Knitted angels

Last week certainly took us by surprise.

Back in September  I received an email offering a plan for Christmas, the crazy idea of placing hundreds of knitted angels in Romiley as free gifts to our community.

One of my priorities is to empower and support the creative and crazy ideas which arise in St.Chad’s and so I thought ‘Why not?’ and said “yes, go for it”.  This was someone offering to do something fresh and inventive, outside the walls of the church, to initiate connections and bless our community.

By Sunday 11th Dec, over 600 had arrived, Angels - 1 (4).jpghours and hours of knitting and hundreds of conversations had happened.  We prayed that God would use the angels to bless people and very early on Tuesday morning we hung them on railings all around Romiley.angels-8

As the village woke up and set of for school and work, the place came alive.

The Surprise worked! – delight, joy, smiles and stories bursting everywhere.  The atmosphere in the school playground was transformed – reluctant schoolchildren (& parents) trudging to school in the dark, were running and laughing again.  Kindness broke forth, our lollipop lady found a child with no angel in tears and so gave her the one she had chosen for her tree.  Within minutes a grandfather ran off to find one in a yellow coat for the Lollipop lady.

But something else was going on – it felt more than just a happy little surprising occasion.

Something shifted.

There was a new found generosity of heart.
A celebration of what the Romiley community is about.

Commuters, walking in darkness, struggling with an early start, facing yet another draining day ahead, were lifted.  People who had been struggling with burdens, felt loved.

We provided some photos and video footage for BBC NorthWest, who put it online, their Facebook videos usually get c.20K views, by the weekend ours had been viewed more than half a million times!

But there’s another dimension to this story – which I want to share.

My confession:

A few years ago, I was excitedly preached about Angels, stories in the Bible and experiences of people I’ve met, of the vast, majestic, overwhelming heavenly beings.  In my talk, I threw in some comments, which were – let’s be honest – not entirely positive about little knitted angels. angels-4 In trying to make my point – I chose to stamp on something precious to others – and I’m not proud of it!  (The damage done when we preachers choose to trash talk something to emphasise something else, is for another blog, it’s destructive and endemic)

So what did God do? – He chose to take the very thing I had been cynical about & use them to do something really quite powerful and dramatic here in Romiley.

The church I lead, now becomes famous for being ‘the knitted angel church’…

I had some interesting conversations with God about this on my early morning dog walks last week!

God, in his love – took another opportunity to remind that building up, not pulling down is how we do things in his family.    But he didn’t just take the opportunity to humble me (he gets plenty of those) because when he has our attention, God makes the most of it.  When struggling with internal conflict between what we know is right & the tantrums of our feelings – He has a chance to speak.

angel-in-lightsSo with my full attention, God had another surprise.

As well as the outbursts of joy, and chatting and fun around Romiley.

As well as the grateful recognition that we seek to show God’s generosity.

Then the requests came in.  A flood of them.

Emails, Facebook messages to our church profile,  phonecalls, even people turning up on the church doorstep having driven to Romiley to find us.

Requests for these little knitted angels – to give to sick relatives and unsettled children.  Requests for these to bring hope and healing to those in distress.

angels-10At first we weren’t sure what to do about this – a knitted angel is cute – but it has no magical powers.

I had to wrestle with all sorts of religious thoughts,  along with my preach all those years ago slagging off little angels – I considered all potential negatives.

Was this superstition and folk religion?  Was dropping cute knitted angels in the nighttime too cowardly as a form of mission?  Was this a misrepresentation of the heavenly reality?

But then I remembered that we’d prayed for those who received these angels, we’d prayed that God would use them.  We’d taken something very simple, very natural – something sweet and lovely and prayed that God would use it – and now he was!

It was a wake up call for me.

People are hungry for God. – They are looking for him, searching for him, reaching out asking for his help.  We are surrounded by people longing for love and connection – and these angels were a sign that God’s people want to show kindness.

People are desperate for hope, for something playful and fun, wonder and surprise.  Finding a knitted angel, hanging on a railing early on a damp dark December morning – is a reminder that there is fun and playfulness in the world.

People are desperate for healing – for sickness to be overcome and they’re looking for the God who heals.

And there was such faith and expectation out there, that God could use these little tokens to bring healing and hope.  Amidst my religious reactions and our preoccupation  with a video going viral, we were discovered vast amounts of faith, outside the church.

