From nun school to vicar school.

Candle with Bible, cross and prayer beads

It’s been two years since I began my time with the Community of St Anselm, and over at Lambeth Palace, a new cohort will be just getting to grips with their rule of life. As they step into a challenging daily rhythm of prayer, study and service, as they start to sacrifice their social media and social lives, no doubt some are already wondering just what they’ve let themselves in for.

Meanwhile, 261 miles away, I am a couple of weeks away from beginning my training for ordination. Without intending to worry the new St Anselmers, I’m not the only one – there’s a good handful from my year group who are now somewhere on the path towards ordination. It seems that spending a year focused on listening to God can have dangerous consequences…! And I too am wondering just what I’ve let myself in for.

The two experiences – being part of the Community of St Anselm and studying at theological college – are by no means the same. One was for ten months, with no specific goal but the participation: taking time out for God. The other will take two years, and is all geared towards ‘formation’: that is, preparing me spiritually and intellectually for ordained ministry in the Church of England.

But as I get myself ready for this next adventure, I want to bring with me much of what I discovered during the St Anselm year. In that time there were practical lessons, painful lessons, and the odd spiritual insight – all of them gifts from God, not to be quickly discarded.  Some struck me at the time as deeply significant, and began shaping my life right away. Others have only risen to the surface in the months since we dispersed, perhaps gifts God held in reserve ready for the time I’d need them.

So, here are a few of the things I’ll be carrying with me from ‘nun school’ to ‘vicar school’:

Get God’s priority

When I showed up at Lambeth Palace for the first time and met my ‘sharing group’, we each nervously said a little about why we were there: what had led us to join the community, and what we were hoping for out of the year. My introduction essentially consisted of telling the group that I needed a kick up the backside. I thought I needed fixing, a good clip round the ear and my character seeing to – I was sure that’s what God would give me.

Looking forward two years to when I’ll be (God-willing) made a Rev, it’s easy to feel that’s still what I need. There’s plenty of academic learning to do, but as a vicar I’ll need to be generous, kind, wise, self-disciplined, patient, sacrificial… And the sense of needing to be more of those things could become a heavy burden.

But what I learned over the course of my Year in God’s Time is still very true now: what God want’s to do with me most is draw me ever closer to him. It’s intimacy with him, sharing each moment of each day with him, hearing from him and responding in the ordinary fibres of life. That’s what he cares about. It’s me that God wants, not a hypothetical, polished version of me. And as I look more intently at his face, I’m sure I will find myself changed. But that’s God’s work to do, not mine. I’ve only got one job: draw near.

Commit to community

Alongside the personal disciplines of prayer, study and service, a key aspect to being a member of Community of St Anselm was committing to one another. Before we’d ever met, or even had a list of names, we signed up to share our lives deeply and lovingly with  35 other people from across the world and the Church.

Some were people I could instantly connect with, folks I’d have wanted to be friends with however we’d met. But naturally, some relationships took more work. Sometimes people were irritating. Sometimes we didn’t understand each other. Sometimes it was hard to find the energy to make conversation when it didn’t come smoothly. But what underpinned it all was a sense of safety: we had each committed to take the others as a gift from God, just as they were. And that shaped everything.

Of course, at vicar-school, there’s not such an explicit commitment to one another. The group who happen to be in any one training institution at any one time is created by a whole range of factors: the speed of each person’s discernment process, family circumstances, individual college preferences, recommendations of each diocese… the list goes on.

But that said, it is no less true for this community, transient and accidental as it might seem, that God has called us together at this time, in this place. And while I can’t control how anyone else approaches our common life, I can choose to take each person as God’s gift to the rest of us. I can choose to have the same confidence that I had as a St Anselmer: that God has called me to be his gift to others there too. And I can be active in looking for the ways that God uses the most unlikely and the most difficult of people to help me draw closer to him in the end.

Stay and face it

One of the main differences between committed community and any other social group I’ve been part of, is the way that conflict is handled. Or rather, that conflict has to be handled. I am not one for conflict at all: I’d much rather take a deep breath, walk away, perhaps write an email if something really needs saying. But face-to-face difficult conversations are really not my thing. It’s all so awkward.

