An Expectant Lent: Give Us Today Our Daily Bread

Week-3-Give-us-today-our-daily-bread

Part Three in my Lent series for Viva.

“Rivers of ink have been spilt over the exact meaning of ‘give us this day our daily bread’, because the word that’s used in the Greek is a very, very strange one that you find hardly anywhere else… The simple meaning keep us going, give us what we need is all we really need to go on.” (Rowan Williams)

At this stage in Lent, keeping going might feel a real challenge.

I’ve given up Facebook and I occasionally find my fingers itching to check in and see what’s happening. Although, so many of my friends have also given up Facebook, that I imagine the answer is probably, not a lot!

In that moment of wanting to see the familiar sight of red notification against a blue background, I have to remember that Christ died for me and that he would love to spend the time with me that I would otherwise waste on social media.

To pray ‘give us today our daily bread’ is to surrender our future plans to God. And that can be hard and it requires a lot of faith.

The French Jesuit priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, wrote a short poem called ‘Trust in the Slow Work of God.’

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new. And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through some stages of instability
and that it may take a very long time. And so I think it is with you.
Your ideas mature gradually – let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on, as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances acting on your own good will) will make of you tomorrow.
Only God could say what this new spirit gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.

God knows about time; he knows about all time. In a way, to pray ‘keep going for tomorrow’ is a gift. God holds the future in his hands and gifts us the present each day.

It seems to be that the hardest day in Lent is Holy Saturday. It must have been a bewildering day for the disciples and all those who believed Jesus to be Lord. The darkness descended, he let out his final cry, and he was laid in the tomb. And then… there was nothing. There was just waiting and grieving and wondering. And then there was a stone out of place and grave clothes neatly folded. They got through that Saturday – and Sunday came.

We don’t pray ‘give us today our daily bread’ in desperation but in confidence of God’s faithfulness. But it’s a challenge and discipline to replace fear with faith.

At Viva we rely on the exceedingly generous support of many people to raise the money required to help vulnerable children around the world. For those of us on the global staff team with projects to manage, we can look at spreadsheets or blank pieces of paper with furrowed brows and, in those moments of worry, we whisper ‘give us today our daily bread.’ It is the gift God generously gives us to keep on going.

PRAYER:
Holy God, you are faithful and steadfast. You have provided for your people in many wildernesses in many times. Help us to fix our eyes on you. Ground us in the present so that we may experience your love and grace for us this day. We surrender to you our worries for the future and thank you that you are with us, that you graciously hear us, and that you unfailingly provide for us. Amen.

WHERE IN THE WORLD:
In 2008, Viva’s partner networks in Bolivia kick-started an advocacy initiative called the Good Treatment Campaign. With support from adults, a few hundred children took to the streets that first year to ask adults to pledge to commit to treating children better through their words and actions. The campaign wasn’t only a one-off; the problems of children being neglected and abused didn’t of course just go away overnight. The organising committee for the Good Treatment Campaign kept going, and it continues to run year-on-year, increasing in number and impact. Last September, more than 72,000 ‘Good Treatment Licenses’ were handed out by children in six cities in Bolivia, and the campaign has also spread to six other countries around the world. Click here to read more about the initiative.

Advertisements

An Expectant Lent: Your Kingdom Come, Your Will Be Done

Week-2-Your-kingdom-come

Part 2 of my Lent series for Viva. You can read Part 1 here.

‘Your Kingdom come, your will be done’ is a radical line in the Lord’s Prayer. To choose God’s will over our own, to ask for that foretaste of heaven – you can’t pray these words without boldness and expectation of the living God!

In the musical Jesus Christ Superstar, the character of Judas doesn’t like the direction Jesus is taking his ministry. As the character of Mary Magdalene pours ointment over Jesus’ feet, Judas interjects saying, “Woman, your fine ointment, brand new and expensive, should have been saved for the poor. Why has it been wasted? We could have raised maybe 300 silver pieces or more. People who are hungry, people who are starving matter more than [Jesus’] feet and hair!”

The musical portrays Judas as a hero of the poor and downtrodden, that it was he who kept the focus while Jesus entertained ideas of being the Messiah, riling the Roman authorities and placing a lot of people in danger in the process. In the climactic final song, ‘Superstar,’ the resurrected Judas says to the tortured Jesus just before he is about to be crucified, “Did you mean to die like that? Was that a mistake or did you know your messy death would be a record breaker?”

Of course, Jesus did mean to die like that.

Without that death, we could never be reconciled to the Father. In Jesus we have “one mediator between God and men” (1 Timothy 2: 5). And that’s part of the good news of the gospel which we anticipate celebrating after Lent. What it requires of us is to trust God, to trust he knows what he’s doing and, he seems to have a pretty good track record! (I’ve given up hyperbole for Lent…)

From the outside, Jesus’ ministry doesn’t always make sense. Why was his first miracle turning water into wine? Why did he tell the man healed of leprosy not to tell anyone what had happened? Why did he talk in parables rather than speak plainly?

But then, why did he die?

We pray ‘your Kingdom come, your will be done’ because God’s eternal perspective is far greater than our finite one.

We pray it because God can and does do far more than we can ever imagine in ways in which would never cross our minds.

God is a God of surprises, of unexpected encounters, of miracles worked in both the spectacular and the everyday.