So we started praying differently.  God used handkerchiefs and aprons in the book of Acts, to bring healing to those in need, so I got past my religious reactions and started asking him for that.  We’ve already heard of one lady’s daughter who had been in intensive care for a long time, making a dramatic recovery the day after her Mum took her an angel.  We’ve heard of insomniacs, sleeping peacefully.  I’m praying for many more, God loves these people and we long to see his kingdom touch their lives.

In many cases it seemed that there was more faith in God to heal outside the church, than within it.  And yet those inside the church have already received that love, that joy and that power from him.  We’ve already experienced connection, freedom and healing from God and  can share that.

So God took the little thing that we had to offer and used it to remind us that He has so much more.

angels-2I wasn’t totally wrong all those years ago – knitted angels are just nicely constructed arrangements of wool.

But this stopped being about the angels a long time ago.  Angels are only messengers who bring good news of great joy.  Whether they are 10ft tall, radiant in overwhelming light and carrying vast swords – or 5inches tall, made of scraps of wool with a bit of tinsel.  They have one job, to point people to Jesus.

God used this little tokens of love, to catch people’s attention, to express his love and to point people to Jesus.  He is the one who can heal, restore, refresh and bring hope.

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Adventure in Kaunas day 2.

Lithuania blog day 2.

Last Tuesday I woke up in a bunk bed in a Catholic seminary in Lithuania, to find out how I got there, then you can read about last Monday here. (or watch the video here)

Having orientated where I was, I settled on my pillow to thank God.  It was an easy, joyful moment of prayer simply: ‘Thank you Father, you were brilliant yesterday”.

He had provided, He had shown himself as real and kind, He had totally taken care of us and given me evidence of the reality of His power and goodness.  I giggled with God about my journey of doubt, fear, anxiety and maybe even testing him on the way to Kaunas.

Still blown away and rejoicing we ate the breakfast the Catholic Youth centre staff had given us, enjoyed coffee from a teapot and washed away the dried sweat of unfounded anxiety in the Dousus. (Our new favourite word, found on a post-it note on the shower door)

Having landed connection, provision and accommodation the previous day, we had no plan, the day lay open before us, nothing fixed until 4pm.  When you are trusting God for his provision and can’t buy your own lunch, you have a whole chunk of day available.  We walked around the town, open to whatever God brought to us and he didn’t bring anyone, so we rested and trusted.

Our staff team at St.Chad’s are all detailed planners and I’ve built up a reputation that in contrast to them I’m not.  I like spontaneity, I respond to the urgent, I try to let tomorrow take care of itself until deadlines force my priorities.

It turns out however, that this isn’t true.  I like plans, I live with an agenda, purpose, target and to do list full of objectives to achieve.  This was God’s next agenda item for my learning.  Having prepared for the trip, built up for weeks the intensity and purpose, suddenly we just had to wait and be available.  Having no targets was a new form of powerlessness and dependence upon God.  I engaged with whole layers of frustration, anxiety and guilt at the difficulty of having nothing to achieve, these made me profoundly rest-less.  It took me until mid afternoon just to enjoy the place of rest and provision, just to receive the gift of a day in the sunshine, in a beautiful place with two friends, to chat and explore and laugh.  To receive rest as a gift is an act of obedience.

So we walked, talked, joked, laughed and made ourselves available to God.  We went to Kaunas’s junction of two rivers, aware that prophetic intercessors would probably have some deep revelation of the significance of place.  God didn’t give us one, but we had a great time throwing stones to hit a buoy (I only mentioned that because I won … eventually) IMG_4024

It’s amazing what you see in a city when you have no money.  Cutting out the whole paradigm of being a consumer, means you ignore shops, cafes, restaurants and advertising, you have no access to paid tourist sites.  Block these out and you see more beauty in a city, the people, buildings and what’s in the gaps.

Pilgrim not tourist

Pilgrim not tourist from Andy Crouch ‘Strong and Weak’.

As a pilgrim not a tourist, as a missionary not a consumer, I was more able to see the city through God’s eyes and let his love for it grow in me.

We visited a series of Catholic churches, and just dwelt there, enjoying the majesty and praying.  This was God’s next gift to me.  A radically new love for those many Catholics who are earnestly seeking for God.  In every church we visited there were women, silent in prayer.  We sat in the stunning Cathedral and enjoyed the art and architecture and then sat silently in the side chapel, a designated place of prayer, a helpful sign refused mobile phones and cameras.

