The strange world of Chateau Duffy

This depiction of Chateau Duffy in chalk graced the men’s toilets at Ian McKellan’s pub last summer. (No, I did not take the photo myself…) [Credit: Chris Austin]

First of all, it’s not a chateau. We’re aware of that, but it does confuse people. Our current Matryoshka Haus interns had to explain this fact to their rather excited American families. What can I say, we’re eccentric English people!

Six years ago, a group of people who were beginning to become very good friends began chatting about a curious trip to France to work on a house. I vividly recall an evening at Marie’s (the best Thai food in London, found on Lower Marsh) where Shannon encouraged me to come along. I believe her words were something like: “Come to France! There’ll be wine! A swimming pool! Lots of great food! It’ll be fun!”

In her defence, she was not wrong. She just left out the hours of back-breaking work that would take place before we had a moment to jump into the pool or open a bottle of red! Anyway, as long-term readers of this blog will know well, by the end of that trip I was fully committed to the project that was now known as Chateau Duffy and was on my way to developing a wide range of DIY skills.

Chateau Duffy in August 2011 before any work began.

This month marks Chateau Duffy trip number twelve. We’ll be gathering together another motley crew of Brits & Americans with a side order of baffled French locals. (When we’re in St Denis-des-Murs it’s like the circus has come to town.)

Across eleven trips, 62 adults have worked on the site. 27 of them have even been willing to come back. Thanks to their combined efforts, in six years we have:

  • Taken down the barn’s roof.
  • Rebuilt the barn’s beams; boarded the roof; waterproofed it & then put the tiles back.
  • Pointed walls.
  • Pointed more walls.
  • Demolished a hay loft.
  • Dug up and concreted the barn’s floor.
  • Pointed walls (again).
  • Dug up and concreted the house’s floor.
  • More pointing.
  • Built a mezzanine in the barn.
  • A bit more pointing.
  • Built another mezzanine & created frames for two bathrooms.
  • Added a staircase to the barn.
  • Slurried walls (though we get local Englishman Will to do this.)
  • Dug out and installed a septic tank.
  • Mortared the internal walls in the barn.
  • Painted window & door frames.
  • Installed (some) windows and doors.
  • Re-tiled the house roof (with some help from Romanians).
  • Connected the water supply to the bathrooms.
  • Plaster-boarded barn ceiling.
  • Installed toilets & shower trays.
  • Dug out trenches for laying pipes.
  • Tiled the downstairs bathroom.
  • Plastered barn’s ceiling.
  • Pointed some more (mostly inside).
  • Tiled upstairs bathroom.
  • Blocked in downstairs bathroom.

You’ll notice some recurring themes… My goodness pointing is a never-ending task! Despite that looking like an epic list, we’re still not done. Sure, you can use a toilet and potentially have a shower but you can’t yet cook a meal. But all that could change by the end of July!

I feel like this photo from April’s trip doesn’t quite do our work justice – you can’t see the inside and the endless pointing efforts are less obvious from a distance. Despite still being a bit of a way off finishing, the amount that’s been achieved in a little over 12 weeks is pretty impressive. Our local builder friend even suggested that we’d got more done in three months spread over 6 years than a team might have managed in 12 consecutive weeks. (Although I’d be inclined to suggest that it’s largely French bureaucracy that would hold things up!

My 11 weeks of work (yep, I’ve only missed one trip – one that clashed with my MA deadline) now equate to 22 weeks of being able to use the place when it’s done. I’m not sure it’ll be quite be the same without needing to mix mortar…

Should you find yourself at a loose end for the last week of July, there’s still time to book!

Farewell to Belfast

Next month, almost 13 years to the day that my parents moved their lives across the Irish Sea, they will return to the island of their birth. For the first time since I was 22, I will live on the same land mass as my parents.

It’s been quite a decade-and-a-bit. When they left, I was wrapping up my History MA in London and my sister was finishing her 2nd year of uni. Now, she’s been married nearly a decade; and I’ve completed another two degrees and got ordained along the way. While they were away, we both became something akin to “proper adults”.

Dad’s face ready to adorn the college wall. 

This past weekend was their leaving do at the college where Dad has been principal. Mim and I went along, both because we were invited, and because we wanted an opportunity to say a decent goodbye to a city that wasn’t our home but did feel almost like one.

