Monday, 31 October 2016

The In between

Autumn leaves fall in Dark Lane, above Pangbourne, Berks.
31 October - All Hallows Eve - and it's an in between kind of time.

In between because late autumn the year turns, the clocks tick back, and we resign ourselves to the temporary dying of nature as the leaves swirl down the lanes towards winter and the end of another year.

In between the liturgical marking of Harvest and Advent, we sit in the season of remembering: All Saints, All Souls and the red of Remembrance.

Contemporary celebrations of Hallowe'en lie in between too; somewhere in between the orange plastic, the false white cobwebs and the sweetie E number overload at one end, and the ever increasing adverts for full on horror movies at the other - Ouija: Origin of Evil, Don't Breathe and Lights Out all available to scare you out of your wits in your local cinema right now. Thus we use the encroaching darkness of the days to indulge our fascination with unthinkable things...

As to contemporary practices of Hallowe'en, Christians and others with a strong sense of good and evil sit somewhere in between being happy to embrace a little harmless fun (after all we all need to explore the scary and bad from time to time, children especially: Canon Anne Easter said as much on Radio 2's Pause for Thought today) and whole hearted eschewing of something that strays perilously near the occult.

And globally the US is paused in between the rising and falling of two political candidates for the Presidency, balanced like weights on a scale. Polls had begun to put Hillary Clinton in the lead, before Friday's further email discoveries, and the consequent rising again of Donald Trump. Clinton's bid for the White House is poised between success and failure. What kind of world will we have if it's a win for the reds?

Personally speaking, being in between can provide valuable space in which to discover something new about yourself. In between jobs, in between life stages, in between letting something (someone?) go and embracing something (someone?) new. The in between is a spiritual opportunity, a chance to grow, if we don't lose our nerve.

The in between is a liminal place; between summer and winter; between war and peace; between death and life, dark and light; between the past and the future; between the devil and the deep blue Democrat sea.

We hold our collective breath and wait.

Meanwhile, Happy In Between All Hallows Eve.

Friday, 14 October 2016

Why Christians vote Trump

The honest answer to the question why (some) Christians will vote for Donald Trump in the forthcoming US Presidential Elections, is I genuinely have no idea.

But here is an attempt to understand how it is that apparently nearly 80% of evangelical Christians in the US will vote for the divisive Republican candidate this coming month.

It would seem to be a question of 1. Standpoint, 2. Extreme political factions and 3. US conservative evangelical tropes.

1. Standpoint.

Everyone has one. My Twitter feed is full of slightly left of centre English Anglican clerics (with a healthy smattering of soft evangelicals, educated literary types and environmentalist/left wing commentators) so naturally it seems inconceivable to me that any Christian could vote for Donald Trump. I found it difficult even to look through images of his face to post one on this blog, without feeling physically uncomfortable, in a kind of skin crawling way. 

However, my digital environment is, like most people's, self selected. My physical environment is much more mixed, but even having said that, I haven't met a single Christian, or even person in the UK (so far) who thinks voting for Trump would be anything less than disastrous for US, not to mention global, politics.

With his blustering, hectoring manner, lack of any apparent spiritual understanding and his objectionable views on women and minorities,  Donald Trump would seem to lack any kind of noticeable match with the servant hearted, gentle, humble, peaceable and wise Jewish teacher known as Jesus of Nazareth. So how could a follower of Jesus be persuaded that Trump was the best candidate? But perhaps that's just my standpoint. 

2. Political Factions.

US politics is fatally dualistic (or even duel-istic). It's like a wrestling match. You have Democrats in one corner, Republicans in the other, each trying to land blows on each other. I know we're not much better in the UK, but I like to think we're marginally less dreadful. The entire present US Presidential campaigning consists of hugely over funded populist rallies massaging the cult of personality, shallow rhetoric and to the death 'debates' on live TV. There's been no sense in which one side learns from the other or engages in Third Way finding. News networks and commentators react to the slightest hint of weakness and whip up the media into a frenzy. A few rare people only are taking a moment to reflect, consider or look beneath the instant headline. 

If you're a Trump-supporting Republican, you're stirred up by your side's moral fear of the US 'going to the dogs', of being attacked by a terrorist who is likely to be a Muslim or a Mexican, and general right wing hysteria around socially progressive policies leading to moral disintegration. Your whole standpoint is to fear and mistrust a Democrat, a foreigner, or a person who doesn't conform to a certain stereotype. You're susceptible to promises to 'Make America Great Again', whatever that means. 

