Thursday, 26 November 2009

Political Correctness

Sinking in words ...
Originally uploaded by so_martinha
It’s official; we are, after all, allowed to use the expression brain-storm.

Apparently Epilepsy Action and The National Society for Epilepsy have said that it is not offensive. So all teachers, trainers, tutors and other flip-chart jockeys can breathe a sigh of relief, forget about thought-showers and just say what comes naturally.

Now, I swear I just heard some of you tittering under your breath there, or sighing and tutting, or, even worse, reaching for the address of the Daily Mail letters page. I’m not surprised. It has become the done thing to deride politically correct censorship of seemingly innocuous words. And I agree that sometimes the humourless attitudes of the p.c. militant tendency is irritating. Their eagerness publically to correct offenders seems to be set to go off with all the sensitivity of the finest of hair-triggered pistols.

But when I calm down and think about it, I have to conclude that they have a point. A big and important point. Truth is, words have power. How many of us have a had their lives blighted by things said to us years ago? Would anyone deny that words such as nigger or paki are politically explosive, socially devastating and profoundly disrespectful? (So much so that I’m curious to see if the editor will have to reach for his asterisk key.)

The power of words in this regard lies in the way they shape how we see people. And surely Christians above all others ought to be alert lest we find ourselves conceiving of fellow human beings in ways that diminish or dishonour them. This is the image of God we are talking about.

The plain, uncomfortable truth is that the way we use words has real consequences in the real world for real people. First we categorise, then we marginalise, then we diminish, then we dismiss and people bleed. Our use of words whether deliberate or unwitting can and does do damage to flesh and blood.

Consider for instance the widespread tendency to default to the word lady rather than woman. This never fails to grate. Most use the word without thinking. Those who do have a motive are usually seeking to express respect. But why on earth should it be disrespectful to use the word woman? What’s wrong with being a woman?

You may well object that there’s nothing wrong with being a lady either. I beg to differ. You see a lady is a certain type of woman. The word lady hangs out with other words such as genteel, delicate, refined. Its constant use predisposes us to see women in ways shaped by these terms and, by implication, to fail to see that it is equally womanly to be robust, vigorous and edgy.

And you don’t have to think too hard to realise that this is related to our denomination’s woeful, gospel-denying record on women in ministry.

My column on preaching a couple of weeks ago elicited a telling response from a friend, a friend who is a very capable minister, a fine preacher and a woman. She commented on how odd it seemed to her that throughout the piece I referred to my ideal preacher using feminine rather than masculine pronouns. She wasn’t complaining, just pointing out how unusual it sounded. And that’s the point. How can something become normal or commonplace if our use of language causes us to see it as odd, remarkable, exceptional?

To me this state of affairs is deeply irritating. To many women I know it is a cause of much pain and the prompt for many tears. We really ought to watch our language.

My turn to do a month's worth of opinion pieces for the Baptist Times' "Outside Edge" column has come round again. With the agreement of the editor I'm posting my BT article here. To check out the Baptist Times as a whole click here.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Advent Reflections

Outdoor candle
Originally uploaded by aixcracker
Once again the staff of Northern Baptist Learning Community will be offering up a series of daily scriptural reflections for the season of advent.

Head for the community's website to get your dose.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Homosexuality? Let's Talk

My turn to do a month's worth of opinion pieces for the Baptist Times' "Outside Edge" column has come round again. With the agreement of the editor I'm posting my BT article here. To check out the Baptist Times as a whole click here.

Homosexuality. It seems I just can't get away from it.

You might find this hard to believe but try to trust me when I tell you that in the past three days I have: heard form three ministers who are unsure if their own views are consistent with those of the BU; spoken to a colleague who recently resigned from a particular ministry because of disagreement over policy on employing homosexuals; heard that a friend of a friend has attempted suicide because of conflict between her sexual orientation and her very conservative upbringing; put together an agenda for a meeting which includes receiving the resignation of a volunteer because of disagreements about leadership and homosexuality; been approached by a church wondering how to handle the fact that one of their members has moved in with his boyfriend; had a conversation with someone wrestling with the issue of homosexuality and baptismal policy; heard tell of discussions at council about guidance offered to ministers with regard to civil partnerships.

All in three days. Honest.

And my point? Well, first of all, that this is an issue that is not about to go away, an issue that affects many people in our churches, an issue that we cannot and should not ignore. Repression of deep feelings and the suppression of genuinely held points of view is never a sign of good health. Nor can we take it for granted that there is anything like unanimity on this among Baptists. That is often the assumption, but I am not at all convinced.

