One Year Later…

On Thursday, I was preparing for my first appointment at the Gender Identity Clinic (GIC) and gathering together the papers that demonstrate that I’ve been living as a man, openly and publicly in every aspect of my life, for some time. I came across a letter I’d asked my then boss to write for me, containing the date on which I came out at work and so began my ‘official’ real-life experience. My appointment happened to be one year on exactly from that day, which is quite a coincidence. Following this, my first experience of the GIC and the suggestion of a friend on Facebook, I’ve decided to reflect a bit on what this year has brought along and where I’m at.

Prior to coming out to my colleagues, I’d told a few people but otherwise kept things secret. Knowing that transgender people have been hounded out of jobs and faced discrimination, I was very nervous about how people would react to me. On the whole, I needn’t have been. The vast, vast majority have either been overtly supportive, or just quietly got on with using the right name and correct pronouns without saying anything specific about it all. I’ve had to deal with a couple of idiots outside of my department and some guys being jerks when it comes to my using the gents’ loos, but that has been very rare, thankfully. It’s been a similar story with church and the rest of my life down here in Milton Keynes.

Being able to be completely open about who I am has been an incredibly liberating experience, which has freed me from having to pretend all the time and repress part of myself. I think I’ve grown in confidence and am much more settled as a result. I’ve now got a whole new wardrobe and very few of my ‘female clothes’ have survived the cull. When I’ve got the money, I’ll get a new suit, which is really the last big purchase; the rest of my stuff is either from the blokes’ sections of stores, or as near as damned it. This outward change, together with my new hairdo (short and spiky) has helped me to feel more settled as Karl and again boosted my confidence.

In terms of everyday life, little has changed, though there are specific issues which were previously uncomplicated but now take thought:

  • Toilets: which to use and when. When it’s safe to do so, I use male toilets, but that’s not always practical. For example, in busy public places like the shopping centre and the cinema, I worry I’m more likely to encounter a member of the public with ‘Daily Mail views’, and get a hard time. This is more of a fear in places where alcohol feeds in, and not all pubs have an easily accessible disabled toilet. Wetherspoons pubs are particularly bad for this, so I have to find strategies when I go there. Generally there is the back-up option of a disabled toilet elsewhere, but I’m always worried I’m stopping someone with a disability from using it, and so it gets complicated.
  • Changing rooms. These are even more awkward, due to the lack of privacy and need for nudity. I don’t want to use the female facilities, can’t yet use the male ones, and some disabled changing rooms are rubbish. I’m yet to find a gym where this isn’t a problem.
  • Clothes shopping: trans-friendly stores. My early experiences of trying to buy men’s clothes were complicated by not knowing my sizes, and also by not passing, which meant store staff often didn’t know how to deal with me. One shop (BHS) accused me of shoplifting because I tried on a men’s shirt. Another (H&M) wouldn’t let me use the male changing rooms or take men’s clothes into female changing rooms. I do wonder if I should’ve just changed in the middle of that store to make the point, but I didn’t dare! (Probably for the best!). Now I’ve learnt that stores like House of Fraser are very good and let me use the right changing rooms without hassle, but as I know my sizes, I can usually get away with trying things at home with the reasonable hope of them fitting.
  • Dealing with the NHS. In the absence of being able to get my paws on testosterone, I’ve been taking female contraceptives to stop my menstruation. My GP practice have been fine with this, but I am amused by always getting the lecture on safe sex, as if Tractorgirl could be the source of a sort of virgin birth part two! People just don’t get LGBT relationships sometimes… Moreover, one has to be the expert most of the time – my GP had never met a trans person till I walked in – and one of the nice things about going to the GIC was being able to be the patient for once!
  • Being allowed to leave the country. To get a new passport with the correct gender marker, I’ve needed a letter from my GP. Not a problem, but another little thing that makes transgender life more …. hard work/time-consuming/bureaucratic. There are also places such as Canada where travel can be complicated for someone like me who is yet to begin treatment, which is a bugger when planning a honeymoon!
  • Telephones. As my voice still sounds female, I sometimes have trouble getting people to believe I am who I say I am over the phone. For example, one time at work someone was convinced they’d got the wrong number, even when a colleague grabbed the phone and told them otherwise! More recently, I had a phone call from a recruitment consultant who refused to believe I was me, and asked what name to call me despite having my CV in front of him with ‘Karl’ looming up at him! Clearly his firm need better diversity training.
  • Inane questions. Most of the time, when people ask me about what being transgender/transsexual means and is like, they’re genuinely interested and do so sensitively. As I reckon it’s best they hear what it’s all about from me rather than the Daily (Hate) Mail, I’m happy to chat and share my experiences. However, questions about my genitals are not acceptable – would you quiz anyone else on what they’ve got in their trousers? No. Well, mind your own business when you’re talking to me then! It is odd how one’s body can be viewed as public property as the NHS is the gatekeeper of gender reassignment…
  • Transgender media coverage. Some of the rubbish written about trans people of all shades can be quite hard to deal with, especially when it filters through to the popular imagination (see above). For example, in the week I came out, there was a big fuss being whipped up by the Sun about a trans man giving birth, and I remember hearing some vicious negative comments at work. Hopefully having to deal with a real live trans man has helped dispel some of that nonsense and prejudice, but it made me feel scared. I imagine this is even worse for trans women, who in the early stages of their transitions are usually more visible than I’ve been – chatting to others suggests they do get more flack, not helped by the press portrayl of us.
  • Correcting people on pronouns. Trans men at this pre-hormones stage often get mistaken for women and have to spend time correcting people. 95% of stuff shouted at me in the street has been homophobic, not transphobic, and I understand this is other people’s experience too. I suppose it’s a product of the much wider range of gender expression which is usually considered acceptable for women that people look at me and assume I’m a woman, and sometimes think I must be a lesbian. However, for me, it’s a pain in the backside, and means I spend a lot of time telling people off for making assumptions. Getting my chest binder has given me more confidence to do so.
  • Waiting lists. Going forward, I need to go through a second assessment at the GIC, this time with two shrinks, before I can start hormones. At least this time I have a date for my grilling. The uncertainty of the waiting and not knowing has been tough on both of us, especially with the move to GP commissing and worries about funding. It has felt at times like living in limbo.

That’s just a few of my niggles! It’s important to stress though that this has been an incredibly positive year on the whole, despite the above. Looking to the future, I can begin to see the end point, at which I’ll be able to live as a normal bloke, post second-puberty, chest operation and hysterectomy. I do worry whether Tractorgirl will still find me attractive when all is said and done, which is miles scarier than anything a surgeon could do, but we’re taking it day by day (cliche time – sorry!) and getting there. I take comfort from the fact we wouldn’t be getting hitched if she wasn’t, like me, willing to give it a bloody good go! I think we’ve also grown closer through this and having to deal with our feelings when they’ve risen to the surface, so I’m cautiously optimistic.

