Tuesday, February 28, 2012

What is it Bartholomew?

“What is it Bartholomew?”

“Sorry to bother you Peter, but these kids want to see the Master”

Peter steps out of the doorway.

Twitching about behind Bartholomew are a handful of tatty looking children.  The oldest looks to be about ten, and she’s holding a chubby toddler.  The toddler looks sleepy and has obviously recently eaten something sticky; his hands and face are glazed with a mixture of it and some unpleasant looking mucus.  The girl looks scrawny and wary; her jeans are a bit too small and her coat has a rip in the sleeve.  She’s obviously the leader of a group that includes an assortment of children aging from about four up to a similar size to the girl.

Peter’s heart sinks.  Being the Master’s tour manager is hard enough, what with the groupies, the poor, and the downright wicked, never mind the gang of sick people hovering and humming at a distance like flies.  But children!

Each person takes up so much time; they whine about problems and illness and ask stupid questions.  And the information pack won’t shut them up; they just want to get in to see him in person.  The Catering Manager is trying to get hold of him, the on-site hygiene facilities team has a broken down truck and that Health and Safety Risk Assessment Document is only half done.  Peter can’t remember the last time he was in bed before midnight and he has a constant tweak of pain just above his right eye.

Peter muses about how it all started.  Andrew said he was a wonder worker and Peter instantly saw himself as a big man, a man on the way, a man of importance.  He never thought he would be worrying about Portaloos.

And now this!  He takes Bartholomew off to one side. 

“The thing is” he whispers “The thing is, the whole operation’s geared for adults.  If we’re going to let children in we’ll have to provide chaperones, there’ll need to be a safeguarding policy, We’ll have to get everybody CRB checked.  We’ll need to get changing mats.  It’s all just too complicated”

Bartholomew nods.

“But they’ve been waiting all day” he presses.  “They’ve driven me crackers.  They’ve climbed on everything, eaten everything they could find, the baby has been sick twice, and weed on my shoe.  I swear one of those boys has been picking pockets, and they’ve been shouting rude names at the old ladies”
“Well that settles it” says Peter decisively “We can’t let kids like that in.  And in any case they won’t understand what he’s talking about; I hardly do a lot of the time”

“But they’ve waited all day”

“A problem, Peter?”

Peter spins round.

“No Master, we’re just getting rid of them.  Sorry to have bothered you with such a rabble”

The Master sighs and grins at Peter and Bartholomew, then he sits down on the step and beckons to the children.  He takes the snotty baby off the girl and cuddles it onto his lap.  It promptly wipes its face on his shirt and falls asleep. 

“So what are your names then?  Come and tell me where you’re from”

The children gather round, and the waiting queue of people sees what’s happening and comes over to listen. 
The Master draws one of the little boys towards himself and puts his arm round the boys shoulder.  The boy relaxes and leans against him.

“Let me tell you what my Father’s Kingdom is like”

Monday, February 27, 2012

Light of the world

I’ve spent the morning as I have spent a lot of time in the last couple of weeks, looking for and reading resources  about the place of the child in the church.  It’s for an essay I’m writing but it’s also my pet subject, being a youth pastor and all.  As I was electronically ‘leafing’ through an issue of Theology Today I came across this:

Harold McCurdy  
The acolyte,
A little girl in white,
Stands tiptoe in her sandals
To reach the candles. 
The flames flare,
Lengthen, grow steady there,
In silence celebrating
The Word we are awaiting, 
 And the Word already bright
In the small acolyte
Who, tiptoe in her sandals,
 Lighted the candles.
The more I read it the more it seeps into my heart as I reflect on the idea that not only do I minister to the child because it’s my job, but that somehow the child ministers the Word to me.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Am I being persecuted?

Every so often something happens to create a flurry of news about Christians being under siege in the UK.  There’s been another couple of examples this week, and so various commentators and websites have a go around things like:
  • ·         This never happens to Muslims/hindus (insert other faith of choice here) because that wouldn’t  be politically correct (the Left Wing/Labour conspiracy argument)
  • ·         Christians are being persecuted and they shouldn’t be because this is a Christian country
  • ·         All religions are fairy tales so no religion should be allowed to say or do anything in public

And so on.

