Culture, Current Events, Politics

IT’S PERSONAL

The British Prime Minister Theresa May was interviewed on TV this week as part of their coverage of International Women’s Day.

At the end of the interview she was asked this lighter, more personal question;

“If you could have your perfect get together with your girlfriends on International Women’s Day, away from all of the pressures of your job. What would be your perfect night with them and how would you let your hair down?”

It’s fair to say that the PM has a fairly difficult past when it comes to lighter questions.

In the run up to last years election she was asked what the naughtiest thing she had ever done was. She responded by recalling that her and some friends used to run through a field of wheat, which greatly upset a local farmer…

It all plays into the public perception that she’s a bit robotic or detached from “normal people” (whatever they are).

And so, with the question set, all she had to do to give her image a much-needed boost was say something vaguely recognisable as “away from her job” and in line with “letting her hair down.”

Simple.

 “Oh my goodness, what a question, and I haven’t thought of it because my International Women’s Day is heavily focussed on what we are doing on domestic abuse. So it’s not going to have the time to have the girls round and have an evening together I’m afraid.”

The interviewer wasn’t setting a trap, I think she was trying to give the PM a chance to open up and give the public a glimpse into her, dare I say, more human side. So she offered another chance;

“I’m just saying on your dream moment, how would you let your hair down with your girlfriends?”

At this point I should say, this is a dull question. And, if I’m honest, I really don’t think it’s a worthy use of airtime on International Women’s Day with a female global leader. But it’s not an offensive question, and it’s definitely not a difficult question to answer.

You don’t even have to hit a cliché. No-one expects the Prime Minister to crack open a bottle of Prosecco and binge watch a box set of Sex & The City while a butler in the buff serves chocolate covered strawberries to her and her closest friends.

In fact, faced with a dull question, there’s always a chance to offer something interesting that throws clichés out the window.

And if you can’t do that, just be super-boring with your answer;

“We’re all busy people, my friends and I, so if there was a moment to spend together we’d probably use it to catch up on what we’ve all been doing since we last met.”

It’s a boring answer but probably one that would resonate with a lot of people.

Instead, Theresa May offered this;

“Well, I don’t think that when you let your hair down there’s only one way of doing it. I think it depends on the group that you’ve got, it depends on the time. But as I say, my International Women’s Day is rather more focused not on what we can do to enjoy ourselves but actually on what we can do to help women out there, women who are suffering, women who are being abused and whose lives are being made a daily living hell.”

This week I was chatting to a young teacher who told me about an adage that’s well known in the profession. Often being taught to new teachers when they start out in a school.

“Don’t smile until Christmas.”

Apparently it’s about setting your agenda in the early days as strict and not to be messed with, and then gradually allowing yourself to soften over time once that respect is cemented.

It strikes me as horrendously bad advice.

And yet, I wonder if it comes from the same place as a Prime Minister unable to allow herself to answer a question about free time.

Fear.

Fear that if we know who they really are, we’ll judge them differently.

Fear that if we see beyond the title or role, we’ll suddenly lose respect for them.

Fear that if they give us a glimpse of the real them, we won’t like what we see.

I know there are times when I put my own mask on. When I think too hard about what to say and worry too much about what not to say.

When my reputation (whatever It think that is) forces me to try and answer the smartest way or wisest way I can. Or, at the very least, not give a stupid answer.

When I hold back from opening up. Keeping a distance both literal and metaphorical from others.

I’m not surprised the PM didn’t want to have her interview about domestic violence on International Women’s Day hijacked by whatever answer she gave to an inane question (sadly it didn’t work as the lack of answer did that for her). But I do worry when those who lead seem intent on keeping themselves away from those they lead.

Whether by bureaucratic layers, administrative barriers or walls built up in masks, myths or miscommunication, the space between will always turn out to be a void.

Sometimes the best thing we can do, is let our hair down, open the door to some friends, and remind ourselves, that we’re only human after all.

Advertisements
Church, Culture, Current Events

SNOW COMPARISON

The joy of snow is once more upon us.

This time it’s “The Beast from the East” that has caused all the fuss.

I can’t really be bothered with snow. I appreciate the beauty of the untouched, untrampled white stuff but I’m not sure it’s worth the effort.

