What we measure controls us

Luke 19:1-9, Christ Church Highbury 12th March 2017

(Third in the Lent series based on Archbishop Justin Welby’s ‘Dethroning Mammon’)

 

“What we measure controls us” suggests Justin Welby. And when you think about it, he’s got a point. Take a moment to think about the things in your life that you measure…your bank balance; your mortgage repayments; your weight; your academic grades; your success at work… If we’re not careful, these are things that can take over our lives in unhelpful ways.

Instead, the Archbishop argues that our dethroning of mammon’s place in our society “requires a leap of faith of being defined by what we do not measure – cannot measure – because it is infinitely valuable, utterly cosmos-transforming love of God in Jesus Christ.”

We cannot ever hope to measure the extent of Jesus’ love for us and the rest of God’s creation, but this love should mean more to us than any of the things that we invest considerable time and effort into measuring.

What difference can it make to our lives when we re-assess what we measure and how we measure it?

Measuring Zacchaeus:

Luke doesn’t tell us just how short Zacchaeus is, just that he needed to climb a tree in order to get a proper look at Jesus. We don’t know his height in feet & inches, and to be honest, in similar scenarios most of us would probably need to be up high in order to view an important person in the midst of a crowd.

Zacchaeus’ height is just one of several aspects of this reading that could be measured. We hear that he’s wealthy, that he’s a sinner, that he gives away half of his possessions, and that he will pay back four times what he may have cheated people. We also know that there is disapproval amongst the onlookers, who mutter their objections to Jesus’ interactions with the tax-collector.

None of these things affect the way in which Jesus interacts with him. There is no mention of Jesus spotting him, taking a measurement of just how sinful Zacchaeus was, and then choosing to spend time with him. Nor are we told that Jesus measures his wealth and duplicity, in order to tell him how much to give back – it’s suggested that this is done out of Zacchaeus’ own free will.

What Jesus gives Zacchaeus is also un-measurable. He receives salvation – and there is no scale of redemption, you are either saved or you’re not! He is also included in the ancient promise of Abraham. As a Jew, Zacchaeus should have already been an inheritor of this, but his sin would have excluded him in the eye of the religious leaders of the time. But Jesus’ words demonstrate that again, there are no degrees of being a Son of Abraham – it is all or nothing!

But Zacchaeus and the crowd have been measuring the things that control them, even if they haven’t realised it. Zacchaeus clearly feels a level of guilt for what he has done in his life thus far – his collusion with the Roman authorities, collecting tax from his own people who are living under an oppressive regime, and cheating in order to gain personal wealth.

The crowd are measuring Zacchaeus and Jesus by the standards their society and culture have given them. The tax collector hasn’t met the standards that their religious laws expected – working with gentiles and stealing. Jesus is associating with a known law breaker, and seemingly isn’t chastising him for his actions. Both have fallen short according to their tools of measurement.

Measurement:

The Archbishop is, in this chapter of his book, making the point that what we can measure, particularly in terms of wealth, we can control. The problem is, that we seem to disproportionally value those things that we can measure.

The crowd could measure others according to their religious and social standards.

Zacchaeus could measure the amount of money he made from his job and lies.

We can measure our bank accounts, our debts, and the objects we own.

As with last week’s theme, ‘what we see we value’, it comes back to sight. Jesus wants those around him – and us – to see the world as he does. Zacchaeus has two reasons for climbing the tree: he wants to see, but at the same time, not to be seen. He doesn’t want Jesus to see him for who he is, but in fact Jesus sees beyond that and sees who he truly is: redeemed and a Son of Abraham.

Measurement is tricky. We’re not very good at measuring what actually matters. Take the church for example, one of the main forms of measurement that the Church of England has is church attendance. Every October, each church denomination in the UK submits their data for the month and these numbers form the official statistics regarding the state of the church. Inevitably, in recent years these stats have inspired headlines proclaiming the death of the church. Average weekly attendance is in decline. Electoral rolls are getting smaller. The money churches receive in offerings and donations decreases in line with these numbers. What we’re measuring is not telling a cheerful story.

And on the one hand, that’s ok. These statistics prompt – or should prompt – churches to do something about it! It’s why the Fresh Expressions initiative emerged over 15 years ago – an attempt to find new ways of being church that might encourage those who have never been part of a church to join in. It’s also behind the Renewal & Reform process that the Church of England is currently exploring – a programme of change, development and creativity to make it fit for purpose in the 21st Century.

