My Scarlet A

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A is for anxiety.

‘The Bible contradicts almost everything I say about myself. It says I am worthy of love; it says I am unique and valuable. It says I am of incomparable value to God.’ Katharine Welby-Roberts.

It’s World Mental Health Day today and I’m going to let you all in on a secret: I struggle with anxiety. It began when I was reasonably young, but by the time I became a student, it stopped being manageable and being able to be passed off as run-of-the-mill nerves or shyness, and became this secret shame, the damning scarlet A I thought everyone else could see when they looked at me. When anxiety made it difficult to leave the house, I felt it would be better to have my friends view me as flaky, as a last-minute bailer on plans, than actually admit the truth: I have anxiety, I’ve been ploughing on through the day, and right now, I just need the safety and security of staying home this evening because I’ve done a great job of being Hannah Barr today so I would like to reward myself by putting on Netflix and pretending to be CJ Cregg. It’s difficult to admit to having anxiety. I feel the embarrassed urge to tell you that it’s not as bad as it used to be, that I’m pretty fine now. As I write this, I’m still not sure if I’ll have the guts to post this. And it currently feels pretty crazy that a version of this has landed in the inbox of my work’s Head of Comms for posting on our website.

There are two reasons for this: first, there is the fear that if people know I have anxiety, they will take responsibilities away from me, not trust me to do things well, not give me the opportunities to be pushed and allow me to push myself. Second, it is the fear that people won’t believe me and they’ll tell me to get a grip. In the six years since my formal diagnosis of anxiety, I have achieved three degrees, lived and studied abroad, won some awards, been consistently employed, taken lots of risks, made friendships, sustained friendships, done lots of public speaking (which is one of my favourite things to do), and a whole host of other things. This isn’t to brag – although this week I was shortlisted for Tweeter of the Year and I am way more proud of that than I should be! It’s just that sometimes, those things have been bookended by anxiety attacks and of course I would far rather you see my public achievements than the treading water in the background.

But there is also a third reason I’m often reticent to admit all this and it’s to do with being a Christian. Word of advice: quoting Philippians 4:6 to someone with anxiety has the same effect as telling someone who isn’t calm to calm down, it doesn’t work and it just makes them more annoyed!

The overarching narrative of gospel is wholeness. We begin with one God who is perichoretic in character, this means that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are in perfect harmony and communication with each other, mutually indwelling. This God makes the world and human beings in it and God and humankind are in a perichoretic embrace. A fracture happens. God and humankind are separated. This breaks God’s heart so he does the extraordinary: he sends his son to make a way for that fracture to be healed, for God and his children to be reunited forever. And now we wait for the fullness of that, for that day where there will be no more tears and no more pain.

But that day might not be today. A lot of damage has been done by Christians, however well-meaning, suggesting to those who struggle with their mental health that they are being tested by God, or they are not praying hard enough, or telling people that they are broken. We are all broken; but it’s because of our sin, not because of our health, mental or physical.

As Christians, we have the best thing you can say to anyone who is struggling whether it’s due to a formal or severe mental health diagnosis or whether it’s in the day-to-day struggles and triumphs which impact on all our mental health. Because as Christians we can say ‘God is with you.’

Let me tell you a tale of two Psalms.

I have prayed these two Psalms throughout my struggles with anxiety; I’ve prayed them when it’s just been that horrible heavy feeling of tar wrapping itself around by chest, I’ve prayed them when it’s felt like I just can’t breathe.

The first is Psalm 50 which features the great verse ‘weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.’ This Psalm has brought great comfort to me because it points me towards hope, that this anxiety is ultimately temporary, a scarlet A which I put there myself and which God will take from me on that amazing day.

The second is Psalm 88. It is the only Psalm to not finish on a message of hope. Rather, it ends ‘darkness is my closest friend.’ And sometimes I have just stayed in that Psalm, in the darkness, not seeing a way out. But that doesn’t mean God isn’t there with me, quite the opposite.

If you are struggling with mental health, God is there with you, in the dark and in the flickers of hope. If you are journeying with someone through this, be patient with them. The cross event was over three days: a day of visible agony, a day of hidden anguish, a day of joy. God is with you in whichever of those days you find yourself in. He is with you even if it feels like it has been a lifetime of unrelenting agony or anguish and tasting joy before being plunged back into despair doesn’t make you a failure. God is with you. He’s got you. He’s not letting you go. He loves you and he is proud of you. God is with you.

