if something prompts me so to do. But it’s hard to turn attention to God when there’s so much that is, dare I say it, both urgent and important. Like many parents, I’m tired. I go to bed tired, and I wake tired. Prayer is hard when you’re tired.

God is working in my life very slowly at the moment. I’ve only recently realised the truth of something that happened to me around 25 years ago. Why didn’t God help me do it earlier, and save us all a lot of time? I don’t know. Things in church happen slowly; of course, we’ve never really arrived, we’re always changing and adjusting and growing – but it strikes me that in one particular area of my church’s life we’re only now beginning to reach a place I first dreamed of about 8 years ago. For so many people – including myself and my own relationships – I can see where we or they could be, but we all seem to take an inordinately long time to get there.

I read this week that in Paul’s great hymn to love, 1 Corinthians 13, the first definition given of love is patience; or as older translations have it, long-suffering. God seems to love me, you, us so much that he’s willing to suffer long for us to get to where he needs us to get to. He won’t rush us because to rush us would go against his innate love for us. He loves us more than our deeds, more than our urgent actions or calls to action, more than any one thing we can make happen. He wants us to work for him – but he wants that to come not as duty or forced obedience, but as loving response to his long-suffering on our behalf.

There is much we come up against that might be fixed by urgent labour or donation of money or the like. Sometimes that will need to happen; but more often, perhaps, we will find ourselves called to what Eugene Peterson termed the ‘long obedience in the same direction’; the long-suffering with ourselves and others, as God does with us. There’s no 12 week course to fix injustice; there’s no quick fix for my prayer-life; there’s no easy route to better relationships. Love is patient, long-suffering – requiring us to exercise the kindness and the benefit of the doubt to ourselves and others that God is so willing to exercise to all of us. That doesn’t allow us to be lazy, or to make excuses for damaging or violating patterns of behaviour; but it does mean that we are to find within us that part of ourselves that bears the stamp of the long-suffering creator, to let His patience call out our own with ourselves and others.

Glimpses Of The St Peter’s Story: Learning To Be Diverse

Desmond Tutu – The Arch(bishop) as he’s affectionately known – was, I think, the person who introduced the idea of South Africa as The Rainbow Nation; a multicoloured country of different cultures, where new ideas are allowed to compete in the market-place along with established thinking. Where different cultures are allowed to flourish and express themselves on an equal footing. This is an attractive and inspiring idea – not least here, in a country where one people group ruled all the others so oppressively and for so long. It’s a concept that many embraced – and it was used explicitly and implicitly to market the country abroad. You can see the idea – if not the words themselves – behind much of the country’s apparent self-image, in advertising and various cultural expressions.

But it’s hard work; so hard, that some have given up. I’ve heard The Arch say that he believes the dream of the Rainbow Nation is dead; every gain requires some loss, and that seems to be too painful for some to persist.  How do we respond to that in Mowbray, a diverse (economically and racially) area of Cape Town? In former days Mowbray was an area which experienced the forced removals of apartheid law, and the incoming of white people, Some members of this church can still remember waiting with toys in hand for the trucks to come and take them to their new ‘home’ … which even on the day of removal they didn’t know the location of. Things have changed now; Mowbray truly is diverse. But how does the church embrace that?

rainbow color patch on area rug

Photo by Sanketh Rao on Pexels.com

Diversity can sound like a vague idea, redolent of the sort of forced ideals which enrage some extreme cultural conservatives. However, if the church is called to be a local expression of the Gospel (to simplify what one of my theological heroes, Lesslie Newbigin, said) then we have to take that seriously. If we’re try to give people a (fallen) foretaste of the New Creation where people of all nations will be worshipping and working and resting with each other at Jesus’ feet, then a church in area like ours needs to seek to be like that.

We’re not a big church, but we do have people from a number of different cultural backgrounds who call this church their spiritual home. We’ve been introducing songs and hymns in some of the different languages represented; for some who were forced as children to learn at school in a language that wasn’t their mother tongue, this has been deeply significant, and at times overwhelmingly emotional. We have a diversity of styles of music (sometimes led by the organ, sometimes the guitar and sometimes the keyboard). We try to make sure people who aren’t white men (like me) are involved in leadership positions at different points. It’s hard for people to unlearn the practice of years of sitting at the back of church because that where they felt they had to sit in years past – even when we rope off the back pews; conversely, white people are having to learn to give up (or at least share) their pews at the front.

It’s not easy, though. Because we’re not a big church, there’s only (for example) a few people musical enough to play in services; there’s only so much diversity we can express with a community of this size. The pool is numerically limited, and we want people to be expressing their gifts in a way that gives them joy – not forced into an ill-fitting yolk whuch will burden them. I read and hear people saying that if we don’t have X% of people who aren’t white males in positions of influence, then we’re failing. I agree with the agenda, but not with that way of expressing it; it fails to account for the factor that we, like every other church, are constantly in a process. We haven’t arrived, and may never do so; church’s are organic beings which need a gentle hand on the tiller; they’re not machines where you can simply replace parts with other ones. People need to be loved into change, not driven. Our vision statement seeks to express this sense of not arriving: “We believe Jesus is good news for this city, so we want to be a community where people experience Jesus, embracing the full diversity of Mowbray and beyond”. (Note: we want to be – not are).

We’ve struggled, for instance, to get people who aren’t white males to preach in Sunday services; there are things I could have done better to speed this along, I’m sure. But we also need to wait (and much of ministry and church life and all of life is waiting for God to do things in the time He wants) for the right people to find their home amongst us – and then to have the courage to accept invitations when they are extended.

