“Who is like God?” – St Michael, John Ruskin, and Brexit

Jacob left Beer-sheba and went towards Haran. He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the Lord stood beside him and said, ‘I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.’ Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!’ And he was afraid, and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’

Genesis 28:10-17

And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.

Revelation 12:7-9

What to make of the angels?

Angels are all around us: Jacob’s dream is testament to that. Imagine highways not from Sky to Earth – but from a world beyond to the world around. From Heaven to Earth. A highway frequented by angels: ethereal beings, not feathered and female, but feisty and mighty. Messengers of hope and triumph and love and the things that must be. An army of messengers captained by Michael.

Today is his day.

Michael, the one who asks in the very meaning of his name “Who is like God?”
Michael, the one who slays Hell’s dragon: an apocalyptic metaphor for the triumph of hope over hate, love over destruction, life over death.
Michael, the great protector of the people of Yahweh.

It all starts with Yahweh. The God of Jacob, and Abraham and Isaac. The one who has watched over humankind through time and across place. The one who announces her place in our story with a simple and recurring statement: “I am Yahweh”.

I am goodness.
I am life.
I am love.

All the good and life and love that you have known.
I am.
I am that.
I am he.
I am she.

In recent years I have come to be a fan of a more modern angel: John Ruskin. Ruskin, who seemed so dull in my undergraduate days, has since challenged and reminded me time and again to see. To notice. Ruskin saw things that others could not see. He saw injustice where others saw only profit. He saw beauty where others saw only routine. He saw morality, where others only saw taste. Ruskin saw, he truly saw, what mattered, and he was keen for the world around him to see these things too.

This awareness and celebration of nuance and detail has been lost, for a time. Our noticing has become simplistic. We choose to see black. Or white. Left, or right. Right, or wrong. Deal or no deal. Leave or remain. We have become mired in the “bear pit of polarisation”.

Friends, we are being called to see beyond this.

“Who is like God?” Michael’s name challenges us in its very meaning.
“I am Yahweh” God reminds us, as God reminds Jacob.

These words lift our gaze. What is beyond the personalities and the rhetoric and the popularity and the name-calling and the fighting?

What do you see?

Free-heartedness, and graciousness, and undisturbed trust, and requited love, and the sight of the peace of others, and the ministry to their pain; – these and the blue sky above you, and the sweet waters and flowers of the earth beneath; and mysteries and presences, innumerable, of living things – these may yet be your riches.

John Ruskin, as quoted in To See Clearly (Suzanne Fagence Cooper)

So says Ruskin, as he calls us to see beyond. These things are all around us – can you see them?

There can be no taking of sides beyond the side of free-heartedness, graciousness, trust, love, peace for others and the healing of their pain. These things are the goodness of God. They are the goodness we see in one another – in our Brexit sister and our remain brother. I believe they are the good things I may find in those I disagree with most violently.

These are the things that triumph as Michael the might Archangel casts Hell’s dragon from Heaven and our own bitter agendas fade away to leave us feeling both ashamed and resolved: ashamed of what we think we have become, and resolved to realise that we can be so much better.

Jacob was mired in a mess of his own. He was fleeing his furious brother to seek a wife from a land hundreds of miles away from home. In his mess, he lay down to sleep. And in his mess, his eyes were opened to a greater reality around him.

Amidst our own mess, our anger, our polarisation, imagine the corridors of heavenly messengers ferrying divine messages from Heaven to Earth – messages of peace, and trust, and healing. What greater vision do we need for our politicians, our media, and our own neighbourhoods, that this reminder to see, to notice, to be aware.

The angels are all around us. Fearsome and feisty, bringing good news and exposing our darkness with their brilliant light. All we have to do is dream, see, notice, and know.

St Michael and the Devil (Jacob Epstein) – Coventry Cathedral
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Smiles in the darkness #WorldSuicidePreventionDay

Trigger warning: This blog post explores a previous experience of suicidal feelings. If this triggers in you anything that causes you anxiety or poses a danger, please seek help now. The following may be helpful:

The Samaritans: 116 123
NHS advice on feeling suicidal
Mind


Feeling suicidal but don’t want to die.

Two years ago, that was the Google search that may have saved my life.

This isn’t a comfortable post to write. It’s taken me a long time to commit words to the screen. But I decided months ago that I must share this, because it might save another life too.

It started in early 2017. I was pregnant with my third child, and I caught a cold. The cold got worse, and I became quite unwell with a chest infection. I ploughed on with life and, being heavily pregnant as well as unwell, became absolutely exhausted.

I recovered just in time for Emily’s birth, and the following weeks were riddled with minor health issues for her as well as me. I was trying to care for a newborn who needed several hospital trips – two of which were emergency appointments – as well as a toddler and pre-schooler at home. I was missing my pre-baby life, as I suspect most mums do in those first few weeks of overflowing milk and poo, screaming and soreness. Despite being on maternity leave, I was still doing an significant amount of work – the parts of ministry I was committed to and enjoyed – but under some pressure to prove to myself that I could still juggle these multiple vocations of motherhood and ministry. I was grieving the loss of a close friendship, and dreading the Autumn days when I would commit my first baby to the state education system as he started school.

Loss on loss, with little time or energy to give these things the headspace they needed.

I started to feel low, and the cloud didn’t lift. I was no stranger to post-natal depression, but this time I was fighting it. I had no more patience for illness. No more time for myself. I thought that if I ignored it, it would go away. I felt ashamed of the darkness that surrounded me: as someone who gives a great deal of time to the wellbeing of others, how could I admit that I was struggling so much?

So I didn’t say anything. I struggled on with good days and bad days. I hid it well, from everyone except Jim.

And then the intrusive thoughts started. At first I could brush them off. Then I found I couldn’t. Then I felt really, really frightened.

