And so this is Christmas …

It’s Christmas! Why on earth are we having an election at this time of the year?
For many, the onset of Christmas questions the appropriateness of holding an election at this time of year … a time devoted to fun and festivities, and dreams of the perfect family Christmas … dreams that we cherish for they ease the harsher realities of life.

But when I read the Christmas story, I find little romantic escapism present. The events begin with a teenage girl who becomes pregnant with a special foretold child. In accepting her state she risks being cut off from family, friends, facing social exclusion, poverty ….

And that’s not the only person whose world is turned upside down. Her fiancé has his dreams dashed when his bride to be reveals she is with child … and not his child … but a child that in some amazing, head stretching way, is God in human form.

And just as they manage to get their heads around the pregnancy, just as they manage to bolster their flailing relationship, events from the world stage intervene.

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered ….

We are reminded that this tale of a strained relationship and a teenage pregnancy takes place in real time. This isn’t a fairy tale existence. Israel, like so much of the world at that time, was an occupied state and its overlords, the Romans, called all the shots.

And so begins the long and tortuous journey to Bethlehem … the search for a place to stay, the birth in a mucky outhouse, but it doesn’t end there … for those early days of adjusting to parenthood, which are often cocooned, protected and supported, are interrupted harshly once more as the puppet king Herod, threatened by news of this long awaited child … a child who he hears will be king one day, unleashes a massacre of all the children in Bethlehem in an attempt to shore up his fragile position. The young couple and their precious child are forced to flee for their lives, taking on refugee status in a foreign land.

No, these events are far from romantic … they remind us that Christmas did not originate in a time of frolic and festivity. Christmas is far less about romantic dreams than it is about a God who cares so much for his world that he is prepared to take ridiculous risks, to take human form so that he can be present with us in the mess and murkiness of our existence.

And so this is Christmas …

Far from being an excuse to escape, the Christmas story invites us to engage with the world as it is …. To play our part as we work out in our lives a response to the birth of that God child 2000 years ago; a child whose birth set in motion a new way of being that questions a way of living founded on self-seeking short-termism, looking out for number one. This child initiates the growth of a new Kingdom, a kingdom which flourishes as we engage in acts of inclusive, self-sacrificial love of the other … in which we see the other as they truly are: made in the image of God, precious, cherished and of infinite worth and this planet as a precious fragile gift that reveals God’s goodness.

Some would say that religion and politics don’t mix, but it seems to me that they always have, right from the very beginning. And this Christmastide, yet again, we are invited to engage with the world as it is so that in and through our words and actions we reveal the world as God longs for it to be, a place of peace and joy and love.

Remembering is important

November marks the month of remembrance in the church’s year. It begins with the celebration of All Saints, a time when we give thanks for those whose lives have inspired and shaped for the good the lives of others and the life of the world. And then there’s All Souls where we begin to mind our memories of all our loved ones who are no longer with us in body in this life. And finally just over a week later, we call to mind all those who lost their lives in and through war and conflict; civilians, those who died in concentration camps, those who took active part in the conflicts throughout the world.

But what is remembering all about? Remembering is a necessary and important part of our grief, an honouring of the lives of those no longer with us and a re-membering so that the gifts and the examples, the sacrifices of others may support us in embracing more fully life in all its fullness now. Remembrance reminds us of the preciousness of life and that light is only truly appreciated when the darkness begins to cover us … so November, the month where the light draws in, is well chosen for this season of Remembrance.

But there is more to remembering than mere recollection. Re-membering is at the heart of the Biblical story, ‘Do this in remembrance of me,’ are among the last words Jesus utters to his friends and ‘Lord remember me when you come in to your Kingdom,’ are among the last words offered to Jesus on the cross. When we gather for worship in church, we engage in this mysterious act of re-membering, in which we is a mysterious process in which the past, present and future acts of God become bound together in that moment; a process in which God is able to re-shape our lives so that we may more fully be the people God created us to be in this world.

