Walking in Darkness

I’ve been quite fascinated by the dramatisation of ‘His Dark Materials’ on BBC1 on a Sunday evening. This latest series is the final instalment of Philip Pullman’s epic fantasy trilogy that contains a robust critique of institutional religion. Last week, the main characters Lyra and Will made it to the land of the dead in their search for lost friend, Roger. This place is not a heavenly place of eternal joy and peace, although, neither is it a place of unremitting torment. It is a grey and utterly lifeless place. The people stuck there are like the undead. All colour and purpose has gone and they have no memory of what life, light and hope are. Yet, as Lyra starts to recount stories of her and Roger’s adventures growing up, the inhabitants of the land of the dead start to remember curiosity, exploration, the blue sky above them, soft green grass beneath their feet, feelings such as apprehension, happiness and camaraderie and the sensory wonders of smell, taste and touch. As they do so, they begin to get colour and their expressionless faces start to become animated again. They had forgotten who they were, but now they are reminded, they begin to believe, mobilise and act in order to get back what they remember they have lost.

They were people walking in darkness. Matthew similarly makes this observation about the Jews of Jesus’s time by referring back to the prophecy of Isaiah in chapter 9, verse 2. However, they are not left in this state of hopelessness for they, “have seen a great light.” These are the descendants of those whose God heard their cries of suffering and injustice, and led them out of slavery in Egypt through the waters of the Red Sea to the promised land. And God is again enacting a rescue mission of liberation and salvation, but this time, by sending His own Son. The Catholic missiologist Vincent Donovan says St Paul’s shortest articulation of the good news of Christ is found in Titus chapter 3, verse 4, “..when the kindness and love of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy.”

This week my students at St Augustine’s theological college, which trains ordinands and lay people in the South East of England for a variety of Christian ministries, have been learning about culture. I love this particular quote from Howell and Williams Paris in their book ‘Introducing Cultural Anthropology’, “Without culture, we have no language, no symbols, no revelation, no community.” and, I might add, no identity. It’s vital we know who we are. This is what gives us purpose and meaning. But also we need others to share this with. When we get discouraged and forget, who will remind us and be a mirror to reflect back who we still are?

Our identity is found in relationship. Like us, Jesus needed others to share his vision with, those to walk and talk and get excited with, and friends to pass on his wisdom and God-given mission. As we read further into Matthew 14 verses 12-23, we see him calling some of his disciples to leave the familiarity of home and work to become the nucleus of the new community of faith that we join and participate in today. They then, as we do, together recognise the light Jesus brings to the darkness and partner with Him to reveal it to others. This is so we can all find inspiration for a better and fairer world, as well as release from the weight of missed opportunities, regret at wrongdoing and the burden of hurt we have inflicted upon others.

In baptism we have a wonderful picture of how we find identity and are initiated into a family and community that has these shared memories and stories of God’s faithfulness and provision at it’s heart. It is in this rite of passage that we get our name, which is how we are seen and known. We are washed with water that cleanses, refreshes and commemorates the liberation of God’s people from slavery as a way for their escape was made through the sea. We are anointed with a sign of the cross to show that through our acceptance of Jesus as Lord, we participate in His death and resurrection to eternal life and are welcomed into the household of God, that is the Church, both local and universal.

In this ritual, we have received a name and been given an identity, not just by virtue of our genes via earthly parents, but from our heavenly father. We are seen, we are loved and Jesus wants us to enjoy abundant life. Not a grey, undead existence, rather one that is filled with purpose, memory, sensory experience, feeling and hope. The choice is ours whether to answer the invitation that is also made to us to follow him. Like Peter and Andrew, James and John, it might mean leaving some known security behind, but we will be stepping out onto a wild ride of change, challenge and transformation.

Avatar 2: A Cowboy film

Yesterday I went to see Avatar: the way of water. It’s a very similar reworking of the first Avatar film, but I loved the beauty of the underwater scenes in particular. And it struck me how much like a modern day Western it was, although set in an alternative universe on an alien planet somewhere in outer space. The big difference is, we are now very definitely on the side of the indigenous people. The message of the film was colonisation is bad and leads to the destruction of nature, other unique cultures and civilisations.

