Thursday, 31 December 2015

New year..... New day.

I love new year. Full of nostalgia and resolutions - a pause to look forward and reflect back. A chance to put to bed regrets and learn from mistakes.....

I hate new year. Full of nostalgia and resolutions - a pause to look forward and reflect back. A chance to revisit regrets and wonder why on earth they happened.....

I love new year. High expectations of fun. Party, laughter, dreaming, winning, good friends, family, fireworks. 

I hate new year. High expectations of fun when surely not everyone can want fun. Party going pressure, tears, remembering dreams that never came true, loneliness even in a room full of people. 

I love new year. This last year has been good. I've finished college, been ordained (best day ever), led my first baptismal service, dedicated a beautiful baby, passed all of my masters modules, celebrated with so many friends, adventured and journeyed, created and sparkled, sung and dreamed. Made new friends.....

I hate new year. For too many of my friends this year has been ridiculously hard and I have not known what to do or say to walk with them through it. For too many of them this new year is a hearty goodbye to what has been and a tentative step into the future..... 

I drove down to Derbyshire for new year today. As I drove I left behind howling wind and driving rain and as I came over the hills into the Peak District, there before me was the most glorious sunset. Behind me, darkness, before me promise of an ending and a new beginning that is more beautiful than anything that has gone before. 

I'm a bit ambivalent when it comes to new year. It's overrated, a bit stressful and slightly irritating, but I celebrate it because it makes us stop, pause, reflect and dream. I've had a great year and am looking forward to 2016 which already promises to begin well..... And I'm going to enjoy seeing it in with a good friend.

But, more than that..... the beautiful sun setting on 2015 after the dark remnants of the storm and the fact that it will rise again tomorrow reminded me of this..... That light shines even in the most dark of places...... And that is something definitely worth celebrating.... 

"Arise, shine, for your light has come,
    and the glory of the Lord rises upon you.
See, darkness covers the earth
    and thick darkness is over the peoples,
but the Lord rises upon you
    and his glory appears over you.
Nations will come to your light,
    and kings to the brightness of your dawn" Isaiah 60:1-3

Monday, 7 December 2015

Tourist church

Last week I was sat talking to some people about the week and what we'd been up to. I mentioned I was the minister of a church..... 

It's amazing the conversations that this sometimes starts. Ranging from 'I'm not into God myself' to 'how do you promote your church' to 'so you baptise adults - are they naked?' 

This time though I was talking to an amazing storyteller. She told me about the time that she went to New York and while they were in New York her and her friend wanted to go to a 'proper' Baptist church. They went to a famous church in the area.... 

When they arrived they were amazed to see the queue - going on for rows and rows of people. At the door were two men (bouncers) dressed in sharp suits. They came down the rows looking at what people were wearing. They stopped at my story teller and looked down - they saw her flip flops and her trousers and said she couldn't go in like that. 

Then they pointed to a stall selling shoes and skirts......

As she got shoed and skirted up her and her friend were asked to stand closer to the people in front so the queue had more space to grow. 

And then, eventually, after a long period of waiting, the doors opened and the bouncers let them in small groups to wait for the service to begin. Gospel choir, passionate preaching.... all those things you'd see on telly....! 

I sat there and thought.... I wouldn't queue. What is this church doing? Bouncers? Flip flop rules? 

Church as tourist attraction. And yes, my storyteller and her friend were tourists. It was a must see for their time in New York. They loved it. It was an amazing experience. Buzzing. 

But church as a tourist attraction? I've always been uncomfortable with paying to go into cathedrals when they should be a place of worship.... but then if I am going in just to look around....? Last year I went to midday communion at York Minster - a calm oasis of worship and thanksgiving in the middle of a busy stream of tourists. In the summer I looked down at the parish congregation in Sagrada Familia and felt out of place as one of the people who had paid to stare. 

A worship service as a tourist attraction? I guess it's become so strange that to have a look-see to experience something strange could be seen as something good. Just as you might go into a cathedral to sense some of the awe and wonder of God, participating in a lively New York Baptist church might help us experience the joy of worship and encounter God through that ..... there is something about the peculiarity of a worship service that people just want to go and see that we should embrace as the church seeks to be light in a dark world.

But, it's not the desire of the storyteller and her friend to go and experience worship that I find difficult (although I've never heard of anyone going to a church like that on the tourist trail) - it's the story of the queues and bouncers and clothes stalls that I find hard. 