Of course the past three days are hardly typical. But if this were not the huge issue that I believe it to be, it is unthinkable that it would have crossed my path quite so often in such a short space of time.

My second point is that given the size and extent of the issue, why are we not reflecting on it in our churches much more than we are? Of course it could be that I am wrong and up and down the country congregations are engaged in prayerful, pastorally sensitive, biblical and theological reflection on homosexuality. Could be, but I doubt it.

I understand that there has been a very disappointing take-up of the resource produced by the Baptist Union Human Sexuality Working Group to help churches engage in a constructive process of biblical and theological reflection on homosexuality. That’s a shame. I hear good things about it and I know that when it comes to this issue unless we give careful attention to how we discuss it we are asking for trouble.

Which brings me to my final point. Isn’t it a shame that Baptists of all people find it so hard to discuss sensitive issues? The gathering of the church community to reflect and pray before God in the light of the Word while seeking the guidance of the Spirit about issues of the day ought to be one our crowning glories. Too often the very opposite is the case. Our people stay away from church meetings in their droves, not least, it seems to me, because we have yet to learn how to do these things well, that is in ways that honour Christ. Tempers are easily lost, emotions run riot and power games abound.

It is high time that we Baptists committed ourselves once again to congregational discernment of the mind of Christ. Not just to the bare theological principle but to the important task of acquiring the skills to enable us to put the principle into practice in constructive ways. And this not least so that we can talk together about homosexuality.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

God in the Precinct 2

Prompted by a post over at revmusings to reflect on my recent offering on hearing God in the noise of the urban. Here's what I saw in the looking glass:

I'm not agin revmusing's suggestion that attending to God in silence helps to discern the divine tones amidst the noise of life. However, I reckon the key is being intentional, deliberately attending to what God may be saying in any given situation - wherever.

I'm developing one or two thoughts on what a noisy urban retreat might look like. I fancy the idea of taking The Bible into the melee and reading it in all manner of different places to see how that affects what we notice (in the word and in the world). So, for instance chewing over a psalm on the top deck of a bus or running through Mark in the market place or Timothy on the train station concourse. Then there's the idea of spending half-time next time I'm at Old Trafford praying rather than queuing for a pie. (Hang on, make that praying while queuing for a pie). Or what about sitting on a bench in the precinct meditating on the shop window ddisplays?

I reckon these are all worthwhile practices for each of us to pursue. I wonder though if it's worth organising a communal retreat along these signs (in Manchester, obviously) so that we can gather after our reading/praying/meditating and share what we've heard. Would there be any takers?

Thursday, 12 November 2009

The Hottest Christmas Gig In Manchester?

The one and only Dave Egerton Band are playing on December 12th at the LMRCA Social Club, Navigation Road, Altrincham right next to Navigation Road station. Tickets are an unbelievable £5.00. Yes £5.00! That’s a mere twenty pence per instrument! What’s more you can even pay on the door. You know you’d never forgive yourself if you miss it. Doors open at 7.00 pm.

What I Want From My Preacher

Old Woman
Originally uploaded by zombola photography
My turn to do a month's worth of opinion pieces for the Baptist Times' "Outside Edge" column has come round again. With the agreement of the editor I'm posting my BT article here. To check out the Baptist Times as a whole click here.

What do you want from your preacher? Recently this has been on my mind. I’ve been writing a new course on preaching. I wonder, if you had the chance to help train the next generation of Free Church preachers what would you want to say to them?

Obviously, what we want is not the real point. What matters is that students become the kind of preacher that God has called them to be. Problem is though I’m writing the course and I do have my prejudices. We all do. Can’t help it. Normally the best thing to do with our prejudices is to come clean. So here goes, some of the things I look for in my preacher.

I want my preacher to be a minister of the word. She should remember that she is not called to be a guru. I’m not interested in her own clever ideas. I want her to help me to hear what the Bible has to say. There are lots of places where I can get people’s opinions, but when I listen to a sermon I want to hear the Word of God.

On the other hand I do hope my preacher will have the courage to be herself. Thank God the old pre-sermon prayer, “Lord reveal yourself and hide the preacher” has gone out of fashion. That’s not how God seems to like doing it. Preaching uses people and people have personalities. God is quite capable speaking through even the most colourful of characters. Think Jeremiah. Think Ezekiel. Here’s the point: when God called you to preach, God called YOU to preach, so don’t stop being you.

