Great is your faith

Last year I spent time volunteering in a woman’s prison during my final year of my journalism degree. I went in with my tutor and we helped the women in there create their own magazine. The pieces of creative work that were produced were always surprising. Some would write lengthy detailed poems, others would write fiction, some would write open and honest accounts of their life. 

On one occasion I was interviewing a woman for her life story to go inside the magazine. I hadn’t gone in with a goal to talk about faith, however she saw my cross around my neck and began telling me about her journey to following Jesus inside the prison.

She had been approached by the chaplain on her first night inside, feeling upset and scared she told the chaplain exactly where he could put the bible that was offered to her, she then slumped down crying in her bed. 

After a while she thought about the bible she had been given and began to read it. Later on she called the chaplain back and they spoke at length about what had happened. She had stabbed her partner in an altercation, and even though it was in defence, she was facing a possible murder sentence, as she didn’t know if he was going to live.

After her conversation with the chaplain, she lay on her bed and confessed her sins to Jesus, she begged him for forgiveness and for the strength to accept her sentence if her partner died, she prayed for strength to take responsibility for her actions. The girl told me that at that point, she felt a physical weight lift from her and from that second day in the prison she began to follow Jesus.

I thought about the girl in the prison as I read the gospel today. Jesus says that the Canaanite woman has “great faith”, a call for us to open our eyes and see great faith in places that might surprise us, just like the woman I met in the prison.

Last week, if we remember, Jesus appeared on the water to his terrified disciples, peter walked towards Jesus on the water but doubted and began to sink, he cried out to Jesus to be saved. Jesus says to him, “you of little faith”.

The disciples, the people who would be the obvious choice to have great faith, in this case were not, and in the gospel today, it is the Canaanite oman begging for the healing of her daughter, going against the ill feelings between the Jews and the Canaanites , even tolerating Jesus’s hard questioning to why he should help her, who remains firm in her cries out to Jesus to help her daughter.

Jesus hears her cries, he crosses social boundaries, he shows that God’s love and provision is for all and heals her daughter and commends her great faith.

Was Jesus being deliberately challenging to the woman, to show the disciples that great faith can be seen in unexpected places? 
Most importantly, what does this story mean for us today?

This week we have seen terrible attacks in Barcelona and in other countries, we have also seen ugly marches from white supremacists in America. Jesus is showing us today, that great faith doesn’t come from those who wrap themselves in man made rules to limit who receives the love and forgiveness of God. Great faith comes from those who cry out with sincere hearts, those who repent, those who answer Jesus’s call to love thy neighbor regardless of their skin colour, their social background, and their life choices.

The disciples in the gospel today wanted the loud, pleading cries of the Canaanite woman to stop, they wanted her to go away because she wasn’t part of the group, she was an outsider, she wasn’t supposed to receive Jesus’s precious time, she was seen to be an annoyance in their eyes.

This is what Jesus is challenging us with today, that great faith can be seen, can be found in the less obvious places, in the outsider, in the poor, in the sinner, in the addict, in a prison cell.

During my time here in the Good Shepherd I have witnessed great faith in the not so obvious places. 

Seeing Zara and Mortessa remaining so strong in Jesus’s love when their asylum application was rejected, their strength and resilience was a show of great faith, one I’ll never forget.

When my friend Gemma from st James on Sunday afternoon turned her life around, she showed firm, immeasurable faith in gods call, she always knows that she can cry out to Jesus, she now starts university next month to study for her dream job. A show of great faith.

The congregation of St Peters on Tuesday afternoons, who showed me gentle love and encouragement, in such a simple and peaceful way, who had faith in me to lead them, who have supported all who have joined them. They too are another show of great faith and great cake.

As I move on from the Good Shepherd today, I thank all of you for your love and guidance, for your welcome and your prayers. 

I pray that you all will continue to hear the voice, the cries of God’s people who might not be the obvious people to have great faith. 

I pray for God’s blessing on you all, for Roger, Jules, and Ben on their continuing leadership here.

I will keep you in my prayers with great love and memories.
Amen.

Out of the boat

Today’s gospel was pretty much a good description of how I’ve been feeling in this weird wandering space before I begin ordination training.  Currently I’ve been sat in the boat clinging on to the sides as the waves of life buffet and toss me around. I’ve cried, I’ve panicked, I’ve wondered if I can hold out to this storm, will I get through August in one piece!? 

The biggest thing that has caused the most waves, is our tax credit renewal. We have received a significant drop in payments, which combined with school summer holidays, new uniforms to buy, and trying to get my MA final project done, I’ve been clinging onto the boat with white knuckles. 

