Thursday, 19 April 2018

That wall we all rejected.....

And slowly it builds
Brick by brick
That wall we all rejected

And the rhetoric filters through
The drive by threat
They're taking our jobs, our houses

Go home, you're not welcome here

Standing back we listen
We shake our fist
And we go on as it all dies down

And the rhetoric filters through
The chaos of the camps
They threaten our drivers, it's not safe

Go back, you're not welcome here

Standing back we watch
We send our cast offs
And go by as they're all moved on

And the rhetoric filters through
Bring back  our control
Close the doors, put the biggest bolts on.

The door is closed, you're not welcome here

Standing back we hear
As experts cry out
And we go on as it all rolls on

And the rhetoric filters through
Our exit door is open
Now go - the entrance door is tight shut

Even you are not welcome any more

Standing back we hear cries
As blame is dished out
And those we live beside leave in fear

And slowly it builds
Brick by Brick 
That wall we rejected - it's here

As we look out from the UK, we so often see what we hear is proposed to happen across the Atlantic and we despair and shout out and say that 'it wouldn't happen here'. However, as we have seen this week as voices rise up over the injustice over the Windrush deportation crisis we've got to test our own motives, test our own hearts.... and choose to stand up and stop these growing barriers before they become seemingly impenetrable and our society has lost his ability to welcome at all. This article from the Baptist Times talks about why we should be angry over the Windrush Crisis and what to do about it.  

The prophet Amos says these words from God to the people of Israel, challenging their focus:

"I hate, I despise your religious festivals; and your assemblies are a stench to me..... Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. BUT let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never failing stream"  Amos 5:21, 23-24

Stand up for justice. Stand up because God....

Monday, 16 April 2018

The Woman in the Shed

Last week I visited the childhood home of Mary Arden, mother of William Shakespeare with my friend and her two girls. It was a farm not far from Stratford, full of tourists (probably not at the time of Shakespeare) and farm animals and birds including some very beautiful ginger piglets (their mother, however, did not provide them much hope that in the future that they would keep their looks).

Fluffy Ginger Pig

As often happens at these places, there were various people re-enacting traditional crafts - a falconer who spent a lot of time hiding from school coach parties, a man with a long beard and an axe chopping wood and a woman who showed us how to spin wool. We learnt the words tozer and carder and nobbly bobbly (or something like that - that's actually an ice lolly) and others I can't remember. 

But one stuck with me - and what stuck with me was not the word, but her interpretation of what the word meant in the era she was currently spinning wool in. 


A word, that for many, and for so long for me has been held up as an unwanted state - an old woman past her best who barks as people walk up to her - a woman 'beyond the usual age for marriage' (whatever that is)... perhaps, in many people's eyes... me? (I'm grumpy, single, set in my ways....). At the time the woman who was spinning was working, it was the unmarried women who would be working as spinsters, which is where the word comes from and why it refers to women who are unmarried. 

Even in the time that the spinster was supposedly working, she would have been seen as odd. Shakespeare referred to a phrase in popular use at the time that said that women who died unmarried would lead apes to hell (I'm glad nobody has used that one on me when they have been opposed to my calling as a minister who happens to be a woman!). The purpose of a woman is to be married, and any who are not are... well.... destined for something. 

However, the way the woman who was spinning in Mary Arden's house described the word spinster made me stop and think. She said that spinsters led the way for women to be independent today. She talked nothing of falling into the way of life that meant she had to spin to survive, but talked about choice, that being a spinster wasn't inevitable but was something else. She talked about how spinning made it possible for the spinster to provide for herself, to live comfortably and to give her purpose where society said she had none because she had no husband or children. 

Language is important, and the way that the word 'spinster' has been used across the centuries has not been good. Spinsters are incomplete, lacking and directionless and are left to be living a life of terrible loneliness. My first (guilty) port of call for any info wikipedia is incredibly negative in its description of spinsters, reflecting the language of the world around. 

