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Ending in Carlisle…

“Yeah mate I reckon about £20 for that” said Chris confidently in the warehouse to a couple of customers, a moment later I caught his eye and he grinning at me and shrugging his shoulders as if to say “I’m blagging it!”

It was the first time I had been to see my friend Chris since he had moved up to Carlisle almost a year earlier, and was great to see him settled. There was plenty of banter between him and the guys he works with, and get to see him in his element working with people and seeing them thrive.

Chris works brilliantly with communities that are often over looked, he’s especially good at working with “white blue-collar/working class blokes”, a demographic the Anglican church rarely reaches well -and indeed appears to have no strategy in place for reaching. He has been on the journey for a long time and is great to see him settled after having a long battle trying to find a place that would let him do what he was passionate about which was outreach to non affluent communities, without having to caretaker a load of dying parishes, and do the vocation and incredible gifting that God has placed deep within him as a sideline activity (which would be squashing Chris into an ill-fitting mould and probably would not make the congregation happy either).

Chris ‘stuck to his guns’ and held out for a job doing what he felt called for (although sadly he had to take a house for duty and a pay cut to do it which was a step of faith for him and his family).

In my experience although the Church of England talks about pioneering new things and reaching out to people the Church has failed to connect with they seem more worried about keeping the tiny (and often prickly) members of tiny congregations happy than trying to connect the vast numbers of people who for whom the Church is largely seen as a Fossilised Irrelevance. The fields maybe “white to the harvest” but the labourer is immobilised by congregational baggage that keep us from the fields.

Just over a year ago, literally weeks before his previous job ran out and he and his family would have been homeless. Chris was offered a “house for duty” which is where the Anglican church gives you a house in exchange for some work. Chris is paid to oversee/manage some “op-shops” which are charity shops run largely by supported volunteers with a warehouse to service them (which is a lot less money that he should have with a stipend).

Although many bishops and senior clergy made encouraging and supportive noises about what Chris wanted to do, few were prepared to put their money where their mouths were. As I thought about Bishops and apostolic leadership it ought to be seeing potential, releasing people and taking risks, but sadly this is not the reality too often in Anglican circles.

I hope if I was a Bishop (not that this is likely!) would I be someone that spots what God is doing and takes the risk on people (and paying them in faith that the God will provide and fund his mission)?

Perhaps I am jaded and cynical about the spiritual leadership of this nation, sadly too many career clergy wanting to climb up the greasy poll, and have a photo opportunity rather than the apostolic, prophetic Christ-like and sacrificial leadership that is prepared to step-out in obedience to Christ and lead with faith-fuelled risks on the certainty of a faithful God.

Anyway, I arrived with him to the warehouse and he was greeted with lots of banter, clearly the people there are very fond of Chris. He has a weekly meal at his home and is trying to grow food for it on his allotment. Each day he leads some prayers with the guys and has written a great liturgy that features the fruits of the spirit which they read every day. Chris was saying hearing that familiar passage each day challenges him afresh each day on where and how is he exhibiting fruit in his life.

Another project Chris runs is the “men’s sheds” project, where guys join together and create stuff -often wood work- where they chat to one another whilst they work together and again it has formed quite a community.

Chris’ desire was to live and work in a truly gritty place -and there is poverty in Carlisle- but also much beautiful with amazing scenery all around which Chris loves -and has provided new opportunities for Chris to grow into- and it is hard not to feel this place is pretty ‘bespoke’ by God for Chris.

As I thought about this I thought about God’s goodness in blessing Chris with things he enjoys alongside where he feels called to serve, I also wondered too that often when we step into a new role we discover that God has elements we were not expecting that stretch and grow us, it is only with hindsight that we look back with the eyes of faith and we spot God working in us, and through us, in places we had not previously expected and anticipated.

When Chris worked in Poole (in a parish which has some of the most wealthy and most deprived living close by)he talked of Mother Teresa saying we all have to “find our Calcutta”, where we find the places of pain and suffering where we can bring God’s goodness and grace.

