Category Archives: Faith

stories from the Christian family

Seeking kindness at Christmas

Last week, amidst all the pre-Christmas chaos, I had a day off and I would like to say thank you to the universe. A day when Jesse was with his childminder and I wasn’t working. I didn’t organise the house or write lists, I didn’t try to get a hard start on finishing up work before maternity leave, I didn’t sort through the baby clothes or make bunting or tidy up the relentless toy chaos or get on top of Christmas (despite all those inner voices telling me I should). I spent the morning sitting in bed.

And I found myself craving kindness.

I am tired and there is so much to do. Parenting our little boy is a beautiful, sublime gift and a gruelling marathon, intensified during that last week by our attempts to wean him off his milk bottles (he’s quite indifferent to the milk itself but completely addicted to the comfort of sucking on the bottles). Andy was doing all the hard yards and the crazy wake-ups because I was exhausted and emotional. I felt grateful and guilty and scared Jesse would never sleep a whole night again.

Our new home is an incredible gift and a joy, but there is an inevitable list of tiny ongoing domestic disasters and things that don’t work that sometimes just overwhelms us, pushing us into the worst versions of ourselves.

Being heavily pregnant with a completely new cast of midwives and doctors who have to keep being retold the story of Jesse’s birth at each new appointment is hard. The baby seems healthy but is big and there are ongoing conversations about the birth, some of which are fine and some of which push me over the edge. I am up and I am down.

It’s only a day now until Christmas and I have barely completed any preparations. I had all kinds of grand creative ambitions for hosting Christmas, baking and batch cooking ahead of time, creating beautiful memories, treating family, giving thoughtful and meaningful gifts. And the reality is that very little of it is going to materialise. Heck, making my own lunch is enough of a challenge right now. I’m trying to make peace with very low expectations.

And then there is the wide world, which keeps breaking in. The families who have had to abandon their homes and carry their children across new countries in bitter winter, in the hope of finding safety. The people being bombed, attacked, shot at, persecuted, violated. So many people who won’t feel safe this Christmas, not for a moment.

As I sat in bed on my morning off, I tried to think where I could find someone to say kind things. I wasn’t seeking actual people to talk to, it was a lay-low kind of a day in which I mainly wanted to hide away from the world. So, podcasts? Sermons? The Bible? Who could I google? What should I read? I couldn’t think of much, and then I remembered my friend Travis’ website, The Work of the People, full of thoughtful and beautiful films of wise and reflective people, and I starting watching some of them. And it worked. There was this one from Glennon Doyle Melton, and then a little gem from Rowan Williams in which he starts –

‘Living in reality, I guess, ought to be the easiest thing of all, and it’s the hardest. Because our minds are really active, fabricating worlds that we can cope with. The real world isn’t a world we can easily cope with, however much we think we’re coping…the world is bigger than we can cope with. So, somehow connecting with the reality which is not just the one I make for myself to keep myself comfortable – that’s faith, that’s where we have to end up.’

Somehow hearing him tell me that of course the world is more than I can cope with made me feel ok. It made me feel human and weak and inadequate but loved and accepted all the same. And that it was ok that I’d run out of energy to fabricate a word that I could cope with.  Of course it’s too much. But there is acceptance and kindness and grace for me. And he used a beautiful metaphor for grace, that cosmic kindness bending towards us:

As I talked to him the landscape changed. There was a different light on it.

The story of the first Christmas sounds to me like more than anyone could cope with, or feel on top of, let alone the thought of all that might follow. So I will be trying not so much to cope, or to expect myself to be on top of anything in this season, but instead to rest and listen out for kindness and acceptance. Who can say what will arrive with us or stare us down in the days that follow? But I have faith in a bigger picture than I can explain, one that I don’t need to fabricate or fully understand in order to be carried by. And I’m thankful.

Andy recently recorded some of the worship songs he has written in the past year or so, ready for an event over new year, and I was listening to one in the car this week. It speaks beautifully of that ache of our current brokenness and not-enough-ness, the promise of the healing to come, and the reality that God is here right now, in all the not-yet-ness. So here is a recording of it if that sounds like something that would bless you this Christmas (and his website, for more tracks and resources is www.andyflan.com).