As something of a surprise to my parents, Mim was asked to sing grace and I was asked to make a speech. We conferred, and decided that our mission was to embody the episode of Friends where Monica desperately tries to make her parents cry during a toast at their wedding anniversary; while Ross barely needs to try for it to happen. [We are cruel, cruel daughters who know their mother very well!] With her reference to our 1991 sojourn in Massachusetts in choosing grace, Mim scored immediately. Evidence [make up stained serviettes] would suggest I was similarly successful!

I think my words to the community of Edgehill & beyond are worth sharing here, because I meant them and they say a lot about what Belfast became for us as a family. [This isn’t exactly what I said, as I didn’t use my notes, but this is what I *meant* to say…]

“Thirteen years ago, we weren’t really sure what our parents were letting themselves in for. For the first time in our family’s life, we weren’t going to be coming with them on this move and we weren’t sure what ‘family’ would look like for them here. But what Mim and I would like to thank you all for is the way in which you have been family to our parents during their time here. In fact, not just them, but us too. Every time we’ve visited, we’ve been touched by the way in which we’ve been welcomed by people that we see barely once a year!

Nothing demonstrates the “family” more than the way in which people responded to Dad’s accident last week. [There was a cyclist V cyclist incident that left him with a few broken fingers…] That the President drove him to hospital despite it being Conference. That Brendan sat with him for hour after hour waiting for his op. That meals were provided while Mum was away this week. We need never have worried!

And Belfast has become a family home to us too. Despite never having lived here, we have our favourite places to have tea; eat breakfast; drink cocktails; and walks on the beach. I’ve worked on essays in the deserted college library during Christmas holidays, waiting for a signal from the dining room window to say that food is ready.

I was reflecting two weeks ago that one of the best things our family’s time at Edgehill has given me is obscure knowledge about Northern Irish politics – which suddenly became very useful in the aftermath of the general election! While other English people were being berated for suddenly acting like experts on this part of the world, we could claim a vested interest in the topic for over a decade!

So thank you. Thank you for being ‘home’ for thirteen years – the longest this family has been based in my parent’s entire marriage!

To conclude, I felt it only appropriate to include a quote from one of Dad’s favourite theologians: Karl Barth. (In fact, when I was at college, I made a point of including a Barth quote in every assignment – it became a fun challenge. I am my father’s daughter!) “Joy is the simplest form of gratitude.” [Church Dogmatics III]

There is much joy in this place, and for that we are truly thankful.”

Final Belfast meal at The Dock Café in the Titanic Quarter. An excellent place to say goodbye!

On Monday, as we prepared to head to the airport for the final time, our parents asked us what our favourite Belfast memories would be. I’m not sure that we really did justice to their question – partly because we’d had a running joke that our favourite things about Belfast were all food related – but also because there’s an awful lot to consider given 13 years of a relationship with a place. But I’ve had a think, so Mum & Dad, here’s my answer:

  • Food. We joked, but honestly, the land of tray-bakes, the Ulster Fry, wheaten bread, potato farls, pancakes… I could go on. We walked around the AMAZING St George’s Market on Saturday morning practically drooling over all sorts of goodies. I now need to learn how to make Fifteens and Mint Aero bars. And wheaten. And where to find buttermilk locally.

  • The beach. When have we ever lived 20mins from the beach?? Crawfordsburn was a favourite (with the bonus of spring bluebells too), but the walk at Holywood filled a need over the weekend.

  • The culture. Northern Ireland is a very different place to England – not least because of the impact of the Troubles. Understanding a bit more of that culture is one long-term result, and I strongly recommend that you visit Belfast and NI if you haven’t been before, if only to try and get a handle on just how different it is and why we need to *not* ignore it.
  • The people. See above! It was always fun hanging out at the college (not least because of the scones that used to be found at morning tea), but it was also lovely to feel a part – albeit a very distant part – of Belfast Central Mission, to which our parents belonged.

Farewell Belfast. You will be missed, and I may be back. Thanks for everything!

