Just 100 minutes…

In a news summary magazine this last week I read the following story:

‘A newborn baby who lived for just 100 minutes has become Britain’s youngest organ donor – and inspired a surge in the number of people registering as donors. One of a pair of twins, Teddy Houlston was born with anencephaly, a fatal condition that prevents the brain developing. His parents had been told he had the condition, but opted to carry on with the pregnancy because they wanted him to have his life, however brief it was. They also resolved that when he died, his organs should help other live. “He lived and died a hero,” said his father, Mike. “It’s impossible to explain how proud we are of him.” ‘

I found this true story moving on a number of levels:
o The bravery of Teddy’s parents to continue with the pregnancy knowing how it would end. I meet so many folk (and so do you I imagine) who are shaped by the death of a child. There is bruising and brokenness with all but in some situations something beautiful comes out of the darkness of that death. I think of close friends who lost a young lad and have a deep desire to suck the marrow out of life. The have loved and lost and have decided to love life once again.
o Teddy’s dad said he died a hero. When I think “hero” I imagine a Fireman running up the stairs of the Twin Towers as flames engulf and weaken the floors above. I think of the single-parent who has been wronged by their partner and yet balances the bills, puts good food on the table and shows their children love.
o Teddy’s twin will live on with his/her brother close to them. Will this be a positive or debilitating experience I wonder? Will the surviving twin be proud of their sibling?
o I was reminded of the film “Jesus of Montreal”; a provocative film about the life of Jesus where some actors put on the Passion play in a contemporary way. When the church powers realise it is a traditional play they try to stop it and the actor who plays Jesus dies. His resurrection? You see his organs being placed in boxes of ice to be given to others so that they may have new life. In some way Teddy reflects the life-giving power that Christians see in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
o The quality of life is at the forefront of this story. As a church at Bessels we are spending a few years on Sundays looking at the life of Jesus in the gospel of John. The series title is: “Life in all its fullness.” This phrase is taken from John 10:10 where Jesus says this is what he has come to give humanity. The Greek word for life used here is “zoe” and it is used 134 times in the New Testament. It refers to eternal life and that should definitely encourage us to think of life with God after this one ends, a life that Teddy is currently enjoying I believe. But it also refers to a depth of life that we can experience here before we die. It is a life of depth where we know God’s presence with us in the ups and downs of life.
o Finally, I was grabbed by the length of this young lad’s life – 100 minutes. Little more than a football match or average Hollywood rom-com. And yet what a difference! How could I use 100 minutes of my life to bring “zoe” life to those around me and around the world?

Did anything grab you as you read the story?

Yours because of Jesus – Neil.

Shark: Fear and beauty.

It was my birthday a few weeks back.

Thank you for remembering.

One of my presents was a fantastic photographic book by Jean-Marie Ghislain entitled: “Shark: Fear and beauty.” In the introduction he talks about swimming with two Great White Sharks, a feisty small male and then a five metre female that he played with for over an hour, patting her on the nose as she followed him towards the surface and back down again (see the picture)!

The following paragraph grabbed me and could apply to us in these final few key matches of the season:

“Did I need courage? I don’t think so. You can dive up to certain limits without risking your personal safety. But a solo journey imposes tough demands: you have to have the capacity to live your own life without crutches. My solitude taught me how to live, to understand how much we are part of a whole, and to perceive the ties that bind us to creatures that are so different from us. These ties are fragile, indefinable, yet we can begin to perceive them by swimming with them. Sharks are capable of teaching us vital lessons. In the cruel world of the sea, there is no room for pride; only survival counts. If you have to lose a power struggle, then so be it – you just have to leave the arena. If you are not totally focused on the immediate task at hand, or if you are not completely relaxed when you enter the water, then these encounters can become very dangerous.”

“There is no room for pride.”

In our personal lives…

In the church…

In our communities…

If we “stay in the arena” because of pride “these encounters can become very dangerous”.

