Easter 5- Tuesday- International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia

Today is the International day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia, it probably needs a longer title, but then like Pride events, maybe what we need to do is look forward to a day when neither of them are needed. Sadly, for now, they are! It is marked globally on 17 May every year to draw attention to the discrimination and violence experienced by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, and all other people with diverse sexual orientations, gender identities or expressions, and sex characteristics.

The date of 17 May was specifically chosen to commemorate the World Health Organization declassifying homosexuality as a mental disorder, which only happened in 1990. I was in a meeting only recently where an elderly doctor explained carefully to those gathered, that we should be concerned for “them” because “they” are ill! He obviously wasn’t aware quite how out of date he was. But of course he is not alone. You can read more about the day here.

Here in the UK there are events taking place in towns and cities, some to explain to anyone interested the need for the day, others to offer social gatherings, interestingly our newspaper headlines are filled with the story of Jake Daniels, a professional footballer for Blackpool FC, choosing to come out as gay, a brave step from the 17 year old who is being supported by family, friends and the Club itself, which has a good reputation for supporting the LGBTQIA+ community. You can find his story here.

His statement that he is one of the first is correct because it is worth remembering that it is 32 years since Justin Fashanu became the first and until now only male British professional footballer to come out as gay, in his case via a salacious newspaper splash. Fashanu played on for seven years in various leagues, but he suffered terribly at the hands of his sport, his family and the wider public. After moving to the United States, in 1998 he was questioned by police when a seventeen-year-old boy accused him of sexual assault. He was charged, and a warrant for his arrest was issued for his arrest. He feared that he would not get a fair trial because he was gay, fled to the UK, where he sadly killed himself in May 1998, his suicide note stated that the sex had been consensual. He certainly wouldn’t be the first gay man to be accused wrongly, and to suffer at the hands of the media!

Sadly, despite all of the positivity there is surrounding the story of Jake Daniels, there are also nasty trolls and nay sayers, discrimination and abuse is alive and well. That needs highlighting, and much more work needs to be done before we don’t need days like today or Pride events , or organisations like the wonderful Stonewall, and so many others who campaign for equal rights and acceptance.

The church has sadly lagged behind, and while there have been changes, with Same Sex marriages now allowed by several denominations, including my own, the route to get there has often been brutal, with people telling their stories over and over again, sometimes at great cost.

So taking all of that into consideration I simply want to share a prayer:

I long for the day when, nobody has to “come out” or explain who they are to anyone, unless they wish to.

I long for the day when nobody remarks on their son bring home a boyfriend or their daughter bringing home a girlfriend,

I long for the day when nobody considers it strange when their friend, sibling, even parent, or child chooses a new name, and where transitioning is acceptable and support is accessible.

I long for the day when it is okay to be who you are and love who you love…

I long for the day when labels are no longer necessary, and being human is enough.

I long for the day when kindness, understanding and love triumph over questions, when nobody is trolled and no hate is spewed.

Maybe I am longing for heaven, but then Jesus calls us to bring about heaven on earth, to be the God colours and the God flavours.

So, I offer my longings as a prayer, and my past inability to speak out as a confession.

May the day soon come.

May that day soon come

AMEN

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Easter 5- Monday- on original goodness, inclusion and maybe a bit about Franklin Graham again!

I am sure that almost everyone is familiar with the lyrics of Do-Re-Mi from the musical The Sound of Music, here in the UK it is a Christmas staple, some love it, others avoid it, I remember seeing it on the big screen as a child, but must admit that I fall into the camp of the avoiders ( don’t judge me). That said the songs stick, and the encouragement in Do-Re-Mi, is this;

Let’s start at the very beginning
A very good place to start
When you read you begin with – A – B – C

Go on, admit it you are singing it now aren’t you! I must admit that I am.

The very beginning, the beginning of time itself, something we can gaze into as a mystery, for surely even before the big bang, and yes I am not a 7 day creationist, sorry if that offends, though I suspect that it won’t come as a surprise to anyone who reads my posts.

The very beginning of the Bible begins with a poem, the great poem of creation, the opening words are:

In the beginning when God created….

It goes on to list the days of creation, step by step, and quickly picks up the refrain “and God saw that it was good”, culminating with the creation of humankind, this gloriously diverse expression of love and goodness is drawn to a close:

26 Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind[in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’

27 So God created humankind in his image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them.

28 God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’ 29 God said, ‘See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. 30 And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.’ And it was so. 31 God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

Blessedness and goodness, this is how we humans, and the whole of creation is presented, right at the very beginning, even the following account of creation shows a special relationship between God, Adam and Eve, and while the story ends with a break in the relationship, and the pair being driven from the place of innocence in the garden, that goodness is still there deep within them, God’s image may have been covered ( with fig leaves) but it is not removed, for they are God-breathed. Blessed and good.

Blessed and good! We are all blessed and good, all bear the image of God within, and are all God breathed, Psalm 39 ( yes another poem) tells us that God knitted us together in our mothers wombs, each of us as unique and diverse as creation itself. Of course when we look out at our world and we see war, famine, destruction, and hatred prevailing, when poverty rubs alongside greed and unimaginable horrors are inflicted on people by other people it is hard to see that blessedness and goodness, but it is there.