At Viva, we pray ‘your Kingdom come, your will be done’ because it is God’s children we serve and we want to actualise and realise God’s heart for them. Our heart for them is great, it’s good, it’s well-intentioned and genuine and ardent, but God’s is always better.

It takes faith, it takes sacrifice, it takes obedience – but so did dying on a cross.

PRAYER:
Come, Holy Spirit. Come into our lives, come into our world, guide us in the direction you want us. Give us the grace to see your Kingdom come; give us the grace to be obedient to where you call us to be and what you call us to do. Thank you that we join in the celebration of Heaven when we experience foretastes of your Kingdom. Amen.

WHERE IN THE WORLD?
A refocus of the vision and purpose for work with children can re-inspire people who have been doing it for a while, to improve motivation to keep working, and to work better. Viva’s three-day training course, ‘Understanding God’s Heart for Children’ helps pastors and children’s workers to reflect on the experience and exploration of Scripture, and to enable them to hear and understand God’s desire and purpose for children. The course is currently equipping dozens of churches in India and Zimbabwe to meet the needs of children in their care with excellence.

10 Reasons To Apply For St Anselm

archbishop.jpg

Abbot selfie.

Applications are now open for the 2018/19 Community of St Anselm. In case you needed some encouragement to apply, here are my top ten* reasons why you should prayerfully consider it and give it a go…

A rule of life will set you free. It sounds paradoxical, but it’s true. We follow a rule of life which isn’t always easy. And yet, the rule of life is not there for us to measure ourselves up against, but to release us into joyful obedience so that we might flourish under discipline through which we encounter God.

You learn new ways of praying. Coming from the evangelical tradition, I’ve always felt inadequate at prayer. There had to be so many words that sound so impressive; everyone knows the longer your intercessions last, the holier you are… But so far I’ve learnt about simplicity, about new ways of entering in to God’s presence. I’ve learnt that prayer is not a skill to strive for, but a gift we are graciously given.

You will hear God. Even in silence. In fact, especially in silence! If the idea of prolonged silence intimidates you, it’s okay, you’re not alone! All of us were intimidated by it, from the most die-hard introverts to the most gregarious extroverts. God speaks, being part of St Anselm equips you to listen and discern his voice.

Your life will be transformed by the words ‘I choose you.’ As Christians, we’re called to love one another. Of course, we don’t always do a great job of that. As part of St Anselm, we are called to do something vastly more profound. We choose each other. We don’t say ‘I love you because I have to, but I don’t actually like you.’ We say ‘I choose you. I choose you not because we’re similar, not because we click, I choose you because you are the image of Christ, and I choose you afresh each day.’ To be chosen, to be desired in this way, unlocks the image of God within you so that you recognise your innate value for yourself.

It will break your heart. You fall in deep love with these people, your brothers and sisters. And then you come to the communion table, that cosmic equaliser. And equality is nowhere to be found. The words ‘we all share in one bread’ do not come true. The pain is indescribable.

Reconciliation and unity become priorities. It is from this pain, that your priorities change. Christian unity is no longer a nice idea, it’s an imperative.

There will be lots of fun. Indoor fireworks, quirky dancing, and Spice Girls parodies (‘if you wanna be my brother, you gotta have chastity.’ Some of the best fun will happen when washing up!

++Justin might tell you off for coming in late to evening prayer (and other fun quirks). It is pretty cool getting to say things like ‘I’m just going to Lambeth Palace.’ It is pretty cool to just walk into Lambeth Palace and no-one stops you! It’s a great behind-the-scenes look at one of the epicentres of Anglicanism.

God’s love is gratuitous and infinite. God desires to lavish his love upon each one of us. Yes, he is the king on his throne, but he is also the Father with arms flung wide for us to run into. St Anselm is not some kind of spiritual boot camp, it’s about realising just how profoundly and overwhelmingly you are loved by God and enjoying receiving that love.

I don’t know what I was expecting, but I wasn’t expecting that!’ It’s impossible to describe what life at St Anselm is like. All I can say for certain is that I am humbled and thrilled and so so grateful that called me here this year. It’s changing my life. It’s replaced my expectations with God’s awesome plans, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

*I’ve way more than ten reasons, but I’m taking up brevity for Lent.

An Expectant Lent: Our Father In Heaven

Week-1-Our-father

The first in my Lenten reflection series for Viva.

We begin Lent with Ash Wednesday, the day we remember that from dust we came ‘and to dust we shall return.’ It’s a time to remember that the world is in a broken state; that its citizens are daily subjected to appalling horrors and terrors.

Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, says of Ash Wednesday and Lent:

“This time of year is a moment in which we are called afresh to look at the reality… of human sinfulness and evil – and to reflect that that lies deeply within ourselves, all of us without exception…

“A good Lent takes hold of that and, in an extraordinary way, makes space for the hope of Christ… not only in our individual lives but also in the life of the household and family, in the life of the Church and of local communities and, I would suggest in the life of society generally.”

Lent gives us reason to be expectant of the living God. One of the ways we encounter God and demonstrate our expectance is through prayer. Psalm 5:3 says, ‘In the morning, Lord, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait expectantly.’

