Four days of Festival (and the rest)

There aren’t many jobs that pay you to spend four days at a music festival but one of the key events in my working year is when we take the Elemental Tent to Wickham Music Festival. That doesn’t mean I got to spend four days watching great bands on stage oh no. The vast part of my fourteen hour days there were spent in or around the Elemental Tent doing what I love; talking to people.

If you’ve ever been to a festival you will be aware that everyone there wants your money. There are traders selling colourful goods from around the world, crafts people trading their wares, food vendors selling street food of many nations and bars and coffee vendors, in a lot of ways it’s like the market in Alladin, a riot of colour and noise and bustling bodies trying to take everything in as they decide who gets to separate them from their cash. It makes for a very exciting time and is a massive part of the festival atmosphere. But in that sea of commerce is an island, the Elemental Tent.

Sunset from the Elemental Tent

Our purpose with the tent was two-fold. Firstly to offer a safe space where people could relax, enjoy crafts and hospitality for free and just receive a blessing from the church. Secondly, we wanted to have a space where spiritual conversations could take place with people of different faiths and no faith. No one in the tent is there with an agenda. We’re not looking to make converts, we’re not handing out tracts or bibles. We are there to bless people without expectation of anything in return.

Pioneer Pete in his traditional Festival Flower Crown caught taking a break.

So we made lots of tea and coffee, offered lots of cake, made crafts with kids and adults, made adults purr with hand massages and talked. Oh, how we talked. The conversations we had. We talked music and commerce, we talked about footfall, we talked about mental health, we talked about loss and bereavement, we waxed nostalgic over Graham Nash and Judy Collins and Gilbert O’Sullivan, we talked net making and storytelling and painting and art and, of course, music. And in amongst all that we talked with people about God (whoever they saw him as), we talked about forgiveness and Grace, we talked about love and spiritual journeys, we talked about Karma (that was a fun one), we talked about how God sees us and how He loves us and we did our best to bless people in as many ways as we could.

A lovely, short Harvest Festival Service in the Elemental Tent

I like to think that whatever it is we are doing, we are blessing people and they are receiving that blessing and feeling lifted or changed by it. Each year since our first year we have returned by invitation of the Festival organisers and each year over 60 volunteers have given up 3 or more hours a day to man the tent and be part of the Elemental experience. Many of those volunteers came away as blessed as the people they met. So, in the words of Dave Allen “Thank you, goodnight, and may your God go with you”.

How we all felt by the last day.
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Relay For Life

It’s late on Saturday evening and I’m stood by a running track in a leisure centre in Portsmouth. Around the outside of the track are some 1200 little white bags, each one decorated and containing a battery-operated tea light. There are tents and gazebos all along the inner side of the track and people walking and running around it in blue or purple t-shirts. Some are stopping to read the messages and names on the lit bags as they pass. There’s the sound of a bagpiper and everyone is drawn towards where the music comes from. A few minutes later and everyone is on the track, the floodlights go off and everyone walks this candlelight vigil, many holding glowsticks. The scene is quietly sad yet strangely uplifting as well. Each candle along the track is in memory of someone who has been lost in the fight against cancer, a commemoration of the fallen. As the walkers pass me I step onto the track and walk with them. I haven’t placed a candle for those I’ve lost to this disease but I draw some strength for the fact that I’m not alone in having to deal with loss. When cancer takes someone it’s very easy to feel like you’re the only person ever to face that loss and knowing you are not alone is, in some strange way, a comfort.

As we walked I could feel the cold line of the tears rolling down my cheeks. I walked alone though many walked in pairs or groups, holding hands and comforting each other. At one point we all pass a wall with the word “HOPE” written on it in giant letters, lit up somehow but I’m to misty eyed and tearful to care how.

That is my lasting memory of being at the Portsmouth Relay For Life, a Cancer Research event that brings together hundreds of people to commemorate those who are fighting cancer now, survivors and those who have been lost and raises money so that one day it will be totally conquerable.

This weekend saw the Cancer Research event “Relay for Life” take place at The Mountbatten Centre in Portsmouth and I was there as part of the Elemental Tent Team.

