There’s More To Life Than Life

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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.

 

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I Love You, Vol. II

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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.

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I Choose You

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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

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Day and night let incense arise.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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

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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.

An Expectant Lent: For The Kingdom, The Power, And The Glory Are Yours

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The sixth and final part of my Lent series for Viva.

We might think that the gap between the sacred and the secular in a Western context has increasingly become a chasm. And yet, you don’t have to search too far to discover that the ways the sacred – something of who God is – permeates the world around us.

The writer Leonard Cohen is best known for his song ‘Hallelujah’, a song which has been covered by myriad artists such as Jeff Buckley and Rufus Wainright, and popularised through various cultural outlets, from The West Wing to Shrek.

It’s been the soundtrack to coverage of devastating events including the September 11 attacks and the Boston Marathon bombings.

But why has this song become a constant cultural zeitgeist?

In ‘Hallelujah’, Cohen captures a way of expressing an outlook on the world which encompasses and embraces the pain and mess of life, as well as the moments of triumph. He takes the experiences of David and Samson and demonstrates how the stories in the scriptures are not unique for human beings.

Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ is both painful and uplifting; the hope that emanates through the hallelujahs is inspiring, while the pain of experiences is affecting.

But ultimately, being able to stand before God is empowering, and it is this chord of rejoicing, despite hurt, which resonates so particularly and why the song has been received so well. Yes, there is an element of redemption, but this redemption is not divorced from the mess of human life.

The final stanza reads: “I did my best, it wasn’t much / I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch / I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you / And even though it all went wrong / I’ll stand before the Lord of Song / With nothing on my tongue but hallelujah”.

It’s a sentiment with which it’s easy to sympathise: “I did my best, it wasn’t much, but blessed be the name of the Lord”. You could read these words as being defeatist in tone, but actually it points to something far greater about who God is and how he desires an intimate relationship with us.

Hallelujah means “God be praised”. The Lord’s Prayer finishes with a doxology, which is a liturgical formula of praise to God. So “for the Kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours, now and forever” are words in the same vein as “nothing on my tongue but hallelujah.”

These are amazing words with which to finish the Lord’s Prayer: standing in the blood-soaked shadow of the cross, we know that we are redeemed.

As Lent draws to a close, we are confident that our sin is not the final word on who or what we are; the empty cross shouts a cosmos-shattering “I love you”. With God, our death is now just a comma; it’s not a full-stop. We have life, life to the full, because of what Christ did on that cross.

We sometimes reduce God’s love to a cheesy line that can be printed on a pencil. Yet, stationery theology pales in comparison to kingdom theology.

We have a Father in heaven whose holiness is incomparable and whose Kingdom will come; he provides for our needs, he forgives us, he hears our cry in times of despair.

He sees all the children that Viva has ever reached and sees all the children who we will one day encounter and show his love to. The power and glory are his today, tomorrow, for all of eternity.

He knows our past and he holds our future. He sees the wounds we carry and sends his living water coursing through them. He is good. He is faithful. He is God.

And just wait, keep being expectant in these dying days of Lent, because our God will soon be risen.

PRAYER: Our Father in Heaven, hallowed be your name. Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread and forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For the Kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours, now and forever. Amen.

WHERE IN THE WORLD: Figures show that one in ten children in the UK aged between 5-16 have been diagnosed with a mental health problem such as depression and anxiety – and that three-quarters of them are not receiving treatment.

Viva’s partner network in Oxford, Doorsteps, is building links with local community groups, churches, and schools to increase the resilience of teenagers facing mental health issues. We want to be there to share something of God’s kingdom, power and glory with children and young people in their hurting situations. Doorsteps and Viva are hosting a conference at the end of May in Oxford to explore the Christian response to child and adolescent mental health. Click here to find out more and to book.

An Expectant Lent: Lead Us Not Into Temptation

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Part Five of my Lent series for Viva.

Augustine of Hippo is widely considered one of the most important theological voices in the Christian tradition. A theologian, a bishop, and eventually a saint, his contributions have not just been ground-breaking and central to the discipline of theology, but also to politics, philosophy, and classics, amongst others.

One of the (many) delights of reading Augustine is his distinctive tone; his combination of profound statements about God, beautiful imagery, and penchant for sass make him a lively and engaging person to read. One his most famous lines, taken from his Confessions, is “grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.” It’s a very Augustine think to remark but perpetuates a stereotype around what we mean by temptation.

It’s easy to think of temptation as being a vice we are drawn to, such as drinking, chocolate or social media (you know I said I gave up Facebook for Lent? I caved. Spectacularly.)

In its original context, however, ‘lead us not into temptation’ has a far deeper meaning.

As Rowan Williams comments: “[Jesus’] teaching often turns back to this idea that a great time of trial is coming. A time when we shall find out what we’re really capable of, just as we often say you don’t know what someone’s made of until they’re under pressure.

