I was listening to an interview this morning, the subject was grief and loss, the thesis was that we will always bear scars from great losses in our lives, and we have two choices, we can either try to deny and avoid them, or we can bear them openly, knowing that their impact will change over time, but in truth they will always be with us. I have a caesarean scar from the birth of one of my twins, yes just one… that’s not the way to do it! My son Chris has scars from numerous heart surgeries, one of his brothers quite likes breaking himself and has scars and a metal plate in his foot! These are of course physical scars, but mental, emotional and spiritual scars are no less real.
A painting of mine that continues to have a great impact upon people is entitled “Even the resurrection bears scars” reminding us that the risen Christ bears the scars of crucifixion, and while outwardly physical, they must also be mental, emotional and spiritual, how could such suffering be anything but all encompassing?
The painting on a gold background is scattered with crushed rose petals and and flecked with ash the canvas is slashed into, my hope is to show beauty and glory in brokenness, I believe that this is what the resurrected Jesus brings to us, beauty in brokenness and possibilities of resurrection no matter how scarred we are. The song “Little things with great love” contains the following lines:
In the kingdom of the heavens, no suffering is unknown,
each tear that falls is holy, each heart a breaking throne,
there is a song of beauty, on every weeping eye,
for there is one who loves me, His heart it breaks with mine.”
His heart, God’s heart breaks with mine, the divine is not immune to my suffering, and suffers it with me, and obviously not only me, but with every sufferer, any who suffers in any way. The cross shows this so powerfully, Jesus somehow absorbing into himself all the suffering of the world, this is not punishment, this is compassion and empathy beyond anything we can possibly imagine. This compassion extends to the victims and perpetrators of atrocities, a topic that can be so hard to swallow, and yet grace and mercy extend to all, and in all circumstances. If somehow Christ can absorb all the horror and pain of creation into himself on the cross, a work which of course is ongoing, then that must be done in connection with both the Spirit of creation and the creator, intimately connected pouring themselves out in love. Their hearts they break with mine, with yours, with ours. We often see things in terms of right or wrong, drawing lines, erecting barriers, and of course the scars being carried and created in Ukraine at this time need us to stand up and fight for their freedom in any way we can, but in the end there will be scars on both sides, losses on both sides, and they are met by the divine with deep love and deep pain.
To take that in, and to receive the depth and immensity of it will take more than my lifetime can ever achieve, but I am trying to, partly because it helps me to bear my own scars, and partly because it helps me to be compassionate towards others where I previously may not have been. There was a time when I looked upon the cross as a place of punishment, a place where God punished his son for my sins, I was taught this and accepted it though it sat very uncomfortably, there seemed no compassion in it, no room for growth in a life filled with mustn’t and shouldn’t, and fear of breaking some unknown code or rule, and I was full of shame, shame is such a debilitating force. In this worldview scars were not to be seen, they were to be covered up, and not spoken of.
In a conversation yesterday a friend counselled me to move on, to put the past behind me and to get on with life, the thing is I have tried that before and it simply doesn’t work, well not for long anyway, the cracks begin to show and the scars remind me that I am wounded, and no amount of denying them keeps them quiet. So I have decided that I will bear my scars, I will not move on and pretend that I have not had a huge mental health crisis, I will not move on and pretend that I am feeling confident and competent, I will bear my scars honestly and openly, not dwelling upon them, not denying them either.
I suspect that all of us are on a healing journey of some sort, whether that be physically, emotionally, mentally or spiritually, whether the scars we bear are deep or not, woundedness is a part of our condition, and that takes a certain humility to own. Some healing takes a lifetime, and requires us to need the help of others, I suspect most of us we need safe others with whom we can entrust our story, or parts of our story, there is a reason why Jesus took his sleepy friends into Gethsemane with him!
Our scars speak of a life lived, and can be beautiful in their own way, sometimes we need to be broken, or accept that something is broken in order to become free, sometimes things happen that are beyond our control and sometimes those things are unspeakable, I am not denying that, trauma is very real for many. This I believe is where the Christian story holds out hope, because it reveals to us the broken heart of creator, the broken body of Jesus, with its associated scars, and the compassion of the Holy Spirit, who even in situations of death, sorrow, despair, and hopelessness, can move us and create a space of joy to be alive. If She can bring back to life what was dead, what more can the Spirit do for us?!
