Love Life Live Advent – 8th December – Treat yourself

One (wo)man’s trash is another (wo)man’s treasure, and all that – you may have found that when you tidied a shelf or drawer last week.  Or you may have found the one (wo)man’s trash is simply trash.

Well, the same thing applies to treats.  Each one to their own. My idea of a treat may be just normal for you, or it may be incomprehensible; you may look forward to doing something that I would never in a million years want to try.  Skydiving. Caving. Bungee jumping.  I could go on. There are so many things that many people look forward to doing that I have no desire to do. And there will be many things that I get excited about that would leave others feeling ‘meh’ or worse.

So, today is about finding something that you want to do.  Not something that you think you ought to want to do, or something that the world around you tells you is a treat. No, it’s something that you actually want to do.  And if you live most of your life dashing round doing things you have to do, it can be tricky (a) finding time to do things you want to do, and (b) working out what those things would be if you did have time.

So is today just about being selfish? I suppose it is in a way.  But selfishness has got something of a bad name, and in moderation it’s not always that bad.  Think of the great commandments that were Jesus’ summary of the law:

‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and soul and mind and strength’ and ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’

If you’ve been following Love Life Live Advent, you’ll have done a bit of the first one by making time to reflect on the meaning of Advent, and you’ll have done some of the second one, too, if you donated to a food bank or started a jar of coins to donate to a charity. But the bit of this wonderful summary of the law that tends to get ignored is the last bit: ‘as yourself‘.  If you do not love yourself, then loving your neighbour as yourself starts to sound like it might not mean so much.

The theology of it goes something like this:

The first command is to love God. And if I love God then I love what God loves (what makes God happy makes me happy).  God made everything, including other people, so when I love God I learn to see others as God sees them, and I learn to love them as he does. So far, so good.

Then I realise that I am also loved by God.  I am part of his creation, and I have to learn not only to see others through the loving eyes of God, but I also have to learn to see myself through those loving eyes.  Which is trickier, because I can probably learn to love other people (even if they annoy me) either by avoiding spending too much time with them, or telling myself that they probably have good reasons for being irritating and I should give them the benefit of the doubt. But this doesn’t work so well when I try and apply it to myself: for a start I cannot avoid myself even if I am irritating myself, and then I cannot really give myself excuses. If I am to love myself  as God loves me then it has to be the real thing.

And if I can master that, then I’m ready to go round again and revisit the nature of my love for others, and see whether or not it was for real.

So, where does treating myself come into play in this piece of needlessly over-complicating today’s action?  For me, there are a few things that spring to mind:

1. Treating myself is not intrinsically a bad thing to do, but I want to know that I am doing it not as a displacement activity or distraction because I am depressed, or bored, or anxious about something unrelated, but because, as the advert always said, ‘I am worth it’.  (Actually, my self-worth cannot me measured even in really nice hair shampoo, but that’s another separate blog post).

2. Treating myself to something I actually want to do, rather than to a ‘generic’ treat is a way for me to discern those things that make me happy, that give me life, and make me unique, rather than what people my age and gender are told they ought to want to do.  I am unique in creation, God made me that way, and if I can embrace my own uniqueness, then I will be better at embracing the uniqueness of others. I will be less likely to see ‘other people’ as a homogeneous genre if I am enjoying my own idiosyncrasies.

3. Treating myself to something that is actually life-giving and affirming is a way of inhabiting, even just briefly, a world in which I am blessed, loved, and cherished, for who I am, not who I ought to be.  If this brings me closer to the God who loves me despite everything, then I’ve accidentally also done a bit of the first commandment, too.*

*Actually, as you’ve probably spotted, there is only one commandment. It looks like two (love God, love others) then you spot the third one (love yourself) then you realise that they’re three sides of the same coin.

readingSo, yes, for me, my treat is to abandon (until tomorrow) the book I’ve been slogging through for ages as part of my PhD reading, and instead pick up one that I’ve been wanting to read for ages. And I will make notes on it using my lovely fountain pen. And I will drink decent coffee while I read. I might even have hot chocolate later.

So, what’s your idea of a treat? And how will it help you to remember that you are loved more than you can possibly imagine by the God who loves everything he ever made?

Lent 1: Matthew 4.1-11

There was once a short-lived reality TV show called ‘SAS: are you tough enough?’ in which ordinary people undertook SAS style training and were, one by one, eliminated from the programme.  I remember watching one episode, and reflecting on the title that no, I really really wasn’t.

There’s a strand of the Lenten tradition that teeters on the brink of being all about whether we are tough enough.  Fasting, strict disciplines, and onerous rules for Lent can, if we’re not careful, become a matter of will power.

But that’s precisely the opposite of what Lent is really about.  The Eucharistic Prayer for Lent speaks of how we are to “learn to be God’s people once again” – in other words, we are on a quest not for self-improvement, but for a deeper rootedness in our identity as people of God.

If we give things up for Lent, we do so so that our usual props  – the things we think we are relying on but are really just cosmetic, with no real strength – fall away, and we are left with only the real, structural, load-bearing columns that really are keeping the building standing.  Sometimes it takes some time in the wilderness to find out what those columns are.

