Sunday, 22 July 2018

On being (not) young

"Don't let anyone look down on you because you are young...."   1 Timothy 4:12a

Young me

I used to take that verse and make it my own. I used to take that verse and use it to remind me that God had called me to do what I was doing..... preaching, leading, seeking to try and follow him. 

But I don't any more. Because I am not young anymore. There are other verses that affirm me in my calling, in where I am going and in who I am in God. 

However, there are a number of people who look on me as that young one who has been called by God - not in a looking down on me sort of way but as an encouragement to them that young ones are coming through. 

Before snapchat you had to
paint your face green and
wear an optic fibre lamp in
your hair to give a similar
But the thing is, I am not young. I am just too old to be called a millenial, never mind whatever comes after that. I don't understand snapchat and the use of snapchat filters causes me to frown like the way people used to frown at my generation when people were buying trolls and dummies (what were those plastic dummies about?). I went off to uni (first time) 20 years ago and I have peers from school who have 4 children (some of whom are teenagers and above) and others who are now Grandparents. I am getting to the age where the possibility of being able to have children is sliding away and I now wake up aching rather than jump out of bed (to be honest, I've never been a jumper out of bed). 

And while I know that what constitutes young is very much determined by the culture of the room and situation, the meaning of young is defined in community.... I'm getting increasingly worried about our perception of young in churches. 

If I am a young one, a youth, a fresh faced voice into the mix, then I think we've found one of the answers as to why churches have the so-called 'missing generation' (I'm even almost too old for that now) - 20s and 30s are missing from our churches - why is that? Perhaps its because we forgot to treat them as adults, we treated them as youth until they were so far beyond youth they were almost pensioners. We humoured their ideas and ways forward, but we never took them seriously. We made some token changes, but we did not recognise the need for radical overhaul as life changed and the so called young moved on. 

And for many, because of this, church has become a tradition to be nodded to rather than a living and active spiritual house. And that, very much, is a problem..... and we need to change.


Friday, 22 June 2018

That Coat.....

I really don't care. Do u?

That coat. Of all the bad fashion choices. Of all the inappropriateness of the statement..... this is probably one of the worst. Wearing your heart on your sleeve? Why not wear it on your back? Why would you want a coat that looks like it has be graffitied anyway? 

I really don't care. Do u? 

On the back of a week where children and their parents have been separated at the southern border of the US, Melania Trump has worn a coat that has confused us all. It seems she has expressed all that we have been thinking that the Trumps have been thinking with one strange fashion choice.

I really don't care. Do u?

Well, actually, generally I don't care what people wear. It's up to them, however, some clothes do make a statement, and this one it certainly does..... but is our reaction to the coat diverting our attention from what is really going on? Is the shock over the bold statement written in what looks like white paint on the back of a coat distracting us from the cries of the children who may or may not re-united with their parents depending on what happens next... what rule change is next. 

I think that Melania Trump asks us all a valid question, which should challenge us all. As we stand and we point fingers, as we raise our eyebrows and tweet and rant and write blogs.... we have got to ask ourselves the question.... do we really care? 

The problems on the US border are so far away we can express our devastation from afar but we know we don't have to get involved. Even our own Prime Minister who rarely speaks out against Trump has said that the hostile environment that is separating the children has gone too far....

Hang on a minute. Hostile environment?

Do you care?

In the wake of the Windrush scandal, where people who have lived in this country for decades have been sent back to a home that never was a home, in the wake of the inadequate action taken to settle children under the Dubs scheme, in the wake of the fact that there are still people dying trying to cross the Mediterranean, in the wake of the fact that there are still many many people camping on the coast of France in conditions that we wouldn't believe and even contemplate..... Do you care? 

What are you going to do about it? What are you going to do about this hostile environment where in the US children's cries are heard as they wait for the what next.... What are you going to do about this hostile environment that labels people as 'the other' so we can leave them in any conditions and danger that we want? 

Do you actually care? Or might that coat actually suit you too? 

I'm challenged that I am not doing enough. I am challenged that I sit in my study in suburbia and I write, but as I write I feel helpless, what can I do? 

The Joint Public Issues Team has launched a campaign to challenge the government's approach to illegal immigration which is leading to destitution, discrimination and distrust. The campaign challenges us to take action, starting by writing to our MPs. I'm going to do that when I have finished writing this blog. It seems like a tiny step, but I believe any step is a start. 

As we hear the stories from the US. As we read that ridiculous coat..... We should be challenged.

Yes I do care. Do you? 

“If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?”
James 2:15-16

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

As the ground shakes.....

There is a constant banging in Ramsbottom at the moment, and as you get closer to the source of the noise, the floor actually vibrates. For anyone sensitive to ground movement or sound it is a bit of a nightmare because it means that it agitates and it stops normal life feeling normal. 

They're building some houses - but I'm guessing the ground where they are building needs some work - and the constant banging is them making a breakthrough - them creating the foundations to make those houses safe. 

If you hit long enough and hard enough the ground will give way. 

The process is painful, but it's getting somewhere. 

Part of my calling as a minister is to help church move forward and change - move on from the past and be faithful to what it is to be called to be a church in the world today, not holding onto the things that could be moved, not holding on to the rocks that weigh us down, not burying ourselves under concrete, but to be released to be the people we could be as we seek to be serving Christ in this community. 

