Category Archives: Christianity

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…

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.

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.

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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?

Christian Aid Week

This Sunday marks the beginning of Christian Aid Week. I’m off preaching this Sunday, and this is my sermon:

 

Christian Aid Week Sermon

Genesis 1 : 1 – 28, 2 Corinthians 5 : 17 – 23

 

Imagine growing up as part of an oppressed people. You may never have known the land of your ancestors, of your heritage, and have only your parents’ and grandparents’ stories to go on. You may feel rootless, even be technically nationless, and worry if you’ll ever be able to go home. Worse, the place you’re at is not exactly wonderful, and danger feels just around the corner. I could be describing the plight of modern-day refugees throughout the world, but I’m actually thinking of the situation thatIsraelfound themselves in, over two-and-a-half millennia ago, in exile in Babylon. From those seventy years in captivity came some of the most powerful writings, poems, stories and songs in the whole Bible, many of which still have much to say to our world today. After all, like the author of Psalm 137, most of us have at some point in time struggled with what it means to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land…

A case in point is the first chapter of the book of Genesis, which most scholars accept was written inBabylon, for a people far away from home. At a time when most cultures understood national deities only to operate within a given geographical region, and having seen Solomon’s temple, God’s dwelling-place, destroyed, the Psalmist’s question was far from academic, and was actually incredibly urgent. CouldIsrael’s God be at work, even in Babylon?

For the author of the beautiful doxology, the hymn of praise that is the first chapter of Genesis, the answer was a resounding ‘Yes!’, because God is the creator of heaven and earth. Read through that poem and note the pattern and repetition; it conveys a sense of order and stability, as does God’s very act of bringing order out of the chaos of the formless void. Together with God having made the Sun and Moon, which the Babylonians worshipped as gods, the chapter makes a powerful statement: even in the midst of exile, God is God, and so there’s reason to hope.

Today marks the beginning of Christian Aid Week, an annual effort to raise funds to help some of the world’s most vulnerable people, and to spread awareness of international; development issues. Christian Aid’s motto is that they believe in life before death, and it’s a vision which is underpinned by our Genesis passage. The idea of being made in the image of God is one of the most mysterious in the whole of Scripture; it’s only mentioned three times, all of those within the first eleven chapters of Genesis. It’s never once formally explained, but whatever else it means, and there has been much debate down the centuries, to bare God’s image is to have an intrinsic value in his eyes that does not depend on stuff or status, power or wealth. Put simply, it means that each person is uniquely and irreplaceably valuable to God. Our faith can then never purely be concerned with what happens when we die, but rather must reflect a deep concern for the welfare of others, and a desire for all to have the Life with a capital ‘L’ that Jesus came to bring.

However, as we all know, this is not a straightforward business. Despite being made in God’s image, one need only switch on the news to see humanity at loggerheads, and to witness the consequences of human greed and indifference to one another. That doesn’t sound too far away from the world that Jesus inhabited, and into which the freedom and inexhaustible inventiveness of God’s love came, in human form. The Kingdom that Christ proclaimed offered a new way to be, a view of the world in which all are valued and God’s rule is established. When that proved too threatening for the powers that be, religious and secular,Templeand Sword, conspired to have Jesus crucified. Yet, as we celebrate in this season of Easter, death could not contain him, and even when we had done our worst, love had the last word.

Rowan Williams once described Jesus’ resurrection as being like a second Big Bang, an explosion of creative energy into the universe, and so being part of a new creation is to enter a world of new possibilities, and of fresh hope. It means that whatever the world confronts us with and wherever we find ourselves, God is God, and his love without end. There’s always room for something to happen that can change the game, if we’re willing to let God work through us. After all, the mission begun on the first Easter morning is far from finished; we’re called to look for what the Holy Spirit is up to, in our local communities, in our nation and in the wider world, then to roll up our sleeves and join in. God longs for the world to know its value in his eyes and flourish – that’s the vision of Christian Aid Week.

