“There is nothing so secular that it cannot be sacred” – sermon for Evensong on the First Sunday of Christmas

“There is nothing so secular that it cannot be sacred, and that is one of the deepest messages of the Incarnation.” ~ Madeleine L’Engle

When Paul talks about how God “has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son”, he’s not talking about a God who magically lifts us out of whatever mess we find ourselves in, but one who gets stuck into all life’s mess and complexity with us. This isn’t God as superhero, but #GodWithUs, God deeply and compassionately with us. This is the Good News that we have a God who ‘gets it’, gets what it is to be human, to struggle, to hurt, to laugh, to love.

The great change brought about by the incarnation is that the divine becomes human, and so the human can be recognised as divine.

Every aspect of human life is touched by God – “life in all its fullness”.- our laughter, our tears, our fears, our anger, our hopes, our complicated, messy relationships. All of it. Jesus comes to give us life in all its fullness, and to call us recognise in all the fullness of life something of God,

That’s not always easy to do, of course. We have a very human tendency to categorise things, and all too often people. Good. Bad. Naughty. Nice. Worthy. Unworthy. And yet, we know that isn’t how God sees things – in Jesus even the boundary between humanity and divinity is destroyed. How then can any other boundaries remain?

Even as we try to do the right thing, to be just and compassionate, it’s very tempting to start putting things (and people) into boxes. It’s often easier to be sympathetic at a distance, to help ‘those people over there’, and ignore the needs of those closest to us, or our own needs. It’s all too easy to dress up what God calls us to do in fancy language, and be so busy looking for the next ‘missional opportunity’, that we fail to notice the person right in front of us.

We can come up with all the strategies and resolutions and plans we like, but in the end it really isn’t that complicated (which isn’t to say it’s easy – far from it). Jesus calls us to be a church that ‘gets stuck in’. Pope Francis wrote: “I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.” Challenging words. God is a God who in the incarnation ‘gets stuck in’ to all the messiness of what it is to be human and, in the very person of Jesus as well as in his words, calls us to do likewise.

Isaiah in our first reading proclaims not only the first coming of Jesus (as we have heard throughout advent) but also the second coming, the realisation of God’s kingdom on earth.

I wonder what New Years Resolutions we might make which promote the realisation of God’s kingdom on earth? In our local communities, our families, our homes, our church, – not by grand schemes but getting stuck in’ in all the little ways which – together – change lives, and turn the world upside down.

The truth of the incarnation, God made flesh, God with us, is that God works through people is this: There is nobody and no circumstance too lowly or too ordinary for God. There is no human situation, no part of the human condition, in which God is not present. God works through people – little, ordinary people – to redeem all things and draw all people back to the God who created them. It is the calling of the church – of each of us – see what God is doing, and get stuck in, whatever form that takes, and whatever words we use (or don’t use) to describe it.

“There is nothing so secular it cannot be sacred”, nothing so human it cannot be divine, nobody so human, so lowly, so flawed and broken that they do not contain the image of God. In a stable long ago, very ordinary people recognised God in the very ordinary stuff of human life. God is still here, still present in the mess and muddle of our human lives. The realisation of that, of God made just as human, as fragile, as vulnerable as we are, will change our lives if we’ll let it, as we learn to recognise God in ourselves, in each other, in whatever mess we find ourselves in.

Each year, as we hear again the familiar Christmas story, and reflect on the year that is ending and the one about to start, we have a fresh chance to consider how this deep truth of the incarnation touches our lives now. Where is God in this mess, this muddle? Where, in this ordinary little bit of human life which I find myself in right now, is the glory of God? May God give us eyes to see and ears to hear the sacred presence of God in every ordinary human thing, this Christmas and always.



#advent bookclub Day 17: The Wise Men

Recognising God can be a tricky business (not helped by God’s tendency to show up in the most surprising people and places). But in the Christian life, the recognition of God is a vital skill to cultivate, and one which comes only with practice.

