marked

fullsizeoutput_6fc8

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.

 

 

middle

fullsizeoutput_6e29

I’m pretty sure this kind of thing has happened to you.   We don’t have an ‘Alexa’ but the boys and I got a little bit freaked out when, at one end of the room where they were playing Fifa on the Xbox they commented about how much they liked the  Monaco team kit.  Although I was doing something else, when they mentioned ‘nice dark green’ my ears pricked up so I noticed when, within moments, an ad for the Monaco football kit appeared on my laptop, right in the middle of the screen.

 

I don’t know much about this, but I’ve read before that where things are placed, either on shelves, or on paper, or digitally, makes a big difference in terms of the likelihood of being noticed.   Middle is best. In supermarkets companies pay more to have their products placed in the middle, at eye-level.

 

A friend who is studying creative writing told me last week that in comic books, the middle of the page is the most important panel, because your eye is drawn there first, even before you go to the top left hand corner to follow the sequence of events.  His comments got me thinking.  If my life was a comic book, what would be in the centre panel today?

 

For me the answer might be different on different days but last week it was a student called Diego from Mexico City who was staying a few days with us.   Having guests has the potential to change us – the topics of conversation, the food we eat, our attempts to help them feel at home.  We’ve had other guests this summer who have left a lasting impression, long after they have left, and our lives have been deepened by their company.  When you have people staying with you, most of your normal life doesn’t change at all but somehow you see what is ordinary in new ways.

 

We saw the musical ‘Hamilton’ yesterday which brilliantly highlights a lot of the issues of our day – even while being set in the 1700s.  One of the many catchy songs has the refrain ‘I wanna be in the room where it happens’. It felt poignant at a time when some leaders appear to be acting unilaterally to jeopardise our future in this relentlessly depressing and infuriating political climate.

 

‘The room where it happens’ might be a political reality but it occurred to me that there is another room that I have a lot more control over; the interior room of my heart.  Resistance here looks like holding close to the one who holds me, loving this guest who is also my host, who created and sustains the world, but loves in ways that look powerless.   Marvellously, he is the apple of my eye and I am his.

 

When I was a university student, ‘Manifesto’ by Wendell Berry spoke powerfully to me.  I came across it again the other day and some its words prophetically challenge me now.   May it be true in the room where it happens.

 

When they want you to buy something

They will call you. When they want you

To die for profit they will let you know.

So, friends, every day do something

That won’t compute. Love the Lord.

Love the World. Work for nothing.

Take all that you have and be poor.

dancing man

IMG_9061

Last week on holiday I was aware that as the boys get older, I sometimes feel like a minority in the family in the way that they’re up for doing more than one strenuous physical activity in a day, want to watch action films, embrace risk.  I don’t really think any of us totally fit with stereotyped gender roles or preferences, but still…. I’m aware of my own difference in ways that I haven’t been before.

 

I know it’s a blessing that the boys are mostly still happy to spend time with us – even when it involves attempting a car-free holiday, carrying everything that we need in backpacks. But maybe this is part of it – when we travel in this way, the whole journey is part of the adventure (even if parts of it are tedious) and we’re pretty egalitarian in sharing the decisions and the cooking.

 

We’ve just been for our third trip to Iona.  When we went there for our honeymoon 20 years ago, we said we’d return every 10 years if we could.  There have been a few changes in that time, but most of it was exactly the same as we remembered.

 

Iona is breathtakingly beautiful and it is a place that many people experience as imbued with God’s presence or a ‘thin place’.  I certainly loved being there and meeting the other people who are drawn there, for whatever reason.  We went on walks that we have done before and explored the places that people visit, including Iona Abbey where regular prayers are held that anyone can join.

 

All of this was good but my best moment was seeing the dancing man.  Mark was already impressive as a host/volunteer at our youth hostel. He made home-dried edible seaweed that he shared with the guests and brought in combs of honey to share from the beehive, as well as regularly passing through the kitchen to clean up things that people had overlooked.  All of these things he did with a quiet grace that enabled others to feel welcomed and at home.

