I was scrolling through the blogosphere when an advert came up for the British Army. I’m pretty open to their cause and have a strange affinity because I grew up with a parent serving in the British Army. But something in me winced at this advert.
You see, their advertising has always been targeted but now it’s reaching into the hearts of the many people who have a sense of missing something. It reaches into the heart of the person who feels as though they don’t belong by offering them the one thing they want: a place to belong.
What does it mean to truly belong?
Often people allow fitting in and belonging to become interchangeable, when they actually sit opposite to one another. Fitting in is about changing yourself to be accepted – to fit in you can’t necessarily be yourself. On the other hand, belonging is about being yourself and being accepted and embraced anyway.
It’s because of this distinction, I think, that so many of us have felt that sense of not belonging at some point in our lives. And, oh what sweet relief, when we finally find people we can be real with, be entirely ourselves with. The joy of true friendship has been when I’ve completely messed up. That sounds strange, but it is so freeing to have people who we can turn to and say, “I seriously screwed up here,” and know that they’ll stand by us anyway. And yet, the problem with finding belonging in the people around us, or in our jobs, or our homes, is that these things inevitably shift and change. I know that I’ve loved moving house and yet, I’ve struggled with the shift in relationships. My friends are still my friends, even 100 miles away, but it isn’t the same. I don’t belong in that place anymore and that is uncomfortable.
For me (and for millions of others around the world), the truest belonging is found in relationship with Jesus Christ. It doesn’t matter how badly I screw up, I can always turn to Him. It’s not without challenge, as we constantly reflect on our lives and little by little try to live better. My relationship with Jesus has changed so much over the last 30 years, but not because he has changed. Rather, he’s changed me. I’ve shifted and grown, and yet Jesus has stayed the same. His constant unchanging presence and truth has enabled me to find a deep sense of belonging that isn’t on offer anywhere else.
At the heart of belonging is Jesus’ offering of grace. It is this grace which allows us the space to be imperfect, to love and live imperfectly and yet to somehow belong at the same time. The world is full of imperfect people, living imperfectly and yet trying to mask their imperfections through literal or digital filters. This is dangerous, not least because filters lead to a lack of grace for ourselves, but also towards others. It’s dangerous because we slowly view ourselves through that lens of judgement and shame.
“If only they knew what you were really like…”
“If everyone knew what you did…”
“If only they knew who you really were…”
When we view ourselves through this lens, there isn’t a lot of room for grace… and there isn’t a lot of room for belonging either. This is fitting in, holding up the filter, hoping it never falls. Brene Brown says, “Those who have a strong sense of love and belonging have the courage to be imperfect.” Today, it truly is an act of courage to openly be imperfect… but to do so requires the truest sense of belonging.
Belonging in community
The other thing about finding true belonging in Jesus, abundantly surrounded by grace, is that it roots itself in community. The church doesn’t always get it right, but at its best it is trying to create that grace-filled space for people to enter into and to belong. Unfortunately, many Christians are the harshest judges, refusing to extend even the slightest amount of grace they themselves have received. But my hope is we can do better.
My hope is that we might be people who accept Jesus’ invitation into relationship with him because, when we do, we accept his invitation for grace and love; we accept his invitation to find an eternal belonging. A belonging that doesn’t shift. A belonging that isn’t dependent upon life’s circumstances.
My prayer is that we might be people who extend that grace to other people so they might also find belonging, and learn to drop the mask.
Welcome. Please, come in. You won’t find perfect people here, but we hope you will find belonging.
A reflection from Sunday morning at Uffington Parish Church on Sunday 11th September 2022, with readings from Luke 15 and 1 Timothy 1.
