Vocational and voluntary don’t fit the #census2011

Just a quick note for posterity to say I didn’t seem to fit the Census questions; even having phoned their helpline, I’m not completely happy.

The problems started for me on Q31 – Have you ever worked?
Yes of course I have; I still do!
But I’ve not earnt a wage since 1997 when I resigned from my Duty Managers role at The Look Out following maternity leave.

The lady on the phone said to list 1997, but then write about what I currently do from Q34. This is the bit that leaves me feeling most unhappy. But it’s what we were told to do.

Today I work we reckoned 49+ hours a week, for God.
Either in parish ministry as a Reader (unpaid), or as a Diocesan Trustee of Mothers’ Union (for which I’m not allowed by law to earn a wage). So I’m not an employee, self-employed, or freelance (Q33) so I couldn’t tick anything.

My full or specific job title (Q34) – Reader (Lay Minister) – no room to include my charity role.

I briefly described my main job (Q35) as “Preaching, Teaching, Funerals” – they are things I’m doing most of at present but they don’t really scratch the surface or cover the amounts of admin involved in looking after ‘occasional offices’.

I assumed (unlike The Vicars Wife) that my “employer” (Q37) was was the Church of England so I listed the main activities as ‘Worshipping God, Caring for Parishoners, Evangelism’ and then listed the name of organsation (Q38) as St. Peter’s Church, Church of England.

For those of us who are committed to full-time voluntary, vocational ministry, what problems did you face with the form?

And surely, since there is such a need for voluntary work given the economic situation and the requirements of “Big Society”, aren’t the government interested in the voluntary work undertaken in this country?

Are we greedy for heaven? Philippians 3:12-4:1

Preached this morning at our very quiet Morning Prayer service. I find it difficult to understand the passage from Philippians well enough to preach from it, and grappling with it, has got me wondering about what heaven is. How would you describe heaven?

It’s all very well St Paul extolling us to strain ahead towards some goal or prize, but if we don’t know what we’re running for, it all becomes a bit pointless. In the previous part of Philippians 2, Paul has been talking about the resurrection – the chance to share in God’s gloriously risen life that we celebrate at Easter. That is the goal Paul sees before us – something that in our Bible’s is described as “being called heavenward”.

Now it’s tempting to think that those of us sporting a fairly high count of grey hairs, earthly wisdom and years, might be a bit further forward in this great striving towards a resurrection life with God. Those of us with fewer grey hairs, might well be thinking that we’ve got a lot more of the journey to run, and all those years of effort ahead of us probably seem a bit daunting.

But I don’t think that the image is quite right, not if we look carefully at what St Paul is saying.

Because of what Jesus did on the cross we are already living in the context of God’s grace. Paul says it in the very first verse that we read in this passage, “Christ Jesus took hold of me.” God made us right with him, drew us into a personal relationship with him, through Jesus death on the cross. It was a ‘once and for all’ job that God isn’t going to repeat.

I grew up with a miscellaneous collection of working terriers. Some of them we had as puppies, and we even bred puppies of our own sometimes. From a tiny age, we would pick them up by the scruff of the neck, place a reassuring hand under them, and get them used to being handled and loved in a way that didn’t make them feel threatened or pampered. It also made sure they knew who was boss, and got used to being told what they’d done wrong and what not to do again!

In Christ’s life and death, God sort of reached down, and grabbed us by the scruff of the neck, holding us gently but very insistently in a way that showed how much he loved us. Even though we’re free to go about the world seemingly alone, once we’ve accepted his role in our lives, we’re permanently God’s, looking to him for the direction and correction of our lives.

Christ’s resurrection though, gave us a new, continuous future, as well as all that. An additional hope. We believe Jesus was raised to glory with God, and that we are awaiting his return from that place of glory, so that we might find ourselves transformed into a similar glory in God’s presence.

So, we’re not just waiting faithfully until we die and go to be with God. Jesus is coming back for us, for that final glorious relationship where we shall know God face to face. That is the goal which St Paul saw as being set for us all, that final glorious resurrection relationship with God, at a point where there is “a new heaven, and a new earth.”