Are you facing a situation at work, home, church or socially where pride is warping your vision of what is really happening.

Maybe it is best to walk away.

In Philippians 4:5 Paul wrote to the early church: “Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.”

If we are aware of God’s present nearness to us we will walk away when tempted by pride and instead be gentle.

After all, who wants to be eaten by a shark?

Yours because of Jesus – Neil.

Take me to church

I firmly believe that Christians need to engage with culture; the good, the bad and the ugly; “the bible in one hand and the newspaper/radio/tv in the other”. [1]

There is one particular popular song at the moment that has been causing me trouble and it is everywhere. Nominated for a Grammy, a Brit award, endless airtime on the radio, YouTube hits in the millions, it even turned up in my son’s guitar lesson, where it had been requested by another student.

Anthony Hozier-Byrne is 24 years old and writes and performs under the name Hozier, his debut single ‘Take me to Church’ is a remarkable song. The Guardian described it as “a vibrant, lusty composition that showcases not only the hue of Hozier’s voice but also the heft of his song writing”. The Telegraph review described “a big, soulful voice capable of plunging to dark, doomy depths and swooping up into wild, lupine howls”.

It’s a great tune and well performed, but I guess it was the religious imagery that drew me in, not least the mention of the church in the title and chorus. I am, after all a minister, a church-man and on closer listening this is not a comfortable lyric for someone like me. Not since ‘church of the poison mind’ by Culture Club in the mid 80’s has a top ten hit been quite so outspokenly critical of religion. Hozier himself describes it as “a bit of a losing your religion song”.

This is no disposable pop song Hozier-Bryne is a thoughtful man and a gifted lyricist and deserves to be taken seriously. In a recent interview with Gigwise he explained why the lyrics took three years to write “I’m very meticulous about making sure every word is right. I can defend any idea by the time someone hears it, because I’ve put it through a strainer seven times.”

So, where have his critical words come from? Born and raised in Ireland as a Quaker after his parents rejected their own Catholic upbringing, there was an element of bleakness to the singer’s childhood. His father was a drummer on the Dublin blues scene turned bank worker who was forced to retire when Hozier was six after an operation to correct a spinal problem left him with nerve damage in a wheelchair. “It was a tough old time — no money. Mum kept us together in a big way.”

Hozier went to a Catholic secondary school. “I went on Catholic retreats, stuff like that. There was a lot of pilgrimage-type stuff to holy places in Ireland. At the time I was very open to trying things, trying to get my head around it.”

But it appears to be the numerous scandals that have recently come to light in Ireland involving the Catholic Church that lies behind his lyrics.

“The damage done by the Church to the people of Ireland is completely irreparable, and the reparations are all too few. There’s still a lack of will to turn around and say, ‘This is not OK’. There are still things like regular news segments where they ask the local priest what he thinks. Why is it an organisation that is considered to have any moral standing at all? The track record is just appalling.”

And with that he walks away from the church and replaces religious feelings and ideas with the solace found in “transformative power of romantic love”.

So how, as Christians, should we respond to a song like ‘Take me to church”? There are plenty of evangelical Christian websites quick to condemn him and his lyrics, placing him in a group of reprobates along with likes of Marylyn Manson and Black Sabbath, but that response is too easy and doesn’t do him (or the others) justice.

Here is a thoughtful young man, looking at a corrupt church and choosing to walk way. This makes me sad. Especially when he chooses to contrast this experience with love. I thought the church was supposed to be all about love? God’s love demonstrated to us through Jesus. I for one am deeply sorry and ashamed of the hurt caused by some parts of the church. Places where grace has all but vanished and been replaced by judgement, exclusion and arrogant self-righteousness.

Ultimately romantic love (eros) and divine love (agape) are two different things, one does not replace the other, so I hope and pray that Hozier and others like him who have chosen to reject a broken church might still be able to find God’s grace and love, after all God is much bigger than our fragile institutions.

