Saturday, 26 May 2018

How Did You Get Here Today? A Sermon for Trinity Sunday

‘So how did you get here today?’

It’s a question that’s asked at social gatherings, conferences and parties everywhere and anywhere to which people need to travel.

As you might know, I don’t have a parish of my own. My job is teaching and mentoring people who are in training for the church’s ministry, and whilst many people in that situation up sticks and go to college for a few years, many don’t; they stay living at home, looking after their families and doing their jobs, doing evening and weekend classes and placements to get them from A to B (A being the point at which they are told that yes, the church would like to sponsor them through training for ministry and B being the point at which the Bishop lays hands on them at their ordination).

When I first attended one of the weekend residentials, which take place in the Waveney Valley just on the Norfolk-Suffolk border, someone asked me ‘So how did you get here today?’ I launched into a long explanation of my own sense of God calling me to serve the church, the process of trying to work out how to respond to that, my own experience of being in training for the church’s ministry and so on – and then I realised. ‘You meant, how did I get here TODAY, didn’t you?’

Our journeys, both physical and spiritual, say a lot about who we are. How we get from the As to the Bs in our lives tell you much of what’s really important about us. How we travel tells you where we live, where we work, who our friends and family are, how we choose to spend our leisure time. Journeys may seem mundane, but they tell the very story of who we are. That’s something to think about next time you’re stuck on the motorway or on a crowded Tube train!

Nicodemus, about whom we heard in our Bible reading just now, is one of the many people in the Gospels who travel to meet Jesus. In the Gospels we read about people who travel considerable distances to see Jesus, like the Magi who make the long journey to offer their gifts to the infant Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel. Others come upon him almost by chance, like Zacchaeus, the famously short man who clambers up a tree when Jesus passes through his home town of Jericho. 

We don’t know how long Nicodemus’s journey took him. We do know that he came to see Jesus at night, maybe under the cover of darkness out of fear that his position as a Jewish leader might be compromised if he were seen with this controversial rabbi. Or maybe it was his social position, and the wealth that went with it, at stake; from what we learn later about Nicodemus in John’s Gospel, it’s safe to assume that Nicodemus was a rich man, which means that he had a lot to lose.  We can’t know for sure, but John gives us a couple of clues: for Nicodemus, this journey to see Jesus was a risky business.

For those of us for whom the journey to church is easy, short, and risk-free, I’d like to remind us that this isn’t the case for everyone around the world. There are many places where going to church is a real risk, and there are many people for whom going to church is a real risk, even here in the UK.  I’ve been helping a family from the Middle East recently to find their way to faith in Christ; like Nicodemus, they are drawn to Jesus and want to seek him out. One of them has told me that for weeks she would find times to sit on a bench outside a church, too scared to go inside but praying that the love of God would reach through the church walls to touch her as she sat. For this family, like Nicodemus, coming to Jesus is a risky business; because of their religious and cultural background, they know that they risk losing their community, the business network that allows them to work and have a roof over their heads, even maybe their lives. Maybe our own journeys to church, or our own journeys of faith haven’t been quite as perilous as this family’s, but maybe we know something of what Nelson Mandela calls the long walk to freedom in our own lives.  

At the heart of this encounter of Nicodemus with Jesus, though, is the dawning realisation that however risky Nicodemus’ journey to find Jesus, however long it may have taken or whatever it may have cost him, the Jesus whom he meets has made the longest journey in history: the journey from heaven to earth. This is a journey which has cost Jesus much – he has been sent, we hear, by a Father with whom he lives in perfect, eternal love. This is a journey which involved real risk to Jesus – as his journey through his earthly life continued, he indeed lost his community, his friends, and even his life. This is a journey of love. Nicodemus sought out Jesus, just as the Middle Eastern family did – but what he, and they, discovered was that God had long been seeking them out.  

In the journey from heaven to earth which we hear about in today’s reading, we get the most tantalising little glimpse into the life of the eternal God, a life richer and fuller than anything we could ever imagine or aspire to. As I say, our journeys tell most of what is to be told about us; our journeys tell where we live, who our friends and family are, what our job is, what our loves are. We hear about the Father who sent Jesus. We hear about the Spirit going with Jesus, blowing where he will on this risky journey from heaven to Bethlehem and Nazareth, to Galilee and Jerusalem, from Golgotha to the depths of hell, from the empty tomb to the Mount of Olives and finally back to the heights of heaven, to the true home not only of Jesus himself but of all who come to believe in Him.  

The inner life of God – the life into which we get a tantalising glimpse in this morning’s reading – is what we celebrate today, Trinity Sunday. It’s a life richer and fuller than anything we can imagine or aspire to, but we see a little of what it means as we go, with Nicodemus, to Jesus. It’s in Jesus’ relationship with his Father – who is never out of Jesus’ thoughts in John’s Gospel – that we see what it means for us to know God as our heavenly father who watches over us with eyes of love. It’s in Jesus’ sensitivity to the presence of the Spirit, whom he sees at work in the world and in the lives of people – that we can start to imagine what it might be like to be led by the Spirit as Jesus was.

