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July, 2013


Come as you are: the issue of church garb


The church is known to be a liminal experience. Whether we like it or not, there is an “inside” and an “outside” of the church. Now this is something I think should be combated, for two reasons. Firstly, because it means that for some people, what happens in the church stays in the church. Secondly, because it means that some people will just not feel like they can come into church.

On top of the literal threshold of the church, there are many elements which can contribute to this liminal aspect. One of these is what to wear to church. The phrase “Sunday best” has come into standard vocabulary: some people dress up for church. Thankfully, people have also realised that this dressing up often is a barrier to others, and dress code in modern churches has been relaxed. The “Come as you are“, unconditional acceptance of others when they come in, has been taken in by many; and you will now see in many churches people wearing a T-Shirt and shorts, sometimes even with inappropriate flip-flops.


Photo: Francis Bijl, reused under CC license

Casually dressed people are less and less likely to feel out of place in churches: that’s good. Some people are making a conscious effort to dress down and be more welcoming to newcomers and to allow them to come as they are. That’s very good. Some people are starting to internally rebuke those who are still putting on their Sunday best for not understanding the Gospel of free, unconditional grace: that’s less good. Far less good.

Acceptance of others wherever they are does not automatically mean going for whichever attire requires the least effort. It does not mean deliberately going for the most visibly permissive choice, whether it is in terms of worship style, church garb, or even issues of behaviour.

It is usually the case that such an attitude is positive: churches, historically, have been bastions of proper, decent behaviour; and the perspective associated with that adds to the liminal experience of people going to church. But we must be careful that in doing so, we do not increase the liminal experience for those who are used to what might once have been termed decent behaviour.

People who like wearing a tie (or, if they’re cool, a bow tie) may feel out of place in a church where such efforts have been made that everyone wears shorts and T-Shirts. People who are ill at ease with homosexuality may feel out of place in a church where a liberal discourse has dominated all the discussions. In short, the informal crew does not have a monopoly on finding there is a threshold to cross to come into church, and the more traditional people must not be forgotten in our efforts to make the church a place where people are welcome to come as they are.

Of course, this must not come in the way of truth. If people feel that showing up in posh attire makes them better than the informal people, or that it is somehow effective to their salvation; they must be gently reminded of the Gospel of grace. But that can only happen if they can show up in church in that posh attire, or with this mindset, in the first place. Otherwise, they’re just going to discard whatever is told them or go somewhere else.

So, look around you in church. See how much of a mix it is. If you find nobody is wearing formal attire, do it for a while – not for the sake of being different; but for the sake of allowing others to bring themselves more fully into church. If you find nobody is wearing casual clothes, do it for a while. For the same reasons.

Now what?


Last week, a lot of my friends graduated. For some of them, this paves the way for more study – postgraduate or a completely new degree. For others, it is the final step before they settle in a new job. For others still, the future is unknown. For all, though, it is the culmination of three or four years (or in some rare cases, even more!) spent working towards the degree. Now that’s over, there is just cause for celebration and for congratulations: they (you!) have made it. Through hard work, sweat and allnighters, and in some cases, luck, they have obtained what they set out to do.


To some younger people, this moment will come in a few weeks, when they find out what university they got admitted to; or what grades they got for GCSE and A-Levels.

Whether you’ve just got through an interview, landed your dreamjob, put your first down payment on a house, or managed to finally finish reading this book you’ve been putting off for the past few years, there is a question you need to hear. That question is:

Now what?

When our focus has been on one single goal, we can be lost when we reach it. We end up doing one of two things:

1. We can think the hardest part is behind us and just start doing nothing. We lose purpose and allow ourselves to be lulled by the routine of the job/houseownership/studentship we worked so hard to obtain. After all, if we managed to get that, it means we’re clever enough for the rest to fall into our pocket without working. More importantly, there seems to be nothing more to strive for – at least for a while. That’s what I did in my third year of university, after I managed to get into the course I wanted to get into.
That’s what the disciples get doing between the Cross and Pentecost – yea, even after they witnessed the risen Christ, and the Ascension: they wait. This period of celebration (joyful worship!) and this break makes sense because they are waiting for the next step: it is expectant waiting, not simply dossing around.

2. We can be so glad that it’s over that we want to leave it all behind. The degree we spent three years on, after all, will not be useful, so we might as well forget about it: the job’s done and delivered and is no longer our problem. That’s sometimes the way I feel about my PhD: I want nothing to do with academia as soon as I have graduated. And while that’s fine, it’d be stupid to reject the experience and the knowledge I have acquired during the programme on the single basis that it was part of a PhD.

Both, in their own way, negate the work that was put into getting there. Both put an end to the momentum that was gained getting there. And both make the question “Now what?” particularly important and scary.

Success is no protection against this. Neither is acceptance of failure. Only the sustained willingness to keep on serving in whatever environment is.

So if you graduated last week, congratulations! Celebrate, enjoy a break and rest for a while – you most certainly have deserved it. But don’t leave your degree and what you’ve achieved just stay in the past: take them as an opportunity to serve.

