God’s Revelation in Christ

 John 1:29-42

Christ Church Highbury, 15.1.17

 Those of you who were with us last Sunday may recall that the theme of the service was Jesus’ baptism, as is customary in the church calendar the week after Epiphany. Today’s Gospel reading features the same event, but from the perspective of John the Baptist. It is the pivotal moment in John’s understanding of who Jesus is, setting the stage for the calling of the first disciples.

Earlier in this chapter, John has testified about the coming Messiah – but does not identify who this is. Even under examination by the Jewish authorities, all he is able to say is: “I baptize with water,” John replied, “but among you stands one you do not know. He is the one who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.”

In fact, John’s message was not a unique one. Over the years – four hundred or so since the last texts we have from the prophets of the Old Testament – plenty of different voices had proclaimed the coming of the Messiah. This had resulted in Jewish society having a whole host of different expectations about who this Messiah would be. Some of these expectations arose from the prophecies we’re familiar with – like the passage we’ve heard from Isaiah & the readings at our annual carol service – but others evolved out of human expectations and ideas.

The Pharisees who came to examine John as he baptised in Bethany knew these prophecies inside out, but when John declared them as being fulfilled by the one who was to come after him, they ignored him. John is described by one commentary as “a lamp, both shining on Christ and exposing the ignorance of the opponents”.

It’s his role as a lamp shining on Christ that I want to explore this morning…

John’s declarations:

Our comparatively short Gospel reading contains four major statements concerning the revelation of God in Jesus. Two of these are made by John the Baptist.

The first of these appears both in verse 29 and 36: “Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!” I’m sure if I was to ask you for descriptions of who Christ is, it wouldn’t take long before someone mentioned “Lamb of God”, but this is actually the first instance of its usage in Scripture. It’s not part of the Old Testament prophecy regarding the Messiah, but is a reference to the theme of redemption and harks back to the lamb sacrificed at the first Passover.

John repeats this statement the very next day, when in the company of his own disciples. He sees Jesus and again declares: “Look, the Lamb of God!”

Presumably, there were people with John the first time he made this statement – he wasn’t talking to himself – but in this second instance, his declaration has a hugely significant impact upon his own disciples. They leave John and follow Jesus, immediately convinced that the Messiah has been revealed to them.

In fact, it’s likely that they were with John the day before and the revelation they have received is also the result of the other things he had declared about Jesus. Most importantly, in John’s re-telling of Jesus’ baptism, he told of the Holy Spirit’s anointing of Jesus which had led him to tell all that Jesus was indeed ‘God’s chosen one’.

John’s description of Jesus’ baptism is the first instance of an ongoing theme in the Gospel of John – that of the Holy Spirit coming from God the Father to point towards his Son, Jesus Christ. The Spirit had revealed to John just who Jesus was, and in turn John was sharing this revelation with all who would listen. (And those who would not!)

We know that, at the very least, two of John’s disciples have heard and believed. When they start to follow Jesus, the disciples address him as “Rabbi”. They knew that he was a teacher, and someone who they needed to follow even more than the prophet with whom they had already been learning from. But by now they had learnt the most important lesson that John the Baptist could teach them: that this was Christ the Messiah and that they needed to follow him.

Not even a day goes by before Jesus’ first disciples are so sure of who he is that they declare him to be the Messiah to others. In verse 41 we hear how Andrew declares to his brother that “We have found the Messiah.” We don’t know if they’ve seen anything in Jesus’ behaviour during the few hours they’ve been with him that proved this to them, but they knew enough that this was big news that they needed to share.

The significance of revelation, not action:

An interesting aspect of the account in John’s Gospel is how little of Jesus’ ministry has taken place at the point at which he calls his first disciples. In the synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark & Luke – by the time we read of the calling of the first disciples, Jesus has already demonstrated his identity in a number of ways.

For example, in Luke chapter 4, the disciples receive their calling immediately following one of Jesus’ teaching sessions at Galilee. In the preceding chapter, had already declared himself to be a fulfilment of prophecy in his home-town; driven out Spirits; healed multiple people; and declared the coming of the Kingdom of God.

But in John’s Gospel, it is revelation through encountering Christ that is the pivotal moment.

John the Baptist receives the revelation of who Jesus is when he baptises him.

Andrew – and the disciple whose name we don’t learn at this point – have Jesus revealed to them through John’s declared revelation, and their own encounter with him.

Simon Peter hears the good news from his brother and then has an encounter with Christ that reveals the role he will have alongside him.

It’s important for us to understand and appreciate the significance of the revelation of Christ through encountering him, because God’s revelation in Christ takes place in the same way today.

Those of us who have been Christians for much of our lives, who know Scripture – particularly the Gospels – well. We have the enormous benefit of hindsight. We know the Old Testament prophecies and how Jesus came to fulfil them. We know the accounts of the ways in which Jesus demonstrated who he was – the miracles; the casting out of demons; the healings; his teaching – but even with all that knowledge, we are lacking a full revelation of Christ in our lives.

Full revelation only takes place when we encounter Christ ourselves.

That might begin with receiving an account of Christ’s revelation from someone else. Just as John shared his revelation with his disciples, so there have been people on our spiritual journeys who have shared their own encounters with Jesus with others.

CS Lewis

CS Lewis is just one example of this. Although he grew up in what he later described as a ‘bland’ Christian childhood, by the time he was a student, he was an idealist atheist.

In his autobiographical book “Surprised by Joy”, Lewis describes a number of ‘dangerous encounters’ he had with Christians at a time when he was determined to protect his atheism. Two of the people involved in these encounters were the writers GK Chesterton and JR Tolkein – but it’s the latter who Lewis would cite as ‘delivering the fatal blow’.

A conversation with Tolkein that went on until 3am was what resulted in Lewis’ ‘capitulation’ to a relationship with Christ. He wrote in his autobiography:

“You must picture me alone in that room at Magdalen [Maudlyn], night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England” 

Through his Christian friends, and their sharing of their own encounters with Christ, Lewis was finally brought to a place in which he could encounter Jesus himself. In turn, as you’re all probably aware, Lewis then became one of the greatest apologists of the Christian faith in the mid-20th century.

God only knows – literally only God knows – just how many people came to have their own encounters with Christ through Lewis’ sharing of the revelation he had come to know.

What next?

I imagine that amongst the congregation this morning, people are at a range of places on the journey to encountering Christ.

Quite a few of you, I suspect, are some time beyond your first encounter with Christ. And for you, I have two challenges: firstly, ask God for further revelation. God continues to speak to his people and reveals more of his triune self – through our prayer lives, our reading, our worship and our relationships with others. Secondly: ask God to show you who you could share your experiences of encountering Christ with. Who could you have conversations with that might impact their own journey towards encountering Jesus?

Perhaps some people here are wrestling, just as CS Lewis did. My prayer for you is that God would bring people alongside you who can share their own encounters with you – just as Tolkein and Chesterton did. May God open your heart to recognise who Jesus is, and where he is at work in your life and the world.

