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.