Owning mistakes, being vulnerable

Every so often you read a book that blows your world apart.  I could count the books that have done this on two hands. Now I need to include a foot as well.

I’m not writing about the book but about how it has affected me. As most people know this blog is about sharing things that connect or grow out of my role as Missioner. Taking up the role has been a major learning curve for me. The first few months were easy, they were in my comfort zone. They were simply about talking to people, finding out what they felt called to and what they felt held them back, listening to ideas they had.

Most roles I’ve had over years of working have been fairly autonomous and on fairly short lead times. I would have an idea or be given a task and then left to make it happen within two weeks or a month at most. Much of my working life has been spent flying by the seat of my pants.

As Missioner to the Meon Valley Circuit I’m not doing that anymore. I’m learning to navigate a church that has organisational parameters, people who need to be involved and aren’t immediately available on a daily basis. This is a massive learning curve and I’m not doing to well at it. That’s okay though. I am learning from my mistakes, learning about the lead times needed for projects  and that I am dealing with 5 churches that have very different communities who need to be worked with and supported in different ways. I am learning.

If, in the mean time, things go wrong or I upset anyone because I have failed to involve them, I apologise. It is not my intention to exclude or upset anyone and if you feel that has happened to you, please talk to me. Everything about my role as Missioner is about other people, it’s about the circuit. I am here to help you all find ways you can share your faith with others. If I have missed you from a meeting or a conversation or an email I am sorry. Talk to me and help me make sure it happens right next time.

Blessings

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Six Degrees

There was a game that was popular for a while called 6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon, named for the star of Footloose. The idea was that you could connect any film star to Kevin Bacon through a maximum of six steps, which in turn was based on the concept of Six Degrees of Separation which claims that we no more than six steps from being connected to anyone on the planet. Mathematically this has always struck me as dubious considering there are somewhere in the region of seven billion people on the planet until you start considering the amount of travel people do and our freedom to move between other countries. So I thought I’d give it a go.

In three steps I was able to connect to Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, in four steps I was able to connect myself to music hall stars  Wilson, Keppel and Betty, in six steps I can connect myself to Winston Churchill, although that one is hard to confirm. It seems to be true that the distance between ourselves and everyone else on the planet is very small. which brings me to my point.

Jesus said “love your neighbour as yourself”. Most definitions of the word define a neighbour as someone who is near you. It doesn’t include anything about relationships. it is simply based on nearness. In a changing world where the relative ease of travel combined with social media means that closeness is no longer tied to geography, where I can video chat on Skype with my sister in Australia, debate ethics on Twitter with a group of people scattered across two continents as easily as if we were in the same room, if I can connect to even a large part of the planet through no more than six people then who is my neighbour?

It  seems to me that my neighbour is the Syrian left homeless and countryless by bombing and war, my neighbour is the Londoner being threatened with deportation after living in this country for 50 years as part of the Windrush Generation. My neighbour is the Glaswegian homeless man reading Tolstoy surrounded by all his worldly goods on the street in my home town and bothering no one. My neighbour is the American teen who lost friends in a school shooting. That’s not where it ends though. That if you like is the easy part.

My Neighbours are the men on both sides who ordered the bombings in Syria. My neighbour is the man who drove a car into the crowd of Muslims leaving a mosque. My neighbour is the politician who thought it was okay to deport British citizens to the Caribbean. My neighbours are the people who stand for everything that offends my beliefs and moral standards. Treating, or even imagining, these people as my neighbours. Eva Kor survived experimentation at the hands of Dr Joseph Mengele in Auschwitz, where her parents and her twin sister died. She publicly forgave one of her captors in a very moving moment in a German Court in 2016. She recognised him as a fellow human being and took that difficult step of looking past his actions and chose to try and love him as a neighbour.

I struggle greatly with loving people while they are just a label to me. The Alt-right supporter, the racist, the fascist, the xenophobe.  Once you go that step further and begin to view them as people with stories you can learn to love them while still disagreeing with them.

 

 

Where do you find peace?