I do, however, love the reaction to snow. It goes something like this:

“It’s snowing!”

“Look at my garden covered in snow”

“Look at my car covered in snow”

“Look at my cat covered in snow”

“It’s snowing!”

“Look at my cat sitting on my car covered in snow”

“Hey everyone, we get it, it’s snowing, you don’t need to tell us”

“It’s snowing!”

“Anyone else not love the snow?”

“It’s snowing!”

But my favourite of all is the inevitable comparisons that appear.

“No other country grinds to a halt when it snows”

“In Scotland we call this summer”

“Northerners will need your big coat”

“Look at Norway!”

It’s like we can’t help but compare our reaction to snow against each other and everyone else.

Like kids on a playground arguing about whose dad is bigger, we seem obsessed with figuring out who deals with it best.

Who has the greatest preparations.

Who can carry on as if it hasn’t snowed at all.

It’s a well-known quote from Roosevelt that “comparison is the thief of joy” but I wonder if that still counts when what you’re comparing is the efficiency of your local authority’s gritting strategy.

My job is to come up with, shape and develop ideas that we try and get TV broadcasters to like enough to pay us to make. (I know, I can’t believe I don’t make a living off my sporadic blogs either). 

It’s a crowded marketplace and a tough industry, meaning that 90% of my job is to come up with, shape and develop ideas that TV broadcasters don’t like enough to pay us to make.

My days are quite literally filled with rejection.

Emails, phone calls, meetings, all saying ‘no’ for one reason or another.

It’s hard not to look at other shows being commissioned, other companies getting deals, other development types bringing business in, and not feel a sense of comparison.

I’m not alone.

A milestone birthday reminds us that we haven’t “achieved” what we’re “meant to” by this stage.

A friend settles down, buys a house, gets promoted, starts a family, and we’re reminded not of who they are, but who we’re not.

Faith doesn’t make us immune to it either. A few years ago I was a preacher at a large Christian event. I’d been invited last minute as someone else had been unable to be there.

At the end of every session I’d sit with a group of teenagers and offer space for them to ask questions and interact with what I’d spoken about. I wanted it to be a two-way thing. Not just some guy on a platform talking at people.

Sadly, every session started the same way, someone would raise their hand and ask “how do you get to be a speaker at this event?”

One afternoon I was writing in a cafe on site, a friend I hadn’t seen in a while was visiting the event. We locked eyes and he made his way towards me. I was so pleased to see him. I stood and as he got towards me and gave me a hug, he said “I heard you were here, I’ve been looking for you…” 

These events are always full of people but in a way they can be incredibly lonely. I was relieved to have someone to chat to, someone who knew me as me and not a picture in a brochure or with a microphone in my hand.

“I’ve been looking for you because I wanted to know how on earth you managed to get booked for this event?”

I felt lonely again.

We look at their platform, their book deal, their followers, their congregation, their invites, their speaking schedule.

And outside of leadership we can fall into the same trap.

Their numbers, their programmes, their staff, their band, their building, their podcasts, their new members, their old members, their new members that used to be our old members.

I read somewhere recently that this type of comparison and jealousy comes from the idea that there isn’t enough of something for everyone.

Not enough work.

Not enough commissions.

Not enough people.

Not enough book deals.

Not enough platforms.

Not enough microphones.

Not enough houses.

Not enough promotions.

Not enough friends.

Not enough cars.

Maybe that’s why comparison is the thief of joy. Because it robs me of the notion that there’s enough for them, and me.

And if there’s enough for them and me, then there’s enough for the next person and the next person and the next person.

And maybe when I get my head around that, I might start to realise that I’ve already got enough.

In fact, I’ve got so much more than enough.

And maybe, in that space I’ll stop comparing.

And maybe, when I stop comparing I’ll find more joy.

Until then, I’ll wait for next year’s “totally unexpected” snow.

Fatherhood

A LETTER TO MY SON ON TURNING 4

My son,

Tomorrow we celebrate another year since you joined us. I can hardly believe it’s been 4 years.

4 years since I walked into the hospital.

4 years since I waited eagerly.

4 years since the calm and dimly lit birthing room was interrupted by the surgeon who knew it was time.

4 years since I stood in the operating theatre between your mum as she lay there and you on the other side of the room not sure where I was meant to be or whose hand I was meant to be holding.

