God Is Calling

GodsCallingyou

A sermon on Luke 5:1-11

***

I did an interview with Premier Christian Radio for their programme ‘Called To Be A Priest.’ I’m on from 15:58! Click here to listen.

***

Simon Peter’s washing his nets after a hard night’s work. By all accounts, it’s been a frustrating night: he and his friends have caught nothing, despite all their hard work, despite doing everything right. He looks up, and there’s Jesus getting into a boat, his boat as it happens! Simon Peter knows it’s Jesus because you don’t easily forget the guy who heals your mother-in-law! He goes to him, Jesus asks to be taken out a little way from the shore, and he obliges. He gets a front row seat as Jesus turns his boat into a pulpit and preaches the word of God to the gathered crowds.

As the crowds start to disperse, Jesus turns to Simon Peter and says, ‘put your nets out.’ Simon Peter looks slightly incredulous for a moment, ‘But we worked all night and caught nothing, but because it’s you, Jesus, I’ll do it.’ Fish rush the nets which begin to break under the strain, Simon Peter calls for reinforcements to deal with the fish stampede. He looks at all the fish. He looks at Jesus. He falls to his knees before him. ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.’ As those around him continue to marvel at the massive aquatic haul, Simon Peter knows that the real marvel is the man in front of him. Jesus continues, ‘Don’t be afraid; you see all this?’ He points at the fish. ‘You’re going to keep doing this, but with people, my people.’ They return to the shore, Simon Peter drops everything, and follows Jesus.

We know it turns out to be the best decision Simon Peter makes; he gets a front row seat at Jesus’ miracles, at his teaching; he plays a key role in the early church and in proclaiming the Gospel. And, I was in Rome this time last week, he gets an alright basilica named for him! His recognition in that moment on the boat of who Jesus is and his decision to follow him and respond to his calling, is the beginning of a pretty spectacular, if not always easy, adventure.

But what if Simon Peter hadn’t listened to God’s call and responded in the way he did? He didn’t have to. He’s still got a couple of Jesus-stories he could’ve dined out on for the rest of his life. When news reached him of Jesus’ death he could’ve said, ‘Oh, that’s a shame, back in the day he came here, healed your grandmother!’ as his children rolled their eyes, having heard the story a hundred times before. ‘Back in the day.’ ‘I met him, once or twice.’ ‘I heard that he did some miracles, yeah, he offered me the chance to come with him… still, I’ve got that day with the fish to remember him by.’

It’s very easy to encounter Jesus and not have it change your life. You can meet the living God and have it stay with you as something wonderful and incredible that you will always remember, and then watch from the side-lines as he goes about his kingdom business. ‘But because you’ says Simon Peter. But because God is who he says he is, if he we see him, if we recognise him, how can we not respond as Simon Peter did? We are not created to be bystanders, we are not called to watch God from a distance. We are created to be active participants with the Holy Spirit bringing about God’s Kingdom here on earth; we are called to take up our place as God’s chosen, as God’s beloved, as God’s hands and feet. If Simon Peter had shrugged off his call, stayed a fisherman, the amount God loved him would not have changed, not one bit. But in realising his call, in his realising who and what he was created to be, in recognising that Jesus is God, he got to experience so much more of God and be used by him in unimaginable but incredible ways.

A man gets to heaven and St Peter is giving him a tour of the place. ‘Throne room is over there, the angels live upstairs, they’re a bit raucous.’ ‘What’s in here?’ asks the man. ‘Oh, you can have a look, but I recommend you don’t.’ The man’s like ‘Totes having a look’ and opens the door and let’s out a massive sigh. In the room are boxes full of all the blessings, all the opportunities, all the moments of intimacy that God wanted and had planned for the man and that he had avoided.’ Don’t be a bystander. God’s first calling on each and every one of us is to himself, to know him and experience him and through that intimacy with him, discover who we are created to be. God knows what he’s doing, he knew what he did when he made you, and the most important thing he made you to be is his child and his friend who he can spend time with. Don’t be a bystander. Get involved with the God of universe, take up your front-row ticket and your backstage pass. Don’t be a bystander.

Don’t be a bystander and don’t make excuses! Simon Peter almost tries to, ‘but I’ve caught no fish, why try again?’ He doesn’t make the same mistake when he’s called to be a fisher of men. As Rachel mentioned earlier, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and talking about calling this year as I have been in the discernment process exploring a call to ordination. Trust the Church of England to take something very exciting and make it sound really dull! Unlike Simon Peter, who was obedient to God’s call pretty much immediately, I was not. I made so many excuses to God about why I couldn’t possibly do this thing he was calling me to. God, I’m not holy enough, I’m not clever enough, I’m a very unhelpful combination of being bossy and yet also shy, which, God, seems awfully unhelpful for a vicar. Then I went for, God, I can’t do this because I’m a girl and not only that, I’m not even married – and both of those arguments went down spectacularly badly with God.

And there are many things I have learnt in this process of discernment and wrestling with God over his call on me. The first is, I’m not fully qualified. But that’s not a problem, God doesn’t call the equipped, he equips the called. The second is, I will never be fully qualified. There’s a really good reason for that, which is, I’m not God. I cannot bear the weight of this calling on my own, I have to continually turn to Jesus, to lean on him and his power rather than doing it by myself, in my own strength. And third, it’s not actually all about me. I can’t do it, I’m not holy enough, I’m not clever enough, I’m not good enough so I won’t do it – that attitude makes it all about me. And it’s not. Your calling doesn’t just affect you, it affects those around you.

We are all like instruments in an orchestra; we play different roles and play at different times, but if we don’t play at all, someone else misses their cue. God’s call on you, isn’t just for your life but other people’s lives as well, and you might have no idea and be completely oblivious to how God uses you in this way. You know, I stayed at St Clement’s because one person followed God’s prompting to say hello to me, to ask my name, and what I did, and get to know me. They were following God’s call to use their gift of welcoming and hospitality, and had no idea that God was using them to speak something very specific from God into life. Rachel mentioned a few weeks ago about the importance of encouraging one another in our gifts, of discerning people’s calling. I am so grateful for all the people who have encouraged me in my calling. We never do discernment of our calling alone, we do it with God and we do it with one another. And as we go about responding to God’s call, we continue to do it together; God never expects us to bear the weight of it by ourselves.

Don’t make excuses, because it’s not all about you. But also, don’t make excuses, because some of those excuses are not from you. Excuses like, ‘I can’t afford this’ or ‘my boss wouldn’t like it’ or ‘how do you expect to have a comfortable retirement’ are not questions that are prompted by common sense or thinking rationally. Excuses like ‘oh, I thought God was calling me to this but that was probably just my imagination’ or ‘was God there in that situation, or did I just get through it by myself?’ If it causes you to doubt God’s faithfulness and sovereignty, then it’s not from common sense, it’s from the enemy. And the enemy wants nothing more than to turn you in on yourself, because if you’re turned into yourself, you’re not looking God. You’re not looking at the one who calls you and who is faithful.

