Thursday, 7 December 2017

Advent - waiting and watching

Advent is a time for waiting - children are desperate to know 'how many sleeps' till the big day. Grown ups are wondering if they are ever going to get all the shopping done. The TV adverts show us tables laden with festive food, good cheer, cheeky carrots, Paddington Bear, and encourage us to release the inner child.
The queues for parking spaces are getting longer, the shops have the cheerful(!) Christmas music, and church choirs are busy rehearsing for the annual Carols by Candlight. (And church ministers are desperately trying to finalise the hymns for the services over the Christmas period so that most, if not all, people's favourites are not left out. Then you find a lovely new carol, but know that most people coming to the services want the old but good ones.)
However, in the midst of all this rush and preparation, there is grief and heartbreak. I sat near the bedside of a lovely lady who was dying. Her friend sat next to her, gently stroking her hand. She died peacefully a couple of days ago with her loyal friend at her side, who now has to face Christmas alone. The tinsel, the Christmas lights even the carols will ring hollow this year for many who are grieving.
The annual spend fest of over indulgence will also be hard to stomach for those families reliant on food-banks and the charity of others, while others feast they will be trying to shield their children from disappointment on Christmas morning. December being a five week month will bring dreadful hardship on those who rely on the new Universal Credit with its iniquitous application that throws many of our poorest families into debt.
I also heard this morning that the majority of families affected by the Grenville tower disaster are still in temporary accommodation, six months on - homeless this Christmas. And although night shelters are now in operation, their guests have the cold day time to face on the streets.

So how can we as Christians sing out 'peace goodwill to all'?

We can, because God is with us in all our pain and difficulties. Immanuel, the Christ-child was born in temporary accommodation, insanitary conditions, became a refugee  and his birth was later attended by grief of the mothers of Bethlehem with the massacre of the innocents.

God is with us, not only through the good times, the celebrations, but in the hard difficult mess of our lives.

I'm probably going to upset people by this - but I don't really like the carol 'Away in a manger'. This is because of the second verse - 'little Lord Jesus no crying he makes'. As a truly human baby he must have let his mother know he was hungry! However,  recently I have used this carol more- but using some of the BSL signs. I find it makes it far more meaningful, moving a child's song into something more profound. This is because the sign for Jesus reminds us that He went all the way to the cross for each and every one of us - the sign is of the nails that pierced His hands.

So in our watching , and in our waiting, in our joys and in our sorrows may the peace of Immanuel God-with-us be with us this Advent and Christmas.

Monday, 20 November 2017

19th Nov - World Toilet day

I was sat in a waiting room the other day, and overhead a grandmother who was looking after her baby grandson talking to a Mum. The grandmother's other daughter (who hadn't any children) had been on a visit to Burma, where for a great many families nappies don't exist - the baby is simply wrapped in a cloth. 'Imagine' said  the granny ' having to cope with all that with no sanitation and no washing machines'.
This came back to me whilst changing our 11 month old granddaughter's nappy. Disposable nappies have improved so much over the last few years, and given she is teething at the moment (with all that involves) I was glad of not having to cope with the Terry nappies that my children had.  (I know there is an environment price to pay for this, but bear with my train of thought for a moment!)
Even back in the dark ages, I had the luxury of an indoor toilet (for sluicing), hot water to soak the nappies in, and a washing machine to make light work of it.
We take so much for granted, including our loos. When I was a small child I hated going to one of my Aunties (not because I disliked her or my cousin) but because their toilet was down at the end of the garden, cold, dark and you never knew what creepy crawlies were lurking there! But even my Aunt's outside loo would be unheard of luxury for so many in our world. Ever day families are at risk from illness and infection, girls and women are put at risk of rape or attack, because not just their homes have no toilets, but the whole village does not have adequate latrines. Try to imagine having a tummy bug in those circumstances.
If like us, you have the luxury of a toilet downstairs as well as upstairs, or even if you just have the one loo, then you can give thanks in a practical way. There is a charity that twins toilets that works to bring about change.
This is what they say on their approach to building toilets:
Our partners help set up small village committees, of both men and women, to look at the link between practices such as open defecation and ill health. For many, this is a revelation: they have never understood why their children fall ill with sickness and diarrhoea in the rainy season. Then, they are keen to have a latrine.
But before latrine-building starts, there’s hygiene education on practices such as handwashing. This is key to behaviour change in the long term.
Our partners involve local people in deciding on the design and materials to be used in latrine building. This means latrines are both appropriate and affordable.
People generally build their own latrine, and this means they are much more likely to continue to use it, and maintain it – ensuring the project is sustainable.
We strongly believe that the best way to bring transformation in poor communities is to work with them, rather than doing things for them. It’s all about dignity and self-respect.

How about twinning your smallest room? 