4 years since I looked down at this total stranger and knew that I would love him as long as I had breath in my body.

4 years since the lumber punctures, the heel pricks, the constant prodding and poking.

4 years since my life was turned the right way up and we became a family.

Since then I’ve watched you grow.

I’ve watched you learn to talk and use those words to not just tell me what you want, but to remind me of who I want to be as your dad.

I’ve watched you learn to walk and gasped at how you run at life full speed.

How you find the highest points in a room so you can show me your jumping skills.

How sometimes you just know when to stop, to grab a blanket and find warmth and security under it.

I’ve watched you learn how to interact. How to share, how to make space for others and how to stand up for yourself.

I’ve watched you learn how to think. You ask the best questions. You refuse to take stock answers, you press again and again until the answer makes sense, and you don’t let up until you’re satisfied.

You’re turning 4 at a point in time when the world is shifting.

For the first time in my lifetime it feels like we might finally be making some progress (however small) in making the world a fairer, more equal place.

A place in which you won’t earn more than your cousins just because you’re a boy and they’re girls.

A place in which you’re going to be led by amazing women, and be able to lead women amazingly.

A place in which you’re going to be mentored and discipled by strong, wise women, and be free to mentor and disciple women without fear of how it looks or any holding to nonsensical rules or archaic world-views.

But then, you don’t even get why this would matter. Because you already live in that place.

You don’t expect more than your cousins because you’re a boy.

You already get that sometimes you’re in charge and sometimes one of the girls is in charge. Sometimes you make the decisions and sometimes one of your friends makes the decisions, with no concern for gender.

You already understand that kisses and cuddles have to be asked for, that no-one has a right to expect those things from you unless you want them and you don’t have a right to expect those things from others unless they want them too.

That touch and affection are shared experiences, grounded in respect for the other.

You learn the Bible from brilliant men and women and you don’t expect that will stop as you get older (because it won’t).

You and your friends already live in the world we’re only just beginning to try and create. And that doesn’t even begin to cover how you see past race, care for the planet, understand fairness and couldn’t care less about how much money someone has.

You somehow find common ground with everyone you meet, and that’s something we could all learn a lot from.

So this year, I’m going to try and spend as much time learning from you as I do teaching you.

Sure, I know more about some things than you do yet. I’ve been here longer and had some amazing grown-ups teach me along the way (I’ve still got some amazing grown-ups who are teaching me along the way).

So, for now, I’ll still want to hold your hand as we cross the road, I’ll still be the one who makes the toast at breakfast and pours you your favourite hot chocolate.

But as you turn 4, I promise to listen harder, to watch more closely and to learn more eagerly as you teach me how to become a better dad and a better man.

Above all, I promise to play my part in making sure the world is becoming a better place every day you’re in it.

Because, my son, you already are.

All my love

Dad x

Current Events, Faith

WHY I’VE GIVEN UP “PRAYERS” FOR LENT

It was just another Wednesday evening.

We don’t go in much for Valentine’s Day. Dinner with my visiting parents before heading out to spend some time with friends to talk about their upcoming wedding and marriage was the height of our romantic ambition.

I put the remains of a chilli into a Tupperware to take to work in the morning, part of the “new me” for 2018.

The familiar beeps and swooshes of a BBC News alert on my phone, tells me there’s “breaking news”.

I look down and read of a school shooting in Florida. No more details are available.

The chilli goes in the fridge.

We head out.

We come home.

Sleep.

Wake.

Headlines are confirmed.

Tweets tweeted.

Facebook statuses updated,

Instagram posted.

Blogs written.

Think-pieces published.

Everyone’s voice must be heard.

“Prayers”

“We don’t need prayers”

“In our prayers”

“Back up your prayers with actions”

“Prayers”

“Stop praying and do something”

“Prayers”

“What about peace?” 

It’s all too familiar, the back and forth of the aftermath of these tragedies.

The politics of gun-control is more complex than anyone wants to admit, yet somehow it feels so simple.

Less guns surely means less of these shootings?

The theology of prayer is more complex than anyone wants to admit, yet somehow it feels so simple.

More prayers surely means more comfort for those affected?

Everyone picks a side.