The eucatastrophe of the resurrection

Luke 24:13-35 The eucatastrophe of the resurrection

Christ Church Highbury, April 30th 2017

This reading is, I believe, a resurrection appearance in which it is easy to place ourselves within the story. The two travellers towards Emmaus are dejected, disappointed and hopeless. You can imagine the catch in their voice as they conclude their story of all that has happened in Jerusalem over the last few days: “…but they did not see Jesus.”

In Luke’s account of the resurrection, Jesus has not yet appeared to his disciples at this point. The travellers on the road may be leaning towards one of the more logical explanations for the empty tomb – that someone has stolen Jesus’ body – perhaps to make the disciples’ grief all the more painful. The body of their beloved teacher isn’t even being given the respect that it deserved.

I feel like we can probably all empathise with Cleopas and his companion. Most of us will have experienced deep grief and hopelessness at points in our lives. Situations where promises seem to have been broken. Where things have not gone to plan. When a loved one has left us. Where all hope feels lost.

The pair are responding in a very human way. As they walk, they talk and discuss with each other. I can imagine them weighing up different scenarios. Pondering what meaning they might have. Perhaps they went over things they had learned from Jesus, trying to find an answer.

It feels like a human response to me, because this is exactly what I do when I’m faced with a similar situation. I walk. I think. I ponder. I talk to friends or family. When things haven’t being going to plan in my life, or when difficult events have occurred, I pound the streets. I take my anger out on my feet. I let the tears flow. It’s immensely cathartic, and an attempt to make sense of all that is going on within and around me.

***

Of course, we, the readers, are in on the secret. We know the identity of the stranger who comes alongside them, but their eyes remain closed to Jesus’ presence.

In just a few verses, the two disciples move from the depths of despair to the pinnacle of elation. At the moment when Jesus breaks bread, he is revealed to them and they realise that prophecy has indeed been fulfilled, right in front of them. It is an amazing moment of joy!

In 1944, Tolkien coined the term ‘eucatastrophe’ in one of his letters. It’s a word he used to describe ‘the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears’. It’s the opposite of a catastrophe, changing everything irrevocably for the better. In one sense, he was describing a literary device – a moment in a novel when the unexpected happens and your perception of events changes completely.

My favourite fictional example of what Tolkien was describing takes place in the work of one of his closest friends. In The Lion the Witch & the Wardrobe – when Aslan defeats death. Many of you will be familiar with this scene, but to put this passage into context, Susan and Lucy have just spent a night watching the White Witch and her allies tying Aslan to a stone table, before killing him. As dawn breaks, something happens…

At that moment they heard from behind them a loud noise…. The Stone Table was broken into two pieces by a great crack that ran down it from end to end; and there was no Aslan.

“Who’s done it?” cried Susan. “What does it mean? Is it more magic?”

 “Yes!” said a great voice from behind their backs. “It is more magic.” They looked round. There, shining in the sunrise, larger than they had seen him before, shaking his mane (for it had apparently grown again) stood Aslan himself.

“Oh, Aslan!” cried both the children… “But what does it all mean?” asked Susan when they were somewhat calmer.

 “It means,” said Aslan, “that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backward.”

I vividly remember the first time I heard this story – I was 6 or 7, on holiday in Llandudno. My parents were strong believers in the importance of reading to my sister and I, and on this occasion, I was suffering from an ear infection and my mum read to me while I cuddled under a blanket on the sofa. I’ve heard the book far more times than I’ve read it for myself – we had a complete set of the Chronicles of Narnia on cassette tape read by the Shakespearian actor Michael Horden, and it’s his voice I hear in my head as I read that quote. But, in common with most children of the 1980s, what I visualise in my head is the BBC adaptation of the book.

Every time – and I mean every time – I read or hear this part of the story I get goosebumps. Even as I sat in Starbucks working on this sermon, the hairs on my arms stood on end.

Of course, we’re well aware of the deliberate parallel between Aslan and Jesus. This scene is intentionally evoking the resurrection of Christ. But I don’t think I had much idea of that the first time I heard it.

This word ‘eucatastrophe’ that Tolkien coined can be applied to other books or films. The dénouement of the Harry Potter series. The moment of escape in The Shawshank Redemption. There is a eucatastrophic moment in Tolkien’s most famous work – LOTR – but I can’t speak of its impact because, and this may be shocking, I’ve never read the books or watched the films! [No one in my family has. We’re not stubborn, we’re just not huge fans of fantasy that has no foot in our reality.]