This is all possible because in Jesus, we see ‘God with a face’, God taking on humanity and living our life with us so that we can start to glimpse what it means for us to live the life of God. In other words, Jesus is our way into understanding the Trinity; Jesus interprets God to us and for us, and sends us, as the Father sent him, out into the world in which the Spirit is still at work in the hearts and lives of people, so that we can interpret God to the world and for the world. Jesus’ journey can become our journey, if we let it. Our journeys can be journeys of love, even the journeys we would rather not have to take, like the journey through illness or bereavement or through an unfulfilling job.  
So what we are given, this Trinity Sunday, is not the answer to a particularly knotty puzzle, but a tantalising glimpse into a life of love divine which is beyond our wildest dreams, yet which can become the way that we live, too.  We are given an insight into the lengths to which God went for us, from heaven to earth, so that when we are lost in the world’s dark alleys and in the crowdedness of our own minds and lives, he can bring us home with him. This what we are given today: not an answer, but an invitation. Will we join Jesus on this journey of love? Will our lives, wherever they lead us, interpret God to the world and for the world? This is what Trinity Sunday is about, because this is what God is about, because this is what God has always been and will always be about. This Trinity Sunday, this week, may we journey on in the everlasting love of God, and take others with us in that journey as we walk with Christ. Amen.  

Sunday, 26 November 2017

The Prince of Love: A Story-Sermon for Christ the King

Once upon a time, there was a prince who had everything his heart desired: a splendid palace to live in, whole suites of rooms within the palace, books and musical instruments and sporting equipment and as much delicious food as he ever desired, cooked by his own chef. Not only that, but the prince was a popular, good-natured young man who had many friends with whom to play sports, discuss the issues of the day and laugh deeply. Only one thing was lacking. The prince’s heart yearned for a woman with whom to share his life, a love who would one day become his bride and stand by his side as his queen. Although the prince danced beautifully at balls and charmed young ladies with his witty anecdotes and respectful conversation at dinners, his heart remained untouched. No-one sparked the love which was his greatest desire. ‘Never mind’, his father would say. ‘You will know your love when you see her. You don’t need to rush. Don’t stir up or awaken love before it is ready.’  

The royal palace was several miles away from a large, bustling city.  Often he rode his carriage down to the city, and as he gazed from the window of his carriage, he would see the people going about their daily business; buying and selling things in the market place, washing and drying their clothes, trading and travelling and taking and laughing: living their everyday lives, with their challenges, joys and problems. One day, the prince’s driver took his carriage through a rather poor area of the city. The houses were tumbledown and leaky, with too many people squashed into small rooms. As the prince looked out of the window and surveyed the poverty of the people who would, one day, become his subjects, he happened to catch sight of the most beautiful young woman he had ever possibly imagined. He took a sharp intake of breath. Stunned by her beauty, he asked his driver to pretend to be lost so that he could drive around a few more times, just to see her again.

That night, as he sat in the splendour of his rooms, his heart beat faster. He had to see the young woman again. So he made up excuses to go back to that poor district, in the hope that his carriage might cross he path. And, yes it did, and yes, every time he saw her, his heart beat faster. He had never thought that he could be so captivated by love. He memorised the colour of her hair, the upturn n of her smile. And as his love for her grew, so did an uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach: how would he, how could he, get to know her? If he were a poor young man of the city, he would live in the same street as her. He could bump into her and strike up a friendship. And maybe then… But he lived in a palace outside the city. He could, of course, get straight out of his carriage and stride straight up to her and ask her to attend the winter ball with him.

But his heart grew even more uneasy. If she knows of my wealth, he reasoned, I will never know whether she truly loves me, or is in love with my riches. If she know of my royal birth, I will never know whether she loves me, or the thought of one day being my queen. The prince wanted above all things to be loved, for himself. He wanted to marry for love, not to make a political alliance.

He thought through his options. He could, of course, do what they do in the stories and go about the city in disguise. He could exchange his well-made, handsome clothes with the rags of a peasant and turn up in her street, claiming to be a traveller in search of board and lodging in exchange for menial work. Then he could get to know her, little by little, and then in time, once he had proposed to her, he could take off his disguise and then she’d know the real him, the prince who had won her heart not by power or wealth but with love and kindness.

But then, he pondered, as he thought on, would she feel cheated? Could he lie to her? Could any happily married life start off on so great an untruth?

As he ruimnated, an idea came to him. It would be the riskiest, maybe the stupidest thing he had ever conceived of in his life. But, it might just enable him to win the heart of the only woman he ever wanted to marry.  

He went to see his father the king, and after a long conversation, he went back to his rooms. After some time he emerged, dressed not in the well-made, handsome clothes of a prince, nor in the rags of a pauper but in the everyday clothes that the people of the city wore. He took a bag, packed with simple provisions, and got, for the last time, into his carriage where his driver took him to the edge of the city. He bade his driver a fond farewell, and walked the rest of the way.