I always thought that feeling suicidal meant that a person would have no fear of death, and no regrets about taking their life. That wasn’t how I felt. I felt mixed up, confused, longing for life but convinced life would be better without me. It was the thought of my kids, and them alone, that was enough, some days. I didn’t want to die, but I did want to end it all. I felt stuck between the two parts of myself.

I thought that if I was really suicidal, if I was really that ill, then even the thought of the kids wouldn’t be enough to stop me. I thought that if I was really struggling with life, then thoughts of ending it all would overrule any desire to keep living. But then I was terrified that the less rational part of my mind might win over in a few fateful moments. I made plans, I felt myself going numb, I was terrified.

And one night, after an awful day, I sat on my bed and did that Google search. Just to prove to myself that I wasn’t really that unwell.

Feeling suicidal but don’t want to die.

Because that is how I felt.

And I discovered, from Mind or the Samaritans or the NHS – I forget which – that people who are at risk of suicide often don’t want to die. They have reasons to stay alive, but things just get too painful, too overwhelming, too difficult to go on. And I knew that’s where I was headed.

It was a red flag that sobered my depression in a moment. That night I got help. It took time to recover, but I did.

These photos were all taken when I was unwell, before I asked for help. This is what someone who is having suicidal thoughts looks like.

We are all different. Many of us will struggle with our mental health, and these struggles will be unique and different for each of us. But I am writing this for three reasons.

Firstly: The power of story. I think most people know me as someone cheerful, upbeat, calm and happy. There were few outward signs of how unwell I was. I have an amazingly wonderful life, with gorgeous family and wonderful friends and a fulfilling job. If I can be as unwell as I was, then anyone can. Depression doesn’t discriminate. If you’re struggling – get help. Tell someone. Take it seriously. If I can talk about it like this, then you can too.

Secondly: For me, feeling suicidal didn’t feel as I expected it to feel. For a time, things got dangerous, and all because I didn’t recognise the warning signs in myself quickly enough. I didn’t phone the helplines because I didn’t think I was that ill. Until I started to enact a plan to end it all, by which point all rational thought was out the window, at least momentarily. The moment ending your own life even enters your mind is the moment to get help, with no shame attached.

Thirdly: No amount of “My door is always open: I’m here for you” Facebook posts would have helped. I know people genuinely mean them and I think it’s right to share them. But what stopped me speaking out was the stigma that is still attached to poor mental health. Things are shifting, but it still doesn’t feel safe to say that you are having thoughts about taking your own life – I’m guessing that would be something of a conversation stopper! And the only way to change this is to take a deep breath and change it. The more of us who talk about our experiences of depression and mental illness, the more we will bring about a culture change. As well as sharing how willing we are to listen to the issues of another, we need a culture of increased honesty and openness about our own struggles, our own depressive moments, our own dark thoughts.

I’m not writing this for sympathy, or to shock. There were a million reasons for me to bury this experience and never speak of it again. But it is because of those reasons – because of the roles I have and the positions I hold – that I have to speak about this. It might shock you to know that I felt like this, for a time. I hope one day that our honesty about our mental health – in good times and bad – will not shock, but be received in the same way that talk of physical health is received. Until then, this is my small contribution towards changing attitudes and normalising what is a common experience for so many of us.

“There’s a volcano in my tummy”

There’s a volcano in my tummy. Apparently that’s a good phrase to help children describe the overwhelming, frightening feeling of uncontrollable, unquenchable anger. I like it. I use it with my kids. There is a book of the same name.

It seems that many of us adults too, have a volcano in our tummies. These volcanoes seem to erupt particularly in two areas: social media, and driving.

Take yesterday, for instance. I was walking down Park Road. Within 5 minutes I had witnessed two incidents of road rage. One directed by a middle-aged man at an elderly lady, who had slowed her manoeuvre to allow a pedestrian to cross. Another by a minibus driver, directed at a car who had slowed to turn into a side road (earning themselves an explosive “PRICK!” – I couldn’t really fathom why).

These sights are not untypical in an average 20 minute walk around here.

Or on social media. An incident of young people causing mischief was posted, again yesterday, on a local Facebook group. Within minutes, there were angry calls for punishment and retribution that went beyond reasonable – with some advocating a violent response.

These incidents are not unusual. Many of us will witness things like this several times a day.

Why is it that words and behaviour that are completely socially unacceptable suddenly become normalised when we sit behind a keyboard or a steering wheel? I mean, I don’t see many people careering around Tesco with a shopping trolley shouting “PRICK!” at little old ladies… (there is a wonderful Michael McIntyre sketch along these lines).

Lots of adult volcanos erupting.

There is a deeper, uncomfortable truth here.

Because there’s a volcano in my tummy too.

A burning anger that sometimes smoulders and other times rages white hot, but always there, buried, and ready to erupt and spew when another driver cuts me up on the road. Or, more honestly, when a driver blocks my safe passage on the pavement as a pedestrian. Hell hath no fury like a mum walking the school run amidst dangerous driving and parking…

I try and rein it in, and sometimes I even manage.

Why are so many of us so angry?

We shrug it off when it happens. Point a finger at the “prick” and console ourselves that we are the better driver, the more upright citizen. That we have a right to be angry – that the target of our anger has somehow deserved this violent outpouring of bile.

The truth is, my anger is not so righteous. Because if I chip away at it, I find not integrity and blamelessness, but a sense of entitlement (“it’s my right of way”, of possessiveness (“it’s my pavement”), and of selfishness (“my life would be safer if they were locked up”).

And then if I chip away another layer, I find, under the entitlement and possessiveness and selfishness, a well of pain that I have hidden away. Rejections. Disappointments. Fears. Disillusionment. All neatly stored, unprocessed and undealt with, and crusted over with a defensive, smouldering anger.

