Wednesday, 16 January 2019

The mighty must fall - A short talk on 2 Samuel 1:17-27

2 Samuel 1:17-27

Back when I was an atheist and I had babies and toddlers at home, my mum saw an advertisement for a playgroup at a local church. Not a church goer either, she said “why don’t you go along and take the kids. Churchy people are nice.”
So I went along and discovered that yes, some church people are nice. Some, not so much. 
But on that first day, we were welcomed in and introduced to the song that they sang every week at the start of praise and play. Some of you might know it. It goes like this – “My God is so big, so strong and so mighty, there’s nothing that he cannot do.” 
It had actions as well, so “ my God is so big” [demonstrate actions.]
And I remember that an image of a Thor, Chris Hemsworth type figure popped into my head, and I thought: this God sounds buff. Maybe he works out. And, maybe this is the kind of God for me. 
Is that really how we’re supposed to see God? As this super strong, mighty, all powerful being? Or is that just the only way that humans can best envisage power?
Which brings us on to today’s reading: David’s lament at the deaths of his friend Jonathon and his enemy Saul. 
Most commentaries I looked at seemed to fixate on line 26: “your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women,”which some writers claim is an indication of a gay relationship between Jonathon and David. 
Contrasting hugely with those who are adamant that, no, no, no they were just mates who really liked one another. A lot. There’s definitely no homo-erotica to see here. 
But what struck me most about this passage was David’s vulnerability in openly demonstrating his pain, in a way that we find so hard to do nowadays, especially publicly. 
And the line that leapt out at me was not line 26 but the refrain “How the mighty have fallen.” So let’s talk about that. 
How the mighty have fallen. Might. Strength. Power. This is the language of patriarchy. To be in charge, to be in authority, must be equated with masculine, physical expressions of power. How simplistic. How human and tiny. 
Because when God decided to show us what God was really like, he did not choose to inhabit the sphere of the powerful or the mighty. He chose to appear to us as the most vulnerable and defenceless thing imaginable; a newborn human child. 
If that doesn’t teach us something central about the power of God, then nothing will. 
David cries ‘how the mighty have fallen;” again and again, expressing the sentiment that though this man, this king, Saul, was unworthy, it is somehow against the rules that he has been vanquished. The powerful are not meant to fall. 
But what David doesn’t realise is that for him to rise, for him to be all that God wanted him to be, Saul had to fall. 
The fall of the mighty is central to our faith. For us to Live, Jesus had to die. 
For the kingdom of God to come to fruition, the mighty must fall. The powerful. Those who have always been in control. Those who are economically strong but keep their resources for themselves. Those of us who are heard and seen more because of our skin colour, our sex, our class or our able body. We must make room at the table for those who don’t have such privileges. 
Those who seize power and abuse power and keep it to themselves. The mighty people in our world. 
Let the mighty fall. Let them all fall. Let us usher in God’s kingdom and a reimagining of power where our might is to be found in our weakness. 
In our humility. In our vulnerability. 
In our admission that sometimes we get it wrong. 
By admitting that sometimes we don’t know it all. We don’t have all the answers. 
Like David, by honestly and without shame expressing our sorrow, without the expectation that we must always appear to be strong. 
Let it all fall down. Let our pretensions of strength and might fall down, and instead let us be mighty in our compassion. In our mercy. In our ability to forgive and to be kind and to serve others. For when we recognise that there is strength to be found in weakness, that’s when we can rise. Amen. 

Monday, 22 October 2018

Sitting beside Jesus

A sermon on Mark 10:35-45, Hebrews 5-1-10

I summed up today’s gospel reading to my children as follows: Two of Jesus’ disciples demand that they both get to sit beside him in Heaven,” to which my kids replied: “That’s just like us fighting over who gets to sit next to you!”

It’s true. Since they were old enough to make verbal demands – which was very early on, as they take after me and are strident verbal communicators (lucky me!) – part of our nightly routine has been a heated debate (well, ok then, a fight) over who gets the coveted seat beside mum on the sofa. They have a hyper-sensitive barometer of fairness and are always on the look out for potential injustice, which usually means that the phrase “it’s not fair!” is much overused and abused in our house.

I’m hoping that when they grow up they will unleash this quest for justice upon the world and become excellent adults, but right now, it’s mainly directed towards their siblings and is tedious beyond belief. So I do have some sympathy with Jesus when he’s faced with a similar demand, not from squabbling children, but from two grown men.