Days, weeks, months and years passed. The prince found that living in the city, working, as he did, as a carpenter, was a good life, even though there were times when even the foxes had holes and the birds of the air had nests but he himself had nowhere to lay his head. But he gathered friends around himself – he was, after all, a good-natured young man and he told his new friends stories of a wonderful palace ruled by a kind and wise king. His friends wondered sometimes where this kingdom was, or if it were even real at all. He said that he’d take them to there to live with him too, but they wondered how their friend, who looked so ordinary and talked in such down-to-earth ways, could make such rash promises. But they too were captivated by the truth and the heart-thumpingly 
challenging love with which he spoke.

And, happily, as time went on, as he worked in his carpentry shop and spent time with his friends, he did, really, fall in love – not just, as it happened, with the young woman whose eyes had caught his heart – but with all the people of the city, with the stuff of their daily business; buying and selling things in the market place, washing and drying their clothes, trading and travelling and taking and laughing: living their everyday lives, with their challenges, joys and problems. As he lived among them, his love for them grew and grew, even though there were times when he found himself impatient at their slowness to understand him. The prince’s love for his people burned within him as he shared his wisdom with them, used his powers to healthier illnesses and his voice to silence their oppressors. It was a love that would come with a cost – a greater cost than the prince had ever known – but that’s another story.   

Meanwhile, in the palace, the father watched, proud and pleased. His palace, one day, would at last be full.  

(This is based loosely on, but changed quite significantly from a parable by Soren Kirkegaard)

Sunday, 1 October 2017

If Only...A Sermon about Regret and Hope

The readings for this sermon are Isaiah 48:12-end and Luke 11:37-end. 

If only.

They have been called the two saddest words in the English language, words that glance back over the shoulder to what could have been or what still could be, words that are heavy with wistful yearning - if only, if only, if only…

History is full of ‘if onlys’, too. If only Archduke Franz Ferdinand hadn’t been assassinated... If only Princess Diana’s driver in Paris in 1997 hadn’t been drunk…If only 9/11 hadn’t happened…

I don’t know if you have your own personal ‘if only’, too. If only I hadn’t done this….or if only I had said that….if only I hadn’t had that experience as a child…if only I’d worked harder at school. Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20 and we look back on our pasts with a clarity that often we lack at the time. Our regrets might be to do with things that happened that were way beyond our control, or things that we wished we’d done differently. The American writer Maya Angelou said, looking back on her very difficult early life, “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”

When we think about regrets, we are thinking about the way we wish things had been; we are looking back on what was not. Regret is the very opposite of hope, because hope looks forward to what could be whereas regret looks back at what was not and now never can be. So what do we regret most, as people? The poet Ted Hughes says ‘The only thing people regret is that they didn't live boldly enough, that they didn't invest enough heart, didn't love enough. Nothing else really counts at all.’

This chimes in with a study that palliative care nurse made of her dying patients. When they looked back at the end of their lives, what did they regret the most? The top 5 regrets are as follows:

I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

I wish I hadn't worked so hard.

I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings.

I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

I wish that I had let myself be happier.

The Bible has its own ‘if onlys’, its own regrets and harsh lessons learnt. Of these, the hardest and most enduring is the Babylonian exile. Nearly 600 years before Christ, having settled in Jerusalem and established the first Jerusalem Temple as the glad place of worship for God’s people, the children of Israel suffered the humiliating and traumatic experience of being forcibly removed from their homeland and taken to Babylon as slaves. It’s a story that echoes down the ages all the way back to the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis – a favoured son whose father gave him a coat of many colours and whose brother pushed him into a pit before selling him as a slave to Egyptians – and echoes down to this very day, a day in which human beings – precious children of God – are bought and sold as slaves and trafficked across the globe to work in factories, homes and brothels. This slavery, the Babylonian exile, brought with it a loud chorus of if onlys.

We hear some of these in our reading from Isaiah. ‘O that you had paid attention to my commandments! Then your prosperity would have been like a river and your success like the waves of the sea.’ If only, if only, if only…we hear the voice of God groaning through the words of the prophet. If only you had drawn near to me…if only you had realised how near I am to you…if only you had trusted that my love for you is endless and goes with you wherever you go, even through the darkest of nights, even to slavery in Babylon…if only you had believed in me, trusted in me, more.       
But the story doesn’t end there. Just like the story of Joseph doesn’t end with him being carted off to slavery in Egypt, the story of the people of Israel doesn’t end in Babylon. The prophet Isaiah looks with the eyes of faith and sees a new future waiting to come to birth. He says ‘The Lord shall perform his purpose on Babylon’ and he speaks boldly to the enslaved people of God: Go out from Babylon – declare this with a shout of joy, ‘The Lord has redeemed his servant Jacob!’  The prophet’s words were to come true - the new conqueror of the ancient world, the king of Persia, Cyrus, eventually issued a decree allowing all slaves to return home to Israel. If you go to the British Museum in London, you can see this decree which has been painstakingly preserved.

