Stickmen & Doodles – a musical monologue of love and emotions.

I’ve set myself a challenge this year and I’ll be honest, I’m pushing my limits…

As a staff team, we’ve been encouraged to organise our own fundraisers. I love the work of SparkFish and have witnessed first-hand the incredible difference it makes to young people and children’s lives, so of course I want to help raise money to continue and expand the work of the charity. The issue is, I’m lazy. I hate physical exercise and not even the work of a God-caring charity will force me into doing a marathon. 

So I had to think very carefully about what I could do instead of physical exercise – something that would be equally as gruelling because people tend to only give money if there’s some element of potential embarrassment or pain.

I’ve always loved performing, having been in shows from a young age and going on to perform in touring shows for Riding Lights Theatre Company and 4Front Theatre Company. But there’s one side of my performing life that I’ve kept relatively hidden.

Since the age of 14 I’ve been writing my own songs. Only a handful of people have ever heard these, and I honestly don’t know whether they’re any good or not. They’re deeply personal (and slightly tragic) and my soul is laced within each lyric and verse. 

On Friday March 11th I shall perform these songs in a sort of mix-match of concert and monologue called ‘Stickmen and Doodles’ – a title for an album that I’ve never had the guts to record.

I realise that I might not have sold you on the songs… But my mum thinks they’re good. Even better than Adele. I don’t want to say she’s biased but she is my mum so take this with a grain of salt…

As I said, people love the element of potential embarrassment or pain. It stands to reason then that performing deeply personal songs, playing piano and talking about my life have all the potential for embarrassment and pain as physically possible.

And if that doesn’t convince you to come, remember that it’s really about raising money for a fantastic charity who do incredible work. I think that’s enough of a reason to sit through me singing songs and chatting rubbish for an hour and a half…

Stickmen and Doodles will be performed on Friday 11th March at St Mary’s Church, Reigate. Refreshments from 7:30pm. Performance begins at 8pm. Suitable for 12+ due to themes of mental health and suicide. Adult Tickets £5, Teen Tickets £2.50. Tickets available on the door or online at https://stmarysreigate.churchsuite.com/events/x4beerin.

A couple of years ago I saw a trailer for an upcoming video game that everyone was excited for. Caught up in the hype, I pre-ordered the game and forgot all about it until it arrived through the post several months later.

The game in question is Cyberpunk 2077, a dystopian role-playing game in which you go around and… well, I’ll be honest, I didn’t get very far with it. The game itself was plagued with bugs on launch and didn’t work on the console I was using as well as it was meant to. But the little bit of the game that I played brought up some interesting questions.

I decided that I would try and play the game as a Christian, as much as that I would try and make decisions that would be God-honouring. I thought it would be interesting to see how far I could go before I was forced into making an action considered as sin.

Before I even got to do any gameplay, I had to design my character. How tall they were, what ethnicity, what hairstyle etc. I tried to base the character on myself, again to see how well I could play the game if I was being an honest version of myself and not a videogame hero.

Within seconds of starting the narrative, my character was swearing and being told to kill someone… I decided I would avoid the killing for as long as possible. I personally do not drink, not necessarily a Christian value but more of a personal dislike of the taste of alcohol. I was able to avoid drinking alcohol as well as entering brothels easily – the latter being heavily talked about online as a highlight of the game…

Pretty soon after playing, I found myself having to kill some bad guys. I think it was only half an hour into the game. I was forced into sin and that was that. My best efforts thwarted.

I stopped playing, mainly because I lost interest in the game as well as hearing about the technical glitches. I was intending to try again on my new console but I haven’t yet for a variety of reasons.

Despite my failed attempts at playing as a Christian, the game did raise some interesting questions.

The first is around appearance and body image. The game allows you to look how you want to look. While there’s nothing wrong with having ambitions to be healthier, it worries me that physical appearance is such a phenomenon. I recognise that body image is a problem for all genders and media has a huge role to play in it. As we become more and more immersed in the online world, and maybe even the Metaverse, what are people going to make their avatars look like? Something they aspire to? Somebody they think other people would prefer? Both feel slightly dangerous and something we need to be cautious of.

The second question the game brought up is the question of freewill and temptation. How much freewill do we have in the world we live in? Are we sometimes forced into a corner where the only way out is to sin?