I am back at work, I spent yesterday looking at my somewhat empty diary, and then sorting out some emails, and setting priorities, I am not back full time, I think that would be too much at the moment, but on a phased return. , and if I am honest I am feeling somewhat wobbly. My confidence has taken quite a knock over the last couple of years, and maybe more particularly over the last four months. I have questioned myself and my vocation, I have even questioned the substance of my faith. Maybe there are, or even should be times when we all need to ask ourselves what we believe, and we all experience changes and challenges to our faith!
I was signed off from work with stress related depression, I have not been shy in sharing that, I am not ashamed of it, nor do I believe it is something we shouldn’t talk about, being back at work does not mean that I am no longer depressed, nor that I have stopped taking meditation. I am still depressed, but it is not overwhelmingly debilitating, I am getting up and functioning, and am probably better now doing something, rather than doing nothing.
That said, as I write this I know that I am wobbly, I was called this morning by the worship contact of the church I am preaching at on Sunday, as I put the phone down the first thing I asked myself, was, goodness can I preach? Can I deal with leading an entire service, will I be okay? Previous experience has taught me that it is a little like riding a bike, I may not have ridden one for years, but I haven’t forgotten how, and anyway, through prayer, and through faith, and leaning on the wisdom of the Holy Spirit come into it all, this of course is not about me.
This of course is where faith comes in, it is something deeper than mere belief, but the living out of a relationship with God. In his devotional today Richard Rohr says:
On one level, soul, consciousness, love, and the Holy Spirit can all be thought of as one and the same. Each of these point to something that is larger than the self, shared with God, and even eternal. That’s what Jesus means when he speaks of “giving” us the Spirit or sharing his consciousness with us. One whose soul is thus awakened actually has “the mind of Christ” (see 1 Corinthians 2:10–16). That does not mean the person is psychologically or morally perfect, but such a transformed person does see things in a much more expanded and compassionate way. St. Paul calls it “a spiritual revolution of the mind” (Ephesians 4:23, Jerusalem Bible)—and it is!
A spiritual revolution of the mind, I like that, the ability to step away from what Rohr calls “stinking thinking”, the voices inside my head that tell me I am a failure and a mess and incapable etc, etc, believe me the list goes on! I need a spiritual revolution of my mind, and I cannot make that happen myself, in order to go there I need to rely upon someone who is immensely more than I am in every way, and yet who by some miracle of grace and mystery dwells within me. That someone is the Holy Spirit, the advocate Jesus speaks of, the one who is for me when I am against me! Rohr calls this Spirit and Immensity:
You must contact this Immensity! You must look back at what seems like your life from the place of this Immensity. You must know that this Immensity is already within you. The only thing separating you from such Immensity is your unwillingness to trust such an utterly free grace, such a completely unmerited gift.
Of course we are not talking about alien contact here, but rather an openness to all of the possibilities of God, allowing the divine life to flow to and through me. So I am wobbly, but I am held by one who is far greater than I, and for that I am thankful.
This morning after a long weekend of celebrations in the UK, celebrating the 70 year long reign of Her Majesty the Queen, we wake to the news that there will be a confidence vote taken, as 54 or more letters of no confidence have been lodged by Tory MP’s, goodness what a turn around, bringing us crashing back to earth. It isn’t really unexpected, there has been dis-ease stirring in the nation, and in the Tory Party surrounding the Party-gate allegations, and the fact that the Prime minister broke his own Covid lock down rules!
But, I am not really writing about politics, but about our humanity, following a weekend of celebration we are back to work, back to school, and back to life as normal, whatever normal is! Maybe that is the question we need to be asking, what is normal, and how should we be in these days, I wonder if those questions were being discussed among the new believers as they gathered to listen to the teaching of the apostles, and in many cases to live differently following their baptisms?
We are told that they held all things in common, the rich sold good to support the poor, they shared food, and ate with glad and generous hearts, in a country where food bank use is on the rise and fuel poverty is a real problem for many, it is into this that normal living resumes, and I wonder how many simply ignored the weekend with its flag waving and displays of trestle tables filled with food and went to bed hungry? How does their plight challenge those of us who claim to be followers of Jesus these days? Of course I see many churches engaging in community action, running food banks, making collections for the Ukraine, people offering hospitality to families etc, but the challenge is deeper for it calls us to see that all have value, and that God’s image resides in everyone.