As for those of us who choose the attend church each Sunday let’s make sure that the experience is one that reflects our values of love, justice, inclusion, forgiveness and humility. So that our children, aged 24, might be writing ‘Take me to church” because it is a place where they encounter the grace of God.

Cheers,
Charlie

[1] quote variously attributed to Spurgeon, Barth, Rowan Williams and others.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

I remember walking along Hastings sea-front in 1987 singing and a dolphin thought it was a mating call. She ended up beached near the Penny Arcades. It didn’t end well…

Romance can be a messy affair can’t it? It doesn’t always turn out how we’d hoped…

I, as you will all understand, am inundated with cards on Valentine’s Day. Jo and I don’t celebrate the day (it’s not really a day for lovers; it’s more for Hallmarks benefit). However, my favourite Valentine’s Day was a few years back. You will notice my beard and that it finishes on one of my chins in a stylish point. I decided to grow it a little longer. Some folk at Bessels began to comment on it, in an unsupportive manner, and a few older ladies dared to touch it! This happened a few weeks on the trot so I announced to my family one Sunday, whilst tucking into roast dolphin, that for every Sunday someone at church commented on or touched my beard the pointed part would remain uncut.

Six months later… It was quite long. My oldest daughter was able to plat it.

Jo found it repulsive…

Enter Valentine’s Day stage left! This is kind of how the conversation went, starting with me:

“What d’you wanna to do tonight?”

“Do you know what I’d really like to do?”

“What?”

“I’d like you to trim your beard.”

A pause as I think…

“Ok, I’ll trim my beard if you let me watch Jaws.”

A pause as Jo thinks…

“Ok, I’m going to bed to read then.”

“Deal.”

It was a magical evening… The shark got blown up by the way.

I like the romantic ballad “All of me” by John Legend in which the chorus has these magical lines:
‘Cause all of me
Loves all of you,
Love your curves and all your edges
All your perfect imperfections.
Give your all to me
I’ll give my all to you.
You’re my end and my beginning,
Even when I lose I’m winning.
Cause I give you all of me
And you give me all of you.

Please put the romance to one side and don’t we have a picture of God and humanity? That God longs for us to come to him as we are and when we do we hopefully realise that God is our end and our beginning and that even in the tough times (when we’re losing) God is with us (we’re winning).

Here’s a question for you? Do you know in your mind and heart that God loves you for being you?

The theologian Paul Tillich once said: “We need to accept our acceptance.”

God has accepted you and I because God loves us.

Yours because of Jesus – Neil.

New beginnings or old endings?

“Happy New Year!” she says,
Champagne glass and smile both lopsided…

“Have a good one!” he slurs,
The unseen pressure of work throbs in his mind…

We stand in crowds, or sit with friends,
Some stay on their own to make amends.
The clock strikes twelve
And it starts again.

Happy New Year!

What does this phrase try and capture,
In its bucket filled with liquid letters?
Should it finish with an exclamation mark!
A question mark? Or full STOP.

And is it happy?
For some to be sure! They can’t wait for 2015.
They have weddings to plan, baby rooms to paint,
New jobs to begin, adventures to embrace.

But for others…
The thought lingers…
Will it be like last year?
Will it be like most of them?

It’s all Greek to me!
We live in the “chronos” of time where everything is sequential.
Groceries are bought,
And vests are washed.

And God?
Maybe God is more interested in the “kairos” moments.
“Kairos” moments…
The right instance, the opportune second, the supreme occasion.

God walks with us every step of “chronos” time,
Whether bright or dark.
And God pauses and watches us in those “kairos” breaths.
Whether they are on 1st January or 5th June.

Happy New Year?
If you like…
Happy “chronos” with soapy hands.
And happy “kairos” occasions that stay in the memory.

Walking out onto the pitch…

I confess to emotions of pride and joy as the Tonbridge Angels captain, Jerrome Sobers (all 6’ 4” of him), walked out onto the pitch with my boys at the cup game against Bromley.

