Sunday, 20 May 2018

A sermon for Pentecost - We are enough.

Pentecost  Preach: Acts 2:1-15, John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15.

I have a confession to make: I probably shouldn’t be here. I’ve thought it over and I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m not really cut out for this. Why should I, this flawed, often ill-tempered, intolerant, eminently unqualified mother of four, feel like I have anything to say about God that might be worth listening too?
When I look at our worship team, there are big shoes to fill.  I don’t have the prayerful passion and funny stories that Malcolm has. I don’t have Mike’s authority or experience, and I certainly lack the devil may care, rakish, charm of Ken. And sometimes, like last night for example, I decided that I’m just not enough.

And don’t we all feel that way sometimes? That we’ve bitten off more than we can chew. Maybe we don’t put ourselves up for things because we don’t feel worthy enough, or clever enough, or we just don’t think we’re capable enough. Maybe we’re scared, and that fear is stopping us from living a full life in Christ. Maybe.

Hold that thought. Because we’ll return to it later.

I want to talk to you about someone else who felt fearful, and unworthy, and not good enough. Let’s talk about Peter.
Peter was a Galilean fisherman, from Bethsaida. Born Simon, son of Jonah.  One day when he was out fishing with his brother Andrew, a man walked up to him and said “Come follow me,” and Peter did. But despite this leap of faith, Peter is best known to us because of his lack of faith.
He doubts frequently, and it leads him into deep water, quite literally In Matthew 14, when Jesus urges him to walk on water, and his wavering faith causes him to sink.
He’s impetuous, and impulsive. He makes reckless comments, and Jesus rebukes him, “Get behind me Satan. You are a stumbling block to me.”
According to John, it is Peter who charges in, draws his sword and cuts off the ear of the soldier in the Garden of Gethsemane.
And of course, we all know about Peter’s shame in denying Jesus, not once, but three times.
And this was a man who knew Jesus, really knew him. Lived with him. Heard his voice and held his hand. He witnessed Jesus heal the blind and the lame. He saw, with his own eyes, Jesus raise Jairus’ daughter from the dead. He witnessed the transfiguration!

And still he doubted.

And yet, this man, this reckless, impulsive man, Jesus named Petros – ROCK – upon which I will build my church. Everyone, but especially Peter, must have thought, WHY? Jesus. Are you sure? Why him?  Why me? I’m not worthy for this task. I don’t deserve to be here. I am not enough.
But then, Jesus had a habit of not explaining his plans in great detail.

Let’s remind ourselves of our gospel reading for today:
In John 15:26-27, Jesus says:

“When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the spirit of truth who goes out from the Father – will testify about me. And you also must testify, for you have been with me from the beginning.”

So the disciples are told that Jesus is leaving them, but not to worry! He’s being replaced by an Advocate, who will come in his place. Later on, he goes on to say that, well there are other things I could tell you, but you’re just not ready to hear it right now.
They probably weren’t. After all, they consistently misunderstood him time and time again. They certainly failed to grasp what Jesus meant by Advocate.

What did that mean? Was Jesus sending another just like him? They could not  have known what lay in store.

And so they went to the upper room in Jerusalem, on the Jewish festival of Shavuot, with no idea of what was going to happen. They went as grieving, broken people. They’d lost their Jesus, twice over now. And so they went to the place where they felt safe, where maybe the ghost of those promises resonated most fully for them. They isolated themselves, deliberately, all together in one place.
Alone. They felt comfortable there. All together, with the group of people who alone knew the truth of what had happened.

Safe. Comfortable. Temporarily at their ease.

And then Holy Spirit rushed on in, and put a stop to all that. With the roaring, howling scream of a hurricane, the Advocate of truth broke into that room, and such was the force of the din that it brought the outside in with it.
All those Jews who had traveled from afar for the Festival, from as far away as Rome, Crete, North Africa, and what is now modern Turkey. This melting pot of people with diverse languages, they were drawn by this monstrous roaring wind, came running, and heard their own languages being spoken by this bunch of Galileans. What had happened millennia before at Babel was suddenly undone. Where there had been separation and confusion, now there was clarify. There was understanding, and in a confused, often polarised, and contentious world, this was earth shattering.

