“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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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.

“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?

We are the Advent people

“Best. Christmas. Ever”.

So ran a supermarket advertising campaign last year.

Every year on Christmas afternoon, I feel a bit deflated. Yes, it’s probably 99% tiredness after the energy and emotion poured into Christmas in the parish. But there is also a part of me, every year, that thinks “Is this it?”

Is this it?

For all the hype and the build up and the long hours spent wrapping presents and preparing food and looking forward to – Christmas feels a little bit like ‘blink and you’ll miss it’. Have I ever enjoyed the elusive “Best. Christmas. Ever”? No.

The church makes a big deal of Advent – a time of waiting and preparation. What we don’t do quite so well is remind ourselves that, for all our preparations, Christmas Day actually isn’t it. However patient our waiting, however sincere our choruses of “O Come O Come”, if our focus is on how the big day works out, then our waiting will feel frustrated.

One of my favourite quotes is from John Paul II:

Do not abandon yourselves to despair. We are the Easter people, and hallelujah is our song.

Through Advent this year, something within me has wanted to turn this inside out a little:

Do not abandon yourselves to despair. We are the Advent people, and our waiting will go on.

Watchful, faithful, active waiting.

We are called, as God’s people, to watch for signs of the Divine Kingdom: to look for glimmers of hope and light and life and love – and to bring these glimmers out of darkness and let them shine brightly.

We are called, as God’s people, to stay faithful: to hold on to God’s promises, no matter how unfaithful we feel we may be, and to have confidence to begin again, and again.

We are called, as God’s people, to be active in our waiting. When we see places and meet people who are in desperate need of justice and compassion, our watchful waiting must become active: we are called to be agents of change and justice in the unfairness of life around us.

We are called. And we are called together. As one. As the Advent people.

I know I will feel a sense of deflation this year, as Christmas Day passes as fast as any other day, as the preparations cease and as my Advent busyness is replaced by Boxing Day emptiness. It’s ok to feel deflated.

But I hope I might remember, too, that one day was never going to fulfill the emptiness within me: the yearning for something more, something better.

The hope and joy shaped holes with me will never be filled by Christmas Day. Not even the “Best. Christmas. Ever.”

Filling these gaps takes longer. But they are being filled, ever so slowly, by the hope of a promise.

The promise of a God who is still at work to redeem this world, and who invites us to join in.

The promise of a homecoming that we are yet to make.

And the promise of a life, which begins now and never ends, in which we will find peace, and love, and wellbeing.

If Christmas 2017 was your “best Christmas ever”, then my commiserations for this year and every year following. But I believe – and I dare to hope – that for all of us, the best is yet to come.

And in the meantime:

We are the Advent people, and our waiting will go on!

 

Go and share your bread: Austerity, Abundance, and the Kingdom of God

The following is adapted from a sermon that will preached at Holy Cross, Timperley, on Sunday 29th July 2018 (Trinity 9).


austerity
ɒˈstɛrɪti,ɔːˈstɛrɪti/
noun
noun: austerity; plural noun: austerities
  1. 1.
    sternness or severity of manner or attitude.
    “he was noted for his austerity and his authoritarianism”
    • plainness and simplicity in appearance.
      “the room was decorated with a restraint bordering on austerity”
    • a feature of an austere way of life.
      “his uncle’s austerities had undermined his health”
  2. 2.
    difficult economic conditions created by government measures to reduce public expenditure.
    “the country was subjected to acute economic austerity”

Austerity has become one of our defining narratives. Stories – life – based on the assumption that “There is not enough to go round”. We’re told that we must tighten our belts, adapt to scarcity, get used to hardship, and guard the resources we still have.

Thank God, I’m not a politician or an economist, but a theologian. Because I believe that austerity is not the way of God, nor is it the way to enable a society to thrive. Short term hardship for long term benefits doesn’t wash when the short term becomes the long term, and the gap between the rich and the poor grows larger and larger. But I’m not here to preach economics.