All through history however we have seen how religion, and I would say all religion has created laws and rules and descriptions of sin that are used to control the masses. Wars have been fought in God’s name and even the Old Testament is full of violence. I might be easy to see in this how the doctrine of Original Sin came about. I am not going to go into a long explanation of Original Sin, you can look it up, what I want to argue for is Original Goodness, that started at the very beginning! Original Goodness celebrates our creation, and the whole of creation in all of its diversity and wonder, in Scripture both the beginning and end are held in a garden, and the end of the book of Revelation tells us that there will come a time when all will be well, no more crying, no more sickness and no more pain, no more exclusion, no more shaming!

No more shaming, I think that shame is one of the most debilitating factors that runs through all cultures, shame drove Adam and Eve into hiding, their innocence gone they hide because they are naked, vulnerable, exposed. The fear of being exposed and vulnerable can be crippling, no matter what is is that makes us feel exposed and vulnerable, and the fear is often that you will be shunned, and rejected, you will become an outcast.

Jesus had a way of including the outcast, of revealing to them the Original Goodness within them and setting them free from fear and shame, be that the woman who had been hemorraging, the woman dragged by the religious leaders and exposed as an adulterer ( yes we should ask where was the man) the man born blind and, the lepers, the list goes on! In his book Being Human, Steve Chalke says:

It is a sobering fact that the only groups that Jesus chose to seriously critique were those who included themselves yet excluded others from the always given welcome and embrace of God.

The religious community leaders of Jesus day were far from inclusive. Theirs was a culture littered with outcasts. They were accomplished at using their distorted understanding of God to underpin the repressive social hierarchy that they had created, which at one and the same time, put them at the centre of everything, and legitimised their exclusion of others.

There were so many who were considered beyond the pale, this included the disabled, people suffering from leprosy, which covered any skin diseases, foreigners, and to a large degree all women! Part of the blessings the devout Jewish man would recite each morning would include:

Blessed are you O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has not made me a woman.

How shocking is that? The trouble is when you begin with a set of exclusive beliefs and begin defining who is in and who is out, then the lists can grow longer and longer. Today as we see women’s rights being challenged in the US, and totally predictable curbing of the freedom of women in Afghanistan, we can say that maybe nothing much has changed in the eyes of some.

I wrote yesterday about love, and how challenging the call to love can be, and yes I mentioned Franklin Graham, who is coming to Sheffield this month, and I haven’t changed my mind, I still don’t think he is bringing a message of hope, precisely because his message is exclusive, he demands a repentance from sins that aren’t sins at all. It is not a sin to be the fearfully and wonderfully made human being that you are no matter what your sexuality. The notion that sexuality and members of the LGBTQI+ community are all sexually promiscuous is nonsense, but definitely engrained in some psyches. I was asked once whether I was afraid of sexually transmitted diseases, it genuinely makes me laugh, but the focus of certain purity teaching on sexuality and sex itself is ridiculous, and let’s face it anyone can be promiscuous. But no, I am not interested in what other people do in bed!

So often the whole focus is either sex obsessed or other obsessed, when we fear those who are not like us our tendency is to exclude them, and only to include them if they become like us, to become like us they need to leave behind a part of who they are, thus becoming a shadow of themselves, shamed by their true identity. At this time I suspect this is particularly true for Trans people who are targets for far too much abuse, and so much ignorance!

Now don’t get me wrong, I do believe that we need to turn from violence, from greed, from theft, murder, from hatred in all its forms. I do believe that we all have a long path to walk before the full glory of God in us can be seen and known, and I believe that that path is best begun with coming to terms with the doctrine of original goodness. You are good, how many times might you have been told that? Recently the BBC, has produced a number of documentaries from people like Olly Alexander, who explored the shame of Growing Up Gay, and also Tan France from Queer Eye, who talked about bleaching his skin as a young man in an attempt to fit in, shame is powerful.

Nobody is sinful because of their sexuality, disability ( in whose eyes) gender, or race, nobody is superior for any of those reasons either. All are fearfully and wonderfully made and originally good. It took me years to get there, I was too tall, to fat, never fitting in, too loud and to quiet, I was asked when my third child was born with a heart condition to look into my sins to see what had caused God to allow this- seriously I was asked that, I have always gone with the sensible answer, which is genetics. It was that child whose condition drove me to prayer, and in and for whom I have seen prayer answered over and over again. He is married now and training to become a Local Preacher!

Jesus always included the outcast, the trajectory of the whole of the Gospel is inclusion, inclusion and revealing the deep love of God, we are not always good at that, but it is where we should seek to start, at the very beginning all was good!

Sunrise….
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Easter 5- Love one another- in which I might mention Franklin Graham

I have been pondering todays Gospel reading, and the focus on the call to love one another, here at the table with the eleven disciples, Judas has already left, with wine soaked bread given to him by Jesus still tasting warm in his mouth, and with freshly washed feet, he goes to seal the deal with the religious elite, for thirty pieces of silver. I don’t want to focus on Judas particularly, but will mention his deep regret that led to suicide when he realised far too late that he could not force Jesus hand, that a violent uprising was not in Jesus plan. Surely he’d have realised that after the three years of following, but no, I guess we all need to check our assumptions and blind spots, we all need to be aware of our potential misunderstandings!

