Your Perfect Room

‘Home Sweet Home’ art by Dominic Bradnum

I’m sitting in church on Sunday night, and one of the worship songs has made reference to John 14:2 (“My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?”) I prefer that translation to the one that gives us a mansion each. “Rooms” implies we’re all living in a home with God as part of his family.

In the past I’ve pictured this almost like a hotel, I guess, every room the same. But maybe not. Maybe each of those rooms is decked out in our favourite colours, rooms with fantastic acoustics being built for the musicians, the rooms with the best light being allocated to the artists. And these rooms are safe. Too many people grew up in homes that weren’t. But here’s a room in which no-one can hurt you, where you don’t have to hide, where those that once hurt you can never get to you. Where you can finally let go of the memories that kept you alert, the strategies you once needed to keep you safe.

These are rooms where there is light and heating without fail, where there is clean water, where there is food on the table, where there are no bombs or sirens, no rage, no fear.

This is a house where truth is spoken, not the ‘truth’ that is wielded as a weapon but the Truth that you’re loved, you’re precious, you’re encouraged and that you’re unique in this universe, your combination of quirks and experiences and talent and beauty.

Maybe there are even photos on the wall; baby photos, maybe, or photos of when Someone took particular pride in you, even if those weren’t the moments you’d expect. Maybe there’s a mural on the opposite wall, a picture that speaks to who you are and what you mean to the Artist.

This is your home, the home you wanted, the home you needed. The home in which your accepted, your deepest self, where you’re known by the name by which you should always have been known.

You’re not given access to this room by a church, by your parents, by your boss, by any of the people who once held power over you. The key to this room isn’t given by a politician, by the media, by an algorithm, by yourself. It’s a gift. It’s an inheritance. The one who built the place has scarred hands, but he still helps you to move in.

Because it’s your home.

It’s your home.

It’s your home.

Misfits Round The Manger

As the sun rises on this Christmas morning, as gifts are opened and food is prepared, may we join with the misfits round the manger: the teenage mother, the tradesman trying to protect his family, the blue-collar farm workers heading in from the margins, those who come from other lands with different clothes and different traditions, the angels singing protest songs.

May the coming year be one where we remember that all those Nativity scenes are a hotch-potch of pilgrims, where we fight against the division and prejudice and isolationism that is rife in the world and we break down the fences we’ve built around the stable.

And may that stable be a safe space for those who’ve been rejected.

And may that stable be a sanctuary for those who are fleeing oppression and persecution and hate.

And may that stable be a place of honesty to which we can bring our hopes and fears and doubts and reconstruction.

And may that stable hold a welcome for our true selves, our true identities beyond those forced on us by expectations and history and the prejudices of others.

And may that stable see our trauma, our grief, our anxiety, our depression, and give us a place to rest and heal and be real.

And may that stable be free from the whims of empire and media and politics and trolls.

And may that stable be a place of challenge and growth and learning and transformation.

And may that stable continue to summon and draw to it the forgotten, the marginalised, the abandoned, and may it make the invisible visible and the silent a choir.

And may that stable have wheelchair access.

And may this Christmas we recognise the hope and compassion and challenge and peace that arrives with the baby who lies in the manger, who draws to him the misfits and gives them a Kingdom.

Penteconnectivity (Acts 2:1-13)

Tongues of fire and a rushing wind and the buzz of an anti-Babel. Pentecost is a burst of supernatural energy in the aftermath of Easter, the moment the Holy Spirit takes centre stage by evaporating the rulebook. It’s possible we get too comfortable with that; when three thousand pilgrims heard the disciples speaking in a hundred different languages, a tiny GalIilean movement became a global church. Our problem is that we domesticate that, take the diversity of Pentecost and trap it within homogenised silos.

An example: In the West we have plenty of noticeboards covered in newsletters from mission organisations, and supporting them is great, it’s important to show solidarity. But how often do we make this a one-sided thing? We write a few cheques, deploy a few workers, but do we, as fellowships, learn from our brothers and sisters? Do we grow as a result of this missionary work, or do we do we just enjoy the warm, paternal glow we get from helping those less fortunate than ourselves?

When the Spirit swept through the disciples two thousand years ago, a global church was created, each different language representing a different perspective, a different environment, a different context. Three thousand new believers had to go home and figure out what it meant to be followers of Jesus among their own particular circumstances. All those initial learning curves, all the lessons of the two millenia that followed represent the familial memory of the Church. But it’s scattered and disjointed because we don’t spend the time to sit and listen to each other, to share stories around the campfire; in the Information Age that’s tantamount to a sin. We don’t do the Church any favours by pretending that the Spirit’s monolingual.

The Church is universal, a network of believers spread throughout the world, brothers and sisters despite the differences we place between us. Pentecost burns through the barriers, blows them down, gives us the words and the language we need to become a family. We need to embrace that, humbly using our Missions budgets to not only support other Christians but also to learn from them, forging genuine, mutual, globe-spanning relationships. And may our Pentecostal celebrations echo with a thousand different voices, with a thousand equal tongues.

Socks: A Post for Ascension Day (Acts 1:1-11)

The Ascension is a weird story, a strange climax to the Gospel story in which Jesus levitates into the clouds leaving the disciples freaked out and wondering what was going on. It’s hard to know what to do with that; the Resurrection feels like the real end of story, reversing the Crucifixion and breaking the curse of death. The Ascension sometimes feels like one of those Marvel post-credits scenes that leaves half the audience going “Huh?”

