Setting God’s People Free

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The recent Reform and Renewal Archbishop’s Council report is fantastic and connects really well to what we have been doing through the Bishop’s Certificate in Discipleship and Mission (BCDM).

The core of the report seeks to “empower, liberate and disciple the 98% of the Church of England who are not ordained and therefore set them free for fruitful, faithful mission and ministry, influence, leadership and, most importantly, vibrant relationship with Jesus in all of life”.

The report highlights various dynamics of the situation of lay leadership in the Church today, including 125,000 lay people in elected leadership roles in the gathered church, 70,000 lay people in unelected roles, many thousands involved in sent church activities such as street pastors, homelessness projects, mums’ and toddlers’ groups etc. and 1 million lay people in the wider community, every sphere of society, representing “the untapped source for mission and ministry”.  Where do you fit?

We would really encourage you to read the report which is found here: https://www.churchofengland.org/media/3858033/gs-2056-setting-gods-people-free.pdf

To find out more about BCDM and what is happening around the Diocese, please follow: http://www.dioceseofcoventry.org/BCDM

– Katherine Walakira

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The Presidential Candidate and the Persistent Widow – By Richard Cooke

donald-trump-1301259_640Does Donald Trump drive you to despair? The American election, as almost everyone on the planet must know, has been dominated in the last couple of weeks by Trump’s attitude to women. Throughout his campaign to become President of the USA Trump’s view of women has been questioned. The release of a tape from 2005, coupled with claims made by a number of women about aggressive sexual behaviour from him over many years which conform to the comments he made on the tape, have made his casual acceptance of what he calls ‘locker-room talk’ about women an issue that’s hard to avoid. In his own defence he says that he is far from alone in his attitudes (which he claims to have put behind him), and insists that Bill Clinton has said and done much worse things, implicating his opponent Hillary Clinton as at least an accessory to Bill’s profligate sexual activities. In other words, Trump’s defence is, broadly, that he is the simply tip of an iceberg: get over it.

There is clearly a lot of truth in this defence. Hard though it may be to believe, Trump’s ‘locker-room talk’ does exist and might be more widespread than it is comfortable for many of us to admit. I hear echoes of it occasionally, just out of earshot, with some of the men I play football with on a Saturday afternoon, despite Graeme Le Saux’s claim this week that in 20 years as a top flight footballer he never heard such ‘predatory’ language as Trump used (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/oct/12/footballer-banter-donald-trump-locker-room-insults). The retrial of Ched Evans, former Welsh international, which concluded this week, also lifted the lid on ‘locker-room talk’ and what it can lead to: questioned at the time of the events which led to his trial, he and a fellow player boasted to police of their attraction to and power over women. Anna Krien’s powerful Night Games: Sex, Power and a Journey into the Dark Heart of Sport (Yellow Jersey Press 2014), which won the William Hill Sports Book of the Year in 2014, revealed in uncomfortable detail appalling attitudes to women across several sports in more than one continent. It is a minority of men who perpetuate the kind of attitudes which Trump represents, but they do exist, and they feed into what Elaine Storkey characterises as ‘a global pandemic’ of violence against women. She quotes a UN report which demonstrates that ‘one in three women has either been beaten, coerced into sex or abused in some other way – most often by someone she knows.’ This is not specific to any one country or culture: the one in three figure is a global one. (See Scars Across Humanity: Understanding and Overcoming Violence Against Women SPCK 2015.)

It’s in this situation that we read Luke 18.1-8, Jesus’ parable variously known as the ‘Parable of the Unjust Judge’ or the ‘Parable of the Persistent Widow’. Can it possibly have anything to say to the tip of the iceberg that is Donald Trump’s behaviour?

The first thing to notice is that Luke places this parable in a sequence that deals with the coming of the Kingdom of God, introduced by a question from the Pharisees (Luke 17.20-22), and concluding the section of the Gospel that precedes Jesus’ final approach to Jerusalem. So, though it begins with Luke’s emphasis that it is about the ‘need to pray always and not give up’, in its setting it is clear that this is specific prayer for the coming of the kingdom – the keynote of the prayer which Jesus had taught his disciples (see Luke 11.2-4; Luke’s version of the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ is of course much shorter and more tightly focused than Matthew’s). And the persistence in view is about ‘not losing heart’ (Luke 18.1), or we might say, despairing. In other words this is a parable about seeking God’s Kingdom and remaining committed to it, often despite the situation.

The second thing to notice is that the very attitudes to women which Donald Trump exemplifies have got into the interpretation of this passage, where the widow is often seen as the secondary figure, and frequently characterised as ‘nagging’. She quickly gets stereotyped here, and as a result fades from the central position which Jesus actually seems to have given her in this story. She’s a widow, and as such is often described as poor, lacking anyone to look after her, a sad and downtrodden figure, none of which has any basis in the text itself. She is described as a widow without any further detail. And though many commentators assume that she must be poor because she apparently cannot bribe the judge, part of the point of the parable is that this judge is in fact incorruptible: he fears neither God nor man (Luke 18.2). Bribes wouldn’t work on him.

The widow keeps coming to him. She won’t let up. She sits on his doorstep till he takes notice and acts. Her persistence isn’t a sign of poverty or being downtrodden, it is a sign of strength. Widows are often strong people precisely because they have had to look after themselves. Jesus here offers us a woman who can handle herself in the face of injustice. She is passionate for justice in her cause, she desires vengeance (something picked up in the final section of the parable, Luke 18.3,7). She will not rest until she gets it. We don’t know what her cause is: whether the hurt and offence was caused to her or to someone she loved. But we do know that she has an adversary or opponent. Someone has done her wrong, and they must pay in some way (Luke 18.3). Her passion for justice is fierce and ferocious.

In fact the (literal) ‘punch-line’ of justice story actually gets missed in conventional translations. The judge says at the end of the story that he will grant her request because he fears that she will ‘wear him out.’ But the literal sense of this phrase is that she will ‘beat me up’, ‘strike me in the face’ or even ‘give me a black eye’! It is a boxing term, used by Paul when he speaks about how he subdues his own body (1 Cor. 9.27, see Amy Jill Levine Short Stories by Jesus HarperOne 2014, p.234).

