Jesus did not write a book but formed a community

Last year I spoke at a weekend away for St Mary’s Church in Islington.  When I arrived in my room at the conference centre, there was an envelope on my bed with a card welcoming me. And inside the card was a single piece of a jigsaw puzzle.

The card asked me to bring the jigsaw piece to the main room where we later met as a group. And at the back of the room was the frame of an empty jigsaw. Each of us had to find the place where our piece fitted.  Gradually, through working together, the picture below emerged, formed from the different pieces which we brought.

Both the picture that was made and the way it which was created was a beautiful and powerful illustration of the Church:

church-crown

Diversity

Almost all urban churches are highly diverse communities. Diversity is one of those issues that is easy to write and speak about as an ideal, but far harder to live out in reality.  Sharing life with people who do and see things differently is never easy.

Yet it is in its diversity that the beauty of any community is most evident. The Church should never be a social club of like-minded people. It is a place where the walls which divide people come down because they have found a focus for unity which transcends all other boundaries.

Community

I see this in the Sunday services in my church where people from over 50 different countries worship together each week. I see it in my diverse mid-week home-group which meets in my house where we gather to share our lives, troubles and hopes and try to help each other to keep following Jesus.

I see this in the Winter Night Shelter run by 13 different churches (and a synagogue) coordinated by the West London Mission. Instead of arguing over theological differences, these churches work together with generosity and kindness to help homeless people come off the streets.

I see this in the Lee Abbey youth camp that I am part of every summer where 150 people come together to form a community and to help young people find hope and identity in Jesus. The simple beauty of the place and the warmth of community makes it my favourite week of the year.

As Lesslie Newbigin wrote “Jesus did not write a book but formed a community.”

Abuse

Of course the church gets things wrong. Only this week we have seen the terrible examples of abuse being exposed within Christian youth camps.  Trust and faith can make church cultures vulnerable to those who want to abuse others.

We should never flinch from complete honesty about the failings of the Church. As the Bible makes clear, weakness and treachery were part of the church from the very start.

The root

As anyone who reads this blog will know, I believe the church should be deeply engaged in the struggle for social justice.  But, this fruit does not grow without healthy roots. Ultimately, the social and political impact of the church is dependent on the way it forms communities of those who are committed to following Jesus.

And alongside all the social and community projects I have been involved in, some of the biggest joy in my life has come from seeing close friends make their own steps of faith. To discover for themselves the meaning and transformation the gospel brings. For me, this will always remain the radical core from which all else flows.

Individuals within a collective

The jigsaw puzzle is a brilliant picture of the Church: a collective enterprise made up of many different individual pieces. Each one with a part to play to create something beautiful.

At its best, the Church is a ‘beloved community’.  A place where each of us can find our own true identity in God’s love and forgiveness and find a vital role to play in sharing that love.

Posted in Theology & Church | Tagged | 5 Comments

The political naivety of evangelical Christians – by Matthew Rhodes

President Donald Trump speaks during the National Prayer Breakfast, Thursday, Feb. 2, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

President Donald Trump speaks during the National Prayer Breakfast, Thursday, Feb. 2

‘Just watched and listened to President Trump speaking at the USA National Prayer Breakfast – has he become a Christian? Very God centred. Impressive. While some have been ranting – maybe others have fulfilled what is required of Christians – to pray for those in authority?’  Gerald Coates

Thus the charismatic church leader Gerald Coates commented on facebook. It provoked a torrent of responses – both in support and to disagree with the assumptions behind his comment.  He seemed genuinely shocked and surprised by the response. It reminded me of something Rev. Ken Leech once wrote:

‘All Christians are political, whether they recognize it or not. But especially when they don’t recognise it.’

I think this is something that Gerald hasn’t truly grasped.

Like Gerald, I too am an evangelical  Christian. But I found his comments on politics deeply troubling and I think they illustrate the political naivety which is being shown by so many Christians in response to Donald Trump.

