Midrash

I’ve long been fascinated by the Jewish approach to life as it flows from Judaism. Perhaps it grows out of the possibility that my paternal grandmother may have been Jewish. Even the most atheist of Jews has their religion built into their DNA. Even Jewish humour has it’s origins with Rabbinical oral culture.

The Midrash is a collective name for rabbinical interpretations, thoughts preaching growing from their study of the Torah and goes back centuries. It has, as I understand it, shaped Jewish thinking as much as the Torah itself.

The various Midrash seek to bring clarity and understanding to the meaning of the Old Testament although they often contradict each other because of different interpretations they are, from my limited experience, filled with wisdom and offers insight worth considering. I am particularly taken with this passage at the moment.

I was drawn to this after talking with my son, Harry. Harry is in year 8 and is currently looking at the Slave Trade in history at school. I was telling him how the Bible had been used to say that slavery was godly and Christian. At the same time the Bible was edited down to make a Slaves Bible to instil Christian understanding and ethics while removing anything about slaves being freed.

The quote brought to mind disagreements about how the Bible should be read. It can and is read as a straight forward document of God breathed word, inerrant. It is also read as God inspired writing, God putting forth his wisdom through inspiring a multitude of men to write it down as best they could. Words that need to be read in the context of the time they were written. It is also read as a mystical text which offers meaning beyond the surface, that seeks to understand or just make room for, the mystery of God the unknowable.

The problems begin when we, as human beings, believe that we are following the right way to be a believer and that everyone else is wrong. Most of us accept that God is bigger and more mysterious than us, unknowable except for what he lets us know. But most of us, me included, think there are people who call themselves Christians who just don’t get it, they act like Pharisees or new age hippies. It is incredibly easy to ignore the log in our own eye and focus on the speck in another’s eye, particularly if we are convinced there is no log in our eye.

I have had more than the odd disagreement with fellow Christians based on differing theology, differing ways of reading the Bible and I will no doubt continue to do so based on my limited understanding of who God is. But I have come to recognise that God is not a man, he is, in many ways, as understandable to us as we are to ants. As it says in Mark 4:11 “so also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except The Spirit Of God” and later that the Spirit From God enables us to understand the things given by God. We may know what God shows us and gives us but it is hubris to think we know the thoughts of God.

The quote from the Midrash suggests that our aim should be to see beyond the surface, that as Jesus spoke to us in parables, perhaps God’s words are draped in deeper meaning then is obvious on the surface.

I am left with a lot to think on. Questions I need to ask myself that may have no answer. Do I behave like I alone know how God thinks and what He wants? Do I read only the surface of his word or do I seek to see below the surface? Where can I see what is on God’s heart?

A lot to think on indeed

Pioneer Pete

For anyone interested you can read more about the Slave Bible here

How do you make a Christian?

This is a question that has been the focus of my last 3 years. As Pioneer Missioner my role is to support and encourage mission. Mission, to my understanding, is supporting a community practically so that conversations can take place about why you are supporting the community. (the correct answer to that should be something along the lines of reflecting God’s love by answering a practical need in the community). The foodbank at Chase is a perfect example of that. It helps answer a need in the community and has lead to the building of relationships which has lead to conversations and prayer. Seeds have been sown.

Over the last 10 months traditional mission has been virtually impossible but I have had a lot of time to look at the question of “How do you make a Christian?” I have researched evangelism and apologetics and mission, not extensively but enough, and I have some thoughts I want to share.

I have come to the conclusion that, while admirable and useful tools, it is relationship and community that are key to whether people remain as part of church. It is incredibly difficult to maintain faith in a vacuum. According to Billy Graham 25% of those who made a declaration of faith at his crusades followed through on it and became a Christian. I would suggest that the 25% were the ones who came with a Christian friend who walked with them and discipled them as they began their journey of faith. (Statistical research has suggested the figure is more like 6% but to be honest that is neither here nor there).

