Journey

I recently contributed to the blog, “coffee rings and beautiful things“. Each month they look at a different theme and I wrote a piece for June’s theme ‘Journey’, discussing three things I learned from Road Movies.

Please check it out here and let me know your thoughts.

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My Thoughts on the Youthwork Summit 2013

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A few weeks ago I attended the 4th Youthwork Summit, this year in West Bromich. If you’ve never heard of the youthwork summit click here for more info.

This is the 3rd Summit I’ve been to and my expectations were high, not least because we travelled to Scotland on Friday night to drop our son off before heading down to Birmingham and then had to leave the event early on the Saturday to return to Scotland to pick up said son. The two previous Summits I attended were both engaging and dymanic and on both occasions I came away with a head full of thoughts and ideas.

I say all of this because I want to make it clear how much baggage I brought to the event. We had sacrificed a lot of time and mileage to attend. And I guess its a way of me explaining why I found this years one a little, well…underwhelming.

It’s taken me a few weeks of thinking and talking to work out exactly why I left the event rather disappointed and I want to share that with you now. I’ll outline what I liked and didn’t like about each of the sessions and then give a brief summary at the end. These are just my own opinions and as I’ve made clear above, they are subjective. There are many factors that contribute to how someone evaluates an event and the fact that we travelled so far to get there does play a part in that.

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Session 1

What was clear from the start was that Martin Saunders, Matt Summerfield and Chris Curtis (the organisers) wanted more of a flow to the event talks and they achieved this. In previous years the talks have felt more disjointed but this year each talk was connected to the one before. For me, by doing this it meant that many of the talks seemed to repeat themselves. What I loved about the Summit in Manchester was that you didn’t know what would be said from each talk to the next. It was a wild flurry of ideas. It hurt my brain but I loved it. I didn’t feel that this year.

Highlights in the first session “He is Greater” were ‘apologetic for the apathetic’ by Ruth McGarahan and ‘Disrupting Chaos’ by Dr Kate Middleton. Both of these talks had something important to say and they were both full of information and practical advice. Ruth explained how important it is that our youth work seeks to unlock the head issues to that people can open their hearts and to keep asking questions as they make people think, get rid of assumptions, expose faulty logic, expose motivesand  show we care. She left us with the a challenge from 1 Peter 3:5: Does the kind of life we are living provoke people to ask questions? “The gospel should be simple enough for a child to understand but deep enough for scholar to spend their life discussing”.

Dr Middeton shared how as teenagers are literally learning who they are through their teenage years, they can appear to be completely different people from one day to the next. She also made us aware that young people struggle to think about the consequences to their actions and so there is a need to communicate with teenagers in a very different way.

Both of the speakers used their ten minutes to communicate a number of ideas and it didn’t feel repetitive. I also thoroughly enjoyed ‘Slam Theology’ by Conrad Gempf and Harry Baker as it was something fresh and unique in an event which became increasingly stale as it went on. A mash up of theology and poetry that was challenging and inspiring.

It seemed odd to me to get the futurist Dr Patrick Dixon to talk about ‘future proofing your youth work‘ instead of actually talking about future technology and what we should be aware of (although his powerpoint was very good), ‘Let Muslims change you’ by Tim Fawssett was good but nothing I haven’t heard before and ‘Broken Sex’ by Beth Stout felt a bit like a re-run of Ruth Cordon’s talk from last year.

The talk I was most looking forward to in session 1, Dr Maureen Funkle talking about why ‘Harry Potter is Evil’, turned out to be a joke talk and I was quite angry about that. The last two Summits had talks that I strongly disagreed with and they provoked me to think. What concerned me this year was that I didn’t disagree with what anyone said. The voices were all from the same ‘pot’ and there was nothing particularly controversial from either side of the theological or cultural spectrum.

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Session 2

Session 2 “You will do greater things” started brilliantly with more ‘slam theology’ and was the most consistent in terms of its quality of talks. Dave Sharples heartfelt speech about ‘meet the parents’ brought a lump to my throat and Oliver Wests talk about ‘how the other half learn’ was interesting but was frustratingly short and I don’t think he really had the time to communicate what he needed to. It was also ironic that his talk was on visual thinkers and the video didn’t work.