This is an emotional event bringing together cancer survivors and families and friends who’s lives have been affected by cancer. Hundreds of people come together to walk or run for or both for 24 hours, in relay teams, to raise money for Cancer Research in the hope of seeing an end to cancer.

Jean and Eric Gamblin have been supporting the event for several years, first as part of a team of walkers/runners and then taking the Elemental Tent there providing support for all those taking part. They and the tent have become such a part of the community there that they are specifically invited back for what they bring to the event.

Jean and Eric and the people they bring with them, which included me this year, brought a safe space where people could take a moment to step away from the emotionally charged relay, where conversations could take place and maybe offer some spiritual comfort and where kids of all ages could cut loose in water-fights, play gungy games and enjoy peace with a puppet show.

Possibly the nicest thing was to see the churches pull together to support Jean and Eric in something that is important to them. As Christians we should always be looking to ways we can demonstrate God’s love in the world around us but it’s also incredibly important that we support each other and build one another up as it says in 1 Thessalonians 5:11 “Therefore encourage one another and build up one another, just as you also are doing.”

Wickham Music Festival

Church is a weird thing. People think it’s about Sundays and getting together to sing songs and listen to someone talk about the Bible. It can be that but to assume that’s all it is, is to limit it.

Church, at it’s core, is about people in community, living life together and thinking about God in some way, shape or form. Church can take place on a Thursday night in a pub, over coffee and cake at a toddler group or once a year at a music festival.

When the Elemental Tent sets up at Wickham Music Festival it is there as church in it’s most basic form. People who have met with God looking to make it possible for people who haven’t to meet with Him. There’s food, there’s drink, there’s prayer and a willingness to talk about God with people who don’t know him in ways that make him accessible to them. We use imagery and ideas within the Elemental Tent that are accessible to spiritual people who don’t know Christ but have a history within Christianity.

My son, Harry, visiting the Elemental Tent at the Wickham Festival

A prime example is The Green Man. The oldest historical examples of the Green Man come from church architecture. Images of The Green Man were incorporated into many early church buildings. He was very likely “borrowed” from local religions and treated, perhaps, as an image of Jesus as “the true vine” to make a bridge between old religions and Christianity. He really only reasserted his pagan connection through the Victorian fascination with collecting folklore but these were denied the power they would have originally had, treated more as a puckish faerie than the Earth God he may have originally been. By adopting such images and building bridges in such a way Christianity made it possible for people to become Christians but reaching in to their culture. In much the same way we now have Forest Church and Heavy Metal Church and Minecraft Church that leans into people’s cultures.

Working in other cultures, on line, music festival, ecological or whatever does not mean that Christianity changes it’s root beliefs. We still believe that Jesus is the way. We still want others to reach that same conclusion and just because we enter into, for example, festival culture, doesn’t mean we condone some of it’s less savoury features. It means that, we hope, by showing God’s love to people they will allow Jesus into their lives so that He can change them. Working within other cultures is about meeting people where they are and, like Jesus and the Samarian woman at the well, letting the enormity of God’s love work it’s change on them.

My First Experience Of Methodist Conference

I’m not sure what I expected, I’ve been livestreaming the Methodist Conference 2019 at home and been totally fascinated. It’s more like a United Nations meeting in how it operates, all the delegates sat behind rows of little tables, much to my relief. I had brief visions of it being like the House of Commons and various speakers being shouted down but in all it has been wonderfully polite, methodical and civilised. The Revd Barbara Glasson has done a fine job chairing with firmness and humour.

Probably like most people I’m watching to see what happens with the Marriage and Relationships report which includes the subject of same sex marriage. Now I’m employed by the Methodists but I’m not a Methodist. My opinions on this matter have no bearing on what will happen but what happens has a great bearing on the people I work with, friends and colleagues and so I watch it closely. While there is a lot of other stuff in the report on divorce and co-habitation and other subjects, same sex marriage is the big issue. Even though the debate so far has been civilised and polite, the passion inspired by the subject is impossible to ignore.