I would imagine the same stands true of apologetics and mission. God is enormous and mysterious, as it says in Job 36;26 “How great is God–beyond our understanding! The number of his years is past finding out.” God is to big for us to fully comprehend. The Bible is open as to many readings and interpretations as there are Christians, many of which seem at odds with each other.

I have come to the conclusion that many things make a person become a Christian. It may be picking up a Bible in prison and suddenly realising the truth of it. It may be listening to an evangelist on the streets or in a church meeting. It may be escaping an awful accident or illness and seeing God in the midst of it. It may be these things and many more but I personally don’t think anything beats seeing someone live out the life and being inspired by that to to enter into community with God’s people, relationship with a loving God and discipleship with someone who will walk this journey alongside us.

So my advise if you have someone you want to see meet with God is this. Settle in for a long journey, be there fore them when they need a hand or a shoulder and be light and salt to them. It is the best way to lay the ground work for God to get into their hearts.

Pioneer Pete

The value of prayer

When Covid lockdowns started my home church instituted short, morning Zoom prayer meetings. Five people in the church took on a day each to lead the meetings and each brought a different flavour to the meetings and each brought something of value.

We often think of prayer as a one size fits all approach to talking to God. At the back of most of our minds when you talk about praying is the child kneeling by the side of the bed, hands together, working through a simple prayer. Prayer, however, can be so many different things and prompted by so many different things.

With our prayer meetings the person leading Monday would often start with a story based around personal experience and lead into a self reflective space for prayer. Tuesday was built around reading through one of the letters of St Paul, verse by verse and praying around how that spoke to the world today. Wednesday usually focussed on a quote from leaders of the early church, often the Celtic Church, and focussed on our relationship with God. Thursday we listened to that day’s Lectio 365 and lessons and points drawn from it informed our prayers. Finally Friday started with a scripture that often summarised what had been brought to the meetings during the week, picking up on themes and acting as a launch pad.

Five days and five very different approaches to prayer. When I work with the youth at my home church I often tell them that my two most frequent prayers go like this;

“dear father God… AAAARRRGGGHHHHHHHHHH!!!! Amen”

and

“Dear Father God… What’s the plan today? Amen.”

Both of which work as a conversation with God because He knows what is in our heart.

Jesus gave us a working formula for how to pray with the Lord’s Prayer in answer to an enquiry from his disciples. It is the most known Christian prayer in the world. The only prayer some people will have ever prayed.

In it we call out to God, we recognise him as Holy, we ask for his presence in all things, we ask for our physical needs to be met, for our mistakes to be forgiven and promise to forgive those of others. We ask to be kept safe from evil and acknowledge that all things belong to him. Then we end with Amen, let it be so.

Our Father, which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy Name.

Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, As it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, As we forgive them that trespass against us.

And lead us not into temptation, But deliver us from evil.

For thine is the kingdom, The power, and the glory, For ever and ever.

Amen

The interesting thing there is that Jesus teaches the disciples to address God as their father too. We are part of the family of God and God is a good father. A point worth remembering is that this is about God being a good father and wanting to answer our needs. It’s always worth remembering that what you want and what you need may not be the same thing though. God sees what is in our hearts, what I want may be a Ferrari but what I need may be a reliable way of getting to work or visiting parents.

I used to be part of a creative prayer group that prayed through painting. It was lead by a wonderfully encouraging Christian artist and the group was made up of a variety of “non-artists” who created a wonderful variety of works that reflected what they need to say to God and to ask of God. The best thing was as the group got used to hearing God’s voice as they painted their confidence grew and they discovered their identity in God.

I have a friend who has a friend who’s way of praying is to play music on his keyboard, often improvising. He says it sets up a two way internal conversation between him and God. He opens his heart to freely let God in, stops trying to rationalise his prayers and lets God see what is really on his heart. At the same time he reaches a point where he is totally opening to listening and often hears God speaking to him through the music that comes out.

Prayer, at it’s heart, is a conversation with a loving father who understands you and your needs better than you do yourself. A father who is always willing to help you and stand with you if you will let Him. If he seems distant that could just be down to how you are looking at Him.