My own life has been marked by moments of recognising God only with the benefit of hindsight, and I’m guessing I’m not the only one: “Ah, I see now, that was God all along!” I have a wise friend who helped me very much in the long journey of learning to recognise God in the moment. Something would occur, I would tell her about it, and she would remark quite casually “That’ll be the Holy Spirit, that will.” And almost always I could immediately see that she was right – what I had described was indeed the Holy Spirit, but I needed someone to point it out to me.

This work of not only recognising but also pointing out where God is and what God might be doing is a vital one. I wrote earlier this week about a Special School I work with.  This is one of the places where I most clearly recognise God, and I have gradually come to realise that pointing out what I see of God in that place is part of how I can invite the staff and students to encounter God themselves. I don’t somehow bring God in with me, nor do I (nor could I) somehow make God more present, I merely point out where God already is. I may even have been known to use the phrase “That’ll be the Holy Spirit, that will” myself.

“May the Lord when he comes find us watching and waiting” we pray during Advent. The watching is at least as important as the waiting – watching for God, recognising God, pointing out what we have seen and known and experienced of God.

This year for Advent Book Club we are reading “Unearthly Beauty” by Magdalen Smith. Join in on Facebook or Twitter using #AdventBookClub. 

#adventbookclub Day 16: Joseph

This chapter about Joseph reminds me to be thankful for, and to pray for, all the people who ‘just get on with it’.

I think perhaps in church as elsewhere we place too much value on the people who have the more showy, ‘up front’ gifts – preaching, music, etc – and not enough on those with the gifts that really keep the church running – organising an event, keeping people in touch with each other, encouraging others, noticing what needs to be done and doing it. In short, ‘just getting on with it’.

St Paul is right when he says that all gifts are given by the Holy Spirit for the common good. Therefore all are equally valuable, and should be equally valued – all gifts, and all people.

I wonder what we can do to value and recognise those in our churches (and elsewhere) who, like Joseph,  have the vital gift of ‘just getting on with it’?

This year for Advent Book Club we are reading “Unearthly Beauty” by Magdalen Smith. Join in on Facebook or Twitter using #AdventBookClub. 

#adventbookclub Day 15: Zechariah

Not much time to write today, but just to say how much I love Zechariah’s words in the “Benedictus”, and value the daily saying of them in Morning Prayer. A daily reminder that “In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us,” is as true today (and every day) as it has ever been, and shall ever be.

Here is a link to the “Benedictus” being chanted in Latin (with English subtitles and some beautiful images), which I think really captures the timeless nature of Zachariah’s prayer: “Benedictus”

This year for Advent Book Club we are reading “Unearthly Beauty” by Magdalen Smith. Join in on Facebook or Twitter using #AdventBookClub. 

#adventbookclub Day 14: Elizabeth

“Defying expectations”, the subtitle of this chapter, could make a very good slogan for one of the schools I work with. It is the Pupil Referral Unit (PRU) for Special Educational Needs (SEN) schools in our area. For those not au fait with educational acronyms, what that means in practice is that the young people who attend this school have significant special needs, and also challenging behaviour which has resulted in them being permanently excluded from a Special School. Each young person has at least 1:1 support, and many need to have 2 adults with them at all times. It has a maximum of 10 pupils at a time.

It is, in all sorts of ways, a very special Special School. And one of the things which makes it most special is the way it sets out to enable its students to defy the (very negative) expectations people have of them, and which often they have of themselves. At this school, there is no such thing as a hopeless case, and no such thing as a last chance – every day (sometimes every moment) is a new chance, a new start. It is – though not a church school – the very embodiment of persistent hope, consistent forgiveness, and unconditional love, the very values of God’s kingdom which should be (but too often aren’t) the hallmark of our churches and church schools.