I wonder if it was only at Pentecost that Peter and the rest of the gathered followers in that upper room truly knew who they were as the Spirit of truth filled them with all truth, and they began the journey to incarnational mission the mission they had previously only seen in Jesus. From the day of Pentecost healings were seen, lives were changed, and the followers of Jesus were changed! They were also challenged, imprisonment, beatings, and even martyrdoms met them, Stephen was the first, he was stoned, Stephen who was leading the team who shared the goods among the poor. I suspect we won’t expect stoning, but we can expect criticism from those who want to be the church to be a nice place to come to, I have had many conversations about keeping the riff-raff out, and maintaining a nice place etc, etc, and have even been accused of reaching the wrong sort of people, my response was to invite them for dinner, the wrong people that is!
The church is very human, we know it isn’t a building, but rather a group of people trying to be as Jesus was in the world, we stumble and fall and fail so often, we make up rules for ourselves and for others, and of course as we read further into the book of Acts we begin to see fights break out, from minor disagreements to the parting of ways among the apostles and the groups following them. Church history is no different, it is littered with inglorious acts and woeful pronunciations, and yet always as a golden thread running through it we somehow catch glimpses of Jesus at work, of the Spirit stirring, we catch glimpses of hope in our own lives.
I believe that this is the incarnational work of God among us, drawing us, stumbling and falling though we may be, into the eternal dance of life, to be and to become those who share the God colours and God flavours with the world around us, to move in the unforced rhythms of grace, to lean into them, with God there is no normal, no ordinary, nobody and nothing is excluded for all burst with potential and possibility, even though it may be deeply buried in some places.
We live as Jesus lived in a world that is far from perfect, in a world that needs to see a different way, I am struck that God in Jesus chose to as John’s Gospel in the Message Version puts it ” move into the neighbourhood”, to be touchable flesh and blood, with needs and wants and desires, understanding our human condition, and yet John goes on to say, and we have seen his glory….
Just ponder this passage:
The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighbourhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son, Generous inside and out, true from start to finish.
That is exactly what the Spirit wants to enable in us, for us to be signs of God in our neighbourhoods, showing and sharing the glory of God, each expression and situation unique, tangible and touchable. We often want to be more, we pray and sing songs that ask God to come down and to fill the earth and miss the fact that they are already here, alongside us and within us, longing for us to catch up with that truth! You and I are channels through which God longs to pour their grace, we are called to walk with them, and work with them to bring about the renewing of the earth and all creation. To bring show the kingdom emerging in and through our lives….
On the day after Pentecost everything hand changed, we are called to be agents of that change!
It’s Pentecost Sunday, and here in the UK celebrations continue for the Her Majesty The Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, it makes a strange mix, many churches trying to combine the two with varying degrees of success. Some ignoring one and elevating the other, as I sit writing this looking out of my window onto a cold grey day, the rain running down the panes, and both cats having tucked themselves under my duvet even though I have made the bed, they found a way in! Friends are posting photos of jubilee trifles they have made, some resplendent with chocolate shard crowns, others more simple affairs, while other friends are asking questions of the Paddington Bear video, will he be being sent to Rwanda? As with many things Christians and others find themselves holding different views and this Jubilee weekend, maybe it is truly fitting that it falls on Pentecost.
On the day of Pentecost, as recorded in the Book of Acts, we find the disciples waiting, watching and praying, just as Jesus had instructed them to do, they have stayed in Jerusalem, again as instructed, drawing together being prepared. I wonder what those 10 days of prayer and waiting were like for them, still reeling from the astonishing resurrection of Jesus following his crucifixion, death has been overcome and they have seen it, then memories of him being taken up into the heavens before their eyes, they gather, waiting, what on earth can come next? Three extraordinary years of following Jesus of seeing the impossible made possible, of having their assumptions and expectations turned upside down they wait.
Then we are told a wind blows through the room where they are gathered, and a great flame separates itself into tongues of fire , these hove above the disciples heads, and yet they are not burned, instead, filled with a fresh power they tumble from the room and begin to speak and preach in languages they are suddenly able to speak, and the cosmopolitan crowd gathered in Jerusalem for the Passover is able to understand them, all of them hearing the Good News shared in their own languages. We aren’t told how many languages were shared that day, I like to think they weren’t confined to the twelve, that the Spirit was more inclusive than that, maybe the Mary’s, Martha, Suzannah, and Lazarus were among the throng crying out God’s message!