Don’t be afraid. says Jesus in verse 10. Don’t be afraid. God is faithful. God is faithful, has been faithful, and always will be faithful. We’re at the start of Simon Peter’s journey, if you want to know just how faithful God was to Simon Peter, just know, we’re on week 2 of an entire sermon series on him and his life and we’re going to be with him until like nearly Christmas. And when we’re not bystanders, we get to experience his faithfulness every day if we let him in. The biggest joy of the discernment process for me was I had to look back over my life and I realise that there has not been a single moment since the 21st November 1991 where God hasn’t been faithful. Jesus reveals who he is to Simon Peter before he reveals his calling, because it means we have to trust him first. The voice of common sense says, this is the God who has never let me down, if he says go or do or be, my money’s on him. Look at the cross, his cross, it’s the most perfect and enduring mark of his faithfulness.  So don’t be afraid; Jesus is going to repeat that to us as he does to Simon Peter. Even when you can’t see how it’s going to work or what the future holds, God sees it, he holds it, and he holds you. Don’t be afraid, the one who calls you is faithful.

So what are you waiting for? God’s calling, don’t wait! He’s faithful, he’s good, he’s created us for a particular calling. And I don’t know that might be for you. It might be God’s called you to something specific, a specific job or a specific place. It might be that he has called you through a particular gifting that you have that he wants you to exercise. God is creative, so don’t do discernment through a narrow lens. And often the first step to realising God’s call on you comes from other people, so let’s discern together, we’re family, it’s part of our remit. And when you realise what it is, don’t wait. Don’t wait a single moment, but do a Simon Peter and just go for it.

I waited ten years; it was ten years between God first calling and my doing something proactive about it. Of course it’s good to test vocations, but it’s also important to be obedient. God was persistent with me, he never let it go, but what I’ve never told anyone is that there was a time for about eight months, where God was silent on the topic. And I can tell you exactly where I was when I realised that I hadn’t heard any voice mention my calling. And I can tell you exactly how I felt. Through fear and excuses, I followed my own path that I thought would lead me to freedom but instead it bound me in chains. I’m pretty terrified about how the rest of my life is going to look, to be honest, I really don’t think I’m going to suit a dog collar, but the agony of glimpsing the blueprint of my soul and then realising it’s been locked away is the worst feeling. And when God, faithful, wonderful God, called again, handed me back the calling I was created for, I have never felt so alive and so free and so loved.

Don’t wait. Don’t wait to draw close to God, to take up your first and most important calling which is to being his beloved, knowing him and being known by him, experiencing his incredible love. Don’t wait until you think you’re ready, because otherwise you’ll be waiting for forever. You’re going to sin anyway, it’s a downside to being human, you might as well do a Simon Peter and sin right next to Jesus so he can forgive you and pick you up right away. Don’t wait a moment longer to say however timidly, however worriedly, however excitedly, ‘Here I am.’ Don’t wait.

Don’t be a bystander. God is calling you to himself.

Don’t make excuses. It’s not about you, it’s about the one who’s called you.

Don’t be afraid. Because the one who calls you is faithful.

Don’t wait. It begins with just three words: Here I am.

Advertisements

A Hunch About Love

TRP-content-image

Theology is…

‘Theology is the hunch that love really is the meaning of everything.’[1] So began my first ever theology lecture. Did any of us fresh-faced eighteen year olds really know what we had signed up to in undertaking a theology degree? When our intimidating, almost maverick, lecturer asked us what we thought theology was, our timid answers were noble enough: the study of religion, asking questions about God, tackling the tough topics in contemporary society. But the definition of theology we were left with, and which most of us subsequently ran with for the remainder of our studies, was one that rested on a hunch about love. Of all the things we learnt in that introduction to theology course, (the theological method, why we should read all thirteen million words of Barth’s Church Dogmatics, and a recipe for a particularly potent brew of parsnip wine), that hunch about love proved itself to be the driving force, however unconsciously or indirectly, of our theological endeavours at university, and perhaps beyond.

While not having a single concrete, agreed upon definition of theology is not inherently problematic, certain ideas or understandings of theology have often meant that the discipline has come under intense scrutiny over its place in higher education; ‘ever since the fading of its illusory splendour as a leading academic power during the Middle Ages, theology has taken too many pains to justify its own experience…theology has first to renounce all apologetics or external guarantees of its position within the environment of other sciences, for it will always stand on the firmest ground when it simply acts according to the law of its own being.’[2] Theology has seemingly fallen from being “Queen of the Sciences” to a pariah of higher education. In one of his many diatribes against theology, Richard Dawkins wrote, ‘what has theology ever said that is of the smallest use to anybody? When has theology ever said anything that is demonstrably true?…The achievements of theologians don’t do anything, don’t affect anything, don’t mean anything. What makes anyone think that “theology” is a subject at all?’[3] Perhaps this suspicion of theology in universities can be blamed on how it ‘usually exists not just as the most delicate but also the most spectacularly tiny department in most of our universities,’[4] or, more likely, on a post-enlightenment general misgiving about religion. But to go against Barth and justify theology’s place in our universities today, I have to appeal to a hunch about love. Storge (στοργή), Philia (φιλία), Éros (ἔρως), and Agápe (ἀγάπη) are the four Greek words for love which roughly translate as familial love, friendship, romance, and God-love respectively.[5] Under these four types of love, the role of theology in higher education will be explored, its potential examined, and the hunch about love may yet become something stronger than just a hunch.

Storge: on pursuing your passions

Storge, what C.S. Lewis refers to as Affection, is ‘the least discriminating of loves…almost anyone can become an object of Affection; the ugly, the stupid, even the exasperating.’[6] It is a form of Need-love, personified by familial relationships, particularly those between children and parents, and is paradoxical in the way it is a quasi-selfish love based on how children require something of their parents, but their parents long to give something of their selves in the first place. For theology, affection can be understood as pursuing what it is you are passionate about. These passions, these affections, are not to be dismissed. The pursuit of knowledge can never be trivial, as is often demonstrated in university mottos, like Cognitio, Sapientia, Humanitas, (Knowledge, Wisdom, Humanity, Manchester); Rerum cognoscere causas, (to understand the causes of things, LSE); and In limine sapientiæ, (on the threshold of wisdom, York). That theology offers so many avenues to explore is a testament to the discipline itself. As a student, my theology degree has taken me from religion in popular music, to the Gospel parallels in Quentin Tarantino movies, to the theological implication of Rembrandts, Bacons, and Bruegels. None of these affections are inconsequential to either theology or the person to whom the passion belongs. If theology’s sole role in higher education is only Storge, then that in itself justifies its existence.

Philia: on not doing theology from an ivory tower

‘Can other sciences really keep theology separated from themselves, isolated in some corner like a merely tolerated Cinderella?’[10] asks Barth. Theology is impossible to do in isolation; you cannot do theology from an ivory tower as what it means to be a theologian can only be lived out. To live out theology is to do it in community, in Philia, in friendship. As a complex and multifaceted discipline, theology interweaves systematics, biblical studies, philosophy, history, languages, sociology, anthropology and more, and is enriched by being in dialogue with other disciplines from biology to literature. Celebrating inter- and intra-disciplinarity does not dilute theology’s importance, but it points to how engaging and active a subject it is. If no man is an island, then no theology student can be an island either; there is much to gain from connecting disciplines and approaches. This Philia between departments is what makes universities flourishing and cohesive communities, and also helps in the development and discovery of Affections. Theology as a discipline is ideally structured for collaboration with other disciplines, its breadth and fluidity preserve it from becoming static. Take the area of biblical studies for example, a sub-discipline of theology with, quite literally, thousands of years of scholarship behind it, it has seen a rejuvenation in recent years through the discipline of biblical reception history, facilitating a fresh look at texts and their historical interpretations in light of contemporary ideologies and cultures, and allowing for critical theological engagement with relatively new media such as film. The inherent relevance that theology will always hold should not make it complacent but determinedly ready to engage with new developments in culture and society as they arise. And as universities have a duty to be at the forefront of academic engagement with the world, having a place for theology within higher education should therefore be a necessity.