Anger becomes my defence mechanism. My way of shielding the painful parts of myself from the world around. Mostly I can hold it in and keep a lid on it. But sometimes it erupts – for many of us – from the driving seat or the computer screen.

If only we could say that this was a problem for online interaction and road safety. But if half of us are walking around, living day to day with these intense volcanoes, we are hardly an emotionally healthy and robust community of people.

“There’s a volcano in my tummy“, I encourage my kids to say. How many adults were never taught to handle their anger well? Anger is never comfortable to observe. As angry kids we shout and scream and slam and hit and screech and cry. And we’re told to pack it in! and be quiet! and STOP!.

So we bury it. Layer on layer. Hardened crust on hardened crust. We never learn to deal with it. Anger remains dangerous, taboo, frightening. It must be kept hidden and never shown.

But these crusted volcanoes have a nasty habit of showing themselves. The moment we feel ‘safe’ – stuck in our metal boxes-on-wheels or hiding behind a screen name, out spews the magma.

I wonder, what did people do 100 years ago – before cars and computers – to vent their anger?

Anger isn’t bad. It’s not unhealthy. Used well, it can be a creative force for justice and good. And yet unless we learn to harness it, process it, and then release it, it will always harness us. Anger management seems to be quite an enterprise. But perhaps we could just start by owning it, by talking about it.

No shame. No judgement. No guilt.

Just safe space to be honestly angry, or angrily honest, in an attempt to try and tame this most frightening of emotions.

There’s a volcano in my tummy, and there’s a volcano in your tummy. And that’s ok.

Sent. Displaced. Formed.

The Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house!” And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the labourer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, “Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.”

Luke 10:1-10

Last Sunday’s Gospel reading – the sending of the 70 to share the good news of God’s love – has stayed with me through this week, not least as I spent Wednesday morning with colleagues who have recently been ordained: their own response to being called and sent.

What Luke gives us here is a wonderfully real account of being sent into ministry (and by “ministry”, I’m using the widest sense I can: anything that we do as a response to a higher calling – in any sphere and for any reason). With the curates I was with earlier this week, I spoke of feeling displaced. Either geographically, for those who had moved into new homes and parishes, or at least spiritually, for those who had moved into new roles and taken on new identities. I was mindful that within a Diocese that gives curates 3 year contract, we were a room full of people in transition. Displaced people.

My own experience of becoming a curate was deeply unsettling. We had a new home (which we’d not been able to see prior to moving into it), a new place (we’d moved 186 miles North), and a new context (we’d moved from a working class dock town, to a wealthy suburb with a village feel). I had a new role and identity, with new clothes and responsibilities and expectations and colleagues. Despite the love from so many in the place I moved to, I felt completely inept when it came to speaking the language and reading the culture of the people around me.

I felt displaced.

The ordained life is one of exile, of displacement: of longing for home and of pointing others towards a homecoming that is more than simply belonging in a place. But of course, we have a rich heritage – in scripture and tradition – of this nomadic wandering. If we feel displaced, if we feel like we don’t belong, then with the saints before us we are in good company.

And if the ordained life is one of spiritual wandering, then this is only because we are modelling the calling placed on every disciple. Perhaps it is just harder for us to avoid the journey once we are ordained. Perhaps those of us who are ordained are just better equipped and better encouraged to start placing one foot in front of the other.

In the Judean desert, which was of course the context for Jesus’ teaching, the task of shepherding is very different to the welsh hills and valleys. Shepherds in Palestine have to keep their flocks moving if they are to find water, food and shelter. Jesus as the “Good Shepherd” is no Little Bo Peep, but is the one who drives the flock on to find sparse pasture in the dryness of the desert.

Palestinian Shepherd

We don’t walk alone. We’re called to take our people with us if they, too, are to find pasture. We’re called to lead from the front, from the middle and from the back – tying up shoe laces and bandaging blisters, holding people as a group, and, together, looking for the way ahead. But without this big picture, without this reminder of the task to which we are called, it’s easy to feel lost, displaced, and in exile.

I have my spiritual director to thank for this next bit. One resource that might help us in our own exile is the labyrinth. You may or may not have walked a labyrinth before. A labyrinth is not a maze. It has a beginning, and an ending, and a path that leads you on faithfully from one to the other. There are no dead ends. But there are twists and turns. There are moments where you have to walk in blind faith. There are moments where you near the centre, and you think you’re done – but then quite quickly the path throws you back to the outer edge and you wonder quite what happened. And – as my wonderful friend pointed out to me – when you walk a labyrinth you only ever see 6 feet in front. Only 6 feet, before the path twists out of sight and you have to turn faithfully, in trust and hope and joyful expectation.

When I met with the curates last week, I was able to speak of all this in terms of ‘formation’. We talk about formation a lot with ordinands and curates. It’s a posh word for the tough stuff of training: the process of falling apart and being slowly pieced back together. We might talk about it most in terms of training, but actually, formation is, I think, the work of God in every disciple. It is a leading of us down new paths, a building of us in new ways, and a humble and obedient response from us to this work of God within us.

What does Luke say about it?

The seventy returned with joy, saying, ‘Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!’ He said to them, ‘I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.’

Luke 10:17-20

The seventy returned with joy.

You can sense their astonishment, their excitement, that this wandering, this being sent, led them to experience such acts of God that strengthened them and built them up. And so this is my prayer for you, and for me. That no matter how we feel at this moment, no matter how much we might feel lost, or out of place, or like we don’t belong, that we too will have these moments in ministry of returning with joy – of being blown away by the good that we see God doing within us and around us – and even in spite of us!

It is more blessed to receive…

I’m trying to gather up loose thought threads from the past 7 days.

Last week I heard NT scholar John Barclay talk about giving and receiving. About the pitfalls of altruism and the need to develop a theology of receiving. I cannot do his words justice, although if you’re interested, you can hear them for yourself here.