As we gather together in these simple but profound acts of remembering this November, as we recall and reflect on the lives of others, as we pray and hold the silence, so we enable in some mysterious way the loving kindness, the dedication and self-sacrifice of those who have gone before, to come into the here and now. And in that moment we can receive both comfort in our loss and a deeper motivation to live lives that honour those whose lives have touched, shaped and inspired us.

So this year, as we take part in this season of re-membrance, let us remember all those who have kept and held us together when we felt we might fall apart, all those whose lives shaped and inspired ours. Let us do this in gratitude remembering that that we are held together and forever loved by a God who remembers each one of us, who holds each life as precious and of immeasurable worth and value. And may our memories this year spur us forward in the search for a deeper connection with God and through God, with others, that we might strive for a deeper understanding of our own and others dreams and hopes, and a strengthened motivation to seek all that cherishes and honours life in all its fullness throughout the world.

A Season of Unabashed Delight

You might say that there’s not a lot to be thankful for in these times … and you may well be right, but the other week I was listening to the poet Ross Gay talk about a project that he had set himself last year … to write an essay every day on something which gave him delight.

I wonder what brings you delight? Here are just a few thoughts that occurred to me:

  • Finding my keys when I thought they were lost – and that’s just this morning’s delight!
  • Jumping into a pile of crisp autumn leaves and relishing the crispy crunchy textured sound of the leaves underfoot. I still do this when no one’s looking!
  • Watching a small baby sleeping, arms thrown back in abandonment, totally secure in the care of their parents.
  • The smell of fresh coffee brewing in the morning, especially when I haven’t got up to make it.
  • The sound of lots of post being delivered!
  • Hearing the whole-hearted, totally abandoned laughter of children.

Rather than being a self-indulgent, romantic, ‘head in the clouds’ kind of pursuit, Ross talks of delight and gratitude as essential practices in these times of anxiety and threat. How can we be joyful at a time like this? How can we not be, he writes?

If there was ever a festival for relishing the delights of our world it’s Harvest. As I write this, we have just celebrated Harvest in our churches. Harvest is a time of what Ross calls unabashed gratitude for all of life’s abundant gifts. Don’t you just love that phrase? Unabashed delight!

Some years ago, I recall a teacher in a local school questioning whether harvest was relevant to children in these times. Her question got me thinking. The harvests of my childhood, churches full of produce, a cornucopia of delights for all the senses, seem to have taken place in a different era when life was simpler and less anxiety provoking. But what has harvest to offer us today in a time when the gap between the haves and the have-nots is growing daily, when we seem more bothered about what divides us as a nation than what unites and holds together, and this rich and abundantly vibrant world is being threatened in ways that seem beyond our control and influence.

My reflections this week have led me to the realisation that harvest isn’t something to get sentimental or romantically nostalgic about. Harvest meets head on the less palatable truths of this world and invites us to engage with a powerfully subversive celebration that undermines and challenges some of the less than life giving human tendencies that many hold responsible for the state of the world today. Harvest has roots that go back to the beginnings of our faith. The Harvests celebrated by the ancient Israelites helped them to remember that the whole of the earth is God and that God longs for us to live in to and out of the recognition that he has poured his abundant blessings into the world. All that we have, all that we are is pure gift, and these gifts are to be celebrated and shared and valued.

Living with unabashed gratitude in our hearts means cherishing our world, a world which has been gifted to us by an abundantly generous God, and doing all that we can to safeguard its future; it means being willing to share what I have so that others have enough. And it can mean embracing a simple practice of waking each day and reflecting on what brings you delight … and sharing some of the joy and appreciation with those around.

Life After Brexit

The Summer seems to have flown by and now we are in September with all that that entails as far as new beginnings, returning to school and work after holidays. And it is also the time when Parliament return to the debating table, hopefully refreshed and reinvigorated after the summer recess. This forthcoming parliamentary sitting seems so momentous knowing that within its span key decisions will be taken about the future of this country.

Before you stop reading, let me hasten to assure you, this is not a Party Political broadside, but it is political in so far as I attempt to reflect upon the question in all of our minds … what will life be like post Brexit? Given the divisive public discourse, the divisions evident in family, neighbourhood and society at large, how can we move beyond what divides and embrace again what unites?