Chris also wanted to live with a community and build community within his home, wanting to share his life with those he works with rather than just throw some theology bombs at people or do a quick superficial pastoral visit before rushing back home and rising up the draw-bridge. Chris has taught me over the years a lot about incarnational ministry where are beliefs are ’embodied’ by how we live them out amongst people, and where we are brave enough to let people see us at our most vulnerable and broken knowing that despite not being ‘sorted’ that something of God’s glory shines through us!

Later we finished with a pint, sitting down in a pub together, Chris turned to me and said: “so Mase, what have you learned on your tour? What’s the next step for you and for the school of mission?”

I took a long swig of my beer, cleared my throat and replied.

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Pioneering with young adults in West Bromwich…

I arrived at the YMCA in West Bromwich to meet my friend Peter, I had made a note to myself to remember to call this the black country rather than Birmingham as I had heard like people from Salford don’t like being called Mancunians people from around here don’t like being labelled Brummies.

Peter took us for a wander around the area, which was fascinating, hard to believe that a few hours earlier I was wandering around the dreamy spires of Oxford. We passed a Methodist Church and Peter told me about the work Wesley did reaching the industrial areas of the midlands and the north, the Church was meant to mark the spot where Wesley preached.

Part of Peters job was to work with young adults and was being paid by an Anglican deanery. He was involved in chaplaincy work at a number of the further education colleges in the area, one of Peter’s passions was his art, especially graffiti style art which he uses as a Missional tool to help unchurched young people explore questions around meaning, worth and value.

He is also chaplain at the YMCA, involved in many of the work that happens there with teenagers and young adults who haven’t got somewhere where they can stay, this group is very transitory, Peter said about working with these guys and they often move on quite quickly and that you have to trust the Holy Spirit that he will continue to work in people’s lives even if you no longer service them and they’ve moved on, trusting that God will have used you and the blessing you gave.

He showed us a chapel he had and talked about some of the work with mindfulness he did with the young people, and thought of how we all need safe space to go, and places where we can just “be”.

This project was interesting as when I heard Peter worked for a deanery with young adults I had visions of lots of middle class students and young professionals, this was much more edgey meeting a demographic the Church has largely failed to reach and engage with. Also, many of the Churches in the Deanery did not have strong youth work and so this work needed pioneering rather than just maintaining relationships with young people as they got older.

After this we ended up joining a youth session in their common room, was interesting observing them chatting and trying to get to know them, in the end I began to play Jenga with a couple of them. They looked a bit scary, and I was a bit nervous talking to them, but as we continued to play Jenga I realised that they were just like anyone else (although perhaps having had a more challenging life than many young people their age) and realised how often we have all sorts of fear and baggage we project onto people and we need to meet them as equals, sat on the floor trying to remove Jenga blocks is a good methodology for life!

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The Crypt and the Lighthouse (Leeds)

“What do you think?” said Fiona handing me a couple of sheets of typed paper “I wanted to say something comforting”.

I am staying with friends Jonathan and Fiona from Bristol who now live in Selby, where Fiona has developed a career as a civil celebrant taking weddings and funerals. She had been on at me after I left my job to look at doing funerals, but I’m not very keen!

I looked at the peice of paper, it was a funeral service for someone who lost their fight with alcoholism. Fiona had tried hard to be comforting and helpful, yet despite the truisms and platitudes it was hard to say much that was comforting without talking about Jesus, the resurrection and our eternal hope.

Perhaps that’s why I’d be rubbish taking secular funerals!

My mind raced to earlier today when I had visited the lighthouse project at St. George’s Leeds and realised that many of the people who they work, some who I met today, their stories could have ended how this story did in a eulogy at a funeral service from drink and drug addiction.

I remembered a lad I knew and liked, his baby was my first baptism in Kingswood, who died due to his alcohol addiction and the lostness he felt talking to his family and friends before and after the funeral stayed with me. As a Vicar I rarely cried after taking a funeral service in a layby on the way back from the crematorium, but I did at his funeral.

Maybe this was false guilt or a prompting of the Holy Spirit, but I thought of how busy I was with projects, preaches and programmes whilst a few streets away a young person was drinking himself to death, and vowed that people like this guy, outside the Church, would be my priority.

