Sunday, 14 December 2014

Gaudete Sunday - A Sermon From Two Years Ago

Today is the third Sunday of Advent - Gaudete Sunday.  What follows is a the roughish text of a sermon I preached on this Sunday two years ago.  So much has happened since then and perhaps the sermon I'd write now would be very different.  But this is where I was two years ago.  Don't feel obliged to read it - it was much complimented on at the time and I still think there's plenty of good things here but there are also elements worth cringing at with some embarrassment!  And you'll have to imagine it in my style of delivery else something is lost.

Allow me to take you back to December 13th 1973. I understand that this will be more difficult for some of us than others. Some of you hadn't been born and I was only two years old so I can't remember it.

So there you were – or you weren't, but imagine that you were – sitting in front of your posh new 15 inch black and white television in 1973. You wanted to watch Top of the Pops and hoped to catch a glimpse of Marc Bolan and his new hit single. But on this occasion you were disappointed. Yes, Bolan wasn't on. The Children of the Revolution had been thwarted by tax evasion. Disappointing.

Instead, who did Tony Blackburn introduce? Cozy Powell from Black Sabbath performed “Dance with The Devil” and in a zealous moment you wondered if a Christian should be listening to such things. And then there was bunch of strange looking English folk singers, all men apart from one woman in the middle and none of them with so much as a musical instrument. This isn't T. Rex, this isn't even Slade – though they'll be on later with a song that still haunts us forty years later. What's going on? Can things possibly get any worse?

And then the men start to sing. In folk singer voices. In Latin. Good grief, why on earth would anyone buy this? And then the woman pipes up, several octaves higher than anyone else.

Yes, this was Steeleye Span, and this was one of their two hits and though I've seemed to insult them, I confess that by my teenage years I'd bought quite a few of their albums at car boot sales.

Here's what they sang, with only one wrong pronunciation that I won't repeat here:

Gaudete, gaudete, Christus est Natus, ex Maria, virgine, Gaudete...

So, why on earth am I singing you a sixteenth century Scandinavian song in Latin that was a surprise hit 40 years ago?

Today, as the liturgical experts among you will know, is Gaudete Sunday. (sing again)

Gaudete is a word we translate as rejoiceand the day is named, not for that song but for the first word of the reading from Philippians that we've heard. That verse traditionally was also the entrance antiphon in the Catholic mass and in higher church Anglican eucharistic services – the verse spoken or sung right at the start of the service even before the priest had a chance to say hello.

It's advent. You might have noticed that. It's a time of penance. A time of preparation. A time of great meditation on the first coming of Jesus and a growing expectation of him coming again – both into our lives in new ways and at the end of time when he returns in glory. Which I predict will not happen on the 21stthis year.

I know that most of us (myself included) do not make any big changes to life for advent. But it was and is and actually should be a time of fasting, without which the great feast of Christmas loses some of its meaning. And that's hard work.

So here we are half way through and the church says to us, well done people you're doing well, not long to go now and you can have a big party. But we think you could do with a bit of encouragement today.

So we arrive at our nice traditional service, having been doing all the traditional Adventy disciplines. We are tired, cold, a bit hungry and on our knees seeking God with an earnestness that we didn't have halfway through November.

And suddenly a voice cries out “Rejoice always in the Lord and again I say rejoice”. Here is our encouragement. Rejoice. The Lord has come. The Lord is here. The Lord is coming. He who loves you says to rejoice and to do it in him and through him and with him. It's not only something you can do, it's something that you are commanded to so.

So we've come to our text for the sermon “Rejoice always.” It's taken a while and I feel like a mild version of a preacher I was listening to recently who, 20 minutes into his talk said the words, “and so to the sermon” and began from there.

Now there's quite a lot to say about these two words. I thought I'd have an easy job with this one. Preach on two words and it will be quick. But I can pretty much guarantee that nobody has slaved over a sermon in this place quite as much as I've slaved over this one. What is a short sermon is turning into a book on the meaning and practical application of these words. I'm actually quite shocked at how much there is to say and at some of the directions my thoughts and writing have gone. “Rejoice always”. Seems pretty simple. But it is rich and deep and when you start thinking about all the reasons why we don't rejoice, all the reasons why we should rejoice, how to learn to rejoice always and the benefits of rejoicing – among other things – there's far too much for a little sermon. Hence my slaving on a book that perhaps nobody will ever read but me. So here I can only say two or three things about rejoicing – and those only briefly. Here we go: The sermon proper, in three very quick and incomplete points...