I wonder which person you see yourself as in the readings today. Are you a righteous person? Or are you a sinner? The good news that we read in our scriptures is that it doesn’t matter which one we think we are, God rejoices in finding the lost. The parable Jesus tells points us to the fact that, no matter what, God pursues us. Why? Because he loves us and longs for us. This was a truth Queen Elizabeth II knew very well, with her oft-declared faith in the person of Jesus Christ. As I was reflecting on these passages, the Queen’s Christmas broadcasts came to mind. I was particularly struck by something she said just a few years ago:
Although we are capable of great acts of kindness, history teaches us that we sometimes need saving from ourselves – from our recklessness or our greed. God sent into the world a unique person – neither a philosopher nor a general (important though they are) – but a Saviour, with the power to forgive. Forgiveness lies at the heart of the Christian faith. It can heal broken families, it can restore friendships and it can reconcile divided communities. It is in forgiveness that we feel the power of God’s love. It is my prayer that on this Christmas day we might all find room in our lives for the love of God through Christ our Lord. (Queen Elizabeth II, Christmas Broadcast 2015)
The really good news for us today is that the love Queen Elizabeth II spoke of at Christmas in 2015 is the same love we are invited into in our readings today. It isn’t just for Christmas, but for all time. First, we hear of the shepherd, leaving the 99 sheep in the field to chase after and bring home the 1 lost sheep. Then, we hear of the woman who furiously cleans her house because she has lost 1 of her precious 10 coins. When they find their precious lost sheep and coin, both shepherd and woman rejoice.
This is the gospel. The good news. We are all sinners, as Paul says, each of us imperfect – even the Queen. This might not sound like good news, but it doesn’t stop there. Jesus’ parables don’t stop with us all remaining lost, rather we are pursued, found and rejoiced in. This is a love that knows no bounds.
This is the gospel, then. We are all sinners… but… Jesus.
We are all sinners, but… Jesus seeks us out.
We are all sinners, but… Jesus pursues us.
We are all sinners, but… Jesus loves us. He rejoices in us.
This is the love which Queen Elizabeth II so often spoke of. This week, though, it was with deep sorrow that Buckingham Palace announced the death of her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II on Thursday evening. Whether expected, or not, death – whenever it comes and however it comes – is always interruptive, indiscriminate and painful. It takes us by surprise, somehow, and unflinchingly unmasks the lie that we can and will live forever.
Whatever you think of the place of the Royal Family in our national life, there is – at the centre of what has happened here – a human being like any other, and a family coming to terms with a deep loss, in the midst of their heartache and grief. A family who will find it incredibly difficult to reimagine the landscape of their shared life without their beloved mother, grandmother and great-grandmother.
As for the Queen herself: what a remarkable life, characterised by love, loyalty, and service to country, and to those she loved so deeply. She leaves an enormous legacy behind her.
Yet death cannot and does not have the final word. As Christians, we believe this to be trustworthy and true, for we are an Easter people. Jesus Christ has gone ahead of us in both life and death, and it is his resurrection from the dead that is the basis of our confidence that love bears all and that love conquers all. Love is the light we bear to a broken world and love is the very richest legacy that we leave behind us.
One of my favourite television programmes is Call the Midwife, not just because of the brilliant social commentary through the 20th Century, but also for its beautiful reflections on the Christian faith. It’s the sort of programme I can just imagine Queen Elizabeth II probably loved. In one episode, one of the religious order reflects, “For just as the swan’s last song is the sweetest of its life, so loss is made endurable by love, and it is love that will echo through eternity.”
It is for her life of steadfast love and service, we give thanks to God for Queen Elizabeth II today. But we also think today of St Luke, and St Paul, and countless other faithful servants who have gone before us. All imperfect and fallible human beings, transformed and redeemed by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Queen’s prayer was that we might all find room in our hearts and lives for the love of God through Jesus Christ.
My prayer for each of us is that the gospel of LOVE that inspired Queen Elizabeth II and that she lived by might inspire each of us to commit ourselves to a life of faithful service… a life lived with the love of Jesus and love for other at the centre, both now and in the years to come.
A whole year ago I wrote in my diary one question: Will I make it to one year?