The if only of the exiled slaves became the shout of joy of the redeemed homecoming people of God. God take the if only, and transforms it into a new future. Regret of the past becomes hope for the hope for the future, because that’s what God does: he takes our regrets and he transforms them into hope. He turns our lives inside out and upside down so that what has not been and now never could be gives way for a new thing that could be and with the help of his spirit, will be. As the prophet Isaiah says in another place, ‘God is doing a new thing.’ Because God is always doing a new thing, we don’t have to live with regrets; we can place our regrets tenderly into his hands and find in his gentle embrace the possibilities of a new start and a new hope. Jeremiah, another prophet of the exile, put it like this: ‘For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you; plans to give you hope and a future.’ 

We hear something of the if only in our Gospel reading, too. All the way through the story of Jesus’ life we see the heartbreaking irony of the Pharisees. The Pharisees were the God squad of Jesus’ time – the ones who wanted to be the holiest they could be, as holy as the priests in the new Jerusalem temple which God’s redeemed homecoming people had built when they returned from Babylon to Jerusalem. The Pharisees were the ones who watched every word, every action, to make sure that God’s commandments were never broken – and yet these were the ones who failed to recognise God himself living and breathing among them.

Again, we hear the plaintive cry of the voice of God – if only, if only, if only…if only you would stop obsessing about the details and look at the bigger picture….if only you would allow your hearts to be warmed and maybe even to burn with the love of God, with passion for justice and mercy. If only you would take as much care of your souls – that part of you which is on the inside which no-one can see except God himself – as you do of the outside appearance. If only you would learn the truth of what the voice of God to another prophet, the prophet Samuel, had said all those generations ago, ‘people look at the outward appearance but God looks on the heart.’ If only you would give your hearts in love to God and to your neighbour. If only.

If only. As that same God looks on our world today, I wonder what that cry sounds like? If only you humans would see the value of your worth in my eyes. If only you would stop striving for things that can never make you happy. If only you would look beyond your natural differences to see each other as brothers and sisters in the same family of God. If only you would stop fighting. If only you would trust in my love for you all.  If only you would believe in me, trust in me more.

The remarkable thing is that God’s if onlys are not the same as our if onlys. God is always doing a new thing, so God’s if onlys are God’s deepest desires for us humans, and for the world which he created in love, to become all that he knows we can become. God’s if onlys are words not of regret, but of hope, because God believes is us so much more than we could ever believe in him.
So we come tonight with ourselves as we are, with all our if onlys, all our regrets. We come with our faith and our prayers, feeble though they may be, and we place ourselves once more into His hands, where our if onlys become His if onlys – where our regrets become our, and His, hope. Amen.

Friday, 15 September 2017

Stay True: Spiritual Advice for the C of E from the Fashion World

(Image from WerbeFabrik on Pixabay)

Spiritual counsel can come from all sorts of places; sometimes the best spiritual counsel comes from the supposedly least likely places. My morning routine involves driving my teens to the school bus stop; on the way there, we listen to Radio 1's Breakfast Show, and on the way back, I have Radio 4 (although the teens are adamant that I have to wait until they are out of the car before I switch over). This morning, having waved them off, I caught the end of an interview with someone who works in the world of high street fashion, for a well-known shop which I've mooched around with my daughter on many occasions. I was fascinated by the terminology; this is a shop which was once a 'disrupter' of the fashion industry, by producing must-have items at high-street prices, feted by celebrities and distrusted by high-end designers. Now times have changed, and this shop is adjusting to having become 'establishment' whilst facing its own 'disrupters', online outlets which can copy any garment bought from the high street and have it dispatched to a teenage bedroom within three weeks.

As I say, I was fascinated. I found myself thinking of 'disrupters' in Christian history, those who blew apart given norms and mores, and challenged the 'establishment' church of its day: this autumn sees the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther, the great German reformer's 95 theses, which disrupted medieval Christianity with what turned out to be global and lasting repercussions. From the Hebrew prophets to the charismatic movement, the Judeo-Christian tradition has never been long without its disrupters; in fact, it has needed, and needs still, those who see new possibilities  and long-lost minority reports within the ancient faith, new and newly-recovered ways of living and communicating and challenging the world on the basis of that faith in such a way as to make that faith truer and stronger and more vibrantly alive than the 'establishment' of any given day. The problem is, of course, that today's disrupter is next week's establishment, and that what is radical and new now might lose its vitality just as quickly as a designer knock-off dress. The God who is always doing a new thing, the Spirit which blows where it wills, the Son who walks an unknown route and calls us to follow; no wonder we humans are always at least three steps behind the God who is the ultimate, divine disrupter.              

So for us Anglicans, every bit as 'establishment' as Gardener's Question Time and Grimmy's Breakfast Show, are we condemned to lose out to the religious 'disrupters'? Much is said, rightly, about the decline in churchgoing and in identification with the Church of England. The fear that we Anglicans might go the way of Chelsea Girl and Woolworths hovers just beneath the surface of many PCC meetings and national headlines. 'Woe to the those who are complacent in Zion', as one disrupter put it many centuries ago, a call that echoes down the ages to our own time and place. But, as I mentioned, spiritual counsel can come from all sorts of places, and sometimes the bets spiritual counsel can come from the least likely of places. So what do you do, the fashionsta was asked, when you can't compete with the new disrupters? The answer was wise, and simple: Stay true to who you are, and stay true to who you are for.

