Disney’s Soul – Jazz, leadership and faith.

The 2020 Christmas release of Soul seems, if you believe rottentomatoes, to be a film which caught the imagination of the audience. With a deep story line, and clever sub plots, the story is a ‘multilayered experience of the musical dimension’…which touches…’our humanity’ (Heltzel, 2012, p.2). Heltzel, is obviously not writing about Soul per se, but his description of jazz holds true of the storyline of Soul. In fact, Soul is based within the world of jazz, and both, offer ‘a new way of experiencing life – life together’ (p.2, 2012). 

The story of Soul is one of a burnt out middle school teacher, Joe, who has dreams of making it as a jazz musician. In search of his “big break” Joe experiences a life changing situation, falling down a manhole and ending up in the “Great Beyond”, where soul counsellors – all named Jerry – manage the intersection between life and death. 

At the heart of Soul is the moment of improvisation. The movie pivots and turns as Joe tries to live out his dream, even in the face of death. Many people think improvisation is all about the experimental, about the new and the bold. I have found it to be the opposite. In fact, the best improv comes from those who truly know their art form. Improvisation does not come from picking up an instrument and giving it a go but from practice. It take time to learn the appropriate scales or discover how to give permission and always say yes. To be good at improvisation you need to be faithful to the process. Or, to put it another way, the journey. 

Soul, I propose, raises two interesting points for those who are Christian. The first relates to our faith and the second looks at how those who minister, mentor, and enable others.

Improvising faith

We cannot deny that 2020 was a year of improvisation. No-one was trained to minister in a pandemic. There was no handbook of expectations. No tick list of tasks to complete. We were improvising. Using the tools given to practice our faith in new ways. But, this was not simply improvisation for the sake of improvisation it was what Cameron defines as faithful improvisation – ‘of finding out how to say the same thing in a different language, different context, to different people’ (2018, p. 60) and it was hard. Just like saying yes can be hard on stage to the other actor or using the skills at your disposal to respond to the musical overtones. Improvisation is not easy but neither is faith. 

As already mentioned Soul is set within the world of jazz and there is much we, as Christians, can learn from jazz to help enrich our faith. Hetzel (2012) puts it like this:

Like jazz, Christianity is a dramatic and musical performance. Like jazz, Christian thinking and acting are improvisational, creative, and hopefully forward-looking. Like, Jazz, they exemplify a dynamic of constraint and possibility.’ 

Christianity is all about creative witness. It is about taking the gifts we have and improvising. That is what we did in 2020. We, as a church, took the gifts God had given us and improvised. We used the deep wells of faith to improvise. We came up with creative ways to reimagine faith and to offer witness to the world. We did not shrink into the darkness but we embraced the possibility and shone. We used our faith and we improvised.

To do this though we needed to develop one particular muscle, we needed to learn to trust. Wells argues that that improvisation ‘is not about being spontaneous and witty in the moment, but about trusting oneself to do and say the obvious,’ (p.13, 2004). Trust is a key skill that any improvisation involves and it is central to the story of Soul. In Daring Greatly, Brene Brown, notes that because of our insecurities and our desire to be strong we can often miss forming strong relationships. Brown writes that “trust is a product of vulnerability that grows over time and requires work, attention, and full engagement’ (p.53). Just like it takes time for the jazz musician to learn the needed skills to improvise it also takes time for Christians to learn to let go and trust God. To trust that God has the rudder and will take our permission giving and the skills we have gained and use them to make something beautiful. 

Faithful Improvising is all about improvising our faith. It is about using the skills that we have sharpened in prayer and being a witness in the world. It is not about being perfect or performing well. It is about taking what we have learnt and using it creatively in the performance that God has put us in. It is about trusting God and letting go, it is about being vulnerable and saying yes. Nothing more, nothing less. It is about saying yes to God’s amazing plan.

Permission giving – a way to mentor others into their full potential

An important part of any improvisation is permission giving. It is about saying yes to the other person. In drama it is about not blocking the other and enabling the show to go on, it is hard. It is hard because it demands trust and vulnerability. At its heart this is what Soul is all about. It is about two lost souls giving each other permission to become themselves and to share in each others vulnerability. It is something that Christian leaders tend to struggle with. 

Soul is a story of two lost souls coming together and gaining trust. By cleverly using skills from jazz the Disney production team demonstrate how trust is won and relationships are formed. This is something that Disney understand intrinsically as it is in their ethos. In Creativity Inc. Ed Catmull demonstrates that the Disney model is based not simply on skill but also on ethos. They create a culture of buy-in and community, something later fostered by both Facebook and Google. Catmull acknowledges that before the ideas are formed the team needs to be right. Before the musicians can improvise they need to trust, and before the mentee can grow the mentor needs to have gained the others trust. 