So if we re-run the story it actually seems to be about a strong woman who has a passion for justice, so much that even the judge who fears no-one eventually fears her.  She is a feisty woman, and Jesus uses her example to show how the disciples should pray for the kingdom and not despair.fist-bump-1195446_640

The parables of Jesus often seem to me to be the kind of story you’d read in a local newspaper, the stuff of village or market-place gossip and conversation (maybe, in a 1st-century gymnasium, even the ‘locker-room talk’ of the day). This sounds like a story that could be based on a real incident: the widow whose passion for justice forced the judge who didn’t care to care. If we see the story in this light then the widow may suddenly come into focus and we recognise her because we know her in our own time too. She is the women of Liverpool who sought justice for those who died at Hillsborough and fought for a quarter of a century for the truth to be heard. She is the women of Nicaragua whom I met some years ago at a Conference some years ago in Kentucky, who had come to America to plead for the truth about their ‘disappeared’ sons and husbands from the Sandinista era to be revealed by the CIA. Modestly and movingly they made their case. ‘Mary had at least the body of her son to hold and to bury’ I remember one saying, ‘but I do not know what happened to my son, I never held the body I gave birth to, and I do not know where he is buried. I cannot place flowers on his grave. If you believe in justice, you will tell me what happened to him.’

The widow of the parable has a pedigree in the Bible too. She is Rizpah, the silent widow who keeps vigil over the bones of Saul and Jonathan until David does the right thing and buries them (2 Sam. 3.7; 21.10-14). And she is Anna, who begins Luke’s story of Jesus, the strong widow who never remarried and for decades kept the hope that she would see the ‘consolation of Jerusalem’ (Luke 2.38).

For the widow of the parable, for the women of Hillsborough, and for Rizpah, we see that even the justice of this world is ultimately delivered to those who persist and do not despair. So Jesus says, God will bring justice for those committed to his kingdom. He promises that it will come ‘quickly’ – and we might ask what this means in the context of eternity. But who are we to judge the timescales?

Persistence and commitment to the kingdom Jesus brings means believing, often against the odds and the evidence, that the vision of that kingdom where justice will be done, where women and men are treated equally, where what is broken is mended, where tears are wiped away and where death shall be no more is a possibility, however crazy it might seem. To pray ‘Your kingdom come’ is a prayer of faith in a despairing world. It is the kind of prayer of faith which sustained the American civil rights movement. In March 1965, after the great march from Selma, Martin Luther King gave a speech on the steps of the Capitol building in Montgomery, Alabama, with the refrain ‘How long? Not long.’ He concluded, ‘How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’

Praying for the kingdom is not simply a spiritual matter, it is a matter of action too, co-operating with the arc of the moral universe which King spoke of, the movement of God in our world. Jesus offers us the image of a strong woman who would not take no for an answer in her quest for justice as an exemplar of those who seek the kingdom of God. She helps us to believe that, whatever ‘locker-room talk’ persists, God is on the side of those who seek justice for women across the world.

 

 

 

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And In All Studies… – By Naomi Nixon

…that will deepen your faith and fit you to bear witness to the truth of the gospel

These are words from the ordination service, promises the clergy make, and probably the rationale for my current existence as clergy training adviser. Let’s be honest though, it is not the bit of the ordination service most people remember, it sort of slides by in a litany or virtues. I don’t mean that we don’t mean it, but the others are perhaps more top of our minds for example:open-book-1428428_1280

Will you lead Christ’s people in proclaiming his glorious gospel, so that the good news of salvation may be heard in every place?

I won’t speculate about how it compares those of you who are lay people into your discipleship, only to say that I know it does. Indeed how could any of us be a disciple of Christ without the commitment, the hunger and thirst, to learn?

One of the things I get to do in my job is talk with clergy about what they want to do for their development. I like the word development, it has a sense of a holistic ‘moving on’ which feels very Christian to me. But, you knew there was going to be a ‘but didn’t you?! But development can also tip us in to the world of career planning and success chasing. These things aren’t necessarily bad. In fact I often encourage clergy to be a little bolder about preparing themselves for the next job and therefore thinking about the ‘CV’ so ask to speak (we never actually write a CV, but you know what I mean).

But there is still a ‘but’. Learning is not only about achieving. I’ve been thinking about this a lot this week.

I’ve had a wonderful long weekend away working on my PhD. While the rain battered the roof of our loft room in our house in Wales, I sat at my desk there and wrote and wrote and wrote. Tens of thousands of words emerged from this activity. But they are not the finished product of the thesis; they are, mostly, the transcribed words of the recorded interviews I’ve done over the last couple of years.

I’ve been doing the PhD for 6 years.* I am nowhere even near finishing. I’ve come to the conclusion that most of a PhD is not reading or writing, it is psychological warfare. Most of the experience of doing the PhD has been, in truth, anxiety. Anxiety that I can’t communicate my proposal in the first place, anxiety about being accepted, anxiety about finding the time to do it, anxiety that I’m not intellectually up to it, anxiety that I’m not actually doing anything, anxiety that I’ve read the wrong books, got the wrong ideas, that it’s a waste of time, that it’s a waste of money. Most of all that I will never finish it.

I don’t think that this is just me, all the clergy I’ve worked with whose PhDs I’ve supported in some way have expressed similar woes.

But, I think that this weekend a couple of important things happened for me. One was I had that amazing sparkly-in-the-stomach feeling of happiness. The happiness I only feel of being completely in the right place. I’ve had this feeling before about the research, in fact, if I ever manage to get past all that worry and do some really concerted work on it, I always get that feeling. My brain is woken up, connections ping in my head, the urgency of discovery lights me up.

Here’s the bad news, that’s only been twice this year. Don’t judge me, getting past both busyness and psychological warfare is hard. As are all spiritual disciplines. And that is what this is, the ‘deepening faith’ of the ordination promise is this for me, and this is perhaps very personal; my faith as a child came from the emotional relationship with Jesus, it is my bedrock. But the ongoing flourishing of my faith usually comes from the intellectual approach to Christianity, the perfection of the Christian philosophy, the practicality of what we believe, not just the love of who we believe in.