So. that’s year one in the life of a transsexual man. I’ve run out of things to type now, so I’ll stop!

On Disagreeing with Julie Burchill

Having come across, via TractorGirl and a debate on Twitter, this article in the Observer by Julie Burchill, I’d like to post a reply from my perspective as a transsexual man.

As I understand it, a row erupted after Suzanne Moore, a veteran journalist whose writing I normally have lots of time for, made a passing comment in a piece about women’s anger about women being angry that they do not have the body of a “Brazilian transsexual”. Bearing in mind I agree with the rest of her argument about women still being treated as second-class, under-represented in the upper echelons of the political world, hit hardest by the recession and living in an environment where violence against women is an ‘occupational hazard’, if you will, this comment is unnecessary and ill-informed. Having been involved in a Transgender Day of Remembrance event this year, I had to put together a list of those killed in the last year as a result of transphobic violence. The vast majority were Brazilian women, and reading the brief reports of their deaths was incredibly sad. Thus, I think Moore’s throwaway comment was in very poor taste.

In response to this, Moore has apparently been hounded off Twitter by trans activists, according to her friend Burchill, whose article is a whole different kettle of fish to Moore’s silly comment. As a deliberate non-user of Twitter I haven’t seen the threads myself, but alas, I do know from experience that some in the trans community do us no favours with their responses and temper. However, it seems to me that Burchill’s article is a hate-filled rant rather than any kind of reasoned argument, despite no doubt reflecting the views of some, as the comments on CiF show.

Before going through what she has to say, a few thoughts on life as a trans man in the early stages of gender reassignment. I’ve come to the conclusion that my gender has three aspects – the ontological (the essence of who I am, which is definitely male), the biological (which is currently female) and the social, the expectations and societal norms I encounter as a result of my biology. I wish to transition as the biological (body) doesn’t match the ontological (brain), which is very painful for me, and as because people go off appearances, I’m not treated as a man by most (even those who know the score sturggle at the moment). Hopefully, as I move forward with the process and my body increasingly matches my brain (which will be a huge relief and a liberation), the social side will follow and I’ll be able to get on with my life as an ordinary bloke. Key in this is the point that what ‘lower surgery’ I have or haven’t had shouldn’t be an issue when it comes to daily interactions - we don’t insist on seeing someone’s genitals before deciding how treat them, so why is it anyone else’s business what I do or not have? The obsession with penises baffles me!

Anyway, back to Burchill. She argues that the response to Moore’s comment from some in the trans community was like “those wretched inner-city kids who shoot another inner-city kid dead in a fast-food shop for not showing them enough ‘respect’”. She describes trans people as “educated beyond all common sense and honesty” and justifies using the word ‘tranny’, which is deeply offensive and often used by those harassing us, on the basis that she doesn’t like the term ‘cis-gendered’ being used for non-trans people. There then follows a rant about coming from working-class roots and “we are damned if we are going to be accused of being privileged by a bunch of bed-wetters in bad wigs”. Her last two paragraphs speak for themselves:

“To have your cock cut off and then plead special privileges as women – above natural-born women, who don’t know the meaning of suffering, apparently – is a bit like the old definition of chutzpah: the boy who killed his parents and then asked the jury for clemency on the grounds he was an orphan.

“Shims, shemales, whatever you’re calling yourselves these days – don’t threaten or bully us lowly natural-born women, I warn you. We may not have as many lovely big swinging Phds as you, but we’ve experienced a lifetime of PMT and sexual harassment and many of us are now staring HRT and the menopause straight in the face – and still not flinching. Trust me, you ain’t seen nothing yet. You really won’t like us when we’re angry.”

In response, I’d like to say that:

  • Contrary to our total absence from this piece, trans men exist, too, albeit as a minority within a minority (trans folks) within the LGBT minority.
  • Having been stuck with a woman’s body for almost three decades, I know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of misogyny, to feel threatened walking down the street by groups of men, to be ignored or patronised in the workplace and to suffer sexual violence, as well as putting up with PMT! Apart from the latter, many trans women experience these things too, as well as physical danger if they do not ‘pass’ as female. Sex discrimination an issue facing all women, cis- and trans-gendered.
  • Moreover, taking transphobic violence seriously is not mutually exclusive from taking violence against women seriously – the suggestion is just daft! I thought the point of feminism was that discrimination based on gender is wrong. Surely this applies as much to trans people (male and female and everything in-between!) as cis-gendered women?
  • It seems very odd to criticise people for being well-educated! Or is it only certain people that should be allowed to use academic language e.g. radical feminists?
  • Being from a working-class background doesn’t stop one being privileged. I’m from a council estate in Lancashire and from a household that wouldn’t have survived if it wasn’t for income support. My education (one of those pesky PhDs I’m afraid, Julie!), at which I worked bloody hard, and the opportunities I’ve had as a result does give me advantages over someone denied those chances; as proud as I am of my roots, it’s something I can’t deny. Similarly, being cis-gendered is a privileged position compared to being trans - people expect one to be so, most people are, and there are challenges one will never have to face as a result. It’s the same as heteronormativity in its context…
  • I thought we were trying to move away from a world in which a person is defined by their body, and in particular a woman is defined (and limited) by having the capacity to give birth. Are women only really women now when they’ve been mothers? What about those who cannot or choose not to or never get the chance to have children – are they not ‘real women’? I suspect Burchill and company may have rather more in common with the Pope than they realise! Moreover, as I argued above, we judge people on the basis of secondary sex characteristics in all but intimate sexual encounters, so why the obsession with genitals??
  • Better “a bunch of bad-wetters in bad wigs” than someone who thinks hurling insults will help their argument…

In summary, I think Julie Burchill is massively out of line here. We live in a democracy and if she sees someone like me as a woman pretending to be a man, that’s up to her. However, using a national newspaper to spout transphobia shows that she needs to do some serious growing up. Around a third of all trans people will attempt suicide at some point, as the threats, harassment and violence we face are very real, just as they are for millions of cis-gendered women throughout the world. Last year, over 250 people were killed worldwide as a result of transphobia. Yes, the community can be somewhat introverted and defensive, but it’s not without reason…

Reflections on Advent

I preached this morning on what I understand the point of Advent to be. In the hope it might be useful for others, here’s my sermon:

 

Waiting for Advent

1 Thessalonians 3:9 – 13, Luke 21:25 – 36

 

When I was growing up, Advent was always a very frustrating time. I’ve never been a particularly patient person – on many occasions I’ve found myself praying ‘Lord, give me patience, and make it quick!’ – and I found counting down the days till Christmas and waiting for a new batch of toys to play with difficult to say the least. Why wouldn’t December just hurry up? I remember the sense of anticipation being exhausting – four weeks is a long time when you’re seven! Added to the mix, we never knew exactly which relatives would decide to descend upon us, whether mum would get through cooking the Christmas dinner without a nervous breakdown this year, and if we’d be made to eat the dreaded Brussels sprouts again. In other words, Advent was a time of waiting for something, without really knowing what it would look like.

