Vulnerability & Grace

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wp_20160902_09_19_32_proLast week I attended a special evening at St Marks Broomhill to hear the internationally renowned Lutheran Pastor, Nadia Bolz-Webber. It was an inspiring evening, made even better by the presence of many friends and ministry colleagues, come on I even got the latest book signed!

Nadia spoke in a witty, challenging and grace filled way – echoing much of that which she covers in her books. The central message she left me with after over an hour of having my heart “strangely warmed” (I am a Methodist after all) was the beautiful simplicity of the Gospel message, that God loves us and there’s nothing we can do about it other than accept it or deny it. That central message of grace is one we sometimes seem to lose, amongst our own internal church arguments and debates that seem to encompass everything from Gay marriage, to the colours of paint and tiles most appropriate in the new toilet block! Somehow we lose the beautiful simplicity of Gods outrageous love and grace.

Bolz-Webber teaches me to try and understand, and accept, my own flaws (oh yes I have them too) in the same way that she most markedly does, and shares openly. So, for the record: I know at times I lurch into “grumpy old man” mode, I can at times be “tetchy”, in fact I can be outright shouting mad. I sometimes allow my shows of confidence to take on an air of certainty and even boarderline judgementalism and defensiveness, I don’t always listen enough, and am sometimes too keen to offer advice. No doubt my friends and family can pick out other flaws too – but you know what, despite all this I’m still beloved by God. These flaws and frailties are what Nadia Bolz-Webber calls our “jagged edges”. and its in “…the odd, jagged parts of ourselves are what connects us to each other and to God…” says Pastor Nadia.

In the other part of my life, I’m a foster carer. If anyone ever tells you that being a foster carer is a great job don’t believe them (at least not entirely) – sure it’s got it rewards, feeling that you can provide some stability and love into the life of a young person that needs that is a more than worthwhile thing to do, but its also tough. By the time you’ve had your fifth conversation with the school, social worker, or police in a week, believe me it gets a little wearing …. and its then that your jagged edges can show, not to the young person necessarily but to others around you, and even to yourself as you begin to doubt what it is you actually might have to offer, and why your best offer just keeps getting rejected and is nowhere near enough. But as we own and even embrace those flaws  the grace gets chance and can shine through, as the rough jagged edges meet we find Gods path of love. So when my autistic ex-foster son (who has significant learning disabilities as well as his autism) went missing again for hours on Monday night – as we and the other professionals searched arrest sheets, hospital admittance lists, RTA casualties descriptions – and and his phone remained un-contactable, the jagged edges grew again. I was scared, I was angry, I was helpless (one state I absolutely hate to be in). Finally at nearly 3am we make contact – he is safe – and the jagged edges retreat, I am overwhelmed with relief and love and grace. “Glad you’re safe – sleep well son” the only words I can muster.

Each of us is vulnerable in our own ways, Pastor Nadia reminded me that sharing that vulnerability as a minister far from being a weakness can be a wonderful means of grace. As she joked last week about the Methodist doctrine of Christian Perfection “…how’s that all working out for you?” (NBW) it’s a long, long road to travel, and pretending we’ve arrived when we haven’t helps no one really. The truth is God loves us, imperfect, jagged edges and all.

A Church that makes you better

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Picture1The Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson was reported to have once said that the Labour Party “…owed more to Methodism than to Marx”. Perhaps it’s worth considering therefore whether the current crisis facing the Labour Party identity has any parallels in the Methodist Church?

At the heart of the appeal from both has been a message that has somehow tried to balance, aspiration, social justice and personal responsibility alongside elements of social conservatism. Wilsons comments may have a sound historical backing to them, after all weren’t the Tolpuddle Martyrs Methodists? But it is not the only political history to have been influenced by it, Margaret Thatcher in particular voicing her early Methodist upbringing as an influence on the importance of hard work and personal responsibility , or as she said in her memoirs: “Life was to work and do things.” The “natural” pre-Labour home of many Methodists was the Liberal Party, perhaps therefore it should not overly shock us that Methodism has also had its place amongst neo-liberalism, an ideology not confined to one political party alone.

Some of these differences are also mirrored in the varying historical strands within Methodism, the official website of the Methodist Church outlines some of the differences between the Primitives and Wesleyans:

“The sorts of issues which divided the Primitives and the Wesleyans were these:

  • The Primitives focused attention on the role of lay people.
    The Wesleyans developed a high doctrine of the Pastoral Office to justify leadership being in the hands of the ministers.
  • The Primitives stressed simplicity in their chapels and their worship.
    The Wesleyans were open to cultural enrichment from the Anglican tradition and more ornate buildings.
  • The Primitives concentrated their mission on the rural poor.
    The Wesleyans on the more affluent and influential urban classes.
  • The Primitives stressed the political implications of their Christian discipleship
    The Wesleyans were nervous of direct political engagement.”

