Friday, 9 December 2011

Outcomes of Giving

Recently I attended a helpful training session for curates about "Christian Giving".  It was well led by John Preston who is the National Stewardship Officer of the Church of England. One of the many motivational things Preston spoke about was the importance of communicating to the parish the bigger picture of what their giving achieves.  So rather than simply saying "we need everyone to give more because we need to pay our bills", Preston urged us to consider emphasising the outcomes of the activities that our giving supports. 

I decided to compile a list of our parish activities and then try to describe the outcomes of those activities.  It's rather long and may not make for enthralling reading but I thought it was beneficial to engage in this exercise, and I recommend it to others.   Here are the results of my efforts:

Activity: Sunday and mid-week worship with a variety of styles and times offered
Outcome:  Provides a place and a space to worship publically with fellow believers; facilitates the opportunity to grow in faith alongside others through word and sacrament.  Offering worship is one of our primary callings as people of faith.  

Activity: Choirs and music group
Outcome: Provides support for and leads the congregations in worship through hymns, choruses and carols. Musical ambassadors for the parish in the community and in churches and cathedrals around England. Provides an opportunity for young people and adults to use their musical talents and gifts in the service of others.

Activity: Parish Newsletter (delivered house-to-house)
Outcome: Promotes church activities and seasonal festivities to the community, reminding people that their parish church is here and available and active.

Activity: Magazine & Sunday notice sheet
Outcome: Keeps parishioners, whether church attendees or not, updated as to the current goings-on; facilitates communication and promotes a sense of belonging.

Activity: T4U & Care Link trips
Outcome: Welcoming elderly (and not-so-elderly) people for fellowship, speakers and outings. Promotes a sense of community. Holy Communion prior to T4U meets the needs of those who cannot get to church easily on Sundays.

Activity: Lunch club for those with mental health disabilities
Outcome: Providing a welcome and hospitality for people who are often marginalised in society. A simple meal and friendly conversation is a blessing to those who give, as well as to those who receive.

Activity: Care Home Friendship group
Outcome: Befriending residents and staff of the care home as a way of fostering relationships in the community through mission.

Activity: Wirral Foodbank involvement
Outcome: Provides emergency food to those who have fallen on hard times.  We’re continuing to donate food helping to get the Wirral Foodbank up and running, and looking into collaboration with other churches to provide a distribution centre for needy people in our community.

Activity: Pathways involvement
Outcome: Working ecumenically, this facilitates a listening space for people affected by crisis pregnancy and/or abortion, as a demonstration of God’s unconditional love. We also occasionally provide a prayer meeting space for Pathways and its supporters. Involvement includes prayer, financial support, volunteering as a greeter, as a counsellor, or being on the steering committee.

Activity: Sea Cadets and RNLI involvement
Outcome: Provision of chaplaincy support by the curate and vicar to the Sea Cadets and the RNLI, respectively. Hosting the annual RNLI service in our church.

Activity:  Carers & Tots
Outcome:  Provides a fun and safe place for toddlers and their carers, as well as giving the Christian leaders and helpers the opportunity to demonstrate Christian welcome, love and care in church.  Participants often feed into various other activities that happen in church, like the Christmas tree service.

Activity:  Uniformed Organisations
Outcome:  Provides a place for children’s participation in Rainbows, Brownies, Guides, Beavers, Cubs and Scouts, with monthly parade services for Christian worship, teaching and prayer.  Several leaders are church members. 

Activity:  AA meetings
Outcome:  Providing a place for people to meet and support one another in recovery from alcoholism. 

Activity:  Keep Fit, Zumba, Kung Fu, Karate, Badminton
Outcome:  Providing a place for people in the community to take up healthy activities; promotes physical health and well-being. 

Activity:  Saturday drop-in coffee
Outcome:  Provides a welcome and hospitality to the community.

Activity:  Charitable Giving - over 10% of parish income goes to support various charities.
Outcome:   Over the past year we’ve given over £11,000 of parish income to various charitable causes, providing medical assistance to the poor and the sick, care for the homeless and the destitute, support for the oppressed and those affected by natural disasters worldwide. 

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Overcoming Discouragement

So I've received a bit of criticism as-of-late, my training incumbent tells me.  It comes from someone who apparently doesn't like women priests.  A bit of character assassination. OK.  It's all part of the training, in my view.  I have to learn to deal with criticism.  At least if it's just that they don't like women priests, I don't have to take it personally (Lol).  Pray for those who persecute you (I tell myself).  It just seems so sad and ridiculous, and such a waste of energy to be so wrapped up in the male priest/female priest thing when there is so much else to do.  I debated whether to blog about this, but actually it's an important thing to say about my curacy experience, that some people disagree with my being in this position.  But not only has the national Church called me to this vocation, God has called me to this vocation.  I'm certain of that.  Here's some of Psalm 118, which seems particularly helpful at the moment:
Psalm 118
Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;
  his love endures forever.

In my anguish I cried to the LORD,
  and he answered by setting me free.
The LORD is with me; I will not be afraid.
  What can man do to me?
The LORD is with me; he is my helper.
   I will look in triumph on my enemies.

It is better to take refuge in the LORD
   than to trust in man.
It is better to take refuge in the LORD
   than to trust in princes.

All the nations surrounded me,
   but in the name of the LORD I cut them off.
They surrounded me on every side,
   but in the name of the LORD I cut them off.
They swarmed around me like bees,
   but they died out as quickly as burning thorns;
   in the name of the LORD I cut them off.

I was pushed back and about to fall,
   but the LORD helped me.
The LORD is my strength and my song;
   he has become my salvation.

Open for me the gates of righteousness;
   I will enter and give thanks to the LORD.
This is the gate of the LORD
   through which the righteous may enter.
I will give you thanks, for you answered me;
   you have become my salvation.

The stone the builders rejected
   has become the capstone;
the LORD has done this,
   and it is marvelous in our eyes.
This is the day the LORD has made;
   let us rejoice and be glad in it.

O LORD, save us;
   O LORD, grant us success.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD.
   From the house of the LORD we bless you.
The LORD is God,
   and he has made his light shine upon us.
  With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession
   up to the horns of the altar.