Camila Batmanghelidjh talked about ‘hope in the inner city’ and the power that love has on the brain. It felt like she waffled a little but her talk was inspiring and gave practical evidence to the power of good that the concept of God can have on the brain. “The greatest gift you can show a person is your ability to love” Amen.  ‘Growing up Poor’ by Lille Jenkins took a little while to get going but the lunch charity is an incredible project.

Sadly the session ended on a whimper with ‘your youth group can raise Lazarus’ by Lydia Corbett. I believe miracles can happen and that we should expect them and clearly God is doing some incredible things through her youth work but I found her talk to be a little naive as it didn’t address the issue of what happens when a miracle doesn’t happen? What happens when someone’s gran gets healed but then someone else’s gran doesn’t? We need to manage expectations and help our young people grapple with these issues but I felt Lydia’s talk was too simplistic.

Session 3

The next session was titled “the takeover” and consisted of young people leading, speaking and singing. I’m not going to evaluate this session as I don’t think that’s right but what I will say is that the presenter of this session, who I think was 24 so not technically a young person, came from, what I title as, the patronising youth work factory.Now that probably seems rather judgemental and I’ll take that because it is. One of my ‘buttons’, the things that really anger me is when it appears that youth workers are talking down to young people. Now this youth worker probably wasn’t doing that but it definitely appeared that way to me.

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Session 4

“He must become greater” was the final session I was able to attend (I’ll watch the videos I missed online once they’re up) and again the talks were pretty inconsistent.

Jill Garrett’s talk on “Followship” really puzzled me. It was billed as a talk about being a good follower but it seemed to me that it was really a talk about what a good leader should be like and how a leader should manager their ‘followers’ so it was really a talk on leadership. Again maybe it’s just me.

I’d pretty much heard the talk ‘Faith in Crisis’ by Gavin and Anne Calver before but it was still engaging. Less could be said, and will be, about ‘Dealing with your dark side’ by Rachael Costa. I found the talk lifeless and, at times, bordering on parody. She didn’t really appear to know what she was talking about and just kept talking until the time was up. As founder of Think Twice I believe rachael has some important things to say but none of them were said in this talk.

‘Prayer without ceasing’ by Celia Apeagyei-Collins wins the award for most awkward moment at the Summit when she asked people to pray for Satan to come. It was a lively and passionate talk but I left without any real practical application.

Unfortunately we left during Danny Curtin’s talk on ‘it’s not your ministry anyway’ as our little girl was fed up so I’ll review that when I see the videos later.

Summary

Reading back over this post, I do appear to be incredibly negative about the summit this year. I still think it’s a great event but the format may becoming a little stale. Or it may be that the ideas around the talks have become a little stale. The concept comes from TED talks where people are given ten minutes to give the talk of their lives. Out of the 14 talks I heard, I’d only consider three of them to meet that standard. There seemed to be a lot of filler which is odd when people only get ten minutes.

The organisers wanted more theology in the event and that was partly successful but the problem was that the theology that was spoken about was very shallow. There wasn’t much depth to the talks or to the ideas being presented. Much of what was said seemed almost superficial.

The best talk at the event that had a good depth of theology wasn’t even in the main session. Conrad Gempf talking about his new book about Paul, during one of the afternoon breaks was engaging and challenging and highlighted what was missing from the main sessions.

Also, I felt there wasn’t much engagement with culture. Film, music, drama, art, design, sport. Young people are immersed in this culture and no one really talked much about it.

Again, these are just the thoughts of one person and there is no doubt that I’ll attend the next event (especially since it’s half an hour from my house) but I want more than I got this year. I want to grapple more. I want to disagree more. I want to hear from the best that youth work has to offer.

Were you at youthwork summit this year? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Generosity and Community

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This year I, along with many others, decided to throw myself into #God52,  A series of weekly challenges, instigated by Martin Saunders, aimed at shaking me out of my little bubble and getting closer to God, and others, in the process. Check it out here.

I was excited to take part. I was excited to see how God might break into my comfortable little world.

Then Martin delivered the first challenge: radical generosity and I got scared. I started thinking of all sorts of excuses that would prevent me from having to give my time or money to other people: I don’t have any time to help people; my wife has just had a new baby and that needs to be my focus; We just have enough money to get by and giving more would put us into the red.

That familiar little voice in my head danced and laughed as I slowly resigned myself to the fact that I wouldn’t complete this challenge (and probably not any of the others). I felt defeated. I’d fallen at the first hurdle.

