At a distance

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I know of a church that sponsors a hospital in Africa.  As you enter the building two large, colourful noticeboards tell the story of this hospital, with pictures, personal stories, facts and figures.  Several members of the congregation have visited the hospital and their stories and photos are included. The church is lucky enough to pay parish share without fundraising; instead their efforts go towards the hospital. Church members talk enthusiastically about making jams and chutneys or the planned sponsored walk.  The noticeboard shows how much money was raised during the last year.

On a much smaller noticeboard, looking amateurish beside the almost professional ones about the hospital, is information about the church itself. It shows names and phone numbers for the clergy and churchwardens, details of the services and a brief mention of bell ringing practice night and the toddler group.  There are no photos.

As a visitor, my overwhelming impression was that this church exists to support the African hospital.

I have come across other churches that are passionate about the kilograms of food they have donated to the foodbank several miles away in the nearest town, their support for street children in South America or their missionary partners in South East Asia.

These are all important and necessary things but I am left wondering if these churches have got the balance right.  For all these things take place at a distance.  What is the church doing locally?

I have never known a place where no one is struggling with depression, loneliness, divorce, disability, bullying, autism, cancer, bereavement…

But often churches seem to be unaware of these people in their midst…

Perhaps they see the church’s role as focussing on those who have very little? Perhaps there is an unspoken assumption that anyone who does not live in poverty is somehow all right and needs to take responsibility for their own life?

But it may be that it doesn’t feel safe.  People’s lives are messy.  Getting involved with real people, instead of with those at a distance, means being prepared to get involved in the mess. It takes time: accompanying people to medical appointments, the Citizen’s Advice Bureau, the school meeting about the difficult child…  Just listening takes time.  We don’t have much of it these days: churches are small and we are spread too thinly. It is easier and safer to “do our bit” by donating money, giving tins to the foodbank or packing a Christmas Child shoebox.

This isn’t a new phenomenon. Over a hundred years ago, in her novel Pollyanna, Eleanor Porter wrote of the Ladies Aiders who preferred to send money to help children far away in India instead of supporting the actual orphan living in their town:

As Pollyanna says: “They acted as if little boys HERE weren’t any account–only little boys ‘way off. I should THINK, though, they’d rather see Jimmy Bean grow – than just a report!”

However, if we think that it is only those at a distance who matter, why are we surprised when people think the church has nothing to say to them?   Shouldn’t we be focusing on those at a distance and those among whom we live?

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Heaven’s gate: Theology with children

Heaven's gate

“This is heaven’s gate.  You go through it to get to heaven. There is earth, air, fire and water the four elements. There’s a gate for each of them – inside a volcano, under the sea, up in the air and here on earth,” says the ten year old, explaining the painting above.

“The gods are in heaven,” he goes on.  He pauses to think. “There’s one God… but lots of gods. As you go through the gate that way you become a god and if you go through the other way the gods become human…”

At the same event, three girls sit with me by the sand, talking about Joseph and his brothers.  “Do you think Joseph will forgive his brothers and let them have corn?” I ask.

“Yes,” replies one.  “He needs to.  God tells us to forgive people… Joseph wants to do what God wants.”

“So you think he needs to forgive because this is what God wants?” I say, before adding: “I wonder what it means to forgive someone?”

Although I think she understands, this question takes her on the hop and she can’t find the words.

“I think it means you don’t hold things against people,” says one of the other girls, who has had more time to think. “If someone does something that hurts you, you don’t hold it against them. You let it go.”

“I think it’s giving people a second chance,” says the seven year old.

What is theology?  The dictionary describes it as the coming together of two words “theos” (God) and “logos” (word) to mean the study of God. Elsewhere there is “thinking about God” and a more explicit “the study of God and his relationship to the world”.  A quick internet search reveals several talks and essays by academic theologians attempting to define what they are doing.

From this perspective these three girls are doing theology.  In their comments about forgiveness they are “thinking about God” and how he relates to us.  If forgiveness is part of the nature of God and he asks us to forgive others what does this mean?

But what about the first child, the painter?  Is he doing theology?

