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.

How we share our story, and why.

One of the key points to being a Christian is sharing our story and how our story intersects with God’s story. This is the text of a sermon I gave recently on that very subject.

When I started secondary school I had an RE Teacher called Miss Rosemary. She was tall and middle aged and gentle and prepared to talk through the cliched and repetitive arguments against God that many teenagers come up with as they hit those difficult years. She met every “God can’t be real because… “, “how can you believe in a cruel God who….” argument with love and understanding and what I realise now was a clear understanding of apologetics. She never convinced me to become a Christian but with hindsight I can see she planted the seed.

When I hit college I took sociology as an extra. No exam, just some great conversations. It opened my eyes to philosophy and world religions. It lead me to read Sartre and Neitszhe and the core texts of most of the major world religions and a lot of the ancient ones. I remember to this day a heated debate about the value of story for a way to show truth that ended when another student turned over his table and stormed out. Looking back I can see I was searching for something to make sense of it all.

That was the nearest I came to a road to Damascus, a burning bush.

I was not the most sociable of people in my youth. When I say youth I mean ever, I loved things you could do on your own, art, reading, walks in the woods, visits to galleries and the cinema. I became obsessed with storytelling in all its forms. I had a job, a home, a cat and almost a handful of friends, who I saw occasionally. I thought I was content but God had plans to fill a void with something real.

What I want to talk about tonight is story. Or more precisely, how our story is part of the greatest love story of all time.

I could go on listing the various points where God spoke into my life and seeds planted were watered but most of them are irrelevant to all but me.

If you read the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, in order you will see two things. One is that you have incredible stamina, but two, and most important is that it is a love story. Living in Paradise with a personal relationship, a friendship with God then one wrong moment destroys it all. The rest of the Bible is essentially about God rebuilding that relationship with the people who let him down. But because they have fallen so far the journey back is a long one, setting boundaries, facing setbacks and finally, sending his son to show us the reality of the relationship we are meant to have with him and tasking us to introduce the world to that possibility of a personal relationship, a friendship with God, through his son Jesus Christ. A love story stretching over thousands of years.

The great commission is Jesus going “you get it, now share it.” Or as it says in

Matthew 28:16-20 New International Version (NIV)  16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

God has set us the job of sharing his Good News. Now traditionally the response to that is “Say What? Are you sure you’ve picked the right person lord?”

But as the reading from Moses shows, we all question God’s sanity when he lets us in on His plan, the reading could easily have been about Gideon and his questioning God’s choice. God has space for us to doubt him, which is interesting. Because He knows, he can allow for us to doubt Him.

How do we share his word though? There are many ways depending on the gifts God has blessed you with but the one thing available to all of us is our testimony. Our story of how God’s story has changed our life.

God (although I didn’t know it was him at the time) lead me to marry a Christian woman, which in turn lead me to know Christians as people, which lead me to Christ which, over a long and winding road, lead me to be standing hear before you.

Our testimony, our story of how we came to Christ is one of our most powerful weapons in making Christians and disciples. Our testimony is that link between the material world and the spiritual world. Applied with discernment it can be a link for others as well.

Now all that background at the start of this was partly to make the point that most people’s testimony is a lifelong story filled with seeds being planted and watered up to the point where the decision is made. No one was born a Christian. You may have been born into a Christian family, You may have been born to be a Christian but for everyone of us, if we look hard enough, there is a turning point.

When I share my testimony with people I decide what bits to use and what not to use. I try to use discernment to figure out what the person I’m talking to will be able to relate to. When you look at the reading from Acts, Paul puts a lot of emphasis on his Jewish, Pharasaical start in life. He’s emphasising the parts of his starting place that will be most familiar to King Agrippa, who is “well acquainted with all the Jewish Customs and controversies.”

Having established his Jewish credentials he then moves on to the road to Damascus. The nature of the world is such that people need to connect to you first. They need some point of commonality. If they don’t know where you came from then your defining experience of accepting Christ as your saviour means nothing to them.

Back in the 1990s a man named Rodney Stark, who specialized in the sociology of modern religion, examined Christianity’s remarkable growth during its first three centuries. He found that Christianity spread at the unremarkable rate of 40 percent per decade. Like compound interest, that rate grows a lot more impressive when it holds steady for 30 decades. With that rate of increase 1000 becomes nearly 29,000 in 10 years. Stark also found that people entered the church through relationships, through the daily practices by which Christians cared for one another, looked out for the sick and the vulnerable, valued women, and so forth. I mention this because it is important to have context. People came to Christ because they KNEW people and KNEW their story. This is what the birth of Christianity looked like and this is revival is going to need to look like.