You are my God, and I will give you thanks;
   you are my God, and I will exalt you.
Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;
   his love endures forever.

Friday, 2 December 2011


Sky, Bear & Vik in Chester

Last week I was on holiday because my sister from Florida came to visit us with her husband and their 14-year-old daughter.  They had never been to the UK before, so it was quite an adventure.  We had so much fun together, going to London for three days, and to North Wales (Caernarfon) and Chester and Liverpool.  The weather cooperated with us, apart from the last day in Liverpool.  London was fantastic.  We stayed in Ealing and took the Tube into the city each day.  We were able to catch Evensong at Westminster Abbey one evening, which was special as my sister and her family belong to the Episcopal Church in the US.  Caernarfon was interesting - the public toilets there have bins on the wall of each loo for 'used needles'.  I've never seen that before.  The castle was amazing as ever, and the Black Boy Inn for supper was an experience not to forget.  In Chester we went to the zoo, which was more fun this time than I've experienced before because it was virtually empty of people and the animals were all out and lively! 

It was a great break - it did me the world of good, even though I did have to do a little bit of work while they were here... I conducted my first wedding, in fact!  And I attended a book group meeting at the bishop's house.  But about the wedding... I was fairly nervous, first one and all, but it went really well and I enjoyed it (I hope the couple did, too!).  Looking forward to the next one.

Now its Advent, things are very busy, Christmas and the new year is on the horizon, full of mystery and promise.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Give me oil in my lamp

Matthew 25:1-13

I heard someone recently compare Christianity to a Cornish pasty...  there’s definitely something in it, but sometimes it’s difficult to find out what it is – and sometimes you bite down on a hard bit of gristle.  This is kind of like our parable this morning with the virgins and the lamps and the oil (or lack thereof).  There’s definitely something to it, but there are some hard bits, too.

So let’s dig in.  A good place to start is with the context of our passage - where does it fall in the gospel of Matthew.  Going back to chapter 24, Jesus begins by talking about the destruction of the Temple, but the conversation swiftly moves on to some pretty heavy stuff about the End Times.  Matthew’s target audience was mostly Jewish, and he wrote his gospel sometime around the year 90.  By that time, the Temple had indeed been destroyed; the church was growing, including Gentiles; and persecution was common.  The church believed the Second Coming of Christ was imminent – and that it would be sudden and unexpected, like a flood or a thief in the night.  In chapters 24 & 25, Jesus uses parables to warn about the need to be ready – to be prepared for ‘the moment’; a crisis would come sooner or later, so make preparations now, and keep them in good shape in the meantime, or you’ll be sorry. 

These are ‘hard’ teachings – I like to think of them as the gristle in the gospel - those difficult teachings of Jesus that don’t seem to fit in with the ‘soft Jesus’ that perhaps many of us prefer.  We’d just rather there was no ‘judgment’ side to God.  But here’s a question:  if there were no judgment, would we still take God seriously? 

So what do we see in our parable.  The setting is at the ‘end time’, and the main characters are 10 virgins (in some bible translations they’re called ‘bridesmaids’).  At the outset, all 10 of these young women are alike:  all pure, all innocent …and all apparently sleepy!  But we’re told there is a difference between them:  five of them are foolish and the other five are wise.  That tells us this story has its roots in the Jewish tradition of contrasting wisdom with folly (there’s a lot of that in Proverbs, in Ecclesiastes, in other parables from Jesus and in some of Paul’s letters, too).  So, five of the virgins bring their lamps but neglect to bring any oil.  The other five do bring oil along with their lamps.  It’s fairly obvious that wisdom in this case means being ready with enough oil for the lamp, and folly means not thinking about it until it’s too late.  The bridegroom eventually comes, but the only ones who could go with him into the wedding banquet were the ones who were ready.

But hang on a minute - if Jesus is about sharing, wouldn’t it have been nicer for the five ladies who had oil to share it with the others?  

The five who had oil wouldn’t share because they were worried there wouldn’t ‘be enough’ for them all if they did share.  …Sounds a little like our current examples of corporate greed, doesn’t it!  But here’s the thing:  this parable’s not about sharing, because the ‘oil’ in this parable isn’t something that can be shared. 

I want to talk about the meaning of the oil, but first let’s think for a moment about our faith.  Although we share the road with others, our faith journey, in the end, is full of individual choices and decisions along the way:  we’re free to love God, or not; we’re free to love our neighbour as ourself, or not.  And no one can make anyone else pray.  These things are individual choices and practices – they’re attitudes stemming from a personal love for, and relationship with, God.  We can’t buy it, and we can’t share it with others.

So back to our parable, and to the oil.  Now, some people think the oil doesn’t symbolize anything in particular, and that all we need take from this parable is that we must be prepared at all times for the Second Coming.  And that may be true.  But I think it’s helpful to try and imagine what the oil (or a lack of it) might mean.  Because whatever it is, in this parable it’s essential, and at the crucial moment, it can’t be shared out …and money can’t buy it.

Some people might be inclined to think of the oil as good deeds:  have I done enough good to be accepted into the wedding banquet in God’s kingdom?  Others might think that the oil is related to the amount of faith we have – have we got enough faith to get us in to the banquet?  Could we give away some of our faith to others if they needed it?  I’m sure we would if we could.

How about Spirit?  The New Testament has a lot to say about being ‘filled’ with the Spirit – perhaps the oil could be a metaphor for being filled with the Spirit.  I’m reading a book at the moment called The Wisdom Jesus in which the author picks up on a spiritual meaning for the oil in this parable; that these hard teachings of Jesus are not about outward actions, but about inner transformation. She says “the reason the five virgins who have oil can’t give it to the five who don’t is that the oil symbolizes something that has to be individually created in you through your own conscious striving.  Nobody can give it to you; nobody can take it away from you”.  “The oil stands for the quality of your transformed consciousness” – it’s not a feeling, it’s a spiritual substance, impossible to gain by donation from somebody else.

