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

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.