‘I Love You’

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Community of St Anselm 2017/18.

Yesterday was the commitment service for the Community of St Anselm. It was wonderful and moving and inspiring and humbling. There are so many things to pick out from it to reflect on, but forgive me for being selfish and wanting to keep some of those things between me, God, and my brothers and sisters in the Community. One of the things that has struck me when speaking to people who’ve been in the Community in previous years is that they have talked a lot about how brilliant and transformative the experience has been, but they have kept the finer, more intimate details to themselves, and I find myself very sympathetic to this. In what I’m sure will be a year of challenge and change, some things God says are just too intimate and precious to cast out in the abyss of the internet.

But here are a few reflections on yesterday:

Joy. One of the things I love about our Abbot, the Archbishop of Canterbury, is how he exudes joy. After we had processed out following the service, he smile was wide and his enthusiasm was infectious. There was a real sense of joy among us all and for me, the joy had trumped the anxiety I initially felt.

On the train down to London, I was re-reading the Rule of Life and the person sat next to me, a lady from Minnesota, asked me what on earth it was, so I explained all about the Community. Her questions were things like ‘so you have to think about religious things all the time?’ ‘You have to cut yourself off from the world?’ ‘You have to follow all these rules?’ And there is a certain amount of limiting myself involved in this year: sacrifice of time and money, the journey of descents, committing to community life and the quotidian recognition of my sin, their sin, my repentance, their repentance, my ‘I choose you,’ their ‘I choose you.’ But the kenotically-transfigured life can be a conduit of deep joy. And the service revealed just a glimpse of that.

Trust. We committed to trust God, to trust each other, to trust those who lead our Community. Trust is hard. Trust is risky. Trust is life-giving. To choose to trust someone and to have someone choose to trust us is a remarkable thing. The cross we now all wear around our necks is a sign of that committing to trust made tangible. In the service, the words preceding being given our crosses were these:

Jesus called his disciples to deny themselves, take up their cross and follow him. Members of the Community of St Anselm, I invite each of you to take this cross and wear it as a constant reminder of your obedience to his command. Put it on each morning as a sign, each day, that you will choose this path. Dare to shape your living in the manner of his dying. Carry the cross outside these walls and share God’s deep love, proclaiming his kingdom in word and deed.

Dare to shape your living in the manner of his dying. Dare to trust the God who saved you and saved the world. Dare to trust.

Love. When our Dean preached a homily at our first eucharist service a few days ago, he said he had asked God what he wanted to say to us. ‘Tell them ‘I love you.”

No truer words have ever been spoken.

No better words have ever been heard.

Here’s to a year of joy, here’s to a year of risk. Here’s to a year of God saying ‘I love you’ as we say the same to one another. Here’s to a year which sets the course for a lifetime. Here’s to a year in God’s time.

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So, Why Celibacy?

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Life plot twist.

‘So, why celibacy?’

This isn’t necessarily one of the first questions you expect to be asked by one of your new housemates shortly after you’ve moved in and part-way through a corporate Netflix binge. Then again, I was only allowed to become the new housemate on strict instruction that I didn’t get engaged within a month of moving in. (It’s been nearly two months, I’ve kept my word). In fact, far from suddenly getting engaged, I informed my new housemates that I was becoming a sort of nun. Somehow, despite that, they still let me move in.

‘So, what is it exactly?’ That’s been the most common question.

The provocative answer: well, I am becoming a sort of nun for a year. The most annoying thing about that is I spent four years of life running open days for a theology department where I categorically denied that the only career opportunity open to theology graduates was being a nun. Side note: let me tell you about all my transferable skills…

I’m embarking on something new born from the wellsprings of the ancient, the Community of St Anselm led by Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. I’m going to be a non-resident member, which will mean continuing with the day job, getting to know the train from Oxford to Paddington and back incredibly well, and, well, those are the only things I know with certainty. There’s a rule of life to follow and I’ve re-read parts of Cur Deus Homo by the man himself (Anselm, not J-Welbz) in a move that made me nostalgic for THE1060.