Saturday, 11 November 2017


Poppies - when to start wearing them, and what colour?

When I was an idealistic teenager, and through my twenties, I either didn't wear a poppy, or wore a white 'peace pledge union' poppy.
I identified as a pacifist, and was convinced that if attacked I would not retaliate. Whilst volunteering as a church youth worker, this was put to the test, and I can remember with horrific clarity the time when a tall youngster drew a knife across my cheek, because I required him to remove himself and the weapon from the youth club, (thankfully he had used the blunt side of the blade so no permanent damage was done - although I seem to remember barring him for 6 weeks). I also recall certain friends in the SWP (when I was an active Trade Unionist), used to talk in terms of 'come the revolution'. At which point I would always reply 'well you'll have to shoot me first', they would be perplexed and say - but you are on our side, however I would point out that as a pacifist I would feel compelled to resist peacefully. (Whether I would have had the courage of my convictions I very much doubt, but I hope it caused them to pause and think!)
This all changed however, once our children were born, and I became more self aware. The instinct to protect them was overwhelming, and I realised I would have no compunction in resorting to violence if they were threatened. I also became painfully aware that I had within myself a terrible tendency to lose my temper, and that violence in each one of us is not so far beneath the surface.
With these contradictory feelings in mind, I gave up wearing a poppy for a long time, as I felt that the red poppy 'celebrated' war, and had connotation of  nationalistic pride. I did however, feel that the work the British Legion did among veterans was important and should be supported. Working for a couple of years in homeless charities made me acutely aware  of the number of ex-service personnel on our streets. People who had been so traumatized by war that they found it difficult to fit back into society. Families that had suffered break and domestic violence because those returning from active service had turned to alcohol or drugs to dull the memories of what they had seen, and then taken out their problems on their families.
Then I came into the ministry. I was expected not only to take Remembrance day services in churches, but also take part in Civic ceremonies.  It seemed disresectful not to wear a red poppy.
Until the day I realised that I wasn't being true to myself. I bought myself a white peace poppy again. I put it onto my cassock, and added a red poppy. I wore this at a local Anglican church near Hemel Hempstead for the afternoon Remembrance service where I was preaching. As I climbed up the pulpit steps I felt the glares of the row of veterans following me, including the local MP who had served in the SAS, all looking at my white poppy alongside the red one. I explained during my sermon how I felt, how we should remember all the casulties of war, combatants, civiials and conscience objectors. How privileged I was that others gave up thier lives so that I and people like me might have freedom of speach, and how it is incumbant on us all to remember but also to work for peace and be true to our own beliefs.
I still take issue with the innate pressure via the media to wear a poppy and to start wearing them at the beginning of November. I still have concerns about the hijacking of extreme right wing groups of the poppy symbol on social media, and the implication that if you don't wear a red poppy you are unpatriotic. But overall I feel that the white and red poppy together pinned on the week before Remembrance Sunday is right for me. And I am still convinced that peace needs to start with the individual, ie with ourselves, there is no point in praying for a peace 'out there' if we don't tackle the issues within ourselves.
So as in previous years in my ministry - this will be the prayer that will start our service tomorrow:

We light this candle, as a sign of hope for the world, which God created and loves, and for which our Lord Jesus Christ died.
Today we think especially of those who work for justice and peace by serving in our Armed Forces, and those who watch and wait for their safe return.
We pray for peace in our hearts, and in our homes, in our nation and in our world.The peace of Your will and of our need.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Crutches & Loving Kindness

Loving Kindness

Some of you may know that I've had an injury to my knee. Entirely self inflicted, in that I went to a different exercise class than my normal Pilates, and mistook my body's ability to cope with lots of bending at a 'barre class'. I then compounded the error by not resting and continuing to cycle. This nearly resulted in my first Harvest festival service at Bishop's Stortford being memorable for all the wrong reasons, as not being able to weight bear on my left leg I stumbled in front of the harvest display and ended up clinging onto the microphone stand!
Thankfully a lovely physio named Julie (recommended via church members) has taken me in hand, used all her skills to reduce the swelling and insisted that I use a crutch for walking to prevent further injury.
Those of you who know me well, will realise that I'm not very good at sitting still, nor am I great at patience. However I have had to learn a bit over the last 4 weeks. I also know that I am quite proud, and accepting that I might have to request mobility assistance for our short break in Croatia was , for me a hard thing to do. Those who advised that I should have a wheelchair were absolutely right as Stansted airport has long distances to be covered between security and departures.
What struck me though, has been the amount of loving kindness shown to me by complete strangers. The staff at Stansted and at Split airport were incredibly thoughtful, the apartment owner where we were staying for the first night took one look at my crutch and re-arranged our accommodation so we were on the ground floor. And an incident in the old town of Split has really stayed with me. We were exploring (slowly) around the narrow ancient alleyways when our path was blocked by a tour group. As I couldn't easily get past we listened to the blurb, and the guide said we were outside St Michael's the narrowest church in Europe. So when the crowds had departed we went to see this little church. Many narrow steps later I was wishing we hadn't and wondering how I was going to get back down! The church itself was amazing and we gave the nun on duty the required donation of 10 kuna. Because of my crutch she tried to give it back, and then said 'wait a moment'. She locked her little study and led us through a side door into the convent where - joy of joys, she shepherded  us into a lift. The small convent of Dominican nuns had just 7 residents, and the nun gave us a blessing as we departed. But she had already blessed us greatly by her loving kindness.
Back home, a cafe owner waived the price of my coffee, and yesterday some of the church flowers were delivered to the manse. Small actions in themselves but ones that have touched me greatly. This Sunday's bible reading is on the greatest commandment - love God and love your neighbour. This love for one another, this loving kindness, can be shown in so many ways, and I am so grateful to have received it.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017