Great is a loaded word, surely? Especially for Christians. If you're in the Republican faction (even if you're a Christian, apparently) it is going to be difficult to see outside your faction, though some have managed it, which is noteworthy.

3. US conservative evangelical tropes. 

This is a much more pernicious factor, it seems to me. Since the publishing of a 2005 video of Trump making casual comments about how easy it was for him to grope women some female evangelicals have called on their male counterparts to cease supporting Trump

However, this looks unlikely, which reflects how gender still plays a large part in US white, evangelical intertwined strands of belief, or tropes. Complementarianism, the idea that men and women are equal in status, but created for different roles, in its extreme form, seems to fear any woman who doesn't easily conform to a perceived female stereotype. In addition, innate biblical conservatism fears equal rights discourse, because it appears to lead to the full acceptance of women and gays in every walk of life. This is seen to be destabilising. In a bad way.

Enter Hillary Clinton. In terms of shibboleths of the Religious Right, Hillary is beyond the pale, of course. You could say that even where evangelical support for Trump is grudging, at least he represents something less scary than Hillary - a woman, Democrat AND equal rights campaigner. The sense of needing to protect the US from this dreadful female, who will literally tip the US over the precipice into full blown secularism, is almost palpable. The fact that Clinton consistently cites her Methodist background, with its roots in the socially dynamic witness of John Wesley and the Holiness Movement, is neither here nor there, so strong are the tropes that narrowly define this certain type of evangelical opposition to her.

Thankfully, Evangelicalism is splintering in the US. Progressives such as Jim Wallis ( Brian McLaren ( and Rachel Held Evans ( are redefining what being an evangelical means, even dropping the word altogether, in favour of re-centring on the person and life of the radical Jesus, champion of the poor, and liberator of humanity from all forms of oppression.

Despite the factors of standpoint, factions and evangelical tropes, I do not understand US Christians who support Trump. I have tried and failed. Although no one is beyond the pale (people thought Zacchaues was, till Jesus went to his house for tea) some people appear, on the basis of bringing forth bad fruit, to be unfit for the office of President of the United States. Trump is one of them. 

Annoyingly, it would be just like Jesus, were he around in person today, to tell a parable about the 'Good Trump Supporter', a modern day 'Good Samaritan' for squeamish English church types like me. That would be awkward. 

In the absence of such a parable, though, I can only say to the 80% of Evangelicals who still think Trump's a viable candidate; nay, even God's candidate: come on guys...

Trump? It rhymes with dump and lump. I mean, come on guys....

Thursday, 6 October 2016


I get all excited when autumn starts and I'm not really sure why. I can be spotted (indeed was, this week) collecting conkers on the side of the road, running my thumb over their highly polished brown skins, massaging off the soft white vernix, wondering how long till they'll decay, taking photos of them in sunshine, still harbouring anger at the banning of conker fights in schools, circa 2002.

Some people think that seasons correspond to personalities; you can be a summer person, or an autumn person, etc., and there's a whole colour/fashion/make up course (Colour Me Beautiful) that's linked to this conviction (explored in a previous post

Maybe it's true that I'm an autumn person, but apart from having light brown-ish hair (with imagined copper highlights) and brown eyes, are there also character traits that accompany being 'an autumn person'?

I have applied some pop psychology to myself and reflected upon three reasons I might feel drawn to autumn above other seasons. If you feel the same, maybe you're an autumn person too, with your own fascinating reasons for being autumn-y. In which case, don't wear navy or scarlet. They're NOT autumn colours, unsurprisingly.

Why do I feel drawn to autumn?

1. School days.

Maybe the mention of school days makes you think of summer, those lazy hazy days in the playground, sitting under a tree if you were lucky, doing 'he loves me, he loves me not' with a daisy head (yes, this is what girls do). Or if they were bleak, your school days may remind you of winter. Spring brings to mind revision, so we instantly forget that season, and are left, therefore, with autumn.

In addition, if, like me, you became a primary school teacher, or had kids who were good at singing, you could well be drawn to autumn simply because of this one fact: that all time best kids assembly song, 'Autumn Days', with the smash lyrics:

'Autumn days when the grass is jewelled
and the silk inside a chestnut shell,
Jet planes meeting in the air to be re-fuelled (is that even possible, I'm now wondering)
All these things I love so well
Oh, I mustn't forget, no I mustn't forget
To say a great big thank you, I mustn't forget.'

2. Conkers.

A memorable three years of my school life consisted of walking up an extraordinarily steep hill on both sides of which grew horse chestnut trees. My school memories are all bound up with those trees and their autumn fruit, stooping down to collect them, planning fights with my brother, feeling like they were so much treasure, a veritable free windfall of burnt umber. 