Driving late in the evening, to a meeting I didn’t want to go to, I started to complain to God. I listed all the more valuable things I could be doing with my time, I told him how uncomfortable the event I was going to made me, I told him I was tired. I whined lie whining was an Olympic sport and I was up for the gold medal. I was driving down dark, narrow country lanes under cloudy skies, relying on a satnav that kept losing satellite connection. “Turn right” the satnav said and then said the name of a road that wasn’t the one I had just turned into. I was in a narrow, single track lane with high hedges and nowhere to turn around. I had no way to turn around but I did have something else to add to my list of complaints. Lost, I drove between hedgerows for maybe 10 minutes and then God showed me why he’d taken me the wrong way. The cloud broke, silvery moonlight lit the night and I disappeared into an old sunken lane, a Holloway, high curving banks lined with trees which curled in to form a tunnel. Light spilled through the bare tree limbs in twinkling shards and scattering across the road before me. I drove through this in silence, with my mouth open. For what seemed like an hour but was probably only five minutes I found peace to go on and enjoy something I had not been looking forward to.  

A good friend of mine heads for the sea shore when he needs to talk to God. He heads to a quiet, often near deserted beach near his home and on good days he will wander down the sand and pebbles singing at the top of his voice with his dog looking at him like he’s in pain. On bad days he will follow the same path but complain and shout and argue with God. And God is happy to hear from him either way.

When I feel distant from God, and any Christian who tells you they don’t feel distant from God at times is either not being honest with you or not being honest with themselves, I head for woodlands. I find God most readily in his creation, in the discovery of perfect puffball mushrooms nestled at the base of the trunk of a large holly, at an unexpected face to face meeting with a deer, at a pond carpeted with lily pads in flower.

A lady I know finds God in her craft room. She finds God in the act of creation and no matter how imperfect her work may be it brings a closeness that comes with sharing that experience of creating.

People do connect with God in church but sometimes that is hard, surrounded by others who seem to be doing a much better job of being Christ-like it can be near impossible and we do judge ourselves against others. Matthew 6;6 tells us to go and pray in our room with the door shut. This verse emphasises how much God values that one to one private conversation with us. His shoulders are big enough to deal with our complaints, his heart is big enough to humbly accept our praise and his understanding is big enough to know what we want to say when we can’t find the words.

Whatever happened to Community?

 

So, it’s 11am on a Saturday morning in January. According to my phone the temperature is 4c with a real feel of 2c due to wind chill factor. I’ve got four layers of clothes on and I’m still feeling the cold. I’m here as the Chaplain to a local football team, Chase Kings, and I’m watching community in action.

The dictionary offers a variety of definitions of community but they are all variations on this “the condition of sharing or having certain attitudes and interests in common”. For most people that builds around the place they live; my mother, who still lives in the village where I was born, often bemoans the lack of community compared to 40 years ago when everyone knew everyone else and their business. Going by this definition that community was built around an interest in common which was their neighbourhood. At that time most people still lived and worked relatively locally, most holidayed in this country if they went on holiday at all. 40 years on and like most of my peers I can’t afford to buy a house in the village, upwards of 50% of the homes belong to people who commute to work in far off places or have bought the houses as holiday homes. Yet community still exists. The world has changed greatly in the last 40 years and people are no longer tied to an area in the way they were so community is based around a different set of common interests and attitudes. Communities are built around slimming groups, mothers and toddlers groups, amateur theatrical groups, church groups and charitable organisations which brings me back to a cold Saturday morning in January.

A common interest doesn’t make you a community, it makes you part of a group. Sharing certain attitudes is what makes you a community. The players on the team would probably be slightly embarrassed to realise they represent the best type of community, one based around mutual encouragement and support. A typical conversation on the day went like this, after a poor pass. The player who made the pass “sorry guys, thought you were further up.” “S’alright mate. Next time!” From the player who raced to intercept the pass but got beaten out. They share a common attitude that everyone on the team makes a valuable contribution, that the team aim is to play the best they can with an eye towards winning and that support and encouragement makes people try harder. The team is built around bringing out the best in each other and not picking out faults and failings, they’re not perfect and occasionally they slip but not often, not often at all. They treat each other with respect.

