What exactly is leadership?

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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

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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.

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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.”

False Flags and Public Grief

Used under Creative Commons from https://www.flickr.com/photos/shauser/

Used under Creative Commons from https://www.flickr.com/photos/shauser/

On Wednesday evening nine men and women were murdered during a bible study at their church. No murder is normal, but this was less normal than most. It was the killing of nine black men and women by a white man, Dylann Roof, because of their race, and the church in which they were shot was of a denomination founded over 200 years ago when church officials pulled black people off their knees and stopped them praying. The shooting was about race, undertaken by a man who decided others shouldn’t live because of the colour of their skin – designed, the US Justice department said in a statement, ‘to strike fear and terror into this community’.

Many words have been written and many more will follow. I doubt any will carry the force of those spoken by the families of the victims who stood in the court on Friday and offered their forgiveness to Roof. Some of the words have been angry, some have been defensive, others dry, but most quenched in tears.

Twitter was ablaze with anger that two of America’s gravest indignities combined to orchestrate this horror. Gun crime in the United States is a travesty that should be indefensible. I don’t believe the framers of the constitution had in mind the liberal gun laws advocated by second amendment defenders, and if they did it’s high time that amendment was struck from the bill of rights. In the last 6 years Obama has come to the podium 6 times to give speeches following mass shootings.

The second scar on America’s conscience is the deep racial tensions that pervade across the country. Those words do not do justice to the pain suffered and that continues to haunt America and is endured by men and women because of their skin. As Jon Stewart put it: “I honestly have had nothing other than sadness that once again that we have to peer into the depraved violence that we do to each other and the nexus of a just gaping racial wound that will not heal but we pretend does not exist.”

And as the words of forgiveness cut through the anger, one symbol continued to flutter and flaunt its obstinate recalcitrance in the face of fury.

Above the South Carolina State house flies three flags, the state flag, the US flag and the old Confederate flag. On Thursday the first two were lowered to half-mast out of respect.

First, the technicalities: unlike the other two flags which are on a pulley the Confederate flag is fixed and can therefore only be removed and not lowered, and the removal of any of the flags flying from the building requires a vote of the state legislature.

Second, what was always going to be about race and gun crime is now also about a flag.

For some that’s a distraction from the grief experienced by the families and close ones of those who died. Others say it’s politicising a tragedy.

Russell Moore, president of the ethic and religious liberty commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, has written perhaps the most important post of the past few days. Important because of his role in one of the largest evangelical groups and one which has a significant public voice that is associated with religious and moral conservativism. Important because he is the descendant of a Confederate soldier. Important because it is unexpected. Important because it is timely, prophetic and unequivocal. And important because it recognises the importance of symbolism.

Others have been far more equivocal and refused to comment. I’m not asking everyone to have an opinion, but if you’re going to write this, then you deserve all the flak you get.

To say that this is a time for grief and a time to leave politics to one side is to sanitise grief and partition politics. When anger is burning it offers a clarion call, when pain is raw it exposes the wounds we might otherwise try to deny. When tears and fears are all we have to offer they etch deep a testimony that politics is always personal.

Because if it isn’t, what is politics about? Is it about the maintenance of faraway institutions or managing systems and structures? Because if we take people out of the equations – people who cry and shout, and experience joy and happiness, people who, this week, are asking not just ‘why’ but ‘why again’ – all we are left with is a faceless, soulless set of bodies that serve no one but the inertia of political gridlock.

Grief can make things happen. Aged 13 I walked into church one Sunday morning with my family, we were late and the announcements had begun. As we pieced together what the pastor was saying it became clear a member of the royal family had died, the Queen Mother we first supposed, then realised it was Princess Diana who had died in a crash in a Paris subway in the early hours of the morning.

On that occasion a flag mattered too. The royal family, and the Queen in particular, were away in Balmoral, and protocol until 1997 dictated that when the Queen was in residence the Royal Standard flew, when away no flag was displayed, and never was a flag flown at half-mast. Even when a monarch died the flag of the next most senior royal in residence at the palace is flown.

But combined with maintained distance and what the royals presumably considered dignified silence, the empty mast became the may-pole around which the British tabloid press strung the Queen. “Where is our Queen? Where is her flag?” cried the Sun, “Has the House of Windsor a heart?” proclaimed the Daily Mail.

Protocol be damned. The rules were changed. A nation was in grief. The Union Jack – which now flies whenever the Queen is not in residence – was flown at half-mast on the day of the funeral, an act now repeated when members of the royal family die or on significant moments of national mourning such as after the 5 July 2005 bombings.

I’m an outsider, and one who has already told Americans to rescind the second amendment. But the Confederate flag is more than historical memorabilia – if that was all it was it would be in a museum and not flying over a government building.

Like the empty pole on Buckingham Palace, the Confederate flag flying is like defiantly sticking a middle finger up at those in pain. It’s like revelling in the memory of wounds inflicted on others.

And it’s also just a flag, just a symbol, just a piece of cloth with colour, stripes and stars. But the arrangement of those colours, stars and stripes matter. Taking it down is not going to solve race relations in the United States but it would be a significant symbol, one which empathises with pain.