Fast-forwarding twenty years or so, I’m no longer so overwhelmed with enthusiasm for ‘the big day’, despite always looking forward to the John Lewis advert and M&S Christmas cake. However, I’m convinced that thinking of Advent as a time of waiting without quite knowing what things will look like in the end is a helpful way for Christians to approach this time of year. We await the coming of Jesus Christ, God’s anointed Son andIsrael’s Messiah, into the world once again, and hopefully in the midst of the busyness find some time to ask ourselves some deep questions. Have I really let God into my life as fully as possible, or are there bits of myself I keep back? What would it look like if my relationship with God were that little bit deeper and fuller? Letting our defences down enough for that to happen isn’t easy, and the results can be deeply painful as well as deeply joyful. After all, as others have put it, God loves us just as we are, but too much to leave us where we are, which means change. However, it’s change that stems from God’s longing for us to have life in all its fullness. Advent is thus a time of waiting, of encounter, and of transformation.

Our two readings this morning are stories of waiting, both in the face of tremendous pressures. Let’s start with the Gospel reading, which plunges us straight in at deep end of Luke’s Gospel and has Jesus warning the disciples of the turbulent events surrounding the coming of the Son of Man. It’s part of a passage that speaks about the destruction of temple inJerusalem, Christians being forced out of synagogues and wars and famines coming, events that had taken or were taking place by the time Luke wrote his Gospel, sometime around 90 AD. When Jesus talked about strange things happening in the sun, moon and stars, and roaring seas and raging tides throwing countries into despair, he was using apocalyptic language, which generally refers to ‘end times’. It would’ve been understood by people at the time to mean there would be friction among the nations, yielding great instability.

It was against that backdrop that Jesus talked about the Son of Man coming on a cloud with great power and glory. Here, he was drawing on the prophecy in Daniel chapter seven, in whichIsraelwould be vindicated and set free from oppression. The Son of Man was one of Jesus’ favourite titles for himself. It came to be associated with the Messiah, but the Aramaic means ‘weak man’ or ‘humble man’. In the context of our passage, the Son of Man acts as a judge over the nations, reflecting Jesus’ sense of what it meant to be the Messiah. He saw himself not as the military leader that many expected, but instead as bringing God’s judgment on anIsraelthat’d failed to be the people of God, had marginalised the vulnerable and turned their noses up at outsiders. He was calling them back to faithful living – that was his mission.

The passage ends with a warning to keep watch and wait for the Son of Man to come. God’s transforming judgment would come, and Jesus would be vindicated, but it’d happen in the midst of the chaosIsraelhas brought on itself. The disciples were being prepared – keep your eyes open and stay alert. Following the cross and resurrection, there would be a period of waiting, and when they saw the warning signs, they weren’t to stay inJerusalemout of loyalty, but to leave quickly. This was waiting with an urgent purpose, not knowing exactly how things would play out, except that they would be challenging to say the least. However, as promised in Daniel and highlighted by Jesus’ concern for the disciples, God would be with his people in the midst of their troubles.

Now, while it’s true that most of us are unlikely to find ourselves caught up in such turbulent circumstances as those Jesus described, waiting on God can be a very tough business. It’s not for nothing that patience is one of the fruits of the Spirit. However, that’s the challenge that Jesus lays down for us, to keep faith through the ups and downs of life, and to watch for his coming into our lives once more, being ready to receive him when he does. It seems that the community that Paul had founded in Thessalonica had been open to this encounter. In our second reading, Paul seemingly can’t wait to visit the Thessalonians again, so inspired is he by their faith in the midst of adversity. His prayer is that the love among the congregation will be strengthened and deepened, and that they will be made perfect and holy in the sight of God. They are to show the fruit that waiting on God can yield.

So, what are to make of all this, on this first Sunday of Advent? Well, I think the readings offer us three key points worthy of note. Firstly, in both cases, God asks this question of his followers: when the chips are down, are you going to remain faithful to God? Easier said than done, I appreciate, but that’s the challenge. When the disciples were being warned of the dangers to come, they were effectively being asked: will you stick with Jesus and faithfully wait for the Son of Man? Secondly, for the Thessalonians, the hope was that they would grow in love for one another despite the pressures upon them. Will we manage the same? Thirdly, through all the ups and downs of life, God is with us and is faithful to us, even though that means being vulnerable, and ultimately enduring the cross. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection means that God’s love isn’t an abstract idea found in textbooks, but a concrete reality. As the clip said, God has a face and a voice. God showed up.

A few weeks ago, I was at a conference for local preachers held inWarrington. During one of the services, we were told about one of the regular congregation we were joining having passed away a while back, in circumstances that the minister didn’t specify but which were obviously distressing. She described driving passed the person’s house one day and seeing police officers outside. When she went to investigate, she found her friend lying on the floor in a pool of blood. Before the body was taken away, she knelt down in the blood, anointed her friend with water and prayed for her. One of the police officers, obviously moved by this, asked her in not such polite terms why she’d done that. Her reply was beautifully simple and profound: “Because that’s God does. Every day he stoops to meet us, not worrying about getting mixed up in our mess, and loves us as we are”.

Advent is a time of waiting on God, waiting for the ultimate divine act of stooping to meet us as we are: becoming human, sharing our life, our hopes and fears, our death. It’s that vulnerable and costly love that lies at the heart of God and the heart of the Gospel, and as Paul says in his letter to the Romans, neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, can separate us from the love of God in Christ. So, whatever life throws at us, the challenge is there, as it was for the disciples, to stick with God. But so is the promise that no matter what, and no matter how hard we find the waiting, God will stick with us.

Celibacy and Faith

I recently came across this article about a nun who became a sex therapist after leaving the convent. It’s an interesting discussion of how some people have chosen to follow monastic or priestly vocations because of a fear of sex, or because they’ve suffered abuse and view such environments as ‘safe places’.

While I believe some people are genuinely called by God to lead a celibate life, this does not mean that such people are automatically asexual (though some will be). We need as a church to support such people in something that can be incredibly difficult as well as enriching.

However, as the article argues, we also need to recognise that trying to run away from our sexuality or live in constant denial can be incredibly harmful in the long run:

“There are still young women in some parts of the world for whom a convent offers a sanctuary from difficult questions about sex, an education, opportunities. But it’s running away from life, and there’s a huge toll in terms of individual fallout down the line. The church shouldn’t allow it to happen”

I worry that the Church (in the broadest sense of the word) can tend to speak of sex in such a way as to denigrate something that is actually an incredible gift from God. We do sometimes fall into the trap of talking as if sexuality is just one of those unfortunate things that we’d really rather wasn’t there. However, like it or lump it, it’s part of what it is to be human and we need to engage intelligently with questions around sex and sexuality.