What I heard (which is not necessarily what John said!) is that in churches across the land, we are very good at altruism and service. Churches are full of people who give without measure – of their time and money and gifts. Every church has a group of men, women and children who are always there to help and to serve. And this is wonderful. We give thanks for it in the life of our own parish, and we celebrate the ways in which our generous and sacrificial service brings us together to care for one another and God’s creation.

But, but, but…

I think John was arguing that this has set up an unhelpful dichotomy. It splits us down the middle, into people who ‘give’, and people who ‘receive’. John talked about the altruism scale: on the one end is self-giving, selflessness, generosity, and charity. On the other is selfishness, self-centredness, and self-interest. Altruism sets us up at one end or the other. We are the ‘giver’, or the ‘receiver’. The selfless server or the selfish taker. And darn it, I’ve lost my notes, so this may or may not be a faithful rendering of John’s words.

It is more blessed to give than to receive, says Paul to the church leaders in Ephesus, supposedly quoting Jesus, although we have no record of Jesus saying these words.

And so we have churches full of sainted martyrs, who have learned to give and give and give. I know this because I am one. But I’m no saint. Because I haven’t learned the first thing about receiving.

What stunted, twisted view does this give us of the grace of God? How can I, how can we, know the first thing about receiving the extravagant, lavish grace of God into our lives, if we have had so little practice in receiving a gift well.

That’s not for want of trying. I am blessed to be surrounded by givers. I cherish the conversation and company and smiles and encouragement and kind gifts and generous acts and hard work that I benefit from on a daily basis from the people around me.

But if I’m honest – if we’re honest – to be on the receiving end of another’s altruism makes us a little nervous, doesn’t it? Immediately we’re looking to repay. A nice thank you card, a reciprocated act of kindness – and a small dose of guilt and unworthiness thrown into the mix. How hard it is to receive graciously and without payment! And yet, more often than not, gifts are given in this spirit.

My friends. We are excellent givers and rubbish receivers.

This weekend men and women across the country were ordained Deacons in the Church of England. Everyone ordained as a Priest or Bishop starts out life as a Deacon. This life is one of service: Deacons are called to care for the people in the communities in which they minister. In one sense, everything Deacons do is a reminder to us of the nature of the Christian life is one of service: of helping one another along the path.

But, but, but (again)…

Can deacons teach us something about receiving?

Service is at the heart of Diaconal vocation. Deacons point us to God’s Kingdom. As we receive the ministry of Deacons, so we receive not from individuals and personalities, but from the God whom they serve. Just as Deacons are called to serve, to seek out the lost, to bring the needs of the world to God in prayer, to visit the sick – so are those of us on the ‘other side’ called to receive this ministry from them without repayment or payback?

There is nothing wrong with giving and altruism. But we must learn to receive as well as give. If we can’t nail down a theology of receiving, we are falling a long way far from the Kingdom of God, which is ruled by the King who gave everything for us to receive without cost. He faced “absolute annihilation”, (as Christopher Burkett phrased it when he spoke to the Chester Deacons at their retreat last week) so that we might find him beyond the nothingness. When there is nothing left to give – there is still God. As Christopher reminded us, “This is your witness”.

We know the voice within our own heads that says “I’ve done my bit”. I suspect even the most generous of us has these moments! But if we root our self-worth and our value in what we are able to give out to others, then we are far from whole.

What happens to the one who cannot give?
The one who could never give?
The one who won’t give?

Are they less of a person?
Do they show less of the Kingdom of God?
Are they less worthy of the love and grace of God?

Surely not!

Because our faith is rooted in our own desolation – in Christ’s desolation on the cross – from which God’s riches were revealed.

I’m not sure where we start with a theology of receiving. But I think it probably begins somewhere around here. In annihilation, in desolation, in nothingness, in death. Perhaps we learn fully to receive only when we can give no more. When our frail, exhausted bodies give way to ill health, and our tired, over-stimulated minds finally rest from anxiety and thought.

Perhaps only then, when we are entirely dependent on the self-giving of others with no chance to pay back, do we begin to know how to receive.

Would love to hear your thoughts.

We have forgotten how to love: a sermon for a national crisis.

What a mess we’re in.

Like man of you, I watched the news last week with a growing unease. With all eyes on Westminster, it was clear that tensions were running high and deeply held frustration was beginning to over spill. I suspect the mood of the house reflected the mood of the country: confusion, disillusionment, anger, and sadness. We are mired, now, in perhaps the biggest national crisis that we have faced since the Second World War.

Many of us have an opinion about who is to blame, with most of our public ire being directed at the people of Westminster who have failed so spectacularly in their negotiations and leadership. However, I am unhappy about casting blame at the feet of politicians, who have always had the impossible task of pleasing everyone and no one. The problems that surround Brexit are, I believe, just symptoms of much bigger problems that we have been sitting on for a long time: ticking time bombs that, in recent months, have started to detonate.

In times of turmoil and grief it’s very normal to cast around for someone to blame. We blame “Remainers” for slowing the process down and not delivering the will of the people. We blame “Leavers” for triggering the whole thing in the first place. We blame those who didn’t vote, as well as those who did. We blame civil servants and academics and “the man on the street”. We blame Europe and we blame the wider international stage and we blame the media and journalists. On Wednesday we heard the Prime Minister, however misguided or mistaken she was, blame her own colleagues in the House.

And yet, as fallible as each of us is, I haven’t yet heard one commentator, or politician, or journalist, or member of the public – blame themselves. How refreshing might it be for some of our leaders to instead stand up and say: “we’re sorry – we’ve got this so very wrong. Let’s work together to put it right”.

And so it’s into this time of confusion and uncertainty that we hear again those ancient words of Isaiah:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
   nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. 
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
   so are my ways higher than your ways
   and my thoughts than your thoughts. 

