Back in September we had a new arrival in our family – Biscuit, the hamster. She had been long awaited, a gift promised because of a house move across the country. Our 6 year old was so very excited and, although she hasn’t done the lion’s share of looking after it, she has adored this tiny furry friend (or sister as she was referred to from time to time).
Sadly, we found lovely Biscuit dead in her bed this week. She had been fine, running around her cage, eating her food, running on her wheel. She should have lived for at least a year, if not two. Her death is very unexpected.
I share this because we aren’t surrounded by opportunities to talk about death and the heartache that comes. It was almost simpler when my grannie (the 6 year old’s great-grannie) died in the autumn. She was old, she was poorly for a few days beforehand, and she was slightly removed from our day-to-day family life. Of course, my daughter was sad when Grannie Mac died, but with Biscuit it’s been something else.
When my husband and I discovered Biscuit’s furry corpse, still so soft and cuddly feeling, my natural instinct was protection. “Could we just go and buy her an identical one? Replace Biscuit before she notices?” I asked my husband anxiously. Thankfully, my husband is much better at this than me.
“No,” he said, “We’ve got to do this properly.”
Despite my best instincts to shelter my little one from the heartache of sudden death and loss, the best protection that lasts long-term is the type of protection that allows you to develop a strong heart for the future. Not cold-hearted and impenetrable, where no pain and loss makes a mark. Instead, a strong-heartedness that knows that, in time, despite the current heartache, you will overcome the loss that death provides.
We told her. As the words came out of my mouth, her face crumpled as she let out a cry. The tears came and it was devastating to watch her as she experienced the depths of grief for a beloved family member. As the news has settled, we’ve talked about how we might say goodbye to our furry friend. We’ve shared our favourite things about her. We’ve let our daughter cry and grieve as best as we can, even though – to us – it was just a £10 hamster from Pets at Home.
There are hundreds of websites out there that will tell you how to break the news of death to a child, how to talk about death, how to help your child grieve when the time comes. This is not one of those. Rather, this is one pained mother encouraging you to be honest with your child. To hold them close when the tears come, and to keep pointing them onwards to a time when they won’t feel so much heartache.
Death and heartache are an inevitable part of life. Our job, as parents, is to enable our children to walk this painful path with hope and love.
I try not to think of the future or the past, if I can help it. It’s too easy to let the imagination get carried away dreaming grand dreams for the future, and too simple to let the mind dwell on all that has gone before.
Yet, I do often think of the past.
I find myself wondering how different life would be if I had made different decisions along the way. I think about the events of my life and how, for better or worse, they have formed me. I wonder whether there is anyone who knows absolutely all of my past and still chooses to be with me in the present anyway.
I guess the good news is that there is someone.
Jesus came into the world to restore our relationship with God the Father. Isn’t that incredible?
I was reading Genesis 16 this morning and Hagar speaks of the God who sees her. It is quite something to think of. How many of us have a longing to be really seen? To be known and understood, and loved and affirmed anyway?
So, yes, I think of the past. I wonder how it might be different, not because I am unhappy with the status quo, but because that’s what my mind does: wonders. And I do wonder, and marvel, that there is a God who sees me – all of me – and chooses to be with me in the present and I know he will be with me in the future.
It’s the first day of the New Year and my various email inboxes has been inundated with sales and offers all generated to muster up this image of new me. This new me is, as based on the 25 or so emails I’ve received from various companies, a requisite of human existence. Now, I am far from the perfect person: I get cross, I nitpick, I fall into the trap of being too ‘busy’ for others, I lack generosity of thought towards others. Clearly, I am not such a good person. In fact, you could say, there is much room for improvement.
But when is enough enough? Which of these many emails with offers of help for self-improvement will finally allow me to be a better version of myself? I have lost count of the money wasted on gym plans unused, recipe plans uncooked and self-help books unread.
In all likelihood and in reality, none of these supposed fixes possess the power to improve myself… at least, not in the way that I need improving. In all likelihood and reality, I will finish 2023 the same weight as I am now, wearing the same clothes, with the same hairstyle and the same penchant for late nights, chocolate binging and Netflix.
I have been fooled over many years into believing that there is something fundamentally wrong with almost everything about me and my behaviour. I am fatally flawed and so, as each new year arrives, I make unsustainable promises to myself about exercise and food, my appearance, my emotions. I have been conditioned by companies to believe that there is something that needs to be fixed in my life… and, crucially, I have wrongly believed that they have the antidote.