Now, I’m not advocating a sexual free-for-all; indeed, my experience of watching other people who’ve slept around is that while it may be fun in the short-term, it’s often very damaging in the long-run. It’s important that sex is between two people who are committed to each other and takes place on an equal basis, with equal levels of vulnerability and a willingness to give oneself to the other person. However, I do think that we’d be able to make a more mature and helpful contribution to the discussion and offer better pastoral care if we accept that sex in a loving relationship can foster intimacy and deepen the bond between a couple, and this doesn’t magically become the case after a marriage ceremony, but can (and frequently does) happen well before that point.

I suppose what I’m getting at in a roundabout way is that as a Church, we need to help people to have a healthy attitude to sexuality, and not to view sex as ‘dirty’ and ‘shameful’. Maybe if we can do that, fewer people will feel the need to try to run away from this part of themselves, and those entering a monastic or priestly vocation will be free to do so as people comfortable with all God has made them to be. We also need to support those who’ve been abused, and help them to know their value in God’s eyes.

One World Week – On Seeing Things Differently

Following on from my previous post, I’ve been giving some thought to what it means to be the Church in a messy world and turbulent political landscape. The following is a sermon (so quiet on the Tory-bashing, alas!) for One World Week (the texts are Micah 6:6 – 8 and Luke 4:14 – 30):

 

I’m a big fan of ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ for my sins, and I’m there on a Saturday night, week-in, week-out, glued to the television. One thing I dislike about the programme, though, is that they always seem to invite one or two people to take part who seem to be there basically for people to laugh at. Apparently, after the first show of this series, in which the contestants were paired up with professional dancers, one of the judges told Robin Windsor, dance partner of Emmerdale actress Lisa Riley, that they had no chance, presumably as she’s a larger person. Thus, when she proved that she can really dance, it was fantastic to see; just like when Susan Boyle wiped the smug smile off Simon Cowell’s face when she began to sing, that first dance challenged lazy stereotypes and forced people to look at things in a fresh way. Our two readings today are, in their various ways, about Israel being challenged to look at things in a different way, to re-think what being God’s people in the world was all about.

When Jesus had been baptised in the river Jordan, the same river that Israel crossed to enter the Promised Land, the Holy Spirit told him that he was God’s beloved Son. Immediately after, he was thrust into the wilderness by the same Spirit to face up to what that meant – he was Israel’s Messiah, and his mission was to re-define what it was to be God’s people, breaking down national barriers, among others. That was bound to lead to trouble, because it would mean challenging not just the ideas of ordinary people, but also the powerful religious and secular authorities of the day. After this time of preparation, which brought together all those years of prayer, thought, studying the Scriptures and wrestling with God, he was ready to begin his ministry.

Jesus returned to Galilee and went about preaching in the synagogues, gaining quite a reputation for himself. One day, as he’d done many times before on the Sabbath, he stood up in his home synagogue in Nazareth and began to read, this time from a scroll of Isaiah’s prophecies. He went straight to the place where it said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to tell the poor the good news. He’s sent me to announce realise to the prisoners and sight to the blind, to set the oppressed free”. When he’d finished reading, he gave back the scroll, sat down and declared, “Today, this is being fulfilled right in front of you”, to the amazement of the congregation. These were words of complete and utter grace, pure and simple. However, the good mood wouldn’t last for very long…

A work colleague of mine supports Manchester City – I suppose somebody has to! – and just before the last match of the season, he fully expected his team to lose and so throw away the title. His experiences of many years had taught him that City had a habit of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. At first glance, it might seem that Jesus managed to do just that in the synagogue that day. He’d had the crowd in the palm of his hand when he said that he knew they were all waiting for him to perform a spectacular act, like they’d heard about from his time in Capernaum. One can imagine the buzz of anticipation among them. However, he talked instead about prophets not being accepted in their home towns, and God choosing to rescue Gentiles through Elijah and Elisha when he could’ve helped Israelites. The people were furious – so furious that they chased him up to the mountain top on which the city was built and tried to throw him off, but he managed to slip through the crowd unnoticed. What was going on?

Well, expectation was rife in Jesus’ day about the coming of the Messiah, whom they imagined would be a sort of military leader who would violently shake off the rule of the hated Romans and plant Israel firmly at the top of the pile. Given the nationalism that underpinned most people’s thinking, it’s not surprising that the crowd reacted very badly to Jesus’ words. In the face of their hopes and dreams, he was telling them that God wasn’t just interested in one nation, but in the whole world. His message was about grace for everybody, rather than violent judgement for everyone outside of Israel. In quoting Isaiah 61:1 – 2, he was pointing to a broader vision of the Messiah’s role, and ultimately he was laying the foundations for the counter-cultural world of the Kingdom of God. Israel was going to need to think again about who it was and what it was for – what did it mean to be God’s people living God’s way?

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One World Week is both an exciting opportunity, in that it’s a chance to come together and explore key issues in our world, and a deep challenge, as it asks hard questions about the Church. Are we a people who seek to break down barriers, to welcome all into God’s family, to shine the light of hope into the world’s dark places? By the way we live our lives, do we help to free the prisoners, give sight to the blind and bring liberty to the oppressed? This isn’t an easy business; after all, it ultimately led Jesus to the cross. It involves being willing to take risks and build relationships with people who’re in some way ‘different’ to us, which can be scary, but that’s the challenge that God lays down to us. Just like Israel, the Church cannot hope to be all God made it to be if it turns inward and becomes a kind of exclusive club, but instead it needs to look outwards for signs of God’s Kingdom work, role up its sleeves and join in.

Our Old Testament passage offers a vision of what it means to live God’s way. Micah was one of the minor prophets, and his ministry took place mostly in the latter half of the eighth century BCE, before the Northern Kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Assyrians; his writings thus span six decades of God’s people struggling with their calling to be a blessing to the nations. In our reading, Israel is represented as a worshipper wanting to know how to please God, and assuming that this can be done through sacrifices and offerings. However, sacrifices were meaningless if the life of the people didn’t reflect God’s life; unless their actions and words matched up, it was empty worship. Micah was trying to point Israel back in the right direction; true worship means seeking justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God.

