appreciating your eyes

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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.

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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

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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. 

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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)

glasses

IMG_8411I learned from some students recently that ‘tag’ has become a professional sport, with leagues and global tournaments.  Competitors take it in turns to chase each other around a small indoor arena that looks a bit like a playground, climbing over and under things and rolling and diving to catch or avoid being caught.

 

We’ve just had The Big Glasses Search in our house, which felt a bit like that. I lost my new glasses a month ago, was convinced that they were still in the house and the whole family has been involved in searching every possible place they could be, clearing out cupboards and even going through the recycling, item by item. I offered incentives and rewards and asked praying friends to pray for a miraculous find.  Meanwhile, I’d been making do with an old pair of glasses.

 

The missing glasses just didn’t turn up and so we finally contacted the insurers to check if they would be covered and I reluctantly went along to the opticians to order a replacement pair. I sat down at a desk as a file with my name on it was taken out. ‘That should be no problem,’ the optician said, ‘let me just check that we’ve got all the details we need.  Yes… that looks good.  You had Elle frames that we’ll have to order again’ he said, looking up, ‘which are exactly like the ones you are wearing now’.

 

I now have an answer, should I ever wish to share this story again, to the question of my most embarrassing moment.  It felt like a tumbleweed could have rolled across the shop as the optician, in his trendy yellow glasses looked quizzically at me while the penny dropped. ‘Thank you very much but I guess I won’t be needing that order,’ I managed to say while pushing out my chair and leaving the shop as quickly as I could.

 

In case my stupidity isn’t obvious, I’d somehow convinced myself that I’d lost my new glasses, when it seems it was my old glasses I’d lost.  (The frames were actually quite similar…)  All that time I was agonising, the answer to my prayer was already there, sometimes even literally before my eyes.

 

I’ve just been on a 3-day silent retreat.  This is something I’ve done before but it had been a little while.  I deliberately brought very little with me:  my bible, a journal, some art supplies and one other book. I stayed in a converted pig-pen with a well stocked larder and with hundreds of birds for neighbours in beautiful and extensive grounds.

 

The first day, I kept myself busy, going for walks, coming up with a mental timetable for meals and reading and sketching but by day two I had already begun to relax into it and moved more slowly and looked and listened for longer. God’s presence was there, tangibly and beautifully.

 

But the ridiculous thing is that God’s presence is also here, back home, in the noise and amongst the busyness.  Life doesn’t have to feel like a game of tag, but we can be aware of God in a deep breath, a holy word, an act of kindness; God’s as near as the glasses in front of my face.

 

give

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Over the Christmas holidays, our extended family gathered for the first time in four years.  The arrangements weren’t simple; including accommodation for 16 people and international flights and the ages in the group ranging from 5 to 75.  One of my siblings (who is very organized) produced a shared ‘Google Doc’ months ahead of the gathering listing possible meals we could cook, activities we could do together and trying to pinpoint individual preferences.

 

However, a couple of days before we got together, my other sibling sent a message saying that planning too much in advance took away from the fun and spontaneity of being on holiday- we should just figure things out as we went along.  They were both right (in a way) but it showed how different our approaches to life and the way we do things in our own families can be, despite our shared DNA.  (And it all turned out OK – we had a great time.)

 

I’m writing on the eve of a significant birthday, the kind of number that makes me look back at choices I’ve made and the distance I’ve travelled.  It’s also the kind of number that challenges me, like the question in Mary Oliver’s poem ‘The Summer Day’:

‘Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?’

 

Perhaps this is part of my midlife crisis but I’ve had some thoughts this week about what God is like.  I’ve remembered that Jesus offers the world self-giving love, emptying himself to live among us, pouring out his love to the point of death.  God sacrificially gives the greatest thing that God can give.

 

That’s extraordinary enough in it’s own right, but a little line from the song ‘Reckless Love’ caught my attention this weekend:  ‘still you give yourself away’.  It’s one thing to marvel about sacrifices made in the past, but this is talking about God giving himself away in the present tense.  It’s talking about vulnerable, costly love that God continues to have for us.

 

Not to be too morbid about it but I wonder if it hints at the call for the next stage in life’s journey:  giving myself away.  What if I could aspire to live in a way that was less about counting the cost and more about sharing all that I have with the world?

 

Life is unpredictable and although we may be great at planning or spontaneous, there’s no way of knowing what comes next.  What doesn’t change is the love that is offered from God’s own self and the chance to reach out a hand and see where the adventure leads next.