In the Community of St Anselm though, it was inescapable. From minor grievances to ongoing and more serious struggles, everything was meant to be brought out into the open to be dealt with in our regular Reconciliation Times. For the most part, these somewhat intense evenings, held in the context of prayer and reconciliation with God, worked well as a space to take one another aside for a quiet word of apology, thanks or even confrontation.

Inadvertently, I found myself at the centre of a rather large controversy during the course of the year, and the kind of conflict it caused was uncomfortable to say the least.  With all eyes fixed on me, my face burning and my stomach twisting, there were times when I really wanted to walk away. But through the painful conversations, the anger and the awkwardness, we found a way through – it was imperfect and clumsy, but we found a way through that looked something like reconciliation.

I would never have chosen that experience. But it’s been fascinating to see how God has used it through my vocational journey. And knowing now that I can be brave – that awkwardness doesn’t kill me – I’m more determined to face up to the tensions and conflicts that theological college may bring. Most Anglican ordinands (in my experience so far!) are pretty nice people. And much as that makes for pleasant conversation over tea and cake, it does sometimes mean we ignore the elephants in the room, hoping they’ll  get bored and wander off. I’m certainly not going seek conflict over the next two years. But where honest, gracious conversation could be more helpful than strained silence, I want to be the first one to offer it. Tea and cake still included, of course.

Make space for silence

With community life sometimes becoming a challenge, it’s perhaps not a surprise that I discovered the value of silence during the St Anselm year. I won’t repeat everything I wrote in 7 lessons of a silenced extrovert but finding time for silence has remained an important part of my life over the last couple of years.

Now, of course, I don’t have silent retreats and designated hours of personal prayer time handed to me. Instead, I’m learning how to live with another person (which is just the most wonderful thing, by the way!) and the new routine and rhythm that brings, as well as beginning to immerse myself in the newly forming college community. So, knowing what a difference space and silence makes to every aspect of my spiritual and social life, I want to be conscious to balance time with other ordinands and their families, time with my partner, and time in silence (whether on my own or not). And if I find I’m getting grumpy, frustrated, lacking focus or motivation, this balance will be the first thing I check. (Well, after checking if I’m hungry or need a nap.)

Discern when you decide

And finally, there’s a habit that began to form over my year with the Community of St Anselm that I want to nurture until it’s entirely instinctive. It’s to consider choices I need to make as times for discernment, rather than simply decisions. During the course of the year, we were encouraged to bring everything to God in prayer, many things to our spiritual companions in one to one sessions, and some things to our sharing groups – all to help us listen to God and act accordingly.

In theory, that’s what the whole lead up to ordination training has been – a discernment process, by which I and the Church have sought to discover God’s calling for me. But it doesn’t end here. And while there is a structured and lengthy journey toward being selected for ordination, most of the other choices I will make in the next few years won’t come with such obvious instructions.

From what subjects to study and essays to write, to roles in college and placements in holidays, to a curacy and all that that entails – there are going to be many more decisions to make. And everything that I’ve learned about listening to God, especially from the Ignatian tradition, is going to be vital. If only I can remember to pause, hold myself back from jumping into everything two-footed, and ask the question: “Where are you in this, God? Where is your Spirit beckoning me to follow?”

I suppose it brings me back to where I started: what I took away from the Community of St Anselm and what I want to take with me to theological training, is the most simple and most wonderful thing I’ve ever learnt.

Draw ever nearer to God. Everything else is for him to work out. 

Advertisements
Posted in Community of St Anselm | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

White privilege and me.

Photo: Alex Klavens

It’s been a few months since I’ve written anything here, and that’s because things have been pretty busy – I’ve finished a job, had a civil partnership, been on holiday, moved house, celebrated family weddings, and enjoyed the glorious glimpse of heaven that is Greenbelt festival. Every so often, I’ve had a quick glance at the news – then promptly turned it off again. Too scary. Too depressing. Too rage-inducing. And while the world at large seems to be going up in smoke, my small corner of it remains pretty calm. Life, for me, is as good as it’s ever been, and probably better.

Why? Why can I relax in the safety of my home and the apparent security of future plans, even while the political world and the natural world are battling it out to cause the most destruction?

Two words: white privilege.

