Of chameleons and rainbows

The place of emotions in church

Did you ever hear somebody voice this little truism? ‘If we want to get OUTsiders IN to the church, we must turn the church INside out’. The sentiment is laudable, and calls for an end to a preoccupation with the machinery of church and its replacement with an intentional focus on the world beyond the church.  On a Gospel basis, there is very little with which one could disagree there.

However, there remains an awkward entail to this.  If we do turn the church inside out and we do get the outsiders in, what do we do with them when they get there?  A friend of mine used to talk about our expectation that new Christians will be like chameleons – taking on the colour and hue of those who were in the church before them.  They may well do just that – but if those colours are drab, will we succeed only in growing the drabness?

To return to the Inside Out theme for a moment – church is an environment where we would prefer not to show what is going on inside, thank you very much.  In a church whose holy book includes furious prophets, angry leaders, passionate kings and a weeping Messiah – we would rather check our emotions at the door.  Whilst I abhor those forms of Christianity which have traded on emotional manipulation to elicit conversion or donation – I find the cult of blandness to be unbecoming in a people whose God painted the rainbow.

In what may be Pixar’s most unusual film to date, Inside Out depicts the life of the emotions inside the head of a little girl: Riley.  Inside her head are: joy, anger, fear, disgust and sadness.  Interestingly, each is depicted in a different colour. Joy is yellow, anger is red, fear is purple, disgust is green, and sadness (not surprisingly) is blue.  The inside of Riley is a colourful place.

What if we let those characters and their colours out to play in church?

Anger

Anger is the short, squat, straight-talking and fiery member of the emotions team inside Riley’s head.  In church we like to leave him to the Gospels where we point him out gingerly in the temple.  ‘There’ we say ‘we have room for righteous anger – right there in the Gospel’.  I’m not sure he’s welcome in church, though.  In all my years of ministry across various churches, I am not sure I have ever seen righteous anger.  I have seen self-righteous anger, holding hands with his cousin, indignation.  They sit at the back with their arms folded and mutter to each other under their breath.  I would like to propose that we invite anger along to the church prayer meeting.  I propose that we should encourage him to speak up whenever we pray for the lost.  I hope he will give it all he’s got when we pray for those who corrupt power or who confuse wealth with importance.  I hope he will pray loudly, and that the rest of us will learn to crank up the volume of our “amen” so as to keep pace with him.

Fear

Fear in Inside Out is thin, wispy and fragile.  He is mainly purple, but wears a check shirt and an old tie.  Fear comes to church, but he rarely gets beyond the front door.  He’ll talk to people on the step, or in the car park, but once inside he finds the loud voice of faith just a little too grating and prefers to wait until the worship is over.  In truth, he’s been scarred by people calling him by the wrong name once too often. How can people mistake fear for doubt, he wonders? They don’t even sound the same!  I would like to encourage fear to join the worship team.  I would love to hear his reedy voice singing.  I would love to hear him tell us why we are going to sing this song ‘anyway’.  I would love to hear him sing a duet with joy, one day.

Joy

Joy wears bright yellow and radiates light, a bit like a sunflower.  I have sat next to her in church on more than one occasion.  Sometimes I have had to blink because her brightness hurts the shadows in my eyes.  She loves to be up the front and sometimes she hides amongst the children whilst they are singing.  Once in a while, though, I would love to drag her away from the limelight.  Could we persuade joy to pour the cups of coffee or stack the chairs, I wonder?  Let’s sit her down with the church treasurer once in a while and see what happens.

Disgust

Disgust wears clothes which are a little too green, like peas on e-numbers.  You won’t see that colour in church, though, because she tends to cover up so that she can blend in.  Outside, it’s a different story.  When reading the paper or discussing the sermon her colours are fully on display.  She is a prolific letter-writer, although rarely signs her name.  I would love disgust to join the outreach team.  I would love all that passion to come tumbling out whenever we realise that there are people perishing within a stone’s throw of the church.  She would like John’s description of Jesus in John 11 v.33 where he ‘snorts’ in his spirit (a word used of a horse rearing up in alarm) when he sees what loss does to people as Mary mourns her brother.

