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

Thursday, 16 November 2017

My table is too full

I love my dining table. When I bought my first (and only) house, it was almost the first piece of furniture I bought. It's actually a desk, but too beautiful to be covered in paper. It's glass and it has a black design on it with flowers and butterflies. When I bought it I got everything else in my dining room to match - from pictures to chairs it matches. I bought lights to put under it so that when the main lights were dim, the lights would project the flowers and the butterflies onto the ceiling.... but they're long gone now because the batteries leaked and I couldn't find a screwdriver to get them out. 

I enjoy inviting people round to sit at my dining table (impractically small though it is, and despite the green carpet in my current house which really doesn't go....). I enjoy cooking for people and eating with people and talking to people and sharing with people and generally being round the table. 

But right now my dining table looks like this.....

And that's not unusual.

It's an easy dumping ground for washing before I get round to folding it and putting it away and despite the promising chopping board in the middle that is calling out for beautiful crusty bread to be dipped in homemade soup, it doesn't seem like a dining table anymore. My table is full, but not with food to feed others - it's lost its purpose, its focus, its meaning. 

I can't have anyone round to eat now. The table is too full.

A huge barrier to building community - which we can do so beautifully by sharing with others round the table - is when our tables are too full, or we don't make space for a table at all. 

Our busy lives mean that a quick bite is all we can manage and the less people around for the quick bite the better. 

Our schedules mean that we don't get to the room with the table at the same time, so we eat alone, or just with those whose schedules match ours. 

Our aim for perfection means that nobody can come round until we're tidy and we've got the time to cook our best food, otherwise they'll judge us, holding up Come Dine with Me score cards that shame us to never invite anyone again. 

We worry that we won't like the food and our hosts would be offended if we brought our own. 

We fill our lives with stuff so we don't have to do the things that are of most value. 

But why? 

I passionately believe that's not how it should be. Community is built through trust. Community is built when we learn to live and eat alongside one another whether we have tidied up or not. 

Jesus regularly ate with all sorts of people. He invited himself to Zacchaeus' for tea (I wonder if Zacchaeus panicked about all the piles of money on his dinner table). He went to Mary and Martha's, and Martha tidied and fussed so she didn't have time to sit at Jesus feet (her own pride and expectations piled up on the table).  

And after he was raised from the dead he sat and cooked breakfast on the beach for the dirty, smelly, tired fishermen who were his closest friends (I suspect they didn't even wash their hands).

If we're serious about being part of a community where trust and friendship that is like family comes naturally, where we learn how to live in a way that reflects our faith and values and where people can be welcomed whoever they are, then we need to clear all that stuff off our tables. 

And eat.

And talk. 

And laugh.

And let go. 

Because when we eat together, good things happen. 

(and just to note - my table will be cleared next week, and even before its clear, if you drop in, I'll feed you and if it has to be on the living room floor, then I'll give you my best cushion to sit on).

Monday, 6 November 2017

World Famous Market Theology

I live in Bury - I don't normally say that because Ramsbottom is one on its own - it's a unique and sparkly bohemian enclave of surprises - but it's in Bury (despite what some people might like to argue and think). 

Bury as a borough is diverse, and in Bury town centre that diversity comes together in all its sometimes bizarre, often confusing, always beautiful, glory. I rarely leave Bury having not been surprised by what I have witnessed. Last weeks visit did not disappoint, as I walked up from the car garage, leaving my car to be serviced, I had the chance to spend more time there then I normally do.... with the slightly off key x-factor wannabe on the main street and the arrival of a new building to draw attention away from the shops left empty because of the aspiration of a town that tries really hard. 

Bury is famous for a couple of things. It's famous for its Black Pudding and it's also famous for its market. World famous actually. Sitting at the back of the second nicest shopping centre out of the two in the town, it stands proud as signs point to the coach pick up point where coaches gather to wonder why this trip is taken by so many from extreme parts of the country to this market in this town where things you could buy in most other small towns just like Bury (apart from the black pudding of course) can be bought. 