It’s something I’ve been blind to for most of my life, and I want to try this exercise if only to show me how little of it I’m still seeing. Before we start, a pre-empting of the comments: getting to grips with the privilege I have as a white British person is not about:

a) denying the ways in which I don’t have privilege. I’m a woman, a queer woman, a bisexual queer woman. But being white makes those disadvantages much easier to handle than if I were a queer woman of colour;

b) denying the positive influence of other factors in my life, like hard work and supportive friends and family. But being white is like having the wind at my back, making those other factors so much more effective than they might otherwise have been;

c) denying the difficult and painful circumstances, big and small, that make my life far from perfect. Of course every individual has really tough stuff to face at times. But being white means I am always benefiting from a society that works in my favour, even when my personal life isn’t so great.

With that said, here’s the very beginnings of an exploration into my white privilege:

Let’s start with my name. Without seeing me, both my first name and my surname mean I’m assumed to be white. That’s because I live in a culture where white is considered the default – unless you have a name that is, for instance, Arabic or African-Carribean. My name meant that from the moment my parents applied for a nursery place, I’ve started in new contexts with a clean slate: with no race-based assumptions or stereotypes laid over me before I even arrived. My teachers would not have presumed to know anything about my behaviour or my personality before they met me; a privilege which children with names that don’t sound white aren’t afforded. And when I did arrive, people weren’t surprised at my name and my face belonging to the same person. No one struggled to pronounce it. It didn’t stick out on the register. In fact, I barely noticed I had my name. White privilege is often not noticing.

During my education, I was encouraged to achieve my full potential, and no one put limits around it. I had every possibility open to me, because every role model I was given looked like me. From athletes to academics, every achievement was something that white people could do. Of course, I didn’t notice that there were platforms and brochures and posters full of white faces. White privilege is often not noticing. In particular though, I was encouraged to apply for Oxford University, and I had enough confidence to do it. After all, there were people in my social circles who had studied there and the websites were full of enthusiastic faces like mine. I could see myself there. No one told me I’d have to grow a thick skin. No one warned me I’d be the only person of my race in my college, or year group. And no one ever suggested that I’d only got in because of my race. No one questioned my right to be there.

I didn’t notice I was white in Oxford because no one ever asked me to represent all white people. I was never asked to be in a photoshoot for the prospectus, I was never used as a token ‘other’ on a panel, and I was never required to educate others about racism or diversity. No one looked to me for the ‘white person’s experience of Oxford’. People of my race were already very well represented in absolutely every sphere of academic and social life. I was therefore free to be entirely myself, representing no one but me (and Jesus, naturally…).

Coming from a state-school background, and a middle-middle class family, I sometimes felt I had to up my class game to fit in. Rightly or wrongly, I sometimes found myself at fancy dinners and among distinguished guests polishing up my accent and adapting my vocabulary and exaggerating my experiences, to be considered one of them. The thing is, it was easy. Everyone bought it. No one found my accent a surprise, or cast suspicion over my inflated credentials. Because I looked the part, it was easy to fake.

When it came to looking for work, there were again no limits on what people thought I might apply for, excepting my subject choices and skills. But as I threw around ideas and options, no one told me “I haven’t seen a white [career name] before”. It wasn’t hard to find friends, mentors, professional people whose experiences I could relate to and were happy to take me under their wing and give me a chance, because they could see their younger selves in me. I didn’t have to work twice as hard to be taken seriously. I didn’t have to worry about being paid less because of the colour of my skin. And when I frequently made mistakes, I was never made to feel that I was letting my whole race down.

I’ve always felt relatively safe, both as a child and now that I live on my own – even during my years in the depths of South London and the outer estates of Sunderland. That’s because I’ve never worried that my family or I could be victim of a racially motivated attack. I’ve never had to stay calm in the face of unprovoked aggression, knowing that in any altercation I’d be disproportionately blamed. I’ve not have to laugh off racist “banter” for fear of the repercussions if I challenge it. In fact, although I’m sure I’ve sat in groups where such “banter” has gone unchallenged, I’ve quickly forgotten it. Because white privilege is not being affected.

Once, I had to talk to the police about a particularly nasty incident. As an innocent person, it didn’t occur to me that they’d be anything other than kind, supportive and fair. That’s because I haven’t been stopped and searched, or watched people of my race suffer undue suspicion, excessive force, brutality and death at their hands. When my little brother grows up, I won’t worry about him suffering that treatment either. My family and I are white, so we are considered innocent until proven guilty.

