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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Grief and Religion. (part 1)

Religion often doesn’t handle grief well.

Many people I have met who have walked away from church and as a result pushed God away to what feels like a ‘safe’ distance have been hurt through hollow religion at a time of intense grief.  When those who are bereaved are handled by the cold, rough, unyielding hands of hollow religion, the damage can be irreparable.

Two weeks ago, my brother-in-law died in a cycling accident whilst out on an early morning ride with friends.  He leaves behind my wife’s sister and two young children and a huge archive of fabulous memories.  The words said about him at his funeral on Thursday were overwhelming in their honour of his eccentric, generous, joyful, character.  But when we grieve we don’t want memories, we want to turn the clock back and prevent the tragedy, or rush it forwards to resolution.

George’s tragic death has hit my wife and I hard, because of our deep love for him and his family.  We have  been plunged again into the dark wild seas of bereavement and thrown around on it’s turbulent waves.  I’m convinced that we can’t control grief, it buffets us around.

corfu waves2 - 1

I wrote earlier this week about my experiences of grief at NewWine (Grieving-in-a-crowd/) I have had a remarkable response to that and as I’ve reflected further, I have been considering the interaction between grief and religion, linked the the material in my forthcoming book ‘Awakening: from Hollow Religion to Heavenly Relationship.’   Having first drafted this, I’ve had a number of nudges from God and encouragements from people that what I’ve written can help others.  In the midst of my own grief, my passion to rid the church of hollow religion has intensified because when we are grieving, we are at our most resistant to all that’s inauthentic.

I hope what I have written in the book can speak hope and life to those who have been hurt by hollow religion at the most painful times in life. Recognising the contrast between hollow religion and heavenly relationship can help the church to love and not control those who experience intense pain.  This is the first reflection I’ll post on this, with further parts to come.  If you are yourself in a place of grief and bereavement right now, I pray that this can help you.  If you are supporting someone through grief then I pray this can help you to love them effectively.

Hollow Religion tells us what we should believe but in the kingdom we’re invited to know the King, and believe what he says to us.

Through my own experiences and study of grief, I’ve encountered the 5 recognised stages of grief; Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and resolution.  I am convinced that they aren’t linear, we are all different and go through them at different pace, different order and sometimes a few all at once!  Someone could probably tell me what stage I’m in right now and why I’m writing this, but that doesn’t really interest me.

Striding edge - 1One thing that does interest me, is that those who are walking this path are not helped by being controlled or told what to do.   Religion tries to either offer a dogmatic grid to tell people how they should be feeling, or facile answers attempting to rush the process.  Hollow religion isn’t comfortable with death, grief and raw emotion, it’s too messy and dangerous, many religious beliefs are attempting to prop up an ‘everything is awesome’ culture.  As I’ve considered how religion cack-handedly makes a mess of caring for the bereaved, it’s usually because religion wants to pull people through grief too quickly, damaging them on the way, rather than let them encounter God in the midst of the pain.

When we’re grieving we need freedom not regulations, space to be found by God, not information about Him.

That isn’t easy to write, because one of the most painful and challenging parts of grief is that we both experience the depth of engaging encounter with God and the desolation of wilderness feeling separate from him.  In many ways we can’t do much about that, yet grief screams within us that we need to do something to make things right.  Over the past fortnight I’ve once again experienced the troughs and crests of the unyielding waves of grief, one hour bursting with creative ideas and drive, the next crashing into a drained numbness.  One thing I’ve experienced in grief is the restless angst of not knowing what to do with myself. I long for stillness and then crave distraction, all activity loses it’s appeal and yet doing nothing seems worse, I have a jumble of thoughts to bring to God and then find they disappear when I try to pray.

Bereavement card - 1It’s not easy to find God in the midst of the internal chaos, but that’s made worse by the external pressure of religion attempting to meddle in the holy ground of knowing God.

When supporting a bereaved person please, please don’t tread on that holy ground, don’t invade it, don’t try to tell hem why they can’t feel God, don’t give them your tips and techniques to find God, don’t invade their space with your autobiography, however amazing you are! Lovingly pray for them, listen to them and do what you can to offer practical support, to clear space around them, so that they can pause and let God find them.  Let the Holy Spirit do her job, she’s better at it than you!

Religious lies which push God away.

Hollow religion develops when we believe lies about God’s character and start to live at a distance from him, hoping to appease or please him.

A few years ago, I took a funeral of a man in his 40s who had died suddenly, it was a huge crowd.  He and his family and friends had almost no church background, as I prepared my talk, I heard a whisper from the Holy Spirit; “Please tell them that it’s not my fault”.  I could sense God’s pain, that those He wished to comfort were pushing him away and blaming him for the tragedy.  As I delivered the talk, I could feel the tension in the building, a sense of defiance.  As I shared the Bible’s truth I could almost hear the resistance; “How can he dare speak about God when all this is His fault?”  The Holy Spirit enabled me to speak a very clear and simple prophetic message.

“God did not cause this! He is the one who fights with us against death, not the one who makes it happen”.

Death is the enemy, not God.

The New Testament is joyful and triumphant in it’s declaration that death is defeated.

Hollow Religion mixes a cocktail, combining a view of God’s sovereignty based on philosophy not Jesus, with the desire for simple answers and trying to make everything awesome.  It both leaves a foul aftertaste and is hugely unhealthy, don’t drink it!  Trite comments like;

“He does everything for a reason” or “He wanted them in heaven” are both unbiblical and very damaging. – We will not go to the one we are blaming for comfort.

Religion is what we do, when we believe that we are distant from God.

When we walk with God through this process, he leads us through the valley of the shadow of death, besides still waters, through the wilderness and into his presence.  He sets the pace and the rhythm of that journey, let him lead you however long it takes.