We aren’t told how many languages were spoken, just that the crowd understood, and that the message was spoken to them in languages they understand, they are of course astonished. It would, as many commentators have suggested, been very different if instead of multiple tongues being shared, if suddenly the crowd all spoke the same language, and that only one expression of the Good News was necessary, but that is not how God chose to work, it echoes the glorious diversity of creation, with the wonderful poem declaring each part to be good. All who were gathered were included for who they were, a homogeneous whole was not created, rather a diverse coming together, they were one in hearing, joined in hearing, but diverse in expression.
As Peter rises to preach, I guess we have to assume that somehow the crowd were enabled to understand, I wonder what they heard? Maybe they were visited with a sort of divine babel fish enabling them to miraculously understand! As I ponder the story this morning I think it is all about unity in diversity, something that humankind struggles with on an ongoing basis, be it differences in faith, values, morality, justice political affiliation and more, and of course all of these differences are apparent in the church as well as the wider culture.
The message of Pentecost then is perhaps more important than ever, as the Spirit comes she sweeps into a room of pretty inconsequential people by the standards of the day, they didn’t hold important jobs or roles in the grand scheme of things, though I wouldn’t call them ignorant as some do, the fishermen were most likely business men, and certainly some of the gathered women had means and the desire to support the group. It is though to these, and not to the religious elite that the Spirit comes, it is this group that spills out into the streets of Jerusalem, and this group that draws a crowd, and quite a crowd, as three thousand of them responded to the message and were baptised. Interestingly we don’t really hear much about many of those three thousand again, but we can surmise that they carried the message they heard home with them and that many communities were perhaps challenged and changed by the changed people who returned from Jerusalem. They had changed, but that wasn’t the end to it, a life of faith is not static, we grow and change in it and with it, life takes us down unexpected pathways sometimes, some easy, others difficult, what remains is the presence of God, the divine creator, who longs to hold, guide and sustain us, showing themselves in multifaceted and creative ways as each follower needs to receive them. As Archbishop Stephen Cottrell said in his Jubilee Sermon;
“….there are many occasions in the gospels where we see Jesus himself, faithful to his vocation, seeking out places of replenishing so that he can learn God’s way.
‘I only do what I see the Father doing’, says Jesus (see John 5. 19).
‘He is close to God’s heart’, says St John (see John 1.18).
Sometimes I wonder whether the whole Christian faith is best understood as an invitation to dwell there ourselves. “
Sometimes I wonder whether the whole Christian faith is best understood as an invitation to dwell there ourselves. An invitation to be close to the heart of the divine, the divine who knows us through and through and loves us, the divine who understands our quirks and our idiosyncrasies, who know when we sit and when we rise and can discern our thoughts from afar. Perhaps most especially our doubts and the thoughts that plagues us with a sense of guilt, shame and inadequacy, and through it all invites us to come, to follow.
When the Spirit came at Pentecost, an invitation was made, a divine hand held out to us, to welcome us into their lives, Creator, Spirit, and Jesus the Son, inviting us into a life of mutuality, love, and service, giving and receiving, allowing life and love to flow from one to another, in all of the wonder and diversity that the creation contains.
As we in the UK celebrate, or don’t celebrate the Platinum Jubilee of Her Majesty the Queen, we are reminded of our diversity, and of past glories and mistakes, we should not aim to gloss over one and elevate the other, goodness, mercy and justice demand that we own our whole selves, and together and personally it is only our whole selves that we can offer to God, and to one another; I am not advocating we wash our dirty laundry in public, rather that there be a sense of real integrity in our offering. I rather suspect that Jesus would be among the crowds, enjoying the party, but always with an eye to lift the bruised and the broken, the trampled and the neglected. We must not forget that the purpose of Jubilee in the Old Testament, was all about, rest, restoration and restitution, a release from debt, a time of atonement.
We are invited to share in the divine life, when we are weary Jesus calls us to himself, to allow him to take the burden and to rest in the unforced rhythms of grace, when we are rested, we are reminded that we are here to bring out the God colours and God flavours of this world, we are show unique colours and contain unique flavours, yet all flow from the love, mercy, grace and inclusive justice that characterise the living God. They are not an angry man on a throne who is distant, rather they are present within each one of us, calling out our gifts, and graces, calling us to love and to serve.
I finish with a prayer:
Spirit of Pentecost, bringer of unique diverse gifts unite us by the power of your love. Not that we might become the same, but that we might share in your ever expansive vision; all included. Let mercy and justice flow.
This morning I changed my photo on Facebook and Twitter, marking the beginning of pride month, it is a happy photo, I am tanned and fit and wearing a rainbow collar. It was taken 3 years ago. A lot has changed. We have all been through a pandemic, and it is rumbling on, the world has changed, as JRR Tolkien wrote in The Fellowship of the ring;
The world is changed. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air. Much that once was is lost, for none now live who remember it.