But at the same time, these statistics don’t tell the full story…

As some of you will be aware, I work part-time at Christ Church and the rest of my time is spent working on various research projects. Prior to starting theological college, I worked in the research department of the Methodist Church, working on their statistics and hunting for stories to go alongside the numbers. Now, one of my regular pieces of work is helping organisations – including churches – measure their impact. Specifically, in terms of making new followers of Christ, discipling them, and their impact upon their local community. It’s about finding out what’s happening beyond the numbers – and not letting the numbers control what happens in or to these communities.

One of the places that’s doing a lot of work on this is Leicester Diocese. A few years ago, they looked at their stats and decided to come up with a strategy that would help them grow as a church. So they sold off some property that they no longer needed and put the money into a ‘Growth Fund’ which projects and churches can apply to for grants. The team that I’m part of then does a workshop with successful grant recipients, helping them establish how they will measure the impact their project has over its funding period and beyond.

The point of the exercise is to help them measure what matters to them. That won’t necessarily be the same as another project – the church employing a children’s worker will have different criteria to a pioneer appointed to a brand new housing estate – but the measurements all fall within the diocese’s broad vision of: making new followers of Christ, increasing discipleship & building relationships with the wider community.

The measurements will end up being a combination of numbers and stories, but the hope is that together they will provide as full a picture of impact as possible. And, that it will give the projects, churches and diocese the tools to see where things are working and where things may need to change. Rather than having a set of measures imposed upon them, these teams work together to ensure that they’re not being controlled by unreasonable expectations.

In Leicester, we’re created measurements that help demonstrate the impact that the Jesus’ love and the Kingdom of God on earth is having – sounds dramatic, but that’s the motivation behind their actions, just as it is in our own community here in Highbury. One project I worked with recently is going to count the number of smiles its team receives as they get to know a new housing area, as a way of measuring their engagement and relationship building! It’s a little different to simply counting people in seats on a Sunday morning…

Our parish accounts are another form of measurement, but is another great example of not letting what we measure control us. If a parish was controlled by this measure, they would spend all their time saving money – not spending it. Perhaps they might have the philosophy of saving money for a rainy day – perhaps just in case the roof falls in and it quite literally is a rainy day in church! Instead, as you’ll see later, we have a pretty healthy attitude to how we spend the money that we’re fortunate to have. We keep an eye on our spending, not just to check we’re not spending too much, but to check that we’re spending our funds in line with our missional priorities. It doesn’t control us, but helps guide us to fulfilling the vision that we believe God has for this church and the community of Highbury.

Conclusion:

On the one hand, Justin Welby is encouraging us to move beyond the measurables of 21st century life, into the unmeasurable goodness of God’s Kingdom. To let the love we receive from Christ be enough to free us from the control of our earthly belongings.

But I think there is also a value to reassessing what it is we measure. Once free of society’s expected measurements – the bank balance or salary – we are able to measure what God is doing through us.

Zacchaeus, once free of his sin and his ill-gotten gains, is able to follow Christ fully. We don’t hear what he does next, but one could assume that he becomes a follower of The Way and proclaims the Good News beyond Christ’s death and resurrection. Instead of measuring his height, his wealth or his sin, we could now try to measure the impact that this short passage of Scripture, this single encounter between Jesus and a tax collector, has had in the intervening two millennia. How many thousands or millions of people have come to Christ through the story of the saved sinner? How many people’s faith has increased as they’ve heard this tale and realised just how far Jesus’ love stretches? But such is the vast-ness of God’s love in Jesus Christ that we can’t possibly hope to put a number on that impact! We just see the results of it all around us and throughout the church’s history.

And how will Jesus use you?

Friday Fun for a day off

Apologies for the delay in posting this week’s Friday Fun. The problem with having a frenetic working week this week is that it left me very little time to explore random internet diversions – unless they had #methconf attached to it in some way. [Following that hashtag will go some way to explaining what I’ve been up to all week.]

First of all, I just want to boast that something I posted on my blog weeks ago has this week made it into The Hairpin. I think it’s the first time that’s actually happened and is a happy reversal of the usual pattern of events. They drew attention to the fabulous ‘Weird things customers say in bookshops’ strand of Jen Campbell’s blog, which incidentally, is still being updated – the 7th instalment has just appeared and keeps getting better and better. (I’m trying to think up something truly weird to say the next time I’m in Highgate and can pop into the shop, but I just don’t think I’m special enough.)

Secondly, there is a new tool by which you can gain answers to all life’s important questions – what to buy your recently acquired girlfriend for her birthday, where in the UK to go on holiday [Mansfield] and, fabulously, which is the coolest Christian denomination. Miss Information’s Booth will accept questions via Twitter or e-mail and will apparently be at this year’s Greenbelt. I’m super excited, but have yet to come up with a suitable question to ask her.