As I had a bit of time of unknown length last week to shuffle around Bury I thought I'd give it a go. For the second time in six years I entered the market. I shifted myself away from the meat hall and the fish hall (I've always avoided fish halls in markets) and I wandered, taking it all in. 

And as I wandered I wondered... what is it about this market that everyone loves? It's no different to the markets I grew up with. The clothes are the same. The shops with the biggest bags of sweets you've ever seen are the same. The stalls selling random gifts and velcro slippers and trainers with one letter changed in the name... they're the same. There is a nod to changes in the world as the phone case stall shines out with its jewel backed cases and the Christmas novelty wine jumpers of 2017 have pride of place at the front of the stall.... 

But nothing has changed..... so what is then the attraction of the world famous market?  

It tells of a time that was. As the world moves on, the old school weighing and measuring, the paying in cash, the sounds and smells of the market, it reminds us of how this country used to be. It reminds us of a time when it was simpler - when there were two TV channels and it was rare to have a home phone. It reminds us of the golden age that we look through with our rose tinted glasses and elevate higher than high can be. 

Nostalgia is not a bad thing, because the past is our story, the past is what makes us, the past is how we became the people we are today. The movement in the past helps influence us in the future.

But when nostalgia leaves us in a place where the world famous market is as good as it gets....? When nostalgia becomes a bubble where we're dropped off at the entrance and picked up after a walk round, not daring to leave the world famous part just in case the bubble pops..?

As I reflected on love of the world famous market, and how it would have once been the centre of Bury life,  I thought about church, and our love for the nostalgia of church as centre of society and how that influences the way in which we do many things. If we do this, people will come.... why? Well, we're world famous. 

But we're not, we live in exile, so often only turned to for nostalgic coach trips at weddings and christenings and as visitor attractions and quickly left behind with a bag of goodies (well not even that) to sustain on the journey home. As church sits on the margins of society, then just like it will with the world famous market, it is going to take out of the box thinking and imagination to journey into the future. 

Good job we worship a God who is a God of out the box thinking. This is God who didn't defeat evil with force and strength, but with vulnerability and death. This is God who brought fire in the upper room and gave the disciples the ability to talk in other languages so that they could spread the message to the world who didn't understand the words they spoke. This is God who is world famous because he made and saved the world. 

This is God. 

This is God who calls us to listen, and to leave everything behind and follow him. 

As the market continues to be world famous and separates itself as a museum in itself, continuing to be what was and will continue to be, and as we continue to hold it up high as how things shoulda-oughta be, we need to keep reminding ourselves to stop and look around and imagine and wonder.....  

Because how things have always been cannot be how they forever continue to be.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Blessed are the Peacemakers

A well known story, told in many ways in many places (google it, it's all over the place...) goes a bit like this:

There was rich man who lived in the desert. He had so much stuff, and one of the things he was very proud of was that he had 17 camels. These camels were a sign of status, a sign of his riches, a sign that he was a man to be looked up to and respected. 

The rich man was coming to the end of his life and came to the point where he thought he had better make a will. He decided to leave half his wealth to his only child, a third of his wealth to his only grandchild and a ninth to his only nephew. This seemed fair and everyone was very happy with this. 

The rich man grew older, and one day the inevitable happened, and he sadly died. 

A few days later his will was read and his riches began to get distributed. It was all going very well, but then they got to the camels - the rich man's pride and joy that he spent hours looking at and admiring. 

The child came up to the camels and began to claim his share..... but then stopped.....

Eight and a half camels? Not possible..... what do we do with the half? 

The grandchild decided to give it a go.... but then stopped.....

Five and two thirds of a camel? Who gets the hump? 

The nephew then counted and calculated and thought about his ninth.....

One and eight ninths of camel? I've definitely got the hump....

And they stood and they faced one another - what would they do? Would they have to have some sort of a sharing agreement? Should they cut two of the camels up and have them for dinner?

They argued and fought and argued and shouted and argued and went to find their swords and argued and went to find more swords and they were on the brink of war. They couldn't come to a solution. 