With my mind freed from such serious concerns, I can use my energy on trying to be a little more beautiful. I don’t pay too much attention to it, partly because I already have the main feature that society tells me is beautiful: white skin. But when I do choose to browse make up sections, I find products geared towards my skin tone. I find shades called “nude” that match my naked body, and “flesh-coloured” tights that are the colour of my flesh. Hair products that line the shelves are made for my kind of hair, and the models I see plastered on TV screens and billboards aren’t all that different from me, behind all the airbrushing and lighting and products! People didn’t swipe straight past me on dating apps because of my race, and never have I heard someone tell me they’d never be attracted to someone with my colour skin. Society makes me feel ugly in many ways, but not this one.

What have I missed? For every instance of my white privilege that I’m starting to notice, there’s bound to be 100 more that I still don’t see.

What do I do in response? What do we, white people who benefit from systemic racism, change about our daily lives to counter it? I’m working on that. I’m trying to listen to those who are already speaking so eloquently about the need for white people to step up and tackle racism. But for now, the very least I can do is try to open my eyes.

 

Posted in Social justice and politics | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

The body of Christ and its Ministers’ bodies

I blinked, again. I didn’t understand why this woman was looking at me with such eager glee. “Is something happening, is it?” She repeated. I racked my brains. 

Plenty is happening in my life right now, she could mean anything. The civil partnership, now just a few weeks away? My recent recommendation for  training for ordination, and the start of two years at theological college? I tried to work out how much she might know about my life; I wasn’t sure I knew her name, but I was getting used to the fact that parishioners always seem to know more about me than I do about them. After church coffee time often includes this kind of awkward small talk.

“Erm”, I started to reply, still searching for clues as to what had captured her excitement. Then I realised with horror that her beaming smile was directed straight at my stomach. I realised too late what was about to happen, just as she said the words.

“You’re pregnant, are you?! Having a baby!” 

It’s not the first time I’ve been asked. At my previous workplace – where every other day seemed to bring someone else’s announcement of a forthcoming new arrival – I found myself in the lift with a colleague with whom I’d never had a conversation before. Her glee as she glanced at my tummy matched that of the woman in church: “Oh you’re pregnant too! How lovely!” 

And both women looked equally awkward when I replied with a blunt, “No. I’m not.” 

I’ve come to realise it’s a feature of my body shape: with a small frame, it only takes a large lunch to enlarge my stomach, and every one of the extra pounds I usually carry is housed there too. With the help of a little dieting to make sure I stay at a healthy weight, I’m starting to accept that.

But what I’m not sure if I’m ready to accept is that this has to be the pattern in public ministry: people feeling entitled to make comments, seriously or in jest, about my appearance.

The incident in the lift was so striking because it caught me off guard: no-one in the office had ever made a comment based on my weight before, nor other aspects of my appearance. Most people would have been incredibly careful about suggesting someone else was pregnant until they’d heard it from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. But the incident in church came as part of a growing sense that when you’re in some kind of ministry, people are always watching, talking and judging. Just a few examples:

  • I’d been here less than a month when I was accosted about my nail-biting habit by members of one congregation.
  • After Christmas, a male ordinand joked that I’d put on holiday weight.
  • In a morning service, I was praying silently after communion when I looked up to see a woman kneeling at the rail gesturing broadly at me and stage-whispering, “Smile! That’s it!”
  • I took single cookie after church, only to have someone quip, “You’ll get awfully fat!” My face perhaps gave away that I felt something other than amusement, because she clarified that it was a joke, that she was envious of what she perceived as my ability to eat biscuits without gaining weight – but you see why it’s hard to tell the difference.
  • Another morning, I was again praying after the Eucharist and someone came and sat down next to me, just to pinch my cheeks and ask if I was ill because I certainly looked it. I lied and said I’d had a late night, just to hide the feeling of shame.
  • I’ve been told I don’t look old enough to be out of school, and yet also had wrinkles pointed out to me.

Is this what ministry is going to be like for the next 40 to 50 years of my life? And does it have to be?

Is there some theological justification for this culture of entitlement to comment on the physical appearance of those in church ministry – or does being Christian community give us reason to challenge it? Is it a ‘young woman’ thing, or a woman thing, or a young person thing? Am I not yet old enough to have my appearance accepted for what it is, or will I always be too female to be respected as I am?

