Walking away

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After the most stupidly busy December on record, when I am sure I radiated more panic than “Good News for all humankind”, I feel obliged to think about how I might do things differently next year. Advent and Christmas deserves better than me just trying to work out how many more things I can cram in.

Thankfully January is looking saner. “An empty diary is a happy diary” a clergy friend once said to me. Well it’s definitely not empty but, at the moment, it looks as if there is enough time to prioritise the things that need prioritising, do some of the things I’ve been putting off, and even cope with an emergency or two that wasn’t foreseen. This is a happy diary.

On Wednesday I’m going to see my Bishop for my biennial MDR (Ministerial Development Review). Yes – it’s as scary as it sounds! We will look back at the last two years in some detail, and reflect on what the priorities and hopes are for the future might be. I’m hoping it will be useful – and I have a whole load of ideas of things I’d like to do for Church and community as well as family and piano pupils for this year.

And I think, even if I only do one or two of them, that will probably mean walking away from something else.

During our all age service at Skipwith on Sunday, we acted out the story of Jesus and Peter’s first meeting. Jesus was talking to the crowds on the sea edge. It was so busy it was getting dangerous, so he asked a local fisherman (Peter) if he’d take him in his boat so that he could teach people whilst standing in the boat and shouting back to the shore. When it was all over, Jesus suggested to Peter that he did a bit of fishing before taking him back to land. Peter said there was no point – he’d been out all night and hadn’t caught a thing. Jesus insisted. Peter rowed into deeper waters and let down his nets, and what do you know? Mountains of fish – so many fish it broke the nets.
This, we think, when we read the story, is the “Ta-da!” moment. It’s a miracle! Look at all those fish! But I think something much more extraordinary happens in this story. Because when they get back to land, Jesus asks Peter to change his life and follow him, and the really weird thing is – he does.
He walks away from the best catch of his life. He walks away from goodness knows how much market value fish. He walks away from success and financial security, and follows something – someone – that his gut tells him is worth more.
We are all full of New Year’s resolutions. We expect such a lot of ourselves. We expect that we can take on more and more, try harder and harder. But the reality is, we can’t follow a dream, without walking away from something else. We need to know when to say “no”, and “not yet” and “not anymore” if we want to live good, balanced lives where we are able to say “yes” to our genuine callings.
This year I might do some walking away so I can do some following on. What about you?

Penguins: The true meaning of Christmas

I’m a bit anxious about the Christmas Eve crib service. It seems to have got a bit complicated. Last year was busy, but simple, with a different child reading each part of the story and all the kids ending up at the front to create a kind of tableau. This year we have lights and visuals and a proper (sort of) cast plus the usual thousands of children who will be getting up out of their seats and going on a journey to find Jesus. It has the potential to be fabulous. It also has more potential to go wrong!
My Churchwarden said to me, “As long as all the children get to go up to the front and be part of it – that’s the most important thing”.
And then she reminded me about the penguin.
Most children come dressed as nativity characters to our crib service. They know that at some point in the service, their group of characters will be called up to be part of the scene at the front. But last year we had a penguin too. He was quite a small penguin, of the sort of age that doesn’t really like to sit doing nothing for 40 minutes, so he was quite a focal point as he occasionally wandered up and down the aisle. In the last carol, any children who wanted to join the group, who hadn’t already become part of the tableau, were invited to do so. So many of our photos of that service have a penguin right at the front.
And do you know, more people commented on how nice it was that the penguin was allowed to be part of it than almost anything else about that service.
Because people do not expect the Church to be inclusive.
That was the good news that year – that someone unexpected was invited to be part of the celebrations. And it’s ironic that that was a surprise to people – because that’s a concept that is of major significance in the nativity story. The people invited are not the usual suspects – not the established religious, but the shepherds living on the bread line and the foreigners who practice a different religion from the other side of the world.
My churchwarden is right. Christmas is not just for the Marys and Josephs and Angels. It is for the penguins and the Spidermen and the Wonder Women and the Disney Princesses. It is for the people who forgot to dress up and for the people who wouldn’t agree to dress up in a million years.
All are invited. All are welcome. All are called to gaze in wonder at the miracle of life itself, and the promise that God is with us.

