A Year in Jersey

In this next excerpt from God’s Upgrades … My Adventures my IKEA days were over as I was rescued by the offer of a three month locum in Jersey. Now read on …

We arrived on November 5th, and our first Christmas came upon us very quickly. It was also our silver wedding anniversary on Christmas eve, and although some good friends came over for Christmas we felt very isolated from our friends and family. So we decided instead to have open house. We made loads of cakes, bought plenty of cheap fizz (sadly not the real stuff) and invited everyone from both churches to drop in during the day. This was an instant and immediate success. Not only did it bring people from the two churches together, but it also set the tone for our ministry. We have always tried to use our homes for hospitality. I reserve the right of clergy to use their homes as safe sanctuaries into which the life of the parish is never allowed to intrude, but that has not been our way. We found people coming into the vicarage for the first time ever, and taking the opportunity to have a good nose around. ‘We’d always wondered what it was like inside!’ we were told by many visitors.

The chance to celebrate a major family milestone with us meant that people quickly and easily took us to their hearts. The welcome we received was instant and heartfelt, and showed itself in a variety of practical ways. One parishioner turned up one day with his estate car absolutely brimming with logs for our open fire. Another family, on hearing me remark that my study was lovely but a bit dingy, gave me their account card for the local ironmongers and told me I could spend ‘say around £200 or so’ on some new lighting. One farmer from St Lawrence kept us supplied with fresh veg, along with the occasional joint of some recently slaughtered animal. He used to bring milk for the after-service coffee: it was still warm from the cow, and was about half and half milk and thick cream.

There was a downside, though, to being a rural Rector: I had to bless things. More specifically I had to bless animals. A few times a year, on some obscure festivals which as a townie I had never really encountered before, the St Lawrence congregation would decamp to the Churchwarden’s farm, and I had to say prayers over some huge piece of livestock or other. Now don’t get me wrong: I’ve got nothing against animals. Some of my best meals have contained them. But I much prefer to encounter them well done with pepper sauce than to get into a field with them and pray (although on the odd occasions in the past I had found myself in field of animals I certainly had prayed!) I tried telling Charles that my powers of blessing were so well developed that they could travel enough distance that I could do it from here, but he would have none of it. Blessing was a hands-on business apparently. When I finally left the parish Charles, in his farewell speech, described me as all in all pretty good, but a bit of a wimp with the animals, an epithet of which I was in no way ashamed.

Surprised by the F-word

Here’s the latest excerpt from God’s Upgrades … My Adventures published by Authentic.

 

Being by now an old hand at IKEA, I had become friends with most of the guys, and I had even had some positive contact with the constant stream of temps who came and went. But there was one person who still struck fear into my heart. Tom Hollick was over sixty, grizzled and cynical, the most foul-mouthed person in the room (and that took some doing), humourless and always moaning about life, the universe and everything. He seemed to regard work and the management with all the bitterness of someone trapped in a dead-end job for far too long. He looked not unlike Van Gogh’s picture of his friend Dr Gachet but with a much bigger moustache. In fact his moustache was even bigger than mine, which really does take some doing, and considerably more tatty and tobacco-stained. I so hated him!

 Then came the inevitable evening when I returned to the depot to find my name with his on the board for the next day. This was not going to be fun. I didn’t sleep well that night.

 ‘You’re the vicar, aren’t you?’ he asked as we were driving through the yard to the gatehouse. I braced myself and admitted that indeed I was. ‘I’ve been wanting to talk to you.’

 Now what was I in for? If he hated the church and all it stood for anywhere near as much as he appeared to hate everyone and everything else, I was going to spend the day getting a really severe ear-bashing. However, I was in for even more of a shock than I had worried about in my worst nightmares.

 ‘I did that “Alpha” course last year’ Tom admitted with as much of a coy grin as he could manage. It looked as if it was costing him a considerable amount of effort. In spite of the grin, I felt I was in for an in-depth critique of the whole process. Perhaps I was the first person he had been able to share his insights with, and I was going to get the full spiteful vitriol of his totally negative experience. Oh well, in for a penny …

 ‘What did you think of it?’ I asked, on the basis that if he was going to hit me it would be better before we got onto the motorway.

