Mothering Sunday

It’s Mothers Day and the kids have sorted out breakfast in bed. They’ve given their mom their presents and she’s had her choice of DVD so we’re sat here watching Frozen (the story of which I blame completely on bad parenting).

But Mother’s Day isn’t always straight-forward. Many people struggle with their relationship with their mother, others never had that relationship in the first place. Others were abandoned, others were abused. Some women were never able to have children, others know the pain of losing a son or daughter. This isn’t the easiest of days for many.

But there’s a phrase ‘Mother Church’. It’s a bit of archaic term, we don’t hear it much nowadays, but maybe there can be truth in it. We talk about good game about how church is a family, a community, and that’s a reality we need to embrace, especially on days like this.

Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber tells the story of how her church, which had initially been made up of younger, ‘alternative’ people, suddenly started being attended by middle-class baby boomers. This sparked a bit of an identity crisis until one girl stood up and hit the nail on the head: “I’m glad there are people here who look like my mom and dad,” she said, “Because they love me and my own parents can’t.”

There’s a word there about God’s heart for each one of us, a heart that the Bible describes in terms of motherhood, and the Church should be a reflection of that. Often it fails – I’ve written here about the way in which families with disabilities are often pushed to the ecclesiastical margins, and we can all think of other examples of how religious communities can shun, condemn and ostracised. All that does is push people away from God, but when Church gets it right, it shows the heart of Christ to the world.

So that’s why intergenerational church communities are so important, that’s why taking an interest in the lives of those sitting next to us in the pews is a ministry in itself. That’s why Sunday Schools can be a lifeline, that’s why Saying Goodbye services can mean so much to so many.

It’s Mothering Sunday, to use the old fashioned name. While that’s a day to honour and remember and treat our moms, maybe it’s also a day to commit ourselves to being a Mothering Church as well.

Always Listen to Old Ladies (Acts 6:1-6)

So, the early church – shining example of ecclesiastical perfection or not?

It’s easy to romanticise those first few years after Pentecost, but chapters like Acts 6 point to a far more complex situation. Here we read that, while the Hebrew speaking widows in the church were being looked after, Greek widows were getting overlooked in the distribution of food. This cultural faultline was a problem that festered away under the surface until eventually the apostles had to jump in and sort things out. But why did it get to be a problem in the first place? Because no-one was listening to the Greek speakers? Because no-one was listening to the women? We can admire how the apostles dealt with the situation, and that’s fine, but why was no-one talking to each other in the first place? Why were vulnerable people being overlooked over something as important as food?

Maybe this particular organisational problem was caused by everyone taking their eyes off the basics; no-one was looking out for a whole group of Christians, part of their own extended spiritual family. There were hungry people out there who weren’t being fed, and it seems that even the apostles had been dropping the ball. You’d’ve thought they would have been on top of things – after all, these were the guys who had picked up leftovers after the feeding of the five thousand and the four thousand. But hey, even then they only counted the men who ate; They weren’t so accuate about the women and children.

So yeah, the apostles eventually sorted out the logistics of distributing food to a whole bunch of widows who were at risk of starving. They had fixed an important problem, but take a step back: someone had to listen to those widows. Someone had to be relationship with them, someone had to advocate for them. I don’t know, this may be heresy, but I reckon the apostles found out about this problem because of some old lady, who’s already sorting out all the church’s cooking and cleaning in the first place, finally cornered Peter at the end of a meeting and wouldn’t let him leave until he promised to get the whole thing sorted.

(Always listen to busy old ladies. They know more about what’s going on than you do.)

(Don’the you think it’s odd that one of the people chosen to distribute food while the apostles focus on preaching the Word is, in the very next story, arrested and executed for preaching the Word? Maybe it’s harder to separate all these things than we might think.)

Problems begin when everyone’s busy having debates about, say, the mechanism for feeding vulnerable elderly people, but no-one’s actually doing the cooking, no-one’s loading up the van, no-one’s getting the food out there, no-one’s in relationship with the people they’really serving, no-one’s even doing the washing up. And by the time the gears of bureaucracy finally turn, there’s already been too many scared elderly people wondering where their next meal is coming from.

For the church to truly be the church we need to constantly have our fingers on the pulse of our communities. We can’t get so caught up in theological debates and organisational maintenance and political campaigning that we miss when someone living next door doesn’t have enough to eat. Because that’s where Jesus wants us to be, and sometimes the first to realise that aren’t priests or CEO’s.