Co-option

For many “evangelicals”, especially in the US, right wing politics is a default position. But the irony is that Donald Trump isn’t even a conservative. He has co-opted the Republican Party in the same way that “his” party has co-opted the evangelical church over the last 3 decades.

And  given his tendency to duplicity and irascibility it is extraordinary that many Christian leaders are cosying up to him. It seems incredible to me that Christians who “take the Bible seriously” and love the Jesus who preached the Sermon on the Mount are so supportive of someone like Trump.

An over-emphasis on personal belief

The strength of evangelical Christianity is its emphasis on a personal faith – this is where it draws it dynamism and power. But when it comes to politics, this emphasis becomes a weakness. As with Coates’s comment ‘Has he become a Christian?’ there is an obsession with whether someone has ‘prayed the prayer’ of commitment or not – as if this makes all the difference in and of itself.

It is overly personalized emphasis to judge what is a public role. When faith is claimed there has to be at least some concomitant evidence of true repentance.

Trump is man who has said that he has no need of forgiveness – from anyone. His speech at the National Prayer Breakfast showed no sign of Christian doctrine whatsoever. I fear that his “conversion” is instrumentally convenient as he seeks to bed down his core support in his first year as President.

Cheap grace

I make no judgment on the man’s justification before God – that’s not my job.  But we must remember that although God’s grace is freely given, it is not in any way cheap. As US Christian, Ron Sider wrote:

“Cheap grace results when we reduce the gospel to forgiveness of sins; limit salvation to personal fire insurance against hell; misunderstand persons as primarily souls; at best, grasp only half of what the Bible says about sin; embrace the individualism, materialism and relativism of our current culture; lack a biblical understanding and practice of the church; and fail to teach a biblical worldview.”

So praying a simple prayer is never enough.  God’s salvation is both as simple as accepting Christ’s sacrifice and as complex as seeing a whole life utterly transformed. So the idea that we do not critique Trump, or treat him more generously on the basis of a prayer he may or may not have prayed is naïve and depressing. In fact, if we do believe that his Christian faith is real then we hold him to a higher standard.  His faith will be evidenced by the fruits of what he does.

Speaking truth to power

Gerald Coates is right – the Bible is clear that we should prayer for our leaders. But, it also contains many examples of people who stood up and spoke truth to political power (Moses, Nathan, Jeremiah, Amos, John the Baptist, Peter).  We should never limit our political engagement to an uncritical commitment to pray.

We live in dangerous times. All Christians, and especially Church leaders, need to think carefully about the role our faith is playing in our turbulent political context. What is the approach that Jesus would advocate? He came as the Servant King – and we need his commitment to speak and display God’s justice, love and compassion more than ever.

Matthew Rhodes is a Streatham-based Leeds United fan. Follow him on twitter @MatthewRhodes

Related on R&R: What Evangelicals have done to sin

Posted in Politics | Tagged | 9 Comments

‘I Didn’t Meme to Hurt You’: disagreeing better online

trump-memeI am facebook friends with people with a very wide range of views: rabid right-wingers and loony lefties and everything in-between. Raving charismatics, fluffy liberals and hard-bitten atheists.  Millie Tants, Chardonnay Socialists and Gary Lagers.

Our on-line followers represent to some extent the worlds we move in. And for many of us, these worlds vary greatly.

Unprecedented times

And we live in momentous times.  The election of Donald Trump and the series of executive orders he has issued are genuinely unprecedented.  For the record, I am strongly opposed to him and what he stands for. I believe its essential that people are engaged in what is happening in the world and that we raise our voice for what we believe.  It is one of the reasons why I bother to blog.

But as my dad said to me when I was 16 after an argument I got into: ‘Son, sometimes its better to lose an argument and keep a friend’. (Note: I added the word ‘son’ to make it sound deeper).