Point One– Don't get guilty

There's just a possibility that you may not be rejoicing at this moment. Please, please do not feel bad about that or think that because you're in effect breaking a command from God that you are a terrible person. You're not.

For years I suffered periodically with bad depression and sometimes Christians were the worst people to have around me. They would pile on guilt and just make me feel worse. “God loves you, why aren't you joyful?” “You need to repent of your depression”

In Morning prayer before advent one of the regular readings is from Psalm 42 and every time, the last verse sent involuntary shudders through me. We read “Why are you downcast O my soul … hope in God.” That's fair – and hoping in God can and does in time ease a lot. But people would tell me that I had no right or reason to be depressed and thought that just telling me to hope in God would solve everything. When it didn't I was often made to feel like I was a bad person. Or “I was depressed and I prayed about it and God took it away -so I don't see what your problem is.”

And then I'd want to make these people happy with me and also to make them shut up. So I'd put on a false joy. I'd act my way through life with false smiles and a forced joy that in the end only made things worse because I was living a lie.

So, don't get guilty if you're not a bundle of rejoicing now. And don't feel guilt if you are currently mourning or grieving or want to be weeping – that's part of a balanced Christian life too, just not the subject of this particular talk.

Yes, sometimes people pray and a miracle happens – they are given the gift of joy. But more usually that doesn't happen and while they may be given seeds, it takes time and a lot of effort to prepare the ground so that God may grow the fruit of joy in us. That's far more common – rejoicing always is a command but it's a command to grow into as the fruit is grown within us.

Point two– the seeds

There are lots of seeds that lead to a life of joy. There are worldly seeds – all the blessings we enjoy, all the positive things in our life. Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters (and others) sang the song You've got to accentuate the positive....

Accentuating the positive is good. Focusing in on the good things of life. Family, friends, home, food, health, and so on and so on. Practising finding the positives is a good habit and practising thankfulness for those positives is even better. No matter what you are going through there will be positives in this worldly life.

I've looked back at my own life. Five years ago I wrote a list of positives in a few minutes and I found that list recently. A page filled with them. Twelve years ago I was in a mental health support group and we all used to write lists of positives. On some days my list struggled, with an hour's work over it, to contain one thing. Yet as I look at the list from five years ago, many or most of those positive things were true twelve years ago but at the time I was in such a state that I couldn't see them. Take from that what you will.

Finding those positives is good. But these earthly blessings are not actually the major basis of our joy and our rejoicing as Christians. (Joy, from this reading, by the way is the Greek word Chairo which isn't a joy of bounding about everywhere in a manic glee but rather a quiet calm within, an inner peace and warm fire that suffuses from a deep root within us into every corner and crevice of our lives, into all the nice things that happen and into our greatest suffering too so that we rejoice even in our deep pain – which we all have and mourning and grief have their place too.)

No, the earthly blessings are not the main basis of Christian joy. For the simple reason that they are transient. If our joy is based solely on friendship, a nice house, having tasty food for tea, our marriage or anything else – and these things are very good – what are we going to do if we lose these things. If our spouse dies and we end up homeless eating other people's leftovers, can we rejoice then? The gospel of true Christian joy says that we can.

We need a more permanent cause for our joy, a cause that cannot and will not fail us. And that cause is God and that cause is what he has revealed to us in Scripture. There are lots of Scriptures about “rejoice” - nearly 200 of them, and loads more about “joy” and studying and praying with these verses can be an excellent way of filling our hours.

Vine's dictionary gives a nice list of reasons for believers rejoicing (chairo). Here's part of it. Believers rejoice: in the Lord; His incarnation, His power, His presence with the Father, His presence with them, His ultimate triumph, hearing the gospel, their salvation,receiving the Lord, their enrolment in Heaven, their liberty in Christ, their hope, their prospect of reward, the obedience and godly conduct of fellow believers, the proclamation of Christ, the gospel harvest, suffering with Christ, suffering in the cause of the gospel, in persecutions, trials and afflictions, the manifestation of grace, meeting with fellow believers …

lots of reasons but the only one I'll mention now is the one sung by Steeleye Span.

