A Nation Grieving

I remember really clearly waking up one Sunday morning to hear the news of Princess Diana’s passing away. This month has not been the same as that but we have lost so many. Lemmy from Motherhead, David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Joe Cocker and now Terry Wogan. Many very talented high profile people who have lived their lives giving much to so many. It is not just those who are high profile though someone I know (lets call him Peter) lost not only 2 friends during January but one of them was his former business partner.

All who have passed away have family and friends whether the nation takes note of the their passing or not. The fact that the grieving is more private it is no less acute for those dealing with their loss. Peter’s friend wasn’t religious and neither were his family. There was no church to carry him through and very little money with definitely no life insurance either.

Peter had a night at the pub where he had invited everyone who knew his friend and asked them to tell stories as he put a eulogy together and at the same time a whip round to help pay for the funeral. He took on the role of the minister/ priest and pastored the mother and children as well as plan a funeral. All this he did while holding down his regular job and continuing to perform even if he didn’t feel like it one bit for a few days.

The most touching thing to me was that he used his skills to craft a temporary epitaph and even after saying they were not religious he made and carved a cross to mark the grave and have as a marker to the life that again touched many and will continue to be missed into the future.

Loss is a difficult thing to measure and go through. Comedian Justin Moorhouse on his podcast said that he was in bits all day when he found out about Bowie as he had made such an influence on his youth and life since. I vividly remember listening to the laughing gnome in my childhood and even now I think it is underrated as so much more than a one hit wonder. I’m not sure if it gets easier the more we experience grief or we learn to dull our senses to the pain the more we experience it. But talking about it, remembering those who have gone and spending time honouring their lives beyond the formal service in small ways seems to help. Maybe it all contributes to how we deal with and process those emotions ourselves. Recognising our own needs and others we may have lost in the past.

I’m going to listen to the laughing gnome and remember a genius who I didn’t know personally but knew of and is missed by his family just as Peters friend will be. Maybe in doing so I am coming to terms with the loss of my youth, and that small act of remembrance will be echoed by many who have lost heroes, culture icons or simply their own loved ones.

Get your tent and pitch it for a while…a flexible model for mission

It is the time of year when tented cities at festivals appear all over the UK and families take to living under the hallowed canvas, normally in the UK as with this year to shelter from the rain. But the glory of camping is the flexibility to pitch our tent at will to become a temporary home. My family have had our main holiday under canvas for the past consecutive 8 years and as a regular festival goer for years before that and even having walked the West Highland Way with just a tent on my back I have appreciated the benefits of camping.

I used to think that we needed new models of church and innovation in mission that was something like scaffolding being put up around our old church buildings so that if they did crumble one day there would still be something standing in their place.

Now I’m not so sure,

I think we need still need the scaffolding approach in some places but if that is our only plan then I fear for the future of mission in the UK. For a start scaffolding is only ever going to be in the same place as our existing churches, whether they are physical buildings or communities of interest. Also those scaffolds will take the same shape and form of the existing buildings they are attempting to replace even though they will be made of newer materials, which may also not be as long lasting – give me a house made from stone any day over a temporary metal one.

At this point please also excuse my metaphor for churches based on buildings as I firmly advocate that a church is the community of people who comprise it, not the bricks and mortar that they meet in however useful a resource that might be.

In the “Foundation Series” by Isaac Asimov, Asimov paints the picture of a whole civilisation and how it moves through some significant crisis points where it could either become extinct or flourish, fade out or become reenergised. I have often heard, and used myself, in sermons about the Chinese symbol for “crisis” being two symbols meaning both “danger” and “opportunity”.

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There has been lots of research highlighting the crisis in decay of church attendance in the UK and although there are some areas of growth and new congregations, a larger part of the established church and wider denominations still seems to be declining or at best staying static. The church as we know it is in great danger, but that brings with it great opportunity.

A lot is at stake and many of those of us who attend church and enjoy the structure that we have grown up with struggle as we are disorientated that the current status quo is not sustainable for the long term. I believe we do need those existing structures, I’m an active member of my local church, but we also need those scaffolding type churches too, some of which might be temporary, others that could become new established churches, but in order to engage in real mission especially with young people and with those who have not been a part of the church we need to go into new places we and they haven’t been to before, becoming more of a tented community leaving our rigid building materials behind for a time.