To do this mentors need to be willing to acknowledge their own weaknesses and strengths. Miroslav Volf (2019) suggests that to do this we need to embrace not exclude the other but to do that we have to acknowledge our own vulnerabilities. We need to be attentive to what is going on in our own lives and welcome people into that. We need to be drawn into communities of sacrifice not gain. For it is through our own sacrifice that we can move closer to the cross. It is only when we are willing to sacrifice our place at the table that others will grow.

Returning for a moment to trust. As leaders we often demand respect due to archaic ties and positional power. So often the minister exert power explicitly. It is only as Joe and 22 come to trust each other that a relationship is formed. It is only when Joe begins to show vulnerability that 22 begins to understand what it might mean to be human and that is to trust. It wasn’t because of Joe’s power but because of his vulnerability that their relationship changed and this is something all leaders need to be mindful of, especially those within the church. Helen Cameron (2012) puts it like this ‘those who do hold authority need to foster imagination, empathy and humility to remain aware of how powerless and vulnerable others may feel.’ Rather than trying to exert dominance, or rely on stature, the leader, or mentor, needs to come alongside the mentee, or team member, and try to understand how to say “yes”. How to enter their life and make them flourish. How to use the gifts they offer and turn those gifts into something for God. 

Improvisation is all about permission giving. It is about enabling the other to trust in themselves, and you, enough to respond. It is about offering your gifts, and weaknesses, even if this makes you vulnerable in the hope that the other person will respond. Jesus ‘got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet’ (John 13, 4 – 5). This moment is the perfect example of the intersection between vulnerability and trust. Jesus, in showing his vulnerability, asks the disciples to trust him. In taking a position of service Jesus demonstrates his vulnerability and asks for permission to show the disciples a better way. How often does our ministry do that? How often do we look to give permission to think outside the box? How often do we ignore the one who may flourish because they do not fit the criteria for ministry? How often do we fail to promote amazing leaders because we fear that they are better than we are? How often do we serve our own aims and forget God’s? 

Soul offers a specific moment in the life of a man who had one dream. A dream which he comes to realise was limiting his very existence. He was so caught up in that dream that he could not see what was going on around him. He failed to give himself permission to let his yes be yes. He could not see a different way. As we move into 2021 we will need to come up with new ways to live out our faith. We will need to be creative in enabling budding leaders to flourish. Fear not however for God has already given us to the tools and the permission, I think it is up to us to say yes and that’s the hard part!

*As an Amazon Association I earn from qualifying purchases

Weekly Insights (2)

This week has mostly been holiday. It felt odd taking holiday Wednesday to Wednesday but who knows what normal looks like anymore? This weeks insights focus around the theme of “wellness”. January is the time that we create hopes and dreams of what we could be. Often, in the moment, we forget who we are and where we have come from as we idealise what could be.

All of my three insights this week focus on being the “best” you, you can be while also grounding us in the reality that, at times, life is hard.

Something I’ve read

I am going to be a little biased this week and say one of the best things I read came from my lovely wife. In her honest and open reflections Ash reflected upon the difficulties that we can sometimes face and the need for peace.

I will not spoil her wonderful words any more but simply offer a link to her blog post:

https://believinghealthy.wordpress.com/2021/01/12/not-hope-but-peace/

Something I’ve listened too

This week I listened to two things which I found helpful and I will offer both as a way for you to learn and reflect. The first was a conversation between Nicky Gumble and Timothy Keller, two influential Christian leaders.

The conversation brushed over many topics but at its heart were Timothy Keller’s grappling with faith, the resurrection and his cancer diagnosis. Keller offers poignant reflections about how faith can change and develop even when facing the darkest of moments and, as he spoke, I was drawn back to C.S. Lewis’ short book, A grief observed*. Lewis, facing a difficult loss, offers similar reflections on faith and doubt at moments of darkness but both point to the light of the resurrection and the peace that it can offer.

The second conversation I listened too was the Hypermobility podcast, a recommendation from a member of our parish who suffers from EDS. This podcast offers real, and practical, advice for those who suffer from Hypermobility Disorders on how to enable conversations around pain.

Early on in the conversation one of the hosts helpfully reframes how a person with EDS could speak about their pain in terms of EDS rather than simply in terms of pain and what others may see as unnecessary “complaining”. I offer this podcast both for those who suffer from, or know someone who suffer from, hyper mobility disorder but also for us all to help gain insight on what it is like to suffer from such pain and how we can better help those who do.

An interesting Idea

This week, as I prepared to preach, I reflected on our reading from the Old Testament. The story of Samuel’s call is one which sits close to my heart and in it there is a wonderful moment in which Samuel says to God “speak Lord, your servant is listening.” In the depths of night, when Samuel did not know what was going on, he trusted that God would speak to him and he was eager to listen.