In the Lord’s Prayer, the reality of life, the hope of Christ, and the expectation of the living God which Lent encompasses, are beautifully realised and offer to us both challenge and encouragement.

During this six-part blog series, we’ll be reflecting on each line of the Lord’s Prayer, its impact on us personally, and how it relates to Viva’s global work in changing children’s lives.

Today: ‘Our Father in Heaven.’

——————————————————————————————————————————

It can be challenging to call God ‘Father’, and yet, it is one of the most profound names we have for God. That we begin the Lord’s Prayer this way demonstrates that we are God’s children and he wants us to enter into his presence.

God loves his children and the Bible is full of examples of how we should treat children as a result. The most famous is in the gospels where Jesus says, Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the Kingdom of God belong to such as these.”

At Viva, the importance and value of children to God is the catalyst for our work. We work to release children from poverty and abuse worldwide and we’re not content with the status quo but rather we’re expectant for God’s working in the world and to follow where he leads us to work.

There’s a stunning picture of the prodigal son and his father by artist Charlie Mackesy. In it, the father embraces his son and holds him tight. Sometimes, Lent might feel like it’s you against the world: as you give up something, you reflect on your life. 

But it’s our Father we pray to; not only do we have God in all this, but we have each other as the body of Christ. We are dependent on each other. And children around the world are dependent on us.

We cannot pray the Lord’s Prayer in a vacuum, we have to pray it and bring before God all the children around the world whose lives we want to see transformed.

PRAYER
God, thank you that you are our Father and that we can enter into your presence.

Help us to live this Lent expectant that when we call on you, you hear us and that you are a living God who is active in this world.

Thank you that you love all of your children and help us to show this love to all we meet, especially the youngest and most vulnerable in our world.

Amen.

WHERE IN THE WORLD?
In Uganda, our partner network CRANE has helped over 1,700 children out of institutional care and back into the care of a safe, loving family – sometimes extended family of that child or otherwise foster families.

With support from local churches, CRANE listens to and mentors these families, and trains them in income generation. It also works with 35 orphanages to help them make a shift to places of short-term care, rather than being permanent homes for abandoned children. Read more about this work by clicking here.

 

Folding Laundry On Holy Ground

sclerder2.jpg

Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.

As the coach crossed the Tamar, I have to confess to being excited for what lay in store. A week of silence, a week of calm following what had been a frantic few weeks filled with lots of doing things and worrying about things and wrestling with a deluge of demands on my time and energy and self. Seeing Sclerder Abbey suddenly appear in the dark was a welcome sight; I had the childlike urge to run up to the building and hug its stone but thought better of it.

One final chance to talk, to share, to be the noisy and vibrant Community we are and in a moment, my tongue was tied. Fear gripped me. It was like being plunged into icy water, a bony hand holding me under. My last moments of free-talking were spent gagged. All the nerves and anxieties of what the week may hold came flooding back. If this was supposed to be about encountering the stream of living water then I was about to sink.

And at the name of Jesus, as those words of worship rose forth in the now familiar chapel, the hand lost its grip and into the silence, the proper silence, the holy silence of divine encounter, the final words ‘speak, Lord, for your servant is listening…’

In silence, the darkness is no longer so dark; the fire glows, the navy sky is warmer than black.

In silence, there is simplicity and joy to be found within it. Tasks like washing walls and peeling apples are not mundane but profound, consequential. Silence does not dismantle hierarchies, but it does demand equality.

In silence, you are rooted in the present. The bell rings through the old building, calling you to what is next, not what is in the days, months, years to come. So you notice things, the everyday things; you become aware that each day, this day, is a gift.

In silence, the chains of self-dependence are broken. You can’t journey this alone, you need others.

In silence, you can’t use other people. Yes, you need people, but you can’t use them; you can’t use them to find your validation, you can’t use them to derive your self-worth.

In silence, you reach a new depth of intimacy with those around you and it’s unity, and it tastes do deliciously sweet!

(In silence, you can’t do much when someone puts salt in the chocolate sauce rather than sugar… Decidedly not sweet!)

In silence, God is loud. He’s hard to ignore. He’s confrontational, but never aggressive. He’s persistent, but never degrading.

In silence, you get permission to plunder the riches to be found in the mystery of God.

In silence, you discover you are created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means, to save my soul.

In silence, you learn you are created; created, a creation, God’s creation and His works are wondrous – I know that full well – and I am one! I am a work of His hand, His design, His gifts, woven into my history which I surrender back to Him so they become His story.

In silence, you realise you are created to praise and it’s liberating. In the Lord, I’ll be ever thankful, in the Lord I will rejoice; bless the Lord my soul; alleluia, alleluia, amen amen, alleluia!

In silence, you understand you are created to reverence and your soul cannot hold back on proclaiming sanctus sanctus sanctus deus sabaoth because God is holy and He is King and Lord.

In silence, you recognise you are created to serve and there you are, folding laundry in a drafty outhouse, silent, in the presence of God, and standing on holy ground.

In silence, God is faithful and good and kind.

In silence, God’s love is infinite and gratuitous and overwhelming and never-ending and reckless – and for me.

In silence, God peels away scar tissue toxic to the body and fills wounds with living water and makes them His dwelling place.

In silence, God is everything He has said He is.

In silence, I am, with God’s help, everything He has declared I am.