The world is changed, I guess the world is always changing, the words written Tolkien are spoken by Galadriel who is expressing a deep longing, I suspect it is a longing that lives somewhere deep within every human heart and soul as we try to make our way through the world we live in, yet with a hunger for something more something deeper. We all express that hunger in different ways, when I look back at my life I have expressed that hunger by a deep desire to fit in, and that has lead to me being a people pleaser who lives with letting people down, because you can’t please everyone, and to trying to soothe the ache, its amazing what a hole food, stuff and other unhealthy substitutes will fill in, though it never lasts!
Others have tried to create a world in their own image, leading to holocausts and genocides, and we see the other-isisng and demonising of those who we declare unacceptable in some way shape or form. This of course has led to campaigns for equality, from the anti- apartheid movement in South Africa, to the Black-Lives Matter demonstrations and movement of recent days, from campaigners and activists like Martin Luther King, Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, Bishop Desmond Tutu, and the Dali Lama, to Gretta Thunberg, Malala Yousef and more, I am sure we could write a substantial list as we go on, going back to the anti-slavery campaigners, to those who fight for women’s rights, such as the Suffragettes to people like Jayne Ozanne who has campaigned tirelessly for the rights of the LGBTQIA+ community in the church, and groups like Stonewall, One Body One Faith, and Dignity and worth. Almost everywhere we look there are those who will campaign for fair treatment for the young, the old, the disabled, for those with learning disabilities, mental health challenges, groups who work to alleviate poverty and more.
This week the Methodist Church has been shading #MyJusticeJourney on Twitter, and there have been so many tweets, and so many inspiring stories to follow! So many in fact that one or two have posted comments like this: so many inspiring stories. Also now struggling with paralysis from feeling I should do something about everything. I know, I do know, that I have to make choices and accept that I can only make a small contribution. Just needed to say it.
We can of course only make the contributions we can make, and it never feels like enough, we talk about drops in the ocean, as if our one, two or three drops will never be sufficient, and it takes a lot to change that feeling! It can even be annoying to be told that without our one drop the ocean would be depleted, especially when we look at what seem like enormous contributions from others. My drops over the last few years have been to fight for justice for the poor, vulnerable and homeless, to speak up where I can, at one time it led me into a meeting with Iain Duncan Smith, when he was the Secretary of State for Works and Pensions. I think I was the only non-Tory voter in the room, I did what I could. It was a drop! I have also been a supporter of the LGBTQIA community, but my own work circumstances have made that very difficult at times, I found myself working in a homophobic team which was actually quite threatening. I was also on a journey of self discovery, even in my mid 50’s!
I guess we are all on a journey of self-discovery in one way or another! So this quote really resonated with me:
I think I might even edit it to say the most Godly thing that anyone can do is to love themselves enough to believe that they can be loved by God and by others. I think that is where the power of shame comes in. When you have spent what feels like a lifetime fitting in and trying to please people, I think this is something many women struggle with, others also, but there I have said it, for many of us were brought up to smile, to acquiesce, to smooth things over, to agree even if it cuts against the grain and to become separated from our true selves. I know many who share this journey!
I wonder if my bravest step in my justice journey recently was to own and even begin the journey of loving myself, and to believe that God could love even me. I have had years of shame and hiding to sift through, not only because of my sexuality, but for many other things, being too tall, being too opinionated, muddling love and sex for one another, hiding behind piles of books, breaking promises I deeply wanted to keep but couldn’t because I was over stretched. There have been lost dreams and broken relationships, none were intended but they are there, and deep under all of that is a small girl who only wants to be loved and accepted. I guess that is where my deep longing lies, denying it has led to self-denial and depression, and when I say denying “it” I am not talking about sexuality, but about acceptability, I am sure there is a lot in my background that has led to this, frequent moves, divorced parents, my own divorce and more, but what I am not looking to do is to play a blame game. I am where I am, and who I am, I am both the little girl longing for love, and the grown woman who is finally coming to accept herself, 60 years later.
To do justice and love mercy, I need to love myself, in loving myself I begin to rediscover that call within for the things that have been lost, to hear God call me good, to accept that I am fearfully and wonderfully made, the little girl longing for who knows what, the tall teenager who was obsessed with being overweight but never was, the lost teenager who tried to find love in sex and was confused by it, the too young single mum, who then struggled through marriage and life never feeling good enough, always hiding something, all of those are fearfully and wonderfully made. Why oh why has it taken me 60 years to begin to become comfortable with myself , and I am only beginning!