So there they are, at the table, full stomachs, washed feet, probably reclining expecting to relax a bit before going to bed. Jesus though knows otherwise, he knows Peter will betray him, and that most of the others will scatter in fear for their lives, he knows that their expectations will be dashed, and he is filled with love for them. I wonder what he sees as he surveys them, perhaps a clue is given in the way he calls them “little children”:

Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come… John 13:33

Little children, how did they feel about being called children, these grown men, were they disturbed, puzzled, or was it somehow comforting? Or were they more fixed on the second part of this declaration- where I am going you cannot come, though I doubt any of them ( even Peter, despite his protestations) would want to go with him to the cross and the tomb, and anyway, how on earth would that glorify God? I know my mind would have been racing now, what on earth is he talking like this for? The thinking again, this seems to have been on his mind for a while, the Son of Man will be lifted up he’d said, taking time to explain his death, but surely he can’t mean now, here in Jerusalem, not after they have celebrated together?

He did mean it of course, and went on to give them an instruction;

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13: 34-35

Love one another, show the world that you are mine by loving one another, you who have argued on the road with one another, replace it with love, you who speak up quickly, always wanting to have the right answer, love one another, you who seek power, love one another. Love of course is the way of Jesus, the way we are called into, in choosing love we can perhaps lay our differences aside and choose a different path. Jesus could not be clearer: It is not by our theological correctness, not by our moral purity, not by our impressive knowledge that everyone will know that we are his disciples. It is quite simply by our loving acts — acts of service and sacrifice, acts that point to the love of God for the world made known in Jesus Christ.

As I write this I am aware that Franklin Graham is soon to visit Sheffield to speak in Sheffield Arena, the adverts on buses and trams state there will be live music and a message of hope! I would like to change that to live music and a message of hate. Franklin Graham, son of the well known evangelist Billy Graham, has a message, he reads the same Bible that I do, but comes from a completely different angle, it confuses me that he can read of how Jesus included the excluded and preaches a message inviting people into a relationship with God that I do not recognise, a God that I do not recognise. He is Homophobic, Islamophobic, and racist, he preaches a morality that demands conformity to a strict moral code that leaves little room for love.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that discipleship should be laisser faire, that we can live how we like regardless, because the command to love means that I need to strive to include the excluded, that I try to see the world through the lens of love that celebrates diversity and seeks to bring love to the loveless. So I will speak out against this so called message of hope, and I will seek to pray for him, which means seeking to love him, and I am not going to say love the sinner hate the sin, because that has damaged too many people too many times over the years, it has been used against people as a demand that those people should change, and not from an immoral life style, but change the core of who they are, it has certainly been used against the LGBTQI+ community on many occasions. I love you, but I don’t love what you practice, can be translated, I love you but not who you are, which makes no sense at all!

The thing is if I look on the surface of his message there is much that I can agree with, I can’t condemn the help given by Samaritan’s purse to refugees in the Ukraine, but I can’t condone the fact that LGBTQI+ people were refused treatment in the Covid hospital in New York just because of who they were. According to Graham I belong in hell, I read scripture very differently to him, and he feels he needs to warn people against preachers like me:

There’s certainly nothing very forward thinking about progressive Christianity. It actually regresses into unbiblical thinking and living, and it will put a person’s very soul in eternal jeopardy.

Evangelicals need to guard the truth of genuine Scriptural preaching and living, remaining true and bold about exactly what the Bible clearly teaches. There is no other way to be saved and secured for all eternity.

So where does love come in? And how do I seek to love, is going to protest with a placard enough? I am going to say no, I wish there could be a place of deep dialogue, and am grateful that, there are those who seek to make space for that. I am proud to be part of the Methodist Church UK, who have worked together to allow Same Sex marriages in our churches, not every church or minister will agree with this, but the choice to put the love of God first. There are members and colleagues who disagree with me, but choosing the path of love and respect, of deep prayer and conferring we have reached a place where we agree to disagree in love, where we choose as it were to wash one another’s feet. Love does not mean agreement, and even a swift read through the book of Acts will show you that there have always been disagreements in the church. The way of Christ is love, and in the way of love, I would like to say that we are all little children, learners, which is what disciples are.

Finally I offer you some links to videos from the Methodist Church:

A discussion about what the Marriage and Relationships Task force was all about

I’m ready for change

A message for LGBT History Month

There are many more of course! So, to Franklin Graham, I think I would like to say, I will seek to love you, but I cannot agree with you and not only regarding who I am, but on the way we receive and read Scripture. I suspect we won’t ever have a discussion, but if we do, then I hope love wins!

I finish with this:

“I want us all to believe in inclusive church – a church which celebrates and affirms every person and does not discriminate, and will continue to challenge the church where it continues to discriminate against people on grounds of disability, economic power, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, learning disability, mental health, neurodiversity, or sexuality. I want us all to believe in a Church which welcomes and serves all people in the name of Jesus Christ; which is scripturally faithful; which seeks to proclaim the Gospel afresh for each generation; and which, in the power of the Holy Spirit, allows all people to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Jesus Christ.”

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Towards healing and wholeness….

I’ve had a very quiet week as far as my blog goes, having been quite unwell, what I thought was a stomach bug may be another gallbladder infection so I have some antibiotics and am beginning to feel better, thankfully. It has also been a week where I talked to my GP about my ongoing bout of depression, he has been absolutely amazing in taking time to listen and to hear what it is that I need, to be honest I wasn’t particularly sure at the beginning, I just knew I needed a break before I had a breakdown! Over the last few months I have spoken to a counsellor and alongside that been offered a CBT programme, and have got to know myself a bit more.

I reflect back to someone who once said to me ” sometimes I think you are hiding in plain sight” , at the time I brushed it off and thought it was extremely rude of them, now I think that maybe that was not so! What if I have been hiding in plain sight? Well if I am honest I know I have in some aspects, and today was a reminder of that, a beautiful photo popped up in my Facebook memories with the caption, “sometimes you just need to take time out!