In silence, I received gifts so generous, so numerous, to treasure.

In silence, I tasted, I savoured, I saw, and I heard. Because God is good. He is who He says He is. And He loves me.

And He loves you.

Be Filled. Be Free. Be Forgiven.

CM_Prints_FB

A sermon on Luke 2:21-40.

 

I’ve been reading lots of stories on social media this week about how gyms across the country will this week put away all the extra equipment they’ve had out for the past two weeks as people’s New Year’s resolutions to get fit pretty abruptly fall by the wayside. The rhetoric surrounding New Year’s resolutions is the idea of ‘new year, new me,’ it’s a desire for transformation. But what we often find is that changing is hard.

I don’t know if any of you made New Year’s resolutions and if so, how well they’re going thus far, but as we begin a new series in our morning services, exploring the glimpses of the living God in the early life of Jesus, this offers us the opportunity to reflect on what habits and spiritual disciplines we might want or need to cultivate that can help us to encounter God every day.

If you want to know what a lifetime of spiritual discipline looks like, Simeon and Anna are a good place to start. They are remarkable for being unremarkable; two ordinary people through whom God revealed the extraordinary; they both get their first glimpse of the living God in the flesh and both speak out about how this child before them will bring about the salvation of the world. They are two people just like us who dedicated their lives to God and who exercised spiritual discipline in response to divine encounter, which led to continued divine encounter.  That’s not to say their example isn’t intimidating! We read in verse 37 how Anna never left the temple, but prayed and fasted day and night. That’s a pretty serious commitment.

You may remember that a few months ago I made a pretty big commitment of my own. I joined the Community of St Anselm, which is a modern monastic-style community based at Lambeth Palace, led by Archbishop Justin Welby. One of the main elements to the community is having to follow a Rule of Life which contains no fewer than fifteen parts to it, in fact there are so many parts to it that I cannot remember what they all are off the top of my head. But one of the aspects to the Rule of Life is about welcoming the work of the Holy Spirit within us. It states:

We acknowledge that God calls us holy though our experience says we are not. In humility we say our ‘yes’ and ‘amen’ and choose to act in obedience to Him whose Word changes our reality.

Transformation without the help of the Holy Spirit and his sanctifying work in us is futile. It’s God who brings about lasting change within us. The impressive spiritual discipline shown by Simeon and Anna is not of their own making but is the work of the Holy Spirit in them, drawing them into deeper intimacy with God so that they are more familiar with his voice and his presence and so can respond faithfully to him. If we want to go deeper in our relationship with God, the first thing is to be filled; to give our ‘yes’ to God and allow him to fill us with his Holy Spirit so that he might begin that sanctifying and transformative work in us. Your past isn’t going to count against you. God offers each and every one of us the opportunity to be filled.

It is from that place of being filled by the Holy Spirit, that Simeon and Anna live lives of worship. For Anna, we see it in the discipline of her unceasing worship in the temple; for Simeon, we see it in his trusting in the promise that he will see the Messiah thus keeping close to God so that he is ready and willing to respond to the Spirit’s prompting.

Their exercise of spiritual discipline is quite different from how we might perceive spiritual discipline. The word discipline doesn’t necessarily conjure up the most positive of images. One of the reasons why I wanted to join St Anselm was because I thought it would be spiritual boot camp. I thought the best thing for my spiritual life would be to have a restrictive experience where my incessantly chatty inner monologue and easily distracted mind could be squashed under the weight of a Rule of Life which made anything other than prayer impossible. Then, and only then, would I learn to pray properly and graduate from being a Christian Level One and finally progress onto Level Two.

The problem is, I found the exact opposite. When you try to cultivate spiritual discipline without being filled with the Holy Spirit, your discipline is dependent on yourself. But this isn’t the motivation of Simeon and Anna’s disciplined lives. When you are filled with the Holy Spirit, spiritual discipline is not about restriction but about freedom. The Rule of Life we community members try to follow is not there for us to measure ourselves against and to see our shortcomings. Rather, the Rule of Life opens up ways for us to encounter the living God and in drawing near to him, we find mercy not punishment, we find the God who wants us to be free to worship him without fear. We need to be filled so that in our spiritual discipline we can be free to worship the living God rather than punish ourselves with our self-imposed restrictions.

Without this freedom, the Christian life is more of a slog– and it is a bit of a slog sometimes. Simeon is given a promise for which he has to wait an awfully long time. In a time and place where wannabe messiahs roamed the land promising everything and delivering nothing, Simeon waits on the Lord. And then, finally, it happens, something stirs his insides and this is it! The Messiah he’s been promised he will see has arrived. He races to the temple and – oh, it’s a baby. If I was Simeon and I had been promised that I would see the Messiah, I’d probably be expecting I’d get to see the Messiah being, y’know, Messiah-y. And yet God honours his promise to Simeon in a much more amazing way as he gets a glimpse of the salvation of all nations. When we are able to be free in our discipline it allows us to set aside our expectations of what we think God should do and, instead, we become open to God’s unexpected glimpses, which are always far more incredible than anything we could ever have expected.