Being with God in glory, is our future, for which we are called by God, to live in the present. Our goal is ‘heaven’, which is not some ethereal place ‘up there’ but that final completing of our relationship with God. For me, that’s what I understand heaven to be; a complete relationship with God.

But God’s love and grace is so immense that we have it in part now, through the power and the presence of the Holy Spirit. We are living as many have put it, in the ‘now and not yet’; we already have citizenship of heaven through our existing relationship with God.

I wonder how greedy we are?

Now if you’re like me, you might be existing in the rather sinful hope that since the supply of rather exclusive, rich Christmas present chocolate is beginning to run low, that the Easter chocolates will be of the same quality and preferably quantity. But I wonder if we ever crave God like we crave good chocolate, or coffee, or whatever other food passion we might have?

Are we that greedy for God? Do we crave a perfect and complete relationship with God? Are we striving, and reaching forward for a better glimpse of heaven?

That I believe, is the goal that St Paul is talking about in this passage. He is asking us to be greedy for a better relationship with God. The Message version of the Bible puts it this way: Do we “want everything that God has for us”? (Phil3:15 MSG)

We have to make time to be greedy for God. Being here this morning is hopefully part of fulfilling today’s craving for his presence. As I know only too well, it’s easy to have our need for God crowded out by the busy-ness of life, but I think that’s why St Paul tells us to forget what is behind. You see he knew that we can always do better, there’s no point dwelling on our weaknesses, and how little time we make for God, because we can only get better at it. That’s why we need to place ourselves constantly facing forward, striving to do better, to be more greedy for heaven.

So, getting to heaven isn’t about our maturity in years, or the number of grey hairs on our head, how good we have been up to now at spending time God, or even the hope that God will take us out of the troubles of this life to be with him. Reaching for heaven is about how much we desire to have a complete relationship with God. In this earthly life as it is now we won’t attain it fully, but we do know what it’s like, and we can strive for that perfect relationship with God that is heaven, by seeking God’s presence more and more and more.



Failing to count #myblessings is itself about Mothers’ Union

It’s been a whole week since I Counted my Blessings for Mothers’ Union Family Life Programme in Uganda. In many ways that counts as a fail, but for me it actually speaks about most of the Mothers’ Union members I know!

You see, for me the reason why the organisation excites me is because so many Mothers’ Union members are very involved in the sharp end of practical ministry among families – and thus having the time to ‘blog’ or talk about it, can actually prove really hard to achieve. That’s been true for me during the week, largely being active in ministry in the parish, sadly including preparation for the funeral of one of our faithful intercessory members, but also looking forward to the interview process for a new vicar in the next two days.

So, running through the last week of ideas for counting our blessings with regard to life in Uganda, and my own trip to the Family Life Programme in 2006, what things am I reminded of:

Wed 16th March we were asked to thank God that we know what is going on in the world, and give 5p for each newspaper and magazine in the house – not much for us as we only get two in any one week; the Church Times and the Radio Times.

When we were staying in Uganda, we were near Kampala, blessed by relatively well-to-do

Toilet at a MU-FLP 'model home' - the whole in the ground is kept covered in the ventilated shed by a stand on which leaves or paper are held safely

hosts who had TV. The news they relied on was from the BBC World Service – I don’t know if that remains available to them given the recent cuts. The other thing we noticed was how Kampala-centric their news was in their papers, and how the Premier Division of English football dominated their sports pages!

Thursday 17th March we were giving 20p for every sink and toilet… £1 in the kitty then. With it came a big reminder of one of my favourite photo’s (right) and how proud the ladies involved in the Family Life Programme were of a clean, dry, hygienic toilet!

On Friday we were giving 1p for every door handle, remembering as we did so just how much the Family Life Programme, and other Mothers’ Union projects, open doors to a better life for the people they help.