As I have pondered what it means to face different challenges and find hope I was caught by the idea that God can offer us peace if only we listen.

So, this week, why not find a quiet space and pray “Speak Lord, you servant is listening,” and hopefully God will speak words of peace to you.

A prayer

A prayer for peace from the Book of Common Prayer

Lord God, all holy desires, all good counsels, and all just works come from you. Give to us, your servants, that peace which the world cannot give, that our hearts may be set to obey your commandments. Defend us also from the fear of our enemies that we may live in peace and quietness, through the merits of Jesus Christ our Savior, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Amen

*As an Amazon Association I earn from qualifying purchases

Weekly Insights (1)

I am going to attempt to blog more regularly in 2021 and therefore each Friday will be releasing a blog post. These scribblings will include something I have read, something I have listened too and an interesting idea. This is both an attempt to offer you, my lovely reader, some new ideas but also to keep me accountable. It is very easy to settle into a pattern of watching the latest TV and not striving to learn. Yet, the most important thing we can do is experience new ideas.

So, in an attempt to keep me learning please indulge me and maybe you too will learning, or uncover, something new too.

Something I have read

This week I have been reading atomic habits by James Clear. This is a great book for anyone who wants to achieve their goals and make sustainable changes in their life. I am only partway through as it is quite a slow read if you want to really address the issues discussed. This week I have been thinking about the habits that form my daily routine.

James Clear argues that one of the main challenges to changing habits is maintaining the awareness of what you are doing. Clear recommends making a list of your daily habits and putting a +, -, or = sign next to each one. The “+” recommends positive habits, i.e. taking a shower, the “-” equates to negative habits, i.e. checking your phone when you get up, and the “=” sign reflects neutral habits like getting up.

I definitely recommend atomic habits to anyone who wants to make a positive change to their life in 2021.

Something I have listened too

Every few months I like to change up the routine of my daily quiet time. Last year I was working through the Bible in a year and tended to read chunks of scripture in my quiet time. At the start of January I picked up the app “Lectio 365” which is a great prayer app that you can listen too where ever you are. It’s a great one for the commute, for the kitchen sink, or sat at your desk. The app tends to take a theme for the week, or a longer period, and the daily prayer time uses that “theme” as its structure.

The app is currently looking at the Beatitudes from Matthew 5 so each day you are offered a time to pause, a piece of scripture to reflect on and a time then to pray. Each “episode” is only about 10 minutes so it truly is a great way to start the day with God!

An interesting Idea

Those of you who know me well know that I have a real love of coffee, in fact I am drinking a coffee as a write this, so I thought it would be interesting to learn a bit more about caffeine this week and see what effects it has on the human body.

While reading some interesting articles I stumbled across a piece of research which suggests that caffeine can help improve Bee’s memory. Researcher’s found that caffeine, which in high doses, can be poisonous to all animals, is, in small amounts, helpful in improving the memories of bees. In fact, in one study, it was found that the reward is such that caffeine can pharmacologically manipulate the behaviour of pollinators and reward them by improving their memories of which plants to return too.

The study may not have impacted my consumption, but at least I learnt something new!

A prayer from the week

This week the Church has celebrated the Epiphany. It has remembered the visit of the Magi to the Christ child. In a week where authority figures have caused great chaos, and demanded to be worshiped, it is good to remember that it was not the Jewish leaders who first worshiped Jesus but foreign travellers. I wonder what that could teach us about our lives and worship.

O God,

who by the leading of a star

manifested your only Son to the peoples of the earth:

mercifully grant that we,

who know you now by faith,

may at last behold your glory face to face;

through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,

who is alive and reigns with you,

in the unity of the Holy Spirit,

one God, now and for ever.

Collect for the Epiphany,

Church of England, Common Worship

Advent Waiting

2020 has felt like “the longest year,” this advent has felt like the “longest advent,” and, if we are honest, we do not know what we are waiting for. A few weeks ago I read part of John of the Cross’ dark night of the soul.

This 16th century poem, written in five stanza’s of eight lines each, narrates the journey the soul takes as it becomes united with God.  The poem, which shows the importance of contemplation in our Christian journey, speaks of a presence in absence. As we contemplate God in the darkness of the night we are drawn to a closer union; our emptiness is filled by the presence of God. 

And, if you think, this kind of idea is a quaint trait of 16th century mystics, I recently came across the soul moving song “After the Storm,” performed by Mumford & Sons. In this song we encounter a set of profound spiritual truths which can be hard to understand. 

“And after the storm, I run and run as the rains come. And I look up, I look up, on my knees and out of luck, I look up.”

I wonder when you were last on your knees. When you last encountered a “dark night” of the soul. Christian life is full of such moments. No matter how positive we make faith look, we all face dark nights. We all face moments where we fall to our knees in the middle of the storm. 