But it isn’t just the personal, inward, dimension of the promise. Because I am, we are, fitter to bear witness as a result of feeding our minds. That is the other thing that happened while I was studying, all sorts of associations come into my mind, resources are closer to reach for and ideas for ministry come fizzing out unbidden. The fact that I drove home writing a blog in my head is perhaps a small example.

‘All studies’ in the ordination promises are not just the first ones after ordination, nor are they only the reading for a sermon or a lent course. It is the ongoing activity of being a disciple, pushing ourselves to learn in new ways, not achieving learning, but living in it.

If all of this is true then, why on earth the introspective battle? And this was something of a revelation to me. Whilst I very much want to have a PhD (my ego would like to add the letters D and R to my name, a nobler part of me hopes that my research will be useful, and I’d also like the anxiety gone) but in the first place, what I wanted was to do a PhD. I already have what I wanted, I’m doing it. And I love it. What a waste it would be to miss it while I worried about finishing it.

So, after 6 years, perhaps I’m finally learning something.

 

 

 

*It’s about the theology of FE Chaplaincy by the way

 

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Public and Personal – By Naomi Nixon

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There are some very good and very wise things Christian leaders have said since Friday morning. I agree deeply with all the ones I’ve read, I agree we need to pray for peace, work for stability, show love.

But, in truth, that isn’t speaking to my heart, not yet. Something else is going on, and it might best be called grief for me. It might best be called grief for the people at my church this morning in ‘Remain’ voting territory of Warwick, Leamington and Kenilworth. But I think there is something going on for people who voted differently too, being on the receiving end of grief is tough, no matter how happy you are at the result. There are others feeling ashamed, already let down or bewildered. There are a few letting inner rage at ‘otherness’ out, as if it is allowed now.

And there is my ten year old niece who is scared because everyone is so upset and that the upset is somehow bigger and scarier than she can comprehend.

For years working as a chaplain in Further Education, (in ‘Leave’ voting Nuneaton) I felt frustrated at the church’s narrative of public theology; working for keeping influence at the highest levels of society while not investing in mission and ministry for the poorest. Even when the doors of FE colleges were suddenly thrown open to the church, the church stuck with Universities and left brick layers and hairdressers to their own devices. I thought, in truth, this was snobbery, at best left over snobbery of years gone by, but snobbery nonetheless.

I actually have come to think it isn’t snobbery at all, it is about the difference between public and personal theology. In fact, investing in universities and worrying about a public voice is not the church obsessed with privilege but instead an attempt to ensure that the values we learn from Jesus are guiding virtue into public life. To put it crudely; a politician who has been steeped through church school and university with Christian virtue and has to face Bishops in the Houses of Parliament is more likely to be ashamed if caught lying, even if they do not have a personal living faith.

I didn’t used to care about that, I think I was wrong. I have come to see the importance of public theology. I hope and pray that the church, through Bishops, through people in local communities, can be part of rewriting our public narrative, from divided to reconciled, from hate to love.

But, the personal needs attending to as well. What about how we feel? Church needs to be a place, a community, where we can feel as well as think.

And today people are feeling a very great deal. If we are in grief, we desperately need to be allowed to feel sad, if we are ashamed we need to feel forgiven, if we are scared we need to feel comfort, if we are happy (but surrounded by intensity we can’t share) we need to feel connected. If we feel hate, we don’t want to bottle that up, we need it to be healed.

Whatever we feel, we need to feel loved, so that we can show the certainty of love in an uncertain world.

As a church let us let people fall to their knees, let us teach one another again how to share in lament, so feelings can be held within the safety of the body of Christ. Let us feel how much we need Jesus.

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Thelogical reflection on domestic abuse – Richard Cooke and Victoria Price

A Theological reflection on domestic abuse – where do we start?

The learning cycle suggests that experience comes first. Analysis and reflection follow.

The material we have encountered so far this morning prompts many questions and reactions. Anger, for example, at individuals of course, but also at a society which perpetuates and allows such things, indeed where violence against women is woven into the fabric and sometimes receives (false) justification. And at institutions and organisations which collude with it – including the Church.[1]

It’s an easy temptation to rush to answers and solutions, to explain that some Bible passages don’t mean that, they mean this, that the pain of what we’ve heard can be tidied away. Yet however hard we do this, some huge challenges remain: Hosea 2, for example, where Yahweh himself is described as an abuser who punishes the wayward Israel. Looked at in this way, it is an horrific text.[2]

Theological reflection is not just reflection. It is reflection in the light of what we have experienced and know of God. It begins when we hold what we have experienced before God. It begins, really, in prayer.

In this sense it corresponds with the Psalms, and amongst them those psalms which lament and question God. Some come to a resolution, like Psalm 22, Jesus’ cry on the cross. But others do not. Psalms 44 and 88, for example are litanies of loss. They have no resolution, no tidy ending. Their raw pain crowds out easy answers, indeed any answers at all. That is not to say that there are no answers, but that it is not yet time for them. The pain and anger, however raw, must breathe.

Yet even these Psalms of lament without resolution are always set in a context of conversation. They taunt, shout, cry and demand. Those taunts, shouts, cries and demands meet – not an answer but a silence. In the gaps the silence may show absence, or listening presence. Within these desperate psalms God is silent. That silence allows expression. But it is not comfortable.

So as we reflect theologically, we offer you a Psalm. Not a biblical one, but one reflecting the themes of today, written by Victoria, interwoven with the words of Psalm 88.

Lord, Lord we know.  We know this is a problem, but we shy away.  We are shy.  Too shy to admit we know.  Too shy to try anything: in case we are noticed, labelled, or get it wrong.  Too shy to speak, as if by keeping our lips closed we could keep the whole thing closed too and none of this would ever happen, ‘not in my church, not in this town, not with this sort’.  As if ‘closed’ were a good thing for those who suffer.

Where do we even begin, God?  How do we tell who is victim?  How do we tell who abuses?  How do we phrase it?  Should we label?

1 O Lord, God of my salvation, when, at night, I cry out in your presence, 2 let my prayer come before you; incline your ear to my cry.

