Recent Events

I am caught by a combination of fury and admiration at the recent election result. Fury that we have once more been led into a period of uncertainty by our political leaders. Admiration at the democratic system that produced such a finely nuanced result that reflects so closely the voting of the referendum.

I am taking hope from the newly painted white walls in our church hall. Our local Syrian Restaurant Ayam Zaman  has painted the church hall at their own expense. Why would they do this? They want the option of using the church hall during Ramadan. Muslims fast between the hours of sunrise and sunset during Ramadan. Each evening meal is a celebration. We are just over the road from the restaurant and they feel that they could use the hall as an overfill to their restaurant for people's evening meal together. 

The issue for them is that the hall is in a shabby condition. Once a week we feed 60 homeless people. Islam and Christianity are agreed on the need to care for the poor in society and they appreciate us for doing so. They decide to paint the hall for us and describe it as their gift to us from the community. 

I feel proud of our church being given credit for its work with the poor and dispossessed rather than for its beautiful music or historical heritage. “I prefer a church” says Pope Francis, “which is bruised hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets”. In this instance we are that tatty church to which he refers

Whitewashed walls are no answer to the recent terrorist attacks in London and Manchester but they give a glimpse of how the country could be, if we were able to learn from each other. Quite apart from the quality of their food I am able to absorb the riches of their story. Ayam Zaman means “the old times”. It is a poignant name for a Syrian restaurant to call itself, evocative of the days before the troubles started. I sit at a table in the restaurant, for hours at a time, writing my sermon for the coming weekend. They never charge me for the coffee I drink and they describe themselves as being proud of the fact that I sit there as I do. 

Other opinions on recent events come from children and young people with their own particular brand of urban pragmatism. A young person [15] said to me that he was more likely to be killed by a car than by a terrorist. On being told that a school trip was being cancelled for security reasons a child [10] replied, ‘there were only 22 people killed in Manchester but millions in the country so we should be safe’. Another child [10] said  [of the Westminster bomber] he would have been more dangerous if he had had a gun rather than a knife. 

Children work things out as they are going along. Adults systematise according to conclusions they have already reached. The contribution that that the Church can make to society, over this next period of history is to help people to think with a child's determination and fascination for self discovery. 

We are in the middle of a process, of which a hung parliament is only a part of rethinking how we want to live together in society. We are 'lions led by donkeys' as we stumble towards the conclusion of what was set in motion by the events of last year.

2016 saw the European Referendum and the launch of Brexit, the 100th anniversary of the battle of the Somme and the publication of the Chilcott Report into the Iraq War all happen within a fortnight of each other. These events left people unsure of how to relate to each other within society. Those who voted for or against our exit from the European Union distrust those who voted differently. Add militant terrorism into the mix and there is a once in a generation opportunity for the Church to help people to reimagine different ways of being together as one society.

There is an important role for the local church in building social cohesion. By gathering different people together from across the local community. The parish church is the best place to explore how this might be so. Emulsion painted white washed walls in the church hall show what can be achieved at a local parish level. I am vicar for the local area and not simply chaplain to a congregation. In Shepherds Bush we are a community of communities and so I am free to enjoy the company of all. 

It has now officially been recognized that the best place for people of different cultures to meet is in a church. The Social Integration Commission (2014) identified that churches and other places of worship are more successful at bringing people of different backgrounds together than gatherings such as parties, meetings and weddings, or venues such as pubs and clubs. While spectator sports events are the most successful at bringing people of different ages together, churches are the most likely place for people from different cultures to meet. It will take healthy parish churches to deliver a harmonious national life over this next period of history.

The Parish Handbook

I have just finished writing a book! At the moment I feel as if I could write a book about writing a book such is the effort involved. There are two particular challenges in my doing this while also running a busy parish. How do I get the time to do it and how do I find the words to write it? The first question is more easily answered. I have stopped watching TV, changed from long baths to short showers and I am at my desk four mornings a week by 5am. When the parents arrive at 9am with their children at the Church School I have been long awake.