Isaiah 55:8-9

As a largely secular society we have lost this bigger story of the Kingdom of God. We have lost this greater narrative on which to pin our hope and our expectation and our sense of justice and wellbeing. The Christian faith is not the only worldview to offer metanarratives that help to interpret the world: sense-making stories. But in our increasing secularism our letting go of these ancient outlooks and perspectives is great loss indeed.

If our nation can find again a bigger story – a bigger truth that gives us some context to our own lives – perhaps our perspective on the world begins to change a little. With the narrative of the Kingdom of God, values such as love, and generosity, and tolerance, and justice, become part of our way of life: a way of life founded in the self-giving love and the generous mercy of God. A sense of trust that we place into the arms of the God whose ways our not our ways.

Our faith sometimes acts as a mirror. Not only do we become aware of God’s work in the world, so we become aware of our own shortcomings and failings. This applies as much to communities and nations as it does to individuals. Without a Christian narrative, we as a nation have lost any sense of our own falling short. Perhaps we’ve dominated the international stage with our inflated ego for a long time, and we are about to have a fall from a great height. Perhaps we are a little like the fig tree of Luke’s Gospel. Perhaps we have ceased to bear fruit, caught up as we have been in our own sense of self-importance and self-righteousness.

Whether we voted to Leave or Remain, I hope we did so in fear and trembling: mindful that we need the nations around us, whatever that relationship looks like and whether or not it involves us being part of the European Union, much more than they need us. We would be wise to take heed of how we are speaking and behaving right now, as the rest of the world looks on.

The former Dean of Durham, Michael Sadgrove, wrote this week about how the Church of England might begin to formulate a response to Brexit. He argues that as a church, we must now be putting forward a much bigger narrative than that of Brexit alone. That is, we must be speaking of the hope and the good news that we find in Christ – and that this must widen our gaze well beyond the interests of our own nation. He says that “if our churches are not one hundred percent clear about the importance of loving our neighbour, who else is going to be?”

As I see it, the biggest problem that has come to the surface in recent weeks in the life of our nation is not lack of leadership, or a rise in populism, or poor negotiation, or lack of courage. The biggest problem, and the one that I have seen time and again in politicians and journalists and supermarket checkout queues and newspaper headlines, is that we have forgotten how to love one another.

How different disagreement looks when it’s done in love.
How different the outcome, when opposing points of view are laid down, and people come together to work for a greater good.
How refreshing, when those who disagree strongly are able to listen to and respect a different perspective without destroying a relationship.

And how rarely it happens.

You may have heard it said that when we blame another with a pointed finger, we have three fingers pointing back at us. Perhaps this is where the healing will start: with each of us realising that we have played our part in this national crisis. In our own failures to love and to hear and to respect and work with those who are different to us, we have all contributed to a culture of high blame and no responsibility.

I believe that through the local church, God can bring healing to our divided communities. It begins with you, and it begins with me. Perhaps this Lent, as the drama of Brexit around us continues to unfold, we might be committed in our own self-examination, our own repentance, and our own efforts to reach across these divides, and bring ourselves back to one another.

“As a mother tenderly gathers”: A toddler at the table

Adapted from a sermon preached at Holy Cross Church for Lent 2, Sunday 17th March 2019.


Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!

Jesus, Luke 13:34

Nothing has challenged my confidence as a priest more than when I had children. Before I had my first child, I was used to being able to give much of myself, and my time, to ministry. I am not saying that this was a healthy thing to do! But with few other responsibilities, I was able to DO so much more.

Once I returned to work, following my first period of maternity leave, my confidence became much more shaky. No longer could I give everything to parish ministry, because I had to give a significant amount of myself to being a parent. Perhaps it wouldn’t be possible to do both? I remember taking a very young Ben to visit another church, on one Sunday during my maternity leave. To my great embarrassment, the vicar of that church introduced us to everyone at the start of the service, with the words: “And we welcome Jenny and Ben who are visiting us today – you’ll know who they are because that’s who all the noise is coming from”. An innocent, throwaway (and I’m sure well-meaning) comment that left me feeling self-conscious for the rest of my time there. How could I be a priest and a parent if I couldn’t even keep my child inconspicuous when I wasn’t leading worship?!

Of course, my confidence grew over time, thanks in no small part to the encouragement, support, kind words and practical help from so many of you here. And you’ll know that in recent weeks I have often juggled leading worship here – preaching and presiding – with a very clingy but lively toddler in my arms, or at my side.

A few years ago, this would have been one of my worst nightmares: trying to function as a priest while also being needed as a mum. And that nagging voice of doubt would have hissed in my ear: “You can’t do both..!”.

That voice still nags, at times, but it was silenced for a while by a profound moment that happened here, some months ago now. We were halfway through a Communion service, and I was about to begin the Eucharistic Prayer. Throughout the service, despite having excellent and dedicated company in the children’s corner, Emily was starting to become unsettled, and needing her mum. Here I was, at the high point of our worship, about to perform the sacramental act which lies at the heart of priestly ministry: blessing the bread and the wine. And, purely practically, an act that would require both hands free!

And little Emily came running over, arms outstretched, crying to be held. A few years ago, that moment might have paralysed me. A clash of two vocations in a split second: who was I? A priest at the alter, or a parent with a child in her arms?

Knowing that the alternative was a very loud wail (Emily’s, not mine!) I picked her up, buried her inside my chasuble, and carried on into the Eucharistic Prayer. I turned the page of the service booklet, and as I prayed aloud the words I saw, I had a deep moment of grateful realisation. These were those words:

How wonderful the work of your hands, O Lord.
As a mother tenderly gathers her children,
you embraced a people as your own.
When they turned away and rebelled
your love remained steadfast.