Our reading from 2 Corinthians helps us to look at this more deeply. In that letter, Paul was being forced to defend his authority and the authenticity of his teaching to a church that was fractious and caught up in its own issues. The fifth chapter of the letter reflects on what Christ’s resurrection means, and in particular on how being part of a new creation is to be reconciled to God and friends with Jesus. It’s from that restored relationship, with God and potentially with each other, that the new possibilities God wants to bring about flow. We don’t receive salvation for our own private good, but to share with it others, so that they too may be reconciled to God, and know his love, which is as much earthly and practical as it is mysterious and spiritual. It’s that message that Paul wanted the Corinthians really to grasp, and to live in its light.

Earlier in the service, we thought about how God takes all the varied parts of who we are, some alive and flourishing, others damaged and fragile, and works to transform that complicated bundle into an integrated whole, a new creation. He has the same vision and hope for the whole world, and given that the Church can be all too good at focussing inwardly, it’s worth reflecting on the five Marks of Mission, which are:

  • To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
  • To teach, baptise and nurture new believers
  • To respond to human need by loving service
  • To seek to transform unjust structures of society
  • To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth

 

God clearly wants the whole creation to know its value in his eyes, and while I passionately believe that the Kingdom is bigger than the Church, that mission has nevertheless been entrusted to us, as the Body of Christ. Our communities need to embody God’s love, a love that believes in life before death, not as a nice idea, but as a concrete reality. I came across this poem a few weeks ago, which sums things up nicely:

If this is not a place where tears are understood, where can I go to cry?

If this is not a place where my spirit can take wing, where can I go to fly?

If this is not a place where my questions can be asked, where can I go to seek?

If this is not a place where my feelings can be heard, where can I go to speak?

If this is not a place where you will accept me as I am, where can I go to be?

If this is not a place where I can go to learn and grow, where can I just be me?

Afternoon Tea at Tiffeny’s, and other randomness

It’s been a busy couple of months, but as I now have the internet working at home and the rare luxury of  a free evening, I’ve decided that it’s about time my blog came back to life again, so here’s an update on life:

 

  • I think I’m over my mini crisis of faith, and have actually found a degree of settledness and peace. I guess I’ve finally grasped that it’s ok just to be me, and not to try and push myself into other people’s boxes, because it doesn’t work. I can’t pretend I’ve got my prayer life magically sorted, but I feel relaxed with God, which is a huge step forward.
  • I’m now a graduate of he University of Durham. The day was amazing, and it was great to be able to enjoy it with my partner, parents and friends. I still can’t quite believe I finally made it, and how different I was when I started the whole thing compared to where I am now. I’ve changed so much for the better…. God is very good.
  • I’m now a Methodist Local Preacher – don’t ask me how that happened! I had my first service early last the month, which went very well, and I’m off out with my mentor in Stony Stratford in a week and a half. It’s exciting and scary, but mostly it just feels very right and very ‘me’ somehow. The bit that scares me is the way the whole ordination thing seems to be inching its way back onto the agenda at unexpected moments…
  • The banking world is pretty much the same. I’m now at the stage where most of the stuff from my predecessor has been gone through, documented and tidied up, and I can begin working on my own projects, which is  a good thing.
  • I’ve almost (finally) finished two papers based on my PhD thesis, which I hope to send to my supervisor soon, and then to get published. I miss the world of maths, and want to keep the door open for getting a post-doctoral research position. It’s been nice getting back to grips with it all 🙂
  • I’ve joined a gym, and am seriously working on getting fit.
  • Most importantly of all, Tractorgirl and I have now been together for eighteen months, and I love her more than ever.

At the weekend, I went on a retreat with some friends from Bang! and had a very random dream about a friend of mine directing and presenting a daytime television show called ‘Afternoon Tea at Tiffeny’s’. I might float the idea to the BBC one day…  In the meantime, here’s a couple of graduation pictures:

Me with my parents
Tractorgirl and me chilling after the graduation dinner

Faith, doubt and Advent

I’ve been making a serious effort this Advent to address something I know is a bit of a problem – my prayer life. I find it really hard to get into the habit of setting aside regular time simply to pray, whether using a daily office or simply sitting with God, not trying to do anything.

I started out with the best of intentions – I was going to say evening prayer every day, having realised that however much I try to be, I am just not a morning person and setting my alarm earlier doesn’t work as I just doze through it. That lasted two days before life got in the way and having let it slip once, it just vanished into the ether.