Now, I realize that some people aren’t comfortable dwelling on the spiritual dimension of our faith; while others seem to prefer to focus solely on the spiritual, to the exclusion of the practical! – But we shouldn’t be quick to separate the two.  Our practical actions, when we perform them as a response to the love of God that we’ve recognized in Christ through his Spirit, will always be accompanied by a certain substance – I like to think of it as an attitude; if our actions as Christians aren’t based on a spiritual attitude, then we probably need to check our motives. 

Metaphorically speaking, when we’re at the door of the wedding banquet, Jesus will recognize us by our oil – our spiritual attitude; this is the oil for the lamp that gives out light, and it comes from a personal relationship with Jesus.  That’s what it means to ‘know’ the Lord.  That’s what brings peace and assurance.  It’s easy enough to fill our life with ‘good deeds’.  But let’s remember ‘the gristle in the gospel’ - there’s more to being Christian than just being quite nice – we have to work at our spiritual connection with our Lord and Saviour.  So next time you eat a Cornish Pasty and you bite down on a bit of gristle, may you remember the gristle of the Gospel, and this little parable about the need for oil to put in your lamp.  Being a Christian is not just about doing good deeds; it’s about being attentive to our spiritual relationship with God.  It’s an attitude.  Amen.

Monday, 31 October 2011

Sermon for All Souls

Isaiah 25:6-9
Revelation 22:1-6, 16-17
The other day my daughter said that she doesn’t think prayer works, because if prayer worked, people wouldn’t die.  It’s pretty hard to come back with a quick and satisfying response to that statement, suitable for a 15-year-old’s understanding.  Prayers for healing do work, sometimes in very mysterious ways, but still it is only temporary.  Death is part of life; we cannot deny the fact that death is inevitable. 
In the first scripture reading we heard this evening from Isaiah chapter 25, the poet-prophet imagines the earth having over it a shroud or sheet – a covering of death, weighed down by sadness, loss and mourning.  The world is held in the grip of death and has no power to shake it off.  But now, the poet prophesies, the Lord of life will bring an end to this crisis, the active power of death that crowds in on every chance for life.  The death of which this poet speaks is more than just the fact that we are all going to die.  Death encompasses every force that works against wholeness.  Death is all that diminishes well-being and prevents a right relationship with other people and with God.  That’s who death is, and we cannot by ourselves resist this culture of death.  But now the good news from the prophet-poet:  God will swallow death like a great sea monster attacking a smaller fish.  God will attack death in all its forms and crush it and eliminate it: ‘He will swallow up death forever’.  And then, verse 8 tells us, the Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces.  This image is a comfort and expectation for the faithful.  We read of this promise again in the book of Revelation, written some 700 years after Isaiah, where it says:  “He will wipe every tear from their eyes.  Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away”. 

Both of the passages we’ve heard tonight from Isaiah and from Revelation 22 speak of a radical, complete transformation of reality as we now know it.  In Isaiah, God’s act of transformation includes removing “disgrace” from God’s people – the disgrace of being helpless, powerless, and exploited; the shame of not being able to resist the powers of death; the humiliation that we are ultimately inadequate.  Now all of that will be overcome, prophesies Isaiah.  What is old and spent will yield to God’s newness.  The old city of abuse is radically displaced by the new city ‘on this mountain’.  To move from the one city to the other is to move from the shrouded, sheeted desert of death to the abundant banquet of life. There is affirmation, too, from Jesus, of this very vision of God’s generous provision of hospitality, as he tells the parable of the wedding banquet in Matthew 22, and also as he comforts his disciples in John 14, when he says, “In my Father’s house there are many rooms; I am going there to prepare a place for you”.  These are promises on which the Christian hope rests.

The book of Revelation is partly a reminder to the Church that things are not as they should be in this world, but also a sign that things won’t continue this way forever.  There will be a fulfilment of the divine promise given in the Old and New Testaments, in which the separation between heaven and earth and God and humanity are overcome when God presence dwells with men and women in a transformed world. 

Revelation presents to us a vision, where we’re asked to suspend our judgment and submit ourselves to be informed by the shock of what is unusual, for the sake of a better understanding of reality.  Revelation poses some problems of language and symbolism – it doesn’t offer a view of things in any kind of literal way.  But we prefer things that are down-to-earth. We want to see things ‘as they really are’.  We like people to call a spade a spade and to be practical rather than airy-fairy about things. The accuracy of a photograph or a video – what we see or hear on the news - now, that’s reliable.  But is it really?  Can we capture reality by sight or hearing alone?  What we perceive as real may be far from the whole story.  Artists and poets have long recognised that photographs or prose can never do justice to the full dimension of human experience.  We must read Revelation as if we were reading poetry or looking at a painting.  Provided that we don’t demand a ‘photographic’ quality, we can find in Revelation the most ‘realistic’ insight and understanding of our relationships and the longing of our impoverished world. 

Revelation as a whole offers an account that resolves the contrast between heaven and earth, and good and evil, in the dwelling of God with men and women in a heaven on earth – what the bible calls ‘the New Jerusalem’.  And the event that brings about this resolution is that which lies at the centre of the Christian faith - the confession that the crucified Jesus is raised from the dead.  Resurrection from the dead transforms that which was destined to death into the shared life of a renewed world.  The vision in Revelation helps us to see the contrast between earth and heaven disappearing in the new creation, when God’s dwelling is no longer somewhere above us in heaven, but right here on earth. 

Heaven on earth is the fulfilment of God’s purposes, where God is immediate and manifest – very much as God was in the Paradise described in Genesis 3.  All the inhabitants of the new creation are God’s children and are identified with God’s character and enjoy the divine presence unmediated.  And as Paul reminds us in 2 Cor. 5, that new creation isn’t just something to look forward to, because already in Christ there is the possibility in the power of God’s Spirit of bringing about that new creation in individual lives and in communities. In Revelation the vision is of a city – it’s communal rather than individual. From first to last, biblical practice and hope is centred on the healing of relationships, between humanity and God and with one another.  In contrast to the destruction of nature and humanity in the middle chapters of Revelation, we now have the water of life and the fruit-bearing tree of life, and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. 