It is possible to dismiss his thinking as too many fantasy books…  Or to worry about his beliefs – surely he knows that there is only one God not many gods?  Doesn’t this need instant correction?

But it seems to me that he is exploring many theological questions:

What does it mean for the divine to enter this world? What does it mean for the divine to become human? What does it mean for humans to become divine? What is it like at the boundary?

Or to put it in more Christian terms:

What changed for God at the incarnation? What is it like for people to enter the kingdom of heaven?

Several years ago, I belonged to a study group who decided to spend eight sessions looking at one of Eddie Askew’s books.  Each session we would read the Bible passage and then take it in turns to read aloud Eddie’s reflections and prayers.  After each extract, we would pause and comment on how wonderful Eddie was and how well he had expressed what we thought.

But insightful and inspiring though Eddie Askew is, it did not work in this context; I took nothing away. Theology needs to be an ongoing work for all of us; there is no point of arrival, no definitive answer.  In these sessions, we allowed Eddie to do the work for us and did none ourselves.

By contrast I have spent the last three days thinking about the painting.  In my own experiences of encountering God and the kingdom of heaven what was the point at which I crossed the boundary?  What was different? What was it like at the boundary?

Theology with children can take you anywhere: even to heaven’s gate.

Necessary August

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I recently asked a couple of friends when their year starts.

“January 1st” they answered in surprise.

Mine however starts in September.  (Interestingly none of us thought of the year as starting in Advent!)

My time with children and in education has made me unable to see the year in any other way.  July is a time of endings, September a time for beginnings.

But where does this leave August?

Apart from a cluster of family birthdays at the start, I don’t really care for August as a month; there isn’t enough going on.  I enjoy holidays once I’m there but I don’t tend to look forward to them.  By the end of July, I’m already thinking ahead to September.

But now, looking back on the summer, I’m starting to see August as a necessary month. It is all too easy, in our frenetic weeks, to ignore any idea of a sabbath.  Sunday includes church but also a lot of other activities; often I use it as a time to catch up on chores. I don’t think I see it as qualitatively different from the rest of the week.

I started August with something of the same mindset – this year I was determined to get all the cupboards cleaned and sorted.  But about half way through, especially with a couple of times away, I found myself relaxing into a slower mindset.  August became a fallow time; I even went back to a couple of neglected hobbies.

I hope I’m ready now to start the year. I don’t think I would have been without August, the sabbath month.

What is “the church”?

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“Are you talking about the church as the building or the church as the people?”

I was starting to say something about “the church” when I was interrupted by the questioner, asking for clarification.

“People,” I replied, instinctively aware that if I answered: “the building” my comments would have been discounted.

But later I wondered. Why was I offered this either/or choice?  Why do there appear to be negative connotations to speaking about the church as the building, as if this is something that we need to leave behind? What do we mean by the church as people anyway?

Are we talking about the regular congregation who turn up most Sundays?   Do we include occasionals? The person who comes once a month but takes no part in the life of the church?   How do we decide who is “the church” and who isn’t?

Neither church as building nor church as people seemed to quite fit with what I was trying to say. I wondered if I was thinking of the institutional church – the complete organisation from Archbishops and synods to churchwardens and PCCs?  But that didn’t seem right either.

On reflection, it seemed to me that behind all these facets of church there is a more mystical church. Connected to both past and future, it is continuously struggling to align itself (people, buildings and institution) with the Kingdom of God.

In this scenario, it is not a case of choosing one aspect and identifying it as “the church”. It is all of these, and probably other facets that I haven’t thought of, held together in some kind of tension.

“Go and repair my church, which you see is falling into ruins,” the crucified Christ said to Francis in the ruined chapel of San Damiano.  Francis did not see a dichotomy between rebuilding the physical chapel and a rebuilding of people’s spiritual lives. Perhaps we shouldn’t either…

Dancing in Church

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We are in the cathedral for some kind of afternoon celebration – it might be Pentecost. It isn’t specifically an All Age service but there are several children present.  The congregation are singing “How great thou art…” and in the small space in front of us a tiny two year old is dancing quietly.  Then a lady leans forward, taps his mother on the shoulder, and indicates to her that she should be keeping her child in order. The mother picks him up and restrains him.  He doesn’t dance any more. Many of those around me are aware that we have lost something special – but what can we do?