Let’s take a closer look at the passage and see if we can figure out what’s going on:
Firstly, we need to note that this demand from James and John – to sit on the left and right hand of Jesus, comes just after Jesus has predicted for the third time what will happen to him in Jerusalem. So the disciples have just heard, in the most explicit terms yet, that Jesus will be betrayed, condemned to death, flogged, killed, and three days later will rise from the dead.

And this is how James and John respond:
“Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask…let one of us sit on your left side and on your right in your glory.”
Now, Matthew puts these words in the mouth of Salome, who was the mother of James and John, which would make them first cousins to Jesus. So perhaps this was their way of trying to get ahead of Peter, by claiming familial loyalty. Perhaps they thought that being cousins gave them extra brownie points that meant they deserved to be closer to Jesus than the other disciples. Perhaps they thought that Jesus’ glory meant he was going to be establishing a new government. A new order. And this was their demand for top jobs in the cabinet. Perhaps.

And can we really blame them for wanting to be near Jesus? Don’t we all just want to be closer to Jesus? Sadly, they’re hugely mistaken. Not only are they demanding the wrong answer, they’re asking the wrong question. They’re having petty thoughts of self at a time when Jesus is telling them of big things that will be happening in the spiritual realm. But they’re so focussed on earthly power structures that they can’t see what Jesus is really getting at. Yes, change is coming, but it’s nothing like they’ve ever seen before. The fight isn’t for a new government, it’s for a whole new world.

So how did Jesus respond? Let’s consider for a moment our first reading today from Hebrews. In verse 8 we’re told that “Jesus learned obedience from suffering.” Which is an intriguing sentence that we need to unpack a little. In the Greek that this is translated from the word for SUFFERING and the word for LEARNED are almost exactly the same but for one letter. Which is interesting isn’t it? Anyone who has suffered, which sadly is probably all of us, knows all too well that we’re not the same afterwards. Particularly if you’ve visited very dark places in your suffering,  you can’t help but have learned from that experience. It’s a lesson you never wished to partake of, but learn you did.

So when Jesus responds to the petty power politics of James and John he uses two key phrases that would have been very familiar to the people he was talking to. These were a people who knew their scripture. He says to them: “Can you share this cup?” Which was a well-known saying meaning to share in another’s suffering. Later, Jesus uses this imagery again when he prays in the Garden of Gethsemane.

“Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will but what you will.”
We pray this prayer ourselves, don’t we? We pray, “your will be done,” but do we always mean it? Are we fully ready for God to take us up on that challenge? To do what God wants, instead of what we want?

Then Jesus talks of Baptism. He says: “Can you be baptised with the baptism I will be baptised with?” Jesus refers to a Jewish understanding of baptism, not the one that we’re familiar with. This is a baptism that speaks more of death than of life. A baptism of fire, rather than water. I wonder how many people would rush to be baptised if they had to walk through fire instead of be immersed in water.

So Jesus is clear: to sit beside me means to suffer as I will suffer. The place beside Jesus is an uncomfortable place to be. James and John make a dangerous request of Jesus, and he tells them: “You don’t know what you’re asking.” And they don’t.
A few days after this conversation, James and John would truly witness what it meant to be on the right side and the left side of Jesus, at Golgotha when the two criminals were nailed to crosses either side of him.

And we know that it didn’t end well for James and John. Within weeks John would be imprisoned for his faith and James went on to die a violent death, beheaded by Herod.
It seems that being close to Jesus, comes with a certain element of risk.

This passage is the key moment in the whole of Mark’s gospel and it’s one of the earliest statements of why Christ came – to SERVE and to GIVE. We don’t get to be near Jesus just because we demand it, or because we feel we ought to be there. The Kingdom of God isn’t a meritocracy and God doesn’t have favourites. In the Kingdom, true greatness flows upwards, and it never comes without some personal cost to ourselves.

What does it really mean to sit beside Jesus? It’s not a comfy place to be. To sit beside Jesus means to sit with the homeless man who begs outside the supermarket and smells powerfully of beer.
To sit beside Jesus means to sit beside the person who claims benefits and who has to regularly use the Foodbank.
To sit beside Jesus is to sit beside someone who wears a Hijab and whose ideas of God are very different to our own.
To sit beside Jesus means to sit beside the person whose sexuality is different from our own.
To sit beside Jesus is to sit with the different, with the strange, with the foreign, with the lost, the mentally unstable, the angry, the defensive and the dying.
It is to sit beside them, to serve them, and to love them. This is our calling. To serve and to give, whatever the cost, whatever the discomfort, to share Jesus’ cup. To sit beside him no matter how uncomfortable that may be. Amen.

