Church is changing

A blog by Jemma about church at the kitchen table in the context of our family – scroll to the bottom of the page for the short version.

I listened to a brilliant sermon yesterday calling the church to let go of how things were and embrace the challenge of being in lock down. The preacher made some really solid points about how Jesus was relational, engaged with the everyday and how we are now called to step away from buildings, programmes and traditions to run churches from our own homes with only the virtual world to help us. I then got an email all the way from Uganda saying almost exactly the same things.

So much of what was said resonated with me and made me push aside all the worries of today and feel excited about what church could mean for me and other people like me, busy working mums who want to pursue being a Christian. Don’t get me wrong, I love historic buildings, feel at home in certain churches and love the hushed sacred sense of being in a place where people have prayed for centuries. I’ve studied it and value the mystery of our connections as people to ‘place’, both man-made and natural.

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However, my most powerful and life changing moments with Jesus have been when my awareness of Him has been heightened in the mess of everyday life. He appeared when I was sat at the top of the stairs with nothing to lose or gain, without a church, without an outreach programme or a bible or Christian friends. He turned up and gave me peace and strength a clear head and hope and a faith experience that has become an unforgettable foundation in my life.

I see in the communities I’m a part of outside of the church how Jesus is not seen as relevant, not seen as part of people’s world and not experienced in an everyday way. Especially now we all need his strength to get through these days of bad news and fear. So it is with hope and excitement that I want to embrace this new world where the church is validated as beginning at home. I can see it is where so many of our issues are rooted and how much could be gained from searching him out amongst our most familiar surroundings.

Jesus in the everyday

I’m inspired by this sermon and by watching Bishop Ivan minister to us from an unimaginably challenging lock down in Uganda with fire and light in his smile. I have loads of ideas as I run that day and as I listen to another sermon saying very similar things. I keep stopping and texting home full of thoughts for how we might be able to help. I feel a burning desire to overcome my natural introversion and give what we have. The scripture for the week is about Jesus appearing to Thomas, the locked door, the holes in his hands, the wonder and belief and faith. The beginning of the new church. How amazing and how relevant!

 

The reality of a home church

So it was with great expectation that we set up our church at the kitchen table. After all wasn’t it Saint John Chrysostom who called the home, the ‘little church’?

We get out the bible, the cross, the cloth and light a candle. But then the reality of having four children in a home church kicks in.

We show a Lego cartoon which my son pointedly ignores preferring to play with real Lego.

We get a suitably relevant, Christian craft out and my two year old starts shouting ‘You’re not my best friend anymore’ at one of my daughters.

My eldest daughter hogs the one felt tip that my son can’t live without and then when he complains decides to throw it at him.

As he starts to cry we the adults, begin to feel the full range of human emotions. Irritation, disappointment, anger. So is this home church?

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Having children and quiet time…

Before I had children I used to enjoy the recommended ‘quiet time’. After we met Jesus slap bang in the middle of a life crisis and He smoothed us out, we never missed a day with my bible and worship time. Lawrence and I would sit and read our bibles in front of the fire and love the peace and quiet.

When I had my first baby our vicar (presently an Archdeacon in Carlisle Diocese) gave me a great book called ‘Patterns not Padlocks’. The gist of it was that a new pattern would emerge and I would see God in the chaos of child rearing. With grown up children of his own he must have known what was coming.

Ten years and four children later I feel family life still hasn’t quite gelled with church life. As our family grew and the amount of sleep we got shrank, my connection with the structure of church in felt less natural. I tried hard but it never felt easy. I would listen as lovely, missional Christian people would wonder why the packed week day toddler groups didn’t translate into packed family worship sessions on a Sunday. My life revolves around Jesus, I have a born again light and dark experience of Him in my life, but even I still understand why young children and church life can be an uneasy relationship.