One of the reasons why I’ve delayed writing this post is because I had a house guest to entertain and we spent the morning walking to London Bridge and back in order to have coffee at Monmouth Coffee – one of London’s best independent coffee places, so I’m told. I would know little about such things as I don’t actually drink coffee, but this morning I had my first ever Flat White and the experience wasn’t an entirely unpleasant one. My companion is quite the coffee connoisseur having spent the last couple of months working at another highly recommended coffee venue – the Department of Coffee and Social Affairs in Farringdon (visit it if you get the chance, they love their coffee) which has caused her to develop an addiction to the stuff – on our way home we had to stop at Starbucks too. Which needs me neatly to a nicely diverting little Tumblr of misspelled names on Starbucks’ take-out cups

So that’s meant to read ‘Claire’.

My first ever Flat White – some people are going to be SO proud of me! 

What else is fun at the moment? Well, if you’re really, really bored this afternoon, I can offer you the distraction of a 36 page research paper that came out this week. It’s basically what my life has revolved around for the last couple of years and could potentially be interesting if you fit into some or all of these categories:
(a) You’re Christian or went to church at some point in your life.
(b) Are aged 25ish to 40ish
(c) Have some connection to the Methodist Church
(d) Like reading very long research papers

Friday Fun with Research (& some singing)

I’ve always said that ‘fun’ is subjective and I freely admit that many of you may not find random pieces of research as fun as I – a professional researcher – do. [I will now pause while certain friends guffaw at the notion that I consider myself a ‘professional researcher’. I get paid for doing research, end of story.] However, there is no doubt that research at the more spurious end of the spectrum can be really quite ridiculous.

So, two pieces that have recently caught my attention…

Firstly, apparently ‘God wants you fat’ (as the title of the Hairpin article where I found this research said). Apparently, “[F]requent religious involvement appears to almost double the risk of obesity compared with little or no involvement.” The research itself is unclear as to how this link occurs – suggesting that religious people might reward themselves for their good works by indulging in treats, or that it’s to do with generally feeling relaxed.

That’s not the reason – had the researcher never been to a church function? Have they not experienced the amazing ability Christians have to make every single event revolve around food? There’s a reason why there’s a Christians Against Quiche group on Facebook, people! Heck, at my church they hand you yummy baked goods as soon as you walk through the door, not to mention the exceptionally scrummy meals served after the evening service. It’s not rocket science – hang around church long enough without saying “No” to at least some of what you’re offered and you will gain weight. [To spread this out across other faiths, I will also say that hands-down the best Indian meal I ever ate was in the Gurdwara in Southall.]

Secondly, a map showing the average bra size of women in different countries. (I’m certain this will be of interest to both genders.)


I genuinely found this fascinating – who knew that there might be a difference between the populations of the UK and Ireland? Also, I had a slightly blonde moment on first discovering it. Honestly, the question that sprang to mind was “how did they get a decent sample of women to reveal their bra size?” – about two minutes later it dawned on me that the data was probably gathered from bra sales figures. For a supposedly intelligent person I can’t half be a twit at times.

And now, for something completely different. Unfortunately, this isn’t quite as fun as I first thought it would be, but it’s still kept me entertained for the duration of writing this post. When I first saw the url http://choirsmakemecry.tumblr.com I thought “Wow! Disastrous choral performances that are so bad it’ll make you cry! Excellent…”, because clearly that’s the mean, vindictive kind of person I am. It’s actually a collection of good choir performances that are so beautiful they might make you cry. Have to say I’ve not welled up during any of them, but hair has stood on end and I’ve jiggled about with joy a little.

Ok, I confess, the primary school choir singing Badly Drawn Boy had me slightly emotional (and they did actions, and swayed, and sounded good – get me a tissue, quick!). Everybody Hurts is always a tearjerker, but as the website says:

Also, the site (inevitably) features He Who Cannot Be Named, who of course I still love and deeply respect and this performance of his boys choir is especially wonderful. (I dare not use his name – he was on TV again last night and caused another spike in my blog stats as people googled his marital status/sexuality.) 
Enough soppy music – enjoy your final working Friday for three weeks! [Unless you’re not British, or happen to be ordained and therefore have a rather hectic Friday lined up for next week.] 

Havens

The life of a researcher can be terribly hard at times. There’s the travelling to ever so glamorous locations – like Doncaster, the patience needed while you wait for the right people to fill in the right questionnaires, and most of all, the joy that is coding…

We have a rather special computer programme that does exciting things in the field of qualitative research (oooh, look at me getting all technical & geeky!), but in order for it to work its magic, you first have to have inputted all your data (often transcripts of very long focus groups or interviews) and then code it. In this context, ‘to code’ means to tag relevant bits of text with a corresponding ‘node’ or theme. It takes hours and hours and is fantastically tedious, not to mention rather hard on your mouse wielding hand.