It’s not easy. Sometimes life is hard. Sometimes life is bitterly disappointing. Imagine Anna, in a culture where women were raised to be wives and mothers, she gets married, her life trajectory seems set, and then it’s gone. But she keeps going, she keeps pursuing intimacy with God because she is free to worship, and that’s how you keep going with spiritual discipline when times are hard or mundane or busy. It’s a response to the God who is unchanging rather than being dependent on how you’re feeling that day. When we make spiritual discipline dependent on restricting ourselves to a standard we’ve imposed rather than a response to God, we lose the constancy spiritual discipline gives us to get through whatever life throws at us.

As part of St Anselm, I have to wear this cross. It was very strange putting it on for the first few weeks but now it’s a habit. If I forget it, I notice it; but what I don’t notice is how often I grab hold of it throughout the day and how the feel of it in my hand reminds me that God is with me. Spiritual discipline enables us to encounter the unchanging God and we don’t experience that through restriction, but through freedom. We need to be filled and we need to be free.

And finally, we need to remember that we are forgiven. Let’s hear those great words of Simeon’s song again:

Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles and the glory of your people Israel.

I love this passage in Luke’s Gospel which, for me, is one of the best passages throughout scripture. The glimpse of the living God we see is the God who has saved us. And there is no salvation for us without the forgiveness of our sins. And this revelation of God affirms that in the most wonderful way. Because here is God as a tiny baby, fragile and vulnerable, which resonates perfectly with our own fragility as human beings. When it comes to spiritual discipline, we will mess up, we will make mistakes. But we are forgiven. When we fall short, God doesn’t flounce off in disgust, instead he offers us his forgiveness. What we need to do is accept it for the gift of grace that it is and allow ourselves to be forgiven.

It’s counter-intuitive but sometimes we like to hold onto our guilt and our shame because maybe we don’t feel like God has ever truly forgiven us. Or maybe we’ve been holding onto those things for so long that we don’t know who we are without them. Maybe we hold onto them because we feel we deserve punishment rather than mercy.

But look at this glimpse of God seen here as a baby presented in the temple. This is a God who knows, a God who understands, this is a God who gets what it’s like to feel pain, and this is a God who loves you without condition, who wants you to draw near to him and encounter him day after day after day. This is a God who has revealed himself to you because he longs for a relationship with you. He has forgiven you, so allow yourself to be forgiven, show yourself the same mercy he has shown you.

Let’s be filled by the Holy Spirit so that we may be transformed; let’s be free in our spiritual discipline so that it comes from a place of worship rather than restriction; and let’s every day choose to be forgiven and so live each day with the living God who loves us and shows us his mercy. Be filled. Be free. Be forgiven.

Heaven Touching Earth

w484fal4okv5pdcvmhjm

There’s no relevance of this image to this post, I just effing love the latest Star Wars film and wanted to include it somehow and figured topless Kylo Ren might not be appropriate.

I’m standing up in the back of a set of pews set off to one side. My tights-clad feet slip on the wood beneath me, a move which is soon going to bite me in the ass, or more specifically, split my side open and ruin the contemplative mood of silent prayer.

I’m not alone.

We’re all there, together. Well, nearly all there. Philip is missing and we can feel it. We’re a body and we’re missing a vital part, waiting eagerly for his arrival so we can be whole again.

Our uniform of albs is hanging up in a corridor round the corner, but the same crosses hang from our necks. These are ours forever, we’ll carry them with us long after we hang up our albs. And in these few days spent with each other, the most profound moments occur when the string and wood are our identifying markers, not the conspicuous robes of white.

We’re adults – young adults, yes – but we’re grown ups. Between us we’ve collected life experiences and life stories that make us unique but which also bind us together. Wounds run into wounds, laughter meets laughter, prayer follows prayer. But there’s something childlike in us all this evening. We’re pretending to be electric guitars, we’re waving our arms and doing crazy dancing. We’ve mastered the art of sitting and speaking antiphonally, but on this evening, we’re doing a new thing: we’re being free. There’s a stupid grin on my face. I can’t remember the last time my soul felt this free.

And in amidst all this, God is.

***

I once ‘celebrated’ New Year’s Eve with someone whose brother had terminal cancer, that twelfth chime of Big Ben signaled the year her brother was going to die and with each bong her sobs grew louder. This time of year is always marked with people reflecting on the year that’s been and deciding on their self-improvement regimen for the new one. But sometimes the New Year is just that; it’s a new year, not a new you. Big Ben’s ringing out doesn’t result in some ontological change.

But if there’s one thing I’ve been learning it’s this: work on yourself. It’s a never ending process and you don’t need to wait until January 1 to begin it. And it’s not a process that’s like an upwards trajectory; there’ll be ups and downs and the triumphs will feel small and the setbacks overwhelming. But you don’t do this alone. It’s why God gave us himself and gives himself through other people.

This was my wish for 2017:

blog

It sounds more holy and pious than it actually was. There was no great move of the Holy Spirit behind it. And yet, it came more true than I could ever have imagined it would.

***

We’ve finished setting the room for lunch and we sit down in two arm chairs to pray. She takes my hand.

‘Is it okay if I pray in my language, so I’m not having to think about what to say in English?’

‘Of course.’

She speaks. I’ve no idea what she’s saying, but I feel so warm. It’s my turn. She laughs.

‘You just prayed for me the exact words I prayed for you.’

And in that moment, something has happened. Something so ordinary and yet it feels so extraordinary.

