too much life in the present?

For the first time in 7 years, I’ve skipped a couple of monthly posts.  I haven’t felt the bubbling up that I normally do, that compels me to explore something about faith in my life. Although I’ve tried to do what I normally do, keeping a rhythm of prayer, in meeting with the community of faith as I can, in looking for inspiration and God’s voice, I am left with a sense of nothing to say. Maybe I’m not alone in that. 

Maybe it’s no accident that the lack of blog posts has corresponded almost exactly to addition of a dog to the household.  We’ve never had one before, so it is a steep learning curve, changing our patterns and figuring out how we train Cassie to be more Turner-like.  (In most respects she fits the mould well: fond of food and walks and people.  In others, like that noisy barking and sometimes that annoying and slightly aggressive behaviour towards other dogs, she has a lot to learn.)

Dogs and other pets are, I think, supposed to help us to live in the present.  Cassie forgets everything else if she even gets a whiff of a packet of cheese being opened.  She seems to mostly just enjoy being alive each day. 

But is it possible to get an overdose of too much ‘being present’?  In spiritual life, we are often advised to try to live in the moment as a way of becoming aware of God’s presence and reducing anxiety.  It’s one of the reasons to go on a retreat; to strip away the distractions and worries of normal life and to ‘just be’.  In the past I’ve found retreats and silent prayer amazing in the contrast to my normal life; time away and moments of just becoming aware of the nearness of God’s loving and awesome presence.

So what to make of these current days that force us into a state of semi-presence, unable to prepare much for the future? Lockdown was a more extreme version of our current state but there is still a sense of not knowing what the next weeks and months will bring, and of bracing ourselves for things beyond our control.  I’ve had lots of ideas over the last 6 months, but most have had to be set to one side. Maybe my imagination is tired, or my creative impulses thrive on more light of day than they are currently able to see.

In these times of living one day to the next, how do we do that well?  I’m learning that students still turn up for outdoor coffee in the pouring rain, drawn and open to connect with others.  I’m learning that when groups are good, they’ll continue to be able to provide support through screens and from a distance- even if you don’t provide them with cake.  And maybe, because we are all aware of the limitations that are forcing us to live day-to-day, the openness of others in these days has been noticeable.

I may not like this extended time of living in the present, but I guess we always have to start where we are. This is where we are.  God is here. 

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It might have been amongst the nicest things my brother has said to me.  He had sent me an article about ‘Karens’.  If you haven’t come across this cultural phenomenon, there has been a series of memes about middle aged women who complain and demand their rights and who are critical of everyone outside their circle.  They are generically called ‘Karens’ (whatever their real names happen to be).   What my brother said was, ‘it’s the opposite of who you are,’ a not-Karen Karen.

 

I found that reassuring because, to be honest, because at mid-life and in the circumstance of semi-lockdown and working from home, my sense of who I am has sometimes felt a bit pixelated and distorted in recent months.  I feel a bit sorry for ‘Karens’ but I don’t want to be associated with them.

 

There are temptations to be a ‘Karen’ all the time; like this week, when a company delivered (much later than they promised) 8 desk legs and no actual desk.  How do I let them know, remembering that I will have to sign the name ‘Karen’ at the end of the email?

 

We finally watched A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood last week and I have been thinking about it and the article associated with it ever since.  The film is based on the true story of a children’s TV presenter who profoundly impacts the life of a cynical and hurting reporter who comes to interview him.  (I realise that this may not sound like the basis for great night’s entertainment.)

 

Those of you who didn’t grow up in the States may not have had to the opportunity to develop a screen relationship with Mr Rogers and his puppets and guests.  A staple of my own childhood TV- viewing, Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood began in 1968 and continued for 30 years, hardly changing at all.  What children see is a calming programme, with a repetitive format, that pays a lot of attention to feelings.  If you didn’t grow up with it, you might find it hard to believe that something so simple and same-y lasted all that time.  If you didn’t know more about the man behind it, you might think him a bit strange.

 

Here are a few things that I didn’t know:  Fred Rogers woke up at 5.30 every morning to pray for the people who asked him to (there were a lot) and read the Bible. He also went swimming every morning, which was in part to help him process his thoughts and his feelings. These practices (amongst others) helped him to be truly present to others, especially children, to exude joy in the simple things and to be a trusted listener. He had to do a lot of work with himself behind the scenes in order to be Mr Rogers in public.