This has to be a good thing. Hollywood confronting it’s past and owning the damage that was done to ensure the survival of white settlers who stole land that belonged to no-one and upset the delicate balance between humanity and the natural environment, carefully maintained by native American tribes.

There were other values articulated in the film which I could applaud too. A recognition that conflict settled by violence only leads to more violence and how unity, even where there is difference, has greater force in overcoming aggression than lone vigilantism. It is strength that comes from sticking together as a family, as part of a wider community, which is celebrated in this franchise.

I especially enjoy seeing male and female working together as equals and, in Avatar, there was also an appreciation of the spiritual and emotional, over the mechanistic and scientific. Once again there is the recurrent theme of the search for identity and the quest for a parent who loves unconditionally, nurtures, as well as disciplines, and has a character their offspring can be proud of and emulate in their own lives.

I was also intrigued by the worship of the ‘Great Mother’. She seems to be the protective Spirit at the heart of this community, who gives creative energy in birth and takes it back in death. By plugging into her presence, which is represented by a tree, she gives wisdom and prophetic insight. In their most perilous moment, the mother of the family at the centre of the narrative, while desperately trying to rescue her daughters, cries out for help to the ‘Great Mother’.

I was interested in this for a number of reasons. Firstly, in the Western world we tend to refer to ‘Mother’ earth. This makes a clear contrast with Creator God who is described by Jesus as ‘our Father in heaven’. Yet, we must be clear that the divine Spirit is neither male nor female. Or, maybe, it would be more accurate to say God encompasses both male and female. I think we need to rediscover the female attributes of God, who brings newness into being as only women can and is described using the feminine title ‘Wisdom’ or ‘Sophia’ in the ancient Hebrew texts.

Secondly, that help is sought from ‘Great Mother’ at all. Over Christmas I had a conversation with a friend who works with those in recovery from addiction and she was saying that the people she seeks to support are encouraged to find strength and hope from within themselves, rather than look outside to a higher power.

Finally, I liked that Great Mother’s spiritual presence was manifest as a tree. In November last year, I read the book ‘Naked Pilgrim’ by Nick Mayhew-Smith. In it, he says, that while in Northern Europe Christian missionaries in the 7th and 8th centuries cut down trees that were intrinsic to pagan worship, Celtic missionaries to the British Isles incorporated them into Christian worship and built churches nearby. My husband and I visited one such tree last weekend. It’s 1500 years old and adjacent to the church of St Mary and All Saints in Dunsfold, Surrey.

Trees are a rich source of symbolism in the Christian tradition. There’s the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden, at the start of the story of God’s interaction with humanity. And, at the end of the sacred scriptures, in Revelation chapter 22 verse 2, there’s reference to a tree that will have leaves to bring about the healing of the nations. Given our contemporary need to protect and preserve Creation, and how in ancient times being in nature led to worship of the Spirit who brought about it’s beauty, it seems perfectly natural to continue to celebrate and revere our ancient trees. We can allow them to speak to us of the goodness and abundant provision of a God who gives us an identity as His children, loves us and is there when we call to Her for help.

One crying in the wilderness

Edward Burtynsky’s beautiful and unsettling photography

In this season of advent, we consider the role of the prophet. Perhaps the greatest of the prophets, who harks back to the ministry of Elijah, is John the Baptist. We are told in the ancient scriptures, he appears from the desert and people flock to him confessing their sins and getting baptised. As foretold by the angel Gabriel before his miraculous conception, John prepares the way for Christ saying, “I baptise you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me;…He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” John appears very much the radical, an extreme provocateur dressed in animal skins, calling representatives of the religious elite a ‘brood of vipers’ and warning everyone of the terrible judgement that is coming to them.

And this is the role of the prophet, to warn and to rebuke, as well as envision for the new thing God is doing in our midst. Jeremiah talks of the ministry of the prophet as to build up and to tear down. To critique and call out injustice, but also to renew hope for a better world, a restored Creation, that is the ultimate fulfilment of the coming Kingdom of God. 