In Jesus’ time in the wilderness we see a process of stripping away.  Jesus fasts, giving up the comfortable feeling of having enough. And he heads out alone, giving up the tangible signs of support from his family and friends.  And he goes away from the towns, away from the trappings of human civilisation, and from the sacred places of his Jewish practice.   And there, he faces temptations to make himself comfortable, to take the easy route to power, and to test the love God his Father.

So what is it that enables him to survive this brutal wilderness experience?  Is it simply that Jesus was “tough enough” when we are not?  Undoubtedly Jesus was strong spiritually, mentally and emotionally, as well as physically, but if we make him out to have some sort of souped-up will power, then we deny his full humanity, and ignore all the evidence from the rest of the gospels that he was “tested as we are”.

When I read this passage it seems to me that we see Jesus finding, in his battle with Satan, that even without many of the things that he had relied on, there were certain things that were deeper sources of strength and courage in the face of adversity. He turns to scripture, refuting each of Satan’s advances with his own, deeper understanding of the Bible’s witness to the eternal and irrepressible love of God for his people.  And, I suspect, he also went into the wilderness with the words of God his Father ringing in his ears at the day of his baptism: “You are my son, I love you, and I am pleased with you.”

It is a fundamental need of each human being that they know they are loved unconditionally.  This applied to Jesus just as it does to all of us.  It is the foundation of our psyche, the ground of all our loving, the sound basis for our risk-taking, our growth and development, and the central core of our ability to love God and love our neighbour as we love ourselves.

Jesus shows us that it is not, and never was, about being tough.  It is about being human. And to be human is to be loved for ever by a God who reveals that love through scripture, and through his calling us by name at our baptism, and through his presence with us in every one of our life’s wilderness challenges.


The Baptism of Christ (Matthew 3.13-end)

Jesus doesn’t half get a good build-up in Matthew’s gospel.  Matthew 1 gives us Jesus’ family tree – tracing his lineage back to Abraham himself – and goes on to relate the events around his miraculous birth, complete with angelic messengers in dreams. Matthew 2 tells of the visit of the Magi, and the subsequent flight of the holy family to Egypt to avoid the wrath of Herod, and their eventual return  to the normality of Nazareth, where Jesus would spend the remainder of his childhood, about which Matthew’s gospel is silent.  But we have heard enough already, between the genealogy and the birth story, to know that Matthew is introducing Jesus as the real deal, the Messiah, the one that God’s people had been hoping and praying for for centuries.  We are simply left waiting for the rest of the story to unfold.

Chapter 3 jumps ahead somewhat, and the next thing we hear about is not Jesus himself, but his cousin John.  John the baptist’s job – his entire vocation – was to prepare people for Jesus’ arrival, to sow the seeds about baptism, about repentance, about the coming kingdom and about what it really means to belong to the household and family of God.  In the passage immediately before today’s gospel he is heralded by the gospel-writer as the one about whom Isaiah spoke his potent and portentous words, and then immediately sets about underlining his own humility in the light of Jesus, the One who is the come.  

So Jesus makes his first adult appearance in Matthew’s gospel.  It is clear that John is simply the warm-up act, but Jesus’ first action is to submit to John’s baptism – even John finds this hard to understand, and resists the idea at first. But Jesus insists: he wishes to be baptised not because he has sinned, but because it’s the right way to start his ministry.  All that pressure, all that expectation. All that taking on the identity of the Messiah, but knowing that he’s not going to be quite what everyone’s hoping for.  All that promise. All that that work to do. No wonder Jesus needs to be baptised before he starts doing it all.

And he would be glad that he did.  Because when Jesus left the water, he heard the most wonderful words:

“You are my son, my beloved, and with you I am well pleased.”

They’re the words that make audible the gift of the Holy Spirit that he receives at that moment, the words that make the Father’s love for him feel real.  If you’re the Messiah, if you’re confronted by all that pressure, all that expectation, all that promise, all that work to do, what you need most in the whole world is to know that you are loved, not because of what you have achieved, nor even because of what you will go on to achieve, but simply because you exist.

It’s what everyone needs to hear who has a challenge to face, or who approaches a metaphorical mountain to climb, or who simply has a life to live, which is often a challenge enough.  Every child needs to hear those words, again and again, as they grow in body, mind and spirit. And I tell every parent that as they bring their children for baptism: enabling a child to be surrounded by the knowledge that they are loved is the greatest and most essential gift that they can ever receive, and the greatest gift that any parent can give.

And Jesus needed those words, too – just as much as any of us. That’s part and parcel of his taking on our full humanity.

In the strength of those words, he faced temptation in the wilderness, beating the Devil hands down.

In the strength of those words, he emerged from his ordinary family to embrace Isaiah’s prophecy and announce the manifesto for his mission – to bring release to captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and proclamation of the year of the Lord’s favour.

In the strength of those words, he went three years of ceaseless ministry, healing, teaching, embracing, arguing, challenging, and bringing life and love to those who needed it most and making some enemies along the way.

In the strength of those words he walked the Way of the Cross, and accepted the suffering that was God’s love for the world, written in blood.

