Interesting Times

Originally posted on the blog of Northern Lights Metropolitan Community Church

There is a Chinese curse which says, “May he live in interesting times.” Like it or not, we live in interesting times. They are times of danger and uncertainty; but they are also the most creative of any time in the history of mankind. – Robert F. Kennedy, 1966

Although Robert F. Kennedy spoke these words over 40 years ago – and there was in all probability no such Chinese curse – the idea of “interesting times” as a curse has been with me over the past week as we reflect on the political situation that arose out of the General Election of the 8th June.

The election campaign was one in which the idea of  British values’, and how we apply them to building society was at the forefront of political dialogue. In political campaigns, individuals and their experiences are reduced to caricature and distortion, pitting “Benefits cheats” against “the Just About Managing” and “the Muslim Terrorist threat” against the idea that Britain is a “Christian Country”, but behind each of these labels are lives and experiences that can’t be captured in a soundbite. In the face of the tragic deaths in the Manchester Bombing, the London Bridge attack, and the Grenfell Tower fire. In the stories of schoolchildren and their parents attending a conference, friends sharing a drink, and multi-generational families sleeping in their homes are woven the full narrative of human experience and history.

Tragedy and turbulence have a way of focusing us on what is important, and it is no surprise to me that the values of people of faith are being examined so closely at the moment. Unfortunately, with Tim Farron’s resignation, and the well-publicised Calvinist conservatism of the DUP, the old stereotype of Christianity as an authoritarian and socially destructive force has reared its ugly face. I am grateful, therefore, for our Muslim brothers and sisters whose Ramadan suhoor (morning meal) was interrupted by the news of fire and who took to the streets to provide food and comfort to people watching their lives and families torn apart. They model the faith that I hope we, too, show to our communities. They simply serve, with no questions asked.

The Apostle Paul knew more than most of us about ‘interesting times’. When he wrote the letter to the Romans in the 6th or 7th decade of the first century, the Emperor Nero was in the habit of executing Christians for entertainment, and he himself had been complicit as a young man in the religious execution of Christians in Jerusalem. He put himself in harm’s way to protect others and share the life-changing Gospel. His perspective on political authority in this context is an interesting one, In Romans 13, he spells out that civic authority is put in place for the common good (Romans 13:4), and that moreover that government’s authority is an important arbiter of our values. In other words, we are responsible to the people we elect, but also responsible to consider the role of civic authority when we hold them to account.

If the role of Christians is to offer Christ’s hands and feet to the world, and to build the new realm, the question for us in this time of of uncertainty is how we can best do that. The answer, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Creator-Parent, and of the So,n and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” Simply that. Our responsibility remains to spread the Gospel of love, to feed the poor, to clothe the naked, and to love our neighbour. Never has it been so important.

May you be Christ’s hands and feet in the world today.

Blessings
Kate

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Tempted in the Wilderness

Cross-posted from the blog of Northern Lights Metropolitan Community Church

Like many of you, I watched events unfold in Westminster earlier this week with some anxiety. When I lived in London, I would go to Westminster Bridge to think, to look out over the river and to watch people passing. It is a funny thing to see your ‘safe place’ breached. Parliament in the Palaces of Westminster has been for centuries a symbol of democracy, and an act of violence on its doorstep was understandably a frightening thing.

In the wilderness, Jesus was tempted three times. First, to break his fast by turning stones into bread. Then, to jump from the pinnacle of the temple to demonstrate the love of God. Finally, to take possession of the earth’s dominions by worshipping his tempter. These temptations have in common that they are designed to tempt Jesus into demonstrating his power even at the cost of the law of God he holds dear.

Jesus could be tempted because he was fully human as well as fully divine. He could be tempted because he was isolated and hungry. He could be tempted, because we can all be tempted. This week, we are scared. Temptation comes easily when people are scared. It would be easy to be tempted to mistrust, especially as the newspapers and websites we read continue to recycle the same lines about “conversion to Islam”, “radicalism”, and “identity crisis”. It would be easy to succumb to the voice of the tempter that repeats these lines until they apply not only to this one man but to anyone who looks like him, prays like him, or shares his heritage.

