An inspector calls

1 05 2009

It would be overstating it to say there was a different atmosphere in the school today. My experience wasn’t markedly different. The reason it might have been is because there has been an inspector in the school today conducting a sort of pre-Ofsted, Ofsted inspection. That said, I think I would have to be the most insensitive individual in the universe not to notice that there was a little bit of tension in the air. But there seemed to be determination too to show the school as it is.

The staffroom was overflowing with cakes that the head had bought for her staff. They were left along with a note encouraging them in the most simple yet touching way. Simply, she believes in them.

Now I love cakes. A lot. And I don’t think it’s the sort of place where anyone would have minded if I’d had one. There were probably enough cakes for a staff three times as big – an indication of what sort of gesture the head was making. Not cursory. Overwhelming. She wanted them to really know just how much she esteems and admires them all. So – I’m going to use that phrase again – I felt like I was on sacred ground. I would have minded if I’d taken one of those cakes. It would have felt like robbing the temple.

After sitting in and helping members of the class with some more maths work, we went to assembly. I do find myself gravitating in the classroom to the younger ones who find the work a little more demanding. Sometimes that’s because they ask me and I think, why not? I really do think why not? I want to check to make sure that there isn’t a good reason why I shouldn’t such as avoiding getting too close to particular children or that the request isn’t a form of avoidance for the child. I’m also wondering now whether I shouldn’t also see what I could give to/learn from the more able children. Perhaps I’ll mention it to the teacher tomorrow…

I was then privileged to attend a really quite brilliant assembly that was led by a visiting music teacher. There was no explicit religious content to this assembly. But it was certainly, I would say, spiritual. It began without a word and it continued without instruction or comment for some time. Now clearly this is because the school and this teacher have built up a pattern, understanding and rapport. He basically plays short rhythmic bursts on hand drums to which the children respond with claps. The claps weren’t always the same. It was an organic thing. This was an amazing episode of non-verbal communication. The music teacher also gave different parts of the gathering different rhythms to clap out, again without a word. Then they sang a familiar song and began to learn a new one. It didn’t go on too long. It was just the right length in fact. The event created community, joy and belonging. It gave everyone a share in the responsibility to keep the community’s self expression going. If that’s not spiritual, I don’t know what is!

Funnily enough, I’ve done something similar in my previous appointment, both on a dads’ and kids’ camping weekend and at a church service. New ways of expressing worship/spirituality can become all very quiet and passive and not at all attractive to energetic people. Thinking about what really noisy and energetic worship would look (sound) like led me to conceive of an act of worship based around drumming. It worked really well then in the hands of a rank amateur. In the hands of a consummate professional today, it was glorious.

There was another touching moment too today in that assembly hall when one of the teachers shared with me how they were feeling about being observed. It was just a little thing, they were feeling apprehensive and disquieted, they weren’t overwhelmed. Even so, to be trusted with someone’s feelings in that way was humbling.

After the assembly, we were back in the classroom for some further maths work. I noticed that one child with particular emotional challenges was heading towards another period of disengagement and wondered if a little coaxing from me might help this child back into what was going on. It did seem to help on this occasion and with some subsequent work. It so happened that this was what I was doing when the inspector came to visit the classroom. I was acutely aware at that point that I was not a trained learning support assistant. I did not want to screw this up for this teacher or the head who had also come in to share the observation. The teacher was, in this observed lesson, exactly the same as I have seen him in every other lesson: calm, firm, in control, encouraging, well-paced. There was no ‘show’. It was his everyday teaching that was on display.

This afternoon I led the second of my spirituality sessions with the learning support assistant and without the class teacher. I did it twice with two groups. The first group were more challenging and I found it more of a struggle. They didn’t engage well with the meditation. There were one or two who were trying to derail it, I thought. But that’s okay. I’m getting a full experience! Interestingly, it was those who hadn’s been part of the whole class meditation yesterday who struggled today. The group included some of the children with the most complex needs, but there were a couple of children who really tried who at other times are the most disengaged. When it came to the art activity that followed my input, they really seemed to get what it was about and to really enjoy it. They could tell me the point of the exercise and what they got from it.

Under pressure of time, I cut the meditation shorter for the second group but I did finish with the sharing stone circle which I missed for the previous group because we ran out of time. This was an older and broadly more able group and they engaged well and again, it seemed to me, were genuinely taken with what we were doing.

