An important aspect of being human is self-care, but how does this differ from self-comfort? Should we always choose one over the other and how can we tell the difference? In this talk given at Oasis Church Bath I help us identify what can work for us as we aim to take care of ourselves.
In a speaking series for Oasis Church Bath on Being Human, I discuss emotional maturity – what is it, why does it matter, and how do we achieve it?
In this speaking series at Oasis Church Bath on the parables of Jesus, I explored and unpacked the Parable of the Prodigal Son. How would a Jewish audience have understood this parable and what can we learn from it to apply to our lives today?
What do Christians really believe about hell and where do these views come from? In this talk for Oasis Church Bath I attempt to expose some of the myths we’ve been led to believe and look at what the bible actually says. What kind of hope can we have for the future and how should this impact how we live now?
In January my wife Sara and I had the great privilege of leading a training session for chaplains working in Further Education (FE) Colleges across the Bath and Wells Diocese. The question they asked us to cover was a great question – how can we better support LGBT young people who have a faith? A few people have asked for the content of our session, so this is a very condensed version of our ten recommendations for chaplains.
Listening is the role of any chaplain, but it is particularly important when it comes to LGBT young people. Let them tell their story. Listen without agenda, bias or judgement. Ask them what they need from you – don’t assume you know even if you’ve worked with LGBT young people before. We are all different, and what this young person needs from you may be completely unique. Being heard is often a healing act in itself for LGBT people, who are often made to listen to the views of others on their sexuality and identity.
It’s important not to use what is often referred to as ‘heteronormative’ language (defined in the Oxford dictionary as ‘denoting or relating to a world view that promotes heterosexuality as the normal or preferred sexual orientation’). For example, if you’re working with a female young person don’t assume they’ll have a male partner. It’s also really important to challenge homophobic behaviour and language, even what may be seen as harmless joking or ‘banter’ by others. Challenging this educates the young people you are with, but it also communicates you are a safe person to speak to about gender and sexuality issues. Ensure you educate yourself about pronouns and correct terminology, particularly when working with transgender young people. Ask them what pronouns they prefer – he/she/they.
In most faith communities there’s an understanding that we all land in slightly different places when it comes to theological issues, particularly secondary as opposed to primary issues. In youth work, a key principle has always been to journey with and walk alongside young people as they find their way and discover things for themselves, rather than indoctrinating them or creating copies of ourselves! We may give our opinions when asked but we don’t enforce our worldview onto someone, or indeed any viewpoint about a specific theological issue. It’s exactly the same when working with LGBT young people. Walk with them, equip them, resource them, but don’t assume they’ll end up in the same place as you theologically – whatever viewpoint you currently hold on this issue.
One of the many gifts the LGBT community has to give to the church, and in fact this is true of any minority group, is the unique perspective and experience they have on the world and the church. They look at things through a unique lens, and give us the opportunity to see things in a new way. For example, with some of our straight married friends, we love the way our same sex relationship allows them to reflect on aspects of their relationship, that they normally wouldn’t reflect on. We often give the example of how in our early married life we were free from assigning household tasks in accordance with gender stereotypes. Instead we assigned them based on gifting and availablity, and in doing this we enabled some of our straight friends to see they could do the same! This is a trivial example but there are much larger ones – we have so much to learn from every minority group and if you are truly listening and in relationship with LGBT young people you will learn lots of exciting and life changing things!
Whilst being hurt by church is not an experience that’s exclusive to the LGBT community, it is a common one. For LGBT people, church can often feel like a very unsafe, non-affirming and even hostile place where you are vulnerable to prejudice and at risk of being on the receiving end of discrimination and judgement. Don’t push a young person to be part of a faith community if that’s not what they want or are ready for, or unless you can guarantee their safety and protection. Have a wide definition of church – know that a young person can experience church in all kinds of ways and in all kinds of places. It’s worth saying too that church can be a positive place and there are some amazing churches that are fully inclusive and fully affirming. You might need to help a young person to do their research if they’re looking for an affirming faith community.