I have played other videogames in which there is an element of choice. My favourites being the TellTale Games series of Batman. In these games, at different points, you are given ten seconds to decide what you say or do from a choice of three options. Your choices have a direct impact on the outcome of the story and narrative. I have never been so stressed in my life. Being a huge Batman fan, I struggled at certain points of the game, desperately trying to stop characters from becoming the villains I knew they would eventually become. I wanted to change the narrative but part of me knew deep-down that they needed to become the characters I knew well from the comics for Batman to grow.

Doing mentoring and hearing young people’s lives and stories often has me questioning whether there is any point in trying to change the narrative. Prior to my work in SparkFish, I toured with Riding Lights Theatre Company and as part of that work performed in prisons where we held storytelling workshops and it was so interesting to hear their stories but equally heart-breaking to find the pattern in all of them too.

Our actions have consequences. This is something I’m trying to help young people understand. Just like in videogames, what we do has an impact on not just our own narrative but on the narrative of the people around us.

The earlier we avoid making bad decisions, the quicker we avoid making worse ones.

This is all very idealistic and simplistic though. For many of the young people I work with they feel as though they have little choice in their decisions. Especially the younger they are. They are surrounded by others who make decisions for them, or, because of their circumstances, the decisions are out of their control.

We are not all handed an equal opportunity in life. Some of us have more privilege than others which means that we can afford to make moral decisions, while others are given a deck of cards which makes making a good decision nearly impossible.

The game is rigged.

BUT despite this dystopian blog, I do believe there is hope. I do think that the work I do is important and worth it. Even if all they get from the mentoring experience is someone who listens to them, that might be enough further down the line to help them avoid making one more bad decision. Even if my role is simply to be a role model or friend, that might be enough to cause them to question their own character and choose to make a change for the better.

Unlike games, there are no powerups, no restarts, no checkpoints. But what we can do is step in to make it a multiplayer game rather than a solo game and help them through the many levels and challenges that they face.

Ironically, I was unsure as to how to start this blog… So, let’s start off with a fun little fact about me.

I love to take part in improvised comedy. One of the few joys of lockdown was being able to be part of a new improv group. Once a month, over Zoom, we meet up and hone our improvisational skills with the help of an incredible improviser based in Chicago. For those who don’t know (and let’s face it, why would you?), Chicago is considered by many to be the home of improvisation. Improv companies such as Second City are based there and have produced such alumni as Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, Dan Ackroyd, and Tina Fey to name a few. And would you believe it, our teacher is from the same company! The wonderful Craig Uhlir has been guiding us through how to be better improvisers and it’s been such a joy to spend a couple of hours laughing and making stuff up together.

It’s taught me skills that I’ve found super useful when I go into schools to mentor young people and I think we could all learn from the art of improvisation when it comes to our conversations.

Improvisation is all about the art of conversation. Many people think that improvisational comedy is about how many puns or absurd comments you can squeeze into a scene but it’s so much more than that. It requires skills of humility, quick thinking and listening.

One of the biggest mistakes an improviser can make is coming into a scene with a preconceived notion of how the scene is going to go. The problem with this is that it means there is a lack of improvisation – which is a crucial element in the world of improvisation. If the player is unable to drop their precious idea, the scene becomes stale and hard work for both players, as the other improviser is highly unlikely to be able to read the others mind.

The same is true with conversation. The best conversations happen when we have no agenda other than to have a conversation. When we come in wanting to steer the conversation in a certain way, we miss out on the opportunities to talk about things we could never imagine talking about. It’s why there’s a golden phrase in improv called ‘Yes and…’. In other words, you take what your partner has just said, you confirm it and then you build upon it. Nothing kills conversation more than a rejection of an idea. If we are not open to talk about whatever with a young person then we are backing the conversation into a corner and missing out on important lines of thought that could open up something bigger than we had anticipated.

This doesn’t mean that we come in with nothing to say. Improvisers are encouraged to establish the who, the what and the where when they start a scene together. It’s hard for the audience to know who the characters are, where they are and what it is they’re trying to achieve if it’s not made clear at the beginning. Equally, it’s helpful for the improvisers themselves to know, as it helps drives the scene. Once everything is established, the characters can build upon these foundational elements and take the scene to the next level.