It is tempting to prevail on the power we have at our disposal (our elected representatives, for example) to challenge or hurt other people because we have been hurt. It is tempting to turn against refugees, economic migrants, or imprisoned criminals. But Christ who modelled resistance to temptation tells us only to serve the law of God, and the law of God tells us to love our neighbour (from wherever they came) as ourselves, and to forgive those who harm us seventy-times-seven times.

As we approach the time when we are invited to remember the persecution of Christ at the hands of powerful people who accused him of threatening their power, we recall our own temptation to turn from enthusiastic supporters of Christ to the people who condemn him. We have a choice whether to succumb to the temptation to cast our blame far and wide, or to forgive the attacker and care for his victims and their families. Let us pray to follow the path of Christ this Lent.

Stand Alongside Esther

The Jewish festival of Purim begins at sunset tomorrow (Saturday 11th March). Purim commemorates the intervention of Queen Esther to prevent the mass murder of Jewish people under the rule of the Persian king Xerxes. The king’s vizier, Haman, required complete subservience from subjects under Persian rule and objected to Esther’s uncle Mordecai’s refusal to prostrate himself before Haman. As a result, Haman persuaded the king to grant permission for him to exterminate the local Jewish population.

Esther used her role as queen to intervene with Xerxes – she risked her life by approaching the king without his express invitation or permission. She persuaded him to recognise the loyalty of her uncle Mordecai and question his vizier’s motives, and as a result of her intervention the local Jewish population was spared massacre; Haman was hanged from the gallows he constructed in order to execute Mordecai.

The full poetic justice of the story of Esther is contained in the Book of Esther, and is worth reading in full. It is an adventure story, a story of conquest, outrage, and xenophobia. Amongst the Jewish traditions for Purim are hecking over the name of Haman when the scripture is read in the Synagogue, and eating pastries known as Hamantaschen (“Haman’s ears”), to dishonour him for his racism and violence. At the same time, Jewish families send food parcels to friends and increase their charitable giving to remind themselves that their survival is not guaranteed and that it’s vital to stand alongside those who might not. And then, they celebrate with bright costumes (or fancy dress) and rejoice in a time in history when the Jewish people triumphed.  (Want to try your own Hamantaschen? Here’s a recipe.)

The story of Esther reminds me of all the times Christian leaders have stood on the side of Haman throughout our shared history; through expulsionspropaganda, or collaboration. I also know that Jewish communities are not the only ones whom we as a church have demonised and feared. As we travel through Lent it points to a particular form of human frailty; our tendency to fear people who are not like us. In the story of Esther I find a challenge to stand up for oppressed peoples everywhere.

Esther stood alone because the Jewish people were isolated from power; let’s seek out where Esther stands alone today, and seek to amplify her voice and stand alongside her.

The Best You Can Be (through God)

Wednesday 1st March was Ash Wednesday, so this coming Sunday will be the first Sunday of Lent. Lent is a traditional season of penitence and abstinence when Christians around the world recall Jesus’ time of temptation in the wilderness (Matthew 4:11 and Luke 4:1-13) and prepare for Easter. In modern popular culture, this has become simplified into “giving up” something for Lent, but preparation of body and spirit for Easter is much more than feeling virtuous for forgoing a chocolate hob nob with your tea!

Spiritual renewal, penitence, and acts of charity are also important parts of the Lenten journey, and many people will take up disciplines during the season that help to enhance their spiritual lives. For example, adding regular times of prayer or reading Scripture into their routine, or learning a new prayer discipline. You might choose to go without your morning coffee, and donate the cost instead to a charitable cause. If you have the means, you could even take the opportunity to increase your regular giving to church, or join the Moderator’s Circle to support the work of the denomination.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reminds us that no one can serve both God and materialism (Matthew 6:24). In order to be fully committed to the love of God, there should be nothing between us and love of God and neighbour. It is unlikely that any of us will be able to truly attain this in our lifetime, but seasons of intentional abstinence from our sources of material comfort help us to recommit to the ideal of being fully dependent on God and so becoming more Christ-like.