Common Worship, Eucharistic Prayer G

This moment, which could have disrupted our worship or distracted us from God, instead became an enactment of the liturgy: as I gathered up a tired, clingy toddler, so God has gathered up people through history, and held them in tender embrace. The very thing that might have knocked my own priestly confidence a few years ago, became an embodiment of priestly ministry and divine action.

I’m sorry to share such a lengthy personal anecdote, but I hope it begins to open up the idea that God might not be who we assume God to be. That’s what happened for me, in that moment some months ago. And it’s what Luke does for us in this passage this morning. Here, God is the tender yet protective mother hen, gathering her brood under her wings. As Jesus watches over his city, and sees the pain, and the confusion, and the violence, he mourns for its hurting people as a mother mourns for her own hurting children.

It is this image of the Mother God that our communion liturgy picks up in the Eucharistic Prayer I mentioned above. It’s an image we find, too, in the words of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah:

But Zion said, ‘The Lord has forsaken me,
   my Lord has forgotten me.’ 
Can a woman forget her nursing-child,
   or show no compassion for the child of her womb?
Even these may forget,
   yet I will not forget you. 
See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands.

Isaiah 49:14-16

I do want to be a bit careful here. No image of God is perfect. No image of God is complete. Anything that likens God to a father or a mother will be loaded with baggage for all of us. Some of us, particularly if we have had difficult life experiences and painful close relationships, may find these images unbearably painful.

If that’s the case, I hope the image of the mother hen might help us find a little distance from our own experiences of flawed, and perhaps painful, human parenting. Hens are feisty creatures aren’t they? When faced by predators they will gather their chicks underneath their wings, and peck furiously at whoever threatens them.

What an image for the God who likewise gathers us, her people, under the safety and security of her wings. The same God who wept over her people in the city of Jerusalem as she saw their pain.

The pain is no less for us. Each day brings new accounts of terror, violence, turmoil and disaster. And as Christ looked on Jerusalem, so God looks upon us. God weeps for her people, and longs to gather us to her.

One of the most frustrating moments of parenting is trying to comfort the weary toddler, intent on full-on meltdown because the world around has just become too much for them to absorb and still function. They arch their backs and kick away any attempt at embrace. So it was for the people of Christ’s Jerusalem.

…and you were not willing!

So it is for us.

As we journey through Lent, perhaps we can hear again this call to gather, together, under the shelter of God’s wings. I invite you, in the weeks to come, as the world looks typically hope-less, and we wonder where God is – to hold in your mind this image of God, the mother hen, gathering her chicks close and sheltering them as the predators prowl around us. May we be willing to seek refuge with God, and to find our place together, in the shelter of God’s wings.

Standing at the chasm: A reflection for Shrove Tuesday

Doesn’t Christmas feel such a long time ago?

In the Church calendar, we have travelled through Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, and the unimaginatively titled “Ordinary Time” before reaching the start of Lent. You don’t have to be religious to have felt a rhythm to the journey in recent months: the closing nights and the expectant waiting of Advent, the bittersweet (for many) joy of Christmas with all its promise and regrets, and the long, dull days of January that brings us through winter towards Spring – and Easter.

But now we reach a precipice – a chasm that we must cross before we can rest in the balmy days of late Spring and early Summer, with its sunny afternoons and cool evenings; lengthening days and Easter-egg-fuelled TV binges as the sun sets later, and later.

Lent.

Self denial.
Giving up.
Discipline.
Hardship.

For a while now, we take up a different pace.

I didn’t know until recently that Shrove Tuesday is also known as “Mardi Gras”: literally “Fat Tuesday”. Historically, Shrove Tuesday had a carnival feel about it (and the word carnival might mean “to put away flesh” – a word for the final day of eating meat before the long abstinence of Lent).

So here we are. Shrove Tuesday. Fat Tuesday. Mardi Gras.

Celebration and carnival.

Finishing off the spoils of the past few weeks, before the slower pace of Ash Wednesday and Lent. A strange mix of surplus: using up the extra we have, and of shriving: self-examination and reflection for what lies ahead.

Surplus and shriving.

In the Christian tradition, Shrove Tuesday was the day to make this shift from plenty to paucity. It was a day for using up the leftovers: for feasting and fattening and saying goodbye to indulgence. And it was a day for reflecting on one’s own darkness and failures; spiritual preparation for the disciplines of Lent.

I wonder what the spirituality of Shrove Tuesday looks like for you? The following questions might help:

From plenty…
What has gone well for you in the past few weeks?
What resources have been at your disposal?
How wisely did you use (or abuse) them?

To paucity…
What areas of discomfort, or pain, or shame are you aware of within yourself?
What darkness have you seen in life around you?
Which wrongs in the world would you like to put right?

It’s not really fashionable to talk about “sin” anymore. (I’ve written about this before). But Lent is a time to reflect on our sin. Or, if you prefer, on our failings, insecurities, hurts, pains, disappointments, mistakes, regrets and missed opportunities. Collectively, we might call these things sin, or we might not. It doesn’t matter.

But as we stand at this dark chasm of everything that we wish we and the world were not, we have a chance to bring change. Sin, darkness, failure, regret: these things do not have the last say. Lent reminds us of the importance of facing them, and then conquering them.

Just as, in the Christian tradition, Jesus wrestled for 40 days with the demons of his own greed, and invincibility, and power: so we wrestle with our own demons as we enter this chasm of Lent.

As Christ wrestled, we wrestle. And as Christ conquered, we conquer. We emerge on Easter Sunday, having lived through the self-denial of Lent and the trauma of Holy Week, as people renewed and re-formed. People committed to bringing light into darkness, hope into despair, and life into lifelessness.

But that’s for later.

For now, we begin.
We enter into darkness and denial.
We go from plenty to paucity.
We face our demons, and we wrestle.