Austerity is not the way of God, and yet it is the starting point for Jesus’ followers in John’s account of the Feeding of the Five Thousand. Philip and Andrew are anxious, and we can hear the cogs whirring:

Get the people home. It’s nearly dark and there’s no food. Send them away to fend for themselves. There is not enough to go round. We have to come up with a different plan: we could invest six month’s wages in this crowd and it would be money down the drain.

But Jesus knows a way better than anxious austerity. Anxiety is never a good state of mind to be in. Anxious leaders create anxious followers, and anxious people suppress creativity, increase irritability and achieve little.

And so Jesus shows these anxious guys a different solution to the impossible. Not austerity, but abundance. Not scarcity, but generosity. Not fear, but trust.

What are we to make of the Feeding of the Five Thousand? Some of us think it was a divine supernatural act. Others of us acknowledge that God can work miraculously through the most ordinary of acts, such as a shared lunch. But this miracle was not divine conjouring trick, nor an exercise in sharing.

This miracle was about God and about what God wants for God’s people. Jesus showed that crowd, as the Gospel writers show us, the lavish, endless, inclusive, compassionate abundance of God: in God’s Kingdom there is always enough.

God’s abundant goodness. A God of love who has enough for all. This is the love that Paul talks about in his letter to the Ephesians: a love of incomprehensible, endless depth and height and breadth. A love so all encompassing, so abundant, that we will never fully grasp it.

I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

The narrative of austerity has no place in God’s kingdom, because austerity is rooted in fear and suspicion of the other. Austerity is not about love, but control, or simple, catastrophic indifference. These are not the ways of God.

What about us?

We don’t have endless resources. We have limited time, energy, health, money – as frail humans, even our capacity to love and to have faith is limited. Some of us are giving all that we can. Perhaps some of us might, at some point and through the grace of God, feel moved to offer more.

But as people of limited resources, how do we model and live out the abundant love of Christ?

Perhaps it is enough, at first, for us to know God’s love for us. Perhaps it is enough only to grow deeper into this love. To own it and experience it and share it: to claim it for ourselves and for those around us. To see God’s love for the darkest, most rotten parts of ourselves; for those we love and those we despise and those we are indifferent to. To know a love of endless abundance. Perhaps the whole of life is about coming to dwell more deeply within that knowledge. Perhaps on the deepest level, that is all God asks of us.

And yet, as we go more deeply into love, as we come to dwell within it, we are always changed. Perhaps we discover a corner of our heart that is more austere than we knew. Perhaps we discover a hardness within ourselves: an unresponsiveness and a frantic, anxious clinging on to a finite resource that, in the end, will never bring us joy. Perhaps, as we know God more deeply, so we become open to the question: “Are my resources really as limited as I believed?” Perhaps we find that we do have more to offer, and we come to know a deepening of our generosity.

And as we ask that question, perhaps we also discover a depth of abundance within ourselves that is without limit and full to brimming. Maybe we discover gifts to be handed away endlessly: Love, tolerance, kindness, compassion, understanding of the other, trust, faith: perhaps beyond our time and our material resources and hardness of heart, we do have quite a lot to offer by way of abundance.

Imagine a world where each of us modelled abundant kindness. Endless tolerance. Endless compassion. Endless forgiveness. Endless understanding. I don’t think that such a world would be a world of austerity. I think that world would be God’s world.

As we hear this story of bread broken, shared and left over, our eyes are drawn to the table before us. It is only in our own breaking of bread and pouring of wine, as we celebrate Holy Communion, that we find the fulfilment of this story. Here, week on week, we enact the abundant, self-giving, inclusive, immeasurable love of God.

As I preside at the Eucharist, I always try (and sometimes fail!) to ensure that there is more than enough bread, and more than enough wine. The theological significance of having some leftover shouldn’t be lost on us after reminding ourselves of this miracle of abundance. In the Kingdom of God there is always more than enough.