This was because I had already begun to struggle with the cost of unpaid ordained ministry juggled with my paid job (teaching) and wider family life too. I sat with one of our bishops and shared that the pattern wasn’t sustainable and that I wasn’t sure if I’d make it to the end of my first ordained year, never mind to the end of my curacy.
Well, I made it to one year… but in a way unimaginable this time last year.
I had hoped there might be a stipend (paid role) for me, an investment in me, an imaginative solution to the problem of the ever-increasing over-stretching of self.
Did I think I’d find it in rural Shropshire?
I’d never visited the place, not even for a day trip – though I came dangerously close on a road trip once upon a time.
But an invitation was extended… to follow Jesus to Shropshire, that I might find space to grow into myself as a minister, wife and mum.
“But I heard less of the crazy talk and a lot more of the wise talk and I was hopeful enough to keep listening until the day I found myself transformed into an entire garden of roses.” Mary Oliver, Rumi
The poet, Mary Oliver, expresses the kind of total life transformation that somehow takes us completely by surprise. As the protagonist follows the famous fellow with “long beard and dusty feet”, they linger on, listening with hope.
There is no indication of time lapsed between this hopeful following and the transformation, and yet we know that time must have lapsed. A garden of roses takes time. A garden of roses requires patience and imagination. It requires careful pruning and a skilled gardener. It requires love.
The same too for our lives, as we accept the invitation to follow Jesus. It will bring transformation, some of which may be sudden and immediately noticeable, much of which we will only notice when we’re surrounded by the roses.
A whole year ago I couldn’t have imagined much of how the 12 months would unfold. There was a lot of pain, as the pruning and cutting back has taken place. But there’s also been joy and laughter in abundance. That’s life, I suppose. A mixture of painful thorns amongst beautiful roses. I am just so very thankful for the patient gardener working in my life.
The most loving gardener.
His name is Jesus and he invites you to follow him into hope.
She sat at the back and they said she was shy, She led from the front and they hated her pride, They asked her advice and then questioned her guidance, They branded her loud, then were shocked by her silence.
When she shared no ambition they said it was sad, So she told them her dreams and they said she was mad. They told her they’d listen, then covered their ears, And gave her a hug while they laughed at her fears.
And she listened to all of it thinking she should Be the girl they older to be, best as she could. But one day she asked what was best for herself, Instead of trying to please everyone else…
So she walked through the forest and stood with the trees, She heard the wind whisper and dance with the leaves. She spoke to the willow, the elm and the pine, And she told them what she’d been told time after time.
She told them she felt she was never enough, She was either too little or far far too much, Too loud or too quiet, too fierce or too weak, Too wise or too foolish, too bold or too meek.
Then she found a small clearing surrounded by firs, And she stopped… And she heard what the trees said to her, And she sat there for hours not wanting to leave, For the forest said nothing.
Let’s be honest… when we hear about prophecies, visions and strange murmurings, we either think of Bruno or we are reminded of the series of seemingly strange men in the Old Testament. If you’ve got a child under 18, are a Disney fan, or perhaps have even just looked at music charts in the last few weeks, you’ll no doubt have picked up on this (very) catchy song from Disney’s newest offering: Encanto. Bruno is introduced as a strange family member who can’t help but apparently ruin the lives of those around him… or so they say.
In case you haven’t seen the film, it centres on a family who have each been given as children. Each of these gifts helps the family and the community. Most of the gifts are pretty cool (super human strength, for example), but Bruno’s gift – the gift of prophesy and truth telling – appears to be more of a curse. So much so, he spends most of the film missing in action and has an entire song dedicated to telling us all why they don’t even talk about him. Despite their best efforts to paint this picture of Bruno as a mad-man, in reality he is no more mad than the rest, with their strange ways and powers. He is, put simply, a truth teller. And, for some, the truth is scary.