I wonder if this journey is a journey we all need to make to a greater of lesser extent, we need to to push past the fears that tell us we are not enough, not good enough and inappropriate, we need to to break down the barriers that separate us from accepting ourselves and therefore accepting we are loved by anyone, let alone God! For nothing, not the colour of our skin, who we love, what language we speak, how much we have in our bank account, what gender we are, whether we are fit or unfit, tall, short, fat skinny… nothing can separate us from God’s love, what does is a false construct, societal and cultural pressures, our own deeply ingrained inner monologue that keeps us awake at night.
I wonder too where we might find the peace of Christ within, the peace that is deeper than anything we can find anywhere elsewhere when we begin the journey of loving ourselves, and therefore be freed to truly work for justice in a deep and meaningful way, even if it is only one drop!
Today’s Gospel reading is a part of Jesus prayer found in John 17, where he prays that we might be one with him and the creator ( Father, Mother…), so that the interwoven relationship of Creator, Son and Spirit might be extended to flow into our lives and through our lives like a beautiful and ever expanding eternal dance. A poem I wrote a while ago contains these lines as I tried to express the mystery of this yearning and invitation I hear in Jesus prayer:
“Do you yearn
to join the joyful
encircled in their midst?
For you are invited
to this heavenly
Will you dare to take
the outstretched hand,
kick off your shoes
Do I yearn to join the joyful throng? Well I long for a joyful throng to join, and I do catch glimpses of it sometimes, but there are so many things that prevent the body of Christ from being the body of Christ Jesus is longing for here. That we might be one as “they” God is one, in an ever giving and ever receiving relationship of mutual appreciation, service and love, that people would be drawn to the love of God by the evidence of love flowing from the people of God, both in praise for their maker, , reveal-er, and sustainer while a wonderful image is sadly very far from the image that I see in the church. Of course as I have said, we do catch glimpses of it, sometimes in the most unlikely places.
I have been ministered to by a homeless community who clubbed together to allow one of their member a former baker to make me the most beautiful birthday cake! I didn’t ask where the ingredients came from, the expression of love was enough. So often it is the poorest in our communities who are the most generous, offering their widows mite, over and over again, joy in a simple shared meal, or in swapping a few cans of food, in gardening together for mental health and to provide fresh food which is usually scarce. I have seen joy as groups learn to live together where formerly there may have been conflict, in ministry to and by refugees, and more. I know the joy of finding the face of Christ in unexpected places, and in a young boy at his sisters baptism who decided to bless me with the baptismal water, and in watching a young man with learning difficulties and a former detective inspector serve one another at the communion table.
I am sure that many reading this could add to the list, and so can I, but I can also point to scars inflicted upon one another by false expectations and by assumptions, and also by entrenched bad teaching that has taken root and twisted the Gospel into a distorted version of itself. A friend asked the question today about whether of not we can disagree well, the subject was about same-sex relationships and whether same-sex marriage might be possible in the Anglican Church, and while it could have been about other things, such as economic policies, politics on all kinds of levels, climate change and more, I think I would say that when the church fails to agree to love, and instead other-ises its’ own people then we have a problem.
That we might show love and be one is what Jesus is praying for, when the colour of our skin, the way we dress, our other abilities, be they physical or mental, our age, be that young or old, our sexuality and or gender is what is rejected then we have a problem. How many young families have been tutted at and felt uncomfortable in church because their children are a bit noisy? How many people have been made to feel uncomfortable because they simply don’t have a Sunday best to wear, or their choice of attire is frowned upon, I remember having a conversation with a young man who loved his band t-shirts but daren’t wear them to church! I have heard stories from BIOPIC friends who have experienced exclusion and toleration, who have been asked absolutely ridiculous questions, for example, when asked the question “where are you from?”, and the answer given is “Birmingham.”, the response then comes ” no where are you really from?”, my friends family have lived in the UK for generations! I on the other hand was born in Singapore and brought up in Kuala Lumpur, but nobody ever asks where I am from, and I certainly won’t be excluded because of it! The there is the story of the mother on a bus, speaking Welsh to he son, an ignorant passenger challenged her, saying why don’t you speak English when you are in England! Thankfully another passenger piped up, she is speaking Welsh, and we are in Wales! The assumption was made because the mother was wearing the Hijab.