About aged ten, I went conker hunting with my grandfather in suburban north London. We took a bag, walked round the municipal golf course and loaded ourselves up with a modest but well earned brown shiny cache. One street from home, a woman came out of a house with a huge bag, on the way to the dustbin. The bag was full of conkers. Seeing our own, much smaller haul, she offered the bag to us and we took it, hesitatingly. It seemed to me, who had been brought up with a Protestant work ethic, something of a cheat, a benevolent bounty we had not deserved, which spoke of the mysterious, even risque. But we took it anyway.

3. Something ending, something beginning.

Here we get more metaphysical, but feeling drawn to autumn has to do with its being the season than most resonates with our humanity. Summer is over, stuff is going to die, and yet I find I'm often more relaxed about it than sad. One may as well be realistic. Summer is heralded by protracted ends of term, outdoor social events - in wealthy Thames valley, anyway - ever more splendid, and/or exhausting, depending on how you look at them; holidays away - more planning, travelling, angst about how to get sun, and for me, dreaded airplanes; ill fitting skimpy clothes and women's figures. I greet all this with less enthusiasm than the autumn back to school routine, children growing up into new classes, trees relaxing into brown and gold, a nip in the air. 

Because after something is ending, something new can begin. Out of all the seasons, autumn is the most like actual life: not always summery and happy, but it's not all bleak either. Such a life is viewed with what Richard Rohr calls 'a bright sadness' (Falling Upward, p. 117).

And so on this National Poetry Day, I concur with Wordsworth's admission to being:  

'a melancholy (...) that lov'd
A pensive sky, sad days, and piping winds,
The twilight more than dawn, Autumn than Spring' (The Prelude, p. 90).

School days, conkers, and endings/beginnings. Three reasons to wish you a happy autumn.

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Passing the baton

Sermon for Trinity 19C

In the Race of Faith, we’re all involved in active baton passing.

Luke 17: 5 The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’ The Lord replied, ‘If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea”, and it would obey you.

2 Timothy 1:5I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you. For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands...

One of the biggest disappointments of the Rio Olympics track and field events was the disqualification of the GB men’s 4x400 sprint relay team.
They had run a storming race, beating their own record in training, and thought they would be straight into the final with it. But there was a problem.
Baton passing is a fine art, and you’re supposed to do it within a 20-yard stretch of track. If your foot is deemed to be over the line, even by a fraction, whilst you pass it to the next runner, you are disqualified. And if they progress beyond the line before receiving the baton, the team is disqualified.
Obviously you’re running really fast in a sprint relay, but as you approach the next runner, you must position yourself completely accurately, and so must they; you must slow a bit, they have to start running so as not to lose the momentum, and you must pass it within that very narrow margin of track.
The GB men’s team had run a blistering sub 3 minute heat, which would have put them in the frame for a medal in the final; all the passes appeared to have gone well, but after jubilant scenes at the finish line, news filtered through that they had been disqualified.
They appealed, but were unsuccessful despite video footage being inconclusive. The judges ruled that Matthew Hudson Smith had marginally had his foot over the line while waiting for Delano Williams to pass the baton.
India were deemed to have committed the same offense and Trinidad and Tobago received a lane violation, thus shifting the host team, Brazil, three places up the scoreboard and into the final.
In a similar disappointment, the US men’s 4x100m relay team were also disqualified after finishing in Bronze Medal position, due to an early hand off between Mike Rodgers and Justin Gatlin.
In the nail biting sport of sprint relay, the successful passing of the baton is the crucial lynch pin of the whole race. But passing the baton has its glitches, and those glitches would seem to be rather common.

In the race of faith, the successful passing of the baton is the crucial lynch pin of the whole race. But it too has its glitches.
The fact that we’re here this morning gathered and worshipping is testament to the baton passing of each generation before us, but we also know that there’s been a dramatic falling away of attendance within the C of E lately, particularly in younger generations, and perhaps we might be able to put that down to glitches in the baton passing.
Despite population growth, numbers attending church services has dropped 12% over the last decade and generally speaking many C of E congregations are aging whilst fewer young people (under 50s) are engaging. Less than 2% of the population go to an Anglican church on a Sunday.
It’s a good job that our gospel reminds us of mustard seed faith. With mustard seed faith, we can join in with God in the seemingly impossible task of baton passing.
Let’s look at how we all need to need be actively involved in passing on the baton of faith.