Ultimately, ‘theological work is service…it cannot be pursued for its own sake,’[11] it has to act over and against itself, point towards an other. Historically, theology has worked in service for faith communities, and this can be seen in the confessional foundations of many theology departments. Today, theology is in service for and in Philia with a whole host of communities, secular and sacred. Theology, at its best, works for preferential treatment of the vulnerable and works against the oppressive status quo. In what Gorringe terms ‘over-againstness,’[12] theology’s duty is not to be an end in itself, but to look beyond itself. Sometimes theology has failed in its duty to do this; ‘it is a challenge for religious studies and theology departments to be inclusive without making an unspoken but nonetheless conspicuous truth claim like those associated with theological pluralism,’[13] and insider privilege remains problematic. Theology has not always been in Philia with all those trying to do theology. Liberation, Black, Feminist, and Womanist theologies all arose in part due to the exclusivity systematic theology can be prone to and, even today, systematic theology is still perceived as a sub-discipline with ‘gendered baggage.’[14]

But theology, when it takes its commitment to Philia seriously, is valuable and powerful. The best theology I have done as a student has not been done from the ivory tower of the university, it has been done literally in the mud and the dirt. In a final year module on food, faith, and farming, we were taken to see farmers struggling against supermarket oligopolies, we had soil thrust under our noses so we could experience what truly healthy topsoil smells like, and we augmented our own community as students by preparing and sharing a meal together. Theological service done well is not about being a voice for the voiceless, but about quieting down the other voices so that the voiceless can use their own voice for perhaps the first time. Theology should grapple with questions of meaning and truth and engage with ideas of beauty, but theology ultimately should be done in the mess and the pain of the lived experiences of the oppressed. When it engages over-againstness and points beyond itself, theology’s most important purpose is revealed.

Éros: on welcoming everyone

Éros is powerful, beautiful, and fragile and might appear an incongruous way of describing theology’s role in higher education. A theology of Éros is a Eucharistic Éros. Jesus’ instruction to “do this in remembrance of me” should not ‘be understood simply to refer to Jesus’ handling of bread and wine on the night before he died, not exclusively in relation to the death that he was about to die. Jesus was, rather, calling the disciples to recognise and to remember the whole pattern of his table-fellowship – his profligate, decorum-snubbing, purity-endangering habit of sharing of bread and wine with sinners.’[17] A Eucharistic Éros thus begins with a welcome of what the wider world might see as the least desirable but which theology has a duty to see the beauty within. Theology is about saying ‘yes’ where the world may say ‘no,’ which is important in a higher education context where boundary markers have so often been placed to keep the unwanted at bay. Welcoming anyone and everyone ensures theology will never stagnate or become static, and it also helps keep universities accountable to being accessible for all.

Agápe: on loving and being loved

Any discussion of theology’s purpose cannot avoid the God question, the God/god/gods/goddess problem. ‘One major challenge of [this] century is to find the institutional creativity that can form environments in which theological wisdom can be pursed with integrity by those with different commitments.[18] But because the God question cannot be ignored, we turn to Agápe, this ‘primal love is Gift-love. In God there is no hunger that needs to be filled, only plenteousness that desires to give. The doctrine that God was under no necessity to create is not a piece of dry scholastic speculation. It is essential.’[19] Agápe finds its zenith in the crucifixion, it is a one word picture of God’s desire for the whole of creation, a passionate commitment to the other which absolutely refuses possessiveness, violence, and oppression and instead doggedly pursues reconciliation, healing, and hope. Through all angles of the theological method, this key act of loving and being loved has been the driving force of theology and remains so today. Through Storge, Philia, and Éros, theology has upheld Agápe without necessarily having to articulate a commitment to the God of the cross event in how it has sought to love people selflessly and also be loved through the enjoyment that can come through doing theology. Agápe is possible through secular and sacred theology because loving altruistically is not the domain solely of confessional theology, even if the cross event does function as the paradigm for that kind of love. This kind of love makes a serious commitment to others where the rest of the world may have maligned them; this kind of love pays close attention to people’s experiences of pain and of hope; this kind of love is empowering, enabling people to find their voices and then facilitating those voices being heard. This is the purpose of theology in higher education, yes to educate and challenge and inspire, but more so to set a precedent on how to live and act for others. Theology in higher education extends far beyond the walls of the university and permeates every facet of society – at least, it should. This is not an idealistic whim, a gushy rhetoric on the discipline that I am passionate about and which, if some people had their way, would be forced to shrivel and die. This is not idealistic because Agápe is not idealistic. Something so rooted in a love which embraced death so that the other might have life can never be idealistic or meaningless, let alone allowed to fade from our universities. The magnitude of that love is too great for such a thing to happen.

So what is theology and what is its purpose in higher education? Is it those noble questions about religion, society, philosophy, life, death and, if you ever take a lecture with Tim Gorringe, why topsoil is like Jesus? Yes, but it is all this and more. Theology’s role in higher education is about pursuing the things which matter to you, championing those who have been brushed aside, and welcoming everyone regardless of what they may or may not bring to the table. Theology in higher education is about learning that justice is important and then living that justice, it is about playing a role across disciplines and then sharing the findings that more people may be inspired, and it is about following the most selfless act of love and embodying it as best as a fallible person can. I would like to go one step further than my erstwhile professor and say this: theology is the proof that love really is the meaning of everything. Long may theology, and all who do her, live this.

[1] Gorringe, T., ‘Introduction to Theology’ lecture given 05/10/10. [2] Barth, K., Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, (Grand Rapids, W. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996), p.15. [3] Dawkins, R., ‘The Emptiness of Theology,’ Free Inquiry Magazine, 18, 2. [4] Barth, (1996), p.11. [5] I am taking as my dialogue partner here C.S Lewis and his definitions and uses of the four loves. See Lewis, C.S., The Four Loves, (London: HarperCollins Publishers, 2012). [6] Lewis, C.S., The Four Loves, (London: HarperCollins Publishers, 2012), p.40. [10] Barth, (1996), p.111. [11] Ibid., p.185. [12] See Gorringe, T., Karl Barth: Against Hegemony, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999). [13] Quartermaine, ‘Theology and/or Religious Studies: A Response from Graduate Students,Discourse, 7, 1, (2007), p.51. [14] Guest, M., Sharma, S., and Song, R., Gender and Career Progression in Theology and Religious Studies, (Durham: Durham University, 2013), p.15. [17] Higton, M., ‘The Theology of Tim Gorringe’ in Higton, M., Law, J., and Rowland, C., Theology and Human Flourishing: Essays in Honour of Timothy J. Gorringe, (Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2011). p.2. [18] Ford, D., Theology: A Very Short Introduction, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p.173. [19] Lewis, (2012), p.153.

With Slightly Fewer Apologies, This Is Me

proverbs-31-christian-pick-up-line

What if, along the way, we’ve picked up ideas about what it means to be a Christian woman that just aren’t working? What if we’re tangled up in beliefs about who we should or could be that might be holding us back from finding our feet as the women God has made up to be?’