Seven ways to disagree better

So, whilst online disagreement is both inevitable and important, I think it is something that we can do better. So here is my top tips:

1. Recognise that disagreement is a good thing. Having a wide range of friends with different views (even just Facebook friends) is a good thing. Sure I get nervous when one of my hardcore ‘prayer-warrior’ type evangelical friends gets into a tussle with a die-hard atheist – but at least they are in contact. One of the shocks from the Brexit vote for many was that too many people did not know anyone who disagreed with them.

2. Try and be as specific as possible about actual events. The most powerful thing I read this week about Trump’s travel ban was from a local friend who posted about the impact it had on a work colleague whose trip to the US was suddenly cancelled. It brought it home and made it real.  Labels like ‘bigot’ and ‘fascist’ don’t help anyone to change their mind and statistics are rarely effective. But genuine stories about real people do move people.

3. Try not to pass on dodgy information. It is so tempting to share a funny meme with a fake quote or a graph that purports to show something shocking.  I posted something this week which quickly proved to not be quite accurate. I have learnt my lesson – we need to spend a few more seconds to verify that something we share is reliable. We cannot combat post truth culture by sharing things that are not actually true.

4. Recognise when its time to bail out. Online debates which get aggressive are generally dysfunctional and pointless.   Recently, two friends of mine got into a heated exchange about Trump with accusation and counter-accusation about whether one was calling the other ‘a Nazi’. Ironically both are deeply committed Christians who both do loads to help others. Neither is remotely a Nazi so it was a shame to see things descend like this. In debate, you have to know when its time to fish or cut bait – and its best to bail out before things get this pear-shaped (there was a lot of metaphors in that last sentence).

5. Unfollow but don’t de-friend.  The fact that facebook have appropriated the word ‘friend’ means that we have to think carefully about how we manage the arguments we can get into.  So if someone you know is winding you up, it is far better to ‘unfollow’ them so you don’t see their feed and so don’t get wound up anymore. I am sure lots of people have done this to me especially with all the blogs I post. Think carefully before ‘unfriending’ because it is a bit terminal.

6. Try and inject a bit of humour.  Those perceived as liberal lefties like me will always be in danger of sounding a bit pious and we have to admit it is hard to be right-wing on social media.  A bit of humour, self-depreciation and humility (not to mention the odd emoji) often oils the machinery of a healthy argument. ;]

7. Remember how inconsequential arguments on social media are.  As I have experienced sometimes social media can change the world a bit but mainly it doesn’t. Online rows can easily take up a whole evening that could be spent far more productively. Talking, debating, protesting (and praying) in real, live situations will always more worthwhile.

Feel free to disagree – but please do it nicely!

Posted in Social commentary | Tagged | 3 Comments

Contemplation in a world of reaction – by Ian Geary

contemplative-prayer‘There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence.

To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.’  Thomas Merton

Political disorientation

2016 saw disorientating changes in the political realm. We may want to respond by being active.  However, paradoxically, prayer and contemplation might be a better place to start. A retreat might be more fruitful than going to a conference or a march; campaigning is good, but what if it is an actually an empty act? Or even an act of ‘violence’ as Thomas Merton, warns if we become subsumed by thoughtless and prayer less activism?

Political activity is a positively biblical thing, yet without from rest and reflection we can detach ourselves from the source of love and justice – and burn out.  

Doing nothing is an option

Some in the political world say ‘Doing nothing is not an option’. Well, actually doing nothing outwardly – for a time – is an option. The monastic lifestyle is not passive and other-worldly – many riches can be gleaned from contemplative disciplines and practices. They will become ever more important in our uncertain future.  

Silence, solitude and actively listening to those with whom we disagree don’t happen naturally in our culture. Yet, they are an essential spiritual disciplines. Let’s be contemplative and not instantly get sucked into 47 ways to change the world via the click of a mouse. Real change is harder than that.  

Contemplative disciplines

This passage from Job 11 speaks to our modern predicament. Job is exhorted by his friend ‘prepare your heart’ and ‘pray’.  We see the promise of the tremendous transformation and a new perspective that is rooted in a life of prayer.