 

Raised and trained as a Protestant Anglican, having studied theology, and pondered extensively for my book on ‘hollow religion’, I would have been very sensitive to the contrasts of this place and its traditions to the theology of the wing of the church I dwell in.  The reformation is an unavoidable part of our theological history and I believe God worked through it.  But having met the young passionate worshippers the day before and knowing God had taken us there to bless and pray, my focus shifted.  Not analysis, not comparing, not reacting, but choosing instead to bless.

I believe the Holy Spirit lives within us and wants to get out.  As I prayed, I simply asked him to pour out from within me and dwell in that place.  God gave me a deep love and longing for the many people who go there to seek him.  I simply prayed for that to increasingly become a place of encounter.  We all need to encounter God, we all need those moments of connection with the one who loves us, forgives us, accepts and welcomes us.  To be in this place of prayer, I was touched by the many who go there daily to be with God.  Some with a longing generous heart of gratitude or petition for God’s blessing on others.  But also those who were there in fear and superstition, those there in duty or religious process of trying to appease God or earn his favour.

In simple longing, I asked the Holy Spirit to establish these church as wells of living water.  That those consumed by religious superstition, fearful duty, or shame or striving to earn his favour, would be surprised by Him, encounter his grace, acceptance and unconditional love.  God had taken me there to deposit a blessing, and to shift my perspective.  God took me to a Catholic city, to pray for renewal, for hope and the fact He had done this demonstrated his abundant love which transcends theological differences.  It was a simple moment of theory becoming reality in my life.

Millions of Catholics across the world have a hunger for God and barriers which would prevent them finding him in other denominations.  So how about this for a strategy from the Holy Spirit: to bring renewal of faith, grace and the good news within the Catholic Church?  I prayed for Pope Francis, a man God has called to shape history.

At 4pm we attended a BBQ at the Youth Centre we’d connected with the previous day.  ClN1xPXWEAAhWuF.jpg-largeIt was great to hang out with the students and encourage them, we went on to a Taize service which was beautiful space to worship and subtly intercede for those around us.  Then open to God we just lingered to see what happened.  Two young men turned up, Matas who we’d met the day before and Teddy, who we had never met.  Amidst banter and some random linguistic cultural exchanges, we saw in them a hunger to connect, to cross the first layer of chat and talk with us more deeply.

When the centre closed, they left with us, taking us to climb a hill and enjoy stunning views of the city.   This became the next set-up from God.  As we walked and talked with them, they opened their hearts.  As three church leaders with a longing to empower and disciple young men, God had taken us to two young men who needed wise counsel and encouragement.  The Holy Spirit was at work in all five of us that night.Kaunas - 11 (1)

Reflecting back, this trip wasn’t just about God teaching us to trust, rest and love others from different church traditions.  Much of the reason we went was not for us, but for them.  Pilgrimage and mission are about being available to God to bless others.  God chose to use us to impact them (and vice versa)  We didn’t go merely for risk and adventure.  We went for them, we went with a desire to bless and God used it.

13433107_10154298453759703_7119781326205410162_oMatas wanted to used his last €16 to buy us a simple Pizza to share, as we arrived at the restaurant he bumped into a Christian friend, as he explained what he was doing, this friend gave him €10 to bless us.  We were able to feast on pizza, beer and friendship.  Our final unanswered prayer (to taste Lithuanian Wheat-beer) was now fully answered.

So what does God want to teach you this week?  For all of you who have kindly read this far, I pray this: “God, surprise us with your fresh gifts.  We trade our comforts for your adventure, our fears for trust and ask simply for new experiences of what you are doing around us.” 

Having read this story, how will you approach tomorrow?

The Cross has said it all

Good Friday meditation

I’ve meditated on Jesus death on the Cross this morning and seen the flood of pictures and quotes on social media as we seek to express and celebrate this most wonderful event.  As I’ve done so, it occurred to me that we respond differently.  Psychologists have described us according to 5 archetypes, I’ve found Jim McNeish’s teaching on Bioenergetics hugely helpful in this.

So this is a meditation on the manifold ways we might respond to the cross today.  My hope is that where we recognise ourselves, the truth may sink a little deeper.
Our first group are those who love to escape, our home is the world of ideas, data is our rock, understanding is our language.  How can we handle Good Friday?

The_Way_of_the_Cross_at_sunsetWe look at those silhouettes of Crosses against sunset backgrounds and our first thought is of the technical skill of the photographer (or editor, I wonder what software they used?)