I believe that new can grow from old - that the foundations of the past are something that the new can grow in. You can see it when flowers spring up from the cracks in the paving stones. You can see it when that new life begins to spread and impact the old around. 

But sometimes it can feel like there is a layer of concrete to drill/bang our way through, before that new can really explode into life. Sometimes it can feel like we are that machine that is banging and banging to make way for the new. Sometimes that concrete is difficult to crack. Sometimes all the work seems pointless and you don't feel like you are getting anywhere.....

But... if you go on long enough and keep being persistent, where the Holy Spirit is guiding, the ground will give way. It might mean finding others to be persistent with you. It might mean doing it in relay - that passing on the baton can provide new energy to continue and new eyes to spot where the breakthrough will be.... but the work that has been done already, and the work that we are doing now, and the work that will be done in the future on breaking that ground all matters..... Like the day by day persistent banging breaking ground on the building site in my town at the moment. 

As I write this, the banging has stopped. It may be that ground has been made and it will move onto the next bit (in fact it just has), it may be that the machine needs a rest because it is hot and tired..... it may be that the ground beneath has been revealed  or cleared and the building can begin. 

So often building means stripping back first... and some stripping back is more energy draining and time consuming and irritating and seemingly pointless than others. 

But I am confident, like the builders, now making the town vibrate again, that in the end it will be worth it and those new houses, those new ways will be embedded into the community, and the learning of new ways of living and serving can begin once again. 

When God is involved.....

"The desert and the parched land will be glad;
the wilderness will rejoice and blossom.
Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom;
it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy"      Isaiah 35:1-2a

Thursday, 14 June 2018

Tent Pitching - Some Thursday Night Dream

After spending an afternoon dreaming of what we could do, and then an evening frustrated at what we can't, I was reminded of one of my favourite quotes......

"A church which pitches its tents without constantly looking out for new horizons, which does not continually strike camp, is being untrue to its calling.... [we must] play down our longing for certainty, accept that which is risky, and live by improvisation and experimentation" - Hans Kung 

Just imagine if we lived and moved like this - constantly looking forward, constantly looking onward, not settling but dreaming, determined to follow in the ways of Jesus, without dragging our feet or digging our heels in. How different things might be..... 

You only live once, carpe diem, seize the day…… before it whistles by. Be unbound by the binds of institution and of fear and of comfort and of self consciousness, because there is more beyond….  So much more….. 

“God can do anything, you know - far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams! He does it not by pushing us around but by working within us, his Spirit deeply and gently within us” - Ephesians 3:20

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Leadership is hard (but at least we're not dead yet!)

This morning I've been stuck in the world of the first Christian martyr, Stephen. Acts 6 and 7 tells the story of him being enabled as a leaders because of the potential that was seen in him, him flourishing in the role he was commissioned into, him being taken to trial by those who saw him as a massive threat, him defending his life with an impassioned plea and defence of what he had been doing and then finally with his death....

This is all we really know of Stephen. A promising leader, enabled by the early church, but whose time as a leader was cut short by those who were threatened by the things he was saying and doing. 

And that's where I came up with the title to this blog.... it was going to be the title of my sermon but I think it's gone another direction..... 

Leadership is sometimes hard. As a church leader I'm called to lead the church forward, but am pulled back by the ones who want to keep it the same. I'm the person who needs to be there when it hurts most and the person who it is most OK to say what you want to, however much it hurts me because that's part of my job. I have a thick skin, but even those with a thick skin have points where the skin is a little bit thinner. 

Leadership is hard. We're trying to keep up with the world as it moves at a speedy pace, but slow down and be and help others to manage the speed when they are injured or flailing or simply struggling with life. 

Leadership is hard, and the expectations we place on our leaders often make it so much harder....

I've begun eating my lunch in car parks too often recently. Sometimes going from place to place and not having time to do a 'big shop' or the inclination to be organised at home means that I have experienced some interesting places to eat (I think I'm probably just a bit disorganised with lunch). But then, this week I have had a number of people tell me that they haven't even been able to make time for lunch because the tumbling waterfall of meetings has meant that it has all become a bit of a sprint. 

And the not eating lunch is just the tip of the iceberg. Underneath the surface, the paddling, for many, is frantic and keeping up with the demands of those they lead and also those who lead the leaders is something that simply cannot be sustained. 

One thing you can say about Stephen, in a time of continuing change, is that he never let up in doing the things he was called to. In fact he was called to do the things that were too much for the apostles to do.... and if he had lived perhaps he would have needed to raise leaders to do the things that were too much for him to do as the church changed and grew. 

So here's the thing.... as we reflect on the difficult job that we have been called to in leadership - whether that is in church or other work, we need to make sure that we don't get to the point where our legs are so tired we can't paddle anymore - and don't even get to the point where we end up in the waterfall that means we can't even reach out and grab some lunch. 

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week, and seems an appropriate time to raise the issue of self care. If we are to be effective in what we are being called to do, we must make sure that we are given enough time to process, to work through, to eat, to be.... that incessant paddling to keep our heads above water? It's not good for us, it's not healthy and it doesn't make for a leader who is able to be who they have been called to be. 