There is an old Irish proverb that is written in the halls of Stormont: “It is in the shelter of each other that the people live.” If there were any society that has grappled with the challenge of coming together after years and years of entrenched and bloody conflict then it is Northern Ireland. The Corrymeela Community, a Christian community who sought to work for peace and reconciliation in the midst of ‘the troubles’, has a lot of wisdom to share with us as we seek to look beyond our differences and unite around what can build and strengthen community.

Pádraig Ó Tuama, former leader of the community, has recently commented on the state of the Brexit negotiations and public discourse.

One of the interesting things about the Brexit project in Britain is that it is people in Britain having civic discussions, the likes of which they haven’t had to have. We’ve had to have this for 100 years … so we know that here. And actually I think that Northern Ireland does have a key to providing something about what civic discourse looks like … what will save us … is the capacity for a community to hold itself together and to speak to each other rather than ripping each other apart.

So how can we foster that capacity in our families, our neighbourhoods, our towns and villages? Could we begin to view difference as an opportunity to understand a different perspective? How can we embrace the other as made in the image of God? How can we find common ground that provides a firm foundation for the common good? How can we discover together that love can go beyond the border of similarity, entering the places where we are strange and foreign to each other and there discover something of the possibility of being human with each other?

In the gospel reading this week, Jesus shares with his friends the costly conflictual path of peace (Luke 12:49-56). When we seek a Kingdom that is based on mutual flourishing, on wholeness and fullness of life for all, then we will find that we differ from those whose kingdoms are less roomy and welcoming than the one God is growing here on earth. When we find we are invested in different futures, the way ahead is not to retreat in our silos and throw stones but to reach out to the other in an attempt to share, to connect and transform.

Life after Brexit offers us an opportunity to transform divisions with human encounter. It invites us to cultivate the art of good conversation which makes space for difference and transformation. I came across these guidelines for the art of dialogue that we may find helpful in the days to come:

Say what you actually think and say it to them, looking at them in the face. Talk, talk to them. Tell them how you feel, describe what it’s like in the space that you inhabit. And then sit back and listen.

Life after Brexit is a future that is only just emerging and we are co-creators of this new reality. So let’s embrace all the opportunities available and engage in powerful, courageous, brave, risky conversations in the present that might create the very future we say we want.

On the 22nd November at 7:30 Dr Anna Rowlands will be coming to Keswick Methodist Church to talk to us and facilitate a public conversation on ‘Brexit, a Christian vision of the common good’. Suggested donations £5. This is an Engaging Theology in Cumbria event. Further details are available from Nicki.

A Fractured Nation

Somewhere over a Rainbow

In these uncertain times, our nation is spending a lot of time attempting to predict what the future might look like, under a new Prime Minister, outside or semi-detached from the European Union. And different folks are attempting to promote their particular vision of what this future might be like. As with any predictions, it’s hard to know with any degree of certainty what might happen.

And yet vision is important. It gives direction, it shapes the way we live in the here and now. The Bible warns that without a vision people perish. So what kind of vision can we put our faith in?

The classic film, Wizard of Oz and its bestselling single, ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow,’ connects strongly with the hope we all have for a better future, a future where all have what they need to live and thrive, where people can know joy and delight…’where lemon drops grow on trees.’  In what seems to me to be a grown-up version of ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’, John Lennon imagines a future where there is no war, where people live at peace, in contentment. It seems to me that both of these visions are a bit like wish fulfilment,  detached from the real world, a world where we all from time to time make poor choices, choices that can damage ourselves and others and the natural world.

In the Bible we find a different vision, a vision of the future that accepts and encompasses all the frailty and brokenness that we find in ourselves, that we see in others and in the natural world and yet a vision that in spite of this seeks the fullness of life that a life lived in relationship with God can bring. The Bible calls it the Kingdom of God, a state of being where in God’s strength, we learn how to live in ways that bring peace and hope and joy into our world, that safeguard and support the most vulnerable, that includes all enabling all to flourish. It’s a vision which is as much about how we live in relationship to the natural world as it is about society of humankind. This is a realistic vision because God knows our capacity to bring pain and suffering to ourselves and others. And yet through God’s forgiveness and in God’s strength, God shows us how to be reconciled with those we have hurt, how to open our lives to God’s love and to be transformed so that we can live in ways that restore and renew the broken places in our lives and in our world.