If anyone needed to hear those words, it was Jesus.

You are my son, I love you, and I am pleased with you.

But those words were not just for him. They are for all of us. We are not the Messiah. We do not have to face the Devil in person, we do not have to work miracles, we do not have to bring the dead to life.  But whatever we do face today, this week, over these next months, we need a safe place to stand, something to hang on to that is utterly reliable.  Especially at those times when we are feeling the pressure, when we feel like we have a lot to live up to, when we are having to step up to the mark and ‘be the man’ or ‘be the woman’, when those around us are looking to us to make things right, to fix everything, to live up to all the expectation.

Today, we can put our own name on the front of God’s affirmation.  Because, like Jesus, although we’ve lived half a lifetime or more, but today is the first day of the rest of our life. And we have God’s affirmation, his great words of love and encouragement, not because of what we have done, nor because of what we will do, but as a free gift, because we need it.  And in the strength of that free gift we can face whatever life will bring us.

And more than that, these words and what is behind them are not only for parents to share with their children, they are for all of us to share with one another: what ways today will there be for you to show another human being, another child of God, by your words and actions, that they are beloved and valuable in the sight of God?

Trinity Sunday for all ages

You will need: 

  • A strip cut from a bed sheet, approximately 8 to 10 inches wide and the whole length of the sheet.  Make it into a loop, but put in three half twists, then sew the ends together using several independent attachment points so that if you the cut down the length of the loop the stitching wouldn’t come undone. 
  • Scissors
  • Wax crayon
  • Some chidren

How big is God?

Isaiah wondered how to express his experience of God – when he wrote about his vision of God he said that the hem of God’s robe filled the whole temple.  When we look up at the roof of the church, and when we look down at the hem of our own clothes we can get just a glimpse of what Isaiah felt.

But God is bigger than that.  God is bigger than we can possibly imagine.

Mathematicians have a word for anything that is impossibly big: infinity. They even have a symbol for it – it looks like an 8 on its side.  We can make it with this big loop of fabric that I’ve brought.


Like a circle, you can trace it round and round with your finger – and it never stops, it has no ending.  Even if we think of the biggest number we can, it’s always possible to add one to it to make it bigger – infinity is different because we can’t count to it, it’s just impossibly big.

God is infinite – bigger than any number could possibly be, and bigger and more awesome than we can ever really get our minds around, and we can’t ever get to describing God completely, because if we think we have, we’d find that it actually wasn’t God we were describing after all, but something less than God.

Now, there’s something that I haven’t told you about this loop of cloth. It’s actually not a normal loop of cloth, and to prove it, I’d like you to work out how many sides it has. We all know that a piece of cloth has two sides, but this one’s a big different.  You can check by drawing a crayon line all the way along one side of the cloth.

Of course, what you find when you try it, is that when you’ve drawn the line and got back to where you started, you’re on the wrong side of the fabric!  By the time you get back to the beginning of your line, you’ve actually drawn on both ‘sides’ of the fabric – because in fact, a mobius strip is a loop with a twist in it, so it only has one ‘side’!  You can find out more about mobius strips generally on wikipedia, if you want to try them at home.

Some things are just hard to get your head round!  People get very worried about how God can be both three and one, but we can see just from a cut up bed sheet (yes, that’s what this is made of!) that a piece of fabric can have both two sides and one side at the same time….

Now, this big loop is actually a really special kind of mobius strip. It has not just one twist in it, but three.  And a mobius strip with three twists has some special things about it.  I’m going to cut along the middle of the strip, all the way round the loop, and we’ll see what happens.

Do you think we’ll end up with two loops?  Let’s see!

Actually, what you’ll see is that we end up with one loop, with a knot in it! But there’s more we can do with it. I’m going to try something, and while I do, I’d like the children to take the micophone round the congregation and ask people for their suggestions of how we can understand the Trinity – we’ll have all heard lots of them before in sermons!

Some of the suggestions might include:

  • Shamrock leaf (clover leaf)
  • Water, ice, steam
  • Sun, light, heat
  • Jaffa cake(!)

None of these is quite right – they all reduce God to something we can understand and get hold of – none of them really gets to the heart of the mystery of the Trinity – how could they?

And now I’ve finished arranging this new loop, we can see another one of these illustrations of the Trinity – a mobius strip with three half-twists actually cuts up into a perfect interwoven trefoil!


Yes, this does probably deserve a round of applause(!) but to be honest, it’s a clever trick and a quirk of maths. It doesn’t really tell us much more about the nature of God than a shamrock leaf or a jaffa cake.

We can use the same loop to make a tick to remind us that God is good:


Or we can use it to make a heart to remind us of God’s love:


But most of all, we can do this: we can actually get into this loop – there’s room for every child here inside the loop – there is always room within God for all of us, and this is the most important thing about God that we can ever know!  We might even find that once we’re all inside the loop we actually find we suddenly want to hug each other – love can happen more easily when we’re in the heart of God.



In this simple bit of fabric we’ve found some things that are pretty mind bending, that might help us get why God is a bit mind-bending, but we’ve also found out some of the things that really do matter most about God, and about us and God.