***

We’re all together. One body. One family. And our brave and beautiful brothers and sisters say ‘yes’ and it’s like a celebration deep in my soul. And then another chance to say ‘yes’ again. And it’s terrifying and yet I feel safe. And we say it, one by one.

And Heaven touches earth.

The Father kisses his children. And nothing changes but everything does. You’re no more loved than you were moments before, but you accept it more and love bursts through the caverns of your soul. And those promises you made to those strangers around you, to choose you and to love you, you realise they’re being said to you, but being said to you by friends. And you’re safe. And you’re not alone.

***

‘I have never left you.’ It’s not a whisper, it’s not a shout, it’s at once painful and healing. And it’s Heaven touching earth.

‘We’re here for you.’ Do these two community members of mine realise the magnitude of what they’ve said? It’s not a whisper, it’s not a shout, it’s Heaven touching earth.

***

Heaven touching earth is not just in the spectacular, it’s in the everyday. The act of love, the word of kindness, the laughing and crying and bleeding and scarring. It’s in the bit of Christ that lives in all of us, the bread of community and communion. It’s in the quotidian decisions where the Holy Spirit gently taps on the door.

Heaven touching earth is in the chaplain, after having listened to you complain for ten minutes, uttering six words which change the course of your year. It’s in the couple from church who, without having realised it, have gently dismantled a barrier you’d been holding onto for ages. It’s those glorious teenagers who have stolen your heart, who keep you up at night, and who experience Jesus in such beautiful, childlike ways. It’s five hours after a lunch meeting in a Lebanese restaurant and realising these colleagues you love are actually friends you love. It’s the colleague who cries when she prays because this is her vocation and she’s so in tune with God’s heart. It’s those people you said ‘I choose you’ to. It’s family being family. It’s sitting in the crypt and having a head resting on your shoulder.

It’s the realisation that you didn’t seek out Heaven touching earth. No, it sought out you. ‘Because, Hannah, I have never left you,’ says the Lord.

‘I believe you,’ I say in return.

Hear The Angels Sing: Glory To The New-Born King!

Advent-4-banner

Part  4 of the Advent series I’ve written for Viva. Please do consider supporting our Christmas Appeal.

Hail the Heaven-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings,
Risen with healing in His wings;
Mild He lays His glory by
Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.
Hark! The herald angels sing:
“Glory to the new-born king!”

A few weeks ago, I was sitting in the chapel of a former Carmelite monastery in Cornwall. As it housed an enclosed order, the monastery itself is designed to physically create the set-apartness of the nuns who lived, worshipped and served there for many years.

In the chapel there is a round stained-glass window that is just above the main crucifix, which is itself just above the altar. The window depicts what is beyond the monastery’s walls: rolling hills which lead down to the sea, and, perhaps optimistically for Cornwall, the sun blazing through a blue sky.

As I sat in the chapel, cross-legged on the floor, clothed in my brilliant white alb (prayer robe), my eyes were drawn from the gold cross on the altar, to the large crucifix, and finally to the iridescent window.

Suddenly these words flooded my mind: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty; who was, and is, and is to come.”

I don’t know for how long I was in the chapel, saying those words over and over again. I said them with many different intonations, from awe and wonder to praise and adoration, and also to a bit of disbelief. “Holy God? You are holy and yet you’re with me here, in this nondescript place? How are you so holy and yet you’re meeting me here so gently?”

When I was a young Christian, I liked my God with a heavy helping of spectacle. I grew up in the charismatic tradition where God did Big Things, but the catch was he only seemed to do them for a couple of weeks in the year and you had to be at this particular Christian festival in order for him to do them.

One of the things I am (slowly!) learning in my walk with God, and which was really made clear to me as I sat in that chapel, was that God’s glory is for the everyday. It is the quotidian spectacle: the extraordinary permeating the ordinary.

There is a paradox in how God reveals himself to us. He does move in the spectacle, in the holiness so bright it is blinding. But he also moves in the everyday, in the humanly comprehensible. This paradox is made abundantly clear in the carol, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”

God has come in Christ, he is the heaven-born Prince of Peace and yet “mild he lays his glory by”. God is just as much on the throne as he is on the road to meet us, arms flung wide, waiting for us to turn back to him.

In Advent, we wait for the display of the Word made flesh. In many ways it is a Big Thing – shepherds on the backside of a hill are overwhelmed by a heavenly host; magi from far off lands follow a burning star; there is nothing simple about the miracle of birth, not least the miracle of a virgin birth.

But spectacles are like fireworks: beautiful, impressive and finite. If this was all we waited for, longed for in Advent, then what would be the point?

In theology, we talk about the appearance of God as a theophany. Traditionally, it refers to a visible manifestation of God, along the lines of the burning bush and the pillar of cloud and fire. In Isaiah, the prophet says he “saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne” and that the seraphim around him called out to one another: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” Isaiah says, “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips…and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.”

Theophany in this context is spectacle; something so amazing, yet an experience which is frustratingly finite.

In Rembrandt’s ‘Adoration of the Shepherds’, there is the theophany-spectacle. In his trademark chiaroscuro technique, the Big Thing of the incarnation is illustrated through the dazzling light of the Christ child; light and life to all he brings. In another signature Rembrandt move, he paints himself into the scene as a shepherd kneeling before the baby with his hands clasped in prayer, his back to us. He has positioned himself this way deliberately, so that we can enter into the scene through this figure. We, too, can be before the Son of God.

