Wickham Festival

It was a sad moment last week when The Wickham Festival finally had to surrender to the current situation and cancel. Wickham is a great little festival attracting some top names in the folk (ish) world. I’m not a massive music fan myself but Wickham always has a bunch of stuff I like and this year was due to feature a musician I’ve wanted to see live for almost 40 years.

The Festival is also the tent pole for my role as missioner. We take the Elemental Tent there each year for the duration of the festival. My role is about encouraging mission and this is a great way of introducing people to mission (sharing the Gospel) in an environment where the so many have some form of spirituality and are wonderfully open to respectful conversations on the subject. For me mission, in a modern context, is about conversation. Its about sitting down over coffee, listening to someone’s troubles and offering to pray for them. Mission, in my personal definition, is like being a Gardner. You want to encourage something to grow and have roots. Evangelists are builders, looking to put down a foundation and build on it speedily. Both approaches are valid but, to me, speak of different approaches to Christianity and suggest why historically mission has been closer to my definition of evangelism.

John Stott suggested that mission should be viewed as everything the church is meant to do. He saw it as a combination of evangelism, preaching the word of God to non-believers, and living the word of God, standing for social justice, whatever that looks like. This more modern approach to mission reflects the early Church. Spending time with people, doing life with them, supporting them in the face of injustice, offering them an insight into another world and being willing to be their guide through it. The early Church lived in the midst of communities, when it was able, sharing, supporting and helping. The Elemental Tent worked on that basis. The tent was part of the festival from start of day to end of day, welcoming visitors, giving an oasis of peace with no expectation of even listening to our Christian faith. People ask though, why are you doing this? Why is it free? What’s it about?

Conversation is where mission starts in this context. It’s not about “turn or burn”, it’s not about “have you accepted Jesus as your personal saviour”. Most people are okay with the person of Jesus, it’s Christians they have a problem with. The first job of mission like this is for Christians to show they are flawed human beings who try not to judge and don’t have everything sorted. It’s about presenting a true picture of who we are because people won’t talk to you about more than the weather if you are not authentic.

Social justice is a much misunderstood term in my opinion. It has been tagged as this left wing, hippy, often violent objection to something society has been happy doing and ignoring the consequences. Social Justice Warrior is flung around like an insult. I have to wonder why anyone would be against social justice, particularly people of faith. Social justice can, however, be as simple as being the first person to actually listen to another’s complaint. Social justice can be sitting with someone in their moment of grief rather than let them sit alone. It’s about our reactions and the actions that follow on.

So that’s The Elemental Tent approach to mission, serve, listen and share when when you can.

The best laid plans o’ mice an’ men gang aft a-gley

Robert Burns wrote those words in his wonderful Scots language poem. Translated into the barbarous English as the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.

After a successful 2019 there were many plans in the circuit for individual churches to take the prayer caravan or a mini Elemental Tent to local fetes and carnivals, to go out into the community, talk to people about the church and pray with and for people in 2020. Unfortunately 2020 had other plans.

2020 has been a time of contemplation, repositioning and learning for the church. It no doubt came as a shock to many to realise that the Church of England once had slaves and received sizable compensation when they were forced to free them. Freed from their buildings churches of all denominations have had to learn new ways of doing things, tackling the positives of both modern technology and old fashioned ways of keeping in touch and their seems to be general agreement that we want to move forward, to take on the good we have learned and not just return to the old status quo.

We do not know what the future will bring. As I write this churches have been told they can be open for private prayer and that they will be allowed to open for socially distanced services but with no singing. If a second round of Covid 19 strikes and we go back into lockdown that may not last. Hopefully this pandemic will eventually pass and we will be able to engage in our new normal.

My role is to support the circuit as we reach out to our communities, to help people who have ideas or even the start of an idea and help them bring it into being. Some things are all ready up and running, like Open the Book, but there are a wealth of gifts and talents around the circuit that need an outlet.

Here’s a list of things I’ve encountered at various churches that might speak to someone who reads this.

Creative Prayer art groups. People coming together over a meditation to try and share the pictures God gives them

A taste of things others have done

Messy Church. A family oriented service of food, crafts and a talk and worship. Ideal for families on the fringe.

A taste of things others have done.

Book groups. A popular idea but bringing a Christian perspective.