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pickle

How can you be married to someone for 19 ½ years and not know that they hate Branston Pickle?  Of course I knew it wasn’t his favourite, that he preferred his mum’s homemade pickle or maybe organic chutneys containing local fruit and vegetables.  But hate? Such a strong word for an unassuming classic.

 

To be honest, it wasn’t just the shock revelation about condiments that rocked my world, it was the use of the word ’hate’.  Anyone who knows him would say that it isn’t a word you would expect him to say.  (And while we are on the subject, he also hates twice-toasted toast.  Now you know.)  You can spend a lot of time with nice people before you know what they are simply tolerating.

 

If you were ever at our house at a mealtime, you might assume that Phil also loves to do the washing up.  He is often the first to the sink and sees the job through to the end.  However, if you did come to that conclusion, you would be wrong.  He feels the same way about washing dishes that most of the rest of us do.  But he does them because he loves us. (At least I know that much.)

 

It’s easy to take things at face value, to think we know something or someone.  He might have gone on eating cheese and Branston pickle sandwiches politely for even more years without saying anything.  The family could wrongly have assumed he had a love of suds.

 

It’s hard sometimes, too, to feel anything fresh about Christmas. We know that story.  We’ve sung those carols.  There’s nothing new here.

 

Except that there can be if we give time to go there.  There is lots to wonder about.  This year the new question that occurred to me was, ‘ did Mary to go with Joseph to Bethlehem to register in the census because it was legally compulsory for her too – or did they decide to do that?’

 

Or a familiar Christmas carol has suddenly made sense. I realised in a carol service last week that the words of ‘Long Ago Prophets Knew’ make us imagine that we are right there in the stable, in the middle of labour, waiting for the baby to be born- celebrating even before the birth has happened.  Though I’ve sung it many times, it became powerfully new and different. (Lyrics here, tune here, if you are interested.)

 

In an attempt to see Christmas from a different angle, we’ve been looking with a group of students at some of the songs that pop up around the Christmas story in the book of Luke.  I’ve been struck again in our conversations that these are not easy or safe words, but are passionate and political and world-changing.  This is a moment like no other.

 

What are you longing for this Christmas?  We all have different ways of approaching and celebrating this season, but I’ll share links to the passages below in case you would like to find a few moments to use them to go deeper, discover something that speaks to you and maybe experience new hope and new joy and new love this Christmas (whether or not it is blessed with Branston Pickle).

Luke 1. 46-55 

Luke 1. 68-79 

Luke 2. 29-32 

cry

 

IMG_7674When I meet Christians from different countries, I’m curious about the ways they express their faith in their own countries.  What does it feel like to follow Jesus in Mexico or Pakistan?

 

We can’t help but be cultural beings, but I have to confess that sometimes I feel a bit trapped by the ways my culture tends to expresses faith. There is a much wider world of experiencing God’s love in Jesus, than my tiny bit of the planet normally acknowledges.

 

A British student with Nigerian heritage recently told me that her mother stopped wearing earrings when she became a Christian because she felt that God was saying to her that they were a symbol of slavery, not of freedom.  This was something I had never considered before and I was challenged by it.

 

I felt that I had to pay attention when two people in separate conversations and from totally different parts of the world, said the same thing to me recently.  I happened to ask both a Methodist academic from Fiji and a Methodist pastor from Korea if people in their churches worshipped any differently than we do in the UK.  I think I was probably expecting them to say something about music or the way they organised their communities so I was a bit surprised by what they did say:

 

‘We cry when we pray.’

 

That’s it. That was the first difference that came to them.

 

I’ve been thinking about that a lot. Why don’t we cry when we pray?  There is certainly a lot that we could cry about; war in Yemen, the hopeless situation of refugees, the victims of injustice, the politics of fear all around us; not to mention our own sorrows and heartaches.

 

I have sometimes found myself in tears praying at home or in church; the music or words or prayer sometimes unlock things that I have been unknowingly trying to hold back, but it doesn’t happen very often.

 

I suspect that if we somehow made a habit of crying in church a lot of people would run away, terrified.  In fact I have met people who didn’t want to return to services where people have been crying, it was that scary for them.

 

But I wonder if we are blocking off a normal human expression of longing, of pain, of regret that are actually a part of a life of following Jesus, alongside the joy and the peace?  I wonder what new things would be opened up for us if we were willing to be vulnerable in this way?  Tears might be messy but I wonder if an expression of glib optimism is equally off-putting, and ultimately unhelpful for the bumpy road of life?

 

Strange though it sounds, Jesus said that we are blessed when we mourn.  Perhaps it is because that when we cry, we are becoming like him and our hearts are enabled to grow when our defences are down.