But it isn’t just a literary device that one of our greatest writers established. Tolkien considered the resurrection to be “the greatest ‘eucatastrophe’ possible in the greatest fairy story”. He wrote that: ‘it produces that essential emotion: Christian joy which produces tears because it is qualitatively so like sorrow, because it comes from those places joy and sorrow are at one, reconciled as selfishness and altruism are lost in love.’

By no means is this the same as “happily ever after”. These moments cannot be experienced without also experiencing the sorrow that precedes them. We cannot fully rejoice in the resurrection without going through the despair of the crucifixion.

***

On the road to Emmaus the two disciples journeyed from the sorrow of Christ’s crucifixion to the joy of his revelation of himself in the breaking of bread.

They knew Jesus’ teaching, and the prophecies made about the Messiah. As verse 21 reports, “we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” But their sorrow clouds their ability to have faith in all they had learnt. It’s as though their hope has been buried in the tomb alongside Christ.

Jesus – although they still don’t know who he is – chastises them, saying: “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken!” As he outlines the ways in which prophecy has been fulfilled, they realise later that their hearts were being warmed. Once he has revealed his identity, they say to one another: ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?’

Just as we can relate to their sorrow as they set out on their journey, we can also relate to their disbelief. Jesus’ explanation consisted of teaching what they had heard before, but their grief prevented them from fully believing until the moment when bread is broken.

Our journey of faith is one that follows in the footsteps of these disciples. We can draw confidence from this resurrection appearance because it is a witness to who Jesus was, is and shall be: the Messiah.

That moment when Jesus breaks bread and they are able to see who he is? That is the moment of purest joy, pushing aside all the sorrow and confusion of the preceding days!

We need to share in that joy of the resurrection. To emulate Cleopas and his companion who returned at once to Jerusalem to share the joy with the other disciples, telling all who they met on their journey of the amazing event that had occurred.

Many of us will have moments where the joy of the resurrection has shone in our lives in a similar manner to this moment of revelation for the two disciples. A moment when our hearts have overflowed with the elation of the truth that Christ is risen.

I have a taste of this every time I’ve begun our Easter Sunday services with the words: “Alleluia! Christ is Risen!” Simply proclaiming that truth fills me with immense joy – especially having journeyed through the grief of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. Or every time I get to say the Eucharistic Prayer and once again share the story of who Jesus is and why we remember him in bread and wine.

Then there’s my own testimony of how the risen Christ has been at work in my own life. Of the difference that this glorious news has made – which I often get to share with others when they ask how I came to be ordained.

So the question I want to leave you with is twofold:

  • What is the moment that fills you with joy at the truth that is the resurrection?
  • Who can you run and tell about it?

What we measure controls us

Luke 19:1-9, Christ Church Highbury 12th March 2017

(Third in the Lent series based on Archbishop Justin Welby’s ‘Dethroning Mammon’)

 

“What we measure controls us” suggests Justin Welby. And when you think about it, he’s got a point. Take a moment to think about the things in your life that you measure…your bank balance; your mortgage repayments; your weight; your academic grades; your success at work… If we’re not careful, these are things that can take over our lives in unhelpful ways.

Instead, the Archbishop argues that our dethroning of mammon’s place in our society “requires a leap of faith of being defined by what we do not measure – cannot measure – because it is infinitely valuable, utterly cosmos-transforming love of God in Jesus Christ.”

We cannot ever hope to measure the extent of Jesus’ love for us and the rest of God’s creation, but this love should mean more to us than any of the things that we invest considerable time and effort into measuring.

What difference can it make to our lives when we re-assess what we measure and how we measure it?

Measuring Zacchaeus:

Luke doesn’t tell us just how short Zacchaeus is, just that he needed to climb a tree in order to get a proper look at Jesus. We don’t know his height in feet & inches, and to be honest, in similar scenarios most of us would probably need to be up high in order to view an important person in the midst of a crowd.

Zacchaeus’ height is just one of several aspects of this reading that could be measured. We hear that he’s wealthy, that he’s a sinner, that he gives away half of his possessions, and that he will pay back four times what he may have cheated people. We also know that there is disapproval amongst the onlookers, who mutter their objections to Jesus’ interactions with the tax-collector.