It is important that, when looking to share your testimony, you lay out your credentials as part of the human race. I have a friend who is amazing at sharing his faith with people. He’s 77 and most of his conversations start “When I was a rent collector for the Council…” there is nothing he hasn’t seen and nothing he can’t relate to in some way. Put him in the House of Lords and he’d struggle but he listens to his audience and has a story that connects to them before he introduces God into the conversation

I have another friend who feels he is called to share the Gospel by stopping people in the streets and talking about God immediately. I admire his persistence and his willingness but he has hardly any fruitful conversations. . The difference between the two is in expectation. My rent collector friend does not expect to see immediate fruit, he sees himself as a sower and expects that someone else will reap the benefit of his work.

In John 4 36-38 it says

36Already the reaper draws his wages and gathers a crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may rejoice together. 37For in this case the saying ‘One sows and another reaps’ is true. 38I sent you to reap what you have not worked for; others have done the hard work, and now you have taken up their labor.”

When we share our faith, most times we are just sowing or watering a seed. This is important because we expect and desperately desire to see results from our work and it is very easy to give up. I have not been with someone at that point when they have given their life to Christ but I have sown into hundreds and know that some have made that decision months and years later after further watering.

When you meet people for the first time on of the things you do is you ask questions. Meet them through a mutual friend and you ask how they know that friend. You ask where they are from, what they do for work, if they have kids. It’s a natural thing, searching for common ground, a connection. When I want to talk to people about God I listen to them talk about themselves, looking for God to give me an in-road to turning the conversation to Him. We are all human beings and we all have shared life experiences so it’s possible with most people.to find a common point.

Why is this important?

Most of us have a fairly long story, particularly those who were born into the church and have remained a part of it all their lives. But even if you haven’t you’ll still have a long story. I came to Christ later in life but my story doesn’t start from the moment that I made that decision to accept Christ as my saviour. It starts from the moment I had my first encounter with Christianity. My Children’s bible when I was 7, Singing onward Christian soldiers and all things bright and beautiful at school, my excellent RE teacher who took me all the way through to an O Level, a brief obsession with Cain and Able when I was in my early teens, Boris Karloff in Frankenstein and the sad ending of a man who tried to be God, my parents decision to start a charity to preserve a local historic church building, working with a very conservative evangelical Christian, getting married to a Christian woman and meeting her church, discovering that not all Christians were fire and brimstone, the list goes on but to tell it properly would take nearly as long as I’ve been alive and you’d be hard pressed to find someone to listen to me for that long. The question I have ask myself is what’s relevant is this to the person I’m talking to? If I’m talking to someone my age or older then assemblies at school could be a great connection point but more likely we’ll find something along the way. One of the best faith conversations I ever had grew out of talking about blues music with a stranger on a coach to London. He insisted on repeating many of the old legends around it about Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil to be able to play and a whole variety of similar stories. I insisted it was the music of poor Christians calling out to God in lamentation. It had more in common with Gospel music than anything satanic and was just labelled like that by people who were scared of it. It was a great conversation and covered the fact I worked for the church, was heading to London on a chaplaincy course and whole variety of other gospel connections. All from a shared appreciation of Blues music. Connections.

You’re going to hear a lot more about testimony over the next connexional year as 2019/20 has been designated “The year of Testimony”. I don’t know what is planned for it but hopefully there’ll be not only things about how to share your testimony but hopefully move to record testimonies as part of an oral history.

So at this point I’m supposed to summarise my three points and send you away with something to consider by way of a challenge.

So your testimony is important. It’s one of your best tools in connecting with others and building a relationship where you can share your faith. Your testimony extends in both directions from that point where you make a conscious decision. There are seeds that were planted and watered before you got to that point.

You don’t have to share your whole story. Listen to people first and you’ll be able to work out which bits will connect with them.

And remember, this is about planting and watering seeds. You may never get that “Halleluhah I have seen the light” moment and lead someone to the Lord, or you may be one of those who reap and get that constantly.

I hope this has given you all as much to think about as it gave me and that you will gain something useful from it.

A badly made video about the prophetic

I’m trying to figure out the whys,wherefores and how to’s of video blogging on a budget. This is the raw video footage taken using the webcam on my laptop. The sound quality is poor but now I know the next area to look at. I’m also thinking that often there is no visual interest to what I have to say and wondering if podcast/audio supported by photos or drawings might be better.