The second question is less obvious. The book is called The Parish Handbook. It is an A-Z of parish life. It will have 26 chapters, each of 2,000 words and each beginning with a different letter of the alphabet. I argue that a parish church is relevant to society precisely because of its non-conformity to contemporary culture. In gathering people together from across the community the parish church is a site of resistance against the individualized, segregated and often-lonely society in which we live.

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The book is not however be about the vagaries of parish life. It is about the ways of God in the world and therein lies the challenge - how do I write about the one thing that cannot be described? How can I use representational language for God when God is the one thing that can never be represented?

I am not writing about God per se but giving expression to how we perceive God. Theology is watching what we say in front of God. It is a work with words. God used words to reveal himself and we use words to respond. John (1:1) identified Christ as the pre-incarnate word. Christ himself gave [to the Church] the prophets, the apostles, the evangelists, the pastors and the teachers (Eph 2:11). They talked, made announcements and gave testimonies.

We use words for absence of anything else and words are a limited in what they can do. Generations of clergy would have found Trinity Sunday easier to contend with if they realized that St Augustine himself openly admitted (De Trin V 9 VII 4) that to call God by what [we understand as] ‘person’ is simply a necessity or protocol for speaking; a really suitable term for it does not exist. He said that we still uses the expression three persons, not because it has any value in itself but simply so that we might not be altogether silent.

I am finding that words for someone to read are more precise than words in a sermon. When I preach I have eye contact. I can smile at people but what might be a challenge in a sermon can come across as hectoring in a book. I am finding that words for someone to read are more demanding than words on the Internet. In a blog or on a website I can be anecdotal in the name of accessibility but what might be anecdotal on the Internet can appear random and disconnected in a book. In a book the ideas are king and the author their servant. If I can’t explain something simply then I have not understood it well. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. said I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.

The early hours of the morning have become my secret garden in which ideas germinate and take shape. My three golden rules of writing spill into my daytime parish life and are making me a better priest in the process.

My first golden rule is not to start sentences with a negative. I say what something is before I say what it is not. I now tell people not to define their day by the worst thing that happened. My second golden rule is to write the book without using the words ‘should’ or ‘ought’. People don’t wanted to be hectored in a book of theology and there is nothing gracious in my doing so. The ethos in Scripture is that something is either done or it is not done. Ideas are not left hanging as a possible course of action. “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12) is a command not a piece of advice. There is a therefore but there is no should in grace. My third golden rule is that I write in order to live more fully. ‘There is nothing so practical as a good theory’, wrote Kurt Lewin, ‘if you want truly to understand something, try to change it.'

Election 2017

Graham Tomlin (2009) calls it provocative. Chesterton (1908) calls it paradoxical. Paul calls it foolishness (1 Cor 1:23). Living out the Gospel story is an act of faith, hope and love (1 Cor 13:13). It is not always an easy task. The children in Bethlehem are killed (Matt 2:16). Stephen is stoned (Acts 7:55-60). In the Middle East today Christians are under threat of their lives. Jesus Christ may be the answer but we still have to provide the questions in the life we live. Depending on our circumstances we talk about liberation theology (Gutierrez 1988), narrative theology (Hauerwas 1983) or contextual theology (Bevans 2004).

If you are a parish priest a life of faith, hope and love includes moving chairs for events in the church hall, photocopying service sheets for Sunday morning and week-by-week sermon preparation. When it comes to moving chairs and photocopying the task seems endless. When it comes to sermons the drumbeats for the General Election are beginning to sound.

The Election comes at a crucial point in our history. In the Second World War we shot at each other. Afterwards we set up trade agreements to keep the peace. Global trade became the order of the day. With Brexit we are rethinking the role of the nation state within globalism. We vote to take back control of our borders and become poorer as a result. The next generation will be the first generation, in a more than a century, to be materially worse off than their parents and home owning congregation members have been a part of the political process that has made this so. Generation Rent who show no signs of ever being able to afford the costs of housing ask with some justification ‘when are the rich old going to stop oppressing the poor young’.