Lovely isn’t it, and I did stop and take time out, boy did I need it. I know exactly where I had been that morning three years ago, I was on my way from The District Superintendents meeting to another meeting and needed to stop. Why? Because that was the day the God in Love Unites us papers had landed in our email boxes, and the first thing one of my colleagues said was, “oh my how are we going to deal with this issue?” That did it, although I hadn’t meant to, I came out right in that meeting, without thinking my response was ” I am not an issue”. There was silence in the room for a bit, unusual amongst a group of ministers. At that point I had been an outspoken supporter of the LGBTQI community, and supported the celebration of same sex marriages in church, but hadn’t openly allowed anyone other than one of two friends to know who I was. Suddenly in that room the mask fell off and I was no longer hiding.

From that point onward I decided to be open and honest with myself and others about who I was, I wrote to colleagues and got in touch with my children, I wanted to take control of my story, and to tell it in my way as and when I needed to, one of those places was going to be the church who I represent and serve. Over the last few months I have been coming to terms with some of the fall out from that. In February 2020 I wrote this:

Well this is my story, of course I have always known who I am, but in the late 70’s and early 80’s rural Essex was not a place to come out, friends who did suffered quite badly, and I was somewhat confused and mixed up in more ways than one, my sexuality was only a part of that. It did cause pain and heartache, and I did opt for some rather unhealthy coping mechanisms, some of which I am still struggling with, but with the help love and care of friends I am getting there.

Some of my story is tied up with a faith journey, and one in which being queer was not an option, and yes I choose to identify as queer, and no I don’t see it as an insult even if it once was. Conversations with my children are interesting these days, because they rightly reflect that my early faith journey, I was an adult convert, counted many things as unacceptable, and being LGBTQI+ was definitely one of them. So I hid from myself and others denying a huge part of my identity, and have suffered for it. Over the last 20 years my faith changed and matured and a whole swathe of narrow thinking has been stripped away from my life as I encountered the Jesus who calls us into fullness of life and continually pushed the boundaries and barriers of my narrow religion.

It was in a post entitled Coming out at 57, reflecting on some of the criticism that Philip Schofield had received, I think that what I wasn’t prepared for was the way that my being open would now affect me, with the mask dropped I was vulnerable, the shield, unhealthy in itself was gone, but while many, many people were accepting and understanding others weren’t, I had a couple of people unsure whether they should receive communion from me, relationships changed, suddenly I was walking on egg shells, and some of my friends were too, in fact it was more them than me, but I was still me, the same me they had known. Comments from friends came with an extra sting, relaxing on a beach one day one friend remarked that she didn’t want to see gay people kissing on T.V. , straight people kissing is fine, but there are too many gays…. what???? I think if we did a study the balance would be about right!

I am very grateful to my children who have been amazing, one even said “I’m not surprised mum!”, the others just treat me like mum, as do my grandchildren who are being brought up in a differently accepting way.

All of this of course happened on what turned out to be the edge of lockdown, of Covid-19 and what was for many including me a time of real isolation, suddenly chats and catch ups after meetings were gone, with the press of a button Zoom cut us off, there was no down time between meetings either, and catch ups with friends for a coffee went out the window. While I know that all of this affected everyone, in some senses it pushed me back, if not into the closet then into a place where new interactions and support became inaccessible. I threw myself into work and burned myself out, add to that the gallbladder issues exacerbated by Covid and I fell down a pit, right now I am beginning to emerge from it, but in doing so I am asking myself what that will look like, who am I now? And is who I am okay? Can I still fulfil my calling, and has my calling changed.

What I don’t want to do is slip a mask back on, put myself back into a space of stress, which almost always seeps through the cracks in some way, I nearly reached breaking point during peri-menopause, I can remember crying uncontrollably and raging, experiencing real grief, was part of it for an unlived life, the answer is yes, though I also wouldn’t want to say the life I lived was bad, it just wasn’t whole, and at that time I couldn’t tell anyone, or at least felt I had no-one to tell.

As I reflect I remember that Jesus question was so often; “what is it that you want me to do for you?” of “do you want to be healed?” Do I want to be healed, well yes I do from this depression, but not from who I am, I want to become whole and (w)-holy who I am, and I want to know that that me is good and worth celebration. When I say good, I don’t mean squeaky clean, but made in the divine image good, that is what I preach, and my deepest joy recently was to be able to bless the marriage of two amazing women, who are an inspiration. I am sure now about what I believe and can challenge the nay -sayers with confidence, but as I said on a Facebook group recently the trouble is that for many of the LGBTQI community is that we need to keep coming out over and over again, or decide to stay in hiding, both of which are costly and exhausting. It is getting better, and I know I have many friends who have been out and proud for much longer than me, some of whom were surprised when I opened the closet doors, and others who’d been confused by me initially! We live and grow, I pray that we will keep doing so, but there are sinister moves afoot, the potential overturning of women’s rights to abortion in the USA could be the start of a slippery slope, the Taliban’s removal of education for girls and the demand that women once again wear the niqab in Afghanistan, the way that Trans-people are victimised and vilified is unacceptable. I hope we won’t take two steps back again, that movements like Black lives Matter and others will continue to produce a kinder world, I guess we can only do that by moving forward. The picture of the reservoir brought back many memories, and took me further back still, but now I want to look forward, one step at a time, towards healing and wholeness.