And into this moment, steps Peter. Impulsive, impetuous Peter. The man who lacked the courage to walk on water. The man who cowardly denied Jesus three times. THAT Peter.

He stands up and he preaches. He boldly proclaims that the spirit that has been given to him, and has transformed him from a fearful man, will be poured out onto all people:
Young and old.
Male and female.
Slave and free.
You, the people of St Marys Wistaston.
This spirit will equip all of Gods people to be prophets, no matter where they come from, who they are, what language they speak, no matter their circumstances.

This truth is at the heart of Pentecost. The bible starts with Genesis and it seemingly ends with Revelation, but The Acts of the apostles aren’t finished yet. We’re not done here. There is so much more work to do. We are in the middle of a story that is still being written, and like those early disciples, there will be trials and tribulations along the way, that is life, but no matter how hard things are in the moment, we have hope, as they did, that the story isn’t finished yet.

And that, is faith.

When Jesus was born, God became flesh and he lived alongside human beings to show them how to be human perfectly. At Pentecost, Jesus equipped us to carry that work on for him. When he could no longer physically be with us, he passed the baton onto us, with Holy Spirit as our guide and mentor. Go forth and tell them about me.

And so they did. At the last count in 2010, there were approximately 2.2 billion Christians in the world, and around 37 million churches. Christianity is still the biggest religion.
And it all started here, in this upper room in Jerusalem. Doesn’t that make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck?

This church right here is our Upper room. It’s a place of safety and comfort where we meet with our own people. We worship God and we share fellowship.

But it’s outside these doors where the real of work of the kingdom happens. And know this: Holy Spirit doesn’t like us to feel too comfortable or too at our ease. That’s when she sweeps in and shakes us up; shifts us out of our comfort zone, and presses us to do the things that discomfort us.
She urges us to move into those places that we find scary or unsafe, to speak to those who we dislike or disagree with. This is how we tell the story of Jesus. This is how we spread good news.

So Happy birthday church. Many, many happy returns. We are all enough when it comes to the work of the Lord; it is not that whispering, insidious voice of self-doubt that snidely tells us we can’t do this. It is the roaring windstorm of the spirit of truth which proclaims for all to hear, “I equip you with the power of the Holy Spirit. I empower you. And I send you out. Go forth, and tell them all about me. Do not be shaken, for I am right beside you.”

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Painted Little Princesses - A post about the sexualisation of young girls.

“A woman without paint is like food without salt.”

This quote, written by comedy playwright Titus Plautus sometime between 254-184 B.C, at first glance appears to be an archaic quip, unlikely to be at all relevant in our modern world. Written by a playwright whose work was overwhelmingly concerned with men sowing their wild oats, perhaps a bit of sexist, Roman “bantz” is to be expected, despite the fact that Shakespeare is said to have been heavily influenced by his work.  His point isn't terribly subtle; that a bare-faced woman without makeup was somehow incomplete, perhaps a bit bland and unappetising. There's also the crude comparison being made between women and food; women were a pleasure in life, existing only for the consumption and delectation of men, and therefore they had to be as palatable as possible. Still; good job we’re past all that nonsense nowadays, right?

Let's fast forward to July 2015. It’s the night of my daughter’s school “prom,”which marks the end of seven years of primary school.
I watch, transfixed, as a parade of “painted,” eleven year old girls are dropped off by their parents. Off the shoulder numbers, slinky cocktail dresses, tight sheathes and mini skirts. Bright red, scarlet coated lips, full mascara and eye liner. Hot pink blusher and lashings of bronzer. They look like contestants in a beauty pageant, all teetering about uncertainly on five inch heels, as if they are playing dress up with their mum’s clothes.

It breaks my heart.

Because here it begins.  A life time of preening before mirrors and decorating themselves.  A lifetime of hairspray and leg waxing and lip gloss.  A lifetime of squeezing into tight clothes and even tighter shoes; that leave blisters and make the balls of the feet ache to high Hell.  A lifetime of slavish devotion at the altar of beauty, that shouldn't begin at all, not really. It certainly shouldn't begin at the tender age of eleven.