We all face moments when we want to look up and scream.

It is interesting that these moments, these experiences of darkness tend to push out the positive. They outweigh any good and make us want to focus on the dark. To stay in it, alone. 

“Night has always pushed up day. You must know life to see decay. But I won’t rot, I won’t rot. Not this mind and not this heart, I won’t rot.”

Yes, it is easy to focus on the darkness, but both St. John and Mumford & Son’s 

allude to a greater truth. The truth that we are not alone. 

“And I took you by the hand. And we stood tall, And remembered our own land, What we lived for.”

One of the blessings of advent is that it opens up a new opportunity. As we prepare for a king we are reminded that God came to us. We are reminded that we do not need to perform religious acts, or build taller towers, but in fact God leans down and meets us in the form of a child. Emmanuel, God with us. God comes to us and meets us, often in the darkness, and shows us love. 

“And now I cling to what I knew. I saw exactly what was true. But oh no more. That’s why I hold, That’s why I hold with all I have. That’s why I hold.”

Once you have seen the truth. Once you have encountered the love shining in the darkness it is hard to turn back. Even when the tears blind us, or the pain cripples us, we can hold onto something else and in the midst of the darkness we can abandon our pain and greet the one who calls us by name. 

I abandoned and forgot myself,

laying my face on my Beloved;

all things ceased; I went out from myself,

leaving my cares

forgotten among the lilies.

On this, the darkest of nights, I am reminded that we all have darkness to face. We all have things that we hide in the storm. Yet, in the midst of the storm, we are not alone. We encounter one who offers us rest. He may not take away the pain, or solve the problem, but as the tears flow and the rain falls, we encounter one who wants to hear our pain. One who wants to take our sorrows upon himself and offer us peace. 

On this darkest of nights, why not light a candle, play a song, and try and cast your cares on God.

Because…

there will come a time

You’ll see, with no more tears

And love will not break your heart

But dismiss your fears

Get over your hill and see

What you find there

With grace in your heart

And flowers in your hair

That may not be tonight, but it will come, for the grace of God does not exclude. It does not stop. We may be in the storm but we are being prepared for more.  We are being prepared for a time when there will be no more tears. We are being prepared for the time when we will see God’s face and feel no more fear, rejection or pain. A moment when all we will feel is love. 

But, for now, on this darkest of nights, why not light a candle, play a song, and try and cast your cares on God.

For, the journey can be hard I know that too. But in the darkness God may come and offer you some rest for your soul. 

I pray, that tonight, God offers you rest for your weary soul and a song for your struggling heart.

So, light a candle, and sit. Sit and wait for God will come and ease the weary tears. God will come and sooth the pain. 

God will come.

Just as God came that first Christmas morn.


God will come. 

God’s not fair

It’s unfair, it’s unfair, it’s unfair. 

How come he got the promotion.

How did she get that car.

How did they afford that house. 

It’s unfair, it’s unfair, it’s unfair. 

Black Lives Matter, LGBTI+ rights, equal pay, we live in a world where we have come to understand that life is not a fair place to live and that we should strive to make it more just. But justice and equality are different. Equality is the state of being equal, especially in status, rights, or opportunities. Justice, on the other hand, is about our behaviour and our treatment of those who are different from us. That, when observed through the lens of justice, this passage teaches us more about God’s love than we care to admit and that once we have seen it we cannot be changed.

God’s love is radical. 

If we were to trace the narrative ark of God’s love through our bible, beginning with Adam and ending with the ascension, we cannot but see that God’s love is radical. The biblical narrative is about a divine creator who wants to be in relationship with us. Think back to the Israelites who rejected and turned away from God’s love. For 40 years they wandered in the wilderness, worshiped idols and failed to hear God’s call. Yet God still provided for them. He provided them Manna to eat, great chunks of food which gave them physical sustenance. He gave them leaders to follow, people who could help reconcile their relationship, and, eventually, he brought them home. No matter how despondent their faith got. No matter how much they moaned and wailed, God still wanted them. He was still jealous for them. He still loved them. 

This love does not stop with the people of Israel. It does not stop even when the Israelites turn away from faith and professionalise their worship in the temple. God still yearned for his people, and this was demonstrated through a truly radical act. God came to earth and offered love. God, in human form, offered us a kind of reconciling love that was totally radical. Jesus’ death on the cross was the most radical act of love. It strived to break down barriers and build connection. It called the people of Israel back into loving relationship and it opened our understanding of love to include us. 

God’s love isn’t fair.

If you struggle with the concept of God’s radical love this next concept is even more difficult to comprehend. God’s love isn’t fair. When we come to God’s holy table we get a glimpse of this. When we recite the prayer:

“Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” 

This prayer is not exactly something one would want to say to God. Yet, these words are prayed by Christians in liturgy before receiving Communion.

