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.

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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.

An Expectant Lent: Give Us Today Our Daily Bread

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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.

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

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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.

An Expectant Lent: Our Father In Heaven

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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.’

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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.

 

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

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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

Hear The Angels Sing: The Dear Christ Enters In

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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.