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Easter 4: Sunday- Jesus the Good Shepherd- on hearing his voice…

My sheep know my voice, these words are recorded as the words of Jesus in John’s Gospel today, the Middle Eastern Shepherds didn’t work with dogs from behind the sheep as we see here in the UK, but led them, and called them, and the sheep knew the voice of their shepherd, this makes sense of Jesus words here and of Psalm 23, he leads me beside the still waters, and even through the valley of the shadow of death, going ahead, making a way. This is hardly new of radical information for many I am sure, but it does beg the question, do I know the voice of the Shepherd, and then, am I following that voice?

If only it were that simple, if the voice of Christ came to us loud and clear, uncomplicated by other calls and other distractions, it voices claiming to be speaking for The Voice, we not so contradictory and even at times downright nasty, excluding many for a myriad of reasons, writing new rules, laws and codes of behaviours that we are expected to adhere to, some are spoken and others are silent expectations that we may of may not pick up on.

How then do we hear the voice of Christ, the call that is safe and true. I must admit that I struggle with this, sometimes it comes as a certain inner knowing, and sometimes I think I completely miss it, I question myself, wouldn’t I be living better if I were really following, then I remember that the voice leads me even through the valley of the shadow of death, and knows my stumbling’s and fumbling’s along the way, the voice is the one who calls to me when I get stuck and lost and caught up in the thorns and brambles of life, who seeks me out even when I don’t want to be found.

Sometimes I find the voice within myself, something that is both of me and not of me at the same time, making the incarnation possible even in me! Somehow as the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins put it in his poem That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection

   In a flash, at a trumpet crash,

I am all at once what Christ is, | since he was what I am, and

This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, | patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,

                            Is immortal diamond.

Does the voice of the Good Shepherd call me, even me an immortal diamond, something so precious, and made for and of eternity? Well yes, how hard is that to take in? Maybe that’s why we don’t hear, because it is utterly overwhelming for us, and we think that this can’t possibly be possible! In Psalm 23 a table is laid, a banquet thrown, and we are invited to sit and eat, even in the presence of our enemies, which are often in my mind the voices within that shout loudly you are not worthy, and this can’t possibly be for you, you’re not good enough, and you know it! This is reflected by another poet, George Herbert this time, in his poem, “Love”

LOVE bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
            Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
    From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
            If I lack’d anything.

‘A guest,’ I answer’d, ‘worthy to be here:’
            Love said, ‘You shall be he.’
‘I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
            I cannot look on Thee.’
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
            ‘Who made the eyes but I?’

Truth, Lord; but I have marr’d them: let my shame
            Go where it doth deserve.’
‘And know you not,’ says Love, ‘Who bore the blame?’
            ‘My dear, then I will serve.’
‘You must sit down,’ says Love, ‘and taste my meat.’
            So I did sit and eat
.

The poet needed to be persuaded by love to sit and eat, to be served, to accept all that love is and not to shrink from it. I remember being told a story of a farm worker who would come into the village church on his lunch break and simply sit gazing at the cross and the stained glass windows. Finally curiosity got the better of the vicar and he asked the farm worker what he was doing, the answer is profound and simple. He smiled and said, “I look at him, and he looks at me, and we tell each other how much we love each other.”

We tell each other how much we love each other…. I wonder if like me you expect to hear the shepherd calling you not to dawdle, to hurry up, or to sight with frustration when I wander off distracted again? Maybe what we need more than anything is to attune ourselves to the voice of love, for it is love who calls our name, love that called us into being, and love that longs to hold, welcome and celebrate us. Love of course does not come barging in, but is singing a song of love, if only we might hear the eternal melody, woven through all creation, even within in you and me!

Come to my heart, O thou wonderful love,
come and abide,
lifting my life till it rises above
envy and falsehood and pride:
seeking to be
lowly and humble, a learner of thee.

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Easter 3- Wednesday- habits, walking and worship

How on earth is it possible that it is already halfway through the third week of Easter, , that is a very real question, because I have no idea where time is going, and I say that as someone with a lot of time on her hands at the moment, or so it seems. Maybe I am wasting time, I am certainly struggling with time and with inertia, and I reflect just how easy it is to allow habits to drop. A few weeks ago I was getting out to walk most days, but just recently I have hardly walked at all, and I know that that is not good for me. When I ask myself why I don’t have any satisfactory answers, I have the time and the means but have preferred to shut myself away which is not healthy.

Other habits are better, I make time to do my Qi-Gong exercises every morning, I make sure that I take my medication and vitamins, I try to and mostly achieve eating a healthy diet, though I have to fight a craving for certain junk foods. I am keeping up my devotional practice, other reading and journaling, but when I take a good look at that, those are all solitary habits, contained within the 4 walls I inhabit. The four walls give me safety, or a sense of safety anyway. I notice that I lock the front door when behind it, that is very unusual for me, when I look back I have always kept an open house, people have been welcome to just wander in, and they have, my homes have hardly ever been empty as this one is now, apart from myself and the cats. I find I need to summon up energy for social engagements, and while I do enjoy them, as I said yesterday, there comes a time when I need to retreat.

I know that I need to get back to walking, to enjoying that exercise and fresh air, and I know that it will be good for me, it will help me to sleep well, and that will also do me good. I need walking to be a consistent habit, to make time for it in my day, not only now when I have plenty of time to spare, but also in the future when I won’t have as much. When I am out walking I meet others doing the same, we often have a chat, and I enjoy that, I take photos, and share them, I notice the changing seasons, and am connected to the rhythm of the earth! You might realise, as I do, that I am trying to talk myself into getting out again!