Very few Christians of my acquaintance take a 100% literal reading of the Bible, I’m not even really sure if that’s possible, we read it through the lense of our experiences, our study and our desire for what want God to be. He is bigger than us, beyond our ken as the saying goes, so to an extent we describe Him how we desire him to be. The Bible tells us His attributes but we have to interpret them. He is a “Just” God, but does that mean He strikes down sinners, or does that mean he recognises the sinner in all of us and loves us anyway.

So it is when we come to the subject of same sex marriage, both sides have a position, both believe they are supported by Biblical scholarship and scripture. It is a potentially divisive time for the Methodist Church. Part of the reason I am following it so closely is to be able, as a missioner, to see both sides and help others see both sides in the hope that, whatever the outcome, the church holds together, heals wounds and becomes stronger.

So as I watch today, and again on Wednesday, I pray for unity for the Church and that, like a loving family, it is able to weather the storms.

Early church and modern methods

A historical lesson from the early church.For me, the draw of our Celtic and early Medieval forefathers is that they seem to understand that becoming a Christian is a journey and that it needed to be a journey people would be willing to take. To make it accessible to Pagan religions they adopted and adapted imagery that would be familiar. They made them part of the iconography of the church. By doing so they made the church welcoming to all. If you followed a nature deity or a sky deity or a sea deity, there was something about Christianity you could relate to. There was a gateway you could enter by. Your gateway may be closer to Danu, the Celtic and early Medieval river goddess, or it might be closer to Jesus calming the storm. Either way you could be part of the church on a journey to knowing Jesus. The early church did not set unreachable bars that people had to reach before they could be of it.

If there is one thing to take from the early Celtic and early Medieval Church it is that desire to offer a way in to everyone and sadly that seems to be something that many iterations of the modern church have lost. Looking at the arguments going on as the church seeks to decide how it will respond to western culture it is clear something has changed since the time of the early church. When I became a Christian the input I received from others in the church was minimal. My core understanding was that God would take me as I was and refine me into what He knew I could be. The primary call was to listen to God. As I have got to know more people within the wider church I am constantly astonished at the sureness many had at what God wanted. I always felt that the sheer enormity of being God put him beyond my understanding.

On-line people espouse extreme views of God’s nature as if they are God’s personal spokesman. Both sides in each argument are more than happy to quote scripture after scripture and denigrate the opposition’s opinions and use of scripture. “Only I know what God means” is the mantra for both sides. And both sides have a disrespectful view of the others position. Conservative Christians claim that the liberal ones believe God is ok with everyone’s sins and doesn’t require them to change. The liberal Christians claim the conservatives promote an unloving and judgmental God who is unattainable to all but the most perfect. Neither side is right I hope but it seems neither side will see the truth of the other’s position either.

The draw of Celtic and early Medieval Christianity is that it seeks to see God in everything around us and to accept and celebrate the mystery of a God that is too big for us to ever understand completely. The draw of Celtic and early Medieval Christianity is that it welcomes all who choose to be there, wherever they are beginning their journey.  That seems look a good place to be to me.

Has The Internet killed civilised discourse

Like many people today I am on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram, social media seems almost to be inescapable and has fast become synonymous in the minds of many with hate speech, cyber bullying and trolling. I want to look at something more by contrasting two Facebook groups I belong to.

Like many men under 60 I’ve grown up I’ve grown up able to continue my strong attachment to the hoobies and interests of my childhood. There are men, and women of course, who have maintained a lifelong appreciation of Top Trumps cards, Barbie dolls, popular music, teddy bears, cereal packet toys, comics and many more things and collect, talk about and trade these various items that would, once upon a time, have been left in their childhoods. For me it was comics. My dad read Dan Dare in the Eagle, taught me to read using comics and hooked me on them for life. Still today I read them quite happily when I have time to spare.

Facebook has given all interests a space to talk, share photos and argue over such important questions as “who was the best Mickey Mouse artist”.  I belong to a couple of Facebook groups that focus on such deep and existential questions and I want to talk about one in particular. Social media brings with it a degree of anonymity and safety in terms of distance that seems to make people feel they can say whatever they like without filters. Things you would not say to someone’s face seems to be considered acceptable on line. On the group in question comments about a certain artist’s populism versus his minimal drawing skills can go into the hundreds, often abusive in the extreme and descending into name calling before being closed down by admins. A recent post of this parody of this Incredible Hulk cover hit 200 abusive comments before being closed down. Yes Trump is a divisive character and perhaps, by his very nature, he makes civilised discourse impossible but I don’t think so. I think the people involved are choosing to behave this way.