I thought about today, arriving in Leeds and finding St. George’s Church. This Church looks like a big successful evangelical charismatic church, which I have become a little disillusioned with, often filled with people who have drifted from fellowships that needed them to a large congregation that doesn’t. The sermons normally skirt anything challenging in the text and a worship band led by someone with the right t shirt, skinny jeans and hair cut (often with a swagger that makes me uncomfortable!) As you can see, I had made up my mind about this Church before going in and meeting anyone (didn’t Jesus say something about judging people?)

Anyway, I went into Church and met Katie who was one of the people running the project, she had just got married and this was the first day back at work following her honeymoon. She seemed quite normal, my mother in law used to say “they were ever so ordinary” as her highest compliment which meant “down to earth”.

Katie talked about a previous Vicar who had come to the Church in the 1940’s and said: “You won’t find me in my study, but rather with the poorest and most hurting people in the city of Leeds”. I warned to this guy, and thought how radical this must have been then in a Church culture with lots of expectations and societal norms that today, and yet here was an Anglican Vicar saying “my ministry isn’t going to conform to your stereotypes but rather it is going to seek to look like the Jesus who I follow. He began to convert the crypt to become a soup kitchen and homeless hostel.

About 5 years ago a young curate Jon came to the Church, things had not gone as he planned he had thought God was calling him to the word of accademia and theological education but he ended up at a Church in Leeds, and through a number of “Holy Spirit nudges” felt drawn to develop this work.

Actually the work they were doing with the homeless was already pretty good, he could have said: “it’s not broke so why fix it?” Some of the guys did come to the evening service but culturally it didn’t work to well.

So, the Jon began to open up on a Sunday for an evening meal, and did a bespoke service with those who wanted to come, straight talking message, songs that they knew -often popular “secular” songs with spiritual lyrics, lots of prayer and testimony and it just found its own rhythm and style. It also got its own name “the lighthouse” it was a Church within a Church”.

They wisely made the meal together something where anyone could come to, the cost of dinner was not having to go to the service. Often at various things for the homeless or for young people they get things for free/cheap but the hidden cost is they have to listen to our mini sermon. Here, they could come to the service if they wanted to, or not if they didn’t want to, and they could get food irrespective of whether they were or weren’t interested in finding out more about Jesus.

I got shown around the crypt, and was impressed that it had been decorated really nicely, too often homeless shelters smell of disinfectant and urine with plastic chairs and tables and mismatch crockery, but here care had been taken to treat everyone who came with dignity, worth and value. As we were looking around Jon joined Katie and I with his two small children in tow (they were munching a handful of communion wafers to keep them quiet which made me laugh as this would have caused some people I know to have a major strop!)

We came to a (B/w) photo of this great Vicar who poineered all of this way back all those years ago, he looked just like an ordinary vicar of that time. Katie and John said they wanted something to commemorate him but his son had been less keen. It turns out the son resented all the ministry his father did as he felt his dad neglected him and wasn’t there for him giving his attention to his ministry instead.

This chimed with my story of parents who were so committed to their Church stuff I felt overlooked. Yet even more tragically -and despite promising myself that I would do things different- history repeated itself. On one occasion Hope my daughter put a stole around her neck and began running around saying “busy”, it was both funny and heartbreaking at the same moment.

We visited a small chapel in the crypt which had Jesus and the disciples in paintings around the room, all painted by a homeless guy, he didn’t want to paint anyone as Judas so he painted himself in that role. It was some of the most beautiful and moving chapel I had ever been into.

A guy came over to where we were sitting and he was asked if he minded sharing his story, he had been homeless, on heroine and with bad mental health, he is now housed and off heroine, his mental health is still difficult at times, but he is part of a community that he clearly loves and they love him. He serves with various jobs and it just seemed really lovely.

Jon was complaining of a headache and this guy prayed for him with a real love and passion, often Pastors are happy to “do the praying” but here Jon was to receive ministry as well as give it.