And it is no use partaking in this sacrament, week on week, if we remain unchanged by this abundance. We cannot change the ways of others. We cannot alter the stinginess and miserliness of the world around us. But we can change ourselves. My hope and prayer for each of us here who feast on the abundance of heaven, is that we do not leave this place unchanged, but that we renew our resolve to give everything that we have, and everything that we are, for the good of the people of this world.

And so go out today, back into this austere, weary world full of people who are under so much strain; go from here and share your bread. Model kindness, compassion and love as if there is no other currency by which to live. Because in the Kingdom of God, kindness, compassion, and love need no guarding, no rationing, and no hierarchy. They are for all and they are endless. As people of God, will we hear the call to grow into abundant love, and to allow ourselves to be shaped by that abundance?

20180726_195159

The well-keeper: Clergy in an age of busy

I wrote recently about self-care, with this caveat:

I am a champion of the importance of self-care. Wellbeing, resilience, self-awareness, wholeness – call it what you like but whatever term we use, it’s important. And it’s important not solely for our own sake, but so that we can be a resource, a wellspring to those around us.

And I’m grateful to David, who left this thought on the post:

I love the connection you have made about the importance of self-care and being a wellspring. Wellspringing- could that be the refreshing replacement for the overused “wellbeing”?

Some months ago I was part of a conversation with clergy colleagues about how Church of England clergy can – and should – grow a deeper awareness of what their congregations do when they’re not in church. As the conversation inevitably meandered, the question arose:

“What’s the point of clergy?”

There are a million different ways to hear this question, never mind answer it. In this instance, it arose out of an understanding that those who are not clergy (“the “laity”) – that is, the majority of people who walk into churches – might be nurtured by, and grow through, not just activities that happen “inside” churches, but in a life beyond church.

Forgive me if I say that this is a frightening thought for clergy in a church which has at times, however inadvertently, failed to hear, understand, nurture and liberate its members through previous decades (think: sheep and shepherds, children and fathers, ekklesia and presbyter – all metaphors with both deep value and severe limitation).

But if clergy are no longer to be (only) shepherds, fathers and presbyters, then what metaphor might serve a church which is intentional about “Setting God’s People Free”? The Ordinal offers powerful and deep descriptions of priestly ministry, and these deserve much meditation, consideration and reflection (I often tell candidates I see for ordination to spend time reflecting prayerfully on these images).

Priests

 

Father doesn’t know best

Well, not always. For a fleeting time, I used to catch my 5 year old up to no good. Responding to his amazement at my 360 degree omniscience, I would say “Well, mummies know everything”.

I stopped that pretty quickly. One day soon he’ll discover it’s not true, and I’d rather have my integrity intact when he does.

How tempting is it for those of us in priestly ministry to assume an air of “the ministry professional knows everything?” I suspect most of our people know that’s not true, even if we’re adamant that it is!

Institutions are wrecked. We have moved past the point where authority itself is license to speak or act or persuade.

And amazingly, how few of these priestly metaphors are about knowing everything? How few are about authority (at least in a worldly sense) and power and control and knowledge?

Watching, walking, telling stories, discerning, sustaining, delighting, searching, offering: what intense metaphors these are for the awesome and impossible task of holding a community of faith together!

The well-keeper

Ever since that conversation with my colleagues, I’ve been musing on the metaphor of well-keeper. In an age where 90% of Christian ministry happens outside the church building, where Christians spend perhaps just a few hours a week coming into church, where the church as institution is dying while spirituality unfettered by religion is booming, then what’s the point of clergy?

Perhaps clergy are the well-keepers. They are the ones who might find life-giving water, and share it round. They start with no special knowledge or strength: it is their own thirst which drives them to the well. And when they find it, they have no monopoly on the water. The water is a free-flowing gift, although it might be that clergy have the time and resources to dig a little deeper and set the flow going.

To those who seek rest and sanctuary, clergy might offer peace, a sounding board, a listening ear. To those who live frenetic lives, they offer attentiveness and availability. For those facing uncertainty and doubt, their listening and their words instil value and build confidence, renew vocation and discern God’s voice.