 

These words from the Esquire article on which the film story is based have stayed in my mind all week, describing a moment when Mr Rogers prays with the journalist:

What is grace? I’m not certain; all I know is that my heart felt like a spike, and then, in that room, it opened and felt like an umbrella. I had never prayed like that before, ever. I had always been a great prayer, a powerful one, but only fitfully, only out of guilt, only when fear and desperation drove me to it…and it hit me, right then, with my eyes closed…Once upon a time, you see, I lost something, and prayed to get it back, but when I lost it the second time, I didn’t, and now this was it, the missing word, the unuttered promise, the prayer I’d been waiting to say a very long time. “Thank you, God,” Mister Rogers said.

Mr Rogers still has things to teach me.  He’s reminded me that it takes discipline to be in a place where you can be at peace and love others and that remembering our belovedness is central to being happy ‘just the way you are’.  Trying to be a not-Karen Karen takes both work and rest, but ‘his banner over me is love’.

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have

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I’m down to the tiniest scraps of shampoo bar left since the lockdown began. It doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things except that I only finally weaned myself off the plastic-bottle-kind-of-shampoo last year and I’d rather not go back.  Perhaps, like me, there is something that you’ve been missing these last few weeks, whether it is superficial or serious.

 

Unless it’s to do with the necessities of life, I guess scarcity isn’t always bad. In a regular drop-in session at the University of Bath chaplaincy this week (now virtual) we decided to come in costumes made out of what we already had.   A Dalek was the clear winner. Being forced to make-do can be good for creativity.

 

Maybe these days we are getting used to asking ourselves more than ever before, ‘what do I have?’   Do I have everything I need to survive the weeks ahead?  Living comfortably as we did before quarantine, I was not usually limited by what I already had.  If I was missing an ingredient, I could buy it.  If I wanted to gather people, I could invite them.  If I was inspired by something, I could follow through on it. I didn’t have to think about or be limited by what I actually had, be that supplies, relationships or opportunities.   In some ways, what I already had didn’t matter.

 

I’m stuck that this is a strange and privileged way to live, but also that it is an illusion.  What could this teach me about being more grounded in each moment, about stopping to take stock?   I’ve recognised a restlessness that I didn’t know was there.

 

In the first few days of our lockdown, I suggested to the family that we keep a ‘virus diary’, recording for posterity what these days were like. Of course they laughed in my face and have continued to tease me since.  ‘Are you going to put that in your virus diary, mum?’  But in all honesty, I haven’t wanted to keep one either.  What would I write?

 

Your experience may be different, but these days I’ve found it difficult to pray in the same way that I used to.  I wonder if part of the feeling is that praying doesn’t feel that distinct from anything else I’m doing.  Quarantine has had the effect of making God feel both nearer and farther away at the same time.

 

Today I was remembering the story of Jesus feeding thousands of people in a spontaneous picnic.  (Of course it’s hard to imagine gathering like that in a crowd now.)  What I noticed this time was that when Jesus provides people with food, the abundance wasn’t conjured out of thin air, out of nothing. Its starting point was what was already there (in this case, some bread and some fish).  ‘What do you have?’ Jesus asks.  ‘Go and See.’

 

And so though I may be struggling to keep to the pattern of prayer that I had before, and though it may feel that when I do pray I feel like I am just daydreaming, in one way this prayer is real.  I am just bringing to God my concerns, my thanks, my wonder, my now. It’s all I’ve got in my hands.

 

‘What do you have?’ Jesus asks.  Bring that. Come and see.

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glean

 

A few days ago I woke up with the word ‘glean’ in my head and it has stayed with me as I’ve pondered what it might mean.  In case, like me, it’s not a word in your everyday vocabulary, these are two ways that it could be defined:

 

  • to gather grain or other produce left after harvest
  • to gather information or material bit by bit

 

As I’ve thought about it, it’s occurred to me that both of these meanings might be relevant in this time of worldwide virus.

 

In ancient times (and described in some of the oldest parts of the Bible) there was an idea at harvest of purposefully leaving some produce behind in your fields for others. It wasn’t about gathering up every last scrap for yourself or of thinking only of your own family.

 

I was tempted, the last time I was in a sparsely-stocked  supermarket, to pick up the last 2 packets of waffles on the shelf for our seemingly always hungry boys, but I resisted and only bought one because that word was fresh in my mind.  That might be a ridiculously trivial example.  But I’m asking myself how I might more purposefully leave gleanings for others?