Tuesday, 3 July 2018

Moving on from Maternity

This is a picture of me, just after the birth of my second son. This was when I became a mother for the fourth time. The story of Christianity begins with something as ordinary and as sublime as this; a mother and her baby. And that's what I want to write about: Motherhood; in particular how motherhood intersects with Priesthood.

He came into the world at just after two in the morning, in a strangely womb-like delivery room; all dark with murmured voices. He was placed on my chest, which made the cord pull tightly because it was so unusually short, and he unfurled for the first time; involuntarily stretching tiny limbs in a shuddering motion, before he curled inwards again towards me; to warmth and to the familiar beat of my heart. I marvelled that I'd been gifted something so beautiful and perfect. The relief, to have survived, again; I've never been very efficient at this whole labour lark. Most of all I marvelled that we’d had the courage to have four children.

As I recall, he then peed on me.

The years after his birth seemed to go ridiculously fast; the minutiae of life, all those seemingly unimportant but precious details, lost and forgotten, no matter how hard I tried to hold onto them, they drained away, like water though my fingertips, and before I could stop and take stock (there is no time to do such a thing when you’re raising four kids under nine) my time mothering babies and infants was gone forever. What a privilege it had been. I was left feeling eternally grateful and utterly broken.

What the hell would I do now?

This woman right here: Me. I am strong, capable, smart, and fierce. My husband has described me as a force of nature. I only agree with him on this point once a month, when I could probably uproot trees with my bare hands. THAT woman. I was crushed; emotionally wrecked at the thought of not having a purpose anymore. I would still be a mother until I died, but it was harder for me to be a stay at home mum with nobody at home for me to mother.

Child-rearing would continue, for quite some time, but the business of child-birthing and the relentless slog – and joy – of raising an infant, would never happen to me again. We were done. The pain was acute.

And into this raw space came God; whispering at first but louder and louder until I couldn’t deny His voice anymore. I know, I tried. God gave me a new plan; an unwelcome, crazy, exhilarating, and, as it turns out, totally righteous plan.

God wanted me to give birth to something new.

Through my journey of discernment, I’ve had lots of time to ponder why – and how – God could possibly be calling someone like me to ordained ministry, and as I journeyed I came to realise that God actually knows what God is doing, even if I don’t. I’ve come to appreciate that She has prepared me for this calling in so many ways. Before I’d ever even decided to recognise that there was a God; there She was, her guidance an invisible compass that I’d previously have labelled fate. Like the unfortunate and much maligned Jeremiah, God knew the plans He had for me, well before I knew them myself.

I’ve looked honestly at myself and tried to answer questions like “Who am I and how can I serve?What informs my ministry and what is God wanting people to know through me? What does the gospel sound like coming from my lips?”

My first calling is as a mother. It informs almost everything I do, and it is this that has prepared me to answer a different calling, that of a Priest.

Dr Emma Percy is an Anglican Priest and a mum of two, and she's also the author of a book called “What Clergy do: Especially when it looks like nothing.” She says that Priests and mothers:

“Need to engage in the labouring necessary to create the places and spaces in which people can feel secure and grow towards maturity.”

That is a heady calling. It is a servant calling, and it truly embodies the work of the Kingdom.
Priests and mothers teach, guide, shepherd, and encourage. They do the work themselves and they empower and facilitate others to do the same.

I am an excellent Shepherd. My flock may be small, but they are often difficult to move about. To get them to go where I want them to requires serious shepherding skills, although upon occasion  I've thought that a feisty sheepdog would come in handy. I'm sure they'd move a lot quicker in the mornings if sharp teeth were nipping at their heels.
Just like a shepherd though, I keep us all moving in  the right direction. I keep them all fed and watered, and well cared for. One of my sons regularly gets sheared. They are all of infinite value and worth to me, and yes, I would not rest if one of them was missing.