What would the King of Kings born in a manger on that first Christmas make of all this? A quiet and subversive entrance to turn the world upside down. Born to a very young couple, far from home, met by shepherds still smelling of the hills, bowed down to by men from far far away. No bouncers, no dress code, no cathedrals, no queues, but the quiet entrance of Emmanuel. 

God with us. 

God..... with..... us. 

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Deep Impact

To the right is the picture (streams of people) I bought with money given as a gift by my church to mark the end of my time as minister in training. I bought it from an art gallery in Nottingham where the artist, Pete Spowage, painted it just for me. I love his art and would love to fill my house of his drawings of people going about doing their everyday stuff. 

I chose this painting in particular because I wanted something that would reflect the church community that had bought it for me. People, walking together and separately, in harmony, with purpose, making an impact wherever they go. You can see the footprints of the people's bodies, personalities and what drives them leak out from them leaving some sort of imprint. The rainbow colours remind me that God keeps his promises, that his promises have huge impact and that if we are looking to follow him, we aim to try and leave a bit of his love wherever we journey, reflecting his image. 

This painting now hangs in my living room and in the last few days in particular it's been catching my eye as I've been thinking about life, family, church, me...... I've been thinking about the impact I make on those around me. Which person am I in the painting? What difference am I making? Which way am I walking?

Last night I went to a lecture on the theology of care for people with dementia. The lecturer spoke about experience of memory loss and how it can be a bit like catching a snowflake. That even when the memory has faded, that the feeling of holding the snowflake is still there.... that the emotion of the memory lasts far longer than the memory itself. 

Sometimes the impact we make can go far beyond the memory of making the impact.... 

Sometimes the impact we make can be deeper than we ever know.... 

"Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity"                                                                     Colossians 3:12-14

Monday, 5 October 2015

Dining at the Heart

I recently went to visit Tatton Park for the first time. I've been reluctant to visit because you have to pay for the car park (if you trace my ancestry back I come from both Yorkshire AND Scotland), but it was worth it - a beautiful place to visit. 

What made it even more worth it was an exhibition called 'Guardian Angels' by the artist Cristina Rodrigues. Rodrigues is a Portugese born, Manchester based artist and a lecturer in Architecture. Her art installations use objects that were simply functional and sometimes obsolete and she gives them an artistic identity. Her art tells the story of and celebrates the role of women as keepers of cultural traditions. The art tells the story of those women, interwoven with her own stories. 

The art installation at Tatton Mansion was inspired by the room in which each piece stood - where the stories of the people who lived in the mansion were in conversation with the modern day stories that had inspired the artist. 

One piece that fascinated me was called 'Dining at the Heart'. The table was donated by an Iranian family who had replaced it with a table from Ikea. The description of the piece explains how it is reflecting on the fact that we now spend less time gathered round the table which once stood in the heart of our homes. The red ribbons are like blood - energy lines that bring life and tell a story. The ceramic hearts connected by the ribbons show how we connect to one another. The piece was in the kitchen of the mansion - the kitchen as the heart of the house making the house a home.

I'm currently thinking about what to do for my MA dissertation, and whenever somebody asks me I often reply 'something to do with food'. It's not because I love food and cooking (which I do, clearly) but because I believe that gathering around the table with food is vitally important to the building of Christ-centred community and is a practice that began with the early Christian communities we read about in the New Testament as they gathered, broke bread and shared lives together. 

I've seen how food draws people together. I've seen how food inspires us to talk. I've seen how eating together before our church meeting enhances the conversation. I've seen that gathering intentionally together with a brew (how Lancashire am I now!?) and the offer of cake to explore life and faith can bring deep conversation and open up channels of faith exploration that have been avoided for fear of saying the wrong thing. 

I've been looking back and going through my post it notes I'd left in 'Slow Church'* and I found again a whole chapter on 'Dinner Table conversation'. Smith and Pattison write that "eating together and conversing together are both vital practices of slow church community...." because we learn the language of the family at the dinner table. To build community we should make it a priority to eat and relax with our neighbours - yet so often we eat fast and we move on. 

I've made it a rule before our Sunday church meetings that we can't have soup until 12pm, when everyone is able to gather, so we are not rushing from service to meeting without pausing to be family together. It felt forced at first, and I think people thought I was just being stubborn, but now it's becoming habit, and it makes a difference to what we say and do in our meetings - and we leave later - not because the meeting goes on forever, but because the meeting begins around the table, with food, where we gather and we learn what it means to be the family of God. Encouraging slowness in community sometimes needs to be intentional and often counter-cultural, but in that intentionality,  slowly, slowly the community begins to become more beautiful as it takes time to realign and centres itself on Christ. 