There may be some people here who are weary. Who encountered Christ at some point along the way, but it seems a long time ago and the excitement feels like it’s worn off. For you, I pray that you would be inspired by John the Baptist’s excitement at realising that the Messiah was in front of him. Perhaps ask God for more – more of his Holy Spirit to point to the actions of Christ in your own life; more enthusiasm in sharing who Christ is; and an understanding of all that Christ has in store for your life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Risky Business

On New Year’s Eve, a question was asked of the table at which I was seated: “What did you learn in 2016 and what would you like to master in 2017?”

As reflective, end of year questions go, it was a pretty good one. Not too cheesy;  not uber-religious (given as it was a mixed crowd); and it could be interpreted in a few ways.

I probably could have answered it multiple times over. Looking at my list of 2016 Firsts [yes, I still do this – less intentionally, more reflectively realising what I’d done for the first time in the past year], there were plenty of things I’d learned. Including:

  • How to take a funeral.
  • A huge number of film-related factoids, thanks to regular attendance at the BFI’s monthly MK3D nights – when Mark Kermode shares his wisdom.
  • How to lead a Transformational Index workshop on my own. [Now a significant part of my freelance income.)
  • More about gin. Specifically, which gins I like. (Still not found many that I don’t like!)
  • That it’s possible to walk from Gare du Nord to Gare d’Austerlitz and really is the best way to combat French strike action in Paris.
  • How to preside at the Eucharist.

Some lessons were simply the natural course for the stage of ministry I’m at. Some were delightful happenings. Other lessons were less of a joy and more of a necessity. But I’ve learned a lot all the same.

However, it wasn’t anything from that list that came to mind on New Year’s Eve. In fact, it wasn’t a specific event or experience, it was an attitude. In 2016, I learnt that I can take risks and it will be ok. And if it doesn’t turn out ok, that can be fine too.

I’m not a natural risk taker. My Myers-Briggs profile is ISTJ (some readers will at this point nod sagely and understand exactly what this means…) I am an introvert and a planner. I don’t do spontaneity well. I like to know what’s next. Someone once commented that my love of walking across London is indicative of my personality type: it’s time alone with my thoughts (or podcasts) and I always know exactly how long it will take to reach my destination because traffic/other people won’t interfere with my journey time. They were pretty spot on.

It’s not that as 2016 dawned I decided to become a risky person. It just sort of happened and it was good.

The example I shared on NYE was from my adventures this year at the BFI. Back in February I went to my first MK3D event. I knew that in the room were people who I’d communicated with on Twitter, but I didn’t intentionally set out to meet any of them. When I returned in March, I noticed that a few of them were sitting together and so, with all my extrovertedness mustered, I approached them in the bar afterwards and asked if I could join them for a drink. I don’t do that sort of thing – ever! But it worked. We’re now a committed foursome and sit together at each event. We all agreed in December that becoming friends was a definite highlight of the year.

It may not sound that incredible, but as friends who heard about it at the time commented, it just wasn’t something I’d usually do.

Fast-forward to the summer and the planning of a holiday to the States. I discovered a while ago that my sister has coined the term “Doing a Liz”, to describe my habit of jetting off to some semi-exotic location simply on the premise that I have friends there. She has never travelled alone. I thrive on it.

Usually, these trips are pretty well planned. I know where I’m going, where I’m staying, who I’ll see and when I’ll get there. Over the last few years, my trips have increasingly involved friends who are my MBTI opposites. There’s less planning, more spontaneity. I’m getting better at having a flexible schedule (to a degree). But on that October trip to the States I left a whole weekend blank. I was hopeful that it would be spent in Virginia, but I’d not been able to lock down the details. I’d told the friend I was staying with in New York that I’d probably be with them on the Monday, but that there was an element of uncertainty around it – if things went wrong, perhaps I’d end up there sooner.

I took a risk. A previous version of me may well have said that it was a ridiculous plan (or non-plan) and booked to go straight from DC to NYC. It all worked out. In fact, it worked out better than I might ever have been able to plan it – including a car-ride from Northern Virginia all the way to Brooklyn (what are the chances that someone will need to make an 8 hour drive to your destination on the same day you need to be there??). I had a great time and returned home so thankful that I had *not* planned the trip to within an inch of its life.

As if to cement 2016 as something of a risk-taking year, I celebrated New Year’s Eve back in Virginia on a trip that ranks as the most spontaneous bit of international travel I’ve ever undertaken. Friends were heading out there before a work trip to North Carolina and I had unexpectedly secured Sunday January 1st off work – cue space for a decent length holiday. But the actual trip booking? The week before Christmas. That is decidedly uncharacteristic Liz behaviour – but my goodness, how much did I need that trip!!

Thinking about this theme of risk in the early days of the new year, I’ve been struck that actually, riskiness has been a bigger part of my life since I got ordained. Not so much because of ordination, but because I took up a half-stipend job, trusting that I’d be able to muster enough freelance work to make up the difference. Financially I’ve not quite managed the other half of my stipend, but every time I’ve finished a piece of work a new piece has shown up pretty quickly. As 2017 dawned, I’ve got two pretty exciting projects on the table and the prospect of more to come. The risk is paying off.

A dear friend who was with me on both my American adventures in 2016 has told me more than once how proud she is of me. (Each time emphasising very sweetly that she doesn’t mean it in any kind of a patronising way!) It’s not that she wants me to live in a particularly risky way, but that taking certain risks is demonstrative of confidence – confidence in myself and perhaps most importantly, confidence that God has got this.

It’s not the first time in my life that I’ve taken risks, but I think in 2016 I realised how important it can be – even when the risks don’t quite work out how you expect them to. In fact, especially when they don’t!

Appropriately enough, on January 4th, in Durham NC, I discovered this print in the rather fabulous Parker & Otis:

The plan is that it’ll hang on the wall and help me face the risks of 2017. I will not be afraid. Even when I get stuck into the thing I said I was looking to master…

…driving. Yep. 2017 could actually be the year I knuckle down, feel the fear and do it anyway. God help me and all other road users!

2016 Firsts

As has been traditional since 2010, I’m beginning 2017 by attempting to chronicle all the things I did in the preceding year that were ‘firsts’. These days, instead of keeping a running list, I use my iPhone’s camera roll as a memory jogger and compile the list at some point in the first days of the new year. I’m really only posting it so that it’s stored somewhere. Plus, it came up in conversation on New Year’s Eve, so it seems appropriate to still keep up the habit.