To the leaders who are paddling hard at the moment - reach your arms up and ask for help to be lifted out of this never ending cycle because you can't keep it up forever. The expectations on you at the moment are clearly too great. Don't go to that meeting, cancel that appointment... those things they will wait...  Don't begin anything new until you've either done or crossed out everything that is on your list and you can begin again. It's not a sprint, and we all need time to refresh. Take your day off!

To the leaders of leaders who are watching the paddling as you paddle - reach out and hold your leaders up. Reach out and together get out of the fast flow. Just because you work at a pace that can manage all this, it doesn't mean that everyone else can too. Just pause for a moment.... there are some things that will wait....  just pause, and be. And lead by example... make space for lunch, for days off, for holidays, for refreshment.

To those being led, take care of your leaders. They are not invincible, they're human. Check they are getting the space to eat, to relax, to sleep, and if they're not hold them to account - ask them why.... and then when you've asked them why, do something about it. Stop complaining and encourage. Affirm their position, their calling and be positive. You may not agree with everything a leader asks you to do, but there are ways of saying it.... check your tongue and stop sending those e-mails past 9pm. 

Stephen died because he was doing what he was called to do, enabled by the Holy Spirit to care for the church and to share the good news with those he met. We must release our leaders to do just this, to do what they have been called to do, and thankfully, because we live in a different time to Stephen, we can hopefully be sure that they will then go on to flourish and grow and help to release others to continue the work they began. 

If you are struggling right now, with stress, with workload, with worry, with anything else, then don't struggle alone. There are people who will stand with you, walk with you, listen to you, hold the load for you. We are not made to be alone, and no-one should ever need to do all of this alone. My prayer for you is that you will find companions and helpers on the journey who will carry you as you need to be carried, hide with you as you need to hide and shield you from whatever comes your way. Ultimately, God is carrying you through this and you can find shelter in him. 

Saturday, 5 May 2018

Navigating the Magic Roundabout

A few weeks ago I came across a very special roundabout. A Magic Roundabout. Not the Magic Roundabout but one of four so-called 'magic roundabouts' in towns that have grown rapidly and the road systems have grown rapidly with them.... I don't know what it is about rapidly growing towns, but roundabouts feature heavily. 

The Plough Roundabout in Hemel Hempstead is one such magic roundabout. Not only has it got a large roundabout in the middle, but it has six mini roundabouts round the outside. Look at it as a newcomer and it seems like a logistical nightmare..... but step away from the bigger picture and take its roundabouts one at a time, treating each roundabout as a new challenge to be completed then you quickly get to where you need to be going. 

Look at the beauty of it in this video.....

To step back and see how it all works is inspiring - whoever thought this all up and made it work in the way it does had some wild imagination.....

But to arrive at the entrance and only look at the big picture could, I imagine, cause panic. 

I've been talking to a number of friends recently about the challenges of life. It seems that as I and many of my friends approach one of the big ages, negotiating life has become more difficult. Choices are not as simple as they used to be and there are a number of mini roundabouts to contend with before we can get to the other side. 

Yet with hindsight, when we look back and see how we got to the other side we see the beauty of the dance of the magic roundabout. 

I'm yet again in the middle of a number of review processes - in my own church, in the Methodist circuit, at the end of my Newly Accredited period, in my own head, and sometimes the process can seem overwhelming. 

However, in mind of the bigger picture, if we take each mini roundabout at a time, the way ahead will become clear and open. And we'll get there, with God's help, the one who writes the road signs, we'll get there..... and when we stop to evaluate the big roundabout, the beauty of it all will be dazzling.

There's a time for everything, a season for every part of the roundabout

A time to stop and a time to go
A time to drive on and a time to pull back
A time to go round and a time to go over
A time to zoom out and a time to focus in
A time to panic and a time to dance
A time to try things out and a time to evaluate
A time to just get on with it and a time to just stand and watch
A time to shout GO ON THEN and a time to quietly nudge on
A time to love the moment and a time to approach in fear
A time to simply negotiate the roundabout in front.....
And a time to soar and see the beauty of the dance.

Monday, 30 April 2018

Intergenerational Church and Food

I'm currently involved in planning and taking part in a series of workshops exploring Intergenerational Church with the North West Baptist Association. Last time we talked about Intergenerational Church and food.... here is a slightly shortened version of what I said... 

Sitting around the Boxing Day Buffet with my family - fourteen humans (three generations) ranging in ages from 2 to older, four dogs (one a puppy) wander around under the table. An abundance of food. The hands reach out and fill the plates. My oldest nephew gets up and walks round to the other side of the table so he can reach the cheese board. The vegetarian sausage rolls are divided up between me and my sisters before a meat eater mistakes them for the real stuff. My brother reaches for the homemade pickled onions and we watch as his eyebrows raise with the sharpness of the vinegar and the strength of the onions. My youngest niece begins the inevitable climb onto her mum's lap and the food she knocks off the table is quickly eaten by the one dog we though was sleeping. As the food gets consumed and the movement around the table gets more chaotic, the conversation flows. We listen and we learn. We laugh and we argue. We might even throw things. 

Family life - in all its beauty and chaos - around the table all of our uniqueness is lived out.

A couple of years ago I visited Tatton Park and there was an exhibition on called ‘Guardian Angels’ by the artist Cristina Rodrigues. I blogged about it more here.

As I walked into the kitchens  - one of the installations really struck me.