In the county of Cumbria, Churches across the denominations have attempted to encapsulate that vision in three words, God for all. It communicates our faith in a God who understands and accepts that life is hard, a God who longs to offer us a rich and fulfilled life lived in connection with God and in harmony with our neighbours and the planet we live on. A life that is filled with the joy and peace that comes from knowing we are loved and accepted and cherished by our loving maker. And that vision is realisable in your life now…you don’t need to search for the land which lies over the rainbow.

Say one for me….

It often happens to me, I get into a conversation with someone in a shop or out on the street and they tell me their troubles and as we prepare to take our leave of each other they often ask, ‘Say one for me, won’t you.’

What are they talking about? They’re talking about prayer. In spite of the dramatic reduction in numbers of folks attending church, a recent study found that 6 out of 7 people still believe that prayers can be answered. And, surprisingly, it’s the young who are more inclined to pray than the older generation. Just over half of all adults in the UK pray, and just under half of those who pray said they believed God hears their prayers. Four out of ten go further, saying prayer changes the world.

So what are people praying about and when do we do it? For those who would not profess to have a faith, it is an instinctive response to a crisis: “Please, God.” Personal crisis or tragedy is the most common reason for praying, with one in four saying they pray to gain comfort or feel less lonely. When not in a crisis, praying for our family tops the list of subjects of prayers at 71%, followed by thanking God (42%), praying for healing (40%) and for friends (40%).

“We should not be surprised by these recent findings,” says Rachel Treweek, bishop of Gloucester, because prayer, “reflects human longing for the mystery and love of God amid experiences of daily life.”

And apparently prayer is good for you. A study conducted by Lisa Miller, professor and director of Clinical Psychology and director of the Spirituality Mind Body Institute at Teachers College, Columbia University, found that people who pray regularly had a changed physiological structure to their brains; they had thicker cortices. The thinning of the cortice, especially in certain areas of the brain is an indicator of impending ill health, particularly due to depression. Thicker cortices indicated a lesser chance of suffering from depression, suggesting that prayer and spirituality really does yield some stunning benefits to the human brain. Other benefits have also emerged including strengthening our resistance to stress, depression and anxiety, building resilience in everyday challenges, improved recovery rates after physical illness, a healthier heart and a greater sense of well-being.

So what is prayer? According to Isabelle Hamley, chaplain to the archbishop of Canterbury, prayer is “primarily a line of communication with God – thinking, reflecting, bringing one’s concerns and worries into a bigger picture.”

Prayer is a mysterious thing but time and again, I hear folks saying that they know instinctively that something is happening when they pray….maybe that is why I am asked to pray for those I meet so often.

This is how Padraig O’Tuoma describes prayer:

“Prayer is a cry…prayer is a small fire lit to keep cold hands warm. Prayer is a practice that flourishes with faith and doubt. Prayer is asking and prayer is sitting. Prayer can be a rhythm that helps us make sense in times of senselessness, not offering solutions, always, but speaking to and from the mystery of humanity…’

To pray is to imagine and in imagining, we may reach something that is bigger than our imaginings, a wideness, an embrace in which we and all for whom we have prayed are held.

From the 30th May to the 9th June, (10-3pm every day apart from Mondays) we are opening a prayer room in St Paul’s Church Frizington. We are inviting you all to come and be; you can just sit and take in the silence or spend some time listening, wondering, and expressing your deepest longings. The choice is yours. Let us pray.

Ó Tuama, P., Corrymeela Community, 2017. Daily prayer with the Corrymeela Community.

Link to research on prayer survey

Tearfund – Prayer Survey

Link to research findings on prayer makes us healthier

https://www.thehealthsite.com/diseases-conditions/10-ways-praying-actually-benefits-your-health-p114-112613/

Living the Questions

I once heard a philosopher say that questions are far more interesting than answers. It was an unusual remark that challenged me to reflect that I had spent much of my life seeking for answers and far less time thinking about crafting the right questions; questions that would open up new ways of looking at the world, questions that would challenge me and the way I was choosing to live; questions that would open up new avenues to explore.