Sadness

Sadness is blue, with big owlish glasses which only seem to magnify her sorrow.  Sadness comes to church, but tends to sit at the back.  She can’t help herself creeping in, but she is unsure about whether she is welcome, so she stays near the exit.  I would love sadness to sit down with the church leaders when they discuss what’s going on in the church’s life.  I would love her to have a seat at that table when they talk about the sticks in the spokes of the Gospel’s progress or their own walk with their saviour.  Hers would be a gentle and welcome voice, I think.

Years ago, I visited a church in India planted the previous century by British missionaries.  Outside all was noise and colour – a bewildering sensory assault of sound, sight, taste and smell.  Inside, the suits were grey and the harmonium played grey music for the grey people to sing.  It seemed like such a waste.

Would you let the colours out to play in your church?

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Click for the ‘colourful church’ in full size

Reasonable adjustment

Another postcard from the land of grief

When you first start to live abroad as a foreigner, people make adjustments. For the most part, they realise that you know things are ‘done differently here’ and that you might be unaware of the unwritten rules. If your turn up too early or too late; if you wear clothes which are too formal or too smart; if you bring a gift which is inappropriately large or small – people will make allowances. These things are only to be expected from a new resident here.

Throughout the first months of living here, in this land of grief, people have done just that. They have understood if I am a little more cautious or fragile than I used to be. They have accepted that my appetite for change and progress has been muted, as if a taste bud had been removed. They have understood if occasionally the victor in the battle for today’s small wins is sorrow rather than strength. To be honest, they understand it still – but I fear the day when they will not. I fear the day when I will do something like a foreigner making a faux pas in an unfamiliar situation and my supply of understanding will have run out. I am grateful that they are more tolerant of me than I am.

Today, I have had cause to rejoice when I look at the two photos below. What a difference has come over my rescue dog, Ginny, in the time she has been with me (134 days). The caution and timidity has almost gone. The eyes are those of hunter rather than hunted, and the coat bears the gloss of a contented animal. All the same, I sometimes fear that the slack people cut her ‘because she is new’ will run out one day. Maybe not yet though…

CLICK for full size

CLICK for full size

Rock Music

A review of ‘Under the rock’ by Benjamin Myers

Years ago, on a second holiday in St Cast le Guildo, Brittany, my curiosity got the better of me. I could no longer resist the pull of an information sign which directed me towards the ‘pierres sonnantes’ (‘singing stones) on the river bank. It turns out that this collection of boulders sitting on the river bank failed to live up to their legend. Tapping a stone on their mossy surface produced not the promised song, but a dull and uninteresting ‘clack’.

Benjamin Myers, on the other hand, has made his rock sing. The book’s 350 pages are what could best be described as a lyrical encounter with Scout Rock in Mytholmroyd in West Yorkshire. In the author’s company we scramble up through bracken and undergrowth, we fall headlong onto yesterday’s rubbish in the tip, and we gaze out at the darkening landscape from a shelf on the rock. The rock is at once brooding presence, cipher, landmark and home. If it is true that the author makes it sing, what is less certain is the genre of the music. Is it the warm jazz of a summer’s evening, the strident violin scratching down a sky of steel, or a half-remembered spiritual? Each reader will have to decide, and each reader will doubtless hear it differently. As a person with an interest in the journey walked, this line will be a recurring refrain for me, I think:

Walking is writing with your feet.

Nature books can be twee. Poetry books can be self-indulgent. Autobiographies of a ‘move to the country’ can shut the reader out at least as much as they let them in. This book defies all those descriptions, and whatever it is called – it made the rock sing.

Ginny the lurcher keen to read...

Ginny the lurcher keen to read…

A cross-border confession

Another postcard from the land of grief

When I used to live in that other place, holidays to France were an annual feature. The rumble of the wheels down the ferry ramp and the first sight of a French flag fluttering over the port always brought a frisson of joy. So, too, did speaking another language. The sheer fact of speaking a different language and saying different things made me feel like a different person. I could say them ‘over there’…

I am about to write something from ‘over here’ which I could never have written ‘back there’. I could never have written it because it would have been embarrassing and awkward. I would never have written it because it would have been untrue. Nonetheless, I write it now. I am lonely. Married to Fiona for 30 years, and in love with her for longer than that, life without her by my side is shockingly different. One day last week a 24-hour period passed where my only conversations were on the phone or with a cashier at the supermarket. Mine is by no means a unique experience, and I have endured it for a far shorter time than many.  All the same, it is a shock to find that it is true.