The description of the piece explained how it is reflecting on the fact that we now spend less time gathered round the table which stood at the heart of our homes. The red ribbons are like blood – energy lines that bring life and tell a story. The ceramic hearts connected by the ribbons show how we connect to one another. The table being in the kitchen was also significant because the kitchen was the heart of the house, making the house a home.

It inspired my thinking around church, around church family and how we gather as a family, and it inspired my MA dissertation on the role of food in building faith community. People think I’m obsessed with food – I’m not, honestly. 

When we think about intergenerational church, it's perhaps a bit like my boxing day family. Gathering as intergenerational church round the table is like when the whole family - when weird Aunties and trantruming toddlers, grumpy Granddads and 'I'm just coming in from cutting down a tree' brothers gather together on boxing day for tea. That moment of gathering cannot expect to be controlled. It's going to be messy and chaotic but it can do some much for the family - for the community it is worth doing. 

In my research I’ve been comparing how the early church, beginning with the church in Acts, met together and have been contrasting that with projects that meet in that way today. The projects I have researched have included a number of things, but one of the things that has been key around the table in these projects is that all of them have had some kind of intergenerational element to the way they gather – some were intentionally intergenerational, but some have become so because it is easy to include all the generations as we gather around food. At my own church we have developed our all age service to become cafe worship – a kind of all age, all circumstances messy church where gathering around tea and cake has meant that conversation has flowed and families have learned to worship together – I believe it has been key to a change in outlook and growth in faith as a church. 

In Acts 2 we see the early church gathering together each day and eating together. They did this in the context of worship and as the table brought the people together, they were brought together with God, but just as eating has become less important in family homes, it has become less important in churches over time. As the early church grew from that time in the early accounts in Acts, they grew too big for their homes, or too big to recline around the dinner table, so they began to meet in separate rooms, or in community buildings and then food became less important and churches lost something of their identity.

At the time of Acts, eating together was a normal thing to do – it was how people gathered – it wouldn’t have been strange to invite people round to your home to eat and then have a philosophical discussion together. However, the church was also countercultural in the way it met, and as we read through the early church letters and the accounts in Acts we see some of the opportunities it brought and some of the problems it caused.

Although that society ate together, it was normal to have a strict rule of hierarchy at the table – the one with the highest status would recline at the top table and get the best food. Slaves, women and children would rarely make it to the table, and those at the bottom of the guest list would get little food. In 1 Corinthians 11 we see that some people were getting more food than others because the early church was living up to the expectations of society. Paul challenges this and tells everyone that they need to make sure that food is distributed equally.

What linked the diners in early Christian communities was faith, which transcended above social structures and social and ethnic differences. Acts tells us they shared everything – their food, their possessions, their money… making sure that no one was left without. This was countercultural, radical, kingdom living. It meant building a new kind of community – one that centred on Christ as it put everyone on an equal footing. Eating together forces us to take those things we are convicted about from being abstract concepts and means we need to work them out with the people we gather round the table with. 

The table is a place of sharing, a place of conversation, a place where we can learn. Gathering around the table helps us to grow in faith. As we make time to spend with people who have different insights in faith or are much more mature in faith than we are, we put ourselves on an equal footing with them - we are able to learn from them what it means to follow Jesus. 

When we invite someone to eat with us, we send them a message – that we want a closer relationship with them and we want to open up and have intimacy. If we make time to sit around the table; all generations together, then for those who are not involved in normal decision making, for those who think their voice doesn’t matter, for those who we don’t normally listen to, it sends that message – that they matter. This is key particularly when we are trying to include children’s voices in the mix, but also for much of the church community. Does my voice really matter? Yes it does, and I’m going to sit and eat with you as we share our stories together. Round the table we learn to trust one another, where we all have a role and a purpose, where we can learn to just be together with no agenda but eating.

Of course there are issues when it comes to eating together and the mess is just one of them. Eating together (particularly with all generations together) is countercultural, and to include it as part of normal church life is difficult and sometimes controversial, but I believe it is worth the effort. Long standing church attendees find it difficult; food is an aside, not a central part of meeting together – in some people’s eyes it is seen as ungodly. Feasting is countercultural to church culture; when the ‘feast’ of bread and wine that unites us is less of a feast and more of a taster (and not a good one at that), when we don’t enable all generations to participate in the feast in some way (that opens a whole can of worms) then how can we demonstrate the abundance of God within our communities?

We could question whether eating together is actually that important - I believe it is.... If we are to enable bonds and relationships to be built, if we are to create a culture of learning and inclusion in our intergenerational churches, we need to make sure that all generations are involved in the preparation, the serving and the eating of food.

Church doesn’t work if we don’t talk to one another. Our physical body needs a neurosystem so that the different parts can communicate together. Perhaps the table, in its ability to enable conversation, is the facilitator of the neurosystem that makes up the body of the church – to work, the different parts need to make space to talk together, and a meal is a great place for that.

What if the eye never sat down with the ear and told the ear what it could see. What if the foot never sat down with the hand and told the hand where it would be going. What if the brain stopped sending messages to the hands and feet and nothing got done…..? As we gather round the table, as relationships and trust are built, we see the body of Christ work together much more effectively than if we just sat next to one another in the corridor. It’s a perfect central point for intergenerational church, because whoever we are, whatever age we are, however messy and eater we are, whether we like plain food or the hottest curry imaginable, whether we are a food snob or a McDonalds fanatic.... we all have to eat.... so in our contexts, however we do it, to grow an effective intergenerational church culture, I believe gathering around the table has to be part of that.