In mentoring it’s important to establish who you are and what the purpose of mentoring is. It’s also useful coming in with some ice breaker questions – they may seem silly, but they often uncover really insightful conversations. I once had an ice breaker question that opened up a whole conversation around faith without it even intending to. It’s in those times that I’m grateful that I have something in my back pocket if conversation is hard to take off. I also keep notes so that I can ask about things we’ve talked about the week before. This helps restart old conversations and gives them an opportunity to give updates or expand upon the original idea. It also helps them to feel listened to which leads us nicely into…

Listening is one of the most important skills of improvisation and conversation. If you do all the talking then you’re leaving little room for your partner to contribute. It may be that they have something awesome to say but by talking non-stop you stall the scene from developing any further. The same is true for conversations. If you’re constantly talking and not allowing room for the other person to join in then the conversation takes too long to get to where it needs to get to, or it may never get to that point at all!

It’s crucial to be actively listening to the other person when they are speaking too. My best trick is to say what the other person is saying in your head at the same time as they are speaking. It means you really have to concentrate on what they are saying rather than allowing your brain to wander off into various avenues.

When people are listened to they feel a connection, rather than just being talked at in an unequal status of importance. Listening also provides further insight into who it is you are talking to.

To recap:

  1. Let go of preconceived ideas of how the conversation is going to go.
  2. ‘Yes and…’ ideas, even if they seem random – you never know where it will take you!
  3. Establish who you are and what mentoring is – this really only applies to the first session.
  4. Have things ready to talk about – but don’t be afraid to drop them if not needed!
  5. Actively listen to the other person – allow them space to contribute to the conversation.

I’ve been recently reading ‘The Screwtape Letters’ by C.S. Lewis. It’s one of those books I’ve heard about in Christian circles and thought ‘That sounds interesting but for another day.’ Well, the ‘another day’ came and I finally bit the bullet and bought a copy. The day I received it, I sat down and decided that I would read a few chapters (each chapter is a letter) but found myself only reading one having been so challenged by it.

For those who have not heard of this book, Lewis wrote it to his friend Tolkein (of Lord of the Rings fame). It’s a series of imagined letters from a fictional demon (Screwtape) to his nephew (Wormwood) in which he attempts to offer advice to prevent the nephew’s patient falling victim to the Enemy. Confusingly, the Enemy in the book is God and the Father Below is Satan. It takes a while to get your head around it all but it’s such a brilliantly written book and, as I’ve said, is continually challenging my thoughts and behaviour. Who knew that a demon’s letter could bring me closer to the Enemy? And by that, I mean God.

I would never claim to be as good a writer as Lewis, but I thought it would be fun to write a modern day version. There’s so much material that I could (and tried) to include that I may end up writing a follow up letter to fit it all in – I reckon this is how Lewis ended up writing a whole book, but I doubt very much that this would be true for me!

Dear Wartford,

I’m glad you’ve reached out to me. I remember reaching out to my uncle back when I was starting out and I found it so useful to learn from someone as experienced in turning patients away from the Enemy as he was.

In truth, though, you should not be worried about your patient and a fleeting thought about whether the Enemy is real or not. How envious I am of you starting at a time where there are so many distractions. Granted, in my day we had the joys of war to use to our advantage, but this came with its own challenges given that one can find themselves entrapped in the Enemy’s arms whenever their life is in immediate danger.

Nowadays, there is no immediate danger of death. Even the recent pandemic has not succeeded in bringing many more to the Enemy’s so-called ‘kingdom’. They selfishly act in their own interests believing that they are above a global pandemic. And when they do catch it, they are saved – not just by the Enemy – but by the doctors and nurses who tire themselves out attending to those who ignored their advice. Healthcare has never been better for the wealthy, and this has only resulted in a stronger faith in science – the irony being that science is of the Enemy’s design. But, like so many things, people worship the things that the Enemy created over the one who created them.