For it to pass as pleasantly as possible you need to be somewhere free of typical office distractions – the person who sits opposite and asks random questions or tries to get you to work on something different (at this point, even working on stats becomes attractive), colleagues who like to sidle up to your desk and talk about Glee (always welcome) or their latest research dilemma (not so welcome), people who like to hold impromptu meetings and, of course, the ever present phone calls from our ‘helpdesk’. A trip to Starbucks works for a couple of hours, but for a good all day session, you need to get out somewhere with plugs, free wifi and an inspiring atmosphere…

I’ve tried a few. The British Library is good for some serious work in a serious environment with serious scholars, but it can quickly get a bit too intense. The Royal Festival Hall has a creative atmosphere but can be limited on plug access and it’s wifi gets temperamental from lunch onwards. However, the location that wins for me is another South Bank cultural mecca – the National Theatre (or ‘the National’ as I like to refer to it, as it prevents comments from being made regarding my pronunciation of ‘theatre’…). Lots of space, plenty of plugs (though they’re well camoflauged), great toilets, good wifi, and (I’m told) drinkable coffee. My particular fondness stems from the fact that it’s often inhabited by creative types, bearing Macbooks and writing plays or actors discussing their latest auditions and roles. I like to surround myself with such people in an effort to feed off their talent and make myself look like one of them (one day soon I’ll have a Macbook of my own).

The last couple of weeks I’ve had a few days of working at the NT and it’s been highly productive. Yesterday was going particularly well, until an elderly trio of matinee goers arrived and – despite a virtually empty second floor balcony – chose the table next to mine at which to eat their picnic and talk loudly to each other. Fortunately, their conversation was quickly amusing enough not to be annoying.

Elderly lady to her two male companions: “Last night I sent my first e-mail. I was actually going to print it off and take it round, but John told me it would be more convenient to e-mail it, so I did…”
“…thing is, I was telling her about Rummikub and the word kept getting underlined in red. I couldn’t work out why, so I rang up John to ask. It seems that the computer didn’t think that was how it was spelt, so I checked on the box and it was and so John added it to the computer’s dictionary for me. Now, next time I use it, I won’t get the red line – isn’t that clever!”

At this point I re-inserted my headphones and got on with my work. If you’re not fond of elderly people or their conversation topics, I would recommend avoiding the NT on matinee days when the restaurant is open. For some reason this eaterie draws every pensioner within the central London region to it. However, if you can cope with them, they can come in ever so handy. If you’re working alone, refilling your water bottle or heading to the loo can be annoying interruptions – what are you meant to do with your laptop? The above elderly lady very kindly watched my stuff for me while I nipped off for a comfort break, so I felt kind of bad for having relayed her e-mail antics to all my Twitter followers. Oh well.

Final fabulous thing about the NT? Quite often you get to work amongst art – currently it’s the ‘Angelheaded Hipsters’ photography exhibit which mostly consists of black & white shots of moody hippies. In fact, it inspired me to take (another) series of reflection shots last week as the sun was setting – this is the iPhone version sadly, as my ‘proper’ ones are on the other computer:

Of course, being a theatre, there’s also the chance you’ll find yourself next to someone terribly famous and exciting. It’s not happened to me yet, but I hold out hope…

Macho Church

Newsflash:
Men object to dancing and embroidery in church.
Men think the pub would be a better location for a discussion group.
Men think paint-balling and curry is a better alternative to discussion groups.

Who would’ve guessed it??

According to Sorted magazine (the “mens mag with morals” and a Christian alternative to Nuts & Loaded):
‘Men who go to church regularly prefer “proper macho songs” and feel uncomfortable with hugging and sitting in circles discussing their feelings’.

Almost wins the prize for ‘most glaringly obvious piece of research’ doesn’t it?

Sadly, the sample was limited to 400 readers of the magazine, so can’t be seen as representative of the church at large – though it probably is.

Think I’ve mentioned before the manliness of the men’s ministry at church – it certainly tries to provide some form of macho-church. They’ve definitely ticked the paintballing & curry boxes. But I’d like to imagine that on their weekend away next month they’ll be getting all emotional and huggy. Plus, I know for a fact that they’d be the first to object if dancing was banned from church functions…

Tomorrow I’ll be eating curry with a lot of women at church. I don’t think there’ll be any embroidery and I doubt we’ll be singing lots of ‘sentimental’ songs. We may even visit the pub afterwards. So when these men say they want ‘macho’ church, maybe they simply mean modern, relevant church?

Maybe that’s what the church at large needs to be concentrating on.