Suggestions for the journey: a way of life for the more chaotic family?

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I once forgot three of my son’s verruca appointments in a row.  After missing two appointments, I wrote myself a large note and placed it in the centre of the table.  However, someone passing by needed paper and tore it in half, reducing it to a small note.  Someone else, in an unprecedented fit of tidying, threw the small note away.  All might still have been well (I had been chanting verruca, verruca to myself throughout the day) if our youngest son had not just returned from his primary school residential. As we sat round the table, listening to the gorier details of his week away, the time slipped past…

I got a somewhat tart reply to my letter of abject apology but at least they didn’t strike us off.

We all have our ideal of parenthood and none of us, even the most organised among us, ever live up to it.  What makes it more difficult is that not only are we surrounded by people who appear to be living up to the ideal (think facebook photos of smiling children gazing at nature) but also there is a wealth of advice and ideas around that will supposedly help us get there.  There is an implicit suggestion that the ideal is achievable.

The Diocese of Ely is keen to promote a Way of Life (http://www.elydiocese.org/way-of-life) and has included resources for a Way of Life for families.   It’s well intentioned (though I am baffled as to why something entitled “a Way of Life” only includes six sessions!)  I am sure there are families that will enjoy using the materials and get a lot from it.

But it would never have worked for mine.

There is something about its approach that is just too formalised.  I could not put my finger on it until someone commented that it “sets up an ideal of what parents are supposed to be able to do with their children that for me felt like an oppressive and unachievable ideal.”  For the more chaotic family (like mine!) it would be yet another parenting failure alongside not getting out the door without shouting, allowing my daughter to live on cheese triangles and raisins, and failing to read bed time stories.

So what might have worked for us?

Prayer

We never had formal prayer sessions.  However, we did pray when the occasion arose – about people or situations we were concerned about.  We prayed in the car, the bath, walking to school. It wasn’t every day or at a particular time.  If we didn’t pray for a few days, I didn’t feel guilty. Sometimes I prayed, sometimes they did, sometimes I prayed silently.  One Lent we actually made a paper chain of our prayers, a link a day. We never managed to repeat this but now I might think about using symbols (candles, leaves etc) in prayer.

Stories

I don’t like reading aloud, I am a storyteller rather than a story reader.    I think now that I could have done more storytelling with my children, playing to my strengths rather than my weaknesses. We did have Bible story books and other books which we shared, though not on a regular, formal basis.

Inspiration

It never occurred to me to try these ideas (http://www.spiritualchild.co.uk/home1.html)   but I would now.  Victoria Goodman has suggestions for toys, symbols and puzzles that will enrich children’s play and create focus areas around the house.  I would include putting up pictures (changing them every now and then) and playing music, including Christian music and pictures.  I’m not sure it matters if the children don’t react.

Freedom

When my two older children were very small, about three and two, we let them wander around a friend’s field, while we sat in the garden and watched.  We could see them at all times, but they were free to explore by themselves.  We also let them experience “freedom” at the local recreation ground, on beaches and in the grounds of stately homes. Sometimes they came back to us with things they had found, usually a variety of sticks from smallish twigs to large logs…

Creativity

We always had art materials and dressing up clothes around… Also lego, knex,  other construction toys and the freedom to play outside. After watching the children in school creating worlds with the Godly Play stories and other three dimensional items (like felt squares, wooden rainbow and shimmer stones) I would now add these.

Talk

The ideal family sit down for all their meals and talk… They share their stories of the day, their highs and lows, in precious family time together. The less than ideal family manages this some of the time/occasionally/never.  I’m not a fan of over directed conversation with a series of themed questions so my own experience varies: monosyllabic responses, long justifications for being vegetarian, school worries, discussions of free will at 1.30 a.m… I found the car was usually a good place to talk, especially with one child at a time.

Church and community

When my children were small I took them to church. It was far from ideal – the vicar’s wife tried to offer story and colouring in the cold cramped vestries; often they had to sit through the service.  When the vicar and his wife moved on, we took the opportunity (with their blessing!) to set up the family service in a different kind of way. It is worth looking around for a church that will suit your family and accept all your children, whatever their personalities. Alternatively look for a church that is open to new ideas and ways of doing things so that you can work towards the kind of church that will include everyone…

Action

My children occasionally came up with ideas, some more sustainable than others. As a ten year old, my daughter and her friends planned to save the planet and actually held fundraising events for various causes (with significant help from the adults!)  My best suggestion for this is to encourage it if it happens and you feel that you can cope with it!  (We had ten years of three vegetarian children…)

I could have done more with my children when they were small, I’d like to start again and be more experimental!  I try (and mostly succeed) in not feeling too guilty.  Looking back, it is easy to forget the stresses we were under ourselves – the appointments for the disabled child, the aging parents, the frantic busyness of daily life…

Life is never going to let up long enough for us to achieve our ideal and now I no longer want to.  The journey is far more interesting…

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Jesus is fun?

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The church I grew up in was dull.

I used to go to Matins (morning prayer) which followed the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.  I found the canticles dreary and the hymns chosen from Ancient and Modern almost indistinguishable.  The Rector, a quiet introverted man who didn’t much care for people, preached every week on the state of the world. Fifty years later his sermons could have been preached almost unaltered; only the details have changed.  I used to while away the time gazing at the stained glass window opposite (the miraculous catch of fish) and reading the memorial tablet to an only son killed on the Somme.  I would also choose a page of the hymnbook and see if I could find all the letters of the alphabet in order.  (There were only about three pages where this worked; most pages stopped short in the search for a “q”).

Many people of my generation and after grew up in similar churches; it is not surprising that there has been a reaction.  It is also not surprising that for some churches the reaction has tended towards the idea that “Jesus is fun and loved a party.”