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All play and no work makes Jack intrinsically unsatisfied…

I’ve been thinking about ancient heresies (as you do), and especially Pelagianism. This is the idea, posited by some Christians back in the fifth century, that human beings could earn their own salvation by working hard and choosing to do the right thing (rather than salvation being a free gift from God). Pelagianism has sometimes been called “the British heresy” because of our national tendency to believe that there’s nothing we can’t sort out, if only we work hard enough. It’s a tempting idea, because it gives us the illusion that we are in control – but in reality there are all kinds of reasons why we might not be able to work as well or as hard as we think we ought to, and in the end a philosophy like this creates a kind of hierarchy of human beings, where those who for whatever reason are less “successful” are seen to have brought their misfortunes upon themselves.

 

I think Pelagianism is dying in Britain though – and whilst in some ways that’s a good thing, I have started to notice that although on the one hand our nation seems as hell bent on killing itself with overwork as it ever did, on the other hand we seem to have lost a sense of the value and potential satisfaction of work. We have thrown out, with the Pelagian bathwater, a respect for work for its own sake.

 

For example, my eldest son, recently out of university, has spent some time working in a call centre. Not the most exciting thing in the world, but – hey, it’s a job. It is pretty basic pay, but he tells me that if you turn up on time, you get a bonus!!!!
Sorry?
That thing we were paying you for, well we know that’s not enough incentive, so we’ll give you a present if you do what you are actually contracted to do.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. For several years, secondary schools have been offering cinema tickets or cash prizes for those with good attendance records – I heard about one the other day that enters its high attendance pupils into a raffle at the end of each year to win a bike!!! If my 5 year old gets ten house points, the school gives her a treat – I suppose the “we’ll give you a bike if you turn up” idea is just a logical extension of this.
Well, what sort of mean mother would object to their children getting sweets when they’ve done well? And I’m not even consistent.  I, along with most of the parents in the country, have used sticker charts, with the promise of significant reward, as a desperate measure to try to get my kids to do what’s right, even if I have to bribe them to do it, so I’m not exactly whiter than white here.

 

And yet… I desperately want my children to be proud that they have earned house points without needing a treat to make the point. I would like them to want to read because reading is satisfying, rather than read because of some other reward, and when they are older I want them turn up on time for work, not because they get a cash bonus but because it is satisfying to feel as if you are doing your job as well as you can and important to keep your promises.
Call me an idealist if you want, but the truth is, we all know that consumerism isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. The more we get, the more we want and the more dissatisfied we get. C. S. Lewis talked about “artificial rewards” and “natural rewards”. If we stuff our kids full of the junk food of artificial rewards, might we be actually depriving them of feeling the more fulfilling joy that comes from doing the right thing just because it is the right thing to do?

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I don’t believe that working yourself into the ground earns you your salvation. But I do believe that the right amount of work, done in the right spirit, feeds the soul and enriches society. I wonder if we can help the next generation to believe that too?

Diverse world, diverse Church

I found out last week that there are 900 different types of cheese in the world. I mean – really? Do we need 900 different types of cheese? Clearly we think we do. Cheese doesn’t just arrive by accident – it takes effort and planning and experiments and risk taking. Human beings are clearly a bit odd and rather impressive. However many types of cheese there are, we know there could always be one more…

There are 15,000 species of butterflies. We didn’t make them. They just are. And of the 7 billion people on this planet there are no two exactly the same – not even identical twins are actually identical. It seems that God likes diversity just like people do. Creation did not have to be so colourful, so surprising, so lavishly extravagant. People did not have to be so different from one another.

So why do Christians sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that we should all be the same? One of the biggest mistakes we can make is to somehow get the feeling that diversity is a product of the fall. Surely, we think, if there wasn’t sin and wrongdoing and tragedy in the world, our lives and our relationships wouldn’t be so complicated. People would agree with one another more easily because we would all think the same. But that is not the gospel of Jesus’ good news.