Although we have moved so far on from then, and so far on the attitudes in society that leave unmarried women as oddities, the shadows live on. When I hear language of 'taking off the shelf' and rescuing her from singleness. When I hear people say that I will only be satisfied when I have a husband and children... the shadows of the expectations of 16th century England overshadow the independence and forward thinking nature of my spinsterhood as described by the woman in Mary Arden's shed. 

When I read scripture, although they are few and far between, it doesn't take long to find stories of independent women who have, whether married or not, gone on and served God in big ways with the support of their families (or not!) and the community around them - Miriam, Ruth, Esther, Deborah, Rahab, Lydia, Priscilla, Phoebe, Salome, Joanna, Mary Magdalene and more.... we might not hear about them much, and some of them are tarnished with brushes that are as unfair (and more) as tarnishing the spinster with the 'useless, frazzled and odd' brush, but they're there, living faithfully, serving God and making an impact. 

That spinster in the shed - choosing to live independently in a society that thought she shouldn't. That Mary Magdalene - choosing to preach the good news in a world that didn't necessarily believe her. That unmarried woman - choosing to stay unmarried and pursue her dreams. Why label her as bad? Why label her as wrong? Why undermine her direction? 

I came away from that trip to Mary Arden's house wanting to reclaim the word 'spinster', but then I found out that attempts have been made to do that already, and they've not necessarily worked. However, we can work to continue to change our attitudes towards independent women (whether married or not), helping to get rid of those 16th century shadows and embrace us for who we are and what we choose to be. 

I take my inspiration from those women in scripture, those women who have walked before me, those women who have stood up against the status quo, and so many brilliant women I know today .... and I walk on, attempting to live faithfully, serving God and hopefully making some kind of impact.  

"Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days" Joel 2:29

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

My car fits more elephants in than your car......

I love numbers. Of course I do, I love maths, and although a lot of maths contains no numbers, there is not much more beautiful than getting a complicated problem down to a single digit answer that sits there hanging on the page like it had never been wrapped up in the complexity of the equations it was hidden in. 

I love irrational constants like pi and e and phi. They sit in the world and although unrecognised a lot of the time they are the dependable ones that keep everything in balance and working. 

But the way we use numbers bothers me, not least in church. They are rarely, in the every day, used just for their own beauty but they describe quantities and make comparisons and measure failure and success. They measure worth and purpose and they give something to aspire to as we consume them one by one, counting fast to show just how great we are. 

I taught a sixth former who one day came in and threw his bank statement on the table, there to show the class just how much he was worth. As we talked through the struggle of paying for university he pointed out that it was OK for him, he had more than enough. His worth counted in pounds and pence made his dream possible... so he dreamed.

The bigger salary, the square footage we inhabit, the scores on the exam sheet, the calories in my food, the number of facebook friends and the number of elephants you can fit in a car... all signs of success, apparently. 

The fishing for numbers as you are approached at a conference - 'what's your church like..... well... how big?'

How big. How big. How big. 

How many came to that event you put on? Well I had 10 times more. And him over there with those fantastic boots.... well he had 10 times that. 

What frustrates me about this culture of numbers being all is that it buys into the materialism we'd like to reject. The more you have the better you are, the bigger your house, the better you've been, the more people who've turned up, the more successful you are. 

And there is nothing wrong with being excited about numbers, but when it becomes the all in all.... there is. Having it all is not all and everything. The context matters, the quality matters, the community built matters and the embedded culture matters. The quality of our relationships with Jesus matters. 

So let's stop our one-up-personship and focus on where we are following in is ways. Let's stop jumping on the bandwagon of the success of another and build Jesus-centred community that is deeply embedded in our context - be in it for the marathon, not the sprint. Let's stop spewing out meal after meal of fast food on a tray and spend time building relationships round a family dinner table. 

And then perhaps we might measure our success by the quality of our relationships with Jesus and with those of who join us at the table (and yes I do hope to see that table get longer and longer as others join in and get to know Jesus as lives are transformed - I love a big table.... ). 