For a time, this was particularly noticeable in children’s work, where games and gimmicks became the typical way to do things.  “We try to wear them out with games and then we slip in a story,” said one children’s worker, talking about her junior church group.  The message was clear: if it wasn’t fun, it wouldn’t engage the children and we would lose the next generation.

But for some churches this also applied to other aspects of church life: they were determined to prove that Christians were not boring.  If people outside the church came along to fun church events – harvest suppers, duck races, Easter egg hunts – they would see that Christians were fun people who did fun things.  Perhaps this would encourage them to join in… Perhaps they would start coming along on Sundays…

The problem is that “Jesus is fun and liked a party” is not the Gospel.

I am sure Jesus was fun in many ways; he certainly wasn’t dull.  He also liked a party – we see him at the wedding at Cana, feeding five thousand people, enjoying himself with his friends…

But the Gospel is much more than this.  It occupies a far deeper space, one that makes meaning of our lives, our deaths and the whole of creation.  “Fun” barely scratches the surface.

We live in a culture, which like all cultures, is searching for meaning.  But our personal lives can be so busy that it is possible for both Christians and non Christians to avoid doing this. The default seems to be that if this life is all there is, time is short, and we need to have as much fun as we can.  Fun becomes the goal… and some churches seem to have accepted this, not necessarily for themselves, but in their approach to those who are not Christians.

This approach demeans non Christians who are just as much people as we are.  If all we are offering them is “fun” there is far more fun to be had elsewhere.  It is particularly demeaning to children who are not afraid to look at life afresh and make meaning.

Why offer them just the froth on the top?

As Rachel Nicholls put it, when commenting on poor all age talks:  “Yes – they can be the direst of the dire – but isn’t that when they operate out of a weird anthropology (children are from a different planet called kiddy widdy land) and a weird theology (God is essentially boring, so rather than enter his presence together, let’s muck around instead).”

Where there is no vision the people perish

The latest Church  of England statistics are out, with interesting analysis and comments from David Keen at Opinionated Vicar (http://davidkeen.blogspot.co.uk/), Jeremy Marshall (https://tinyurl.com/yckp9o2j) and others.  They continue to show a decline in attendance, and a wide range of reasons are suggested for why this should be so.

Is there anything the Church of England can do about its current decline?  If so, how does it identify what can be done and start doing it?

It seems to me that there is an underlying yearning to be part of a visionary church, one that is moving forward in the will of God.   We know that where there is no vision the people perish; what we don’t know is how to be visionary.

This is partly because there are a whole range of myths surrounding vision.  One myth is that it is possible for vision to happen top down.  Over the last 20 years I have attended several church away days dedicated to vision and mission.  We have come back and written Vision Statements and Mission Action Plans.  I was really excited by the first one – after years of drifting along fairly aimlessly, it seemed to me that the church was actually getting to grips with who it was and where it should be going.

But nothing actually changed – or if it did it was not as a result of the MAP or the Vision Statement.  I think this is because people find it almost impossible to turn the vague generalised principles of the Vision Statement into a practical reality.  There is a tendency to look at what we are already doing and see how it fits in so that we can tick the box that says for example “Respect everyone”.  Mission Action Plans can all too easily degenerate into Coming up with Ideas to Keep the Bishop Happy.  But good ideas are not vision…

Another myth is that we need unity in order to be visionary.  Given the current range of views in the Church of England, this is an impossibility.  There is not going to be a magic moment in which everyone suddenly converts to our way of thinking – and even if they did it might end up as a sterile situation.

So perhaps we are never going to be part of a visionary church?

I think we need to let go of the idea of a visionary institutional church that encompasses the whole of the Church of England.

But vision still happens…  In my experience (which is obviously limited) it takes place in a very specific context.  Often something sparks and an idea is taken up and developed by an individual or a small group of people.

Vision is time limited.  That initial excitement does not last; after a while the vision becomes the usual, even the routine.  I’m not sure that matters… for then the wind blows again and there is a fresh vision or a transforming of the old one as it moves in an unexpected direction…

So perhaps instead of one overarching vision for the Church of England, what we need is a piecemeal approach.  A mosaic of vision.

In that case what is the place of the institutional church, particularly at national level? Is there one?

I was starting to think the answer to this was no. But on reflection I thought that what unites all Christians is prayer.  So perhaps:

  • The diocese removes the pressure on churches to produce Mission Action Plans, Vision Statements and the like. Churches can still do them if they want to, but it isn’t compulsory.
  • Instead the diocese conducts a prayer audit of all churches. Who is praying, how often, how long for etc
  • Each church is encouraged (or possibly even mandated) to start a prayer group. As a minimum, one person who is not ordained or part of a clergy household once a week for half an hour. (It is probable that clergy and their families are already praying; this is something that needs to be taken up more widely.)
  • In addition each church has a monthly prayer group which includes clergy, some of those in church leadership positions and some of those the church leadership regard as the bums on the seats.
  • These prayer groups are free to pray as they feel led, but in addition they need to pray specifically, every time, for any projects or initiatives that their church is engaged in. Even the ones that they personally disapprove of or think are pretty rubbish anyway. Also for any local Christian projects and initiatives, regardless of denomination.  They ask specifically for God’s guidance and attempt to listen to what He might actually be saying to them in their context.
  • They also pray for protection.
  • Meanwhile the diocese sets up its own prayer groups. They carry on (for the moment) with all the courses and support that they are currently providing, but they then look to see what is bubbling up from the churches and how they can support it.
  • They also collect and share stories of people who prayed for years before seeing their prayers answered.  This isn’t a quick fix. We are all in this for the long haul.

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?

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…