We are to be hot or cold but never lukewarm (Rev 3:15). In Election terms this means that we might be joyful or sad, delighted or angry at what is happening but apathy and cynicism are not an option. I am uneasy at how we seem to have become a one party state with a lack of any serious opposition to the Tory Party. I am upset at how we allow immigrants to be served up as scapegoats for how uncomfortable we are with ourselves. Last year we has the anniversary of the Somme, the publication of the Chilcott enquiry and the results of Brexit all happen within a few days of each other. I am excited at how this gives an opportunity to the Church to reimagine different ways of us being together in society.

Christians end as they begin looking into the face of Christ. Provocative (Tomlin 2009), paradoxical (Chesterton 1908) and foolishness (1 Cor 1:23), it is faith, hope and love that drives our political engagement. EU Referendum voter turn out in the 18 – 24 year old category was 36%. Local elections voter turn out was around 36%. This level of political disengagement is not an option for Christians. I tell my congregation to decide for themselves how they will vote but at the least to make sure that they do so. We are so used to seeing revolutions happen across the world that we fail to realise that we are in the middle of one ourselves. “We are”, says Archbishop Justin, “to engage with sweeping economic, political, social and cultural changes and to be the answer that God provides" The work to make this happen carries on Sunday by Sunday in the Church pews.

Running the London Marathon

My Easter spills straight over into the London marathon. If Jesus was resurrected from the dead then anything is possible. There is no reason why I should not manage 26 miles [42 km] ~ how hard can it be? Running is a primal emotion and thus the perfect Easter activity. Running away from someone is a Good Friday expression of fear. Running towards someone is an Easter Sunday expression of joy. Maybe Bruce Springsteen is right and we are all born to run. I will find out soon enough.

There are features of marathon running that echo characteristics of the Kingdom of Heaven and I would like to try these out for myself. In a marathon all are considered as winners simply by virtue of their participation. There are no winners and losers, but only a reflected glory in which all are bathed simply by virtue of their participation. Likewise in God's kingdom all are equal. Grace neither rewards virtue nor punishes sin. Those who work the whole day in the vineyard get no more pay than those who start work at the eleventh hour [Mt 20:1-16]. The phalanxes of charity runners earn people’s respect simply for having a go.

Running is a great leveller and egalitarianism is a core theme for the early church. Jew & Gentile, slave & free, male & female come together as one in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:28). People of all ages, classes, racial groups and types can run. Parents and children run together. There is no need even to belong to a gym. All one needs is a pair of trainers. Severely disabled people complete marathons to great acclaim.

Marathon running, like Christian living, is an exercise in how to live in the immediate moment. You complete a 42km marathon route by running 42,000 metres one after another. Likewise in Christian living you learn of God's love one day at a time ~ sufficient are the worries of the day [Matt 6:34].

A golden rule for marathon runners is to make sure that they run the second half of the route quicker than the first. It is easy for nerves and adrenaline at the start to set a fast pace from which one will soon tire. A measured start will mean a faster finish. Likewise in the Christian Faith it is easy to make oneself busy and to run around doing things in one’s own strength. Christianity is entirely anticipatory. There is more to look forward to than has happened in the past. Christ is coming again and will gather up the living and the dead in his glory (1 Thess 4:16-17}.

The Huffington Post gives 26 reasons why not to run a marathon and says that the only really good reason to do a marathon is because you really want to do so. This will be my last and strongest marathon running Christian learning motivation to run. Desire is at the heart of faith and faith is at the centre of Christian living. My best motivation to keep running and my best hope of finishing comes from the Old Testament. In the Bible Isaiah (40:30-31) says that people who trust in the Lord shall run and not be weary.

I am running the London marathon [23rd April] to raise money for Street Child World Cup. Please log on to http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/BobMayo and sponsor me. It will help me get through the wall at 18 miles and support a valuable charity working with street children across the world.