When exclusion comes because of who we are, it cuts deep, I have mentioned before that when I came out, and was open about my sexuality I had a member of my congregation stand in front of me pondering whether to receive communion or not, when people question your sex life, when there is no way you would question theirs, when a church member declares his child’s marriage as not a marriage at all because they are married to a same sex partner, when trans people are vilified, and others insist on naming them by the wrong gender, there are scars. When we fail to acknowledge the full humanity of someone who displays a different facet of God’s glorious creative imagination because they don’t fit the required norm, then we are not inviting people into the creative dance, but are saying you are not welcome here!
Can we agree to disagree on such things as our common humanity and the way that we express it in ourselves and our lives then I think I want to say no. I am not talking about accepting abuse, or greed or other immoral expressions of humankind, but about the core expression of consenting, committed, adult relationships. Or the acceptance of a young person who is struggling with their sexuality or gender identity, the number LGBTQIA+ who live rough on the streets is staggering, and usually because they have been rejected by their families or religious communities. There are also stories from parents who have come to the conclusion that the only way they can support their child is to leave the church.
I wrote today about my justice journey a Methodist Church initiative, on Twitter, the photo was of a wedding blessing I was privileged to conduct, my post read:
Photo blessing at the wedding of two amazing friends. After so many years of learning that love is love. From suicidal thoughts, mine and others in the 1970’s/ 80’s to accepting myself and then finally
From suicidal thoughts, mine and others, the late 1970’s in rural Essex was not a place to be different, and I loathed myself, I did suffer from suicidal thoughts, and I know others who did too. I buried it all for years, and I mean almost 40 years, and while I do not regret my amazing children or grandchildren, I was not comfortable in my own skin. I am more comfortable now, but still have to ask myself how safe I am, and that question is more likely to be asked when I am considering how open to be in church settings! It would be wonderful to believe that, that will one day become a question that I don’t need to ask, but we have a long way to go, in this and many other ways!
I have been pondering family relationships recently, the expectations and the strains that exist within what are often set against a complex background, which can defy the rosy happy picture of family life often pushed forward by TV adverts, and cultural/ peer expectations. I mentioned this at Easter, when people around me were expecting me to be spending time with family, when for all kinds of reasons I spent it alone, and for me that was okay! My own family relationships are complex, my parents divorced when I was 12, and my mum remarried relocating my sister and I when I was 14, it hurts to admit that I spent most of my teenage years trying to fit in and looing for love, the fact that I felt that I didn’t ever achieve either may be telling. Marriage brought other tensions, and it wasn’t easy, and when I say that many are surprised because that is not what they saw, it’s amazing what stays behind closed doors, often due to external expectations! Difficulties and strains can be painful and cause complications, sometimes conversations can be hard, and sometimes we simply have to agree to disagree and live with the brokenness. I am now divorced, there are many reasons behind that, and having moved past the blame game I can say it was best for all concerned, and nothing is perfect. Families disagree, families come in all shapes and sizes, there is no ideal relationship, and rarely a completely perfect happily ever-after story!
I was thinking about all of this when I was reading some of the comments made on Sheffield Cathedral’s Twitter post regarding the prayer vigil held at the same time as the Franklin Graham rally . Many of them very critical, some of them downright abusive and nasty. The reason, well two groups of the Christian family are disagreeing with one another, one sees Graham’s message as a message of hope, another sees his message as a message of exclusion, intolerance and even of hate. Graham has openly spoken out against the LGBTQI+ community, approves of conversion therapy, has strong views on immigration, and supports the gun lobby. He says he preaches a gospel of love, but a delve beneath some of the acceptable sounding words he offers you find a different message. That of course is my view, on what I have seen, heard and investigated.
Alongside the vigil in Sheffield Cathedral a group of protestors gathered outside of Sheffield arena, they wanted to show a different and inclusive message to the people going in to listen to Graham, and to preach a gospel of inclusion and love, a comment on a Facebook post about this protest was made by one individual saying that the protestors were wrong, because Christians should not be divided against other Christians, and making this public in the arena car-park was counter productive. In that thread people began quoting Bible verses at one another, entirely unhelpful in many ways because it is easy to take one verse out of context, which is exactly what the protestors say that Graham and others do with the clobber texts, the talk highlighted is worth listening to if you haven’t heard of them, I am not going to unpack all of that now. What I want to talk about is the protest, was it right?