In this moment we remember our original sin. We are reminded that we can never be perfect and that it is only by God’s love and grace that we are able to approach the altar at all. 

Those words, not only remind us of our original sin but, also remind us that God’s love is open to all. For they take us back to Matthew 8 and the Roman centurion. Jesus, approached by the Roman Centurion who asks for healing for his servant, is so moved by the centurions faith that he offers healing to the servant. In response the centurion says those words we heard a moment ago. But it is Jesus’ response that I want to focus on right now.

‘Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof; only say the word and my servant will be healed…’ When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, ‘Amen, I say to you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith…You may go; as you have believed, let it be done for you.’”

There is too much going on in this passage for me to unpack it now, but let me say this. The faith Jesus encounters in this moment demonstrates the unfair nature of love. Jesus offers healing to this “servant” even though he is not of the Jewish faith because he encounters true faith in the words of the centurion. Moved by love Jesus offers the healing of the Jewish people to the world. It may seem fair to us, but could you imagine what the Jewish authorities thought?

But, what about us. How do we understand the unfair nature of God’s love. Well, let’s think about the prodigal son for a moment. Once again this is a complex multi-layered story that I cannot unpack fully. But, let me draw your attention to a few things. The obvious focus point, when discussing what is “fair” is to discuss the son who did not receive his inheritance. Who stayed and worked for his father and, in his own words, didn’t even receive a fatted calf. But, I think there is something even more radical going on. Something that we often fail to notice as we are caught up in the story. The younger brother never truly asked for forgiveness. He admits his fault yes, but he never asks for forgiveness, he never says “Father, please forgive me”. He doesn’t need to, the Father has already forgiven him, even before the words are uttered forgiveness is offered. All is forgiven. 

That is what the radical nature of God’s love is all about. It has nothing to do with us. It isn’t about what we can earn, or what we receive, but it is about a God who constantly offers us forgiveness, no matter what we do. And, it’s not fair. It’s not fair that we can strive our whole life to live by faith and then our friend, or neighbour, confesses on their death bed and are forgiven. It isn’t fair that God forgives the worst of sinners but we experience suffering even though we have lived our whole life by faith. God’s love simply isn’t fair. 

It’s all about grace 

That’s the point though, for God’s love isn’t about what is fair, it is a moment of grace. Grace is the free, undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God. It is free and undeserved. It is offered to all, not just a set of people who look and sound like us, but those who we think are unworthy. It is radical. It is obscene. It is the offer of salvation to a Roman Centurion and his servant. It is the offer of love to a child who is spent up and washed out. It is an offer of safety to a people who have wandered aimlessly unable to hear God’s call. Grace is a radical gift that we cannot predict or contain. It is about a radical love. A love which is completely unfair but is available to anyone who wants to come and receive it. 

Psalm 23: Faith, Trust & Lockdown.

Over the past few months I have been reading Psalm 23 a lot. It has become a bit of a vocational hazard. It has been chosen by many families to be read, or listened too, at one of the most difficult moments faced by all; a funeral. Yet, there is much to be learnt from this psalm beyond the moments of death. 

Psalm 23 is probably one of the most well known, and popular, psalms and although wholly appropriate to be read at funeral services this psalm has as much to say to the living as it does to the bereaved. For this is a psalm which puts our daily activities; our eating, drinking, resting, seeking security, into the hands of God. This psalm shifts our self-entered perspective into a radical God-centred perspective. 

I wonder if there is something that you could not have lived without during these past few months. Whether it be music, or food, or warmth, or the internet (and the dreaded Zoom), things which have enabled you to fill your life and make sure you have been okay. Things which have enabled your life to be comfortable no matter what is going on out there. 

I wonder if you panicked when the shops got low on toilet roll, or if you stocked enough pasta to get you through to Christmas. Did you trust in the kindness of others, or did you cling to self-protection and a culture of grabbing what you needed before looking out for those in need. 

Whatever choices you made there is a passage in the Gospel of Matthew which, when linked with Psalm 23, promotes a different way of life and tells us to trust in a different story. Jesus, speaking to his disciples, says this:

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear . . . But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you.” (Matt 6:25, 33 NRSV)

Strive not for the things of the world but, instead, strive for the things of the kingdom. Look first to God, then to the world. Focus on your heavenly needs rather than your earthly ones. This is the message Jesus is giving the disciples and they are words which we need to hear as well. 

As you return to this famous, and often read, psalm. Why not reframe your thoughts. Instead of reading it as a psalm within a context of death and dying instead read it as a psalm about striving to not worry now. For who has added a year to their life by worrying. No-one. Before worrying, pray. Trust in God. Live counter-culturally. 