Bringing this all together shows that God’s deep longing is for his people to take the risks required to make his Kingdom visible in the world through the quality of our living, individually and as a community, and in doing so to break down the barriers that prevent there really being ‘one world’. There’s no point in gathering together every week for worship if that worship isn’t the catalyst for lives lived seeking justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God. Here are three thoughts on what this might look like in practice:

Firstly, Jesus did perform spectacular acts that gained him a reputation as a miracle-man among some, such as the crowds in today’s reading, but actually, most of the stuff he did was pretty small-scale. Much of his ministry was comprised of lots of little acts, the power of which cannot be underestimated. It’s easy when faced with big problems like those we see on the news every day, to give into despair and allow ourselves to be overwhelmed. However, we follow a Messiah who was prepared to be vulnerable and who made his selfless love known primarily in the small things of life. Never underestimate the power of small acts of kindness.

Secondly, Jesus wasn’t afraid to ask the big questions, and challenge those in authority. He unsettled the social and religious ‘status quo’, not just by meeting people’s immediate needs when he could, but by pointing out the underlying structural issues that caused those needs to arise in the first place. In our day, it’s the equivalent of asking why food banks are needed, rather than simply being pleased they’re there. This does mean getting political, though not necessarily party-political, and whether it’s getting involved in campaigns for social justice, going on protest marches, letter-writing, spending your money ethically or simply thoughtfully exploring the issues, it makes a difference.

Thirdly, Jesus made sure that he took time out to rest and to be with God. There’s always the danger of both burnout and of losing sight of God. Jesus’ relationship with God was the catalyst, inspiration, source and end point of everything he said and did, from the powerful and dramatic to the small and subtle. A living faith means putting things into action, but it’s still a faith – we need to depend on God for strength and energy, direction, and hope when the going gets tough, as it will.

Social action matters because God and all he has created matters. There’s no such thing as a waste person in the Kingdom, but there is light, hope, love and the possibility of transformation. One World Week is as good a time as any to begin put this vision into action…

On Being Radicalised

I’ve come to the conclusion I’ve been radicalised … by the Conservative Party. Allow me to explain.

There’s an increasingly right-wing faction gaining sway within the Conservative Party that believes that the Coalition is too left-wing and soft. It wants to take Thatcherism well beyond what Maggie did, and in a book shortly to be published called Britannia Unchained, the authors claim that the only way for Britain to compete in a global marketplace is to reduce the state to the bare bones and radically reduce employment rights, including abolishing the minimum wage. This group seem to have the ear of the odious George Osborne, and this week’s Tory conference included a lot of telling rhetoric about working harder and longer.

The basic ideas seem to be the following:

  • Employees have “excessive protections”, and not being able to fire someone for not busting a gut continually is unreasonable and creating a nation of idlers.
  • The claim is made that Britons work some of the lowest hours in the world, something I’ll examine later
  • The minimum wage for under-21s (the lavish sum of between £3.68 and £4.98 per hour) should be abolished to get more young people into work
  • The state should provide little more than a basic safety net
  • ‘Raw capitalism’, unhindered by employment laws, a minimum wage and environmental responsibility is the only way forward.

Paul Mason, the BBC’s economic editor, sums up the proposals as:

‘The race to the bottom, to be like China, is on, and we’re all going to do it. So your wages will meet the Chinese somewhere, and so will your social conditions”

Given the sorts of noises coming from the Tory leadership, it seems that while the Coalition is too fragile to go anywhere near as far as Dominic Raab and others would like to go, some of this mindset is finding its way into the mainstream. I, for one, think that Cameron and company are already living in a bubble and implementing policies that will be massively detrimental to some of the most vulnerable people in society. This ‘revolution’ is plain frightening, and I can’t be the only one who sees a society with no job security, slavish hours and social breakdown as a disaster, not an aspiration.

Let’s examine both some of the proposals from the conference and the claims of Raab and co:

  • Scraping housing benefit for under 25s is one of the stupidest things I’ve heard in years. The argument made is that many people are living at home well into their 30s while they struggle to get together the deposit for their own home, so why should others be supported in being independent by the state? Well, for starters, for many young people, moving back in with mum and dad is simply not an option: no room/overcrowding, abusive families, drug and alcohol issues (on both sides), poverty, no mum and dad. Moreover, even if one could go back to a safe and happy home, not everyone lives in an area with good job prospects, particularly in areas like the North East. I’d love to get on the housing ladder, but do not believe this should be at the expense of creating misery and making it harder for young people to study (especially those going back to college), escape abuse and be safe. Shelter argue that this policy will put young people in danger or trap them. It’s ideology-driven madness.

 

  • Slashing benefits, and making them rise slower than inflation: I grew up on a deprived council estate with around 2/3 of people being without work when I was around fifteen. I did meet some who didn’t want to work and knew how to play the system. However, I also met a great deal more people who were unable to find a job despite filling out endless applications and were despairing, people trying to study or retrain but facing obstacles from the same benefit system that made it financially harmful to go into low-paid work (which means a better minimum wage, not greater poverty on benefits), and people whose life circumstances, such as disability, caring responsibilities, lack of decent childcare and so on made it impossible. To suggest that the majority of benefit claimants want to scrape by on next to nothing is absurd and simply untrue. Moreover, when there are no jobs around, what exactly are people supposed to do??? Existing on benefits should not be made even harder – for the vast majority, it’s not a choice and they are not scroungers!

 

  • Disabled people should be ‘encouraged’ back to work: Ruth Anim’s story is just one example of flawed assessments for disability benefit by private firm ATOS. Around a third of those turned down for benefits as a result of said assessments have had the decision overturned on appeal, and tragically, many have died after being declared fit to work. If someone wants to work and can do so given the conditions they live with, that should be supported and encouraged. However, forcing vulnerable people onto the Work Programme to save money is cruel. Moreover, mental health issues are often poorly understood, and along with the impact of various physical problems, ATOS assessors are not qualified to make these judgments. All the government has succeeded in doing is increasing hate crime and causing a great deal of distress. Enough is enough!

 

  • Employment rights can be traded for shares, and small firms should be subject to looser laws: In my not-so-humble opinion, trying to entice people into surrendering their rights, especially in relation to redundancy, is profoundly wrong. Increasing insecurity does not lead to greater productivity, but instead a dog-eat-dog environment in which teamwork suffers and stress-related illness increases. Ask anyone who has been in an organisation making selective compulsory redundancies. Moreover, as with exemptions to the European Working Time Directive, how long before signing away one’s rights becomes a condition of employment? Stress has already become the main reason for taking long-term sick leave. This will only cause more problems, and allow exploitive employers to demand unpaid overtime with impunity. What happened to work/life balance?

 

  • Britons work some of the shortest hours in the world. Such a view ignores some key statistics. For starters, according to the latest English Business Survey, 23% of businesses fear their employees are overstretched, compared to 9% who feel they are under-utilised. That doesn’t suggest laziness. The heart of the matter, though, is the balance of full- and part-time work. According to the Office for National Statistics, “The fall in average hours worked in the UK can in part be explained by the increase in the proportion of the UK workforce employed in part-time jobs, from 24 per cent in 1992 to around 27 per cent in 2011″, and partly because of the shift from manufacturing towards the service sector. Additionally, “Full-time workers in the UK work longer hours than the EU average”. However, my dear Tories, there’s no need to let facts get in the way of policies that benefit the wealthy, is there?