Was it right, well cards on the table, I love that Sheffield Cathedral held a prayer vigil, and I supported the protestors in the car park, not with my presence but with online prayers of my own. Why? Well partly because I identify as a member of the LGBTQIA+ community ( maybe it is a bit clearer why my marriage failed- though it is much more complex than that), but I also take a pattern from Jesus himself, whose opposition to the rigid teaching of the Pharisees, Sadducees and the religious elite who surrounded them was often outspoken and demonstrable in the way he not only drew the excluded to him, but also in the way that he challenged their teaching! In the Sermon on the Mount, ( the link is to Matthew 5, keep reading through to Chapter 7) he turns some of the rigid thinking upside down, not only should we not murder, but we should not harbour hateful thoughts, in place of an eye for an eye he offers the subversive act of turning the other cheek, he warns against outward shows of piety and prayer, and repeats the phrase “You have heard it said…. but I say to you…..” on more than one occasion. He also warns us about removing the log from our own eye before offering to remove the speck from our siblings eye!
Jesus is the one who challenged the rules of the day by healing the man with the withered hand in the synagogue on the Sabbath, challenging the shocked leaders with the question; “Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out? Of how much more value is a man than a sheep!” they were not too happy to have their hypocrisy exposed, Jesus is the one who has mercy on the woman caught in adultery and dragged before him by a baying hoard hungry for a stoning by challenging the crowd that only the one who is without sin can cast the first stone, he sent her on her way without condemning her! Jesus is the one who commended the faith of the woman who had been bleeding for 7 years, the law says she should not go out in public, he set her free, healed and seen!
The whole trajectory of the gospel is to include the excluded, the life of Jesus revealed a more expansive and loving God than many of the struggling Old Testament Texts affirming wars and violence in the name of God, as humankind grapples to work out it’s relationship with the one who named ALL of creation good!
Do I believe that Jesus would have opposed the gun lobby in the U.S.A? Yes I do, his call to non-violence and its evidence on the cross is clear there.
Do I believe that Jesus would have welcomed the stranger and the refugee? Yes I do, his affirmation of the marginalised and the excluded, his words about finding him in the prisoner and the outcast make that clear, as do Old Testament instructions regarding the treatment of foreigners and refugees, and against the exploitation of them.
Do I believe that Jesus would have welcomed members of the LGBTQIA+ community without demanding that they change the essence of who they are, which is far more than anything about sexual desire, but of course also includes that! Do I have evidence from the gospel that he did so, well no, but neither is there evidence to the contrary. The texts so often weaponised against LGBTQIA+ people are often misinterpreted and taken out of context, while other commands that surround them are ignored. This video is well worth watching, showing that the word homosexual was not included in the Bible until 1946!
So, I disagree with Franklin Graham and his supporters, I read the Bible differently from him and his followers, and any others who read Scripture in the same way that he does. I am a Christian and I disagree with him! We are both a part of the body of Christ, I would like to deny that, but I cannot deny it, there will be those I disagree with vehemently, and those I disagree with from time to time, sadly Graham falls in the former group for me, and I suspect I do for him. I lament the brokenness of the body of Christ as much as I lament the brokenness in my family, but I refuse to cover it up and be silent, and while I am not going to air the whole of my family story in public (we will work through it), I will speak up against what I hear as hate speech, I would also enter into open and honest, respectful debate, something we in the Methodist Church have attempted over the last few years ( though it began many decades before), but to say we have come to complete agreement and do not bear the scars of the process would be wrong!
So what is the way forward, I truly do not know, I pray for love and unity in the church, the church I am sure that the Spirit groans within and Jesus weeps over just as he wept over Jerusalem. I pray for the glorious diversity in which God’s creation is shown to be celebrated by all, and that includes the diversity of humankind, with our differing skin tones, eye patterns, finger prints, heights, loves, passions, values, spiritualities, genders and sexualities. I hold out the hope of Revelation 21, that one day there will be no more sickness, sighing or pain, but I don’t expect the perfection of the new creation will be anything but wonderfully and gloriously diverse. I will pray for love, justice, mercy and healing, and if that means writing a blog, or lifting a placard to tell those who have been excluded that, they are in fact included then I will continue to do so!
As the wonderful prayer in the Wee Worship Book ( Iona ) says:
“…. on our own we could never discover that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither male nor female.
ALL ARE ONE IN CHRIST, AND FOR THIS WE PRAISE YOU! “
All are one in Christ, perhaps that is the most challenging part of all!