If you're reading this and thinking “oh Lord, here's another angry, joyless, fun-spoiling feminist, on a crusade to make everyone plain and wear comfortable shoes,” then you're wrong (well, partly.) While it does disturb me that such young girls feel the need to make themselves up like this, it's actually the glaring inequality of it that worries me the most.

A quick glance at the boys who attended the prom, told me that already the lives of these children are desperately unequal.  The boys were to be found sporting artlessly mussed hairstyles or tidy shaved crops.  Comfortable, lace up shoes. Loose fitting, cool cotton shirts and baggy slacks.  In their outfits they had the freedom to run around madly on the dance floor, chase one another, or flop down onto the ground or onto a chair, legs relaxingly stretched out in front of them.

Meanwhile, the girls hugged their bodies with their arms, sat carefully and gingerly so as not to ruffle dresses, hitch up skirts or accidentally expose themselves.  There was no running in five inch stacked heels or wedge sandals. Movements were careful, deliberate and contained. The inequality of movement was very evident, and it's the saddest thing I've seen in a long time.

Did those little girls (because they are little girls, for all that they ape womanhood) enjoy dressing up for their prom? Of course they did. So did my own little girl. I have no desire to deprive her of the transformational fun to be had in experimenting with make-up. As children grow and approach puberty a disturbing dynamic develops, as evidenced by the marked difference in the appearance of this particular bunch of eleven year old boys and girls. These children are social media savvy; they're no stranger to Instagram or Snapchat. Virtually anything can be accessed via their mobile phones, and if your child doesn't have one, you can bet that their friend does.

 This leaves them open, and extremely vulnerable, to viewing the kinds of things that we probably didn't see until we were well into our teens.  For girls, this often manifests itself by a desire to appear sexually attractive, long before they've even worked out what exactly that means.  Pouting selfies, complete with hand on hip and nonchalant head-toss are very much de rigueur – I know, I've taken a look at some of their public Instagram accounts. Their lives seem to revolve around seeking the approval of the boys, regardless of how deserving said boys are; the need for validation from them is so entrenched that I'm not sure they even realise they're doing it.  Meanwhile, the boys couldn't care less; they continue playing mine craft and football, lapping up the attention and treating the girls with careless indifference.

Young girls are taught that this state of affairs is, for them, empowering. That to pout suggestively into your mobile phone is somehow a feminist expression, as long as you do it confidently – confidence is empowering, girls! But how can something which is restrictive of movement, time, and money be empowering? Surely being restricted – in more ways than one – is the very definition of an absence of power.

I don't doubt that looking sexy and attractive can feel empowering. The approval, the rush of compliments, the attention, can feel very much like power.  This is an illusion.  For starters, the very definition of sexy in our world means something very specific; prominent breasts, slim figure, hairless skin, long hair, wide eyes and long lashes, full lips, perfectly straight and impossibly white teeth.  This is the image of womanhood that we see most commonly in pornography and men's magazines.  This is the image that is found desirous by men; and by men I mean white, rich men, for
they are the ones who are the driving force behind the porn and media industries.  It is their vision of
womanhood that holds sway and to that we must all aspire.

To hell with you if you're not slim enough.  Or too old.  Or have skin too dark or too pale. Or you're not Caucasian.  Or you're hairy.  Or your breasts are too small.  Or your teeth are crooked. Or your nose is too big. In short, most of us.  And if you fit the mould now, hang fire; one day you won't, because you're not going to stay young forever.

Power that is dependant on your waist size remaining less than 25 inches, requires you to rip out your body hair at the roots, and necessitates you resembling Dorian Grey, doesn't really sound like power to me.  If your power is dependant upon the approval and vagaries of men;  rich, white men mind, then it's not really power at all.

Criticism of this unbelievably sexist framework, invariably results in accusations of jealousy, that go along the lines of this:

“You're just saying that because you wished you look like her.  You're saying that because you're old/fat/old/bitter.” The whole conversation is stacked against women. Let's pit us  against one another and do you know who benefits? It's not women.  It's never women. This is patriarchy in action, and we all collude in it, because to go against it is an uphill struggle.