Gaudete: “Rejoice, rejoice, Christ is born of the Virgin Mary”

I don't need to say anything about it either – you'll be hearing lots more about it in the next fortnight. Christ is born. God is with us and will never leave us. Salvation is here. Hope is here. True life is here. Forgiveness is here. Rejoice.

Wonderful. There is so much to say about the vast riches of the gospel and why this will – with much prayer, meditation and sharing together – become firmly rooted as the foundation of our life, welling up into a life of calm, unshakeable joy. I'm not there yet myself – but I am resolved to keep moving in the right direction.

Point three – the work.

Some of you won't like this bit. The hard work. Just two verses for you from the New Testament:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Heb 12:1-2 KJV)

Joy was set before Jesus.

A simple question: How did Jesus reach that place of joy?

A simple answer: He endured the cross. Another verse:

Then Jesus told his disciples,"If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. (Mt16:24ff)

Joy is set before us. Jesus has it and we (hopefully) want to come after him and have it to. So how do we do it? Jesus himself tells us “"If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
I know that's a tough end to a sermon. But we have to take the words of Jesus seriously. If we want to come after him into that place of joy and ultimately to be seated, reigning with him as co-heirs, then we have to seek to do what he says. Deny ourselves. Take up the cross. And then, and only then, can we truly follow him.

Joy will not come to us by seeking the experience of being joyful. True, deep, permanent, all embracing Christian joy will only come to us as a consequence of living a Christian life in imitation and love of Christ. That's the only way – and any preacher who gives you any other way, some easy way out is telling you fibs. Joy is not to be pursued as the end in itself – it is the by-product of a relationship with each other and with the living God. Without that relationship there can be no true Christian joy. Without self-denial, serving others, generosity to others and living to serve one another true Christian joy cannot blossom into the beautiful thing it is.

And so back to Advent for the next week. Back from this wonderful call to rejoice and into the season of advent. The fast, the self denial, the cross bearing. The path to the great joy that we will all, god-willing, experience when we celebrate the first coming of Jesus in just a few days and all the staggering, amazing things that means for us.

Let us pray:

Love is the heartbeat of God listen to the rhythm
Joy is its gift, catch the rhythm
Peace is its result, Live the rhythm
Be drawn into the kingdom of God .

Lord whose light shines in the darkness, Have mercy upon us,
Christ whose birth gives hope to all creation Have mercy upon us,
Lord whose advent brings us joy and love Grant us peace.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

18 Months - The Best of My Life

Eighteen months ago tonight I came out to myself as transgender, as a woman, in a way which left no possible room for denying the truth about who I am.  That night was the end of a process of finding space, of allowing myself to explore my thoughts and feelings with an honesty which had not been possible before.  On that night I stood in front of the mirror in a skirt and blouse, for the first time able to dress in such clothes without feeling great shame.  And I recognised myself for who I am.  I spent much time talking with myself as I stood at the mirror, and welcomed Clare into her existence - I already knew my name through dreams.  Until that night I could, had I so chosen, locked everything away again and gone back to the way things were, put the recent thoughts and experiments down to an aberration, a mistake.  After that night there was no possibility of going back.

That was the end of a process of experimenting with self-honesty but it set the course for the rest of my life.  Eighteen months on I look back and can say that it has been the best time of my life.  The best.

Here are just some of the things that have happened:

  • My mother died of cancer.
  • My father became seriously ill with dementia.  He's now in a care home having spent several months in hospital.  He broke one hip while in a different care home.  He broke the other hip while in the hospital.  And being hundreds of miles away I've been able to do nothing to help him and have had to leave everything to other family members.
  • My cherished Christian faith died, very painfully, over the course of a year.
  • We've had all the usual sort of family problems here - plus a few more.  But I don't talk of those online.
  • I have been sexually assaulted.  The police couldn't find the assailant.
  • I have received much verbal abuse in the street for dressing as I dress.  Thankfully that's pretty rare now but to being with it happened pretty much every time I left the house.
  • I've spent sixteen of the eighteen months waiting for medical treatment.  That treatment has only just begun.