Your patient lives in a world that is constantly creating, no longer in partnership with the Enemy and very rarely that they might improve the lives of others but in which to empower individuals and inflate their egos. It is no coincidence that technology has been prefixed with the letter ‘i’. In the human’s eyes, technology has become the ultimate power and those who wield it are the gods. In actuality, the very things they have created are becoming their gods, enslaving them to a lifetime of endless swiping, scrolling and notifications. Their days are filled with alarms, alerts and conversations that last long beyond the confinements of the office. Our Father Below laughs as they spend time together in rooms, ignoring one another, transfixed to a glowing screen. He knows that their minds are too focused on busy schedules and personal images to be concerned of their eventual handing over to His domain.

The trick is to make your patient feel as though they are socialising through this technology – keep them away from meeting one another in person. In person, one can tell from body language how the other is feeling, and it opens the conversation up to what is wrong. (Although we have done a brilliant job on young men to avoid them from ever telling one another how they are feeling – maintain this idea that masculinity and emotions cannot co-exist, it serves wonders to our cause). Online, however, there are no visual cues that a patient is suffering from lack of sleep or emotional pains, and it is easier to evade questions that could lead to them seeking help.

If they ever do start to feel as though they can open up to someone, use technology to convince them that there is another way to deal with their emotions. Small rushes of adrenaline should do the trick – a ‘like’ here, an online deal there. Temptation is your key. And for male patients, temptation has never been easier.

Once upon a time, you’d have to encourage your patient to slip silently into a whorehouse or strip show but now such things can be viewed in the privacy of one’s home – with no age limit attached! No more embarrassing purchases of magazines over the counter, within two seconds of searching on the internet the patient has access to all the images they desire. And yet, here’s the brilliant thing, they are never quite satisfied! It’s not hard to find ways to get them to fall into the traps either – a quick glance on social media and the suggested page will lead them on to a slightly more erotic tab and so on and so forth until they’re sat alone in the dark with their shame.

Shame – the web that keeps them entangled from entering the Enemy’s own. It’s as though they’ve never heard the story of the shamed son wasting his father’s inheritance that the Enemy told long ago. (Many haven’t of course, the taboo of religion in schools is doing a marvellous job of keeping stories secular, to a degree that people no longer associate the Enemy’s morals with the Enemy himself!).

The invention of Twitter and other platforms has, once again, allowed the humans to do a marvellous job of digging their own way to Our Father Below. No one can type how they truly feel about a subject or topic of debate in fear that they may be shamed publicly online. One wrong thought expressed, and the humans are quick to judge and hardened to forgive. They pounce on one another and drag each other through the dirt, taking arms to social media and destroying each other’s existence through a barrage of 280 characters. All in all, people are too ashamed to say anything or express anything different than what is considered to be the norm. It’s become harder for patients to navigate public opinion, being so divided and radicalised as it is, that no matter what a patient says, they expect to hear the roar of opposition from one side and a near silence of support from the other.

Politics has become so divided that one can never feel too comfortable expressing their beliefs. Brilliantly, the Church has cemented itself into the political narrative and, as a result, has become a series of divided factions which has dissuaded the young from entering its doors.

Religion has become our weapon more than ever before. No one wants to be religious. They may desire to have faith in something bigger than themselves, but they are afraid of choosing a side in fear of the commitments and beliefs that come from it. Patients are aware of their spirituality but would rather accept crystals and the ‘universe’ to be in control of their lives than having to submit to the Enemy.

But we cannot be complacent. Even now, in the toughest regimes, the Enemy wins new followers. It seems the harder the oppression the easier it is for the Enemy to gain new ground – even if it’s often in secret. Be glad, then, that your patient is in the West, for the war that rages between our Father Below and the Enemy is favourable to our side in this territory. Use the new gods available to your patient to worship, keep degrading the values of religion and remind them of their shame whenever the Enemy tries to welcome them into his arms.

Keep up the good work – we may have ultimately lost the war, but we can still do great damage before it’s all done.

Your affectionate uncle,

Wormwood

The Snyder Cut has been released and I for one am rejoicing!

Now for those of you who aren’t superhero nerds and have no idea what I’m talking about, here’s a quick summary of why this is an incredible moment in film history.

Zack Snyder had previously helmed two major superhero films 2013’s Man of Steel and 2016’s Batman v Superman and was busy filming the superhero team-up movie Justice League when tragedy struck. In early 2017 Zack Snyder took the difficult decision to step down from directing duties on Justice League after his adopted daughter, Autumn, took her own life.