Perhaps a disproportionate number of radical feminists are older, or  have short hair, or unshaven legs, or actually, more likely, just don't give a damn about being seen as attractive or not. Do you think this is because we’re jealous, embittered harridans? Or is it merely because we’ve suffered more under patriarchy because we don't conform, and thus are well versed in the damage it does to women? Or maybe we’re just tired of conforming to a pointless and inevitably unattainable standard of beauty that appeals largely to men, and have wisely ditched the razor blades, tweezers and stiletto heels? Or maybe, we actually do conform to patriarchy’s idea of womanhood, but resist the urge to objectify ourselves because we actually have at least a modicum of understanding of structural oppression and see how sexualising ourselves is a huge part of this.

The standard of beauty expected of young girls and women is increasingly high. The spread in usage of beauty treatments, nail bars, etc has rocketed in the past fifteen years. To shun this, and to attempt to plough a different furrow, is a really hard ask, particularly for girls who are still years away from adulthood. At a time when feminism is apparently a mainstream concept in the West, and liberation for women ought to be a reality, why have the acceptable parameters for womanhood shrunk to such narrow margins? Why are women more universally sexualised than ever before? Something is amiss.

So let's stop conflating feminism with heavily stacked, so-called choices, and instead start talking about how we can equip our young girls to see themselves as more than a heavily filtered, pouting image on Instagram. Let’s give our young girls the tools and the courage to live life outside of the male gaze; beyond a consideration of how male centric preferences may impact upon them. Let’s start questioning – wholesale – our vision of womanhood and female sexuality, and above all else, can we please stop naming it empowerment. Your empowerment is my sexual objectification, and it's hurting my little girl.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Who is our God? A post for Lent.

“Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things.” Philippians 3:19.

John Pritchard writes in The life and work of a Priest, that as the head of a sunflower stays turned towards the sun, so we ought to keep our hearts and minds always fixed upon God.
Today is Ash Wednesday, and as I sit here, my forehead recently smeared with oily ash, I’m pondering how much this is true of me. The question I want to ask of myself this Lent is: What do I keep my attention fixed upon most often? What dominates my thoughts and my desires? What are my priorities? What do I care too much for that it's stopping me from lifting my head up and keeping my eyes fixed upon God? Which makes me want to ask the question: who or what is my God?

Who is our God?

Is our iPad our God? Our tablet, or our mobile phone? Does it claim our attention in the evenings; something we disappear into, and zone out, so we don't interact with the people around us? How often do we check it? Are the “push notifications” which buzz and ping perhaps drowning out the quiet, whispering voice of God?

Is food our God? Is it more to us than just sustenance and fuel? Food is, of course, a pleasure and meant to be enjoyed, but has overindulgence become a habit? Has the mentality of “treating yourself” and “deserving it” become a well-worn mantra; over used, and over-done. Do we eat to fill a void inside us that God ought to be filling? Or do we deny ourselves food in an attempt to wrestle back control of a body that we sometimes feel powerless over? Is denying ourselves food the only thing we can control, in a world where we feel out of control, and disempowered, and ignored?

Is coffee our God? Can't get up in the morning without having it, right? Can't do without it.
What about chocolate? Or wine? Are Friday nights just not worth living through if we can't kick back and relax, without a glass of Shiraz or Chardonnay, or whatever our poison is?

Is the gym our God? Do we live for the adrenaline rush that only comes after we’ve done 10k on the treadmill, or 50 lengths of the pool? Do we need the addictive endorphin rush that comes from knowing we’ve smashed our personal best, or we’ve beaten our latest target. Is winning our God?

Is work our God? Do we live to work, rather than working to live, despite that this keeps us out of the house and away from our  family. Or are we  just addicted to being busy, all the time, and are unable to just sit still, and be?

Is our mirror our God? Are we obsessed by our own image, and scrutinise it incessantly for any flaw? Do we take – and re-take – endless selfies, which we painstakingly apply the most flattering filter to, in order to upload onto our social media so we can bask in the number of “likes” that we get? Is our own image our God?

Take a quick leaf through the Old Testament, and you'll quickly learn that nothing ticks off God more than His people worshipping false idols. We might not be burning children, or engaging in orgies (well, not all of us) but I'm certain that our modern preoccupations with worshipping ourselves, celebrities, and the all-mighty dollar, aren't going to impress Him either.

