Welby and a lot of whataboutery


A shorter version of this post featured as the Evangelical Alliance’s Friday Night Theology post which is available here.

The Archbishop of Canterbury knew what he was doing. Ahead of his speech to the Trade Union’s Congress this week he put out a tweet teasing that it might ruffle a few feathers. He knew that it would reignite the debate that had hardly simmered down follow his involvement in the IPPR thinktank’s commission on economic justice and their report last week.

Justin Welby followed up his calls for an increased minimum wage and an overhaul in inheritance arrangements with an attack on gig-economy employers and zero-hours contracts. In questions following his speech he spoke about the Universal Credit scheme, saying that, “It was supposed to make it simpler and more efficient. It has not done that. It has left too many people worse off, putting them at risk of hunger, debt, rent arrears and food banks.”

The backlash has been intense. The front page of Thursday’s Times reported that ‘Tories blast Archbishop’, tweets flew swiftly and often without much theological nuance. After the IPPR report the Taxpayer’s Alliance perhaps took the wooden spoon for theological illiteracy with their comment: “The Archbishop seems to have forgotten Jesus’ command to ‘render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God what is God’s’. He should stick to his important theological work and keep out of politics!”

What has not helped is the revelation – entirely predictable in an organisation with as dispersed an authority structure as the Church of England – that some cathedrals and dioceses are employing people and advertising roles on zero hours contracts. There is the attempted defence that for some these are exactly the sort of contract people want, but the problem raised in recent years is that while sometimes wanted, they are often exploited.

Trickier to navigate for the Church of England is its stake in Amazon, which was listed in the Church Commissioner’s 2017 annual report as one of its top 20 global equity investments. The defence offered is that investment in companies enables shareholder engagement which is one of the best methods of achieving change. I grant that that can make a difference, but how much engagement is required to offset how egregious the company’s activities? I also wonder if the Archbishop again knew exactly what he was doing and saw his own church’s Commissioners as one of the audiences he was trying to reach through his speech.

I see the plank in my own eye. While on holiday recently I read James Bloodworth’s Hired which details his experience working a range of low pay job with precarious employment arrangements. His work as a stock picker in an Amazon warehouse is perhaps the most shocking of the tales he tells. I squirmed slightly as I recalled that I’d bought that very book along with the rest of my holiday reading from the very same online giant. We should not require perfect morality of those who seek to address systemic problems, and low pay and precarious work are challenging public policy dilemmas of this age.           

Back to the Taxpayer’s Alliance and their quoting from Mark 12, the problem is that that passage, alongside the companion section of Matthew 22, it is where I would go for a defence of Christian engagement in politics. The Herodians and Pharisees were out to trap Jesus, they wanted him either to pledge allegiance to the Roman overlords or speak out in rebellion against them. Instead Jesus did neither; the coins with Caesar’s image on were Caesar’s property, but God’s image is spread far wider than the coinage they were discussing. When Jesus says to give to Caesar what is his and to God what is God’s, Jesus is acknowledging the role of government and, by extension, of taxation. But importantly, He is also saying that all of life, even the coin, even Caesar, everything is God’s.

The commands to stand for justice which are littered throughout the Bible – for the quartet of the vulnerable, the orphan, the widow, the immigrant and the poor, as Tim Keller puts it in Generous Justice – ensure that we cannot pretend theology isn’t political and reminds us that the activity of the church is rightly concerned with the welfare of people on earth as well as their eternal salvation. It is always both/and, not either/or. Nick Spencer wrote in response to the Taxpayer’s Alliance: “Every time I imagine we have moved on from this question, I read a tweet like this one.”

We’ve had blogs galore, twitter threads expounding, confected outrage coming from the usual parties, and the inevitable responses from Christians seeking to defend Christian engagement in politics. In many ways it would be easy to rehearse the same set of arguments for engagement to respond to the volley of critiques trying to silence Christians speaking in public.

The challenge in responding to the likes of the Taxpayers Alliance, or the libertarian thinktank the IEA, or Simon Jenkins writing in the Guardian, is that in an attempt to defend Christian engagement in politics, and the vital role of Christian leaders speaking into political debate on a national level, we might be fearful of critiquing anything that is said or how it is interpreted. There can be a sense of not wanting to give any ground to those who are criticising. I have spent the last decade advocating for Christian engagement in politics, and I recognise the charge against Christians for engaging and I see the familiar critiques that don’t lose their power because they are recycled for the countless time. But I don’t think we can just rehearse the same defences.

I think it is important that we are able to recognise where Christian political engagement is valuable and where it might be problematic. My verdict on Justin Welby’s contribution over the last couple of weeks is that it is mostly good and helpful, but that positivity isn’t without some caveats.

First of all, and as is inevitable in any political engagement, I don’t agree with all that he said. Two things stood out for me, I thought his rhetoric about the gig-economy being the reincarnation of an ancient evil was unnecessary hyperbole – especially if there is some defence for their use in some contexts. Second, and the more I’ve thought about it the more I am troubled by this is his comment: “Today I dream that governments, now and in the future, put church-run food banks out of business. I dream of empty night shelters. I dream of debt advice charities without clients.”

The second part of that I can’t disagree with, but it’s the idea of the government putting church activities out of business that represents a very statist view of poverty relief. A conservative would surely argue that it’s the role of businesses employing people and paying a good wage that would put food banks out of business. I also wonder what other aspects of the church’s ministry the Archbishop wants to be rendered obsolete by the government. How about moral education? Is Welby really asking that churches are left with nothing to do but run church services every Sunday? I can’t believe he really thinks that, but nor can I understand such a careless choice of words.

The second caveat I would want to add, and I think more significantly, is insisting that our beliefs have a political application does not give us a carte blanche to engage in whatever way we choose. There are a couple of questions that it is helpful to ask about Welby’s intervention. Is it what he said that is problematic or where he said it? And is it more or less of a problem because it is the Archbishop of Canterbury rather than any other church leader?

On the latter question his position is unique: not only does he also occupy a seat in the House of Lords but he is also the leader of the Church of England and by virtue of the establishment of that church, the de facto Christian leader of England. That means he isn’t just any old church leader speaking out. He has a platform that is rarely afforded to others, and the use of that platform is worthy of scrutiny, which leads to the first question.

Christians in the UK tend to vote across party lines. Research from the Evangelical Alliance before the 2015 general election, suggested that Evangelicals broadly planned to vote in a similar fashion to the wider population. When a key leader is associated with organisations and platforms – the IPPR thinktank and the TUC – that are aligned with part of the political spectrum there is the risk that it sends two damaging signals.

First to the general public, the media and politicians, that Christians are predominantly to be found in that party camp. And second, to Christians, that their views have greater or less legitimacy depending whether they cohere with what that party says. Despite protestations of non-partisan political engagement, implicit signals carry strength.

When the leader of the opposition is tweeting supportive quotes of your speech and congratulating you for being part of a growing movement, I think there is license for concern. Lord Bourne, the Conservative government minister for faith, was relatively magnanimous, in while telling The Times that he disagreed with the Archbishop that: “I think it’s the role of regions and religious leaders to occasionally be that bit of grit in the oyster and make us feel a little bit uncomfortable.”

A challenge for local church leaders when considering the Archbishop’s intervention this week is, what does this mean for me? Where should I speak up and where should I stay quiet?