I’m a Christian, so I’m coming at this from a particular point of view.  I’m also a minister so I have a public role, and am involved in some community things because of it.  I do feel slightly irritated about things like the anti-gay B&B owners row, because it is true that many Jews and Muslims  have issues with homosexuality in the same way many Christians do, and for the same reasons, but they don’t seem to find themselves in the media spotlight in quite the same way.

However, I don’t think that Christians are being persecuted in this country.  I can say and do mostly what I like, as long as I don’t break the law, and I don’t feel that I am in danger of my life because of my beliefs.  There are Christians in the world who cannot meet together to worship without fear, or who are imprisoned or executed because of their faith.  That’s persecution. 

I also don’t feel we are particular victims of any kind of campaign.  I think we sometimes fall foul of the complex web of tolerances and freedoms that are at work in British society at the moment.  This web means that there is freedom of speech, but not if what you say incites racial hatred.  There is freedom of sexual expression, but not if you want to have sex with children.  There is freedom of religion, but not if you are teaching killing people as part of your religion.

In my view, as a Christian, I have to earn the right to a public say on things by what I am involved in.  So in my role as a Youth Pastor I am talking to the local council as they build a new Young People’s centre.  I get to be involved because I am encouraging my youth group to get involved in their community through this.  I don’t get asked because I’m a church leader, though, and it wouldn’t be right if I did.  And I definitely don’t expect to be invited to say a prayer at any point – why in earth would I?  However, I do expect to be able to talk about faith matters with young people if that’s what they want because that’s enshrined in the government’s own agenda for young people*. 

I also wouldn’t want there to be religious exception clauses for matters of conscience.  That’s a slippery slope I don’t want to see.  If we had that, then some sections of the community could argue that it’s alright to mutilate a woman’s genitals when it is done for religious reasons, or that it’s a religious practice to beat up a child because they are a witch.  If I had a job which challenged my conscience then I have to make a choice between staying or leaving, and would have to choose leaving.

As Christians we need to remember our founder’s words about losing our lives, taking up our crosses and be prepared to not grasp at equality but to be servants to the world.  Salt is strong, with a powerful flavour, yeast has an amazing effect on dough, but both disappear into the foods they are flavouring, preserving and leavening.

And we definitely should not respond like the good folks of Cranston, Rhode Island who made death threats against 16 year old Jessica Ahlqvuist and referred to her as an “evil little thing” because she claimed that the display of a prayer on school premises violated the 1st Amendment of the US constitution and went to court to make her case (and won).

*Every Child Matters

Sunday, February 19, 2012

A blog about Ellie

Ellie has just been reading my blog and wants me to write something about her.  So what can I tell you about Ellie.  She’s fourteen years old and turning into a woman before my eyes.  Sometimes the way she does it is absolutely glorious; sometimes it’s more complicated but she’s getting there.  She’s very clever, she’s good at languages and science, she’s creative and has a great sense of fun.  Her bedroom is full of things she’s made or altered; at the moment she’s into decorating things with nail varnish and the results are reminiscent of aboriginal art in their flowing beauty.
Ellie's art

I think she’s inherited my sense of justice, so she often gets angry about things that she thinks aren’t fair and I’m pleased about that.  She is developing a finely tuned sense of what’s right and wrong, and has a deep desire to do good, rather than evil.  She’s working out what that means for her, and how she can win her inner battles and she’s often very courageous in how she does that. 

My hope for her is that she will be able to grow into a woman who is confident about her personhood and womanhood.  I want her to know deep in her soul that she is ultimately and inherently valuable and precious; that she is precious because she is a woman and a human being.  I wish the world would be easier for her as a woman, but I fear that it isn’t.  I see the pressure on teenage girls to focus on their looks, to be attractive in the eyes of men, and to ignore the beauty of their inner selves and I want to help Ellie to be strong enough to know that her inside is what matters.