I’d be fascinated to hear of the experience of others, whether starting out in ministry or many years down the line. Is it part and parcel of being a visible person in church? Have you any wisdom on how to respond, to others or within yourself?

Posted in Gender, My life and faith | Tagged , , , | 20 Comments

In at the deep end: doing Holy Week wholly.

It’s started. 

The week leading up to Easter has always been, for me, a break from busy life. Last year I spent the long weekend holidaying with friends in Wales. Previously, it’s been time off from university and school, time to laze around and maybe go on the odd Easter walk with family.

There’s always been a good bit of church involved: on my keener years in the past, I’ve joined the Maundy Thursday meal of lamb and couscous as we remembered the last supper. The most important tradition for my family was the Good Friday Walk of Witness, in which we’d parade behind a large cross through the local shops and eventually up to a large green hill overlooking the city, singing badly all the way. And of course, there was the usual church service on Easter Sunday morning.

So when I heard that the Anglo-Catholic churches I’m with for my placement this year “do Holy Week” in a big way, I thought I was prepared. Something on Thursday and Friday as well as Sunday, and maybe hot cross buns after the service, right?

How wrong I was.

>> Holy Week began yesterday with Palm Sunday – here, that included the procession with palm branches in the morning, and benediction in the evening (for those not in the know, that’s when a piece of the wafer we use for communion gets put in a sort of holy-sun-frame and everyone kneels in front of it in adoration).

>> Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday are not days off, as previously assumed. No, we have ecumenical worship every evening, and a daily Eucharist which follows either morning prayer or evening prayer. Unlike our normal evening services, these include sermons, so I’m gearing up to preach tonight.

>> Thursday is when it gets serious though. I’ve heard repeatedly that Thursday through to Saturday night is one all one liturgy, but if that’s true it’s a flipping long one. Thursday will begin with morning prayer at 8.30, continue at the Cathedral with silence from 10am, followed by a thing called Chrism Mass. As far as I can work out its a chance for all the clergy of the diocese to dress up and get together, they reaffirm their ordination vows and the holy oils for the coming year are blessed. This all seems very nice but I haven’t yet worked out why it happens in Holy Week; I’m not sure it’s what Jesus and the disciples were up to on the day before Jesus died.

Anyway, the day continues as we head back to church to prepare it for the evening – what that will involve is as yet a mystery. The evening itself includes a rehearsal, for which I’m thankful if a little bemused, then evening prayer and another service that involves foot washing, and of course a Eucharist. As if that were not enough, we then sit in silence until midnight, remembering the hours of anguished prayer that Jesus spent in the garden on Gethsemane.

(I’m not sure exactly when we are expected to eat. There’s no lamb and couscous on offer though, as far as I can tell.)

>> Friday brings with it more prayer, preparing the church, and rehearsals of services. There’s an afternoon of liturgy (I’m not sure what that involves, but I imagine more prayer), evening prayer, and stations of the cross – that’s where you walk through the story of the crucifixion contemplating the various events. I think.

>> I’d assumed nothing much happened on the Saturday – after all, Jesus is dead in the tomb and the disciples are in hiding that day. But wrong again. Along with prayer, preparation of the church (which seems to have endless set changes this week), and more rehearsals, we’re doing something with an Easter garden for the morning. That evening comes the vigil and the first Eucharist of Easter. It’s a curiosity I’ve discovered that in Anglo-Catholic Churches, the first Eucharist of a day can happen the night before. So instead of a dawn service on Easter Day, it’s a bonfire in the evening, followed by a processing of lights into church. It’s seems odd though, that we’ll celebrate the dawn of the resurrection in the dark, then go home to bed before we come back in the morning.

>> The day of the resurrection itself, Easter Sunday, looks strangely like a normal Sunday, after which I’ll head off to see my family for roast lamb and an Easter Egg (looking hopefully at you here, Mum), and probably a good nap.

That, I’m told, is doing Holy Week properly. And truth be told, I’m nervous.

Nervous about the length of the services, watches, vigils. Nervous about the number of services that need rehearsals, of not knowing what I’m meant to do, of tripping over my alb. Nervous about feeling like a fraud. Nervous about falling asleep at the point I’m supposed to be watching and praying, just like the disciples did. Nervous about my mind wandering and whether I’ll really pray at all.