If prophets didn’t adopt what we might consider inflammatory language and offensive tactics, we wouldn’t notice them and be forced to hear the message they bring. They make us feel uncomfortable. Deep down we know the truth of what they have to say, but we don’t want to face it. To acknowledge our mistakes or wilful wrongdoing means we must change and this will be disruptive and humiliating, if not down right destructive. We would rather stay in denial and get on with life as we know it, even if we are aware this is evil and unjust. So we hate the prophet, and those in positions of power will seek to silence her and punish him for pointing out their folly.

This prophetic ministry didn’t end with the death of John. The great contemporary theologian, Walter Bruggemann, says in his book ‘The Prophetic Imagination’ it is the poets and artists today who provoke us out of our comfort and complacency and articulate the newness God desires. I think the street artist Banksy is a fantastic example of this. I particularly love his version of the crucifixion with Jesus holding a shopping bag in each nailed hand to highlight our society’s unquestioned reliance upon consumerism, despite the untold damage it does to our souls and to the environment.

Over the last few weeks, I have been enjoying ‘Simon Schama’s History of Now’ on the BBC. I would really recommend this if you want to find out more about the prophets he identifies in his lifetime. These include Charlie Chaplin, Nina Simone, Vaclav Havel and, author of the Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Attwood. But someone I was particularly taken with, who I hadn’t heard of before, was Rachel Carson. She was fascinated by the natural world and wrote a number of books about the sea which passed on this love of nature to a generation of children in the 1950s, including historian Schama. However, she observed and became increasingly concerned by the negative impact of the use of pesticides in American agriculture. In 1962 she wrote ‘Silent Spring’ documenting the environmental harm she was witnessing and came under fierce criticism by the chemical industry who did all they could to discredit her findings. Despite this, she swayed public opinion leading to a nationwide ban on the use of DDT and in 2006, Silent Spring was named one of the 25 greatest science books of all time by the editors of Discover magazine. Her legacy has now passed to photographer, Edward Burtynsky, whose currently seeking to capture with his lens the devastating reality behind the relentless pursuit of materialism.

But being a prophet doesn’t make you popular and comes with a huge cost. Carson died of cancer shortly after the publication of Silent Spring, Chaplin was not allowed to return to the US because of his so-called Communist views and John the Baptist finds himself imprisoned. He has angered and shamed the ruler, Herod. And, having heard what Jesus is doing, John wants to be assured that He is indeed the Messiah he was to prepare the way for. Has John fulfilled the purpose of his life that was foretold by the angel Gabriel even before his birth? So Jesus tells John’s disciples to recount what they see. It is the prophetic vision of the Lord’s coming as presented in Isaiah where the blind are enabled to see, the deaf hear and the lame walk. 

I think it is a terrible burden to be a prophet and the success of their ministry is not usually seen in their own lifetime. Yet Jesus commends John, and we get the sense that he can die assured of his faithfulness to the divine calling, having achieved all God set out for him to do. May we too be so committed to fulfil God’s purposes, that we’ll be able to live, and die, content in the knowledge we have been obedient and the fruit of that obedience will have a lasting legacy of goodness and mercy in this life and in the life to come.

Be more SAS – Screwball and Subversive

When organisations fear their own imminent demise, they can respond in a couple of ways. They can batten down the hatches and hang on to what they have, do the same thing over and over expecting a different result. Or, they can throw caution to the wind, get creative and take some risks! This might be what Christ was alluding to when he said in Matthew chapter 10, verse 39, “If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give up your life for me, you will find it.”

A fantastic, if slightly left-field, real life example of this is the birth of the SAS which is being dramatised on the BBC currently. It’s 1942 and the British Army’s supply chain in North Africa is stretched across 500 miles of desert making it incredibly vulnerable to enemy attacks. Like cutting off air to the body, to prevent vital supplies getting to troops on the front line will be lethal. That’s when one bright spark, ‘Jock’ Lewes, comes up with the idea of parachuting saboteurs behind enemy lines to take out German planes while they’re still on the ground.