I want her to be someone who is known as just, kind, and gentle in heart.  I pray that she will know Jesus as her first love, but in the end that’s between her and him.  I don’t care what she does for a living, but I want her to stand on her own two feet and know the worth of hard work, done well.  Most of all I want her to be loved; she is now, me and her Dad love her to bits, but I want her to love herself as well.

Sunday Night Cinema

Tree of Life

It’s not often I don’t have an opinion on something, but I haven’t got one yet on Tree of Life (Dir. Terrence Malick)  It’s very deep and is trying to say some profound things about the meaning of life.  The trouble is I’m not sure if it does, and if it does I’m not sure what it is saying.  It’s about life, the universe and everything (quite literally) and I’ve seen it described as impressionistic.  I think the thing that makes it difficult is that it appears to have a narrative structure, but that isn’t the thing that’s important; what’s important are the questions it raises in the viewer about their own life.  I think I’ll watch it again, but I’ll need to be in the right mood.

It fails the Bechdel test and I noticed.  I was also troubled by a casual portrayal of domestic violence, but maybe I was meant to be troubled.

The Way

In contrast to Tree of Life I totally got The Way, and loved it.  It’s a more straightforward narrative, with a basically simple story line, but the simplicity of the story-telling brings out the beauty and profundity of the human relationships portrayed.  It’s a film about a father dealing with the death of his son, starring Martin Sheen, directed by his son Emilio Estevez (who makes cameo appearances as the son) and there’s something quite touching about a father and son working through some stuff like this; in that sense it’s a bit like “On Golden Pond” where Henry and Jane Fonda worked together shortly before Henry’s death. 

This also fails the Bechdel test but I didn’t notice so much; but it’s a shame that such a quality film didn’t manage some better women.  Why is it that “women” films are seen as a niche market, whereas a film like this which is a film about men’s relationships is seen as a film about human relationships?

Saturday, February 18, 2012

It's all a bit quiet...

Add your own whistling wind sound effects
...but I'm still here.

I'm back at Regent's Park writing like a loon to finish part 1 of my MTh.  Good news is that I've finished my third essay (How do theological reflections on Covenant and Grace inform a discipline policy at a Youth Club?), edited the second (Talking to Twi-hards and Potterheads: How can a dialogical approach to mission shape an approach to fantasy film youth sub-cultures?)  and agreed a question for the last one ("He put a child in the midst of them" How does the presence of young people challenge Baptist theologies of the Church Meeting?).

I'm doing the reading for the last essay, hence the quietness, trying not to start thinking about whether Christians are being persecuted (because if I do I might need to write a blog) and thinking about what to write for my piece for this blog:   40 Baptist Voices

Oh...and my day job!!!

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Musings on M&S Food adverts

Those of you who know me know that I love to cook and I love to eat nice food.  I like to offer hospitality and see feeding people well as a way of sharing in the goodness of creation, celebrating friendship, making them feel at home and cared for.  Some are beginning to re-examine and re-claim hospitality as a Christian virtue.

Obviously that can, and sometimes does, tip over into weirdness such as feeding people as the only way you can show you care, or insisting that people clean their plates even when they are full.  The whole food thing has become such an issue with questions about eating disorders, obesity, hunger and famines. 
Here’s an interesting quote. 

“If anyone says that sex, in itself, is bad, Christianity contradicts him at once. But, of course, when people say, 'Sex is nothing to be ashamed of,' they may mean 'the state into which the sexual instinct has now got is nothing to be ashamed of'. If they mean that, I think they are wrong. I think it is everything to be ashamed of. There is nothing to be ashamed of in enjoying your food: there would be everything to be ashamed of if half the world made food the main interest of their lives and spent their time looking at pictures of food and dribbling and smacking their lips.”  C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
It comes from that seminal Christian work by C S Lewis, Mere Christianity, and it was published in 1952.  Lewis is actually discussing sexual ethics, and talking about the nature of human appetites.  He’s trying to say that sex in itself isn’t bad, but what we do with it can be, and distorting sexuality into an obsession fed by pornography isn’t a good thing.  To illustrate this he asks if we could imagine pictures dedicated to displaying food that entice people to the point of addiction.  Such things scarcely existed in the post-war years and the idea that they might in the future seemed so ridiculous to Lewis, he used it as a kind of reductio ad absurdam, an argument pushed beyond any common sense.