Prayers become the enemies of action.

Inaction deemed the partner of prayers.

We call out the hypocrisy, quote facts and figures, research NRA contributions, and find our favourite Jesus quotes about peace.

Weaponising everything in our fight against these deadly weapons.

It was just another Thursday morning.

I board a train.

A friends posts that today is a poignant day for their family. A date that reminds them of a loved one lost too young.

Without thinking, my fingers launch into action.

“Love and prayers…”

Comment posted.

Job done.

I want an end to mass shootings.

I want American politicians to do something that makes a difference to the shocking statistics.

I want there to be fewer victims.

I want more than “prayers”

But I don’t want the demand for action to demean prayer.

Real, genuine, heartfelt prayer.

Prayer that cries out, prayer that petitions, prayer that changes situations and the person praying.

But I don’t want prayer to diminish the need to act.

And yet, I all too quickly type the word “prayers” and move on contented.

While I criticise the lawmakers, I position myself identically to how I perceive them.

So I’m giving up “prayers” for Lent.

“Prayers” that are too often satisfied with the thought or intention.

“Prayers” that, too often, lead to inaction.

“Prayers” that might literally close my eyes for a moment but somehow keep them closed to what’s going on around me for days, weeks, months or years.

I’m searching for something better this season.

And praying that whatever I find lasts longer than Lent.

Culture

RULES UNWRITTEN

A few years ago I was working on a TV comedy show. As the day of the recording got closer we were being given our studio to jobs and each of us was assigned one guest to look after.

I’d been sent over my guest’s rider (the list of things celebrities ask for in their dressing room, and definitely don’t take seriously, and absolutely never lose it if it’s all not there). It was fairly substantial. By which I mean, it was four pages long.

There was all sorts on this thing:

Bottled water

Bananas

Diet Coke

A fruit bowl

Newspapers

A mars bar

Heat magazine

Haribo sweets

A hairdryer with volumiser

A mango

A mango knife

Sparkling water

Four pages of very specific requests all to be placed in this particular star’s dressing room before they arrived.

As the day got closer we had a meeting with the team to discuss how it was going. As we got to me and my update, the producer of the show began to give me more jobs to do. As they explained, they knew my particular guest very well, both personally and professionally, and they were so “low maintenance” I’d have plenty of time to do other things. After all, “they don’t event have a rider.”

There was an awkward silence.

I learnt quickly in television that when given more to do, you should be grateful and carry on, but the moment’s silence had given me away.

I tried to bat away the questions but it was too late. I had to let them know that not only did this person have a rider, it was four times the length of any other guest’s.

The producer didn’t believe it. And so I was sent to go and get it to prove the point. I returned with the offending document and waited while they read.

Without saying a word they took their phone out of their pocket and began to call someone.

I sat silently wondering what was coming. After a few seconds the silence was broken by nine words I’ll never forget:

“Why on earth do you need a mango knife?”

After a few minutes of half-listening to the call while imagining how quickly I was about to be fired when it ended, the producer said goodbye and looked at me with a smile.

She took the rider and tore it up, “two bottles of water and a banana and they’ll be happy.”

The meeting continued and came to a close, but as I went to leave the producer stopped me and asked me to stay behind. She wanted to explain what had happened.

It turned out that over the decades of their career this particular star would, from time to time, ask for things.

If they knew they had an interview in a newspaper or magazine they’d ask someone to grab a copy for them.

They’d once taken a shower before rehearsal and asked for a hairdryer.

And during one particular fad diet had asked for a mango…then they’d realised they had no idea how to get into a mango so a mango knife was procured.

Each time they’d ask for something it would go back up the chain and get added to the rider and they had no idea.

Over time, they admitted their dressing room got fuller and fuller but they didn’t think anything of it. And when they went to appear on other shows or to other studios they didn’t think it was odd that the same stuff would appear.

They genuinely believed that every dressing room was the same, and every person got the same treatment.

They contacted their agent that afternoon and the rider was no more.

Two bottles of water and a banana was all they needed.

I never forgot that day and it never fails to remind me of the unwritten rules we all set, often without knowing.

My very first job out of university was working in an office.

I was 21 and had left home for the first time and moved to Essex.