There are about 60 children present for All Age Worship in this large evangelical church.  For the first twenty minutes, while the children are present, there are choruses and a children’s talk, interspersed with the opening hymn and prayers for the adults.  The introductory hymn is “Shine Jesus shine”.  A four year old girl and her little brother step forward into the small square space in the centre and begin to dance.  They weave around each other, creating intricate patterns. At times they catch hands and whirl each other around.  No one joins them; all the other children stand sedately with their families in the pews.  It is hard to gauge the response of this church to the dancing – tolerated but not encouraged perhaps?  There is almost a feeling of relief when all the children are brought forward to take part in a well-known action song, a kind of religious version of the Hokey Cokey. Perhaps it’s safer when everyone is doing the same thing at the same time?

There are fifteen at the village All Age Worship service, five children and ten adults.  The congregation are singing “God forgave my sin in Jesus name” and three of the younger children are dancing (two eight year old boys and a five year old girl).  Ribbon rings have been offered and they all have one or two in each hand. Their dancing is spontaneous and experimental and sometimes gets carried away.  There is little interference from the adults; everyone accepts that dance is part of our experience of worship.

As I watch I wonder if the adults long to join in… Do they dance like this in empty churches, as I do?

Dancing Shoes by Noel Streatfeild: Hilary: Standing up to bullying

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Warning: Spoilers.  This is a continuation of this post: Dancing Shoes by Noel Streatfeild: an exploration of bullying

On one level Hilary is a totally unbelievable character. By the age of 10 she has lost two sets of parents: her birth parents in a convenient hurricane when she was six, her adoptive father in a plane crash and her adoptive mother through a fall down the stairs.  Her response to the death of her adoptive mother is depicted by Noel Streatfeild as a “normal reaction” – floods of tears, followed two days later by dancing merrily round the garden waving tea towels. This is the last we hear of her reaction to their deaths; she certainly shows no sign of missing anyone.

On this evidence Hilary comes across as a sociopath, whose talent for attracting fatal accidents to those close to her would not be out of place in The Omen…

However, setting this aside purely as a plot device, Hilary becomes a much more interesting character; she is the only person in Dancing Shoes who is prepared to confront bullying.

It is Hilary who refuses to allow Dulcie to get away with laughing at Rachel when she looks comic in her audition dress.  Slapping her in the face may not be the best response, but Hilary is a child surrounded by ineffectual adults.  When confronted with the bullying Mrs Wintle, Hilary is prepared to stand her ground, explain her reasons and point out that Dulcie’s response was unkind. The consequence of this is a rare moment when Mrs Wintle asks Pursey for advice, and more or less follows it.

In contrast, the other characters response is to keep away and never engage (Uncle Tom), avoid confrontation until it is inevitable and then offer resignation (Pursey and Mrs Storm), and freeze in fear (Rachel).  Pursey is even deceitful on occasions – buying orange material for shorts to convince Mrs Wintle that she has cut up Rachel’s beloved dress and encouraging Hilary to take part in a talent show without Mrs Wintle’s knowledge.

What is it that enables Hilary to stand up to bullying?

Firstly she has a very clear sense of who she is and what she wants.

Hilary has spent years resisting pressure to turn her into something that she isn’t.  Her adoptive mother, her ballet teacher and her sister Rachel all want her to work hard and go to the Royal Ballet School.  Rachel is obsessive about this to the extent of bribing Hilary with pocket money to get her to work at ballet.   Although Hilary goes along with this, the reader is always aware that at some level she knows it isn’t going to happen. This may be what others want for her; it isn’t what she wants for herself.

She also has an ability to make friends easily and create a strong support group.    Noel Streatfeild shows Hilary (disapprovingly) as someone who is naturally lazy and lacking in ambition; she has the talent but not the drive.  But this is unfair to Hilary, who is an extrovert and prefers to work as part of a troupe rather than in a solitary role.  As the antithesis to Noel’s solitary heroines, she is far better balanced and untroubled by angst.

