Monday, October 31, 2016

On not joining in

I am not answering the door to the trick-or-treaters moving down the street, pressing on the bell and knocking so aggressively.

Some Christians object to Halloween on faith grounds, seeing it as a celebration of evil. I am not one of them.

Other Christians see Halloween as a gift of an opportunity to love their neighbours, by sharing in this cultural event in creative ways that allow light to shine in the darkness. I have greater affinity with this position; but I am not one of them, either.

I am one of the many people, including some (not all) elderly people and some (not all) children on the multi-faceted Autism Spectrum, who simply find the trappings and practices of Halloween anxiety-inducing.

Anxiety is something I live with, and manage to a greater or lesser extent. It is also something that those who don’t experience anxiety find hard to appreciate. Most of the time it does not quite overwhelm me; but some days and some situations are harder than others, require more coping strategies. Noisy groups of costumed trick-or-treaters are up there, for me, with such things as parties, crowds, heights (including crossing bridges and climbing towers), and having to speak to anyone on the telephone. (The list is longer, but does not need to be fully disclosed.)

Of course, this is bigger than me and bigger than Halloween. There are those who find Bonfire Night difficult, especially as the noise of fireworks upsets many pets and some people. There are those who might find themselves needing to opt-out of all the celebrations of Christmas, especially the first Christmas after a bereavement.

It is as unreasonable as it is impractical to take a bah-humbug approach to celebrations and events in the cultural calendar. But it is important that people are free, and enabled, to choose not to join in (my concern is perhaps best described as pastoral).

And that is particularly hard at Halloween when not only do those who run every space that is open to the public seem to feel the need to deck it out in cobwebs, skeletons and witches’ hats, but you are not even safe retreating behind your own front door.

(It would be kind if we might agree on a convention by which Halloween lights/decorations indicated that trick-or-treaters were welcome, and the lack of such was understood as wanting to be passed by.)

So here is the thing.

It is okay to join in with Halloween.

(Or Bonfire Night, or Christmas, or insert here).

And if you do, I genuinely hope you have a lot of fun.

And it is okay to opt out.

(Dare I say it is okay to opt out of the increasingly-sprawling Remembrance Day?)

It doesn’t make you a kill-joy.

It isn’t okay to pass judgment without love on those who join in.

And it isn’t okay to pass judgment without love on those who opt out.

(I do not get to opt-out of the command to love my neighbour, but I need to manage my capacity to show them love; indeed, God’s command is that we love our neighbour as ourselves, and advocating for the recognition of safe spaces may be a generous and thoughtful way of so loving.)

Sunday, October 16, 2016


I am a palm-reader, and I can read people’s fortunes in their palm.

I get to see a lot of hands. To touch them, gently, and examine them, closely. Sunday by Sunday, people come forward and hold out their hands in front of me. Some are regulars, some here for the first time; but these are my people, the people God has asked me to care for, asked me to feed. This in itself is a holy mystery: they are not mine in a possessive sense, but the One who is their Lord and mine has called me to partner with him in feeding them: we do it, together. As I press a communion wafer onto their palm, making the intangible tangible, I am deeply moved by the privilege.

I am a palm-reader, and I can read people’s fortunes in their palm.

I get to see a lot of hands. To touch them, gently, and examine them, closely, and as I do, I read their fortunes. Not ‘their fortunes’ in the sense of foretelling their future, but in the sense of seeing into their lives.

I notice the rings, that speak of covenant relationships: the wedding band on the widow’s hand; the ring she inherited from her mother; the ring his father gave him; a few bands worn so thin that they are more held-together by the integrity of love than by the integrity of gold.

I notice the fingers gnarled by age, overlapping its neighbour, or thrown out crooked by injury or arthritis: this, too, tells me something about their fortunes, not in a predictive sense but in a holy moment where animated clay recognises bones of its own bone, recognises our oneness and is glad. Their fortunes and mine are intertwined, and the richer for it.

Then there are the hands held down, clasped together, hands indicating that the person has come forward not to receive bread and wine but a blessing. These hands are mostly Iranian. Every few months, we baptise another twelve or so disciples; and only after baptism do they take bread and wine. This is a precious thing approached with reverence, many weeks of study and preparation. For our Iranians, sharing in the Eucharist – Holy Communion – is so precious in part because it transcends language, unites English- and Farsi-speakers. And as they approach baptism, they come forward week by week for a blessing.

