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July, 2012


The pastoral imperative


I recently read a couple of books on ordained ministry. The more modern ones, and the blogs I read, have rightly identified leadership as a key skill and a key task ministers will have. It is something I’ve found difficult to reconcile with the representative role of the minister, which seems to seep through every part of their ministry. Leadership, after all, is a highly secular term and can happen independently. Until it hit me:

Christian leadership is not simply leadership in a Christian context. It’s not even some form of new and improved “Leadership+”. It is intrinsically different, because the greatest commandment is this:


“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’”
(Matthew 22:37-38)

Crucially, the Great Commission comes after this. What this means is that our leadership and teaching needs to happen in this context and this way. The first point is obvious, but sometimes needs reminding in a world where skills are increasingly labelled and compartmentalised: God sets the course, not us. However we might lead, we strive to do so as representatives of God. Secondly, in Christian leadership, we cannot afford not to treat people holistically in all circumstances. When teaching, when leading, we need to consider them as the same as when we’re counseling.

Photo of a sheep

Photo by Linda Bailey, reused under CC license

Sermons are not dissociated from the rest of church life. People don’t suddenly become empty vessels, ready and anonymous receivers. When preaching God’s love for them, there is a need to make sure that the entire congregation is understanding that; and if there are some who are at a stage in their life where they cannot respond to it, the minister cannot afford not to find them, through that sermon or through another means.

This pastoral imperative is not restrained to specific times or tasks – it has to permeate the life of the minister.

Crucially, though, pastoral care does not mean sugarcoating the truth, or leaving people comfortably sitting where they are. For one, we are not setting the agenda – God is. But let us also remember that being a pastor, i.e. a shepherd, includes leading sheep from one patch to another. Being pastoral means being a leader.

How do you (practically) integrate teaching and pastoral care?

When and why did we start dissociating leadership from pastoral-ness?

9 lessons from 3-foot grass


I dislike gardening. I don’t even really enjoy having a garden. Somehow, we left our garden fairly (read: completely) unattended. The grass was about hip high a few weeks ago; when we finally got around to doing something about it. But the grass was too tall to use a mower on, and too wet to use a strimmer on (not that we have one anyway). So I went at it with shears and a rake. It was slow, not very pleasant, but little by little, the garden looked nicer. Yesterday, after a dry spell (finally!), the landlords came with strimmers and finished the job. Here’s what I got from the whole experience:

Picture of tall grass

1. You can’t do anything without tools. If you don’t have anything sharp (ish), there is no way you can do anything. Equip yourself: read, listen, seek wisdom. But don’t do it on your own, because you won’t be able to be discerning enough. Without tools, all you’ll do is uproot handfuls of grass and end up with a patchy garden. Without spiritual tools, you’ll end up with disconnected islets of knowledge which won’t help you and quite frankly don’t look good at all.

2. There is no magic tool. I had never used a strimmer myself, but somehow, I imagined that it was just a matter of quickly moving the tool over the grass, and that it would be done in next to no time with strimmers. The landlords took over a full day to do it. Surrounding yourself with books that just sit on the shelves is useless. Reading a ton of blogs (this one included) without allowing them to affect you is useless. Butterflying between leaders is useless. Going to three different churches (something I used to do) is not helpful if you’re just listening. When you decide to use a tool, you need to know that you’re going to commit to it, and allow it to affect you.

3. “Not having the right tool” can be an excuse; as can the specific circumstances. Oh yes, it was too wet, and we did not have a strimmer. But that never meant we couldn’t use shears. I may not find myself in a place with the most helpful structures around me… but it does not mean that it allows me to just sit on my arse and do nothing. Wherever you are, make sure you’re not using lack of ressources as an excuse. Don’t even do it to talk about your past, lest you give people the impression that your excuses are valid excuses and use them themselves.

4. Tasks generally look daunting until you put yourself to them. This has been repeatedly true: when I started cutting the grass with the shears, it looked better, and a lot of groundwork could be achieved quickly. It was slow, yes, but I could see the progress, square foot by square foot. When I had to write a disseration, I did not know where to start and had empty page syndrome for a long time… until I just decided to give a go at writing. Sure, it wasn’t perfect, but little by little, the word count was reached, and then improvements were made upon what was there. So when you have a vision but do not feel it’s possible – still, give it a try. Little by little, you will get there.

5. If your work is not perfect, it can still be useful. Using shears to cut grass will never get it to a perfect green, but it did allow the landlords to use the mower directly onto this patch rather than using the strimmer. We live in communities. What you do will generally benefit someone – but you have to let other people pick it up. When you’re growing spiritually, you’re also helping others bounce off your growth. So keep on growing!