He did wonder aloud to me beforehand how he was going to stoop down and hold Amos’ two year old hand.

I watched the filming of it a few days later and noticed that as they walked on to the pitch the referee and his assistants strode ahead with the Bromley captain and team keeping with them, pace for pace. Then, all of a sudden, they stopped and waited for Tonbridge Angels to catch up with them! We were miles behind (unlike in the game where we matched them man for man) because Amos’ little legs struggled to keep up and Jerrome had slowed down to his pace.

At Christmas Christians celebrate the fact that God accommodated himself to our pace. God held humanity’s hand, as it were, and became like us through his son Jesus so that we could understand a little more clearly who God is and what God is like.

Let’s be honest, there are many troubling and distasteful passages in the Bible. Sadly, I think they are often taken out of context and sequence. For me, the Bible is a gradual revealing of God to humanity. The flashy theological phrase for this is “progressive revelation”. It’s the idea that God comes closer to us as the Bible story unfolds. Interestingly, the closer God comes to us and the more humanity understands God the less violent the Bible becomes… It seems that as humanity understands God we begin to understand that we have a God of love, peace and justice, but not revenge (that is massively different to justice).

And this closeness comes to its culmination in the person of Jesus. When Jesus is in his thirties one of his disciples and best mates, Philip, asks him to show them God the Father as that will be enough to satisfy them. Jesus says: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9)

If we want to know what God is like we should look first and foremost at the Jesus of the gospels. There we find the Son of God who is on the side of the poor and oppressed, hates religious obstacles, elevates women, welcomes the outcast, breaks down racial barriers and places children at the centre of God’s kingdom.

I’m so glad God slowed down to our pace and accommodated himself to our level of understanding aren’t you?

Yours because of Jesus – Neil.

The story of wabi-sabi.

I read this a few months ago in “Leadership Journal” and haven’t been able to shake it…

According to Japanese legend, a young man named Sen no RikyD sought to learn the elaborate set of customs known as the “Way of Tea”.

He went to tea master Takeno JDD, who tested the younger man by asking him to tend the garden.

RikyD cleaned up debris and raked the ground until it was perfect, and the garden immaculate. Before presenting his work to the master, he shook a cherry tree, causing a few flowers to fall onto the ground.

To this day, the Japanese revere RickyD as one who understood to his very core wabi-sabi. Emerging in the fifteenth century as a reaction to the prevailing aesthetic of lavishness, ornamentation, and rich materials, wabi-sabi is the art of finding beauty in imperfection and profundity in earthiness, or revering authenticity above all.

When a white pottery bowl breaks, for example, one might glue it back together with white lacquer to disguise the breaks, making it look as new and complete as possible. But in the East the bowl might be glued back together with lacquer sprinkled with gold to highlight the cracks and imperfections.

Japanese culture sees the aesthetic value of imperfection in wabi-sabi just as much as the Greeks valued perfection in their art. Wabi-sabi is seen as beautiful because it is imperfect and broken. The gospel is like spiritual wabi-sabi. It is the story of how God redeems imperfect, broken people and uses them to bless and fractured world.

Yours because of Jesus – Neil.

Random acts of kindness…

Sometimes we all come across stories that warm the soul. Here’s one that grabbed me a few weeks back:

New York City can be a tough place to live. According to the latest figures, the city boasts a homeless population of 64,000, while 7.8 per cent of the city’s 8.3 million population are unemployed. In 2012, the Big Apple came top of a poll conducted by “Travel & Leisure” magazine to find America’s least friendly city. If you’re down on your luck, it can be an unforgiving place.

So when a local resident takes on the role of good samaritan, the whole world takes notice.

Mark Bustos is a hair stylist at one of the city’s high-end salons. For the past two years, the 30-year old has spent his weekends walking around New York’s less salubrious neighbourhoods offering free haircuts to homeless men.
He approaches each person with the same phrase: “I’d like to do something nice for you today,” and posts the results on his Instagram page, which has attracted over 100,000 followers, using the hashtag #BeAwesomeToSomebody.