None of these things affect the way in which Jesus interacts with him. There is no mention of Jesus spotting him, taking a measurement of just how sinful Zacchaeus was, and then choosing to spend time with him. Nor are we told that Jesus measures his wealth and duplicity, in order to tell him how much to give back – it’s suggested that this is done out of Zacchaeus’ own free will.

What Jesus gives Zacchaeus is also un-measurable. He receives salvation – and there is no scale of redemption, you are either saved or you’re not! He is also included in the ancient promise of Abraham. As a Jew, Zacchaeus should have already been an inheritor of this, but his sin would have excluded him in the eye of the religious leaders of the time. But Jesus’ words demonstrate that again, there are no degrees of being a Son of Abraham – it is all or nothing!

But Zacchaeus and the crowd have been measuring the things that control them, even if they haven’t realised it. Zacchaeus clearly feels a level of guilt for what he has done in his life thus far – his collusion with the Roman authorities, collecting tax from his own people who are living under an oppressive regime, and cheating in order to gain personal wealth.

The crowd are measuring Zacchaeus and Jesus by the standards their society and culture have given them. The tax collector hasn’t met the standards that their religious laws expected – working with gentiles and stealing. Jesus is associating with a known law breaker, and seemingly isn’t chastising him for his actions. Both have fallen short according to their tools of measurement.

Measurement:

The Archbishop is, in this chapter of his book, making the point that what we can measure, particularly in terms of wealth, we can control. The problem is, that we seem to disproportionally value those things that we can measure.

The crowd could measure others according to their religious and social standards.

Zacchaeus could measure the amount of money he made from his job and lies.

We can measure our bank accounts, our debts, and the objects we own.

As with last week’s theme, ‘what we see we value’, it comes back to sight. Jesus wants those around him – and us – to see the world as he does. Zacchaeus has two reasons for climbing the tree: he wants to see, but at the same time, not to be seen. He doesn’t want Jesus to see him for who he is, but in fact Jesus sees beyond that and sees who he truly is: redeemed and a Son of Abraham.

Measurement is tricky. We’re not very good at measuring what actually matters. Take the church for example, one of the main forms of measurement that the Church of England has is church attendance. Every October, each church denomination in the UK submits their data for the month and these numbers form the official statistics regarding the state of the church. Inevitably, in recent years these stats have inspired headlines proclaiming the death of the church. Average weekly attendance is in decline. Electoral rolls are getting smaller. The money churches receive in offerings and donations decreases in line with these numbers. What we’re measuring is not telling a cheerful story.

And on the one hand, that’s ok. These statistics prompt – or should prompt – churches to do something about it! It’s why the Fresh Expressions initiative emerged over 15 years ago – an attempt to find new ways of being church that might encourage those who have never been part of a church to join in. It’s also behind the Renewal & Reform process that the Church of England is currently exploring – a programme of change, development and creativity to make it fit for purpose in the 21st Century.

But at the same time, these statistics don’t tell the full story…

As some of you will be aware, I work part-time at Christ Church and the rest of my time is spent working on various research projects. Prior to starting theological college, I worked in the research department of the Methodist Church, working on their statistics and hunting for stories to go alongside the numbers. Now, one of my regular pieces of work is helping organisations – including churches – measure their impact. Specifically, in terms of making new followers of Christ, discipling them, and their impact upon their local community. It’s about finding out what’s happening beyond the numbers – and not letting the numbers control what happens in or to these communities.

One of the places that’s doing a lot of work on this is Leicester Diocese. A few years ago, they looked at their stats and decided to come up with a strategy that would help them grow as a church. So they sold off some property that they no longer needed and put the money into a ‘Growth Fund’ which projects and churches can apply to for grants. The team that I’m part of then does a workshop with successful grant recipients, helping them establish how they will measure the impact their project has over its funding period and beyond.

The point of the exercise is to help them measure what matters to them. That won’t necessarily be the same as another project – the church employing a children’s worker will have different criteria to a pioneer appointed to a brand new housing estate – but the measurements all fall within the diocese’s broad vision of: making new followers of Christ, increasing discipleship & building relationships with the wider community.