Here’s one of the readings that we had this week at Church. It’s one of the many letters the Paul wrote to the new Churches that were springing up everywhere in the century after Jesus’ death.

Welcome those who are weak in faith but not for the purpose of quarrelling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. 4 Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.
Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own mind. Those who observe the day, observe it in honour of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honour of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honour of the Lord and give thanks to God…
…Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? We will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written,
“As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me,
and every tongue shall give praise to God.”
So then, each of us will be accountable to God.

Paul is celebrating difference. He’s saying “you know those people over there who are vegetarians? Well they’re doing it to praise God, just like you give thanks to God when you eat meat, so don’t argue about it. You know those people who are always going on about how Sunday is special and needs to be treated differently? Well if you think all days are equally holy you don’t need to beat them over the head with it. Hold on to your opinions, but don’t let them divide you.”

Unity is not uniformity. Unity is valuable only when it is diverse. In another letter of Paul’s, he writes about the Church as a body. Yes, people are functioning together for one purpose, but they are nothing like one another. Some, Paul says, are like the feet of the body, some are like the hands. Some are the head, some are the heart. None can do without the other. When we fail to recognise one another’s gifts, appreciate the differences that there are among us, we are quite literally dis-abled by our narrow vision. We are not following God’s path, if we’re not prepared to see something of God – something that we haven’t got – in those we travel with.

St Paul is talking about things that don’t seem that controversial to us now. It’s unlikely that arguments over meat eating or how we spend our Sundays would to lead to ostracisation in a Church, one way or another. But there are plenty of things that Christians do feel differently and strongly about, that if we’re not careful tear us apart, and Paul says to all these groups of people, whatever their sincere belief as people of God “Hold to your beliefs. But however strongly you feel, it is not your job to make everyone just like you.”

It is so easy for us to become obsessed by trying to make everyone think like us – but there are many ways of following Christ – and that is how it is meant to be. Do you think we will all look the same as one another in heaven? I don’t. Creation teaches us that God loves difference. What is important, Paul says, is the spirit in which we hold our beliefs. Is our priority to worship and give thanks to God?  Or is our priority to put our neighbours right?

We come across people every day who think differently to us. When they think very differently but they are also part of our faith community, that can be a huge challenge. But we do need each other in order to bear faithful witness to the one who calls us.

Unity in diversity is to some extent a paradox, but we claim a faith that is paradoxical, and we live in a world that is paradoxical. The world is beautiful and terrible – occasionally both at the same time. Those of us who are Christians believe in a God who is one, but also three, a God who is essentially about relationship. We believe in a God who suffers and serves in order to win the battle. We believe that you can only find your life by giving it away, and, even though we see power misused every day, we believe that love conquers power in every way.

And we are called to live together in this paradox. To allow one another to hold our strong opinions and refuse to let those opinions divide us. To understand that our way of being a Christian is not the only way of being a Christian. We must resist seeing ourselves as victims, only being careful to never victimize others. It is not, as Jesus makes abundantly clear throughout the Gospels, our job to judge one another – it is our job to forgive one another, allow ourselves to be forgiven, and celebrate the God who has called us to a diverse unity.

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God give us the grace to live with, and give thanks for, diversity in all its many forms.