The bleeding of others’ emotions only triggers our guilt, but today we can’t use cynicism to label them as sentimental, we can only yearn to feel like they do.

For us the Cross makes sense of love.  We are justified, its just-as-if we had never sinned.  Guilt gone, dealt with, finished. It brings love alive and into three dimensions.  Now we can understand it.

Meanwhile, the dying saviour slowly demolishes our fear as we encounter perfect love.

 

Our second group: we love to be loved.

Where is it all happening? Who can I talk to? Give me people or I die!

What a night the Last supper must have been! last_supper1b

“Jesus, at supper with his friends…” a meal, a celebration, the coming together of a group of friends and then Jesus loves them, washes their feet, shows them each that they are precious.  Oh to have been there, to have been part of the group, to have been so close, to have had my feet, washed, by him.

But we can hardly cope with the horrors of Good Friday.  It’s…just….too… awful.

The pain, the separation, the desolation of Jesus alone, dragged away by those brutal soldiers, betrayed and rejected.

Yet, he did it for me!  Yes, he died for me! Even if there was no one else, he died to show his love.

He poured out his love and his grace and his mercy and his acceptance, of us!  He paid the price to buy us back, we were worth paying that ransom.

Today as I feel the despair, the loneliness, the darkness and desolation, I begin to feel his arms of love wrapped around me, he did this so that I can know him.

CM Prodigal

Third we meet those of us, who can only describe ourselves as ‘humbled’, by the amazing sacrifice Jesus made.  Today is the time to honour him, to lift high the cross.

We remember Jesus’ words ‘When I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself’.  What a glorious saviour, what an amazing king, the model of true kingship for us.

We celebrate the Cross as the great demonstration of true power.  Darkness defeated, Satan crushed under Jesus’ feet as the curse and the fall are overturned.  Love conquers death, the old reality of self righteousness, replaced by the new reality of grace.  Those crowds who turned on him, his close friends who betrayed him, all turned around by his mercy, his amazing demonstration of a better way to live.Crown

“Crown him, with many crowns” we chant with every breath, exalting the greatest king, the greatest victor; our king, our Lord.

crown2
We bow the knee in surrender to him, grateful to be included in his great purpose of redemption, humbled to be a part of his new kingdom.  Let’s tell the world all about it.
How strange that a crown could hurt.  How would it feel to wear a crown of thorns?  How could he endure that mockery and humiliation?

In stark contrast is our fourth group: those of us who love the suffering servant.

As we clear up the dishes from the Seder meal, we reflect on that amazing moment of washing their feet.  Jesus, the leader, was willing to serve – how beautiful.

wonky wineWe find a discarded bread roll and a half drunk glass of wine, and remember how he took those simple symbols of hospitality and shared about pouring out his life for us.  It all brings back the beauty of Isaiah 53, the one who poured out his life, for me.

He did it in our place.  He stepped in and took the pain for me.  That guilt and shame, the agony, that punishment, he took it instead.  He paid the price, so that we can be free. We are the ones who should have been beaten and nailed to that cross and yet he was, in our place.  We are so sorry that he had to do it for us, so all we can feel is gratitude, he did it, so that we didn’t have to.

He made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a slave and became obedient to death, even death on a cross.

Maybe today, we are allowed to pause, to sit and enjoy that.  It might feel strange, passing through that layer of guilt that we should be doing something for him to say thank you.  But as we sit still, as we let him serve us, even that guilt can be washed away, it’s a delicious taste of freedom.

 

And our final group, are smitten by what love can achieve.

We long for change, we long for connection and we believe that love really can overcome the agony of separation and rejection.

The cross has said it all.  It is the ultimate, the greatest demonstration of love.  Death is defeated, guilt washed away, freedom won, salvation is secured, light overcomes darkness.  What a victory!

But it’s a victory of self sacrifice and powerlessness.  Jesus shows us something that we can all learn from, that victory comes not through a demonstration power, but a choice of powerlessness.  Love wins, through humility, through vulnerability and being willing to soak up the pain for a greater good.

Today we celebrate all that Jesus achieved on that cross.  The great turn around, the fulfilment of prophesy, the moment of breakthrough.

He was punished, for our mistakes.  That is an extraordinary transaction, it hardly seems fair.  Maybe, just maybe it isn’t, and that’s ok, because love is greater.

So which are you?

How do you respond to the Cross?

Which truth today can slowly erode your deepest fears?