A childlike faith

Anyway, back to this day, my daughter Joy who has hearing difficulties asks us ‘when will we do munnion?’ and grins her beautiful grin at me. I pick my youngest daughter up and she stops grumbling and nestles her head into my neck and I feel a flood of love that overcomes my cross feeling. My eldest daughter says sorry to my son and as children do, they quickly forgive and launch into a play together, the best of friends. As they rush off they tell me to leave them in the play room and in three words they speak the sermon I needed to hear. They ask me to go into the kitchen and leave them so they can ‘be comfortable acting’.

And, just like that Jesus speaks. There is no acting in a family group, we are who we are and he sees it all.  So this is the reality of home church. And from what I know to be true about Jesus I feel sure he loves through it all. He gives us the full range of emotions to see how love overcomes and enables us to forgive. Is there a better place to see and experience that lesson than at home in a family group?

It reminded me of a poem by Christina Rossetti I read the kids the day before;

Flint

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The everyday can hold the fire we gather around. We don’t need to get out on time, sit correctly in the pews and concentrate during the sermon. We can lose the expectation for a quiet time with six of us working and schooling together hullabaloo is dawn til dusk. We can’t make children pretend they don’t want the peach felt tip because they love Jesus. They are refreshingly simple and clear in what they want and need, their sense of justice, their need to be loved and heard, their ability to forgive and to worship in the moment.

Last week we kept returning to shepherds and sheep, Bishop Emma’s sermon on Sunday,  Psalm 23 and we also watched this clip about the shepherd and his sheep.

The sheep don’t look like your typical leaders, grown up, assertive not afraid of this pandemic and stepping out ‘in faith’ with super-hero strength. They’re sheep running to a shepherd hearing his voice and running towards him. No matter how bad my day is I can definitely do that.

I can live in lockdown inside our familiar surroundings and see Jesus come through the door and minister to me through my own children. Our family struggles can hold the Spirit of God and strengthen us for the challenge ahead. I am sure the churches of the future are in the next generation but the challenge maybe to let go of the ‘adult’ and so many of the traditional perspectives with all the expectations that go with that.

Shepherds

Big Picture

So as we all are forced to let go of church as we know it. I wonder if we are being asked to be brave. Not in the traditional sense of the word with a sword and gritted teeth, but brave enough to let Jesus into the mess of everyday life, right into who we are. I wonder if anyone feels as refreshed and hopeful as I do that this maybe a new beginning for us all.

I pray our children will hopefully have seen and sensed Jesus overcome irritable feelings and change the atmosphere in our kitchen in that moment. I pray they will see him care about the details in their lives and so not doubt they are loved and have the expectation that He will be there for them as they grow.

I know they can sense His spirit and will lift their hands in worship when they do, but I will try and let go of the in-built desire to ‘plan’ that moment and just keep my eyes open ready to spot it and celebrate it with them.

I see how my primary aged children love to role play and sing and bounce and paint to learn. I will try and think of creative ways of bringing Jesus into the movement and rhythm of our everyday life but I will try and lift my expectation of what that will look, feel and sound like.

My prayer is a new home church will emerge for us all, not just for busy Mums but for all of us where we can see Jesus make a difference and take the freshness of our faith into the new post-coronavirus reality.

This is one of our #ChurchAtHome favourites right now

The Short Version: Busy parents/carers may not have time to read all this so…

We as a church are in lock down for the foreseeable future, so let’s be brave and embrace the opportunity to bring the church into our homes.

Jesus lives in the everyday moments, not just the special times but the messy times where tempers are frayed and we are not at our best. Those moments, if we work as a family to bring Jesus into them, can be just as precious in our faith walk.

Whilst adults set it up, home church needs to embrace that children will and can bring the message to the adults.

When teaching think big picture, embrace special moments when they arise but let go of expectations when you plan them. At the moment we have plenty of time.