Thursday, 19 April 2018

That wall we all rejected.....

And slowly it builds
Brick by brick
That wall we all rejected

And the rhetoric filters through
The drive by threat
They're taking our jobs, our houses

Go home, you're not welcome here

Standing back we listen
We shake our fist
And we go on as it all dies down

And the rhetoric filters through
The chaos of the camps
They threaten our drivers, it's not safe

Go back, you're not welcome here

Standing back we watch
We send our cast offs
And go by as they're all moved on

And the rhetoric filters through
Bring back  our control
Close the doors, put the biggest bolts on.

The door is closed, you're not welcome here

Standing back we hear
As experts cry out
And we go on as it all rolls on

And the rhetoric filters through
Our exit door is open
Now go - the entrance door is tight shut

Even you are not welcome any more

Standing back we hear cries
As blame is dished out
And those we live beside leave in fear

And slowly it builds
Brick by Brick 
That wall we rejected - it's here

As we look out from the UK, we so often see what we hear is proposed to happen across the Atlantic and we despair and shout out and say that 'it wouldn't happen here'. However, as we have seen this week as voices rise up over the injustice over the Windrush deportation crisis we've got to test our own motives, test our own hearts.... and choose to stand up and stop these growing barriers before they become seemingly impenetrable and our society has lost his ability to welcome at all. This article from the Baptist Times talks about why we should be angry over the Windrush Crisis and what to do about it.  

The prophet Amos says these words from God to the people of Israel, challenging their focus:

"I hate, I despise your religious festivals; and your assemblies are a stench to me..... Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. BUT let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never failing stream"  Amos 5:21, 23-24

Stand up for justice. Stand up because God....

Monday, 16 April 2018

The Woman in the Shed

Last week I visited the childhood home of Mary Arden, mother of William Shakespeare with my friend and her two girls. It was a farm not far from Stratford, full of tourists (probably not at the time of Shakespeare) and farm animals and birds including some very beautiful ginger piglets (their mother, however, did not provide them much hope that in the future that they would keep their looks).

Fluffy Ginger Pig

As often happens at these places, there were various people re-enacting traditional crafts - a falconer who spent a lot of time hiding from school coach parties, a man with a long beard and an axe chopping wood and a woman who showed us how to spin wool. We learnt the words tozer and carder and nobbly bobbly (or something like that - that's actually an ice lolly) and others I can't remember. 

But one stuck with me - and what stuck with me was not the word, but her interpretation of what the word meant in the era she was currently spinning wool in. 


A word, that for many, and for so long for me has been held up as an unwanted state - an old woman past her best who barks as people walk up to her - a woman 'beyond the usual age for marriage' (whatever that is)... perhaps, in many people's eyes... me? (I'm grumpy, single, set in my ways....). At the time the woman who was spinning was working, it was the unmarried women who would be working as spinsters, which is where the word comes from and why it refers to women who are unmarried. 

Even in the time that the spinster was supposedly working, she would have been seen as odd. Shakespeare referred to a phrase in popular use at the time that said that women who died unmarried would lead apes to hell (I'm glad nobody has used that one on me when they have been opposed to my calling as a minister who happens to be a woman!). The purpose of a woman is to be married, and any who are not are... well.... destined for something. 

However, the way the woman who was spinning in Mary Arden's house described the word spinster made me stop and think. She said that spinsters led the way for women to be independent today. She talked nothing of falling into the way of life that meant she had to spin to survive, but talked about choice, that being a spinster wasn't inevitable but was something else. She talked about how spinning made it possible for the spinster to provide for herself, to live comfortably and to give her purpose where society said she had none because she had no husband or children. 

Language is important, and the way that the word 'spinster' has been used across the centuries has not been good. Spinsters are incomplete, lacking and directionless and are left to be living a life of terrible loneliness. My first (guilty) port of call for any info wikipedia is incredibly negative in its description of spinsters, reflecting the language of the world around. 

Although we have moved so far on from then, and so far on the attitudes in society that leave unmarried women as oddities, the shadows live on. When I hear language of 'taking off the shelf' and rescuing her from singleness. When I hear people say that I will only be satisfied when I have a husband and children... the shadows of the expectations of 16th century England overshadow the independence and forward thinking nature of my spinsterhood as described by the woman in Mary Arden's shed. 

When I read scripture, although they are few and far between, it doesn't take long to find stories of independent women who have, whether married or not, gone on and served God in big ways with the support of their families (or not!) and the community around them - Miriam, Ruth, Esther, Deborah, Rahab, Lydia, Priscilla, Phoebe, Salome, Joanna, Mary Magdalene and more.... we might not hear about them much, and some of them are tarnished with brushes that are as unfair (and more) as tarnishing the spinster with the 'useless, frazzled and odd' brush, but they're there, living faithfully, serving God and making an impact. 

That spinster in the shed - choosing to live independently in a society that thought she shouldn't. That Mary Magdalene - choosing to preach the good news in a world that didn't necessarily believe her. That unmarried woman - choosing to stay unmarried and pursue her dreams. Why label her as bad? Why label her as wrong? Why undermine her direction? 