May you have kind Christmases.

 

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Retreating from the chaos

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About two and a half years ago I went on a silent retreat, which was a wonderful experience. (My abiding memories are of amazing dinners eaten to the soundtrack of nothing but classical music, the joy of not having to make small talk with anyone, and an invitation back towards simply being in God’s presence without an agenda). I was pregnant with Jesse at the time, and my spiritual director asked me if I would be back again to repeat the experience. I laughed at the thought that a silent retreat might be possible in the new terrain of motherhood. But this past week I finally made it.

It wasn’t actually a silent retreat this time. I had been reflecting in the summer about the future, and what I wanted to do, reckoning that once the next baby arrived I’d have a little less headspace and energy to think about those kinds of things. And a couple of friends recommended an organisation that runs two day retreats helping to answer questions about direction and purpose. So that was how I came across Crossroads. And how four days after moving I left Andy, Jesse and our new home to spend the weekend in the middle of Oxfordshire.

Only when the clamour of the outside world is silenced will you be able to hear the deeper vibration. Listen carefully.

Sarah Ban Breathnach

It was both terrible timing (practically) and beautiful timing, because if there was ever a moment when I needed to escape the stress and exhaustion of all that had been going on for weeks, it was this past weekend. I wondered if I might end up spending the weekend simply curled up in a ball, mumbling incoherently, recovering from the previous week. I woke on Saturday morning with some anticipation to the astonishing sight of snow  (the first snow Jesse had ever seen) and had to scrape it off the car to make my getaway. Sadly, I scraped half of it into my boots. I drove carefully with wet feet through the sleet and rain and fog, and made it out.

It was a beautiful old house, where we met – eight strangers, mostly men, and two guides. The days were more structured than I had foreseen, and there was no monastic rhythm by which to order the day (and no psalm chanting either, sadly). It was a safe and open space for anyone, of any faith or none, to share, reflect, explore and question. The guides were wise, thoughtful, and insightful. I revisited terrain I had pondered before and wondered if there would be a different way forward that was visible.

We looked backwards at the paths we had trodden before (there were stories about career paths and unexpected family upheaval, dreams and disappointments) . We tried to listen in to what we most wanted, and not resist. We started to entertain the idea of change (a new environment? an exhibition? a new job? an end to a relationship? a rebalancing of priorities?), and helped one another to examine what might be at stake, what change might ask of us, what might be lost if we didn’t try. And then we tried to unearth our unique inner genius (that’s the bit hardest to explain), and to make plans to move forward. It wasn’t a small process.

On Sunday morning, in the middle of it all, I went for a short walk. And I noticed that I felt afraid, and not at ease in the cold, wintery countryside. The leafy tapestry beneath my feet was beautiful, and constantly shifting hue with each few steps. But I didn’t belong, and I couldn’t think where I did belong. I walked on despite my fear, wondering why I couldn’t feel happy in this spacious idyll, this gift of a place. I didn’t know where else I would feel happier, even though at the same time I knew that there was deep contentment our season of family life right now. The moment was crowded with so many questions and uncertainties that I couldn’t see where or when they would leave me in peace.

The garden was brown and dry and bare, trodden down, chaotic, with husks of summer fruits or dry branches lying across my path or heaped in beds. So much was a mess and seemed to belie the promise of future colour, beauty and fruitfulness. But yet that was the season and it all belonged, and chaos, I knew, couldn’t stop it blooming again, given the right care.

So I came away a little more peaceful and hopeful. I have no tidy to-do list for the next month or year, but I can see a balance to be redressed. Things have got out of kilter and there are parts of me I want to find more space to express, and other parts that can take a back seat. It’s fine that the new baby will cram more things out for a while; I have a clearer idea what shape I’m trying to build back into life, and I have a few things to try out to help me get there.

 

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Sorting life out

There’s an inevitable sorting through of life that happens when you move, I am discovering. I guess you could just limit it to your possessions, as you pack and unpack them all, deciding what to take and what not to bother with. But for me, at least, the process stirs up all kinds of bigger questions about life, about what to travel with and what to leave behind.

sorting things out

Leaving the city where I have built my entire adult life is throwing up all kinds of questions about the past and the future.

