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.

 

 

middle

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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

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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.