I came away from that trip to Mary Arden's house wanting to reclaim the word 'spinster', but then I found out that attempts have been made to do that already, and they've not necessarily worked. However, we can work to continue to change our attitudes towards independent women (whether married or not), helping to get rid of those 16th century shadows and embrace us for who we are and what we choose to be. 

I take my inspiration from those women in scripture, those women who have walked before me, those women who have stood up against the status quo, and so many brilliant women I know today .... and I walk on, attempting to live faithfully, serving God and hopefully making some kind of impact.  

"Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days" Joel 2:29

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

My car fits more elephants in than your car......

I love numbers. Of course I do, I love maths, and although a lot of maths contains no numbers, there is not much more beautiful than getting a complicated problem down to a single digit answer that sits there hanging on the page like it had never been wrapped up in the complexity of the equations it was hidden in. 

I love irrational constants like pi and e and phi. They sit in the world and although unrecognised a lot of the time they are the dependable ones that keep everything in balance and working. 

But the way we use numbers bothers me, not least in church. They are rarely, in the every day, used just for their own beauty but they describe quantities and make comparisons and measure failure and success. They measure worth and purpose and they give something to aspire to as we consume them one by one, counting fast to show just how great we are. 

I taught a sixth former who one day came in and threw his bank statement on the table, there to show the class just how much he was worth. As we talked through the struggle of paying for university he pointed out that it was OK for him, he had more than enough. His worth counted in pounds and pence made his dream possible... so he dreamed.

The bigger salary, the square footage we inhabit, the scores on the exam sheet, the calories in my food, the number of facebook friends and the number of elephants you can fit in a car... all signs of success, apparently. 

The fishing for numbers as you are approached at a conference - 'what's your church like..... well... how big?'

How big. How big. How big. 

How many came to that event you put on? Well I had 10 times more. And him over there with those fantastic boots.... well he had 10 times that. 

What frustrates me about this culture of numbers being all is that it buys into the materialism we'd like to reject. The more you have the better you are, the bigger your house, the better you've been, the more people who've turned up, the more successful you are. 

And there is nothing wrong with being excited about numbers, but when it becomes the all in all.... there is. Having it all is not all and everything. The context matters, the quality matters, the community built matters and the embedded culture matters. The quality of our relationships with Jesus matters. 

So let's stop our one-up-personship and focus on where we are following in is ways. Let's stop jumping on the bandwagon of the success of another and build Jesus-centred community that is deeply embedded in our context - be in it for the marathon, not the sprint. Let's stop spewing out meal after meal of fast food on a tray and spend time building relationships round a family dinner table. 

And then perhaps we might measure our success by the quality of our relationships with Jesus and with those of who join us at the table (and yes I do hope to see that table get longer and longer as others join in and get to know Jesus as lives are transformed - I love a big table.... ). 

Are we still growing in faith? 

If the answer is yes, now that's good news. 

"He must increase, I must decrease" - John 3:30

Monday, 5 March 2018

An encounter with a woman

It's International Women's Day on Thursday 8th March, and since I am going off to ministers conference (where only 16% of the attendees are women - a reflection I think on the proportions of women ministers in Baptist churches in the North West Baptist Association - but hey ho, I think the proportion of women attending is more than last year) and I am busy until Thursday, I thought I'd use the waiting time before heading off to blog (well, actually re-writing a sermon from a couple of weeks ago) in honour of International Women's Day. 

A satirical photo from 1901, with the caption "New Woman—Wash Day".

It's an important year for women - and I've said a little bit about that already on this blog... 

It's 100 years since some women got the vote in this country. At the same time all men over the age of 21 were given the right to vote. 40% of women were and it wasn't until 1928 that all women were able to vote in the UK. 

It's 100 years since Edith Gates became the first woman to be recognised as being in pastoral charge of an English Baptist Church. They weren't really sure what to call her. Secretary? Pastor? Gatecrasher? And weren't convinced that she should be paid properly or have the same rights as male ministers... but she pioneered the way for me today. 

Did you know that between 1918 and 2015 a total of 450 women were elected as members of the House of Commons which is fewer than the number of men (459) who were elected to the 2015 parliament (source wikipedia (sorry about that!)).

Last year, in 2017 a president was inaugurated in the US who openly who laughed off foul locker room talk about women and ran a campaign that was largely about discrediting his female opponent #nastywoman. He is supported by large proportions of the American evangelical church. 

In the same year, the stories of women who had been abused by men in trusted positions came out under the hashtag of #metoo and, while many listened, the media, the voices of those who couldn't comprehend rang out loud and clear as they shouted these people down. 

A few weeks ago, the news came out about Iranian women stood at the side of the road, their compulsory hijabs held out on sticks to protest being told what to wear and they were arrested. 

And don't get me started on lady crisps. 

2000 years ago, Jesus sat down with a Samaritan Woman at Jacob's well in the middle of the day and he sent her out as a witness to who he was. And that made his disciples a bit grumbly (click on link to read story). 

How far have we come? Have the grumbles stopped? No. Are women's voices valued and their testimonies seen as valid? Sadly, not as much as they should be. 

Are women worth listening to?

Well Jesus, in this story, shows us, yes.... a big fat yes. 