He persuades a couple of men from his regiment and an old friend from army training corps days to help him do a trial run. Unfortunately, one of the parachutes Jock has stolen is damaged and his mate, David Sterling, suffers a near fatal fall. Yet, even this brush with death does not deter them. They then find out that spy, Brigadier Dudley Clarke, has already created a fictional regiment called ‘Special Air Service’ (SAS) in order to demoralise the Nazis. So now they only have to convince the upper echelons of the military establishment to let them start recruiting just 60 soldiers to their maverick new venture.

They are looking for very specific individuals. Lewes explains, “In a world where there are no rules, no order, no organised plan, certain men are identified by war itself as natural executors. And those natural executors take matters into their own hands. I’m bringing together men of a particular calibre. The others are all insane, in jail or, like me, in despair.” One scene which particularly struck a cord with me was when a 3-page document is handed out to all the new recruits and Sterling says the first page is a list of objectives, then there’s a list of rules and finally an inventory of all the resources they have at their disposal. The camera then zooms in and we see that every page is blank!

To me there are many resonances with pioneering and entrepreneurship. We too need to think beyond the tried and tested, take risks for the sake of the bigger picture and find the qualities which mean we struggle to thrive in hierarchies, come into their own when we’re given the freedom and autonomy to follow the unpredictable pull of the Spirit. An actor in the series, Tom Glynn-Carney, says of this first band of brothers, “…these were the perfect cohort. They weren’t followers, they were extroverts, wild and untamed. And they were willing to put themselves on the line to make an impact…”

That’s me! But where, I wonder, are the leaders who would put their trust in crazy ideas, give pioneers a blank page to work it out as they go along and not expect too much in return until a genuinely new way is found which, like Heineken in the 70s, refreshes the parts others fail to reach. Well, maybe this is part of the problem. Still looking to those in authority to give permission, when actually the lesson of SAS Rogue Heroes is it’s enough they turn a blind eye, leave well alone and don’t mess with the magic!

Fan the fire of hope

“I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God”

Fire is a powerful symbol. Like other things in life, in small quantities it is essential for survival and yet when out of control it’s terribly destructive. Over the summer we saw plenty of images of wild fires caused by the heatwave that gripped Europe. Fire is often used as a warning. I recently watched the Lord of the Rings trilogy of films and there’s a moment in one of them when the stubborn old king will not seek help from the neighbouring kingdoms despite being under siege and over-run by Orks. Gandalf, the white wizard, and the Hobbit, Pippin, work together to over-rule him by setting light to a beacon at the highest point in the fortress castle. A chain of beacons is then lit across the mountain range and armies of middle earth ride out in aid of the king to rescue him and his people at their time of greatest need. It feels like the fires this summer are a warning. A warning that the climate emergency is real. It is now on our doorstep and adversely affecting the rich nations of the Western world, as well as those in the 2 thirds world who have struggled with the consequences of extreme weather for years.

There are lots of significant moments in the Biblical narrative that centre on fire. Moses encounters God in the burning bush. Thus, fire indicates holiness and we think of Isaiah’s lips being burnt with a hot coal to cleanse him as he’s anointed for his ministry as prophet. Fire also symbolises God’s presence. The pillar of fire went ahead of the Israelites having been freed from slavery in Egypt as they journeyed to the promised land. Then, in the book of Acts in the New Testament, the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is seen as tongues of fire resting on each of those gathered in the upper room. In addition, fire symbolises hope and redemption. Peter was huddled by the fire when he was tempted to deny Jesus three times ahead of his crucifixion and yet, after his resurrection, Jesus cooks breakfast for Peter over a fire on the beach by the sea of Galilee and recommissions him as the rock on which he will build his church.

Fire can also represent celebration and a coming together to share stories. It’s warmth and light dispels the darkness and helps to ward off our worst fears and anxieties which feel particularly real and overwhelming at night. Although, this winter, heat and light will feel for many like a luxury they can’t really afford.