As a rule, I think where it is encouraging political engagement, speaking up is vital, and when it is speaking for the disenfranchised and those who have the least, it is biblically commanded. All of this can be done without signalling party political support. I would be wary of platforms offered by political parties, or campaigns clearly associated with one party – they will often want the endorsement of local leaders to give their campaign legitimacy and help recruit more supporters.

Next week the media will have moved on from Welby’s intervention, but politics will always be with us. Both locally and nationally political engagement is an important outworking off our beliefs. For some that will mean engaging in the party system – it’s a crucial way of achieving change. For other that will mean campaigning, for others working to achieve change in businesses and communities across the UK.

When we engage we should focus on speaking up for the justice that God commands, for the freedom God brings, and for the truth of His word.

Back to blogging? Or maybe this blog’s last stand.

I stopped blogging by accident.

In December 2015 I posted a reflection on my Advent away from social media. And that was the last time I posted. I had taken the month away from Facebook and twitter to clear the pathways of my mind, help clarify my thinking, and remove some noise from my life.

In that year I had already dramatically reduced how much I was posting, again not really an intentional practice, the practice of posting had just started to slip. Posts still received over 12,000 views, helped by one piece – written with passion in haste – that generated nearly half those views.

Prior to that, from the summer of 2011 when I stumbled into blogging I would often blog several times a week. But I got weary, and for several reasons when I paused it became harder and harder to get going again.

I stopped for three main reasons, all things I can identify in hindsight far more than they were conscious factors.

First, I had met a girl. I actually met her over a year before but in December 2015 I had awkwardly found my way to asking her out on a date, and then another one. Our third date just after the dawn of 2016 involved arranging dates four and five. It was to be a couple of months more before we decided the labels boyfriend and girlfriend suited and only a couple of months more before we had more or less decided we were going to get married. My proposal when it arrived was not the most unexpected event.

For someone who had written extensively about relationships, or my lack thereof, this placed me in a bit of a flux. Writing had been my way of working through my feelings, and publishing these thoughts had at times spurred me on to act (unsuccessfully). I had learnt that with the exception of a couple of timely political posts it was those about relationships that set my stats alight, that sparked the retweets and shares. This was surely going to be a gold mine of material, I could live blog my way through getting a girlfriend/fiancé/wife.

Err, no.

This was not something to traverse through the lens of blogposts or visitor stats. There were some wonderfully awkward moments as we tried to work out what was going on – chronicled in 32 instalments in a blog series I knew was simply for the cathartic writing and would never see the light of day – and plenty of uncertainty and anxiety as my hopes and fears mixed in the same place.

Once we were a little settled into our relationship I did co-author a dialogue piece about navigating relationships, and we talked about doing a follow-up focused on wedding planning, but that never materialised. While there was plenty I learnt that one day I may share, doing it in the midst of a nascent relationship would have been the foolhardiest move imaginable. That joint article required my now wife’s sign off (and unbeknown to me at the time, also her sister’s).

In December 2015 I was busy trying to get a grip on all of this. I thought it might never happen. I had wrestled with whether I was to be single my whole life and whether I could be content with that, I was bursting with excitement and frozen with trepidation. I needed to clear my head. When I deleted my twitter and facebook apps I was summoning up the courage to ask her out.

Hayley (my wife) and I have been married just over a year. We’ve journeyed through the maelstrom of wedding planning, the weirdness of living all of your life in such close proximity to another person, the bizarre coping mechanisms of two introverts being alone together, the relinquishing of independence that comes when two people who have crafted their own adult lives have to work out that your priorities might not be theirs. We’ve assembled complex furniture bought for a bargain but without fixings or instructions. I’ve taught myself to tile, Hayley’s got to splash her creativity and style on our flat.

Life has changed and I thought perhaps blogging was part of the life I had left behind. A good thing, but given up for a better thing. In the busyness of the past year I’ve not been at a loose end looking for things to do. The hours before work drafting posts, the constant monitoring of stats and engaging in relevant social media conversations, were all dispensed with without loss.

But that wasn’t the only reason I stopped blogging. Because second, I was tired of blogging.

Tired of playing the game. You know, the stats.

The writing things because they get read.

Finding the right way to say the provocative thing. Just enough provocation that it gets applauded, but not too much that it offends.

Having an opinion on the latest social media controversy. If I was writing in that vein today I could post about the ’12 most effective preachers in the English speaking world’ (all American). Or about Trump’s new faith based office, or Beth Moore’s post about misogyny among conservative Evangelicals. I have opinions on all those things, but articulating them into posts was exhausting. The getting up at the crack of dawn when my brain was at its most fecund to hammer out 700 words. (And the fact that I wrote this 6 days ago shows as those controversies have now moved on.)

I tried to ignore the rules of the game. A few times I wrote longer pieces, 25 years on from the fall of the Berlin Wall I wrote a (very) long piece. It took time, I was pleased with it. Barely anyone read it.

The posts about relationships had become hard work. I hadn’t got much else to say, but sometimes I gave into the urge to recycle the same point in response to some event, or outrageous post by another blogger, and it generated the hits. But it cost me. I sometimes reflected on the vulnerability hangover that came with blogging about my personal story.

I remember when I posted my first couple of blogs, the weird sensation walking into church seeing people who had read those words, messaged me about their reaction (on that occasion very positively). Or when I wrote about attending church sometimes more out of duty than faith – going to church the next day was weird. The high point of my awkwardness was being stopped by complete strangers at a large Christian festival and being thanked for what I’d written.

I was tired of the industry. The people who would pull every lever for promotion, use every tool to get heard, respond to the right people, write the right sycophantic words. And the others who would spew outrage at the slightest hint of controversy.

I was tired. The posts that gave me the most joy was when I got to poke a bit of fun. The 27 stages of twitter controversy is still probably my favourite post. (Although my Taylor Swift musical retelling of the 2015 General Election possibly was the peak of time wasting blogging.)

Stopping blogging was not a chore, it felt like a relief. Having the excuse of an unfolding romance to distract me from my keyboard never registered at the time, but it was a blessing in more ways than one.

Third, and related to all of that, the internet had got more hostile. This was before Brexit, before Trump, but the internet, and social media in particular, already had an aggressive undercurrent.

My first volley of posts were well received. Many others were too. But others hit a nerve, and I got criticism, some of it fairly aggressive, but nothing compared to what I know others have endured.

While I was tired of writing stuff that wasn’t read, and tired of summoning the energy and courage to write stuff I knew would be, I was also ready for a break. I never knew how much I needed to be away from the hostility of having an opinion, or the neediness of the internet in demanding everyone had one.

(* ‘The internet’, it’s a short hand, and a rubbish one, but I mean the collective sentiment of social media.)

Every now and then over the last couple of years I’ve dipped into controversies on twitter and usually decided to leave before it gets over heated. I’ve watched and not joined in, fearing the energy sapping consequences of offering my 140 (or now 280) character opinion. I’ve written tweets and deleted them without posting.

Latterly I’ve been shocked by what I’ve found whether it’s on anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, the care of Alfie Evans, or women in Evangelicalism. Yes, there are bots, but there are also herds of cats galvanised by those who know their power and the influence they wield. The case of Alfie Evans was utterly tragic, but look at replies to any news story on twitter and it was besieged by accusations of the ‘death squads’ caused by ‘socialized medicine’ (American spelling intended).