Rachel Gardner, ‘The Girl De-Construction Project’

Imagine the scene: it’s breakfast time in a farmhouse in middle-of-nowhere Cornwall. It’s the morning after the night before, the Christian version of which is the morning after a night of inadvertently staying up really late up having the deep deep chats where you all bear your soul and the scene becomes a thin place without you all realising it. You’re all around the kitchen table when someone asks ‘so how late did you guys stay up last night?’ One thing leads to another, and you end up put on the spot to re-deliver a monologue you gave in the early hours of the morning in the comfort of newly-deepened friendships. The gist is this: what the Proper Christian Woman is like. Over breakfast, people laugh either again or for the first time, but for you, it’s not quite as funny. Because, as the Cornish sun streams through the window and bounces off your cereal spoon, you realise that you’d really quite like to be the Proper Christian Woman. She’s married, she’s beautiful, she has kids, she has a perfectly turned out house, she can sing and bake and sew and do all three sections of the Bible in One Year in the morning. In short, she’s not just everything you’re not right now, she’s everything you probably never will be.

It’s fair to say that, along the way, I have picked up ideas about what it means to be a Christian woman that really haven’t worked. And I look at the teenagers in my youth group and at my female friends in various stages of life, and as I prepare to be in all sorts of contexts during my ordination training and beyond, I’ve been struck by the importance of modelling what it means to be a Christian woman who’s me, with all my dreams and hopes and fears and flaws.

I’ve been reading with great delight and much punching-the-air Rachel Gardner’s ‘The Girl De-Construction Project.’ If you haven’t read it, you must. It’s the book I wish I’d had at 15. It’s honest, vulnerable, and empowering. She actually uses the word ‘vagina!’ The books for Christian women and girls I grew up with re-enforced the depiction of girls and precious flowers with ears too delicate to dare utter the anatomical names for our body parts. She talks about sexuality in a way which is, sadly, revolutionary for 2018. She talks about arousal and sex dream and sensuality and masturbation. She talks about the clitoris (only slightly less than my MPhil thesis, not that it’s a competition) and it’s sensible rather than gratuitous.

She takes bodies seriously and sex seriously; her book as a whole is a stunning exercise in incarnational theology, it might not use technical theological language, but its theological integrity is both rich and obvious. This is not a haphazard work of empty platitudes and vague statements about God, this is a work of liberationist theology. And as I prepare to begin my DPhil constructing a theology of sexual consent, this book has helped re-ignite my passion for this topic and for the church to actually engage with it.

But she also takes formation seriously. She writes: ‘knowing who you are doesn’t start with you; it starts with the God who created you and is more attentive to you and who you’re becoming than you could possibly imagine.’ In a section called ‘know your body’ she talks about examining your hands and asking what they are telling your about what you might need, and includes in the list of potential answers, holding them out to God, because you need to let go of something that’s been weighing heavily on your heart.’ Formation is essential because it is never ending. Because the 15-year-old me had the same fears as Cornish farmhouse me as right now me, differently expressed but still ultimately the same. Because while God is endlessly creative, the enemy is vomitously repetitive. It is in paying attention to formation that we learn to hear God’s whispers of truth over the shouted lies of the devil. It’s important for all of us, but especially important for women.

I read ‘The Girl De-Construction Project’ alongside watching ‘Nanette,’ the remarkable stand-up special by Australian comedian, Hannah Gadsby. I don’t want to spoil it for you (although it’s been out for quite a while) but I would urge you to watch it.

At one point, Hannah says this:

I have built a career out of self-deprecating humour and I don’t want to do that anymore. Do you understand what self-deprecation means when it come from somebody who already exists in the margins? It’s not humility, it’s humiliation. I put myself down in order to speak, in order to seek permission to speak, and I simply will not do that anymore, not to myself or anybody who identifies with me.

It is a statement which resonates with me and I see it throughout so many of my female friends. Because us women, particularly those of us in evangelical circles, we were endlessly hounded to be humble, when actually it was humiliation dressed up as a virtue. When Gardner speaks properly about bodies, it’s actually a subversive act which is a healing balm to so much humiliation women and girls face just because they have the bodies they do. What both Gardner and Gadsby have in common is dismantling this socialised notion women have that they have to apologise just for existing, just for being. Both journey the formation path, their creative outputs having different destination points, but both pastoral in their own way.

***

One of the questions that has popped up now and again during the discernment process and now as an imminent ordinand has been ‘so what’s your ministry going to be, do you reckon?’ First off, I don’t even know how you train for ordination, let alone the super hard part that comes after it. (No, but seriously, how do you train for ordination? This was actually never mentioned on any vicar school open days). Second, how should I know? I don’t even know where I am on the church candle anymore, in fact, I think I’ve just misplaced my candle entirely. But it did get me thinking. And as debates waged on Twitter (where else?) about the role of women in the Church of England, and mutual flourishing, disagreeing well, five principles blah blah blah, I found myself saying to God, ‘God, I don’t want to do the whole ‘women in the Church thing,’ that’s not what I want to be known for.’ Quick as flash, God replied, ‘why don’t you want to be known for fighting injustice?’

Ouch. Just because the burn was from God doesn’t make it sting any less. My generation isn’t that good at saying thank you. And for that, we should say sorry. I only get to think the words ‘I don’t want to do the whole ‘women in the Church thing” because generations of women before me did, and at times, to great personal cost. There are women in the Church who stood up and spoke out and now find themselves stuck under a stained glass ceiling. There are women who walk into rooms of clergy and find themselves the only one. There are women who have got on with their calling after having been spat at and shunned. And my generation of women doesn’t recognise that well, and I am sorry. I am sorry to those of you who were the trailblazers, who risked so much in pursuit of God’s call, who others in our church feel you should apologise just for being you. I am truly sorry.

***

In a story which makes it sound like I spend far more time in middle-of-nowhere Cornwall than I actually do, I was in middle-of-nowhere Cornwall. It was January. It was so cold. I was huddled in a former nun’s cell awkwardly holding my phone as though it was an alien object I was encountering for the first time. After six days, silence had been broken and my friend and I sat on her bed, picked up an ear bud each, and for the first time in six days, listened to music…

Look out ’cause here I come
And I’m marching on to the beat I drum
I’m not scared to be seen
I make no apologies, this is me.

We lip-synced and danced with all the enthusiasm and joy that bursts forth after a week in simultaneously liberating and torturous silence. It was glorious!

***

So what do ‘The Girl De-Construction Project,’ ‘Nanette,’ women in the Church, and an anthem from a Hollywood musical have to do with anything? Well, they each say something profound about how women are made to apologise in a way which is unjust, is demoralising, and belies their being creations of the almighty God. And why have they all collided into the word vomit that is this blog post? Because I have just moved to vicar school. Yesterday, I was introduced to a guy who’s going to be a first year just like me. And after the interaction was over, I came up to my room and said ‘God, I wish I wasn’t shy, I wish I wasn’t anxious, God, I wish I wasn’t me.’ And isn’t that just the most blasphemous thing? I might as well have said, ‘God, you did a bad job making me.’ Except he didn’t. Because he’s God and my goodness, isn’t he pretty excellent at creation! I feel this constant need to apologise for who I am, to say sorry for taking up time and space, for saying my bit. I say sorry for asking questions, sorry whenever I feel inadequate, I apologise just for existing, just for being. But I am, with a life of formation ahead of me, who God made me. He is the source of my formation, he is present in my wounds, he is the cause of my fight for justice, he is the joy in lip-syncing to a musical in a nun’s cell after six days in silence. He is my creator. So, with all the apologies my vagina-possession has socialised me to make, this is me.