A taste of things others have done

Breakfast clubs. For working parents who struggle to get their kids to school and themselves to work. Also helps poorer families to ensure their children get breakfast without stigmatising them.

A taste of things others have done

Healing on the streets/prayer on the streets. Meeting people on the streets, encountering them where they are and making conversation.

A taste of things others have done

Coffee Shop bible groups. Get together in a local coffee shop to read and discuss the Bible and support a local business.

That’s just a handful of ideas and there are many more. If you have an idea and you want to talk it over call me or message me and we’ll sort something out.

I must go down to the sea again….

My son, Harry, was looking at John Masfield’s iconic poem “Sea Fever” as part of his school work this week and I was briefly amused at how fitting it seemed for this week as thousands flocked to the beach leaving a feast for the gulls.

There have been outcries of indignation over how it’s going to cause a second Covid spike and fingers of blame pointing in all directions but I’ve not seen any attempt to understand it.

Psychologically disturbed, especially as a result of being confined or imprisoned. That’s how my dictionary defines stir-crazy. Extended confinement, such as lockdown, can cause people to act irresponsibly once they are less restricted. And people have a tendency to interpret even the clearest of instructions in the most beneficial way. If someone says “stay 2 meters apart but if you can’t stay at least one meter apart” many people will interpret that as “try and stay 1 meter apart.” in their desperation to get out and be around new faces. People are desperate to get out. Lockdown has been much like being in solitary in a very nice prison. You could have one hour a day in the exercise yard but that was it. If you were with family then months of 24/7 in their company probably strained a lot of relationships. If you were living alone it was probably worse.

Then the prison gates are thrown open and you’re told you are free. You don’t necessarily hear the restrictions on your freedom, you just see those wide open spaces and all the new faces to talk to and you’re off, like a greyhound out of a trap.

Summer madness

It’s important to understand why people behave the way they do and to recognise that understanding doesn’t have to mean condoning. I am disappointed personally in the people who have rushed to the beach in a bacchanalian frenzy but I understand why they did. I have chosen to wear a mask when out, restrict my movements to some local exercise and shopping and behave in a manner I feel is in my family’s best interests.

The Apostle Paul spent around 2.5 years in prison and around another 2 years under house arrest. He has provided us with a good role model for how to deal with such things. He spent his time writing of his experiences and sharing the wisdom of his experience with emerging churches. He learnt to view it as another opportunity to serve God.

It is sad that, if there is a second spike of Covid 19, it may be down to these moments of stir-crazy behaviour but it is what it is. We do our best and live in hope in Jesus Christ.

As Billy Pilgrim says “So it goes!”

Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Statues fall all the time as Shelley reminds us in his epic poem about pride and hubris. Sometimes that fall is met with near universal approval, the destruction of all those statues of Saddam Hussein for example. Other times it is met with condemnation and outrage, the damage and destruction of Confederate memorials in the Southern United States or the toppling of a statue of a slave trader in Bristol. Why the difference in response? Surely we can largely agree that dictatorships are wrong, that slavery is wrong. Why would we choose to protect something that celebrates those things?

I believe it is easier to see the speck in anothers eye than the log in our own. It is easier to see the evil of Saddam Hussein, half a world away, then it is to recognise the evil on our own doorstep.

This past week there has been a lot written about the toppling of a statue in Bristol. The statue was of Edward Colston, a man of means, a philanthropist who made his money through transporting and selling other human beings as slaves. That should be abhorrent to any person with even an ounce of empathy. The fact that people are complaining  about the pulling down of this statue saddens me. The people who say there were proper channels to go through when people have tried and been ignored sadden me. The people who think his philanthropy cancels out the pain, death and suffering his business caused sadden me. The people who think destroying the statue and keeping the results of his philanthropy is double standards sadden me. The people who think this is destroying history sadden me. Ignorance saddens me.

There is a great deal written about Colston being a man of his time and it is true, he was. All his actions, slave trade and philanthropy or history now. But the statue was raised nearly 200 years after his death and 60 years after slavery was abolished in Britain it was raised in a time when Bristol had a large black population because ex-slaves settled there after being freed.