So if you find yourself wanting to reach out to God but don’t know how, don’t worry. However you speak to Him, God is listening.

Pioneer Pete

Anyone know what the new world looks like yet?

As I sit here writing this it has been raining for the past 20 hours and looks set to continue. I’m reminded of Noah and the flood. I imagine him sitting at the top of the ark, in that little shed that’s always shown on top in the pictures in Children’s books. He’s sitting there, in that little shed, looking out a window at that black sky and the rain and water as far as the eye can see and I imagine him wondering where it would all end. Would he ever walk on land again?

I’m sure many of us recognise that feeling at the moment. We live in a time of uncertainty when planning for tomorrow is an act of hope and faith, never mind next week or next month.

There is an expectation, or perhaps just a hope, that when the time comes we will step into a new world. Where we will have learned lessons about how we live and will seek to incorporate them into the new world. Going back to just the old way of doing things would be a shame for so many people. Zoom and Youtube and the like have allowed so many people to access things they would never have been able to access, whether that’s church services, or shows, or lectures , or connecting with family. The pandemic has enabled me to be part of a relative’s funeral in Australia, something that would not have been possible without the changes the pandemic has enforced. When I attend evening meetings I no longer have to factor in 40 minutes travel time. I recently attended a Zoom lecture on race from a church in New York, an art class with a Museum in California, another event in Dublin and another in Leicester. None of which I would have been able to attend in person. My home church has started in person meetings again now but prior to that I was able to take in three services on a Sunday from wildly differing styles of church. All of which has been an amazing blessing for disabled people who have been asking for homeworking and better access for decades.

It would be a shame to lose this because a “majority” want to go back to how things were. The greatest shame is that we had we had to have a pandemic where nearly 130,000 people died in this country alone to learn how to use technology positively to enhance lives.

Tim Berners Lee, one of the fathers of the internet, said “The web is more a social creation than a technical one. I designed it for a social effect – to help people work together – and not as a technical toy. “

If you read about Berners Lee and his fellow founding fathers of the internet they were all looking at the social benefits, at connecting people, at building community and at sharing knowledge. This sad pandemic has come closer to making that happen than anything else in the preceding 25 years.

It is an unfortunate truth of the world that change comes through loss and tragedy. Whether it’s the world after the flood, The United Nations after World War Two, the Nobel Prize after the profiting from arms sales or whether it is individuals spurred on by the suffering they see around them.

If anything good could be hoped for post pandemic it is a greater sense of community and the idea that “we who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves”. (Romans 15:1) because if community is about anything, it is about being willing to bear your brother’s burden.

Back from Furlough

Someone said to me recently that being on furlough had given them an insight into how retirement would be. If that is true then being retired is going to involve making an awful lot of tea in my case.

Retirement is nowhere in my immediate future but furlough was an interesting and busy time. My wife was still working (60 to 70 hours a week at times)so a large part of what I found myself doing was looking after her, making sure she ate and drank enough. The NHS is kept afloat on gallons of tea.

Then there was all the usual cooking and cleaning and shed demolishing and school runs. And in between I found time for painting and drawing and reading and walking and far too many episodes of Peter Gunn.

It did give me an insight into why so many people I know who have retired end up wondering how they found time for work.

Being on furlough wasn’t all about fun though, it also gave me the space and time for a great deal of reading.

My To Be Read pile runs to about 30 books at the moment, it’s probably more but that’s all I’m willing to admit to. This gave me an opportunity to read and catch up.

My reading is quite eclectic and my reading of Christian books has never been tied to a particular stream. I tend to read books I think I can learn from.

I work with the youth (11 to 14 currently) at my home church and one of the things we’ve been using as a basis for sessions is this book…

The Teenage Prayer Experiment Notebook, Miranda Threlfall-Holmes & Noah Threlfal

It’s a wonderful mix of different ways to pray or enhance your prayer life and includes a whole raft of ways to help teens connect in prayer. We didn’t always follow each experiment exactly but it was great to identify what works for each of the young people The most popular so far has been prayer fidget beads.