Once upon a time, there were “evil scum”

“Evil scum”.

That’s how Shamima Begum has been described in the press in the last day or so. I haven’t linked to the papers that have reported this, but you can search online easily enough.

This isn’t a blog post about Shamima.

It’s a blog post about “evil scum”.

I am currently reading ploughing through Yuval Noah Harari’s anthropology in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. I have a way to go, and I’m trying to see beyond his obvious biases and agendas.

But I am struck by his discussions of our inherent survival mechanisms: the tendencies and instincts that we have carried from a different world into our own, as we have developed far quicker than our evolution, and that of the world around us, could keep pace with.

We create stories, Harari argues, to make sense of the world and of one another. These stories might be economic, political, religious – they are a way to imagine order and to build structure. We have been doing so for thousands of years. Assuming I have understood it properly, then I can buy into some of this argument.

And so, if what Harari says has a degree of truth, what stories are we creating and retelling at the moment, in order to manipulate the world around us; to survive and thrive and advance?

There are thousands. Metanarratives and micronarratives. But one story, which seems particularly prevalent in this age of mass and social media, is the story of “evil scum”.

Once upon a time, there were good people, and there were “evil scum”. The good people lived upright, noble lives, but the “evil scum” inflicted great pain and destruction. Only when the “evil scum” were wiped out did the good people live happily ever after. The end.

“Evil scum” is always someone else.
Usually someone who has done something abhorrent.
Something that we would never countenance doing ourselves.
Something that has hurt – or taken life from – another person.

This post is not an apology for, or a defence of, acts which are damaging, violent, and hateful.

The story of “evil scum” lets the people who do these things off the hook too quickly.

“Evil scum” dehumanises.

“Evil scum” assumes them and us.
We would never do what they have dared to do (one headline about Shamima read How dare she?)
We are upstanding, law-abiding, reasonable, human.
They are evil, perverted, degenerate, monstrous.

This narrative helps us. It allays the deep seated fear that we, too – or those we cherish – might one day do something terrible. It makes sense of the problem of evil by telling us that evil acts are done only by evil monsters. And never by human beings. It tells us that justice is black and white: “evil scum” deserve nothing that requires work on our part: no mercy, no forgiveness; no understanding, because they are not human. They are “evil scum”.

“Evil scum”, according to this narrative, are the ones who do evil things.
Not like the rest of us, who are good, kind people.
“Evil scum” should be annihilated.
Wiped out.
That would fix all our problems.

The problem with this is that it allows pain to avoid eye contact with justice.
The “evil scum” narrative finds justice in destruction.
In a world already tearing itself apart, in a world where, for some, self-destruction seems to attract the highest accolade, then destruction is no justice.

The problem with this is that it takes away human culpability.
We are not so far removed from the horrors of the Holocaust, to forget that good people committed evil acts.
It is humans – and not “evil scum” – who do bad things.
It is humans who kill and destroy and inflict intense pain on one another.

The problem with this is that it tears human beings down the middle.
It creates sides and factions: “evil scum” versus everyone else…
…and asks us to sign up to a side.
It encourages the growth of ideologies resistant to the other: ideologies that provide the fertile ground from which disillusionment and radicalisation grow.

Put simply, when we write one person off as “evil scum”, there are a hundred others waiting to sign up too.

There has to be a better narrative – other stories that help us make sense of the unthinkable: that a fellow human might commit such large-scale damage and pain on another.

I am a Christian minister. The Christian faith is a metanarrative I use to make sense of the world around me. I don’t care whether Harari thinks I’m bonkers or not.

The central tenet of Christianity is not:

Love thy neighbour as thyself…

Nor is it:

An eye for an eye…

Nor:

Do unto others…

It’s not even:

Don’t have sex outside of heterosexual marriage.

(Although if you listen to some quarters you’d think this was so!!)

The central belief of the Christian metanarrative, the beating heart of scripture and practice, is this:

No one is beyond redemption.

No one.

This doesn’t fit the “evil scum” narrative at all well, because that would have us believe, in our quest to remain comfortable, that one is either redeemed, or they are not.

I am redeemed. She is not.

But the Christian narrative says that’s not our call to make. And when it comes to those we write off as monsters, this is an impossible narrative to hold onto.

But hold it we must, amidst all our grief and confusion. Because, whatever monstrous acts she has done (or not), Shamima Begum is not a monster. She is a human being. She is one of our own. She has human DNA and human emotions and human reason and human capacity to suffer justice and show remorse and make amends and receive mercy. Or not, of course.

Despite the immediate comfort it offers (I am human; she is evil”), in the end the “evil scum” narrative will offer us little hope, and no justice.

We are human. We are creative and destructive, kind and cruel, wise and foolish. We have the capacity to do wondrous good, or catastrophic bad. Some human acts will be intensely evil, and justice must be served.

But, however awful their acts, no human is “evil”.
“Evil” is what we do, not who we are.
Evil is always a choice.

Here is hope:
We have a choice.
We are not doomed to evil.
We can turn move beyond evil.
Evil does not define us.
Here is hope.


Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
   righteousness and peace will kiss each other. 
Faithfulness will spring up from the ground,
   and righteousness will look down from the sky. 
The Lord will give what is good,
   and our land will yield its increase. 
Righteousness will go before him,
   and will make a path for his steps.

From Psalm 85

Is God calling me to be a priest?

The following is adapted from reflections I shared this weekend at the Diocese of Chester’s annual vocations event: Called to Serve.

Every person is called to serve God in some way – vocation is always part of our discipleship. Ordained ministry is one way among many to serve God as a disciple, and it is by no means the best way, the purest way or the holiest way. It is certainly not the only valid ministry within the church and the world – and I hope you’re getting a sense of that today.