I’ve been thinking a lot about habits recently, how easy it is to get into bad habits, and how easy it is to drop good habits, I want to ditch the former and build the latter, I guess that it is a matter of practice, but it is also about asking who I want to be, and how I want to be. Do I want to be physically and mentally well? Do I want to be spiritually aware and awake? Do I want to be one who brings out the God flavours and God colours in the world. If the answer is yes, then I need to take steps to make that happen, and those are all a part of caring for myself in order that I can care for others. Jesus knew this, he made time for prayer, and for silence, for listening and for working. Scripture tells us that he struggled with everything that we do, the urge to leave something aside, lethargy and inertia even, and yet calls us into a fullness of life by following his example.

Now, I am not saying that all I need to do is follow Jesus and my depression will be gone, anymore than I would tell someone with cancer to pray it away, and believe me I have had experience of people making suggestions like that about members of my family, the notion that God responds to our “correct” praying like some weird fairy God-mother is ridiculous and even dangerous as it brings with it so much guilt and shame!

What I am saying is that habits can help me, and I can build upon them, saying no to an extra half-hour in bed will give me more time, deciding that not bingeing on box sets of TV in the evening will give me more time as I will get to bed earlier, and while it’s okay to have a lie in, or to watch a box set now and then, it’s not a good daily habit. I have a choice, and I want to choose life! Maybe I need to simply see it all as worship. Writing to the Romans, Paul encouraged them ( even after admitting his struggles);

So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.

Romans 12: 1-2 The Message

That’s what I want, I want to be my best me, I want to embrace fullness of life, I want to overcome my inertia and to really live as well as I can, but obviously to do that I will keep talking to my GP, accept help, and keep taking the tablets!

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Easter 3- Tuesday- mental health, and looking for grace…

Listening to my devotional app today the which always starts with music, the first thing listeners were asked to do was notice how they are. How are you in your body, your heart, your mind? How strange is it to say I quite simply don’t know, I have moments of joy, I felt one just now as a goldfinch landed on a tree outside of my study window, I felt joyful on Sunday ( read my previous post) , but I also felt exhausted, and there came a point when I left the party because all of my people focused energy had gone, I needed to get home!

Some days I feel like an utter fraud, I am getting up, walking around, coping with life at a certain level, but even a day out exhausts me and I need to get home, so how am I in my body, mind and heart, to quote Pink Floyd, I think “I have become comfortably numb”, now part of that is down to the antidepressants I am taking, and I guess that at least I am not suffering from deep despair or anxiety attacks at the moment, but I also know that they are lurking just below the surface, and small things like a link to a meeting in my email box make me very aware of that. I am off work and swiftly deleted the email, I have deleted other emails too and, and in a conversation with my GP he quite simply said if you rush things you will be unwell again. Recovery is important, whether that is physical, mental, or spiritual health, and just knowing that a day out with family and a day taken out to lead a blessing for friends needs recovery tells me that I still need time.

I do still need time, and in some ways that scares me, would it scare me if I had broken a leg badly and needed extensive physio, probably not, would it scare me if I was told to take a number of weeks out to recover from and operation, well no, that is common sense. But, because this is mental health I am constantly questioning myself, I am afraid of being told I am faking it or skiving, afraid of those who don’t think mental health issues are real, I am almost afraid of going out to any events or doing things because it will be assumed that I am well when I am not well. I don’t want to go around wearing a badge or ringing a bell, and I certainly don’t want to draw attention to myself ( and yes I did just write that on a public forum), but I have at various times been told to pull myself together, or to have more faith. I have been told that I shouldn’t go out if I cannot go to work, but if I shut myself away completely and become a recluse I may never go out again.

So, I guess I am saying to those who question me, please bear with me, please celebrate with me when I am able to go out and do things, and please understand if I need to slip away before the end of a party. I guess I am saying to those who don’t understand, I am sorry, I really can’t let you any further into my head than I can by trying to explain things, and I guess I am saying to anyone who thinks otherwise that a mental health crisis is very real, because believe me I do not want to be where I currently am! I want to be well, I want o be able to fully engage with life again, I want to be able to laugh with you, and cry with you when you ask me.

I will keep on going one step at a time, I will look to live in the unforced rhythms of grace, and the breath of the Spirit. I am healing, I know that, my better days are getting better, but the down days still come too frequently at the moment for me to consider that I am well, but I keep on working at healing, walking, getting enough sleep, eating well ( mostly). All will be well, all will be well!

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” Matthew 11: 28-30

Chalk pastel- image mine
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Easter 3- Monday- freedom and inclusion

So, I didn’t blog yesterday because I was rather busy, not busy leading services, because I am still not at work, what I did however was lead a blessing for two amazing friends of mine.( For those that want to argue that I was working, this was arranged over a year ago, so I drew together all of my energy so as not to let them down.)

They had called it a big gay blessing, and thought it might be queerer than Brighton Pride! It was certainly a day filled with rainbows, joy and love. These two women have very different coming out stories, as so many of us do, and have found a real deep and committed love together, if shone from them and blessed all who were present, and those who joined in via livestream.

I felt so privileged to be a part of their journey, to be able to bless, pray and speak not only the couple, but apparently others present. In some senses if has reaffirmed my sense of calling after months of self doubt and questioning, maybe I needed to lead a big gay blessing!