When I was about 15 I had some amazing youth leaders who recognised some of where my gifts were starting to show themselves. They took risks with me and let me preach, teach, lead small groups and be involved in lots of exciting ways. The chances they gave me helped me learn more about myself, more about the person God had made me to be and the things he was calling me to do. However if I’d have been known at that time as gay, I wouldn’t have been given those opportunities. Lots of churches at the moment seem to find it acceptable to ‘welcome’ LGBT people, but to restrict and limit their involvement and participation. This is very damaging to LGBT people as they are held back from being all they are called to be, but it also damages the church as needed gifts and talents are withheld from the church and wider community. They are welcomed as guests, rather than included and involved as family members. This isn’t going to change quickly! Things are moving, but whilst that happens there is an army of young, gifted LGBT people who are called to all kinds of spiritual gifts – worship leaders, small group hosts, youth workers, preachers etc, who are simply stopped from exercising these gifts if they are in non-affirming churches. Therefore if you have any opportunity as an FE chaplain to empower and enable a young LGBT person to try something out, to be involved, to lead, let them do it!
Speak out where you can on behalf of LGBT young people. Better still, take their voices with you. LGBT people are often restricted from leadership meetings or any structure or system which has the power to effect change, especially young LGBT people. Think about ways in which you can help their voice to be heard and listened to. The times my wife and I have felt the most loved by those around us, is when they have stood up for us, spoken out on our behalf, challenged prejudice and discrimination, risked their own relationships and hurt with us as we have felt hurt.
Sexuality and gender are complex issues. They involve long and often difficult journeys. It may take time for a young person to find an identity they feel comfortable with, to settle or decide on language or pronouns. Give them time, be prepared for the long term as well as the short term. Understand that young people will shift and change in their views, understanding and expression as they grow older.
What does it look like to be a holy, LGBT Christian? To be set apart, purified and counter cultural? This is an exciting question, and it’s a question the church isn’t often prepared to help LGBT people answer, as they’re only just starting to figure out you can be fully gay and fully Christian! Don’t feel you can’t challenge a young person about their behaviour – there are ways to explore sexuality that honour God and please him, and there are ways to explore sexuality that are destructive and unhelpful. When I’d come to the resolution that I was gay and that God was ok with it, I remember desperately searching for books, internet articles, anything that would tell me ‘what the rules are’! Sexually yes, but in other ways too. Until there are more books written, until we talk about this in church, until churches actually teach and guide people and provide LGBT role models in leadership positions who can help young people figure this stuff out, it will always be tricky and new ground for young people to explore. Don’t be afraid to ask the awkward questions and have the difficult conversations, you’ll find LGBT young people are actually yearning for someone they can speak to about the tough stuff.
Being LGBT, young and Christian can be difficult, but it can also be amazing. Don’t assume it’s a problem for a young person, or something they see as negative or difficult, they might be fine with it! Show them that their sexuality is a strength, that it’s part of who God made them to be. With it they can go places others cannot go, reach people others cannot reach, and see things in a unique way unlike anyone else.
(These recommendations come with a few disclaimers! I am no expert – I’m drawing on my own experience as a gay, married Christian with over fifteen years of youth work experience. Therefore these are opinions, and you’re welcome to disagree with them. I’m aware that issues transgender young people face have not been covered in detail here, nor issues young Muslim or Jewish young people face. For that I highly recommend www.keshetonline.org and www.imaan.org.uk)
I’ve always been fascinated by advent. I love that we have an entire season in the church calendar devoted to waiting. This year I really wanted to reflect on it more, so I decided to set myself the challenge of taking a photo every day in December until Christmas, that made me think of waiting. These were often boring, mundane moments of my daily life, but through it I learned so much more about what it means to wait. I’ve written before about waiting so I won’t say much more, but below are all the images, and below that, my listed thoughts of what each one taught me. Do feel free to download and use them if they’re useful – you should be able to do so through my Flickr page.
We wait all the time.
We wait to be taken somewhere new.
Sometimes, it’s worth the wait.
Some waits are short waits.
Waiting makes the end result better.
Some waits remind us of other waits.
Some waits feel longer than others.
Sometimes we’re not the only ones who are waiting.
We wait for black and white to be filled with colour.
Waiting is nearly always preparation for something.
Sometimes we need to create things that are important enough to wait for.
In the waiting there are always glimpses of what is coming. Sights, smells, sounds and tastes. Waiting can be beautiful if we choose to see them.
Sometimes when we stop and wait, we enable others to go.
Waiting is never forever.
Waiting can bring us rest. We can embrace that rest, or resent it.
Waiting is only a temporary stop. Don’t worry, you’ll go again soon.
In a waiting time new things grow, often in unexpected places.
Sometimes, others are waiting for us.
In a waiting time we can often go from serving, to being served.
When you wait, you start to notice the beauty in ordinary things.