Hilary has an awareness of others, she “gets” people and situations.  She understands that no amount of training will turn Rachel into a successful Wonder, something that the adults refuse to recognise or do anything about.  It is Hilary who makes it clear to Mrs Wintle that Rachel is not jealous showing that she is not only self aware, but aware of who Rachel is.

Perhaps it is key that Hilary insists on working out her own morality.  Her mercenary attitude (shared by Noel Streatfeild herself as a child) grates. Rachel and most of the adults consider Hilary to be immature and irresponsible. (At the start of the book the “thoughtful, caring” doctor tells Rachel, but not Hilary, that her mother is going to die. This has always baffled me, but it is indicative of the way Hilary appears to others.)

But the upside of this is that Hilary’s morality is grounded in reality.  Mummie’s dying wish, that she carries on with her ballet, does not bind her as it binds Rachel; she simply dismisses it. Following it would mean compromising her own integrity and force her to be someone that she is not. It takes years for Rachel to understand what Hilary has known all along.

It never occurs to Hilary not to confront the bullies in defence of Rachel.  This, in her morality, is what sisters do.  She not only acts while others hang back, but is prepared to accept the consequences of her actions.  In some ways, she is the most mature character in the book.

Dancing shoes by Noel Streatfeild – an exploration of bullying

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Warning: Spoilers.  A link to a synopsis of this book is at the end

I first read this book (then entitled Wintle’s Wonders) as a child in the 60s. As the author intended, I identified with Rachel, the lonely, misunderstood protagonist, who eventually has her happy ending when her acting talents are recognised at the expense of her spoilt and conceited cousin Dulcie.

Re-reading it as an adult is a far more chilling experience.

Rachel’s Aunt Cora (Mrs Wintle) is a bully.  Her bullying of Rachel is overt – constant criticism of her looks, her personality (described as “spiteful and jealous”), her insistence that despite a lack of interest and talent Rachel has to be trained as a Little Wonder and dance in pantomimes and musical comedy.

As with many bullies, few people are prepared to stand up to her.   Her staff at the dancing school simply accept that she will be the person making the decisions, while her husband Tom avoids confrontation and keeps out the way.  When Pursey (the nanny figure) and Mrs Storm (the children’s teacher) do actually make a stand for Rachel, neither has any skills with which to engage her; both go straight to offering their resignation.  The only person to stand up to her verbally (and actually come off best) is 11 year old Hilary, Rachel’s adopted sister.

But far more damaging than her overt bullying of Rachel, is Mrs Wintle’s bullying of her daughter Dulcie.  Rachel spends little time with her aunt and is surrounded by supportive adults – Mrs Storm, Pursey and her Uncle Tom – who all appreciate Rachel for the person she is.

Dulcie however is with her mother: morning, noon and night.  Mrs Wintle treats her as an extension of herself – Dulcie, pretty and talented, will be the stage success that she never was herself.  She even talks to her in this manner addressing her as “Mum’s Little Leading Lady”.

Dulcie does not go to school and has no friends – in fact the other Wonders hate her and make fun of her even though she is unaware of this. She imitates her mother’s patronising manner towards the Wonders, and has no insight into how she comes across.

The adults in Dulcie’s life seem completely unaware of the damage that her mother is inflicting upon her.  Pursey and Mrs Storm tolerate her (preferring Rachel and Hilary), the dancing staff refer to her as “Mrs W’s Little Horror”.  Her father Tom has no connection with her at all.  Rachel, his niece, spends hours in his studio or out sketching with him; he suggests a way to do her hair and designs clothes for her.  But we see no interaction between him and his daughter, he has handed her over to her mother and washed his hands of her.

Noel Streatfeild seems to have little sympathy for Dulcie, in effect blaming her for her self-centredness and conceit.  We are meant to rejoice at her downfall – and because it is actually her mother’s downfall, we do. Although the end of the book hints that she will have a glowing future in musical comedy productions, it seems likely that she is too damaged by her mother’s bullying to be able to have any meaningful relationships or decide for herself who she wants to be.

Although extreme, this situation comes across as believable.  This is how narcissistic bullies treat people.  Dulcie, the victim, is isolated and unaware. She has no one to speak up for her…

Synopsis here: Wintle’s Wonders by Noel Streatfeild