Are we still growing in faith? 

If the answer is yes, now that's good news. 

"He must increase, I must decrease" - John 3:30

Monday, 5 March 2018

An encounter with a woman

It's International Women's Day on Thursday 8th March, and since I am going off to ministers conference (where only 16% of the attendees are women - a reflection I think on the proportions of women ministers in Baptist churches in the North West Baptist Association - but hey ho, I think the proportion of women attending is more than last year) and I am busy until Thursday, I thought I'd use the waiting time before heading off to blog (well, actually re-writing a sermon from a couple of weeks ago) in honour of International Women's Day. 

A satirical photo from 1901, with the caption "New Woman—Wash Day".

It's an important year for women - and I've said a little bit about that already on this blog... 

It's 100 years since some women got the vote in this country. At the same time all men over the age of 21 were given the right to vote. 40% of women were and it wasn't until 1928 that all women were able to vote in the UK. 

It's 100 years since Edith Gates became the first woman to be recognised as being in pastoral charge of an English Baptist Church. They weren't really sure what to call her. Secretary? Pastor? Gatecrasher? And weren't convinced that she should be paid properly or have the same rights as male ministers... but she pioneered the way for me today. 

Did you know that between 1918 and 2015 a total of 450 women were elected as members of the House of Commons which is fewer than the number of men (459) who were elected to the 2015 parliament (source wikipedia (sorry about that!)).

Last year, in 2017 a president was inaugurated in the US who openly who laughed off foul locker room talk about women and ran a campaign that was largely about discrediting his female opponent #nastywoman. He is supported by large proportions of the American evangelical church. 

In the same year, the stories of women who had been abused by men in trusted positions came out under the hashtag of #metoo and, while many listened, the media, the voices of those who couldn't comprehend rang out loud and clear as they shouted these people down. 

A few weeks ago, the news came out about Iranian women stood at the side of the road, their compulsory hijabs held out on sticks to protest being told what to wear and they were arrested. 

And don't get me started on lady crisps. 

2000 years ago, Jesus sat down with a Samaritan Woman at Jacob's well in the middle of the day and he sent her out as a witness to who he was. And that made his disciples a bit grumbly (click on link to read story). 

How far have we come? Have the grumbles stopped? No. Are women's voices valued and their testimonies seen as valid? Sadly, not as much as they should be. 

Are women worth listening to?

Well Jesus, in this story, shows us, yes.... a big fat yes. 

Jesus speaks to the woman and he sends out the woman... John the gospel writer records it. Her story matters. Women's voices matter. They are to be listened to, they are to be valued, they are to be acted upon and it's all in this story.

Jesus comes to the woman and asks her for help - he asks her for water from the well - he values her service. He values the fact that she has what he needs. When we encounter those whose voices we don't value, then we often don't value what they have to offer either. The Samaritan Woman had something that Jesus didn't just want, but needed, and he came and asked for help. 

When we read this story, we tend to assume that the power is all with Jesus, but in his need, Jesus gives the power to continue the encounter with the woman. He doesn't force his company on her and she is not a #nastywoman trying to worm her way into a Jewish man's world, but is someone who can solve his immediate needs. When we worry about people undermining our status and changing this world we live in, perhaps we need to step back and ask why we are threatened by them... Jesus wasn't threatened by the presence of the Samaritan Woman at the well (and she wasn't threatened by his presence either). 

Jesus values that woman as he shares something of himself. He offers her living water that will change her life. "A Jewish teacher offers living water to a Samaritan woman" - it's almost a Daily Fail shock headline. He offers it not because he wants anything, but because he values her and her life. Jesus values women.... and he values her so much that she opens up to him. He kind of values her into telling the truth. Her witness gains credibility because she is not afraid to tell the truth - she is not a woman of fake news - she doesn't hide who she is but shares who she is. She is who she is, and Jesus values that as he crosses the border of Jewish man and Samaritan Woman with her.