We Anglicans are pretty simply in terns of who we are, and who we are for. One of our straplines puts it like this: 'A Christian presence in every community.' We are Christian, no more, no less; we are for everyone who lives in each community we serve, regardless of age, social status, ethnicity, sexual orientation, family set-up, or even religion. We are here, in each place, to say to people, n whatever ways are meaningful, that there is joy and peace to be found in knowing the love of God through Jesus Christ. This is who we are, and this is who we are for. May we stay true to ourselves and find within that commitment to staying to true, the life-giving disruption of the Holy Spirit, maker us ever truer to ourselves and our people.  

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Life is Like a Butterfly: A Sermon

I wonder if you’ve hear the story about the children who, one hot summer’s day, went down to the meadow and played at the water’s edge with their fishing nets as their parents watched. The afternoon was so beautiful, the water so sparklingly clean, the grass so green, and all around them darted dragonflies and butterflies as birds chirped. If only we could hold on to this moment forever, they said to each other. Then, an idea came to them and they took their fishing net and caught a beautiful white butterfly. You can’t do that, their parents said, the poor thing will die. But the children so wanted the butterfly to stay with them forever and live in their bedroom that when their parents weren’t looking, they snuck the butterfly into their pocket. By the time they got into their bedroom, the butterfly’s wings had folded neatly, and very gently, the children placed the lifeless butterfly on their shelf.    

Wanting to hold on to the good is such a profound natural human impulse. The 1970s hit song ‘I Wish It Could be Christmas Every Day’ expresses something of this – we want the good times to last, and in those really special moments when everything feels just as it should be, we want life to be like this all the time. Children getting ready to go back to school after a long summer holiday might well be feeling something of the ‘back to earth with a bump’ feeling we get when a good time comes to an end. I wonder if Moses looked back on the burning bush, later on in his life, and wished that that moment could have lasted forever.

Maybe this is how Peter felt when Jesus started talking, ominously, about his coming death. Peter had given up everything to follow Jesus and thrown himself wholeheartedly into the life of a travelling disciple with this wonderful man who healed the sick, performed miracles, spoke wisdom and truth even when it made him unpopular to do so, and told mysterious, compelling stories about the kingdom of heaven. And now, just at the point when Peter has got to know Jesus so well and love him so much that he feels he would do anything for him, Jesus says that it all has to come to an end. It was such a natural human response from Peter. No, Jesus, that can’t happen. I won’t let them kill you. I’ll defend you. We can carry on doing this forever, this travelling and healing and teaching. I don’t want this to end. I don’t want to lose you.

The Gospel is full of moments like these, moments when our natural human responses clash with the strange, counter-intuitive work of the kingdom of God. The truth is that the only way that Peter can truly know Jesus for who he is – the very God himself, walking on earth fully human and yet fully divine, alive so fully that even death itself cannot keep him – is for Jesus to die and be resurrected. More than that, the only way that Peter can know who he himself is – this rugged, impetuous fisherman with a tendency to act first and think later – is for Jesus to die and be resurrected. The transformation in Peter as he stands up on the Day of Pentecost to tell people from all over the known world that all of history, everything that had happened, was leading up to the moment when Jesus was raised from the dead, is Peter coming into his own for the first tie, reaching his full height as an apostle whose impetuous folly will turn to bravery as he does indeed go on the travelling and healing and teaching, with the Spirit of Jesus within him in a way that he couldn’t have dreamt possible in those early days.

The only way, Jesus says, is to live is to lay down one’s life. The only way to live is to deny oneself, take up one’s cross, and follow Jesus. If we can do this, and go on doing it day after day as Luke tells us in his version of the same story, we will live more fully and deeply than we could possibly know. The only way to live is not to hold on tight to life, and especially to those moments when life feels perfect, but to let those moments pass, to go on finding God in the ever-new moments of each day. If we are not able to do this, we might find ourselves a little like those children, with nothing to display but a dead reminder of a beautiful, living past. 

One rather blunt saying goes that the difference between tradition and traditionalism is that tradition is the living faith of the dead, and traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. If we hold on to moments in the past, even profoundly beautiful and spiritual times, we are in danger of what Jesus warned of – of losing our lives even as we try so hard to hold on to them, as the present day and God’s presence in us eludes us as we continue to look for him in the past.     