Going back to school blues…

It was the second morning back today. It wasn’t such an exciting novelty as it was yesterday.
Yesterday the kids were up bright and early and dressed in good time, and in a unique display of middle-class organisation, had done their piano practice before it was time to head out of the door into the rain and on to school. They went in to their classes happily, excited about their new day and seeing their friends again.
Immie is in Year 1 now. It feels like a big step from Reception. Because we are a fairly small school, the Year 1s are being split into two groups this year for the afternoons – one group will go into Year 2 and the other spend the afternoon back in Reception. Immie is one of the younger ones, so had been given a place in the Reception group. We were told this back in July, and after a bit of time to think about it, I was pleased. It worries me that our children have to grow up so fast, and the nicest school in the world is under a lot of pressure to be getting results from children by Year 2. So we spent the summer telling her how nice it would be that she could still play in Reception in the afternoons, and reminding her of all the friends she would still be with.
Best laid plans…
We went to pick her up from school and waited outside Reception. No Imogen appeared. We asked the teacher where she was. We were told “Oh, she’s in Year 2 now”. Apparently a new child has started in Reception which has meant that, as the next eldest in the class, she has been moved up. When she came out she was so tired she could hardly speak. She said “Mummy, in Year 2 we hardly do any playing, we just write all the time”.
We had a quiet evening and an early night. To be fair, she seemed fine this morning – perhaps just a little quieter.
Now, I know this is a first world problem. I know I am overreacting and that I am lucky my girls go to a nice school in a lovely part of the world. I know that I shouldn’t be worrying as much as I am, but I am worrying! And I am upset. But as someone with a tendency for depression, I know that it is often the little things, not the big tragedies or crises that can set me off worrying. And I know that my worrying is not going to make things any better for her, and I know that she will most likely settle in just fine. But in the meantime I cannot help worrying about my baby having to grow up slightly quicker than I had anticipated.
And the thing about worry is that it can cut you off from everyone. When I worry about something that I know others consider trivial, I am not sure how much I should talk about it. My faith should help, but I find it very hard to pray when I’m worried – some people pray more when they’re worried, but I seem to freeze up.
I have learnt something important though over the years.
When I can’t pray because I’m too stressed or pre-occupied or anxious or depressed, others will pray for me. And that makes a difference. A massive difference. Being part of a community of faith means being part of something bigger than me. It means I don’t have to be alone. It means when my faith is weak others can uphold me. I’ve never really understood it when people say to me “You can be a Christian without going to Church”. Well – maybe. But why would you want to? It is the people of my local Churches and the online faith groups I am part of who have carried me through the toughest parts of my life. It’s their prayers that have sustained me, and sometimes it has been my prayers that have sustained them.
Prayer does make a difference. That probably sounds weird to you – but it does. And so does community.
And so by the end of writing this blog (which perhaps, after all, is a kind of prayer) I find myself aware of all the children across our country going back to school this week, and thinking of all the first day photos and realising that I don’t know what is behind them, and realising that every single one of those families needs support. It is a time of new starts for all of us with school age children (and for teachers of course), and new starts are usually a bit scary, even if you thought you were well prepared for them.

school first day 2017
God be with us on the journey.

Storytelling

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So…the lectionary is leaving out the good bits again…

I read the Gospel set for last Sunday so I could think about what I should say about it, and it told me to read Matthew chapter 13 verses 1-9… and then I should ignore the next bit and start again and read verses 18 – 23.

Hmmm. Call me awkward, but I always want to know what’s not being said.

The verses I was told to read were the Parable of the Sower, and the explanation of the parable that follows it (if you don’t know it, you can Google it). It’s a story I know well. Jesus is talking about the different ways people might respond to his teaching – he is asking us to think seriously about how we respond to God’s call on our lives, and he is promising that those who respond to it by putting it into practice and living faithfully by it, will experience life in all its fullness and help others to know that life too. It is talking, too, I think, about the extraordinary indiscrimination of God’s love. The seed gets scattered absolutely everywhere – it is no longer only for one kind of person – all are given the opportunity to respond to God’s love.

I can see why they missed out the verses in the middle, because they are basically an interruption by the disciples. But the bits that were left out spoke to me more personally than the bits I was supposed to read.

Because in these verses, Jesus’ disciples turn to him and say, “Why are you always telling stories to people?” and Jesus responds by explaining that often people don’t understand, so he resorts to telling them stories to explain things instead.

And he’s right. The Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan, the parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin and the Sower and the Wedding Feast and the Workers in the Vineyard and the Pearl of Great Price…stories explain to us, much better than any rational argument can, what God is actually like.
Stories are powerful. Stories are who we are.

The power of stories is why at the recent General Synod of the Church of England last weekend, amongst the theological debates, many personal stories were told.