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In Frontier Youth Trust we use a quote from Donavan, “in working with young people do not call them to where they were and do not call them to where you are as beautiful a place as they may seem to you. You must have the courage to go with them to a new place that neither you nor they have been before”

Walter Bruggemann talks about the 3 stages of where we are in our faith or: Orientation, Disorientation and Re-Orientation. (Nigel Pimlott succinctly covers this in his book Youth Work After Christendom, p49-50). The sense of disorientation that we feel can be described in the way that we sense the danger we are in but often aren’t able to take the opportunity to leap into another paradigm of mission as in a process of reorientation our thoughts and concepts are not fully formed – feel intangible or difficult to visualise.

Therefore people of faith at the moment experience that disorientation as we experience a world outside of the church that is moving away from where we are at a velocity faster that we can keep up with and the distance we need to travel in meaningful mission continues to grow. We are therefore living in a time of Faith in Transition and we need to explore ways that we move from church to mission. Just as in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series we are experiencing multiple crises which are moments of great danger but also great opportunity.

When Christianity or the church has been in crisis in the past there have sometimes been revivals in faith. The Welsh revival of 1904 was one of those revivals, along with others, that were youth led. A colleague Richard Passmore (www.sundaypapers.org.uk @richardpassmore) shared with me the words of the Welsh Youth Poet Laureate who has prompted him and me to think around the phrase he used,

“We call the walls to dust”

I love the image this statement paints, the idea of shredding to dust that which separates us. Many young people face ever taller and thicker walls and equally as I lead Frontier Youth Trust (FYT) which is a dispersed community of faith based youth workers we need to pay attention to the walls between us. We continue to seek shalom as expressed in Ephesians 2v14.

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At a time when young people seem to be under attack by society and when the UK government are removing benefits and opportunities from the under 25s in a significant manner, how do we live as a learning community with young people and offer them hope?

Do we only invite young people to be part of a slightly more energetic version of what we already have or how dangerous are we going to be with our mission? Unless we hold our mission lightly we will always be pulled back to the conventional model by a gravitational pull that we are unable to reach escape velocity.

We have been talking in FYT about the need to enable the translators of mission. In doing so we want to release the interpreters who can journey with those young people and help them to reimagine and redefine the terms that are cultural while still seeking the Kingdom and pointing to the person of Jesus and building community.

So at a time when as a nation we choose canvas as a place to live under even temporarily, will we move to a camping model of mission away from our scaffolding and building model of mission?

Are you a glass half full or half empty person?

The recent Olympics and Paralympics have been so impressive and the sight of British athletes from all disciplines and abilities achieving unprecedented success is something as a nation we have become unaccustomed to.

The optimistic mood of the nation has been such during the summer games that now they have finished people have talked about a gargantuan slump or crash maybe 10 times more significant than when January dampens the mood of a nation after Christmas. As a sports fan I find it hard to be optimistic, always expecting the last minute equaliser (when winning) or to lose on the home straight. I don’t know why I’m not optimistic for in sport but it’s partly about supporting Brighton as a child and 11 years as Man City fan since living here, being British and being born after 1966.

Fortunately for me, being optimistic and being hopeful are two very different things though.

Miroslav Volf (A Public Faith) has a helpful gem where he explains about the difference between optimism and hope.
“(on Optimism) We survey the past and the present, extrapolate about what it likely to happen in the future, and, if the prospects are good, become optimistic.
Hope, on the other hand, has to do with good things in the future that come to us from “outside,” from God; the future associated with hope – Moltmann calls it adventus – is a gift of something new”

I’ve become excited beyond sport this summer in that the new thing that God can do from bringing a son to Sarah who was barren in Genesis, the Resurrection, or basically God doing what is not probable but is in human experience impossible. That “expectation of good things that come as a gift from God – that is hope”.

Maybe this summer has given me enough experiences (perhaps) to be a bit more optimistic in sport (We can discuss further if Aguero’s last gasp goal is of God but I may be on shaky theology there) but far more significant is something fundamental and that is a deep rooted hope in the “New Thing” that God can do. A fool can be optimistic and disproved by experience but hope in a God of love is far more sustainable and far less likely to crash in a heap when the good times finish.

So Lord, make me more hopeful and teach me the difference between Hope and Optimism.