 ‘It was absolutely f****** brilliant!’ I wasn’t quite expecting that, and I pondered just for a moment exactly what Nicky Gumbel would have made of this accolade.Front only

 ‘Tell me more’ I prompted, and for the next twenty minutes I got a blow-by-blow, liberally peppered with words designed to illustrate clearly just how much he had enjoyed the whole experience. I listened open-mouthed as he told me how much he’d enjoyed both the material and the discussion, what a friendly crowd they were, what a turnaround it had brought in his life, and how he and his wife now went to church each Sunday. But even that wasn’t the end of his excitement.

 ‘We’ve got this woman who does that “singing in tongues” in the church’ he confided. ‘It’s bloody beautiful!’ I was able to be enthusiastic and share in his wonder at this wonderful gift, and to admit that I could do that too, although nobody had as yet described my singing as beautiful, an admission which filled him with even more awe for this strange vicar who had suddenly dropped into his life. Tom showed me the Bible he brought to work each day to read in his tacho-breaks, and told me how he didn’t always find it easy to understand and what did I think about such-and-such a passage? It would have been such a help to have someone else at work he could ask. Finally, with great wistfulness, he said ‘I really wish I didn’t swear so much, but I just can’t help it.’

 During the day he told me, almost with tears in his eyes, about a heart-breaking situation in his family and a huge decision he had to make. ‘Will you pray for me about it?’ he asked.

 Tom and I never again found ourselves paired up, but we kept in touch in the depot and I was able to ask him sensitively how things were going as we bumped into one another from time to time. I still remember to pray for him now and again, for his witness in a very difficult environment, and for the growth of his sanctification!

 

On the Road Again

The thrilling saga of God’s Upgrades and My Adventures continues with this week’s excerpt, in which your hero find himself out of a job and moving into a new sphere of work …

 

It was with some trepidation that the following Monday I was rudely awakened by my alarm at 5 am. Nevertheless, as I drove the 25 minute journey to the depot I prayed, as you do, not just that God would look after me, but also for opportunities to be a good witness, and to show the love of Christ to those among whom I was to work.

The depot had been an old army barracks, and several large hangar-sized warehouses were dotted about the place. Each had half a dozen or so loading bays, each with a little set of traffic lights to tell you when it was safe to drive off without taking a forklift and its driver out for the day with you, handy as I was to discover this might have been. As I parked the car I noticed a collection of about 30 huge white trucks parked just round the corner. They must be the ones for the real drivers, I decided, people with HGV licenses. I wondered where they parked the 7.5 tonners. I couldn’t seem to see any.

I walked into the IKEA warehouse. Imagine the scene. 20 or 30 men, ranging in age from 18 to over 60, and arrayed as I was in fluorescent vests, stood around waiting for their orders for the day. Some were laughing raucously in groups; some were perusing page three of the Sun (or worse), all were swearing fluently and profusely. Most of them were built as though they could carry a bed-settee under each arm up eight flights of stairs without breaking a sweat, 40 roll-ups and two greasy breakfasts a day notwithstanding. My prayer for witness quickly turned into a prayer for survival.

Me truck

Initially and mercifully no one took much notice of me. It was no big deal; temps came and went almost daily, I discovered, and were not a great cause of excitement among the regulars. But it wasn’t very long at all before I did gain some curiosity value. The manager was working systematically down his list, and before long the inevitable happened: he got to me. When he shouted across the room for ‘The Reverend Leach!’ I realised that Agency-man had told them all about me. My reputation had gone before. In that moment I was instantly and dramatically outed. There was a vicar on the crew! I was an immediate celebrity. A strange silence filled the office, as all eyes turned in my direction. If there had been someone playing a honky-tonk piano in the corner, they would have stopped instantly. The silence was broken by a small outbreak of Gregorian chant from some wags in one corner. I smiled nervously around the room, trying to look as if I did this every day.