Friendships, jobs, hobbies, projects, causes, habits, even attitudes and ambitions feel suddenly up for grabs. Are they the things to cling to, or to leave behind? In the midst of all the practical chaos and long to-do lists I am trying to make some space to reflect.

This past Saturday I hopped on a bus into Parliament, because that’s the kind of ludicrous thing I will only be able to do for a few more weeks. A writer I love, Sarah Bessey, was speaking at a conference and I went to hear her, in the hope of receiving some wisdom and insight to help me in my sorting. In fact, she has just written a book called Out of Sorts, which begins:

Once upon a time you had it all beautifully sorted out.

And then you didn’t.

(I would estimate that my belief in having life sorted out peaked at age 17. Apologies to anyone who knew me then).

I didn’t really hear her speak much about the book (maybe she did that more in the second session I couldn’t stay for – anyway, I bought the book), and I didn’t hear her pass on much practical advice for how I could sort through the past 13 years of my life in London. But what she shared still spoke very deeply to me, because of its authenticity. This week I have been reading Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert (more on that another time – it’s amazing), and I loved her words about originality:

Attempts at originality can often feel forced and precious, but authenticity has quiet resonance that never fails to stir me. Just say what you want to say, then, and say it with all your heart.

I know that authenticity is something of an obsession for my generation (Mel Wiggins wrote a brilliant and challenging blog this week about what that means for how we blog about parenting). But I seem to crave it above all else. I have so many issues with people-pleasing, high-achieving and rule-keeping, that the invitation to authenticity (in how I live, how I relate, how I make decisions) always feels liberating.

Sarah’s two points in her opening talk were that we are already loved, and we are not forgotten. I guess they probably weren’t new ideas to anyone there. But she brought them alive with story, with experience, with specificity and detail, so that there was nowhere left to hide from them. And so they broke us open and exposed all our excuses for not living from the truth of them. Or they did me.

The other speaker I heard that morning, Sheridan Voysey, told a powerful story about uprooting and moving from Australia to England in search of a new beginning. (It’s almost like they tailored the whole morning personally for me). He spoke about dreams dying, about the metaphorical wilderness, about how we work out who we are when everything changes or things fail. It was more life to my dry bones; I’m about to read his book too.

It was a raw and unexpected morning. I wouldn’t regularly choose to spend my Saturday morning in a darkened auditorium in front of an almost entirely male soft rock band, lit up in hues of pink and purple, with hundreds of other Christian women I don’t know. But somehow that didn’t really matter. The familiar words and songs the band were leading again broke me open. Being there felt like stepping back into an enormous and glorious mystery, one that somehow holds me up and together, and restores me.

And an anchor is a good thing for me right now. I know my faith is an anchor, or more truthfully, the thing, the one, in whom I have faith, roots and steadies me more than the frame or language I put around it. There is plenty to let go of, plenty that I will lose hold of anyway; but there is enough of God to trust in that I don’t need to worry too much about the detail. (Let’s be honest, I’m not much of a detail person anyway).

(I was at the Premier Woman to Woman Conference 2015. Or rather, half of it).

 

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On foolish choices

(because it's always that clear)

(because it’s always that clear)

I have it in me to be reckless and foolish. I cover it up quite well now I’m a grown-up, but I got in trouble at school for being impetuous, for pushing jokes too far and hurting people. Today this often translates into a restless desire to move too fast and take too many risks (regularly mitigated by Andy).

This week I was thinking about the end of school. When I was applying for universities, there was one I particularly set my heart on. Within that one university were a large number of colleges, and in order to get a place at the university I had to choose just one of the colleges to which I would apply. And so I prayed for direction from on high.

I felt led (in typically dramatic fashion) to apply to one particular college. The only problem with that was that out of all the colleges in that university (about 30), there were just two of them that required applicants to take an extra exam to get in. My teacher told me candidly that I wasn’t good enough to take the exam. And then I went and applied to one of those two colleges.