Cow being 'zero grazed' at the MU-FLP 'model home' in Luwero in 2006

Saturday 19th meant we had to count the dairy products in our fridge – about 50p’s worth at 10p a shot. A cow in Uganda is a major investment for a family. The cow I saw at the Luwero ‘model home’ was kept in a zero grazing system. Grass was grown on the banks that divided areas of cultivation, being cut and slightly wilted (to enable flies and parasites to fall out of them) before being fed to the cattle.

In the west we are very security conscious, and on Sunday we were counting our keys at 2p a go… well over a £1s worth for us if you count the keys to the cases of our musical instruments! But where is our real security? The Mothers’ Union is of course above all a Christian organisation, and it is the faith in God of all its members, and their faithfulness in prayer that give it’s work such a strong, secure foundation.

I think for tonight I’ll leave it there. Hopefully tomorrow, around my commitments in an incredibly busy parish week, I’ll catch up with more of #myblessings.

What would you ask for? Lent Lunch study Matthew 20:17-28

Last week I led one of our Lent Lunches, which run for an hour in our coffee shop each Wednesday. I chose to look at a passage from Matthew where after once again announcing his approaching Passion, the mother of James and John kneels at Jesus feet and makes a special request.

The study not only tries to delve into what we might ask for if we knelt at Jesus feet, but  it also asks us to consider ideas around leadership, not only in the light of the current situations in North Africa and elsewhere, but in the context of being a parish in vacancy interviewing for a new vicar this week.

If you think this sounds like it might help inspire your prayers or study, you’re welcome to take a look: Lent Lunch 2011 Matt 20v17-28

Counting #myblessings – what price a phonecall?

I try, one day a week, to have a day without turning on my computer. This week, that day was yesterday (Monday 14th) which is why no blog post about Counting my Blessings with Mothers’ Union. So now I’m trying to play catch up.

A mobile phone shop among the market traders on the outskirts of Kampala

In 2006 when we stayed on the outskirts of Kampala one of the things we were amazed by was the number of mobile phone kiosks along the main roads. It was obvious, and encouraging for the country’s economic development, that since there was no historic telephone ‘landline’ network, the mobile phone was providing a huge change in the communications possible in the country. And yet, because so much of Uganda is very rural and poverty is so high (and the north has until recently, and for so long been subject to civil war), only 14% if Ugandan’s have access to a phone. When it comes to seeking medical help, that must be quite and issue.

I don’t think in a busy week of ministry (more funerals), that I really want to count the number of phonecalls that I will make and receive, but I’ll put a significant contribution in the kitty for the MU Family Life Programme. (The MU Count your Blessings scheme suggests 10p for every call you had.) It makes me wonder how I would actually arrange a funeral, working with family members, the undertaker, the lady that does ‘orders of service’, the church office, and possibly the florist, if I didn’t have a phone!?

Things wouldn’t happen so fast without the telephone that’s for sure! So who is receiving the blessings here? Is it us who are blessed by the phone? Or is it part of the curse of the western frenetic speed of life, and should we count the Ugandan’s and other less developed countries, blessed by their slower pace of life?


Counting #myblessings – going for growth!

My son aged 9 playing with some much younger children in Uganda

38% if Ugandan’s suffer stunted growth!

I’m not sure why I’m surprised by this, but I shouldn’t be, because on reflection none of the Ugandan’s I know, or have met, are particularly tall. At 5’5″ I don’t think of myself as being particularly tall, but I’m taller, or as tall as most of my Ugandan friends. And being 5’5″ will cost me £1.30 at 2p and inch towards the Family Life Programme run by Mothers’ Union in 10 regions of Uganda.

Why is the height of Ugandan’s so important? I guess because it’s a reflection of the levels of nutrition and health care available to them, especially in the more rural regions. If a family doesn’t have enough to eat, in the form of a balanced diet, the children won’t grow as well or as fast. It’s really very simple.