 

To finish my rant, here’s a pretty picture to illustrate the above. Note that the Greeks work the longest hours in Europe – fat lot of good that did them!

 

European working hours (Source: ONS)

Reflecting on Pride and Naming

This weekend was a big weekend for me – on Saturday, it was Milton Keynes’ first ever Pride event, and on Sunday, I had my naming service at church.

                               The Faith Tent (c) Karl

At said Pride, we (TractorGirl, our local Venture FX pioneer minister and I) were running a faith tent, providing space for people to chill out and offer a positive witness, trying to show that being an LGBT person and having faith are not incompatible. It was a team effort; TractorGirl had the idea, which was taken on by Rob (the aforementioned pioneer minister) and I had the idea for the content, which the others refined to produce a great chillaxing space. We all gave out leaflets on the day and had some great conversations, and it was very cool to be part of a team helping to break down barriers, one step at a time. More than that, it was great how well the whole Pride event came together, and it was a huge credit to the folks who gave up so much of their time to make it happen.

 

 

I’ve now been in Milton Keynes for a little under two years, and it’s been exciting to reflect on how things have changed during that time. When I first arrived here, I hated it on sight – it seemed like an endless mass of carparks and soulless buildings. As time has gone on, however, I’ve got used to the oddity of the place and got involved in various things, making some awesome friends that I hope will, like many of my university friends, be friends for life. When I first arrived, if someone had told me I’d find myself running a faith tent at Pride, I’d have laughed in their face! I guess it’s a mark of how much more comfortable in myself I feel that those parts of my life (my faith, gender identity and sexuality) are very closely integrated, and I can happily deal with meeting people in the territory where they intersect. Moving here has done me so much good in many ways.

That brings me nicely onto my naming service. The idea came about when I attended a baptism at my church. It occurred to me that I’d made the promises one makes at baptism and confirmation in my ‘old’ name, and that actually, one’s name is a big part of the liturgy. I wanted to have the chance to come before God and re-commit myself to him, but this time as I really am, in my new name, Karl. For me, it was really important that this happened as part of a Eucharistic service, as I believe that in Holy Communion, the Church is really fully being the Church, fully present to God, who meets us, fully human and fully God, in the bread and wine. All are welcome at the table and all have an equal place. There was a very deep sense in which this felt like me taking my proper place in God’s family.

The litugry we used for the naming part of the service was shamelessly stolen from Nadia Bolz-Weber, whom I first came across at Greenbelt last year, and thought was cool. As part of the service, I gave my testimony, which I’ve reproduced below:

 

A little over six years ago, I was confirmed in the beautiful surroundings of Bath Abbey. That evening, I made for myself the promises my parents and godparents had made on my behalf at my baptism, when I was just a baby. It was a hugely important occasion for me, as I’d been an atheist throughout my teens, and had only recently come to faith. This was me saying, ‘Here I am, God. I’m yours’. That day was the start of a journey with God that’s taken me to some interesting places, not least the accident and emergency department of Bath’s Royal United Hospital, as the Bishop of Bath and Wells injured my knee, but that’s another story!

At the time, I was doing my best to be what I thought I was expected to be – I was living as a woman and had a long-term boyfriend, despite the nagging doubts at the back of my mind saying, ‘this isn’t me’. The relationship was somewhat unhealthy to say the least, and I finally found the courage to kick him out about a year later. A couple of months after that, I had a bit of a breakdown, which sounds grim and at the time was, but which forced me to stop trying to cope with life by bottling things up, and actually begin to come to terms with both my past and who I was. There began, with the support of amazing friends, a very patient minister and an excellent counsellor, a process of forgiveness and healing, in which God has cropped up in some very unexpected places.

Along the way, I found myself falling head over heels in love with Sally, who thankfully felt the same way! I therefore had to come to terms quite quickly with my sexuality, which wasn’t too bad, as I felt able to be quite bolshy about it – ‘I’m here, I’m queer, get over it!’ seemed to work quite well! However, I knew that this was still not the real me. In due course, I left Durham, graduating a few months later, and moved to Milton Keynes. A fresh start was just what I needed; both proving to myself that I could do it and enjoying my job helped to build my confidence. Gradually, I began to realise that I couldn’t go on pretending to be something I wasn’t indefinitely, and that led me to come out once again, this time as transgender. You see, despite having a woman’s body, I am very definitely emotionally and psychologically male. I’ve felt like this since I was four, and the feelings have only intensified as I’ve got older.

Coming to terms with this was rather harder than sexuality had been, partly because this was at last the real me and so it felt achingly vulnerable, partly because of the hormone treatment and surgery I’ll need to undergo for my body to finally match my brain, and partly because I was scared stiff of other people’s reactions. It was bumpy at first, and still can be very painful, but this latest part of my journey with God has already been hugely life-giving. I’m finally able to be something like the person God has made me to be. That’s why I’m here this evening. I want to thank God for all he has done and continues to do in my life, and to come before God, this time not as Katie but as Karl, a transsexual man, to say the same thing I did at my confirmation – ‘Here I am, God. I’m yours’ – and to commit myself once again to love God and others with all that I am.

 

The naming service was a real rite of passage; I now feel I can take my place at the table as Karl, an unashamedly transgender man. The love and acceptance I’ve found from many in the Church, which I dreaded would become an impossible place, has been deeply healing. That isn’t to say that I’ll never encounter people who have an issue with it all, and I reckon my incredibly supportive superintendent ministers may have dealt with more hassle, or at least confusion, than they’ve let on to me. However, it does mean that I feel confident to not let my gender reassignment process get in the way of whatever I want, or more to the point whatever God calls me, to do. Whether that proves to be in the Church or the bank or some other path altogether, I know that I am as much a child of God as the next person, as are all my LGBT friends. That’s all that really matters.

Forgiveness and Families

Recently,  I came across this article on the Guardian website.  It’s an interview with Danu Morrigan, whose mother was a narcissist, which means she needed the whole world to revolve around her would viciously put down other people, mainly her children, while appearing all ‘sweetness and light’ to the outside world. In the end, the only way Danu could cope was to cut contact with her mother completely. Reading some of the comments, it seems that respondents were divided between those who had experienced similar situations and taken similar action, and those who couldn’t understand why one would want to break contact with parents.  My own parents weren’t narcissists, but did have various issues that made my own childhood somewhat difficult, and this article got me thinking…  How should one react to people within one’s own family who behave abusively? It’s notable that most people would tell someone with an emotionally, physically or sexually abusive partner to run for the hills for their own safety, but many don’t take the same view about family. After all, blood is thicker than water, right? I don’t claim to have definitive answers, but I wanted to reflect on my own experiences.

