#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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

When Darkness Seems My Closest Friend: Reflections On Life And Ministry With Depression

Testimonies can be powerful, which is why they are something of a Christian ‘thing’. Especially amongst we who call ourselves (charismatic) evangelicals. You know the sort of thing – in a worship service or conference, a person will tell his or her story about dramatic change in their their life, attributed to God in some way. These are true and genuine – be they physical healing, emotional healing, general life change as a result of an encounter with God, or the like. There’s good reason to find these helpful – they remind us that God is living and active and able to actually do stuff here and now; that prayers get answered and change is possible. There is a caveat; like a diet that entirely consists of steak (only for example, nothing against steak), it’s good for a few meals, but if that’s all we eat we’re going to get into trouble. I mean to say this: that if the only stories we tell are stories of total transformation, healing, overcoming and victory then we’re only telling part of the truth. I’m not suggesting for a minute that these testimonies are untrue; it’s just that they’re not the whole truth.

This applies in any area of ministry and life in general; healing ministry, social justice, finances. It could be anything. We need to tell other stories alongside the stories of victory and change. As is often the case, a self-confessed addict can be helpful here; he will speak of himself (if he’s wise) as ‘a recovering addict’, not ‘a recovered one’. Healing and freedom for the recovering addict is a daily, ongoing, repeated journey. We all need to tell stories like this – of the processes and journeys, the struggles and failures and repeat visits in our lives. I come to this as a minister and church leader; there is a pressure and expectation to be strong; to be healed and from my own healing to heal others. Don’t have needs, I’m subtly told – or if I do, don’t express them. It’s been fed back to me on previous occasions that I must never respond to a congregant who asks the ‘How are you?’ question with anything less positive than ‘Ok’ or ‘fine’ so that people won’t be put off from telling me their stuff.

My therapist, who’s not a Christian, helped me see the absurdity of this. Is the leader really expected to have no wounds or problems? People know I sin, right? The thing is, I never have a day where I’m OK or fine; I have Ankylosing Spondylitis, which means that every single day for over 20 years I have had pain of a minimum of 3 out of 10 on the pain scale, along with other symptoms. I also live with ADD, chronic depression, anxiety, PTSD, dysgraphia and dyspraxia. I am never OK; essentially in being asked to say I’m OK when I never am is asking a minster to lie about how they’re doing in order to make things easier for the person they’re speaking to. We all know lying is sinful; so this represents a request to your minister to knowingly sin to make it easier on you.

Nonsense. Understandable nonsense, but nonsense all the same. Not being OK doesn’t mean I can’t hear your stuff; in fact (unless it’s a really bad day, which means I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed to see you in anyway), for the Christian my wounds and pain make me more able to understand your wounds; we are, after all, healed by, not in spite of, Christ’s wounds (as well as His perfection; His perfection means that your minister as well as you don’t have to be perfect). It’s what priest and author Henri Nouwen and others have called the ministry of the wounded healer.

 

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All of this is a very long way round to talk about Mark Meynell’s book ‘When Darkness Seems My Closest Friend’. He’s a relatively conservative theologian and minister from England, who for a long time now has lived with depression and PTSD. This book is his story; it’s subtitled ‘Reflections on Life and Ministry with Depression’. The Christian, and especially the evangelical, conversation about mental health has improved a great deal recently, but there is still a way to go. This book will be an important part of that, as much because of what it doesn’t do as well as because of what it does do. It tells the author’s own story, offering Biblical reflections along the way; it offers hints and tips and suggestions – but never solutions. It doesn’t suggest his experience is universal; quite the opposite. The author is wise enough to let his specific story be his and his alone – and to allow us to through that understand our own stories; to see where they connect and diverge from his. It’s not the story of victory; it’s the story of a still-ongoing night long wrestle with a being who may be an angel or may not – but God is there; it’s just that it’s hard to see in the dark cave of mental health pain (to use the author’s own image of the cave). When you’re in the cave you can’t tell if it’s night or day outside; let alone if the one you’re wrestling happens to be God. The author attaches no guilt to that; he simply gives some idea of what has helped him. Some sense of direction of where to look, which way to turn to find the light.

Mark Meynell is also a good theologian, with a teacher’s gift for making complex ideas accessible without ever simplifying them. His use of the Bible is nourishing, well-thought through and personal. His use of one psalm in particular bought me up short, in all the best and most healing ways. I rather think I share with him some taste in music (and films?); I reckon he’d be fascinating company over a beer.

This book will be a friend to many church leaders like me; it will be a challenge to many church members. Over the 8 plus years I’ve been at my current church, my congregation have grown more accustomed to my weaknesses and inadequacies; sometimes that has infuriated some people (including me); sometimes some of us have found it healing. That doesn’t mean I can’t be better or wiser at this, or that I don’t have anything to learn; it’s just that weakness seems to be something God works through, rather than in spite of. (That’s actually in the Bible, it turns out). As the prophet Michael Smith sang: “Wear your scars like medals”.

Will we tell better stories, then? As leaders, will we tell the stories of our struggles and pains? Will be OK with not being OK – and saying that; and through that allowing healing to come? Or will we play to the image of alpha male strength, people-pleasing by never walking with a limp despite the excruciating pain? Of course, if we try to not limp when the pain is too much, eventually we won’t be able to walk any more; and then people really will get hurt. But that doesn’t stop us defaulting to the presentation of health; to presenting the image of being the sort of fine that people think they need in us.