Yes, plenty of horrible things have happened.  Most people would say that the year in which they basically lose both their parents, their faith, and undergo abuse and assault would be among the worst in their lives.  Circumstances have indeed been pretty poor in many respects.

So how can I say that the last eighteen months have been the best of my life?  How bad must the experience of my first forty years have been if so much can have happened and it still be my best time?

It's simple.  I have lived these months as myself, free.  I have learned to love myself.  I have learned that the truth of who I am does not to be utterly crushed, despised.  I have learned that I am not a thing of shame.

And I've remembered and healed a lot of my past.  All the clues and thoughts and acts that I'd suppressed for so long.  Many painful memories and many confusing memories.  They're still coming to light now.  Just this week I remembered things from my childhood.  Words said to me by my parents - who were of course doing their best but in the 1970s couldn't see past their little boy.  But words that led me further into Hell and the long attempt at self-annihilation.  Remembering them hurt.  A lot.  But now they can be left behind and peace can be found.  Some of that language may sound over dramatic.  I promise you that it isn't.

It's been the best eighteen months of my life.  And that brings my past into sharp relief.  I knew it was bad.  For thirty years even the best of days contained the shadow of depression, ever felt.  So many episodes of mental illness.  So many years of not knowing if I'd be alive by Christmas.  So many years in which others had to suffer through that uncertainty.  Looking at photographs from my life is hard as there are very few in which I cannot see signs of that shadow.  Even on the days of many smiles those photos display pain, if you know what to look for.  Comparing my present with my past shows me just how awful my inner life was for all those years.

There are a lot of challenges involved with being transgender.  But the chance to be who I really am outweighs pretty much any rubbish that life could throw my way.  Because, accepting myself and being Clare took away the cause of that shadow of depression

I've lost friends.  But I've gained more friends.  And my wife and child stand by me giving full support for me being who I truly am.  I am truly fortunate.
I've lost that faith.  But I've gained a better faith.  And have written much about that wild journey.
I've cried many tears in the difficulties.  Many more tears for my parents.  Many more tears as the past has come to light and been grieved for and healed.  But I've also learned the meaning of crying tears of joy.
I've suffered transphobic abuse.  But I've grown stronger through battling onwards regardless.  And I've been fortunate.  The abuse has only been verbal.  I know others who have been less fortunate.
I've been sexually assaulted.  There aren't many "buts" to that.  But it could have been a lot worse than it was.  Many women are sexually assaulted.  I don't want to belittle what happened to me but so many women have suffered far worse assaults, or repeated assaults, or rape.  I count myself fortunate.
I've experienced fear as I never felt it before.  But I've overcome that fear in walking into freedom.
I've lost my mother.  But that last year was precious, to be able to share just that short time with her, knowing she was proud of her daughter.
I've lost my father - though he is of course still living.  I must admit that the silver lining is harder to find when I think of him and the sadness we all have for everything that his illness has brought to him.
I've remembered much pain from my past.  But I've been able to clean those events and words, repair wounds, and leave them behind so the future can be better.
I've waited so long for treatment - for the physical help in being who I am, having transitioned mentally and socially last year.  But the treatment has begun, just about.  I'm now on the lowest dose of oestrogen and waiting for my next appointment which should lead to increased hormonal treatment.  Waiting impatiently - as every timeline I've been given in the last eighteen months turned out to be a false expectation.  That next appointment, from what I was told, should have been this week.  It will be next year.

I know who I am.  And I accept who I am, embrace myself in love.  That in turn enables me better to receive love from others and to show love too.  The changes are immense.  I find myself doing things, frequently, that the old me wouldn't have done.  I'd either not have conceived of being able to do them or felt great shame that I couldn't do them.

I know that there is still quite a way to go.  The healing is not complete.  And without too much trouble I could make a long list of things I don't do but would be better for doing.  And a list of things I do and say that would be better left undone or unsaid.  A long way to go but the difference between now and then is to me nothing short of a miracle.

Yes.  The past year and a half has been full of the most difficult things I've ever faced.  Full of pain.  Full of challenge.

Yes.  Those months have also been the very best of my life so far.  The very best.  By a very, very long way.  Simply because they have been lived free.