In mothering, the work is largely unseen, repetitive, cyclical, and often unappreciated, though we would certainly notice if it wasn't done. This isn’t just in my house of course. If the women of Britain alone, downed tools and stopped providing free labour, the country would grind to a stand still. Just because we’re not getting paid, doesn’t mean we’re not working.

Like most mothers, I can multi-task like a bad ass, and not because I’m somehow genetically predisposed to be able to do it, but out of sheer necessity.

I have the ability to have a gut-wrenching conversation with a distraught teen, her head on my shoulder, move seamlessly to congratulating a ten year old for her Times Table Champion Certificate, spell out a word for a seven year old, and prevent a 5 year old from committing another Hot-wheels based assault. Out of the basic necessity to survive, I have transformed multi-tasking into an art-form: over the years I've breast fed whilst making spaghetti bolognese whilst reciting times tables whilst listening to a child read, pausing to wipe a toddler's bum, then continuing where I left off – after
washing my hands, of course.
I have the ability to hold in my head the schedules, needs, appointments, worries and concerns of four little people, as well as my own. I know, at any given time, who is going where, with whom, what time they need to be there, how they're getting there, what time they're coming back, and exactly what type of shoes they will need. And to check that they go to the toilet before they leave.

Being all things to the little people in my life is second nature to me. I am instructor. I am boss. I am cook. I am cleaner. I am teacher. I am counsellor. I am laundress. I am chief negotiator when hostilities break out. I am diplomat. I am peace keeper. I am playmate. I am confidante.

One day I will be Priest, and will be Mother to a larger, even more disparate flock, and writing this I see ever more clearly the obvious parallels. Much of the work – the vast majority of the priest’s role – is unseen, and not made known, to the wider church. The tedious, though essential admin, the meetings and time spent on committees to discuss everything from acquiring a new heater for the toilets, to how we refill the potholes outside the church. The daily, disciplined commitment to prayer which no one may ever see, but is vital and integral and as worthy as the whispered blessings I pray over my children as I tuck them into bed. God sees, and that is everything.

There are so many moments in both roles which are personal and sacred, but also, largely unseen and unnoticed by most people. My mothering can find me at two am comforting a child after a nightmare, and then find me again in the morning, counselling a teenager, stressed out over exams. Tiny, sacred moments, that none the less, are invisible to the wider world.

Likewise, the vocation of the priest is made up of such moments. The moments spent with a couple who are planning their wedding. A pastoral visit with the parishioner who has just lost his wife. A hospital visit to comfort the dying. Sacred moments, where the priest was fully present, and fully necessary.

So much of the role of the priest – like that of the mother – is intangible and indefinable, because they are both vocations which often seem unproductive. The Priest and the mother are both called to love unconditionally, to build people up, to nurture, and to be present.

To be present as a mother is to be there as the recipient of impossible questions, such as this memorable one:
“Why do I have a bum? And why is yours so much bigger than mine?”
“Why don't they want to be my friend?”
“Why are dogs?”

The Priest is also on the receiving end of difficult questions:
“Why do we need to pray?”
“Why are there starving children in the world?”
“Why is my dad dying of cancer?”

Tough questions, which a priest may or may not have a satisfactory or palatable answer for, but the key thing is they – like the mother – must provide a space for those questions to be asked. They make themselves available to listen to the impossible questions, when there is perhaps no one else to hear them.

By making motherhood into a metaphor for priesthood, I'm not intending to narrow our definition of Priest – on the contrary, I would like us to expand our idea of priesthood to encompass mothering, and practices which come under that banner. I’m aware that the practices of mothering can of course be carried out by anyone. The prevailing reality though, is that they are overwhelmingly carried out by people who are mothers, and since this is the shape of my own ministry, it is this that I’ve focused on. This does not imply that people who are not mothers cannot be excellent priests, or that there isn’t an overlap of skills with fathering.

This is my calling, and it’s not an easy one. For those of you who may also feel called, but are trying to deny that persistent, dogged and tenacious urging: good luck with that! I’ve found that God cannot be denied, and nor do I wish to anymore. I’ve made my peace with that and as I write this I stand on the precipice of the next phase of my journey with God, preparing to jump. I take all my failings with me; all my insecurities, all my doubts, and all my worries. I know two things for certain: that my work as a mother will never be done, and whatever else I become in this life, I am not, nor have I ever been, just a mum.

Note: This post is an expansion of the presentation I gave at my selection conference in June 2017.

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!