It’s all those busy old ladies.

Stop the Antisemitism

There’s a cemetery in St. Louis where the headstones are overturned and smashed. The name of the place is Chesed Shel Emeth, ‘true kindness’, referring to the act of compassion and dignity of burying someone after death. You’d expect a place like this to be a place of peace but yesterday it was targeted for the same hatred that keeps resurging across history. Police haven’t yet said if they’really treating this as a hate crime, but as 69 other Jewish facilities have received bomb threats over the last month, it’s difficult not to see this as yet another manifestation of an ancient prejudice.

It’s not just the US. Similar things have happened in Manchester, in Ottawa, in Austria, in Germany… Swastikas never go away, and while we can be shocked by the vandalism and the threats of violence, the fact is that if you normalise Nazis, you get antisemitism.

It’s a prejudice with its own vocabulary: blood libel, Dreyfus, Irving vs Lipstadt, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Read a few conspiracy theories and sooner or later someone will trace the Evil Other back to ancient Israel or a family with a Hebrew name or dogwhistle-lizard people standing in for Jews. Antisemitism, like many other prejudices, has its own mythology to sustain it. It’s a mythology that’s led to pogroms and internment and exile and genocide; it’s a mythology that once consumed Europe and it’s a mythology that’s now threatening cemeteries and community centres.

And much of this mythology has been transmitted by the Church. Sorry, but it’s true. We honour Bonhoffer because so many other German pastors were complicit with genocide, and that’s a family sin we have to confront.

We can’t change history, that’s sadly obvious, but we can stand up to the present and choose our future. We don’t have to tolerate anti-Jewish hate, we don’t have to give antisemitism any more oxygen. We don’t have to agree with and rubber-stamp every Israeli politician in order to love and support our Jewish neighbours. We don’t have to rerelease Medieval paranoia every time society’s shadow is fertile.

Because in our conspiracy-saturated alt-truth world, the old mythologies are on the march again, and after the mythology comes the icons; the stars and the Swastikas, then the broken glass and barbed wire. It can happen here in a heartbeat; sometimes we even vote for it.

But we can stand. If someone who once lived seven miles from my parents can save thousands of Jews from the Holocaust, the absolute least I can do is speak out against prejudice and antisemitism. That’s the least any of us can do. History always wants to repeat itself; we don’t have to give it the satisfaction.

The Bible is a Refugee Narrative: The Church and Migration

The Bible is the sweeping story of a refugee people.

It’s sometimes hard to see it as such, when bishops sit in the House of Lords and American evangelicals have access to the corridors of power. But without the stories of liberation from Egypt, and the Exile in Babylon, and the Roman oppression of Israel, the whole narrative of the Scriptures falls apart. Even the words in black and white come to us not from the rarefied atmosphere of some ancient theological powerhouse but from immigrant communities remembering the destruction of their cities, their journey into exile.

And so there’s a direct link across the ages between the antisemitic plots recorded in the Book of Esther and the refugees who arrived in the UK as part of the Kindertransport; there’s a link between those fleeing Aleppo and the Book of Lamentations; people looking for economic security and the Book of Ruth.

The idea of oppression and liberation is even baked into our metaphors; “They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance,” says Hebrews 11, “admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.” We’re called to be spiritual strangers in a strange land – doesn’t that sound like refugees, immigrants, exiles? The Bible is a story of migration with it’s roots twisting through every page. The Hebrew Bible was first written down during the Jewish exile in Babylon, and the influence of that is woven throughout.

This, then, should influence how we look at issues such as migration and the refugee crisis. After all, the Church in the UK is strengthened by immigration; the 2011 census reported that Christianity in England had declined by 10%… but was boosted by 1.2 million Christian immigrants. That’s not valuable because of the numbers, it’s valuable because of the contribution, the experience and insight of people from Poland and Africa and from across the rest of the world. Two of the ministers in my Methodist circuit are African. Two of the youth workers are Brazilian. We have an active Chinese congregation. The churches I’m involved with aren’t weakened by diversity, they’re strengthened; we need to see immigration as a Pentecost, not a Babel.