The measurements will end up being a combination of numbers and stories, but the hope is that together they will provide as full a picture of impact as possible. And, that it will give the projects, churches and diocese the tools to see where things are working and where things may need to change. Rather than having a set of measures imposed upon them, these teams work together to ensure that they’re not being controlled by unreasonable expectations.

In Leicester, we’re created measurements that help demonstrate the impact that the Jesus’ love and the Kingdom of God on earth is having – sounds dramatic, but that’s the motivation behind their actions, just as it is in our own community here in Highbury. One project I worked with recently is going to count the number of smiles its team receives as they get to know a new housing area, as a way of measuring their engagement and relationship building! It’s a little different to simply counting people in seats on a Sunday morning…

Our parish accounts are another form of measurement, but is another great example of not letting what we measure control us. If a parish was controlled by this measure, they would spend all their time saving money – not spending it. Perhaps they might have the philosophy of saving money for a rainy day – perhaps just in case the roof falls in and it quite literally is a rainy day in church! Instead, as you’ll see later, we have a pretty healthy attitude to how we spend the money that we’re fortunate to have. We keep an eye on our spending, not just to check we’re not spending too much, but to check that we’re spending our funds in line with our missional priorities. It doesn’t control us, but helps guide us to fulfilling the vision that we believe God has for this church and the community of Highbury.

Conclusion:

On the one hand, Justin Welby is encouraging us to move beyond the measurables of 21st century life, into the unmeasurable goodness of God’s Kingdom. To let the love we receive from Christ be enough to free us from the control of our earthly belongings.

But I think there is also a value to reassessing what it is we measure. Once free of society’s expected measurements – the bank balance or salary – we are able to measure what God is doing through us.

Zacchaeus, once free of his sin and his ill-gotten gains, is able to follow Christ fully. We don’t hear what he does next, but one could assume that he becomes a follower of The Way and proclaims the Good News beyond Christ’s death and resurrection. Instead of measuring his height, his wealth or his sin, we could now try to measure the impact that this short passage of Scripture, this single encounter between Jesus and a tax collector, has had in the intervening two millennia. How many thousands or millions of people have come to Christ through the story of the saved sinner? How many people’s faith has increased as they’ve heard this tale and realised just how far Jesus’ love stretches? But such is the vast-ness of God’s love in Jesus Christ that we can’t possibly hope to put a number on that impact! We just see the results of it all around us and throughout the church’s history.

And how will Jesus use you?

The year a Gilmore Girl inspired my Lenten fast

It started with an armchair. A gorgeous armchair that I had spotted a year ago, but didn’t buy immediately – which was lucky, as it went on special offer during February. As of a couple of weeks ago, I now have an awesome reading corner in my lounge:

Ikea’s Strandmon armchair & footstool. (As the chair was on offer, obviously it made sense to buy the footstool too…)

The first book I read in my new, fabulously comfortable, reading nook was no weighty theology tome. Nor was it a classic novel, worthy of awards. Nope. It was a celebrity autobiography – star of Gilmore Girls, Lauren Graham’ Talking As Fast As I Can, to be specific. It’s not at all trashy (and includes a diary of the Gilmore revival, a must for all GG fans), but nonetheless I was surprised when something Lauren mentioned provided a seed of an idea that has blossomed into my Lenten challenge for 2017…

One chapter of the book chronicles Lauren’s efforts to write and her determination to get some discipline into her routine. A friend suggested to her the ‘kitchen timer technique’ – otherwise known as Pomodoro. It’s pretty simple (although the explanation goes on for several pages): turn everything distracting off; set a timer; write or journal until it goes off; and repeat. In fact, this wasn’t my first encounter with Pomodoro – regular alarms and noises go off in the Matryoshka Haus office, indicating the passing of time for our resident graphic designer.

It’s a useful tactic to have in one’s arsenal. I’ve been trying to get more disciplined in my writing this year, so it was something to file away. Then I thought about my reading corner, and the pile of worthy books I currently have sitting in my office at church, desperately needing to be read. And I put a few things together. What better way to mark Lent than by ploughing through my To Be Read theology pile?