Harvest Celebrations take many forms, but almost all involve wonderfully decorated churches. In many fruit and veg take center stage (one of my previous churches used to have an amazing display of pumpkins donated by a local allotment holder). But if donations of fresh fruit and veg are brought in, there is the problem of what to do with it all. Elderly church members can only eat so much!
Bishop's Stortford church was far more pragmatic in terms of gifts- tinned and dry goods were requested to be split between Whitechapel Mission and the local food bank that meets on our premises. Flowers went to cheer those who were sick or lonely, and knitted blankets to elderly patients in our local hospital.
As someone new to Bishop's Stortford I admit that I was surprised that a foodbank was necessary in what seems a very affluent area. I was even more surprised when at the local clergy meeting I was told about the cold winter night shelter run by a church a few hundred yards away, with help from all the local churches. But first appearances can be deceptive, and cutting through a local park on my bike, I found myself in the area of the town that you don't normally drive through, which is apparently one of the most socially deprived housing estates in Hertfordshire.Yet less than a mile away the pretty high street is full of coffee shops, restaurants and expensive boutique shops.
And I started to wonder, how do we celebrate harvest and all the good things around us, which includes creativity, science, innovation as well as the food we eat, when so many of our neighbours are struggling to get through to the next benefit payment, and having to rely on charity.
Perhaps our harvest celebrations should include giving thanks for those who challenge the injustices, as well as those who help in direct ways by volunteering in Food Banks and CABs. I believe that as Christians we need not just to be thankful, to be generous with what we have been given both in terms of time, talents and money, but we also need to campaign to bring about a more just world, where food banks are no longer necessary, and where the world's resources are shared equitably. Its a tall order - but Jesus didn't say it would be easy, but rather that His Spirit would give us the strength to carry on.

Monday, 18 September 2017

Coming home, guest and host!

Coming home, guest and host!

Well we've settled into the new manse..... some boxes still remain upstairs but we have committed ourselves to an Open House at the manse on Saturday, so this should galvanize us into more action this week,  (not to mention getting the baking sorted)
It is beginning to feel more like home because:
- books are up on the shelves in the study (if not yet fully sorted into categories)
- most of our pictures are up and on the walls
- the wonderful array of kitchen cabinets are getting filled
- the dogs are ecstatic about their new garden

However, a lot still needs to be done, with the boxes remaining upstairs, Graham's desk is yet to be sorted and a small corner cabinet is defying attempts to get it placed straight on the wall. The garage is still refusing to yield up the tools we need for certain jobs, and somehow the seed potatoes lovingly cared for by a friend so they wouldn't have to go into store appear to have walked, but these, at the end of the day  are minor considerations. We have been made so welcome by church and circuit members.
I was thinking about what makes a house a home, and for me, it was installing our two dogs and finding the right space for their baskets, getting the pictures that give colour and lift my spirits up onto the wall, like Ric Stott's amazing prints

Then there is also starting to cook in the lovely double oven, and once we have managed to cook for others then it will truly feel that we have not just arrived, but are at home.
At a Synod workshop I attended on Saturday, Revd Hannah Bucke challenged us to think about the church as a guest as well as a host, in just the same way that Jesus' ministry had both elements in it.
Over the past few weeks we have been blessed by being guests - a longer stay with our daughter and son-in-law in Scotland than was originally planned the most obvious one during August, but also we have been guests in church member's homes in Stortford too, and the welcome I have received on pastoral visits has been so generous.  Now we are getting ready to be hosts for the Open House, but I think that  to put guests at ease, we have to remember not simply to be a hospitable host, but also to bear in mind what it is like to receive, as well as give.

Advent - waiting and watching

Advent is a time for waiting - children are desperate to know 'how many sleeps' till the big day. Grown ups are wondering if they ar...