Waiting can be a warning. It might not be safe to go yet.
Waiting times remind us that we’re often not in control.
Waiting time is never wasted time.
In a waiting time we learn to let go of the things we no longer need.
It was a great privilege to be involved in ‘The Table’, an event co-curated by CYM (Institute for Children, Youth and Mission, FYT (Frontier Youth Trust) and CMS (Church Mission Society). The Table is a series of events aimed at pioneer youth and community workers, of which this was the first. We explored the idea of ‘Tensions Around The Table’ – things we often find clashing and contradicting and how to find balance in all that uncomfortable tension. I gave a short lecture on what paradox is, which you can listen to below. We’ve got another event coming up in April, where we’ll be exploring how to create church with young people. You can find out more about that here.
My Christianity began in a small village church in Nottinghamshire. After re-finding faith as an adult, and now a parent, my Mum felt it was important my brother and I were brought up in the church, and so off we went, every Sunday, to an old little grey Anglican building. I still remember the moss covered path and before it the stone archway that anyone under the age of eleven could be found climbing all over whilst waiting at the end of the service for parents to finish their cups of weak, luke-warm tea, always served in those green cups and saucers that you never see anywhere else.
This little church holds my first memory of communion. The slightly weird thing that all the grown ups did at the same time, in the same part of the same service they had every Sunday. The thing you had to attend special classes to be a part of and you couldn’t even do that until you were in big school. It seemed unfair, and I remember feeling the exclusion of it, eased slightly on the occasions my Dad was brave enough to sneak me a bit of bread he’d put in his pocket at the altar. I’d had it explained to me in Sunday school, that Jesus had this Last Supper thing with his disciples, that he broke bread and drank wine with them, and asked them to do the same when he had gone, in remembrance of Him. I got it, but I never really got it.
Recently I’ve been thinking again about what my Dad did, and how, despite him not doing it with any deep or even faith based intentions, what he did was a beautiful picture of not just the Kingdom of God, or of communion itself, but the deeper, wider, richer sense of communion that means so much to me as a Christian now. It has reminded me that communion doesn’t have to be an empty, duty motivated or meaningless tradition, it is a scandalous, revolutionary, subversive and dangerous act, which, when done with sincerity and understanding, leaves no one the same again. Because of course, like any sacrament, communion is not just about that physical wine or grape juice, those tasteless paper thin wafers or a beautiful, fluffy chunk of a freshly baked loaf, it is an outward sign of something much bigger, something significant and mysterious. Sometimes as Christians, because of the hundreds of times we practice and take communion, we can forget this. We forget some other things too…
We forget who is invited to the table, and to whom the table belongs.
You see with all our religion, rituals, rules, regulations, systems, policies, structures, classes and courses around communion and faith itself…we have ended up excluding the very people Jesus spent most of his time with. The very people the table is for. We think that we get to decide who should be able to take it. We think we have the right to say that some are in, some are out, some are worthy, some are not. We draw lines between secular and spiritual, Christian and non-Christian, liberal and conservative, right and wrong, sinner and saint. We think we get to write out the invites and give them to who we want, when the party isn’t even ours.
While we’re on parties and invites, there’s a great parable Jesus told (you can find it in Luke 14:15-24) about a wealthy Master who was holding a huge banquet for his friends. The invites were sent out, the feast was prepared, but when the time came, they all made their excuses and none of them came. So instead the Master tells his servant to go and find anyone he can – poor, broken, rejected, and they sit in his presence and enjoy an incredible banquet. This is the Jesus I know – whose radical inclusivity turns our exclusive, ‘club mentality’ religion on it’s head. And this is our job today as Christians – servants of a great Master who is throwing a party to which anyone is invited. They just have to want to come. That’s it. Our job is to find someone, anyone, but particularly those who feel they aren’t invited; the rejected, the marginalized, the persecuted, the broken, sick and lonely, and tell them that they are invited! They are welcome at His table. My Dad, without realizing it, did what we are called to do, to fight against systems of control and powerful institutions who think they have the right to write the guest list. We get to steal a scrap of bread and give it to those who others think shouldn’t have it, so they know they are welcome, loved, accepted and included.
We forget we shouldn’t be at the table.