Bruno isn’t, though, the first truth teller to have ever existed. There have been many truth tellers in the past, and many exist today. In the church, we call them prophets. Prophets are people who speak truth into situations, pointing people back to God even in the most difficult of times. In the Bible, we meet many prophets who speak truth about certain situations, often to their own great danger. For example, we see Daniel literally fed to the lions because he refuses to bow down to a different god. We meet Moses, who tells Pharaoh to let the Hebrew people leave their bondage in Egypt, chased by a ferocious army. John the Baptist comes and warns people that the Kingdom of God is coming and they must repent, turn back to God and be baptised. Eventually, he ends up being beheaded and his head being served on a silver platter.
To be a prophet is dangerous work. It is to face the wind head on, and point to Jesus, no matter what’s happening. It is to stand up and tell the truth, even if you know the people hearing your message aren’t going to like it. It is to challenge and to hold both mirror and window up to society: a mirror so people can see the reality of their actions; a window so people can glimpse something of the goodness of God in their situation. As I said previously, people don’t often like the truth. It rocks the boat and disempowers the status quo.
Each year, in Lent, I think of the prophets who came before Jesus, who gave up everything to point people towards his coming. I think of the people who I’ve met in my lifetime, who bear the cost of pointing others towards Jesus, challenging behaviour and demanding better of the people around them. This Lent, let us pray for more prophets and truth tellers; for more people who point us towards Jesus, no matter the cost. May we raise up children who are fierce in pursuit of the truth, and fervent in their love for Christ. Amen.
Notes for talking to children: many of the short reflections I am releasing over Lent use songs that children will likely know well. Please feel free to use them to talk to your child/ren about Jesus and faith. Prophets is particularly tricky, as they may have questions about whether the prophets in the Old Testament had eyes that glowed green and could they tell if someone’s fish was about to die – as in Encanto. However, the focus, I think, is on a) the keeping close to God and developing that listening ear to hear what God is saying and b) the speaking of truth, even when that might be really hard. As ever, honesty, openness and authenticity is key with our child/ren. They often teach us more than we teach them.
In one of the final scenes of The Railway Children, based on the book by Edith Nesbit, we see Bobbie stood on the train platform, filled with smoke. Dare she hope that her father has finally come home. As the smoke dissipates, her eyes catch the form of her father and she runs towards him shouting, “Daddy, my Daddy!”
I had similar experiences as a child and this is perhaps why The Railway Children is such a favourite of mine. My dad was an Army Chaplain and so I had many a moment where my daddy was missing from my side, and many a reunion moment.
In this moment, Bobbie’s dreams come to fruition, all her anxieties are cast aside. There he is, at last. Her daddy. Daddy would make their lives complete once more. He would ensure they never went hungry and fill the empty space his absence had created in their hearts and lives.
In the same way, in our reading this morning, the crowds come towards Jesus with great expectation and anticipation. They have been waiting for the one; the Messiah. They had been able to turn to John the Baptist for reassurance, but – as we heard in our reading a fortnight ago – John had been brutally beheaded. Who else could they turn to?
Jesus. News about him has spread. Here they think they see a new prophet, like one of old. A prophet who they could rely on to lead them back to Yahweh. The crowds come to see and hear from this man, Jesus. He offers reassurance of God’s love for them. He brings security for those deemed unfit to worship in the temple. He feeds them. He feeds their minds, with truth; their hearts, with compassion; their bodies, with miracles.
Jesus refers to God has his Father. He cries on multiple occasions, “Abba!” This is the equivalent of “Daddy!” Through Jesus, the people have their own “Daddy, my Daddy!” moment. God has not forgotten them in their plight and pain. They were not alone in their present circumstances of oppression and foreign invasion. They need not fear. God the Father, their Daddy, had remembered them and come to them himself.
What about us then?
Where do we find our comfort and reassurance?
We have the good news of Jesus’ resurrection.
And Jesus told us to call God “Abba!” He told us to call God, “Daddy.”
Each time we encounter God, we have our own Bobbie moment on the railway platform.