In our culture we are told to trust no-one. The state will let us down, our friends will let us down, God will let us down. Ultimately, we need to trust in ourselves. For it is only through self provision that we will survive. Yet our Gospel tells a different story. Our Gospel tells of a story of hope in the midst of suffering. Our Gospel tells us that there is someone else to trust and that He died and rose again for us. That has to be something to be thankful for, even when we didn’t have enough toilet roll or pasta!

So, as you re-read this psalm pray that you will trust more in God, and less in yourself. Seek to live humbly and walk faithfully as a child of God. Pray to God trusting that He will answer your prayers when you call. For, as we read in Psalm 23, God provides all our food, all our security, all our hope.

Maybe this, over and above any other, is the reason that I have spent a lot of time with this psalm of the last few months. Not because it speaks of hope, and comfort, at a time of death. But because it reminds us that God is our hope and comfort now and that we can put our trust in Him. Maybe it reminds us all that rather than going it alone we should let God into our life and trust that He will provide for our needs, even when we run out of toilet paper and pasta. Maybe, just maybe, in this psalm we find a purpose and prayer. In this psalm, more than many of the others, we hear of a God who loves us completely and does not want to see us go without. Our God has abundantly more than we can ask or imagine we just need to trust.

St. Thomas – the Way, the Doubt, and the Faith.

John 11: 16 Then Thomas (also known as Didymus[a]) said to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

I am not sure how many of you are aware of our little secret. I remember one conversation which happened not so long after my licensing in which I had to reveal it. Our common name isn’t in fact the churches actual name. Although colloquially known as Norbury Parish Church, our church is actually dedicated to St. Thomas. We are, in truth, St. Thomas, Hazel Grove.

“So are we St. Thomas, Hazel Grove, now you’ve come?”

“Well no. We’ve always been St. Thomas’s theres just a lot of them in the area so Norbury Parish Church works better.”

“So we don’t need to buy more paper.”

“No, not at the moment at least.”

There are many churches named after Thomas, and for good reason. Thomas, the doubting disciple, challenges us to to face the reality of our doubt and faith. We run with Thomas into situations, confident our faith will win out and yet the next minute we are demanding proof, unsure if God is real at all. In Thomas we find an exemplar of the christian challenge of faithful doubting. Something which many of us have now mastered as an art form. Yet, in and through Thomas so much more of our faith is revealed. 

In the passage quoted from John, Jesus is demonstrating the complexity of faith. The disciples, confused by Jesus’ response to hearing that Lazarus is unwell, demand an answer. Not another parable, or riddle, or story, but an answer. How often do we want an answer? How often do we want God to show up and tell us what to do. How often do we sit in silence hoping for a voice. Or sit in the pulpit expecting a neatly packaged plan for life. 

The answer they get must have shock them. Just as it would shock us if Val, or Hugh, or Peter, or Alan, gave us such a direct response to our questions about faith:

John 11: 14 – 15 So then he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead,and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”

The absurdity of this must smack the disciples right in the face. Why go somewhere that is dangerous. For Judea, where Lazarus was, was somewhere that was not safe to Jesus. In fact the gospel writer plainly tells us that the Jews had tried to stone Jesus when he was last in Judea. Why go somewhere that is dangerous, when Lazarus is already dead. Well, because that is what faith is about. 

Faith is about those moments when, even though we don’t truly understand, we encounter God more fully. When something of the christian faith is revealed to us. Especially when we didn’t expect it. When we understand, like Thomas, that we need to let go to the very thing we cling to so as to encounter, and be embraced by, God. 

“Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

Thomas says to the other disciples. Not really aware what is being demanded of him, or what the way looks like at all. Yet, in this moment, Thomas reveals something to us which is crucial to our faith journey. 

Our faith is wrapped up in life and death. We are called to die to self and live in Christ. We are called to let go of all the truths the world around us believes and believe in God. Even when that doesn’t make sense. Let us then be a little bit more like our patron saint and be willing to jump both feet into this thing we call faith. Fully aware it isn’t easy and never will be. But fully expectant that as we travel as fellow pilgrims we will be able to utter those words that Thomas utters to the resurrected Christ at the end of John’s Gospel. After doubting his resurrection at all:

My Lord and my God. 

Let us die to self and be raised in Christ. Let us be a little bit more like Thomas fully doubting but fully present. Fully human and fully accepting of the work God is doing in us.  Even when we cannot see the light for the darkness. Let us find Christ in the most shocking places and let us follow wherever Christ calls us, even if we forgot the map. 