Was that a bold step of faith or just a foolish, reckless (and self-sabotaging) decision? Was I perhaps deluded (and a little arrogant)? My teacher (herself a Catholic) told me what a ridiculous thing I had done, and how absurd it was to imagine that God cared what college I applied to.

In the end, a couple of months down the line, the college rejected me, but recommended me to a different college who gave me a place at the university. So maybe there was an amazing divine purpose at work throughout the process. Or maybe God just opened a different door out of kindness. Or perhaps it was all a lucky coincidence. It’s impossible to know, but I was thinking about it again this week, and how one person’s leap of faith looks to someone else like an act of stupidity, and often there’s no way of knowing for sure which it really is.

You can read the rest of this blog over at my church’s website where I’m guest-blogging…

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On children and churches: a happy story

copyright Valerie Tarico

That morning he stole the microphone

 

There were always teenage girls in the churches I grew up in, who had babies on their hips throughout the morning service. Or toddlers clinging to their legs. I was never one of those girls. I had nothing against children, but I did have an aggressive inner mantra that I would not be made to do Sunday school just because I was a girl. And the little kids, perhaps sensing my resistance, left me alone.

To this day I have never taught a Sunday school class, although I’ll probably feel some kind of responsibility to help out when I have a child old enough to go along. I am nothing if not overly dutiful.

But of course in becoming a mother I have been thrust towards the child/church interface in a very personal way. I have my own child on my hip now (for short bursts) or clinging to my legs. There is no creche at our church (or I would happily leave him – Jesse is happy being left with pretty much anyone as long as there are toys), and there are no instructions, so we’ve been making it all up as we go along. For now, he comes to church and hangs out with us for however long we’re there.

I was thinking this week about how my relationship to church has changed since having a kid, because I read another honest and beautiful blog about a mother’s struggles with church in the season of early parenthood. I’ve read many different accounts about how hard it can be to feel like church is a meaningful or helpful place in the sleep-deprived, anxious, chaotic, zombie-like days of early motherhood. There are horror stories about rambunctious toddlers being evicted and breastfeeding mothers being shunned. I hear people complain that kids are allowed to bring toys to church to entertain them, or allowed to run around willy-nilly (THEY’RE CHILDREN).

And then on top of fitting in to the regular things churches do, there’s the pressure, as an adult, to “be involved”.

I had a conversation recently with a good friend who’s a mum of a two year old; she, like me, has been “involved” (helped run things) the whole of her toddler’s life, and we were talking wistfully about those parents who felt able to resist the pressure. Imagine, people who feel free enough not to always have to turn up! (This says more about my dysfunction then anyone else’s).

I have no great pronouncements to make about how we should relate to church as parents of tiny people, no judgements, no pressure. I am sad that mothers often have such awful experiences and feel that there is no place for them. I only want to tell a good story. Because that is what ours has been.

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I loved bringing Jesse to church from very early on because he was always welcomed wholeheartedly. And other people would hold him (if he wasn’t strapped to me, asleep). It’s the same reason I loved bringing him to the church toddler group. Other wonderful people would cuddle him, and coo over him, whilst I had a coffee and a grown-up conversation, and a little respite.

There was a little room out the back we sometimes used to feed him,or change him on a Sunday morning, but mostly he was with us in all the services. I was never very interested in spending Sunday mornings in a pokey room on my own, so I never really gave Jesse that option either. No-one ever seemed to mind the noise, the intrusion, the distraction. He got to recognise people’s faces and trust them. To him, they are family (and he sees them more often).

Jesse and his "god-sisters"

Jesse and his “god-sisters”

At 18 months, he runs into church and usually straight into the arms of his two ‘god-sisters’ (this is what they have named themselves) who watch out for him, entertain him, hold him and usually prevent him from hurling himself headlong off the furniture. They adopted him as soon as he was born.

He spends the services playing on a mat at the front of the hall with the other tinies, rooting through the musical instrument drawer, scribbling on colouring sheets and occasionally joining in with the band (or attempting to dismantle the PA). He dances enthusiastically along to the music, and if his dad is playing, tries to help him on the guitar. This last week he headed straight for the large wooden cross standing in the middle of the hall, and wrapped his arms around it (enacting the old hymn, “I’ll cling to the old rugged cross”). When the congregation were invited to deposit balls of ripped paper at the foot of the cross as part of their worship (it must have been symbolising something), Jesse decided to scatter them all further afield.