After a year, a brilliant new administrator for my team arrived. After a few weeks I was sitting in the office one morning and I received an email from her asking if it would be okay to interrupt me for a minute. We sat opposite each other and would often interrupt each other with conversation or questions, and never before had she felt the need to email so I was a bit taken aback.

I immediately worried someone had complained or asked her not to interrupt without warning.

I was incensed.

How dare someone from this team make our new and brilliant administrator feel so uncomfortable.

How dare they stifle her work flow to the point she needed to email to ask if she could ask a question of a colleague, of a teammate.

I was drawn to the cause, and I was determined to get to the bottom of it.

I replied, setting up a conversation in one of our meeting rooms.

As we sat down, I immediately took up the case.

“You never need to email anyone in this team to ask permission to speak. How dare someone make you feel that way. Who has done this? I know you might not want to tell me, but you must, it’s a matter of culture and real dynamics. I need to know who it was.”

A moment’s awkward silence before she answered:

“Well, actually, it’s you.”

I’d expected a different name and had already prepared a response which I launched into.

“I cannot believe they’ve done this. You are a valued member of our team and how dare they…”

My brain caught up with itself, and I realised she’d said it was me.

I was baffled.

I’d never been annoyed or upset by an interruption.

I’d never given any hint or clue I needed written warning of question or conversation.

I’d never asked anyone not to speak to me or to come back later.

So how on earth had I been responsible?

“It’s because you’re wearing your hat.”

It turned out that it had become widely believed in the office that if I wore a hat it meant I didn’t want to talk to anyone.

In truth, it usually meant I’d woken up late and hadn’t had time to wash my hair or I’d struggled to get it to sit in a way that I was happy to show to the world.

It probably also meant that when I wore a hat I was more tired, rushed, harassed or frustrated than normal.

That could have affected my demeanour or mood.

Whatever the case, Matt in a hat didn’t want to be disturbed.

I apologised.

I also never wore a hat to work again.

I often ask people what the “unwritten rules” are for their workplaces, teams, events, families or churches.

The response is always fairly similar.

“We don’t have any rules here.”

“There are certainly no unwritten rules, we’re an open and friendly and inclusive place.”

And yet dig a little deeper and you always find something.

These unwritten rules can display as behaviours.

“The way we do things around here.”

These become adopted by others, and when new people arrive they see that everyone behaves a certain way and they are faced with choices.

If it matches their personality, style or preference, they can do the same and fit in happily.

If it doesn’t, they can choose to not come back or resign.

Or they can stick around and feel perpetually on the fringe.

Or, perhaps most damagingly, they can stick around and pretend. Hoping never to get caught out but never truly settling.

These unwritten rules can also display as consequences.

Do this and you can do that.

Don’t do this and you can’t do that.

Do this and you can’t do that.

Don’t do this and you can do that.

These will usually never be written down anywhere, there’ll be no induction to them, many won’t even give them a second thought (sometimes because they’re beyond the point at which the same consequences would apply to them).

The options for the newcomer are the same as before, get on board, look like you’re on board, or just get off.

These unwritten rules can be incredibly damaging to individuals, relationships, teams, businesses, families, churches and whole communities.

So identifying them, and figuring out whether we want them or not can be incredibly powerful.

For a famous TV presenter it meant being careful what they asked for and ditching a mango knife.

For a 22 year old with unruly hair and a lot to learn it meant setting an alarm and ditching a hat.

Because no matter the cost, if we’re not careful, our unwritten rules can end up writing others out of our story.

Church, Culture, Faith

AN UNNATURAL SELECTION

I recently discovered that at the end of “The Origin of Species” Darwin suggests some reasons why people may not agree with his theory and findings.

It’s often believed that the scientific community jumped on board with his ideas while the religious community pushed back. Turns out it wasn’t that simple, with several clergy supporting his theory and plenty of prominent scientists unwilling to.

In the final literary flourishes he suggests some reasons as to why people would reject his work.

One reason caught my eye this week. It’s described by Elizabeth Johnson (whose brilliant book “Ask The Beasts” is the cause of my latest fascination) as “political and psychological.” 

Darwin writes that these naturalists have spent so long learning and studying from the opposite point of view that they can’t be open to new ideas.

They’ve invested too much in one direction to even consider another.