There are many small communities like this and they are built from a set of shared attitudes on a foundation of a shared interest, chances are you belong to one yourself, whether it’s ladies who lunch, the school gate on the school run or a bunch of mates meeting in the pub.

Jesus tells us the second greatest commandment, after loving God is “to love your neighbour as yourself”. The Bible was written in Greek and there are four different words that translate into English as “love”. The one used in this instance defines love as being selfless and unconditional and that’s what I’m seeing on this cold, muddy playing field. Wherever you find community in your life, wherever I see community, these men are the benchmark to measure it.            

How not to suck at your New Year’s Resolution.

New Year’s resolutions are often a sticky subject, most of us make them and most of us give up on them fairly quickly. This is appearing on 7th January and I’m wondering how many New Year’s Resolutions have already been broken. I think it’s often because we set our targets too high (I will fly solo across the Atlantic on a peddle powered bike) or they are too nebulous and ill defined (I will get healthier this year). We set ourselves up for failure. I eat way too much chocolate (words my wife will never hear me utter) and three or four times I made a resolution to give up chocolate. My best was broken on 3rd February that year and my worst faltered on 2nd January. Lacking will-power, life threatening health issues or any other major incentive I could not go from “lots” to none.

I think two of the best metaphors for life are the journey and the story. Each recognises that everything is part of a sequence of small events. I went to the Isle of Wight for New Year. For this to happen we had to agree as a family we would do it. We had to look at accommodation options, we had to look at what else we were doing on New Year’s Eve before we could make transport arrangements. We had to pack, drive to the ferry and board the ferry. The list goes on and on. The option to just wake up on the Isle of Wight was not available.

I think it’s like that with resolutions but the problem is that we want instant fixes. We look for a miraculous power to make us slimmer, fitter or richer which is why, so often, we fail. For many people diets and diet clubs only work as long as you maintain them, the diet that let you shed 5st will pile it all back on as soon as you stop. The gym works, as long as you keep going to the gym.

So, what do we do? Do we give up and assume change is impossible so why even try? I think no, we don’t give up. As the parking machine in the Swan Centre in Eastleigh says, “change is possible”. We just have to be a little kinder and a little gentler with ourselves. Treat your resolution as a journey and set out steps along the way. If your resolution is to get fitter and, at the moment you are a couch potato like me, set yourself a goal of walking for 15 or 30 minutes a day and once you achieve it and it becomes easier you can increase it. If you’re goal is to spend less time on screens decide what your alternative will be and approach it in small steps. If it’s reading more, set aside 15 minutes for it to start with. If it’s a good book that time will go up very quickly as you get hooked. If it’s to learn something new again start with a length of time you can safely guarantee is achievable on a regular basis. I set my self a target of updating this blog at least every two weeks. That gives me two weeks to think of a topic and an hour to write it. Setting aside that hour to write is occasionally difficult but achievable. Sometimes the gaps between posts have been smaller or bigger but ‘m not beating myself up about that.

Small successes build to bigger successes and it all comes down to changing lifestyle rather than magic wands.

The puffin as a metaphor for the church.

I love puffins. They are without a doubt one of my favourite birds. On land they are comical and graceless, they seem to stagger as they walk carried forward by the weight of their oversized beaks and heads. In flight they are reminiscent of those birdman competitions that take place around the coast each year as men try to emulate flight through enormous effort but only seem to manage a minutely delayed fall. Watch a  puffin taking off and you see a whole lot of effort put into something the bird is not built for. See a puffin swim though and you see a bird doing what it was made for. A puffin in water is a creature of effortless grace, moving like a swallow in the air. Darting around with a speed and natural skill that belays its stumpy figure. It’s like suddenly discovering that Shetland Ponies are great showjumpers. It seems incongruous to say the least.

So a puffin has three modes; resting, sat on a rock or a cliff enjoying what it can see around it, in flight, not a comfortable place to be and needs a lot of effort to achieve and maintain  and swimming, it’s natural environment where it looks perfectly at one with the world.