My earliest memories are not exactly happy. Both my brother and I have, I think, suffered from the fact that mum was too busy either cleaning or recovering from cleaning (this used to be a six days a week, every week, thing  – she had OCD) to play with us, and physical affection was non-existent. We were told we were being good if we were basically invisible. Now, I’m not pretending I was an angel and was never a precocious brat, but the way things were was pretty horrible. My dad was very short-tempered and mum was so panicked about ‘mess’ that I felt I was always walking on eggshells.

Going into adolesence, things got worse, for the most part because my brother, who is autistic, got ill and my mother struggled to cope, my gender dysphoria was getting far worse as I went through puberty, and I struggled at school as I stuck out like a sore thumb. I had caring responsibilities that I was scared to mention to other adults in case the dreaded social services swooped in, so I didn’t go out much. Add to that the fact that I was doing well academically and I got a pretty hard time from some of the other kids.  Thus, both home and school life were troubled and tense. Things got to the point that at fifteen I was suicidal; if I did something well I was told not to be big-headed (not that I was – I was pathologically shy!) and if I did something wrong I’d be reminded for days on end . Leaving home at 18 was a complete relief.

One of the things about being in an emotionally violent environment is that often the things that happened would have been in isolation pretty trivial, but the point is that it was like a dripping tap, a constant addition of more and more till it was overflowing. I deliberately haven’t gone into specific incidents, as much as anything because it can be hard to convey to others what it was like and be taken seriously, but I can certainly understand what Danu was getting at with the story about the handbag. Like many others who’ve come from such environments, I made bad choices when it came to relationships, and my ex was emotionally, physically and sexually violent. Getting out of that relationship was one of the hardest and best things I’ve done. A few months after that, I had a breakdown, and from there have gradually been able to rebuild my life. God has done some pretty amazing healing.

Thanks to some amazing friends, a fantastic and incredibly patient minister, some great counselling and the love of my partner, I’ve been able to start on a journey of forgiveness, and have learnt that people who say ‘I love you’ do not all turn into abusers. It’s been tough, and though the scars have healed significantly, they still twinge sometimes. I wouldn’t wish the breakdown and depression on anyone, but they are (thank God) largely in the past now. It’s taken five years, but I’m getting there, slowly but surely.

Deciding to forgive (and it was a conscious decision) wasn’t easy. For a long time, I held onto the anger I felt, partly because I got it into my head that if I didn’t stay angry then it meant that what happened didn’t matter, and partly because I was convinced no-one liked the ‘real me’, but they might feel sorry for me. That’s not easy to admit, but for a long time it’s how things were. Letting go involved taking the risk, on myself – am I lovable for my own sake? I guess that I’ve gradually learnt that the answer is ‘yes’, and as much as anything else, getting to the point of being able to begin gender reassignment is a result of this journey of self-acceptance.

A key part of that journey has been learning to see my parents and my ex as human beings, if that makes sense. It’s easy to blame one’s parents and to forget that they had a huge amount of shit to deal with and had been through a lot of pain themselves. Reading the article helped to make a lot of sense about why my ex was like he was; his mother sounds like a classic narcissist, and I suppose growing up with leaves its scars as much as my experiences of a less bad situation did to me. She certainly scared the crap out of me while being deeply concerned that the rest of the world thought she was wonderful. I suppose it’s no wonder he was so messed up.

None of the above is to excuse what happened, but learning to see those people as human beings and not simply monsters, as well as accepting that I made mistakes and was a prat sometimes, has really helped me to let go of the anger. I reckon (though have no proof) that I’m not the only one to have had therapy, as while when I went back up north a few months ago some things were as crazy and dysfunctional as ever, so much has changed for the better.  I now have a reasonable relationship with my parents, though having clear boundaries is essential. I can see why someone might make the choice to cut off their parents; I thank God that I haven’t needed to do that, and have been able to focus more on the good stuff that happened in my childhood alongside the bad. Having said that, I want nothing to do with my ex ever again.

I suppose it comes down to the fact that one has to make  a judgment about how to maintain sanity and safety. I can have a relationship with my parents and with God’s help, try to focus on making the ‘now’ good rather than letting the past take over.  The barriers would be just too high with my ex, and I fear I’d be putting myself in danger. It’s not a case of blood being thicker than water, so much as reconciliation of a sort not always being possible…

Musings of a Guardianista

I have a few minutes to spare today so I’ve been browsing the Guardian website and come across some interesting stories about which I thought I’d throw my two-penny’s worth in:

  • Royal Ascot  have gone in for a much stricter dress code this year. Complications about dress suitability aside, I was very impressed to see so many well turned-out blokes in the photo. I think it’s a real shame that men’s formal dress is so often only the reserve of occasions such as weddings, and that even just donning a tie, without necessarily accompanying it with a suit, is now seen as over the top in so many situations. I love formal dress and would love to be able to wear a suit and tie and maybe even a waistcoat more often (and yes, even on occasion a morning suit) without it being seen as eccentric, stuffy or odd. I came across this blog recently about dressing well on a budget, and it convinces me even more that I could and should be allowed to make the effort – it won’t break the bank! It’s got me thinking I might try to take TractorGirl to Ascot next year, if only to dress up  :)

 

  •  The education secretary, Michael Gove, has in his infinite (lack of) wisdom decided that GCSEs, introduced in the first place by a Conservative government, should be dropped in favour of a return to a two-tier system of  ‘O’-Levels and CSEs.  I think he’s got it into his head that if everything looks like it did in the 1950s then everything will be alright, and he seems to have forgotten (or chosen to ignore, or seeks to encourage) the inequalities seen back then, with people’s futures resting on their 11+.  I don’t think a return to that, especially in a de-industrialised, knowledge-based economy, will help achieve anything other than intrenching privillage, and I say this as someone who would have ‘benefitted’ from the grammar school system. Comprehensive education is far from perfect, as the article acknowledges, but it’s preferable to a system that brands people failures and further reduces social mobility at a time when university reforms are pulling the ladder up and away from people from backgrounds like mine – ordinary working-class.

 

  • The Guardian have been running a series called ‘Breadline Britain’ on the impact of the cuts to the welfare state.  I know that there is a deficit and the country doesn’t have an endless supply of money, but it’s come to something if we can’t afford to care properly for the most vulnerable in our society, and if there has to be assessment for disability benefit, how hard can it be to ensure that the providers (ATOS – Welcome to the Paralympics!) actually perform such things competently and fairly, instead of being incentivised to declare people fit for work who are clearly not, especially those with mental health issues? It seems that the government really believes that people who are unemployed, sick, disabled or just poor only have themselves to blame. How can Cameron, who is supposedly a Christian, so readily lose sight of what it means that each and every person is made in the image of God? Contray to what his New Right ideology says, everyone is equally valuable in the eyes of God; policy should reflect that by genuinely caring for the most vulnerable.  I also don’t see how a system built on suspicision helps anyone - my own (thankfully limited) experience of the benefits system showed me how dehumanising it can be, and that was before this government got hold of it and made things much worse. Moreover, Cameron slating Jimmy Carr for the tax avoidance which costs a lot more than benefit fraud(!) has to be a case of pot calling kettle black if ever there was one!