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‘I Love You’

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Community of St Anselm 2017/18.

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

But here are a few reflections on yesterday:

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

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

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

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

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

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

No truer words have ever been spoken.

No better words have ever been heard.

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

So, Why Celibacy?

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Life plot twist.

‘So, why celibacy?’

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

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

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

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

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

There are two reasons for this:

What if God doesn’t speak to me?

What if He does?

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

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

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

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

It’s easy enough to say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dorchester Abbey

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love and hope are marvellous and wonderful and not to be underestimated, they are central to the message of God in Christ. But it is not simply enough to tell people this good news, we need to live it. As Christians, as people who know the love and hope of God means we cannot but show this same love and hope to others. But how best to go about doing this? The way Viva works is through networks, so we have 38 networks around the world, partnerships of churches and other organisations working together for the good of others. The founder of Viva was volunteering in Bolivia and he found that on a Monday evening there were all these different churches providing food for homeless children but then they weren’t there for the rest of the week, so Tuesday-Sunday these children starved. Through the simple act of connecting these churches, the children were fed more often.

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

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

I Am A Soul Sista

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Youth ministry means cake.

Dear Soul Survivor,

I’ve recently returned from you. I’ve returned from you every year for the past ten years although this time a pretty naff cough and cold has returned with me which, as one of my youth group suggested, is probably because I’m getting old. Honestly, you give up your annual leave to take your youth group to Soul Survivor, you put up with camping for five days, AND you share a tiny number of toilets with thousands of teenagers and this is the thanks you get!

(Although I think we all know it’s because I’m getting old).

In the past few years, Soul Survivor, I’ve had a few frustrations with you. It hasn’t been anything major; your theology is legit, your biblical exegesis is sound, your ministry is life-giving. But, in the past few years, I’ve just felt a bit let down by you.

I became a Christian at a Soul Sista event in Watford in 2004. It was great. It was very pink! I bought a hot pink t-shirt with ‘I am a Soul Sista’ emblazoned in black on the front and I wore it all the time, it was my favourite. I was incredibly inspired by these women who led worship, who preached passionately, who made real to me the God who loved me so much he died for me. As part of a community of women, it felt like a family and it felt like being a girl of God was something to embrace. My confirmation presents a few months later were books by Beth Redman, the most played CD was Precious (a CD I finally tracked down a few months ago and I bawled in the car with the nostalgia-cum-joy).

And then I started going to Soul Survivor in the summer. In those days, I was a passionate worship leader, my guitar was grafted to me. I went to every seminar by Tim Hughes, but Lex Buckley was who I wanted to be. I went to more Soul Sista events. I saw women lead and it gave me hope. You know, Ali Martin, she’s been my favourite preacher since I was 12 years old. As a teenager, her example meant everything. As preaching gradually overtook worship leading in my passions and in my giftings, I used to think ‘what would Ali do?’ as well as ‘what would Jesus do?’

When I ended up in a church which was vehemently opposed to women in leadership, seeing women lead at Soul Survivor was my only hope. As sermons and services and pastoral sensibilities which whirred inside me were shut down by callous statements of my being a weaker vessel, not permitted to have authority, commanded to stay silent, seeing women on the main stage at Soul Survivor was the only thing that encouraged me that I wasn’t going insane, that my calling was from God and it was just the church I was in that had the problem, not God.

But then, you look again at that stage and you start to ask yourself, ‘where the women at?’ One female worship leader; one female speaker who only gets one turn at speaking. An annual seminar saying ‘Soul Survivor affirms women in leadership’ but it starts to just seem like lip service.

And that hurt.

It felt like you were saying one thing, but doing another.

And I’ve been torn. Because people have leveled pretty rough criticism at you guys for the gender disparity issue, and it’s like being caught between my divorced parents. I love you, Soul Survivor! I will always defend you because you’re brilliant, but you really let a load of us women down.

So this year, on the final night, when Mike called on the guys in the room to treat women with respect; when you had incredible women (plural!) preaching on the main stage; when you had a seminar on women leadership where again, guys were called on to cut out the patriarchal crap, it meant the world. (Just to say, the joke that followed Mike’s words on night 5 diminished the impact slightly, but that’s my only niggle).