For those who are scrolling for the comments box even as they read this, I wanted to write a message or two. Firstly – thank you. Your kindness and warmth are a reflection of God’s image in the foxed mirror of humanity, and it is wonderful to see.

Secondly, please be assured that my loneliness is neither your problem nor your fault. You did not cause it and I do not count it as your duty to rectify it. Your attempts to distract me from it are always welcome, and the place in your heart from which they come is very dear.  Please don’t be surprised, though, if I do not always accept them. The reason for my refusal has everything to do with me and nothing to do with you. Part of the collateral damage of bereavement is a wastage of the confidence muscle, if there is such a thing. That muscle which heaved body and soul up over the parapet of home has shrunk, you see. I look out over the threshold of home to a landscape filled with life, laughter, food, drink and conversation and I both move towards it and quail from it. I will learn, and the muscle will grow back, but it may take a little time.

Thirdly, please don’t let the sea-mist of sadness which sometimes rolls off me put you off from telling me about your life. I want to know. I want to hear the shrill sound of laughter and the clatter of ordinary dishes and the occasional curse! It reminds me that there is a life out there, beyond the mist – and I still belong to it.

Finally, I may be lonely, but I am not alone. My God is ever with me. His people carry me in their hearts and prayers, which is an act of the truest love. I live here now, but so does He.

A decoration which used to hang on the mantlepiece at Christmas, and now hangs on a very special cherry tree...

A decoration which used to hang on the mantelpiece at Christmas, and now hangs on a very special cherry tree…

 

Blessings and regrets

Another postcard from the land of grief

One of the features of living unexpectedly here is that you occupy what is now your permanent home country as if it were only temporary. You make only short or mid-term plans, but never long-term ones. You shop erratically, as if not wishing to fill cupboards you might leave behind. You make rapid friendships, as travellers often do. You eat like Moses’ Exodus people of old – staff at the ready and more mind on the journey than the plate. You tidy things away in a hurry too.
I have a drawer I am filling with regrets. Some are like a tiny scrap of paper, torn off the bottom of a leaflet. Others are more like essays – filled front and back with tightly packed handwriting. I have been stuffing them in the drawer in such a way that you can squeeze more in, but never open it to take them out. If you try it, the papers curl against the edge of the drawer and it jams half open – mocking your attempt.

The other day, I shoved a blessing in with the regrets, and now I cannot seem to take it out again. A family with two small children had been to visit me, and I had brought out the big box of Lego we keep for such occasions. I say ‘we’ – but it was her idea to keep it. Thinking ahead, she rescued the box from the charity shop and said we might need it one day – which we did. When the children had gone, it was time to put the scattered Lego away.  Scraping up handfuls and pouring them into the crate, tears fell with the little bricks as I regretted bitterly that she had not heard the children’s chuckles of delight.

It was only later that I realised what a blessing it had been to have those children here – filling my all too quiet house with their laughter and noise. Can’t get it out of that drawer now, which is annoying.

I really must write a clearer label for my drawer of blessings, or put it in a more obvious place… or both.

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Charmed by Phoebe

A review of Paula Gooder’s latest book

For people like me, who have worked in the Christian church all our working lives, the Apostle Paul can be a bit like a slightly embarrassing family heirloom.  We know it is precious, but we don’t really want it on display.  Seen in its original context the heirloom would assume more sensible proportions, and maybe even look more attractive.

At this point, enter Dr Paula Gooder, with her fine scholarship, brilliant research and articulate imagination.  In the person of Phoebe, a Deacon from the church in Cenchreae, she introduces us to Paul, his world and his philosophy as effortlessly as if we were stepping from a time machine.  In the pages of her book you will smell the streets of Rome, sit at the back as the early church pray, laugh and cry together, and watch as the Gospel changes lives of great and small alike.