6. It wouldn’t have got to that stage if I had taken more care of it throughout the “summer” months (inverted commas necessary: this is, after all, England). Discipline is important as a frequent practice. Depending on the activity, different frequences are appropriate: I wouldn’t expect to mow the lawn daily; but finding the appropriate rhythm is key. For this blog, I’ve settled on weekly updates – and it does make writing easier to tackle. Reading the Bible can be a daily or a weekly activity – but once you found your rhythm, don’t slack, or you will find it harder to get back to it.

7. Cutting clutter allows more light to come through. Or maybe that’s just the sun that’s finally come out. But our living room is brighter. Similarly, with spiritual growth: you can’t just keep everything you believe.

8. Sometimes, the inspiration comes where you least expect it. I had the idea to use the shears whilst biking past people who were doing that to their own front lawn. Blog ideas can come from snippets of everyday life, as can spiritual growth. The important part is not to let that inspiration go unattended.

9. Boy, grass does grow quickly when there’s lots of rain and lots of sun! I could probably wrangle a way to tie that in with spiritual growth, but I’ll leave that to you: comment away!

The Piano and the Rule


I tend to spend a lot of time in a place which, incidentally, has a piano freely accessible. A few students work there and enjoy each other’s fellowship. Sometimes, people come in just to play the piano. At times, of course, this can be an annoyance and distraction from work (especially scales. Minor key renditions of pop songs are always welcome). For many years, though, this did not cause an issue: cohabitation between piano players and other users was friendly; there even was a decent overlap between the two groups. At one point, a small group started using the piano extensively, to the point that it interfered both with casual piano players and those wishing to study. So a logical solution was implemented by the powers that be: rules governing piano use were put into place. They stated that people should not use the piano for longer than 30 minutes; and no more than twice a day (to get ahead of those who would have 5 minute gaps between those 30 minute intervals).

Problem solved. That compromise was fair to everyone, and there has been nothing to complain about since.

Photo of a piano, with The Rule written on it

Photo credit: mararie, reused under CC license


My attitude changed when the rules got introduced, so perniciously that I didn’t realise it until recently – two years on!

If I was working, before the introduction of the rules, I would just deal with it. I’d be annoyed, potentially, and if I really wanted to do work (which is a rare occasion), and if nowhere else was available,  I would go and ask whoever was playing whether they could play less loudly, or how long they would be, or something to that effect. If I wasn’t working, then unless all the people were doing was scales, I’d happily welcome the music.

After the introduction of the rules, regardless of whether I was working or not, I would find myself checking the time as soon as the people started. I would wait the half hour and “graciously” grant them somewhere along the line of 10 minutes before going to speak to them. Worse, some times, I would be outraged that they would  dare to keep on playing over their allotted time, even engage in comments with other students about how the piano players were annoying; but would not go and ask them to stop.

The difference? I was entitled to tell them off. Not simply after the half hour, but also while they were playing – in anticipation. Similarly, they were entitled to play for that half hour. Between us stood the screen of the Rule. Rather than leading to harmony, the Rule led to the creation of two distinct groups and made any interaction more difficult.


Why did it get to this? Because:

  • the mindset that led to the creation of the Rule was one of solving problems, not dealing with people. By going for the compromise – the “line of least resistance”, the people were treated as commodities. Amusingly, this half-arsed compromising attitude is what the Church of England is blaming the goverment of doing with same-sex marriage (point 23); but could be accused of doing with the issue of women bishops and the famous amendment (clause 5.1.c).
  • the compromise was fair, and therefore accepted by all. There was no need for interaction without reference to and acceptance of the Rule.
  • once the problem was “solved”, it was out of sight, and even when the circumstances that led to the creation of the Rule had changed and the culprits were long gone, the Rule stood without being reviewed.

Leaders: how do you approach conflictual situations? How do you get out of the “problem-solving” mindset?

Oh Noes! They used Comic Sans!

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This week, the Higgs boson, the subatomic particle which is, according to the standard model, responsible for mass, was finally observed at CERN. The world rejoiced (okay, I’m allowed a little emphasis) at this feat of modern science; yet for the most part (me included), we do not understand why it is important. Indeed, as far as my understanding of the matter goes, this is no groundbreaking revolution of the world of science. It was merely an empirical confirmation of what was already thought to be true; and yes, that’s important, just not very exciting to me. And there’s plenty of lessons in the human side of the discovery and reaction to the Higgs boson. But what came up a few times in my social feed and elsewhere was this:

Respectable scientists used Comic Sans!

Image: modified from Christopher Hilton’s original photograph, under CC license.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned at uni, it’s that you should never, EVER, use Comic Sans. It makes hipsters cry. And definitely does not look serious. So you’d expect scientists, who spend their time in places of such refined learning, to not use Comic Sans. So why did they do it? Here’s a few possibilities:

1. Their computers only had Wingdings, Papyrus and Comic Sans installed. For the sake of your own sanity, do not visualise a presentation in Papyrus.
Unlikely, though.

2. Comic Sans is actually a really good font. (link contains crude language, but is quite amusing).
Regardless of personal preference, though, Comic Sans does convey some level of light-heartedness which hardly seems appropriate in a scientific presentation. I once went to a church where the stained glass had Comic Sans (with bad kerning on top of that) – it felt out of place. And that’s what I ended up focusing on for a while. There is something to be said about choosing the right style for the right message and the right audience.

3. They were trolling.
If so, hats off to a very successfully performed troll with a massive audience.

4. They misjudged their audience. (a.k.a. Didn’t they think of all the poor hipsters?)
It is also possible they used Comic Sans in an attempt to make “hard science” more appealing – forgetting Comic Sans stopped being cool in the last millennium. By trying too hard to be trendy, hip, they ended up diluting their message and looking fairly ridiculous to part of the scientific community. But that’s assuming all the audience is thinking in the same way as us. It’s assuming that the presentation was for us. It is very easy to be critical of work which is actually aimed at other people too. A few years back, I would look at sermons which looked very shallow with some distaste, and would hold it against the church. Not all the sermons are just for us as individuals, and it’d be a mistake to dismiss a whole community on that basis alone.

5. They knew their aim and their audience
Subatomic physics is hard stuff. But with so much effort poured into the detecting of the Higgs boson, there was a need to share those findings with a wider audience than scientists. If the aim of the presentation was to present results to general reporters, and not to give a quick run-down of what was actually achieved, Comic Sans is an effective signpost to say “this is not the full detail.”

In any case (except #1), the use of Comic Sans was not innocent. It betrays something we all need to think about before sharing our work: what is my aim in sharing this? And who am I sharing it with? Knowing your audience is key to not broadcasting in a vacuum.

Green hair and the illusion of awesomeness

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This week, I thought I got it sorted. I had two blog ideas that would lead to legendary posts.

I was going to talk about how I dyed my hair green (to go to a charity ball dressed as a Lemming, as in the classic computer game); and therefore had green hair for a day. The grand idea was to share how few people dared to comment about it, even though some clearly were surprised: someone later said, when overhearing the story behind the green hair: “Yeah, I did think it was a bit odd, but didn’t want to say anything.” The whole point of the post was to expose how we do the same with odd behaviours around us, and refuse to actually say anything about it.

But as I tried to write it down, I realised that what I thought was a great illustration actually wasn’t great. It wasn’t quite as easy to articulate what I wanted to say as I thought: there were too many caveats, too many pitfalls where I realised whatever I would say could be mistaken for something completely different. I was expecting people to quote Luke 6:42 back to me; and was entering argument mode – which is something I’ve tried to avoid.

My second blog idea was even less formed – it was going to be roughly around the end of term for undergrads here at Warwick, differences of perceptions in time scales, etc. It still looks like a fruitful source, but is too big and, from many angles, too abstract.

And now, there’s two hours to the end of the weekend and nothing I had half-arsedly “planned” is looking like it’s going to lead to a blog post. These two ideas, I have to let go of. Pruning my work is something I’ve always found difficult. The thing is – if they have made it so far, it is because I believed in their potential: I was tricked by the illusion of awesomeness, and slacked by resting on it.

Two illusions

These illusions are dangerous, and hard to avoid. Similarly, though, there are illusions of difficulty. When I started this blog, I thought I’d never manage to blog weekly; and yet, six months on, I still am here. When I started writing a paper on my research, I started off thinking it would be easy and that what I had found was awesome enough to speak for itself. Then I hit a brick wall, and I thought I’d never manage to finish writing that paper. After cutting a whole chunk off it, though, it flowed more naturally; and it is now submitted.

Everything can seem easier than it is; and everything can look unsurmountable. But what is common to these illusions, is that they will remain until the task is tackled.

How do you make sure you recognise these illusions?

I recommend reading page 88 of Silence and Honey Cakes (and actually, the whole chapter) on this particular point.