So, 2016’s Firsts:

Celebrated Epiphany with port.
Experienced London Lumiere.
Attended my first burial.
Toured behind the scenes of St Paul’s Cathedral.
Passed a Theology MA.
Listened to the Hamilton soundtrack. [And become obsessed.]
Facilitated a TI workshop solo.
Watched the pancake races at the Guildhall on Shrove Tuesday.
City hacked London.
Drunk gin at a gin palace.
Taken chums to Belfast.
Attended MK3D at the BFI.
Attended the installation of a priest.
Lived in Highbury.
Walked the New River Path.
Met (and joined) the ‘Blimey Charlie’s Angels’.
Watched the BBC’s Pride & Prejudice.
Led Good Friday meditations.
Waterboarded a bathroom.
Travelled by bus in Paris.
Seen Sunset Boulevard.
Watched Glenn Close perform live.
Visited a prison.
Eaten afternoon tea on a bus.
Hung out at the London Aquatics Centre.
Played in the Highbury Fields playground.
Watched someone have radiotherapy.
Been a judge for an awards ceremony.
Walked from Gare du Nord to Gare d’Austerlitz.
Owned steel toe capped wellies.
Visited a strawberry festival.
Tiled a bathroom.
Drunk Lynchburg Lemonade.
Plastered a ceiling.
Swum in Lac St Helene.
Visited Eymoutiers.
Bought a book at Shakespeare & Company.
Owned an iPhone SE.
Stayed at St Neots retreat centre.
Ordained priest.
Drunk at the East London Gin Distillery.
Presided at the Eucharist.
Listened to the You Must Remember This podcast.
Used the secret railway to Moorgate.
Voted in an EU Referendum.
Attended a memorial in Trafalgar Square.
Worshipped in Chelmsford Cathedral.
Joined Snapchat.
Attended a rally in Highbury Fields.
Owned a Kenwood.
Lost a grandparent.
Helped lead a funeral.
Hot tubbed in Forest Gate.
Made Lynchburg Lemonade.
Broken a toe.
Watched a play on the Camden Fringe.
Made raspberry gin.
Listened to Harry Potter & the Sacred Text.
Climbed to the top of St Paul’s Cathedral.
Hunted for Dream Jars.
Visited a parishioner in a hospice.
Watched Groundhog Day, the musical.
Explored the Hampstead pergola.
Hunted for rhinos in Exeter.
Baked raspberry & dark chocolate scones.
Experienced Friends Fest.
Slept in my parents’ new home.
Drunk a Pumpkin Spice Frappaccino.
Explored a tube station covered in cats.
Visited the Museum of the Docklands.
Stayed in Capitol Hill district.
Shown an American their capital city.
Run in DC.
Had a gel manicure. (By a male manicurist.)
Shared a cocktail served in a fish bowl.
Toured DC monuments by night.
Travelled through DC by bus.
Explored the National Cathedral.
Ridden on a double-decker train.
Stayed in Fredericksburg, Virginia.
Kissed in America.
Eaten Sprelly.
Brunched at a Cracker Barrel.
Road-tripped from Virginia to NYC.
Travelled through NYC by car.
Visited the Tenement Museum.
Watched Jimmy Fallon rehearse.
Drunk at the Boat House in Central Park.
Assisted at a confirmation.
Graduated with a MA in Theology.
Watched Harry Potter & the Cursed Child.
Attended the fireworks in Victoria Park.
Visited Leicester Cathedral.
Made a cake in the shape of Thunderbirds 2.
Sous-cheffed Thanksgiving.
Conducted my first funeral & burial.
Watched In The Heights.
Played Mission Possible.
Heard Rowan Williams speak.
Baked Maids of Honour.
Presided at Midnight Mass.
Hosted family Christmas.
Flown into DC.
Celebrated New Years in a different country.

Telling the Story – Christmas Day 2016

Luke 2:1-14 Christmas Day, Christ Church Highbury 2016

The story of Christ’s birth has been re-told over and over again in the two millennia since he came to earth. The message of good news of great joy that the angels brought to the shepherds has been brought to countless people all over the world in many, many different ways.

Most of us at some point have been in a nativity play. I achieved the great heights of playing Mary in my childhood – although I was always a little jealous that my sister played the Angel Gabriel and as a result had a much prettier costume.

[A quick poll of the congregation revealed a host of nativity play roles. From Marys, Josephs and angels, to a mouse and a ‘host’. Upon further investigation, this wasn’t a sophisticated angel, this was a child who was somehow in a production of the nativity that included a Strictly Come Dancing component!!]

This year, I know quite a few grown-ups who are in nativities. My friend’s mum – in her 60s – has played a King in the ‘living nativity’ in Ely. She even got to ride a real-life camel!

Up in Doncaster, friends who had their second baby earlier this year are responsible for providing Jesus at their church’s nativity (although as baby Leonie was born in April, Jesus will have been sitting up in the manger and not looking anything like a newborn)!

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine was visiting her God-daughter, this baby’s 4-year-old sister Amelia. They’d got the family’s nativity set out and Amelia was going through the figures, telling her Godmother who each one was:

“This is Mary and Joseph, and Baby Jesus. These are the wise men and these are the shepherds and this is the angry cow…”

Her godmother questioned the last one. “The angry cow??”

“Yes” Amelia replied, “the angry cow”.

“Ok” said her godmother. “I thought that’s what you said. But why is he angry?”

Amelia explained: “Well, he woke up expecting to have breakfast and there was a baby in his hay!”

Quite logical really!! Upon further questioning, it turned out that this was an extra flourish Amelia’s Junior Church leader had given her re-telling of the nativity the week before, as part of their preparations for their church’s nativity play.

The ‘angry cow’ is up there with the two lobsters, octopus and spiderman at the nativity in the film Love Actually. In fact, odd characters are quite a thing – like the child who played the door-knob on the Inn Keepers’ door! Or a nativity play where aliens land and watch a nativity play performed by school children – very meta.

But, these unusual characters actually serve a really important purpose: they help to tell the story in a way that helps different people to connect with it.

*****

Each of the gospel depictions of the Nativity tell the same story, but they emphasise different parts of the narrative. This passage from Luke demonstrates who he wanted to particularly connect the story of Jesus’ birth with…

It begins grounded in historical fact. The census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria, at the decree of Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus. Luke is often described as the historian of the New Testament. He regularly cites individuals and events that help date the events of Jesus and the apostles’ lives. The census that causes Joseph to have to return to his home-town of Bethlehem is an something that historians know to be one of the first duties that Quirinius performed upon becoming governor.

Jesus’ birth is a historical event on a par with the actions of politicians.

Luke continues his account by demonstrating how Jesus’ birth is the fulfilment of prophecies long spoken. Born in Bethlehem, in the line of King David, the prophecies of Micah and Isaiah are fulfilled. The angels’ words to the shepherds confirm this too: “Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.”

The birth of this baby is the embodiment of promises God had made his people for centuries.

 The shepherds too, are part of Luke’s focus. They are the people to whom Jesus’ birth is announced in this gospel, rather than the magi. So the first to hear the news of the Messiah’s birth are not rich rulers, but some of the poorest of society, making their living on the hills surrounding Bethlehem.

Jesus is not a Messiah for the rich and powerful. He has come in poverty – born in a stable – and the first to visit him are shepherds with few worldly possessions. Because they lived and worked outside, in the middle of nowhere, shepherds were usually not able to be particularly observant in terms of their religion – so Luke is also showing that the Messiah had come not just for those who had followed every last letter of the Jewish law.

More than this, the angels declare to the shepherds that they bring you good news that will cause great joy for ALL the people.’ Luke emphasises that Jesus has come to bring salvation for everyone throughout his gospel. He highlights the outcasts of society – women, tax-collectors, Samaritans – and demonstrates how Jesus showed his love to them.

The coming of the Messiah is good news for the whole world. Regardless of gender, race or wealth.

*****

Luke’s version of the story of Jesus’ birth therefore has several purposes:

  • To ground it in historical fact.
  • To demonstrate its fulfilment of prophecy.
  • And to highlight that he came to save EVERYONE.

