Three Reasons We Should Pay More Attention To Church Toilets

Think of church and you might think of a modern, open plan worship space; a stage, perhaps, and lighting rigs and a big LED screen hanging on the wall. Or you might think of Europe’s great cathedrals, high ceilings and hushed tones and holy statues lurking in corners. I’m guessing no-one thought of the toilets.

That’s a mistake. And there are three reasons why (aside from the obvious):


We need to think about the toilets because, frankly, in comfortable western societies toilets are taken for granted. The whole messy business of getting sewage in and out of places is something other people worry about. Yet 2.4 billion people don’t have a clean, safe place to go about their business, and while that’s obviously a health and hygiene issue, it’s also an issue of justice – girls around yhe world can’t go to school, or are put at risk of rape, all for the want of decent facilities. That’s why the Toilet Twinning initiative is such a good idea – it can turn your church toilets into vehicles of justice, and maybe that’s the sort of thing that Jesus would have us think about, rather than yet another upgrade to the sound system.


There’s also the issue of dignity. Again, something that’s easy to take for granted,  but imagine being out of the house and getting caught short and genuinely being stuck without access to a toilet. That’s an everyday reality for many people with disabilities, something that organisations like Changing Places are working to, well, change. Around 1/2 million people can’t use standard toilets and there aren’t enough disabled facilities out there to grant people the dignity they deserve. Churches aren’t always as welcoming to people with disabilities as they could be; maybe you need to see whether the disabled loo in your church is fit for purpose, or whether it’s just become the place where the mop buckets are kept.


But someone’s got to look after those toilets; someone’s got to fix the leaks, someone’s got to mop the floors, someone’s got to change the loo rolls. And if I know churches, the majority of people doing that are probably pensioners, often elderly women who love to serve the church but who don’t get enough recognition, many of who probably shouldn’t be lugging vacuum cleaners around in the first place but there’s no-one else to do it. Somewhere along the line we ritualised Jesus washing the feet of his disciples; maybe next Maundy Thursday the elders should quietly do a stint cleaning the toilets instead. They should certainly give thanks and recognition to the army of unacknowledged servants who make sure the church is cleaned every week. I believe Jesus honours this work; his church should too.

So this Sunday, when you walk past the church toilets, think about what they might have to teach us. Because it’s in the things we most take for granted that we are often the most challenged; it’s in the most humble of places that God often speaks the loudest.

Churches, stop covering up sexual assault

tpc_fingerlipsquietreligionandabuse_fbI believe in the Church.

I find it frustrating at times, and I sometimes question where I fit into it exactly, but I believe in the Church because I believe in the Kingdom of God, and because I believe in Jesus, and because, at its best the Church reflects the beauty of both of those.

And that’s why it’s so sickening to see the speed at which elements within the Church are so quick to defend the indefensible. We saw it again over the last week or so – suddenly sexual assault became something understandable, something to shrug about, something men talk about in locker rooms alongside football. Worst of all, it was given a spiritual gloss – after all, King David was one of the Bible’s great heroes, and he had a chequered sexual past. It takes all sorts, right?

I think this is the point where something goes from being morally unconscionable to becoming flat out blasphemous. So let’s make this clear – David was a warrior, a poet, a king. He was also a rapist who had a man killed to cover up his crime and who, when his own daughter was raped, he failed to do anything remotely just or righteous in response. David is not the guy to look to if you feel the need to justify or minimise sexual assault.

But why would you want to do that anyway? Sexual assault is a vile act, inexcusable at every level, and what follows is equally deplorable – the shaming of victims, the weaponisation of forgiveness, the difficulty in obtaining justice, the refusal to take reports of it seriously, the way in which institutions close ranks to protect the perpetrators by sacrificing the trust and the dignity and the rights of those who are now struggling to survive a rape, or molestation, or pedophilia, or domestic violence.

But then these things aren’t about sex, not really; they’re about power, and parts of the Church have made an idol of power for centuries. On a mountain in the Galilean wilderness, Jesus was offered domination over all the kingdoms of the world, if he would only bow the knee to Satan. Jesus, of course, refused, but ever since then, many of his followers have been quick to rectify what they see as his mistake. And so we sacrifice people on the altar of power, because that helps us maintain respectability and influence and authority. All that it costs is the well-being of survivors, and our church’s witness and a crushing hammer blow to the faith of those around us.

People aren’t leaving the Church because of Jesus. They’re leaving the Church because of crap like this.

We need to reject the ongoing defence and cover-up of sexual assault. Women and children (and yes, men) who are attacked in this way don’t need to be shamed and ostracised and manipulated by institutional damage control, they need to be supported and protected and listened to and believed. The Church should be a place of safety, a sanctuary, a refuge, an outpost of the Kingdom in a world that dehumanises women and commodifies children. It should not be yet another venue for rape culture.

There’s a TED Talk by Ione Wells. It’s a powerful story of how she wrote an open letter to her attacker, and how that went viral through the #NotGuilty campaign. In her talk she quotes from her letter:

“You did not just attack me that night. I’m a daughter, I’m a friend, I’m a sister, I’m a pupil, I’m a cousin, I’m a niece, I’m a neighbor; I’m the employee who served everyone coffee in the café under the railway. And all the people who form these relations to me make up my community. And you assaulted every single one of them.”