So, here’s the plan: I pledge to spend half an hour a day in my armchair, reading theology. There’ll be a notebook, a pencil and a timer and an ambition for quality rather than quantity. Read, ponder, wonder – any of those are fine. The important thing is making the time. (Ideally this will happen after my morning prayer on the balcony slot, but that might be too ambitious for mornings when I also need to be at morning prayer at 9am.)

Grateful to my favourite inhabitant of St Denis des Murs for the London Tube themed notebook!

My first book is Rowan Williams’ Being Disciples, which everyone says is simply marvellous. Plus, I’ve committed to read it with one of my oldest friends, so I need to get a wriggle on. Next? Who knows – I need to have a search through my shelves and see what takes my fancy. I’ve recently acquired a stash of feminist theology and missiology thanks to my Mum having a clear out, so some of that needs to be included too. [The ABC’s Dethroning Mammon will be read in regular work time – we’re using it for our Lent series, so it’s an essential – before anyone suggests it.]

Hopefully, my Lenten pledge will turn into a regular habit. I’ve gotten out of the habit of reading theology regularly since I left college. (In part, thanks to my tutor actually telling me that I should take a break for a while because I’d been working so hard.) I’ve read it for research work (when I get paid to read), but the books that come out that everyone says I should read? Not so much.

Here’s to Ash Wednesday, and all that Lent will bring!

Miles to go before parity…

Today, Project 3:28 announced that the gender balance of speakers at Christian conferences & festivals in 2016 has not improved on 2015’s figures. Overall, the average platform remains unchanged at 64% male, 36% female. Some festivals have made real progress, others have demonstrated that they are pretty consistent in trying to achieve parity (this is now the fourth year this data’s been collated). But there is still SO much room for improvement.

Credit.

And, that’s before you dig deeper into the stories behind these numbers. What subjects are women speaking on compared with men? (Is it largely children’s work and marriage??) What roles do women hold compared to men? Are they church leader? (And only allowed to speak while sharing a platform with their spouse.) What is actually happening in these organisations and planning groups when line-ups are being formulated? Are things actually changing or is it short-term tokenism?

What is clear is that there is still a remit for Project 3:28 (named after Galatians 3:28) and a fuss still needs to be made. It’s by no means hopeless, but there is still a long way to go.

I’m lucky enough to live in a bit of a bubble when it comes to egalitarianism. I minister in a church where I am probably the 5th female curate the church has had and it’s had a female non-stipendiary minister for over two decades. Worship is lead by a female double-act on a very regular basis! I’m based in an area of London Diocese which has had a reputation of being ‘good’ for women for quite some time (although, having recently done some work on its gender stats, there’s a bit of a way to go there too). I don’t feel lonely as a female priest and I don’t often, in my day-to-day ministry, find my gender to be an issue. But in a wider context? Oh dear…

The Church of England still has some things to sort out. It’ll take time, but I’m hopeful. What has given me even greater hope recently are conversations I had with two male priests at a conference for curates last month. Having begun the conference suddenly realising just how out-numbered female curates are in London Diocese [this shouldn’t have been a surprise, I know the numbers!], I left feeling hugely encouraged.

One evening, a friend had actually wept as he shared with me and another female curate his passion for encouraging the young women in his church into leadership. He was desperate to find people who could be role models for them, people who could inspire them and who they could look up to. He knew how important it was to find this, because as a young man from an ethnic minority, he had benefitted enormously from having someone ahead of him in the vocational journey who he could identify with.

Another had engaged with me in a vigorous discussion of reasons why women are still under-represented in the diocese. It’s the kind of conversation I often have with women and sporadically have with men. When it’s the latter it’s always encouraging, because for change to happen, men need to be a part of it. We women may worry about sounding like a broken record by consistently raising the issue, but when we know we’re not on our own doing that, it’s truly heartening.

Knowing that there are men out there who think like this and are taking action as a result is great. I love my feminist sisterhood, but men are more than welcome to join us! In fact, while we’re still the minority in church leadership structures, their support is utterly essential. Now, if we could get some more of these people in charge of the nation’s Christian gatherings, perhaps next year’s Project 3:28 figures will show a great improvement?

What the church needs are more feminists who look like this…
(Ok, yes, I was just looking for an excuse to use that image!)

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!’]