Each time we encounter God through the Eucharist. Each time we encounter God through singing. Each time we encounter God through the reading of scripture and prayer. But also, each time we encounter God in the ordinary. The washing up. The daily walk. The chat with an old friend. For me, it was in the night-time feeds with my daughter when she was a baby. Even in the darkest times, we don’t need to be afraid. Jesus comes through the storm and climbs into the boat with you.
The beauty is that we don’t get to call God “Daddy” because of anything we do or say. It doesn’t matter if we have read our Bible every day, or not at all. We can call God “Daddy” because of who God is. He is our heavenly daddy.
Find somewhere quiet, and take stock of how you’re feeling. When you feel hard pushed, what do you turn to? Be honest. Do I reach for the phone to speak to someone before I speak to God? Do I reach for that comforting food, before I reach for the comforting nourishment of scripture?
Read the verses from John 6: 1-21 again. And remember that, however you’re feeling, because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, we have the beautiful right to encounter God as Daddy, to feel his comforting touch and hear his comforting words: “It is I: Don’t be afraid.”
“Daddy, my Daddy!”
(Sermon given at Winmarleigh Church on Sunday 25th July 2021.)
It’s been 4 years, 7 months and 11 days since you came into this world. Pink, fleshy, craving warmth and human touch.
Since then you’ve become loud, energetic and confident. Sometimes we say you’re sassy. Sometimes you seem like a teenager, full of mood, eye rolls and attitude. But, mostly, you are, I tell people, a delight. You are a joy-bringer.
You make up your own songs. You sing your own tunes. You dance and pirouette with great seriousness. And you never stop talking.
It’s wonderful. The soundtrack of our lives together. You and me. In the car. Or the supermarket. Or the living room. Or the park. Or church. Or in bed on our lazy mornings. Chattering and laughing and (sometimes) crying. My days will certainly be quieter without you around.
My darling daughter, I will miss you as you step out into this brave new world. As others mould you and listen to you, as they become a bigger part of your world and my influence on you lessens, my prayer for you is simple.
That you would always be close to Jesus.
That you would know his infinite love for you, and your infinite worth to Him.
And I pray, oh I pray, you’ll come home each day, full of the same joie de vivre you started school with. And full of chatter for me to drink in. And when the days come (and they will come) when the joy is gone and school makes you sad, or sick, or anxious, I pray you’ll crawl into my arms and seek comfort where it’s safe.
Never forget how incredible you are, my dear girl. And never, ever, ever let anyone tell you you’re “too much”. Because, my dear, dear daughter, you are effortlessly brilliant and you’re going to set the world on fire.
I so look forward to seeing how this new adventure of yours goes.
This week we hear from Hilary Hopwood, a retired French teacher in the North of England. Her school was one of the first nationally to gain the International Schools Award, and she was invited by the British Council to help pioneer this award in India, and to serve on their adjudication panels for both the international School Award and the Global Curriculum Award. Locally, Hilary has served as chair and now co-chair of East Meets West – Women of Faith Together. Formed in 2006, East meets West aims to bring together women living in the Lancaster area who have different faiths and cultural backgrounds, mostly Christian and Moslem, but welcome participation from all faiths. Their current programme includes Healthy Living Project, swimming sessions and many other activities to enjoy together.
Q1. How do you pray? Silently, or out loud, mostly as part of my devotional rhythm which involves liturgy, Bible reading, reading reflections and meditations, and intercessions. If I have a particular person or issue on my mind I will shoot up ‘arrow prayers’ at regular intervals throughout the day. I like both set prayers and to pray spontaneously.
Q2. How do you read the Bible? It depends on what I have chosen as a structure. For a few years I followed the lectionary which included daily readings from Old and New Testaments and the psalms around a theme. If it was the OT I often carried on reading beyond the prescribed passage because I wanted to follow the story! Also I have often found that the set readings leave out the gory bits or sections that appear to conflict with modern mores and I like to read them too. I don’t want a sanitized version of the Bible. I rarely use a commentary but wish I knew Greek and Hebrew so that I could have a better understanding of the original text. My current structure, a new one that I like very much, only gives one or two verses from OT and NT and psalms which don’t provide the context so I frequently read the verses before and after to get a better idea.