 

According to Martyn Atkins in the publication “Discipleship…and the People called Methodists”, Donald English, Methodist minister and twice president of the Methodist Conference, used to say, “Remember, the Methodist people want to be better than they are.”

So in what ways do we hope to become better, as Methodists, as Christians? Primarily I suppose, and I hope, this is grounded in John Wesley theology of Christian Perfection. The idea that we do not have to wait until death to gain an ever closer union with God, that what we are now can be bettered as we move towards the God intended perfection of our humanity as demonstrated and lived in the “wholly human, wholly divine” life of Jesus.

But also the idea of material aspiration has also played a role within Methodism, indeed it is one of the themes warned against by Wesley in his sermon “On the Use of Money”. Wesley urged people to use money as a means of serving God, his call to Christians to:

“Earn all you can,

Save all you can,

Give all you can”

has been used, and misused, as a mantra for hard work, careful stewardship of personal finances, as well as for charitable giving. It’s worth reminding ourselves however, that Wesley was very clear about the moral and ethical boundaries he set out for maximising the money we make, his call to save was not an exhortation to store up earthly wealth but rather to “live simply”, and therefore the primary aim was to give as much as possible of the money gained towards the building of Gods work.

Maybe the Church and the Labour Party do share a problem – maybe we’ve both become so in love with the neo-liberal world that has brought prosperity to the majority of our people, that we’ve forgotten to call out the failings of hard work, and personal responsibility. Hard work is NOT a guarantee of wealth or even nowadays of a decent income for our families, sometimes for some of us earning all we can still doesn’t put food on the table, or pay the bills. Personal responsibility is fine but that also assumes a moral conviction to do what is right, not squirrel money away to avoid tax and other liabilities (however legal this might be). We also need to regain an understanding that personal responsibility doesn’t always remain individual – sometimes our personal responsibility is served through a collective, shared responsibility. Maybe in the Church we have become overly focused on our personal journey and relationship with God, and lost sight somewhat of our collective place in the Body of Christ?

But back to this idea that the church is somehow about making people better …. it’s a question that still intrigues me. At the heart of the Christian message is one of healing, hope and liberation – we follow Jesus because of the hope of something better, the need to have our hurts healed to find a remedy for our faults, to live in a better place, a better world – the Kingdom of God. Maybe today it is in those issues of healing, hope and liberation that we will truly find our greatest needs, and maybe the Church can find its place in this?

 

In a Strange Land

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bible-art-Theme-verse-exodus.jpgOn the 23rd June the people of this country made a historic decision to leave the European Union, the political, economic, social, and cultural repercussions of this are still being felt.Immediately after the result, I alongside with many others who had hoped for a Remain victory felt myself in a place of lament, here are the words I wrote the day after the referendum:

A Lament on Leaving

“We must leave” he said, “It will be better if we do.”

But I did not want to leave here,

Here I have enjoyed years of peace,

Here I have made friends, loved my neighbour,

Here is my home.

“Here is not a place for decent folk” he said “We must take back control.”

And so I wake to find myself in another place,

No longer knowing anymore where I am,

Or what path lies ahead.

(24th June 2016 – Nick Waterfield)

 

Since then, we have already been given a new Prime Minister, the Conservative, Labour parties and UKIP are all facing, or have faced, not just elections and challenges around the leadership, but ideological struggles for what their party stands for as we move beyond the immediate aftermath, and now there are even calls for a General Election – the outcomes are by no means certain.

Economically the immediate uncertainties have caused short term problems with the longer term consequences still anyones guess.

Socially and culturally it has unearthed and exposed a wave of open hostility and racism, that many of us sensed had been kept “politely” out of sight, but which now seemingly has gained a new found confidence. It has led to increases in overtly racist attacks and abuse, prompting even our own Methodist Conference to take action and issue a statement of opposition last week.

I voted to Remain – I have friends who voted on both sides of the debate – I understand why some of them voted the way they did. I  understand the desire to feel like it was a shot across the bows of the powerful, how it could ultimately be a way of restoring democratic accountability to our own sovereign Parliament, I can even understand (whilst profoundly disagreeing with the sentiment and most certainly the racism that has fed from it) the concerns that immigration has stretched the nations resources rather than assisting them. I understand, but even so I admit that I have spent much of my time since then feeling like “a stranger in a strange land”.

And as I’ve reflected on this feeling I have contemplated two biblical stories:

First, the destruction of the Jerusalem and the Babylonian exile, and in particular the words of lament from Psalm 137 which have gone round my head time and again in the past few months, but especially since 24th June:

By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.

(NRSV)

Secondly, and the one I want to focus on here is the escape from Egypt, as we read in the book of Exodus.