We can’t minimise the impact of this violence. Not only is it a disgraceful attack on an individual, it harms our communities. If saving a life somehow saves the whole world, then to assault a single person leaves scars on the world in its wake.

So many have recently come together to share their stories of these scars over social media, but this isn’t because the technology has only recently become available, it’s because we haven’t done enough to foster spaces in which people feel safe enough to speak about an attack. We’ve been too busy creating shame spaces, silent spaces, shunning spaces. And every time we do this our communities shrink and wither and die as the cancer takes hold and spreads.

A culture of silence, a culture in which sexual assault is just an inevitable consequence of ‘alpha masculinity’ is a collective act of violence as well as an attack on an individual, is a culture that will eventually break down or self-destruct. And if we want our churches to truly be houses of God in a broken world, we need to stop playing by the world’s rules, stop ourselves being seduced by power and violence. We need to stop covering up sexual assault; we need to speak out for justice and truth; we still need to put this culture of rape to death.

Sitting in the Dark on Top of a Mountain: Elijah, God and Mental Health

icon_elijah_02_in_a_cave1You can’t make a diagnosis over thousands of years; it’s impossible to get into the head of someone who lived long ago, separated by centuries and cultures. But even so, I can’t help but read 1 Kings 19 without worrying about Elijah’s mental health.

The story takes place not long after the prophet’s greatest victory, his triumph over the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. He’s seen his enemies driven before him, he’s seen fire fall from heaven. You’d expect him to be on top of the world and ready to take on all comers. And yet precisely at this moment of victory, Elijah runs from it, he runs until he finds himself under a bush wishing he could just die.

I bet none of his friends saw this coming. I bet people looked at him with awe, or with horror, or with hope. I bet they saw a kick-ass prophet of the Lord who was going to bring a whole corrupt establishment crashing down. No-one heard saw the maelstrom of emotion and pain and anxiety that stormed within him, a voice constantly whispering about his own inadequacies, the hopelessness of his situation, the futility of taking yet another breath.

This is midrash, of course. I don’t know if this is how Elijah really felt.But I do know what it’s like to want nothing more than to lie down and sleep because anything else is too painful; I know what it’s like to walk through a fog, cut off from healthy emotions and the evidence of my own eyes; I know what it’s like to want to live in the lifeboat because I’m scared of the shipwreck, even though the shipwreck never comes.

It feels like I can see some of this in Elijah’s story, how he almost sleepwalks towards his destination because he doesn’t know where else to go, how he’s clinging on to a sliver of hope with bleeding fingernails.

He’s heading to Mount Horeb, or Mount Sinai as it’s better known. He’s heading there because that’s where Moses encountered God face-to-face, that’s where Israel received the Law and became a people of promise. He’s clawing his way back to where he thinks he’ll feel safe; he’s trying to re-enact a story because after all it worked before.

In some ways this may not seem to be the best plan. God didn’t live on the mountain; he gave the Law and then lived in a tent as he wandered the wilderness with his people. Horeb remained in that same wilderness after Israel became a nation, and so it feels like the abandoned ruins of the past, a final stab at a crumbling place of safety, or as safe as anywhere feels when you really just want to curl up and die.

But God is gracious, and so he returns to his old hangout. And there on the mountain strange things happen – a powerful wind tears through the rocks, a violent earthquake shakes Horeb to its roots, fire from heaven falls just like it did on Carmel. All these things Elijah sees – the violence, the terror, the false hope, the despair. God wasn’t in any of these, but that doesn’t matter; what matters is that God is somewhere. Sometimes that’s hard to believe when hope is gone and fear is a permanent knot in your stomach. I don’t think Elijah doubted God’s existence – I suspect he may have doubted God’s compassion. Ironically, that seems to be the moment God shows up.

Everything stops; the immensity of God somehow pours itself into a space just next to Elijah and the world falls silent, a tangible, physical silence that wraps a place in peace. And this gives Elijah enough strength and healing to go on, and it’s possible that the stress and anxiety and depression stayed with him for the rest of his life, but God gets him to the next day. And the next. And the next.

God still does this – I saw it, for a few moments at least, looking out at Alcatraz. Sometimes a moment like that is the only thing that can get through, but at other times – I’m willing to say the majority of times – God gives that whisper through his church. Because presence – even a presence that’s smart enough to stay silent and just make a cup of tea – can be a miracle in itself.

Look around your congregation. At least one person there is facing mental health issues, and many more will be affected by them. They’ve heard it all before – “Pull yourself together”, “You feel like this because your faith is weak”, “I can’t see anything wrong with you”, “Cheer up!” – and while everyone’s circumstances are different, just knowing someone gives a damn can make a monumental difference.

Giving a damn means not judging, not criticising, not shaming, not pretending. Giving a damn means acknowledging that life doesn’t always go the way we plan, and that stress or anxiety or depression are illnesses, not a mark of a faith lying shattered on the floor. Heck, it probably takes greater faith to hold on to God in the depths of depression than it does when everything’s hunky-dory. Maybe that’s why God honours Elijah’s detour to Horeb rather than condemn him for it; the prophet runs away and wants to die in a gutter but God still shows up, God is still on his side.