If I had one word to describe Phoebe, it would be charm. In the person of this exquisitely drawn character, Paula introduces us to the New Testament world as never before.  This is a New Testament theology with a heartbeat and a backstory.  It will appeal to both Bible scholars and Bible enthusiasts alike.  Few are likely to read Paul’s letters in the same way after meeting Phoebe.  I know I will not, and I hope one day Paula Gooder will introduce me to some more of Phoebe’s friends.

Phoebe

Spring

Another postcard from the land of grief

It was Winter when she left. Not a crisp and hopeful Winter, full of sparkling promise as it had been the previous day. No, this was a Winter day of dwindling light and remorseless rain, streaking the windows and bouncing off the pavements. Colours were insipid, light, muted – as if the day were muffled.

Yesterday was a Spring day, apparently.  The calendar says that Summer is nearly here and everywhere there are splashes of colour, like guests arriving dressed for a party which has not yet begun. Yesterday I visited a special place, my little bit of there which is here. The rain drummed on my coat and the grass squelched beneath my feet. Right there though, above the spot where she will be forever remembered, her cherry tree was flowering. Some of the bigger flowers had been felled by the rain, unable to resist the onslaught. Some of the newer, tighter buds were holding on, the droplets of water making jewellery out of them.

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Showing fragile beauty in the storm and insisting on colour in the drabness seems such a fitting memorial for the bravest and best. Spring is coming.

 

 

Home advice from abroad

Another postcard from the land of grief

Sometimes shops in holiday resorts would offer postcards with no picture. Instead, the front would contain a checklist of postcard style information which could be deleted as applicable. This might include:

  • Weather is good/ bad/ indifferent
  • Food is too spicy/ too bland/ interesting
  • Hotel is smart/ shabby/ comfortable

Very soon, I shall have been living here in this land of grief for an inconceivable six months. This being so, I am sending a list back to that other place. These are lessons learnt here which count so very much there.

  • Never believe that money is worth more than time – it is a poor trade
  • There are many conflicting duties, but the primary call on you is love
  • The things which have the highest value are those which have no price
  • A beautiful view shared is a view immeasurably enhanced
  • It is never too soon to say sorry nor too late to swallow your pride
  • Every conversation has value, no matter how trivial its content
  • Faith, hope and love endure, to coin a phrase
A moment of soggy joy in a sudden rainstorm on the island of Madeira

A moment of soggy joy in a sudden rainstorm on the island of Madeira

Not jumping the fence

Another postcard from the land of grief

Occasionally in this new land of mine,  I catch sight of the suitcases I used to use when travelling. They are far more than I shall ever need for one, and I look wistfully at a sunhat perched on top of them which no-one will ever wear again. These are bags for those who travel, not for those who stay.

There are other bags, though, which I have packed many times in these past five months. I pack them in a hurry, like a character in a film storming out of their life and heading for the airport.  I pack them as if I have had enough of living in this strange place called grief and I would like to go home, thank you very much.  This experiment in living alone has been interesting, and on some days I have survived it better than I thought possible.  However, enough is enough, and now it is time to go back to being married, just like I have been for the past 30 years.  I crave the easy familiarity of routines honed over the years and a companionship so deep as to be instinctive.

Thoughts trailing like a stray sleeve caught in the suitcase lid, I head for the border of this land and demand to be let through.  Sadly, I cannot pass.  The border is sealed, the guards are impervious, and my ticket was non-returnable and one way.  I live here now.  Bag tucked under my arm, I head disconsolately back, and stow it away for next time.

This is a process which is likely to repeat many times, I think – like a dog running time and time again at a high fence before realising it cannot be jumped.  However, as with every trip away from home – it looks slightly different each time you return.  Each time I come back from the border with that suitcase, ready to stash it away, I see the house just a little differently.  I move things around, I update old things, I act like I am intending to stay here.  Like a person with no passport, I start to think how I can make a life here rather than pining for there.

Family are a huge help – constant in their love, and unchanged from the way they were.  They live here, as well as there, it turns out.  Friends are a blessing – kind, patient, standing by but never pushing in.  The value of my faith is incalculable – lending light to the darker days and hope to the deeper valleys.  Even if I did not choose to live here, there are ways to make it work and people who are willing to help.

Not ready to pack those ‘go-bags’ away quite yet – but maybe one day.

shadowz