Jesus speaks to the woman and he sends out the woman... John the gospel writer records it. Her story matters. Women's voices matter. They are to be listened to, they are to be valued, they are to be acted upon and it's all in this story.

Jesus comes to the woman and asks her for help - he asks her for water from the well - he values her service. He values the fact that she has what he needs. When we encounter those whose voices we don't value, then we often don't value what they have to offer either. The Samaritan Woman had something that Jesus didn't just want, but needed, and he came and asked for help. 

When we read this story, we tend to assume that the power is all with Jesus, but in his need, Jesus gives the power to continue the encounter with the woman. He doesn't force his company on her and she is not a #nastywoman trying to worm her way into a Jewish man's world, but is someone who can solve his immediate needs. When we worry about people undermining our status and changing this world we live in, perhaps we need to step back and ask why we are threatened by them... Jesus wasn't threatened by the presence of the Samaritan Woman at the well (and she wasn't threatened by his presence either). 

Jesus values that woman as he shares something of himself. He offers her living water that will change her life. "A Jewish teacher offers living water to a Samaritan woman" - it's almost a Daily Fail shock headline. He offers it not because he wants anything, but because he values her and her life. Jesus values women.... and he values her so much that she opens up to him. He kind of values her into telling the truth. Her witness gains credibility because she is not afraid to tell the truth - she is not a woman of fake news - she doesn't hide who she is but shares who she is. She is who she is, and Jesus values that as he crosses the border of Jewish man and Samaritan Woman with her.

When we are in a privileged position - where we have control of who matters and who doesn't. then Jesus shows us that it is our responsibility to enable the border crossing so those people who 'don't matter' can be liberated. A few years ago on my first minister's conference we asked for men to be advocates to enable women to be released into leadership... that was the first step to increasing that 16%.... I am hoping that those advocates have not stopped being committed to this.... 

Who would you trust as a key witness? Someone who tells the truth and whose voice is valued - and Jesus sends the Samaritan woman who does and is just that. Her voice matters, far above and beyond her gender and ethnicity, her witness is valuable. She was entrusted in telling others because because of what she said and people wanted to find out more. And her witness to Jesus and her mutual respect and trust for one another liberated her and gave her freedom to be a truth teller within her community. Jesus transformed her life. Jesus transforms our lives by taking away the chains of shame and sin and setting us free to live a life of truth and dignity. 

On International Women's Day 2018, it gives us an opportunity, yet again, to think about how we as individuals and as a society and world treat women. The Samaritan woman, whatever the interpretation has been, is held up as an example of how women should be treated - we see that in the value that Jesus gives the woman's testimony. Her voice matters. So when we (whether deliberately or without realising it) silence women's voices, we have missed something of what Jesus has done. 

The silencers of my own voice have come from inside and outside the church... they've come from other ministers at minister's conference. They have come from the voices of my own church members. They have come from arguments on facebook about lady size portions of chips. A woman's witness is not valid when a man is available to speak. 

However Jesus chooses the witness of a woman over his disciples in this instance. Jesus says yes, women's voices are important - listen - she has something to say. 

Jesus says yes. The woman's testimony is valid. Through her service, her actions matter; through her life, her value matters; through her honesty, her truth telling matters; through her witness, her story matters. 

Women getting the vote matters. Women being enabled and encouraged as ministers - it matters. Women being able to lead in places they have never led before - it matters. Women's stories being listened to - it matters. Women's protests being reported on - it matters. Women telling the truth of their liberation in Christ - it matters. 

International Women's Day - it matters. 

On the 8th March, instead of shrugging it off as something for someone else... step back and listen... because the stories that are told, the women that are honoured....

They matter. 

We matter. 

It matters. 

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Louder Listening

On Monday I was with a friend and we had just set off to go out for her birthday lunch from her house. We stopped at the top of her road, ready turn right so we could turn around in the side road and head back the other way. My friend was waiting patiently as a man with a dog slowly crossed the side road. The man got to the other side. 

As I thought we were going to turn I heard a noise; the distinct sound of a motor vehicle's engine running. It got louder and louder and louder. The seconds went slowly, and my immediate thought was "there must be a motorbike and it's being stupid and is going to go round us before we turn". I trust my friend who is a great driver (I am a nervous passenger so it takes me a lot to say that) and knew she'd wait as the motorbike went past. 

However, the next thing I knew was that the 'motorbike' didn't go past, and instead, because of the swift and effective actions of my friend who had seen the approaching vehicle in her wing mirror, we ended up in the (very helpful) hedge. 

And as I looked around at her, and then looked where she was looking, I saw a huge tractor with a trailer full of earth that was facing into the side road with the wheel half off. I don't remember the impact where the tractor hit our backside, and I was surprised to be in the hedge, but I do remember that sound that I swore was a motorbike....

I heard what I wanted to hear. 

I have never expected to be shunted by a tractor, but I have had motorbikes overtake me. I never expected a tractor to get so close I could hear the workings of the engine as it arrived not far from where I was sitting in the passenger seat, so my instinct was to believe in what I thought was possible. 

I heard what I wanted to hear, and sadly, for my friend's car, it was not what it was. 

My friend and I are OK (a narrow escape). The car is no more. The tractor owner fixed the tractor at the roadside and later drove home.  The motorbike was always and only in my head. 