Initially there were a couple of misunderstandings to clear up. ‘Are you really a Reverend?’ I was asked, both then and constantly for the duration of my stay there. I told them I was, but they still thought I was having a laugh. ‘Why on earth would anyone want to pretend they were a vicar, if they weren’t really and they weren’t going to a fancy dress party?’ I asked. They could see my point.

Hays Truck

 

 

 

The other misunderstanding was more serious. One of the bosses had also come from a professional background, but had been struck off for a serious misdemeanour, and so was now working in the transport office. This was common knowledge among the staff, so of course my arrival posed a whole new question. Why should a vicar turn up for work here? There could only be one reason: he’d been at the choirboys. Either that or he’d been helping himself from the collection-plate. Which was it? they wanted to know. I reassured them that it was neither. I was just between jobs, resting.

 

God’s Upgrades … My Adventures is published by Authentic

 

 

Agonising over Guidance

I think there are three things I’ve learnt about the vexed question of guidance. The first is that sometimes God says to us ‘What do you want to do?’ I can remember as a young Christian getting fixated on a desperate desire to get everything exactly right, in every smallest detail. I remember a friend at college who apparently used to pray each morning about what colour socks God wanted him to wear that day. Call me cynical, but I could just hear God saying back ‘D’you know? I really don’t mind. Why don’t you choose?’ This is a silly example, but it betrays a mindset whereby if we don’t obey God in every little aspect of our lives, as though there was a set path for us to walk and no room for personal choice, apocalyptic disaster is likely to hit us. Quite rightly Christians are concerned to seek God’s will and obey him, but I’m not entirely convinced that he particularly has a will for some of the things about which we agonise.

File:Signpost.jpg

 

The corollary of this is that we might sometimes get things wrong. Under the less neurotic model I’m proposing this isn’t the major disaster we might think. When I’m speaking on this I show a slide of one of those children’s maze puzzles: you know the kind of thing. Bob the Builder has lost Pilchard his cat, and there are a selection of paths which may or may not lead to him. You begin to trace one of them, but if it turns out to lead to a dead end you have no option but to go right back to the start and try another one. I make the point that with God it isn’t like this. Bob might get close to Pilchard but unable to reach him: so God simply draws another path which opens the way. Even when we get things wrong, in the economy of God, it isn’t about going right back to the beginning and starting again: it’s about looking for God’s redemption. This fact again removed the phenomenal pressure to hear God accurately and follow him exactly every step of the way. If he knows that the sincere intentions of our hearts is to follow him obediently, he is perfectly able to let us know if we’re going wrong. There’s that lovely promise in Isaiah 30:21 which reassures us that God’s voice will be heard saying ‘This is the way: walk in it’ not when things are going well, but when we are tempted to divert from the path.

 

So my first counsel would be not to let ‘guidance’ become a big issue about which to lose sleep. Dedicate your will to God, listen to your heart, and allow him to make minor corrections along the way if he needs to.

 

 

(For the other two things I’ve learnt, get hold of a copy of God’s Upgrades … My Adventures published by Authentic, from which this blog is an excerpt. I can tell you it is God’s will for you!)

 

 

God’s Upgrades – Toronto in SW7

We had been invited to a ‘dedication service’ for a new baby in South London, and I had managed to get a rare Sunday off, so we got up early and drove off from Coventry. As a liturgist I can’t help but evaluate acts of worship: I try just to concentrate on God and just worship, in spite of how I’m being led from the front, but I just can’t do it. I have to say this particular one was a disaster! I sat there feeling more and more miserable at the bad theology, dreadful music and inept leadership. Above all I felt cheated out of a Sunday off, a chance to be led in worship rather than being up front myself.

As we were driving home that evening through central London, we talked about how sad we felt, and how we wished we could go to a good church. That was when we had the idea of going to the evening service at Holy Trinity Brompton in Kensington.  We diverted from our homeward route, and arrived in plenty of time in the Brompton Road. It wasn’t easy to find somewhere to park: there seemed to be a lot more cars around that I’d experienced there before, but eventually we tucked in and walked to the church, only to find huge queues waiting to get in. I knew it was a famous church, but this was just silly!