What do we do with an abuser in our church?  What do we do if both the perpetrator and the victim are there, in the congregation?  Sitting together, sitting apart.

Must we help if they don’t come to church?  If we see them at the shop, at the food-bank, at the school gates, at the Methodist Hall?

Would I notice if a child in my group is witnessing this at home?  Would I notice if they were scared?  Would I question their clinging arms, their whispered voice, their flying punches?

How do we preach about this?  What do we say when we stand up their and the only true words are ‘I just don’t know?’

How do I broach the awful word in marriage preparation?  How do I tell if there might be something going on?

Oh God, what happens to ‘for better for worse?  To have and to hold?  Till death they do part?’

What about my youth group?  Who might have witnessed it?  Who might have grown up with it?  Who might be a protector for mum?  Who might take sides with dad? 

How are they learning relationships?  Who do they turn to?  What’s on their phones?  What does he say when he breaks a promise – what does she say when her clothes aren’t right?  They’re only young, God.

How do we help the children who suffer, if their mother or father is beaten, oppressed, lied to, manipulated?  Do they believe ‘Jesus love is very wonderful’?  Has he ‘got the tiny little baby in his hands?’  What about the unborn one?

What do I do if a victim, a survivor, is coming to church?  How do I help them? 

How can we expect them to kneel at the altar rail, or be happy with a stranger’s hand of prayer on their shoulder?  Can they really call you Lord, Master, King?  Do they want to worship as your servants?

What do the children think at the ‘Family Service’ when we pray ‘Loving Father, thank you for all the joy of families’?

He’s new in my home group and he said he abused her.  Now she’s with someone else.  He regrets it, he struggles with faith.  What on earth do I say?

He asked for baptism, a new start.  Who do I tell?  When do I keep quiet?  Should I try to protect?  Do I trust your people that little?  Can I love him, too?

 3 For my soul is full of troubles, and my life draws near to Sheol. 4 I am counted among those who go down to the Pit; I am like those who have no help, 5 like those forsaken among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave, like those whom you remember no more, for they are cut off from your hand. 6 You have put me in the depths of the Pit, in the regions dark and deep. 7 Your wrath lies heavy upon me, and you overwhelm me with all your waves.
Lord!  What actually is forgiveness?  Can it be one-sided?

If it’s a process, how do we start?  When do we know it’s complete?

How can we talk about ‘forgiving those who trespass against us’ if there is someone there who has been abused?  Why does it all suddenly seem like empty words?  What if it sometimes seems like they’re not your words.  O God of love, God of wrath, God of mercy, God of justice.

How do I talk to a perpetrator about God’s forgiveness?  What about repentance?  How sure can I ever be of their confession?

How do I love both an abuser and a victim?  How do I keep my heart soft towards both?   Am I hard-hearted, cold, unloving?  Am I too angry?  Am I too lenient?  Will I ever be able to see them as you do, Lord?

Is it sometimes wrong to advocate forgiveness and reconciliation?  Sometimes, God, we say those words and we hear them fall lightly, again and again, like paper coffee cups – ever easier, ever cheaper.

Isn’t forgiveness sometimes unwise, God?  Should there be conditions for each side?  Would reconciliation be proper, would it be real, when their lives are so scarred they want to forget each other exists?

Can there ever be reconciliation where there has been abuse?

Do we try too hard to make it happen, just like that?

How should your Church repent of its compliancy, in letting abuse slip by?  How do we repent of our lack of voice, our lack of courage, our empty promises, our misguided conviction that it’s a private matter?  How do we overcome our desire ‘not to intrude’?

How can we ever be there for them, when they’re not really there themselves?  Is their silence the knife-edge – or is it our desire to do the right thing, to not make things worse?  Our lack of awareness, our fear we may have got it wrong?

How does he think?  How does she think?  What do they actually want?  Is she used to the silence – does it cover her like a blanket, or like chains?  Is he too afraid to raise the voice of his pain, does he want to be a ‘real man?’  Do they want to forgive?  How could we ever do something to separate, when they say they want to be together?  Whom do we trust? 

 

8 You have caused my companions to shun me; you have made me a thing of horror to them. I am shut in so that I cannot escape; 9 my eye grows dim through sorrow. Every day I call on you, O Lord; I spread out my hands to you. 10 Do you work wonders for the dead? Do the shades rise up to praise you? 11 Is your steadfast love declared in the grave, or your faithfulness in Abaddon? 12 Are your wonders known in the darkness, or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness?

How did it get to this point?  Lord, how can sin be so invisible, to them as well?  How can it creep in to their house, stretch its fingers out to their blinded relatives, their too-polite neighbours, their silent church, their un-noticing school? 

Why has the enemy hidden behind phrases like ‘it’s a cultural thing for them’; ‘family honour is important’; ‘he’s in charge’; ‘she has a right to take control’? 

Where was the line?  When is it sinful?

Is sin the event, the swear word, the strike, the photos?  Is sin the silence, the cover-ups, the sense of martyrdom, of suffering for someone else’s sake?  If it’s sinful to say ‘God hates you!’, is it sinful to believe it, too?  Is sin the framework of thinking, the calculations, the assumptions, the desires?  Is sin the whole relationship?

Where is her ‘self’ now?  Where is his ‘self’?  What happened to the people they used to be?  Do they feel different?  Where is the person known to you, Lord?

What do her memories look like – diffused and random, systematic and vivid?  Does he still feel the pain, the rejection?  Can he look at her now?  Can he look at any woman now?  Can she think of a new beginning?

Why does the victim have to leave and move and start again?  Why is the perpetrator left in the house, with the stuff, the neighbours, the kids’ doctor, the school, the vicar?  What other crime is dealt with that way round? 

Why do people keep asking why she didn’t just leave?  Don’t they see that was impossible?

If perfect love casts out fear, is there any love here?  Who am I to say?

Is love just a word to them?  Is it a name, a text, a locked door, an emptied wallet, a scar?

If this is love, why does it hurt so much?  Are those wounds really like Jesus’ wounds?

Is it his fault, or is the alcohol to blame?  If he didn’t choose to, is he wrong?

What is the reason, God?  Why do there seem to be so many reasons?  What is this tangle of black-and-white and yet not knowing at all?