Placed as it is at the end of the Christian bible, Revelation offers to us the key to understanding the whole story, as it points to the fulfilment of God’s purposes for justice and reconciliation.  But looking forward in hope doesn’t mean we never look back, for remembering makes us present to life as it really is - there can be no healing unless we are present to the wound.  Remembrance is at the heart of healing and restoration.  There is transformational power in remembering, for only by remembering our loss and our grief are we able to embrace the journey into new beginnings.  Renewal is a work of remembrance... it is life out of death.  What is broken is reconnected. 

In the Church, as a fellowship of blessed mourners, we somehow experience peace.  At the Lord’s Table, we experience comfort and healing, as we believe in the communion of saints – those who are with us together with those who have died.  And our hope lies in Christ, in his Resurrection and in his promise to remember us in his Kingdom.  As we remember his story, we hope and pray that God’s kingdom will come on earth as it already is in heaven.  And until then, may our thoughts, words and deeds reflect that time when sorrow and sighing will flee away, and each person will be recognised as equally stamped with the name of our God; and then we shall see God face to face. 

Friday, 28 October 2011

Uplifting things

Sally over at RevGalBlogPals posts this question for the 'Friday Five':

Over the last few weeks I have been struggling with depression, I know that from reading other folks blogs that I am not alone in this, and from time to time if not suffering from depression that everyone feels down. With that in mind I wonder what lifts you? So I'd like you to share 5 things:

1. A Scripture- it might be a verse or a whole book!

2. A piece of music.

3. A place.

4. A person/ group of people

5. Something you do...
Here are my answers, subject to change...:

1.  Scripture:  Most recently it has been the book of Revelation - and Christopher Rowland's commentary on it. It acknowledges the reality of everything that is wrong in the world yet lifts us up to the future for the world to come when God's kingdom is here in its fullness, and how wonderful that will be.

2.  Music:  I'm a rocker - anything by Switchfoot lifts me, but the song 'Where I belong' from the album Vice Verses has been it lately.  It sounds kind of melancholy but there's a lot of hope in there. 

3.  Place:  California.  Can't make my mind up as far as ocean versus mountains, but California.   If I can't get there, then being in a peaceful church alone is good, too. 

4:  Person(s):  my kids.

5:  Something I do:  exercise; walking. 

Thanks for asking the question, Sally, because just remembering what lifts me, actually lifts me.

What is wrong with this picture?

An article on the BBC news website tells me that FTSE 100 company director's pay increased by 50% over the past year.  CEO's pay increased by 43%.  Congratulations to them.
Base salaries for UK employees rose by 3.2%.  Hard luck.
UK Inflation is at 5.2%.  Unemployment for 16 to 24-year-olds is at 21.3%.

The Church Times this week tells how the Vatican is speaking out against the "idoloatry of the market".  It's heating up, too, in the Church of England, where Canon Giles Fraser has resigned from his post as the Chancellor of St Paul's Cathedral in London, presumably to stand up for the protestors over and above the worldly concerns of health and safety and income from tourists.  Something tells me Jesus would do the same.  It's very sad that the 'Occupy Wall Street' and 'Occupy London' protests will most likely have no effect on these economic injustices. I have no answers. I just know this is not right. 

Christina Weller, economist at CAFOD, says "G20 leaders have not thrown out the old failed orthodoxy of minimal government intervention in markets, and have not embraced their responsibility to re-orient economies to broader objectives of social and envirnomental well-being.  As a result, they have not carried out the reforms needed to tackle the deficiencies of global markets... [and] will continue to deal with crisis after crisis, and the lessons of the global downturn will be lost."

Friday, 7 October 2011

One week

On Sunday we had our annual Lifeboat service, which I led, and the vicar preached (an excellent sermon).  You can read about our local Lifeboat station and see some photo's of the service here (click here).  I really enjoyed talking to the Lifeboat crewmembers after the service over coffee, because all those I spoke with were amazing guys - so humble and down-to-earth and yet what they do is so giving and sacrificial and really a gift to the community. 

On Monday I had the pleasure of meeting for lunch and discussion with many other women clergy from our archdeaconry, our Dean of Women in Ministry, our Archdeacon and our Suffragan Bishop.  I really enjoyed meeting with other women clergy, especially those I had not yet met.  I love hearing other people's stories of ministry challenges.  In our group discussion we mainly talked about the Church of England's draft legislation on women bishops, particularly the debates that have been happening in local deaneries.  Later on Monday I hosted a ministry team meeting at my house, which I always enjoy because we do talk about things that really matter in the parish, i.e. mission and ministry. 

On Tuesday I conducted a funeral for a baby that lived for just under an hour after being born at 23 weeks gestation.  I had seen the baby's photograph and handprints and footprints, which were just precious.  The mother and father, of course, were devastated.  It was very intense conducting this funeral, compared with how it feels to conduct the funeral of someone in their 90's.  Tuesday evening I attended the Sea Cadets unit where I am chaplain (or Padre).  After colours and prayers I sat in on the Meteorology class, all about clouds and their names and characteristics.  I enjoy getting to know the cadets and having a laugh with them, and the staff are great. 

On Wednesday morning I worked on my two sermons for Sunday.  In the afternoon I got a phonecall from my training incumbent asking if I would go see a parishioner in hospital who, he had been informed, was dying.  This woman was 93 years old and I had visited her at home several times.  At hospital I found her unconscious and breathing was shallow.  The nurse said that she had been alright the night before, but took a turn in the night for the worse.  The woman's two closest friends were there, as she has no family.  I held her hand and prayed with her, the last rites, and read from the psalms and other parts of the bible.  A couple hours after I returned home, I was told that she passed away.  What a deep mystery death is - she passed very peacefully, but I'm sure she heard me, and her friends, while we were there. 

Today, Thursday, in the morning I made sandwiches for the new Lunch Club that was launched today.  Our Lay Reader publicised this lunch club to several establishments around our community where there are people who have mental illnesses, inviting them to come for lunch on the first Thursday of each month.  We had a turn-out of 10 guests, which I thought was super.  It was an immense privilege being involved in this today, and I look forward to the next one.  These people were good to be with.  Then, in the afternoon, I went with one of my parishioners to the opening of the Wirral Food Bank warehouse, and to meet with the guy whose running it.  My car boot was full of food donations, from our Harvest Festival, so it was wonderful to off-load that.  We are considering whether our church might be able to be a distributor for the food, for people in our area.  It's very exciting!