But the Ascension plays on its double-meaning; this is the moment that Jesus ascends his throne. It’s the consolidation of his kingship, a cosmic coronation. Jesus leaves Earth to reign from heaven, which is another reminder of the inauguration of his Kingdom. The Ascension therefore shapes our identity – we serve as citizens of this Kingdom, and as servant of our King.

That means the Ascension has implications; for instance, what does living under the reign of Christ look like? What does it mean in the ordinariness and mundanity of everyday life? If the Kingdom of God had always been a spiritual, other-worldly thing then we could get away with that sort of faith. But before he ascended Jesus incarnated into the mud and muck and complexities and blood of human life. That transforms what his Kingdom looks like.

So. Socks.

In seeing at what a Christ-centred Kingdom might look like, we need to look at Jesus himself. Here’s someone who typifies his reign through sacrificial love, by kneeling and washing the feet of his disciples. And this is where we run into incarnated spirituality, because we sometimes re-enact this moment in church. And although I can’t swear to this, I’d bet that a lot of people participating in the ritual wash their feet beforehand and change their socks. Do we erect a barrier against a spirituality that was designed for the dirt?

(Always remember that the disciples didn’t wear socks.)

If Christ is on the throne, and if we’re his followers, and if we’re inhabiting a spirituality that encompasses both soil and soul, then socks become totemic. Metaphorically they may be a barrier to us having our feet washed by Jesus; practically, they’re one of the most requested items at homeless shelters. And while washing our feet might be a powerful expression of intimate community, washing and clothing the feet of someone who hasn’t changed their socks for weeks embodies the Kingdom in places it’s most needed. It’s interesting that the Ascension takes place on the Mount of Olives, a day’s walk from the city – the Kingdom of God is often found in liminal spaces, emerges out on the margins.

This isn’t just about social justice, although don’t kid yourself that the suffering around us isn’t our concern; it’s incarnating the reign of God in the world, setting up a beachhead against all the things that seek only to steal and destroy. The Ascension knits two worlds together and makes them one.

In a world that’s shaking, maybe we need the Ascension more than ever.

So Mary wasn’t a prostitute… But what if she had been?

A few days ago, an article appeared in the Washington Post, explaining that, although Mary Magdelene is traditionally portrayed as a repentant prostitute, this is actually a medieval amalgamation of several of the women in the gospels. Fair enough so far; Even the Catholic Church no longer views Mary as a prostitute and, the logic goes, we shouldn’t demean her as a sex worker.

Into this debate stepped Nate Sparks with a series of Tweets pointing out that framing the conversation in this way is problematic – saying that Mary is slandered by being called a prostitute actually dehumanises people who’ve been involved in sex work. The thread is well worth checking out, because, well, what if it turned out that Mary was a prostitute after all?

It’s Easter Sunday, the church’s great explosion of grace and mercy. Are we saying, on this day of all days, that the first witness to the resurrection, the apostle to the apostles, couldn’t have been a prostitute? Because that would seem to undermine the Kingdom and the Creation that was born in that garden when she first heard her name whispered by the risen Jesus.

Over the years, Mary has become an iconic, liminal figure, her story woven with mysteries and mythmaking: she was, some say, the secret wife of Jesus, the Mother of a hidden bloodline stretching down through the centuries. It’s hard not to see this as a contrast to the treatment of Christ’s mother; if that Mary is going to be portrayed as the eternal virgin, then Mary Magdelene will always be defined in terms of her sexuality. While it’s hardly healthy to downplay sexuality, there’s something misogynist about its treatment when it comes to the Marys – the two iconic women of the gospels are reduced to their supposed virginity and promiscuity; heck, add Jezebel the femme fatale in there and you’very got a whole trinity. It’s simplistic. It’s not listening to the text. It’s unhealthy and it’s erasing.

And anyway, we never have conversations about Paul, even though the writer of most of the New Testament was a murderer transformed by the blinding mercy of Jesus. We don’t bat an eyelid about naming Matthew the collaborator and Simon the terrorist as apostles. They may be brief moral lessons, but their personal histories don’t become the entirety of our interest in their work. We downplay Mary’s involvement in the gospels because we’re too busy thinking about who she slept with.

(Some of this is down to how the Church sometimes seems more comfortable with violence than it is with sexuality, which is a whole other can of worms.)

It would be nice to be able to treat this as an interesting theological head-scratcher, but it has immediate consequences for the way in which the church incarnated into a complex and untidy world. How we think about Mary affects how we think about sex workers who may find their way into our pews or, more tellingly, have been shunned because of their pasts or how they’ve made money. When we read gospel stories involving prostitutes, we don’t often stop to ask some intense questions: had they been raped? Had they been trafficked? What brought them into sex work in the first place?

We don’t ask these questions. We pass judgement, frown and move on to something more ‘wholesome’. And that’s our sin, not theirs. It’s a sin that affects how we relate to sex workers and victims of trafficking and survivors of abuse. It’s a sin that locks down the gospel, because when our moral messages dehumanise and ignore individual stories, instead trading in hackneyed stereotypes, we’re forgetting the Easter grace we’re supposed to celebrate.

And that’s the last thing we should do on Resurrection Day.