The incarnation means we can look God in the eye. It is the gift of grace in the theophany of the ordinary; all the magnificence of the spectacle with the permanence of the everyday. In John’s Gospel, we read of the theophany of the Logos come to earth and then shortly afterwards encounter Jesus at the well, offering an ostracised woman the chance to drink.

In Advent we wait for what we have already received: God with us. God is with us. God is with us! It is incredible and miraculous, and a demonstration of divinity so compassionate and merciful and holy it is near-on impossible to comprehend.

And yet, the event we wait for in Advent, the Word becoming flesh, means we can journey through each day with the knowledge of who God is. It is the theophany of the ordinary; all the spectacle of our holy God with all the love of the God who humbled himself to birth in a stable and death on a cross.

On behalf of all of us at Viva, I wish you a very happy Christmas. May you know the everyday joy of the holy God with us.

***

This is the last in four reflections from Viva for Advent 2017 in a series entitled, ‘Hear the angels sing’. Read the previous reflections here: Advent 1Advent 2, Advent 3

Light Actually

lightactually

A sermon on Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 and John 1:6-8, 19-28.

In the beginning of the classic Christmas film Love Actually, Hugh Grant’s character says in a voiceover:

Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion’s starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don’t see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often, it’s not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it’s always there… If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaky feeling that love actually is all around.

It’s a nice sentiment and yet often when I look at the state of the world, it’s hard to feel anything but gloomy. Maybe I’m too much of a pessimist, perhaps I am just a cynic, but I look at the world and I just feel a lot of despair. The UN has declared a humanitarian crisis due to the famine in Yemen, there’s a game of nuclear war chicken being played out via Twitter, homelessness has doubled in the UK in the past two years, on average this year, a woman has died every three days from domestic violence, and these Dreaming Spires of our city mask the fact that 1 in 4 children here live in poverty. As lovely as the saccharine sentiment of Heathrow’s arrivals gate as a conduit of love is, it doesn’t really seem to be enough.

In the face of what feels like unrelenting tragedy and pain and despair, the prophet Isaiah presents us with some simultaneously challenging and inspiring words. He says:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to proclaim the good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim freedom for the captive and release from darkness for the prisoners…to comfort all who mourn, and…to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes.

What is this good news the prophet speaks of that we are to proclaim? Well, it is nothing less than the good news this season of Advent points us towards, the good news that a saviour has come for each and every one of us and that saviour’s name is Jesus. It’s unequivocally good news; it’s amazing news! And yet, does it ever feel like a bit of an impossible endeavour to really share this good news?

When I was an undergrad and part of the Christian Union, we used to have a week each year called ‘Events Week.’ And it was called ‘Events Week’ because ‘Missions Week’ was deemed too Christian for the non-Christians we were trying to reach. The week consisted of a series of talks on frequently asked questions about Christianity, with a flashy big name in Christian apologetics brought in to deliver talks challenging enough to convince people to give their lives to Jesus.

And then the rest of the week involved us members of the CU standing in strategic places around campus to hand out flyers for these talks, but we also had to wear luminous yellow hoodies with navy writing on. I really cannot overstate how horrendously yellow this hoodie was. And it was so embarrassing having to wear this hoodie every day for a week. I used to put it on and just cringe and then have person after person after person ignore me as I tried to hand out flyers. Do you know how much effort it takes to deliberately ignore someone who is wearing a hideously yellow hoodie? Not even my flatmates could be persuaded to come to these events and for the rest of the year I had to put up with them asking me why I wasn’t wearing my super attractive yellow hoodie. And my main take away from that week was that I was rubbish at mission, rubbish at proclaiming the good news. And so, I never did another Events Week. Why bother, it’s not like I’d bring anyone to Jesus anyway?

If John the Baptist had been part of my uni CU you just know he would’ve loved the yellow hoodie. He’s just built for that kind of thing. And yet, this passage in the beginning of John’s Gospel tells us some crucial things about him that make his example seem not so unattainable after all. He came as a witness to testify to the light of Jesus, he himself was not the light, he was not the saviour. People are drawn to him because they see something in him, and they mistake him for the messiah because he has the light of God in him. His proclaiming of the good news is not some heady combination of extroversion, charisma, and apologetics training. His proclaiming of the good news is the light of God within him that is spilling out into his everyday life as light which draws people in.

This up-ends everything I believed constituted mission, constituted proclaiming the good news. Because I have the light of Jesus in me, and you have the light of Jesus in you. We began this term looking at this, we are the light of the world. We testify to the ultimate light by being the light in this somewhat gloomy world.

And what does it look like to be this light? Well, it’s in proclaiming the good news by binding up the broken-hearted, comforting those who mourn, and bestowing on hurting people crowns of beauty instead of ashes. It’s in doing for other people, what Christ has done for us. Because we have his light in our gloom, his saving for our poverty, his binding for our hearts, his comfort for our mourning, his crown for our hurt. All we need to do is let that shine through.