I was blessed because I was able to be completely myself in a place where nobody condemned or questioned that, over the last few years for me coming out has brought many challenges, people seemed content with me as a divorcee, and my five children have always been a good cover story, not that I was constructing a cover story, being myself was something I both knew and didn’t know, and that is probably something that only makes sense to anyone who has been on a similar journey. People who come out never do so only once, every new situation needs assessing, is it safe to be me here? Is a question that comes up over and over again, just when you think that you have been really outspoken and brave something or someone comes along and you have to begin all over again, even in the most affirming of places.

When asked how it took me so long I can only say that life happened, and while rural Essex was not a particularly affirming space in the late 70’s, life happened, I was married for over 30 years, and at the beginning of that time, part of a church ( not Methodist) where not only was the thought of women in ministry questioned by some, but being LGBTQI, was a sin, even recent conversations with friends there make me uncomfortable enough not to be open with them, some know, others choose not to know.

These days, I can celebrate being a minister in a denomination where the celebration of same sex marriages is permissible, some churches and ministers have welcomed this and are looking forward to the joy of celebrating those marriages, others feel the opposite, and some are undecided. It can still be like treading on eggshells. When I have been asked where I stand I am honest and open, but have still met with comments like ” well it’s not really a wedding is it” or of course “it’s not proper marriage”, to which I have two answers, yes it is, and yes it is!

So, yesterday was wonderful, a huge celebration with people who had gathered to celebrate, but the journey of this couple has not been easy, they have faced criticism, rejection and more, they found me through a mutual friend as they wanted a blessing and to make promises before God, it was a blessing because their marriage took place last year, but to all intents and purposes yesterday was a celebration of that at last, open and wonderful, people had travelled miles to be there and to celebrate, and I mean miles! There was something very special about it, as there is with every wedding and blessing, with an added level of we can be open at last! And, long may it last.

Why do I say long may it last, well quite simply because criticism and persecution hasn’t gone away, younger generations are much more open and affirming, but a backlash can come unexpectedly from what is seemingly nowhere. So blessing and affirming, welcoming and celebrating are so necessary. The passages chosen for yesterday were challenging, they were: Hebrews 12: 1-3 and Romans 12: 1-18, we’d talked about the choice of these and they certainly weren’t my suggestion, but were special to the couple. Both passages talked about sin, and it gave me the opportunity to define sin, and anything that separates us from the love of God, and that sometimes being sinned against can have that effect, we feel separate because we are condemned by those who should include rather than exclude. I was also able to apologise for the churches terrible treatment of the LGBTQI community and say something about power. I wasn’t a long message, but it clearly had an impact from all of the wonderful conversations I had after the blessing. One man said I’ve just texted my friends what you said, I can’t believe you said it, thank you.

I didn’t need thanks, it was so good to be able to speak so freely! I will finish with the final blessing of the day, after the amazing, WE WILL, had erupted from all gathered to support them.

The love of  God bind you together with cords that cannot be broken.

The love of  God nurture you as you learn to love each other more and more.

The love of  God challenge you to become people who live fully in love.

 The love of  God watch over you and protect you from all that is evil.

The love of God bless you as you journey on together, now and in all eternity.

The God whose Spirit fills our hearts with love, joy and peace, be with you, those you love, and those you pray for, this day and forever; and the blessing of God almighty, the Creator, the Son and the Holy Spirit, be with you and remain with you all. Amen.

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Easter 2- Saturday- on seeking contentment

Yesterday I treated myself to a hair cut, and as always had an amazing chat with my stylist K, he always tells me what he has been doing, and almost always the conversation turns to spirituality, yesterday he wanted to know the difference between faith and religion, I wasn’t going to argue semantics with him, I knew what he meant, it did make me smile that one example he shared with me was that of a member of an older generation in his family was raised by mean Methodists, that led to subsequent being turned away from the church. I do hope I am not a mean Methodist, but I must admit I think I know what he is talking about. I speak to many older members who talk of the strictness and expectations heaped upon them, and I’ve read enough class notes from different times to know that Methodists could be mean in their demands and expectations.

To be fair, I’ve also talked to lots of people whose social lives were centered around church, with sports clubs and dances all being thrown into the mix, of trips away and fun times had. There is always a balance to be found. As K and I chatted, he spoke of wanting an experience, of some form of proof that God is real, and that faith isn’t all pie in the sky, we talked about values and why we seem to need certainty, and whether mystery is a good thing. Did we get anywhere, well I know there are more questions, and I can’t really promise answers, but maybe signposts along the way that make spirituality and faith possible by welcoming mystery over certainty!

I met a few other people while I was out too, and was reminded by one that mean Methodists are still alive and well among us, and by another that life is so much more than what our culture calls success, big house nice car etc, for him contentment is enough, that and celebrating love in his family, as someone who has been through a lot he has some real wisdom to share, but that is his story to tell not mine.

It got me pondering my own story, a bit earlier I had been to collect a prescription, and was reminded how quickly life is moving when I went to pay for it when I was told that I no longer pay for prescriptions being over 60! I pondered that this morning, this weekend I have received photos of my two grandsons, and a video of my granddaughter in her dance show! I sometimes scratch my head to figure out how that has all happened as it doesn’t seem long ago that I was taking my children to a picnic on the beach, or wondering just how many teenagers my son could fit into his box room bedroom, quite a few it turns out!