There’s More To Life Than Life

3032aff0-8225-0132-1d93-0a2c89e5f2f5

A sermon on Philippians 3:12-4:1.

When I was 15 I was given an assignment in school to set the three goals I wanted to achieve by the time I left school at 18. I thought long and hard about what the three things were I wanted to achieve and came up with goals I thought were eminently achievable: the first was to duet with Barbra Streisand, the second was to win the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, and the third – and most important – was to marry Hollywood heartthrob, Zac Efron. I’m sorry to say that I didn’t achieve these by the time I was 18. I am now 26 and still haven’t achieved them. And, call me a pessimist, but I just have a slight hunch that I may not ever achieve any of these goals as my life might be going down a slightly different direction.

We all make plans, from our days to our whole lives. In movies and by advertisers, we are sold a particular narrative of what life is meant to look like, mainly successful, with a moment of character-building heartbreak, and then a glorious happy ever after. Life is presented as an upwards trajectory, something neat and defined.

The thing is, life doesn’t always seem to pan out like that. To quote that famous philosophical treatise from the 1990s, ‘so no-one told you life was gonna be this way, your job’s a joke, you’re broke, your love life’s DOA, it’s like you’re always stuck in second gear, when it hasn’t been your day, your week, your month, or even your year.’

There’s more to life than the tidy path to a happy ending, there’s more to life than just life. It’s often far more messy and complex than that. There is brokenness, there is pain, there is sin, and there is death. We all experience things which wound us deeply. What are we to make of those experiences? If we call ourselves Christians, followers of and believers in the God who is the source of all life and joy, how do wounds and sin and death fit in to life lived in Christ?

On first reading, Paul’s message to the Philippians offers a relatively simple solution: ‘forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.’ Paul’s response to the messiness of life seems to be just forget about it. Makes sense, really, if you’re Paul. This is the guy who is responsible for killing Christians, he’s been imprisoned, he’s been shipwrecked, he’s got an unrelenting thorn in his flesh causing him some kind of difficulty, and he’s facing the ire of officials because of his conversion to Christianity and passionate proclaiming of the Gospel. So forgetting all the rubbish and just focusing on Jesus seems like a pretty sensible option. Selective amnesia makes pursuing the upwards trajectory of life far easier.

Except, that’s just not how life works. Try as we might, we can’t forget our wounds. We can try and ignore them, we can try and fill the gaps with other things, and we can leave them to scab over or stick on a plaster and hope for the best, but they’re still there. So is Paul being naïve when he advocates forgetting as key to pressing on with life? Or is that not what he’s saying at all?

There’s more to life than life and pain, because there is resurrection. ‘I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection’ says Paul, and this is the goal to which he is striving for, ‘the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.’ And this is a literal, historically proven resurrection. This is not simply a comforting metaphor, but an absolute reality. After all, a metaphorical resurrection is of very little hope to beings whose death is no metaphor.

But you don’t get resurrection without wounds. When Jesus appeared to his disciples after his resurrection, his wounds were still visible, his followers were able to touch them. Resurrection hadn’t erased them, but it had transformed them. From the wounds of crucifixion and death and sin and darkness, resurrection transformed them into wounds of hope, of triumph, of salvation, of new life.

In resurrection, God makes our wounds his dwelling place. He cleans out our wounds, rids them of the rubbish and pain and sin and instead makes them places where he is alive and where we can encounter him and be empowered. Our wounds no longer become painful and debilitating, but a place where Jesus brings perfect comfort and begins to heal us.

This is what Paul forgets in pressing on: he forgets the guilt and sin of his past and remembers he has total forgiveness; he forgets what he had tried to fill his wounds with to try in his own strength to make himself whole. But he doesn’t forget his wounds, only he is now able to press on because his wounds are a source of Christ in his life, a foretaste of resurrection power today to be fully revealed on that future day, Jesus has promised will come. So we can, as Paul encourages us, ‘hold fast to what we have already attained.’ We get to live as resurrection people, wounded, yes, but in those wounded places being transformed by the God we encounter there and on the path to healing.

And in that place we discover what the goal really is, what the thing is we should be striving to achieve: and it’s sharing in Christ’s resurrection. Good news: Jesus did the hard part! All we have to say is ‘yes’ to him as Lord, ‘yes’ to him as the source of forgiveness, ‘yes’ to him to come into our wounds and make them his dwelling place.

This should make us free. Life no longer becomes about striving for the upwards trajectory, we are not bound by worldly markers of success or happiness. Rather, in both joy and pain, we are in Christ Jesus, whose plan for our lives begins with us knowing absolutely and deeply how much he loves us.

My biggest wound is that I’m fatherless. One which I did well at filling. And then I let God in to do some healing. And that was that. Wound was inflicted upon me, I made it worse, God did some healing, nice metaphorical plaster I stuck on top, and now I don’t have to think about it. I can press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus blah blah blah, end of story, onto the next thing.

Except it wasn’t. We have an endlessly creative God and a really repetitive enemy and we don’t yet have the fullness of the resurrection promise. When we don’t let God continually tend to our wounds, it becomes so easy to try and fill them ourselves or have others hand more grit into them. And thinking that God had completely dealt with the fatherless wound made me careless. I thought it was over and so I didn’t notice how I and the enemy had tried doing our own hatchet job on my wound. It became re-filled with pushing people away before they could abandon me, doing things to make people like me, and forgetting God’s love for me and trying to earn it instead.

We still have pre-resurrection bodies. God’s healing is for these emotional hurts will always require the maintenance delivered by divine encounter. We need to be mindful of our wounds and let God continually work on them and make himself known to us in them. They are vulnerabilities which he does not abandon us to, but releases resurrection power in to. Our wounds will one day fully go away, but until then, they don’t become things we can completely forget. That’s why God comes into our wounds and makes them his dwelling place, transforming them into sources of resurrection life and transforming us in the process.

God’s encouragement to me was to peel back my own layer over my fatherlessness wound and let him back in there to keep working and keep on healing. It’s a bit costly. Because Jesus is in my wound but so are my fears. My fears noisily exclaim that I’m unlovable, that I’m not wanted, that I need to do everything I can to finally be good enough. Fear shouts, but Jesus whispers: he says I’m loved, he says he wants me so much he went to the cross to make a way for me, he says that grace is unconditional, I can’t earn it. Whispered truths are more powerful than shouted lies. In my woundedness I experience God’s resurrection power. In my woundedness, my pain is taken seriously and my sin is forgiven. In my woundedness, I daily encounter the living God who has made real to me the goal to which I now strive towards.

Our wounds are no longer a source of weakness or of pain, but of Christ’s empowerment as he transforms the body of our humiliation so that it may be conformed to the body of his glory. We press on towards the goal of continued transformation by Christ’s resurrection power, that our life is redefined by his, that ultimately, new life awaits us. But that in the brokenness of life right now, he is here with us, wounded with us, but also transforming us and healing us. There is more to life than life, there is woundedness, but there is resurrection.

‘I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection… Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own… I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus… Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way.’ Amen.

 

I Love You, Vol. II

IMG_9452_preview

The definition of millennial modern monasticism.

I fear if I don’t write this now, then I never will. I have kept putting it off because it’s pretty hard to type when your eyes brim with tears. On Tuesday I was walking down the road and went to grab my cross and instead grabbed at air. It’s still so raw, too raw, to write a final Year in God’s Time post. But then, I don’t think it will ever become any less raw. It might change, the grief might age so that I no longer have fresh tears but a deeper longing, the permeating pang of homesickness, the staring at photographs and wishing you could walk into them and be, once more, with the people in them.