John Piper’s name clogged up my Twitter feed this week when he was asked what he thought about women teaching in seminary, specifically he was asked this:

Should women be hired as seminary professors?”

The first line of his answer set the tone:

“I am going to answer this question as best I can on the assumption that the Bible teaches that churches should be led by a team of spiritual, humble, biblically qualified men (1Timothy 2:12). In other words, I’m going to base my argument about the seminary on the assumption of complementarianism, which I think is not merely an assumption but a well-founded historic understanding of Scripture.”

What fascinated me about the answer (and it did go on) was that by starting in this position, there was only one possible outcome.

Should women be hired as seminary professors?”

“No!” 

Let me actually quote his final answer lest you think I do the man a disservice:

“Let me put it another way in the form of a question. If it is unbiblical to have women as pastors, how can it be biblical to have women who function in formal teaching and mentoring capacities to train and fit pastors for the very calling from which the mentors themselves are excluded? I don’t think that works. The issue is always that inconsistency. If you strive to carve up teaching in such a way that it’s suitable for women, it ceases to be suitable as seminary teaching.”

Cards on the table, I don’t go in for complementarianism.

If I was being generous I’d say it’s poorly thought through Biblical exposition cemented by centuries of patriarchal control of organised religion.

If I was not being generous I’d say it’s church mandated misogyny designed to keep women subservient to men at all costs.

But that’s not what got my attention me about this answer.

What got me was that the question became irrelevant because his starting point was so inflexible.

Like Darwin’s imagined detractors (who turned out to be very real) too much time had been invested in one direction to even consider another.

We’re all guilty of it, I certainly am.

There are red lines, hot topics, non-negotiables in my thinking.

And I’m not just talking about in my religious understanding.

I have firmly held opinions on politics, sport, music and current affairs that come from some of my cemented starting points.

I have firmly held opinions on colours, textures, and side dishes that come from some of my cemented starting points.

Some of them come from my upbringing.

Some of them from my cultural context.

Some of them from my experience.

Some of them from my learning.

Some of them I’ve just decided one day and never let go of.

And yet, some of the best things I’ve ever discovered only came about because I was willing to start again.

Some of the most amazing things I’ve learnt only came about because I was willing to unlearn something else.

Let me imagine my detractors now:

“But what about strong foundations?”

“But if everything is up for grabs, how do you keep hold of the truth?”

“How can you possibly have strongly held opinions on side dishes?”

And in some ways, I understand the fear.

Asking someone to radically rethink is always difficult.

Asking someone to let go of something they’ve been holding onto for a long time is tough.

But here’s where I don’t understand the fear.

You can hold an opinion, explore and examine others, and come back to the same starting point.

Let me give you an example:

You can start by thinking chicken and baked beans should never be served together.

Then go on a journey in which you spend time with those who serve the two together, ask questions of those who eat the two together, and even, if feeling really brave, actually try the two together yourself.

But after all that, the wisest soul will surely still conclude that those two things should never, ever, in all culinary universes be served together.

So what have you got to lose?

The idea that opening ourselves to another opinion, another starting point, another worldview or belief system is, in itself, a dangerous act, not only suggests a fear that there may be truth in it, but also highlights how little actual faith we have in our starting point.

The idea that the best way to protect our understanding is to stop trying to understand anything else is not only a huge sign of our own insecurity, but of how shaky our seemingly firm foundations really are.

And so I wonder what one thing I’d be willing to give up at the start of 2018?

What opinion or belief I’d be willing to shake up a bit and see where it leads me?

What learning I’d be willing to unlearn?

To make the choice to start again, knowing that whether my mind changes or not, I can’t help but be changed by the process itself.

Church, Faith

ALSO…DON’T CALL ME….

Last weekend my wife and son were playing with some Duplo on our living room rug.

It’s fair to say he gets a lot from me, including my face, but there’s definitely one characteristic that is all his mummy.

As the two were playing, it became clear that this particular shared trait was making the construction work challenging. As one of them would place something in position, the other would attempt to move it unnoticed. Then a few moments later, having been caught, the piece would magically be put back by the now affronted party.

After watching in amusement for a few minutes, I asked how it was going.

My wife, realising that my question may not have been entirely without agenda looked at me and said:

“It’s really good, Kasper’s just being a bit bossy.”