When we are in a privileged position - where we have control of who matters and who doesn't. then Jesus shows us that it is our responsibility to enable the border crossing so those people who 'don't matter' can be liberated. A few years ago on my first minister's conference we asked for men to be advocates to enable women to be released into leadership... that was the first step to increasing that 16%.... I am hoping that those advocates have not stopped being committed to this.... 

Who would you trust as a key witness? Someone who tells the truth and whose voice is valued - and Jesus sends the Samaritan woman who does and is just that. Her voice matters, far above and beyond her gender and ethnicity, her witness is valuable. She was entrusted in telling others because because of what she said and people wanted to find out more. And her witness to Jesus and her mutual respect and trust for one another liberated her and gave her freedom to be a truth teller within her community. Jesus transformed her life. Jesus transforms our lives by taking away the chains of shame and sin and setting us free to live a life of truth and dignity. 

On International Women's Day 2018, it gives us an opportunity, yet again, to think about how we as individuals and as a society and world treat women. The Samaritan woman, whatever the interpretation has been, is held up as an example of how women should be treated - we see that in the value that Jesus gives the woman's testimony. Her voice matters. So when we (whether deliberately or without realising it) silence women's voices, we have missed something of what Jesus has done. 

The silencers of my own voice have come from inside and outside the church... they've come from other ministers at minister's conference. They have come from the voices of my own church members. They have come from arguments on facebook about lady size portions of chips. A woman's witness is not valid when a man is available to speak. 

However Jesus chooses the witness of a woman over his disciples in this instance. Jesus says yes, women's voices are important - listen - she has something to say. 

Jesus says yes. The woman's testimony is valid. Through her service, her actions matter; through her life, her value matters; through her honesty, her truth telling matters; through her witness, her story matters. 

Women getting the vote matters. Women being enabled and encouraged as ministers - it matters. Women being able to lead in places they have never led before - it matters. Women's stories being listened to - it matters. Women's protests being reported on - it matters. Women telling the truth of their liberation in Christ - it matters. 

International Women's Day - it matters. 

On the 8th March, instead of shrugging it off as something for someone else... step back and listen... because the stories that are told, the women that are honoured....

They matter. 

We matter. 

It matters. 

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Louder Listening

On Monday I was with a friend and we had just set off to go out for her birthday lunch from her house. We stopped at the top of her road, ready turn right so we could turn around in the side road and head back the other way. My friend was waiting patiently as a man with a dog slowly crossed the side road. The man got to the other side. 

As I thought we were going to turn I heard a noise; the distinct sound of a motor vehicle's engine running. It got louder and louder and louder. The seconds went slowly, and my immediate thought was "there must be a motorbike and it's being stupid and is going to go round us before we turn". I trust my friend who is a great driver (I am a nervous passenger so it takes me a lot to say that) and knew she'd wait as the motorbike went past. 

However, the next thing I knew was that the 'motorbike' didn't go past, and instead, because of the swift and effective actions of my friend who had seen the approaching vehicle in her wing mirror, we ended up in the (very helpful) hedge. 

And as I looked around at her, and then looked where she was looking, I saw a huge tractor with a trailer full of earth that was facing into the side road with the wheel half off. I don't remember the impact where the tractor hit our backside, and I was surprised to be in the hedge, but I do remember that sound that I swore was a motorbike....

I heard what I wanted to hear. 

I have never expected to be shunted by a tractor, but I have had motorbikes overtake me. I never expected a tractor to get so close I could hear the workings of the engine as it arrived not far from where I was sitting in the passenger seat, so my instinct was to believe in what I thought was possible. 

I heard what I wanted to hear, and sadly, for my friend's car, it was not what it was. 

My friend and I are OK (a narrow escape). The car is no more. The tractor owner fixed the tractor at the roadside and later drove home.  The motorbike was always and only in my head. 