I wonder what Lewis would have thought about the magazines and TV programmes dedicated to the production and consumption of food that have blossomed in the last 20 or so years?  And what would he have made of the M&S food ads on the telly (voiced so temptingly at the moment by Matthew Mcfadyen – lovely Matthew)?

We have a strange relationship with our appetites don’t we?  From a Christian perspective we celebrate God’s good creation, we appreciate the natural beauty of animals and people (lovely Matthew again), we give thanks for the food that sustains our bodies, and we appreciate that it tastes good.  We give and share it to initiate and develop friendships and caring for others.  We love the beauty and creativity of the things we make: the lovely Ferrari, the ingenious iPhone, the Mona Lisa, Gloucester Cathedral, Venice.  When we talk about sex we say it is a good gift of God, and we celebrate the intimacy it brings.

It’s a tough one, these things are not by their nature bad, but something happens in us that makes them into something that is less than what their creator planned.  Is it because we want to own these things in a way that stops us from remembering that, although we are made in God’s image, we are not God and we do not ultimate create and sustain anything?  Is it because we think we can control them somehow, although in a large sense we don’t?  I wouldn’t want to become so detached from earthly pleasures that I went around in a hair shirt eating gruel, but it’s a challenge to keep those pleasures, and myself, in perspective. 

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

An interesting new publication!

In light of all the hoo-ha about the masculine feel of Christianity etc.  What are we to make of the publication of this book?

The Resignation of Eve: What if Adam's Rib is no longer willing to be the Church's backbone?

I haven't read it, but the blurb says:

Why millions of today’s most committed church members may be ready to bolt—and what to do about it 
In talking with women around the country, Jim Henderson has come to believe that an epidemic of quiet, even sad resignation is developing among dedicated Christian women who feel overworked and undervalued in the church. As a result, many women are discouraged. Some, particularly young women, respond by leaving the organized church . . . or walking away from the faith altogether.
The Resignation of Eve is a field report on what women have to say about how they’ve been affected—both positively and negatively—by their experiences within the church. Listening to their stories is crucially important because, across the board, the research shows that women are driving changes in the church. What will happen if many of them resign?
It’s time to pay attention before it’s too late—time to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, who went out of his way to honor, elevate, and work through women wherever he went.
Containing personal interviews with women and surprising research from George Barna, The Resignation of Eve is a game-changing, conversation-starting book for women who have been engaged in the Christian church, as well as for their pastors and ministry leaders."

Has anyone read it yet?

Monday, February 06, 2012

Shame - what I don't want in my work

I’m reading this book (Shame: Theory, Therapy, Theology by Stephen Pattison) in connection with an essay I’m writing theologically reflecting on discipline in youth club contexts.  The general idea is that the leaders of a youth club have to manage behaviour so that young people are safe physically and emotionally.  This means that the leaders, who are usually adults, need to be able to do something in relation to young people that addresses behaviour where that safety is compromised.

There are some limits, and rightly so, on what adults can do in this situation.  We can’t use any kind of corporal punishment, and it isn’t good practice to use manipulations such as ridicule or threats, again rightly so.  Stephen Pattison makes a very strong case that shame is more pervasive and destructive than we might initially think, and that Christian faith, and church communities, are particularly vulnerable to problematic shame. 

He discusses the impact that being shamed by others can have in later life and describes some of the ways shaming happens.  This has led me to reflect on the way I work with young people.  I wonder if there are things I do unconsciously which have a shaming effect?  When you work with young people there’s a certain amount of banter that goes on both between young people, and between young people and adults working with them.  The risk is that this can cross a line and become something that is damaging or shaming to young people. 