Q3. What’s your favourite Bible verse for this season? I don’t have one, and the notion of favourite verses doesn’t mean much to me either. Of course many verses are well known and were learned in my childhood, and I do feel a certain affection for them but I am aware that there is plenty in the Bible I have not yet read. But knowing some verses by heart is useful as they offer inspiration and guidance.
Q4. What songs are you singing at the moment? The songs I sing with my choir, especially as we have a zoom rehearsal every week. I have also played and sung songs I wrote years ago. Sometimes old choruses from my youth and hymns come to mind and I sing them in my head. We exercise to music and the range is everything from classical to rock, folk, pop and jazz.
Q5. What is bringing you joy in lockdown? Simple pleasures! Everything from gardening to cooking, cycling, Netflix, Whatsapp calls and texts, Zoom conferences with my family, community group (East Meets West), and choir, and reconnecting with our former church in London online. I am more in touch with old friends from childhood than ever before. In fact thinking about these questions is making me realise how much the past is feeding me during lockdown!
I also enjoy my daily video chats with the asylum seeker I support. The relationships within our community group have further developed through the lockdown and that is a real source of mutual joy and blessing. I would say the same about my weekly calls to my aged aunt, and occasional calls to a cousin who lives alone and whom I rarely had contact with prior to the lockdown. Generally it is the peace and quiet, the regular rhythm of life, the increased contact with nature and the wonderful weather that I am enjoying.
How about you? I love that idea of the past feeding us in the present. I’m not sure I’d been aware of it. Who could you reconnect with at this time? I’m going to make sure I ring my grandma more regularly.
Today About Her goes overseas to Mombasa, Kenya to hear from Brenda Kanyasi. Brenda is the admin office manager at Tumaini School (set up by Education for Life) , and lives in the community nearby. Brenda is involved in school and her church activities. She loves kids and has tremendous compassion for families in need. Brenda is hugely knowledgeable and wise, she is also very humble and loves to see people succeed.
Q1. How do you pray? I do find a silent place where I can’t get interrupted, that is either lock myself in the room, sit or sometimes kneel down,sometimes a too lazy and when lying down I do pray too. I always do a thanks giving prayer or a request prayer. Sometimes, I do it silently in my heart either when at work or just busy with work.
Q2. How do you read the Bible? Honestly I have someone from church that sends me every days reading on my WhatsApp so that helps me easily each day to get the reading or either like now sometimes I get also from different friends sharing the reading of every Sunday on WhatsApp and this helps me easily to read the Bible.
Sometimes I read books or motivational stories where people share testimonies and bible verses, I use different types of methods to read the Bible.
Q3. What’s your favourite Bible verse for this season? Psalm 23.
Q4. What songs are you singing at the moment? Praise and worship songs eg a song called I have no other God than you. You have done what no man has done, you will do what no man can by Nathaniel Bassey.
Q5. What is bringing you joy in lockdown? I can still get my salary which helps me put food on my table and support the family and I am still safe and believe I will be safe from the virus.
Being able to support at least one poor family during this season despite the little I provide but seeing the smile on their face makes me feel happy and blessed.
I am trying to keep in touch with friends, trying to spend most of my time with children at the orphanage: working together, chatting, praying together and watching games that they do during free time and join in where I can.
I also do some work (job duties) to help me feel normal.
Massive thanks to Brenda for sharing her everyday faith in this time. A wonderful reminder that the church of God is not bound by country borders. Perhaps today you can spend some time reading Psalm 23 – by yourself, or with a friend – and asking God to remind you of how he shepherds you. Or widen your playlist and listen to more from Nathaniel Bassey here.