You might have heard (but you might not, because good news travels slowly), that the C of E has just voted to ban conversion therapy for LGB people and to call on the government to do the same. It’s also just voted to look into providing a recognised liturgy for transgender people to celebrate and affirm their identity.

The motions were carried overwhelmingly. And one of the reasons, I think, is because an awful lot of courageous people stood up and told their stories – some of them were appalling stories of self-harm and attempted suicide, and some of them were stories of people who had found inclusion and welcome.

My family is a family for whom LGBTQ+ is part of our story, and I watched the debates with both anxiety and hope. The Church has often been completely rubbish on these matters, but this July, it has felt as if things have begun to change.
As my transgender atheist daughter said (in her one word FB message in response to the debate):
“Awesome”.
Stories helped this Synod to have a better debate. They helped make it a kinder discussion. Personal stories also made it a much more genuinely theological discussion.
Because Christianity is supposed to be an embodied religion. God so loved the world that he became part of it, as a real human being, with a real physical and emotional life. When he went back to heaven he told us that we are his body now. At its very core, Christianity is about the reality of life, here and now in the physical world. It is about God meeting us in the middle of all our vulnerabilities. It is about recognising God’s Spirit in one another and sharing love in real practical ways, and engaging with God and with one another in the continually retelling and reliving of that great overarching story of creation, salvation and redemption.
In other words, it’s the story of real life. If we can remember that, there’s hope for the Church.

 

Morality and Message: The Church of England, Young People, and LGBT Issues

General Synod meets today and will be discussing the Blackburn Motion on offering a new naming service to affirm Transgender people in their new identity. In the meantime I thought this blog was worth sharing…I’m off to Open Table/ Inclusive Church at Synod tonight…I’ll let you know how it goes…

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The Church of England’s General Synod is meeting this week and – as many people have pointed out – many of the most noticeable agenda items seem to be concerned with sexuality and sex.  As a trainee lay minister in that Church, one of the roles I’m supposed to carry out is being a bridge between the institutional life of the Church and other parts of our society and culture.  So I wanted to briefly discuss an aspect of the Anglican controversies over sexuality which I encounter in my day-to-day life: how I think it affects many young people, and how it prevents them from hearing the Gospel.

In my day job I’m a university lecturer in English literature and drama.  I spend a lot of my working life discussing poetry, plays and novels with young people, ranging from Shakespeare to Zadie Smith.  This means I hear a lot about…

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Busy busy busy….

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarg…

I need to stop and breathe.

It’s a busy month.
Already.
And it’s only just started.

I absolutely have not got time to write this. There are a dozen other things screaming for attention. Maybe I’ll get a few hours of proper work done when I get home from Rainbows this evening. Then again, maybe I’ll collapse in front of the television.

It’s not just me. Half the people I meet have a dazed expression. We just keep saying to one another: “It’s just such a busy time isn’t it?” as we share a dozen words or so en route to the next appointment.

I guess busy periods are fine as long as they don’t go on forever. I find myself thinking of the police who had their leave cancelled following the terrible situation in Manchester. The families from Grenfell tower who might have had plans for a lazy summer holiday, who now, even if they’re spared personal tragedy, are going to have to spend the next few months trying to sort out their housing needs.

In a crisis we take a deep breath, get on with it, try to help each other out. But what happens when every day feels like a crisis? What happens when living on adrenalin (or caffeine) is the norm?

Cut backs in businesses and public services mean that most of us are trying to fit twice as much into our working week than we used to. And because we then want to make the most of our leisure time, we (by which I mean me) spend our time rushing from one thing to another, making sure the kids are having a positive enriching time and I have done something that is outside the everyday, before crashing back in to it all on Monday (or in my case, Sunday).

I found myself talking to one of our wonderful Churchwardens this weekend about how we prize busy-ness in our society and how hard it is to resist. It reminded me of the fabulous Mark Yaconelli who I once heard speak at Greenbelt, saying “Do you know why keeping a day of rest (the Sabbath) is one of the Ten Commandments? It’s because if we don’t get any rest, we’ll end up breaking the other nine!

He had a point.