Finally we got some seats on the balcony, and the service began. The vicar greeted us, and told us that ‘We are living in times of an extraordinary outpouring of God’s Spirit!’ Oh dear. More charismatic hype. 

He then went on to tell us about the visit of a member of his team to a Vineyard Church near Toronto Airport. Apparently they were experiencing some incredible manifestations of the Holy Spirit. She had come back and spoken at a staff meeting about what had been going on, at which point the Spirit began to do exactly the same things to the assembled company. That had been ten days ago, and so significant was this move of the Spirit felt to be that it had taken over the agenda of the church. The rest is history, and whatever you think of the so-called ‘Toronto Blessing’ we were there, completely by ‘chance’ from right at the start of it.

One of the features of churches touched by this move seemed to be continual meetings, and so my church in Coventry put on a fortnight of evening sessions, where, in true Vineyard style, we would worship (by which we meant singing songs), hear some biblical teaching, and then invite the Spirit to come and do what he wanted to do. I remember these times as times of great blessing, but above all of tremendous fun. And I remember particularly our children and teenagers being involved up to the hilt, playing or singing in the worship band, ministering and being ministered to. Virtually all of the youngsters who were involved with us at that stage have stayed faithful to God, and I can’t help but believe that seeing God in action so powerfully is a major factor in avoiding the drop-off of teenagers from the church which has become almost expected in many circles.

Much evaluation of the so-called ‘Toronto Blessing’ has flowed under the bridge since the halcyon days of the mid-90s. Some have regarded it as a hysterical outpouring of human emotion which has nothing whatsoever to do with the Holy Spirit, while others have pointed to the fruit in terms of social outreach programmes, intercession, healing and empowering. Some have tried to prove from Scripture that these kinds of manifestations are only to be expected, while others have used the same Scriptures to demonstrate that the whole thing was a Satanic plot to corrupt the church. Twenty years on all I can say is that this period of my life was the most fun, the most exciting and the most fulfilling. I can point to changed lives and changed churches, and I cannot but believe that God was doing something especially powerful during those days. The fruit in my life from this period remains valuable.

 

For the rest of the story see God’s Upgrades … My Adventures published by Authentic.

 

Breakdown or Breakthrough?

This thrilling excerpt from God’s Upgrades … My Adventures describes something of the process of recovery from a nervous breakdown. Not for the squeamish!

 

what emerged over the months, and this is why I believe that Gestalt therapy was exactly the right model for me, was a realisation that my whole life, and my whole faith, had been about a quest for certainty. I had been brought up, as you have heard, in the kind of church where being ‘right’ or, as we put it ‘sound’, was the only thing which counted. We even used to sing that old song

‘I’m S-O-U-N-D

I’m S-O-U-N-D

I know I am, I’m sure I am!

I’m S-O-U-N-D’

 

Someone once said, a bit unkindly perhaps, that Evangelicalism isn’t a theological position; it’s a neurosis. Overstated of course, but I came gradually to see that there could be some truth in it, and that the preoccupation in some bits of the church with correct doctrine and the witch-hunting of those who disagreed was not perhaps the most healthy of lifestyles to have pursued. I came to understand that studying theology at one of the most ‘liberal’ places in the country had set up a huge dichotomy within me. I had loved every minute of my theological education, and had come to value, whilst not always swallowing whole, the insights of critical theological study. But deep within me the desire always to get it right was still lurking. As I approached the end of my training, and was about to be ordained and launched into a waiting world, this tension became acute. I came to understand that it was significant that my initial ‘breakdown’ on that fateful Monday morning came immediately after a visit to my potential first parish, during which the deal had been done and I had agreed to go there.

 File:The Scream.jpg

So to use my therapy session to understand what was going on for me, to explain my symptoms and to tie them down exactly to different kinds of stress-inducing events was merely playing into my weakness. Peter’s refusal to join in with that game, his repeated answers of ‘I’ve no idea!’ to my agonised questions, gradually taught me that it might be easier all round if I just stopped asking silly questions and accepted the fact that life was messy and things happened. And in terms of my faith, I came painfully and slowly to realise that God doesn’t always have to explain himself to me, and that now and again he might just do things which I don’t understand, and which I don’t need to understand.