In 2 Timothy chapter 1 verse 6, a God-given anointing is likened to a fire that is received by the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands. However, Paul is concerned that this fire might go out due to discouragement and despair. So, he is urging Timothy to fan into flame the gracious gift of God, that inner fire. He is imploring him to stand firm and not see suffering as defeat, but rather as a means for Christ to be illuminated even more clearly through him.

I wonder what fanning into flame the gift you have might look like? Where are you in need of encouragement? Are there people you need to spend more time with because they stir up energy and positivity inside you? Are there spiritual practices such as regular prayer, meditation or silent reflection which would help you to stay more aware of the divine presence as you face life’s difficulties or challenges? We all go through seasons when faith is a struggle and the fire of conviction dies down. But we can proactively seek to re-energise our spirits, look for the good in others and trust that the light will ultimately triumph.

One of the ways in which I encourage myself in my faith is to think back to times when our prayers were answered. I can remember as a child listening to intercessions in church week after week as we prayed for peace in Northern Ireland, the end of apartheid in South Africa and the collapse of the Berlin wall. Resolution to these conflicts without more significant bloodshed seemed impossible. Yet, I saw a peace deal signed, Nelson Mandela become president and the wall come down! Things may seem pretty bleak at the moment, but let’s think of one thing we can commit to that will help keep the fire of our hope and faith alive.

We don’t do this in our own strength but in the knowledge of, as Paul reminds us, “Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.”

Deep Diving

I am a type 4 on the Enneagram. For those not familiar with this, the Enneagram is a means of categorising and better understanding our personality traits. I have found it a good way to, I hope, become more self aware and put effort in to balance out the worst excesses of my weaknesses and vulnerabilities. A type 4 is one of the feeling types, so I will tend to react out of my emotions and our dominant core emotion is, interestingly, shame. 

I find being a type 4 very difficult as the world is disparaging and unsympathetic to those of us who primarily respond out of emotion. I think this is because most people, especially – although not exclusively – men, are actually in denial about their feelings. They believe they act rationally. But, it is impossible to do anything without emotions being involved in addition to thought processes. Yet, as I am honest and brave enough to acknowledge and own my feelings, as well as think deeply and act reasonably, what I articulate is diminished or dismissed entirely and I become a receptacle for other people’s emotions that they are not willing to observe and acknowledge in themselves.

A manifestation of this is projection. For example, someone familiar with my work liked to say I was a one trick pony. Actually, I have lots of ideas and am working on many different projects at the same time. He is the one trick pony, but he couldn’t own this for himself. Instead, in his envy, he tried to convince himself and others that I was the reflection of what he couldn’t face about himself. I have learnt through bitter and painful experience to no longer just take on these personal criticisms. More often than not they are not about me at all and reveal more about the person expressing the derogatory remark. And yes I have to admit, in the past, I have also been guilty of doing the criticising in order to deflect and protect my own fragile sense of self.

The things I like about being a type 4 is that we are creative, enjoy pleasing aesthetics and can be incredibly original as we gain insights from situations few will allow themselves to experience. One of the reasons for this is we go to the depths. About 11 years ago, when I was going through a similar re-evaluation of my personhood and discernment into what is my unique gift to the world, I felt the Spirit tell me I was like a pearl. I was then thrilled to be reading Richard Rohr’s book on the Enneagram where he likens a type 4 to being a pearl. That’s because we are often the irritant that, if allowed creates the beauty and value. Due to shame, I am also prone to hiding!

Yet, often these unique insights and original ideas come out of intense suffering and soul searching. I don’t know why it has to be this way, but that is what I experience time and again. Yesterday I spent the whole day wrestling with the most unbearable and intense feelings of despair and hopelessness. I slept on and off through the night. I kept reaching out to God and imploring the divine for help and relief. Then having watched the dawn, I had a profound thought which seemed to make sense of my anguish. I was then able to sleep and enjoy some peace.

