Say something beautiful, or be quiet

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I passed 2 of these bikes on my way into work today. Painted a bright and vibrant pink, the seat says “Say something beautiful, or be quiet”.

It would be easy to dismiss this as a piece of attention-seeking performance art, but as I walk towards the city of London – where oftentimes cruel ambition is rewarded and ugliness found in the lines of our media and make-up – it feels like a message.

How often do we say beautiful things between the hours of 9, 5 and every minute we travel to and from them? What is beautiful even about what we do?

I’m no fan of pink and I do not cycle (out of respect to other road users), but if it takes a begarlanded and spray-painted bike to remind me that what I say is important, I am thankful for that.

James took the negative perspective:

The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. (James 3:6-9)

How much better to take the higher ground, to see the tongue, to see speech as something beautiful. Perhaps James should have encouraged us to praise others, to see and remark on beauty, to take each moment we have to speak as an opportunity to bring positive force and change to the world.

I see etched in the faces around me on the bus and on the tube fierceness, resignation, weariness, not enough peace, contentment, excitement. But how likely is that to be? Work is a part of life and it is rarely a place for beauty.

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Where are our election t-shirts?

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About 5 months ago I papped a guy wearing a t-shirt with the slogan “We’re the people we’ve been waiting for”. Turns out the reason it sounded so familiar was now-President Obama had used it in one of his speeches.

Maybe it’s because he’s American and therefore prone to unashamed patriotism in the form of t-shirt slogans or maybe our potential leaders’ soundbites are just too long, but I wonder why there are no slogans being bandied about on fairtrade cotton by English boys.

That said, our election campaigns have only a four week existence – barely enough time for the average Chinese factory to ship out a batch of pre-arranged slogans, let alone anything memorable from the campaign trail.

The daily train carriage is woefully free of below the line electioneering. Just one excitable green party supporter in a sandwich board would make my morning.

I may resort to writing my favourite #leadersdebate tweets on my arms.

reLentless Commuting – Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB)

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Distance: 7.2 miles
Journey time: 40 minutes
Bus > Tube > Walk

The most important thing to realise before walking into Holy Trinity Brompton is that this is not a church you can just walk into. HTB has built not just a reputation but entire congregations on the foundation of the ubiquitous Alpha course. It appears an unwritten doctrine that the real entrance to HTB is not the double doors at the back of the church but the courses and pastorates they run.

I had not realised this when I went to the 5pm service on the fifth Sunday of Lent. Not that you’d have known it was Lent; for I had ventured into the mothership of the house church movement (which New Frontiers may well contend), where every Sunday is Easter Sunday and miracles do happen.

HTB have their cafe at the beginning of the service – which should have alerted me to the danger of not being within the fold already. It is an odd thing, this phrase “cafe church”, since people will rarely, if ever, go to a cafe to meet new people. They may go alone, and perhaps chat with the barista, or they meet friends. A cafe is not a welcoming place if there is no welcome.

And so I took my paper cup of fairtrade coffee to what looked like the least pre-possessing corner of the building. Scattered around were simple blue cushions and people arrayed themselves looking into the centre, where the band and the action would be. Turns out this was the green room: I was sitting behind Nicky Gumbel and to the left of Tim “altogether lovely” Hughes. In fact Nicky winked at me – or it may have been the guy behind – and it was the most welcoming part of the service.

The service began with a short introduction from Tim and then the music started. This is the bit that draws the crowds. This is also the kind of thing Durkheim was talking about when he described collective effervescence: while the lyrics we were singing were undeniably spiritual, the high energy is comparable to a rock concert or football match. I won’t deny that within a church context this does feel like faith writ large, but there was no guidance. All around people were behaving as expected: raising their arms and adoring faces to the ceiling, falling to their knees, muttering tongues and prayers under their breath. However, there was an expectation from the front that the people taking part should know how to react to the ebb and flow of the music. Yes, this is somewhere that you come to once you’ve already joined.

Then the music stopped. We sat down and the myriad of screens around the inside of the building switched to HTB TV. A television channel devoted to all things HTB. Oh, and famous Christian folk. We played spot the celebrity for a few minutes as two very attractive young people talked us through planned events for the next week. Call me cynical, but for a Christian TV show this seemed to be very much more of the world than merely in it.

We sang a bit more – a young guy even rapped for a while – and then came the sermon. The sermon began with a humorous story, the punch line of which was: “Of course I wouldn’t wear the fake Nikes my Mum had bought me out of misguided love”. The way he said it was much funnier, but I couldn’t help thinking Jesus wouldn’t have worn Nikes, let alone laughed. This was a typical tripartite sermon: humorous anecdote to introduce the theme (being “real”) an exploration of the 3 points along the journey (unmask, take out the trash, take in the spirit) punctuated by more anecdotes, and then an impactful but ultimately ambiguous conclusion.