I sometimes think about that first communion, that Last Supper. This was not a quiet, peaceful reverent occasion, where everyone got along and had a lovely time. It was already a table filled with misfits, not good enough and mostly uneducated teenage boys. Even the fact that these young men were Jesus’ disciples was incredible – the opposite of the other Jewish Rabbi-Disciple relationships at the time, which saw only the best, most intelligent, wealthy and studious boys make the cut. Instead Jesus chose (amongst others) some fishermen, a tax collector, a zealot and a guy who he ended up nicknaming ‘son of thunder’ because of his temper. Not exactly ‘the best of the best’.
At this meal, Jesus knew one of those disciples would betray him, another would deny him, three times. But these men were at Jesus’ table, joining in with this meal, part of this revolutionary kingdom that would go on to change the entire course of human history. They weren’t just invited to the feast, they were about to be put in charge of it! They were not past sinners, they were present sinners, and still Jesus washes their stinking, filthy feet, shares a meal with them, and trusts them to spread his message to the rest of the world. Ridiculous.
None of us have earned the right to be welcome at His table. We are not good enough, we are present and future sinners, and yet we are invited to the feast. So why do we think we get to decide who is in or out, in leadership or membership? Jesus’ ‘leaders’ wouldn’t even make the shortlist in most of our contemporary churches. We look for the most talented, gifted, educated and impressive, and in doing this we exclude and reject world changers and revolutionaries. I love the David LaChapelle picture that began this post, because it reminds me who is invited to Jesus’ table, and what a scandalous act of grace it is that there is room for me. Not because of anything I have done or said, but in spite of what I have done and said. Because of Jesus, there is a place at the table set for me. I am invited and I shouldn’t be.
We forget the power of the meal.
In any church, or communion, or community, you get a lot of different people. People who don’t all think the same things, people who disagree. There are divisions and differences and those things are painful and sometimes, unresolvable. That is really hard, and it costs us. We get wounded and cynical and we feel like giving up on church, yearning for our faith to be simple again. But in communion, we are reminded not of our divisions and differences, but of our commonality and unity. That whoever we are, whatever we think, in Christ we are part of one community, one Body, the Body of Christ. We belong, we are welcomed and we are loved.
There is something mysterious and beautiful that happens around the sharing of food. We all eat it, we are all hungry, we all need food both physical and spiritual. I think communion is a great reminder of this. And obviously this goes beyond a communion ritual on a Sunday. For me it’s happened over a late night curry with friends, sharing a cup of hot chocolate with young people on detached work, eating pizza with a group of skate park volunteers before we let in 40 excited kids, a cup of tea and a slice of cake with my 94 year old Gran, being offered a sweet by a kid I don’t know at my church. These moments transcend our differences, delete our ‘otherness’ and blur our divides. They are holy, mysterious and beautiful. Only communion can do that.
I’ll finish with one final picture, unfortunately a KFC advert, but a great image of how I hope to live. Making room at the table for others, in deep gratitude for my own place there, meeting and encountering others who remind me of all the ways I am the same as everyone else, when everything else in the world seems to want to highlight the differences and push us further apart. Smiling, laughing, eating, celebrating, in the presence of the one who laid the table, started the party and still sends out the invites today.
A few years ago, a friend and I decided to make proper use of a mid-week day off, and travel to a nearby beach town. Because of the timing of our visit and the fact that it was mid-week, everywhere we went was eerily quiet. Walking down the main street we were greeted by the flashing lights and electronic sounds of games arcades, and we decided to visit one, to spend some of our hard earned two pence coins! As I walked into our chosen arcade, a big neon sign caught my eye, with the word ‘redemption’ on it. This was the cash desk where vouchers or tokens won on certain machines could be redeemed for cash. As I looked around a sadness hit me, as I saw many people playing on slot machines, people of all different ages, at about 11am in the morning. You could tell that for some this was a daily hobby, spending hours of time and lots of money in the hope that they would hit the jackpot and be able to make the journey to the redemption desk to exchange their winnings for something greater.
It made me think about how we all search for redemption in one way or another.
That sign has been on my mind again recently as I’ve explored what redemption might mean, a word we use a lot in ‘Christian-land’. We talk about God redeeming us, redeeming things, his redemption plan for the world. I’ve always thought about redemption in terms of being saved by God, that God has redeemed me, which I believe is true. But there is another meaning of redemption which I’ve perhaps neglected, one that takes me back to that slightly sad games arcade in that quiet beach town on my day off.
The second meaning of redemption is about gaining or regaining possession of something, normally in exchange for something else. So in that games arcade, you win tokens which you then exchange for real money. You give in what you have (or what you have is taken from you) and you receive something much better in exchange, something of a higher value. Something better than what you had before.