I do wonder if the revelation is worth it. However, I am reminded of the parable of the pearl of great price. If this is the treasure, the thing of real worth and value, then everything else should be sacrificed to own it. However, there is also a scripture about casting pearls before swine. And, my deep diving to secure the treasure of the kingdom has by some been ignored, suppressed and even actively despised. So, maybe, if we maintain a honest and humble assessment of ourselves, we will be able to move beyond envy and projection. Forgiveness is always available when we admit our failings and seek to make amends. This, in turn, leads to greater maturity and models a mission spirituality that has the power to change us into the perfected version of ourselves that was always the intention of our Creator.

A Holistic Gospel in Three Dimensions

When I submitted my paper on shame to an academic journal for consideration, I was subject to a peer review. One of those who gave feedback suggested I read and refer to a book called ‘The 3D Gospel’ by Jayson Georges. What he argues in this short publication, which is actually little more than a pamphlet, is that there are three main cultures in the world. In the West we understand justice through a sin/guilt lens. The Eastern worldview revolves around a honour/shame interpretation of punishment and redemption, and the global South makes sense of the world with reference to the battle between good and evil spiritual forces. He goes on to suggest that in the accounts of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus we see an answer for each of these perspectives and taken together they represent the fullness of the Gospel to heal, save and eternally liberate.

For years I have wrestled to understand what might have caused the decline in church attendance and the collapse of influence of the Christian worldview on our contemporary Western culture. Obviously, one element for me has been the observation of a shift away from the sin/guilt lens Georges says is traditionally at the core of Western philosophical thought and the exploration of the impact of shame which has long been associated with Eastern cultural assumptions and means of regulating behaviour. However, yesterday I watched the film ‘Eat, pray, love’ and wondered if there’s another 3D perspective that has been lurking at the back of my mind and finally came into the light as I saw the dawn this morning.

Although it attempts to do justice to the memoir by American Elizabeth Gilbert, the film remains too Hollywood and overly simplifies the learning of her spiritual awakening post divorce and as a consequence of experiencing life in Italy, India and Bali. Yet, it reminded me of a Ruach card reading I had as part of a training session I was leading last month. One of the cards I picked was turquoise and on that particular card there is an image of three windows. The trainee giving the reading suggested that the number three might be significant and so I’ve been praying about what God might be revealing to me. Firstly my mind went to the Trinity. The Divine as Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. Then my immediate family, my husband and two sons. I am also working on three new projects – the Green Shoots Network, Spiritual Places Pilgrimages and my own teaching and mentoring practice, Gestate.

But in the middle of the night, my mind went to a conversation I’d recently had about the importance of embodied spirituality. A couple of weeks ago the principal of a theological college told me how saddened he was that the majority of his students seemed to have a very mechanistic view of the body and I mentioned how one of the members of our community, Sacred Space Kingston has launched ‘Embodied Perspectives’ to help engage the physical in prayer, as well as our minds and our spirits. I, therefore, wondered if in the West we are overly preoccupied with the mind. I even catch myself viewing my body as little more than a vehicle to carry around my vast brain!

This is not healthy or, I believe, godly. If we take the concept of the Trinity seriously, God became flesh. The Divine Creator dignified and sanctified the physicalness of our humanity by becoming embodied. Not only that, but a huge proportion of His earthly ministry was concerned with healing bodies that were diseased and damaged. Illness not only causes pain and incapacity, but has a devastating impact on self worth, being an acceptable part of community and robs the capacity to earn a living. Perhaps the interest in Yoga is an acknowledgement of wisdom in the East that recognises spirituality needs to have a physical dimension. And maybe from the global South we need to learn that not everything can be explained by science and reason. Our struggles are rooted in the spiritual every bit as much as psychology and physiognomy.

So then, as we are each body, mind and spirit and God is Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, we reclaim a 3D gospel. The West might prioritise the mind, but we also need the embodied practice of the East and spiritual sensitivity of the South. A rediscovered holistic Gospel to recalibrate our thinking, ground us in reality and ultimately restore our souls.