Over the last few years, though, I have come to realise that this is not the case. Don’t worry. I am not delusional; I am well aware of my imperfections. However, I have become more aware that the shame I feel around my body, or my mental health, or my behaviour when I am under pressure, or even just my neurodivergent-related organisational problems, will not be solved by the very companies who have spent so much of my life conditioning that shame into being. I have become more aware that my imperfection does not require a new me each January. It’s not that I don’t wish to change, or even that I don’t think I need to change. It’s that I know that a new me isn’t strictly for a new year. It’s that I want to get off the treadmill where I am sold an idea as though it is a necessity.
And yet, I am hopeful for some change, because I know that within me there is a great desire for good change. There is a desire to be kinder (to myself and others), to go deeper into relationships, to grow into myself and my voice whilst maintaining humility. There is a desire for change that lasts and that matters; there is a desire for a change, not of my dress size, but of my heart size.
I am hopeful that, as I spend more time with my bible and praying, that I might become more aware of the magnitude of God’s love for me. I am hopeful that, as I become more aware of that love, I might feel less shame around the things which hold me back. I am hopeful that God will do the work on my heart if I would only allow him in. I am hopeful that I will be less nitpicky, less busy, less cross and more generous. Not because it’s a new year and new me, but because God is enlarging my heart and calling me to be more like the me he created me to be. He is calling me to be more like him, to be with him.
New year, new me? No. It’s a new year, same me. But this year, I am hopeful that God will continue to draw me close to him, that I may know my true worth lies not in the quick fixes offered by companies, but in his inescapable heart-enlarging love for me.
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.
I call this An Ordinand’s Sermon Part 2, because it follows on from a sermon I preached to my formation group at college in February last year. It’s funny, because whilst this sermon is not on the same passage of scripture, it seems (to me, anyway) to be the perfect part 2. God’s funny like that, isn’t he?
Afterward Jesus appeared again to his disciples, by the Sea of Galilee. It happened this way: Simon Peter, Thomas (also known as Didymus), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples were together.“I’m going out to fish,” Simon Peter told them, and they said, “We’ll go with you.” So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus. He called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?” “No,” they answered. He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.”When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish. Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, “It is the Lord,” he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water. The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were not far from shore, about a hundred yards.When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you have just caught.” So Simon Peter climbed back into the boat and dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead. When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.” The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!” (John 21: 1-19)
“I’m going fishing,” says Peter, utterly fed up and craving normality. Life has not turned out the way he had thought, when he said ‘yes’ to following Jesus 3 years earlier. He had said ‘yes’ to becoming a fisher of men, ‘yes’ to being taught, ‘yes’ to an adventure with Jesus. And yet, here he was, despondent. “I’m going fishing.” Peter’s urge is to get back to normality, back to reality. So, he goes back to what he knows best. Fishing.
But God has other plans. As they are fishing on the boat, having caught nothing all night, someone calls out from the shore, “Put your nets out on the other side.” They do. And the fish fill the nets. And then it comes. The whisper. “It’s Jesus.” Overjoyed at the sight of his friend, his teacher, his saviour, Peter jumps out of the boat and rushes to meet Jesus on the beach. The others follow as quickly as they can. They drag their enormous catch ashore, but there’s no need… Jesus has already prepared some for them. He smiles and says, “Alright lads… fancy some breakfast?”
They sit and eat, and then we see the remarkable encounter between Peter and Jesus, with Peter’s reinstatement mirroring his denial of his friend. It is beautiful to see Jesus once again stretch out a hand and ask Peter to follow him. And nerving, no doubt, as Peter is told that one day he will go where he is led, and not where he wishes. Still, it’s clear. In the person of Jesus, Peter encounters God on that beach. And in that encounter he is transformed once more, before being sent out.
But this isn’t the first time. If we look back at John 20: 21-22, Peter encounters the risen Jesus and he transforms him with God’s peace and with the Holy Spirit. Jesus says, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” Encountered. Transformed. Sent.
When I preached previously from Luke 5: 1-11, we saw how Peter had an encounter with Jesus, that led to his transformation and a sending out. There is no doubt, that Peter has already been called out of his old life, into a new one. It’s like an old pair of boots that have been worn out and are no longer wearable. We get a new pair of boots. But we can’t put the new boots on over the top of our old boots, nor can we put the old boots on instead of the new boots. They might feel comfortable at first, because we’ve worn them in, but our old boots are no longer fit for the purpose for which they were made. They’re broken. Our new boots, as strange as they might feel, these are the boots which are fit for purpose. Peter went back to the old, back to the comfortable, the fishing. But he is no longer a fisherman. His old life is no longer fit for the purpose for which he has been transformed.
Encountered. Transformed. Sent.