The process of Lent is part of the lifelong journey of seeking to become more Christ-like; making sacrifices and resisting temptation in order to focus on God and others. It is a part of the long process of learning to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love our neighbour as ourselves. As we come to the end of Lent, we will come face-to-face with the worst of ourselves in the stories of the Passion, so we prepare for that by engaging to our best ability with the law of love in the Gospel.
Whatever your Lent discipline is, commit to it daily as a reminder of the best you can be in the strength of God.

Time to Talk

This post originally appeared on the blog of Northern Lights Metropolitan Community Church.

For several years now, 2nd February has been known as Time to Talk Day, when mental health charities and activists commit themselves to helping people to talk about their own and others’ mental health.

We all have mental health – just as we all have physical health – and it can be good or bad. The most commonly quoted statistics say that one in four people will experience mental health problems, with one in ten suffering at any given time. We also know that in our communities, complex mental health conditions are more common than in the wider population, probably because of the stigmas associated with our gender identities and sexual orientations. This fear of people’s reactions can also be a barrier to finding effective treatment. It is unfortunately also true that churches are not always safe places to discuss or disclose mental health conditions. Poor mental health can sometimes be interpreted as an indicator of a lack of faith, and some symptoms are interpreted as a person being ‘difficult’.

Jesus met a man forced to live outside his hometown, in the caves near where his erstwhile neighbours kept their pigs. He was harming himself and talking in a way that people couldn’t (or didn’t choose to) understand. Only Jesus approached and addressed him directly, asked him his name, and offered help. The man had for so long been identified by his problems that he even gave his name as “Legion” for the many ways in which he felt attacked by his thoughts and feelings. Relieved of them, he was calm for the first time in years. He didn’t lose his history – and the people around him are unlikely to forget it, even if they bring him back into the community – but he was in a position to make his own decisions once again and he chose to rest at Jesus’ feet amongst the disciples.

It is not always easy to follow God in the midst of crisis, particularly when your mind is in chaos, but it should feel safe to be amongst the people of God. The people of God who follow Jesus are called to have the courage to stand with one who is isolated even from their experience of themself and to ask their name. In the midst of crisis, it is hard to feel loved or wanted, but a hand held or a shared cup of tea can reach through the Legion of difficult, destructive feelings and anchor someone to the world and the people around them.

I have always had difficulties with my mental health – just like some people do with their physical health – and one of the ways it manifests for me is a fear of being on my own. I find it hard to sit in silence and pray when I am feeling unwell, but sharing with a prayer partner or being part of a congregation is very soothing. Others find it hard to be in a group when they are anxious or depressed and might forgo church for a time. Reaching out to someone you’ve not seen for a while might not feel like much, and you might not even see its effect, but it can be the difference between a bad day and a better one.

Our mental health is precious. Get to know what soothes your spirit, and take time for it regularly. If you think someone else might be suffering, don’t be afraid to reach out to them and invite them to name their pain. When they are ready to ask for help, they will need someone to be Christ to them.

If you are suffering today, please reach out to someone and know God is with you.

Blessings

Kate

Pray for Peace

First published on the blog of Northern Lights Metropolitan Community Church.

As we come towards the end of 2016, I think we are all reflecting on the changes that have taken place in the past twelve months, as individuals, as a community of believers, as a nation, and worldwide.

Uppermost in my mind are the effects of the political changes of the second half of the year. After the referendum on the European Union in June, we saw a recorded increase in hate crime across the board, but particularly racially aggravated incidents. The xenophobic language of the leave campaign seems to have contributed to this increase.