It turned out that over the past 5 years there have been 85 baptisms, many had gone and completed detox and rehabs, and many were involved in their Bible study called “the academy”. I asked if this name put people off (schools isn’t always a happy memory for people) but instead they said that in giving people certificates for completing units for many was a positive experience that many of them treasured. Sadly some have relapsed but many haven’t -this type of project literally saves and transforms lives-. This felt exciting the type of Church I had been longing to see but had doubted actually existed.

I left repenting of my cynicism about this Church, inspired by what can happen when we do Church with people rather than too them, and long to see this type of work flourish more and more.

As I stood in Fiona’s living room reading her eulogy for this poor lady who had passed away, I remembered s tagline Katie had said; “it’s not a pill, priest or programme (that’ll change you) but the person of Jesus Christ. Yesterday Anthony’s had challenged me to be bolder in proclaiming Christ, here I had seen a project unashamed to do just that.

I looked again at these words Fiona had written and longed for this woman’s story to be one of finding hope, salvation and transformation…

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The best view in the world… (Young people hearing about Jesus in Schools)

As I began to explore the story of Brendan the navigator I found the questions I asked myself asking were: “what happened when he arrived and got out of the boat?” What did he say? What did he do? “Where did he go?”

For me the first thing I did was sign up with the Church Mission Society to do a Master’s degree in Mission and Leadership, as wanted to think afresh and deeply about making Jesus known.

For me setting off, making the jump was uncomfortable, but landing and making a new home was really difficult, finding a new role or niche and where God was calling was pretty painful. Yet, we had an advantage that Brenden didn’t have, for Allana and I it was a return home, we knew some people and places, we had history.

Fortunately Allana and I were both able to get part time work back where we used to work, she returned to working with children with special needs and I got a job back working for PACE, a local schools work charity I used to work for doing assemblies, RE lessons and lunchtime clubs.

A colleague of mine at Pace said that he had the best view in the world -which wasn’t the sea or the sunsets- but is hundreds of kids hearing for the first time the stories of Jesus.

In this I have seen God’s hand at work, as although leaping around making a fool of myself in an assembly is still good fun (despite feeling my age and knowing that the days when I was -even vaguely- cool are long gone). Yet it is still a privilege to go into school and talk about Jesus, and to share why I am love and want to follow him.

I remember as a child hearing both brilliant and dreadfully dull assemblies and lessons about Jesus and the Christian faith, and remain astounded at how it is possible that people can make a character as awesome and a book as controversial as the Bible boring!

We in the UK have the privilege of going into schools and being able to speak meaningfully about our faith which is not permissible in many countries. Yet the tragedy is too often clergy, ministers and youth works ignore and squander this opportunity in our local schools.

The youth charity Urban Saints reckon that 95% of young people have no contact with our church based youth work, and too often we try and work out ways of getting them into our building, rather than us going to then, most young people are in schools each day with an expectation that they explore different people’s world views and think about issues of purpose, character, truth and meaning.

Many years ago my former boss at PACE Danny Brown was taking an assembly and made a throw away comment about “chatting afterwards if anyone was interested” one lad there was having a tough time and asking some big questions, and he got chatting with Danny and began coming to both the youth group and their young people’s mid week Bible study (called for some reason Colin’s Cod, not that anyone knew anyone called Colin, but I remember COD stood for Christians On Discipleship) and became a Christian, thrived in his faith and got baptised and ended up leading his Christian Union (and saw it grow and thrive). I recently saw this guy at a wedding, married now with a couple of children, but still following Jesus.

People often think that kids aren’t interested i religion, and they’re probably right, but (like all human beings) are fascinated by the big questions of “who am I?’ “Why am I here?” “Do I and my life matter at all?”

We run a number of lunchtime clubs and take RE lessons and am amazed at the great questions young people come up with which includes “who was the first person to milk a cow and what did they think they were doing?” and “why is Donald Trump Orange” alongside “why do bad things happen to good people?”, “Does prayer work?” or “is heaven real”.

For me the lunchtime clubs us a the highlight to work through questions and ideas with young people (over donuts), and I believe it was here as a young Christian youth worker that I developed my passion for what is sometimes called “pioneer ministry” by which I mean hanging out with people who are asking questions, seeking something (even if they can’t necessarily articulate what they are longing for) and exploring them together and see God at work doing that which only God can do namely drawing people to himself!