The other reason for delaying writing this is what can really be said only a week after it all ended? There were so many lessons this year, the fruit of which is yet to come. If I wax lyrical about unity or community or reconciliation or silence or service, is it too early, should I wait until the weeks and months and years to come when each of those things will become trials and chores that I will have to earnestly and desperately and deliberately seek God’s help for?

I feel the weight of expectation to be eloquent. I feel people are expecting something profound. I have nothing to say, except there is no greater thing than the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, his love, his power, his call, his making a way to the Father.

There is nothing greater than Jesus Christ and him crucified.

And he is revealed in community, in Christian unity, in the paradox of joy and pain present in reconciliation. He is loud in silence and even louder in service. He is in each person, a precious, wonderful gift. He is in the decision to say ‘yes, I will follow you,  I will make your cause, my cause.’

The Community of St Anselm has been the best year of my life. I say that totally sans hyperbole. It has been challenging, it has been glorious, it has transformed me. Saying goodbye on Monday was nearly impossible – how do you say goodbye to people you have given your hear to? But it was all these things because they all pointed to Jesus.

The things I have loved most about the Community, are not exclusive to the Community. They are possible wherever Jesus is possible. At St Anselm, we use sung worship like punctuation – that’s still possible beyond the walls of Lambeth Palace! (Although, I chickened out of trying it at PCC on Wednesday… maybe next time).

No eloquence, nothing profound, only Jesus.

And to Gabi, Becky, Dora, Eloise, Hannah, Hayley, Israel, Katy, Laura, Lianne, Mim, Pete, Phil, Rebecca, Simon, Andy, Demarius, Esther, Eve, Nida, Prisca, Rachel, Salmoon, Simon, Sunila, Tonde, and Tollin, Simon, Keren, Asia, Oliver, Setske, Virginie, Nicholas, Ula, Sybille, Alan, Ione, Justin, and Caroline… thank you. Each one of you. I love you and I will always choose you. Go and be Jesus to the world, just as you have been Jesus – love, acceptance, joy – to me this year in God’s time.

Group-crop

I Choose You

36002968_1696522670401872_1932541489980637184_n

When you hand an Abbot a selfie stick… Photo credit J-Welbz/Lambeth Palace.

I was asked to give my testimony of this year at the Community of St Anselm’s Commissioning Service. Here is what I said:

A week before we first met as a Community, I messaged a friend who’d been here last year and who had persuaded me to apply: ‘this is a really bad idea, I shouldn’t be doing this. She said, ‘give me one reason why.’ I replied with eleven. When we were in this room ten months ago, I was so happy to be here, but couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that I was fraud, that I’d been let in by administrative error, and that I was going to have to do something to earn my place.

Before I joined St Anselm, seven years of studying and three theology degrees had made me a smartass who could talk with confidence about God’s love, but who had, along the way, annexed knowledge of God’s love to my head and away from my heart and left me with this sense that I would never quite be good enough.

A few months ago, I looked back on the eleven reasons I sent my friend for why this was a bad idea. They had a common theme I hadn’t realised at the time: why would anyone choose me? Why would anyone choose me, let alone super Christians which must be the criteria for getting to hang out at Lambeth Palace?

And then here we were, a bit nervous, arms hanging in slightly unnatural fashion as the albs were so alien to us. And we said ‘I choose you.’

To say ‘I choose you’ has been the most extraordinary gift both to give and to receive; we have said it not just in our words, but in our actions, from the depth of sharing groups, to the beautifully mundane moments around washing up stations; from the communal prayers offered in sacred thin places, to the unexpected yet wonderful intimacy bred in silence together.

And we still say ‘I choose you’ even when someone puts salt in the chocolate sauce, rather than sugar, but you’re on a silent retreat, so you can’t do anything about it!

I have been transformed by those three words ‘I choose you.’ Out of all the words in our Rule of Life, it is those three I really have carried with me each day, in the highs and lows throughout this year. Because ‘I choose you’ gives you permission to be vulnerable and says you don’t go into the wounded places alone. ‘I choose you’ says ‘I love you’ not because I have to, but because Christ is in you and that, to me, is irresistible. ‘I choose you’ says God chooses you. The God, the God who went to magnificent, cosmos-shattering, death-defeating lengths to bring you back to Himself. ‘I choose you’ undoes the lie I believed that I had to earn my place here to belong, and ultimately, undid the lie I had been believing for years, that I had to earn, to strive, to desperately beg, for God’s love.

I began this year hoping for spiritual boot-camp which would finally make me good enough, worthy enough. Instead, this has been a year of God saying ‘I love you.’ In many ways this year, nothing has changed yet everything has; I am no more loved by God than I was at the start of this year, but now I know deep within me that extraordinary and transformative love of Jesus Christ. We have all learned how to be loved this year. There’s no deep secret, it’s no elusive spiritual discipline, it’s in the gift God gives to us and which we give to one another, contained within those three remarkable words: I choose you.

We choose one another. Like Jesus has chosen us, we choose to give ourselves to one another in prayer, in service, in support, in forgiveness, in work, in play, in listening. We give ourselves to the task of learning to love one another, receiving each other as a gift from God given at his discretion, not ours. By the grace of God, we choose this way of life in the Community of St Anselm.

From the Community of St Anselm Rule of Life

Wading At The Thin Place

sclerder

Day and night let incense arise.

‘Are you hurting and broken within? Overwhelmed by the weight of your sin? Jesus is calling.’

***

The Celtic Christians had a phrase ‘the thin place,’ the rare places where heaven and earth kiss, collapsing the space between them, tectonic plates of charisms and grace where from the gaps God bursts forth in beauty and power.

If you seek them, you can find them. Sometimes they are in the most unlikely of places. Others are known, established, places of pilgrimage for many generations. Let me tell you the story of a thin place, a house of prayer, of welcome, of greeting each person crossing its threshold as a potential Christ. It is the story of ordinary exposed as extraordinary, of worship in both sacrament and household chores, of wrestling the chains from the ones you love as they wrestle your own chains from you.

It is the story of losing your life in order to really find it.

***

I’m good with seasons of life. I always have been. If anything, I am too good at them, closing them before they’ve officially closed. I’ve been ready for each school transition, to move from one degree to the next, to shift from my current working life into ordinand. But as the countdown to the end of my year in God’s time speeds up, I’m not ready. I don’t want to leave. I don’t want it to stop. I want to forever skip into Lambeth Palace on a Monday evening, stumble over the language of BCP in evening prayer, sing a chorus of praise at every opportunity, set off indoor fireworks, send back not-clean-yet plates to a musical soundtrack, share the peace, receive a hug from a foretaste of heaven, have the hairs of my arm stand on end as the harmonies of the nunc dimitis rise, leave in silence. I want to forever treasure and be treasured by these gifts of Jesus wrapped up in unique and loving and kind and beautiful and brave people, with amazing stories and incredible hearts.

I suppose, if we’re being honest, I don’t want a year in God’s time. I want a lifetime in God’s time. I want to always live with this bit of grief that this season will end before I am ready, because in this pain I will always be reminded of how much I love these people and how much they love me. In this pain, I will never again come to God’s altar with ambivalence, but over-awed by his gift of forgiveness, along with the gift of discomfort wrought by the disunity of Christians and how unity must be a priority if we want to see God’s kingdom here on earth.