I’m pretty sure none of us here are shepherds. (I could be wrong – but I’ve never seen any sheep grazing on Highbury Fields!) But Luke’s words do include us. As foreigners, and probably non-Jews, we are among those who would not have been thought – at the time of Jesus’ birth – to be beneficiaries of God’s promises. But we are!

The story of the Nativity: the angels; the virgin and the man promised to her in marriage; the birth in Bethlehem; the shepherds and the magi – they are so much more than just characters. They are the people through whom God’s work of salvation plays out.

Luke’s account of the birth of Christ emphasises those who needed to be part of the narrative, so that those like them could see that Jesus came for them too. Our modern-day nativities may include some slightly odd characters, but in doing so, they open up the story in new ways to new people.

There probably wasn’t an angry cow in the stable alongside Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus. But imagining that there was, and thinking through the implications of Jesus’ birth has at least helped one 4 year old to meditate upon the story in a new way, that she could understand.

We may laugh at the lobsters, the octopus, and even aliens that get added to nativity plays – but we remember them and with that memory is the story.

We are all invited to be part of the story of Christ’s birth. The angels have brought good news of great joy to each and every one of us, and we all have a role to play!

Some of the characters at the Love, Actually nativity. [‘Eight is a lot of legs David!’]

When God shows up…

Genesis 18: 1-15 When God Shows Up. Christ Church Highbury, October 2nd 2016

This was the second in a series of three sermons on Abraham, grounded in a book by Meg Warner. The book and the sermon series focuses on discerning God’s call in our lives. The reading for this sermon is the one that Meg uses in chapter three – the three visitors to Abraham and Sarah.

The visitors:

The reader of this passage is let into a secret that Abraham was unaware of: that his visitors were in fact God. We know, because the first verse of the chapter makes it perfectly clear: “The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day.”

You might not notice this immediately on a first reading of the passage, because of the way in which Abraham responds to the presence of these visitors. He provides water for washing; urges Sarah to bake bread; calls for a calf to be slaughtered; and offers a feast for his guests.

He also refers to his guests as “lord”, but this is an example of the importance of punctuation! Note the difference between the ‘LORD’ of verse one, and the “my lord” of verse three. Abraham is simply using a form of address that was full of respect for these unexpected visitors.

I don’t know how you would respond to the unexpected arrival of visitors? In these days of mobile phones, it’s quite rare for someone to just turn up on the doorstep – at the very least you might get a warning half an hour ahead if a friend happened to be in the neighbourhood. My response would usually be a frantic few minutes of cleaning and tidying, followed by the filling of the kettle and checking to see that I had milk in the fridge. Because, of course, the classic British response to any visitor is the making of a cup of tea! But would I do this for a total stranger who turned up at my home? I don’t know…

In Abraham’s society, the equivalent of the British cup of tea was the hospitality that he offered these guests. Meg highlights in this chapter that this hospitality was given because it helped to convert into an ally what might actually be a dangerous stranger, and there was an expectation that some form of gift would be offered in return. Often, because strangers would be from another region, this would take the form of news or a story.

We, the readers, know that these visitors are not dangerous. They are the Lord God of Israel! But they conform to cultural expectations by providing news following their receipt of Abraham’s hospitality. In verse 10 we read: “Then one of them said, ‘I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.’”

This is both news to Abraham and Sarah, and a repetition of the promise the Lord had already made Abraham when he first called him and his family. This promise originates in Genesis 12, and is then repeated three chapters later, when Abraham complains that he still has no children. ‘The Lord took him outside and said, ‘Look up at the sky and count the stars – if indeed you can count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’

 In chapter 17, the Lord makes it clear that Sarah is to be the mother of the descendants that will become the people of Israel. In verse 16, the Lord says to Abraham: “I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.’”

I wouldn’t have been surprised if Abraham and Sarah were not a little frustrated by this point! Promises had been made again and again, but so far they hadn’t seen them come to fruition and it now, thanks to their age, seemed impossible despite God’s words to them.

But this visitor’s words about Sarah finally gives a timeframe for this momentous event. Within a year Sarah would have given birth to the long promised son who was to be the first in this line of promised descendants.

God shows up – where & how we least expect it:

God’s renewal of his promise to Abraham and Sarah came out of their actions towards the unknown visitors. They had behaved in the way that God expected of them, and had been rewarded with the most concrete news they had had so far regarding their promised son.

It’s a brilliant example of the way in which God still works through his people today. God shows up in the most unlikely of places, and it’s up to his disciples to respond appropriately. In return, we receive a renewal of his promises to us: our salvation through Christ and our place in the Kingdom of Heaven.

I loved Meg’s closing remarks on this passage: “It is therefore important that we don’t try to limit God, but keep ourselves open to what he may choose to accomplish in us. The first aspect is tempered by a second, which is that God works within the everyday order and activities of our lives. Our part of the bargain is to undertake our lives and our work faithfully, extending hospitality, generosity and kindness to others, not because of what we might gain, but because loving others is part of loving God.”

Seeing this at work with Mickey & Christ Church:

As I was preparing for this sermon on Monday, the news of the death of a parishioner came through. [The following paragraph wasn’t in the sermon, most of the congregation were well aware of who this fabulous person was!]

Mickey was no ordinary member of the congregation and has made a lasting impression on me – and probably everyone he’s met! When I met him on my first Sunday at Christ Church, he introduced himself as “the dodgiest looking choir boy” and proceeded to sing (beautifully) a song he’d written himself. Mickey would often pop into the church office for a chat, and was always a fun person to talk to – even if he did occasionally make comments that were perhaps not that appropriate for a parishioner to make to a curate. [He once commented, mid-winter when I’d swapped my black DMs for winter boots, that I “should wear the DMs more often because they made me a much sexier vicar”!] Last year, Mickey was diagnosed with cancer. By this spring, it was confirmed as being terminal. The way in which both he and the congregation was phenomenal…

Mickey, 2015

Mickey was very much in my thoughts as I read Meg’s words, and read again the story of Abraham’s visitors. It struck me that in the short time that I knew him, Mickey embodied what God calls us to do in this passage – he was open to what God could accomplish through him. He may not have realised it, but it was most certainly the case.

Those of you who didn’t get to know Mickey really missed out! He had a charismatic personality and made friends wherever he went. He was in St Joseph’s hospice in Hackney for the last five weeks, and the first time I visited him there – when he’d been their patient for all of three days – he told me how the day before he’d walked to a Sainsbury’s down the road and had got talking to a woman behind the checkout. When her shift finished a few hours later, she popped into the hospice to say hello to him. That kind of thing was typical Mickey.

When Micky became ill, this congregation responded in a way that is testament to the amazing people who are part of Christ Church. People bestowed love, care and hospitality upon Mickey in a way that embodied the call God gives us to demonstrate his love. Because, as Meg put it in that quote, “loving others is part of loving God.” Those who gathered around Mickey weren’t doing it to get noticed, or to receive a reward, they were doing it because it was what they felt God calling them to do. Just as one day, a few years ago, God prompted Mickey to enter this building and start building relationships here.