We do not celebrate that period when Britain was key to the transatlantic slave trade. We recognise it, we teach it but could always teach it better. We do not need to celebrate Colston. We can recognise his philanthropy and slave trading fortune and acknowledge their connection without celebrating. We can talk about the people who lived because of him and the people who died because of him and accept that one does not negate the other. We can look at the wrongs done by people who look like us to people who are different. We can find the log in our own eye and apologise for the harm it stopped us seeing.

We can follow Jesus’s second great commandment and if the best way to do that is to tear down a few statues then so be it.

It’s the end of the world as we know it, and i don’t mind.

#blacklivesmatter has become part of my daily life over the past eleven days since George Floyd was murdered by a policeman. There has been much written about that event and the subsequent protests. For eleven days my Twitter feed, my facebook account and my Instagram has been filled with the hashtag and one of the things that has appalled me almost as much as the systemic racism that makes murder of an unarmed, jnnocent black man seem acceptable is the idea that the UK is better than that.

It saddens me we know so little of our own history that we believe the white myth of British superiority. Britain has a long history of believing in our own superiority. And more, the superiority of our upper class. We have a truly appaling record that continues to this day. Yes we abolished slavery but we also paid out vast sums of money to the slave owners to recompense them for their loss. Yes these slave traders were wealthy men of business who did generous deeds of philanthropy, but only to help the white poor. And nearly 200 years on we have things like the Windrush fiasco that shows us how little has changed in the treatment of people of colour.

As Christians we should be on the side of the downtrodden. God made all people in his image, ALL people. We should be raising our voices and taking a stand with Black Lives Matter, we should be standing with carers who get a clap and a thank you for the government but are left unsupported to sink or swim on their own. We should be standing with Muslims and refugees and LGBTQ+ and trans people because we are against the abuse they receive on a daily basis. We do not have to agree with them about anything except that racism and abuse is wrong. That is more than enough reason to stand shoulder to shoulder in protest.

I’ve heard complaints from people about the destruction of statues and disruption. I’ve heard complaints to that people of colour should be more circumspect in how they protest. They’ve been trying that for years and we haven’t listened. I’ve heard people say this is the end of the world. You know what, if it’s the end of this world and the start of a fairer one then I feel fine.

Waiting on a friend

Relationships are strange beasts. I can guarantee two interactions with my children ever day. The first, where they ask me what’s for dinner and the second, when they ask me what time is dinner.

I was reflecting on this early Wednesday morning. Wednesday is my day off and currently starts with me leading a Zoom prayer meeting with my own church. I like to try and bring something each time that reflects my slightly off kilter approach to being a Christian.

I started to think how we treat God as a Father. We often find we turn to prayer in times of need. Our guaranteed conversation with God is like my children’s with me, we look for Him to meet our needs. Now there is of course a strong scriptural basis for this, Mark 11:24 says “whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it and it will be yours”. The Lords Prayer says “give us this day our daily bread”. We are encouraged to look to God for our needs to be met and that is Good.

That’s not the limit of my relationship with my children though. They don’t just look to me for their daily needs. Harry will talk to me about his games or what he’s seen in the garden. He will chat about videos he’s watched and things he’s read. He will ask questions and engage in conversation.¬† Molly will show me things she is making, will talk about trying out makeup or what she’s been doing with friends on line. She’ll make snails with her 3d pen and ask what colour I think the shell should be.

In Exodus, Moses sets up a tent outside the camp where he can meet face to face with God and talk as friends. My morning prayer often consists of a shopping list of people I want him to take care of and an occasional thank you for something.

When I first became a Christian my morning prayer would go something like this.

“Morning Lord. Lovely day out there. I really do love how a light rain makes things look brighter. Anything you want me to do today? So and so is having a hard time at the moment. I did say I’d pray for them. Anything you can do would be great. I have some spare time today and was thinking of going down to the river to draw the swans. See you there? Okay. Thank you Lord.”

Now it goes more like this.

“Dear Father God. Please bring peace to….. please bring healing to…… please let……. come to know you and so on and so on.”

My prayer life was so much richer when it was about a broader relationship with God. I want to get back to those days. I will still ask him to meet my needs and the needs of others but I want more than that. I want to be with him as the Good, Good Father that He is, not a magic wand to meet my needs.

So let me encourage you to take time to talk with God, tell Him about your day. It will do wonders for your relationship.

The pineapple of prayer. A holder for the names of those people I’m praying for and light a candle for each day.