Similarly, following the election of Donald Trump as President-elect of the United States of America, there was a renewed sense of threat against our churches, against black people and other people of colour, and against the LGBT+ communities. The language of the campaing appeared to give this permission.

That Advent comes in the end of the calendar year, amidst the shortest and darkest days, reminds us that Christ is a presence with us in all our own times of cold and fear, and encourages us to look to the future. The Nativity stories we read in the Gospels tell of a family living in a politically hostile landscape (Roman Palestine) who were forced into seeking asylum in Egypt because of the whim of a corrupt ruler. The birth of Christ gives us hope because it overturns corruption and the status quo through the simple subversive image of God as a child fleeing for his life. That is the Unexpected Peace we are commemorating with our service this Sunday.

The Christchild is alive in every young person desperate to leave Alleppo. Mary’s loving care holds fast in every mother, stepmother and mother-figure who protects the vulnerable. Joseph’s steadfastness is present in every father or protector who places themselves between the court of public opinion and the righteousness of God to keep the law of love.

As Lorraine reminded us last week, the peace of Christ is not a reality in our world yet. Advent reminds us to pray continually that the Prince of Peace will come once again amongst us, that God’s Rule of Love of will create the world anew, and that we will be agents of unfamiliar peace, unclear hope, unrevealed joy and unknown love.

Seek Out & Stand Against Injustice

First published on the blog of Northern Lights Metropolitan Community Church.

People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors.
Edmund Burke, Revolution in France

For many people, this week has felt like it will be remembered by future generation as a turning point. The election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States of America felt impossible mere weeks ago. Both those who voted for him and those who voted for other candidates feel a change in the nature of US politics from the era of the first black President to the election of a disruptive candidate pitched against the ‘establishment’.

We cannot, of course, look forward into the future. Only God can stand outside time. We can only look to learn from our past. In the recent past, the ‘Brexit’ vote seemed to give permission to people who harbour racist and other descriminatory views to express them publicly in protest or hate crime, and many fear a similar permissive culture emerging in the United States of America in the weeks to come.

Many MCC Churches in the USA are preparing themselves against that possibility, offering extra support, and creating prayer spaces for people who feel vulnerable as a result. Many the most vulnerable will be Trump supporters who are people of colour or allies who had believed that their candidate’s election would be a source of unity, and not division.

As we seek to become Christlike, we know that we are Christ’s hands and feet in the world today. It is for us to seek out, speak for, and protect people at risk in any part of the world where hate and division takes hold, whether it’s speaking against a racist demonstration at the Monument, reporting a hate crime, or sharing the writings of marginalised people to amplify their voices.

We cannot ever say how Jesus would have voted, all the candidates are beloved Children of God and created to serve God in their calling. We can say that he put himself between a mob and a vulnerable woman (John 8:1-11), that he shared water with a victim of persistent racism and misogyny (John 4), and that he cared for the sick regardless of their social position (e.g. Luke 7:2-10). We must equally receive the stories of others and care for them, regardless of their politics, their religion, or any other arbitrary human division.

This is particularly important as we enter into commemorations of war, destruction, and loss of life. Our interim Moderator, Rev. Rachelle Brown, has gifted us with this prayer for the week:842731103

We learn from Jesus that love is greater than fear.
In this hour, we pray for those who are afraid.
In times of uncertainty, we believe
God makes way for new life.
We offer ourselves
to be communities of spiritual transformation.
May the light and love of God begin healing us
and grant us wisdom. Amen.

 

On Fawkes & Forgiveness

First published on the blog of Northern Lights Metropolitan Community Church.

Remember, remember the 5th of November
Gunpowder, treason, and plot!
I see no reason why gunpowder treason
should ever be forgot.

On this day in 1605, a young Catholic man who felt persecuted under the successive Protestant governments of Elizabeth I and James VI/I entered a chamber under the House of Lords where earlier a group of his co-conspirators had hidden barrels of gunpowder. His intention was to blow up the Palaces of Westminster whilst King James was in the House of Lords opening Parliament. He was tortured and executed for treason, and in his name we still burn ‘Guys’ on bonfires along with the ironic fireworks to celebrate an explosion that never happened.