We’re coming towards a time when you really have to decide how much God matters to you; you really have to put your life on the line… the word [temptation] means so much more in its context; it means this huge trial that’s coming, this huge crisis that’s coming.

“Lead us not into crisis, don’t, please God don’t push us into the time of crisis before you’ve made us ready for it. Don’t push us until you’ve given us what we need to face it.”

When we face trials or temptations, often we can feel the need to try and sort it all out on our own, to charge in and try to fix the problem. More often than not, our intentions are good. Here’s a problem, let me try and help.

The temptation can be to say, “God, I’m doing something good, it’s for you, so please will you bless it.” But what God desires of us is: ‘My children, I’m doing something good, come and be a part of it and bless it.”

At Viva, we are called to all sorts of work with children and young people. We see and hear stories of remarkable hope and joy but we also encounter distress and pain. And we want to help. But we know that we can’t do anything in our own strength. We have to decide how much God really matters to us: does he matter insofar as he’s a good motivation for our work, or does he matter so much that we respond to the call of his work?

The writer of Philippians says this: ‘Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me… One thing I do: forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.’ (Philippians 3: 12-14)

A good test when it comes to doing work in the name of Jesus is this: run as fast as you can towards Christ and then look beside you to see who’s keeping up. At Viva, our eyes are fixed on Christ; we are not superheroes, but are servants of our Lord.

PRAYER: Please, God, don’t push us into the time of crisis before you’ve made us ready for it, until you’ve given us what we need to face it. Thank you that you go before us, are behind us, and are also beside us. Help up to trust you with our whole lives and to respond to where you call us to go. Amen.

WHERE IN THE WORLD: It was the disaster that Nepal was anticipating but dreading. Almost three years ago now, two devastating earthquakes killed 9,000 people and around half-a-million families in the central region lost their homes. In this time of crisis, our partner network CarNet Nepal provided an emergency response in the weeks and months after the earthquakes because of the presence they already had in many local communities. And, the network has continued to meet ongoing needs in the years that have followed, helping children and families with projects such as psychological first aid camps, training in hygiene care and the re-construction of school buildings.

An Expectant Lent: Forgive Us Our Sins

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Part 4 of my Lent series for Viva: An Expectant Lent.

Do you ever read something and think ‘can I really say that?’ That’s how I often feel when I come to the line ‘forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.’ It’s a two-fold challenge: to accept that I am forgiven and to forgive others.

When we don’t forgive each other, relationships break down. The television series, Parks and Recreation, was about a group of local government workers who, despite wildly divergent personalities and worldviews, were close and loving friends. A time jump in the final series revealed that two of the characters, Leslie and Ron, were no longer speaking to each other and refusing to even entertain the idea of working together again, and no-one knew just what exactly had happened to break their relationship down. So, the other characters took matters into their own hands and locked the two of them in a room so they could work out differences. And, in the way only slightly surreal sitcoms can, the two reconciled after much shouting and an explosion of confetti.

This is a slightly trivial example to illustrate something bigger and more serious: to not forgive is both easy and a devastating act of self-sabotage which utterly undermines what God did for us on the cross.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor who was part of the resistance to the Nazi regime and was executed at Flossenbürg concentration camp.

In one of his letters from prison, he wrote, “Live together in the forgiveness of your sins, for without it no human fellowship, least of all a marriage, can survive. Don’t insist on your rights, don’t blame each other, don’t judge or condemn each other, don’t find fault with each other, but accept each other as you are, and forgive each other every day from the bottom of your hearts.”

Repentance leads to forgiveness, forgiveness leads to reconciliation, reconciliation leads to freedom, and freedom leads to a life lived in the power and light of the resurrection and ascension of Christ.

From this place, we can respond faithfully to what God has called us to do.

At Viva, we work in contexts where we see the consequences of sin, where we encounter those who have been sinned against. How we live forgiveness and reconciliation in these places around the world is a reflection of how much we ourselves have been forgiven and reconciled with the living God. It’s not easy. It’s not black and white.

But God is not and has never been, afraid of plunging into our mess. But in being forgiven, we can love and in love, we can forgive others.

Forgiveness changes us and forgiveness changes the world. And God shows us how to do it, gently, lovingly, and faithfully.

PRAYER:
Loving God, as you have forgiven us, help us to forgive others. Help us to ask for forgiveness where we have wronged or hurt other people. Thank you that you are merciful and that through the salvific act of Jesus dying and rising, we will one day be completely free from sin and reunited with you forever.

WHERE IN THE WORLD:
Through its girls’ mentoring initiative in India, Viva is freeing girls from the trappings of their lives; the majority face oppression and discrimination simply for not being a boy. Last year, almost 400 Indian girls took part in the Dare to be Different programme, teaching them about how to make the right choices in life and giving them dreams and aspirations for the future. The training often leads to a change their attitude by the family towards the girl. Read more by clicking here.