Accidental Saints

A few weeks ago, I spent an evening at St Paul’s Cathedral listening to Rev Richard Coles – the vicar who presents Radio 4’s Saturday Live – and Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Presbyterian minister from Colorado. The subject was ‘Accidental Saints’, which is coincidentally the title of Nadia’s most recent book, which I highly recommend if you’re looking for another book to read.

The premise of ‘Accidental Saints’ is that God can use even the most unlikely or ill-suited people. She writes: “I keep making mistakes, even the same ones over and over…I stumble into holy moments not realising where I am until they are over. I love poorly, then accidentally say the right thing at the right moment without even realising it, then forget what matters, then show tenderness when it’s needed, and then turn around and think of myself way too often.”

Sound familiar? But, Nadia concludes with a positive: “I simply continue to be a person on whom God is at work.”

As I listened to her speak on this subject, I thought about Mickey – I’d just been visiting him before heading to St Paul’s. It struck me that he was the epitome of an accidental saint. He was just bumbling through life, but God used him in exceptional ways. And of course, for God, it was no accident!

The important thing was that God equipped Mickey with his gifts – his humour, his charisma – in the same way he equipped those who cared for him. God had called Abraham to the specific task of being the father of the people of Israel – but it took a while for God to give him what he needed to complete this task: a son given birth to by Sarah.

Mickey & one of his angelsMickey & one of his fabulous ‘angels’ at St Joseph’s hospice.

God shows up at times, in places and in people where we would least expect to see him. He calls, and we, in faith, respond.

Our response does not need to be a dramatic one, but should be what is expected of us as followers of Christ – that in loving God, we love others too and see where God takes that…

One last thing about Mickey…

In June, when I was priested, Mickey came to the service dressed absolutely impeccably – I had never seen him looking so smart! He reckoned that he’d never been in a room with so many vicars before, and had a great time meeting my family and friends. At one point he chatted away to my parents and sang one of his songs to them. He made quite an impression! The next day he gave me a card, containing a poem about the day. When I couldn’t make his funeral, I shared his words on social media:

Mickey's poemRest in peace and rise in glory Mickey.

Pray for all in authority…

1 Timothy 2:1-7 – Pray for all in authority. Christ Church Highbury, September 18th 2016

A couple of months ago, I received an email from my Dad entitled: “Pray for Jeremy”. Before opening it, I pondered who Jeremy might be. Was it a family friend who had been taken ill? Was it a long-forgotten cousin? As it turned out, it was our constituency MP, Jeremy Corbyn. My Dad had known that earlier that day I’d been at a “Love Islington” rally on Highbury Fields, at which both Islington MPs had spoken, alongside religious leaders, council members and other key people who were speaking out against hate crime. He was also referring back to a service he and the rest of my family had attended at Christ Church – my first Eucharist – in which I had prayed for our MP during the intercessions. It had prompted an interesting chat amongst the family later on. Did I ever pray for the Prime Minister? Were there any objections to praying for an MP who is open about not having a faith? What are the boundaries we need to have between church and politics?

Love Islington

That might sound like a rather heavy conversation, but I come from a family that’s always been interested in politics. In fact, had you met me when I was an idealistic 17-year-old, studying politics A-level, I would have told you that my ambition was to become Britain’s second female prime minister! That ship has most definitely sailed…

On the one hand, for me personally, the Christian call to social action is inseparable from political action and awareness. But that doesn’t mean that I would ever dare to tell people how they should be voting from the pulpit. I’m a member of a political party, but I’ve decided that I can’t campaign because that would be a conflict of interest. I try to get along to the Christian network attached to that party when I can, and find that the most helpful way of engaging with politics and knowing what’s going on.

This congregation has a wide range of political views, and I’m not going to assume that I know what any of them are! That’s not the point of this sermon, or of Paul’s words to Timothy. But, what is important, is that we recognise the important role that we as Christians have to play in supporting those in political authority over us.   

Paul’s words to Timothy:

“I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” (Verses 1-2)

These words, written two millennia ago, to Timothy as he led the fledgling church in Ephesus, should resonate strongly with us, in the Britain of 2016. What Paul is trying to emphasise to Timothy and the Ephesians is the role that prayer for the state should have within their Christian discipleship.

The call to pray for those in authority was not a new one. The Jews had been instructed to pray for those in authority over them, and Jesus taught to “give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Mark 12:17). It’s also a theme that Paul repeats in his writing – like the famous passage in his letter to the Romans. 

Romans chapter 13 begins: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.” Verse 4 continues: “For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good…”

Paul is clear that God establishes the political authorities under which they are living. It is part of God’s will for that nation and its society. In encouraging the church to submit, Paul is also helping the church to gain credibility – for example, in paying taxes and being something akin to model citizens.

So in part, Paul’s words to Timothy are to do with ensuring the protection of the church. But the call to prayer goes much deeper than that. What Paul is actually looking for are the best possible conditions in which the Kingdom of God can grow and thrive. That’s what the prayer is about.

Look again at verse 2. “That we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” It’s actually the latter part that is most important. It’s not about peace and quiet, it’s about godliness and holiness.

How we pray:

Thinking about our current political climate, it’s easy to forget the role that God has in it all – especially in Britain. How many times have you yelled at the TV or radio when you’ve heard a politician say something with which you’ve strongly disagreed? How many times have you criticised a party’s policies over drinks with friends? How many times have you bemoaned the state of British politics in the last three months alone?? When was the last time you prayed before you voted?

Every week, our prayers of intercession feature specific prayers for those in political authority. We pray for the Queen; often we pray for Jeremy Corbyn and Emily Thornberry; usually the government gets a mention. In the liturgy we use for prayers at the 9am service, this section of the intercessions ends with these words:

“Bless and guide Elizabeth our Queen; give wisdom to all in authority;
and direct this and every nation in the ways of justice and of peace;
that we may honour one another, and seek the common good.”

Usually, and I can’t speak for every single one of you, there is a murmured “Hear our Prayer” or “Amen” from the congregation at the end of this prayer. But how often do any of us really think about what we’re praying for? Are we really only keen on praying for those politicians we support? Do we actually want to pray for a politician that we wouldn’t put a vote in the ballot box for?

We pray for those in authority over us regardless of their own faith or beliefs. We know that Jeremy Corbyn describes himself as an atheist; that Sadiq Khan is Muslim; and that our Prime Minister is the daughter of a priest – but we pray for them all the same, because we believe that it is important. And, most importantly, because God calls us to do so.

What Paul – and I – would encourage, based upon his words to Timothy, is that we cover all in authority with prayer. In doing so, we are asking God to equip them to the best job possible, which is important, given just how challenging governing a country is!

Look at it another way: isn’t it bad enough that the party you support lost, without leaving the government without the support of prayer?

Not always clear where God is politics:

Of course, this is sometimes easier said than done. When political situations are difficult, it can be hard to see exactly where God is at work, or whether our prayers are having any impact at all.

Sometimes it can be hard because more than one political side may be invoking the name of God in support of their policies and ideas. Historically, this was the case in WW1 – not only did both sides believe theirs was a divinely ordained cause, but Christian imagery was a significant component of the mourning of the lives lost during the conflict. In modern politics, this is something that comes across particularly in nations like the US, where capturing the votes of religious communities is particularly important. How does prayer for the authorities work when both sides use the name of God to achieve power?