Black Lives Matter – a challenge to respond written for Norbury Parish Church

In light of the appalling death of George Floyd I want to rededicate myself to become more educated about my own implicit racism. I want to learn how to speak out against racism and support those who suffer because of it. I want to be a minister and pastor who can say black lives matter because God loves all people. What follows may be clumsy. It does not fully articulate the pain and hurt I, or others, feel but it is a response to the current situation. It is a challenge to those who attend Norbury Parish Church to educate themselves and to rededicate themselves to help grow our church into a place which is truly welcoming to all. 

No matter how clunky, or clumsy, our voices may sound we need to speak out. We need to acknowledge the implicit role we all take when a black person dies because of race and we need to be move from silence to lament and out of our lament we need to respond. Our responses may be cautious, clumsy, and in some ways quiet, but if we do not respond the situation will never change.

In the past few weeks it has been hard not to think about racism. The appalling death of George Floyd has sparked a lot of passionate discussion about racism both in America but also here in the U.K. as well. As you read this I am sure you will have your own thoughts and opinions about race and racism in the U.K. but I want to challenge you, and us as a church, to think more deeply about racism. I want to challenge us as Norbury Parish Church to think about what it means to say we are “welcoming to all”, yet our church is monochrome. I want us to think about what we are saying without words, and I want us to become more educated and more compassionate towards those who do not want to come into our building. I want us to be able to respond to both explicit and implicit racism and truly become a community that values people for who they are. 

In 2016 I arrived at Duke University with very little understanding, or knowledge, of my own implicit racism. It was only through sitting through American History classes, and seeing horrific pictures of black people being lynched that I realised I was part of the problem. I had lived a fairly settled life and failed to educate myself on the struggles of others. I had been implicitly racist because I had benefited from a system that was set up for me. For that I can only apologise to those whom I have benefitted from. 

While at Duke, and ever since, I have chosen to educate myself about racism. I have read authors such as James Cone and Ronald Thurman. I attended a Racism Equity Training Course where I further came to terms with my “whiteness” and the role I have played in building a culture which benefits white males. I have listened to black feminist theologians and tried to disrupt the voice in my head that says everything is okay. I may have not protested but I have tried to become more educated. 

I want to urge you to become more educated. I want to urge you to read voices that are different to your own. Challenge yourself to move past the status quo and see things differently. Read Renni Eddo-Lodge’s book, “Why I am no longer talking to White people about race.” Continue to read it even when you feel uncomfortable. Watch videos and TV programs, read black and minority ethnic authors and try to change your perspectives. 

We all play a part in racism, and we as a church play a part in racism. When we gather as a church and feel comfortable we are implicitly being racist. When we say nothing we are implicitly being racist. When we fail to welcome the “stranger” because they do not look or sound like us we are being racist.

I want Norbury Parish Church to reflect the amazing diversity in the Kingdom of God. I want us to stand up and say Black Lives Matter, because they do. I want us to become more educated and I want us to respond out of the discomfort that will cause us. 

 The world is full of injustice and intolerance which we often choose to ignore but I want us to stand up and see it for what it is. I want us to acknowledge the implicit role we play in it and I want us to change. Our response will no doubt be clunky and clumsy. It may be quiet but I hope it is practical. I pray that we as a church we continue to be a community that stands against injustice and intolerance and I challenge you to respond. To listen to the marginalised voice. To acknowledge the implicit role we all take when we benefit from a white culture. And to change. I challenge you to grow in love and to use your voice however timid it maybe. However clumsy, or clunky it may sound, I want us to be a community  that speaks up for change. 

Norbury Parish Church COVID19 – Pastoral Letter 1.

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ, 

May I share with you a prayer for times such as these:

Keep us, good Lord, 

under the shadow of your mercy.
Sustain and support the anxious, 

be with those who care for the sick,

and lift up those who are brought low;

that we may find comfort 

knowing that nothing can separate us from your love

in Christ Jesus our Lord. 

Amen. 

It is with a heavy heart that we are stopping corporate worship at Norbury Parish Church. As of Sunday the 22nd of March we will not be gathering for collective worship in our church. That does not mean we cease to pray. May I encourage you to pray earnestly for those who are in need; for Hazel Grove; for our world, for our leaders and for all those who suffer due to the COVID19. 

We are in constant conversation about how we may best serve our congregation in times like these. We shall share material through our Facebook Group and website, for those who have access to computers, so that we may continue to gather in some sense and worship together at 10.15 each Sunday; even if we may be separated in our own homes.

For those who cannot access computers; we will endeavour to produce a list of phone numbers for our ministry team to use to contact all parishioners to know how best to serve those who are vulnerable or isolated. If you wish to help us in doing this in any way please do contact me through my email; jcaskwith@gmail.com or via the Vicarage phone which is 0161 759 8531. 

We do not know what the weeks or months ahead will look like but a team of us from Norbury Parish Church will endeavour, where we can, to care for those who are in need. I ask you to keep a discipline of prayer and encourage you to stay safe and follow the national guidelines with regards to self-care. 