How many times do we do that? Do we hear what we want to hear, because the consequences of it being what it actually is might leave us sitting in a metaphorical ditch with our bonnet in the hedge. How often do we only hear what we expect to hear and miss what is actually coming our way? 

My choir MD sometimes will say "sing what you hear, not what you think you hear". 

Expect the tractor, not the motorbike perhaps. 

If we go through life only expecting to hear what we think we know is right we will miss so much. We find ourselves in a bubble where the only truth we hear is one that is comfortable to our own bubbly existence. We get angry when anybody suggests that our bubble might not contain all of the answers we might like to think it does, and as we hear only the voices we want to hear we continue onwards with blinkers that miss the real picture. 

As we continue to battle at the moment with what is true and what is fake, then it is so easy for our ears to get muffled by our self made limitations that we fail to look beyond personal experience to see that what we need to hear is not necessarily what we think we hear. 

I don't need a hearing test, as one friend suggested when I said I thought it was a motorbike, but perhaps I do need to expect more (although I'm trying not to expect that a tractor will ever crash into me again). Perhaps I need to expect more as I listen out for God's voice. 

Perhaps we all need to expect more. We won't see or hear what God is doing in the world if our expectations are limited by our own bubble. What can be true will become a smaller subset of truth if we are not open to being challenged. 

Sing what you hear, not what you think you hear.

Search out and believe in actual truth, not what you would hope the truth would be.

Expect beyond your experience - because what you think is small could be something far bigger.

Try not to get hit by a tractor. 

"This is what the Lord says, he who made the earth, the Lord who formed it and established it - the Lord is his name: Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know."          Jeremiah 33:2-3

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Carry on Crunching

I went to uni in Leeds and had the privilege(!) of being in Bodington Hall. This meant being part of a community of students in a studenty enclave with its own shop and bar and culture just north of Leeds ring road four miles away from campus. This meant that to make a 9am lecture I had to set off stupidly early because the road from Bodington to the Parkinson steps was the notorious traffic jam that is Otley Road. I lived in Bodington for two years and for the last six months I gave up on the bus and walked..... Bodington is sadly no more and I think the morning bus journey may have something to do with it. 

That early start is not good for not-a-morning person like me and I rarely managed breakfast before I got on, so on my last minute dash to calculus lectures as I arrived I would nip into the maths coffee bar and buy a bag of salt and vinegar McCoys and a Diet Coke. Then sitting by the door in one of the Roger Stevens building lecture halls I would try and eat my (man) crisps without making a sound. A technique that involved breaking down the big crisps and sucking the flavour off as they melted in your mouth. 

How I would have loved to be able to buy quiet crisps.

Now, nearly two decades later, my dream has come true. My sixth or seventh favourite type of crisps, Doritos (but only the really hot ones please for me), it was announced this week are releasing quiet crisps, especially for ladies like me who struggle with the crunch of the crisp and the cheesy fingers that Dorito loving men value and celebrate so unshamedly as they crunch and savour those crisps that have been letting women down for so long. 

Lady crisps. For ladies. The right size to fit in our delicate hands and our hand bags and the right level of noise to make us inconspicuous and able to fade into the background as the men eat the proper crisps in the proper way. Real men eat real crisps. 

@Sarcasticluther shared this on twitter last week. It reminds us what true ladies are like. If this was written today it would have 'eats lady crisps' on the bottom.

The thing that riles me about lady crisps are the same things that rile me about this list and the same things that cause me to explode when I get called a lady-vicar and cause me to sound like a steam train when I  read or hear things that refer to ministers as solely male (and she, and she, and she....)..... it puts us in a subset that is to be seen and not heard. Or not even seen.... 

Women are the quiet coach on the train, the ones in the corner taking minutes, the ones who are only there to make up the numbers, the ones who have no opinion of their own, the ones who cannot teach men, the ones who must listen to what their husband says before they can vote, the ones who don't need equal pay, the ones who are told they are making a fuss when they work up the confidence to declare #metoo when they are very aware that they will be shot down within minutes. 