Usually we have music group practice on a Thursday night, but thankfully it was cancelled tonight.  Tomorrow is my day off.  Saturday, well, I still have to finish the two sermons for Sunday, don't I!  A week in the life of a curate. 

Monday, 26 September 2011

Hospitality to Strangers

At around 9:30pm the other evening a man came to the door.  "Let me in!" he shouted aggressively, and then, as if it would help his case, he added "it's Mark".  I could see through the opaque glass window of the locked door that he was a big man; he sounded drunk, and I don't know anyone called Mark, so I said "No, I'm not going to let you in - you're at the wrong house!", assuming he'd misidentified where he was. 

Now when something like this happens, various thoughts flash through the mind very quickly.  I'm a Christian - I'm a priest - does that mean I should always open my door to strangers?  No, don't unlock the door, the children could be endangered.  There's a Stanley knife on the sidetable - should I move it/hide it/keep hold of it?  What if he got in - what would I do? 

My husband came downstairs to see what was the cause of the raised voices, and he, too, said loudly: "You're at the wrong house, mate!".  Mark hung round our door for a good 15 minutes, occasionally wandering down the drive shouting and coming back to try the door handle.  We had phoned the police, who said that under no circumstances should we unlock the door, and by the time the patrol car arrived, Mark was gone, into the night, and we haven't seen him again. 

When something like this happens, it feels as if your secure domestic invulnerability-bubble has burst.  And something else begins to dawn on us.  Sometime over the course of this year, God willing, we will be moving house, into a vicarage, when I begin my first incumbency.  Right now we live in the house we've lived in for 11 years, a normal suburban house.  When we move into a vicarage, it is often signposted 'The Vicarage', and it's usually next door to the church.  Will we have any semblance of a domestic bubble then?  Will strangers be knocking on the door on a regular basis?  How will the family cope if/when that happens? 

Of course, this isn't the first time I've thought about this.  From the beginning of priestly vocational discernment, we are encouraged to reflect hard on the reality that this calling will demand a level of availability.  And in my curacy, my training incumbent has told stories of times when strangers have come to his vicarage door and he has given them food.  And the bible gives examples of God's desire that hospitality is shown to strangers, for example Abraham and Sarah inviting the three strangers in, Genesis 18.  And Hebrews 13:2 - "Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it."

I guess I'll never know whether our 'Mark' was an angel in disguise.  But I'm thankful the event ended without violence, and I'm thankful for the calming influence of the two policemen who came round.  There has to be a difference between welcoming strangers on the one hand, and foolishly putting your family in danger on the other.  This is another one of those 'boundaries' issues that keep cropping up as I learn through this curacy.  Boundaries around and between my home and family and ministry, alongside the calling to be open and generous with hospitality to all.    Praying for wisdom and discernment.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Sermon for 9/11 - Matthew 18:21-35

The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times? Jesus answered, I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him.  Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.  The servant fell on his knees before him. 'Be patient with me,' he begged, 'and I will pay back everything.'  The servant's master took pity on him, cancelled the debt and let him go.  But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow- servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. 'Pay back what you owe me!' he demanded.  His fellow- servant fell to his knees and begged him, 'Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.'  But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt.  When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened.  Then the master called the servant in. 'You wicked servant,' he said, 'I cancelled all that debt of yours because you begged me to.  Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow- servant just as I had on you?'  In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.  This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.

In the spring I planted several different types of seed in small pots – maybe you did the same.  This year I grew flowers since I knew I wouldn’t be around to harvest vegetables, but generally, no surprises, the seeds I planted grew and flowered and the flowers that came were exactly as it said they would be on the packet. The seeds in the sweet pea packet germinated and grew into sweet peas, the sunflower seeds became sunflowers, and so on for the cosmos, the pansies, and the marigold seeds. We kind of expect that when it comes to gardening, we will reap what we sow. I wonder why it’s so hard for us, then, to translate that expectation to our relationship with God or with other people. In Galatians 6:7, Paul said ‘do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows’.

...So this king was going to sell his servant and the servant’s whole family in order to make up for the large debt owed to him. It must have mattered to the servant that he stay in this particular king’s service rather than get a new master, because he begged the king not to do this. But the king didn’t accept the servant’s promise to ‘pay back’ everything – instead, he cancels the debt unconditionally! The kingdom of heaven is like this, Jesus says.

But instead of being thankful and going on to be merciful to others, the servant becomes a bully, and he treats one of his fellow servants without mercy - first he assaults him and then gets him thrown into prison for the relatively small debt that he owed. The king finds out and makes sure the servant gets back as good as he has given: he reaps what he has sown. Jesus says this is how his Father in heaven will treat those who don’t forgive their brother or sister from their heart.

In one of his speeches, Martin Luther King said that ‘hate begets hate, violence begets violence’, toughness begets even greater toughness’; in the bible, in Matthew 26:52, when Jesus was being arrested and one of his companions draws his sword and cuts off the ear of the High Priest’s servant, Jesus says ‘those who live by the sword, will die by the sword’.

In the parable of the unmerciful servant, if we understand the king as representing God, we see that he offers forgiveness first, before the servant was expected to forgive. In our own life, if we receive the forgiveness that God has given us through the cross - the cancellation of our debt as sinners - but then we refuse to extend forgiveness to others - we have to ask ourselves, why should we be forgiven?

In Matthew 6, Jesus teaches his followers to pray for forgiveness in what we call The Lord’s Prayer: ‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us’. Jesus clearly says that if you want forgiveness you’ve got to be prepared to forgive others: he says ‘if you forgive others when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins’.