I’m a Brit who doesn’t get the obsession with flags. I don’t get why it’s such a matter of importance, I don’t get why churches drape their alters with flags. But I do get symbols, and Christians the world over should know better than most their role, after all at the centre of our faith is a symbol.

Symbols can become rallying points, in fact they often are. The Confederate flag is now a focal point and not a distraction. The question is, which way will it blow?

Remembrance in the shadow of the Berlin Wall

On the 9 November 1989 the Berlin Wall was breached. For the previous 28 years crossings had been made, and many more attempted and failed, with those fleeing from East to West shot as they sought freedom. The line that stood between East and West crumbled that night as guards looked on bewildered as their commands to fire never came, as families cleft apart for a generation were reunited.

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In the weeks and months leading up to that symbolic ending, the façade of the Cold War slipped and the decayed state of the Eastern Bloc became visible for the world to see. The Soviet Union refused to send tanks into Poland to support the communist government. The Hungarian leader told Soviet leader Gorbachev that his border with Austria would be neglected and unguarded if he didn’t get the funds to reinforce it.

Gorbachev was a communist but his actions and inaction hastened the decline of the Soviet empire and brought the Cold War to an end. It was an economic decision as much as anything, the cost of maintaining an empire was one that could not be afforded. Gorbachev reasoned that dispensing with the satellite states might give the Soviet Union scope to prosper. Instead it gave permission for collapse. Those countries that attempted to maintain a one party communist dictatorship soon fell, the crowds took impetus from the revolutions across the border, in Czechoslovakia peaceful protest led to the Velvet Revolution. In Romania Nicolae Ceausescu desperately tried to cling onto power but after his security forces fired on protestors violence erupted, he was ousted, charged with genocide and killed by a firing squad on Christmas Day, just six weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

I was five when the wall came down. All I have ever known is a world in the shadow of the Cold War. We did not watch the fall of Soviet states in Eastern Europe in my primary school classroom (but I do remember my year one teacher switching on the TV just two weeks later for the first televised parliamentary debate). Continue reading

Does the customer have all the rights?

Business Cartoon“I want a wet cappuccino” declares the customer, “so you want a latte?” I reply. “No” they restate, “a wet cappuccino”. So I give them a wet cappuccino – which is really just a latte.

Burger King have long marketed their burgers with the tag line “Have it your way”, a riposte to the supposed inflexibility of McDonald’s. The customer can choose what they want and how they want it, within reason and usually at extra cost. Recently they changed the slogan to ‘Be your way’, and the shift marks not only a development of their advertising but the further incorporation of individualism into everyday life.

It’s not so much ‘I think therefore I am’, but ‘I choose therefore I am’. The liberty to decide what to do, how to do it, or whether to do it – whatever it may be – has become society’s fundamental and inalienable right. Not just the customer is always right, but the customer has all the rights.

Cases on both sides of the Atlantic have brought the question of religious liberty to the fore in recent weeks. There was the case in America of a dog walker ‘firing’ a customer because they supported the legalisation of marijuana. Also in the States was the related issue of whether an employer should cover medical insurance for treatments which they had religious objections to. And in Northern Ireland a bakery is being taken to court by the Equality Commission for refusing to back a cake decorated to advocate for the legalisation of same sex marriage. Continue reading

How I found freedom from the prison of ego

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As a thirteen year old I dug the garden on a Saturday afternoon to earn a little extra pocket money to go and see Delirious (at that point transitioning from being known as Cutting Edge). I joined the masses queuing outside my church and then packed into the hall to hear the big new thing in the Christian world. A few years before in what was know as the Toronto Blessing I had stood awed in meetings and fallen prostrate. There was undoubtedly a little of me mimicking what those to my left and right were doing, but that was not the entirety.

Being ahead of Christian culture was what mattered.

When I got to university and people would go on about Delirious I would roll my eyes, it was no longer cool to be into them. When someone had the great idea to do a 24-7 prayer room, I said I could do that in my sleep.

I’d flippantly pontificate on whether DJ led worship was really suitable for a congregation. But also make sure people knew I’d done break dancing sessions in a disused and refashioned train station in Germany. When cell groups, small groups, D groups, life groups, connect groups, were being discussed I’d have a couple of handy mnemonics or aphorisms up my sleeve; I’d find a way to segue in that I’d done a seminar on cell group multiplication. I’d be one of those people who wouldn’t clap, or stand, or raise my hands, when the host or worship leader said to, because, you know, worship is about us choosing to worship.

I got Christian culture and I thought I was better than it. I would raise my eyes and sneeringly remark at the queues of people waiting to get a photo with Tim Hughes. Until someone else noted my own remark was designed to draw attention to myself. Continue reading

On remaining evangelical, even when I’m not sure what it means

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On Tuesday evening I staggered home from the tube station, zombie like from nearly a full 24 hours travelling, from the rising of the sun on one side of the world to its setting back home in London. I’d been in Cambodia for just a little over a week, but the time I was gone failed to do justice to the intensity of the experience. Seeing communities overcoming poverty, and churches working for the good of their neighbours. Hearing about a regime in living memory that saw the deaths of a quarter of the population, many tortured and executed, many more dying from starvation and disease. Experiencing hospitality from a church of a dozen people.