The idea came to Bustos after he visited family members in the Philippines in May 2012. During the trip, he borrowed a chair from a local barber and offered free haircuts to impoverished children. “The feeling was so rewarding, I decided to bring the positive energy back to NYC,” Bustos told the Huffington Post.

Bustos said he always makes sure he cuts people’s hair in very visible public spaces, in the hope that others will be inspired by his act of selflessness.

He hopes, too, that his homeless clients will feel inspired to turn their lives around, boosted by the extra confidence a haircut can bring. Bustos recalled one particularly memorable customer:

“After offering him a haircut and whatever food he wanted to eat, he didn’t have much to say throughout the whole process, until after I showed him what he looked like when I was done … The first thing he said to me was, ‘Do you know anyone that’s hiring?'”

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/fashion-and-style/11048200/The-New-York-barber-who-cuts-homeless-mens-hair-for-free.html

Bustos’ girlfriend goes out with him and she gets them the food whilst he cuts their hair.

Does this story put a smile on your face? It does on mine and I’m sure it does on God’s.

When Jesus roamed the earth it seems that’s exactly what he did for most of his three years of ministry until he turned his face towards Jerusalem and his crucifixion. He roamed, he meandered… There didn’t seem to be any “five-point plan” or “three year strategy”. He wandered around speaking and doing random (often amazing!) acts of kindness.

Also, although Jesus asked the disciples whom they thought he was and rated knowledge highly, he seemed more interested in theirs and our actions. Why? Maybe they showed what we truly believed; which values ticked within us; whom we were following.

Personally, I find busyness can get in the way of random acts of kindness and I want to carve out some “vacant” time where I can be prompted by the situation before me to act kindly instead of needing to rush on to next important engagement.

How about you?

Yours because of Jesus – Neil.

How to speak so that people will listen.

A friend pointed me in the direction of an excellent TED talk (link below) by Julian Treasure. It is entitled: “How to speak so that people will listen.”

The following jumped out at me as I watched it:

The seven deadly sins of speaking:
1. Gossip.
2. Judging.
3. Negativity.
4. Complaining.
5. Excuses.
6. Lying.
7. Dogmatism.

I broke most of these in a conversation with Charlie, our other minister, just before watching this! And what did I achieve? Maybe dragged someone else down in order to elevate myself. I don’t know about you but I really struggle to hang around people who display these characteristics. They are the people who make my heart sink when I see them coming towards me. Imagine if we all decided to ban these from our mouths…

What you say:
1. Honesty: Aim to be clear and straight with people (this will be couched in love).
2. Authenticity: Be yourself.
3. Integrity: Be your word. If you say it then follow through and do it.
4. Love: Wish the other person well.

This should HAIL (see what he did there!?) from us.

Maybe I’m being too simplistic but here’s what I see.
o In the context of Jesus’ life on earth I see the religious leaders, who were always on the back of this rebellious troublemaker – as they saw Jesus – displaying the seven deadly sins often, in their desire to silent.
o In Jesus I see what we should say – He was honest, authentic, filled with integrity and drenched in love.

I know what I sometimes am and what I desire to always be. How about you?

It is well worth 9 minutes 58 seconds of your time!

http://www.ted.com/talks/julian_treasure_how_to_speak_so_that_people_want_to_listen

Yours because of Jesus – Neil.

Clowns for the kingdom?

I was a bit of a clown at school and received the nicknames “ferret” and “sparrow” for my efforts. I was further rewarded at Spurgeons’ College where I was given the title “Baldrick” – I had long hair then which I didn’t wash that often…

Circus clowns captivated me as a child. They weren’t what we went to see; we went for the high-wire act, the lions and men with flashing swords. But the clowns often stole the show.