Snyder had already put together a rough cut of the film but Warner Bros. brought in Avengers director Joss Whedon to make major changes to the film after the reception of Batman v Superman which critics and audiences found too dark. I personally really enjoyed Batman v Superman as a deconstruction of superheroes and found the theological questions it posed fascinating.

If God is all good then he cannot be all powerful and if He is all powerful then he cannot be all good – Lex Luthor

All of this to say, that the theatrical release of Justice League was a Frankenstein’s monster of a film with two very different directors. Joss Whedon injected a lot more humour which frankly did not fit in with the interpretation of the characters we had previously seen from Zack Snyder. The plot was simplified and made to fit under 2 hours. Bare in mind this film had six main characters, three of which made their on screen debut in the film, and you can imagine how poorly handled the film was.

I for one lost several nights of sleep wondering how on earth they could have messed up a film based on some of the most iconic characters in fictional history – Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, The Flash!

It turns out, I wasn’t the only one. Fans began picking apart early trailers for the film which included footage not seen in the theatrical cut. A petition was formed to release Zack Snyder’s early cut of the film.

Fans rallied together to raise money to fund for billboards in Time Square, New York and at San Diego Comic Con as well as paying for an aeroplane to fly over the Warner Bros. Headquarters with a message which read #releasethesnydercut. But for every dollar they raised for a publicity stunt, they matched it with a donation to AFSP (American Foundation for Suicide Prevention) in memory of Autumn Snyder.

After three years of fans campaigning to see Zack Snyder’s original vision, with some help from Mr Snyder himself, and on the 18th March 2021 Zack Snyder’s Justice League was finally released to be streamed on demand.

I watched it the day it came out, all four hours of it, and I cried as the movie ended with a tribute to Autumn in the form of the end credit song being a powerfully moving rendition of ‘Hallelujah’, her favourite song.

This film was more than a superhero film, it was a victory lap for those who had worked so hard to get it released and a redemption story for Zack Snyder whose last movie in the DC Universe would have been a film he didn’t really direct if it had not been for the efforts of his fans.

So, what on earth does this have to do with anything to do with young people or churches?

Well, I would argue that we can learn a lot from this movement – almost as much as we can learn from the film itself.

A few years ago, at the National Youth Ministry Weekend, Kenda Creasy Dean – a professor at Princeton Theological College – spoke about the school students campaigning against the gun laws as a result of the mass school shootings that had taken place that year. She talked about the students’ efforts to change the laws and posed the question as to how long they’d be able to keep up the momentum, the energy, the fight. She summed it up in one question:

But is their god big enough?

In the Snyder Cut’s case you might think, yes. They succeeded in what they’d set out to do. But now there’s a new hashtag circulating the world wide web:

#restorethesnyderverse

Fans want more. I want more.

And if we got more, guess what, we’d want even more.

But, as Christians, is our God big enough? Is he bigger than the Kryptonian? Or the Amazonian? Or the Gothamite?

And if superhero geeks can get together to change the minds of the powers that be, why couldn’t the church?

There will always be injustice until the Kingdom of God fully comes, that we know. But shouldn’t we be fighting against injustice all the same in the meantime?

And here’s where we have the upper hand, we can be satisfied. We live in the knowledge that Jesus Christ has already won. We know that this isn’t forever, the pain and suffering of this world will cease.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t stand up for the oppressed or fight for the vulnerable, Christ calls us to bring the Kingdom ever closer and to be ambassadors for his kingdom. He asks us to join his league. To bring justice to the world.

Young people know this, they fight for it on social media and in their conversations between friends. But how can we help them to make it mean something, to give a reason behind the cause? How can we help give them a foundation strong enough to stand upon when everything else crumbles away? How do we enable to take the fight beyond the walls of technology?

We need to lead by example as the church and not remain silent when we witness tragedy or an abuse of power.

We need to…

#restorethekingdom

Watch our Christmas Journey Trailer video below for insight into what our Christmas Journey is all about:

I’ve recently had the pleasure of heading up a Growing Faith project in a local primary school and Harriet asked me whether I’d be up for sharing my experience. I said yes.