Give it up. Give it all up. Give up trying to be in control and let God take the wheel for once. Give up all those things – all that stuff – that you think you need and that you consider essential for your daily happiness. Strip back the over-reliance on the iPad, or the caffeine, or whatever you rely on to get through the day. Make yourself vulnerable, and allow yourself to rely on God instead. When you deliberately punch holes in your daily life, in your routine or your habits, then you create space for God to move in.

From dust we came, and to dust we shall return. Repent of sin, and turn towards Christ.”

Sin encompasses those things which separate us from God; in fact, you could argue that this is the very definition of sin. During this Lenten-tide I'm going to give up my over reliance on comfort and all the many crutches that I think I depend on. I'm going to allow that hollow place deep within me to remain empty for once, rather than stuffing food into it, or endless cups of coffee, or whatever I do in order to fill it, and I'm going to allow God to address it instead. It is a God-shaped space, after all.
And like the sunflower following the light of the sun, I will turn towards Christ.

Friday, 6 January 2017

A post-Christmas post on Epiphany

We have a Nativity set which I bought from Chester cathedral a few years ago. When we put our Christmas decorations up at the beginning of December, we place our nativity characters inside the wooden stable that my dad made; Mary and Joseph either side of the tiny manger, a lone shepherd with one sheep, and an angel. Our three kings, we place in another room. This year they were on the bookcase in our dining room, and every few days they slowly processed across the room, into the living room, upon the fireplace, and finally, today, they arrived at the stable, because today it is Epiphany.

Now, there's so much wrong with this whole set-up, that I don't even know where to begin, and that's not even mentioning the fact that our beautiful ceramic Nativity characters are all wearing cable knit-wear. Just for starters, as my eight year old pointed out, why is the shepherd there before Christmas Day? Or the Angel? Or indeed, any of them? In short, why keep the Kings (or wise men, or Magi, or whoever) from the party until January 6th when the whole thing is out of sync anyway, chronologically inaccurate, and largely arbitrary?

I don't have a good, logical reason, except that I like Epiphany. Here's why:

The business of Christmas is finally over; there's nothing left in the tub of Celebrations other than bounties and empty wrappers (if your family are complete monsters of course), you're starting to crave vegetables and salad, someone has callously shrunk your best jeans, and the only exercise you've had in twelve days is the upper body workout of cramming (unsuccessfully) a mountain of cardboard and wrapping paper into the recycling bin.

You're back at work. The kids are (probably) back at school. There is a cold, dead, empty space in your living room where your brightly lit tree once stood, and everything looks as bare and as lifeless as the naked trees outside. Normal programming has resumed on the telly; and honestly, there's nothing festive whatsoever about Homes under the Hammer, not when you could be watching a kids’ movie, or something to do with food, or anything other than regular daytime television. Advertising, which a short while ago was encouraging us to gorge and splurge and spend, is now telling us that we’re fat, debt ridden, missing out on endless bargains, and we probably need to buy a sofa. Again.

Lord, it is so depressing. No more lounging about, forgetting what day of the week it is, while you punctuate every trip to the kitchen by sticking your hand into an open box of chocolates, and when you answer every food or drink related query with “oh heck, why not. It’s Christmas.”

Now it's January, and it's not so much comfort and joy, as discomfort and despair. And you know it's right to keep these things in perspective, and remember those people who are really suffering right now, and wham: along comes guilt to add to the misery cocktail, and it's all just grim beyond belief.

Now is when you need an epiphany – a moment of sudden realisation.  You see, all those lights which
marked the Christmas season weren't just there to make it look pretty. They were there to remind us all that light is the essence of Christ – He illuminates dark places, and no amount of darkness can extinguish Him.

No amount of darkness.

Not the darkness of January, brown and sloppy though it may be. Nope, not even on those days when it rains non-stop, and there is mud everywhere. Not on those days when merriment is a distant memory, over-indulgence a thing of the past, and self-denial and deprivation are the order of the day. Not on those days when here, in the Northern hemisphere, the days are still so short, and the darkness feels thick and all encompassing.
Not the darkness of Aleppo. Or Damascus. Or Baghdad. Or any of those dark, dark places, where it must feel like there isn't even the tiniest chink of light anymore.