What was it that scared me so much? Why was my first reaction to doubt myself and spend time creating excuses not to participate? I realised that generosity scared me because it required me to invest time in others.

I remember being struck a few years ago about a fresh interpretation of the beatitudes.

“Blessed are those who mourn…”

I’d always found that saying odd. Why should anyone be happy when they mourn?

But in order to mourn, you have to have been close to something. If you mourn over someone, it means you invested time in them; you chose to give something of yourself to them. You can only mourn if you’ve chosen to step out of your little world and engage with something bigger than yourself.

It’s the same with generosity. In order to be generous, I have to connect with others. I have to put my interests behind the interests of others.

So I resolve to be radically generous this week. I resolve to enter into the lives of others. I resolve to follow the example of the Triune God: an ever-giving, ever-loving community.

Will you?

Top 10 Films of 2012

Here, for anyone interested, is the top 10 films I have seen this year. As always the list includes any film that I have seen for the first time (even if they weren’t released this year).

Films that may have made the list if I’d seen them are Liberal Arts, The Master. The Hobbit, Life of Pi and Seven Psychopaths.

The films that almost made this list were Dredd, Skin I Live In, Berberian Sound Studio, Once, Chronicle, Cell 211, I Love You Philip Morris, Tyrannosaur and Kill List.

So here is my top 10 of 2012:

1) Dark Knight Rises

2) Headhunters

3) Perks of Being a Wallflower

4) Looper

5) Tucker and Dale vs Evil

6) The Avengers

7) Beasts of the Southern Wild

8) Skyfall

9) Killer Joe

10) Sinister

Thoughts?

The Depths of Isolation: A Review of “Entrance”

“Entrance” is not for everyone. It is a low-budget horror movie that is literal definition of ‘slow burn’. Very little appears to happen in the movie for most of its running time. I know some people who will be bored to tears by it. Happily, I’m not one of them.

The film follows ‘Suziey’, a young twenty-something living in LA as she goes about her normal life. When she mysteriously loses her beloved dog, a creeping anxiety begins to set in and she decides shes had enough of L.A. But on the night of her going-away party, Suziey finds out that leaving might not be so easy.

The film ultimately speaks about lonliness and isolation and the extremes some people will go to have a ‘connection’ with someone. As a Christian, I believe we live in a fallen, fractured world. As a consequence of our own selfish choices, and the choices those before us have made, we live isolated from everything.

The story of ‘The Fall’ in Genesis represents many things. When ‘Adam’ and ‘Eve’ chose their own wisdom, rather than Gods’, a number of things happened. The ‘sin’ they committed fractured the relationships of everyone involved. The relationship between Adam and Eve broke down because they blamed each other for the mess they were now in. Both of them chose to hide from God and so the relationship between mankind and God was broken and the relationship between Adam and the ground was also fractured.

Alienation is at the heart of ‘The Fall’ narrative. When we choose sin, when we choose selfishness, we become isolated from ourselves, each other, God and creation. Most of the atrocities committed in this world can be attributed to this idea. In the Genesis story we see ourselves mirrored in the figures of Adam and Eve.

As human beings we long for connection. We need to be connected with other people. On a trip to Copenhagen, Archbishop Desmond Tutu spoke of a “Ubuntu“. It is a South African word meaning, “You are only a human through other humans …through your relations to other humans.”

Our humanity is defined solely by our relationships with others. When we are isolated, we become less than human. The gospel, as I see it, is about the reclaiming of our humanity. Through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, we can enter into a new humanity. Through Jesus, the fractured relationships can be restored.

“Entrance” is about what happens when we people try to find that connection themselves. It is about the distorted ways people try to meet those needs. The film is a reminder of the consequences of our sin. It a reminder of the world that we have created through our actions. The film paints a bleak picture of humanity; a bleak picture of the modern city.

But there is another story. There is another city. A city where God dwells with his people. A city where everything has been renewed and restored.

Let us live as citizens of that city and tell others about it.

 

Advent and the Coming of The X-Factor

This morning I was reading Martin Saunders blog about “why life is too short to watch The X-Factor“. The X-Factor has become a staple on television sets all over the world and there are many complex reasons as to why people choose to watch it year after year (Martin has given a good overview of some of those reasons).