I’m afraid that I won’t understand what we’re doing and why. That I’ll just get more and more frustrated, and spend the week wishing I was elsewhere. I’m afraid that it will all feel alien.

But yesterday as we arrived at the front of church, first bit of choreography and procession complete, the organ struck up the Graham Kendrick classic “Make Way”, and my heart was strangely warmed. There was something about singing this all too familiar song in what still feels like an unfamiliar context, that moved me.

I felt Jesus whisper, “It’s still all about me. You know me. It’s about me.” And it’s that truth which makes me not only nervous, but also expectant this week.

It’s all about Jesus; yes, I know Jesus. The Jesus I came to know through youth groups and sermons, the Jesus I met in charismatic worship and intense Bible studies, the Jesus who sustained me through difficult times as a teenager, the Jesus I wrestled with in my studies, the Jesus who stuck with me when I wobbled, the Jesus I speak with each day – this week is about him.

And I trust that he’s got plans for this week; that as I commit to showing up, to fumbling my way through the unfamiliar, through the many words and the long silences, he’ll meet me in some way. And if I catch a glimpse of him, that’s got to be enough for me. Our priest here speaks often of entering more deeply into the mystery during Holy Week. I don’t really know what that will mean but I think I’m up for it.

Worship might look a little different to what I’m used to. The smells and the rituals and the words might not be the ones I’d choose – though I’m sure there’ll be some I come to love. But whatever else I discover this week, I know Jesus, and I know it’s him I want to worship in the days ahead.

See you on the other side!

Posted in My life and faith | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Mission-shaped girl: trials and errors.

seeds-1302793_1920I had no energy for yet another debate on philosophical arguments for the existence of God. So I backed slowly away and went to play cards instead.

At 17 years old, and having been among the same school friends for most of my life, I’d reached a dead-end in my evangelistic efforts. Over my school years at a proudly non-religious comprehensive, I’d written and performed assemblies on the Christmas story, I’d run schemes like “Text A Christian”, I’d invited friends to youth events at church, and I’d read all the apologetics books I could lay my hands on. I’d set up a prayer group, shared my testimony, answered questions, and generally done all I could to introduce my school friends to Jesus.

Most of them had been curious at some point – many had come to Christian Union for a little while, or read the books I’d given them, or even come to church a few times. For a couple of years, a group of us went to Greenbelt, and a school trip to Iona had also opened up spiritual exploration for some.

But by the end of my school days, I was flagging. Conversations had all been had. I was out of new invitations. Those who’d been interested had mostly become uninterested again. The only people who still wanted to talk about Christianity with me were the mostly-male, mostly-atheist debating types who enjoyed a good argument for the sake of it. I didn’t have the energy for that.

*****

One thought kept me excited though. I knew that in just a couple of years time, I’d see mission that really worked.

The ‘University Mission Week’ was the time I’d really see God in action. I’d heard the stories – at universities there were thousands of young people, and among them hundreds who were searching for God. An annual week full of evangelistic talks and events would bring crowds to hear about Jesus, and I would have the sheer joy of seeing friends respond to the gospel. Simple!

Of course, university did not turn out to be a factory of ready-to-convert spiritual seekers.

Over my three-year journey from an enthusiastic but naive fresher, to hardy college Christian Union leader, to cynical finalist, there was a lot to learn about mission. There were 8am prayer meetings, then there were weeks of guilt. There were fruitful conversations late into the night, then there were dismissive rejections. There were curious friends who were glad to receive the first event invitation, but after the 28th, would run when they saw us coming. There were training sessions on how to read the Bible with friends, and role plays to practice asking them to – we’d rehearse our gospel elevator pitches to one another, trying not to forget any essential element in a 60-second explanation.

For the most part, we had a narrow view of what success meant – numbers at events were important, numbers of response cards filled in were more important. ‘Good’ conversations were people asking sincere questions about Christianity, and a really good conversation was one where a summary of the gospel could be presented. There were moments of celebration when someone eventually prayed ‘the sinner’s prayer’, but many more people who never said those magic words.

*****

I have no doubt that our hearts were in the right place – we just wanted people to know Jesus.

God was kind, and often used our efforts for good. But we made mistakes, we offended almost everyone, and we often paid more attention to our  own agendas than to where and how God might have been at work before we arrived on the scene. And by the end of it, I had once again lost all motivation for anything that I’d previously thought of as ‘mission’.