The parody cover
The original cover

On the other side of things there are two groups, UK Methodists and Methodists On-Line which have featured lengthy discussions on the Marriage and Relationships document that goes before Methodist conference this coming week. The main focus for most people is the discussion on Same Sex Marriage and whether it should be allowed, who should perform it, who won’t perform it, will churches be allowed to opt out if it is accepted and a whole variety of other questions surrounding the subject. Across a wide spectrum of views this has the potential to be divisive and depending on how it is dealt with could be very damaging. That not-withstanding, the discussions on line have been incredibly polite and civilised, even when they became heated. People have withdrawn from the conversation at times but it has never resorted to name calling, insults or threats.

There are obvious differences in the subjects. It can be agreed I think that Trump has already split his country where as Same Sex Marriage has not yet split the Methodist Church in Great Britain but they are both subjects that ignite great passion in many people. So why is one acrimonious and one civilised? I believe it is down to something many thought would be lost forever in an on-line age, a sense of community. The Methodist groups all seem to use real names, a key thing I think, and are aware that it is possible they could meet in person at some point (If they haven’t already). They are brought together by a love of God and the Methodist Church as an expression of that. The comics group on the other hand have a much looser connection based on a subjective opinion about a singular piece of art, a comic book cover. They are not a tribe in the truest sense as the thing that brings them together is not so much a shared love as somewhere to show their superiority by “liking” “better” art.  

Some subjects, by their subjective nature, will always lead to arguments but that’s not a result of the internet, all the world wide web has done is make such conversations easier by promoting anonymity. Far more importantly the Internet has enabled the people in a “tribe” to discuss issues that are important to them and to do so in a respectful manner. Things like this are a matter of choice. Do you want to listen to both sides of a debate so you can make an informed decision and are both sides prepared to be respectful.

If the Methodist Facebook groups are anything to go by, social media could do much more good in promoting spaces for respectful discussion.  

Celtic Christianity

For me, the draw of our Celtic forefathers is that they seem to understand that becoming a Christian is a journey and that it needed to be a journey people would be willing to take. To make it accessible to Pagan religions they adopted and adapted imagery that would be familiar. They made them part of the iconography of the church. By doing so they made the church welcoming to all. If you followed a nature deity or a sky deity or a sea deity, there was something about Christianity you could relate to. There was a gateway you could enter by. Your gateway may be closer to Danu, the Celtic river goddess, or it might be closer to Jesus calming the storm. Either way you could be part of the church on a journey to knowing Jesus. The early church did not set unreachable bars that people had to reach before they could be of it.
If there is one thing to take from the early Celtic Church it is that desire to offer a way in to everyone and sadly that seems to be something that many iterations of the modern church have lost. Looking at the arguments going on as the church seeks to decide how it will respond to western culture it is clear something has changed since the time of the early church. When I became a Christian the input I received from others in the church was minimal. My core understanding was that God would take me as I was and refine me into what He knew I could be. The primary call was to listen to God. As I have got to know more people within the wider church I am constantly astonished at the sureness many had at what God wanted. I always felt that the sheer enormity of being God put him beyond my understanding.
On-line people espouse extreme views of God’s nature as if they are God’s personal spokesman. Both sides in each argument are more than happy to quote scripture after scripture and denigrate the opposition’s opinions and use of scripture. “Only I know what God means” is the mantra for both sides. And both sides have a disrespectful view of the others position. Conservative Christians claim that the liberal ones believe God is ok with everyone’s sins and doesn’t require them to change. The liberal Christians claim the conservatives promote an unloving and judgmental God who is unattainable to all but the most perfect. Neither side is right I hope but it seems neither side will see the truth of the other’s position either.
The draw of Celtic Christianity is that it seeks to see God in everything around us and to accept and celebrate the mystery of a God that is too big for us to ever understand completely. The draw of Celtic Christianity is that it welcomes all who choose to be there, wherever they are beginning their journey. That seems look a good place to be to me.