Giving ourselves away

by Sally Coleman

I like going to the hairdressers. I must admit that that was not the opening phrase I had anticipated opening a post for Theology Everywhere with, but I like going to the hairdressers. The time is booked, and I usually anticipate being there for an hour, wash, cut, blow dry, coffee, being pampered, but for me that is not the key thing. The real and lasting enjoyment comes not from a new haircut but from a deep engagement, and conversation with someone who I might not otherwise encounter.

Over the years, talk over the mirror has been about many things, from motherhood and daily life to deep spiritual things, especially when people find out who I am (I was going to write what I do, but I won’t unpack that now, that would probably be the subject for a different post). I have been asked about ghosts and angels, whether I believe in the supernatural, about multi-faith issues, politics, justice, sexuality and so much more. The space is not my space; it is a commercial space where people come and go, a space I must respect and honour, and where I must win the opportunity to engage in conversation. Very often though, I find that those I have met over the years, who have held the power of scissors over my head, are hungry for spiritual engagement and want to talk.

I have found the same in other contexts too, in coffee shops, in placing stalls into town festivals, music festivals, and into Mind Body Spirit Exhibitions, not in order to win people to the church, but to meet with them where they are and to offer a space to talk. Perhaps the best thing about all of this is that each of these encounters has pushed me to think more deeply about the God that I do and don’t believe in, and to encourage those I meet to do the same.

As I reflect upon the Gospels in the light of this, I notice the way that Jesus simply encountered people where they were, how he encouraged them to drive the conversation, to express their needs, voice their doubts and ask questions. His responses were given in parables which again offered those with the desire the opportunity to delve deeper to seek out the meaning, and those stories, simple though they seem, are so nuanced that they still speak to us today.

As a member of a church that is asking deep questions of its future, what challenges me, and what I learn from Jesus’ itinerant ministry, makes me wonder how we might create safe spaces for the type of conversation that I have been describing. How might it look if instead of being curators of Methodism and what it stands for, if we were to become chaplains, meeting people along the way and daring to journey with them. How might it look if we were able to find a way of making the most of our resources, relinquishing buildings and using those that are fit for purpose to their full potential. I know this has been an ongoing debate, and that it has its own problems, pains, and frustrations but we can’t cling on to what is not the answer, and never was. The story of the people of God has always been one of journey/ pilgrimage; even the exilic accounts can and should inform our sense of who we are, and while there are encouragements to settling down (Jeremiah 29: 4-9), they are set in the context of blessing the people that we find ourselves amongst, which may again demand a new thing of us.

Yet none of this is new, these are questions that we have been returning to repeatedly, but so often with the underlying assumption that this is about the survival of Methodism and what it means to be Methodist, and while the theology of the Methodist Church is what has won my heart to Christ and the Christian walk in so many ways, I want to ask what would happen if we were to give ourselves away. To ask not what Methodism is for the present and future age, but to learn from the encounters that we have with those around us. I leave you with the words of Jesus.

Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 10: 39)

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5 thoughts on “Giving ourselves away”

  1. A brave sentiment, that echoes my experience in University Chaplaincy. Your phrase ‘The space is not my space; it is a commercial space where people come and go, a space I must respect and honour, and where I must win the opportunity to engage in conversation’ particularly resonates with me and reminds me that in Chaplaincy – and in every encounter of the kind you describe, we are always the guest and never the host.

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    1. Thanks Ian, I guess my heart is more in those spaces than inside the church, maybe we need to embrace a ministry of chaplaincy ( small c) for that might inform our attempts to evangelise in a more holistic way. To be the guest is of course a place of honour, but one we need to inhabit graciously.

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  2. Many thanks for your ‘mirrored reflection’ Sally,
    I understand that it was George McLeod the founder of the Iona community, who is alleged to have said “the problem in the church today, is that no one wants to persecute us”. Globally that may well be less true now than when the great man spoke those words. Churches and church culture in the UK are unlikely to endure the atrocities experienced by Christians in several regions of the world. Nevertheless British churches and their members are not noted for going where they perceive themselves to be unwelcome and in turn exercise a disdain for other sub-cultures. Might that contribute the public perception that ‘the church” is impotent and or irrelevant?

    Shortly before the start of a Decade of Evangelism, Anne Long in her book on Listening (1990) identified “the sacrament of the present moment”, which of course is even more joyous when discovered in those at some distance from sanctuary of the church. As a race course chaplain I have experienced such moments in ‘the betting ring’ of the racecourse with the independent bookmakers.
    “Bloody hell, the last time I was this close to a man wearing a dog collar, was when he had a placard which said, “the wages of sinners is death” was the response of a bookie as I approached him. The conversation that ensued was of his local church, which he contributed to financially and though he rarely attended was firmly supportive of.
    Your reference to communicating facially and verbally via the hairdressers mirror, echoes with the work of social anthropologist Kate Fox who claims the racecourse crowd is unique among English crowds at sporting events. “Race-goers did not practice gaze avoidance tactics characteristic of normal crowds at the races. Complete strangers not only made made frequent eye-contact but also smiled at each other for no apparent reason and even initiated conversation. (The Racing Tribe. 2005). Understanding this certainly aids approaching strangers who in other situations would be less open to an open smile and perhaps a greeting. It is even expected of the racecourse security staff who are expected to ‘give of themselves’ by the Clerk of the Course for York racecourse.

    I was recently re-acquainted with Mr G. a bookie, who following the recent Manchester Arena disaster was finding that his faith in God over 53 years, was deeply shaken. In between receiving requests for a £2 each way bet on Power and Peace in the 2.15 race, he tried to explain how as Mancunian, the atrocity had challenged his understanding of God’s power. It was not a dialogue, more a staccato confession and without any possibility of an adequate conclusion. I nevertheless hope Mr G. feels he was listened to.

    As we should expect, sacramental moments embody the ‘God of surprises’. Even more so when we give of ourselves away in a context that we have consistently deliberately avoided and held in contempt. When asked how the day was progressing, one bookie replied, in a classic West Yorkshire accent, “Well vicar, I think tha could say, there’ll be loaves but nae fishes fot suppa tanite”. Contextualised theology from the world of gambling is not a racing certainty but it is worth seeking out, in the hope that we will discover life affirming encounters in the people of God we have yet to greet, let alone welcomed.

    Peter Clark
    12 July 2017

    Post Script: The 5 year old gelded bay, “Loaves and Fishes”, has run 11 times and won two races and is trained by David O’Meara.

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    1. Thank you for your response Peter, I suspect that we would find more sacramental opportunities and contextualised theologies if we dared to look for them, or put ourselves into places of encounter, no matter how risky they might feel to us. Mr G will be in my prayers.

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  3. Thank you for your thoughts re meeting people where they are, in the hairdressers, the coffee shop, the market place etc. As a hospital chaplain I meet and talk with folk I would never meet inside the four walls of a church. I say that I ‘talk’ but mainly I ‘listen’! And at the end of an encounter at the bedside the final words I often hear are ‘Thank you for listening’…the sacrament of the present moment.

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