As I read the post it got me thinking about how TV programmes, like The X-factor,are replacing the common seasons of the church calendar and what this tells us about our culture.

For millennia, civilizations have used calendars to find a rhythm and flow to the year. Whether it be the calendar of the seasons in agriculture or the life of Jesus in the Christian religion, we all use calendars, and their significant dates, to find meaning and purpose in the year. Key dates help to remind us of our place in the world and to look forward to the future.

In the UK, we have largely followed the Christian calendar, with a few extras, for centuries. Advent prepares us for Christmas; New Years Eve helps us take stock of the last year and set our eyes on the coming year; Lent reminds us of our failures and the coming of new life and Easter allows us to celebrate the new hope we have in Christ. The Christian calendar has been the overarching story we have found ourselves in year after year but with shows like the X-Factor, I’m noticing a change in this trend.

Rather than following the environmental seasons or the landmarks in the Christian calendar, we now seem to be using TV shows as our gauge of where we are in the year. I’ve heard it said by several people that when The X-Factor starts you know that the countdown to Christmas has begun and for many the Christmas season officially starts when they see the Coca Cola “holidays are coming” advert. Now, I’m not necessarily saying that this a negative thing. Our Christian calendar is made up of a number of pagan festivals that Christianity subverted so it would be disingenuous to say that this is all bad news. A better response would be to see what this change means for our calendar and for our culture.

The seasonal calendar (Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter) is used as a way of survival. It helps those working in agriculture to know when to sow and when to reap. The Jewish calendar reminds Jews of their story and their place in it. The Christian calendar follows a similar structure as it helps us enter into the story of Christ. But what does this new calendar offer us? What story does it tell?

The traditional calendars mentioned above create community. They give us space to experience the full spectrum of emotions. The new calendar, made up of The X-Factor, Britains Got Talent, Big Brother and the Coca Cola Advert also offer these but their foundation is built on consumerism and consumption. This new calendar has been created by corporations with one goal: to get us to spend money. Rather than inspiring and captivating us, the TV calendar restricts our imagination, forcing us to become vapid consumers. Instead of giving us space to to lament and remind us of our connection to the rest of the world, it forces us down the road of individualism.

We are better than this. There is a better story than this. Yes, we can  celebrate the fact that The X-Factor at its best brings people together and showcases new talent. But at its worst it turns us into mindless consumers who care more about who goes ‘out’ each week than our neighbour struggling next door.

If we allow this consumerist story to take centre stage of our year; if we allow it to define and control us then we lose the very essence of the core Christian calendar (and the other calendars before it)…

Ourselves.

That’s the Gospel? Really?

The 3rd post in an ongoing series about attending a “conservative led” church as a “liberal”.

I am really enjoying the liturgy in the Church of England we are attending. It’s something I found missing in other churches. For me, using liturgy helps me to find my role in the unfolding story of God. There is a flow and a rhythm to the service. We explicitly hear each week of the work that Jesus did in on the cross. It’s important to be reminded of that.

But it also leaves me asking the question, “is that all the gospel is?”

Each week we hear that we are sinful people, heading for hell but because of the cross we are rescued and get to go to heaven.

I’m not against that reading of the gospel. But I don’t think that serves up the whole picture of the gospel. I don’t think that covers everything that’s going on.

This reading reduces everything to a binary transaction. We are the problem, Jesus is the solution.

What of the creation narrative, the Abrahamic covenant, the mosaic covenant? What about the life of Jesus? What about our lives, right here, right now?

None of this matters if we hold to this basic view of the gospel.

Being a “liberal”, I don’t believe that the sole point of the gospel is for Jesus to rescue us from hell and take us to heaven. For me the gospel is the reconciliation of all things. It is freedom from oppression and injustice. It is longing for the Kingdom to come and for Gods will to be done on earth (Familiar words aren’t they?”

I believe that I am saved from something but also saved for something. I am to be a blessing to all people. I have to hold out and hold on to the living word. I care about this world, and its inhabitants, as I believe God cares about it.

The gospel is the proclamation that, through the Son, a new world order is breaking out in the midst of the old one. The gospel challenges us to be heaven bringers rather than heaven goers.

So yes, I believe that through the cross we have been ransomed, rescued and redeemed.

But that’s just part of the picture.