So what might this look like, this life of taking up our cross and following Jesus? The reading we heard from Romans gives some definite answers as to what kind of a life Jesus calls us to. It is, you may not be surprised to hear, a life that is sometimes counter-intuitive; a life of not taking revenge, another perfectly natural human impulse, but of leaving room for God to respond to evil. It’s a life of letting go of the natural human response to get your own back on those who hurt you open heartedness to others, of hospitality which can mean so many different things both in and outside the home.  It’s a life of choosing in each and every moment to put others and God above your own needs, and finding in each and every moment that putting others and God above yourself is the best thing you could ever do for yourself anyway, that far from losing out, you win more than you thought possible.  This is what a Christian life should look like, and it’s this life to which we should aspire. It’s not easy – as I say, it’s deeply counter-intuitive – which is why we need the help of God’s Spirit and God’s people. But this is what life, lived to the full, looks like.  As we into this new season, let’s each take time to search our own hearts and to find the parts of us that, like Peter, try desperately to hold on the moment which so quickly becomes the past, and let’s ask God for his help in trusting in the eternal, ongoing, ever-new life of God in us and among us, always doing a new thing, always bringing new butterflies to birth for us to enjoy as they sweep by our lives. AMEN.                   

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Another Plea from Me to the C of E: There is no 'mutual flourishing', just 'flourishing'.

Image: 'Christ Healing the Sick' by Christian Wilhelm Ernst Dietrich (1742). Picture in public domain, downloaded from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I'd hesitate to say that I've just celebrated an anniversary, but it's true that I have just passed a strange sort of a milestone in my life. It was twenty years ago last month that I was diagnosed with Crohn's Disease; by the time I sat in a consultant gastroenterologist's hospital room and listened in dazed silence as I was prescribed steroids and signed off work, I had become so weak and ill that I could barely eat and couldn't walk far without keeling over in stomach cramps that shot pain into every nerve of my body. The diagnosis was both a relief and a shock; within days, the steroids had started to do their work and for the first time in over a year I could feel my body strengthening, but at the same time, the prospect of adjusting to a future of hospitals, medication and pain management, and more than that, adjusting to the knowledge that my body had developed in such a way that my immune system was compromised so as to lay me open to other illnesses, everyday and more serious, was profoundly unsettling for a twenty-three year old who had just accepted a job offer in Japan.

As a Christian, my own instinct and that of my church was to pray: for relief, for healing, for hope for the future, for a sense of what God might be doing in the midst of such confusing and painful circumstances. Over the years, those prayers have continued, and I have experienced more moments of grace than I could ever remember; moments when peace has flooded my sore and exhausted body, moments when I have been given the strength to do things that seemed beyond me. Since my diagnosis, I've trained and worked as a secondary school teacher, I've trained and and am working as a vicar, and I've birthed and am bringing up two wonderful children. I've travelled to some fabulous places, spent a year working with a Christian charity in South East Asia (my consultant: 'Whatever you do, don't eat the street food!') and earned three degrees and a teaching qualification. However, even with all these moments of grace and great opportunities that have come my way, there is no getting away from the fact that Crohn's is, pardon the pun, a pain in the backside. Twenty years later, I am still negotiating pain, exhaustion, medication, and hospitals. I am well most of the time, but never by accident. I am incredibly grateful for all the good in my life, for the strength that each day brings, and for the spiritual solace that physical illness has forced me to seek out, but the honest truth is that I wouldn't wish this on anyone.  

As my life, and my prayers have continued, I have slowly started to ponder the complexities of auto-immune diseases such as Crohn's. Auto-immune disease occurs, I have learnt, when an overly vigilant immune system reacts against, and attempts to reject, one of the body's own systems (in the case of Crohn's, the digestive system), behaving towards the bodily system in the same way that it would towards dangerous pathogens intruding from outside. The problem is obvious: a digestive system is not a pathogen. It is, in fact, essential to life and health. I've come to think of auto-immune diseases as a kind of hyper-allergy; an allergy not to some external, otherwise health-giving stuff like peanuts or eggs, but to part of its own intrinsic self. You can avoid nuts; you can't avoid your digestive system. And what starts in one system can easily spread to other parts of the body as the immune system's defense instinct runs riot through bones, causing arthritis, and in my case, my eyes. The effect of having a hyper-active immune system that fights off bits of itself like some misguided comic book superhero is not, as you might be excused for thinking, that the body becomes super-charged; rather, the opposite: a body that spends all its energy mistaking parts of itself as threats and engaging in a bizarre, anarchic, intra-corporeal civil war, doesn't have much left over once all the internal fighting has been accounted for. No wonder I am exhausted so often.

The church, St Paul writes, is the body of Christ. 'We who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another,' as the words from Romans 12 which are paraphrased in our Anglican Communion service remind us every time we break bread together. It's so easy to hear these words as idealistic pie-in-the-sky, or as florid rhetoric, but for me, this is spiritual reality. If I have any identity in Christ at all - if my faith means anything - it is because I am part of something bigger than myself, something to which I have something to give, and something from which I gain life itself, something without which I am not really fully myself. Our highly individualised, cult-phobic culture might find this idea alarming or, as I was called the other day, 'hopelessly sentimental', but ultimately, Paul's either right, or deluded, or deluding. These words either mean something or they don't.