But during this week, like the disciples, I saw Jesus walking towards me in the chaos. Calmly and quietly he stretched out his hand and asked me to get out of the boat. I summoned all my strength and took a step out of the boat and in doing so wonderful things have happened. Gods wonderful provision has amazed and humbled me.

Standing on the water with wobbly knees is frightening, I’ve had doubts this week, and I slipped into  the water begging Jesus to save me. This is what I love about today’s gospel, Peter, himself walking towards Jesus and then panicking, was not afraid to ask Jesus for help. And I guess this is what is important about stepping out of the boat, that Jesus will be there whenever I feel like I’m sinking, whenever I begin to panic and doubt.

Today was my last service at my sending church. After communion (which was outside!) I sat alone in the church thinking about how I heard God calling to me from that building. I looked at the pulpit where I preached for the first time, at the rail where begged for forgiveness, the high altar where the sun passed by and my skin tingled all over, the altar where I watched my vicar preside and hearing God saying that I could do this too. 

In this stillness I experienced the quiet gentle love of God. I felt his warmth and care, and a sense that everything would be ok. 

I just need to keep remembering that when I step out of the boat, Jesus will save me again and again and again. 

All she had to give

Today the rain has been lashing down my windows all day and because it is the summer holidays, the children are a little couped up and testy. We don’t have a back garden because we live in a victorian terraced house not far from the centre of Ashton-Under-Lyne. We moved here 12 years ago when I was expecting my first daughter at the grand age of 19. My boyfriend, (the man who is now my husband) and I moved from the leafy semi-detached roads of Gatley, Cheshire to here. There were a few reasons we moved here, 1) we could not afford to buy a house in Cheadle or Gatley, 2) I knew the area from playing in various brass bands over the years, 3) it was comfortably far away from my parents.

My road is a bobbly unadopted cul-de-sac with one row of similar houses to mine. At the end of the road is a main road lined with terraced houses, with the green hills proudly standing in the background. If you took a photo of my area and made it black and white I bet it doesn’t look too different from the era it was built in. We live in a socially deprived area, or that is what is always put on the school’s ofsted reports. I’ve never really understood what that meant, but from my experience living here, it means people who have to work very hard to get by, and that includes me.

As a young working mum, who earned minimum wage doing shift work, married to a man who also worked minimum wage doing shift work, living was always tight. As our family grew, we worked harder. I’ve experienced times where all I have had is the pennies in my purse, where I’ve made decisions to either feed the children or myself.

12 years on and my life has been transformed by Jesus, but we still struggle to get by and the people around me struggle too. One of my neighbours came round to chat and told me she’d had a tin of soup for tea because that’s all she had. We shared stories of scrimping together and in those stories was a glimmer of hope, one that we had each other to lean on and another that things will and can get better.

That is what the good news of the gospel brings, hope when things look hopeless.

Today I read the talk delivered by +Phillip at the Christian festival New Wine, and this quote of his really stuck with me,

“Areas characterised by social deprivation desperately need a gospel of hope”

+Phillip is right. 

Hope is needed when people around us are fighting for survival. They are fighting to make ends meet. They are fighting to feed their families, to heat their homes. They are fighting against a rising cost of living where minimum wage and zero hours contracts are not bridging the gap. The church here in Ashton is needed to deliver that hope, but what can the church do when it is fighting for the same survival? Evangelism and Christian hospitality should be the currency that secures and funds a church’s future.

 Jesus chose imperfect people to be his disciples, working class, tradesmen, sinners etc. The people who were sent out to deliver the good news that Jesus has, came from challenging backgrounds, the Old Testiment shows God’s call on people who were not perfect. So, like +Phillip says in his talk, church leaders should come from and to these challenging areas, the socially deprived areas like I live in because there is treasure to be found in places such as Ashton. 

I believe that God’s call on my life includes and utilises all the things I’ve experienced in my challenging life. I hope that in my placement as I train towards ordination I can connect with the poor, listen to the bereft, sit with the lonely, and hold the forgotten, remembering my own experiences and showing them the hope that Jesus placed in my heart and how they can have that too. 

There have been times where I have put all the pennies that I had to give in the collection plate and now as I serve in Rochdale for my placement, I will give God’s people everything that I have to give, from eveything that I am.

I am thirsty

Since receiving my news of becoming an Ordinand I have felt a little adrift. I have a sense of feeling ready to move on yet I’m in the waiting area, perhaps I am back in the wilderness waiting to make the first steps in my new future ministry. Whilst wandering this lonely path I have found great strength from working as a Chaplian in my local hospital. 

I have been working shifts in A&E on Mondays between 2pm and 4pm, these are the busiest times apparently. I was nervous at first, would people want to talk to me when they are in need of urgent treatment?  As soon as I began my shifts I knew that I was here to serve the people there and it has felt like a real privilege to walk with people through their time in the department.