I bless them: ‘the Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.’ Whether the words are fully understood or not, what they evoke comes to be known, the weight of glory settling on their lives. I bless all-comers, Christian, Muslim, each made in the image of God, each made to experience God’s blessing.

I wish that those who have never met our Iranians, who have to pass judgement on their asylum tribunals, deciding whether their faith is living or not, would come and stand alongside them week by week over the course of, say, a month. I wish they would look not only into their scared eyes, but on their hands.

And in hands held out to receive Jesus – the Body of Christ that is the Church touching Christ’s body that is the bread – and the hands waiting with anticipation to receive Jesus, I can read that their greatest fortune is laid-up not on earth, subject to corrosion and decay and theft, but in heaven.

I am a palm-reader, and I can read people’s fortunes in their palm.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Church Growth

With others, I have shared oversight for a growing church.

We are growing older, as – reflecting our national population – many of us are living into old age, and our youth go off to university or employment in other parts of the country. Aging is deeply challenging to everyone, and for society as a whole; yet it is an opportunity to keep journeying with Jesus and to discover grace in the struggle.

We are growing more ethnically mixed, as to the white English demographic and a sprinkling of Nigerian and Asian postgrads, we now include Iranian asylum-seekers. In a big shift over the past year, now roughly a quarter of our congregation are Farsi speakers, with limited English language. They are a wonderful gift to us, but also a real challenge as we wrestle with the language- and culture-barriers, a fear-mongering media, the lack of compassion in the way those who seek asylum have their claim processed, and always a high turnover. Again, these challenges are an opportunity to encounter Jesus and be transformed – all of us.

We are growing weaker. Pensioners, and those who have fled their homes, are not resource-rich; at least, not in material resources, or in influence. But in the upsidedown Kingdom of heaven, God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness. So we are learning to trust in him and not in our own abilities.

I share oversight of a growing church. It is deeply uncomfortable. By definition it involves death and resurrection, again and again. Not everything that has grown in our midst has been healthy, and often such growth cannot be addressed in haste, lest good things that are emerging alongside be uprooted. But in this, too, Jesus is faithful.

I share oversight of a growing church.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

International Day Of The Girl Child

The lectionary reading at Morning Prayer was from 1 Timothy chapter 2. In it, Paul, who like Jesus is unashamedly pro-women, makes several points:

men are to ditch macho posturing, and instead come before God in praying for the world;
women are not to be seen, or see themselves, primarily in terms of their looks (that is, objectified) but their character (that is, having agency);
women are to be permitted and encouraged to learn, neither excluded nor excluding themselves, for if they will submit themselves to diligent engagement this will benefit the community;
women are to exercise authority and oversight of the community, including men, but in so doing they must not abuse that position to put men down – this is for the good of all;
women and men are equally vulnerable to deception and self-deception, and should view themselves with honest humility;
yet women have played, and continue to play, a crucial role in Gods plan to redeem humanity (which includes childbirth, and childbirth as an illustration of labour, but is not restricted to bearing children).

That this passage has been translated and interpreted in ways that carry the very opposite spirit, that subjugate women, casting them as second-rate citizens – not least in their own minds – is a tragedy.

I will continue to preach the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ, as spread by Paul; good news for women and men, of every background.

Mike Frost linked to research by Save the Children into where it is hardest to be a girl today, based on five key predictors of the ability of girls to thrive:

rates of early marriage (child marriage triggers a cycle of disadvantage across every part of a girl’s life);
adolescent fertility (teen pregnancy impedes a girl’s ability to thrive);
maternal mortality (complications during pregnancy or childbirth is the second leading cause of death for adolescent girls);
women in government (indicating a girl’s freedom to speak out and influence decisions);
lower secondary school completion (a limited education also limits employment options).

1 Timothy 2 speaks out on education, representational leadership, and, in recognising the perilous and God-honoured reality of childbirth, maternal mortality. In re-framing women as equal to men, not objects for men, these verses also speak to rates of early marriage and adolescent fertility. That is to say, this scripture is timely.

And because this passage has been so widely mis-used to put women down, in a world where male public figures can speak so contemptuously of girls and the women they grow up to be, we must refute and contest such abuse of power, rather than exorcise the life-releasing gospel.