Lessons From A Kamikaze Chicken

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This isn’t the hen known as Kamikaze Chicken.

“Help! Help!”

I held my breath, waiting to see if the cry would come again.

“Help! Help! Help!”

I threw back my duvet, stomped through my room, and flung the door open.

“What?”

“The Nazis are invading.”

“I know, but it all works out in the end, and the reason why I know this is because I have to write an exam on it tomorrow. Go to bed!”

I watched my granny turn out and shuffle back into her room. It was the fifth time that night she had called out, the 900th night in the row, and the early hours of the day of my first A Level exam in Year 13.

Young carers don’t get the kudos they deserve. Caring for an elderly relative is testing at the best of times, but it is a unique pressure on the young. I don’t resent having been a young carer for both my grandparents, nor did I ever frame my role in such a way at the time, it was only later that I came to realise that was what I was doing. It’s not glamorous. My life included wrestling with a chronic diabetic having a violent hypo, trying to get glucose gel on his gums whilst he tried to bite my fingers off; never being able to sleep properly because a dementia sufferer was able to work the stair lift and unlock the front door at 3 am; and one spectacular occasion where my beloved granny projectile pooed all over the living room floor, including my GCSE English coursework. (It may have been a fair reflection on my superficial comparison of Iago and Medea).

My granny died last year after nearly ten years of suffering from lewy body dementia, the most horrendous manifestation of what is an already awful disease. If I could go back and be a better carer to her, I would, I really would.

This week, Neil Conway is launching a challenge on the UK’s ban on assisted dying. Conway has motor neurone disease and his case at the High Court is for ‘the right to a dignified death.’ It prompted James Hale, a poet and disabled rights activist, to write an article for The Guardian, which is a moving read indeed. Hale writes,

As someone who relies extensively on social and medical care, I have great empathy for [Conway’s] fear of losing dignity, and the desire to avoid suffering or a drawn-out death. However, legalising assisted suicide is a dangerous way of achieving those goals.

Dying, even the ‘best’ deaths, is not dignified, how can they be when they are not part of God’s plan? But this does not mean that dying should be hastened, to get it over and done with.

My boss lives and works at a wood. It’s more complicated (and exciting) than this description, but just imagine a wood. Recently, she took a delivery of ex-battery farm chickens. To look at them, you realise why God designed chickens to have feathers, because chickens which don’t have feathers look… interesting. These poor chickens weren’t totally convinced of their new freedom and took some encouragement to venture out of their box. But one chicken, infamous in the office as Kamikaze Chicken, made it out of the box. She made it through the electric fence and into a bush where she made herself silent and still so she could not be found.

So often in discussions arguing in favour of assisted suicide there are utilitarian undertones. As a theological ethicist, I am necessarily wary of utilitarianism (which itself is varied and deserves more than being idly bandied about). The very very general gist is that an action is right in as far as it enables happiness, and that the greatest happiness of the most number of people is what to aim for.

The problem insofar as assisted dying is concerned is that the greatest happiness for the most number of people has led to the development of people being seen as burdens if they require a certain amount of care and support. It’s a false narrative. People aren’t burdens if they need caring for. Whether you articulate this as ‘love your neighbour’ or through the golden rule, to need caring for doesn’t make you a burden or an inconvenience. And we need to stop framing caring for the sick and dying as such. In a time where the welfare state in the UK is on a precipice, the attitude of casting off burdens could have – will have – fatal consequences.

Kamikaze chicken repeatedly made a break for it, and my boss repeatedly pursued her and brought her back to safety where she could be nurtured back to health. When your granny explosively craps on your English coursework, you mop it up and you make her a cup of tea. When someone is dying, you don’t frame your selfishness and reluctance to care for them as putting them ‘out of their misery.’ Not caring for them is what puts them in their misery.

Hale notes, ‘When social care visits are rushed, being left wearing a filthy incontinence pad feels undignified… But this is neither necessary nor inevitable.’ Human bodies are beautiful and terrible things. But when human beings care for each other as they should, when relationships are strong, there is no loss of dignity, despite what your body throws at you.

In his first novel, Leonard Cohen writes, ‘Children show scars like medals. Lovers use them as secrets to reveal. A scar is what happens when the word is made flesh. It is easy to display a wound… It is hard to show a pimple.’ In our promethean attempt to postpone death, we’ve over-sanitised our bodies. That is how loss of dignity has become something to be afraid of. But when we’re in relationship with each other, there is no loss of dignity because you don’t see bodily integrity as the marker of that person’s worth. Then you no longer fear showing pimples, rather you laugh at them, together. A bit of mess in an ‘oops,’ a featherless chicken sure looks interesting, but it is still a chicken.

The most amazing thing about the cross event, is that wherever you pause the story, hope always bursts through. Pause it at the crucifixion, and when you’re in pain and suffering, the hope is that you are not alone in it, for God is going through it with you. Pause it at the ascension, and you have the hope of God’s commitment to corporeality. Pause it at the resurrection, and the hope you have is death has been defeated.

Our discussions on assisted dying begin from a flawed premise, one where there is fear of bodies and dying, one which showcases how little human beings care for each other that loss of dignity and being a burden become reasons for wanting to hasten the end.

People are not battery farm chickens. We are not designed to give everything we’ve got and when we fail, be cast aside. We are designed to love one another, to care for one another, to look despair and decay and then death in the eye and say ‘not yet,’ rather than pushing someone into death’s grasp. With life to come, caring for someone until the very end, however messy it may be, is the affirmation that life really is worth it.

Kamikaze chicken needs a new epithet. She’s not made a break for it since her latest return to her fellow chicken friends. It’s amazing how you can bear all things when you know you’re cared for, when you know you’re loved.

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Here’s To All The #NewRevs

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I’m a particular fan of some of these new revs.

It’s coming up to Petertide (the period around St Peter’s day on June 29th) which means that a whole load of ordinands in the Church of England will emerge from their vicar schools, blinking into the sunlight, and then forming an orderly queue to be ordained. Some will stumble over their cassocks, others will pull nervously at their dog collars, and some will be wearing very snazzy underwear to retain a sense of normalcy amidst the crazy. (This is more common than you think!)

I’ve been living with a bunch of these trainee vicars for the past two years now and I can safely say this: the Church of England is in good hands. Out of the people I know being ordained this summer, there are former nurses, teachers, and zoo keepers, and all three of those occupations and their skills can be very readily applied to the church, especially the latter! But out of the people I know being ordained this summer, there are people who love the Lord Jesus, who go to extraordinary measures for people, for whom doing mission comes as easily as breathing.

They are kind and thoughtful. At times, they have been irritating and have been irritated – but they’re human. And it is how they have dealt with that which marks them out at imminent priests (or deacons, priesting will come a year from now). There are a whole load of churches around the country who are about to be seriously blessed by the presence of these #NewRevs over the coming weeks, months, and years. These #NewRevs are fun and funny, as seen over dinner, at the Christmas Revue, or at the Summer Ball.

I have learnt so much from them. For some of them, they have gone through considerable tragedy and it’s not that they have come through it all unscathed, but they have come through it all with Jesus. Nothing makes people stand out more than those who walk every day with Jesus. There’s something different about them. It’s not that sadness or sin has evaporated, but there is such a sense of joy in them, the joy that comes through staring the crucified God in the eye and in that moment, realising just how desperately, profoundly, perfectly they are loved by Him.

But there are a few things I would like to say to my #NewRevs and maybe some of these things will be universal to all the #NewRevs over the coming weeks.

  1. If well-meaning parishioners offer you food which turns out to be terrible, just remember how well you did with vicar school “food.” You’ve got this!
  2. If stuck for a sermon, I’ve got the ‘Seven Constipated Men of the Bible’ video from the Christmas Revue, so feel free to hit me up.
  3. If you need to put on an event, glitter-covered jars make great decorations, although do be aware that glitter is basically the gonorrhea of the craft world.
  4. God doesn’t call the equipped, he equips the called. Vicar school was never going to equip you for every possible ministry scenario, but you are so much more equipped than you were when you first walked through the door, so be encouraged.
  5. Pray. Get down on your knees and pray, pray in the shower, pray walking down the street, pray in the ice cream aisle, buy ice cream, pray whilst eating ice cream.
  6. Remember these great words from the late Michael Ramsey: ‘May it be said of you, not necessarily that you talked about God cleverly, but that you made God real to people.’
  7. Finally, remember these words from our saviour, Jesus Christ: ‘Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’

I’m going to miss you #NewRevs. Go don those dog collars, get your sensible shoes on, and spread the Gospel. I’m praying for you.

Love Fiercely, Love Intimately, Love Persistently

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A Maundy Thursday sermon on John 13:1-17, 31-35

If you were following the news last week, you may have heard that there was a bit of an Easter crisis. Cadbury’s had teamed up with the National Trust to put on an Easter egg hunt, however, rather than calling it an Easter egg hunt, they called it the Cadbury’s Egg Hunt. And numerous people from the Archbishop of York through to the Prime Minister, viewed this as an egregious attack on Easter and everything Easter means. But if you want to find the people who are sticking up for Easter and defending it, happily they all hang out in the same place: Twitter. Now I would love to read you some of the tweets of Easter defenders verbatim, but common decency prohibits me from doing so. But here are a few censored examples of people fighting for Easter.

‘Went to Tesco to buy Easter eggs last night. Seems they don’t sell Easter eggs now just chocolate eggs! Won’t be using Tesco again – boycott!

‘Bought Cadbury’s Easter eggs for the neighbours kids and now they’re all going in the bin.’

‘I find I “accidentally” have a problem when handling Easter eggs that don’t say Easter on them. It’s a shame because once broken they are no longer sellable. So strange my thumb never crushes the ones with Easter on them. I wonder why.’

To which someone replied, ‘Destroying children’s Easter eggs for Jesus. #it’swhathewouldhavewanted’

And yet, when we come to this passage in John’s Gospel, we get a picture of Jesus that is a world away from destroying confectionary just because the word ‘Easter’ doesn’t appear on it. Jesus knows that he is mere hours away from prolonged agony. Someone he loves is going to betray him, others he loves are going to deny him, he’s going to be tortured, mocked, humiliated, and he’s going to be crucified not just despite the fact that he is innocent, but because he is innocent. He is the only person who does not deserve in any way what he is going to go through, and yet he willingly goes through it. And although we know the magnificent ending to the story, it doesn’t make the pain any less difficult to go through.

But despite knowing all that was to come he is filled with love. There it is in verse one, ‘having loved his own who were in the world he loved them to the end.’ ‘Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.’ He loves them to the end, he loves them fiercely.

And Jesus demonstrates this love in a profound and beautiful way. ‘He poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.’ Some of you may know that I invest quite a lot of care and attention on my nails, but I am ashamed to say that this care and attention does not extend to my toes. In fact my feet in general are pretty terrible which is why you will never see them! My nail varnish on my toes is chipped and reveals that I don’t actually remove my nail varnish and just paint new coats over it and due to having abnormally narrow feet, so as not to lose my shoes when I walk, I wear shoes a size too small for me so my feet basically look like they belonged to my 94 year-old grandmother. If anyone here is a foot doctor, please don’t judge me!

So if Jesus was here and he said to me that he wanted to wash my feet, my response would be no. No thank you, Jesus, I’m alright thanks, I’ll spare you from my feet. But that is how I feel about a lot of things, and I’m sure I’m not alone. Don’t get too close, Jesus, don’t get your beauty too close to my mess. The act of washing his disciples’ feet was Jesus loving intimately. One by one, he washes his disciples’ feet. He washes the feet of the of the person who he knows is going to deny him three times. He washes the feet of the person he knows is going to betray him in just a few hours. He washes the feet of his followers whose feet show that they have walked miles and miles following him and serving him. This is how Jesus loves us: intimately.

There are many incredible things about Holy Week, but in the next three days especially there is the most fantastic collision of humanity with divinity. In the next three days, the fullness of God’s power and glory is on incredible display, destroying sin, defeating death. And also in the next three days, the fullness of human life is on bold and raw display. Because we all have days that are like Good Friday. We all know pain so intense and so unfair that it feels like we’re going to burst. And we do all have days like Easter Sunday where we feel deep joy and the peace and confidence that comes with it. And we have plenty of days like Holy Saturday. Days where it we’re just doing the best we can, where at times it’s mundane, and at times it’s confusing. Days where following Jesus feels like striving and like we are just getting tired and weary feet. But the Jesus who washes our feet, regardless of what has caused them to get into the state they are in, loves us persistently. His love persists through whatever it is we’re facing, be it pain, or joy, or in the every day. He loves us fiercely, intimately, persistently.

And he issues us a challenge, the challenge to love as we are loved: fiercely, intimately, persistently. Maundy comes from the Latin mandatum or mandate, the mandate or command Jesus gives us in verses 34-35: ‘A new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.’ It’s not an easy command.

‘As I have loved you’ means we have to wash the feet of those who will hurt us. ‘As I have loved you’ means we have to wash the feet of those we’d rather not go near. ‘As I have loved you’ means we have to wash the feet of everyone, including the person who would really rather you didn’t, the person who for whatever reason is afraid to be known and makes it hard to love them. When I first started coming to St Clement’s, I did a really good job for the first few months of getting out of church as quickly as possible once the service had ended. And I did this with great success until one day, I was cornered by somebody. And they asked my name. And they asked what I did. And they asked if I wanted a cup of tea. And from then on, whenever they were in church, my plan to slip out failed. And because of their persistence and their love I ended up in a home group and ended up getting to know more people in church, and then ended up calling this place home and the people in it, family. And without such fierce, intimate, persistent love, my life would be much much poorer.

‘As I have loved you’ is a twofold command. First it is to let Jesus in, to let him wash our feet, to let him love us with the fierce, intimate persistence that he does his disciples. Second, it is to love others the same way, to love people just as they are, to love people, despite the fact that it so often comes with a cost. Jesus tells his disciples ‘as I have loved you’ because that is what they need to remember over the next three bewildering, painful, glorious days. Jesus tells us ‘as I have loved you’ because that is what we need to remember for others as well as for ourselves, for our bewildering, painful, and glorious days.

‘As I have loved you, so you must love one another.’ As Jesus has loved us, the free, powerful, vulnerable, earth-shattering, temple-veil tearing, sin-destroying, death-defeating, feet-washing love, so we must love one another. ‘As I have loved you…fiercely, intimately, persistently, so you must love one another.’