My son Harry’s prayer fiddle beads

If you are looking for a way to connect with teenagers about prayer this is a great resource.

The other book that has taken up a lot of my time is this one by James Martin…

A book about Jesuits may seem an unlikely read but is surprisingly relevant. It offers a lot of thoughts on the value of a simple life and on a practical spirituality. I began reading it after developing an interest in Ignatian Contemplation and using it in prayer meetings. Ignatian Contemplation is a whole post of it’s own at some point.

I have found the book to be a wonderful help in learning gratitude for what I have, and I really appreciated the chapter on how our relationship with God changes, in the same way all our relationships change. Our understanding grows deeper, we become aware of facets of God that had previously escaped us, sometimes we cut away deadwood that builds up in misunderstandings or interpretations we put on things in the Bible that are more a reflection of us than they are of God.

I’m also reading “The Gift; how the creative spirit transforms the world”. and is about the difference between the gift system and the commodity system. It is essentially an anthropological book looking at the true value of art and creativity. If you are at all creative and struggling to see the value in what you create I really recommend this book.

Anyway. That’s it for now. Good to be back from furlough.

Have a blessed day

Pete

A case of the covid Blues.

See the source image
Comic by the amazing Jemma Correll. Find her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram

I talk a lot about mental health, particularly my own as I think bringing it down to a personal level makes it more honest and more relatable. If you know what I’m going through then you might trust how you feel about what you are going through.

At this moment I am unsure. I am either having a bout of Covid blues or I am standing on the edge of the pit. I’m fairly sure it is the former. Covid blues is a common name for a thing called situational depression. Situational depression is a response to a situation like the lockdowns we have lived through due to Covid. It is that sense of being worn down by a finite experience, an experience that will pass but makes you feel sluggish and unmotivated and sad while it is there. I think that’s a feeling many of us can relate to at this point. Many of us have been locked in our homes pretty much for the best part of 10 months at this point. We are missing the freedoms we take for granted, right now I would like to drive to my nearest large woodland and lose myself for three or four hours but rules say that’s not possible, we miss human interaction, nodding at the woman overseeing the self-checkouts at Sainsbury’s doesn’t count. So that could be what I’m feeling right now.

In normal times my role in the church involves meeting people, talking with people, encouraging people, it involves getting out and about and looking at ways to do mission and share the Gospel. In the current circumstances that is impossible and, in those brief interludes between lockdowns when it could be possible, we are all too worried, nervous and tired to do anything in that area.

My purpose, day to day, has been taken from me by circumstance beyond my control. So for many months now I have read and tried different things to work missionally and evangelistically remotely. I’ve made videos and podcasts, I’ve written things for my blog and for social media, I did an on-line Elemental Tent in an effort to promote the idea of the tent, I helped with The Wandering Wise Men to promote the Nativity story and the Gospel, I have and continue to throw things at the wall in the hope that they stick. I have not been idle but because what I have been doing sits outside or at the edges of my given role I have ended up feeling like the cartoon above.

That could still be the situational depression of Covid blues though. I felt at the time that the things I was engaged in were good but now I’m looking at them from a position of feeling worn down and I feel like I am failing.

This is not a cry for people to feel sorry for me or anything. I am expecting that many people are feeling like this now in response to their own life situations and if you are one of those who are not, this might give you an insight into what is going on with those around you.

So far 2021 is looking like 2020 Part Deux. we are in lockdown, Covid cases are rising dramatically, vaccination role out isn’t happening as fast as any of us would like, some of us are unhappy with government responses to the situation and, off course Brexit is making itself felt and there are constant daily reminders of the negatives to that.

Covid blues, Lockdown situational depression, is probably taking a toll on most of us who are working from home, shielding or looking after kids who are accessing school from home at the moment. And if you are one of those whose job is classed as essential you are probably knackered! Frazzled! Worn out!

So what do we do? If you recognised yourself in anything I’ve described then self-care is essential. Self-care is, in essence, a self administered pick me up that says “Hey! You are worthwhile. Be kind to yourself,” What does it look like?