Clergy are the well-keepers. They find the water and build the wells. They maintain them, and repair them when they’re damaged. They signpost others to them. And they draw from them themselves.

The pun is deliberate, and this brings us full circle.  It is only from the path to wholeness that we can call others to join us. There is a calling on clergy to keep well as they keep the wells. Of course, wholeness and wellness are destinations yet to be reached. Sometimes they feel far away or only mirages. But clergy must be committed to their own self-awareness, self-management, and self-care. Not only for themselves, but for the flourishing of the whole people of God.

In busyness and panic and chaos and simple everyday life, in the mutuality of lay and ordained vocations, perhaps it is clergy who have – or should have – the gifts, the time, and the tools to stop, to dig, to drink, and to call others to do likewise.

20170728_133054

When God doesn’t get cross even though we mess up

One of my children has been quite bad tempered recently. I thought he was just tired. But yesterday evening, as we sat having dinner, he hinted at why. “I don’t like Mrs Jones…”

I let the comment go, but later, we sat quietly and I probed a bit further.

“Why don’t you like Mrs Jones then?”

“I don’t want to tell you”.

I took a punt:

“Did you get told off today?”

“No”. He replied. “Last week”.

And I realised that this child had been holding in all this anguish from being told off – holding it in for a whole week. He was in turmoil. He didn’t want to tell me, because he thought I would give him a second telling off for this major transgression he had committed. It was so bad that Mrs Jones had removed him from the playground, and sent him back to his classroom. It was so bad that mummy must never find out, and he must hold in all this guilt and shame and frustration.

So before I asked what he had done to be sent inside and told off, I took another punt:

I’m not going to be cross with you. Mrs Jones has already been cross. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done, I don’t care, but if you want to tell me, you can”.

I was bracing myself to hear a story of infant violence or wanton destruction, and wondering how I would respond without being cross. The lip wobbled, and tears came into the eyes.

“I rode my bike outside the track”.

“Huh?”

“I was on the fast bike, and I wanted to overtake James who was on the slow bike, so I went around him off the track. And Mrs Jones told me to put the bike away and get inside because I had been naughty”.

So I laughed, and relief crossed his face (and mine, if I’m honest).

“Is that it?!” I said.

“Yes” he replied. Slightly bemused. Why wasn’t mummy going mad? He had thought, for a whole week, that he was going to get told off again if I found out. He didn’t realise that Mrs Jones was probably just having a bad day, or that she might not have meant to sound so cross or react so strongly.

We all have Mrs Jones moments – I have loads – but that’s not why I’m writing this.

After this conversation, I became my son’s advocate and accomplice. We had a few moments of ‘therapy’ to help him process some of his “I don’t like Mrs Jones” thoughts. I won’t tell you what we did, but it involved felt tips and a photograph – and a bin (and of course Mrs Jones is not her real name and we do like all of his school staff very much!!)

I was left wondering what this incident might show me about God. Are there times where we do stuff wrong, and suffer the consequences, and hold it all in, and become laden with shame and guilt and worthlessness – and God actually becomes our advocate? Does God become the one who says “I’m not going to be angry. You’ve already suffered. I’m not going to add to your guilt and shame. In fact, I’m going to help you deal with this guilt and be even happier than you were before all this went wrong”?

Today’s Morning Prayer reading (one of!) is from the prophet Ezekiel, writing to a people in exile: to a people who have really made a mess of things and who find themselves cast out away from their home. Ezekiel speaks the words of God:

“Thus says the Lord God: Though I removed them, far away among the nations, and through I scattered them among the countries, yet I have been a sanctuary to them for a little while in the countries where they have gone”.

I think, last night, I became a sanctuary for a little boy who had committed a minor transgression, turned it into a major thing in his mind, and then sat with the guilt. Someone who had been cast out – or in – to the classroom. And I suspect God does that for us. We tie ourselves in knots of guilt and shame, we get shut out of the life we really want to have, and then God says:

“You are far away, you are scattered, you are lost. You’ve got yourself into a mess. But still I will be your sanctuary in exile. And I will bring you home.”