A poor man who lived next door had been listening to what was going on and watching the comings and goings and he tentatively knocked on the door. 

What's the problem? How can I help? 

The child and the grandchild and the nephew looked at him in disgust - they were rich, he was poor, what could he do? 

He said "I tell you what, I will give you my one camel, everything I own, and you add it to my old neighbour's estate, and it could help".

The three inheritors shrugged their shoulders and muttered under their breath, but each of them decided an extra camel couldn't do any arm so they took it. 

And they tried again:

The child..... a half - of now eighteen camels.... 9 CAMELS
The grandchild.... a third - of now eighteen camels..... 6 CAMELS
The nephew..... a ninth - of now eighteen camels...... 2 CAMELS

They looked at each other and began to grin, and then the noticed in the corner a camel, just standing there and waiting to be taken.... the poor man's camel left over.....

And they led it next door and tied it up for the poor man to re-claim. 

Whats so important about this story?

Well it reminds us that in the midst of conflict, that sometimes it takes a different perspective to bring peace. 

It reminds us that sometimes to bring peace we need to give up something of ourselves. 

It reminds us that if we sit down and think, that the solution might be easier than we first thought. 

The world at the moment is full of conflict and instability and war. This kind of instability doesn't start with someone waking up one day and getting their guns at the ready. It starts with a culture of my, a culture of want, a culture of take. Violence starts in our hearts and gets bigger and bigger and bigger. For the three inheritors the solution was simple, but their feeling of entitlement meant they couldn't see it. 

In our services we are beginning a new series looking at the teachings of Jesus and we are starting with the sermon on the mount - a very good place to start. Jesus is telling everyone about a new reality - the new kingdom coming through him. 

On Sunday we reflected on what it means to be a peacemaker. Jesus said in the beatitudes 'blessed are the peacemakers'  - but do we really believe that? In our world it seems that we believe the winners are those who are blessed - those who have won the war, the argument, the race.... 

As we talked through being a peacemaker in our service, we were challenged by the children, who suggested that to bring peace, we should play together and we should sit down and talk together instead of always wanting things our own way. The solution was simple, but as adults we often find it too difficult to comprehend. 

When Jesus says 'blessed are the peacemakers' he calls us to be more like the poor man in the story - the one who gave up everything in the name of peace. When Jesus said blessed are the peacemakers he invited us to participate in a challenging process that starts in our hearts. 

Being a peacemaker might mean giving away our only camel. 

Being a peacemaker might mean not jumping to the obvious conclusion.

Being a peacemaker might mean becoming like a child. 

"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God"     Matthew 5:9

Monday, 21 August 2017

Road Closed for Repairs

Big Ben chimes for the last time until 2021, apart from the times it will chime, today. MPs are having a special moment to mourn this terrible loss to the sound of London. The tabloids are devastated. How can this be? 

This sign of stability. This sign of how things always are. This sign of how things always have been. It's going to lie silent. In mourning. It's bowing to health and safety. Why can't the people working on it's restoration live each day in fear of being struck by a swinging bell or of being deafened by its peal? 

This is the end. Life as we know it will never be the same again. 

We cling on and hope for a better outcome that keeps things the same as they have always been. We build a wall so the future cannot come and we barricade ourselves in, shut the doors, keep the cold out, leave the change where it should be... out there. 

Last week I was on holiday in Alnwick and to get to our holiday home we had to walk up the alleyways, but one alleyway was blocked. It had this on the end:

The juxtaposition of the Road Closed sign next to the church sign (the denomination doesn't matter - take it as church) prickled my bloggage antennae as I considered what this picture says about church today. What roads have we closed so, despite the arrows pointing and despite the big buildings that stand proud in the community the bridge has been blocked, the wall has been been built, the door has been shut?

When the stability of tradition is rocked, we hold on for dear life. One barrier to change is erected. 

When new arrivals in church mean we have to rearrange, move the chairs, burn the pews, move our seats, make space, we sit and sing 'we shall not be moved'. One barrier to change is erected. 

When we'd like the new people to come, but not the mess it creates, we cut back, we opt out and the event planned collapses. One barrier to change is erected. 