Self-care can take many forms but it is basically doing something for no other reason than it makes you feel good. It might be a long bath with candles and a book (wine is optional), it might be baking or gardening, it could be talking with friends, maybe watching a favourite film or curling up on an armchair with a hot chocolate and reading your favourite book or listening to music. It could be having a nice dinner, a board game with the kids, journaling, knitting or painting. It can be so many things but the important thing is not to have an agenda, to do it or the joy of doing it. Many people balk at the idea because it’s not productive, it is like slacking off. Others feel it is selfish to do something just for fun, especially right now. The thing to remember is if you run yourself into the ground you cannot help anybody. In fact, if you run yourself into the ground you end up being one of the people who needs help.

Self-care enables you to carry on doing what you are doing, whether it is work at home or work as a critical worker, whether it is supporting family and friends, home-schooling your children or riding herd on your children as they access school from home. It is a hard thing to get to do sometimes but we all have a duty of care to ourselves so we can care for others.

If you have a history with depression or this feeling predates Covid and has just been getting worse, do seek medical support immediately. There is nothing wrong with needing medication to help you get back on track. Been there, done that and it helps.

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas. Wherever you stand theologically, Merry Christmas. Wherever you stand on the many issues dividing us, Merry Christmas. Whatever your politics, Merry Christmas. Whatever flavour of Christianity you take as yours, Merry Christmas.

God is love and God loves us all, however we may feel about each other sometimes.

Wishing you all a very happy Christmas and here’s to a better year for us all

And here’s a little present for you all. Neil Gaiman Reads “A Christmas Carol” by New York Public Library (soundcloud.com)

Pete Bangs

Pioneer Missioner

John Wayne and mental health

I’ve been thinking a lot about mental health recently. Covid, lockdowns and isolation have brought to the fore a subject that, for many of us, it is a constant source of concern and focus. Many years ago I read a rather depressing set of fantasy novels called The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. The titular hero was a man who had contracted leprosy and part of his daily routine was to make visual inspections of his extremities to make sure he had no injuries that would go untreated and become infected. Living with intermittent mental health issues is somewhat like that. There is a need to constantly monitor yourself and be aware of the direction of your mood, your emotions and your thoughts. I have problems with depression and anxiety that if they go unchecked can leave me completely helpless, unable and unwilling to engage with anything. I have received counselling and CBT. I have been on medication to help me through some very dark times. I don’t tell you this for sympathy or attention but to let anyone reading this and dealing with their own issues know that they are not alone. Counselling gave me an understanding of my thought processes and CBT gave me tools to work with to help deal with dark times. I use a mood tracker on my phone to keep track of how I’m feeling and a gratitude diary to help me find good in every day and these help me. A lot. Other people talking about their experience of mental health helped me too. So I talk about it in the hope it will help others.

A week or so ago I came across this question….

and it got me thinking. This is still a very common approach to men’s mental health and, if anecdotal social media stories are to be believed, women’s mental health as well. Although treatment has improved, although understanding has improved, there is still a stigma around it and still an attitude of “pull yourself together and smile” that runs right from medical professionals to family, friends and colleagues. Fear of meeting that attitude, and believing it ourselves in some cases, makes opening up about mental health concerns very difficult. So, if we can’t talk about it, what do we do? For most of us the answer has been bury it and pretend we have healed. We maintain that claim and belief even as our depression or anxiety or suicidal thoughts leak out in another form. Mental illness is a real illness. It is often caused by chemical imbalances in our brain, triggered by events in our lives that can range from the loss of a loved one to it raining on a day you wanted sunny weather.

According to Mind 1 in 4 of the UK’s population will have some sort of mental health problem in any given year, that’s around 17,000,000 people.

Around 3,000,000 people people attend church every week. If Mind’s statistics are correct that means 750,000 people with some form of mental health problem attend church each week. Methodist churches have an average congregation size of 48. That means 12 people in the average congregation has mental health issues of some kind.