Is it his age, her wheelchair, the debts?  Is it her religion, his role-models, the unwanted pregnancy?  Is it the night shifts, the missed place at school – was it a bad idea in the first place, or when did something change? 

God, why does this happen in a place called ‘home’?  Why does this happen in a union called ‘sacred’?   In a marriage called ‘a gift’?  Isn’t your matrimony holy?  Where did we go so wrong?

13 But I, O Lord, cry out to you; in the morning my prayer comes before you. 14 O Lord, why do you cast me off? Why do you hide your face from me? 15 Wretched and close to death from my youth up, I suffer your terrors; I am desperate.* 16 Your wrath has swept over me; your dread assaults destroy me. 17 They surround me like a flood all day long; from all sides they close in on me. 18 You have caused friend and neighbour to shun me; my companion is darkness.

Is my gender less powerful?  Is he the head, the leader, the symbol?  Is it my fault?  Is that why I always stand under the words ‘society’, ‘culture’, ‘equality’, ‘sex’?

Is gender ‘powered’, or is power ‘gendered’?  Is my kind of strength actually different to his?  If a woman’s strength isn’t in her arms, why should it have to be in hiding her tears?

Why do I slot so easily into doing things this way?  Why do I assume he has more important things to do?

Is it really because of the garden – the garden with the apple and the snake?  Is it really because of the garden – the one where he climbed the tree and played with the toy gun, and I planted flowers and pushed the toy pram?

This is what it’s like.  Look at me: told I can do anything I could practically fly.  And now look at her: stopped school once she could count and beaten whilst I learnt man’s history?

If God is He, then is he more like God than me? 

Can he still pray, when last time she told him God didn’t want to hear from him? 

Does he really think God wants him to keep her inside, to manage her diary, check her phone?  The curtains are always closed.

Does God want them to marry?  How should we know?  Is consent enough?

This word: ‘gender’ – and all we have done with it.  Is this the reason he can’t speak up?

Why do we think it’s normal for her to be quiet, for him to answer for her, to always collect her in the car?  If it were the other way around, would we see differently?

Father, is your daughter’s subservience good?  Is that her measure of faithfulness, of humility?  If that’s her idea of Christ-likeness, what is his?

God, if you humble the mighty, if you exalt the weak, when will it happen?  When will Mary’s song no longer be forgotten, because it is sung from female lips?

When will we stand and speak?  When will we acknowledge that we know?  We hear and we see and we turn away in fear, shame, denial confusion.  Paralysed.  It reaches us, Lord, and touches us – the prickly, uncomfortable ends of that which is engulfing them.

1 O Lord, God of my salvation, when, at night, I cry out in your presence, 2 let my prayer come before you; incline your ear to my cry.

 

[1] Elaine Storkey Scars Across Humanity: understanding and overcoming violence against women (SPCK 2015) explores the issue in a world-wide context but with some hard-hitting comments on our own society. The final chapter offers some theological directions. The Restored: Ending Violence Against Women campaign offers some reflections on theology in its Ending Domestic Abuse: A Pack for Churches resource (www.restoredrelationships.org).

[2] On some biblical texts, the following articles offer ways in. On Hosea: Diane L.Jacobsen ‘Hosea? Yes! A God who makes alive!’ and ‘Hosea? No! A metaphor that kills’ Word & World 28/2008 offers two opposing views of Hosea 2 by the same scholar (https://wordandworld.luthersem.edu/issues.aspx?article_id=521; and  https://wordandworld.luthersem.edu/issues.aspx?article_id=522); on Judges 19-21 (Jephthah’s daughter): Jenni Williams ‘Tough Texts: reading the parts we’d rather not’ Anvil 24/2007 pp.31-40 looks especially at the role of silence in the narrative (http://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/anvil/24-1_031.pdf); on John 7.53-8.11 (the woman taken in adultery): Michael O’SullivanReading John 7:53–8:11 as a narrative against male violence against women’ HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies 71/2015 examines how this text may be read as a protest against male violence against women. (http://hts.org.za/index.php/HTS/article/view/2939)

 

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Three Times – By Gareth Irvine (Young Vocations Guest Blogger)

still-life-1205288_640Three times. That was what it took for the elderly priest to realise what was going on. What if the young boy had given up? What if he’d got frustrated at the response he seemed to be getting?

No, it’s nothing. You must have got it wrong. Go back to what you were doing. Stop bothering me.

Thankfully, the priest eventually realized what was going on and clicked. This young boy was hearing the call of God speak to him – but just didn’t know it yet. A small encouragement, and the young boy went back to his room, ready to hear God’s call on his life. A prophetic call of leadership, that was to have a significant role in the outworking of God’s vision of his nation.

You can read more about the story in 1 Samuel 3.

Samuel was about 10 years old when he first heard the call of God on his life.

Jeremiah was about 17 when he heard his calling.

David was a young adult when he received the anointing from Samuel.

Mary was only a teenager when God called her to give birth to Jesus.

Many of Jesus’ disciples were under 18, and Timothy was only a teenager when Paul invited him on his first missionary journey.

Young Vocations aren’t a new thing. God has been calling young men and women from a young age for generations to be a part of his great plan of redeeming all of his amazing creation.

If you’re in established ministry or leadership – just like Eli the priest was – how do we remember to make space for the future call of God to come to the children, teenagers, and young adults we might be encountering on a day to day basis?

Would we need them to make the first move and try and talk to us in a vocabulary they are not familiar with?

Would it take several occasions of them fumbling over their words without much encouragement from us before we took them seriously and discerned that perhaps God was at work; but that they simply didn’t have the language or experience to describe it?

Take a few moments to stop and think.

How could I make space for the young people in my church to not simply serve the existing ministry as it currently is, but to be equipped and released (just like Samuel was to hear) to hear what God’s prophetic call for their future might look like?

Who could I meet with in the next 2 weeks to encourage them that God wants to speak to them about their calling? How can I help them to articulate what it is they sense God is saying to them?

Three times.