When I’ve lost things in my life or things have been taken from me – friendships, jobs, projects, whatever…it at times has felt unfair. People have often told me that God will, in time, redeem that situation, that I will get back whatever I’ve lost if I trust Him and wait. But what I’ve come to realise is that it’s so much better than that, and it goes right back to the very core of who God is; a massively creative creator, who is always pioneering new and amazing ways to restore, heal and bring people back to Himself.
Sometimes we don’t get back what was taken from us…we get something even better.
Take the story of Joseph (from the book of Genesis in the bible) as an example. I often imagine what Joseph must have felt like, being ripped away from his father, broken relationships with all his family, sold into slavery and thrown into prison. I wonder about those months and years that he spent in prison, with everything that had happened going round and round his mind. What did he think the redemption plan was? If it was me I would have probably imagined my brothers repenting, me being allowed to go back and live with my family, doing what I was doing before. What was God’s plan? Joseph became one of the most powerful men in Egypt, he saved the lives of thousands of people preventing them from being killed by famine, and in the end his relationship with his family was restored. Wow. Do you think he ever even imagined that as he sat in prison, alone, with his life in shreds? At the end of the story when being reconciled Joseph says this to his brothers; “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” – Genesis 50:20
Or Job. Job literally had everything taken away from him apart from his life. Through all his pain and questioning he never lost faith in God. At the end of his story we are told that ‘the Lord restored his fortunes and gave him twice as much as he had before’ – Job 42:10.
Or Moses. Because of a stupid mistake Moses went from being the son of a Pharaoh to a shepherd tending sheep in the wilderness. He lost everything. But it was Moses that God used to set the Israelites free from slavery. That’s kind of a big deal.
The bible seems to be full of people who in their loss, in their mistakes, in their grief, trusted God and waited, and out of that came a redemption plan that reached so far beyond their own imaginations. Greater purposes came from those messy situations, where what was taken or lost got replaced with something so much greater, something that stretched so far beyond meeting their own needs into meeting the needs of others.
When things are broken we can try to fix them so that they become exactly what they were before. We can see redemption as getting back what we had before and nothing else. But sometimes we need to just put the broken pieces in the hands of God, trusting that He, as the ultimate and most incredible creator we know, will take those pieces and make the most beautiful mosaic, something that will reach out and bring purpose, destiny, healing and redemption not only to our own lives, but to the lives of many other people.
I love this so much about God. That His creativity is not limited to the earth and the things He has made or done in the past. He is endlessly creative in the ways He engages with us; His provision, His interaction with us, the way He brings healing and restoration, all done differently for each individual, a masterpiece He paints differently for each of us. Even His redemption is creative beyond our comprehension, beyond anything we could ask or imagine in our wildest dreams.
“When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body” – 1 Corinthians 15:37-38
We can be like seeds that get crushed. But it would be ridiculous to try and gather all the tiny parts of a seed and try to put it back together again, as it was before. We would know that this brokenness, the crushing of the seed, put in the right hands and given the right care, can grow into the most incredible tree, that brings life, fruit and shelter to many others for years to come.
I want to be able to trust that God, the first and ultimate artist, is the one who determines what kind of plant the crushed seeds of my life will become. What a relief, because every time I have had a plan in my head and I’ve finally let it go and let God take control, what grows is mind-blowing, overwhelming, something I never could have predicted or created.
It actually makes my own plans look ridiculous.
That is creative redemption, and day by day I am absolutely loving seeing it happen in my own life, and in the lives of others.
Why do I hide from the silence?
Because in the silence I find you.
It’s like this mirror that’s held up to me
And most of the time I don’t like what I see
So I duck and I dive and I run and I flee
Well that’s better than facing my inadequacy.
Why do I hide from the silence?
Because in the silence I find you.
It’s like this light that shines in my dark
Revealing the bitterness and pain in my heart
And all the ways that I miss the mark
And how I constantly need to restart.
Why do I hide from the silence?
Because in the silence I find you.
It’s not just the bad it’s the good stuff too
Everything you are and everything you do
It overwhelms me and if I took it all in
Well I know it’d change everything.
So why do I hide from the silence?
Because in the silence I find you.
This world it creates so much noise
With all our technology, gadgets and toys
Staying plugged in is an easier choice
Than to act on the challenge that comes from your voice.
Why do I hide from the silence?
Because in the silence I find you.