I want the young women in my youth group to know that God has called them because of who they are. In a world where misogyny has quotidian fatal consequences for women, my prayer for them is that church is a place of empowerment and not of silencing. My prayer is that they will never believe the lie that their gender makes them anything other than equal in the eyes of God.

Soul Survivor, for years you were the place that made these things true for me. Please, keep doing this. Please keep being that place for the girls in the church because these girls become women and we discover that the world doesn’t get easier, in fact, it gets exponentially harder to be female. At 12 you made me feel grateful to God that I was a girl and this year, for the first time in a few years, you made me feel the same.

I love you, Soul Survivor. What a privilege to be part of the fruit of your faithfulness to God.

With love,

Hannah

Living In One Room

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One of the less dungeon-esque student digs.

There are several things spending seven years as a full-time student teaches you:

  1. It is possible to live off 9p jars of “curry” sauce from Sainsbury’s.
  2. The more degrees you gain, the harder you have to work to prove you’re employable.
  3. How to have your life fit into one room.

I was once chatting to a colleague at one of my summer jobs where she was lamenting the moving in process with her new partner. He had no furniture, but he did have boxes upon boxes upon boxes of books. I smiled sympathetically. My earthly possessions are basically 80% books, 15% Pinterest-inspired room decorations, and 5% useful items, i.e. an air bed, a laundry basket, and a candy floss pink bin. It’s a seven-years-spent-as-a-student problem.

One of the things you learn as a student is how to make four walls contain your whole life. As a fresh-faced fresher, my halls of residence room betrayed my overwhelmingly heteronormativity (‘Even your bloody hole punch is pink!’ exclaimed the jock who was my new flat mate). Without a social area, without a proper kitchen (catered halls still one of the best decisions ever) my life had to fit in that one room.

By second year, the refusal to turn on the heating had us all fleeing from the drafty living room to our beds, curling up under duvets. On my study abroad year, I lived in an apartment where I just had my room, with a fridge acting as my bedside table, sharing a bathroom with a girl from deepest, darkest Quebec. Even when I worked as a junior dean and had my own flat, my claustrophobia compelled me to move the bed into the living room, so again, my life became confined to one room. Two more years of student life, two more years of living in a room.

And now? Well, now I’m in a house. And yet, I find myself so often just in my room. There is a whole house. It has a sofa and a television and a tumble dryer and housemates and a garden and yet, so often, I retreat to living in just one room.

There’s a Tim Hughes song that, whenever I hear it, makes me feel physically sick with guilt. It begins, ‘I don’t want to get there at the end of it all, looking behind me to see there was so much more.’ These lyrics floor me. They make me feel utterly horrendous. Here am I, a person claiming to have been saved by grace, to have experienced the awesomeness and magnificence of the Holy Spirit, and yet, I seem to approach my spiritual life like I do houses: one room rather than the whole house.

In Luke’s Gospel there is the story of perhaps my favourite encounter that Jesus has.

A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.

When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is – that she is a sinner.”

Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you… Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven – as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.’

It’s easy to make our worlds small. And yet, just look at the freedom that comes from opening up, from letting Jesus in, from letting him begin a good work in us. For whoever has been forgiven lots, loves lots.

The Tim Hughes song continues, ‘take this pocketful of faith, it is all I have today, I’m giving it all, I’m giving it all.’ In the encounter between Jesus and the Woman With A Past, she gives it all, her pocketful of faith were tears, hair, and an alabaster jar of perfume. She gave it all. The best place to ever be is at the feet of Jesus. And that was where she was. At the end of it all, she won’t see that there was so much more.

As for Simon the Pharisee? I’m not so sure. Only semi-embracing Jesus is like living in a house and staying in only one room. You get a glimpse. It’s nice. It’s comfy. But there is so much more.

It’s costly to give it all, to break a jar of perfume and weep at Jesus’s feet. But not as costly as not doing it at all.

To quote the great John Newton: I am a great sinner, but Christ is a great saviour.

Formidable

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Colour co-ordinating since 1992.

‘Tell me, what was your granny like?’

I paused, sniffed, and smiled.

‘Formidable.’