The Young Vocations team are available to help you think all this through in your parish or setting. If you would like to explore helping younger people to discern God’s call, we’d love to help. For initial enquiries please contact The Rev’d Ellie Clack, Diocesan Vocations Adviser ellie.clack@covcofe.org

 

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The Unexpected Angel – A Christmas Sermon By Richard Cooke

statue-668770_1920.jpgThe Unexpected Angel – a Christmas Sermon by Richard Cooke

What did Mary dream of? A small-town girl in first-century Galilee, her horizons were probably limited. A good husband, a secure home, a family…that’s most likely what she wanted.

And she probably thought she’d got it, too, in Joseph. A bit of a catch was Joseph, what with his royal blood, coming from the line of David, even if it was a bit diluted by now as the last king was 18 generations ago, but good stock as they say. A bit older than her, true, but most husbands tended to be in those days. And he had a steady trade that gave work all the year round as a carpenter and builder, so they wouldn’t be rich but she could be sure that there’d always be a stable home for them, with room for the children she looked forward to. I imagine her mother was as satisfied as mothers ever are with the man their daughters are going to marry. For now Mary had a wedding to plan. Her dreams were coming true.

Then an angel knocked on the window.

Did she spot him at first, or was she distracted by household tasks and wedding preparations? We think of angels as supernatural beings, but the truth is that an angel is just a messenger in the Greek which the New Testament was written in. There may not have been a flash of lightning, awe and wonder and glory shining around (that will come later with the shepherds). The messenger may have come in quite ordinary guise. What matters is the message. Luke’s gospel (1.26-38) tells us that Gabriel approached her and got her attention, and that his words to her were, ‘Greetings, O favoured one! The Lord is with you!’; but in return Mary was utterly confused and startled. What was he talking about? ‘Don’t be afraid’ says Gabriel, ‘God’s grace has found you. You’re going to have a baby, a son, and you’ll call him Jesus. He’ll be great, and called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of his forefather David. He will rule over Israel, and his kingdom will last for ever.’

But for Mary it just didn’t add up. Far from meekly bowing her head and accepting the message, according to Luke Mary argues back: ‘How’s that going to happen? I’ve never been with any man.’ Where were her dreams and plans now? The angel seems pretty enthusiastic, but for Mary at first sight this certainly didn’t seem like good news. A single mother, not yet married, her dreams of husband and home might just as well have gone up in smoke, and without them a baby would be a liability, not a delight.

The angel offers more information: ‘The Holy Spirit will hover over you, the power of the Most High will overshadow you, and the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.’ And he adds to the picture: by the way, ‘Your cousin Elizabeth has also conceived a child in her old age and is six months pregnant even though she was thought to be barren. Because nothing said by God can be impossible.’

It was cross-roads time. Mary’s question, ‘How’s that going to happen?’, might not be a purely biological one. How could it be that this great king could come from her? ‘I’ve never been with a man’ might be her defiant response to her own question. Perhaps what she really means is, ‘You’ve got the wrong girl.’  And Gabriel’s response is to reassure her. Yes, it can happen – if God chooses to do so.

Part of Mary’s bewilderment may also be because it feels like she’s suddenly been given a part in a play she never asked to be cast in, and where no-one has told her the script. The plot she knows, about the return of God’s king, a messiah or Christ who will wipe away all tears, establish justice, bring God’s rule to the earth and create peace in a troubled and distracted world. Yet how could that include her? Surely that means military might and power, men and armies, not a girl planning a wedding in Nazareth. How on earth could she be thrust forward into this spotlight? She is God’s choice for the role, apparently. But does she want it?

The poet Denise Levertov imagined this scene and Mary’s choice in her poem ‘Annunciation’. She writes:

…we are told of meek obedience. No one mentions courage.

The engendering Spirit did not enter her without consent.

God waited.

 

She was free to accept or to refuse, choice integral to humanness.

 

Just as ‘choice [is] integral to humanness’ it is integral to God’s role in this story, too. For he too chooses to work through Mary, that small-town girl with her future dreams that probably had nothing to do with God’s coming to earth. More than choosing to work through her, he actively chooses her as his partner in the whole extraordinary enterprise. That, I suspect, more than anything, is what confuses her and turns her world upside down. A princess or a palace in Jerusalem might be the right person and place for this angelic conversation, but not a peasant from Galilee, and she knows it. But the tantalising offer from the angel is for her to join God’s wild, mad adventure to save and heal the world. Did she have the courage for that? Above all, the courage to trust God with her child?

Denise Levertov’s poem goes on:

Called to a destiny more momentous than any in all of Time, she did not quail,

only asked

a simple, ‘How can this be?’ and gravely, courteously, took to heart the angel’s reply, the astounding ministry she was offered:

 

to bear in her womb Infinite weight and lightness; to carry in hidden, finite inwardness, nine months of Eternity; to contain in slender vase of being, the sum of power– in narrow flesh, the sum of light.

Then bring to birth, push out into air, a Man-child needing, like any other, milk and love–

but who was God.

 

 

This was the minute no one speaks of,

when she could still refuse.

 

A breath unbreathed,

Spirit,

suspended,

waiting.

 

It is an astounding fact of the story we read in the Bible that, again and again, God chooses to be in partnership with human beings. How much simpler other ways might have been! But this book speaks of a God who shows infinite patience with us as a human race, an infinite tenderness with our mistakes, an infinite love to draw this wayward, wounded, wasting world back to himself. A God who does not need to love or act, but who chooses to do so. Yet Mary is not forced to co-operate with him: she has her choice to make too. Everything the angel says to her is in the future tense: it hasn’t happened yet, there is no baby already conceived, the whole plan hangs on her consent. The angel waits for her response.

Left to ourselves, this is not how we humans think God should be. We imagine him to be mighty, victorious, omnipotent, triumphant – and of course God is sometimes described this way in the Bible. Often we long for him to be like this, and to wipe away evil from the earth. Yet the Bible speaks of another side too: ‘Truly, you are a God who hides himself’, says the prophet Isaiah (Is. 45.15). God is not obvious or in our faces, active and present all the time in an unmistakable way. For some that is reason not to believe that he’s there at all. But what if his character is to be there, but hidden and mysterious, to choose to love and save his world through hidden, vulnerable and mysterious ways that engage us in partnership with him, that invite us to be part of his great adventure? This is what the people of ancient Israel discovered about the God who revealed himself to them. Mitri Raheb, a Palestinian Christian, writes that:

this God appeared to be weak compared with other gods. He seemed forever to be on the losing end, just like his people. This God was almost interchangeable with his people, his weakness was shown in theirs, and their defeat was his. This God was a loser. He lost almost all wars, and his people were forced to pay the price of those defeat.