*Slow Church by Christopher Smith & John Pattison. I blogged about it here

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

A man doesn't sing.....

A man doesn't sing and the media cries out and shames him because he is not honouring those who have fought for the country. 

Meanwhile, a vote is passed that takes away tax credits from those who most desperately need them and the media is virtually silent.

Meanwhile, Trade Unions are challenged on their role in holding up workers rights and the media is virtually silent. 

Meanwhile, my local tory councillors refuse to debate a move to accept more refugees in the town as my local MP campaigns for better Wifi to make our lives more comfortable.

Meanwhile Hungary builds higher and higher fences as thousands of people are left out in the cold and the BBC changes its language back from refugees to migrants.

God save the Queen, yes, we all need salvation. Yes, honour those who have fought for our country and for freedom, but pray not for more victories, but for peace...... And as we celebrate our freedom, let's give our leaders the freedom to be who they are, not to play some media game. 

God save the poor

God save the oppressed

God save the homeless

God save the refugee

God save the politicians

God save the media

God bring the peace of your salvation, turn weapons into gardens of peace. 

Lord have mercy. 

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

What Lies Beneath

A paper clip floats... sometimes. If you lay a paper clip gently on top of the water and get it just right it will float. That's because of surface tension. If you look closely you can see the surface of the water embrace the paper clip and hold it in place. If you get it wrong or upset the tension then the paper clip sinks to the bottom. 

That's one thing I was reminded of this summer. I went with my Godsons to do some science and we did all sorts of things I've done before but had forgotten that feeling of ooooo when something you are not expecting happens. 

I've been on pause. I've been in between. In that time I've lost the words 'In training' from the end of 'Minister'. I'm not a different person, I don't even really have a different job (although I'm hoping it feels a little bit different), but I've transitioned, from one to another. I'm at a different place on the journey. 

Over the summer I've been trying to understand myself a bit better and how I relate to the world around me. The last four years has been chaotic as I've been thrown deep into a new life as minister of a church, occupying a different place in society, with totally unexpected challenges to who I am and where I am. As I have been exploring who I am and reflecting on life, I've been looking to see what lies beneath. What makes me think this way? Where is God in what I do and where I go? 

I finished my holiday by going to Barcelona and went to visit the Sagrada Familia. An amazing building, still under construction - the dream of Gaudi who died before it was even started and an iconic landmark on the Barcelona skyline. I went on Sunday morning to see this beautiful building with all the different coloured light streaming through the nature inspired, mathematically constructed nave of the building. 

Round the back of the altar are smaller chapels which are set aside for quiet prayer and contemplation (it being a church and all), despite the very loud video of the history of the building going on in one of the chapels, it was a bit less busy and perhaps a little bit quieter. The apostles creed was hung up in different languages, marking what unites Christians across the world. 

In the middle of the chapels, below what must have been the altar area of the main sanctuary, were some windows that looked down to the crypt. When you looked down you saw a worship area (which is, I found out afterwards, the local parish church). Down beneath the beauty created by Gaudi  being photographed by many tourists was the beauty of a congregation worshipping God. I watched as they shared the peace and I wanted to be with them, not with the tourists who were jostling for the best position to take a photo. 

At the core of the building was faith. The crypt was there before the rest of what is described as a 'temple' was built. In that crypt a faithful group of followers resisted the urge to look up at the tourists as they worshipped God. Although the beautiful temple spoke very deeply of the glory of God, and it, I'm sure, is an amazing place to worship, it was in that crypt that the true beauty of God was displayed; where gathering together to worship was a regular routine of faithfulness, and where the peace of God was shared in a community centred on Christ.

It's too easy sometimes to focus on the surface - on looks, on what's happening now, what's making me happy right now, but what I've been challenged on over the summer, a reminder and a nudge, is that what lies beneath that is most important - what creates the cushion that holds the paper clip up, what sustains faith community in the middle of a commercial tourist venture, what holds me...... it's the deep deep love of our creator God, demonstrated so starkly on the cross through Jesus who died for me, and the assurance I have that there is always hope in him. Buildings crumble, life changes, paper clips sink, but God's love is eternal.  