Muir and Wander (awe and wonder)

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John Muir, the Scottish born, ‘Father of the National Parks’ apparently said that he would,  “rather be in the mountains thinking of God, than in church thinking of the mountains.” It’s a great line for a bumper sticker or a tea towel, perhaps not an altogether surprising perspective when you consider Muir’s other nickname was ‘John of the Mountains.’ Yet, the Muir quote is pertinent for me. My family and I are preparing to move to Cumbria, close to the Lake District, heart of England’s mountains, sometime this summer. (moving date dependent on the current Covid-19 restrictions). We’re moving because of our Christian faith, because we believe that God has called us as a family to serve in Keswick, where I will, hopefully, be Assistant Curate at St John’s Church with Borrowdale. We’re really excited about this move, especially considering we get to live in Cumbria, one of our favourite places.

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How often do you hear from walkers, climbers and runners, that ‘the mountains are my church’? I’ve had these conversations lots of times with fellow runners and walkers, who look into the distance and say, ‘that’s my church out there’…Can that be so? I am definitely not convinced that a solitary experience in the hills makes a church, but I do think that our time in the mountains is special, somehow offering the possibility of a heightened awareness of God. How is it that we experience something beyond ourselves when we are in the wide open spaces of the hills?

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The hills, fells and mountains of the Lake District are without question a favourite place of ours. Many a long day has been spent walking, climbing and running amongst them. As you will know getting out into mountains needs motivation, there is always a question before you set off, ‘should I stay home today, should I opt for comfort?’ ‘It feels a bit cold, windy, cloudy to be safe’ The first step is undoubtedly the hardest, tougher than steep climbs, tricky scrambles or slippery descents. It’s a step of faith in a sense, but rarely, if ever, do you regret it. Bone-tired limbs, eyes filled with magnificent views, a sense of achievement and a commitment to the next adventure are the rewards you return with after making that first step.

But it is always worth it, solvitur ambulando is a latin phrase credited to St Augustine, meaning ‘it is solved by walking.’[1] We know intuitively that walking in the mountains will help with the stresses and strains of day to day life. The present situation, with coronavirus, makes the hills and mountains quite rightly out of bounds. Ther are many who will be missing the therapeutic possibilities of time on our feet in the hills. Admittedly a small price to pay against the efforts of those who are working tirelessly in hospitals to fight Covid-19.

Recently as part of my own ‘lockdown’ activities, I’ve been reading Lucy Jones’ excellent book ‘Losing Eden: Why our Minds Need The Wild’  It’s a welcome break from theology! The author charts western society’s disconnection with nature and the impact this has had on our mental health and well-being. Using a 1990’s study that took a scientific approach to the emotion of awe, Jones is able to show how experiences of awe increase happiness and lower stress. Awe, despite society’s increasing disconnectedness with nature, often still comes from an encounter with creation, such as visits to the lakes and mountains of the Lake District. I certainly know the strong urge in a moment or season of stress to head for long runs or hikes in the hills. In those moments I am craving the therapy of ‘solvitur ambulando.‘ Jones highlights other studies that show the positive effects on the body and mind of ‘awe’ experiences, potentially reducing depression and ill health. Her work goes on to propose that mountain top awe filled experiences have the potential to reduce brain activity in the area of the brain associated with the sense of self.

“Awe, then can shift us away from pure self-interest to be interested in others. It can help us bond and relate to each other. It can turn off the self, the day-to-day concerns, to propel us into focussing on something bigger and hard to comprehend.”[2]

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To be in the mountains is a blessing, yes it is hard work, but for many it is a place to experience a sense of pure intoxicating love, to be deeply connected spiritually to something beyond ourselves. Some would call this God, others the universe or a higher power, for me it is simply keeping company with Jesus. To see the love of God in creation is to see the giver in the gift.