There was grace, and space, for him. And, I hope, for the other small people.

It probably tells you something about the kind of church we’re part of – that nothing is very formal, and that chaos is always present to some extent. I’ve led services with Jesse on my hip (although usually someone else appears to distract and entertain him before long). We also meet out in localised ‘communities’ which involve our kids too, and Jesse has always belonged there. Our community hosted his first birthday party!

On top of that, I’ve been “involved” beyond Sundays. I joined the church’s leadership team before Jesse was born and I kept going to the meetings after he was born (after a 3 month break). Please don’t think that this was a great gesture of sacrificial service on my part; they kept me sane. One morning a week, I brought Jesse to church and he either napped or was cuddled or entertained by various members of the leadership team; and I got to talk about things entirely unrelated to having a baby.

Of course there are some downsides, some frustrations, some logistical challenges. One of us often has to leave the Sunday service early at the moment to get him home to nap (if we wait till the end and drive home, he falls asleep and then the transfer up 4 flights of stairs to bed does not generally go well). I’m distracted and don’t exactly focus intently on whatever is being talked about. Persuading him to eat lunch mid-service is often a frustrating endeavour. If Andy and I are both involved in some practical part of the service, it’s a bit of a nightmare.

But so far, so good. It’s a cliche, but for us, church is a community – a family – to which we belong, over and above an event or a building. And that’s felt even more true since there have been three of us. The people in our church (and especially, our community) have babysat for us, cleaned our flat (!), made us endless dinners, loved Jesse and always made us feel welcome. I haven’t felt pressure to do things I just can’t make time to do – instead there have been lots of reassuring conversations with more seasoned parents about taking things as they come, giving myself a break, and finding news ways to engage with God that suit the insanity of parenting tiny people. It’s early days, in parenting terms, but I’m hopeful that these are the guys who will keep us afloat in the years to come!

I know not everyone has positive experiences of church and small children. I’d love to hear how you’ve found it, and what you think churches should do to make things better. (Also, feel free to share your happy stories!).

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Dangerous Woman

It’s a funny old time in which it feels like everything is changing and, at the same time, nothing at all.  I hardly know what to write, so today I am stealing somebody else’s words.

A friend of mine, Kelley Nikondeha, has been part of creating a new series of writing and thinking over at SheLoves Magazine, and they launched with a great declaraction, written by Idelette McVicker, which I am just going to post here.  Don’t credit me with the poetry.

This is the kind of woman I would like to be.

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I am a Dangerous Woman.
I am here and I’m awake.
I pay attention to the rumblings in my soul
I listen and watch for how the Spirit leads.
With each humble choice, I take a step closer to my Destiny.
With each strong Yes, I become more of myself.

I am a Dangerous Woman.
I draw deeply from the Life that beats in my blood.
I have a place in the story of God.
Large or small, my capacity is mine and
I will move in it to make change in my world.

I am a Dangerous Woman.
I have a voice that needs to be heard.
No need to rage or raise a fist.
My Love will speak
My arguments are strong.
My life itself is a protest towards great Love.

I am a Dangerous Woman. 
I may start with tiny steps and
My ankles may roll with the weight of the task
But I am determined.
I refuse to let Fear hold me back.
I choose Love.

I am a Dangerous Woman.
My ducks may never be quite in a row,
The laundry may never be done.
I may never feel strong enough, capable enough or smart enough.
I will do it anyway.
Shall we go together?

I am a Dangerous Woman
I embrace small beginnings and
Show up in small pockets of Love,
But I don’t think small.
I step over the obstacles that tell me I should quit.
And so I start.

I am a Dangerous Woman, 
I am tired of spending my choices on myself.
I will let my privilege and my power
Speak for good.
Aligned with the purposes of the Almighty,
My strength roars.

I am a Dangerous Woman
I am part of a vast network
I recognize how we are all connected.
My choices affect a world of people, plants and animals.
What a big responsibility, you may say.
But O, What a great adventure!