Another situation that might induce shame is where someone’s failure is pointed out to them, especially if others witness it.  It occurred to me that one of the things we use as a sanction in our youth club might be doing this.  If a young person is behaving in a way that impacts safety and refuses to stop when asked, then we might call their family and ask them to take their son or daughter home.   This will have the effect of shaming that young person to the people that matter the most to her or him.

I’m still pondering Pattison’s writing but I know I would never want to add to the burden of shame so many people carry.  There are some examples of Jesus interacting with wrong-doers and he seems to avoid adding to their shame.   In the story of Zacchaeus, everyone knows Zacchaeus has done wrong but Jesus’ action in inviting himself round for a meal seems almost the opposite of shaming.  Similarly, when he speaks to the Samaritan woman in John 4 and the woman caught in adultery in John 8, he manages to address their wrong actions but also to avoid shaming them any further than they already have been.  

So my question is: How does that translate into dealing with behaviour in the youth club?  To ask the obvious question: If Jim kept waving the pool cue around like that at Youthspace Capernaum, What Would Jesus Do?

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Who is the Ring Bearer in Lord of the Rings?

This might be construed as similar to the question “Who was the naturalist on the HMS Beagle”  to which everyone says “Charles Darwin”.  Of course he wasn’t the naturalist, someone else was;  he was sailing as companion to the captain. 

I started to think about this question because I was reading the blogs written in response to this blog: 

Rachel Held Evans on Masculinity in the church

One blogger discussed the meaning of the word “helper” in the phrase from Genesis “I will make a helper suitable for him” which turns out to be the woman.  The blogger said that the helper is not the subordinate sidekick the word suggests but rather someone who rides to the rescue.  Others have argued that it is the same term that is used for the Holy Spirit and therefore does not imply any sense of inferiority.
I can’t explain why but the image that came to me was Samwise Gamgee in Lord of the Rings.  A very flat reading of the story would suggest that Frodo is the hero, the ring bearer, the main character, and Sam is the rather lumbering, loyal, servant and sidekick who follows on, doing as he’s told, cooking meals when necessary.  A bit like a wife, maybe?

However, my view has always been that Sam’s role is the pivotal one; in fact I would argue that he is the ring bearer.  Towards the end of the film Frodo is struggling to climb Mount Doom and Sam urges him to let him finish the mission and take the ring.  Frodo refuses, believing that he alone can bear the burden.  Sam’s response is to tell Frodo that he will carry him then, which Sam proceeds to do.  Finally the mission is successful and Sam carries Frodo away from the mountain.

My reading of this is that Frodo believes that only he is strong enough and capable of carrying the ring.  He also believes that he alone has been called to carry it.  He accepts Sam’s support but doesn’t really view him as part of the mission, in fact at one point he tries to leave Sam behind.  The story shows however, that not only is Frodo not the only one called to the task, he is not capable of carrying it out alone.  He is too flawed, too weak and too self-absorbed to succeed.  In the end it is Sam’s determination to carry out his calling to destroy the ring that enables it to happen; a calling that Frodo doesn’t recognise.

I would take this metaphor further and note that although it was Sam and Frodo who finally threw the ring into the fire, they wouldn’t have got that far without the rest of the Fellowship.  Each played a key role in the success of the mission, even though they were all flawed, weak and failing.  Each brought something unique to the mission, be it the warrior Boromir – lovely Sean, the king, Aragorn – lovely Viggo, axeman Gimli, the cheeky boys Merry and Pippin or whoever*. 

What a perfect image for the church; many different gifts, many flawed imperfect people, all called by God  and valued by him.  You could say I’ve made a perfect complementarian case, but actually I suggest that Frodo failed because he did the thing that the complementarians do; he dismissed the call on other people’s lives because he was too focussed on himself and his own call, rather than thinking about the best way to do the mission they were all called to.  So to answer my starting question: The ring bearers were Frodo, Sam, Merry, Pippin, Gimli, Legolas, Aragorn, Gandalf and Boromir.

*long blonde hair – lovely Orlando!

**It’s interesting to reflect that the women in LOTR tend to be in decorative and supporting roles.  I suggest this says more about Tolkien’s male dominated Oxford milieu than anything else.