This conspiracy had far-reaching consequences. After eighty years of religious turmoil, the Catholic conspiracy added fuel to sectarian rhetoric and fear of Catholics amongst English and Scottish Protestants. When James’ father (Charles I) took the throne and married a French, Catholic princess, it would be one of the major factors that caused the Civil War that was to follow, and the rise of the radical Protestant (or ‘Puritan’), Oliver Cromwell.

We see the echoes of religious persecution and the Gunpowder Plot resonate through the history of the British Isles. Lack of forgiveness fosters resentment that creates conflicts such as that in N. Ireland. Why do we still respond so unforgivingly to threats that appear to come from other cultures and religions?

We have not learned that persecution leads to threat in a vicious cycle, so we see regular articles that accuse young children fleeing Syria of being grown men seeking to infiltrate our country for Daesh. We have not understood that our actions have consequences, so men still shout at women wearing headscarves and veils in the street, and are then shocked when their sons and daughters are able to be coerced into believing that they would be safer in the war zones of Syria, or Iraq.

We have withstood hate crime and persecution in the LGBT+ communities for centuries. (Indeed, one reason James VI/I was so unpopular was his reported bisexuality.) We see our friends forced to return to nations where they are at great risk, and we must be a part of the solution. God will forgive those who persecute us. So must we – seventy times seven times.

Privilege and Safe Space

First published on the blog of Northern Lights Metropolitan Community Church.

I had the lovely, but slightly strange, experience of running into an old friend last week. When I was 14 and took on a volunteering role, she was the manager of the charity shop I worked in. We then worked together for 2 years in that shop, and another two that she started up for a local hospice. In that time, I went through my GCSEs, AS Levels, A Levels, several friendships, and eventually moving away from home to start a life at university in London. I’ve never had any doubt that working with Pauline gave me a confidence that I never had around people my own age, and that in many ways learning to work in a shop that brought in people from all walks of life with a whole range of needs and intentions was an early step towards understanding what ministry meant.

I clearly remember one day two young men, about my own age, 17-18, came in and asked for some dresses to try. You very quickly learn when you work in a second-hand shop that your stock is a major source of outfits for local themed club nights, fancy dress parties, and dares. (I once managed to construct a rather good Peter Pan costume from just one day’s donations, but that’s another story.) I jumped to the conclusion that these two were looking for outfits for some kind of drag night, helped them to find their size, and left them to it. It was only later, when the assistant manager cracked a joke about the colour, “bringing out your eyes” to one of the young men that I realised he was the only one trying on clothes, and that he and his mate weren’t laughing.

I think that was the first time I stopped to think about safe space, anonymity, and the projections we cast onto other people. I have always had a more-than-average levels of privilege, being cisgender, white, able to learn in the specific ways our education system demands, etc., but I don’t think I’d really taken it until then. I had never thought of my position as being one that could be used to hurt other people.

I often wonder now if that moment changed anything substantial, or how often I still allow the preconceptions I was brought up with to penetrate my everyday thinking unchallenged, and how that in turn affects my behaviour. I was reminded of the words of the traditional confession, which acknowledges that we sin, “through negligence, through weakness, through [our] own deliberate fault”. This means that when we contribute to behaviours and structures that harm others, that is as much as sin as deliberate harm. And what we do to one another, we do to God.

What a joy, then, to be in a community of believers who commit to forgiveness! When you are next invited to share absolution with one another, and to accept your own forgiveness, remember that Christ forgives all of us, even when, “they know not what they do”. Remember also that we are called to accept that forgiveness and seek to turn it into strength to make ourselves anew in the mould of Christ, who resisted taking on any power that suppresses the weak, instead fighting in word and deed for those who are oppressed.