My contribution to the sharing stone group was the same as the LSA’s. I was proud of them. Actually I was proud of both groups, despite the wobbly start for the first crew. Well done boys and girls and thank you.

[This post has been cleared with the school’s headteacher.]

Retreat! Retreat!

23 03 2009

I spent last week travelling to, being at and returning from an organized retreat for pioneer ministers at Lee Abbey in North Devon. It was a time for deep spiritual reflection. It was hard work. There was no raucous singing round a beach fire and definitely no late night card playing or whisky drinking. Honest.

There were 24 of us involved in all kinds of projects. I was particularly in awe of Paul and Jo who are running a pub in Coventry. You’ve got to admire anyone prepared to live in Coventry. Only joking J+P. Coventry’s lovely!

Quite a few of us were in ‘mixed economy’ appointments — part pioneer, part parish. Others were struggling to pioneer new forms in conventional appointments. There was a good deal of experience of frustration and misunderstanding being shared. I’m thankful that I have experienced such strong support this far in the Diocese of Portsmouth. I just have to cope with the pressure of expectation!

Soul space
The retreat programme included ‘soul space’ groups. We met in small groups with a facilitator. Each person who wanted to, shared something of what was going on for them each day of the retreat. The others in the group just listened in silence without comment. We kept silence after each speaker. We maintained a sort of double confidentiality. Anything shared in the group was kept private and we agreed not to approach each other to speak about anything that had been said. There were a few skeptical murmurings, but my experience of the group I was in was positive. I thought this was powerful and helpful. I think it could work in an adapted form with children as well as adults. You’d need two adults present for accountability and need to be careful about the degree of confidentiality that was guaranteed. You’d have to make it clear that you’d pass on anything that the school, for instance, needed to know. Children might find it more difficult to maintain the ‘no further discussion’ rule.

Prophet of boom!
Former President of the Methodist Conference, Tom Stuckey led a Bible reflection each day from Acts. He interpreted the current state of the world and the Church in prophetic terms. We’re in an in-between time, he said. We’re on the cusp of a Pentecostal explosion of Sprit. He didn’t mean Pentecostal in terms of Pentecostalism or charismatic renewal. He was speaking more about an explosion of missionary enterprise and the growth of the church in new forms (fresh expressions).

I’d love to go with his interpretation. It was certainly an exciting vision. I recognize absolutely his portrayal of where we are now as being in a liminal space. It definitely feels like we’re in uncharted territory. And it’s not comfortable even for those of us who spin ourselves as adventurous.

Sound the retreat
But ‘retreat’, ironically, feels like quite a good analogy for where the Church is at present to me.

There is a strong drive to retreat into forms of church and worship that make us feel safe or as I keep finding myself saying at the moment — like we’re on the winning side.

Church people always look at me askance when I say that. I’m sure they’re thinking (because sometimes they say so) ‘of course we’re on the winning side’. That’s the eschatological promise that Julian of Norwich spoke of when she said ‘all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well’. It would be difficult to carry on if I didn’t have hope that in the end justice, peace, joy and love will overcome (underwhelm?) the forces arrayed against them.

But that is not the same thing as the triumphalism that characterizes some churches — the sort of churches that others want to retreat into. And to be honest, at times, I feel like retreating into. When I’m involved in a tiny, struggling church and we’re surrounded by mega church on every side, it can feel like you’ve got it wrong. Those closest to me aren’t wholly persuaded by my analysis that big church isn’t the way forward.

And when there’s pressure from within the congregation to try and emulate that soft rock style of gathered worship, perhaps with the idea that we too will become mega church somehow — it can be discouraging. Because in giving in to that pressure a bit we’re ending up with something that satisfies no-one and affirms our death rather than our life.

I think the future of the Church is as tiny, struggling congregations. But not struggling because we’re trying to recover past glories or copy someone else’s admittedly impressive present ones. Mega church is, I think, the last gasp of Christendom. It marshalls impressive resources and fosters a particular form of committed discipleship, but it fails, I believe to incarnate the gospel in the plethora of cultures around us. It expresses the gospel in a sub-culture that’s often more sub than culture. And in the end it doesn’t always provide the depth of spirituality people need to bear life’s complexities in faith. That’s my experience anyway.

I think if we take seriously the call to mission as a way of life and not just something we do ‘out there’ then it will shape our whole life — including what sustains us spiritually, individually and corporately. If we can’t find God in the forms of our immediate culture how on earth do we imagine we’ll help others to?

Fleeting moments

12 02 2009

So here I am in the Fleet once again. Your ace reporter is on the scene bringing you the latest from this popular pub in the Guildhall Square.

Actually it seems more popular today (Thursday 12th February 2009) than it did yesterday. Way back then, the afternoon was quieter. Yesterday, I just sat and looked and worked on some stuff for Sunday. Most of the groups around the pub were sat together a bit defensively. What I mean by that is that there was no way to join them without invading their personal/group space. To an extent of course I will inevitably invade a group’s space whenever I invite myself into their conversation (shades of Jesus with Zacchaeus?). But I am nervous enough of approaching people without the need to push my way into a group whose circle is closed. I’m not prepared to do that.

It’s that thing about being a guest again.

Jesus was not always a polite guest (I’m looking as someone used to English manners, not first century Jewish ones). He could be quite direct with his hosts (Lk 7.44-47) but not because he had no regard for etiquette. He just gave a much higher priority to real love and compassion than any social pretense.

This whole issue of being a guest is becoming more and more prominent in my own thinking. I think it might be the defining characteristic of pioneer ministry if not mission in general. We spoke about it at the St Luke’s home group this week. I was recalling the story of the 12 and the 72 being sent out. Barbara (my wife) pointed out that it’s central to Jesus’s ministry as he is so often the guest of others. I’ve said that on this blog before but the thing that Barbara reminded me about was that Jesus was a guest when he was born as Luke relates it. According to that story, he was born in a borrowed room that wasn’t his family’s normal home; probably not a stable, but the ground floor room in a house where the household animals are sheltered overnight. That the family, including a heavily pregnant young girl, had to stay in that part of the house suggests to me that they weren’t honoured guests. They were unwelcome.

This might require a massive reorientation in our thinking. We have tended to approach mission in attractional ways. [No scoop there, ace!] We have focused on our buildings. It’s been about filling a space where we are the host but, though ‘foxes have dens, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man doesn’t have a place to call his own’ (Lk 9.58). The Incarnation is about the One through whom all things were created, being a (mostly unwelcome) guest in Creation.

Maybe being involved in God’s mission, following Jesus to where he is today, by his Spirit, means being an unwelcome guest in other people’s spaces. All of which does nothing to ease my nerves or reluctance to speak to people!

But here goes…


5 02 2009

At the end of a one-to-one meeting today, when I was feeling especially enthusiastic about how it had gone and really wanted to celebrate the other person’s work, I asked if I might say a prayer. They declined.

I don’t mind saying it pulled me up short. It was not their reaction. It was the feeling I had that I had been a poor guest. It assumes an awful lot to imagine that someone will want to join a moment of celebration with you in your way.

It got me thinking again, that for all my fine words about mission being about being with people in their space, I’m still caught up in ‘Christendom’ ways of thinking. I’m still unconsciously expecting people to join my party. I’m still operating as if I’m the host.

When Jesus sent out his followers he didn’t send them as hosts but as guests. They weren’t to impose on their hosts, but bring a greeting of peace and receive whatever opportunities they were offered.

I need to remember that in each place I go, whether public or private space, I am still someone’s guest. I have been conscious of that actually as I’ve gone into the pub. I have approached groups of people sat at a table or near the bar. I am entering their social space. I have felt a little reticent. But as I think about that story from the gospel of Luke, I am reminded that those first missionaries were sent to look for hosts who would welcome them. That is perhaps like what I’ve been doing. I have given people the opportunity to offer me hospitality. Mostly so far it has been offered. Where it has not, I have drawn back.

I haven’t quite shaken the dust from my sandals. Partly because if I was wearing sandals (especially with socks) I would look like people think Christians are supposed to look. And partly because that seems awfully final. I can’t quite believe God is saving some especially awful fate for people who don’t want some trendy vicar interrupting their quiet lunch/pint. I think I might tell me to sod off. Thankfully though, so far, most people have been better hosts than I’ve been a guest.

Peace be upon this (public) house.