Perhaps we all do it, we question whether we have lived life well, and wonder again and again what living well looks like, these days my life is very different to the bustle of earlier days, and I must admit I think at times I wished those days away too quickly without living in the moment and enjoying them to the full, I wonder to what fullness looks like for me now, how do I live well, of course if I am to follow Jesus then my answer will probably be counter-cultural, in fact I want it to be counter-cultural, I want to continue to learn and grow, I long for something deeper and more meaningful, I am probably looking in many ways for the same thing K (my stylist) is looking for, how wonderful that he can voice that in his mid-twenties, I think I was just caught in a headlong rush!

Headlong rush often seems to be the way of things, but now, with my free prescriptions I have the possibility of slowing down a bit and looking around, can I find the contentment of my wise friend, contentment in the small things, in family time, in a walk in the countryside or on the beach, can I be truly grateful for all that I have, and can I be generous with my life. Can I be one who brings out the God-colours and God-flavours of this world, one who isn’t beset by worries.

I am aware how idyllic those questions sound, especially when our news is full of stories of war, of lives lost, stories of those who have become lost somehow, of politicians, lies and corruption, being able to live with contentment seems to be stacked against us, and yet I hold out hope that it is possible, as I have written before this week, I think it is about our focus. As I prepare to lead a wedding blessing for 2 friends tomorrow, who are calling the event the “Big Gay blessing” I am reminded of that by one of their chosen readings, and so I simply leave you with that!

So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.

Romans 12: 1-2 The Message

Time to stop and stare- photo mine
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Easter 2- Thursday- looking for focus

Today, I want to pick up on some of the thinking that I shared yesterday, and I will begin with the discussion point proposed by my friend and colleague Ian:

If we seek God more, we might worry less about how we keep churches going… and maybe we just need to stop and rejoice in what God is doing with us rather than the things we needn’t do – discuss!

Maybe we just need to stop and rejoice in what God is doing with us; I must admit that is sticking with me as I continue in my wonderings. My response to Ian’s Facebook post was this; ” we need to remember that the church isn’t God!” My thinking behind that is simple, so often church becomes the driving force, and its reason for being can so easily slip into self perpetuating survival, and somehow the story is lost. When I speak of the story I mean the amazing metanarrative that leads us from creation to re-creation, the creator whose amazing imagination and power spoke the world into being, and sustains it in all of its glory and horror, and will in the end somehow bring ultimate wonder out of all those things to a place where there are no more tears or sickness or pain.

This creator has spoken through the ages in so many ways, through creation itself, from the wonders of a tiny flower to a sweeping vista that takes your breath away. Through prophets and wise people , poetry and music, science and innovation, and so much more, then as the Christian story tells it, through the person of Jesus the Christ, who challenged the religious elite, included those who were so often excluded and calls us through the ages to follow his example, the story of his birth life, crucifixion and resurrection have survived through the centuries and mysteriously have such power that those who put their trust in the story can point to lives that have been changed. I can say that because I am one of them.

As I wrote a few days ago I struggled as a child and teenager, and still do struggle with issues of self-worth, these issues have led to various mental-health struggles, and repeated questionings, and yet in the story of the divine I find myself held, and I find a sense of worth that prevents depression from swallowing me up completely. Some of my deepest prayer comes from a very low place and has to do with trusting in God, and what God is doing in me. This challenges me because if I can pray from the pit of despair why is it more difficult to pray when I am apparently living life to the full. Maybe the answer is that I am not living life to the full. Maybe what I need is that radical trust in the God, who has shown me in the person of Jesus that I too am included in the great metanarrative, and that I have nothing to prove, maybe it is there that I will find the thing I do well, and be able to offer that as an act of worship without fear.

So much of what we do as church is about performance, about doing and saying and believing the right thing, I’m sure that many of us will have heard someone exclaim “and they call themselves a Christian!”, which is definitely a criticism of something someone has done or not done. Christians and the church are often depicted as being out of touch, eccentric or holier than thou, and yet for many reasons the story of Jesus continues to attract and inspire many. Gandhi is quoted as saying:

“I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

Being a Christian comes with many expectations and sometimes church communities can be really difficult, even toxic, but I don’t believe that we should give up on them because they can also be great sources of encouragement, help and comfort and together work for social justice, for peace, and for the flourishing not only of humanity but of all creation, there are many examples of this around the world, in large and small ways.

I guess where I am going then is where our focus is, if it is on God, and what God is calling us to, then we begin with purpose and are less likely to be hypocrites or to be burnt out, if we look to the life of Jesus we will see that while he was sometimes exhausted, that even being Spirit-filled and in deep communion with the creator, he didn’t do everything and was okay with that. He did give everything ultimately on the cross, but received it back, breathing new life into his disciples, a grace that is there for us today.

My low points bring me down to one focused centre, to the one who holds me, loves me and knows me through and through, who calls me beloved and worthy, who promises me a hope and a future. I need that focused centre, and so easily loose it amongst demands and busyness. In 2015, to celebrate their eightieth birthdays the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu share some wonderful conversations on joy, Neither of these men have had easy lives. Both have dealt with tremendous adversity and yet, through is all, are contagiously happy, they are held by their faith, and by the way they live out compassion and forgiveness. For Tutu that faith is firmly set in the Christian story. You can watch some of their conversations here.

Focus then is where I need to start, to live from that one focused centre, to find my joy and purpose in my relationship with God. Simple maybe, but in all of the distractions and demands of daily life not always easy! So I bring myeslf to one of the readings from the Methodist Covenant Service, and leave it there for today:

So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you. (Romans 12: 1-2)

Painting- Centred- Acrylic on canvas- mine.
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