But the consequence of their God being a loser gave the people an extraordinary and astonishing gift:

The revelation the people…received was the ability to spot God where no-one else was able to see him…When his people were defeated, he was also present…he didn’t run away when his people faced their destiny but remained with them, showing solidarity and choosing to share their destiny…The revelation…was that God was to be found where no one expected him. (Faith in the Face of Empire: the Bible Through Palestinian Eyes Orbis 2014, pp.87-88).

Gabriel’s conversation with Mary is not just an annunciation of what will happen with her, but also an announcement of how God works: through our human choice and consent, in partnership with him in the places where no one, least of all Mary, really expects him. He seeks to come not as a conquering hero brandishing power and might, but through the natural process of growth and birth in Mary’s womb, vulnerable and fragile as only a human being can be. The power of the Most High will work through the least of the low – Mary.

Denise Levertov she writes:

Aren’t there annunciations of one sort or another in most lives?

Some unwillingly undertake great destinies, enact them in sullen pride, uncomprehending.

More often those moments       when roads of light and storm       open from darkness in a man or woman, are turned away from
in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair and with relief. Ordinary lives continue.                                  God does not smite them. But the gates close, the pathway vanishes.

 

God does not smite us, he invites us to participate with him in the work of healing the world. In Gabriel’s message, gravely and graciously, he invites Mary to the dance.

And this upsets the natural rhythm of the world, the comfortable lives we make for ourselves, the kinds of dreams that Mary had. For our world to change requires the courage for us to co-operate with God. To turn from the ordinary to the extraordinary, in ways both small and large. This is the challenge Christmas brings us each year: to see God at work in the small and unexpected and to work with him for the saving and healing of the world.

Mary says yes. ‘I’m at the service of the Lord. May it happen to me in the way you say.’ Denise Levertov again:

She did not cry, ‘I cannot. I am not worthy,’

Nor, ‘I have not the strength.’

She did not submit with gritted teeth,

raging, coerced.

Bravest of all humans,

consent illumined her.

The room filled with its light,

the lily glowed in it,

and the iridescent wings.

Consent,

courage unparalleled,

opened her utterly.

Torn from her dreams, she accepts the angel’s invitation. Nine months later in Bethlehem,

the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger because there was no place for them in the inn (Luke 2.6-7).

The angels go wild, but only a bunch of star-struck shepherds see them and spot God at work where no one else was able to see him. This will happen again and again in this story, until eventually on the cross it is only a Roman centurion who will sense God’s presence through the agony of Jesus, and in the Tomb on Easter morning another angel-messenger will tell a group of women the unexpected and astonishing news that Jesus is risen from the dead, and no one else at first will believe them.

So what are your dreams this Christmas? And are you prepared to let God turn them upside down? He invites you, just as he invited Mary all those centuries ago, to join his dance. What will you say?

What did Mary dream of? A small-town girl in first-century Galilee, her horizons were probably limited. A good husband, a secure home, a family…that’s most likely what she wanted.

And she probably thought she’d got it, too, in Joseph. A bit of a catch was Joseph, what with his royal blood, coming from the line of David, even if it was a bit diluted by now as the last king was 18 generations ago, but good stock as they say. A bit older than her, true, but most husbands tended to be in those days. And he had a steady trade that gave work all the year round as a carpenter and builder, so they wouldn’t be rich but she could be sure that there’d always be a stable home for them, with room for the children she looked forward to. I imagine her mother was as satisfied as mothers ever are with the man their daughters are going to marry. For now Mary had a wedding to plan. Her dreams were coming true.

Then an angel knocked on the window.

Did she spot him at first, or was she distracted by household tasks and wedding preparations? We think of angels as supernatural beings, but the truth is that an angel is just a messenger in the Greek which the New Testament was written in. There may not have been a flash of lightning, awe and wonder and glory shining around (that will come later with the shepherds). The messenger may have come in quite ordinary guise. What matters is the message. Luke’s gospel (1.26-38) tells us that Gabriel approached her and got her attention, and that his words to her were, ‘Greetings, O favoured one! The Lord is with you!’; but in return Mary was utterly confused and startled. What was he talking about? ‘Don’t be afraid’ says Gabriel, ‘God’s grace has found you. You’re going to have a baby, a son, and you’ll call him Jesus. He’ll be great, and called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of his forefather David. He will rule over Israel, and his kingdom will last for ever.’

But for Mary it just didn’t add up. Far from meekly bowing her head and accepting the message, according to Luke Mary argues back: ‘How’s that going to happen? I’ve never been with any man.’ Where were her dreams and plans now? The angel seems pretty enthusiastic, but for Mary at first sight this certainly didn’t seem like good news. A single mother, not yet married, her dreams of husband and home might just as well have gone up in smoke, and without them a baby would be a liability, not a delight.

The angel offers more information: ‘The Holy Spirit will hover over you, the power of the Most High will overshadow you, and the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.’ And he adds to the picture: by the way, ‘Your cousin Elizabeth has also conceived a child in her old age and is six months pregnant even though she was thought to be barren. Because nothing said by God can be impossible.’

It was cross-roads time. Mary’s question, ‘How’s that going to happen?’, might not be a purely biological one. How could it be that this great king could come from her? ‘I’ve never been with a man’ might be her defiant response to her own question. Perhaps what she really means is, ‘You’ve got the wrong girl.’  And Gabriel’s response is to reassure her. Yes, it can happen – if God chooses to do so.

Part of Mary’s bewilderment may also be because it feels like she’s suddenly been given a part in a play she never asked to be cast in, and where no-one has told her the script. The plot she knows, about the return of God’s king, a messiah or Christ who will wipe away all tears, establish justice, bring God’s rule to the earth and create peace in a troubled and distracted world. Yet how could that include her? Surely that means military might and power, men and armies, not a girl planning a wedding in Nazareth. How on earth could she be thrust forward into this spotlight? She is God’s choice for the role, apparently. But does she want it?