There are also times when Paul’s words regarding authority in Romans have to be weighed up against the need for the church to be a prophetic voice in society, speaking out against injustice and abuses of power. In the 1930’s, as the Nazis took control of the German government, and turned the national church into a pro-Nazi ‘German Christian’ movement, a group of Christians came together to work out how best to write a response to these developments. In what became known as the Barmen Declaration, written in 1934, theologians and church leaders rejected the false doctrine that they felt had infiltrated the church through the Nazis’ influence. It also underlined: “the inalienable lordship of Jesus Christ by the Spirit and to the external character of church unity which “can come only from the Word of God in faith through the Holy Spirit. Thus alone is the Church renewed”

This document emerged from prayer and conversation. Covering our political leaders doesn’t mean we have to accept their actions unquestioningly. Part of our role as Christians is to pray, listen for God’s response, and determine how best to act. Incidents where the church has stood up against governments acting unjustly – like Nazi Germany, or during the apartheid era in South Africa – are testament to the way in which God moves through the church’s prayers.

Conclusion:

Hopefully the take-home from this sermon is obvious: pray.

But this could be easier said than done! A great piece of advice on how to do this comes from one of the authors of the Barmen Declaration: the theologian Karl Barth.

He once wrote that Christians should: “Take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.” We can’t possibly pray adequately for our leaders if we don’t take the time to find out what’s going on.

Keep up to date with the news. Find out who has positions of responsibility in local and national government, so that you can pray for them by name. You could join a political and/or Christian mailing list that keeps you informed of specific issues that might need your prayers – Ekklesia is one organisation that does regular emails highlighting issues relating to faith and politics. Or, you could sign up to one of the politically affiliated groups like Christians on the Left or the Conservative Christian Fellowship.

Before I conclude with a time of prayer, I want to leave you with the words of Paul to Timothy again:

“I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.”

Pottering into August

One of my birthday present highlights this year was a pair of Harry Potter, Marauder’s Map pyjamas. Because nothing says ‘responsible vicar type person’ like PJ’s with fictional characters on…

Marauders Map PJsBio-ethics mug + Harry Potter PJs = emotionally stable 30 something. Honest.

My birthday weekend coincided with the biggest Potter event to have hit the Muggle world since the final film instalment appeared five years ago. The Cursed Child play premiered and its script was released – both on the date upon which, in 1991, Harry Potter first discovered he was a wizard. [Yes, I just googled the year.]

In fact, the whole week was something of a Harry Potter fest…

On the Wednesday, a few days after the play’s premiere, with a couple of hours free in Soho, I took myself off to the House of MinaLima – a shop and exhibition of the work done by the films’ graphic design team. Nestling behind the Palace Theatre (the play’s home) on Greek Street, the shop is a treasure trove of Potter detail. Some of it’s familiar from the films (like the Daily Prophet front pages and the Ministry’s Proclamations) – but the level of detail in objects you probably hadn’t even noticed is phenomenal!

Hogwarts lettersHogwarts Text Books

Hogwarts letters to a certain Mr H. Potter & a selection of textbooks.

Thursday of that week had one priority alone: the purchasing of tickets for the aforementioned (and not at all high profile) Harry Potter play. For next year. In fact, for possibly 18 months’ time – depending on availability. The queue opened at 10am and I logged my place. At 11am *just* 10,000 people were ahead of me. Soon after noon, it was my turn.

Myy turn to click through EVERY SINGLE SATURDAY, any date within school holidays (in honour of my teacher sister) and even, when I got desperate, a few Sundays (believing I could always make a quick getaway for a 1pm start). I spent over an hour trying to get tickets, but failed. Informed that no tickets were available (presumably together) for the date I’d chosen. Every. Single. Time. Utterly depressing. (Especially as some friends later acquired tickets – on a Saturday – at gone 5pm. Perhaps I lacked stamina in my ticket buying!)

Cursed queue

I thought that would be the end of Potter for that week. I didn’t even buy the play as solace for my lack of tickets. [I have issues with play reading. And overly high expectations.] But I didn’t count for Friday…

One of my meetings that Friday was with a guy from Harvard Divinity School who’s involved in some fascinating research on non-religious communities and what the church can learn from them. [Potentially the subject of a whole other post. Honestly, it’s exciting stuff!] It was a fun conversation, and towards the end he threw in the factoid that he’d recently begun co-hosting a podcast based on Harry Potter. My ears pricked up, especially when I heard the title: ‘Harry Potter and the Sacred Text’.

I’ve now listened to the first few episodes (the most recent is only number 13) and I’m impressed. In fact, I just about managed to jump on the podcast’s bandwagon before it jumped into the iTunes podcast charts! Even the Guardian’s discovered it.

HPSacredText

Here’s the thing. What the podcast is *not* suggesting is that it IS a sacred text. This is not when all the uber-conservative Christians who claimed Harry Potter was occultish are proved right! What Casper ter Kuile & Vanessa Zoltan *are* exploring is what happens when we analyse, reflect upon and go deeply into Rowling’s work. It’s taking some of the principles of sacred text reading and applying them to a series that millions of people have read (more than once) and whose content in terms of number of words easily outstrips that of other sacred texts. [HP has, in total, 1,084,170 words compared to the KJV’s 783,137.]

As all readers of the series/viewers of the films will know, the central themes of Harry Potter are ones that are also found in sacred texts: death; good versus evil; violence; the power of love; resurrection… Comparisons between the series and the Chronicles of Narnia (a deliberately Christian allegory) are not uncommon. The way in which Rowling grapples with these big questions is largely to thank for the series’ popularity – they’re not dumbed down for the sake of being a “children’s book”.

Back to the podcast. It’s not too long (25 minutes). Each episode focuses on a chapter of the book – beginning at chapter 1 of Philosopher’s Stone. [Though sadly, being American, it uses the unfortunate – and wrong – US title!] Casper & Vanessa are engaging and competitive – I’m a fan of the weekly challenge to summarise the chapter in under 30 seconds. [Seriously, could you do it??]

It’ll make you think a lot more deeply about some of the themes and characters in the books – even in the comparatively (to the later books) cheery first volume. Like The West Wing Weekly, it might inspire you to return to the books and read along with the podcast. And, as far as I’m concerned, it provides a welcome alternative to my current journey through the back catalogue of You Must Remember This. [Which is a wonderful podcast, but if I listen to too many in a row, I forget which decade I’m living in!]

And, for now, the podcast helps alleviate a little of the pain I still feel when I think about those flipping Cursed Child tickets!

The mysterious case of the vanishing women…

We are mid-way through the Rio Olympics. So far, I have watched approximately 10 hours of gymnastics; two Murray matches that have aged me considerably; a few cycling victories; and two rowing golds for Team GB which I observed while getting sweaty on a cross-trainer and feeling very despondent about the intensity of my workout!

Artistic Gymnastics - Women's Team FinalOne woman who has *not* been invisible in Rio! 

A couple of times now, while watching the BBC’s coverage (which is excellent, incidentally – God bless the myriad live streams available!), a short film has been shown on the topic of the ‘greatest Olympians’. It’s narrated by Michael Johnson – himself a contender for that accolade – and features archive footage of great athletes going back decades. Many of the usual suspects feature: Muhammed Ali, Jesse Owens, Usain Bolt, Carl Lewis, Emil Zatopek, Steve Redgrave, Chris Hoy… I could go on.