I hope God sympathised. I think he understood. I know he forgave.

And he spent the next three years expanding my perception of mission far beyond getting people to swallow the gospel-medicine off a spoon and receiving their ticket to heaven. Working with Christian Aid, joining movements against poverty and for the planet, challenging unjust structures in society, and practicing everyday kindness, forgiveness and generosity – all these were part of how God taught me to join in his mission during the stage of life I spent in London.

*****

Surprisingly, it’s here in Pennywell that I’m finding fruit of all those many trials, errors and lessons.

Having had a rest from relentlessly presenting the Four Points or Two Ways to Live, I’ve rediscovered that enthusiasm for sharing in simple terms the good news with people who haven’t heard it. And with the fire of justice still burning in belly, I’m glad of the opportunities to serve people in practical ways, with no agenda but to love those God loves.

There’s something different here – a new ingredient that’s made mission make sense. It’s being small group of people who love Jesus living very ordinary lives among people who haven’t really thought much about Jesus. Not a sensational ingredient, granted, but the focus on ordinary life has made all the difference for me.

As a student, I sometimes considered myself a missionary on three-year placement; the Christian Union were, we were told, the missionary branch of the local church. And so a frantic urgency was what drove my evangelistic attempts – a single-minded focus on speaking the gospel to everyone I came into contact with.

As a young professional in London, my participation in mission was at arm’s length – lobbying my MP, raising money for partners in the poorest parts of the world, marching for the climate, were all activities that could make some small impact on the whole planet, yet not touch my personal relationships.

*****

But here, the only plan is to live an ordinary life as someone who loves Jesus.

The grand plan is… to make tea. Eat biscuits. Go to the shops. Take the car to the garage. Visit people. Weed the garden (very occasionally). Walk. Write. Pray in the morning. Sit on the wall. Pray in the evening. Open the church. Listen.

It’s freed me up to listen to God’s plans, to look around and see what he’s already doing. It usually takes me by surprise, like the small boy who turned up on my doorstep a few months ago and asked “What’s the best thing about God?”

I’ve not once felt compelled to awkwardly shoe-horn an explanation of the gospel message into a conversation, but I’ve lost count of the times it’s naturally come up, as local children ask questions about our faith and begin to explore their own.

And there’s no shortage of ways to put love for people into action, from picking up litter on the streets, to carrying the neighbour’s shopping back from Asda, to organising half-term activity days for families. There’s usually no distinction between the two: gospel word and gospel action both seem to bubble up in ordinary life.

*****

I don’t have a snappy conclusion, but if I’m honest, that seems fitting.

The conclusions I’m drawing about mission are not dramatic – it’s about the mundane. This week, we baptise two girls from across the road, the first two children who chatted to me on the street here. God’s mission in their lives, and in the life of this community, is surely much bigger than me or our churches.

And for the brief time that I’m here, it’s a privilege to join in with it.

Posted in My life and faith | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Waiting: it makes no difference.

person-1031023_1920

We packed our bags, loaded up the van, and set off on the 8-hour drive to the North East – and it felt like the moment had finally come.

Since Rose was accepted for ordination training, we knew our lives were about to change. Since we’d decided on her training college and I’d accepted my placement, we knew where that change would take us. Since I’d handed in my notice at work, we knew the change was official. Since we’d booked removal vans and organised goodbye parties, we knew the changes were imminent. We’d been waiting, waiting, waiting – for the best part of a year. And when we set off to the North East, the waiting was finally over.

And yet, it didn’t end at all.

***

A few weeks into term, I went somewhat nervously to my first ‘Spice’ Bible study, a group for the spouses of those in vicar-training.  The theme, to my surprise, was waiting. And as this room full of women (yes, they were all women) opened up and shared snapshots of their lives, I realised there was no one there who wasn’t waiting. And many had spent a long time waiting.

Waiting while their partners were in the discernment process… waiting to see if life would be turned upside down by God’s call. Waiting for the decisions… waiting for the move. Waiting when they’d got to college… waiting for school places for children… waiting to find work… waiting to feel settled. Waiting when curacies were being discussed… waiting for visits… waiting for decisions. Waiting for a clearer vision of the future… waiting for a home to settle in for more than a couple of years… waiting to carve out a role for themselves in a new place and a new life.