15 ways cricket is like Christianity

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Ah, the Ashes. One of the best times of the year for a cricket fan. And an apt occasion for a post about cricket…


Photo: Andy, reused under CC license

1. It has become associated with a standard of behaviour. Particularly when it has nothing to do with that behaviour. “It’s just not cricket” may not be used quite as much as “That’s not very Christian”, but also conveys an expectation of overall uprightness of behaviour and the following of unspoken rules.

2. It is full of tales of miracles. Such as a window breaking after a cricket bat was simply leaning against it. Or a 19-year-old trumping cricket giants in his first international game.

3. It is English at heart. (kudos if you can guess where the link will take you before clicking it)

4. Its expansion to overseas countries has a lot to do with colonialism. But that doesn’t make it an intrinsically bad thing.

5. It comes with its codes, which make it somewhat impenetrable to an outsider. But these codes also give the fans a common language and (for better or for worse) an identifying mark which facilitates immediate mutual clicking.

6. The Laws that come with it are generally considered dull and in most cases irrelevant; but there is still something exciting in them. It isn’t the silly things such as the fact that a batsman can be timed out, but what it points towards (a pure game where the players aren’t even thinking of playing for time) that makes them exciting.

7. The Laws aren’t what define the play of cricket. As was, ahem, made clear on Friday by Stuart Broad.

8. There are many forms of cricket. Twenty-twenty, county cricket, one day international, and my personal favourite, test cricket. They all have their different flavours, with the former being quicker, more prone to exciting batting; and the latter more prone to careful deliberation and safe batting. None of them are not cricket, but some may identify with one particular form.

9. There’s an American version of it, which has barely anything to do with the original.

10. To the outsider, it looks like an incomprehensible waste of time.

11. When explaining cricket, it may be better not to start with the Duckworth-Lewis method. When a friend tried to explain cricket to me (a long time ago), he started listing the ten ways to dismiss a batsman. I didn’t understand that there was a fielding team and a batting team. In the same way, if you start looking at Christianity by reading Revelation, or by talking about predestination, you won’t be able to understand (and live!) it quite as easily.

12. If you’re doing it properly, you should wear whites.

13. The hats give you information about the role of some players. They aren’t magically conferring higher powers. And it doesn’t mean that the hat-less people are any less important!

14. Even if you’re not in the England side, nothing is stopping you from playing cricket. Even if you don’t have a cricket ball – a tennis ball would do the trick.

15. Tea has a very important part to play in it.

Add your own!

How do I do that?

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When I was writing my second ever sermon, the first draft had most of what I was saying. The four steps of discipleship were there; and the one I was seeing as essential, finding God’s presence first, was there. To pick that up from the Biblical passages that were going to be read was easy enough; although getting that focus might have been slightly less straightforward.

But my first draft was seriously lacking. What wasn’t there was the list of suggestions as to how one could find God’s presence: pausing, receiving communion, praying, etc. That list got included after my curate asked me one very simple question. That question was:

“How do I do that?”


I was quick on my feet. I could give, more or less, the list that made it to my sermon. In short, I knew the answers; but looking back, I fell that list was rhetorical – as rhetorical as the question was. We both knew the answers. The very fact, however, that I hadn’t thought to unpack it means one of two things: either my knowledge of these was only superficial and intellectual, and I did not consider them seriously enough to consider them worthy of dwelling on; or they were integrated enough in my own life that they felt too natural to make explicit. I don’t know which one it is; I hope it is the latter rather than the former. But what matters here, as a preacher, is that for some members of the congregation, neither will apply. For these members, it is crucial that I address the How question – else, the sermon remains theoretical, unapplied, and, ultimately, dead.

Preachers, make sure that your sermon is not a succession of theological points (unless you are trying to inspire awe of God in that particular sermon!), and make  sure that for each and every point that involves your congregation, you answer – even if in some limited way – the “How” question. It can be a list. It can be a testimony. It can be something else – it doesn’t have to be exhaustive (that would just be arrogant and overly ambitious!)

You see, that “How” question is crucial because it allows theoretical, intellectual knowledge – mantras, as it were – to become effective in our lives. I was reminded of that a few weeks ago. I was talking with a friend; and in the course of conversation, I mentioned the image of someone taking on more and more bags upon his back, when he can just lay it down at the Cross.

It is a fairly common image, I’m sure. And when I first heard it, my mind was full of “Amens”. I thought the image was faithful and very well thought of, and I was content to leave it there; filing it away as something I could use later myself.

Then, my friend asked me “How do I do that?”

That was a violent question. It made me realise that I had been paying lip service to this image (which I still think is a good image), but never considered to apply it myself. In answering my friend’s question, I realised that letting go is difficult; and that something that seems simple is, sometimes, just the opposite. That night, I learned a whole lot more.

That was a raw question. In it, the deep, deep desire for my friends to let go of his worries and lay  them down at the Cross was bare. He wouldn’t have asked that question if he wasn’t filled with the all-consuming passion to actually do it. Asking “How” is not an intellectual pursuit, it becomes the outlet of our souls’ rawest desires.

Sadly, asking “How” is not that common, when it comes to spiritual things. Possibly because it makes one feel silly – after all, if it weren’t obvious, wouldn’t it have been explained already? Possibly because it engages us more than we feel comfortable with.

It shouldn’t. So start asking “How?”; you may find you are a blessing to the person who, actually, hadn’t thought to apply what he was talking about.