“If only you would prepare your heart and lift up your hands to him in prayer! Get rid of your sins, and leave all iniquity behind you. Then your face will brighten with innocence. You will be strong and free of fear. You will forget your misery; it will be like water flowing away. Your life will be brighter than the noonday. Even darkness will be as bright as morning. Having hope will give you courage. You will be protected and will rest in safety. You will lie down unafraid, and many will look to you for help. But the wicked will be blinded. They will have no escape. Their only hope is death.” Job 11: 13-20 (Holy Bible, NLT)

These verses contain sound principles and clear promises:

  • We are urged to pray and repent (v13-14)
  • Visible manifestations of transformation and a new perspective are granted to the one who prays, repents and leaves the past behind (v15-19)
  • You will forget your misery’ (v16) you don’t need to be bound to the imminent i.e. the state of the Labour Party, Brexit, Trump. We care about our world, but without an encounter with God these things can stifle us.
  • Many will look to you for help’ (v19) we aren’t the only one God will bless, others can be blessed too.
  • This path of prayer not just a ‘nice to have’ it is the only path, as the alternative is destruction. (v20)

This passage reminds us to get our heart and devotion right. As a Christian I believe that lifting up our hands in prayer means that our heart remains attached to a holy goal. I want to cultivate good habits of the heart such as worship, prayer and solitude. If we don’t develop such spiritual disciplines, it will secular liturgies that will shape our desires.

A radically different view

This is no call to passivity.  The good news of Jesus calls us to action. Yet we must resist social and political activism detached from prayer and reflection. Just as Jesus retreated in solitude from the crowds to pray his Father, our action will bear fruit if it attends to the heart beat of the one who created us and loves us. 

So in 2017, let’s not get sucked into hyper-activity. Pay close attention to these verses in Job and orientate your life on a different track. Take a radically different view of what it means to be political.

Ian Geary works in public affairs, is a member of the Christians on the Left and lives in South East London with his wife and their three young children.

A longer version of this article is also available on R&R

Posted in Ethics & Christian living | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Taking a break from Fakebook – by Jill Rowe

funny-social-media-man-jailI have not been here.

Over the past little while I took a break from Facebook. I’ve not ‘photo-ed’ for Instagram and my tweeting volume has been close to zero.  I have not been here.

Why? Because I know that sometimes being here stops me being here, where I should be or where I need to be.

Distance and falsehood

The virtual world is just what it says it is. Virtual and not real.  And if you’re not careful, it creates distance and a whole heap of falsehood. Many close to me will have heard me call it ‘Fakebook’. I’m conscious that it builds thrones and platforms that can be built on nothing more than sand.

We forget that the things we are fed and the things we feed are always highly filtered, if not by us then by the logarithms that sit behind the machine. Sooner or later we have to pull the curtain back and face what is real and what is reality.

Knocked and dented

For some of us, we are strong but for some of us we are not and we create our worth as we create our online profile. For others, our worth is knocked and dented by the profile of others.

And if any of us thinks that our value as human beings is based on our ‘likes’ – the momentary online click of approval – if we constantly check how many likes we have, or compare our likes to those of others, if we take our posts down when we’ve not got what we wanted, if we think or do any of these thing then I’m telling you it is a pile of BS. Honestly.

Keep believing that this is where worth resides and you, me, we, we will all lose the plot. What happens ‘here’ is not always the truth or the whole truth and sadly sometimes nothing like the truth – so help us God.

A resource not a master

So my recommendation to us all is that we learn how to take a break sometimes.
Learn how to not be here so that we really can be here.
Learn how to see social media as resource and do not let it be our master.
Learn how to be with the people we are with and practice putting our phones down.
Learn how to speak again – one to one and do not do not do not pick up our phones to check or measure our profile ratings.
Learn how to look up and around at the world we are in.
Learn how to give thanks for what we have and not to be jealous of the show-reel of others (remember it’s not a real reel).
Learn that we don’t need to show off because we’re not sure if we have enough to show.
Learn how less really can be more.
Learn how to be real again and again and again.

And when we return – let’s tell one another what we’ve have learnt as well.
Help us all to remember how to not be here.

Jill Rowe is Ethos & Formation Director for Oasis 

Posted in Social commentary | 2 Comments

Poverty is many things…

povertyPoverty is not entertainment, it’s not noble or romantic.
Poverty is… heavy.
It’s heavy hearts and heavy legs.
It’s sore skin and hollow eyes.
It’s upset and downhearted.
It’s hunger. Malnourishment. It’s always thinking about the next meal.
Poverty is bailiffs, it’s food banks, it’s queues and lists,
it’s never being told what you’re entitled to but always being told.
Poverty is being shown up then put down.
It’s missed payments and mistrust.
It’s always answering questions but never answering the door.
Poverty is hiding in plain view. It’s hiding.
Poverty is high bills and low pay.
It’s higher costs and lower self-esteem.
It’s invisible scars and visible pain.
Poverty is living nextdoor, it’s living on your nerves, it’s not living, it’s… barely surviving.

Poverty is… everywhere. With… nowhere to turn
It’s a gut-wrenching silence, screaming.
Poverty is depressing, demotivating and dehumanising.
It’s degradation, desperation and despair.
Poverty is feeling… worthless, it’s feeling anxious, it’s feeling excluded,
it’s feeling rejected, it’s feeling ashamed, it’s feeling trapped, it’s feeling angry,
it’s feeling fffrustrated, poverty is…. exhausting.

It’s not feeling anything. It’s… numb.
Poverty is… crushing. Empty. Lonely.
Poverty is cold. It’s damp. It’s ill health. Bad housing. Sadness, fear and human misery.
Poverty is ignored and abandoned. It’s sanctioned and sectioned.
It’s late payments and early deaths.

Poverty is not something that happens to… “others”.
Poverty is our odd people, our young people, our sick people, our disabled people,
our mentally ill people, our homeless people.
Poverty is people seeking asylum, it’s people who are refugees,
people who are migrants. Poverty is overworked, underpaid everyday people.

Poverty is people. It’s children. Babies. Not… “them”. Us.
“Poverty is the worst form of violence.” (Mahatma Gandhi)
Poverty is growing in our country. In 2016.

Poverty is many things,
but it is not
acceptable.

This poem is re-produced with permission from Church Action on Poverty’s magazine SPARK. It was written by the Powerlines project, based in Salford, which brings together people affected by poverty with professional writers. For more information see Church Action on Poverty’s website and get involved in their brilliant work.

Posted in Poverty | Tagged | 2 Comments

It’s up to each of us to resist the cynicism of ‘post-truth’ culture

post-truthPost-truth was chosen as the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2016.

It’s a word which has sprung into prominence mainly due to Donald Trump’s election win. I heard a good example the other day on the radio when a US political commentator was talking about Trump’s promise to build a wall on the US/Mexico border. His view was that ‘whilst some construction might happen, essentially the wall will come to mean a metaphor for a stronger border’.

But the thing is that Trump did not just commit himself to a stronger border – he promised to build an actual wall. And the thousands who chanted ‘Build the wall, Build the wall’ at his rallies were not shouting for a metaphor.

Does it matter anymore?

In the old politics, failure to build an actual wall (or prosecute Hilary Clinton, or deport all illegal immigrants) would be a serious matter. But in a post-truth world, does this really matter anymore?

Similarly, I think of the retired couple at my church who said a key reason why they are voting for Brexit was because of the £350m a week which would be diverted to the NHS following a leave vote.  But after winning the referendum leading members of the leave campaign soon distanced themselves from this claim.

Does the power of a message now matter more than its integrity?

‘What is truth?’

Of course, this is no new problem. Pontius Pilate, the 1st century Roman governor of Palestine, knew that Jesus of Nazareth had done nothing worthy of execution.  And yet, political pressure meant he felt he had to sent him to his death.

When questioned by Pilate, Jesus puts truth at the heart of his mission and purpose:

‘ “The reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”

“What is truth?” Pilate replied.’

Pilate’s reply is no abstract philosophical question. It speaks to the heart of the relationship between truth and power. What does ‘truth’ even mean when Pilate had the ultimate power to kill or pardon whoever he chose?

Truth and power

The relationship between truth and power is explored brilliantly by George Orwell in 1984.  In this dystopian future, the concept of objective truth no longer exists. ‘Truth’ is simply whatever the all-powerful ruling Party dictates it to be:

“And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed—if all records told the same tale—then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who controls the past’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”

Orwell’s vision is a terrifying warning about what happens when lies and deceit end up in total control of a society and a political system. “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.”

Rejecting cynicism

This is why everyone of us needs to reject the cynicism of post-truth culture. A commitment to objective truth is vital for the health of our society. We must fight to keep key institutions – Parliament, courts, police and media – as free from corruption as possible.

Last year I had to spend 4 days in court because I had been accused of something which was wholly false and without foundation. I was completely exonerated – but I was so grateful that the UK has a system which enabled a fair hearing. As my lawyer said to me and all the witnesses: ‘You have one job: to tell the truth.’

Everyone’s job

It’s a job we all have.  We can be all be committed, whether at work, with our friends and family or on social media to be more committed to telling the truth and standing up for what we think.

We should speak with grace and care, but we should not be afraid to disagree with people or say uncomfortable things. All organisations, workplaces and churches benefit from those who are willing to challenge the comfortable collusion that so easily develops in groups of people.

We need to reject the cynicism of post-truth culture. On both institutional and personal levels, reality is liberating. Lies and deceit imprison, the truth really does set us free.

Posted in Politics | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Martin Scorsese’s ‘Silence’ – a review by Corin Pilling

silence-posterGoing to see many films produced by Christians is a bit similar to a visit to McDonald’s. You hope that no-one sees you going in and as you indulge yourself, you try to convince yourself that the delivery of such a sugary hit must contain at least some nutrients.

Many films marketed to the faith community seem designed to offer a platitudinous pat on the back for believing, rather than providing true sustenance for the journey.

Knotted muscle

We know not to expect any such easy offerings from Martin Scorsese. Nonetheless, this film did premier at the Vatican. So, is Silence a film which seeks to court favour with the established church – perhaps even providing a justification for proselytism?

Of course, it’s not that simple. Instead of providing a comfort blanket of faith entertainment, Silence chooses to press into the most difficult areas, the knotted muscle as it were, of faith and unbelief.

It refuses to provide any resolutions and in doing so, offers rich gifts for those willing to engage with its challenges.

Unbearable horror

Adapted from the 1966 novel by Shusaku Endo and thirty years in the making, Silence focuses on the journey of two 17th century Portuguese priests, Garrpe and Rodrigues, who return to Japan having received the news that their mentor Ferreira has renounced his faith.

At this stage, we have already witnessed a distraught Ferreira viewing scenes of unbearable horror, as Japanese ‘Kirishtians’ are martyred before him. The two priests embark on their mission to seek out Ferreira, bringing them into contact with communities of persecuted believers.

Counter-imperialism

The priests are initially greeted with fervour and relief by the communities. Yet as the story unfolds, we see each faced with impossible choices designed by the inquisitors to break their spirit. Each scenario offers the promise of relief of others’ suffering following the renunciation of faith.

These scenes could be read as a dark counter to the imperialism the priests represent. In daring to believe they could colonise the ‘swamp’ of Japan their faith is fed back to them by Japanese feudal powers as a choice between upholding belief or relieving human misery.

Where is God?

In turn, the question of theodicy arises: where is God in this? Did he design it?

Rodrigues asks ‘How can I explain His silence to these people?’ The priest’s own journey becomes central and invites us to reflect on our own faith and how we respond to such challenges to our deepest beliefs.

Weeks after seeing the film, I find myself considering the nature of faith, and the dynamic between our own internal journey and the external mechanisms we have to support what we believe. I was also drawn back to two specific themes I’ve unpacked below.

Awareness of our own lenses

Firstly, whilst the issue of how the Church is intertwined with imperialism is only implicit in the film, it presents the need for a continued awareness of our own lenses.  How do Christians bear witness to the truth and model this in our own lives?  How do we remember the primary need for our own conversion?

Would the priests have reached the same conclusion, and destiny, if they perceived themselves as firstly those primarily in need of conversion? Indeed, was their whole mission in the film a journey of self-discovery? What if they came looking for signs of the kingdom they would seek to nurture first? The foot we lead with becomes crucial.

A deeper invitation

Secondly, when faith seems to be reduced to a series of death-dealing choices, how do we maintain the wider perspective of the kingdom? Is there a deeper invitation, still?

Historically, many of the saints speak of suffering as invitation to encounter more expansive love. I was reminded of St. Francis’ own journey who realised that for love to be real, it had to include pain:

‘It was easy to love God in all that was beautiful; the lessons of deeper knowledge, though, instructed me to embrace God in all things.’

Magnificent and challenging

So in conclusion, if you are feeling robust, please go and see this magnificent and challenging film. Go with those of faith and with those who don’t believe. Go with some time on your hands to allow it to press into your own personal knotted muscle wherever you find it to be.

Oh, and, if you decide you deserve a burger afterwards, I would be the last to judge you.

Silence is released in UK cinemas on January 1st 2017.

Corin Pilling works for Livability, leading a team of people who help churches build community across the UK, and enjoys the occasional dirty burger.

Posted in Films & music | Tagged | 1 Comment

Light in the darkness: fighting the misunderstanding and stigma of mental illness – by Giles Fraser

carrie-fisherCarrie Fisher was more than a princess. At the age of 24 she was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder – or manic depression as it used to be called. And throughout the rest of her life she fought to demystify this condition from misunderstanding and stigma.

She called her illness “an opportunity to be a good example to others”, talking about her condition without shame, and encouraging others to do the same.

Dark and empty  

Which is why I thought it appropriate for me to say a few words about my own episodes of depression. Mine are different to those Carrie used to have, without the same up and down mood swings. For me, its extended periods of feeling dark and empty, like being submerged in cold black water. They are bleak desperate times when no one can reach me and when, at extreme moments, I have struggled with the most self-destructive of thoughts.

And when I have been overtaken like this, people telling me its all going to be OK feels like an insult. Even worse are those who want to proscribe Jesus to make all things smiley and well. During these periods I feel that God is absent, uninterested or even non-existent. And whilst I know this sounds a lot like atheism – and indeed often feels like it too – it’s not really the same at all.

Not self-saving creatures

For despite the experience of the absence of God, there is something important that orthodox Christian theology has to say to me when I am trapped in this darkness – and that is: that we as human beings are not supposed to be self-saving creatures.

That was the ancient heresy of the Scottish monk Pelagius – he thought that human beings were capable of saving ourselves from the darkness, that we are able to pull ourselves up from our own boot-straps. The church officially disagreed. We are dependent creatures, the church insisted, fundamentally reliant on that which is outside our control.

The courage of waiting

Which is why much of the religious life, like depression itself, is constituted by the quality and courage of one’s waiting. Faith is often a determination to sit in the darkness without cheap consolation and to wait it out, to wait for the dawn to break.

Like the story in Luke’s gospel of Simeon and Anna who hung around in the Jerusalem Temple for years, with little idea of what they were waiting for. Eventually they found their light in the appearance of a baby boy, recently born in a Bethlehem shed, who was being taken to the Temple for the very first time.

Rescued from the dark

My favorite Christmas reading comes from the prophet Isaiah:

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. Those who dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them have the light shined.”

And when I hear those words read out in church I often cry. And then whisper a quiet prayer of “thank you” that I too have been rescued from the dark.

Giles Fraser is vicar of St Mary’s Newington, near Elephant & Castle in south London. This text is taken with permission from his Thought for the Day on BBC’s Radio 4 which was broadcast today.

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‘A thorn in the side of comfortable socialism’: an appreciation of Bob Holman (1936-2016) – by Dave Wiles

bobholmanI first met Bob Holman in 1973. Following on from a turbulent adolescence I had experienced a radical conversion to Christianity. At the same time Bob was considering his future as Professor of Social Administration at Bath University.

With an amazing sense of vocation from him and Annette, he resigned his academic post and moved, with his children, onto the council estate where I lived at the edge of Bath.

He was the answer to my prayers!  However, he seemed to see me as an answer to his prayers as he looked for ways to connect with the community that he has just moved into.

It was not long before we, together with others, were running about 30 groups a week for young people. Before-school clubs, lunch clubs, holiday clubs, after school clubs, women’s groups, play schemes, youth clubs, local events as well as work with hundreds of local individual young people and adults. Even as an young man I could barely keep up with Bob’s energy and passion for community action!

Experimental community work

Bob and Annette’s home was open to all. Little did I know at the time, but Bob was experimenting with a pioneering approach to neighbourhood work that would later cause many interesting debates in the world of social work. What does it mean to ‘live on the patch’? Was it possible to develop ‘indigenous workers’?

Bob didn’t parachute in with answers; he trod the street listening to local people and engaging potential activists to respond to their own concerns. His East End humour and warm personality helped.  His social work was not confined to fancy rhetoric about empowerment, facilitation and development – he practiced it with gusto!

Purposeful relationships

Bob would remember details about people’s lives and show such interest and pleasure in others that everyone in my neighbourhood soon adored him. On Monday mornings we always met to catch up on our plans for the week and pray. Bob would always be found writing out the birthday cards for that week.  He remembered hundreds of people a month in this small act of human compassion.

For many young people on the estate, his belief in them awoke their belief inthemselves. This has enabled many of them to achieve so much in their own lives. I know at least ten young people who, despite a lack of early academic success, when on to become youth workers, social workers and community workers through Bob’s influence.

Bob used words like ‘reciprocity’ and ‘mutuality’ and lived them out. He focused on what people could do – rather than problematising their character. One example I remember was a young man with a track record of theft, but who Bob saw potential in and trusted him to run our youth club café. It provided the platform for him to make a success of his life.

Willingness to serve

On the residential camps we ran, if anyone wanted to find this professor of social administration – they would be pointed to the washing up tent. Here, Bob spent hours cleaning up the dirty pans.  He did not do this as a well-meaning philanthropist indulging a middle class need to feel better about himself : he believed deeply in service of others.

Bob was a practitioner of ‘Glocal’ action: thinking globally and acting locally. Through his many books and newspaper articles on social work and poverty he became a significant player on the national and international stage. But his principles always remained rooted in his day to day actions.

Deep, real and rooted faith

Then there was his Christian faith – which was firm and sure until the last time that I saw him. Bob’s faith was the opposite of waiting for ‘pie in the sky when you die’. Rather it was rooted in the present hope and struggle for ‘steak on your plate while you wait’ for one and all.

It was this red blooded, life-integrated faith that kept him (as Helena Kennedy said) a thorn in the side of comfortable socialism. It was a faith that was deep, real and rooted in old fashioned concepts like truth, justice, mercy, love and grace.

Bob was well able to give an account of the hope he had but always did so with gentleness, respect and humility. His faith made him a tireless champion for children and for equality. He was an inspirational activist, a wise social analyst, a loyal friend, a good father and husband. And my much missed dear friend.

This is taken from a talk Dave Wiles gave at a conference this month to remember the legacy of Bob Holman who died in June 2016 aged 79. For more on Bob’s life as a Christian community activist and his later work on the Easterhouse estate in Glasgow see his obituaries in The Guardian and the Daily Telegraph.

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