I don’t want to be grumpy, tired, frustrated, and hard to be with.

So I promise I will try my hardest to get some rest and not feel guilty about it. I’m not quite sure how I will do it mind you, but at least the principle’s in place. Perhaps we can encourage one another in it. Say things like: “When did you last do nothing and not feel guilty about it”

What do you think? Shall we try it?

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Being Messy

Churches often talk about how important it is to be welcoming. And everyone, of course thinks that there’s is a particularly welcoming Church.
I know of a Church that has the following on its outside notice board:
Warning! Here we practise the inclusive Gospel of Jesus Christ. This means you may be mixing with tax collectors, adulterers, hypocrites, Greeks, Jews, women as well as men, female and male priests, homosexuals, lesbians, the disabled, thieves and other sinners, the dying, white people, black people, Asians and people from other races, Muslims, Bishops, bigots, people of other faiths, strangers, heretics and people with no particular faith etc. etc. In fact, anyone like those with whom Jesus himself mixed.
So beware—this is not a private club. Welcome to all.

There are significant and challenging questions to be considered when we are asking ourselves if we are a truly welcoming Church. What does our welcome look like? How do we move on from making people feel welcome, to helping them to feel a more intrinsic part of the Church community? How good are we at noticing when someone feels left out? How do we develop our friendships, and see our own development in faith, individually and corporately, in relation to this call from Jesus to be welcoming. These are questions that don’t have an easy answer, because they are about our relationships – and relationships are never simple – but nevertheless, it is important that we ask them of ourselves, to ensure that we do everything we can to continue to be a welcoming and loving faith community.
But of course, welcoming isn’t just about Church – it’s about our everyday lives.
What does hospitality look like in practice? Do you like, for example, letting people into your home?
Now, I have to make a confession here. I like to be hospitable, but I like to do it on my own terms – and I am aware that that is a very miserly kind of hospitality. And do you know what my main worry is, when it comes to hospitality?
Messiness.
You see, if I know people are coming, I can tidy up and clean and hoover, and put everything in the right place, and then I can feel comfortable about letting them in.
But if they turn up out of the blue, there is cat hair on the carpet, and kid’s stuff everywhere, and washing up that hasn’t been done, and the children are probably arguing, or watching television with the sound up too loud, and I probably can’t even find the remote to turn it off, (and if I’m really unlucky I was yelling at them just before you rang the doorbell) so I feel embarrassed.  I would much rather any potential guests went away again and came back in a couple of hours when things looked more presentable.
And I suppose what this comes down to, is that I would like to appear more perfect than I am. I would like to look calm and organised (or at least charmingly and endearingly bohemian) with perfect, smiling, well-behaved, sensibly occupied children and I would like people to think that I have a beautiful house that is well looked after. And some of those things (most of those things) (well, alright, all of those things) are most definitely not true.
Hospitality is compromised by our inability to be honest with one another. It is compromised by our fear that we are not adequate. It is compromised by competitiveness and a tendency to judge. And it is simply not possible to be welcoming and at the same time be judging or being scared of being judged. We have to let go of those attitudes, if we want to learn about hospitality – whether we’re talking about being hospitable at Church or hospitable at home, or – even more crucially – being hospitable to God. It doesn’t all have to be perfect before we let them in.

God wants to be part of our everyday lives. The messy bits, the inadequate bits, the not quite sorted out bits as well as the bits that we’re pleased about. Offering hospitality to God in our hearts means to trust him to see past the messiness and to love us just because.
And it is no use waiting to talk to God until we feel a bit more sorted out – because I have news for you – we are never going to feel sorted out. Jesus came to be part of this world for that very reason – we are messy people who cannot sort ourselves out and work our way, nice and tidily and systematically, into the Kingdom of heaven. And he is knocking on the door of all our hearts right now, asking to be invited in – not to sit in the best front room that we have tidied up for him, but to sit amongst the mess, and just be together.
This is not a private club. It is open to all. Including us, messy though we are. May God give us courage to open our hearts to him and to one another, and to build his Kingdom together, one open door at a time.skipwith church open