I have hope that there is light, because God is with us; Emmanuel has come. We live in post-Christmas times.

Those three little kings on my living room side-board bear cable-knitted, sparkly testament to the knowledge Jesus is the light of the world; He came to bring light to the gentiles; to all of us. Those ancient magi travelled far to find Him, then they didn't quite know where to look. They probably didn't expect to find Him in such humble circumstances:
He was a child.
He was poor.
He wasn't powerful, or imposing, or bedecked in jewels and fine robes.
He wasn't remotely Kingly.
And yet, the magi (well, they were reportedly rather wise) knew Him and recognised His majesty.

So we know that light shines in unexpected places; it doesn't always look like we think it might. It might look like the very opposite of what we think it should. We might even mistake it for the dark.

Cling on friends. Cling on. Look for light and nurture it, like a hand around a flailing lighter flame, on a windy day. Look in unexpected places. And keep looking, for the darkness cannot overwhelm it. It really can't.

In place of the gaping wound that our Christmas tree left, we replace it on January 6th with our Epiphi-tree* - a bundle of branches collected from the woods, decorated with glitter, and placed into a slim vase along with some pebbles for ballast. We adorn it with shiny ornaments, and more kings. There's even a camel. It marks the season and it makes the demise of Christmas just that little bit easier to bear.

It reminds us to look for Jesus, in everything we do. It reminds us to keep the light of Christmastide shining all the year through. It also reminds me that I still have a few Roses chocolates left, so I better get cracking on them. Well…it is January after all.

*I would dearly love to take the credit for this term, but that honour must go to Homer Simpson.

Saturday, 24 December 2016

God is for life, not just Christmas: a message of hope to the people of Crewe.

The following speech was intended to be delivered at our town’s nativity trail, which took place earlier in December this year. Sadly, I wasn't able to deliver it due to a raging chest infection. So here it is; a short and simple message about why Christmas is so special.

The Churches Together in Crewe work throughout the year to bring joy and God’s love to our town. You may not know, but Churches Together are made up of lots of different church traditions and denominations – we are Catholics, and Baptists, Methodists, and Anglicans, Pentecostals, and Independents.

 In 2016 we’ve all been working hard together to show God’s love for our town by demonstrating some of that love ourselves. We’ve held concerts, picked litter, planted flowers, made coffee, had conversations, and we’ve been a presence in this town, just because. Just to show you that God does love you. He really does.

We may not agree on lots of things. In fact, if we sat down together and chatted about theology, we’d probably strongly disagree on many, many things. Despite all that we are drawn together by one thing, which I'm sure we can all agree on. We agree that this Christmas moment; the birth of Jesus, was both a defining moment in the history of people, and also the thing which binds us together.

Why was it so important? Because two thousand years ago God dropped a pebble in the waters of the world, and its impact is being felt to this day. Like concentric circles, rippling outwards through the centuries, Jesus’ birth changed everything we thought we knew about God, and it is still helping to bring us closer to Him.

And note this: God didn't choose to be born amongst the powerful. He didn't choose to inhabit the body of an earthly King; someone rich and powerful. No, He chose to be born on this earth as the most vulnerable and unimportant creature imaginable; the baby of a poor, teenage girl, in an occupied land, in the most humble, and basic of circumstances. A stable, in a dusty land, amidst the straw and animal dung.

What does this tell us about who God is? It tells us that He doesn't care about the same things we set such store by. He doesn't care about wealth, or status, or hierarchy, or any of the ways in which we measure power. He shows us that He cares about you – the immigrant, the outsider, the homeless person. All of us on the margins, who feel like we don't fit in. Christmas is for you – God is for you.

And when Christmas is all done and dusted; when you're sick to death of mince pies and Baileys, and you're struggling to do up the top button on your jeans, and your recycling bin is full to overflowing, and you've just seen your December bank statement – even then; especially then, God is still for you, because God is for life, and not just for Christmas. Christmas is just the beginning. It's the pebble being tossed into the water, and the resulting ripples are His love flowing outwards for evermore.

So come and celebrate with us in our churches this Christmas time. I can assure you that you’ll be made most welcome. But when all this is over; when all the glitter is swept up, and the plastic tat is lying broken in the corner, and the tree is dead; when Christmas has faded into the distance, come again. That will be when you need to feel God’s love the most. And He will be there for you.