This is a reminder that we have to thank God for things that quite often we’re unaware of – we don’t tend to focus greatly on our height, unless and until, like me, your teenage son is suddenly looking down on you and enjoying the sensation! But that of course has an importance of it’s own: growing to a ‘proper’ height (whatever that might be for the culture you’re in) is something that helps give you self-esteem, even if God’s more interested in what you are like inside, and in your relationships with him, and with others.

As we Count our Blessings for our own inches, and the way society accepts them, let it help us to pray for the health of children in Uganda (and many other places in the world) that a more even distribution of the worlds resources, and a more sustainable approach to community life, may help children to grow to their full potential.

Shine like lights in the world – Philippians 2:12-18

I preached this morning at our 8am Morning Prayer from part of Philippians – through which we are currently working as a sermon series. It is a message that makes particular reference to our circumstances as a parish in vacancy as well as in Lent, looking forward to fresh interviews for a new vicar at the end of the month. But I hope that it has something to say to anyone who reads it.

A few weeks ago I was preaching about our “outward value”, and asking people to think about what it would look like if we took off the body armour of our pre- and misconceptions about people, and reached into our community with the same love that Jesus had.

The 'Daymark' at Gribbin Head, Cornwall - not a lighthouse but designed to help ships avoid mistaking Fowey for Falmouth, and point them in the correct direction!

Someone in the 10am congregation came up to me afterwards and talked about the image of a lighthouse. She was suggesting I seem to remember, that if we did make ourselves more open and available to people in our community, then we would be becoming like a lighthouse in the community, a beacon of hope.

Being part of a church that is a lighthouse in the community is a lovely image, and it’s one that immediately sprang to mind earlier this week, when I read this passage from Phillippians. Here St. Paul is asking us to “shine like lights in the world, clinging on to the word of life” as Tom Wright puts it.

When we write things, or say things, we know what we’re trying to say, but often don’t know all the consequences that our words will have. I suspect that as Paul wrote to the Phillippians, a letter where the “you’s” and “I’s” measure a partnership that Paul had started with the founding of the church there, he would never have expected us to be still reading his words, in a different language, 2000ish years later.

But God has been at work in St. Paul’s words through countless generations, because their message is timeless; they never stop being useful and relevant to those that read them. In that sense Paul’s are ‘words of life’ to which we can cling.

But of course St Paul was not referring to his own words, nor expecting anyone to cling to them. He was asking the Phillippians to cling to Jesus, as the living Word, the one who had brought salvation to the world, who had brought about the fulfilment of God’s promises for his people. As he strived to preach the gospel from his place of house arrest, Paul was simply asking his friends to share in that work in their own place, and to build on those things that provided a rock solid guarantee that what they did, would be pleasing to God.

One of those things was obedience, not just to him as the person who had told them about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus; but more importantly, obedience to God. Nor were they to be obedient to God in a way that suggested they were scared of God. That was not the “fear and trembling” that Paul was suggesting. Rather, he was asking for a total seriousness of purpose, a clear focus on the task in hand, and an understanding that since Paul was no longer with them, they were now responsible for their own spiritual welfare.

Without a vicar, we (a bit like the Phillippians) have had to be responsible for our own spiritual welfare. Even though we’ve had some folk who’ve kept a weather eye on us, our ability to get ourselves out the messes of the past, has been down to our own corporate commitment to our relationship with God. It has been our prayerfulness, our willingness to work at our relationships so that they reflect better Jesus’ example, our combined efforts to make changes in our life as a church, that are the visible testimony to our own recent experience of God’s love and direction in our lives. This is what has started to bring us into a better place with God, and with each other.

But, even though we’ve made great progress, the work is not complete. When St. Paul received a gift from the Phillippians he was reminded not just of their love for him, but of their ongoing work for the Lord in partnership with him. He had no idea whether he would return to them again, but whatever happened he didn’t want them to think that their work was done – he wanted it to continue better than ever.

Just because we’re interviewing again for a vicar this month, doesn’t mean we can rest on our laurels, being assured that we’ve done well to get this far through the vacancy. Neither will our need to work out how we share the gospel, and develop practical ways of reaching into our community, come to an end when, sooner or later, a new vicar is appointed and arrives. It will simply mean we have a strong, new partner in our work, with whom we will share the responsibility for doing things.