The idea behind the Growing Faith project was to help a group of six Year 6’s to run their own collective worship assembly for the whole school. We were given the theme ‘Forgiveness’ and that was about it.

Once a week for five weeks, the children, the headteacher and myself would discuss how we would put on this ambitious challenge – made all the more tricky, as I wasn’t allowed into school due to the pandemic and so I had to teach from my bedroom via Zoom.

Before we met the first week, I ransacked the Bible for as many stories on ‘Forgiveness’ as I could find. Our first session involved us chatting through what forgiveness was. Myself and the headteacher were very conscious that we wanted everything to be through the children’s voices and therefore it was a lot of asking questions to help them articulate their own thoughts on the subject as well as helping them to explore the theme on a deeper level then perhaps they would have done on their own.

The children went away and read one of the stories each so that they could come back the next week and tell each other the outline and why it fitted into the theme of ‘Forgiveness’.

We set about a structure, the things we knew we needed to include in a collective worship assembly (prayers, teaching, songs) and anything else we thought would make the assembly as engaging as possible – this ended up with them filming an impressive retelling of the story of Jonah, complete with giant cardboard whale and fantastic acting!

As part of structure we discussed that the order in which we do things has an impact on the way people engage. The ideal is to start with high energy stuff and then slowly lose the energy so that it becomes more relaxed and focused.

They did an incredible job on the morning of the assembly, which they also had to do via Zoom to all the classes in the school (not an easy task!). It was great to see them engage with the Bible and to recognise the messages within it have real-life application. I was so impressed with their creativity and their ability to take on some tricky theological ideas with such enthusiasm and intelligence.

I have been asked back to help another group of students next term and I cannot wait!

Over lockdown the world of youth and children’s ministry was thrown into chaos as we had to learn new skills overnight. Our roles transformed from delivering sessions in person to making videos to upload online.

9 months later and some of us are still scratching our heads wondering how we make a good video.

Never fear! I have some tips and wisdom to impart on you, dear reader.

1. Good Camera – These days your phone camera will be more than sufficient to make a good quality video. But a camera alone is not what helps the quality, for that you need…

2. Good Lighting – Lights from the ceiling are okay but you want to make sure you are evenly lit. For a low-cost solution, try placing two lamps with the bulb pointing at your face – one slightly angled to the right, one slightly angled to the left. It’ll be slightly blinding at first but your eyes will adjust. Make sure you are not being backlit by a window.

3. Fancy Graphics – How do you make a PowerPoint slide look good as part of a video? My suggestion is to use canva.com – it’s free and easy to use. You can pay for the pro version which unlocks some more useful goodies at just $12 a month but you don’t need to, there are plenty of free images available to use on the standard account.

4. Look At The Camera – Make sure the camera is slightly above eye level and look at the actual camera lens when talking, it will help you to connect to your audience more. If you have a script put it to the side at eye level, make looking at it part of the emotion of the video as if you’re looking thoughtfully to the distance rather than reading your next line.

5. Good Scripts – Don’t write every word of every sentence. Bullet points are better. Make sure you know what you are going to say to avoid unnecessary ‘urms’…

6. Good Audio – If you have the capacity, record your audio on a separate device that is closer to you and sync the audio in post. Camera audio can be a little dodgy at times but most of the time will be fine if you don’t have another option.

7. Don’t Be Afraid To Cut Out The Gaps –  For an engaging sermon/talk, chop out the spaces between thoughts and sentences. It keeps up the energy without letting it drop. Then, to really emphasise a point, keep a couple of silences in – it will make those points stand out amongst the others. Keep your videos as short as possible. Aim for 5 minutes so if you’re a little bit over it doesn’t make a huge difference.

8. Make A Nice Thumbnail – When you upload a video to YouTube you have the option to create a custom thumbnail. Do it. Otherwise it will choose a still image from your video and you have no control over what your face might be doing in that shot. Create an eye catching image with a title so that people are more likely to click on it. Again, my advice is to use canva.com.

All these tips are things that I’ve picked up over the years of making videos. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Everything I wrote about I have learnt through not doing properly myself.

Remember, your youth group aren’t expecting a Hollywood movie but they do want to hear from you and making a short film could be a great way of reaching those who are out of touch.