My granny was brilliant. And terrifying. Extremely loving, but formidable. Get on the wrong side of her at your peril! Partly it was the matron in her; this was a woman who had nursed prisoners of war, seen unimaginable horrors, and yet, had never let despair get the better of her. People adored my granny (but they still didn’t mess with her!) In her time at St Paul’s Cathedral, she’d unceremoniously told all sorts of people to get over themselves when it came to women priests or gay clergy, but heaven for-fend an unsuspecting minor canon rock up thirty seconds late. My motto growing up was ‘if mummy says no, ask granny.’ It was a winning strategy! My granny was brilliant, my granny was formidable.

My granny would have had no time, and I mean no time, for my conduct in the service of remembrance my church had on that cold, November afternoon. She’s have been mightily unimpressed by the way I sobbed throughout, trying to sing ‘Love Divine All Loves Excelling’ as a film of phlegm formed across my throat, popping at ‘unbounded love thou art.’ And she’d have told me to get it together as I tearfully hugged the vicar, painfully twisting my neck as I suddenly panicked that I would get mascara on her on her brilliantly white surplice.

My granny would have had a lot of time for another service where she was remembered a few months earlier: her funeral.

My granny had a very dark sense of humour. That, and she was incredibly pragmatic about death. While other people’s Christmas traditions include playing board games or going for wintry walks, my granny used to take Christmas lunch as an opportunity to reel off a list of people who had died that year and then explain that she didn’t have much longer left. Once she told me that I didn’t have much longer. I was twelve…

As part of that, she was pretty open to jokes being made about her death; she was especially taken with my suggestion that I would put her ashes in a Super Soaker to make it easier to scatter them along the Thames riverbank. (This was vetoed by my mother who, when I accidentally knocked the bag containing the ashes against a railing said ‘Will you stop hitting your grandmother?!). I also used to joke that I would take her funeral, but I’d do it in my charismatic evangelical style with drum kits and smoke machines, rather than her diligent and longstanding open catholic Anglicanism. She told me I could do that over her dead body to which I said that I actually could do it over her dead body.

Does anybody else have a family dynamic like this, or is mine just weird?

And so, on a beautiful August day, I stood at the front of a crematorium, room full of family and friends, and took my granny’s funeral. In what I know was the Holy Spirit, my inner core that day was the same formidable spirit by granny wonderfully embodied. My voice never cracked, my resolve never waived, the words of the Church of England funeral service were never clouded by tears. I sang ‘Love Divine All Loves Excelling’ one hundred per cent phlegm free. In preparing for and taking that service, God spoke to me gently, yet profoundly. And I think my brilliant, formidably granny would have been proud.

One of her favourite prayers that I included in the service was this:

God be in my head,
and in my understanding;
God be in my eyes,
and in my looking;
God be in my mouth,
and in my speaking;
God be in my heart,
and in my thinking;
God be at my end,
and at my departing.
Amen.

My granny was understated in many ways. She wanted to eschew a funeral service altogether because she didn’t ‘want to cause a fuss.’ She embodied this prayer. In her understanding, in her looking, in her speaking, in her thinking, God was there. At her end, at her departing, God was there, and it was my privilege to be there too.

One year ago today, she departed. My brilliant, formidable granny.

Storms Will Come, But Christ Is In The Boat

Wakefield

A sermon on Mark 4:35-41.

I thought we would start this morning with a quick quiz. It’s called, guess the phobia. It’s very simple, I promise! All you have to do is guess what this phobia or fear is, and to make it even easier, it’s multiple choice.

First one: What is arachnophobia?

Is it… a. Fear of flying; b. Fear of the dark; c. Fear of spiders; d. Fear of water

Second one: What is turophobia?

Is it… a. Fear of small spaces; b. Fear of falling asleep; c. Fear of cheese; d. Fear of clowns

Third one: What is anatidaephobia?

Is it… a. Fear of snakes; b. Fear that a duck may be watching you; c. Fear of holes; d. Fear of the colour yellow?

Final one: What is blennophobia?

Is it… a. Fear of mucus; b. Fear of crowds; c. Fear of thunder; d. Fear of The Peace

I’ll give you a clue for this one: I have this phobia.

I wonder what phobias the disciples may have had. I don’t imagine they were at all afraid of water as they set out on their boat that day. For those who were fishermen, this is familiar ground for them and by all accounts it’s a peaceful day.