It was also Peter who, in one of our very early sessions, responded to my use of the term ‘breakdown’ with the simple question ‘Breakdown, or breakthrough?’ I came to understand, and I guess this is a huge part of my motivation in writing this now, that to some extent we have a choice. When life crumbles around us do we simply cave in, or do we seek to move into a new way of living and understanding. Do we accept and download, or simply try to live on with the bug-infested old version?

 

God’s Upgrades … My Adventures is published by Authentic Media

Called to the Ministry

This is a brief extract from chapter 4 of God’s Upgrades … My Adventures published by Authentic Media

I began to attend not one but two very different Anglican churches. The first, St Laurence’s, to which I was invited by a friend’s girlfriend, was what you might call ‘Anglo-catholic’. Of course such terms meant nothing to me at that stage, but it basically meant that they had Communion every week, as the main service, rather than once a month tagged on afterwards as we did at the Baptist church. The priests, who were called ‘Father’, dressed up, there was lots of smoke, and people sang stuff instead of saying it. It seemed a huge distance from any kind of Christianity I’d ever experienced before, and I hated it with such a passion that I had to go back the following week in order to experience the wonderful sense of outrage over again. Soon I found I was hooked. Something in me also appreciated their great patronal festival celebrations. Laurence had been a deacon in a church in Rome somewhere who for a bit of cheek to the Emperor had been martyred in AD 258 by being roasted on a grid over hot coals. So each August the congregation celebrated their patron saint with a great barbecue, which seemed somehow both appropriate and amusing.

File:Upminster 021.jpg

St Laurence’s was Sunday morning, but Tuesday evenings were very different. Some other friends invited me to a different church which was creating a bit of a stir because they had been ‘renewed by the Holy Spirit’. The vicar was a guy called Trevor Dearing, and St Paul’s, I was later to discover, was one of the early pioneers of a new movement called ‘charismatic renewal’. It was a very different experience from my Anglo-catholic church. For a start you had to get there an hour or so before it started if you wanted a seat. There was no liturgy, and certainly no smoke, but there was plenty of fire, as the Holy Spirit was welcomed to save, baptise, heal and deliver people. The music consisted of short Bible-based ‘choruses’; there was usually a period of ‘singing in tongues’, there was a sermon which called people to be saved, baptised in the Spirit, healed or delivered from evil spirits, and then there was a time for people to go forward and receive prayer. It was crowded, lively, at times noisy, and I hated it. In fact I hated it even more than St Laurence’s, because apostate though that might have been, at least it wasn’t scary. And yet I found myself going back for more. Much later I was to discover a theologian called Rudolph Otto, who talked in a famous book about the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, or the ‘fascinating but terrifying mystery’ of God[i]. There is something about him, said Otto, which scares the wits out of us but keeps us coming back for more. That was certainly true of me at this period in my life.

[i] Otto, R The Idea of the Holy (London: Oxford University Press, 1923) You can now read this landmark book online at http://archive.org/stream/theideaoftheholy00ottouoft#page/n3/mode/2up

The God who Speaks

An excerpt from chapter three of God’s Upgrades … My Adventures, published by Authentic and available from all taxationally ethical bookshops.

 

‘You really do need to buck your ideas up!’ my university Tutor told me. ‘If you fail your Part 1s, you’re out.’ I decided to face reality. ‘Statistically speaking, how many people who fail their prelims do get themselves together and carry on successfully?’ I asked. ‘Hardly any at all,’ he replied encouragingly. I asked if I could go away and think about it. For the next six weeks I did no work at all, went to no lectures or practicals, until eventually the admin office chased me up to see what I had decided to do. By then the decision had been made for me: I was irretrievably behind, and would have no option but to drop out. I still occasionally wake up with nightmares about this period, and am so relieved when I come to and realise that was all 43 years ago and I’m OK now.

So faced with the twin sorrows of leaving my friends (and my new girlfriend) behind and facing the wrath of my parents, I plunged into depression. What on earth was I going to do with my life now? I had decided years ago that teaching was for me, and chemistry had been my favourite subject at school, but now all that was gone. What was I for now? It was into this mood that for the first time I heard God speak to me.

On the campus at York was a Henry Moore sculpture, one of those family groups with holes through their middles. One afternoon I was standing looking at it (I’m not sure why) when I heard God. Not an audible voice, but inside my head the words were as clear as day. I heard him say ‘I know you’ve given up on me, but I haven’t given up on you. I still have a plan for your life.’ That’s it, and it took about as long to happen as it just took you to read those words. Then it was all over, but that brief moment of download gave me just about the greatest upgrade I’d ever had.

First of all, it was a brand new experience to hear God speak at all. Of course there had been lots of sermons about how prayer is meant to be a two-way conversation, and we had to listen as well as present our shopping lists, but no-one had ever modelled it to me or taught me in real terms what that meant. The only prayer I’d ever experienced was strictly a one-way street. So a God who actually communicated was a stunning novelty. Yet I could no more deny what I’d heard than fly to the moon. It was that real.

Then there was what he said. It was so unlike the God I’d been brought up to fear. If he had anything to say to me it would be to tell me to get my act together, stop doing all those naughty student sins and go back to church, or else I’d find myself in the eternal frying pan. But instead I heard the voice of one who still wanted me, who was sad that I’d neglected him but who still wanted, in the words of Mr Robinson, to show me his will so that I could get on with it. And, although I didn’t understand it at the time, was secretly sharpening and polishing me for a purpose even greater than I could have imagined. Nothing could have prepared me for a God of such grace and love. I was completely blown away in the few seconds that encounter took, and my life was literally turned around. I began to seek God afresh, not because I was frightened of his vengeance, but because I was genuinely excited about the possibilities he was holding out before me. I had no idea what they might be, but I still wanted to go with it. This really was the start of an adventure.

Early Years

What did I learnFront only about God in my early years? This is going to be difficult for me to write about, because I can easily give you the wrong impression, about my church in particular and the denomination of which it was a part. So I do need to say that these were basically happy years, and the church was full of good, well-meaning, committed Christian disciples, and led by godly and wise men (and it was men!). But I can only report what I, as a child and then a teenager, picked up and understood. Sadly the God whom I believed in and sought to follow was basically not very nice.

First of all he didn’t like us doing anything, and especially not on Sundays. Fun was banned, as were things like ice-cream. We weren’t allowed to do anything which remotely involved shopping, not that there was much opportunity a) because shops didn’t open in those days, and b) because there would have been no time anyway, as we spent most of the day at church. As children we had to be quiet, because Sunday was a day of rest, and I’ve already told you about the shellfish, although I don’t think to be honest that that had much to do with God. But it all added to the general unpleasantness of the day.

Then there were the other sins. People who smoked, drank, swore or gambled were beyond the pale, and were severely looked down upon by us good Christians. The job of parents was to protect their children from any encounter with such activities. I can remember during my Beatles phase leaving the sheet music for Sexy Sadie on the piano. When it was discovered there was a major row, and the offending music had to be removed from the house lest it polluted us all with the S-word. We also had to be protected from the harsher realities of church life. I can remember our organist resigning and leaving the church, accompanied by many sage looks and shaking of heads. Only many years later did I discover that this was over some crisis of faith, but it clearly wasn’t something to the shared with the youngsters. It could have done us real harm.

 

Don’t get the wrong idea: my family were basically loving and committed to God, and genuinely wanted the best for us. Most of the time we got along fine. But with hindsight the God whom we sought to follow was fundamentally a God who didn’t want us to do things. I developed the belief (and please understand me that I now realise that this is not official Baptist doctrine) that your eternal destiny, heaven or hell, depended entirely on what you happened to be doing at the moment of Jesus’ return. As you can imagine this led to a somewhat insecure faith, although the upside was that I did learn to sin very quickly and get it over with. But the clear message was that you pleased God by not doing stuff.

 

This is another excerpt from God’s Upgrades … My Adventures Published by Authentic at £7.99.

 

More next week!