Church congregations sometimes seem to be made up of puffins. Ideally, like a puffin, we transition back and forth through those three phases but for us those three phases are a sedentary, prayerful, worshipping, learning by listening mode, that’s an average Sunday morning or house group evening for most of us. Then there’s the equivalent of flight mode, the thing that needs doing but you don’t feel called to, comfortable with or don’t feel is your gifting. For me that’s kids work. I love kids but I don’t want to be a responsible adult with them, I want to play and be silly. It’s hard enough being a responsible adult for my own two. But it needs doing, so I have to work myself up to it. There’s a lot of huffing and puffing, a lot of flapping, but eventually I’m in the air and doing a decent job. (at least I like to think so). Then there’s phase three, the swimming phase. That’s when it’s all good. That’s when God calls on you to do what you’re good at and turn it to his work. That doesn’t have to be big and showy, you don’t have to be a street evangelist. The Meon Angels and Living-Stones are a perfect example of this. Many people can knit, particularly older people, and they sat and knitted little woollen angels. These were matched up with a scripture or encouraging word and distributed all around the area for people to find and keep. Peoples lives were touched by finding these angels and the words they carried. a seed was planted in the lives of over 700 people by knitting. God can put all skills, all gifts, all abilities, to his work.

Many of us spend way to much time in phase one, often because phases two and three seem hard or scary. The effort needed to fly can be overwhelming and the thought that God has given you a gift you can use in his service can be equally terrifying. However, a solid group will move into phase two because they will recognise that in any church a certain number of things have to happen for church to happen. Some will choose to live there, flapping and working hard to serve others, serving tea and coffee with a smile even when they want to scream. Some of them will never know the peace of phase one or the joy of phase three. A small number will recognise their natural gifts, be it leading worship or writing letters of encouragement or praying for others or speaking kindly to the woman in Tesco after the customer before them has been foul. It is tempting to remain in that gifting once you have recognised and accepted it and never try to fly. “I can’t do kids church, God has called me to …”

The trouble is, for a church to operate you need everyone to be a whole puffin, to sit on rocks, to fly and to swim. Sitting on the rocks is when you are receiving from God, filling your tank so you can do things. Flying, that’s where you support the nuts and bolts of church, where you help with the things that make church possible. Swimming? Swimming is that beautiful moment where you and God are in perfect sync. He’s smiling, you’re smiling and there is a real joy to be had in doing, whether that’s singing, painting, praying, knitting or making good coffee. Which brings me to the question I want to leave you with. Are you a whole puffin? Do you swim, fly and stand?

Secret Origin Part the Third

Wickham Music Festival brought things to a whole new level. Led by David Moss the circuit had decided to have a presence at the festival by doing what they do inside church outside church. They took the hospitality, crafts, fine quality cakes and the belief in the importance of service that are part of their DNA, infused it with a large helping of open, Celtic spirituality, put it all in a tent and waited to see what the Holy Spirit would do with it. This was the toy box I was invited to come play in.

I got to run around, making pictures for people, having conversations and sharing God with a fascinating assortment of people and more importantly, people came to the tent. People came to the tent and stayed.  It was lovely to see. The Elemental Tent became a welcoming community to a disparate group of parents and their kids, morris dancers, storytellers and other assorted festival goers who came for came for corn dolly making or to sit on a sofa and take a rest and stayed to talk about their lives, talk about God and spirituality and join Celtic Night Prayers at the end of each day.  And these people came back, year on year, seeking us out.

Time moved on as it inexorably does, each year an invitation to join again arrived and each year I went. In the mean time other intriguing opportunities presented themselves as I started each day with the question “What shall we do today God?” A churches together event in Eastleigh, a prophetic café at a conference in Southampton, Faith Al Fresco in Bishops Waltham. All moving me in a direction I could not see.

2017 came around and early summer I took a dramatic fall off my bicycle, broke my elbow and found myself unable to drive, unable to draw and unable to attend the Wickham Festival. I was desperately disappointed. It had felt like it was to be a watershed year but each month seemed to make life more difficult, work hours cut, travel costs and time increasing, everything was a struggle. As tough as it was sometimes I  clung desperately to Jesus and my hope in his plan for me.

Then he showed his plan and of course it was beyond my wildest hopes. He put me here in the Meon Valley.