We at churches together in Crewe wish you a very, very merry Christmas, and peace and goodwill to each and every one of you. Amen!

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

The greatest of these

As I write this, we’re nearing the end of the season of Advent,  and I've been contemplating the Advent candle of Love. I've been thinking about this most ubiquitous and over-used word; the favoured topic of pop songs and ballads, poems, and plays. A word so woven into our language that it's become a common-place signifier of approval:
 “I love your new shoes!”
“Love you, babe!”
 “Lovin’ this new tune.”

The greatest of all spiritual gifts, reduced to a filler word, bandied about too readily, and devalued in the process.

Of course, there are two meanings of love; it is both a noun and a verb. When Paul declared love “the greatest of these” he was certainly writing about love as an action; something which we do, respond to and live out, not merely an effusive description to express how much we approve of something.

Let's consider Paul’s famous and fulsome account of love in 1 Corinthians 13:

Paul’s letter to the people of Corinth comes shortly after his description of spiritual gifts that people might be blessed with. It's not unreasonable to assume then that this beautiful and oft-quoted chapter (a favourite verse for weddings) is an admonition to the people of Corinth about using their gifts wisely, and tempering them with love. Indeed, does Paul not say in verse one, that even if a person speaks in tongues but doesn't have love, then they are nothing more than a “resounding gong or clanging symbol?” In other words, you may have been given the gift of tongues, but if you don't know how to love, then you'll just be making a horrible din. Your gift will bless no one, least of all you.

Perhaps the people of Corinth had been so overcome by their gifts, be it tongues, prophesy, powerful faith, or generosity; that they'd just got a little carried away with themselves. Let's face it; it happens. How often have we witnessed a celebrity; perhaps a star footballer, an actor, or a talented singer-songwriter, let their ego completely over-shadow their gifting?
When we can do something, and do it well, we get all puffed up with pride, and all too often forget to behave with humility, kindness, and ultimately, with love.

But what is this love of which Paul speaks? How does he describe it?

“4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”

According to Paul then, love is patient, kind, trusting, hopeful, protective, steadfast, respectful, and truthful.
What isn't it? It's not boastful, proud, envious, self-seeking, angry, or unforgiving.

That’s quite some list. Mmm...I begin to see why the principle of loving, and living out a loving life, isn't an easy thing to do. I don't know about you, but I find it far easier to lose my temper; hold a grudge; (especially against you Audi driver; you know who you are) give up, and screech that “it’s not fair!” when things go wrong; indulge in gossip when I ought to know better; and heartily envy Jamie Oliver’s wife, Jools,  for still being stick thin, despite having had five children – how does she do it? How?!  

Once again, when confronted with the unpleasant side-effects of my all too human nature, I'm convinced anew that I need Jesus more than ever. Because isn't He the epitome of love, in action, word, and deed? He’s the antidote to all that anti-loving distastefulness, and Paul helped us to see that in this letter to the people of Corinth. It was as true then, as it is now.

However, it's easier to read it, than it is to actually follow. Loving Jesus? Well that's a cinch. Consider it done. Loving my children? Every darn day, with every breath and every fibre of my being. They are the squeeziest, most loveliest creatures I've ever known. My husband? Well, duh. Of course. My parents? Yep, they're cool. My brother? Erm…most of the time. Just kidding!

The point is, it’s easy to love those who are lovable, and/or those people who love us. It's easy to feel virtuous and like we’re rocking 1 Corinthians 13, when we’re just talking about our close relationships and friendships. My challenge – our challenge – is to love, without condition, without hope of reward, without agenda (except for God’s agenda, but that's a given) and without limits. So, I’d like to add to Paul’s list of the characteristics of love, by including all the things that he didn't mention:

Love is sometimes hard at first, but it does get easier with practise…bit like jogging. Also, like jogging, it hurts. Sometimes, it hurts a lot.
Love is painful.
Love is uncomfortable.
Love is difficult.
Love is time-consuming.
Love is frustrating.
Love is exhausting.
Love needs to be repeated over and over again until it becomes a habit.
And then love is joyful.
Love is thrilling.
Love is calming.
Love is both the balm which takes the sting out of the pain of life, and it is the sticking plaster which covers up the wound while it heals.
Love is both the absence of and the cure for every single churlish, mean-spirited, belligerent, and snippy thought.
Love is a lens through which we see one another as God sees us. It is in the big gestures that we can all see, and it exists in the tiniest of acts. It is saying, “no, you first,” and not me. It looks like justice, and it looks like mercy. It often looks messy, beautiful, complicated and grim. It looks like a precious, brand new baby, lying in a manger, and it looks like a brutalised man, hanging upon a cross.
It is the reason we have hope, and it allows our faith to flourish.
And that's why it's the greatest of them all.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

A Home

They came after the old lady died. Her family had been the first, back when everything was shiny new, and the smell of fresh paint was thick in the air. Back when there were fields all around and cars were still a hard earned luxury. Way back in the early 1950s, when life was very different, but when some things were still exactly the same. The children pressed their tiny hands into the fresh concrete in the garden, and left their names too for the next family to find. By that time, those children were holding the tiny hands of grandchildren.

Then they arrived; just three of them to begin with.
A woman.
A man.
A small blonde child, not much older than a baby. She had blonde pigtails and a voice which chimed, and called “Mummy” and later, “Daddy.”
They inherited the old lady’s d├ęcor: The shock of orange which carpeted the stairs; the glossy, battleship grey woodwork, which was applied to every paintable surface; the salmon pink bathroom suite; the eye-watering, brown, Paisley living room carpet, and the headache inducing, though strangely mesmerising  artexed ceiling, which they must have slowly grown to like, because they never got rid of it.

Over the years I watched them transform.  I saw life happen.
They became husband and wife. I watched them embrace, with trepidation and delight, outside the bathroom, with the plastic test still clutched in her hand. Then eight months later I watched her clutch his hand, in the early hours of a June morning, before heading off to the hospital. They liked the experience so much they did it too more times, and somewhere in between the arrival of tiny newborn people, they brought a tiny puppy into the house too. Later still, we all watched her bring seven more little lives into the home. Life happened, in all its bloody, painful, majestic, messy glory.

They laughed and cried and screamed and sighed. Tiny feet took their first steps, and they delighted in first belly giggles and smiles. They rocked, and sang, and soothed, and scolded. They read the same stories; uttered the same words, sang the same rhymes, over and over again. They tiptoed across the creaky landing countless times; numerous times, to wipe down fevered brows, dispense spoonfuls of pink, magic, sticky stuff, and croon softly that it's ok…we’re here.

They built snowmen, and planted daffodils. They hunted for eggs, barbecued one hundred burgers, splashed madly in the paddling pool, and applied antiseptic cream to a multitude of scraped knees and elbows.

 They taught skinny legs to pedal, and timid little hearts to trust. They baked, and feasted, and celebrated. They blew out candles, popped open pink fizz, and sung birthday greetings, over and over again. Nine times they tiptoed down the stairs in the expectant blackness of a December morning, just to see if he'd been.

I witnessed their agony; their despair and their broken sorrow. I have known their complete joy and happiness, and felt the woman's superstitious terror that something bad would happen to mar it. A few times it did…Illness, redundancy, miscarriage, depression; minor disasters in the story of the world, and small dropped stitches in the tapestry of their lives. Overall, they considered themselves well blessed.

They were just three in number when they arrived, and now they have doubled. The small, blonde child is now an adolescent; no longer chubby cheeked and round, but taller and slim, showing the promise of the woman she will soon become. The man has more greys in his hair, and the woman has crinkles around her blue eyes. They both look weary, and are filled out in a way that only contentment can create.

The rooms are empty, with just trace memories of the family still here; sticky fingerprints on the glass doors, and the indentations of where they slept, pressed into the carpet of every bedroom. Soon, a new family will come here. New children will grow, and laugh, and squabble, and learn, and live.

And I will bear witness to it all.
I will be their shelter…their place of comfort and refuge. Inside these walls they will dwell in safety and they too will transform. They are moving in, and they will carry on moving, for that is the way of it.
I will be watching, for I am not just a house. I am a home, and here is where life does its thing.