But this peace doesn’t last long. We read in verse 37, ‘a furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped.’ It’s a terrifying thing to imagine. This picture here on the screen was one I took from a plastic pedal boat in the middle of a lake in Canada. And what you may be able to tell from this picture is that all was not especially calm on the lake that day. In fact, a hurricane was making its way up the East Coast of America and heading straight for us. Top tip: if there is a hurricane headed your way, don’t be in the middle of a lake in a plastic pedal boat.

The disciples panic. It’s easy to hear the fear in their voices when they shake Jesus awake and say ‘Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?’? Jesus ‘got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm. He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”’

Of course, Jesus calms the storm. Throughout scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, God always turns chaos into order, it’s what’s known in biblical studies as the chaoskampf motif. Transforming chaos into order is what God does. We can always have that hope, then, that the chaos and tumultuous situations we find ourselves in, are not the end of the story.

There’s a famous theologian you may have heard of called Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor and one of the few Christian leaders in Germany to speak out against the Nazi regime. In one of his sermons, Bonhoeffer says this:

Let’s say there is a ship on the high sea, having a fierce struggle with the waves. The storm wind is blowing harder by the minute. The boat is small, tossed about like a toy; the sky is dark; the sailors’ strength is failing. Then one of them is gripped by… whom? What… Someone is there in the boat who wasn’t there before… he shrieks: Stranger in this boat, who are you? And the other answers, I am Fear. Now the cry goes up from the whole crew; Fear is in the boat; all arms are frozen and drop their oars; all hope is lost, Fear is in the boat. Then it is as if the heavens opened, as if the heavenly hosts themselves raised a shout of victory in the midst of hopelessness: Christ is in the boat. Christ is in the boat, and no sooner has the call gone out and been heard than Fear shrinks back, and the waves subside. The sea becomes calm and the boat rests on its quiet surface. Christ was in the boat!

Bonhoeffer delivered this sermon in early 1933. In 1945, he was executed in a Nazi concentration camp just two weeks before it was liberated. In a letter he wrote while imprisoned he said, ‘May God in his mercy lead us through these times; but above all, may he lead us to himself.’

Storms will come. Storms will come, circumstances may turn sour, we may find ourselves in desperate situations, things may overwhelm us with fear, but Christ is in the boat. It is great that one day the storms of life will be no more. It is greater that in the storms of life God is right here with us leading us to himself. The miracle of this story is not that Jesus calms the storm, great though it is; the miracle is that the disciples realise Christ is there with them. The miracle of the paralysed man lowered through the ceiling is not that he got up and walked, but that his sins were forgiven. The first miracle of the cross was the thief on Jesus’ right-hand side who ceased mocking Jesus and accepted him instead. Could God have gotten him down from the cross? Of course. But if the choice is between getting down from the cross or being united with God, I know which one I’d rather choose.

I think Bonhoeffer is onto something in the way he personifies fear. Fear can be so much more than just an emotion, it can be a master we feel a slave to. Maybe this master for you is a particular situation, maybe it’s something you do that you don’t want to do or know you shouldn’t do, but fear has left you feeling trapped.

‘Why are you so afraid?’ Asks Jesus. ‘Do you still have no faith?’ Why are you so afraid? I am here with you. When I first read this passage, I thought Jesus was chastising the disciples. ‘Why are you so afraid?’ He asks, tacking ‘you idiots’ silently on the end. But I don’t think that’s how he said it. ‘Why are you so afraid?’ It’s okay, I’m here, I’m not letting you go. You don’t have to be afraid.

It only takes the smallest amount of faith to floor a huge amount of fear. At the name of Jesus, fear can no longer compete nor compare. If you’re anything like me, then your default position when fear comes is to panic first and pray second, or more realistically, panic first, pray 476th. But if you flip it the other way around, if you pray first and panic second, the peace of the Lord intervenes and panic gets forgotten.

Storms will come, but Christ is in the boat. Not every storm, not every situation, not every fear, will God end in just a whisper. But in every storm, God will be right there with us, leading us to himself, it’s one of his foundational promises to us so have faith! Have faith, do not be afraid. Storms will come, but Christ is in the boat.

 

Lessons From A Kamikaze Chicken

Cute Easter Chicken Nest Chickens Chicks Spring

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.

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.