One of the things candidates for ordination wrestle with is the question of what is distinctive about ordained ministry. No longer is it the case that ordination is the only way to have a full time ministry – many lay church based ministries can also be full time, and many who are ordained have a full time ministry away from, and not within, the church, in their communities and places of work.

So what is distinctive about ordained ministry? I always encourage candidates to look at the Ordinal – the liturgy for ordination – when they’re considering this question.

Deacons share in the pastoral ministry of the Church and in leading God’s people in worship. They preach the word and bring the needs of the world before the Church in intercession. They accompany those searching for faith and bring them to baptism. They assist in administering the sacraments; they distribute communion and minister to the sick and housebound. Deacons are to seek nourishment from the Scriptures; they are to study them with God’s people, that the whole Church may be equipped to live out the gospel in the world. They are to be faithful in prayer, expectant and watchful for the signs of God’s presence, as he reveals his kingdom among us.

Priests are called to be servants and shepherds among the people to whom they are sent. With their Bishop and fellow ministers, they are to proclaim the word of the Lord and to watch for the signs of God’s new creation. They are to be messengers, watchmen and stewards of the Lord; they are to teach and to admonish, to feed and provide for his family, to search for his children in the wilderness of this world’s temptations, and to guide them through its confusions, that they may be saved through Christ for ever. Formed by the word, they are to call their hearers to repentance and to declare in Christ’s name the absolution and forgiveness of their sins. With all God’s people, they are to tell the story of God’s love. They are to baptize new disciples in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and to walk with them in the way of Christ, nurturing them in the faith. They are to unfold the Scriptures, to preach the word in season and out of season, and to declare the mighty acts of God. They are to preside at the Lord’s table and lead his people in worship, offering with them a spiritual sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. They are to bless the people in God’s name. They are to resist evil, support the weak, defend the poor, and intercede for all in need. They are to minister to the sick and prepare the dying for their death. Guided by the Spirit, they are to discern and foster the gifts of all God’s people, that the whole Church may be built up in unity and faith.

For some people, this way of life – as a deacon or a priest – is what God is calling them to as part of their discipleship. Vocation to ordination always begins with discipleship – with a deepening of your relationship with God, and a growing or nagging sense that God is asking more of you.

So you might be here today because of that growing or nagging sense – because you’ve felt it in yourself or because someone else has seen it in you. Or you might be here because you’re really unsure what you’re feeling, and you simply want to know more.

How might a person know that God is calling them to ordination? Well – the short answer is that there are no quick answers! Vocation to ordination travels through us in two directions, and it takes time to sense this movement of God and discern what is going on.

The first direction is from within. A person called to ordination has to sense and own that vocation for themselves. If everyone else around you tells you that you would be a good vicar, but the thought fills you with dread and loathing – then it’s probably not your vocation! Of course, there are always a few Jonahs – those dragged into this way of life begging for it to be otherwise. But, on the whole, if you can’t get to a point where you articulate yourself why you think God is calling you to this, then it’s probably not the right path for you.

Of course, the other side of this is that if ordained ministry is something you really would like to offer your life to, then we need to hear that desire and take it seriously. So often in the church we believe that God wouldn’t possibly ask us to do anything we actually want to do! But discipleship and vocation, at their heart, are not chores to be endured, by a joyful and freeing way of offering the whole of our life to God. Desire and vocation always go hand in hand.

So vocation comes from within and flows out of us – we sense it and we own it and we become open to where it will lead us.

But vocation also comes from out here – from the world around you. It might be someone else who firsts recognises your call to ordination – your vicar or a friend or family member. Or it might be that as you begin the process of exploring the possibility of ordination, that others see in you a growing vocation to this. It might be that in the process of exploring your vocation, the church begins to affirm and recognise that calling. And so what other people say matters too.

When a candidate for ordination comes to see us, we look at an early stage for this movement of vocation – moving out to the church from within you, and moving towards you from others in the church.

And the vocations process is designed to help you grow in these two ways: candidates exploring ordination will find that their inner sense of vocation grows and deepens as they journey through the process. And they will also find that outer confirmation increases too – that others encourage them and see that deepening calling as they explore it.

So how might we know that God is calling a person to ordination? It all comes down to the word “yes”. A candidate’s “yes” to God, the church’s “yes” to the candidate – which comes through the vocations process, and then in both of these we find God’s “yes” – to the candidate and to the church.

What sort of person is called to ordination? There’s another short answer to this question – and the answer is “anybody”! Those called to ordination will usually already be serving their local church or community in some way – although some may not be. They will have a growing, attractive faith. They will be people of integrity who can be trusted. They will have a love for God, for God’s people, and for the Church (despite its shortcomings). They will have a passion for the flourishing of the Church, and for sharing God’s love with the people around them. And they will almost always suffer from imposter syndrome!

But people of all ages, genders, nationalities, occupations and backgrounds are called to ordination – and thank God for that!

So what next? I hope today is a helpful early step for you as you begin to work out where God might be calling you. The first thing we always look for is this sense of vocation. We are looking for a sense of vocation which, as I’ve said, is coming from within you, and from around you. We are looking for a sense of vocation which is changing you and drawing you nearer to God. And we are looking for a sense of vocation which is informed, obedient, and realistic. Informed – in that you’re willing to learn more about the life to which you think you’re called (which I’m guessing is why you’re here today!) obedient – that is, that you are ready to make sacrifices as a response to God’s calling, and to follow it through wherever God leads, and realistic – that is, that what you are offering for at this point in your life is do-able and deliverable. Informed, obedient, and realistic.

So some questions that might help your reflections today are:

  • Am I sensing any stirring of vocation within myself to this way of life?
  • Does what I am hearing today leave me feeling excited and enthusiastic, or exhausted and drained?
  • What might my desires tell me about any vocation I may have?