Monday, 11 May 2015

Lady Vicars and Sarcastic Rage

I got a bit wound up in a lecture this morning when someone referred to 'Lady Vicars'. It's a phrase I loathe. Someone once said to me 'Ooooo......... you're the new lady minister' and the sarcasm bubbled up. What am I? A minister of ladies (evidence suggests otherwise)? A lady who happens to be a minister (I'm not really sure about that word lady)? A minister who happens to be a lady (really, I'm not sure I am a lady....)?

Someone said to me, 'What's wrong with being a lady, surely it's a compliment?'


I'm currently absorbed in the world of Post Modernity, both in real life and in my lectures (but often living in a world that still thinks of itself as un-post, just modern which is why we are in a strange place in church (but that's another story)). Being absorbed in this world means that I've come to grasp the idea that meaning is actually, often, all relative.

So I have a few problems with the phrase 'lady minister' (don't get me started on the vicar bit).....

Firstly, by calling me a lady minister, you're implying that this is unusual. Where we have two categories that overlap so completely (one bigger than the other) of ministers and lady ministers, you put me in a sub-category that implies I do a different, more defined job to those we just call ministers. So please stop calling me lady. I'm just a minister. Although I have some peerage ancestry in the far distant past, that's been and gone, so there are no reasons to define me as different or to give me the title 'Lady'.

Secondly, there are meanings attached to the world 'lady' that I am uncomfortable with (why are female ministers 'lady ministers' and male nurses 'male nurses' - why not 'gentleman nurses' (why not just nurses)?). Meaning is all very relative. When I was doing some research with my ace sister for her dissertation on the League of Nations and trafficking and slavery, we looked at some original meeting minutes where they were looking for someone who was female to work with them. One of the women was ideal for the job but they found her too strong and opinionated. They wanted someone who was gentle and compassionate - softly spoken. The problem with the word 'lady' is that I associate it with the second kind - the kind who is there because it is nice to have a female there but has a particular role and status within an organisation that is non-offensive.

And that leads me to my third problem. To identify 'lady ministers' in a separate category implies that ministers who are female are to be treated differently and are to act differently. The baggage attached to the word 'feminist' expresses some of that. Feminists are militant and outspoken, oppressive of men and always shouting up at the wrong moment (when Feminism is about lifting the status of women to equal, not higher, than men). Unfortunately people can attach that same baggage to ministers who are female. To attach the word 'lady' to minister perhaps makes us a little less offensive and easier to control than a female minister who has the same status and role as a male minister. A lady minister can be put in her place (and believe me, that happens) in a way a male minister isn't. Until we take away the baggage implied by attaching 'lady' to the front of my job title, that assumption and behaviour is not going to go away.

So please, don't define my role by my gender, instead, define my role by my calling. I've been called by a church to minister to that church, so my role is the role of minister. Not 'lady minister', 'lady vicar', 'woman of the cloth' or anything else (lady? I don't see no lady - nah that's something else...!). I'm Claire the minister, and that's me; God's called me, chosen me, and sent me, just as I am.

This recently came up in my facebook newsfeed, it's worth a watch..... A bit about not being 'that' kind of lady.....

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Cake and Slow Church. Slow Cake. Cake Church.

I've just got back from the North West Baptist Association ministers conference and during it we had something called '7 on 7' - 7 people speaking about something they are passionate about for 7 minutes. It was good..... and I was one of the seven people and I said I would put up my talk on my blog - so here goes - with a few changes so it makes sense! 

If you spend any time with me you might be able to guess what I am passionate about. It appears that people on facebook with their random sharing of anything to do with shoes and anything to do with maths think they know what I am passionate about. I do like shoes and I do like maths. I even got asymptotes in my sermon on Sunday on Ephesians 6……

However, it’s not until you spend time with me you realise that it’s not all about those shoes or all about that maths…..

If you have spent any time with me in the last year or so there are two things I have probably done….

First, is offer you cake. I have a thing about cake. Not because I like eating it (although, I admit, there are times I do) but because it's an experience. I am not a massive fan of shop bought cakes and when someone brings shop bought cake when they have offered to make cake I have a secret intense disappointment. I am passionate about the homemade variety. This is the variety that has had time to be created. This is the variety that speaks of love and of care. This is the variety that makes me stop and savour.

The thing about cake for me is not in the eating, but it’s in the making. And making is not just about reading and looking. If you just read and follow a recipe without playing with any other senses the cake may be nice, but it’s not the same. I’m sorry.

The first thing I do when creating cake is to wander around and dream. Even if I am going back to a tried and tested recipe that dreaming and imagining is still there. I might have googled or searched books, but the dreaming (often in the car on the way home from college) is always there. This cake I am making – I need to really believe in.