Recently my new colleague/friend/boss Dave has run a series of lessons alongside a friend of his David, who is chair of the local humanist group, and the young people have to compare and contrast the difference in world view. It is a fun and fascinating lesson, interestingly the young people realise that Christianity is not just about being really good but about our need of God’s grace and mercy met uniquely in Jesus. For me as I listened to the humanist speak (and he’s a lovely guy) I realised what a dark and pessimistic world view there is if you take away the cross and the empty tomb where there is no hope, no love or value just nothing we know about or understand.

I continue to believe that there is something so intriguing about Jesus that even the most cynical and jaded atheist cannot help but be fascinated by the preacher from Nazareth.

When I worked as a Vicar in Kingswood I had to do an RE lesson with a Muslim guy, and many of the kids were wanting him to “win” although we made a point of being gracious and friendly to each other. Why do people believe that you cannot be friends with someone with a different world view and opinion to ourselves? We can, indeed we should have friends that challenge, stretch and provoke us! Yet as I had to respond to questions such as “you Christians believe in three God’s don’t you?” I was reminded of two verses from the Bible, the first was a description of God’s Holy Spirit as “the spirit of all truth” -why should I worry when God is real and truth will resonate because it is who God is and how we are created to respond!- the second thought was that scripture talks of “God’s word not returning void” and I need not put my faith iny own articulateness but rather in a God who chooses to work in my, through me, and despite me.

As I thought of working with young people I was reminded that there is little else of such importance within the mission of the Church to reach and engage with the next generation and pray that we may see them rise up as followers of Jesus, receiving the baton from old farts like me where our ceiling of what we can believe is barely possible is their starting point, their floor! The fields truly are white to the harvest but sadly too many people refuse to grasp the opportunities that exist within the school environment.

So, what did Branden do when he got to dry land, the answer we don’t know, but perhaps our best missionary strategy is to work with the young people, the next generation, and believe that God wants to make himself known to them and transform the world through them.

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Wydale a thin place to encounter God.

This journey from Cornwall to Carlisle had been pretty relentless, one thing I had neglected was to book in much Sabbath time, in fact I hadn’t really booked in any other than a Friday evening curry with my friends Simon and Elizabeth in Derby and a cheeky pint with Chris in Carlisle really this was a working tour. I wanted to get back home to my girls as soon as possible. Yet I have noticed I have a relentless streak to my nature where I don’t always prioritize self care or Sabbath time, and have spent too long on the edge of burn out and too often neglecting not just Allana and Hope but also the most important relationship of all that of my relationship with God, that secret place from which everything flows.

I was visiting Wydale hall, York Diocesan retreat house in Scarborough, which a former colleague, Mark, from my time in York had taken over. Two of the tag lines for this retreat centre was “renewing the Church in mission” and “more than just a venue”. As I sat in the sun with Mark, it felt like I was visiting an oasis, a place of refreshment, where people can return to their daily lives reinvigorated having met with God, having been set free from things holding then back and been inspired afresh to keep pursuing the missional God.

We all at times in our Christian journey need those spiritual pit stops, a chance to check ourselves out and keep ourselves road worthy.

If we are wanting to see our nation transformed for Christ we cannot neglect our own soul, we need places like Wydale where we can come and recuperate. Mission and ministry is hard and we can sustain some very deep knocks and sometimes need space to lay down those painful things we have had to endure at the foot of the cross of the one who loves us most. We need to dream again, often our vision gets stale and dry, we remember that the scriptures warn us that “where there is no vision the people perish” but the reverse must also be true, “where there is vision people have life and thrive” -we need those places for our vision to be born (or born again) into our hearts, to be grasped or re-grasped, rediscovered.

I once heard someone talking about two lumberjacks who had a competition to see who could fell the most trees. The first went for it using all his energy but soon he noticed that he was loosing. He turned to the other lumberjack and asked how was it possible that the other had cut down so many trees in the time, the lumberjack replied “after every tree I fell I re-sharpen my axe” -I think too many of us in the body of Christ need to re-sharpen out axes and we need places like Wydale hall to do this.