Thoughts on Dominic Cummings

I’ll be upfront. I don’t like Cummings, I don’t like what he stands for and I don’t like the amount of power and influence he has as an unelected bureaucrat. There is a part of me that would like to see him thrown to the wolves.

However, in all his disembling, his excuses and his frequent revision of his story and his inability to offer an unconditional apology, there is a reflection of many of us writ large.

I used to joke with my daughter that my superpower was the ability to make anything look like someone else’s fault. No matter what, nothing was my fault. And she developed that skill as well. It was at that point, when I heard my daughter trotting out excuses and making us feel at fault for her failures that I realised how wrong I was. I had somehow come to the conclusion that being wrong, being in the wrong, that making mistakes was a bad thing. I realised that, among other things, my inability to say sorry was putting a strain on my marriage, damaging g my relationship with my children and harming my mental health.

So I learnt to say sorry without excuses. It was a hard journey. When you make a change like that it takes time for people to believe it. It was worth it though. It probably saved my marriage.

Dominic Cummings is in a difficult position. He has angered and upset so many people in his rise to power that there are few people who honestly feel any sympathy for him. He has amended his story as new elements have come out. He has offered a multitude of excuses for not following his government’s instructions on not travelling, childcare and self isolation. He has glossed over the suffering of thousands who would have made similar trips if lockdown hadn’t been in place but he has not put up his hand and said “sorry! I was wrong.”

An honest apology would probably still have led to demands for his sacking but it would have limited the fallout. The truth I learnt was that this kind of behaviour has a ripple effect that hurts more than the person at the centre. Cummings actions, and those of the PM in supporting him, have consequences.

There is a degree to which this is personal. Cummings is not well liked by the press and there is more than a hint of schadenfreude in their pursuit. It goes beyond that though. When living through this pandemic we have to be able to believe that the government is acting in our best interests. We may not agree with their decisions but so long as they follow them too we can at least imagine they are trying to do what needs to be done. One mistake like supporting Cummings damages any trust. And right now, if we don’t trust what they say and follow guidelines and rules then people die.

The elephant in the room.

I was watching a Rowan Atkinson video this morning called God’s Mysterious Ways. I’m not entirely sure where it comes from, it seems like a straight forward address but he’s clearly in character, as demonstrated by his wearing a dog collar. At the end he quotes Isaiah 55:8 My Ways are not your ways, which he then interprets as God saying to us “I’m mysterious folks, live with it”.

As Christians we are often guilty of speaking “for God”. Whether we like it or not we all read the Bible in different ways. Everyone of us is influenced in our reading by our upbringing and our social experiences and those are different for each of us. I’m 55 and my understanding of jesus and the Bible was that everyone in it was white. My children’s book of Bible stories was full of beautiful paintings of blue eyed western Europeans. I thought Moses looked like Charlton Heston and Jesus like Robert Powell. And then on the other side of that was Jesus Christ Superstar, a hippy retelling of the Gospel story. So in my head Jesus was this pale, ethereal, socialist hippy who sang songs I didn’t care for. 15 years older and you probably only got the first part of that. 15 plus years younger and you probably only got the socialist bit as priests in South America fought and died for physical support for the poor and disenfranchised against government corruption and the growing drug trade.

Equally translations change your understanding. The King James Bible sweeps you up in sometimes overwhelming grandeur with its Shakespearean use of language. Read something like the Passion Translation and you encounter a more grounded Bible, one where the people are more easily identifiable. Both have their place and their value but both are different and can lead you to differing understandings of scripture.

The problem with these different understandings is that they lead us to argue over minutiae. Like the Pharisees that Jesus spoke against we find ourselves speaking as if only we know what the Bible truly means, only we speak for God. When we do that we miss an important truth “I’m mysterious folks, live with it.”

If we ignore the mystery, the “fact” that God is bigger and more unknowable than we could even begin to imagine we risk venturing onto dangerous ground. Matthew 7: 21-23 tells us that some who claim to do things in God’s name will be turned away.

What is it like to connect with God through the mystery? In Matthew 18 Jesus talks of having faith like a child. Children accept that some things are mysteries, that certain things are beyond their understanding and they are okay with that because they are secure in the love of their parents. Is that perhaps what Jesus was trying to tell us? Accept the mystery and trust in God’s love?