We talked about being in liminal space – having moved on from the old and familiar, but still waiting for the new to begin. It seems to fit theological college life for both ordinands, waiting to embark on the ministry they’ve been called to, and their families.

***

As I’ve embarked on my own process of discernment with the Diocese, I’ve found that almost every day of every week involves waiting – waiting for paperwork, waiting for meetings, waiting for letters, waiting for interviews, waiting for panels, waiting to hear. There have been times when it’s felt exciting, fast and fun.

And times when I’ve been glad of the breathing space.

And times too, more recently especially, when the waiting has been almost more than I can bear. It’s weighed heavy on my chest, claiming every spare thought when my mind isn’t otherwise occupied.

But whatever the outcomes of all our waiting, of this waiting (because there will surely always be more)… nothing will change, not really.

Sure, on one level everything will change. I’m living at the moment in two communities: one where we’re all involved in vocational discernment and the other where people are preparing for ordination. And it’s so intense because of the enormity of the decisions and changes we’re dealing with. To seek to hear and respond to God’s call affects everything – the person you are… the role you embody… the prayers you pray… the place you live… the churches you serve… the work you do… the family you nurture… the home you open… the people you welcome. It’s no wonder this waiting seems to take over everything else.

But at a more true, more real level, nothing will change. I’ve found encouragement and comfort in the last few weeks from singing and praying about the faithfulness of God. Looking back at the years of my life (you do a lot of that in the discernment process), I can see clearly how God has been close, been guiding, been shaping, been challenging, been calling. I can see how God has never once left me alone. I can see how he’s orchestrated and inspired, breathed life and fanned flames. And I trust that his faithfulness will never change, no matter what comes next.

And looking forward to the possibilities of the years ahead (there’s a lot of that too), I already know what my life will look like: it looks like adventuring in God’s story. It looks like listening for his voice, being obedient to his call, going when he takes us, diving into his will, embodying his love, serving his people, working for justice, fighting for peace, and relentlessly sharing the good news that the Kingdom of God is near.

The rest is detail. Significant, important, life-shaping, but detail. 

So wherever my wait takes me, I’m safe in the knowledge that God is faithful and God has already given me all I need to get on with life in his adventure. 

Posted in My life and faith | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

I’ve seen hope born.

It’s hard to tell a story that isn’t yours alone – especially a story that weaves in and out of years, a story that can’t be untangled from everything else you’ve known.

I’ve told my Mum she needs to write her book one day, her memoirs will be a best-seller. Perhaps I’ll write mine then too. But this year has been an especially important chapter in that years-long story. So I’m hoping she doesn’t mind that I’ve used it as a chance to shape a little of the story so far into something simple.

2807561013_64bfb98783_oPhoto: Andrew Bowden

I’ve seen hope born;
stark not softly lit or sweet-smelling,
no warming glow for any
who looked on.

And I’ve seen hope born
after nine rounds with denial,
sleepless nights looking for signs
it could be delusion.

And I’ve seen hope born;
but before it came a sickness
never more than a layer beneath
fragile surface skin.

And I’ve seen hope born
in the wake of weary wailing;
circular sobs that rumbled on with rarely
a breath for years.

And I’ve seen hope born
through doubting, daring tussles;
false pangs of life that threatened
to deaden faith for good.

And I’ve seen hope born
when siren screams reverberating
sounded relief, of sorts,
from urgent silence.

And I’ve seen hope born
when all was gone
but a bed, meal, call
to hold on.

Yes, I’ve seen hope born
in the intercession of the faithful,
in a pile of cards encompassing more
prayers than you know.

And I’ve seen hope born
as wise people came around and offered
their own stories of death and birth
to deliver yours.

And I’ve seen hope born
unnoticed to the uninitiated;
earnestly early at the station
to dispel my doubt.

And I’ve seen hope born,
lingering on the yet-unmentionable,
unprompted but by humility;
received with shy thanks.

And I’ve seen hope born
and it’s weak cries slowly wakening,
to gulp great gasps of life
as if the first.

And I’ve seen hope born
and freed from expectation,
waking up to wonder at life
hard won, now new.

Yes, I see that hope is born,
I see you.

Posted in Poetry, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments