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.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

We are Woman

Hello Sister. Shall we sit down together for a while? We’ll take the squishy sofas in the corner and have gingerbread lattes, and maybe something toothsome and smothered in chocolate, and neither of us will chat nonsense about how we’ll have to compensatory “diet” for that slice of cake afterwards, and you're forbidden to work out how many points there are in it.

I know how you’ll worry about it later, because I know you. I know so much about you.

You're the one who let me cry on your shoulder when my marriage was falling apart. You listened and you didn't judge, and you knew how I felt because you'd been there too.

You're the one who sat beside me when I was at my most exhausted; my most frightened; when I was delirious with pain and convinced that I couldn't go on – you took my face between your hands and you said “you can do this. You can.”

You're the one who took my screaming two year old from my arms, and told me that she'd be ok; you'd take care of her like she was your own. And you're the one who put your arm around my shaking shoulder in the corridor and reassured me that this was true; that she would be ok, because your girl was ok too.

You're the one in the supermarket who made silly faces at my grumpy toddler at the checkout as I tried to unload my trolley.

You're the one who gave me my smear test, and you kept apologising when I winced, because you've been there too, and yes, it's grim.

You helped me choose my wedding dress, and you told me I looked beautiful.

You picked my children up from school for me.

You went in every day and made lunch for my grandad when he was too old and frail to do it for himself.

You took care of my grandmother when she was dying.

You delivered my friend’s dead baby, and you came in and cleaned the hospital room up when it was all over.

You are the one who understands why I feel wretched for at least four days out of every month.

You know how it feels to see that tiny pink line on the plastic stick…and you know the misery of not seeing it.

You know what it's like to be coveted; to be reduced to naught but whichever body parts are most pleasing to the male gaze, and you know the disgrace of being found wanting.

You are a mother, a wife, a widow, a spinster, a grandmother, a daughter. You are friend, sister and stranger.

We have shared as much as our deepest secrets, hopes and dreams; our vulnerabilities and our fears. We've shared nothing more than a momentary knowing smile. Despite this I still know you. In small and myriad ways, I know you…because I am you.

I am woman.

We are women.

We might not always like one another, and we might not always get along, but we still have more that binds us together, than the things which seek to rip us apart. Ultimately, whatever we understand woman to mean, we are all united in the universal experience of not being a man, and in a world which caters to the needs of men first, and women second, this is a tangible reality.

Every day we see women abused, assaulted, murdered, sexualised, violated and dehumanised. We are not just sisters, daughters and mothers. We are slags, sluts, bitches, cows and whores. We call each other these things. We stay silent when other women are slurred. In a world where women are brutalised and disrespected and disregarded, Is it any wonder that we fail to love ourselves, and then fail to love each other?

Janice Raymond writes:

“When a woman sees a sister dehumanised and brutalised throughout history, throughout her own life, in almost every culture; when a woman sees the endless variations of this abuse and brutality, and how few women really survive; when a woman sees this graphically depicted all around her, female friendship is erased from memory and women are not affected by other women….Violence against women is not only central to women's oppression. It is central to the lack of female friendship.” (Raymond, J, Not a Sentimental Journey: Women's Friendships, 1990.)

It's up to us all to be a counter balance in a world that hates us. We can't always agree, and nor should we – there is a danger in being so preoccupied by the notion of tolerance, or committing the ultimate liberal faux pas and – horror of horrors! – offending someone, that we’re too afraid to take a stand for what we believe is morally correct.

That is an act of true friendship, and if you’re lucky enough to find a friend who will speak truth to you, especially when you don't want to hear it, then I wish you well, sister. As for me, I will keep my door open, and should any sisters be passing by, you are most welcome here. There will be cake, and plenty of it.