I am Dangerous Woman
I refuse to do nothing.
I choose to listen to the gladness of my soul
And the hungers in our world.
And where these meet,
I will plant a garden.

I am a Dangerous Woman 
I refuse to let shame hide me.
I refuse to let old boundaries hold me back.
I refuse to let what’s-always-been-done create the future.
I refuse to be silent about the things that matter.
I refuse to be afraid.

You may ask: Who do you think you are?
So I will tell you: 

I am a Dangerous Woman,
Loved by God, empowered by God.

I am a Dangerous Woman,
Devoted to a Dangerous God.

I am a Dangerous Woman
And I will beat my drum, as we dance into the Land of Freedom and Promise together.

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Why we live where we live

This whole blog is about city living, or maybe more accurately ‘how we live in the city’, and while I’ve touched on the reasons we’ve chosen this neighbourhood as our home, I have never devoted a whole post to it.  Well, today is the day.  How and why did we end up on ‘the block’?

PhotoWizardCreatedI moved to London straight out of university because I wanted to act, and London is pretty much the centre of the theatrical universe this side of the Atlantic.  It’s not the only place things happen (AT ALL) but it’s where things are most concentrated.  I started drama school and moved into a flat nearby with a friend.  And then for the next five years I moved around London according to where my friends were and where I could afford.  I lived west, I lived north and I lived central.

By that time I had stumbled into working for Tearfund and been hit like a ton of bricks by the cruel injustice and brokenness of the world.  That makes it sound like a really, really terrible job.  It wasn’t the job itself, or the sharp turn my life had taken away from my dreams (although that was a bit of a downer), but more that I suddenly came face to face with a lot of awful truths about how people in the world lived and how unjust it all was.  What was more, all these people who shared my faith (Tearfund is full of Christians) believed some quite radical things about how we should respond.  And I felt compelled to stick around and work out life all over again in light of all this new information.  I was reading books about poverty and justice and development and simplicity and climate change – everything I had studiously avoided for many years beforehand.  And I felt like the ground I was standing on was shifting.

A couple of years into work at Tearfund, freshly inspired by one particular scary and beautiful book – The Irresistible Revolution by Shane Claiborne – I decided that I needed to rethink where I was living.  The author, a Christian and a crazy hippy who weaves his own clothes, makes a compelling case for living in struggling neighbourhoods on purpose.  I became convinced that I needed to move with some friends onto a specific housing estate near our church.  It wasn’t that I thought the housing estate needed me, or us, or that all Christians should live there, but more that it was the best chance I had of living alongside people who weren’t exactly like me (white, middle-class, well-educated young professionals…), and maybe even becoming friends.  And in a world, a country and a city where inequality is growing at terrifying rate and there is less and less interaction between the different ends of the spectrum, it seems like living in a mixed community is a healthy step towards more cohesion and therefore happier communities.

My friend Wendy and I moved onto the estate we had chosen after a few months of waiting for a flat to come up.  We were *very* excited, even though our church thought we were a bit weird for wanting to live there.  But then I kept working full time, and had a busy social life, and almost all of our neighbours were quite strict Muslims who didn’t seem to come out much…and so I never really met any of my neighbours.  I’m not sure I tried very hard.  Apart from our choice of location, there was nothing very unusual about our life.  People would sometimes say ‘Oh, I could never live there like you”, but really, it was just a flat like any other.

After 18 months I decided to make some big changes.  I reduced my hours at Tearfund to part-time so that I could be more present in my neighbourhood and make space to think about acting again.  This meant I couldn’t afford to stay in our current flat.  A good friend owned a flat on an estate in south London, and had bought it because she wanted to know and love her neighbours, however different they were to her.  She’d got quite a lot further into the terrain of actual relationships than I had, and so I was excited to move in with her.  (Then she moved out).

I should also make clear that said flat was extremely close to the flat of my (then) boyfriend (now husband), which also persuaded me down.