I guess many of us know the story from Exodus – the people of God are being held as slaves in captivity in Egypt. Pharaoh refuses to listen when Moses and Aaron ask that he set them free, so Egypt is beset by a series of plagues. The Jews flee from Egypt and escape through the Red Sea (Exodus 14). Finally they are free from the shackles of Egyptian enslavement and the domination of Empire.

BUT it’s then that things get interesting, then that things get complicated, and there I want to start.

It all starts with triumphalism, Miriam (Moses sister) leads the songs of victory, yes they are songs that offer thanks to god for their rescue, yes they are songs of liberation, but they are also songs of death and defeat for the enemy Egypt. “The LORD is a warrior…” (15.3) says the song as it tells of how Pharaohs officers, men chariots and horses were hurled into the sea and drowned, sunk to the depths like a stone. The song continues with a tone of expectant and hopeful conquest:

“The nations will hear and tremble” (15.14)

“The chiefs of Edom will be terrified” (15.15)

“Terror and dread will fall on them.” (15.16)

Celebration of victory always takes place, in war, in politics, in sport, anywhere …. But when we are on the winning side, we need to think about the tone of our triumphalism. John Wesley in his advice on voting concluded by saying …. [Our] “spirits [should not] sharpened against those that voted on the other side.” a sentiment that ultimately rings true whichever side we find ourselves on.

But, back to Exodus. Just some six weeks later (on the 15th day of the second month 16.1) they began their complaining; “In Egypt we had food…” now maybe these divisions were already there, some people no doubt did better out of the Egyptians than others, just like some of our fellow citizens were able to gain advantage from the EU that many others couldn’t. The divisions amongst the Israelites, just like our own, didn’t just appear overnight – they’d been brooding for some time. But here in Exodus we hear that just six weeks after leaving those voices were being heard loud and clear. “In Egypt we had food…”

God responds with love and grace …. (16.4) Manna and Quail are somehow miraculously sent so that the complaints over food are silenced (or quietened) at least for a time.

But still the complaints are there, lurking beneath the surface (dissatisfied voices) but also a distrust and misunderstanding of Gods provision. “Why …” repeat the voices (17.3) “…did you bring us out of Egypt?”

God responds with love and grace …. (17.6) Providing water to come from rock

Next the Israelites are attacked by the Amalekites, but Joshua defeats them in battle and makes his mark as a future leader.

Jethro (A Midian priest and Moses father in law) hears of the escape from Egypt and everything that has happened since, and although impressed, offer his son in law advice on how to govern well (Chapter 18)

Then in chapters 19 and 20 we get the familiar story of Moses on Mount Sinai, with another rebuttal of God  by the Israelites when they fashion themselves a new idol (The Golden Calf  ) but once again;

God responds with love and grace ….. ( 20.1-17 ) The Ten Commandments unpinning the basic truths that the best way to live is through a Love for God, and Love for Each Other, all underpinned by a knowledge that God loves the World.

So where does this leave us today?

I guess it depends on who we see ourselves as in the story. Perhaps – over the coming days I might ask that each of us will find time to sit with this story, read it again, try to immerse ourselves in it. And that we think of it in terms of where we are now in the United Kingdom 2016 – and what we as individual Christians, and as the people of God, the body of Christ are challenged to be and to do in the season ahead.

I wonder who you might feel most like?

Maybe you’re feeling in  triumphal mood like Miriam?

Or maybe you’re amongst those who simply want to go back?

I wonder who (like Jethro) might be the providers of wisdom in these times – remembering that Jethro himself was an “outsider”?

and

I wonder where might we look for the signs of Gods love and grace amongst the, perhaps inevitable. mess and chaos we are experiencing right now?

 

 

 

The Shrinking Welfare State

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434On Saturday I attended an event called “The Shrinking Welfare State” organised by CTSY (Churches Together in South Yorkshire). Presentations gave us an up to date overview of how government policy had already effected many of the most vulnerable in our society, and at the same time had systematically reduced and eroded social housing and social housing tenants in particular. These include the latest provisions around:

  • Pay to Stay. Forcing social tenants with a household income over £30,000 to pay higher “market” rents than their neighbours.
  • An end to lifetime Secure Tenancies. Tenancies will instead be limited to between 2-5 years creating more transitory feel to communities with high proportions of social housing.
  • Enforced sales of “higher value” council properties, with the monies from this being used to fund the governments right to buy schemes for social housing.

We also heard about the further plans put forward by this Government to cut the “welfare budget” by an additional £12 billion in the name of austerity, plans that include:

  • Further reductions to the “benefit cap”
  • Full role out of Universal Credit
  • Removal of Family Premiums on Housing Benefit
  • Changes to Pension Credits
  • Limitations on the backdating of unclaimed Housing Benefit
  • Benefit sanctions for parents of young children for failing to adequately prepare for a return to work

All in all the picture painted was pretty  depressing.