Part of the problem is, I think, that if I’m going out of an evening, I’m often on a very tight schedule. I often don’t leave the office till gone 5.30pm (sometimes it’s more like after 6pm) which isn’t by choice but reflects the volume of work I have on, and it takes 30mins to walk home. I’ve then got to cook myself dinner, which if making something nice from scratch can take anything between ten minutes and an hour, eat it and do the washing up. By the time I’ve done that, got changed out of  my suit and run out of the door again, I’m often running late as it is.  Time to pray feels like wasted time in the rush to get back into town. Even that doesn’t really wash as an excuse, though, as days when I’m doing nothing other than flopping in front of the television in the evening are still devoid of a daily office, mostly due to sheer fatigue after a long day’s problem solving.

I have realised that I’ve hit several walls at once:

  • Until about four months ago, I lived in Durham with a Cathedral on my doorstep and was able to go to a daily Eucharist and Evensong. I’m so much better at going to something scheduled like that and am much better at praying with others. There is no real equivalent in Milton Keynes and I miss it.
  • I find it hard to read the Bible because my inner academic kicks in and worries about hermeneutics and context and differing interpretations and doctrine and it forms a kind of mental wall. I worry I’m ‘not doing it properly’ and there is no point if I don’t. In short, I’ve lost the art of devotional reading of the Bible.
  • A year of undergraduate-level theology and biblical studies in Durham raised far more issues than it solved. For example, I had to write an essay on how to read the first eleven chapters of Genesis and in researching that came across so many different perspectives and opinions that apart from being sure what I didn’t like and the pre-existing theological bias driving that, I just wasn’t sure how to evaluate these. On what basis could I compare the thoughts of people far more knowledgeable than me and fluent in the original languages? It left me not sure what to think anymore. I think this sort of thing is the cause of point two.
  • Last year, I lived with someone who placed a great deal of emphasis on the use of daily offices, seeking the intercession of the saints and theological reading. This wasn’t a problem in of itself but his habit of making me feel guilty for not persuing these things with same zeal was. It seemed to me that all this stuff and the full-blown conservative Roman Catholic devotional life could easily be used as an excellent way to hide from God, or at least to keep her at arm’s length, and my trying to have an altogether simpler devotional life was ‘just not good enough’ and was frequently criticised. I also found it very hard having my beliefs attacked regularly and having to defend and justify myself all the time, and I don’t think I’ve entirely ditched this person’s baggage.
  • I’m still struggling to come to terms with leaving the ordination process. This might sound an odd thing to say given that it was several months ago and I’m about to embark on the adventure of becoming a Methodist local preacher. However, I think before then I’d had lots of doubts and questions floating around my head that I didn’t dare let surface. The pain of leaving the process and feeling distanced from the church removed that barrier and released a lot of stored-up anger with God, all of which has brought into question several theological assumptions that I suppose I simply accepted without examining them.
  • Further to the previous point, I am sick to the back teeth of church politics getting in the way of real encounter with God in so much of the Church of England. I’m not just on about women bishops and homosexuality and the covenant, but all the stuff about things being done a certain way because ‘we’ve always done it that way’ or ‘that’s how Father likes it’, and liturgical trappings of vestments, acolyting etc becoming so much more important than the God to which they are supposed to point. I JUST DON’T CARE! YOU DON’T EARN BROWNIE POINTS WITH GOD FOR DRESSING UP LIKE ELVIS-MEETS-THE KKK AND WALKING IN RIGHT ANGLES!!! I should add that the forced jollity of charismatic services and the usual evangelical cliches also drive me round the bend these days. Enough of the formulae, I want God!
  • I miss having a spiritual director to hold me to account.
  • I have a massive lazy streak.
  • I find maintaining my own routines and structure difficult.

So where does that leave things?

I’m not 100% sure.

What I do know is that God has been working in my life in the last few years to bring about a lot of healing and through particular things that have happened and the people he has brought into my life, especially TractorGirl, I’m so much more like the person God made me to be and infinitely more comfortable in my own skin. I know that whatever happens, I am loved from top to bottom purely and simply because I am. It’s not about achieving things or never messing up. It’s about pure, unearned, freely-given love. What’s more, that’s true of every single person and every single part of creation. The challenge is to live in the light of those two things and to make time to enjoy God for her own sake.