I have experienced some very moving moments where elderly people have clutched my hand with worry in their eyes, to sharing jokes with younger patients. I’ve tucked people up in blankets, made phone calls to relatives, provided drinks, taken off shoes, tied up hospital robes, provided tissues, laughed, cried, and prayed. 

On one particular shift a lovely elderly man came in on his own, he had broken his hip and had just found out the bad news that he needed an urgent operation. He was worried, upset, and in pain. I popped up to his bed, he was in the corridor as it was that busy. I introduced myself as a chaplain, and smiled. He smiled back and told me what had happened. As he lay back tired and in pain he said to me, “I am thirsty”. I checked with the doctor that he could have a drink and I helped him to drink small amounts from a flimsy plastic cup. I stayed with him for a while and then I said goodbye. 

It wasn’t until our chaplaincy team meeting today that I realised how important our role is as a chaplain. How we bring the Holy Spirit with us as we serve these ill people. A colleague, a Sister, spoke about the moment with my gentleman in regards to Jesus on the cross saying that he was thirsty. Jesus was tired, in pain, upset, just like that man I met. I felt very moved as she spoke of the comparable notion of giving Jesus a drink on the cross as I had done to the man. As I listened to her words I had a wonderful reiteration of the importance of the good news of Jesus we bring to others, I felt that fire once again that made me step out and say yes to God’s calling on my life.

Being a witness to that good news means that we see Jesus walking with us where people are in pain, suffering, tired and thirsty like he himself experienced on the cross. It feels that in A&E we are walking around the foot of the cross keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, helping those who are suffering to see him through us. 

I pray that with every blanket I cover someone with, with every drink I make, every hand I hold, every tear I wipes away, that that person may see the love of our Lord Jesus Christ shining through into their darkness and time of need. 

Have you not known? Have you not heard?

These past two weeks have been emotional! 

Not only was I lucky enough to follow the Bishop of Middleton around during his Thy Kingdom Come prayer walk and provide communication support for the Diocese, I also attended a BAP to see if I could be recommended for training for ordained stipendary ministry. 

At the end of Thy Kingdom Come prayer walk, there was a beacon event in Manchester Cathedral and I was asked to do a reading, it was this passage:

Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary, his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and grow weary, and the the young will fall exhausted, but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint. Isaiah 40:28-31

I stood at the pulpit with a sizeable crowd with the three Bishops behind me. I let the words wash over me and I felt that warm tingle of God’s love and strength sustaining my voice and my nerves. Over the past two weeks I have wondered how I’ve kept going. I’ve walked at pace and at length in boiling heat carrying numerous bags yet as we walked, people appeared with water, with food, and with love. 

During my BAP I felt God’s strength and love as I walked around the meadows. The grass sparkled with golden buttercups, the wind blew the fluffy tops of the long grass, and as I walked I knew I wasn’t alone. As I look back at those memories I think of the passage that I read out, “those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles” in the breezy warmth, in those fields, I stretched open my arms and let the spirit blow through me, and I danced and flew with our God.

The best thing about all this is that I can show people what it feels like to follow Jesus, I can help them to listen to the spirit, and take comfort from the Father. 

Yesterday I received the news that I have been recommended to train for ordination and I am absolutely humbled by God’s call and I know I will serve with everything that I have and that I am.

I’ll do everything I can so I can say to people, have you not known? Have you not heard? The lord IS the everlasting God! and he loves you more than you could ever imagine.

Wisdom cries out from the street

The events in Manchester have shocked me deeply. I visit the City centre twice a week using Victoria train station. If I come back from uni late I watch the joy filled people making their way to their much awaited concerts and events. In the winter they have ice shows at the arena and the streets are filled with little ones dressed as their favourite Disney characters with light up wands and headbands. 

Watching the scenes from the bombing made me weep. A place that is used to hosting so much joy, is now a scene of terrible loss and injury. Many of my friends shared a disbelief that this could happen in Manchester, a place where I spent the day on a red hot afternoon watching the live play of the crucifixion of Christ. During the Manchester passion, cathedral gardens was a hive of a wonderful multi faith, multi cultural, vibe. We stood in circles praying and members of the public joined us, we sat on the grass with people, we walked through the town centre waving palm leaves.

This is the Manchester I know and love. A place for everyone, a welcome for everyone. Every person in the Greater Manchester area and beyond is devastated by this evil act that has killed innocent people, injured innocent people, and the shockwaves of that bomb has rocked every person in this area.