 

The second meaning of the word has also felt important to me this week as I’ve tried to consciously gather up all the good and all the beauty and all the blessings that I can in these strange and sad days.  Most of the time, these gleanings have come during my once daily exercise outside or fun with the family, but some have been collected during digital conversations, or hearing stories of hope and faithfulness or the generosity of others sharing gifts from the depths of their prayer.

 

There was a children’s book that we had when I was growing up about a mouse called Frederick. The other mice got annoyed with Frederick because while they were gathering in food for the winter, it looked like he was daydreaming.  However, when the winter came, Frederick filled their days by describing the sun and it’s warmth and the smell of the flowers in the field and the feel of the wind on his whiskers. His was a different type of gleaning – one that filled their hearts-  and a gleaning that also helped them to survive the winter.

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joy

 

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I recently read a review of a book about the future of youth ministry. In this book the author says that Christian youth groups exist for one thing:  joy.

 

Joy.  When I read that word it brought tears to my eyes because I recognised the truth of it.   Youth groups, like other Christian communities I have known, have been places where I have known joy.  Not all the time, of course, but in ways that are deep and holy and surprising.

 

The joy of seeing the Spirit at work in others or in myself.  The joy of sharing the experience of God’s goodness. The joy of knowing that I am not alone. The joy and gift of recognising new truth in the different perspective of another.  The joy of feeling equally children of God with others, without power games.  The joy of shared prayer and shared worship and shared service.  The joy of trust.

 

I have known these things in community, in youth groups (both as a teenager and as a leader), sometimes in church, and with some of my friends and even on my own.  Joy to me is a sign of God’s presence , the Holy Spirit enabling us to see the beauty of Christ in the word and in the world and in one another.

 

When I was on retreat a few weeks ago, I tried to do some very rudimentary stitching expressing how I was experiencing God’s presence.  God felt both near and far in that beautiful and peaceful place.  The joy was huge and filling the sky and right beside me.

 

That’s not to say that God can’t be in our pain or our loneliness or our struggle.  We only need to look at the life of Jesus to know that following in his way is unlikely to mean we avoid those things.  But sometimes we might know a very real joy despite them.

 

Sadly, we probably can’t make joy happen.  It’s a consequence of God’s gift and maybe aligning our lives with the Spirit.  However, we can easily squash joy.   For me, joy is squashed by people asserting power rather than mutual surrender, division instead of openness, selfishness instead of selflessness.

 

As I walked past the building of what seems like an aging and shrinking church near where we live last week, I had the thought, what if that place was known for its joy?  What if joy was bursting out of its windows and doors to its neighbours all around?  How would a neighbourhood be transformed by the simple and natural joy of a community loving God and loving each other?

 

Christian community can teach us to walk in the way of joy and remind us and the world that it is possible.  As C S Lewis wrote, ‘All joy reminds. It is never a possession, always a desire for something longer ago or further away or still about to be’.   Joy is both a memory and a desire, and it’s here. And here.

 

up and down

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When we were first married, we once spent a day looking after our toddler godson. I remember a game that he invented that we seemed to play for hours; we’d take it in turns to shout ‘up and down!’ and then run from one end of the corridor to the other.  Each time we did it our toddler godson laughed with delight (so of course we kept on doing it)!

 

Recently a friend shared that in December he had been thinking about the fact that, despite what some carols might say, at Christmas, Jesus doesn’t ‘come down’, but instead emerges among us.  This small shift feels important to me, and not just for a particular time of year.

 

I wonder how instinctively human it is to think that God is ‘up’ and that we are ‘down’?  You can find these ideas in the Bible but maybe not as much as we might think.  Perhaps medieval paintings have shaped our imaginations.

 

For example, there is no mention at all of angels being in the sky in the Christmas story – they emerge among people. When Jesus ‘rises’ from death, it isn’t to the sky, but to appear to his followers.  Likewise, when Jesus says goodbye to his friends after the resurrection, he is among them one minute and then he isn’t.

 

I hope I don’t sound like I’m getting obsessed with this idea (and I do realise that the Spirit descends on Jesus at his baptism – though, in the form of a dove, it might have been strange to appear in any other way).  It’s just that I think it matters that God chooses to be with us and is often found among us.

 

God’s kingdom is like yeast worked through dough, like a mustard seed in our garden, like hidden treasure, like a pearl in a marketplace.

 

Remembering this will shape my prayer and might help me to notice God at work.  Not looking up, as if trying to spot an alien spaceship or waiting for an intervention. The Word made flesh among us.