Now those of you who follow church news and are given to an allegorical frame of mind might see where I'm going with this. I wrote a blog post this week after Bishop Philip North withdrew his acceptance of the Bishopric of Sheffield, citing 'highly individualised attacks' in a heart-rending statement. In my post, I suggest that the only way that the church can move on from this painful flare-up is to learn to trust. Yes, that might sound facile or 'hopelessly sentimental' in the highly-charged atmosphere of mistrust which this situation exemplifies. Yes, 'trust' is a contested concept and a debased currency in our culture which has so badly abused the trust of  so many, as sickening stories of systemic child abuse sadly spill out. Yes, trust involves risk; yes, trust is scary because it is, in fact, the opposite of protectivism and therefore trust must be considered carefully. However, all this nothwithstanding, my twenty years of Crohn's Disease teach me that a body whose physiology is such that it mistrusts its own internal systems is a body in desperate need of learning to recognise, and trust itself; without such self-recognition, healing is impossible (fascinatingly, talk therapies have been recognised as contributing significantly to the wellbeing of people with auto-immune conditions). An immune system so alert to danger that it turns on itself is an immune system which is, ironically, incapable of protecting the body from real pathogens. While the bizarre, anarchic intra-corporeal civil war rages on, life and strength leak out and sickness creeps in.

The question, then, is this: how do we discern what is intrinsic, life-giving and health-inspiring to the body of Christ, and what are the intruding pathogens? The answer, I suggest, is this: that which is made out of the same stuff as the rest of the body. Not that which does the same thing, or behaves in the same way, because as we all know, the human body is full of internal variety, but that which is made out of one or other of the same organic substances that create a human body. The body of Christ has ways of deciding this; its own lab, if you like, for testing  and approving that which is life-giving and that which is a danger-posing pathogen. That lab is, of course, the church's processes of discernment, and in particular the Synodical-governmental and episcopal-leadership processes which agreed, three years ago, that women bishops would be a healthy growth for the overall church whilst also promising space for the members of the body for whom this move would not promote wellbeing.

Now without wishing to be flippant, I know far too much about the careful balancing up of contra-indications in medicine, and the considered risks that medics make in prescribing treatments that will be likely to benefit the patient as a whole, but could damage essential parts of the body (I have spent most of my adult life making these calculated risks and taking particular care of the bits of me that might become damaged by my medicines). Back in 2014, these members of the church body who could not benefit from women bishops or women priests were recognised as parts of the body, and were promised particular care. The appointment of +Philip to Sheffield seemed to re-affirm the recognition of his place in the body, and that of his fellow traditionalist Anglo-Catholics with him. His withdrawal of the basis of 'highly personalised attacks' indicates that maybe what might have happened in the last few months is something not unlike a flare-up of an auto-immune condition in which the body goes into hyper-drive to protect itself from something which is, actually, itself. If I am a member of you and you are a member of me, then a highly personalised attack on you, or me, is nothing other than an ecclesial auto-immune disease.  This is why the language of 'mutual flourishing', while clear, is slightly unhelpful; if I am a member of you, and you are a member of me, there is no such thing as 'mutual flourishing.' There is only 'flourishing.'

In order to flourish, bodies need to be checked over and tested (I am currently undergoing a raft of tests to 're-stage' my Crohn's Disease); the allegory might hold that healthy debate within the body of the church could perform an analogical function. So my second plea to the C of E is this: please let's find ways of talking to each other in such a way that recognises each other as members of the same body so that we can work together to 'strengthen what remains' (Revelation 3:2) and fight off the true dangers that threaten our wellbeing. We can only do that if we trust each other. No more misguided comic book superheroes; we've got some real work to do if we are going to be Christ's hands and feet on earth. Let's not waste our energy slowly killing ourself.        

Friday, 10 March 2017

A Plea From Me To The C of E

I can still remember the light of optimism in his eyes. 'It feels really different this time', he said, smiling. 'It's a different conversation altogether.' It was summer 2014, and he had just come back from another round of discussions at General Synod. After the bitter disappointment we had both shared in November 2012, when the motion to allow women to be nominated for consecration as bishops had fallen so narrowly, this optimism was both intriguing and genuine. What wind of change had blown through Synod, I wondered, a wind both strong enough to change the direction of the church and gentle enough to do so without blowing people and communities off their feet? 

His eyes shone as he explained. The terms of the debate had shifted altogether, if not logistically then relationally. Synod had somehow, along the way, stopped talking about 'protection' for those who could not, in all conscience, accept the ministry of ordained women, and had picked up the vocabulary of 'trust.' It had spread, he told me. Once one person had said that maybe we should trust each other as siblings in the family of faith rather than seeing each other as threats from which to be protected, a way had opened up that had simply not been there before. People had relaxed in their seats. People had started to talk more expansively, more openly, even with a little humour, about how the good ship C of E could chart its course. Trust meant that the storms at sea seemed navigable after all. Most profoundly, trust quietly, persistently, neutralised the need for protection; if I trust you, I feel no need to protect myself from you. 