I was at this school earlier in the week for their Christmas performance, during which every single student did a solo musical performance of some sort. To achieve this the staff, and especially their lovely music therapist, had deployed a great deal of resourcefulness and lateral thinking. Those who couldn’t bear to be in a hall full of people were videoed. Those who couldn’t or wouldn’t sing or play an instrument were encouraged to dance or participate in other ways. Those who find it hard to stay in any room for more than 20 seconds were filmed in short bursts, and the film edited together. But the point is, every single one of these young people was able to perform in some way – not only to be included, but to contribute to everyone’s enjoyment of the event. I’ve never clapped so hard in my life, nor wished so much that I’d remembered to put a tissue (or several!) in my cassock pocket. When I stood up to speak at the end, all I really wanted to say was “The kingdom of God is like this…”

This is testament to the hard work, endless patience and positivity of the staff, as well as to the hard work and persistence of the students. But it is also the product of a mindset – pervasive in that school, but sadly absent in many contexts – that defying expectations is not only possible, but essential, in order to enable each young person to flourish and be valued for who they are. And it is a reminder to me that “defying expectations” is very often where God is to be seen.

This year for Advent Book Club we are reading “Unearthly Beauty” by Magdalen Smith. Join in on Facebook or Twitter using #AdventBookClub. 

#adventbookclub Day 13: John the Baptist

There is so much one could say about John the Baptist (who is, incidentally, among my favourite biblical characters) but tonight I only have time for a very brief thought:

Magdalen Smith refers John as “a wild and weird man”, which seems a fair description. Now, think of someone you’ve encountered who is “wild”, “weird”, or both. Are these the sort of people our church and our society tends to pay attention to? I think not. More likely, they’re the people we avoid making eye contact with in the street. So too, the religious and secular leaders of John’s day wanted nothing to do with him. And in avoiding, ignoring and silencing him, they missed an important message, which only the ‘outsiders’ were open to hearing.

So, who are the wild and weird prophets of our day? And how do we make space to listen to their message?

This year for Advent Book Club we are reading “Unearthly Beauty” by Magdalen Smith. Join in on Facebook or Twitter using #AdventBookClub. 

#adventbookclub Day 12: Eglantyne Jebb

I find the suggestion that “most of us living in the UK” have more than enough food rather glib. Almost 1 in 3 children in the UK now live in poverty (most of them in households with at least 1 adult in work) and well over 1 million households have used food banks in the last year. Are these people not part of “us”? I rather think that Eglantyne Jebb would think they are.

I find much to admire in the life and work of Eglantyne Jebb, and much I would wish to emulate. She was a formidable woman by all accounts – unafraid to stand up to those in authority, and willing to go to the heart of the establishment to get what she knew people needed. She spoke up for, and worked for, the poorest and most forgotten children, and knew that ‘helping’ wasn’t enough – they needed (and still need) a legal basis to guarantee the essentials they need. Otherwise they are too easily forgotten again.

All of us who continue to “strive to sweep away this iniquitous child suffering” are in some sense the spiritual and political heirs of Eglantyne Jebb. And what a great legacy she has left us to build on. But there is much still to do.

I take issue with the author’s assertion that “Over the last 20 years in our own country it feels that such ‘rights’ have become moulded into a firmly set stone.” This is so far from the reality I currently experience in my own ministry that I had to check the book’s date of publication – but yes, apparently in 2017 some people do feel that children’s rights are stronger than ever. I wonder if we are living in the same universe, let alone the same country?!

Education, healthcare, and basic standards of living are all under threat. More children than ever are being forced into poverty. And the essential ‘safety net’ of services such as Children’s Centres, CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) and domestic violence refuges are facing rapid and severe cuts, just at the moment they are needed most. Life for children in the UK seems more precarious now than it has been in a long time.

So where, I wonder, is the Eglantyne Jebb of this generation? Or better, a whole workforce of Eglantyne Jebbs, ready to pick up the pieces at the same time as taking on the powers that be? And the answer is – they are here, in our local communities, our schools, our foodbanks, our children’s centres, our political meetings and protests.

Pray for those God is calling to stand up for the rights of our children in this age. And let that prayer include the words “here I am, Lord, send me”.