The work of salvation which we have accepted as of paramount importance in our lives, but which others still need to learn about, has never been more important. Our purpose as Christians has never been to earn salvation but to share it with others, that they too may receive Jesus in their lives. To do that, we have to hold that tension between being part of the community around us, and being recognisable as a source of light that is different from that community.

That’s why St Paul is asking the Phillipians to shine like stars in a sky that is otherwise darkened by the difficulties of the world – both the daily practical distresses, and the terrifying images we’ve seen this weekend of natural forces.

And that’s why I like the image of a lighthouse. For starters, they’re usually built in tough and rocky places; exposed to all the natural elements in the world around them, and built to be tough enough to withstand them. Christians have been building their lives exposed to the world for centuries now, and they’ve been tough enough to withstand many batterings. It’s our turn now.

The important thing about the lighthouse is that its light doesn’t seek to attract people to itself, but to safety in something else, like a harbour, somewhere where some protection is offered from the harsh things of the world. All our hard work at re-building our partnership as a church in sharing the gospel, will be in vain if we don’t shine the light we create away from ourselves and towards Jesus.

Crucifix on the Screen at All Saints Basingstoke

And that, I believe, is what this Lent we will be doing on the 10th April as we ‘Lift High the Cross’ on the village green. By placing the crucifixion story at the centre of the community in a very visible way and alongside other Christians in the area, we will be shining a light that points not to ourselves but to Jesus, and to the sacrifice he made so that everyone can come into the harbour that is faith in God.

That after all is what salvation is about – it was the total pouring out of the person of Christ, through death, to a point where he not only was raised to life through the power of his Father God, but by doing so brought new life to all who accept and believe in who he was and what he did. The most powerful way to do let people experience that, is for them to see it for themselves.

But just one event isn’t enough. If people are going to take the cross really seriously this Lent, and afterwards, they need to see and hear the difference it makes in our lives – we each need to shine in our own little bits of the world, our street, our school,the hops we use, our workplace, our family. It might take a kind word, a little extra time, a card through a door, and invitation to watch the crucifixion story, or our own personal story of what Jesus did for us. That is what it means to act in order to fulfill God’s purpose; to show that he works in us.

As we start this Lent, whether we’ve given something up, or started something new, let us also allow God work in each of us so that we shine just a little bit brighter to point people towards Jesus.

Counting #myblessings – for warmth and welcome

On a day when I’ve sat, getting very cold, by a lake watching my son sail for the first time

A geko that came in out the 'cold' and took up residence above the toilet of the house we stayed in near Kampala!

this year, it is mildly amusing and appropriate (having thawed out in front of the rugby) that I find myself being asked to thank God for my radiators!

We have nine radiators in this house (if I include the heated towel rail in the shower room), so at 5p a radiator I owe 45p towards the Mothers’ Union Family Life Programme, thinking as I do of the many children who die of pneumonia in the mountainous regions of Uganda.

I didn’t have the chance to visit the mountains in Uganda when I visited in 2006. We visited at the end of July, not the warmest season in Uganda, but quite comfortably warm by the standards of a UK winter. But I wonder how we would feel, coping with the winter we’ve just had without central heating, a gas fire or whatever heating we are blessed with!?

I’m also reminded of another sort of warmth; the warmth of the welcome that every Ugandan we met gave us. When I visited the Family Life Programme (FLP) in Luwero, I couldn’t believe that people had walked miles to meet and talk with this strange lady from England who wanted to see their ‘model home’.

FLP Trainers in each participating Diocese provide examples in their ‘model homes’ of good hygiene, sanitation and cultivation techniques – the one in Luwero was near the Cathedral and was the home of one of the cathedral clergy. Ruth the FLP Trainer pictured yesterday, was his wife I think.