The novel It, by Stephen King, has ruined clowns for many of us. Who can forget its burning eyes as a child’s ankle is grabbed from the darkness of the sewers? There are other clowns that we just feel plain sorry for, like the lady in La Strada (The Road), a beautiful Italian film by Frederico Fellini, made in 1954, which still holds it own to this day.

Clowns exist in all cultures and traditionally there are three types:
1. Pierrot: He is a white-faced clown who is immaculately dressed with finely defined make-up. This clown is in charge.
2. Auguste: They are big sloppy-clothed clowns. They’re the ones who lose their trousers when their braces break.
3. The down-at-heel tramp: Charlie Chaplin encapsulates this type of clown.

I was called a Chaplin recently by the ex-Tonbridge Angels F.C. captain, Gary Elphick, in an article he wrote for the Courier. It is spelt Chaplain – but how was he to know (it’s derived from “chapel” which was originally applied to the shrine built to preserve the cloak of St Martin of Tours as a holy relic)?! And before you are tempted to paint a stereo-type: “All footballers lack brains”, Gary is an educated, polite and approachable man (he’s also huge – so that last sentence covers my back in case he ever reads this!). Also, I was interviewed by some Tonbridge School boys after a match and they spelt it the same way!

However you spell it, I have taken this idea of a Chaplain being a ‘right Charlie’ into my role at Tonbridge Angels. It has also spread into the rest of my work. I am quite happy to be known as a clown.

In the book Footballing lives as seen by chaplains in the beautiful game we read: “Clowns, like chaplains, are not contributors to the national output, but they are commentators on life.” Church Ministers can be tempted to grab so much power and reputation. In fact, so can churches within their communities and in the world at large. We assume the world is interested in answers we have to questions they might not be asking (ok, maybe an exaggeration to make a point – but it has a ring of truth to it).

Jesus seemed content to be a commentator on life until he transformed it on the cross (a Charlie Chaplin-like action at the time of a failed leader?). In Clowns, storytellers, disciples Olive M. Fleming Drane writes: “The supreme model for the Christian clown is Jesus, and our clowning must bear witness to him. Putting it in the simplest terms, the Christian clown will step in and receive the custard pie in her own face, rather than throw the custard pie at someone else.” Interestingly, Jesus was not tempted to prove himself with the powers that be. He didn’t really defend himself before the Roman Procurator Pilate, King Herod or the High Priest Caiaphas.

Do we see Jesus as a clown? For sure, as Christians we believe he is King, Lord, Shepherd, Friend and so much more beside. But do we have room for Jesus as a clown. Let’s remember that many of his stories, his parables were jokes, the absurdity of which made profoundly eternal points. If we’re not careful we could find we’ve “stain-glass-windowed” them so that they fit our view of who Jesus should be.

Frederick Buechner, one of my favourite authors shares his thoughts about good writing in Speak what we feel not what we ought to say. He says: “… it takes a certain kind of unguardedness, for one thing, a willingness to run risks, including the risk of making a fool of yourself.”

Am I willing to risk making a fool of myself? Will I take a custard pie for Jesus? Remember, we are instructed to be “fools for Christ” by Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:20-29.

Two questions for us:
1. How am I, or can I be, a clown on my “frontline”?
2. How is, or can, Bessels be a clown?

In A brief theology of sport Lincoln Harvey (Lecturer in Systematic Theology at St Mellitus College, London) contends that the act of creation is God playing. He goes on to link it to us: “Given the central claims of the doctrine of creation, Christians should be the very people who are famous – more than anyone else – for not being serious. That the opposite is the case is a travesty for which the Church bears collective responsibility. All Christians should therefore enjoy being unserious in some way or other… Those who don’t may need to repent.”

Neither he nor I are saying that we shouldn’t take issues of justice and equality seriously. But I am saying that sometimes the Church can take itself a little too seriously, her Ministers can have a little too much self-importance and those who are a part of it can be slightly pious.

If we continue to lean into being clowns for the kingdom at Bessels I think God might have a little chuckle.

Yours because of Jesus – Neil.

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