We can’t all live in thin places. But we can all be thin people, vessels of God’s truth and beauty, a bit cracked, a bit bruised, but testaments to the profound goodness of God’s creation and creativity. We can all play our part in the continued creation of God’s earth, knowing it is a gift to do so and not contingent on our own striving.

If my time with St Anselm at the thin place of Sclerder has taught me anything (and really, it’s taught me so much) it’s that God is love.

God is love.

And he shows he is love in remarkable, transformative, dramatic, simple, ordinary, extraordinary ways. Through his word, through Christ, through the Spirit, through the bread and wine, through his whispers in the night, through the waves hitting the sand, through his fearfully and wonderfully made children – of which you are one. And that love makes striving redundant. It shouts down all lies of unworthiness or unwantedness because love is calling your name. And you wade through that love, the weight anchors you, it is balm, it is refreshment. And it changes you.

***

So seek out the thin places. Wade in the treasures of God you encounter there. But let me tell you that within every person is a thin place. Within you is a thin place. The divine spark of God deep within you meets your story, meets your life and is ready to burst forth. Unlock it receiving all the love God has for you.

 

Named. Loved. Empowered.

pexels-photo-207962

A sermon on Ephesians 3:14-21/

Good morning! It’s wonderful to be with you today; my name is Hannah and I work for Viva as Doorsteps Project Manager. Viva is an international children’s charity which grows locally-led partnerships who are committed to working together so that children are safe, well, and able to fulfil their God-given potential and last year we reached 2.2 million children in 26 countries. Doorsteps is the name of Viva’s network here in Oxford and I help co-ordinate its work with children, young people, and families. I know that for many of you here, you are already familiar with the work of Viva, you have been and continue to be, very much part of the Viva family in how you have championed and supported us over the years. So let me begin by saying a big thank you to you for your support, and I apologise if anything I say today is repeating things you already know about Viva and our work with children around the world.

So let’s begin with these great words one from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Paul loves the people in the Church of Ephesus, it’s so clear: ‘I pray that out of God’s glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.’ This entire passage gets to the heart of what so much of the New Testament is about: we are a family of people together, in other New Testament letters, Paul describes this family as being one body, united in the person of Jesus Christ. Unity, togetherness, are hallmarks of Paul’s theology and this is what drives him to pray for the Church at Ephesus and to praise God for them. He loves them, he wants the best for them.

The distinctive thing about Viva, its USP if you like, is our networking pattern. We have 38 networks around the world, partnerships of churches and other organisations working together for the good of others. The founder of Viva was volunteering in Bolivia and he found that on a Monday evening there were all these different churches providing food for homeless children but then they weren’t there for the rest of the week, so Tuesday-Sunday these children starved. Through the simple act of connecting these churches, the children were fed more often. By the process of networking rather than owning, we go some way to achieving this unity that Paul, inspired by Jesus, longs for.

From this passage, there are three things I would like us to go away knowing today: we are named, we are loved, and we are empowered.

Verse 14, ‘for this reason I kneel before the Father from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name.’ Names are a big deal. It’s why names are often carried on through families, why we have affectionate nicknames for our close friends and families, and it’s why when people call us bad names, it really hurts – names matter.

In Viva’s Guatemala network, there is a project called ‘I Exist’ which is helping children from the poorest communities receive birth registration. Unregistered children lack basic rights such as education and health care. They are invisible to the stage and because of this are highly vulnerable to abuse, exploitation, and trafficking. There are currently an estimated 600,000 children in Guatemala who do not have a birth certificate. Viva has been working with the government authority responsible to change this situation. By setting up birth registration centres in local churches which are part of our network, we have so far given over 5000 children registration.

Maggie’s family has not had the money to register her. When she was five years old, she was rushed to hospital needing a gall bladder operation. What made the situation even more distressing was that her mother didn’t know if she would be allowed to return home afterwards, because she wasn’t registered and her father was unwilling to co-operate. Viva managed to step in before it was too late. They were able to obtain a medical report from the health centre where Maggie was born so they could register Maggie using only her mother’s name. Today, Maggie has recovered well from her operation. Birth registration is a complex process, but by giving this to Maggie, we are changing her life for the long-run as she can now access basic rights such as health and education.

Maggie is named. We are all named. We all have the right to accept our place as children of God, whose image we bear. We can be confident of our identity and the innate human dignity it affords each and every one of us. So claim your name which comes from Heaven.

I chose this passage in Ephesians to reflect on today because it is one of my favourites, with this bit in particular just the most moving and wonderful: ‘And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ.’ Just take a moment to reflect on that, how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ for you, for me, for everyone. It’s really quite astounding.

If you are familiar with any early years studies, then you may know that being loved in the first year of your life really has the power to make or break a person. There was a report on this recently by the BBC titled ‘the children who are confused by love.’ It looks at children who have suffered abuse and neglect who can often become violent and distressed at the thought of being loved and that, once shown love and affection, become fearful of it going away.

Being loved can and does have a transformative effect on people. At Doorsteps, Viva’s Oxford-based network, we run a project called Find Your Fire which is for young people who could do with a bit of extra input in building their resilience and realising their potential. We had one young guy show up to the first session and he spent the whole of that session with his hood up, crying and we had no idea why. It was only afterwards that his school told us that he has ASD and a host of other learning disabilities and so he was just really overwhelmed by being in a new environment with new people. And we had weeks go by where we barely got a word out of him and he wouldn’t engage and he wouldn’t make eye contact. But we kept persevering. And now he engages with us and with the programme, he makes eye contact with us, he gets involved in group discussions – he has blossomed. At a recent session when he had a bit of a wobble and one of the youth work team went after him and he said to them ‘why are you doing this for me?’ To which she replied ‘because I care.’

Realising you are loved and letting that have its transformative effect can be a slow process. It’s been a long year at Find Your Fire where there were weeks where I thought we’re not making any progress, this is exhausting. But the week in, week out, showing up, showing we care, showing we think each of these young people is inherently valuable has paid off.

And how much greater is the love of God for each and every one of us.

There’s a song by an American worship pastor which has these lyrics, ‘oh the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God. Oh it chases me down, fights ‘til I’m found, leaves the ninety-nine. I couldn’t earn it, I don’t deserve it, still you gave this love away. Oh the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God.’

God’s love, it’s of unfathomable proportions. Do you know just how fantastically and wonderfully and how overwhelmingly you are loved?

Paul’s final exhortation in this passage to his named and loved friends in Ephesus is that they may know the power of God at work within each of them, how they are empowered beyond anything they can dare imagine.

When we take up the call on our lives which God has empowered us to do, amazing things happen. Halima lives in Uganda. She left school are she fell ill and her family could no longer afford her school fees as all their money was spent on her treatment. Thinking she would never go to school again, Halima began to lose interest in education. Then she met Stella. Stella had been a student at a Creative Learning Centre, an initiative part of Viva’s network in Uganda, which help build confidence and catch up with missed education with the ultimate aim of reintegrating the children back into mainstream school. Stella encouraged Halima to enrol in the Creative Learning Centre in her community. There she received teaching and mentoring which inspired her to return to school. Today, Halima loves studying and has enrolled at a nearby school where she hopes to pursue her dream of becoming a lawyer and fighting for the rights of others. She is empowered to make a difference.