During the season of Lent, church leaders from our county set off on a walking pilgrimage, visiting each Mission Community in the area. A Mission Community is an ecumenical group of churches within a specified area, who have agreed to work together to encourage and support the growth of local disciples, and be outward looking, seeking to serve and bless the communities in which they are located.

Bishop James, Bishop Emma and Sarah Moore (Leader of the United Reformed Church in Cumbria) visited our Parish and took part in an event on the 3rd April at Cleator Moor Methodist Church, entitled ‘Q & A’ Questions and Afters. They were asked questions about their life and faith and vision by folks across the churches in our Mission Community. Some of the most searching questions came from the children in our schools.

Year 2 children asked: How did God make the world?  Why did Jesus die on a cross and did Jesus come back to life?

Year 3 and 4 children asked: Who created God and how? Why do we have a God? Why does war happen?

Year 5 children asked: If God was not here what would happen?

Year 6 children asked: Why did God give us illness and the ability to die?

I found it so encouraging that the children in our schools are thinking deeply about a whole range of  significant issues such as: Who is God? What is God like? Does faith in God affect the way we live our lives and relate to each other?

It seems to me that as we grow older, we lose our ability to question. Questions and the uncertainty that accompanies them can make us feel uncomfortable and unsure.  We want to be able to offer answers and solutions. But what if answers aren’t the answer?

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke ( 1875–1926) once wrote about the importance of questions in a letter to a young protégé :

“I want to beg you, as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

Throughout his time on earth, Jesus preferred asking questions than giving answers; 135 questions to be exact! And the answers he provided often required the questioners to do some further work. Jesus was the master story teller and he much preferred this medium than proffering neat, cut and dried answers. Like Father, like Son! In the first book in the Bible, we find God asking us questions; questions that are as timely and relevant today as they were when they were first written down;

Where are you? Where is your brother/ sister? Later in the Bible, Jesus asks those who were his closest friends: What are you looking for? What do you desire? Who do you say I am?

What would it look like if you were to live into these questions? What might you discover about God, yourself and your neighbour?

Having a laugh!

I recently came across a list of the top ten blunders made in parish magazines and service booklets. The typos, which were often just the omission of one letter, changed the whole meaning of the sentence that followed. Instead of ‘Lord graciously hear us …’ we had ‘Lord, graciously heat us …’. Given this cold winter, and the temperature in some of our churches, this is perhaps a completely understandable plea but possibly not an intentional one!

And then there was the petition for Christ to ‘destroy all the woks of the evil one ….’ Yes, that seems very appropriate in this day and age … you never know how a wok can be used for ill effect.

And in some churches, things were clearly getting desperate. In one service booklet there was an invitation to ‘be gin with prayer…’ And an Ash Wednesday service order which read…’Remember you are butt dust and into dust you shall return….’

The list caused some laughter in our house and it got me wondering about what makes us laugh. Researchers tell us that things we find funny fall into three categories…those things that seem unusual and a bit incongruous; things that make us feel superior; and finally, we often we laugh as a release valve when things are getting tense. I’m sure you will have experienced stressful situations when all of a sudden everyone is rolling around on the floor laughing…often at nothing particularly funny but the laughter helps to release the building tension.

Given the reasons why we laugh it should not surprise us to find examples of humour throughout the Bible. Sometimes we find the Bible poking fun at us, our mistakes and weaknesses, our foibles, sometimes we find humour used in the Bible to relieve mounting tension and sometimes it is just the plain unusual and unexpected that makes us smile.

Thinking of the way that humour is often created by the incongruous, the unexpected, how humour helps us sometimes to feel superior, I recall a letter written in the Bible to a church who were struggling to ‘get’ Jesus. At times it seemed to them that the way Jesus behaved was, in the eyes of the world, somewhat foolish. They possibly felt that the choices he made were unexpected, incongruous, somewhat naïve and it seems that they were feeling a bit superior.