When the organ is silenced because repairs would mean no mission budget this year, we question the distribution of money, we repair the organ and we sing hymns of our own pleasing. One barrier to change is erected. 

When we hear of people struggling to eat, to exist, to live, and we offer help, but only out there, not in here, avoiding mess, avoiding chaos, avoiding becoming fools like the papers say we must be. One barrier to change is erected.

When the people walk past whose identity and lifestyle challenges what we have always thought and believed we lock the doors and hide, hoping not to be challenged and to have to even contemplate a wave. One barrier to change is erected. 

When we bad mouth those who are different, when we leave them in squalor, when we label them as alien, not wanted right here. One barrier to change is erected. 

When we mourn the silencing of the bells and refuse to condemn blatant all out racism. One barrier to change is erected. 

The signs of stability. The signs of how things always are. The signs of how things always have been. They're not there any more. 

This is the end. Life as we know it will never be the same again. 

And we cling on and hope for a better outcome that keeps things the same as they have always been. We build a wall so the future cannot come and we barricade ourselves in, shut the doors, keep the cold out, leave the change where it should be... out there. 


We need to let go, break down the barriers, let the arrows point a way that is wide open and moving....let the arrows point to the Kingdom of God. 

Big Ben is still there. Big Ben hasn't gone away. We'll still hear the chimes. The tradition and the significance of that bell hasn't been negated as it is being repaired, it's being honoured. 

The traditions of the church have not gone away because the ways of being church have changed. We'll still have the stories and the lessons learnt. We'll still have many of the buildings and the hymns. The traditions of the church are a beautiful thing that we can honour... but that doesn't mean we need to hold on so tight. 

The barriers we put up? They're what close the road... and when that road is closed..... however many signs we put up, and arrows we point, however many fancy new initiatives we try, that road remains closed until we choose to take them down..... and if we leave it too late, there will be nothing to see. 

Monday, 17 July 2017

A Doctor, A Handmaid and a Lady Vicar

Doctor Who? A Woman? Surely not.... 

Last night as the news about the new Doctor Who came out and as people reacted with distaste, celebration and indifference, I was watching The Handmaid's Tale. The episode ended with June (or Offred - her Handmaid name - Of Fred - belonging to Fred) playing the music box she had been given by her mistress. It's one of those music boxes with a twirling ballerina. 

As June watches the box she reflects on how the ballerina can only dance when somebody else opens the box. It's an allegory of her life. I won't give too much away, just in case you haven't seen that episode yet, but she is only allowed out of the box of her role as a handmaid when her master or mistress allow. 

And she says, determined and focused....

"I will not be that girl in the box". 

Margaret Atwood who wrote The Handmaid's Tale, said that she made a rule for herself when she wrote it - that she "....would not include anything in it that human beings had not already done in some other place or time, or for which the technology did not already exist".  The book (which I've read at least 3 times) and the series, even without being read or watched in the light of this, makes for disturbing reading and viewing. The TV series is an adaptation which draws away from some of the book's narrative, but it has the same centre, the same fear, the same ability to make you uncomfortable in your seat as you have been the one who has not spoken out against injustice and the subjugation of women; not spoken out against genocide and cruel acts done in the name of 'what is right and proper'; not spoken out against misogynistic culture that puts women in boxes and only enables them to dance with permission....

But what has this got to do with Doctor Who? 

Well to be honest, I only made the link, because when I tweeted June's last words in the episode, someone tweeted back and said that my tweet was at odds with the message he was hearing from Doctor Who - referring to the new Doctor Who and what will be her tendency to fly around time in a big blue box. I reflected back that actually perhaps it could be more at odds with those who are horrified that a woman could be the doctor. 

There is nothing to say that the doctor couldn't be a woman, yet the controversy around the possibility and now the reality is (probably not unsurprisingly) one that has made a number of self claimed die hard Doctor Who fans (men and women) feel so uncomfortable they have declared their intentions never to watch it again. The doctor has always been a (white) man and will always be a man... end of. 