The second thing I do is make the cake. With scales. I measure….. then I taste, then I feel, then I smell….. then I add…. (milk often actually is the magic ingredient). Then I put it in the oven and let it be. Let it rest as it grows, moves, breathes…..

The final thing I do is I listen. The cakes talk.

So.... now you think I am nuts. But, when you listen to sponge cakes baking they speak, and when they stop speaking they’re ready. It’s not about the time stated in the recipe book, it’s about when the cakes tell you they’re ready. You can hear it. You can feel it. Taste and see. And……

The second thing I may have mentioned if you have spent time with me,  is how you need to investigate Slow Church. Slow Church is church like cake baking and eating. Slow Church is a movement about cultivating community in the patient way of Christ. Slow church is inspired by the International slow food movement.

The slow food movement is a movement that goes against the grain of fast food…. Of buy and eat fast. Of lunch hours and business meetings. Of hour long lunchtime ministers meetings (let’s kill two birds with one stone ministers meetings). Of the rush from one meeting to the next. Of turning the occasional times we have traditionally just hung out with others from church to week by week, slow, slow, patient, focussed community building. The slow food movement is dedicated to the enjoyment and production of local food and wine, the preservation of food traditions, and  the promoting of pleasures of conviviality – from the Latin word for feast, which literally means ‘to live with’. The slow food movement challenges us as churches to ask questions about the ground our faith communities have given over to the cult of speed and challenges us to rethink the ways in which we share life together in our church communities. It challenges our ‘one size fits all’ church and discipleship models and calls for quality, local centred journeys forward, breathing and walking together in Christ’s way.

Slow Church is the challenge to be, faithfully and well, the embodiment of Christ in a particular place over time. Slow church speaks of the type of community where people are invited to hang out for a while and taste and see that the Lord is good.

Cake and Slow Church. Slow Cake. Cake Church. That’s what I am passionate about.

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

That lone voice......

And the lone voice of a man cries out 'but it's not in the Bible'. His views are heard. They're challenged. The service goes on. 

But that man's voice is still there. He's heard spell out his views on women leaders (women are made to be gorgeous not leaders, women can have babies, men can be bishops, we have different roles) on national news. He's challenged by an abundance of tweets and comments. 

But that man's voice is still there. His views are heard. His views represent a voice that rises up at moments like these, but is there, all the time, views that are the norm in some places. His voice is still there. 

His voice is still there in the concern over my role as minister of a church as a stumbling block for someone joining the church. His voice is still there when I'm told there are things I should not be doing because I am a woman and 'I should have learnt by now', his voice is still there when I'm told that women are not made to be leaders, his voice is still there when the conversation is about what makes a good preacher and that good preacher is most definitely male. 

His voice is still there when it's suggested that the move to female bishops is a step towards restoration of fallen creation and that suggestion is accompanied by a vehement shaking of head. His voice is still there. 

I'm struggling right now with the number of challenges to my ministry being thrown at me; not because I am no good at it; not because I'm getting it wrong all the time; not because I am not called; not because my ministry has not been affirmed most clearly by the church I am serving, my college and my association (I am called, I am affirmed, I am, I hear, doing a good job and getting it right a lot of the time); but because of my gender. 

This morning we were talking in our Bible Study about the anointing of King David in 1 Samuel 16. He was not who was expected. He was the youngest of a number of brothers. He wasn't even there when Samuel came to the temple because the expectations of him were definitely not King. Yet there he was. God knew him. God called him. 

We came to the conclusion that to God it didn't matter that David was the youngest, that to anoint him would be totally against society conventions, yet God still chose him. What mattered was God's call. 

What matters to me is God's call, as affirmed by those who know me well, my church and beyond... and that is what excites me and keeps me going. 

I love the fact that we're all different - we have different views and ideas. I love the fact that we can read the Bible and discover so much more about God. I love the fact that the journey is still ongoing. I love it when I see that something happens that is a sign that God's Kingdom is near, is here, is coming. 

But I'd love it if it wasn't so hard sometimes! That lone voice, I'm so pleased you have a say, because I believe in freedom of speech, but it doesn't mean that when it's there every day and not always such a lone voice it doesn't hurt and question the person who God has called me to be. It doesn't mean that you do not undermine the clear call my church has given me. We need to remember that many of our views are not just theoretical theological ideas, but about people, made in the image of God, and often, I've found, the people who are standing right there in front of you. 

And by the way, it is in the Bible - read about it here