How many times do we do that? Do we hear what we want to hear, because the consequences of it being what it actually is might leave us sitting in a metaphorical ditch with our bonnet in the hedge. How often do we only hear what we expect to hear and miss what is actually coming our way? 

My choir MD sometimes will say "sing what you hear, not what you think you hear". 

Expect the tractor, not the motorbike perhaps. 

If we go through life only expecting to hear what we think we know is right we will miss so much. We find ourselves in a bubble where the only truth we hear is one that is comfortable to our own bubbly existence. We get angry when anybody suggests that our bubble might not contain all of the answers we might like to think it does, and as we hear only the voices we want to hear we continue onwards with blinkers that miss the real picture. 

As we continue to battle at the moment with what is true and what is fake, then it is so easy for our ears to get muffled by our self made limitations that we fail to look beyond personal experience to see that what we need to hear is not necessarily what we think we hear. 

I don't need a hearing test, as one friend suggested when I said I thought it was a motorbike, but perhaps I do need to expect more (although I'm trying not to expect that a tractor will ever crash into me again). Perhaps I need to expect more as I listen out for God's voice. 

Perhaps we all need to expect more. We won't see or hear what God is doing in the world if our expectations are limited by our own bubble. What can be true will become a smaller subset of truth if we are not open to being challenged. 

Sing what you hear, not what you think you hear.

Search out and believe in actual truth, not what you would hope the truth would be.

Expect beyond your experience - because what you think is small could be something far bigger.

Try not to get hit by a tractor. 

"This is what the Lord says, he who made the earth, the Lord who formed it and established it - the Lord is his name: Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know."          Jeremiah 33:2-3

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Carry on Crunching

I went to uni in Leeds and had the privilege(!) of being in Bodington Hall. This meant being part of a community of students in a studenty enclave with its own shop and bar and culture just north of Leeds ring road four miles away from campus. This meant that to make a 9am lecture I had to set off stupidly early because the road from Bodington to the Parkinson steps was the notorious traffic jam that is Otley Road. I lived in Bodington for two years and for the last six months I gave up on the bus and walked..... Bodington is sadly no more and I think the morning bus journey may have something to do with it. 

That early start is not good for not-a-morning person like me and I rarely managed breakfast before I got on, so on my last minute dash to calculus lectures as I arrived I would nip into the maths coffee bar and buy a bag of salt and vinegar McCoys and a Diet Coke. Then sitting by the door in one of the Roger Stevens building lecture halls I would try and eat my (man) crisps without making a sound. A technique that involved breaking down the big crisps and sucking the flavour off as they melted in your mouth. 

How I would have loved to be able to buy quiet crisps.

Now, nearly two decades later, my dream has come true. My sixth or seventh favourite type of crisps, Doritos (but only the really hot ones please for me), it was announced this week are releasing quiet crisps, especially for ladies like me who struggle with the crunch of the crisp and the cheesy fingers that Dorito loving men value and celebrate so unshamedly as they crunch and savour those crisps that have been letting women down for so long. 

Lady crisps. For ladies. The right size to fit in our delicate hands and our hand bags and the right level of noise to make us inconspicuous and able to fade into the background as the men eat the proper crisps in the proper way. Real men eat real crisps. 

@Sarcasticluther shared this on twitter last week. It reminds us what true ladies are like. If this was written today it would have 'eats lady crisps' on the bottom.

The thing that riles me about lady crisps are the same things that rile me about this list and the same things that cause me to explode when I get called a lady-vicar and cause me to sound like a steam train when I  read or hear things that refer to ministers as solely male (and she, and she, and she....)..... it puts us in a subset that is to be seen and not heard. Or not even seen.... 

Women are the quiet coach on the train, the ones in the corner taking minutes, the ones who are only there to make up the numbers, the ones who have no opinion of their own, the ones who cannot teach men, the ones who must listen to what their husband says before they can vote, the ones who don't need equal pay, the ones who are told they are making a fuss when they work up the confidence to declare #metoo when they are very aware that they will be shot down within minutes. 

It's 100 years today since some women in the UK finally got the vote. It was a significant victory in a long and ongoing battle for women to be seen as humans with their own voice and opinions. I can't imagine what life was like for those women, I know that life is so much better now, and I am grateful for all that they did. 

Those women were heard when they disrupted - when they began to stop people from continuing with the status quo. They were seen by many as troublemakers and criminals. They were sent to prison for their actions.... yet they kept on. Where they felt like nobodies they stood up and screamed at the top of their voices - no, this is not good enough - I am somebody and my voice matters. 

Whenever I hit a barrier. Whenever I am told that I should not because I am female. Whenever I am spoken over, written out, ignored.... I think back to people like the suffragettes, like the women who paved the way to enable me to be ordained, like those who have fought for equal rights, for justice.... and I will not become a nobody, because I know that my voice, my vote, my call is something that is given to me because I am me - a human being, made uniquely beautiful, uniquely strong, made in the image of God. 

By all means, leader of Doritos, make quiet crisps, but make them for lecture halls and libraries and theatre shows (there is definitely a need there!) but not for those quiet delicate ladies that some people, still, 100 years after women's voices were valued in such an important way, think we should be. Because we're not and we will keep on standing up and fighting for justice, just as our ancestors did, and just as our descendants will, so long as inequality exists.