In response to all this “bad news” we then heard from Ian Rutherford of the Yorkshire JPIT (Joint Public Issues Team) who talked about the important research and campaign work they had been doing.  Ian posed for us the question “So where is God in all this?”

JPIT has discerned the need to focus on four things in response to austerity and shrinking of the welfare state:

  1. Tell the truth about poverty.
  2. Express our faith (through food banks etc)
  3. Rethink sanctions
  4. Reinforce our shared responsibilities

Jesus, commented Ian, said “The poor will always be with you….” Jesus didn’t go on to say  “…. so that’s ok then.” Although we are living through a time when the post war Welfare State is under serious threat of reduction or complete dismantling, it does not give Christians permission to stand idly by and watch. JPIT publication “Enough” (2015) concludes by quoting:  Archbishop William Temple who, speaking in 1942, said of the Beveridge Report, the founding document of today’s welfare state :

“This is the first time anybody had set out to embody the whole spirit of the Christian ethic in an Act of Parliament”. Temple said it, not because of the details of how the system was to be operated, nor because benefits provided were set at a particular rate, but because of the principles which underpinned it. Under the system that was envisaged everyone should have enough to develop to their full potential, and be able to do so within communities which provide everyone with the necessary security and opportunity.”

In the discussions that followed these presentations we followed some very interesting and thought provoking lines. Although I can’t possibly do justice to everything we touched upon, here’s a summary of some of the points made.

  • The Church has echoed the neo-liberal “individualism” for too long, at the expense of the “collective”. The “Body of Christ” is a collective expression and does not allow us to live out a purely individual focus to our faith – or to use the language of Methodism “there is no Holiness but Social Holiness”
  • There is perhaps a need to understand and accept that the post war consensus around “Beveridge Settlement” has been broken by Neo Liberalism that took root in UK after 1979.  We perhaps therefore need to move beyond fighting merely defensive battles, and instead move towards developing a new vision, based again on a collective consensus, and that we as Christians could help lead a path towards this as Temple had done in the 1940’s. It perhaps is time for a paradigm shift.
  • If indeed a “New Settlement” is to be found, based around collective, communitarian and (we would hope) foundational Christian values – we should not necessarily expect that change quickly. We were reminded it was 100 years from the Rochdale Pioneers to the post war Welfare State.
  • One final thought, the great Methodist Evangelical Revival brought about and was part of massive social change, it’s by products included the growth of working class organisation. Maybe Revival of church (of Methodism even) in the 21st Century is likewise linked to developing new ways of being, and doing, ways that will in turn lead to a New Settlement  with compassion, fairness, inter-dependency, community and collectivity at its heart.

Starting Over

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cropped-methodist-pioneering-pathways-logo-0215.gifA friend asked earlier today where my blog page was …. I was rather embarrassed to admit I could no longer find it myself, and that in part that was because it was so long since I’d updated it. I’m so glad that we trust in a theology of second chances, if only because I know that I for one have always, and still continue to need them – and so it is with this blog.

Anyway in an attempt to use this as a prompt to redevelop this reflective disciple I have begun a new blog where I will be thinking out loud about Pioneer Ministry and my journey on that path – at times it may deviate to other matters of interest and concern, but at least (I hope) this time I will remain faithful to it. So, this is not the first blog I’ve begun, it’s not even the first blog I’ve begun about my Pioneer Pathway journey, but all the others having fallen away, this is the blog I am starting over anew with.

Some background; I’ve been working in North Sheffield (in Parson Cross, Southey to be accurate) for the Methodist Church since 2010. Originally employed as “Fresh Expressions Community worker” my job (and job title) has evolved into “Pioneer Community Worker”, combining both a community development role within the church and the neighbourhood communities I serve and a Pioneer Ministry role as I seek to develop and understand new ways of being church together with the people I meet.

The work I undertake has narrowed down over those five years to focus on two main strands:

  1. Social Activism & Social Justice issues. This includes work at a local level such as; emergency food support (food bank), campaign work both through our local organisations and as chair of Sheffield Church Action on Poverty, Acts 435 advocacy (providing access to emergency charitable aid) as well as community gardening and such like projects.
  2. Schools Chaplaincy Plus. Working in and alongside local primary and secondary schools to explore and develop Chaplaincy support as well as input into curriculum areas such as RE in addition to extra curriculum activities in schools (Prayer Days, after school clubs etc)

As well as the “day job” I am a Methodist Local Preacher, and am exploring the Pioneer Pathway from this perspective too. Just what does it mean to be one of “Mr Wesleys Preachers” in the 21st Century in such a way as to be pioneering? If the world is still my (and the Methodist church’s) parish, how does the local preacher role impact to this wider ministry when much of the role seems bound to the “Quarterly Plan”?

So here it is …. a fresh start, a new page written, this time I will attempt to keep these reflections up to date, and share with those who are interested.