The issue I have with this is not an argument about the possible gender of Doctor Who, as to be honest, I don't really care, but is that the argument has come from a place that over history has put some people (women in particular, but this isn't the only issue) in a box that is only allowed to be opened when the owner wants the ballerina to dance. 

It is in the story of the female lorry driver I met in tears outside a local farm shop because she didn't know whether she could carry on anymore because she didn't feel safe around the male lorry drivers who treated her with contempt because she was a woman. 

It is in the story I heard on Radio 4 last week about the low percentage of train drivers who are female (5.4% on the London Underground in 2016) and what a novelty it is to have a female at the controls. 

It is in the story I heard of the church which, to call a woman into a leadership role had to change the title from minister or pastor so they could get round the ingrained culture that was rife within the congregation without losing the so-called stalwarts and good givers of the church. 

It's in my story too, and, if you talk to any other female minister, is likely to be in their story. It's sadly in the story of church (this article by Mark Woods details this and the link to Doctor Who further...). It's in the churches that won't have a woman minister, not for any reason but 'ministers have always been male'. It's in the churches that had an unsuccessful female pastor (whatever that means) and have vowed never to have one again (because all women are like that). It's in the look of surprise when I say what I do and the exclamation of 'I've never met a lady vicar before' (I ain't no lady vicar thank you very much). 

Both the treatment of women in The Handmaid's Tale and the surprise (and horror) of the new female Doctor, in their own ways, put a spotlight on the inequality within our society where culture and tradition is seemingly unmovable..... 

It also echoes the culture within our churches where tradition and theological views are so embedded and entwined (where we read our Bible with 'what has always been done' spectacles), that any change, any shift, any opening of the gate is seemingly impossible because it will rock our world and we will lose control. 

So instead of letting go of what has always been, we create boxes, which are opened, but only when we can deal with it, and only if, if we don't like it, we are able to close them again.... and if we really don't like it, we'll close them, lock them, and throw away the key. 

(I read this blog where the author writes a little more concisely about church and boxes and not being put into them.....worth a read!)

Monday, 5 June 2017

When the wind blows....

There has been a picture being shared on social media in the last couple of days man casually mowing the grass as a tornado looms behind him. It can be found here.

The story is, that mowing the grass was on his to-do list. His wife had gone for a nap leaving him to get on with it. His daughter noticed the change in the weather and went out to tell him, but he decided to carry on mowing because that was what was on his schedule. He told her he had his eye on the tornado.

What would you do in that situation?

Carry on with the to-do list despite the tornado?

Go inside and wait to see what happens?

Wind is a mighty thing.

A few months ago, in the middle of a sermon, just at the right time our fire exit blew loudly open and made everyone jump. 

Wind has the potential to do the unexpected, to change the course, to enable a tin can to roll up hill and cause chaos and devastation. It has, I watched in Beauty and the Beast last week, the potential to open up the way to a frightening but promising new life......

John 3:8 says this:

"The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from, or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit."

That tornado could have changed direction. That tornado could have caused destruction..... Yet the man carried on with his to do list, because that's what he had always done.

Yesterday was Pentecost Sunday. On that first Pentecost I'd imagine that the arrival of the Holy Spirit was as shocking as a tornado (even though they were expecting it). The disciples were ready and prepared for it and were waiting. Their chores paused for that time....

The man in the tornado story carries on doing his to-do list - his default - his normal - keeping an eye out but not prepared to stop and think. 

Sometimes we can all be a bit like that - our to do list is done whatever is around..... 

But.... then the tornado changes direction and we miss it as we resolutely stand firm in our ways and in the past. 

Perhaps there are times when we need to pause from our to-do list - our normal - our default - and watch and see and feel where the wind is going. Watch and see and feel where the Holy Spirit is leading us. 

Times are changing. Churches are changing (where they are willing to).... and we've all got to ask ourselves the question - what are we going to be doing? 

Are we going to be resolutely carrying on mowing the lawn, or are we going to stop, pause and watch and wait, listening and then moving to where the Spirit is leading us?