It’s a man’s world, but…

… it would be nothing without a woman or a girl, so sang James Brown. I am loving the success of the lionesses, England’s woman football team. I really hope they go on to lift the Euro trophy ahead of the men! This would appeal to my sense of justice.

Women’s football has a long history of being successful in this country and yet was ruthlessly shut down and banned by the FA in the early 1900s. Like so many areas of life, women have had to fight for the right to compete and enjoy what men take for granted.

I find it difficult to understand why men feel threatened by women flourishing. There’s a mistaken idea that persists whereby to allow women to shine somehow robs men. I really don’t believe this to be true. Perhaps if women can be all that they choose to become, men can be released in order to fulfil their God-given potential too without wasting time and emotional energy asserting their abusive power and dominance. I have spent much of my life being a leader in the church who isn’t able to be fully what I have to offer. I have also been blessed to have men in my life who have done what they can to help me thwart this.

Yet, as the saying goes, ’necessity is the mother of invention’. I think the reason there are so many amazing female pioneers and entrepreneurs is because we’ve been forced to be creative so as to find another way. What had meant to paralyse and destroy us has actually led to our liberation and thriving.

Maybe this is the subversive kingdom Mary celebrates as she nurtures the newly incarnated God-King in her womb. The divine Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, “has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, the mighty are brought down from their thrones and the humble are lifted up. The hungry are filled with good things and the rich are sent away empty.” (Luke 1:51-53)

Sometimes I wonder if this can ever happen. I regularly despair at the injustice of the world. But then I hear 30,000 football fans chanting, ”football’s coming home” in support of a team of dedicated, skilful and determined women and, once again, I think oh yes it can!

What is integrity anyway?

Boris Johnson resigns yesterday

We’re hearing a lot about integrity in the news at the moment. But actually what is integrity? The dictionary definition says, “The quality of being honest and having strong moral principles,” as well as, “The state of being whole and undivided.” Being honest sounds straight forward enough, but as we’ve seen over recent months truth can be manipulated, distorted and stretched in order to justify all manner of indecency and wrong-doing. 

There’s also the problem of interpretation. My truth might not be the same as your truth because we are filtering events through our own prejudices and expectations based on previous, unique life experiences. We all know how social media can disseminate and perpetuate fake news. What we see cannot necessarily be trusted. I am of the generation that has had their childhood heroes exposed as paedophiles and even church leaders and Christian writers and commentators have been found to have abused their power and positions of trust in the most diabolical fashion.

So where does that leave us? I have always considered integrity to be the consistency between what is said and what is done. I always try to treat others as I would like to be treated and to follow through with action when I say I will do something. This often leads me to initially turn down a request. This is because I need to go away and consider whether I have the time and emotional energy before I commit to the action. However, once I have agreed to act I will give my all to see it through to what I believe is a satisfactory conclusion.

Jesus says something similar in Matthew chapter 7, verse 15, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits.” In my experience people will say almost anything to get you to believe they are decent and trustworthy. Yet, what about their lives? They might appear good and successful on the surface, but how do they treat those around them? And do they let people get close enough to see what is really motivating them?

I think culture has a big part to play in defining what is understood by integrity. We can easily assume we all mean the same thing by such an ideal, but I wonder if this is where self delusion can creep in. It’s astounding how individuals and organisations can say they abide by one set of values and then behave completely contrary to those values when presented with a particular set of circumstances! As Peter Drucker famously said, ‘culture eats strategy (or integrity) for breakfast.’

I’ll give you an example, we say every person is created in the image of God and therefore has equal worth. Yet our organisational structures are hierarchical and those at the top get paid more, presumably because we actually believe they are of greater value. I was so impressed with Traidcraft who following a restructure introduced a flat structure and committed to pay their employees the same wage. You might be a cleaner or the CEO but both are working to the best of their albeit, different abilities in order to bless others and bring glory to God. 