The hall is beautiful and set within wonderful views and gardens. It is a place with space, where people can just be, and have space to receive from God and maybe dare to dream again, perhaps a place to rediscover our first love -recapture and revive our faith. Mark described Wydale hall as a “thin place” which is something the early Celtic Christians used to talk about which meant a place where it felt as though God was near and accessible.

The Christian element of Wydale permeates through the whole place with Bible verses painted on the walls -the mist prominent of these is the Lord’s prayer around the walls of the main hallway, the call to see “your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven” is a good reminder of what it is all about.

Also in the grounds is a beautiful wooden labyrinth an activity that challenges us to think afresh of life as a journey with Jesus. The same Jesus who says “come to me all who travail and are heavy laden and I will refresh you” thinking of the challenge for us all to dedicate ourselves to the cause of the Kingdom inviting Christ to join us on our journey with him.

As I thought about ministry in which I pursued growth I realised I was pursuing the wrong things as pursuing health made more sense, and healthy things grow and produce fruit.

So, I thought we need more places like Wydale where people can take time out to meet with Jesus, the God who changes us and transforms us.

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Lego, Jesus and “do we have to keep on talking about Church?”

I had a great heap of lego on the table and asked people to create something representing Church from the bricks. I live doing this as there are so many different and exciting takes on what it means to be Church. Interestingly with Lego the spots that are useful to join and connect each individual brick with another soon get noticed and the conversation normally moves from abstract ideas about the Church to thinking about our friends/colleagues/neighbours and family members and how they are going to meet with Christ. Which often leads to the question of “how does Church help me chat to my mates about Jesus?” Are their other blocks also relating to my peer group, and am I block supporting someone else in their missionary endeavours.

How does the Church help us in our evangelism? Often sadly the answer it seems the answer is too often “it doesn’t really!” Does it help us know how to spot a divine conversation moment? Does it help us ask good questions and authentically answer others? Does it help me understand what is the good news and why it’s good?

Or perhaps it helps put on events that we can invite people too that might help people in their journeys of faith. Some Churches take this really seriously with lots of though and prayer in exploring how to move from gathering a crowd to developing a core of disciples (with Missional events that gradually increase the spiritual temperature from Korma socials to Vindaloo gospel appeals).

Sadly I fear sometimes Church manages to create such a perfect and comfortable bubble that we soon ditch our non Christian mates to hang out with our Christian buddies who think the same way as we do, and soon we’re wedded to a clique.

As we chatted with people exploring Lego and ideas around connection I was reminded of the verse in Romans which says “how will they hear if not one preaches/speaks to them?” With people realising that the most likely way those we are in contact with will come to know Jesus is through their relationship with us.

Which made me ask, how easy is it for people to talk to you about your faith? Are you open about it? Are you approachable? Do you know what you believe and why you believe it?

My colleague in Kingswood used talk (metaphorically) about how often he tried to build beautiful bridges for people to walk over, but they rarely did, he realised he needed to do the inviting, and walk alongside people on their journey of faith, rather than build a bridge a just “point it out” to people.

As the Lego bricks began to be used less and conversation moved away from a theological understanding of Church to asking how each of us could be more fruitful in personal evangelism.

I breathed a sigh of relief as I was worried with this session for Simon might get stuck in the cul de sac of Church. Too often I worry that too many people believe that if as Church we just had the right posters, music and sermon then the place would be buzzing and none of us would have to worry about chatting about Jesus because the Church has done it for us.

I remember hearing a friend talk about sharing his faith and he had a bit of a plan, 1) Admit you’re a Christian 2) Pray for opportunities 3) spot the opportunity and take it 4) and be gentle, wise, living and respectful.

As we spoke together it felt like people getting their own personal responsibility for helping to enable and facilitate conversations about our faith in Jesus. Several people shared how other people had been instrumental to them themselves coming to faith, a there was the implicit challenge that “if other people had reached out to us, perhaps we should reach out to those other people around us?”

As the session drew to a close invited people to come and get prayed for and to be anointing with oil as a commissioning to go and take the opportunities that God has created for them where he has placed them.

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