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Memories of adventures on the trails do tend to fade a little, although isn’t it ironic that the most memorable days are the toughest days? We can all recall stories of bad weather, getting lost, feeling ill, more cold or windy than we expected, wearing the wrong kit, near misses. Why is this? Perhaps it is because mountains make us feel small, vulnerable and at the mercy of their power. As we get close to the end of our own resources we become much more alive to the power that surrounds us.

We become awestruck.

The Message bible version of a verse from Matthew’s gospel (Matthew 5:3) puts it like this,

You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.

Thanks to Andrew Locking for permission to use his wonderful photographs in this blog.

[1] Michelle Ferrigno Warren, The Power of Proximity: Moving Beyond Awareness to Action (Oxford: Inter-Varsity Press, 2017), p. 115.

[2] Lucy Jones, Losing Eden: Why Our Minds Need The Wild (Milton Keynes: Allen Lane, 2020), p. 79.

Autumn

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This evening’s run started off in the daylight and finished in the dark. The light held out for as long as it could.

I ran nearly 16km with 5 x 1km efforts in the middle at 3.35 per km pace. It was a hard session and although I still feel like running fast is very unnatural and not really flowing, I was pleased with it overall.

Autumn is a beautiful season as the photograph taken by Jemma shows. It joins the light to the dark. Over the last few days I have been aware of a string of people, all friends of ours who have had their own ‘autumn’ moments recently.

Lost jobs, worsening diagnoses, loss of loved ones – the commonality with all these is the speed at which darkness has threatened to overcome the light. ‘Normal’ life mobbed by fears and pressures.

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However, in each case we have seen the evidence of light. The light of Christ that will never be overcome by the darkness (John 1:5). These are stories of amazing courage, inspiring resilience, peace when there is usually anxiety, joy where there should be fear and laughter in place of tears.

When I try to run fast, it hurts (a lot), it feels overwhelming but experience tells me keep going. It will be ok.  That’s a trivial thing, but the witness of our dear friends isn’t, their experiences are inspiring us, we see Christ in them calling ‘keep going, it will be ok.’

 

Apologetics

This morning’s run on Ilkley Moor was wet and misty – atmospheric! 8 miles mainly along the ridge on familiar trails. Perfect for switching off and allowing the mind to wander.

I’ve recently begun a module at college, taught by Graham Cray, apologetics and mission. Defending and proposing the faith, fascinating stuff. We’ve looked at historical perspectives and the challenge of understanding local contexts. Yesterday at our church lunch club, a conversation arose about ‘God’. I had just joined a table of folks, including a new couple, and they were already sharing their experiences and stories. I listened to a few ideas being bounced around in the group, mainly worthy philosophical thoughts. Part of me wanted to pounce, with apologetic zeal, on the new couple. I didn’t, instead I opted to leave that to others on the table and continued with serving and clearing tables. It was good to meet this new couple, I hope they return and I get to talk to them again in the future. Perhaps by the end of the module my apologetic technique may be a bit sharper.

Running today I was reminded of a simple phrase. It was used in the context of coaching athletes but could be equally as true for apologists.

‘People don’t care what you know until they know you care.’

Serving and clearing tables could have been the best option after all?

Standing on the shoulders of giants

Well done Hope who ran her first cross country race of the season today. Northcliffe Park, Bradford filled with hundreds of children and lots of enthusiasm. Not too many over zealous parents instead a really encouraging atmosphere for everyone who took part.

Hope and her friends did really well in their race and I was so encouraged by them that I braved the rain and cold tonight with my own session. 10 miles including 4 x 1km efforts at 3.40 pace.

Tonight I stood on the shoulders of a couple of hundred enthusiastic young runners. Giants each one of them…Thank you!

One step at a time

I’m into my final year of studies at St Hild college. At the moment it feels like the finish is a long way off.

Running teaches you lots of things including at times ‘just take the next step’

This year I’ve returned to running, mainly on the trails, usually slowly with an occasional burst of effort.

I’ve tried a few races over the summer months, Otley 10, Ilkley Half and Burnsall 10.

One step at a time…