What we’re up to

Interesting first blog as Simon gets stuck into his new project

Watching the Flocks

SDC10642

IT’S OCTOBER.   THE PROJECT HAS JUST BEGUN

And this is where we’re at.

Ian’s been thinking about this stuff for a while, of course:  if you know St Peter’s Saltley Trust, you’ll know that discipleship has always been central to us.    As for me – Simon – well, I’m brand new in post and feeling my way into a new ‘world’ after working in health and social care since 1994.   I’m fascinated by the differences and similarities between the church and health and social care, and I’ll be tempted to blog about some of that during the project.

This week our project Reference Group meets for the first time.   We’ve formed some ideas about how the project will unfold: at the same time, with serious theologians and practitioners on that group, we don’t want to close down many avenues before we’ve had their advice.

In the meantime, for me, it’s thinking, reading and…

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A different kind of perfect

‘You’re perf’ – meaning perfect. That was one of the scariest things I have ever read on my daughter’s Facebook wall in the days when she left it open.

Of course I do think she is perfect, she is my daughter but I did not want her, at 13 or so, thinking that being perfect was even a possiblity. I knew what her friend meant. In some ways she fitted our society’s idea of what is perfect for a teenage girl. But she was of course not perfect. So why was I so scared?  If my daughter believed that she had, as her friends were telling her, attained perfection how would she feel when that accolade slipped through her fingers – when she dropped a few marks in an exam, put on a few pounds or sprouted some teenage acne? If she is no longer perfect, is she even acceptable?

In an article in this month’s Red magazine, designer Ronald Mouret says: “Most women don’t like a lot about their bodies. We have such a problem with body dysmorphia in our society and women as young as 30 think they have started to lose it. I think that’s weird.” I think that’s true. The only time I actually felt thin enough was when I weighed 8 stone after a serious illness and was clinically underweight. But women’s magazines don’t help – promoting images of unaffordable and unachieveable perfection for our face, hair, wardrobe, homes and even holidays.  This month’s magazine had a subtle focus on ageing well – amongst ostensibly feminist articles – that led me to feel by the end of it that I should be investing thousands to make sure my body and my face did not give my age away. From the articles and adverts I take away the message that being over 30 is not perfect. A couple of days later I find myself on a crash diet and hastily re-establishing my Pilates routine.

But do we, as the Church, have a different kind of perfect to offer? Do we have an alternative narrative to the one pedalled by cosmetic companies, pop videos and marketeer?

When I was at Primary School, literally every single child was into horses. Not knowing all the points of a horse was a matter for ridicule. So was speaking differently and being completely useless at games. One thing I loved about my children’s primary school was there seemed to be no dominance of a single culture or group of people. As a specialist school for autism and physical disabilities all sorts of capability was accepted and celebrated. As a reflection of a diverse suburb, children of different ethnicities, faiths and languages happily learnt and played together.  There was something heavenly about it.

Paul has a vision for such a church where one image of perfection cannot dominate and being different is the norm not the exception. In Galatians 3 v 26-29 he writes: “For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 29And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.”

After church today we had a discussion on being a dementia-friendly congregation. The discussion highlighted the way that our services are run for those whose cognitive ability is pretty much perfect. We realised that being dementia-friendly would probably make us learning disability-friendly, child-friendly and maybe even mental-health freindly. And we heard too that the average age of a Church of England worshipper was 61 –  yet as an institution we crave youth perhaps because young people appear more perfect than pensioners.

I long for a church that is everyone-friendly and has so many differences that no one way of being is seen as perfect or normal. I long for a church ready to challenge the pressure on young people that is causing a surge in self-harm and poor mental health. I long for a church that celebrates the imperfect and gleans wisdom from people on the margins. I long for a church that is so confident in its identity that the idea of perfection being dictated by dress size, skin tone and exam results becomes a ridiculous impossiblity.

In Matthew 5, Jesus gives us a blueprint for a different kind of perfect. It is definitely worth reading the whole chapter before you get to the startling words in verse 48: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” In Jesus’s narrative he celebrates the poor in spirit, the meek, mourners, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers and the persecuted. This is the motley crew who are blessed by Jesus in the beatitudes and become for us a multi-faceted image of perfection.

For the love of God

During a weekend at theological college last year I was presented with the idea that it is a fallacy to think of the love of God and the love of neighbour as two separate things. In a far more articulate way than I can do, Professor John Hull, (with whom I have the privilege of going to church) explained how he saw the love of God collapse into the love of neighbour so that the two loves become one (to quote the Spice Girls.) As he says in his essay Only One Way to Walk with God: Christian Discipleship for New Expressions of Church: “It is not a matter of loving God first and then as an outcome loving our neighbour but rather the biblical model is that as we love the neighbour and seek justice for him and her, our love to God finds concrete expression, is enriched, and finds a closeness with God who has commanded us so to walk.” John argues that the walking with God is a horizontal relationship of steady fellowship and that loving your neighbour is the only way to love God.

There is a lot about that which I find tempting but I do have some questions about the role of Church, of worship, of prayer and of religious experience. I might well find answers to those questions if I read the rest of the essay. But this weekend I found myself thinking about the theory the other way round.

Over the last few days Simon and I have been in Shropshire surrounded by family and friends to celebrate our 20 years of marriage. We had such a lovely couple of days that they almost felt unreal.  I felt like God was smiling on our weekend not least because of the beautiful rainbow that welcomed us to Wilderhope and the stunning mist that floated over the landscape in the early morning. But where I really saw the love, presence and grace of God was in the love of my neighbour. Here are just  a few of the wonderful ways people embodied that love: the way those who did not know each other mixed and connected; the way they helped out with the running of the weekend and particularly our parents who spent a lot of time in the kitchen; the way generations mixed, chatted and danced together; the way people who could not make it remembered us with cards, texts and presents; the way they created such a  wonderful atmosphere on Saturday evening that led the barn dance band to say it was the nicest event they had ever played at; the way they  sang our favourite hymns; the way David,  our  vicar, prayed gathering  all our hopes into a few short sentences; the way my Dad led the renewing of our vows – his 80-year-old voice strong, familiar and faithful and the kindness showed to him when he needed a hand on a strenuous walk.

Being surrounded by the love of so many friends and family and celebrating the love of our marriage, it was impossible to forget the love of God that I see as the source of all love. God’s love was being breathed in every burst of laughter, reflected in every smile, transmitted in every touch and shared in every small act of kindness. It was breathtakingly tangible and seemed to wrap around the weekend like a gentle mist.

So in a way the weekend became an unofficial sacrament of our life together. It made plainly visible the blessings that we share and the goodness that we have received. It filled us with gratitude and hope and humbled us with its undeserved generosity. So I don’t know if there is only one way to walk with God but I do know that, in the words of the ancient hymn made popular by Taize, ‘Wherever love is, there God is.’