This year for Advent Book Club we are reading “Unearthly Beauty” by Magdalen Smith. Join in on Facebook or Twitter using #AdventBookClub. 


#adventbookclub Day11: John of the Cross

God is in the darkness, as much as in the light. God is in the suffering, as much as in the rejoicing. God is in the brokenness and pain, as much as in the healing (whatever form that healing takes).

My own perspective on darkness and the God who inhabits it has been transformed not only by reading and re-reading John of the Cross, but also by two more contemporary books: “Dazzling Darkness” by Rachel Mann, and “Learning to Walk in the Dark” by Barbara Brown Taylor. I would thoroughly recommend both.

It is all too easy to say, perhaps even to believe, that God is present even in the darkness. But that is very different from saying, let alone believing, that God is present just as much in darkness as in light, no more and no less. Truly “darkness and light are both alike to [God]”. (Psalm 139.12)

Which is not to say that God does not take our suffering, our darkness seriously, but quite the reverse. God is totally present in – and to – all situations, not more so in the light, nor more so in the dark. There are times when it is very difficult, even impossible to see God’s presence in what we experience. Those are the times when we learn to perceive God in a new, different, perhaps deeper way – to “walk in the dark” indeed.

This year for Advent Book Club we are reading “Unearthly Beauty” by Magdalen Smith. Join in on Facebook or Twitter using #AdventBookClub. 

#adventbookclub Day 10: Samuel Johnson

What are the values that form the backdrop to how we live? It’s an interesting question. Are the values which underpin our thinking at a subconscious, engrained level always the same as the ones we claim to espouse? If not (and I think for most of us there is at least some gap) how do we deal with that dissonance?

Especially for those of us who now live with a faith which we were not brought up with, the occasional clash between what we presently believe, and the values and ideas we imbibed in childhood, is inevitable. I know it happens to me. It is a very long time – more than half my life – since I would have claimed to follow the atheism with which I was brought up. Yet still occasionally a thought will intrude which belongs to that mindset, and not to my dearly and sincerely held faith.

I know this is also the case for many who have left a faith, or changed the way they experience and express their faith. In particular, it is a well-documented phenomenon in the ‘post-evangelical’ movement.

Whatever the values we claim – and aim – to live by, it pays to be aware of the background against which we hold them, and the potential for tension between the two.

This year for Advent Book Club we are reading “Unearthly Beauty” by Magdalen Smith. Join in on Facebook or Twitter using #AdventBookClub. 

#adventbookclub Day 9: Lucy

“I see things differently.”

“Try to see it from their point of view.”

“Let anyone with eyes, see.”

“Now we see through a glass darkly…”

The question of how we see things is an interesting one. Most of us tend to assume that most other people see things in a basically similar way to how we ourselves see them. A slight difference in perspective, sure. A slightly different angle. But essentially what we’re seeing is the same. Until, that is, we come across someone whose outlook is so fundamentally different from our own that it challenges – perhaps even changes – our assumptions.

I have an eye condition called Keratoconus. This affects the way I (literally) see things. For example, at night I see things a bit like this:

Until I was well into my 20s, I assumed that was how everyone saw things at night. After all, it was how I had always seen the world. When it was at last revealed (by a doctor friend) that not everyone sees the world how I do – indeed, I am in the minority in seeing things this way – I felt quite shaken. The way I saw (metaphorically) the world, my eyesight, and my self, shifted in some way. How, I wondered, had I gone so long without realising there were other ways of seeing the world?

What happens when we realise that our (metaphorical) way of seeing things is not the only one? When our perceptions are challenged? When we meet with and interact with viewpoints very different from our own? The way we respond to different ways of seeing the world matters. We can see other perspectives as a threat – something to be challenged, defended against or ignored. Or we can see them as a gift – something to help us explore more of what the world is like, who we are, and who God is. It all depends how we see things…..

This year for Advent Book Club we are reading “Unearthly Beauty” by Magdalen Smith. Join in on Facebook or Twitter using #AdventBookClub.