The upshot of all of this was that I didn’t miss blogging.

I had opportunities to write other things elsewhere from time to time, but that was usually in a work capacity. And that was another restricting factor. I work for an umbrella body which represents many many evangelical Christians and therefore some care was needed in what I said, even when accompanied by the ‘written in a personal capacity’ rider.

But I’m being tempted back. Christian blogging’s demise has been decreed. But I’m never one to give into trends.

Over the last few months I’ve had a few opportunities to write a bit more, whether about Trump and twitter, or Scottish evangelicals and mosques. And I’ve remembered that I do have opinions, and whether or not people want to read them, from time to time I’ll probably share them.

This won’t be the same blogging as before. I doubt I have much to say on relationships, one day maybe, but a year into marriage and the learning curve is still steep.

Who knows what I’ll write about. Or how often. Maybe Trump’s new faith initiative, I’m currently reading The Faith of Donald J. Trump by David Brody and it’s fascinating. Maybe I’ll look at UK politics and the challenges we’re facing, or the UK church and the discipleship gap that’s growing by the week. Maybe whether Christian blogging has really had its day.

I’m neither going to shy away from controversial topics nor feel a duty to write about them. When I started blogging nearly seven years ago I was determined to write what I wanted to write, it was my space, my words, my choice. And I guess that’s still my mantra.

I might even write about flip flops again.

Smaller world, bigger picture

This advent I deleted Facebook and Twitter from my phone. I abstained from browsing to those sites, I let tweetdeck go dormant. I took a break from social media. It wasn’t a complete abstinence, once or twice I decided I needed to tweet for work, and I responded to a couple of event invitations. But for the best part of a month I heard about engagements from colleagues, births from friends, and asked them to add a proxy ‘like’ on my behalf. I’m sure I missed out on a dozen controversies and left answered innumerable buzzfeed quizzes which would have told me which Charles Dickens character I was, or the like.

There was no great noble purpose in this departure, and writing this review makes it seem much grander than it was. It started with the recognition that I needed space. I needed room to think and my mind was too crowded with the trivialities of those I barely knew, the announcements of those I cared about, and the worries of a world that stirs heartache with every fresh recurrence of violence, war and trauma. When I explain to friends (those I see in day to day life) that I would occasionally spend an evening on the sofa engaged in a couple of conversations on Twitter they look at me with a combination of astonishment and amusement – with friends that don’t tweet, and most of them don’t, it feels like an alien world.

I have no gripe with social media, I often love it, on the way into work each morning (apart from this last month) I check Twitter, find out what’s going on in the world, send out some trivial tweets, some articles I think worth reading, and respond to the latest nonsense in my feed.

But it was drowning out the world I walked in each day. It was distracting me, sometimes entertaining me, often dulling me to the people I spent my time with. I’d be in the middle of conversations and browsing Twitter, not even doing the semi-legitimate conversation type thing, but the unfocussed dispersal of my attention until it was wafer thin. I say semi-legitimate because I’m a fool for drifting from one conversation to the next at the best of times, not allowing one to hold my attention.

I’ve been about two days behind the news for most of December, and I learnt to be okay with that. I’ve missed seeing what my friends are doing on Facebook more than what’s going on in the rest of the world. And that represents what I learnt this month, I focussed my attention on a smaller world and I got a bigger picture of a world that has more depth than can ever be fully explored.

This isn’t intended to ape Andy Crouch’s post lent review which I read months ago and had in mind as I deleted apps on my phone. But I returned to it and read it again, and found that having written all of the above, he made the same point but with far greater eloquence:

“Our screens, increasingly, pay a great deal of attention to us. They assure us that someone, or at least something, cares. The mediated world constantly falls over itself to tell us, often in entirely automated ways, that we matter every bit as much as we secretly hope we do. … an utterly dedicated, ingratiating concierge for our preferred future. The unmediated world does not flatter us in this way.

“So the real gift of my absence from screens was that nothing was paying attention to me. … And in the absence of that constant digital flattery, feeling much smaller and less significant, I was more free to pay attention to the world I am called to love.”

An utterly dedicated concierge for our preferred future. When we think of technology taking the place of humanity that’s the problem. Not that it can’t do the job, but that it can do it too well. We live imperfect lives and the idea of programmed automation that fulfils what we might think we want it to do is the vision of science fiction and it is the reality of the illusion we too often live in.

We think we know what our preferred future is and we have tools at our disposal to curate a life that as closely resembles that as possible. We go to concerts and spend most of it viewing it through a four inch screen as we record for double digit views on YouTube the demonstration of what an amazing time we’re having. We see incredible sunsets and filter them so frequently that it becomes a novelty to tag that we’re not. Our methods of distribution are designed for distortion.

I have friends today that I wouldn’t have were it not for social media, and I’ve stayed in touch with people on other parts of the planet I would never have dreamed with keeping up with otherwise. Social media broadens my horizons, it provokes me, it infuriates me, it stimulates me. Heck, I wouldn’t have ever started blogging if I hadn’t seen on Twitter that someone had written something that annoyed me.

I needed to shut it down for a while. I needed to step away from the delusion of a life with almost infinite social connections and the lives of others that I could only feign to share.

I needed to nurture the friendships of people I saw all the time but don’t know as well as I could. I needed to give all of myself to their attention.

Loch Ossian

I also needed to think. I needed time to percolate some of the thoughts in my head and allow them to settle. The constant flow of new information, ideas, opinions was flying through my mind, nothing had time to form and linger – it would get shoved to the bottom, rooted and stuck, there to be ignored unless needed in a pub quiz, or otherwise thrown to the side, discarded along with the latest trivial quiz. It might have been an exhilarating ride but it was like a rollercoaster at a theme park. Fun, but you end up where you began just rather shaken up.

I’m heading home for Christmas as I write this. It’s late on the evening of the 23rd of December and for the next few days the insanity of work busyness will be replaced by a non-stop succession of family events, many fun, many desirable, many exactly what I need. I won’t be heading straight to Twitter when the clock strikes twelve tomorrow night. On Christmas Day I’ll be with my family, playing with kids, talking to my sisters and my parents. Opening presents, eating food, doing things that build relationships.

There is time enough for enough relationships. If I were to spend all my time on a few instead of many I don’t think I would be poorer. Maybe I’m in the fortunate position of having a lot of people with whom I could spend time. Maybe I’m blessed to be able to spend my time seeing them. But maybe it’s also time to invest in those relationships that matter most.

Concluding this the other side of Christmas Day that all sounds incredibly smug. Until late on Boxing Day when I started browsing online sales my phone has mostly stayed out of reach, left at home, or taken only to capture photos. I’m also exhausted and ready for time on my own, too many people – even those I love – leaves this introvert in need of a cold dark space. Juggling four small children (sometimes almost literally) would leave anyone out of breath.

When contact is mediated via technology the choice to opt out is ever present and easy to oblige. I browsed through Twitter for the first time in nearly a month and decided to leave the app off my phone for a little longer. It’ll return, but it cannot be a convenient social outlet when wanted and then discarded when challenging.

And yet, as I contemplated replying to a message from a week ago I refrained as I didn’t want that to be my first tweet to fill the void. The temptation to curate a life in public view that is a tableau of the best moments is ever present. The temptation to let people into my life when I’m at my best is a trap not restricted to the online world, it’s a lure that lies around almost every corner. The challenge is to let people push you to be the best you can be without that creating an artifice that defrauds even yourself.