It's 100 years today since some women in the UK finally got the vote. It was a significant victory in a long and ongoing battle for women to be seen as humans with their own voice and opinions. I can't imagine what life was like for those women, I know that life is so much better now, and I am grateful for all that they did. 

Those women were heard when they disrupted - when they began to stop people from continuing with the status quo. They were seen by many as troublemakers and criminals. They were sent to prison for their actions.... yet they kept on. Where they felt like nobodies they stood up and screamed at the top of their voices - no, this is not good enough - I am somebody and my voice matters. 

Whenever I hit a barrier. Whenever I am told that I should not because I am female. Whenever I am spoken over, written out, ignored.... I think back to people like the suffragettes, like the women who paved the way to enable me to be ordained, like those who have fought for equal rights, for justice.... and I will not become a nobody, because I know that my voice, my vote, my call is something that is given to me because I am me - a human being, made uniquely beautiful, uniquely strong, made in the image of God. 

By all means, leader of Doritos, make quiet crisps, but make them for lecture halls and libraries and theatre shows (there is definitely a need there!) but not for those quiet delicate ladies that some people, still, 100 years after women's voices were valued in such an important way, think we should be. Because we're not and we will keep on standing up and fighting for justice, just as our ancestors did, and just as our descendants will, so long as inequality exists. 

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Terry, what have you done?

It seems that Terry has taken back control and become self serving this year. News reports this morning strike great disappointment into the lives of people who have a key Christmas tradition of bashing a ball of chocolate as hard as they can so that it perfectly falls apart as they open the tin foil and the aroma of chocolate and orange emerges as the segments gently separate. 

Yes, the price of your chocolate orange has increased by 36.2% (along with other favourites, it seems our chocolate stash will be smaller this year)

In 1997 Dawn French tried to transfer ownership of the Chocolate Orange from Terry through a very forceful ad-campaign that declared 'it's not Terry's, it's mine'. It seems he's taken it back - and disappointment is felt by not just Dawn, but many others who the bargain price of £1 over the last few years has meant that they have received not one, not two but three hundred and thirty eight chocolate oranges at Christmas. And, as we all know chocolate oranges are not to be shared, particularly the core left over with its overlapping layers of beautiful, smooth, orangey goodness. 

The sentiment of the 1997 campaign is a sentiment we all share. What is mine is mine and what is yours is mine. At Christmas we fill our wish lists with things that we think we might want and we drop hints to those who buy as we browse through the Argos Catalogue (old school) and point in shop windows. 

I'm fascinated by the variety of advent calendars that are on sale this year (I'm surprised that there isn't one full of perfectly formed tiny little chocolate oranges to hike the price even further). Lego advent calendars, gin advent calendars, prosecco advent calendars, sock advent calendars, advent calendars with experience days (the last two I made up but I'm sure they are coming). They go beyond the first time I was allowed a chocolate advent calendar and I had to share it with my brothers and sister (a chocolate every fourth day was an amazing treat). 

But don't these miss the point? Advent is not about getting something every day. It's not about getting a little bottle of gin, it's about waiting.... and if we get a present every day, how is that waiting for what is coming? 

Advent is about waiting with hope and expectation. As you open the door each day you are one day closer to the day we remember that all the hope in the world was contained in a manger in a room where animals were kept. As you open the door each day you are anticipating a day God's glory will be revealed across the whole earth and peace on earth will become a complete and utterly beautiful reality when Jesus comes again. 

Advent is a time when we remember that this world cannot be fixed by us and it can't be controlled by us. It is a time when we anticipate a massive fixing, a massive transformation, salvation...... not by us taking back control, but by us letting go, stopping, giving our all and kneeling before an animal trough containing a baby that gives us everything we will ever need. 

This year my advent calendar will only contain doors. 

Don't be like Terry, or the 1997 Dawn French. It's not yours, it's God's. 

"The earth is the Lord's and everything in it" Psalm 24:1a