So in today’s passage, Peter comes to Jesus and asks, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” ...“I tell you”, Jesus answers, “not seven times, but seventy-seven times”. Jesus is saying ‘don’t even think about counting: just do it’. Because if you’re still counting how many times you’ve forgiven someone, you’re not really forgiving them at all. Forgiveness is tough. But forgiveness is the only appropriate response to evil if we’re not to become what we oppose. We reap what we sow.

There’s a providence to the timing of today’s gospel passage. Today marks the 10th anniversary of 9/11, the devastating terrorist attack that resulted in the deaths of nearly 3000 people and shocked the world. There were two paths forward from the ashes and rubble of 9/11. The first path led to war, torture, and fear: President Bush announced a War on Terror, the aims of which would be to bring Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda to justice and prevent the emergence of other terrorist networks. The response was to engage the forces of many nations in war, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the result was the further death of many thousands of people, spending of trillions of dollars and billions of pounds. The result was a growth in radicalised groups, of all different allegiances – an increase in hate-crimes, and an increase in fear of ‘the other’. Discrimination, prejudice, stereotyping, vengefulness and violence breeding more violence.

But another path -- led by Christians and people of other faiths, and some of no faith too -- was marked by soul-searching, genuine mourning for the lost and standing up for peace-building, making efforts towards understanding, and caring for our neighbours.

The challenge we face when we are attacked is whether we’re prepared to let go of our need for "vengeance". In the end, if we seek "justice" in that way, we’re not seeking true justice at all – we’re just trying to balance the scales in our favour. The result is always a cycle of more pain. We reap what we sow. And so, once again, as hard as it is, we’re faced with the shocking, persistent call of Jesus Christ, to follow his example, and to offer forgiveness even to those we feel don’t deserve it.

As Christians, we pray to become ‘Christ-like’, which means we want nothing more than to reflect in our lives the love that God is, overcoming selfishness and self-absorption; pursuing love and reconciliation with God, with family, with Church, with people of other faiths, in culture and politics, and with our enemies. Reconciliation has to be at the centre of our mission. In the world to come, there will be no hatred. In the new creation, holding something against your neighbour or your enemy won’t be an option, because God will be all in all – Love will be all in all. That the servant in today’s parable could behave how he did towards his fellow servant – in the new creation, it just wouldn’t enter his mind... and our calling is to work towards that new creation even now.

Nelson Mandela once said there’s 'no future without forgiveness.' It might take a long time, but we can't give up. We’re called to stand up and be instruments of God for making things right in the world. The 10th anniversary of 9/11 is an opportunity for reflection. Imagine its victims looking at the world from heaven... The greatest memorial to those who died ten years ago, and to those who continue to die in the wars after, will be a world more inclined toward peace.

We are right to remember that God is with those who are in pain and suffering. But it would be a distortion of what Christ did for humanity on the cross if at the same time, we didn’t remember Christ’s attitude to those who crucified him: Jesus cries ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’. If we remember that God is with those who suffer, but do not remember his attitude towards those who inflict the suffering, then we’re not remembering in truth. And if we don’t remember that we are all part of sinful humanity, then we are not remembering in truth.  So may you sow seeds of forgiveness - and may you grow the flowers of peace and reconciliation.

Let us pray: God of mercy, your love overwhelms us with your generous forgiveness. You release us from a debt we can never repay. Open our hearts to extend love and mercy to all who are penitent. And may we persevere in working towards dialogue, peace and reconciliation with those who are not. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Back again

It's 1:00am and I can't sleep, so I thought I would write a blog post. It's been a while. I've been away on a long holiday to my homeland, seeing family and old familiar places. We spent two weeks in the small town of Auburn, where my mother and sister live. Highlights from Northern California were:
The Sacramento Rivercats baseball game (we won!)
Boating on Rollins Lake
Shouka at Discovery Kingdom
seeing the house again in which I grew up
and my old high school
Seeing family. We also drove down to Southern California, to San Diego, where I lived for 8 years. San Diego is a wonderful place. We spent a week there, a block from the bay on one side and a block from the beach on the other. One of my favourite memories this time is of cycling down the boardwalk along with all the other cyclists, walkers, and skateboarders.
That, and watching my daughter and nephew boogie-boarding for ages in the waves of the Pacific:
The holiday was fantastic. California has got to be the best place on earth.
It was sure hard to leave my relatives. But now I'm back in rainy England. My training incumbent is now back from sabbatical, too. Things at church are really starting to pick up pace once again. It was a great experience to be 'in charge', so-to-speak, while he was away - I learned a lot -, but it's nice to have the vicar back again, too. But I'm starting to think about the reality of moving on, sometime in the next 15 months, to my first incumbency. I don't know where it will be, which is a little unsettling for the family, but we're trusting that things will work out. All shall be well, as Julian of Norwich says.

Friday, 1 July 2011

Practicing forgiveness

This is wonderful - and for me it's such a timely video of Miroslav Volf on Forgiveness that has been shared by Mike Friesen in his great blog.

Miroslav Volf wrote the book, Against the Tide, which was assigned reading for us curates, and I also have had to write a critical reflection on that book for one of the modules for my master's degree course.

Volf is a pacifist, and though I found Against the Tide a little frustrating because of it's format, another of his books, Exclusion and Embrace, is excellent.

Thursday, 16 June 2011


Mark 4:35-41
A sermon for mid-week Holy Communion

‘We’re all in the same boat’ – I like that expression because it helps us feel like we’re not alone in whatever we’re going through. In our Bible reading we see in Jesus a God who is present, a God who is there in the boat with his people. God doesn’t allow problems to happen to us and then keep his distance. He’s right there in the boat with us; he’s in the middle of the problem with us; he’s in the middle of our struggles alongside us.

On the boat in the storm, Jesus wanted his disciples to look deep inside and check where their faith was. He wasn't accusing them of not having faith, he was asking WHERE their faith was. Every now and then we leave our faith in a cupboard or under the carpet somewhere, or perhaps we leave our faith in church when we go back home or out into the world, and we try and go about our daily tasks, or even through major crises, in our own strength and with our own vision of how things should go. From time to time we hide our faith, not only from others, but also from ourselves! But we need to keep returning and trusting God especially when things are stormy or scary. God can use the storms in our lives to teach us how to live our lives with faith and trust in HIM.