Family Life Programme trainers, facilitators and members of Luwero Diocese, Uganda (in 2006)

Each Trainer works to identify groups of people in communities in their region who will work together to learn these skills. Group members are selected on the basis of their understanding of and enthusiasm for the programmes aims, and not on the basis of their religion or ethnicity.

Each group of eager learners, nominates a ‘facilitator’, the person who works closely with the Trainer, learning the detailed practical techniques, and then teaching them to other learners in their group. The facilitator’s homes in turn become ‘model homes’ for their local communities.


Counting #myblessings for food security

How to sustainably grow banana's

I think I’ll be putting at least a quid in the kitty today for the Mothers’ Union Family Life Programme. I’ve must have at least 50 tins and containers of food in our cupboards – a luxury that few Ugandan’s have! And on a day when so many thousands of people have had everything swept away in the Japanese tsunami, it seems all the more poignant that we have so much food in the house, a roof over our heads and friends to cook supper for us.

The Family Life Programme has food security training as a major part of it. I suspect that this has been formalised since we were there in 2006, but even then food security, and sustainable ways of providing security of health and nutrition were core parts of the work. This forms part of the three key areas which the programme focuses on to improve the value and quality of family life:

  • Health and Hygiene
  • Poverty Alleviation
  • Environmental Management

Much of food security in the developing world is about the two-way relationship between plant cultivation techniques and the management of livestock. When I met Ruth, the FLP trainer in Luwero she explained the details of banana cultivation and composting. As pictured above the earth must be mounded round the plant to give it stability, and a maximum of 3 trunks allowed per plant, otherwise the size of the banana crop in each stem is much reduced.

And the goats have their part to play too. As well as being a source of meat (cross-bread so as to provide a good size carcass, milk and twin kids as often as possible), they are a source of fertilizer for the banana’s with composting of what might be termed “misdirected waste” carefully done under sheets of metal so that when the sudden heavy rain squalls come, all the goodness isn’t washed away!

And so, as we watch so many lives and livelihoods washed away in Japan, and remember those seeking food security in rural Uganda, perhaps we will be inspired to thank God and Count our Blessings that we have so much in little tins in the cupboards of our modern homes.

There is a prayer for all those affected by the Japanese earthquake and tsunami here on the Church of England website.

Counting #myblessings of comfort – pillows and cushions

Late in evening and my first chance to sit at the computer. Today, the busy life of a lay minister and Mothers’ Union member has included an MU Trustees meeting, and juggling the needs of several grieving families in the local community as I help them prepare for funerals in the coming couple of weeks.

But it’s never too late to Count Your Blessings! When funerals are uppermost in my mind, I think of the comfort that Jesus brought through being there with people in their need and distress, the peace he brought with healing to people’s lives, the words and prayers to his Father in heaven that changed people’s lives. If I can bring a tiny measure of Jesus’ comfort to people’s lives, even if (as tonight) it helps people to cry as they mourn a loved one, then I feel that my ministry is doing something useful in Jesus’ name.

Our son (then 9) on his comfortable bed near Kampala!

And yet in today’s world, “comfort” is a word that has almost lost it’s meaning and value. Comfort today seems more related to our physical state than our peace of mind; more about the cushions on our sofa, the pillows and duvets on our beds, than anything else.

When I visited the Family Life Programme in Uganda (for which the Mothers’ Union ‘Count Your Blessings’ is raising funds) I wasn’t taken into a bedroom, but I was proudly given a cooked meal of goat, sat on a cushion in the corner of the house. I suspect I had the only cushion, being the honoured guest from England! In the home we stayed in near Kampala where our hosts were quite well off, we were very comfortable – we each had a pillow, a sheet and a mosquito net!

But it was the faith of all those Christian’s so wonderfully working in the name of their Lord to better the lives of those in their communities through Mothers’ Union projects, that was the biggest comfort of all.

Here at home I have loads of pillows and cushions, some with covers I’ve tapestried or knitted, others on which to simply lay my head at night. At 10p a pillow or cushion I think I’ll be putting a couple of pounds in the kitty tonight!