The Woes of the Pharisees or How some Christians can be stinky

The Bible is full of lists, my wife loves lists so trust me I know a list when I see one. From what happened on the various days of the creation to those “begetting” genealogies, to the 10 commandments and that barely scratches the surface. One I wasn’t familiar with was the Woes of The Pharisees. This is a list of problematic behaviours Jesus attributes to the majority of the Pharisees. Last night though I had a bad night, woke around 1am feeling hideous and went down stairs to read. And for whatever reason I found myself reading about the Woes of The Pharisees.

God is beyond our understanding. That’s my starting place in my life as a Christian. His thoughts are not our thoughts and his decisions do not make sense to us all the time. It’s like a two year old watching their parent use a washing machine. The two year old knows, maybe, that dirty clothes go in and clean ones come out. Only the parent has a true, more complete view of what is happening.
The Pharisees thought they knew all about the inner workings of God’s mind and focused on the minutiae of the law, often man made rather than God given laws. They thought themselves better than others and, in Jesus’s eyes, put on a show, more concerned about looking pious than living a Godly life.

Jesus’s advice to them was that unless they changed they were not destined for the kingdom of heaven. In many ways these were sinful, broken men, no different from the tax collectors Jesus spent time with so why did Jesus condemn the Pharisees but not the tax collectors? The tax collectors were hated because they were viewed as greedy collaborators working for the occupying Roman forces, the Pharisees were respected members of Jewish society.

I think it came down to their understanding of themselves. The tax collectors would have had no illusions about themselves and their position in society so when a rabbi, a teacher, chose to spend time with them they listened with respect and, at least in the story of Zacchaeus, changed their ways because what Jesus said

The Pharisees on the other hand believed they were beyond reproach. They knew their scriptures and their prayers, they made exactly the right offerings at the right times and perfectly observed the many laws that governed them. But Jesus described them as ”whitewashed tombs” beautiful on the outside but filled with dead bones. They were all but unreachable and unteachable. They were the only group that made Jesus angry.

We’ve all met someone like this.

These days we don’t have Pharisees as such but most of us know people made in that mold. Many people who don’t like church can point to a Christian with a similar spirit to the Pharisees as the core of their dislike. There are whole churches built around the core ethic of “meet our standards” if you want to belong, churches where the command “love your God with all your heart and love your neighbour as yourself” has been edited out of their Bible. Most Christians have met other Christians like that.

These people do not represent Christ though. God can and does work miracles in the hearts and lives of those who let him in. Those who are broken often have a love shaped hole that needs filling and, as Christians, that’s where we become part of God’s work. Modern day Pharisees though, I’m not sure they can be changed by anyone other than God alone. When that happens they break and we can help God with rebuilding them. Sometimes you have to knock the old down before you can build the new up.

So that’s where your brain can end up a 1am. Trying to get thoughts down from that hour in a way that can make sense can be very difficult so I hope my ramble makes sense.

If you’ve ever felt Jesus’s call on your life but have been put off by a bad experience, please give him and the church another chance. If you walk into a church you will know what it is like by the greeting you receive. Take this strange time we are living in to take a look around at on-line services and on-line Alpha courses and blogs and YouTube videos. There are people out there who will speak of the Bible in a way that will make sense to you, you just have to look.

Elemental Tent on-line

So Wickham Festival has had to be cancelled this year and we have thought creatively about what that means for The Elemental Tent. And we’ve decided, for the period when the festival would have been happening the Elemental Tent will do the kinds of things on line that it would at the festival. It won’t be quite the same of course but we’ll have a mix of interesting crafts and open spirituality over those four days.

We will open each day around 10.30 with a coffee and a morning blessing livestreamed on our Elemental Tent Facebook Page.

The current planned time table for Thursday 5th August

That will be followed by a craft video and on Thursday that will be about how to make a zine. Don’t know what a zine is? Then you’ll need to join us but it’s a great craft idea for all ages.

There will then be a midday Celtic Prayer and an opportunity to try out a one to one Jesus Deck reading on Zoom. We’ve no idea how that’s going to work so anyone who signs up will be a part of an interesting experiment in long distance spirituality.

We’ll have a couple of music videos in the afternoon featuring some of the less well known acts that would have been at the festival and are now signed up for next year.

Also in the afternoon we’ll be experimenting with various types of Christian meditations.

There will be another craft, a drawing tutorial on the Thursday, and an invitation to message us if you would like us to pray for you or anyone you know.

Closing out each day around 9pm will be our traditional Celtic Night Prayer where you’ll be able to just listen in or join in the responses in your own home.

There will also be a variety of downloads available to support the crafts and prayers and meditations when needed.

Do come and check us out at

And if you’re not already doing so please like and follow.

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.