 

  • Interesting comments from someone who works for the FSA. I don’t feel I can comment too much given who I work for, but I will say that his is not the only environment with dress-down Fridays and smart dress at other times, and in which a work-life balance is possible. Moreover, there are good reasons why the FSA commands little respect…

 

  • It’s raining in Milton Keynes… and I ought to do some work! :)

Learning to Party with God

Inspired by reading TractorGirl discussing Nehemiah, this is my sermon for Sunday,  on learning to party with God:

Partying with the Community of God

Nehemiah 8 : 9 – 12, Mark 3 : 31 – 35

 

A few years ago, I lived in the beautiful city of Bath. Legend has it that it was founded by a Celtic king, Bladud, who was cured from leprosy by its waters. Centuries later, the Romans built a spa town there, named after both a local deity and one of their own gods. Sadly, Aquae Sulis was abandoned when the Empire collapsed. Yet in time, the city regained prominence, and Edgar, the first king of all England, was crowned there in 973 AD.  However, Bath as it is today was built mostly during the Georgian period, with Bath Stone quarried by Ralph Allan. The Abbey, the site of Edgar’s coronation, is the third such building to have stood on that spot,  and was heavily refurbished in the 1880s. Moreover, the façade of the famous Roman Baths is actually Victorian.

Bath’s story illustrates how easily things can be forgotten if we’re not careful; most of its Celtic and Roman past was only rediscovered by archaeological work carried out during the nineteenth century.  History had to be re-learnt, and stories of old brought to life once again.

Something similar happened to the people of Israel when they returned from exile in Babylon. They were held captive for roughly seventy years, and all apart from possibly the oldest in the community had forgotten much of their pre-exilic past, including it seems the teachings of the Law, which had defined them as a people, and shaped their relationship with God. That heritage needed to be unearthed, just as much as the bricks and mortar of Jerusalem needed restoring.

When Nehemiah saw the ruins of the city, he set about having the wall rebuilt, in the face of a good deal of opposition. Once security had been established and the people had resettled,  his attention turned to restoring Israel’s worship and spiritual life. On the first day of the seventh month, Nehemiah gathered the people by one of the city gates and, with the help of several of the priests, began to read from and interpret the Law of Moses to them.  This unnerved the populace, because it highlighted the shortcomings that led to their exile in the first place, and they began to weep.  However, Nehemiah told them to stop, and instead to go away and celebrate. This wasn’t a time for tears; Israel had to re-learn how to have a party! Why, you might ask?

Well, festivals were a hugely important part of Israel’s national life; they reminded them of what God had done in the past, particularly his bringing them out of slavery in Egypt, and of his goodness to them in the present. Pentecost, which we celebrated a fortnight ago, has its origins in the Jewish festival of Weeks – their harvest festival. These events helped to lay bare what it meant to be the people of God. It was vital, therefore, that Israel learnt to reconnect, after the years of austerity in Babylon, with that rich heritage.  The God who’d brought them out of exile wasn’t interested in laying on the guilt, as Nehemiah realised, but instead in encouraging them to live his way, so that they could have life to the full, and through them, all the nations would be blessed.

That call to be part of God’s community and to live his way is there in our Gospel reading, too.  Jesus’ family had been unnerved by the numbers of people coming to him for healing, and no doubt influenced by the scribes who were ready to brand him demon-possessed, thought he was going mad. When they tried to pull him away from the crowds sitting at his feet, Jesus declared that anyone who does the will of his Father – that is, lives life God’s way – is part of the family. In John’s Gospel, Jesus tells the disciples that they are no longer servants, but his friends. In both cases, and whichever language we prefer, we’re being invited to enjoy an intimate relationship with God, made possible because of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. That grace sets us free to live life to the full, and to be God’s community in the world, so that others might know his love too.

However, it can be all too easy to lose sight of this, because the Church often acts like it’s forgotten how to celebrate, how to bring God’s story alive, so that we can be swept up by it, and be ready to help write another chapter. It strikes me that learning how to let ourselves go, and really enjoy God, is something vital and urgent that we need to focus upon. The Diamond Jubilee provided an opportunity for people to come together, share stories and build relationships. That’s exactly what we need to do; after all, we have an amazing story to tell.

Now it’s your turn to do some work. I’d like you to turn to the people next to you, and spend a few minutes talking about a time when you’ve experienced God at work in your life. It doesn’t matter if it was a happy or sad occasion, or whether it happened yesterday or many years ago. If nothing immediately springs to mind, then feel free to talk about something that happened to someone you know. Either way, let’s spend a few minutes sharing stories of God’s goodness.

______________________________________________________________________________

I hope you found that encouraging. Being comfortable talking to each other about our faith and our experiences is important, because often we don’t do that and so miss out on such a lot, and because we’re likely to feel more confident talking to people outside church about our faith, and why it matters to us, if we can do so in a ‘safe space’, if you will. It’s a first step to learning how to really let ourselves go and celebrate with God.

However, it also matters that we don’t fall into the trap of glossing over the difficult bits of our stories. God doesn’t need us to make him look good, nor is he somehow disinterested in the complications and the muddle of everyday life.

Bath makes a great deal of how Jane Austen lived there for a time; there’s even a heritage centre dedicated to her. The reality, however, was that she hated Bath, which she felt was basically a cattle market.  She was sick of being made to intend endless balls,  in the hope of attracting a suitably wealthy husband! When Queen Victoria visited the city at age sixteen, she was apparently told by a charming young child that she had dumpy legs! She resolved never to visit Bath again, which she didn’t, and she hated it so much she used to pull the blind down whenever she was on a train passing through it. More seriously,  Bath has a serious homeless problem, and the South-West edition of the Big Issue was started there to try to address the situation. These stories are just as much part of Bath’s history as the ‘good stuff’ I told you about at the beginning of this sermon. Leaving them out would give a false picture.

The bottom line is that we have a God who knows full well what it’s like to be human, because he’s lived among us. He’s not a distant and disinterested God, but instead one who wants all people to be part of his community, to be his brothers, sisters, close friends, and to party with him. The Life with a capital ‘L’ that Jesus came to bring is a foretaste of that we’ll experience in the great heavenly party, when God restores the heavens and the earth. Will you be going?