However, the last thing I want is a preacher who thinks that personality alone will do. I want my preacher to be thoughtful. More than that I, want her to think hard, long before she opens her mouth. I want her to take time to study the text at a depth that most of us can’t manage. I want to know that she’s been conversing with others who have wrestled with that text. It’s dead easy. Read a commentary. The problem with too many sermons is simple to diagnose: they are shallow. They are not worth listening to because they have nothing to say.

Assuming my preacher has something to say, the next thing I want is for her to say it to me . I’ve sat through too many sermons where the person in the pulpit has been more concerned to talk about their subject than to talk to their congregation. I don’t want to hang around while you run through your ideas. I want to be addressed. A sermon is not an essay. It should make all the difference in the world that we’ve turned up. Respond to us. Let’s interact. You’ll have to hang lose to your notes but if you are not up for that then you’ve no business preaching. Email me your words instead and I’ll read them at my leisure.

I want my preacher to put her heart into it. If it’s not plain for all to see that it matters to her, why should it matter to me?

I want my preacher to care about words. Like a chef cares about her knives and a carpenter her tools. I want her words to zing and sing and soothe. I want flair, imagination and creativity.

I want my preacher to remember that hers is not the last word. She’s not shutting down the conversation. If she’s lucky she might just start one. After all she’s only a preacher.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

God In The Precinct

My turn to do a month's worth of opinion pieces for the Baptist Times' "Outside Edge" column has come round again. With the agreement of the editor I'm posting my BT article here. To check out the Baptist Times as a whole click here.

The other Saturday I had a spiritual experience walking up Market Street. It was outside the Arndale centre, across from the baked potato vendor.

From the middle of nowhere came an adrenaline rush and a distinct Goddish whiff. Not this time a voice calling a new play for my life, more of an epiphany, a “Here I am” moment. And that “here” seemed to be the whole point of it. Here in the hustle, bustle and bump of shoppers; here in the noise of teenage girls screaming and giggling and a dirty-fingered version of Danny Boy played on an old busker’s tin whistle. Here between the conspiratorial knot of hooddies and the gloriously colourful African matriarch striding purposefully towards the number 86 bus. Bored-looking people were pressing promotional leaflets on reluctant rushers-by, HMV was graciously blessing us with Lilly Allen’s observations on life and God said, “Here I am. Right here.”

I must confess to being surprised. A bit like Ezekiel when God showed up by the Chebar Canal, rather than staying at home, safely tucked up in the temple. We’re not supposed to bump into God on city-centre shopping trips. We’re meant to head for the hills, retreat, go rural. Everyone knows that God prefers sheep to ghetto blasters and a misty dawn to neon light filtered through Manchester drizzle.

God speaks in silence, preferring not to shout above competing voices. God nudges you when you are still and empty-handed not while you are dashing about with an M and S shopping bag in one mit and a Gourmet Waffle in the other. God doesn’t like crowds, is allergic to noise, is happier in the countryside and just can’t get through to extroverts. That’s right isn’t it?

Well of course not. God is everywhere and clearly God loves the busy, energetic type as much as the introvert. Obviously. Or at least that’s how the theory goes. But check out the practice. Look where our retreat centres are – in a field, up a hill or by a babbling brook. Where are the backstreet poustinias? Who are the spiritual directors who hang out in CafĂ© Nero? Why cant’ I sign up for a noisy retreat?

I blame Wordsworth and his kind, you know, the Romantics who soft-focussed the wilderness and bequeathed us a pastoral idyll which the church has embraced as the spiritual equivalent of Escape to the Country. Although, come to think of it, wasn’t Wordsworth just as happy on Westminster Bridge as he was stomping over Borrowdale?

Not that I mind a bit of cloud-like lonely wandering myself from time to time. It’s just that God also insists on turning up in busy, concretey places. Like the moment I stepped out into a Time Square night after watching The Passion of the Christ and the whole place hummed with the love of God or like this Summer in the middle of the glam, the glitter and the tat of Lourdes when God said, something like, “I know this place is like a Skegness souvenir shop on Steroids, but just look at the faithful, hope-filled reaching out to me, look at the sheer colour of this churchy cross section of humanity - beautiful as oil in a puddle. I know this place is a bit RC for your taste, but I’m here, get used to it.”

Time, I think, for someone to develop spiritual guidance for city-dwellers. Time for more pricking up of the ears and glancing about for God in the urban. Time for people from Brecon to retreat to Bristol and for the Archers to go looking for God in Albert Square.