I don’t know what this year is going to be like or really what it is going to look like. I know a couple of people who’ve done it in previous years and their faces light up and they gush when asked about it. Right now, I find I am incredibly apprehensive. The desire to go deeper and to be really changed, to encounter God in new and profound ways seemed like an awfully good idea at the time, but now it feels terrifying.

There are two reasons for this:

What if God doesn’t speak to me?

What if He does?

I had a tutor at university who was genuinely such a lovely man but who couldn’t cope with silences. This meant that every time he asked our first year lecture class a question about philosophy of religion, he answered it himself within seven seconds. Once he tried to go longer and I don’t remember a more uncomfortable five-minutes-felt-like-five-hours of my life. I do empathise; the teenagers in my youth group are exceedingly vocal about Grand Theft Auto but are overcome with muteness whenever I utter the words ‘let’s pray, shall we?’ But it’s a similar thing that I often have with God. I can talk about God for a long time. I have three theology degrees which have resulted in roughly 600,000 words written about God. But I can still find myself thinking God is giving me the silent treatment when I’ve only given him about ten seconds in which to speak.

Silence will form a key part of St Anselm life. On my application form, I spoke of how apprehensive I was about this part, how cautious and intimidated I am by silence, the fear that God won’t speak.

But now, it is not so much the silence I simultaneously fear and long for, but the voice that breaks through the silence.

‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’

It’s easy enough to say.

‘See I am about to do something in Israel that will makes the ears of everyone who hears about it tingle.’

And that right there is the hard, terrifying, uncomfortable, direction-changing , life-giving, Spirit-imbibing part. 

But, maybe that’s why we do this in community. I can say ‘Lord, I am listening,’ but if my ears start to tingle, well that’s where you don’t want to go it alone, that’s where you need those people who have committed themselves publicly to loving you, and you them.

Here we go. A year in God’s time. God, where you lead me, I will follow. God, where you call me, I will go. Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.

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If you need a laugh 10/10 recommend watching a hapless evangelical (me) try and work out how to put on an alb.

You Are Loved, You Have Hope, You Are Not Alone

Dorchester Abbey

A sermon on Romans 12:9-21 at Dorchester Abbey.

Good morning! It is wonderful to be with you today. Let me quickly introduce myself: I’m Hannah and I work for an organisation called Viva. 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 fulfill their God-given potential and last year we reached 2.2 million children in 26 countries. But whilst my colleagues jet off to places like Uganda or Lebanon, my role takes me to the exotic location which is Cowley and other areas in and around Oxford. I manage Viva’s network here in the UK called Doorsteps. Doorsteps is relatively new, it’s only been around a couple of years, but it was started because Viva’s heart is for children worldwide including those here in Oxfordshire, those on our doorstep.

Outside of work I help lead the youth work at my church in Oxford and last week I took some of my teenagers to a Christian festival called Soul Survivor, which involved camping for five days. Now, I hate camping. It is not something I consider fun and even if you like camping, I imagine it slightly loses its appeal when you’re camping with around 9000 teenagers. The state of the toilets still haunts me. And I was just having a bit of a grumble to God one morning about how much I hate camping when I looked over to my young people just hanging out with each other. And in particular I saw my super cool 17 year-old boy playing a game with my phenomenally energetic 12 year-old girl and they were just interacting with each other so wonderfully and I was watching what my other young people were doing and the woes and horrors of camping just evaporated. And all I could say to God was, ‘God, I just love them so much!’ This passage from Romans which we heard earlier is given the subheading ‘love in action,’ and we read in verse ten ‘be devoted to one another in love.’ When we love something, we can’t ignore it, we feel compelled to respond. I love the teenagers in my youth group and I know how much they love going to Soul Survivor and so how could I not take them? And actually one of the things they get from being taken is the affirmation that they are loved, that someone would do this for them.