The church needs to understand mental health, They need to understand how it is affected by stress, how crippling anxiety and depression can be and that they are real. Being part of a community that understands and is willing to listen or just sit in silence, that is willing to advocate for people, is a great support if you are living and dealing with mental health issues. However, it is very important the church realises it is not about fixing people. Prayer is wonderful but talk to the person and ask if they want prayer and what they want it for. When I was at my lowest point I wanted prayer for peace because peace was what I wanted most desperately and peace, I knew, would be a first step towards healing, whatever that meant. Prayer for freedom from the spirit of depression just made me feel worse at the time. It is something to be aware of when you encounter people with mental health issues.

Equally, try not to let fear dominate your relationships with people with mental health issues. It is very easy to let the changes in people affect how you interact with them but I can tell you from experience, when people start treating you with kid gloves and are awkward around you it can really hurt. Community is often what helps, being part of something but having no demands on you while you heal or learn to manage your illness often helps

I’ve tried four times to write this since December began and had to start again. I apologise if it is a little disjointed, hopefully it is still coherent. Mental Health is something that is important to me and Christmas is a time when people often struggle more with it.

Be gentle with yourselves and each other this Christmas. Show some understanding if others seem strange or different and if you find yourself struggling, reach out if you can.

Walking the tightrope

At 9am each morning I attend a Zoom prayer meeting. They are often built around a very short word brought by whoever is leading, inspired by an event or a scripture or something else that has spoken to them.

This morning’s was very thought provoking. The lady leading had been talking about the busy weekend she had had doing stuff with church and how she was hoping for a quieter couple of days. The friend she was talking to asked if she was becoming one of those lukewarm Christians who tick a box and then want time off.

This got me thinking about St Paul and running the race. First off the lukewarm comment was incredibly unfair to the lady in question who, out of necessity, had just finished, metaphorically, running a marathon at a sprint over the weekend just in terms of church work. Those are the two options in running the race for most Christians though, do you run a series of sprints hoping for a rest in between? Or do you approach it like a marathon? Do you pace yourself throughout your Christian life (the race) so that you can be a constant worker.

The general consensus when you read Christian thought on this matter is that you treat it like a marathon, with a target of finishing the race. You don’t over-extend yourself and hopefully everything gets done. I think this one size fits all approach is a mistake though. I think there are other, valid approaches that are equally necessary. Approaches that allow for peoples giftings and personalities.

The marathon Runner is slow and steady and dependable. If everything worked like clockwork marathon runners would be all we need. But it doesn’t.

There are times when there’s a lot going on, often at short notice or needed in a short window of time. Case in point. At my home church this weekend there was a 30ft Christmas tree to be erected outside, complex tableaux to be set up in 4 windows showing elements of the Nativity story, all of which had to be lit, the church was also involved in distributing Fareshare food in the local community. All of this had to be co-ordinated so that it was done by small family groups to stay within regulations. It needed sprinters. It needed people who would go in and create what was needed in a relatively short space of intense work time and then collapse. It needed people working swiftly, within pastoral and creative giftings to get the job done and then take a breath until the next thing that calling on their gifts happened. Sprinters work well with spontaneity.

There’s a third kind of person in the race that often gets forgotten too. The head in the clouds wanderer. The head in the clouds wanderer often is the one who brings the creative ideas that the sprinters make happen. The wanderer says “Ooh. Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a tree outside for the community to decorate.” The sprinters then dash off, get a tree and figure out someway to secure it outside the church building. The marathon runners meanwhile have been quietly working behind the scenes to make sure there is a church building to be a home to the tree.

We are running a race as Christians but in a way we are all running our own race and we need to make allowances for the differences in those races.

You could view Jesus’s ministry as a three year marathon but he took breaks to pray and recharge his batteries so you could also view it as a series of sprints. He also spent large periods of time wandering from place to place just thinking and praying. If Jesus can be more than one thing I’m sure it is okay for us to be different types of racers as well.

Blessings

Pioneer Pete