I came to Jesus very late. Before I landed on his doorstep I had read many religious texts, Qu’ran, Tao te Ching, various books on Zen, the kjv Bible, the ancient myths of a dozen or more cultures, but Jesus was where I stopped. In part it was the people I met through church, but largely it was the mystery that drew me. The mystery that a God so big wanted to be friends with humanity, that a love so big could exist that it would die for me. The mystery that a 148 hour walk from Cairo to Jerusalem (Google maps even gives you directions) could take 40 years and God would be there the entire way.

The Bible is filled with mystery and we need to dive deeper into it. It’s amazing what you can learn by letting go of surety and accepting that somethings surpass our understanding.

Hollow Days

I’ve coined a new phrase for these times living under Covid 19. Hollow days. I figure for most of us there are three kinds of days, good days when we are feeling hopeful, bad days when we want to hide under the duvet and cry, and hollow days.

Hollow days are the ones where you see the good in the world, you see the bad in the world and they just seem to cancel each other out leaving you feeling empty, hollow.

It’s a difficult one because it’s very much a symptom of the life we are living at the moment and, talking to friends, it seems to be a growing feeling.

Perhaps part of it is lockdown fatigue. We’ve been like a plane stuck in a holding pattern for weeks. Possibly it’s what people used to call ennui. The Dictionary defines it as a feeling of listlessness arising from a lack of occupation or excitement. A sort of active boredom.

It is a feeling that could sweep us up and become a new normal if we are not careful. There are ways to control it however they will be different for each of us. I find prayer helps, it connects me with something else, something bigger than me. It also takes me outside myself. Reading the Psalms is also helping. I think part of the problem is there is no outlet for our feelings of joy or anger. Zoom isn’t enough when you want to have a beer and rant about the family driving you mad. Facebook Messenger can’t give you a hug from your mum on a bad day. Skype is no way to celebrate your birthday with friends. Psalms remind us that we can share our joy with God but they also remind us God is okay with us shouting and screaming at Him. He is big enough to listen to our misery and anger and despair. And He can take those burdens from us and heal us from them.

We are living in difficult times and we need to look after ourselves. It is okay to be not okay but when you find yourself having a day like that, be kind to yourself.

Inclusivity

Inclusivity is one of those words that I never really understood. I mean, I know it meant to include everyone, to make things fully accessible to all, but I’m an able bodied, middle aged white man. Pretty much everything is accessible to me.

Then I spent 2 years supporting an autistic boy through years 5 and 6 at school and realised many of the lessons were impossible for him. Whether because of classroom noise or the complexity of the work he couldn’t be part of the regular class. He needed extra time to process, better step by step explanations. He needed support. I began to understand inclusivity.

Also I ventured on to Twitter at that time and connected with many people with disabilities or caring for family with disabilities, people like Dan White, a Wickham man with a wonderful, wheel chair using daughter. As he met obstacles in his daughter’s way he fought and campaigned against them. People like him and Mik Scarlett and The Norfolk Loo Lady opened my eyes to what others had to deal with on a daily basis.

I still couldn’t really understand what being on the outside was actually like. I could read of others experiences and empathise but not really understand.

Then Covid 19 entered our lives like a thief in the night and I got a small taste of what it is like to be outside society’s norm.

I couldn’t visit shops, go to the cinema, go to work, drive my car. These things were no longer accessible to me through no fault of my own. I love to go out and draw, sit in parks or woodland or city centres with a sketch pad. That was taken away from me. That hurt. Drawing is the thing I do to help my mental health. It lifts my mood and has done a great job helping me deal with depression for the last 30 years. With that gone my mental health suffered. I could go on but perhaps you’re beginning to see my point now.

For many people who are disabled, elderly and infirm, caring for family members, wheelchair users, autistic people, people with bipolar disorder or chronic depression, people with dementia or arthritis and many more, this was every day life prior to lockdown.

When Covid 19 is finally under control and we are able to once again enjoy all the privileges we took for granted I hope able bodied people like me will remember what we dealt with and be supportive towards efforts towards inclusivity. I hope we will all call for the changes that need to be made so that those who are kept on the fringes of society can take their rightful place as a valued member.

Jesus was a great one for including those on the fringes of society and his church needs to learn the lessons of this lockdown and find ways to move forward. No matter what we are doing we can always do better.