There’s a great quote from a former Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, which I can never quite get right but goes something like this: knowing God, and being known by God, doesn’t depend upon, nor does it guarantee, being right about God. I think this needs to be my motto over the coming weeks. My last year in Durham made it difficult to hold onto this, but I now see that it’s key, because it not only leaves room for the inevitable errors we all make when thinking about God or reading the Bible, but it also leaves room for doubts and questions and being able to say ‘I don’t know’. Having room for grey areas rather than feeling pinned down to only black or white is something that has been missing for a while now in my faith. That isn’t to say that truth doesn’t matter, but is simply to admit that I don’t have things sorted all the time and like TractorGirl, recognise I need to engage openly and honestly with my doubts.

In practice, I think this will mean having to figure out a way of giving my prayer life (in whatever form) the time it needs and so engaging with scripture, but also finding time, however ad hoc (and ad hoc may well be the best thing at the moment), just to enjoy God. Not having answers is hard for me as a scientist who likes to have things well-defined (which I know is ironic giving how much of science is really groping in the dark) but also as someone who likes to be in control. It feels vulnerable.

That brings me back to Advent, which is my favourite time of the Christian year. God didn’t come into the world on clouds descending, in a blaze of glory and power and might. Instead, God in human flesh was born as a small baby, entirely dependent on his parents, themselves very ordinary and at the mercy of the political situation of their day. which made them forced pilgrims and refugees. It’s an enormously vulnerable position fraught with risk, with the risk of loving all of us so much as to give up the thing that matters most.   God in the vulnerability, the mess and the ambiguity of the world is the only God that makes sense to me in my vulnerability, mess and ambiguity. Sometimes it’s all I can hang onto.

Bangs and Brummies

This weekend consisted of some much needed chilling out and relaxing. On Saturday, I headed to Birmingham to meet up with TractorGirl and go to a GCN gathering. We had an hour to catch up and chat before joining the others for some time praying in a church near the Bullring and then on to a French restaurant of the relaxed variety for a meal. The food was nice (I had some cheesy garlic bread and vegetarian risotto) and the company lovely. I learnt a lot about Eastern Orthodoxy and being in an Irish folk band!

I was feeling pretty knacked after food (think I’m coming down with something, which makes having to wait for my passport to come through before I can register with a GP more than a little annoying…) so we retired to the hotel for a happy few hours of just chatting and chilling and, for the first time in what seemed like ages, a good catch-up. The hotel in question was the City Inn, which is in the heart of the Irish district. The staff were friendly and the room was spacious, clean and comfortable. I was sad at not being able to pinch the shampoo and shower gel (from the White Company, so good stuff!), which is after all the main reason for staying in a hotel! The only downside was the location, and it was quite noisy till late with all the clubs around and about, but ear plugs sorted that out. Worth the money!

On Sunday, we had breakfast in an Italian place near the Bullring. They did nice bacon and egg butties with accompanying cheesy Italian power ballads! Next, we went to the church we’d visited the previous day for a ‘Crossing Service’, which was basically Common Worship Order One with modern songs. Enjoyed the latter half, but the sermon was full of business cliches and “purpose-driven prayers” and life coaches and “making an impact” – if I ever preach such dribble, shoot me! Afterwards, we went to an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet place, which was nice enough (I’m fussy about places being too crowded). TractorGirl, new book in hand, headed off early and I retired to the pub at New Street station for a pint and to read my book, which is very funny. Dawn French’s wicked sense of humour comes through and I think I unnerved people around me with suddenly laughing out loud!

On getting back to Milton Keynes and after a quick pit stop to layer up (it was freezing!) and unpack, I was off to the fireworks with some people from church. They (the fireworks, not the church people!) lasted about fifteen minutes and were pretty, just about justifying standing around in the cold. We then had dinner at an Italian place in the shopping centre, and I got pasta down my tie, which was annoying, but the food was good and the company interesting, so it didn’t matter.

Overall, it was a lovely weekend which reminded me exactly why I’m head-over-heals in love with TractorGirl and how much I like the GCN folks, and showed me that my current location and choice of church are pretty good 🙂

Just wish the long-distance relationship thing was easier – I miss you, darling!