Then there’s Puja, who lives in India. She’s seventeen years old and she has a disability and has suffered from low self-esteem because of the physical abnormality she has. She took part in Viva’s network programme in Patna, called Dare To Be Different. It gives the girls who take part value-based life skills training dealing with issues including rights abuse, self-esteem, media impact, peer pressure, sex and sexuality, adolescent health and making the right choices. Puja said that the training has infused in her the realisation that she is unique and beautiful saying, and I love this, ‘I feel confident and believe I lack nothing.’ I feel confident and believe I lack nothing. To be empowered is not just to believe you can change the world, it is to know that who you are is wonderful, is known, is loved, is created by a relational and powerful and living God. Claim your name, claim your love, and claim the empowerment by God to change the world around you.

You are named by the God of the universe, you are loved with a love of unfathomable dimensions, through God, you are empowered to follow his call and his leading to where you can make a difference. Viva doesn’t care about its own name, but the names of the people all over the world bringing help and hope to children at risk. We know names like Maggie and Halima and Puja because we know the names Carmen, Mim, and Devesh, the people in those countries who just wanted to make a difference to the children in their community. We love them and so our work is to empower them in their work.

God knows us. He has named each and every one of us. And he loves us. Receive the empowerment that comes from those two foundational and indisputable truths.

Six Years Later

shallowford

A special place.

I can tell you exactly where I was when I found out that the Church of England’s General Synod had rejected women bishops legislation. I was on my study abroad year in Ottawa, Canada, walking down Laurier Avenue East. It was the day before my 21st birthday, and although I had an essay to write for the next day, instead I poured my heart out into a blog post. It’s interesting to read it back. It’s raw, it’s heart-felt, it makes me cringe somewhat with six years of spiritual discipline between it and now, but I stand by it.

In part, it says:

Upon going to university, I first encountered Christians who held the opposing view of women in the church, to me. As a theology undergraduate, I encountered male students who scoff at my degree because of my gender, and because it is at a “normal” university as opposed to a theological college. Within the Christian Union, a university society, I witnessed leadership-gifted women sidelined by the belief that they were somehow inferior, and that this was a biblical truth… I realised at the conclusion of my first year at university, that part of the very essence of who I am as a Christian had been effectively suffocated by my church/CU situation at university. Suddenly I had become meek and mild and too afraid to challenge “the big boys” who were “theologically sound.” At a church weekend away, a third year student said to me, ‘I just couldn’t take a woman preacher seriously.’ And I, to my shame, said nothing, I just smiled. In second year, I developed a reputation for being…gobby. I break the mold of that perfect Christian girl and challenged the guys on what I saw as misogyny being passed off as theology. It didn’t get me any friends, it got me a reputation; it got me the butt of jokes about rebuking and what have you.

I can’t tell you where I was or what I was doing when the women bishops legislation was passed through Synod. But I can tell you where I was when it was announced that Sarah Mullally, installed today as Bishop of London, would be the first woman to have that role. I was at work and I cried. I’m not even embarrassed to admit it. Fortunately, my colleagues who find my obsession with Anglicanism adorable, also viewed weeping at my exploding Twitter feed similarly endearing.

Why did that fateful day in 2012, the random day in 2017, and this day in 2018 mean so much? Let me take you back to 20-year-old Hannah:

If you follow me on Twitter then you know that I make jokes all the time about how people assume I’m going to be ordained and that I’m trying to avoid it. The thing is, God has threatened me with ordination. (Potentially wrong word choice there!) God has made it really quite clear that he’s given me a gab for a reason, and it is for his use. But that gifting isn’t acknowledged by the majority of Christians I know. It’s frustrating and it’s humbling and it really really hurts. I thought the vote today would be a yes. Not out of arrogance but because I couldn’t see how anyone could ignore women who have been so obviously called. I love the Church of England, which is why I think it just hurts so much right now that the church I love doesn’t believe in me.

Reader, I have some news: the path to avoiding ordination just got significantly more complicated. I have been recommended to train for ordination. I know! I couldn’t be more humbled and I couldn’t be more delighted. God has called me; the God who made me has called me to thing he made me for. My goodness, my fear is only matched by how much this makes my soul sing!

And, on a day like today, I am so proud of my beloved Church of England. And God bless Bishop Sarah in her ministry in London.

A Bit More Theology

the-answer-is-jesus-whats-the-question-13436541

Thanks, but no thanks Karl.

I was watching an old episode of the TV show ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’ recently. In it, the main character, Ray, is talking to his young daughter, Ally. ‘Why are there babies?’ asks Ally. Ray uncomfortably tries to explain. ‘No’ Ally says, ‘I know about how, why are we born? Why does God put us here?’ Ray looks terrified, has no answer to the tough question, and makes an excuse to leave as quickly as he can.

I’m sure we’ve all been asked tough questions when it comes to our faith. Maybe they’ve been the innocent yet piercing ones that children and young people are so good at posing. Maybe they’ve been from hostile people wanting to try and tear Christianity apart. Or maybe they’ve been the questions we ourselves have asked: what do I really think about this doctrine? Why do we do this thing in church? God, what exactly did you mean by that? It can feel daunting and unnerving. Theology, and the questions it raises, can sometimes feel like they are designed to catch you out, to trip you up. Sometimes, it feels easier to keep theology at arm’s length.

I studied theology at university and I had a few fearful what ifs lingering in the back of my mind when I began. What if it found holes in my beliefs and caused my faith to collapse? What if it was just too challenging? What if there was some chasm between academic theology and church life that would mean church would never be the same again? My uni friends shared my fears. In fact, I’ve not met a Christian who hasn’t, even if only for a split second, been a little bit scared of theology.

But the fear doesn’t last long. Theology is a bit like an Advent calendar. You open one window at a time and discover something: an answer to a question you’ve had, a new way of seeing God, and yes, maybe a challenge to a presupposition you’ve held, but through that challenge comes an opportunity to grow and an opportunity to draw nearer to God in discovery of him. And you keep opening windows, but you can’t predict what you will next discover or jump ahead to the end. Theology is, in part, about living with questions which do not permit easy answers. As one priest wrote in the Church Times recently, in studying theology her ‘questions were not “answered” [in the typical sense], but they were reframed, refined, and, at times, corrected. I grew back into faith, which was now more mature, more solid, and very differently shaped.’ Theology will never provide all the answers; the day I think I’ve got all my questions satisfactorily answered is the day I’ve made God infinitesimally small.

Studying theology helps us to live with the tough questions but, more importantly, studying theology helps us live with the people who ask those questions which do not permit easy answers. The theologian, Karl Barth, is reported to have said ‘the answer is Jesus, now what is the question?’ It’s technically true, but it’s pastorally unhelpful. There’s a difference between simple and fluffy, and this falls into the latter category. We don’t study theology to alienate ourselves from the people we encounter; we study theology so that when people present their wounds to us we can provide a healing balm rather than an inadequate sticking plaster. It’s about embodying the Word become flesh.

When a grieving person comes to you, they don’t need a technical overview of the doctrine of the resurrection any more than they need an empty platitude, but a bit more theology means you can meet them where death has really stung them, and open to them a way for God’s hope to shine through. When a young person laments being fatherless, a bit more theology means you don’t brush them off with a blanket statement about God being Father, rather you help them be reconciled to a God whose Fatherhood is very different from their preconceptions. A bit more theology in our pastoral situations really goes a long way.

Tough questions, tough answers; a frustratingly and gloriously, simultaneously knowable and unknowable God who communicates both mystery and certainty. Theology may not be easy but a bit more of it in our everyday encounters might just make the world of difference.