We are seeking. Seeking a lot of different things, or rather seeking to be many different things. There are things we could do better; there’s also much we’re waiting for.

Seek and you shall find, says Jesus.

When Ministry Is An Idol

When Ministry Is An Idol

It’s easy to care too much. Time was when an Arsenal result would affect my mood for a few days; my then girlfriend (now wife) would put her hand on my chest during a match and she’d be seriously worried about the speed of the heartbeat she felt. The truth is, supporting Arsenal is an important part of my identity; it was handed down at an early age from my mother. I have one of those romantic first memories of live football at Arsenal with my mother’s father that Nick Hornby would be proud of (1-1 with Watford, Charlie Nicholas missed a penalty but scored off the rebound, since you ask). It had become too important, though. So over time I learned (mostly) to put Arsenal in its right place in my life – something that’s important to me, that I enjoy and care about … but not a long-term mood-altering drug, like it had been.
Of course, one of the things about a mood-altering drug is that once we grow accustomed to life under its spell we can start to fear who we are without it. It becomes a way of protecting ourselves not only from the world, but from ourselves. One of the keys to healing the addictions we all live with is to allow ourselves to be OK with who we are  – and to allow ourselves to be worked on by ourselves and others (and God) in a loving way that affirms us yet calls us on. At its heart, addiction to anything is about idolatry. We are dependent on something (or someone) flawed, that damages us in some way – rather than the God who works for our good in all things. Idolatry is putting something else where God should be in our lives.

When it comes to preaching on idols or idolatry, I sometimes ask the congregation to suggest idols that they think are issues in society today. The responses are usually reasonably predictable: money, sex, sport. Those are the things we good church people can often think of as idols. That’s not wrong – there are people for whom these things have assumed the wrong place in their lives. But I’ll be honest; I’ve yet to meet a Christian in the broadly evangelical church for whom sex is an idol; perhaps sexual purity, but that’s the subject of another post. I sometimes try and prod the conversation: what about family? marriage? church? Could they be idols?

What about me, then? Now I’ve got Arsenal more or less in its place (most of the time), what are my idols? For me  – and I think for many of us in what is loosely, and rather self-importantly titled ‘full time (paid) ministry’ – I think it’s that last word. This doesn’t happen as an instantaneous decision; it’s not as if we make a model of our ministry out of melted down gold; it’s more subtle than that. As I’ve touched on before, evidence of ministry’s idolatrous place in our lives may be slipping out in the form of our over-the-top reaction to criticism or our extreme defensiveness or obsessive controlling. The ministry could be anything, really: (ordained) church leadership, youth work, speaking for justice, writing, preaching, church music (of any era) … The list could go on for a long time. We fall prey to the heresy that God needs us, that our ministry is in some way essential to Him; when in fact it’s a gift of grace which He longs for us to have as part of life in all its fulness, part of our grateful worship back to Him.
Defensiveness is a tricky part of this. I know what it’s like to be publicly accused of something that has no basis in fact. It’s hard to defend the accusation whilst not thinking ‘God needs me here, so I’d best defend this with everything I’ve got’. God doesn’t need me; He wants me. It’s hard to accept the reality that God knows what’s real when people are spreading (and worse, believing) untruths about you. If I react well in those situations, then I’ll confront what’s wrong and do what I need to do to deal with the situation – but I’ll be doing so in such a way that I’m not pretending God’s life depends on it. The Gospel has been around long enough, and God has coped with enough false accusations (against Jesus, for starters), to prove that in the long term His mission of love for the world will not be deflected if a few people believe the wrong thing about me.
How do I know the difference? The truth is that I often won’t; and that our motives and deeds are rarely so easily defined as all-good or all-bad. For me, part of it relates to words spoken over me – words meant with love. When I was waiting to hear if I’d been recommended for ordination in the Church of England my mother (for whom it was a dream to have a son ordained – because she never was ordained herself) said to me ‘I don’t know what you’ll do with yourself if you don’t get accepted’. That was over 20 years ago, and still it haunts me long after my mother’s death. My therapist and I have revisited it more than a few times. In darker moments, I still ask myself: if I lose all this, if it gets taken away from me because of the action of another or my deteriorating health … what will I do? What am I any good for? Then the defensiveness comes; then my God-given calling to ordained ministry has slipped into the place God should assume in my life. I’m holding on to my Isaac, rather than than the one who feely gave me Isaac in the first place.
God, this is a hard one. Another layer of the ‘God doesn’t need me, but He does want me’ dilemma. He can cope without me and you, but chooses not to. He doesn’t define me or you by our ministries or our gifts or our callings or our families or our relationships or our writings or our talks or our worship sets or organ voluntaries or coffee-making or speaking up for those who have no voice or financial responsibility or giving or … All of these matter; all of them we are invited to; commanded to do, perhaps (though maybe it’s less of a command than we often like to make it sound). God defines me and you first, and only, by our status as His children. The rest of it comes from that  – and leads us, and in God’s grace others, back to that basic truth. We are children of a perfect father. If our ministries were for some reason taken from us overnight, God would still be our Father and Mother, perfect in all His ways and endless in Her love.
A fresh realisation of this for me came with our fostering (and planned adoption) of the children who have now been in our care for more than two and a half years. We started fostering, and planned to adopt, not because we need to have children; we didn’t. We simply felt it was what God was inviting us to. I didn’t need children in my life. But I find now that I do want them there; I rejoice in them, I thank God for them, they drive me to prayer and worship like little else I have ever encountered. It would be easy for them to become idols. I am invited to remember that as we have done for them, at some cost, God has done for me at immeasurable cost so that I could be adopted by Him. When that understanding is in its right place, all else flows as it should.