How do we do this? Praying for people, taking the time to ask people how they are and genuinely wanting to know the answer, helping at something like the winter night shelter, helping with Café Church, checking in on vulnerable neighbours, to the many great charitable endeavours I know so many people in our church family are a part of.

We’re going to be talking more about Alpha towards the end of this service, and I had the privilege, and I really do mean privilege, of helping to run the Alpha Course we held at the beginning of this year. I say this totally sans-hyperbole, but it was one of the best things I have ever been a part of. And what I loved was how our church family pitched in to help, from making meals, to doing the washing up, to praying for the course – and all that was a great example of proclaiming the good news by the light of God within us spilling out into the world around us through those acts of service.

Let’s be encouraged! To proclaim the good news of our saviour we don’t need some kind of special training or expert skills, we just need to recognise that Christ is in us, that he loves us and has saved us, and let his light within us spill over into our everyday lives.

And if you’re here and you don’t yet know Jesus, but you’re intrigued by him and this light he gives, then you’ve come to the right place to be shown the reality of his good news, so please do come and ask one of us if you want to hear more, because we’d really really love to tell you.

So let’s look at the world: it’s broken, it’s hurting, it’s gloomy. But we’re in it and we have God with us, Christ in us, the Spirit upon us, so if you look for it, I’ve got a sneaky feeling that light actually is all around.

 

Hear The Angels Sing: The Dear Christ Enters In

Advent-3-banner

Part 3 of the Advent series I’ve written for Viva. Take a look at our Christmas Appeal.

How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is given.
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven.
No ear may hear His coming
But in this world of sin
Where meek souls will receive him still
The dear Christ enters in.

On Christmas Day 2011, the message of the Gospel was calmly and genially delivered by a octogenarian evangelist and broadcast live across the UK. It was the Queen’s Speech. In it she said:

God sent into the world a unique person – neither a philosopher nor a general, important though they are, but a Saviour, with the power to forgive. Forgiveness lies at the heart of the Christian faith. It can heal broken families, it can restore friendships and it can reconcile divided communities. It is in forgiveness that we feel the power of God’s love. In the last verse of this beautiful carol, O Little Town of Bethlehem, there’s a prayer: ‘O Holy Child of Bethlehem / Descend to us we pray. / Cast out our sin / And enter in / Be born in us today.’ It is my prayer that on this Christmas Day we might all find room in our lives for the message of the angels and for the love of God through Christ our Lord.

One of the messages of Advent that runs throughout the carol, O Little Town of Bethlehem, is that God comes to us, but we have to choose to receive him. His presence is a gift – a wondrous gift – but we have to make the decision to receive it.

In the beginning of John’s Gospel, Christ is described as being the light that shines in the darkness. John the Baptist precedes Jesus and he repeatedly and emphatically denies claims that he is the Messiah. But people wanted to follow him and he had to keep pointing them towards Jesus.

Following the light isn’t always as simple as it sounds, even in the darkness. The hallway light in my house has been broken for several weeks. If my housemate and I were to fix it, then our downstairs would be filled with light. But with just one swipe, we can turn on the torch on our phones and that tiny spot of light can navigate us to where we need to be.

Fixing the light requires working out what kind of bulb it needs, acquiring that bulb, finding something to stand on to reach the light and, if it’s a bayonet fixture, spending a frustrating few minutes trying to get it to stay in whilst yelling about how screw fixtures are superior. Is that stress really worth it for light?

In William Holman Hunt’s ‘The Light of the World’, he depicts the various ways that Christ is light: he carries a lantern, an echo of Psalm 119: 105 and the lantern itself is covered in stars and crescents as a reference to his message of relevance for the whole world. The scene is set at night, a metaphor for our postlapsarian or post-fall of humankind world and not only our need for light but also our refusal to acknowledge that we need the light.

Jesus stands at a door, knocking. When asked about the meaning of this, the artist explained that “the closed door was the obstinately shut mind; the weeds the cumber of daily neglect, the accumulated hindrance of sloth,” and when asked why the door had no outside handle, he replied, it is the door of the human heart, and that can only be opened from the inside.

God comes to us in the most spectacular ways; from the manger to the cross to the road to Emmaus covered in scars. He comes to us, but he won’t enter in unless we ask him to. He comes and we see a bit of the light, but there is always more light to be found when we ask.

At Viva, we cannot achieve things without God’s help or with less of God’s help. We could take his charge to love our neighbour, run with it and do good things with that little bit of light. Or we could let him do extraordinary things through us as vessels of his love and light. It takes patience. It takes perseverance. And it takes a lot of prayer!

After Christmas, we will come to the story of Simeon, the man promised that he would not die without seeing the Messiah. In compline, or night prayer, the Nunc Dimittis or Song of Simeon is always sung: “Now, Lord, you let your servant go in peace / Your word has been fulfilled. / My own eyes have seen the salvation / which you have prepared in the sight of every people / A light to reveal you to the nations / and the glory of your people Israel.”

Simeon waited patiently; he persevered until he encountered the whole light; and he prayed. In Advent, we wait for God’s coming and he waits for our saying ‘come on in.’

He has come for you; will you let the dear Christ enter in?

This is the third of four reflections from Viva for Advent 2017 in a series entitled, ‘Hear the angels sing’. Click here to read the first and click here to read the second in the series. Look out for the final one published next Sunday.