On my first viewing, I noticed that the athletes were predominantly male. The second time it appeared on the screen, I made a point of counting the number of women who appeared. Out of a total of 21 athletes [working on the basis of presuming an individual was the focus of group shots – e.g. just Steve Redgrave rather than the whole boat crew] just four were female. They consisted of: Fanny Blankers-Koen; Kathy Freeman, Mary Peters & Nadia Comaneci. Only Comaneci and Freeman get name-checked, in contrast with the majority of the male athletes.

The first woman appears 1 minute into the 2min 16s film. Comaneci appears twice – leading me to initially believe five women appeared. Several of the men appear more than once. Some of them even speak. But not the women.

BBC Greatest Olympian?

Looking up the video on the BBC website, it becomes clear that these are apparently Michael Johnson’s choices. In which case, perhaps fair enough – it’s a matter of personal opinion. But that isn’t clear in the video itself. A video that’s being shown at regular intervals on broadcasts being watched by millions of people, including many who may need a bit of inspiration from seeing something of the history of inspirational women that have been part of the Olympics! To be honest, the BBC should know better. Especially after the Sports Personality of the Year debacle from a few years ago.

Even the article that goes with the video makes it clear in its first paragraph that if you measure ‘greatness’ based upon number of medals won, then the top contender is a female gymnast – Larisa Latynina (18 medals, nine of them golds). Did she feature in the video? No. It then goes on to suggest another measure: medals earned over several Olympiads. Again, the ‘greatest’ in this category is a woman – Birgit Fischer who won 8 golds over 6 Olympics in canoeing – admittedly someone I’d never heard of, but did she feature? No, but Steve Redgrave (5 golds in 5 games) did.

In fairness, it does highlight the achievements of Fanny Blankers-Koen (one of only two mothers ever to have won Olympic gold) and Nadia Comaneci (scorer of the first perfect gymnastics score). But there really is so much more that could be said!

So I did my own research. (Hello Google.) I discovered some brilliant un-sung stories, including…

Dawn Fraser (Australia, swimming). Won 8 medals in total (4 gold, 4 silver), in the 1956, 60 & 64 games – including winning the 100m freestyle three times. Only one other woman has done that in swimming. Brilliantly, after playing a series of pranks at the Tokyo games in 64, she was banned from the Olympics by Australia’s national committee, meaning that she didn’t get the chance to defend her title a third time.

Valentina Vezzali (Italy, fencing). Won 7 medals (5 gold, 1 silver, 1 bronze) over four Olympics (96, 2000, 04 & 08). With a maximum of two medals available in foil fencing in any one games, that’s pretty impressive.

Elisabeta Lipa-Oleniuc (Romania, rowing). Winning her first gold aged 19 in 1984, she then won a medal at every games up to and including 2004. Twenty years!

Jackie Joyner-Kersee (USA, athletics). Won 6 medals over 4 games – including back-to-back heptathlons in 88 and 92, followed up with long jump bronze in 1996!

Krisztina Egerszegi (Hungary, swimming). 7 medals over 3 Olympics (1988, 92 & 96) and is the only other woman to have won gold in the same swimming event in three consecutive games.

Apart from Joyner-Kersee, I’d not heard of any of these women – yet (on medal tally & longevity) they rank amongst the top 10 female summer Olympians. In comparison, I could probably have told you something about every single one of their male counterparts – those are stories I’ve heard re-told again and again every time the Olympics comes around. Treatment of women in sport is bad enough (I presume everyone’s seen the terrible reporting even in this year’s games?!?), without forgetting the stories of those who went before.

Come on BBC. We know you can do a lot better than this.

Great Olympic women...What Google brings up if you image search ‘great Olympic women’…

The lady cement mixer

“And amongst their number is a lady cement mixer…”

The Bishop of London’s deep tones rang out across the congregation gathered for ordinations at St Paul’s Cathedral, and as he did so, people sitting near me conferred quietly. “Who *is* this lady cement mixer??” they murmured – for, amongst those being ordained, this was the second reference to this mysterious woman in just two days. From the seat behind, my sister giggled, she had guessed the answer. My mother apparently hadn’t, for several hours later,  she asked me who it was – to which the response came from more than one person gathered there: “It’s Liz of course!!”

In my defence, I had been asked to complete a form that shared some information about myself with the Bishop. What did I enjoy doing in my spare time? What hobbies did I have? There was even an instruction to be a little bit different. So I shared my hobby of house renovation in France, complete with the acquisition of the skill of cement mixing. And thus, I became “the lady cement mixer”.

IMG_7282Lady cement mixer at work. The stuff gets EVERYWHERE.

It’s embarrassing. Not because I am in any ashamed of my Chateau Duffy skills, but because there are probably people who heard the Bishop’s words and thought to themselves: “How wonderful!! Not only was a woman working on a building site, but she then felt a call from God and is now ordained! Fantastic. London is such a diverse church!!” When in fact the truth is that a terribly middle class woman has some slightly odd hobbies – hobbies that actually, she shouldn’t tell churches too much about, because otherwise they’ll want her to start fixing things!

The Bishop’s words were uttered a year ago last week. [Confession: this post was sitting in drafts for ages! My ordination birthday is July 4th…] I’m officially a Reverend of one year’s standing! But they came back to me last month, as I not only mixed more cement (as apparently it’s believed I’m the only person who knows how to do – I am not!), but also learnt about plastering and how to tile a bathroom. Pretty soon I could start my own business…

Perhaps I shouldn’t be quite so embarrassed by the Bishop’s fascination with the female ordinand who can mix cement. After all, how many people do you know who can mix cement? How many of them are women?? Do any of them do it for fun?

Liz the vicarThe lady cement mixer in her natural habitat…

One of the many things that Chateau Duffy has taught [and it’s categorically taught me A LOT], is that I love breaking gender stereotypes. I knew this already (hello lady vicar), but the world of building sites is so dominated by one gender that it feels more noticeable there. Am I as strong as other people? Not necessarily. Am I happy to scamper across the roof or to balance precariously upon things? Nope. But do either of these things have much to do with my gender? Not really. [I concede that the men are generally stronger, but that doesn’t have to be a gender thing. I am very anti the cries of “Can we have some men to help with…” that go up at events when some marginally heavy lifting needs to be done.]

On our most recent trip, there was a day on site when I was the only woman present. I actually didn’t realise this initially – I was ankle deep in mud, standing in a 1 metre deep trench and it was difficult to see anything that was going on that wasn’t to do with the removal of mud and rocks. I was proudly putting to use my brand new steel toe capped wellies [an emergency purchase the day before after an old Primark pair split – they were a massive bargain courtesy of my favourite ex-pat], while desperately trying to clear the last few inches of the trench. But when another woman popped by and pointed out my unique status

Trench WelliesCaught between a rock and a hard place. (Standing in 1st position – because of lack of space) 

My job wasn’t super hard. I was following behind a friend using a pick axe (and later a jack hammer) – they broke up the rock and I removed it. It was tedious and tricky. The trench was too narrow for feet to stand side by side, so there was some physical dexterity required, plus a little ingenuity when the spade became too wide for the trench. And thus I found myself putting skills acquired during pilates to excellent use: standing on one leg, the other hooked up on the ground above the trench; and one arm stretched out over the ground while the other clutched a trowel – in this position I was able to do an elegant and safe bend down to the bottom of the trench. (And looked ridiculous, but no matter, it worked.)