And maybe they have a point for instead of courting worldly power and influence Jesus hangs out with eccentric religious fundamentalists like John the Baptist and goes out to dinner with tax collectors, terrorists, and a rag tag bunch of folks who were never going to have much clout.

Rather than avoiding trouble, Jesus goes out of his way to stir up controversy; engaging in debates with the upper classes and the well to do. He has no survival instinct, instead decides to go to Jerusalem in the last few days of his life, knowing that this was where all his enemies were hanging out, all those who had threatened his very life. And far from slipping in a side door, he makes a real song and dance out of his arrival, riding on the back of a donkey, surrounded by crowds cheering and shouting encouragement.

And then, instead of building positively on his moment in the limelight, he antagonises the very folks who were sympathetic to his cause, by creating a big scene in the courts of the Temple, the place revered by the Jews, and in so doing he makes enemies of all the Jewish Leaders.

I guess we could predict that it’s not going to turn out well and sure enough, Jesus is condemned to death on a cross. But it doesn’t end there. For when God raises him from the dead, Jesus carries on much as he did before, trusting a woman and a group of grief crazed followers to get the message out that Jesus had been raised from the dead.

But the letter writer in the Bible flips the whole thing on its head when he writes, don’t dismiss Jesus as foolish for ‘the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength’. Somehow or other, Jesus has proved to be wiser than all the councils of humanity; his foolhardy actions have been world changing. And he calls us to follow in his footsteps….

God ask us to embark on the folly of trusting that there are things that are more important than money, power and influence. That our reputation with an unseen God matters more than our reputation with people we can see and hear. He asks that we are foolish enough to believe that we can be rich though we are poor, that we gain most when we give the most away. Foolish enough to think that our testimony will change the world more than politics and power. Foolish enough to live by the high standard he calls us to, stubbornly uncompromising, rather than going with the flow of the world around us when it would make life so much easier for all concerned. And foolish enough to live in the hope that the best is yet to be, when so many around us tell us it is not true.

So this Easter, with a smile on our faces, and laughter lightening our hearts, let us celebrate the way of Jesus…it might look foolish to some but it is and continues to be world changing and life transforming.

Finding a place at the table

My mother in law loved to feed people. On a Sunday, after the family had eaten lunch you would go in to her kitchen to help with the washing up and there, lined up on the work surface would be various meals left over, plated up. ‘That one’s for Edna down the road and that one’s for old Mr Burns,’ she would say if you looked enquiringly at the row of plates. Everyone was fed; neighbours, relatives, people serving the community. Each week she would be up at the crack of dawn making bacon butties for the Bin Men. Pat had a finely tuned sense of hospitality. She knew that something important happened when people shared a meal.

Meals bring people together…From confidences shared over a simple cup of tea to elaborate dinners celebrating the important landmarks of our lives …. Christening parties, birthdays, weddings, funeral wakes; meals form community, they are at the heart of our hospitality, they are sacramental encounters …. In sharing the basic necessities of life we realise afresh our common humanity. So, it’s no surprise that we find meals playing an important part in Jesus’s ministry whether that be providing a breakfast picnic on the beach for his friends, organising an impromptu feeding of a surprisingly large group of people on a mountain side, or accepting an invitation to take tea with the local dignitary and the local ne’er do well. Jesus lived out his message of radical welcome and hospitality. He gave time to people, all sorts of people, and in the conversation that flowed back and forth across the table, Jesus made friendships, deepened and strengthened community. So what messages might we learn from the example he sets us?

We learn the importance of making time for each other. Relationships are built and strengthened as we give our attention to one another. We learn that we all have needs, needs for the basics like food but also for friendship, for connection with others, or belonging to something bigger. We also realise that at the heart of relationship is reciprocity, we each have something to give and to receive; we are bound together by these chords of human kindness.

This Lent we are going to be meeting each week to reflect on the stories of those who were at table with Jesus. Do consider coming along so together we can continue to establish friendships and strengthen our community. May we learn together how we can continue to follow in Jesus’s footsteps, being hospitable to those around us, standing alongside those who are in need, breaking down barriers of difference. So, do come and find a place at the table.