The poet Denise Levertov imagined this scene and Mary’s choice in her poem ‘Annunciation’. She writes:

…we are told of meek obedience. No one mentions courage.

The engendering Spirit did not enter her without consent.

God waited.

 

She was free to accept or to refuse, choice integral to humanness.

 

Just as ‘choice [is] integral to humanness’ it is integral to God’s role in this story, too. For he too chooses to work through Mary, that small-town girl with her future dreams that probably had nothing to do with God’s coming to earth. More than choosing to work through her, he actively chooses her as his partner in the whole extraordinary enterprise. That, I suspect, more than anything, is what confuses her and turns her world upside down. A princess or a palace in Jerusalem might be the right person and place for this angelic conversation, but not a peasant from Galilee, and she knows it. But the tantalising offer from the angel is for her to join God’s wild, mad adventure to save and heal the world. Did she have the courage for that? Above all, the courage to trust God with her child?

Denise Levertov’s poem goes on:

Called to a destiny more momentous than any in all of Time, she did not quail,

only asked

a simple, ‘How can this be?’ and gravely, courteously, took to heart the angel’s reply, the astounding ministry she was offered:

 

to bear in her womb Infinite weight and lightness; to carry in hidden, finite inwardness, nine months of Eternity; to contain in slender vase of being, the sum of power– in narrow flesh, the sum of light.

Then bring to birth, push out into air, a Man-child needing, like any other, milk and love–

but who was God.

 

 

This was the minute no one speaks of,

when she could still refuse.

 

A breath unbreathed,

Spirit,

suspended,

waiting.

 

It is an astounding fact of the story we read in the Bible that, again and again, God chooses to be in partnership with human beings. How much simpler other ways might have been! But this book speaks of a God who shows infinite patience with us as a human race, an infinite tenderness with our mistakes, an infinite love to draw this wayward, wounded, wasting world back to himself. A God who does not need to love or act, but who chooses to do so. Yet Mary is not forced to co-operate with him: she has her choice to make too. Everything the angel says to her is in the future tense: it hasn’t happened yet, there is no baby already conceived, the whole plan hangs on her consent. The angel waits for her response.

Left to ourselves, this is not how we humans think God should be. We imagine him to be mighty, victorious, omnipotent, triumphant – and of course God is sometimes described this way in the Bible. Often we long for him to be like this, and to wipe away evil from the earth. Yet the Bible speaks of another side too: ‘Truly, you are a God who hides himself’, says the prophet Isaiah (Is. 45.15). God is not obvious or in our faces, active and present all the time in an unmistakable way. For some that is reason not to believe that he’s there at all. But what if his character is to be there, but hidden and mysterious, to choose to love and save his world through hidden, vulnerable and mysterious ways that engage us in partnership with him, that invite us to be part of his great adventure? This is what the people of ancient Israel discovered about the God who revealed himself to them. Mitri Raheb, a Palestinian Christian, writes that:

this God appeared to be weak compared with other gods. He seemed forever to be on the losing end, just like his people. This God was almost interchangeable with his people, his weakness was shown in theirs, and their defeat was his. This God was a loser. He lost almost all wars, and his people were forced to pay the price of those defeat.

But the consequence of their God being a loser gave the people an extraordinary and astonishing gift:

The revelation the people…received was the ability to spot God where no-one else was able to see him…When his people were defeated, he was also present…he didn’t run away when his people faced their destiny but remained with them, showing solidarity and choosing to share their destiny…The revelation…was that God was to be found where no one expected him. (Faith in the Face of Empire: the Bible Through Palestinian Eyes Orbis 2014, pp.87-88).

Gabriel’s conversation with Mary is not just an annunciation of what will happen with her, but also an announcement of how God works: through our human choice and consent, in partnership with him in the places where no one, least of all Mary, really expects him. He seeks to come not as a conquering hero brandishing power and might, but through the natural process of growth and birth in Mary’s womb, vulnerable and fragile as only a human being can be. The power of the Most High will work through the least of the low – Mary.

Denise Levertov she writes:

Aren’t there annunciations of one sort or another in most lives?

Some unwillingly undertake great destinies, enact them in sullen pride, uncomprehending.

More often those moments       when roads of light and storm       open from darkness in a man or woman, are turned away from
in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair and with relief. Ordinary lives continue.                                  God does not smite them. But the gates close, the pathway vanishes.

 

God does not smite us, he invites us to participate with him in the work of healing the world. In Gabriel’s message, gravely and graciously, he invites Mary to the dance.

And this upsets the natural rhythm of the world, the comfortable lives we make for ourselves, the kinds of dreams that Mary had. For our world to change requires the courage for us to co-operate with God. To turn from the ordinary to the extraordinary, in ways both small and large. This is the challenge Christmas brings us each year: to see God at work in the small and unexpected and to work with him for the saving and healing of the world.

Mary says yes. ‘I’m at the service of the Lord. May it happen to me in the way you say.’ Denise Levertov again:

She did not cry, ‘I cannot. I am not worthy,’

Nor, ‘I have not the strength.’

She did not submit with gritted teeth,

raging, coerced.

Bravest of all humans,

consent illumined her.

The room filled with its light,

the lily glowed in it,

and the iridescent wings.

Consent,

courage unparalleled,

opened her utterly.

Torn from her dreams, she accepts the angel’s invitation. Nine months later in Bethlehem,

the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger because there was no place for them in the inn (Luke 2.6-7).

The angels go wild, but only a bunch of star-struck shepherds see them and spot God at work where no one else was able to see him. This will happen again and again in this story, until eventually on the cross it is only a Roman centurion who will sense God’s presence through the agony of Jesus, and in the Tomb on Easter morning another angel-messenger will tell a group of women the unexpected and astonishing news that Jesus is risen from the dead, and no one else at first will believe them.

So what are your dreams this Christmas? And are you prepared to let God turn them upside down? He invites you, just as he invited Mary all those centuries ago, to join his dance. What will you say?

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