Trophy gloryMy efforts in the trench even earned me a trophy!  

The thing with Chateau Duffy is that it’s completely dependent upon team-work, and the willingness of individuals to pitch in at whatever level they’re capable of. Some people turn up who are trained architects, builders, plumbers or general DIY-y type people. Other people come with other important gifts – like cooking amazing meals for large groups of people. And yet others – myself included – turn up to learn new skills, pitch in wherever’s needed, and generally do their bit for the greater good of seeing the building finished. One day. One day…

I work hard because it’s fun. I love a challenge. I want a place to go on holiday to in the future. And, because I really like the novelty of being a female vicar who knows her way around a building site. It’s not so much “This girl can” as “this lady vicar can”. Can, does, will and LOVES it.

A tale of three cakes…

If you’ve read my most recent post, this will be quite a contrast. I don’t apologise for this. I feel it’s high time that I got back into my more ridiculous blogging style of yore, if only to raise the mood a little…

Many years ago, when I worked in a workplace that had run a very successful and competitive cake-based competition for several months, a dear colleague presented me with a copy of Mary Berry’s ‘Foolproof Cakes’ on my birthday. The inside page bears the inscription: “Happy birthday Liz! Thought this might help your quest to become CMS cake queen!”

I won my round of the office bake off, but I can’t remember if the recipe I used was from that particular volume. [It was a Victoria Sponge with a swirl of raspberry coolis in the lower layer, with fresh cream & raspberries in the middle.] In fact, it’s only been in the last year or so that I’ve realised that this volume is effectively a bible for the home baker – anyone who’s watched Mary Berry in action on GBBO knows that she is the fount of all knowledge when it comes to cake, and so far, she’s yet to let me down…

Welcome Home Serenna

Baby Serenna’s welcome home cake – a Berry Victoria Sponge turned lemon drizzle… 

Watching a lot of Mary Berry baking shows has provided me with an encyclopaedia of cake based knowledge, much of which I haven’t put into practice. But I do whip it out in conversation every so often, which can result in me having a better reputation for my baking than might otherwise be deserved – although, when the chips are down, I can generally bake a pretty good cake.

I can only imagine that it was a conversation along these lines, around a table with much vin rouge at Chateau Duffy this Easter, that resulted in my friend Helen making a request. Helen lives in St Denis, and was bemoaning the lack of English cakes locally – the kind that in Britain, you could pick up from a bake sale or local WI stall or even a local bakery. Yes, France does choux very well, but sponge? Not so much. Add to the mix the fact that Helen’s oven is a range (which Mary Berry has taught me does not do temperature consistency very well), and it becomes tricky for her to bake them herself. So, apparently, I offered to bring her a cake the next time I visited – and promptly completely forgot all about it.

Cue a Facebook comment 36 hours before I was due to depart for June’s trip, which had me scurrying to the Berry Bible. Apparently I hadn’t promised any old cake, I’d specifically offered a coffee & walnut one – which is odd, as it’s a cake I detest on account of my dislike for coffee. The Berry Bible’s only coffee based recipe was in fact a cappuccino cake: chocolate sponge with a coffee & fresh cream filling. The latter wasn’t going to be practical for a full day’s journey on strike-ridden French trains, but a simple coffee buttercream could suffice. There was a tin into which it would neatly fit, and my suitcase had room, so we were good to go – the only risk being my getting stranded somewhere on a train to nowhere and needing to use the cake as leverage to reach Limoges…

The cake caused a little consternation on Facebook. Was I really intending to travel all the way from Highbury, via Eurostar, an hour’s walk in Parisian rain, an SNCF train and then car to St Denis?? Yep. Did I think it would make it intact? Well, if it did, it would be a bonus!

Incredibly, it was pretty much fine:

Upon presentation of the cake, I was given a pair of sandwich tins and I trotted off having promised to make another one in our gite’s decent looking oven over the course of the next 8 days. Inevitably, I got distracted by fun, mud and more fun, until it was our last whole day and I realised I still had cake to make. Oh, and it was someone on the trip’s birthday, so obviously a cake was needed for him too.

Mary Berry has not made any baking shows about the challenges of making cakes in foreign countries. There was very little in my store of baking knowledge relating to important things like the ratio of baking powder needed for French flour. And this, most probably, is where my downfall arose…

I set off to make two Victoria Sponges. A cake I can make confidently and quickly – I had everything I needed (apart from the moment when I realised I’d forgotten the baking powder and then had to make an emergency trip out for more). I used the ratio of baking powder needed for our plain flour in the UK and put the first two layers in the oven where they rose, and went golden…and then sank. Horribly. I was peeved, but perhaps someone had opened the door to peek in & let in cold air? I’d have another go with the next cake. But the same thing happened again.

The lovely Helen took a look at what I’d produced and, having made the rather damming comment that “I could have made cakes that look like that in my oven!”, proceeded to suggest that I just pile all four cakes together in an attempt to make a semi decent birthday cake. She even suggested she try and find M&Ms to fill the holes between the layers – y’know, to try and make the dents look intentional…

In the end, I hid myself in a quiet corner of the gite and got to work with a jar of jam, a box of icing sugar, some butter and a hand-mixer. Buttercream was made, and a first attempt was made to make something that looked halfway presentable as a birthday cake. This was where that got me:

Disastrous Cake

This, my friends, is not something that deserves to have Mary Berry’s name anywhere near it! In fact, it ranks as probably the worst cake I have created since I was 9 years old. Brilliantly, by this point in the day, I was actually quite relaxed about the whole thing. [Previously, I have been known to throw cake disasters onto the floor and stamp on them.] In fact, it was with laughter that I drew a couple of people into my hideaway to get their response – which was effectively gales of laughter.

Trench

The trench – pre pipe laying.

With only a minimal quantity of icing sugar left, covering the whole thing in frosting was not an option, but when someone suggested that the whole in the middle was reminiscent of the trench we’d been digging on site, I was seized with inspiration. Cut a trench across the top, use jam as mud, turn colourful paper straws into pipe conduits, and use the offcuts as piles of rock and voila! A Chateau Duffy themed birthday cake:

Chateau Duffy birthday cake

The spoons would be spades, obviously…

If ever there was a cake that could possibly be something akin to a GBBO showstopper, this was it – but in true Chateau Duffy style, it was somewhat ramshackle; things had escalated slightly out of control; and nothing had really gone quite to plan. Still, served in semi-darkness with a bunch of candles on top of it, it served its purpose. And, in the words of a 7 year old present: “Liz, this cake is really tasty” – so at least it was edible, which is the most important thing.

The lesson learned from this experience? Do not rest on one’s baking laurels. A different oven is a bad enough risk, let alone a different country, complete with language barrier and foreign flour. There really is only so far Mary Berry can get you.