Watching the vigil in Manchester last night made me think of a verse in Proverbs,

“Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice. At the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance of the City gates she speaks.”  Proverbs1.20

Seeing all the crowds standing up to fear and hatred, seeing them showing the world that love, peace, and unity is the only answer to this terrible event, showed a great wisdom, a great united front to terrorism and what to do next. Manchester showed a strong light, a light that will not be hidden by terrorism and fear. The shouts of support, the acts of those who helped in anyway they could, this was the voice that was the loudest. A wisdom, a knowledge of love and loving others.

Vigils are still being carried out, there is one in my home town Ashton tonight, and we shall cry out that light is stronger than darkness, that love is stronger than hate, and that we will all stand together as one community.

The Shepherd of the sheep

A talk for the Patronal service of The Parish of The Good Shepherd 

Father, may these spoken words be faithful to the written word and lead us to the living word, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Last year my husband took me and our children to his friend’s farm. I was really excited. Not only were we going to have a bit of an adventure, we were going to see his brand new lambs that had just been born. I hadn’t met a real life shepherd before. I’d only seen the glossy ones that they show on BBC1’s country file.

The weather was typically British, the wind was whistling, the rain was coming down but my family and I were so excited to be on the tuffty Saddleworth hills we didn’t feel the rain or the wind. We squelched up a soggy hill and met Dave the shepherd. 
He was rosy cheeked with his crook in his hand. He was well weathered, his clothes were accessorised with the landscape, grass stuck out of his boots, hay on his jumper, dried mud was his sunscreen. It seemed like the weather had no impact on him, he was there to do his duty and look after his beloved sheep and their new lambs.

As we entered the first field Dave called out to his sheep, the sheep recognised his voice immediately. They trotted up to us and mulled around their feeding trough. He fed them and they were a blur of chocolate and white noise. After they were distracted with the food, Dave led us to see the lambs. They were beautiful, it was amazing to watch them trot around on wobbly legs.
Dave the shepherd had a great system of identifying the new born lambs. As soon as a lamb was born he would put a plastic red coat on them. He explained that by identifying the lambs he could see if any had become separated from the flock and their mothers.

Whilst we were walking around his farm we saw a bright speck of red. The little plastic coat of the small lamb was blowing in the increasingly rough weather. Dave suddenly changed his walking pace and made the uneven, beveled ground look like freshly laid tarmac. He effortlessly scaled the hill until he reached the tiny lamb tucked down low in the long grass sheltering from the wind. He softly scooped up the lamb, tucked it under his arm and located the mother and reunited them. The mum and lamb baared at each other in acknowledgement and relief. 

In today’s readings we heard Jesus saying that he is the gate for the sheep, he is the leader, the good shepherd. Jesus says that whoever enters the gate through him is saved and will find the pasture that is laid out for us. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life and he loves us deeply and cares for us like a devoted shepherd to his flock.

Like Dave the saddleworth shepherd, who’s sheep recognised him by his voice, Jesus says to us, “I know my own, and my own know me”. When we hear Jesus’s voice we follow him, when he calls us by name, when he calls us to know him, we are placed in the best friendship we could ever have, a love from a shepherd who can withstand any weather, any terrain, and any situation.
Jesus also searches for us when we become lost, like Dave the shepherd who marked his lambs with little jackets, Jesus can find us easily when we become distant, when we have left the pasture. Jesus actively looks for those who have gone astray, or those who are indeed lost. 

In the parable of the lost sheep, where Jesus again says he is the Good shepherd, he looks for his sheep that who are lost and lays them on his shoulders, his shoulders that bore the weight of our sins as he carried his cross.

The act of laying the sheep on his shoulders and carrying it back is one of complete love and devotion. Maybe we can reflect on the time that Jesus had found us when we were lost?

Here in Ashton, we are the parish of the Good Shepherd so what does that mean for us? 

Children, could you help me please? 

What is a Good Shepherd like?

Caring, devoted, kind, resilient, committed, strong, loving, patient, selfless, 
By being like Jesus, the Good Shepherd, this is how we tend to God’s people, this is how we keep going in times of trial, this is how we stay faithful as a flock to our Good Shepherd, so that others can see him through us.

Jesus has an unconditional, equal love for every person. Jesus spreads a message of love, not just for the holy, but for everyone, regardless of their sins and their past. Jesus calls us by name so we can follow his voice through the gate into his kingdom. Jesus calls us to his table where we can share in the Eucharistic gifts his gave us. There is always an empty seat at his table waiting for those who are lost, who are yet to be found, who have wandered away from the flock. And like dave the saddleworth shepherd, Jesus searches in any weather, at any time of the day to find those who are in need of his fatherly care, our good shepherd the guardian of our souls.

Amen