Of course, the same goes for us here today. We were all called to St Mellitus in September 2018. We could have gone to countless other colleges, or put training on hold a few more years. But we didn’t. God called us to train together at the same time as each other. And in that training he has been forming us. Of course, the forming and transforming continues, but this time together has been key to forming us for ordained ministry in the Church of England. The late night bar chats, the 2am McDonalds runs, the worship, the prayer, the tears and snot, the dodgy vegetarian options and the mind-melting bogglement of theological education have all formed us. And if just 1 of us hadn’t been here for the journey, it wouldn’t have quite been the same. We were called together for this time, we have been transformed, and now you are being sent.
So, as you leave college – some of us have another year, because we need that extra bit of formation – and step out into your new lives as ordained disciples of Jesus Christ, shake off your old boots and slip into the new ones. Your old lives are no longer fit for the purpose for which you have been called. And when the discomfort hits, as it usually does with a new pair of shoes, remember Jesus’ words to Peter: “Someone else will take you where you don’t want to go. Follow me.”
I would want a boat, if I wanted a boat, that bounded hard on the waves, that didn’t know starboard from port and wouldn’t learn, that welcomed dolphins and headed straight for the whales, that, when rocks were close, would slide in for a touch or two, that wouldn’t keep land in sight and went fast, that leaped into the spray. What kind of life is it always to plan and do, to promise and finish, to wish for the near and the safe? Yes, by the heavens, if I wanted a boat I would want a boat I couldn’t steer. (Mary Oliver, If I Wanted A Boat)
That is my prayer for us all. As we encounter God, he transforms us and sends us out. May we follow him, even to the rocks. May we get into that boat that is his alone to steer.
Last week I wrote about freedom, which you can find here. Shortly after I’d hit the publish key, it all changed in the UK: our Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, put us into lockdown. Yet, our freedom to choose remains.
Yesterday evening, after a very long day solo-parenting, I went for a walk. More precisely, I put my coat on, grabbed my earphones, plugged them into some loud worship music, shoved my trainers on and ran out of the door. Before too long I reached a railway bridge and walked underneath, just as a train shuddered across above me.
It was strange. Here I was, singing along to the lyrics:
“I am chosen, not forsaken. I am who you say I am. You are for me, not against me. I am who you say I am.” (Who You Say I Am, Hillsong Worship)
Yet, I’d reached the evening of a day questioning all of that. You’ve chosen me, God? Really? You’re with me, God? Really? You say who I am, but who even am I? The reply comes:
“I’m a child of God. Yes I am.” (Who You Say I Am, Hillsong Worship)
How could I, even for a moment, question all that I know to be true? As I walked under the bridge, with the train juddering across, I didn’t doubt for a moment that the bridge would hold and not crush me as I walked beneath. It struck me, in that moment, that I trust human engineering readily and yet in the last week have not been entirely trusting of God.
Stepping into freedom requires us to let go of whatever we are holding on to, and trusting God to hold it for us. What has struck me since my walk is that I keep saying, “I’m just about clinging on.” Clinging on to what? It certainly isn’t God, in spite of my daily prayer and study of the Bible. Perhaps I am in mourning for the things lost? Clinging on to the what could have beens and what should have beens. Perhaps I am in denial around how little control I actually have over all of this? Clinging on to the control I do have. Perhaps it is something else that I am clinging to.
This week I’ve been on virtual retreat with some friends from college and we’ve been thinking about the idea of coming home with Jesus. One of the threads which has come up for us all is this idea that Jesus breaks all that binds us, in order that we can be free. In this new rhythm of life, I need to spend some time thinking about what it is that I am holding on to. And then I need to let go of it and entrust it to God.
Just as that bridge held as the train rattled across, God’s love for us all holds even as the impact and ripples of Covid-19 are felt in our lives. However you’re feeling right now, know that God is with you and for you.
“No one will be able to stand against you as long as you live. For I will be with you as I was with Moses. I will not fail you or abandon you.” (Joshua 1: 5, New Living Translation)
“Mummy, what does freedom mean?” asked my 4 year old last week.
We then had a good (long) conversation about being free. Free to do what we want. Free from people telling us what to do. Free from things that control us. She had many more questions, like can I wear what I want? Eat what I want? Do what I want?
That’s when the conversation went somewhere a bit deeper. After explaining that mostly mummy and daddy choose her food to make sure she keeps growing big and strong, I reassured her that she could mostly choose her own clothes. I then told her that soon we’d have to not leave the house. We wouldn’t be able to go to nursery, or church, or the park. Her response?
“Why aren’t we free?”