A liberal undercover

The 2nd post in an ongoing series about attending a “conservative led” church as a “liberal”.

read part 1 here

Last Sunday night, the minister concluded his sermon series on “the sermon on the mount” with ‘blessed are the persecuted…’ Although I disagreed at a fundamental level with his reading of the beatitudes (you can read more about my take on it here entitled “blessed are the truly f**ked up!”) I was challenged and inspired by what he said.

Ultimately his point was to say that if you live out the beatitudes, you will get persecuted and if you’re not being persecuted, then you’re not living out the beatitudes. During his sermon he attacked the rise of liberal theology and ‘liberals’ because they had diluted the gospel to such an extent that they are no longer being persecuted and if you’re no longer being persecuted, you’re no longer living the life that Jesus had intended.

I’m sure it’s not surprise to you that I had an issue with this. It’s a common attack on “liberals” by those that would consider themselves “conservative” and it’s one that does not hold up.

Let me get something straight. My theology is not liberal because I want to please the ‘world’. I’ve not chosen liberalism because I’m afraid of confrontation or judgement. Choosing liberal theology is not choosing the easy way out. And to be honest, I haven’t actually chosen ‘liberalism’ because I don’t believe these categories are choices. These are labels put on people by other people.

These labels are not helpful. They flatten nuanced theology and divide people into ‘us’ and ‘them’ camps. And that’s probably my biggest issue with the sermon on Sunday night. It made everything appear black and white. It made it appear that all believers can be lumped into one or two categories. Labels reduce people to statistics.

It’s easy to write off a whole group of people by labelling them conservative or liberal. Surely, the church is the one place where we shouldn’t be labelled.

In his letter to the Galatian church, Paul wrote these words:

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

In this statement, Paul called for the barriers between identity, position and gender to be torn down. We are ALL one in Christ Jesus. There is no “us” and “them”.

Writing this post, I do not feel that I am walking the easy path that the minister spoke of. I may not be persecuted by “the world” over certain issues but I do at times feel persecuted from within the church.

I hope that as we, my family and I, continue on this journey we will seek to break down these hurtful labels on both sides and see people for what they are: Humans loved by God.

 

 

 

A Step of Faith…

For those that have read any number of my posts, it is probably clear that I do not hold a conservative view when it comes to the Christian faith.

Now, I am not one for labels as I find there only use is to reduce and flatten people to a series of dogmatic statements. I would never define my theology as liberal because of that. I say it only so you can get a sense of where I am coming from. When I studied at bible college, the New Testament lecturer labelled me a heretic. It was good to see that in bible college there was an openness to dialogue and debate (that last sentence was sarcastic).

I’ll be honest and say that my last position, as youth worker for a conservative baptist church, was a difficult one. Many judgements about who I was because of what I believe were made.

We have since moved and as a family we have started attending a small anglican community church. A few weeks ago I went out to the pub with a few of the other folks from the church and through the various discussions, it became clear that the leadership of the church would be, what I term, conservative. Again, I want to be careful with that label.

This sent my mind racing. Can we be part of this church? What happens when I express my supposedly unorthodox views of sexuality, adam and eve, hell, atonement, swearing, horror movies etc? Will we be thrown out? Should we even bother building relationships with people who have such opposing views to ourselves?

We are still at the church.

After several discussions with my wife, it became clear that I was making the same errors in judgement that I felt some of the congregation of the Baptist Church had been guilty of. I was labelling people. And more than that, I was dismissing people because of these labels. I had flattened these people into a label.

I do not want to be that kind of person. I don’t want to be the kind of person who only hangs around with those who share a similar view point; who make judgements on someone because of the views they hold.

So I’m taking a step of faith. My family and I are taking a step of faith. We are going to invest in this church. We are going to seek truth together. We are going to fellowship with one another.

And I hope I can become more like Jesus in the process.

Silence

It’s been over two months since I’ve posted anything on the blog. A lot has happened in that time:

I finished up as youth worker of South Beach Baptist Church.

My family and I have moved from Scotland to Preston.

I’ve started a job as Youth Minister at Hutton Grammar School.

It’s been a great couple of months and letting go of the pressure of spending so much time online has been good for me. Being absent from the social media has been good for me.

But now I’m feeling a little more settled (at least until my wife gives birth to our second child) and my mind has started reflecting again on youthwork practice, theology, fitting in and a whole host of other random interjections.

So hopefully I’ll be posting up some thoughts soon.