I won’t lie, the sermon angered me to the point of wanting to throw my scatter cushion at the preacher. To illustrate the idea of “taking out the trash” (the things that are not of God) he asked us what we daydreamed about ie. what was more important than God, and used such examples as our careers, our hobbies, our children. Children, it seems, should not be put before God. The conclusion? We should all be spiritual all of the time in order to be “real”, this time not illustrated by anything more than a closing amen.

At this point we moved into Communion, a short section of call and response. At HTB they practice intinction: dipping the wafer into the wine. I have never done this before and by pure chance was right next to one of the stewards with the goblet and plate, so first in line. I may have been a little over-zealous with my dipping…

More singing and a time of prayer, house church style. Tim threw out a few words he’d had before the service and anyone to whom these spoke raised their hands and we were asked to pray for them. “Make sure there’s at least one person of the same gender praying together”. What did he think we were going to do, pray for a shag? I prayed that no one near me raised their hand. Extrovert I may be, but I do draw the line.

At this point Tim’s beautiful wife stood up to take the microphone and told us the service was over, we could pray quietly a little more if needed, but to proceed out quickly as the next service was due to begin. That was it. Finished. Bye bye. I left.

Many years ago a wise friend of my Dad‘s said, “every church has its liturgy”. An exciting and spirit-led service one week can rapidly exhibit its pattern of liturgy, couched in improvisational terms, the next. I was really glad to have attended this service, if only to remind myself why I love the beauty of a written, eloquent and dynamic liturgy, one where the ladders of Christian festivals offset the snakes of occasional tedium. HTB no doubt offers an inspiring and spirit-filled journey for many, but for this commuter it was a bit of a pothole in the road.

reLentless Commuting – All Saints West Dulwich

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Distance: 0.7 miles
Journey time: 7 minutes
Walk

Apart from the Spiritualist church next door and the Charismatic church up the road, All Saints appears to be my local.

I had not planned anything for Palm Sunday, so when my friend and neighbour Emily invited me to join her family at All Saints it seemed kind of perfect. I had even overestimated how long it would take to get there and arrived early; how smug was I?

Strangely though, we were all 5 of us not allowed into the church, but herded like sheep into a small courtyard next to the building. I stood bemused for a while – having forgotten that Palm Sunday was the ritual humiliation of anyone not given to public displays of religion.

An excitable bunch of folk led us through the Palm Sunday story, donkey included. Ours was a young girl dressed in a grey robe with an impressive papier mache head. Apparently some vicars insist on real donkeys for a proper Palm Sunday service; I felt short-changed. We wandered the streets for a while, to the tune of a pipe and drum. I felt rather like someone on a political march at one of the quiet points, when the recent spate of shouting has stopped and everyone’s waiting for what slogan to shout next, but not wanting to start it.

Eventually we got back to the front of the church again, my cynicism sated, almost. I was loving the range of enthusiasm being shown by everyone around me – some had bought into it, others were just waiting for the weird stuff to be over so they could get back to normal. Feelings no doubt being expressed across the country.

The service itself is high church Anglican. There is a beautiful choir and a fair spattering of incense. Emily was dragged away by her 3 year old to Sunday School. Dave, me and 9 month old Rosie processed in, trying to cope with the high-pitched key of the first hymn.

I learned something new that day: it is very difficult to concentrate on a service when you’re with a baby. Especially one as gorgeous and animated as Rosie. At one point during a reading we fenced with our Palm Sunday crosses. Well, I parried etc, she just gurgled. The sermon was probably quite good, I can’t say I heard most of it, entranced as I was with Rosie’s ability to dribble at will.

This is a remarkably inclusive church. There is a L’Arche community nearby, and for a West Dulwich parish there is a wonderful variety of people from different ethnicities. When the kids come back from Sunday School, they have an area to the right of the nave with small tables, chairs and crayons galore for children to be kept busy. Emily sat near us while Martha ran a quiet riot between the columns. The fact the children are allowed to be so close to the action, while remaining free to just be, is also more inclusive than most. However, they have real coffee in cafetieres at the end of the service – sometimes you just know you’re in Dulwich.

After church we made our way back to Emily and Dave’s. Aside from being back in Eastbourne, this was the first time I had been at a church where the Sunday morning service evolved into a Sunday lunch. It reminds me of the spirit of Early Christian communities as described in Acts 4:32

All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had.

Idealistic perhaps, but sometimes the simple act of sharing meals together can evoke a greater purpose. Besides, I’d been boiling up condensed milk for banoffi pie until 1am, this was the highlight of my Lent so far!

Emily is a radio producer and very talented documentary maker, Dave has sold out to corporate marketing and is part of Daddy-Rock band The Effras. Needless to say, they are brilliant company. I ask them what they think of All Saints and it seems the high churchiness is far more Dave’s bag. While chatting with Emily I realise I may have been hasty suggesting that your personal support structure helps find a place within the church family. There is more to it.

There will always be compromise, whether it be worship style or service structure or journey time. Or feeling as if you belong.