You could call me a Marxist, but I just want to challenge us to ponder whether we’ve really thought through what actions are required in the light of what we say are our values. And when we are quick to judge politicians for not living up to the standards we say we espouse, yet who the majority of citizens voted for, perhaps we should more closely examine whether there really is an alignment between what we say we believe and how we live in the light of that revelation. Or, in reality, are we continually compromising our values in order to accommodate an ungodly culture that we unconsciously perpetuate? It’s hard to make a stand and no one thanks you for it. However, it’s the role of the prophet to unmask falsehoods, as well as imagine a better future.

Celebrating Pride

Marking 50 years of Pride at Glastonbury this weekend

When I was a child I was often reminded about the sin of pride. This might be because I was precocious and liked to be the centre of attention, but I think it also says a lot about the values of British culture. After all we don’t want to be like the Americans, brash, showy and over the top!

We were not encouraged to shine, be brilliant or think more highly of ourselves than we should. We were expected to be modest, polite and an attitude that children should be seen and not heard persisted.

As I grew up in a Christian home, there were also the quotes from the Bible about the danger of pride. ‘Pride comes before a fall’ and ‘God resists the proud and gives grace to the humble’, are etched into my memory and psyche.

Yet was this used disproportionately to keep little girls, in particular, from getting too big for their boots? And, as someone who now acknowledges their struggle with shame, has the sin of pride been used as a stick to beat me? Actually, in order for me to be fully alive and the person I was made to be I needed to be seen, nurtured and helped to find my place in the sun. Could this have been done in such a way that I also learned it was possible for me to be my absolute best self while not requiring the crushing or diminishing of anyone else in their own joy of flourishing?

This week I’ve been ill, so I’ve watched a lot of television. As well as huge amounts of tennis and cricket, I binge watched ‘Everything I know about Love’. I found it interesting, and surprisingly subversive, that the ‘love’ in question was actually the plutonic love between best friends. There is a moment when Mags is being publicly shamed on social media for sleeping around during freshers week. She does what I do when I feel shame, that is close all the curtains, take to my bed and hide. She says, “I feel like I don’t want to exist. Not forever, I just don’t want to be here, right now, being me…I feel wrong. I feel like there’s something wrong with me…I’m sorry I’m such a mess..I’m sorry I’m so loud and clumsy and I always get things wrong and forget things and lose things. I’m just this disaster, but I can’t ever seem to change. I don’t want to be this constant storm causing chaos everywhere.” But her bestie Birdy, who is lying beside her, responds with, “You’re not a storm. You’re a hurricane, Hurricane Maggie. It’s like what Katie Perry said, after the hurricane comes the rainbow. See you’re the hurricane and the rainbow. You blow through a place leaving the most spectacular things as you go. No one ever forgets you once they’ve met you.”

At this time of year there is a lot being said about pride. In Eastern cultures we tend to think the opposite of shame is honour. However, in our Western societies maybe it is actually pride. Obviously, pride in our context has been a specific response to the shame and stigma attached to homosexuality. Rightly so, a strong and powerful counter narrative of pride has been necessary to undo the demeaning and oppressive legacy of shame around sexuality very specifically.

Yet, I wonder if we also need to reclaim pride for other areas of life where we’ve been robbed by shame. As a parent, I’m advised to tell my offspring not just that I love them, but that I am proud of them. And, I try to do that when they’ve show attributes or character traits that I’m proud of, such as being kind or showing empathy and not just academic or material success.

Yes the Bible has negative things to say about pride, but it also says, ‘we should love our neighbours as ourselves’ and this morning I was reminded that, ‘it was for freedom that Christ set us free’. That definitely includes freedom from shame.

We all feel shame. While at the same time, we don’t all have a best friend to be there with us in our pain and remind us we are still loved. However, I am not going to stay under the duvet forever. I am reminded of the words by Marianne Williamson quoted by Nelson Mandela at his inauguration as President of the new, free South Africa, ‘the rainbow nation’, “Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that others won’t feel insecure around you. We are meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone. And as we let our light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

“Here’s another way to put it: You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colours in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand—shine!” You have permission from the Saviour and Creator of the Universe!

So be proud. Not just this week in June, but all year round. What would the world be like if we could all do that, for most of the time? Sounds like the kingdom of heaven to me!