The Church can’t run scared from immigration, and must stand against the cacophany that suggets that ‘outsiders’ are a threat. We have brothers and sisters from every nation, every tribe, and we need to proclaim that strength, standing with each other when that family is threatened.

Don’t run scared. Embrace your family. We’re stronger together.

(For an excellent overview of the Bible as a refugee narrative, check out this recent episode of the Broken Book podcast.)

Christianity and Mental Illness

I didn’t want to write this post. I didn’t want to admit, in public, that I struggle with, and suffer from, anxiety, stress and depression. Mental health remains fairly taboo; no-one really wants to ralk about it, and the subject is surrounded by so much misinformation and shaming that it’s easier to ignore it, to lock it safely away behind closed doors.

But that way lies guilt, isolation, despair. The reluctance and inability to have an open, compassionate conversation about mental health, particularly in the church, is making the problem worse. Our silence strengthens the suffering.

So, in the quiet and the dark of a winter morning, while I feel brave enough to write this in the first place, here are some thoughts on Christianity and mental health…


Mental illness is an illness

Too often, mental health issues are treated as a failing, a weakness, a lack of faith, and in doing so words are inadvertently weaponised, leaving the people hearing them feeling even more crushed and exhausted than before.

But if you have an infection, you get antibiotics, and if you’re diagnosed with cancer, you get chemotherapy. You pray about it, you ask trusted friends to pray about it. And so that should give us permission to do the same when suffering from depression, or anxiety, or stress. You’re allowed to go on medication. You’re allowed to seek counselling, you’re allowed to seek prayer. Because mental illness is illness, and you do what you’ve gotta do to manage it. And no-one has the right to judge or shame you for that, because it’s your mind, your body, your life, your relationships you need to look after.

And for the wider Christian community that has pastoral implications. While churches are great at mobilising when someone’s diagnosed with a ‘physical’ illness, we need to become just as effective at  giving lifts to counselling sessions and offering to pick up prescriptions for antidepressants. The church is family, and families support each other, even when that involves breaking taboos and speaking into silence.

Grace and love abound

You may have been told you lack faith. You may have been told that your anxiety is a lack of trust in God, you may have been told that stress is you being Mary when you really should be Martha.

But this trivialise the problem, doesn’t it? It adds an extra layer of shame and guilt, and most of the time people don’t realise it’s happening. You sit quietly in a sermon as the words fly towards you like bullets.

Waking up feeling scared every day, no matter what’s actually happening, isn’t just ‘worry’. Having a negative physical reaction, shallow breathing and panicked thoughts when you see an email alert isn’t just ‘being a bit overworked’. Spontaneous bursts of anger or paranoia or despair aren’t healthy. You know that.

But in the middle of this, God doesn’t leave us. In the middle of this we are not condemned or damned. Because none of this is about the power of your faith or your acceptance of dogma. It’s about you being a child of God, ir’s about you being covered by grace, it’s about you being loved. And it’s about God being with you, even when you feel abandoned, even when you feel lost, even when you’re trapped in a fog that feels solid as stone. And if there are times you can’t believe that, try to let others believe it for you.

I’m a Methodist local preacher, and after one service someone thanked me for talking about grace,  because they didn’t hear it enough. And that shocked me, because grace is at the centre of all we have and we need to communicate that with every breath. Maybe we need to get better at pointing our stories of grace in the right direction.

Gethsemane is important

We sometimes focus so much on Christ’s divinity that we imagine him walking through the world untouched by everything until he got to the Cross.  But sidelining his humanity does violence to the Incarnation, and that has an impact on how Christ’s humanity impacts on our own.

That’s why Gethsemane is important. After all, no-one who sweats blood is unfamiliar with moments of stress and anxiety. There’s a moment of solidarity here, of recognition, of familiarity. Christianity is centred on God becoming human, and that means having experience of some horrific experiences, including crushing anguish. This should affect how we talk about things like anxiety, should create a space in which it’s safe to have conversations about stress. After all, these concepts aren’t alien to Christ himself, they shouldn’t be alien to our churches.

There are plenty of people out there struggling with mental illness. This needs to be acknowledged as a day to day reality, and we need to create an environment in which it’s safe to talk about this. And this doesn’t need to be scary; sometimes it’s simply about recognising that the problem is there; sometimes it’s about simply giving a damn. And in doing so, find a way out of the dark; find a light to walk towards.