There will be people in our pews whose secret journey into our sanctuaries has been just as fraught as Elijah’s walk to the holy mountain. And that’s when we have to turn down the noise and let the whispers of God drown out our biases, our preconceptions, our judgements, our inability to see the pain in front of us.

See, it’s not just those who can’t face waking up in the morning who need to hear the still small voice of God. It’s not just those who are scared all the time, not just those who can’t shut up the stressed-out babel in their minds; it’s all of us, because any one of us could soon find ourselves in the same situation. Anyone of us could find ourselves sitting on a mountain, so let’s work to make it easier for people to hear God’s voice over the earthquake; let’s work to make sure people have the help they need to climb the mountain so they don’t sit up there feeling alone.

A Church is a Body is a Network

I grew up as the world was getting smaller. Dirt cheap air travel was a thing, communities became less homogeneous, and the Digital Revolution networked us all, a wider world emerging into our lives through our phone line. Nowadays even that phone line is less important.

The funny thing is, churches were always ahead of this game, at least theoretically. ‘The Global Village’ may have been the iconic phrase, but the idea of the Church as a worldwide, universal, interconnected body is baked into the New Testament. It’s a different metaphor but it’s no less powerful.

Powerful. That’s an interesting word, because I think we lost some of the impact of that metaphor. Some of our churches got too powerful, too comfortable, too safe. We remembered that we were connected, but we lost a sense of being interconnected.

Maybe that came out most clearly in our approach to mission. We would go out to countries with fewer resources, with pressing needs, and contribute time and many and support. None of this is bad, as long as it’s done in the right way, but too often it can be a one-way street – we’ve got it all sorted, so we’ll go out and help those who aren’t so sorted. And while that gets walls painted and bills paid, I’m not sure that does much for our humility. We see ourselves as doctors fixing someone else’s body and lose the idea that this is actually self-care,  that the body that’s being healed is our own.

And so we have a one-way network, a radio transmitter more than an Internet. And so we support missions, but the relationships aren’t always there, we aren’t always learning from each other, photocopied newsletters are pinned unread to our noticeboards because they don’t represent relationships that are integral to our community – to our Body.

So how do we make this a two-way street? Maybe more people need to go on mission trips with learning mindsets than fixing mindsets, but that still feels more transactional than relational. Maybe this is about budgets – spend some mission cash on bringing people to our churches and yes, learn from their experiences and knowledge and expertise, but also build relationships, have meals together, pray together, then talk about how our kids are doing. We’re a body, a family by blood,,but that blood is not our own and we should remember that every time we take the bread and wine.

So, while this isn’t always possible, and I know this is a privileged thought, why not think about how to Skype in mission partners to preach or do readings or for their children to take part in the nativity or share communion (or vice versa)? Are there connections that can be established via diaspora communities? Are there implications for our politics? What can we do to make our interactions relational rather than transactional?

Because the church is a body, is a network, and if we don’t act like it, the church will be weakened. We need to see ourselves as connected. We need to see ourselves as interdependent. We need to see each other as family, not just relatives. We need to see ourselves as one.

Art, Healing and Bezalel

TED have recently uploaded a talk by art therapist Melissa Walker. She describes her work with war veterans, helping them to recover from PTSD through the use of visual arts.

See, art allows veterans to embody their trauma, turning it into something they can relate to, something that exists outside of them that can be safely left behind at the end of each day. And it’s a long, hard process, but art – particularly the creation of masks – seems to enable and empower those suffering with PTSD to find healing.

In Exodus 35 we read of Bezalel. He’s God’s craftsman, an artist responsible for decorating the Tabernacle and building the Ark of the Covenant. Bezalel has a clear spiritual gift, and we often see that in terms of worship – he’s making God’s throne and God’s dwelling place as a way of honouring and worshiping his Lord, and obviously that’s vital, but Walker’s talk got me thinking about how art is a spiritual gift with wider applications

For one, it seems to be a gift that can heal. PTSD is, I guess, an invisible wound, but a real one nevertheless, and art can serve as a vehicle by which healing can enter into a situation. It may be a long and difficult process, not the flashy, miraculous story we’d like, but there are people who have endured terrible trauma who, by painting and drawing and creating something with their bare hands, have been able to move on with their lives. That’s healing too, and in a world where mental health needs to be taken a lot more seriously, maybe Bezalel’s legacy incorporates art that can heal. The Holy Spirit is a healer after all.

Then there’s the idea of peace. Walker works with veterans, servicemen and women who’ve been to war and are still carrying the trauma of their experience. Now that trauma needs to be reckoned with, and if there’s opportunity to do that through art, if taking a situation, an emotion, an image and coming to peace with it through creativity and art, then that’s another facet of the gift, one that has echoes of shalom.

We have many artists in our churches. We need to be creative in how their gifts are used, but more than that, maybe it’s time for a wider vision of art as a spiritual gift. Maybe Bezalel’s legacy is more expansive than we think.

(More on Bezalel here.)