Wow. These questions have stayed with me all week. It’s tricky, isn’t it? Yet, I explained to her that we are still free. Even if we don’t go out of the house. We are free and we have freedom.
Freedom of choice. Right now we have freedom to choose how we act as people in a society made up of the vulnerable and invulnerable. We can choose to use our freedom to gather in groups, go to work unnecessarily, travel on public transport for no reason, or spend time with friends in person. Or, we can choose to use our freedom to stay at home, play games, work from home, find ways to keep in touch with people. We can choose to use our freedom to stay at home and keep the vulnerable safe. We can choose to flatten the curve. We can choose to honour those who have no choice but to keep working in our hospitals, schools, police, energy services.
We have freedom to choose.
Freedom from fear. And secondly, regardless of current situation, we have freedom from fear. When he was alive and teaching on this earth, Jesus said: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:10, NIV) Right now, there is a lot of fear, anxiety and panic across the world. It has seeped into our homes and is the thief which Jesus refers to. This thief will steal, kill, and destroy hope. If we let it.
We have freedom to choose. Freedom to chose hope. Freedom from fear. If we put our trust in Jesus, he will give us life in its fullness. If we put our trust in Jesus, he will give us true freedom. If we put our trust in Jesus, he will give us a hope and a peace which passes all understanding.
The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4)
“So he’s a bit of a fixer upper, so he’s got a few flaws… We’re not sayin’ you can change him ‘Cause people don’t really change We’re only saying that love’s a force That’s powerful and strange. People make bad choices if they’re mad Or scared, or stressed. Throw a little love their way And you’ll bring out their best.” (Fixer Upper, Frozen)
It’s funny, isn’t it? ‘Let It Go’ quickly became the defining memory and feature of Disney’s 2013 film Frozen. Yet this song, ‘Fixer Upper’, is the crux of the story and its morale. It links back to the beginning of the film, when Elsa is told by Grand Pabbie (the chief troll) that fear will be her greatest enemy. Fast forward and Anna is being told by the same trolls that people make bad choices when acting out of anger, fear or stress. On the surface the story at this point is about Anna and her quest for true love to undo the ice in her heart, yet this song points beyond that to the end of the story.
It cleverly, if you’re looking for it, points past the obvious to the underlying problem which needs solving. Above all, Elsa needs releasing from the fear of her powers, in order that she might be truly free to live as she was created. We see this in subtle ways throughout the film (and its sequel). In ‘Let It Go’ Anna delights in her new found freedom, because the truth is out. But truth only does part of the work here; freedom is short-lived because, even though everyone now knows her secret, she still exists in fear. Fear, rather than freedom, control her and her actions.
The film ends with Elsa finally realising that love is the answer. Instead of fear, she controls her power with love, and finally the eternal winter thaws and Arendelle is restored. Frozen 2, without giving too much away for those who are yet to see it, is a continuation of Elsa stepping into the freedom of knowing who you really are. Freedom, it’s safe to say, is a key theme of the Frozen duology.
Where do we find freedom? Some find freedom in exercise, relationships, work, but I’d argue we only find true freedom in Christ.
“Only Christ can get rid of the veil so they can see for themselves that there’s nothing there. Whenever, though, they turn to face God as Moses did, God removes the veil and there they are—face-to-face! They suddenly recognize that God is a living, personal presence, not a piece of chiseled stone. And when God is personally present, a living Spirit, that old, constricting legislation is recognized as obsolete. We’re free of it! All of us! Nothing between us and God, our faces shining with the brightness of his face. And so we are transfigured much like the Messiah, our lives gradually becoming brighter and more beautiful as God enters our lives and we become like him.” 2 Corinthians 3: 15-18 (MSG Version)
Paul makes it clear that it is Jesus alone who can rid people of the veil which previously hid God’s glory from them. Since Jesus’ death and resurrection, there’s nothing behind that veil; God is a living presence, shining in our faces with all of God’s brilliance. Today the veil is all the things which stop us from seeing that Jesus is the one who brings true freedom. The veil is work, family, ambitions and goals. It is thinking that we have it within ourselves to find freedom. Elsa only realises that the solution is love because she witnesses the self-sacrificial love of her sister. So, we too must realise that the solution is love through witnessing the self-sacrificial love of God.
It is only in dropping the veil and allowing God to enter our lives that we find freedom. As God’s spirit enters our lives, we become more like him, our lives transfigured in brightness, we find freedom: “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” (2 Corinthians 3: 17, NIV)
We are all a bit of a fixer upper. We all have something we need to be set free from. We all make bad choices, when we’re angry, stressed or scared. But throw a lot of love our way, and it’ll bring out our best.