Trust was the beautiful grace that the Synod of 2010-2015 found, and how I wish it could be bottled and given away free on street corners. Trust could open up all sorts of possibilities in our defensive, protectionist world. Walls would come down, or not be built. 'Not so among you' said Jesus when his folly-ridden ambitionist disciples asked him who would be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. The terms of debate shifted then, too, from success to service, from competition to compassion. Whatever winds of change blow through our secular world with its politics and power-plays, among God's people a micro-climate of grace can, and must, blow freely, and from us, blow into a world in such desperate need of grace. Trust was strong enough to change the direction of the church and gentle enough not to blow people and communities off their feet. 

Three years later, and the political winds of change have blown. The social and political breezes leading to Brexit and Donald Trump's presidency were not yet gusting when trust blew through Synod. The storm winds were raging in Syria, and those of us who follow the global political forecast were deeply grieved, but in 2014 'the refugee crisis' had not yet hit Europe and the Jungle was still where ill-advised celebrities ate testicles. Since then, the chill winds of protectionism have swept in; some of us might feel that some of these currents are necessary. However, 'not so among you' said Jesus. May the church not be swept away with the prevailing winds of its culture; may it be guided and warmed by a micro-climate of grace. 

Three years later, and the Bishop of Burnley has sadly withdrawn his acceptance to be Bishop of Sheffield after a flurry of public critique, questioning how he can possibly be the bishop of a diocese in which one third of the clergy are women when he does not believe in the validity of women's ordination. Rhetorical questions have hung in the air like accusations. How can an ordained woman flourish under his episcopacy? How can he reconcile his position with his theology? How can he represent Christ to a world, and in particular to the city of Sheffield in which women play all sorts of prominent roles in all sorts of areas? The implicit answer has echoed over the whole barrage: he can't. It's just simply impossible, however good a Christian, inspiring a clergyman or decent a chap he is. 

I'll be honest, and tell you that my overriding response to such question has become, increasingly, one of irritation. As soon as Bishop Philip's acceptance of the role as Bishop of Sheffield was announced, he issued a statement saying that he would be a 'bishop for all' and was looking forward to meeting with the ordained women of Sheffield and getting to know them in a special meeting which he was prioritising in his early days as a new bishop. Why, I found myself thinking as I heard yet another person ask how an ordained woman can live with a bishop who would not ordain her, do we not simply trust him when he says that he values all that ordained women do in the Church of England? Why do we not trust that he has worked through the complexities of his theology and public role in his own heart and mind, and has come to a place of peace that he can live this vocation with both ecclesial and theological integrity? Why do we not trust that God will use this particular man, with his deep spirituality and passionate care for the poor, to bring about a deeper still trust between traditionalist Anglo-Catholics and the wider Church? Where is trust in all of this? Have we reverted to a defensive protectionism that construes the pressing need as the protection of women from traditionalist Anglo-Catholics? 

As I pondered the transformative power of trust in general, in this particular situation, and its recent track record in doing good in and for the Church, the Bible story that emerged in my mind is one which I've puzzled over and which has not always sat entirely right with me. It comes at the very end of John's Gospel, after the resurrection, after the miraculous haul of fish, and after the tear-jerking (for me, anyway) forgiveness and re-calling of Peter. Peter turns to the Beloved Disciple and asks Jesus what sounds like a perfectly relatable question; 'What about him?' In response, Jesus tells Peter to mind his own business. 'What is it to you?' is Jesus' rhetorical question. 'Follow me.' It's one of those moments when Jesus is unexpectedly curt. 

As I say, this moment in John's Gospel has puzzled me; what could be wrong with concern for others? The last few weeks, though, have shown me the enormously liberating power of not solving other people's theological problems for them, but trusting that they, and God, will or have already done that between them. Yes, being a bishop with oversight of ordained women and not believing in the sacramental validity of women's ordination is a theological problem, but it's not my problem. What is it to me? My task is what it has always been: to follow Jesus. This does involve solving people's theological problems, as a vicar of a parish in which my own bishop has given me a share in the 'cure of souls', and anyone who knows me know that I enjoy nothing more than a good theological conundrum. It's liberating to know, though, that my task is not to solve the whole world's problems, or even the whole church's problems, but to focus my time and energy where I have committed to serving. Most profoundly, my task is to trust that as I work through the complexities of my life with the wind of the Spirit guiding me, so others are doing that too and that together, God will lead us all into a deeper, richer, fuller life of his Spirit. For that to happen, maybe we need to hear Jesus' words, 'What is it to you? Follow me.' 

So where from here? Bishop Philip has withdrawn, and all sort of cross-currents of opinion and response are swirling around. All I'd like to add to the flow is a plea that we do not revert to protectionism. It'd be understandable; all sorts of individuals and groups within the C of E might feel the need to protect themselves right now. Please let's not do that. Please let's stay open to each other; please let's pray for each other and offer friendship to each other as we all, in our own ways, follow Jesus. Please let's choose trust over protectionism, openness over defense. Trust is strong enough to change the direction of the church and gentle enough not to knock us all down. I we trust each other, we will feel no need to protect ourselves from each other. We'll expand, relax. We might even laugh a little more. Who knows what might become possible if we trust? 

Let's trust.