At Doorsteps, we run a project called Find Your Fire which is all about supporting young people who are struggling, who have really low self-esteem and whose future looks desperate and myself and my youth worker colleagues we come alongside them and mentor them and taking that time to invest in them, to show them care and compassion and love, it changes them. I was chatting to one of my colleagues recently about the difference between the young people at the start of Find Your Fire and at the end of it. These young people stand taller, they have more confidence. At the celebration day one of them was taking me through a list of things they’d done that day and said to me, ‘I couldn’t have done this without Find Your Fire.’ Now they actively look forward to what the future holds because someone put love in action to come alongside them and help them realise their potential. And this love in action is twofold: first it’s us as Doorsteps and the practical things we do to show them how much we care. And second, it’s the young people themselves realising that there are people who care for them, who champion them, and who love them. ‘Be devoted to one another in love,’ it sounds nice, it sounds like something that we should all be doing. And at Doorsteps we see what the practical outworking of that can look like and the impact on the lives of these young people is just incredible because it shows them repeatedly and emphatically: you are loved. That’s the overriding message of the Gospel: you are loved, we see it paradigmatically in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. You are loved.

It would be wonderful if just knowing that we are loved solved everything, at Doorsteps we don’t underestimate the impact of it because we see the effect it has on people. But what so many of the people we encounter lack is hope. The catalyst for Doorsteps’ creation was Operation Bullfinch, which was an investigation into child sexual exploitation in Oxford and one of the hostels where girls were being abused was just round the corner from Viva’s head office. And if you were familiar with the case or have read anything or watched anything on some of the other high profile grooming scandals, such as Rochdale and Rotherham, they offer just a small insight into an utterly abhorrent situation where primarily young girls were just subjected to appalling treatment. I was speaking recently to someone who knew one of the girls who had been groomed and this person had listened to her tell her everything that had happened to her. And when she finished, she asked her, ‘what was the worst part?’ And the girl replied, ‘hearing the central locking of the car go down.’ Because that was the point at which she felt hope was lost. Those words just floor me every time I remember them. And that point of hope being lost appears again and again and again in the stories of those who were targeted in these gangs around the country. Losing hope is the story I hear from young people at the start of Find Your Fire, losing hope is the story I hear from the families waiting to be matched with a befriender in Doorsteps’ family befriending project, losing hope is the story I hear from around the county in response to children’s centres being shut down.

And yet, as a Christian I fervently hold to those amazing words in the beginning of John’s Gospel, ‘light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.’ My prayer for all those who encounter Doorsteps in any capacity is that they will know that despair is not the end of the story, that there is always hope. In today’s passage in Romans we read ‘be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.’ Yes, it’s easier said than done, but it speaks to something invaluable which is the encouragement to keep going because no matter how bad things might be right now, this darkness is not the final word. We live in a society that writes people off if they don’t seem to measure up and this attitude just leaves despair in its wake. And yet hope, Christian hope, is inextricably linked with joy and it inspires perseverance. If I manage to achieve only one thing as Doorsteps Project Manager then I hope it is this: showing people that there is always hope. For just as you are loved, so you always have hope. You have hope.

Love and hope are marvellous and wonderful and not to be underestimated, they are central to the message of God in Christ. But it is not simply enough to tell people this good news, we need to live it. As Christians, as people who know the love and hope of God means we cannot but show this same love and hope to others. But how best to go about doing this? The way Viva works is through networks, so 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.

One of the things that I find in my job is that it is such a comfort to know I am not alone. I work with some great people to deliver these projects, but I know that Doorsteps is not alone in its dream to see children and young people reach their potential. For the young people taking part in Find Your Fire, for the families who are really struggling and who we are hoping our family befriending scheme will support, they similarly need the comfort to know that they are not alone. And we can and should practically make this real to people. Romans continues, ‘share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality… Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn… Do not be proud but be willing to associate with people of lower position… Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.’ To be shown that you are not alone is love in action, it sustains people through hope. It shows people they belong. In belonging, we meet again the God who is love, the God who loves so much that he inspires those who love him to look out for the least, the last, and the lost, and to bring them into belonging.

‘Be devoted to one another in love… Be joyful in hope and patient in affliction… Share with the Lord’s people who are in need.’ Challenging words which if we act on them, live our lives by them, change the lives of those around us for the better. My prayer for all those who encounter Doorsteps, the marginalised teenagers, the struggling families, is that they will know that they are loved, that they have hope, and that they are not alone. It the same prayer I have for myself and for each one of you here this morning: you are loved, you have hope, you are not alone.