 

One night, near sunset, we were walking back to the hostel and we saw Mark on the top of a hill, facing the sea, dancing with abandon.  We couldn’t tell at that distance if he had earphones or if he was dancing to some kind of inner music. He was doing what I wished I could do; freely celebrating the beauty of creation, the mystery of love, the wonder of being a part of it all.  It was the perfect reaction for that place at that moment.

 

As we move into the first part of the next 10 years, I want to be more like the dancing man and I hope that our boys will feel free to listen and respond to the way that the Spirit leads them, too.  What would it be like to be in touch with that joy in our everyday lives?  If you spot me on a hilltop at sunset, you’ll know what I’m trying to do.

appreciating your eyes

fullsizeoutput_6c22

 

We were having breakfast at 3.15am this morning, ahead of our youngest getting on a coach for a school trip to France.  I assumed it was just early morning bleariness when I asked why he was looking at me so intently.

 

“I’m just appreciating your eyes,” he said.

 

There’s nothing like the thought of separation to make us value those around us.  It made me look again at his, too, and to try to keep a brave face at the thought of him going abroad for the week.

 

These days I’ve been also saying goodbye to lots of students; some who are leaving for good, some who are planning to come back, some who I will see at their graduations in a couple of weeks.  These conversations feel like a privilege and a reminder of the blessing I have had in knowing them.

 

I’ve also been collecting ‘reviews of the year’ from the students who have been living in Chapel House, our experiment in Christian community in Bath.  It’s felt like a rich harvest of wisdom as I’ve listened to the things that they have learned about themselves and God this year.

 

What they said affected me so strongly that I thought I’d share some of their thoughts with you. These are students on different courses, with different backgrounds, connected to different churches but who decided to take on the challenge (in addition to their studies and everything else) of creating community by sharing their lives together by praying together everyday and sharing meals together, supported by a wider group of non-students from the church next door.

 

Here are some of the things they said:

 

I’ve learned that living with 7 people shows up selfishness and requires grace.

 

I realised that I needed God’s help to relate to people and to understand them more.

 

I learned that I needed to be more open rather than being closed when life is hard.

 

My housemates have over the months felt more and more like my family to the point where I felt a sense of relief and calm when I put my keys in the front door.

 

I feel like I have grown and my faith has deepened.  Someone told me that this year I ‘carried peace and joy’ which is the opposite of the anxiety and depression that I thought I might carry.

 

One of the hardest parts has been wanting people to understand that the little things they did or didn’t do affected the whole community like the slogan:  “Each purchase we make is a vote for the world we want to live in.” It’s also true of community.

 

Living in community requires compromise, understanding, selflessness, discussion, openness and accountability for it to be good for others.  But there also needs to be courage, prayer and vulnerability to say when the home isn’t fulfilling your own needs.

 

The whole community flourishes when people actively contribute to the process.

 

I’ve learned in our prayer times that you get so much out of it when you’re honest and vulnerable.  Saying your deep prayers out loud has such an effect on people. Being able to see what God is doing in someone else is so encouraging. It’s been so great to pray everyday and so much can come from that.

 

I’ve learned a lot from these people (and appreciated their eyes) and feel thankful for the way that living in Chapel House, though hard at times, has been a good atmosphere for growth and blessing for them all.  God is good.

IMG_8722

wonderful

I haven’t been to many festivals, let alone Glastonbury, and I was a bit embarrassed to admit this to its creator, Michael Eavis, when he visited the University of Bath last week.  He was coming to speak about the ‘Life and Purpose of the Festival’ but what he was really talking about, naturally, was his own life and purpose.

 

At 84, he has a lot of stories to tell and it was clear that as he looks back over his life, he sees a continuity between his farming and chapel-going ancestors and their values and his own life, however much they might not recognise their own fields in the last week of June.  He said that his Methodist roots give him a desire to work for peace and that peace was the vision behind the first festival and that singing hymns (which he still turns up for most Sundays) gave him his love for music.

 

He came across as a benevolent, caring person, quick to laugh and genuinely interested in those around him.  As I waited for him at the end of his talk, I was impressed by the way he turned the spotlight on each person who wanted to speak to him, whether it was a student who had sold him a pair of Skechers last summer, someone who’s sister worked on his farm or another student who’s family had a tipi business that supplied the festival.  Each person seemed to bring him joy.