I thought perhaps I would have a lot to process and a long post of reflection to scribe. In fact, it was rather simple, the good was great, the opportunity brilliant, the place beautiful and the food wonderful (mostly). The things that were hard, were not really that hard. It was tiring, exhausting, and has taken me almost as long as I was there to begin to feel human again. The burden I felt we carried through the trip was the attempt to encourage new supporters to back Tearfund and help communities such as those we were meeting in Cambodia become self-reliant and shrug off the anvil of poverty weighing them down. It was awkward, and it was tough, and we failed to achieve what we had set out to do. I found that very hard, and Rich has also written about this.

More than anything I was overcome by the beauty of the place I had spent a few precious days. And the chance to move beyond the sights and sounds of the capital and share meals with people in their houses, and hear the hopes and dreams they shared, and the problems that together they were going to overcome.

As I barely crawled along the footpath outside Bermondsey tube station with a rucksack on each shoulder I bumped into a friend and uttered some incoherent words. She offered to carry my bags, I turned down the help and staggered on, regretting my refusal to inconvenience her a few streets later. I had spent a week seeing and writing about the virtue about helping one another, and yet I carried on alone. Continue reading

Men strapped into floating beds, and other things we don’t understand

Why is the man strapped into the bed Grandma?” And there begun the attempt to explain gravity to a two and a half year old during her bed time story as she pointed at the picture book. But she wasn’t taken in. “Why is the bed floating in the sky?”

This grandmother didn’t tell the young girl to stop being stupid because you know, bed’s don’t fly. Nor did she say stop asking questions, just accept that the bed is floating in the sky.

Small children are inquisitive, they ask questions, and they know when you’re not given them the full answer. They keep asking questions, they want to understand. Because beds stay on the floor and people aren’t strapped into beds. So why is the man strapped into the bed, and why is the bed floating round the sky?

If this young girl decided to start a global conversation about beds flying around the sky and the inequity of men being strapped into such beds we might find it cute, we might admire her pluck and wish her well.

But we’d also want to encourage her to look at some books, consider what others have said and discovered in the past as they explored the same dilemma. Why does the apple fall from the tree? Why do objects float in space?

I don’t really understand why beds float through space, or would if there were any out there. You can tell me it is about gravity, and why that disappears in space. You can explain to me the pull of the earth, the moon and the tides. I can read and I can learn. And this makes me think, perhaps I should understand a little more about gravity – I have stopped asking the questions that are obvious to a small child and just accepted that when I get to bed tonight I don’t need to be strapped in.
open-bible Continue reading

Church: a place, a people and a purpose

Warsaw church candles

Every Sunday afternoon I cross the Thames, usually over Millennium Bridge and walk into a conference centre. Some weeks I’m away, but I can’t remember the last time I missed a Sunday I could make.

I go to church.

I walk into a crowd of a few hundred people, more than I can ever know, even their names. And yet, it is the place that I am known. There are people who know my fears, who know my doubts, have seen my failings, have heard my anger. And those who’ve seen me kind, watched me excel, encouraged me to grow, pushed me outwards, upwards, and delved into the places I would choose to keep to myself.

Church is home.

It’s not always easy, it’s frequently hard, painful, annoying, boring, it exhibits all those dreadful traits, the ones we have ourselves but expect the church to be above. For the first eighteen months I went to this church I would arrive as the worship team struck the first chords and slip out as the ministry team offered prayer at the front. I was leading a small group for most of this time, I had responsibility, I welcomed people into a place and into a community that I didn’t feel welcomed in.

Some essential caveats to begin with. I know the church is not about buildings. I grew up in a charismatic congregation began by students in the 1970s, and which my parents joined soon after, it met in schools, colleges, graduated to a lecture hall in Southampton University before buying the old Methodist Central Hall in the city centre. We held a church picnic when the purchase was completed, all I remember was playing hide and seek and finding a nook to hide in the huge organ soon to be ripped from its setting. Continue reading

It’s a bubble wrap life: thoughts on modesty

Heart of Tuscany July 2013 054 ModestyLast night I ate at Nando’s. I went for a half chicken marinated in mango and lime dressing and it tasted good. I could have gone for it naked (or plain as they prefer to put it), but we all know that chicken tastes better when dressed. It made a good thing great. And it’s the same with people and clothes.

No it’s not.

I can’t do it. I can’t write an important piece about modesty, attraction, responsibility and liberty premised on an extremely tenuous food metaphor. I’m not going to suggest it’s like putting meat on the BBQ and then telling someone they can’t eat it, or anything about chocolate cake, sweets, or any other edible. I’m not going to say it’s like taking an alcoholic into a bar.

I’m not going to use any of those examples because they are about consumption. We eat food, we drink beer, we do not consume another person. And too often that is the problem when we talk about modesty and attraction: we do so from the mindset of a consumer. We think of other people as an it, as something that we either consumer or do not consume. And in doing so we deprive other people of agency. Continue reading