The painting is Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee. Notice there are 14 people in the boat. There should only be 13 (12 disciples plus Jesus). Some believe that Rembrandt included himself on the boat, but it could be that he intended to include the viewer (you or me). Where would you be in the painting? Up to the left of the painting is a place of chaos, and down towards Jesus is a place of calm. Where do you think you live most of your daily life? If you think you live in chaos, are you able to picture yourself moving from the place of chaos (on the left) to the place of peace in front of Jesus (on the right)?

I think that fear is one of the main reasons we don’t trust Jesus as much as we probably want to trust him. But what is stronger than fear? Scripture gives us the answer: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). Jesus sleeping on the storm-tossed sea reveals that the disciple’s faith had been replaced by fear. They feared for their lives even though their Lord was with them in the boat. Jesus is asleep at first, but the irony is that the disciples are revealed as asleep to Christ while he was present with them in their hour of need. The Lord is always present with us. And in our time of testing he asks us the same question he asked the disciples here: Why are you afraid? Where is your faith? Great unexpected storms arise at times in our life, threatening to overwhelm us. Every time we meet with trouble, the Lord is there with the same reassuring message: “I am with you, do not be afraid”.

What does it mean to "trust" Jesus? Trusting Jesus means no longer relying on yourself for any kind of salvation, but relying on Christ alone. When we trust that Jesus died for our sins, and we trust that our sins are forgiven, and we totally rely on his promise that he’s with us by his Spirit, then we are blessed. The Bible says in 2 Cor. 5 that when we really trust in Christ, a new life begins -- "If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!" As a follower of Christ, a person has to rely upon Jesus in all areas of their life, not just for the forgiveness of sins.

Jesus said in John’s gospel that he is the Teacher. And he told his disciples that the Holy Spirit would teach them all things and guide them into all truth. God teaches us his ways and his truth. In terms of values and behaviour, when we listen, he points out the stuff in our thinking and behaviour that's not right, he shows us what the right thing is, and gives us the strength to do it. This is one of the ways God shows his love for us – by helping us when we come to him and trust in him. He is the One who knows all truth, and He wants us to build our lives on His truth.

By trusting Christ as our Teacher, through Scripture and Prayer, he shows us how to live, and will guide us in praying. When we learn what He wants from us, and endeavour to do those things, we know can rely on His strength and power through the Holy Spirit.

So being a Christian is based on trusting Jesus. God doesn’t promise a life without storms, but he has promised to be with us in the middle of the storms. The disciples were experienced fishermen, so this wasn’t the first time they had faced a storm on the sea. But this storm was so powerful that they panicked. But the disciples had underestimated the power of Jesus. Once they turned to him, Jesus immediately calmed the storm. God wants to be the calmer of our storms as well. Do we underestimate his power? We have two options when we face hard times: we can panic and worry, assuming that God doesn’t care, or we can turn to Jesus and rely on him and trust that he is with us no matter what. Amen.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Pentecost sermon for Choral Evensong

Joel 2:21-end; Luke 24:44-end

How about that weather today? We can’t put away our winter wardrobe just yet! I come from California where the weather is generally predictable. And that makes it easy to figure out what you’re going to wear during any given season. Here in England the weather is a popular topic of conversation because it’s so variable, and many days will contain something from each of the four seasons, and so trying to decide what to wear each day can be a tricky business!

Of course it depends somewhat on what the day will involve. During the week, for someone working in a bank, a suit is definitely in order. If you’re employed at a fitness centre, it could be shorts and t-shirt. And if it’s Sunday and you’re a minister, you might put on one of these... [my cassock and surplice]. Or maybe if you can sing well, you might be dressed as one of these lovely people [gestures towards the choir].

Clothing has several purposes. It identifies, protects, and helps us control our body temperature and our level of modesty. It can be an expression of fashion and personality, or vocation. To be ‘clothed’ is to be covered in some way. Ever since Adam and Eve clothed themselves with fig leaves, it has been important for humankind to be clothed.

In our reading this evening from Luke’s gospel, chapter 24, Jesus is talking to his disciples, and he says that after his ascension, he will send them what his Father has promised; that they will be ‘clothed with power from on high’. We know what it means to be ‘clothed’ in the ordinary sense, so what does this mean to be ‘clothed with power from on high’?

Well, the power that Jesus speaks of is, of course, the Holy Spirit - the same Spirit of God that was present at the creation of the heavens and the earth; the same Spirit that filled many of the Israelites throughout the Old Testament period - the patriarchs, judges, prophets and kings. It’s the same Spirit that inspires wisdom, discernment and prophecy. It’s the same Spirit that was involved in the Incarnation of the Son of God. And it’s the same Spirit that enables the transformation of our hearts and our minds - the Spirit that confirms our faith - and the Spirit that empowers our mission.

What is this Spirit? As one of the Trinity of persons in the One God, the Spirit is the way that God lives in us. The Spirit gives us strength; the strength we need to follow Christ along the way that leads to life in all its fullness. The Spirit enables us to have fellowship with one another in the unity of Christ – fellowship with all believers, whatever their background or origin; whatever their denomination or position, whatever their social status or race – all believers are united in the body of Christ by the Spirit.

The Spirit also is active outside the Church, and we can’t always say where or with whom that is happening, but we can say that the Spirit always acts as a means of pointing people to the good news of Jesus Christ. The Spirit’s mission in the world is always bound up with energising the Kingdom of God and the new creation. And the Spirit is not a prisoner of the church. The Spirit can work with anyone: a mysterious, sovereign wind, the Spirit blows wherever the Spirit wills, and we’re not in control.

But the Spirit has a momentum and a direction into which those of us who call Jesus ‘Lord’ are called. The Spirit equips the church for mission and often goes on ahead, always to glorify Jesus Christ, of whom the whole of Scripture speaks. The text in our Luke 24 passage tells us that Jesus opened the minds of his disciples so they could understand the Scriptures. At that point, the New Testament hadn’t even been written – so it’s the Old Testament Jesus is referring to when he says, ‘This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations’. Jesus confirms that the Old Testament points to himself as the Christ. The Scriptures and the Spirit all point to Christ.