 

But the thing that struck me the most was the way he repeated, ‘Isn’t that wonderful?’ as he told his story, whether it was a beautiful summer’s night back in the early days, or the way a team is working to make the festival plastic-free.  The ability to look back at a life full of grace and wonder is something I guess we would all like at 84, even if our achievements are quite different.

 

I’ve just read a beautiful book about aging by Atul Gawande called ‘Being Mortal’.  As a surgeon, he offers a critique of the systems we have put in place to lengthen life without working for the things that make life meaningful.  How can we ensure that we and those we love live a good life right until the end?  His approach is to ask people at the end of their lives what their ‘goals’ are and then to try to fit treatment around those goals, rather that fitting a patient into a medical machine.  No matter what our current health is, I wonder if asking ourselves more often what we really want from our days would change the way we live?

 

 

This morning, reading Psalm 103, I was struck with the image of life being short, fading like a flower or wilting like grass.  However, I also noticed that the writer highlights God’s compassion for us dust-dwellers, renewing our strength like an eagle in flight and forgiving and rescuing us when we need it. God is merciful and full of grace towards us through the ups and downs of life and that love lasts forever. Isn’t it wonderful?

 

 

(photos by Anna Barclay)

 

 

 

 

it’s mutual

IMG_E8474

This piece of graffiti caught my eye recently.  What made ‘we want mummy’ even more strange is that it was on a bus stop mostly used by University students.  But maybe this isn’t odd at all.  Perhaps this is prophetically and deeply true.

 

If I were to try to get inside the head of the person who wrote it, I would guess that what they meant was that they want unconditional love, a safe embrace, someone to understand and feed them.   These are all things that we want from the very beginning of life and that never go away, whatever our mothers are like.  As we grow older, we may look for these things in other places (as we should!) but those infant needs, expressed differently, will always be with us.

 

Mothering Sunday is coming up this week in the UK and on that day it is common for women to be presented with flowers in church.  In my experience it is often a daffodil, more technically known as a narcissus, that is handed out.  I don’t think there is any particular reason that these flowers are used, apart from the fact that they tend to bloom at the right time.  But I’ve been wondering about the strange conjunction.

 

In the myth that gives the flower its name, the handsome Narcissus makes the mistake of catching his own reflection in a river and falling in love with himself.  He is so consumed with passion for himself that he burns up and only a flower is left behind.

 

From what I’ve read, as humans we might demonstrate narcissism or we might have the more serious narcissistic personality disorder, but in either case, narcissistic people will find community difficult.  An inflated sense of self, a lack of empathy, difficulty in accepting criticism and the need for admiration or attention are the most common traits associated with narcissism.  It seems to me that these are things that all of us can slip into from time to time.

 

For those of us who are parents I wonder how we get the balance right in terms of rightly praising our children without confusing them into thinking that they are in some way entitled?  We live in enlightened times, with the focus on self-care and self-esteem and identity.  You would think it would be an age when people were the most well-adjusted, and self-assured and positive about themselves and others, but I’m not sure  it’s true.

 

I wonder if what is missing is family?  By this I don’t necessarily mean nuclear families.  The first Christians were pretty radical in terms of re-defining their family ties to include a much wider group.  We need a community to distract us to look up and feel safe enough to embrace the messiness of the real world.   Of course it isn’t only mothers who can offer love and safety and understanding, and even with the best of human relationships, our infant needs will still remain in some form.

Could wanting mummy also be a longing for God? If so, I’m pretty sure the feeling is mutual. 

IMG_8503

 

The Lord answered,
“Could a mother forget a child
who nurses at her breast?
Could she fail to love an infant
who came from her own body?
Even if a mother could forget,
I will never forget you.                       (Isaiah 49.15)    

 

I took Israel by the arm
and taught them to walk.
…I led them with kindness
and with love…
…I held them close to me;
I bent down to feed them.

    (Hosea 11.3-4)

I have often wanted to gather your people, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings…

(Jesus in Matthew 23.37)