 

 

 

 

 

I’m OK with that

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We had a rare opportunity this Christmas to celebrate with both sets of grandparents.  Coming, as they do, from different sides of the world with different expectations and experiences (not to mention political views), we didn’t really know how it would go. But we had a good few days together, eating, playing games and opening presents. Everyone was on their best behaviour.

 

When families get together, there is often a tendency to look for inherited traits, either silently or out loud, or sometimes jokingly like, ‘I have no idea where he could have got that stubborn streak from’. At one point last week, there was a discussion of our 13 year old’s nose and which grandparent it most closely resembled.  Once the analysis was given, he simply shrugged and said ‘I’m OK with that’.

 

It somehow felt quite a sweet moment; affirming of both the nose in question and family links more generally.  But he may just have been being polite.  We all know from our own experience as teenagers or more recently from living with them that a certain amount of breaking free, rebelling against family expectations is normal and healthy and necessary.

 

I’m sure we’re all relieved when conflict isn’t too much a part of our family Christmas (or, if it is, relieved when it’s over).  However, as I look forward to 2020, I feel an uneasy call to seeking more conflict in the year ahead (partly inspired by articles like this one, which is worth a read).

 

Before you think too much Christmas pudding may have gone to my head, let me explain.   I’ve long been committed to getting on with people who are different to me, in fact those relationships have been some of the most important in my life.  However, I increasingly feel that I have slipped into a ‘don’t rock the boat’ kind of acceptance that takes the fire out of life.

 

Difference isn’t going away. Our world is becoming increasingly polarised.  Like many other people, I think I’ve hoped that if I tried to be kind to everyone and kept my opinions mostly to myself, I would be doing my small bit to bring people together.  But the times call for something more.  We are called to deeper, more authentic engagement, which will actually require more love.

 

When I first began writing this blog 8 years ago, my hope was to communicate some part of my experience as a Christian with my friends who didn’t share my faith.  What I suspect is that now, most of the people who are kind enough to read this already mostly agree with me.  (If you happen to be reading this and you don’t, I would love to know.)

 

As much as I am thankful for my family and though it has been very good to spend time together this Christmas, being a follower of Jesus redefines the boundaries of  ‘family’ and this wider family isn’t so great at getting along at the moment.  Growing more and more in the family likeness of Jesus also makes it OK to get angry and to not shy away from topics that are difficult.

 

I’m OK with that.

 

 

 

humble

fullsizeoutput_700aI make brownies all the time but this week made some that came out like rocks.  All the measurements were right and the temperature of the oven was ok, but I was in a hurry and cut a few corners and mixed everything together all at once.  That small difference made them a far cry from what they could have been. (But don’t worry, they got eaten anyway!)

 

I’ve been in my current job as a chaplain to university students for nearly 3 years now.  It’s a role that I love but it occurred to me this week that maybe I was starting to find it too ‘easy’.  When I first started, having a deep conversation with a student was a marvel to me.   Students turning up to something I organised was a miraculous sign of grace.  And every day I truly knew that there was no way I could pull off the job on my own strength.

 

When I pause now, I still feel the same way.  However, these things have become such a regular part of my life that if I’m not careful I’ll forget how impossible they are and begin to act and then believe that I’ve done them by myself.

 

I’ve been reminding myself that there is something about being aware of our limitations and desperate for God’s help that opens up our eyes and hearts to see the wonder around us.  It’s about recognising who we are, neither greater than nor less than who God has made us to be.

 

A memory has popped into my head of something that happened to me when I was 19 years old and working in a summer camp in California.  An elderly couple approached me and said that they felt that they had a Bible passage that was for me.  This hadn’t happened to me before and so it felt significant.   The passage was from the book of Isaiah and was about God looking to those who are humble.  I can remember feeling puzzled by it at the time.

 

Maybe it takes a really long time to work out the beauty of humility.  My 19 year old self didn’t know, that although I would make mistakes, good would still come from them.  She probably hadn’t yet learned the deep healing that comes from being really sorry.  And she wouldn’t know how much she would rely on God on all the adventures to come.

 

I wonder if some of our best work is done when we step aside anyway.  This week some colleagues and I hosted a meal that drew together students with different beliefs and backgrounds.  All we had to do was serve the food and stand back and be amazed by the way God’s kingdom was so obviously in front of us.  In all honesty, we didn’t do anything.

 

I have no doubt that life will keep me humble (even if that reminder comes through baking disasters) but what I want to hold onto from this week is the reminder that this is how God works.  God who is prepared to join us as a baby.  God who gives up dignity and status for the sake of Love.