Timothy, had received the baton of faith and it would appear he was a third generation Christian: in the Epistle, Paul refers to the faith that first lived in his grandmother, Lois, and in his mother, Eunice.
Scholars generally agree that Paul is near the end of his life here and that he wrote this letter to Timothy in the mid 60s, so just enough time for there to be a first generation Jewish believer in Jesus, (Lois) who then passed the faith onto her daughter, Eunice, who passed it to Timothy.
Never underestimate the power of a praying parent, grandparent (or partner or godparent for that matter).
In the 98th year of her life, my Grandmother was known to attend the monthly prayer group which took place up in her local church, as people sat round in a circle of chairs and prayed for the young. Although she could have rested on her laurels, having almost run the race to completion herself, she went to that prayer group because she believed in young people and recognised the need to pass the baton. She was ignited from within by the need to pass the baton. She was in some ways, difficult, uncompromising and a bit of a social snob, but she was unceasing in her prayers for the generations below her to know Christ.
As you get older, it seems you have nothing to lose. If people think you’re barmy for talking about Christ, that doesn’t really matter, because God will honour your mustard seed faith, and uproot mulberry trees into the sea for you. Someone, somewhere, will get the baton from your prayerful witness. If we don’t share the gospel, the baton falls.

So Timothy learnt the faith through his family. But Paul had also been instrumental in his faith journey. We read that he had laid hands on Timothy for him to receive the Holy Spirit, and in the Epistle he encourages Timothy to continually fan into flame the gift of the Spirit that was given him at that time.
It’s the same for us – the best way to pass the baton is to be alive in your faith. The best signpost to Christ is a fully functioning Christian. That’s why we continually need to be renewed in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Timothy’s faith pedigree tells us two important things about handing on the faith (passing the baton).

Firstly, the family is the primary conduit for faith, but each person needs to individually appropriate that faith for himself or herself. Timothy’s faith was caught, but also affirmed individually.
There’s a tension here for churchgoing families.
Children are not easily fooled. They imbibe actions and not just words. What feeds them primarily is real spiritual life flowing out from a lived experience of Jesus Christ. This is more than simply church attendance.
Yes, we long for them to develop church-going habits too, but primarily they need to see a lived daily faith that speaks to life issues at each stage of growing up.
So that’s baton passing within the family. And research suggests that the majority of people who come to a living faith in Jesus, will do so before their 18th birthday. So that’s even more reason to pray for your children, grandchildren and godchildren, nephews and nieces.

But, secondly, not everyone is lucky enough to see living faith modelled within their family.
So we also need to be involved in baton passing more generally. This is clearly what happened with the very first believers in Jesus.
Someone, somewhere, modelled Christ to them in such a way that they turned to him and became believers. So someone shared their faith with Lois, Timothy’s Grandmother, and she became the first family member to know Christ. Perhaps it was a neighbour or a friend, someone who pointed to Christ in persuasive words and loving actions.
Paul himself came to faith by what seemed to be a direct intervention of the risen Christ, as he fell to the ground on his way to persecute the young church. He then devoted his whole life to spreading the message, passing the baton. Not many of us will come to faith like that, but you do hear of the occasional experience when God appears to someone in a dream, say, or in extremis.
Paul assumes that baton passing will be one of the chief characteristics of the Christian church. That’s why he has identified Timothy as a successor – a very different person to him I’m sure – but carrying on the race with the baton firmly in his hand.
Investing in successors is a risky business because our successors do things differently from their predecessors.
That’s the nature of baton passing. We need to have humility, and to be encouragers here. As I look back on 50 years of church going the most significant catalyst in baton passing that I can identify in the family of Christ, is the individuals who are encouragers.
The baton, of course, is the gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ, which is for all people everywhere. ‘For this gospel I was appointed a herald, an apostle and a teacher’, writes Paul from prison, and he urges Timothy to ‘guard the good treasure entrusted to you.’
Passing the batons happens in those fortunate families where faith is truly alive, but they may be in the minority. So baton passing is up to all of us.
In looking at this enormous task, we come back to the mustard seed faith.
It’s just as well Jesus talked of faith as having very small beginnings, because otherwise I think we’d be tempted to give up. If we have faith as small as a mustard seed, we can say to a tree, be uprooted, and thrown into the sea, and it will be done, Jesus says.

Christianity started with one person. It spread to 12, then to 72, then to 3000 on the Day of Pentecost. We don’t need to lose heart about passing the baton. But we do need to be actively involved in doing it.
And when we’ve done what we can, when we’ve had faith, and prayed, and cared enough to pass the baton on, in words and deeds, in fact all we’ve done is been faithful servants, and not super human Christians.

And that’s quite a relief too.