If you were in church this morning you will have heard the story of the day of Pentecost from Acts 2:1-21 where the disciples are metaphorically blown away by the wind of the Spirit. And our first reading this evening from the prophet Joel is quoted in that Acts passage by the Apostle Peter, who explains to the crowd that what Joel prophesied hundreds of years before Jesus was even born, was now coming to pass with the pouring out of the Lord’s Spirit on all people, and for all people.

Jesus Christ is truly a gift to all people, in all places, at all times. He’s the source of hope, life and light for all, and cannot be reserved for a particular grouping, tribe, church or community. It’s not one-size fits all, it’s One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism as Paul says in Ephesians 4. We are called to be brothers and sisters in Christ, reconciled with God by his death and resurrection, and united in him by his ever-flowing Spirit.

We all know when we’re clothed and when we are not. And just as we wouldn’t go anywhere without our clothing, so as Christians we should not go anywhere without the Holy Spirit covering us. God doesn’t expect us to grow in Christ-likeness on our own, or to grow the church on our own, or to promote his kingdom on our own. God wants us to put on the clothing that he makes freely available to us – the Holy Spirit. How do we do this? Well, first we have to be naked. We have to discard our own clothing of pride and self-sufficiency, and with prayer, in humility, we must come to God and ask for the clothing of the Spirit. Prayer is essential if we are to submit to God in all our weakness and ask to be filled and clothed and strengthened by the Holy Spirit for the life of discipleship and mission.

I leave you with a prayer based on that which Paul prayed for the church of Ephesus; a prayer that summarizes the vast and limitless power of God that is open to all believers. Being adopted children of God and co-heirs with Jesus Christ in the kingdom of God, we have the same access to this unlimited power through faith in Jesus Christ. Let us pray:

Father God, out of your glorious riches, clothe us, we pray, with power through your Spirit in our inner being, so that Christ may dwell in our hearts through faith. And we pray that, being rooted and established in love, we may have the power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ; that we might know this love that surpasses knowledge; and that we would be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Father, you are able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to your power that is at work within us: to you be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. (based on Ephesians 3:16-21)

Friday, 13 May 2011

Fit for life (or at least the next three months)

My training incumbent is now away on a three month sabbatical. Right from the first day of his absence, I have noticed my phone has rung quite a lot more often. I think the next three months will be good for me. My plan is to use this time to improve my organisational, admin and time-management abilities, and to make a strategic effort to increase my energy levels. After all, ordained ministry is a marathon and not a sprint! I need energy to focus on ministry and mission, and to be the person God calls me to be. I know I won’t function well in the long run if I don’t make some changes. These changes mainly revolve around discipline in the following areas: eating, exercise, leisure, prayer and study time, and sleep. My purpose in writing this blog post is to keep myself accountable to my intentions. Any readers are welcome to support me in this effort with encouragement and prayer!

Eating: My aim is to try and stop using chocolate as an instant energy and feel-good drug. I’m not saying that I’ll cut out chocolate completely, but I’m going to try to cease ‘using’ it any more. In addition, I’m going to try to eat healthier in general. I’m going to try to let the phrase ‘you are what you eat’ inform my choices!

Exercise: I know that exercise increases my energy levels and my sense of well-being; I just haven’t been prioritising it or making time for it. I’m going to try to do this more often. Fortunately, we live in an area that lends itself to walks, and this gives the added benefit of time with my husband, if we go walking together.

Leisure: A parishioner recently suggested that it’s arguable whether clergy should have a day off. This was casually said after I had conducted two funerals on what should have been my day off, at the end of what was a very busy week indeed. I suppose many parishioners aren’t aware of what this vocation actually means (or entails) in practice. That aside, I am not doing a very good job of keeping my day off. I’m very aware of this, and I’m hoping with improvements in other areas I will get better at sanctifying time off. I recently wrote an essay with a focus on personal and professional boundaries, and that was helpful, getting me to reflect on that very important issue.

Prayer and study time: I pray contantly. I study quite a lot, too. But I feel the need to be more disciplined and focused in these areas. It’s interesting that since my training incumbent has been away, I’ve been drawn back to the Common Worship Morning Prayer liturgy. Yes, it’s wordy, but I find it sets me up well for the day, and covers all the bases. The online version is great because the readings and prayers are all there for each day. I’m also working my way through Brian McLaren’s Naked Spirituality, in which he shares a simple yet effective discipline of connection with God. Regarding the study time, as a curate I’m supposed to have a designated ‘study day’, but this has never materialised for me. I think parish obligations have probably got in the way of this, because we have two churches. It’s my responsibility to make time for study, so I need to prioritise the need for it, especially now while I am a curate.

Sleep: This is related a bit to the ‘boundaries’ issue – like many people, I find it hard to ‘switch off’ at night and sleep. The concerns of the parish come to bed with me! I have made a concerted effort not to stay up too late (I used to be very bad at doing this), so that’s an improvement. In a way, it would be unusual if I never let things worry me, but hopefully, with the added exercise and changes in diet and attention to adequate leisure, sleep will come easier. Last night I took some mineral supplements – calcium and magnesium – which my mother says help her sleep. I had one of the best sleeps for a long time, so maybe there’s something in it.

Everything is linked. I hope my efforts in these areas will combine and build upon each other to give me more energy and ultimately that it will result in an increased ability to do the work God asks of me in ministry - in the parish, in family life and in my personal wholeness and well-being. If we want to participate in God’s new creation, we had better keep ourselves fit for purpose! I hope and pray that my training incumbent’s sabbatical helps both him, and me, along that way.

A prayer by John Cosin (1594-1672):
Be thou a light unto my eyes, music to mine ears, sweetness to my taste, and full contentment to my heart. Be thou my sunshine in the day, my food at table, my repose in the night, my clothing in nakedness, and my succour in all necessities. Lord Jesu, I give thee my body, my soul, my substance, my fame, my friends, my liberty and my life. Dispose of me and all that is mine as it may seem best to thee and to the glory of thy blessed name.