In fairness, there was no judgment or anger, no disappointment or discontent in the statement. It was said with her usual, beautiful smile, and a loving look that only a mum can give.

Without missing a beat, my son dropped the Duplo he was holding, stood up, and with all the righteous outrage a three year old can muster said this:

“I’m not bossy! I just like telling people what to do!”

My wife apologised and was forgiven with a cuddle. Within moments they were back to building, and the power-struggle resumed.

Apparently three and a half is too young to learn about semantics, and so I’ve been forced to reflect on his words on my own this week.

There’s something quite brilliant about his response.

That disconnect between what he thinks the word means, and what it really means.

The idea that he can accept the definition but not the word.

I wrote recently about the word “creative” – it was essentially a semantic argument I was making, and yet I think it matters.

What I don’t want is for everything I write to be a semantic argument about what a word does or doesn’t mean (actually that’s not true, I’d love that but I recognise how annoying it would be).

And yet this week, another word has struck me.

I’ve just finished reading Nadia Bolz-Weber’s brilliant book Accidental Saints. In it she’s writing about the church she leads, and about the way that being with others changes how you view not just them, but yourself.

And then she writes something which so grabbed my attention that I had to read and re-read it over and over again.

“I think this is why we at House for All Sinners and Saints sometimes say that we are religious but not spiritual. Spiritual feels individual and escapist. But to be religious (despite all the negative associations with that word) is to be human in the midst of other humans who are as equally messed up and obnoxious and forgiven as ourselves.”

I get asked fairly regularly if I’m “religious”. It’s a word that, as the writer says, has so many negative associations that I almost recoil when I’m asked.

Over the years I’ve tried to craft an answer that makes sense.

I went through a phase of saying things like;

“No, but I’m spiritual” 

“No, but I’m a believer.”  

Like someone who’s just discovered that a tomato is a fruit and can’t wait to catch someone out.

I’ve tried reframing the question

“What do you mean by religious?”

“It depends on how you define religious…”

Like someone who gets asked the time and starts with “but what if time itself is just a construct?” 

I’ve flipped back and forth trying to avoid any word I felt might have a negative connotation for the questioner;

Don’t mention Christian.

Don’t mention Born-again

Don’t mention Evangelical

Like a Big Brother contestant on a secret task or a fictional hotel owner trying desperately not to offend his German guests.

I guess it comes from a fear.

A fear that what people are really asking is linked to a negative connotation or association.

Like one of those verbal reasoning tests;

“What three-letter word can go before age, power and date to make three new words? *

Except this time it’s intolerance, extremism and persecution.

So when someone says “are you religious?” I end up dodging the question or performing some semantic gymnastics (also the only sport I’d have been able to compete in at my school sports day).

I’ve even preached and taught about this word. Just a few weeks ago I taught about audacious faith offending the religious. I said,  “There’s no place for religion in audacious faith.”

I’ve heard and used the well-known idea that relationship beats religion. Suggesting that the two are somehow mutually exclusive.

And yet, this idea that somehow “to be religious is to be human in the midst of other humans who are as equally messed up and obnoxious and forgiven as ourselves” grabs me and speaks to me.

This idea that to be religious, somehow links me to others.

Whether I agree with them or not.

Whether I share their worldview or not.

Whether I endorse their theology or not.

That to be religious, means that even though I want to run a mile from some of the “born-agains” and “evangelicals” and believe me I do, I can’t.

To be religious plonks me in the middle of the messed up, ragtag, misfit bunch of people who have been trying and failing and trying and failing and trying and failing again for thousands of years.

To be religious reminds me that we have so much left to do.

To be religious reminds me that we have so much to apologise for.

But to be religious doesn’t allow me a hall pass of deniability or the get out of jail free card of “but I’m not like those religious people.”

And yet I still can’t get on board with the word.

Maybe it’s too late for religion.

Maybe the damage has been done, albeit self-inflicted.

Maybe it’s somehow beyond redemption (as ironic as that might be).

And as much as I might want to rediscover and reclaim it.

As much as I love that definition of being “human amongst other humans”. Sharing life and shaping community.

I still end up, like my son, standing up and emphatically declaring “I’m not religious!”

*man or out are the correct answers