 

 

marked

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Just over a month ago, I happened to pass a weekly second-hand bookstall in town where all books are only £1.  I stopped to see if they had a particular book I was interested in reading, not feeling overly optimistic, just checking because I thought of it.

 

I didn’t see the book that I wanted but asked anyway and the man said that he was pretty sure he’d seen a copy and that he’d keep an eye out for it if I came back the following week.

 

It’s been a really busy month, so I didn’t even think of the bookstall, let alone have the time to pop in. However, last week I happened again to be passing and so quickly had a look.  There on the front row was the book.  While handing over my £1, I mentioned to the man how pleased I was to find it and he said

 

‘Oh it’s you! I was hoping you’d come back.  That’s given me a little thrill now.  I’ve got a skip in my step! You’ve made my day!’

 

I couldn’t quite believe it. This guy is clearly not in the business for the money.   His reaction (more than getting the book) made my day, too.

 

Actually mattering to a stranger makes a huge difference when modern life sometimes feels full of anonymity.  This guy reminded me of the joy to be found in remembering the small things, in taking the time to notice people.

 

I don’t often remember my dreams but a few nights ago woke up with a faint memory of a dream in which I can only describe as feeling as though I was known and marked by love, almost like a tattoo or a seal.  Marked out to be loved and to love.

 

As I’ve reflected on that honour and that very tough calling that is there for all of us, I’ve been drawn to the well-known passage in 1 Corinthians 13 that is often read at weddings. Though it is expressed very beautifully and poetically, when summed up it simply says that no matter how gifted you are or what amazing things you do, without love it’s all worthless.  It goes even further to say that all that will be left in the end is love.  All that will be left of all your efforts and your good deeds and bright ideas will be the love that was behind them.

 

Recently I saw a social media post that said something like ‘Heaven will be all of the dogs who ever loved you running to meet you at once’.  That might not be everyone’s idea of heaven (and I don’t think it is mine) but I understand the sentiment; the unconditional love and the joyful welcome.

 

In the end we will know the love that has been whispering our name, reflected in beauty around us, in ways that we can’t now imagine.  ‘For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.  And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.’

crossing the road

I’ve just survived another Welcome Week in Bath and have mostly recovered from an intense time of conversations and encounters with new students and providing lots and lots of tea and cake.  I love how open everyone is at this time of year and how responsive they are to expressions of kindness, even if it is exhausting.

 

On campus, this feels easy and natural and expected.  However I noticed that I needed to push myself a bit more to summon up the courage to drop round some cookies to the two student houses opposite our own home.  Because I don’t think it’s commonly done (at least not around here) I wasn’t sure how I’d be received, but both groups of students, you’ll be glad to hear, were very happy to receive some home baking.

 

If literally crossing our road to bless a demographic that is different to my own is a bit tricky, what hope is there for crossing really serious divisions?

 

In this national and it seems, global, political climate it feels more important than ever before to reach out to those who are different to us and to refuse to allow ourselves to become entrenched in any position without first trying to understand those on the other side of the road.

 

And the side of the road reminds me of the story Jesus told about people refusing to cross over to help someone in dire need (in Luke 10) and about the most unlikely person who did. Our neighbours are not generally people that we choose to spend time with; they are the people that we run into on life’s road.  We might not always be prepared.

 

(In the midst of writing this, I’ve just responded a bit rudely to yet another scam call on the phone. Was he my neighbour?  I think, by my own definition, he was.  Oops.)

 

One thing my current job has taught me is that I really like meeting people who are different to me. For example, I even genuinely like Maths students.  Because I was invited, this morning I went along to a Math’s lecture on ‘Ordinary Differential Equations & Control’ and, although I didn’t understand much, I wasn’t bored.

 

There was wisdom and inspiration for me amongst the equations.  Here are some ‘road- crossing’ things I heard:

  • We believe in differential equations because they work. (I wasn’t expecting to hear the word ‘belief’.)
  • It is possible that you won’t understand some things until after the lecture, when you’ve had time to think. (I love that students are being encouraged to ponder.)
  • The reason that we have lectures because students need to see someone else working through the problems. (What a great model for parenting or preaching.)

 

If I can feel enthusiastic about a Maths lecture, there is hope for all sorts of unlikely road-crossing adventures ahead.  I’m sure that practice makes perfect, or at least makes us more ready to respond in the way God invites us to, not missing the opportunities for grace along the way.