Screens lie, but sometimes in their lies they betray the truth. Lives also lie, but in their living can turn that lie into reality. The problems that exist within a life curated by social media are only a mask for problems that go far deeper. If we are reluctant to let the world see who we really are, then we are probably also reluctant to let anyone see who we are. If we are manufacturing a world through instragramable lunches and tweetable statuses, who is the person that we are when we enjoy those things with others?

Anatomy of an outrage (or, a prayerful revolution)

The Church of England thought it would be good to record one of the ancient prayers of the Christian faith for a new generation to hear as a prequel to watching about a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

It was rejected by the largest agency distributing adverts to cinemas meaning it will not be seen in Odeon, Cineworld or Vue screens. The agency, DCM, referred to their policy which clearly states they that they reject religious adverts because of the potential they have to offend people of different or no faiths.

Cue outrage.

    1. Saturday night as the first front pages hit twitter the outrage began, how dare they stop us from praying the Lord’s prayer. Well, they’re not actually stopping it, they just have no obligation to screen it. Some of the early outrage suggested discrimination that wasn’t actually taking place.
    2. The National Secular Society never miss a chance to miss the point: “The Church of England is arrogant to imagine it has an automatic right to foist its opinions upon a captive audience who have paid good money for a completely different experience.” Presumably they will be leading the campaign against all adverts and trailers before films .
    3. People with different beliefs speak up for the prayer being shown, the Muslim Council of Britain, atheist MPs, Stephen Fry, even Richard Dawkins got in on the act. Which both reminded me of the strong cultural memory of Christianity in the UK, and the passivity towards it’s infusion across society. The latter is not necessarily a good thing.
    4. Enough time had passed for people to start writing blogs about it. Nonsense on stilts opined Giles Fraser.
    5. Eagled eyed observers who looked at the DCM policy realised it was no surprise that the advert was rejected. Although the Church of England state that the policy wasn’t in existence when they first inquired about running the advert.
    6. But the Lord’s Prayer is offensive. If I’d been quicker off the mark I’d have gone with this angle but Stephen Croft and Andrew Wilson beat me to it.
    7. Over 200,000 people have watched the advert on YouTube, and a similar number from the Church of England’s facebook account.

Two very brief comments on this fandango: first, I initially thought this advert had been designed to be rejected, however, this wasn’t the case: when the Church of England first put the advert forward for publication it was accepted before being declined later. The new policy from the DCM is abundantly clear – it may be ‘nonsense on stilts’ but it is clear. The policy may warrant a legal challenge in that it privileges non-religious beliefs over religious beliefs, but from my non-legal perspective I think that would be a hard case to make.

This was a brilliant piece of marketing, it’s been all over the news yesterday and today. I had wondered if this was all part of a grand stategy, but instead seems to be a great example of a PR victory coming out of the censor’s jaws of defeat. Far more people will see it than if ever it was run before Star Wars. In season 6 of the West Wing when Santos’ primary campaign is running very short of cash they can afford one TV spot. They know they need to leverage it to get people to cover the coverage, and thereby exponentially increasing the impact. That’s exactly what’s happened here.

Second, I hope it helps Christians to think about what they pray. The words of the Lord’s prayer are offensive. They are counter-cultural, they do offend the norms by which our society runs. They should provoke and challenge us, they should disrupt and disturb, they are about a King whose Kingdom is yet to fully come, it is about a God in heaven who is above all other rulers. It’s a prayerful revolution.

[UPDATE: I’ve amended the paragraph beginning two very brief comments to take account of things I’ve read and picked up today.]

Mulling over Mulberry and the power of adverts

  This week the onslaught has begun. It started with the Christmas tree made of red cups in the centre of King’s Cross station. Then I saw Pret have a website counting down the hours until the launch of their Christmas sandwich. I like their Christmas sandwich, but really, it’s only 5 November. John Lewis will ‘premiere’ their Christmas ad this weekend and no doubt it will be the media event of the month. Finally, for now at least, I saw Mulberry’s advert this morning. I’m not ready for it to be Christmas yet, and to there derision of colleagues have spent a lot of this week moaning about the tsunami of Christmas related marketing surging towards me.

No doubt someone somewhere is denouncing the #mulberrymiracle advert for blasphemy but I think it’s more interesting than that. Advertising both reflects the values and priorities of culture and seeks to lead them as well – it seeks to tell us what is important. Sometimes this is done subtly, sometimes self-consciously self-deprecatingly, and other time explicit to the point of being surreal. An example of the latter is an Audi Quattro advert I saw in the cinema last weekend. A group of nomadic people in a snow blizzard encompassed landscape have constantly been battling a beast, but no more! For the Audi Quattro has come to their rescue. If a car can do that it can do anything you want it to, it’ll be your hero.

There was another car advert in the same pre-film reel for Toyota which took a very different approach. The theme was ‘take me for granted’, whether old or young, in blizzard or calm, on the school run or on the road trip, this car could be yours to take for granted. Almost as though it wasn’t trying to be anything spectacular (aka the Quattro) but a normal part of your life you don’t notice but can’t live without.

 In placing a handbag at the centre of a nativity tableau Mulberry know exactly what they are doing. They are taking something which people recognise and understand. This suggests there is still currency in the traditional scene of Mary, Joseph, a ‘baby’, shepherds, sheep and wiseman (even if they are wearing suits and Christmas cracker crowns). Even the lift of the camera at the end to the star at the close of the advert is an echo of something well known. This is why it’s interesting. In a society where it is increasingly suggested people are unaware of key Christian ideas, this one still resonates. The idea that two people have a child, are visited by strangers and given gifts beneath a star. Christians seeking to relate the birth of Jesus this Christmas may have slightly less work to do than perhaps they thought.

The Mulberry miracle advert is self-aware, it knows what it is doing, it is taking a cultural icon and reformulating it to its own ends. Without the line “It’s just a bag” from Joe towards the end it would be too far-fetched, but that abrupt break makes two connections at once. Firstly it shows that a bag isn’t the messiah, and second it suggests men don’t understand how important a bag is.

It does something else, which I am pandering to in writing this, it gets people talking: is it outrageous? Is it blasphemous? Is it a symbol of our decadence? Or, at the other end of the spectrum I expect it to spawn a slew of Christmas sermons using it as a cultural reference point to explain the real meaning of Christmas. It’s almost so obviously inviting that I can’t help but wonder if it was as much designed to be latched onto by Christians as a springboard, as produced to be denounced. Either way it’s a win-win situation for Mulberry, people are watching a handbag being opened. I didn’t really know who or what Mulberry were until this morning, so that’s already worked in one regard.

If I was to preach a Christmas sermon on this I’d return to Joe’s ‘It’s just a bag comment’. As he says that to looks of ridicule from the assembled crowd, so too do we too often say to baby Jesus, ‘it’s just a baby’. But the shepherds who came to worship knew it was more than that. The wisemen who brought gifts for the baby knew it was. Mary did too. And on the night after Jesus’s birth an angel of the Lord appeared Joseph to tell him to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt to keep them safe. We might like a new handbag for Christmas but would we become refugees in a foreign land to keep it safe?


The urgent necessity of failure


Used under CC 2.0 John Lui

No one likes it, no one looks for it. But if you don’t fail, you don’t learn. Part of the problem is that we’re taught that success is what matters most, we applaud achievements, we laud those who get things done. We hear about the time when everything works, but we rarely consider what happened in order to get there.

Any scientist will go through countless fruitless experiments before they hit the right formula. Thomas Edison is the person most frequently cited in this context: “I haven’t failed,” he said about his attempts to invent the light bulb, “I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work”.

Likewise we perhaps know in the back of our mind the stories of people who took numerous setbacks on their way to whatever it is that means we know of them now. JK Rowling was rejected by many publishers, George Washington lost five of his first seven battles. It is because of their success that we know their names, but it is due to their failures they were able to achieve what they did.

My personal favourite is a man who we today remember for his success. His family was forced from their property when he was 7, his mother died two years later. Aged 22 he failed in business, ran for the state legislature the next year and lost, then lost his job and failed to get into law school. At 26 he was engaged to be married for his fiancé to then die. He had a nervous breakdown and spent six months in bed. After getting into the state legislature he tried to become Speaker but lost. Aged 34 he ran for congress and lost, ran again a few years later and won, only to lose his seat two years after that. When he was 45 he ran for the senate, but lost. A couple of years later sought the nomination to the vice presidency, but received less than 100 votes. Two years after that at 49 tried again to become a senator and failed. Aged 51 in 1860 Abraham Lincoln became president of the United States.

Failure is more than a bad thing that might happen. It is inevitable and it is essential, it’s the thing that pushes us forward, if it was easy where would the challenge be? Handling failure is at the heart of developing character, but character is more than just being stubborn. It’s not in our natural instinct to do a lot of the things that we need to do to build our character, we are not always diligent, we’re not always charitable, not always slow to anger or quick to love.

We need something to change, to switch our mind set. Paul writes Romans 12: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

As Tom Wright says in Virtue Reborn: “Many people expect that virtue will happen to them automatically simply because they take part in the practices discussed here. But the practices aren’t like prescribed medicine that will cure you whether or not you understand how it works. The key to virtue lies precisely, as we have seen, in the transformation of the mind.”

Failure drives us forward when we have an idea of what we want to achieve. Failure tells us that we haven’t made it. But for that failure to prompt us to press forward we have to have a clear idea of what we are striving for. David Brooks, in his book Road to Character, looks at a series of people who throughout history have paid attention to the development of character over and above personal achievement – some of whom went on to achieve quite incredible things. It’s an illuminating book, and one which inspires the reader to prioritise eulogy virtues, the things we want to be remembered for, over resume virtues, the things we put on our CV. But it’s also a book with a hole at its core. Brooks sometimes alludes to the belief systems that provoke people to develop good character, yet he views them really as only a prompt towards a stoic almost Churchillian never-give-in attitude. This sort of attitude is crucial in many circumstances, in fact I’m in the middle of a new biography of Churchill which focuses on the role of his Christian motivation, but it isn’t enough.

If recalcitrant obstinacy is all that drive us forward, the thing which is our goal will become all consuming, failure will hurt each time it comes and success will be the end of the road – even if it is an end with a stunning panorama. But if the thing we aim for is only ever the second most important thing, we will keep perspective: when we fail it won’t be the end of the world, when we succeed we will continue to look beyond.

That’s why prioritising the growth of character is crucial but not for its own sake. We don’t act with integrity so at our funeral someone will eulogise about our honesty. We don’t prioritise relationships just so we are remembered as a great father, husband, brother and friend, as though the remembrance is what matters most. Building character can become just another thing which we strive to achieve. Without a perspective that stretches beyond our own accomplishments and failures character can become about making me into the best me. And that distorts the heart of good character. Character requires failure, and for that failure to mean something it needs a goal which is above and beyond us all.

The cost of show and tell blogging

Used under CC 2.0 Propinquity

Used under CC 2.0 Propinquity

I’ve written before about my experience of blogging and my crazed, ill thought through, entry into a particular avenue of the internet. I started out writing about relationships because I had something to say in reaction to something someone else had written and wanted a platform to air my disagreement. Before I knew it I had written four posts in four days on relationships in the Christian world, and all from a guy’s perspective. In the UK at least no one else was doing this. I had found my niche.

Soon enough my abstract pontificating was too shallow. I was writing words about other people’s experience channelled through my eyes, my opinions, my inexperience. I felt I needed to peel back my own covers. What I didn’t consider, and what has taken me some time to come to grips with, was the cost it had on me. As I wrote over a year ago, I bled onto the screen so people could see it was the real me. I didn’t think it was doing any harm, I thought it was the necessary fuel to give power to my words. And it gave power, it garnered readers, but it hurt me.

Hannah Mudge wrote last week of the boom of first person writing on the internet, the growing trend of people sharing more and more shocking essays of their own experiences, with some websites building platforms upon the tear stained stories that shock the reader.

Vulnerability becomes a drug. I loved the effect of hitting publish and watching the stats soar. I remember one night while away at a conference when I put the finishing touches to my greatest self-expose yet. Writers don’t often talk about stats, it seems to be the taboo of internet writing. But here’s a range of mine: I’ve written posts which have only ever had twenty views, and I’ve written others with thousands. A reasonably successful post will get 2-300 hits. That particular night in a room on the outskirts of Birmingham I watched as hundreds read my confession in the first hours. I woke up the next morning with a vulnerability hang over.

But the problem with drugs is that even when you know the negative effects, you still want more. You come back for the hit. With writing popularity is addictive, it becomes your validation. As a writer I wanted people to read the words I put on the screen, and I had learnt a way of ensuring they gave me attention. Like all drugs public vulnerability comes with diminishing returns. Each subsequent post demands more exposure and results in less shock and as a result less readers. The things I had to say as a single Christian guy lacked the punch they held on their first outing. I needed something more.

The diminishing returns are only part of the story. The impact of etching my life on the internet stretched beyond the boundaries of my digital life. It affected the real me. Vulnerability is an incredibly powerful thing. When I open up to a friend and say that my life’s not all sorted, I give them permission to speak into my life. Even if I speak to a crowd and say that I sometimes feel like a fraud when everyone thinks my life is sorted, I give them permission to know that they are not alone. But when I put words into the ether without a relationship with those who are hearing, without the chance to look into their eyes after I have spoken, my vulnerability is a tear in my skin that pulls open even wider. Vulnerability can help us heal, but exposure can kill.

I felt my life was atrophying. I had a story which many people read and knew about. It’s still there, I can’t change that. The impact on my day to day life was that I spoke less about my vulnerability to those who I had a relationship with, and it became harder to admit that the challenges I had so nakedly shared were not the only things that were going on in my life. 

The other unexpected consequence was that most possibilities for plausible future romantic relationships were asymmetrical. People could know what was going on in my life long before I got to know them. I told myself that it was helping to lay the groundwork for future developments but in truth it was stunting my growth.

In the last two years I’ve come close to stopping blogging, and never really by design. I always thought I’d find my game again, that I was going through a rough patch, that the words which were failing to flow would soon begin to ease onto the screen once again. I thought it was the quality of my writing that meant posts were getting ignored. I’d write the occasional witty piece about the dysfunctions of the Christian world which would meet with moderate acclaim, but anytime I tried to write something more serious my viewing stats would have a clear, but negative, correlation to the amount of time spent on the post. A few thousand words on Charleston and Confederate flags? Well all I can say is thank you to the 63 of you who may have taken the time to read it. On growing up following the fall of the Berlin Wall? Even fewer clicked that link. The anomaly to my declining readers illustrated this correlation all too clearly, I hammered out an angry post in dizzy minutes earlier in the year about things our Prime Minister said about Easter and it broke all previous records.

In the last month I posted twice, on learning to stop hurrying and attempting to define leadership. Neither of those posts got as many views in the past month as a several year old piece about why guys don’t ask girls out.

What I haven’t been able to bring myself to do was write the vulnerable-emotional-tear-forming-story type post which had served my early days so well. It wasn’t a conscious decision to stop, I simply didn’t have the energy, or the words to describe the depth I felt I needed to delve to elicit the response which would make it seemingly worth the effort.

And yet, a tap on the shoulder at a Christian event made a lot of this anguish more palatable. I had written with the aim of helping other people navigate their own challenges with relationships in church, and apparently I had helped this person. That’s the kind of validation which means numbers don’t matter so much.

This isn’t a resignation from the world of first person story blogging, but it’s a caveat, don’t expect it too much. And it is a warning to myself to think long and hard what I say online. Even these words above have taken a few days to chew over and decide to commit.

What exactly is leadership?


A question that gets harder the more you think about it

Sounds like a simple question: what is leadership? But it’s one of those things that the more you think about it the more complex it gets. Leadership is something you know when you see it, and notice when it’s absent.

And the more I have thought about it, and thought about it a lot I have done over the past year, I’ve got more and more tangled up. So below is an attempt to unwind the strands of thought about leadership, especially among Christians, and even more specifically about Christian leadership outside the church.

There are two different tendencies toward leadership I’ve observed, both of which I think miss the mark in some way. The first is that leadership is something reserved for an elite few who are in charge, this usually means people with formal positions of authority, labels and status which show that they are in charge. Whether this is politicians who are leading the country, chief executives leading companies or pastors leading churches. A leader is the person at the top who is in charge.

The second perspective is that everyone is a leader, but if everyone is leading, who is following? It also leads to a view of leadership that becomes a catch all terms for multiple different attributes, and in the process downgrades a vital and important role.

Leadership in church

A brief side note here about church leadership which demonstrates some of the complexity in using the word. We (Christians) talk about church leaders, but when we do that we are collecting up a variety of different roles and bringing them together. When there is a single person in charge of a church it is relatively easy to refer to them as the leader, the vicar, minister or pastor is in charge. But when we break down what that single leader does we then have to ask which of these multiple roles makes them a leader. Is it that they are the shepherd of a congregation, or the primary teacher, or the administrative manager, or the vision caster? Many churches have recognised these different aspects as well as the enormity of the task facing one person given responsibility for them all so there are often different people who take on each aspect. In some churches there is an eldership made up of the senior leaders who act as the primary decision making body, in other churches a lay eldership oversees the more visible ‘leaders’. If we’re looking for a single leader you either go for the person with the greatest influence on the congregation or the person with ultimate authority.

Who is a leader?

This causes me to reflect on what exactly is leadership, and who is a leader? Perhaps the first step is to recognise that leadership is not a fixed state of affairs and being a leader isn’t a permanent position. This immediately tends away from restricting leadership to formal positions because it is possible, and frequently occurs, that someone has a title which might suggest they are a leader but are not actually leading. To be a leader you have to lead.

The second step is to recognise that leadership is context specific, so you can be a leader in one place and not in another. You might run your business and be a leader there, but not be a leader in your church or in the sports team you play in on Saturday mornings.

These perspectives lead me to view leadership as quite broad, it means that many more people are leaders at some time or place. Some of these contexts will be highly visible, others will be more fleeting and unnoticed. Added to this are differences in leadership styles and the type of leadership required in different settings.

Earlier in the year I went away to Snowdonia with some friends, we were attempting a challenge walk, and I was in charge of the walk. When we were on the mountain there was little doubt that I was leading. I had organised the endeavour, I set the course, and although I consulted with my fellow hikers, the difficult decisions to take were mine. But then we got back to the converted chapel we were staying in my authority was murkier if present at all. We were a group of friends on a weekend away, I found the shifting sands awkward, from requiring organised plans and clear decisions, we now were mutual participants in a shared activity – to try and impose the same sort of leadership would be weird, and I’m not sure my friends would have wanted it!

And yet, even in friendship settings we recognise leadership. It is evidently true that some people lead friendship groups, you see it when different people organise events or social gatherings, one person may strive to gather people together with great difficulty and another do it with ease. This is not just about personality and popularity, I know I am a good organiser, I can ensure things run smoothly and with limited potential for things to go wrong, but when it comes to less formal settings I find it more awkward. I work better where there are clearer delineations of roles and responsibilities.

In the language of start-ups, what is the minimal working model of leadership? If we recognise some things as leadership and other things as not, where does the border lie, is it as straightforward as either leading or following, and in most things in life you are doing one or the other? I think there is a better way of looking at it, and it starts from recognising that we can both lead and follow at the same time.

No-one ever acts completely autonomously, we are always taking our cue from something and often someone. As a Christian I am first and foremost a follower of Christ, and while I may lead in some contexts and follow in others, this occurs within the context of following Christ. Similarly, when I lead I may well be in turn following the lead of other people. Many organisations, whether businesses, churches, or elsewhere, are built on a similar model of delegated leadership: I can have leadership responsibility at work and still be following other leaders. Leaders delegate authority to other people with the freedom to exercise it but to do so within certain bounds.

Is everyone a leader?

One of the smallest scales of leadership is leading a family, this is rarely thought of within the leadership literature, and the number of people impacted may be small, but the responsibility is significant and the consequences of that leadership hard to underestimate. It is the parents, and for some people specifically the father, who lead the family, they set the boundaries of acceptable behaviour, they model a culture and characteristics which children adopt and they demonstrate skills (from walking to speaking, from football to trainspotting) they want children to learn.

I have moved towards thinking that everyone at some point, in some way, exercises leadership, and in that context is therefore a leader. This isn’t quite the same as saying that everyone is a leader, and certainly not in the way leadership is commonly considered, but it breaks down the elite mentality that leadership is only for a special few. Further, it means that the task of growing in leadership is something that we should all give at least some attention to. For some it will be a much more significant part of the numerous roles they take on, and therefore probably require greater focus, for others it will be more fleeting, but I struggle to think that anyone will never benefit from developing as a leader.

There’s one other aspect that proved contentious when I suggested it on twitter, we have role in leading ourselves, and this may be a foundational stage to effective leadership in any other context. In this I am influenced by a book I’m currently reading on the history of Jesuits, Heroic Leadership, by Chris Lowney, a Jesuit priest who went on to work for JP Morgan before looking at what leadership lessons could be learnt from the 450 year old Society of Jesus. One of the pillars of the Jesuits is self awareness, and key to this is leading yourself – the idea is that you can only lead yourself anywhere if you are first aware of who you are and what you are doing. Otherwise you will be led by something else. I would develop this concept within a clear framework of first following Christ and within that we can know our identity and from this develop our purpose and lead ourselves in that direction.

This was contentious because a reply came straight back asking whether I wasn’t just talking about self-discipline? I think it involves self-discipline, but as part of a suite of tools which we use to get somewhere. The key to me considering this as leadership is the element of direction, we want to get somewhere and we lead ourselves in such a way to get there. (This also includes leadership to stay in the same place, especially standing firm in the face of pressure.)

What this isn’t is a description of good leadership, or even effective leadership – leadership can be effective without it being good. However, I would argue that if leadership is ineffective it isn’t really leadership. A further question which was posed to me was whether leadership is, or at least should be, intertwined with goodness and morality. I probably agree that leadership should have a focus towards the good, but I don’t think it is intrinsic to its definition, we recognise leaders in all context include when they are leading themselves, people and organisations in a bad direction.

So my holding position – i.e. one which I hold light enough to be willing to change – is that everyone leads sometimes, and therefore understanding leadership, and learning how to do it well, is vital for everyone.

What is leadership?

That’s the who of leadership, but not necessarily the what. For that I return to two terms I’ve used repeatedly above and sometimes in an almost interchangeable sense: influence and authority. Leadership is about having and using authority, and it is about influencing people. On a microscale personal leadership fits this, but I believe it also fits across the board.

Within influence and authority lie many other aspects of leadership, probably foremost the use of resources – whether that’s materials, people or institutions. I could possibly simplify this even more and say that leadership is about the use of power. Influence and authority are types of power, authority usually considered the more formal and influence the softer. This is also where the leader/follower dichotomy breaks down, exercising power can be a lonely task and requires decisions that will sometimes alienate people. If the purpose of leadership is keeping people following you then difficult decisions may be ducked, but if the purpose of leadership is to do something, and the tool of leadership is the power to get that done, whether people follow is often important but only part of the equation. This isn’t to sound dismissive, working with people and keeping them part of what a leader is doing is usually essential, but it is not the overall goal, if it becomes that then leadership becomes a popularity game.

One reason why I prefer the term power than influence or authority is that the latter are often used as euphemisms to mask what we otherwise might shy away from. Influence is the use of power, authority is the use of power. Power can be viewed negatively within Christian circles – although if we’re talking about the power of the Holy Spirit that’s a different matter – it is seen as dangerous and corrosive, we follow Lord Acton in his aphorism ‘power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely’. But power is a gift, it is given from God for us to use, He gave Adam and Eve power in the Garden of Eden, Jesus gave his disciples power, and the Holy Spirit filled the early church with power. That we sometimes use it badly, is not a reason to despise it, but the motivation to see it stewarded with greater care and integrity.

The reason we have been gifted with power is to use it for a reason, and that reason is not our own greatness, or our own ends, we have power so that we can work as co-heirs with Christ, and the work that we are called to is front and central in the Lord’s Prayer: ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’. We are not just killing time until Christ’s return or our death. We are part of His work to redeem all of creation.

Summary (until I change my mind): leadership is the use of power to achieve something

Eliminating hurry – notes from the mountains

It’s a dreadful cliché. I found God on a mountain top. But to avoid the very worst of it, it wasn’t on the top that my epiphany came but about halfway up the side of my third Munro of the morning.

Five Sisters of KintailTowards the end of the nineteenth century Hugh Munro decided to list all of the peaks in Scotland over 3000 foot, along with their subsidiary peaks. In true British fashion he didn’t set out clear criteria for what distinguished a Munro from a top, and over the last century many impassioned debates have raged over whether a particular peak is a Munro or a top. Every ten years or so the list is reassessed and the task of reaching all the summits becomes either a little easier or just a bit harder.

Across Scotland there are 282 Munros, from those that just squeak over the threshold to Ben Nevis which at 4,409 feet is the highest point in the UK. While wandering over a few peaks, and talking to other walkers, I came across the challenge to climb them all. It’s a natural sort of endeavour – there are a lot of peaks, and people want to have reached the summit of them all. But 282 is quite a lot. During my week in Scotland I climbed eight, if I took such a trip every year it will take me 35 years, if by the age of 66 I’m walking up my last Munro, I will have achieved something both petty and significant.


Hills are not changed by walking up them. Most of them do not have clearly marked paths up their route, they may have a slight trail that ebbs and flows and disintegrates into a wide scree slope before emerging once again. If each year I tick a few more off my list my calves will stay in shape and I will hopefully retain some of my fitness, but apart from the achievement of getting to all of the places over an arbitrary height I will have achieved very little.

But walking up hills is constantly teaching me lessons. When in June my friends and I failed the Welsh 3000s I learnt a little about the burden of leadership. And a further lesson that was birthed then and grew a little more this past week in Scotland was that going slow is not a weakness.

In fact, when it comes to mountain walking, going slow is the fastest approach. I’m not a seasoned hill walker, but I like to think that I’m learning a few important lessons pretty quickly, and the one that makes the most difference is to walk slower than you think is necessary. The first walk I took in Scotland, over the Five Sisters of Kintail, was quite an initiation. I parked the car, looked at the map and instructions and saw the ridge towering above me and a wooden sign leading to a narrow path (which would frequently disappear) heading up 700 metres of steep grassy slope. And from the ridge I climbed the first summit, and then the next, and I think on the fourth or fifth occasion actually reached the top of my first Munro. And inevitably, to reach the next I had to first go down, and then up, and then down, and then up. By the end of the first day I’d covered over 20 miles, waded through bog, probably trespassed across a farmer’s land, listened to a couple of sermons and a couple of episodes of the NPR All Songs Considered podcast, and I was tired.

Loch Ossian

After a day’s break I set off to climb another two Munros. This time I was based at the most remote Youth Hostel in the UK, a mile walk from Corrour station, where there’s no public road access, the Ordnance Survey map of the region has just two tiny bits of road clipping the corners. Here, by Loch Ossian, with millions of midges for company, in a hostel powered by solar and wind power alone, with strict instructions to take out everything you bring in, I set out on my own once again. I met just a couple of other walkers that day. One who had walked in the night before, stayed at an even more remote bothy before climbing the hard to reach Ben Alder before walking back to the station on the second day. Getting to some of the 282 Munros is not an easy business. It’s not the sort of thing you can race around and do (although, of course, some do: the record for a round of all the summits is about 40 days).

With Rannoch Moor stretching to the south and east, the Ben Nevis range to the west, and the Great Glen to the north this is the closest to the middle of nowhere you can get in the UK. To find the hostel the site of drunken escapades in the middle of the following night was a little unexpected. Fire alarm set off at four in the morning, sick on the front porch, empty bottles scattered by picnic tables on the edge of the loch. Unconfirmed report that one of the late night revellers had fallen into the loch. It was dissonant.

Rannoch Moor

The final day’s walking was based out of the Glen Nevis youth hostel – from the lack of civilisation to the lack of tranquillity. Ben Nevis is a tourist’s mountain. The main track leading from the glen up to the peak is variously known as the pony track, the mountain track, or, the tourist track. I was glad to be not walking up on a weekend. I also opted to start early and take an alternative route, which meant another gruelling ascent up onto the first subsidiary peaks of Carn Mor Dearg, Ben Nevis’s far lesser known neighbour – but at over 4,000 foot still a considerable climb, and a far more interesting one that it’s more prominent neighbour.

Ben Nevis is basically just a giant lump of rock, Carn Mor Dearg is a proper peak, which rises and falls before reaching its final height. What attracted me to this route, but also set my nerves sparking as I approached, was the transition between the two Munros known as the CMD Arête. This is a ridge that curves around for over a kilometre before presenting the walker with a final rocky scramble to Ben Nevis’s peak. The ridge wasn’t as precarious as I feared, or it looked, and for the scramble I was grateful to follow a pair who stayed a helpful distance ahead. And then suddenly I was on the top, from the fairly lonely exertion with hands and feet pulling body over rock after rock, to a summit plateau populated with hundreds of walkers who had made their way to the top. Selfies proliferated, parents insisted children posed, sandwiches feasted on, water bottles quaffed.

Carn Mor Dearg Arete

Carn Mor Dearg did not have the remoteness of some of the other climbs I did, but it certainly had the difficulty, it was very hard work on the legs. And it called for slowness. Although not crowded, there were enough other walkers on it’s ascent to notice our respective speeds. It was with some smugness that I let people pass me on the early stages, and then keep on going as they had to stop to catch their breath. Towards the top a couple raced past me, only to fall back before reaching the summit. I knew that I might be walking slower, but I had the confidence it would enable me to get there first.

Somehow I was gaming it all. I was pretending not to hurry but perhaps had just learnt that it was the fastest course.

In life I hurry all the time. I like to move from one thing to the next and the on to the next, with each consecutive thing providing stimulation and excitement. I cope with solitude well, I cope with stillness appallingly. I also burn out. I run out of energy, I start to fall apart. At the end of three weeks of holiday I’m only beginning to feel rested. Each day I set myself tasks and the thought of waking up without anything to do fills me with borderline horror.

Loch Ossian at night

Going slow is not just key to getting up mountains, perhaps it’s a lesson for much of life. Sometimes I’m far too slow, too deliberative, too inactive, sometimes I’m paralysed by indecision. But I think there’s value in slow plodding, setting a course, and working your way towards it, step after step, even if each takes longer than the last. Eugene Peterson wrote a book, ‘A Long Obedience in the Same Direction’, the title caught my attention long before I got around to reading it.

It comes from a section in Nietzsche’s writings, and he had to fight his publisher to use it for the title. The wider section in the original goes: “The essential thing ‘in heaven and earth’ is … that there should be a long obedience in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something that has made life worth living.”

What 1000 Foo Fighters’ fans can teach the church


In a field in Italy 1000 rockers struck a chord. A man had a vision, he wanted the Foo Fighters to come and play in his town. So he raised some money, appealed for fellow fans and got them together. Singers, guitarists, bassists, and drummers gathered to sing Learn to Fly together.#

There’s one line, in the bridge if I’ve got my musical lingo correct, that goes: “Fly along with me, I can’t quite make it alone”. Sung by a thousand people who have come together for the very reason of not wanting to sing it alone, it has a certain unrestrained resonance.

At the end the guy behind it all stood in the middle of the throng of musicians to say:

“I guess that this video is going to be seen by a huge, a huge amount of people all over the world, but to be true it has been conceived to be addressed to just five people: Chris, Pat, Nate, Taylor and Dave Grohl, the Foo Fighters. You know, Italy is a country when dreams cannot easily come true, but it’s a land of passion and of creativity, so what we did, and here is just a huge miracle, I’ve been working on this project for more than one year, waking up every morning thinking about how to make it real and this is all that we’ve got. 1000 people, 1000 rockers, that came from all over the nation at their own expense and they did it for one song, your song. So our call is to ask you, the Foo Fighters, to come and play for us, to come and play and give a concert to all of us in Cesena, what I’m asking right now is to make some noise for the Foo Fighters, come on!”

There are old rockers, young kids, there are men and women, those whose hair makes them stand out as it stands on end, others that are a little larger than life. There’s a crazy man who looks a bit like Steve Coogan conducting the whole thing.

There are 1000 people with one thing in mind, one thing which has brought together an eclectic bunch to sing with passion. They may have only been singing to five men in America, but after a few days over 18 million have viewed the official video. The world has watched a bunch of people singing like crazy to get the attention of their favourite band.

And this got me thinking about the big Christian summer festivals. There’s an element of rock concert about them sometimes, but I think this kind of event is a more like what we should be aiming for. Three reasons why:

1. It’s not about the band on the stage

Okay, so the point of their singing is that they want a band on stage, but the marvel of the video is that 1000 people like you and me got together to sing and play together: the audience became the band. There are probably a lot of videos of the Foo Fighters singing Learn to Fly but I doubt any of them has as many views as this one. What’s special is that this is about each and every one of the 1000. I doubt whether many, if any, of the bands playing at big festivals want to make it about themselves, but sometimes it can feel like the focal point of our worship are the men and women on stage. Our singing can be more like fans at a rock concert.

2. They’re singing with a purpose

There is a reason behind their singing, it’s not just for fun, nor is it for their own fame, their singing has a purpose. When we come together to worship we sing with a purpose. When we sing it places passion in the words which might otherwise be dry phrases or truths we know and accept but don’t always fully own. When we sing, something about them comes alive.

But singing is not about just reciting words to music, especially not when we are worshipping God. Our worship is a speech act, our songs do something more than repeat truths or create a positive atmosphere. When we call on God to act, he does. When we cry out for God’s kingdom to come a little more of it does. Without wanting to get too eschatological, I believe that God’s kingdom has come, is coming, and will come. When we follow in Jesus’ words, praying or singing ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’, we are calling out for a little more of God’s rule and reign to be evident in the world around us. 1000 rockers wanted the Foo Fighters to come to their town in Italy, when we worship we call out for God to come to our world in our day.

3. They’re bringing our own gifts and talents and using them for that cause

The music from 1000 singers, guitarists, bassists and drummers sounded pretty good to me. I don’t possess many musical abilities – perhaps the sole one being a willingness to sing quite loudly (which, on reflection, is perhaps not a gift to those stood next to me in church). The 1000 men, women and children in a field in Italy brought their talents, they brought their instruments, they paid their fare and plugged what they had into what I can only imagine is a monumental PA system.

When we join together with thousands of others singing in worship to God are we reliant on the talents and abilities of the people on stage, or are we offering what we have?

Last week @God_loves_women wrote a blog on supermarket Christianity, and I think if we’re not careful big conferences and festivals can play into this tendency, that we go for an annual top up and we become dependent on what other people provide. At the other end of the spectrum is the danger of detaching ourselves from other believers, and becoming too focused on nurturing our own faith that we become isolated and the very faith we hoped to build ends up atrophying. Other people are essential to the development, sustenance and overflow of our faith.

I’m not going to any conferences this summer – it’s the first time in quite a few years. From people who have been at New Wine and Focus I’ve heard good things, to those who are going to others, I hope you learn, worship and grow. I have found that as I’ve gone to more events it’s become more about the people I’m with and the time in between the meetings than what’s said and done in the big tent – as valuable as that may be.

Having organised a very small conference a few weeks ago, the same was true. We organised content for the people taking part, but hearing the feedback from those who came reminded me that the programme may be what brings people together but it’s frequently not the most important thing.

I probably remember a handful of talks each year and over time maybe half a dozen that are really important to my ongoing walk of faith. There is a place for consuming. There are times when we need to receive. But we receive in order to go out, we take in in order to give out.

The irony of the Foo Fighers’ fans endeavour is that it wasn’t by accident that 1000 fans came together. This isn’t Field Of Dreams. It took someone’s vision and passion and incredibly hard work to make it happen. The things that bring us together and encourage us to act together are usually especially challenging, and there’s a significant lesson of leadership there. But that’s probably a topic for another day.