We’re not made to be idols of shiny OK-ness for the sake of the ease of conscience of people in our communities. We’re made to be fellow disciples; perhaps with a sense of where we’re going, trained and gifted and set aside to help point out some things that others may miss. Those things include our own inadequacies; as much for our own good as for the good of those we lead, let’s let go of pretence about ourselves towards God and others. It’s OK for a leader not to be OK, and to say that. Mark Meynell’s book will be a significant companion on that journey for church leaders and members alike.

God Doesn’t Need Me: Reflections On The Children Act

 

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Over the years I’ve heard many different definitions of leadership. Servanthood, shepherd, influencer, pastor, teacher (there’s a fierce debate  – really – as to if there should be a hyphen between those last two. Only Christians could make a debate out of a hyphen). And so on. One that stayed with me – and I can’t remember where I heard it, so apologies for not sourcing – is something like this: that leadership is the art of being comfortable with the fact that you’re always disappointing somebody. I’ve found that to resonate; and I’d add to it that I’ve needed to learn to disappoint the right people at the right time. If you’re leading more than one person, then at least one person is going to be in some way disappointed with you most of the time. There are two people to add to that picture. One is the leader herself – most of us find that we often disappoint ourselves, and live with a permanent frustration that things aren’t as they could or should be – and it’s our fault (and there’s usually a few people willing to tell us that). The other is God; if we’re in Christian leadership, then we often sit with the nagging sense that God must be a bit miffed that we’ve let Him down again (and there’s usually a few people willing to tell us that). All of this is why Christian leaders need all of the following: close friends, people who pray for us, mentors, spiritual directors, therapists, holidays, fun, and a dog. None of these insulate us against crashing and burning; but they give us a good shot at avoiding it.

By all these definitions, Emma Thompson’s character in The Children Act – a new film adapted by Ian McEwen from his own novel – is a leader with whom most of us could connect. She spends most of the film becoming aware that she has disappointed, is in the process of disappointing or is about to disappoint someone  – not least herself. She’s a high court judge in London, ruling on cases affecting children. Many of them are the headline-grabbing, soul-wrenching moral dilemmas; which conjoined twin to let die, and the like. The case at the film’s centre is of a 17 year-old Jehovah’s Witness boy who is refusing a potentially life-saving blood transfusion. He’s days away from turning 18, when the choice would be entirely his; but by law, a 17-year-old can be forced to take treatment against his will. To help settle the case, Emma Thompson visits him in the hospital – an unconvential act that’s probably highly unprofessional, made plausible by Thompson’s brilliant, subtle performance. She makes her ruling around halfway through the film – the rest of which deals with the fallout. Alongside all this, early in the film her husband (Stanley Tucci in a quiet and humbly powerful performance) tells her he loves her but wants an affair due to a lack of intimacy.

At this point it’s worth pointing out a few things about Ian McEwen’s work. He’s brilliant, of course; he often sets up a plot with great economy and not a little wit but then doesn’t seem to know how to make it all end plausibly (prime example, Saturday; a plot which collapses under the weight of its central, clumsy metaphor). He also doesn’t appear to be a great fan of religion; and he’s not a great screen adapter of his own work. This book and film are an improvement on much of that, even if the ending still feels as somewhat contrived as it did in the book. Religion isn’t exactly given a fair-hearing, but it at least feels somewhat understood here; there’s a devastating moment (for Anglican clergy) when one character is asked ‘Are you a Christian?’, to which he replies ‘I’m an Anglican’. In that short exchange lies a thousand truths.

Whatever choice Emma Thompson’s judge makes in the cases and marital decisions before her, she’ll disappoint someone. The film ends on a touch of hope, but given all that goes before, it’s a fragile kind of hope. Clearly there are many brilliant leaders who don’t profess to know God and who survive and even flourish in the experience; for me, as a Christian leader, the question remains:  Who do I disappoint? How do I deal with my own disappointment in myself; the disappointment others feel in me; the disappointment I think God must feel? Where do I take it?

For a start, I need to take it to all those places and people (and dogs) I listed earlier. But as I said, none of these are guarantees against failure – public or private. I think the key lies in taking to heart the fact that God doesn’t need me.  I meet many leaders – myself included – who are prone to thinking God/the church/the world needs us. The truth is God needs no-one; but in his incredible, scarcely credible love and grace he chooses to involve us anyway. It’s not that God needs us; it’s way better than that. He wants to involve us. We’re not essential; so when we screw up (which we do), when we die (which we will), when we sleep or go on holiday or have fun  (which we have to – though knowing some leaders you wouldn’t know it), the world and His plan will carry on regardless.

So the pressure is off. Ever met a defensive leader, one who flies off the handle in blame or self-recrimination at the merest hint of failure or criticism? I have  – I am, or can be, one. The effect can be devastating; as a result of knowing one for a few years, I ended up with PTSD and was suicidal. That can all stem from thinking we’re needed; that God somehow relies on us. He doesn’t. How arrogant and self-aggrandising it is for me to think that an eternal God who broke the power of death would need me. No. He doesn’t need me. And that’s OK. Because He wants me and chooses me because of Him, not me. Because He loves me.

That needs to be enough for me. If I let it penetrate my soul – daily – it will be enough. And it can be enough for you also.