Every Blessing,

J.C.Askwith

Vicar of Norbury Parish Church.

Now is the moment to act. A sermon for ash Wednesday with a call to repent and treat the world differently.

Remember that you are but dust, and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.

There is nothing like the words of a prophet to remind us of our own sinful nature. To remind us of our sinful mortality and to demand us to change. To shake us to the very core and make us look up and see what is going on around us. 

16 year old Greta Thunberg is one such voice. A voice calling us to repent and change. In one of her speeches she says:

‘I want you to panic. I want you to act as if your house was on fire. I have said those words before… I agree. To panic unless you have to is a terrible idea. But when your house is on fire and you want to keep your house from burning to the ground then that does require some level of panic.’ 

I think one of the hardest voices to hear is the voice of the prophet. The voice of the person who reminds us of our mistake and calls us to repent and turn from our evil ways. 

Remember that you are but dust, and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ. 

Greta Thunberg finishes her speech with this:

‘Our house is falling apart. The future as well as what we have achieved in the past is literally in your hands now. But it is still not too late to act. It will take a far-reaching vision. It will take courage. It will take fierce determination to act now, to lay the foundations when we may not know all the details about how to shape the ceiling. … To do your best is no longer good enough. We must all do the seemingly impossible.’ 

Joel had a similar message for the people of Israel, their best was no longer good enough, they needed to do the seemingly impossible, turn to God and repent. Otherwise they were likely to face death and destruction. 

Remember that you are but dust, and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.

Theologically, one of the most prominent messages that our passage from Joel places in front of any reader is a need to lament and turn back to God. But in the midst of their lament Joel promises them hope. Joel is not simply calling Israel back to God because it is the right thing to do but because God is where their hope is found. Joel is calling the people back to God so that their shame can be removed and their honour restored.

Joel does not just offer hope for the restoration of a sinful humanity but also offers hope for the restoration of creation as well . In verse 14, Joel makes reference to God’s blessing not just being upon the people but also upon the land. Here, Joel insinuates that God will leave a blessing behind him and that this blessing will restore the land as well as the people. This would have been important for the people of Israel who, at this time, would have been living in a land of desolation, and it is an important message for us to hear as well. 

In light of flash flooding and forest fires. In the words of Greta Thunberg and extinction rebellion we are being challenged to repent of our sinful treatment of the planet and amend our ways. We can see before our very eyes places of desolation and we must lament and, like the people of Israel, return to our God of hope.

Remember that you are but dust, and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.

Our current situation calls for us to repent. To turn back to God and put our trust in Him. For Israel this call to repentance was through acts of “fasting,” “weeping,” and “mourning” (2:12), which were linked to lament. Lent could be such a moment for us. Lent could be a time where we assess our sinful ways and mourn. It could be a moment, in the words of Pope Francis in On Care for our Common Home, that we weep and mourn for the state of “creation.” It could be the moment that we return to the Lord through worshi. There has been a moment like this. A moment which demands us to mourn, repent and turn to Christ.

Remember that you are but dust, and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.

It is important to respond to the needs of “creation” in our worship; both liturgically and missionally. This, on the one hand, involves lament and repentance, it can involve mourning, but, above all, it must involve action. General synod made the bold promise of making the Church of England carbon neutral by 2030. This is impossible if we do not act. If we do not repent, turn from our previous ways, and act. 

We, the congregation of the parish of Norbury, need to be bold in our actions. We need to think about things differently. We need to be willing to change our ways and rethink how we care for creation. We need to move away from a model of apathy to a care which is deep and compassionate. We need to think bigger than recycling, bolder than turning of a light. We need to start rebuilding the foundations, even if we have no idea what the ceiling will look like. We need to reimagine what it means to live in a way which cares for one another, our homes, and the planet. This may take time, and it won’t be easy, but it is what we must do. For our house in on fire but it is still not too late to act.

Remember that you are but dust, and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.

Our passage from Joel reminds us that our salvation does not simply come from our repentance, but from God’s compassion. Therefore, in all our lament and repentance it is important to remember that it is not our action that redeems us but God’s grace. So, although we are called to care for creation and to repent communally, we are also reminded that it is God who saves us and it is God who redeems us. In the end our salvation does not come from our actions but from God’s love. 

When we come to the altar and receive ashes we are reminded not of our failed humanity, but of God’s redeeming love. We are reminded that there is a better path. There is a more worthy path. One which offers redemption for both us and the planet. We just need to be prepared to hear that call. What Joel reminds us is that our actions alone can never save us. It is only God’s grace that can do that.

Remember that you are but dust, and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ. 

Greta Thunberg. 2019. No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference.

Pope Francis. 2015. Laurdato si’ – On Care for our Common Home.

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