So that, practically, it how I got to living in the neighbourhood.  Andy moved in when we got married and then we bought it from our friend a couple of years later (that’s another story). But I probably need to say more, because it’s impossible to separate out the place we have chosen to live from my (our) faith.  At the heart of the Christian faith is a belief in a God who “moved into the neighbourhood” – that is, was born as a man into a poor Jewish family in what is now Palestine.  We have a record of his significant utterances and activities, but there were also just 33(ish) years of living in the neighbourhood, trying to make a living, being part of a family and community.  And he could have chosen any family and community in the world, but he chose to make his life among an occupied and oppressed people, not amongst the power brokers, or the movers and shakers.  And from that we understand there is dignity and beauty in the small and familiar, and that our God is drawn most of all to people who have the odds stacked against them in this world (he has to be because we’re not).  It’s not that we think we’re there to make everything better.  We just want to be near to where God is. (I’m sure he’s in plenty of other places too).

There are days when I wonder why we live in such a small, cluttered flat (especially when most of our other friends live in places that are BIGGER and HAVE STORAGE), why we are making our life in the biggest city in Europe (there are already MORE THAN ENOUGH people here – although please don’t misunderstand that as a statement on immigration); why we don’t make easier choices and make things nicer for ourselves.  Sometimes I get resentful; but then I remember that no-one is making us live where we do.  We have sensed an invitation, and we’ve taken it up.  We get to live alongside these brilliant people from all around the world, and hopefully we will shape and change each other and make our neighbourhood better.

Footnote: We go into this in much more detail in our book which will, allegedly, finally be published this year!

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Rev

It is with no little excitement than I am embarking upon my first blog in several months which is NOT ABOUT BABIES.

I’ll be honest that I wasn’t sure I’d ever have enough to say about anything else again, or certainly not this year, but lo and behold a topic has occurred to me.  It might only be a momentary diversion, but I’m still excited.

This last week I posted an article on my facebook page from The Guardian, written by an acquaintance of mine, about the TV series Rev.  And it elicited a number of passionate and defensive responses, quite unexpectedly.

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I don’t watch much TV and I think I only saw one episode of the show before this year, but endless baby-feeding sessions in the middle of the night have given me a new appreciation of iPlayer, and increased my exposure to what’s on the box.  And I have now watched the whole of Rev series 3.

I’m going to tell you why it left me frustrated, but let me be clear that I enjoyed it a lot.  For all that follows, I’m not trying to shoot the “Rev’ team down.  I’m not trying to say that “outsiders” can’t create comedy about church.  I’m not saying the show is devoid of truth – far from it.  I think it’s a brilliant show.  I have always been a huge fan of Tom Hollander.  I’d even echo the words of Euan Ferguson in The Observer, that Rev is “never twee, [and] always in surgeon-skilled hands”.  But because it sets out to depict a life of Christian service in the context of inner-city London, it inevitably rubs up against my own experiences of trying to, well, do something similar.  Sure, I’m not a vicar, and I’m not even really an Anglican anymore, but I’m part of the leadership team of a church; there is a lot in the show that is painfully familiar, but also a lot that is fairly alien.

The Guardian article I posted critiques Rev for offering an outsider’s perspective on the church, whilst claiming to be an insider’s.  Yes, the show is hilarious.  Yes, it’s brilliantly written. Yes, it’s skilfully performed.  Yes, it’s warm and moving and intelligent. The writer affirms all of this.  But for all its compassion and sympathy for the Reverend Adam Smallbone, his story is presented as sweet and ultimately ineffectual.  Any loyalty he elicits and friendship he wins is basically down to him being a pretty nice, normal guy, rather than because of his abilities as a leader, or even a man of God.  The church is a kind of anomalous hangover of a bygone era, a social gathering with its own peculiar rituals, but which seems to have little real impact on people’s lives.

I’m not saying church is never like that, but it’s a long way from my experience – or from that of the writer of the offending article.  We haven’t been lured in to hyper-trendy pop-culture-church by sofas and free coffee.  But neither are we trying to cling to a crumbling and declining institution out of loyalty or tradition or niceness, or a purely private, custom-made set of beliefs.

I belong to a church because of a person, because of a genuine and ongoing encounter with a God who, in the words of C S Lewis, is not safe, or tame, but good.  For me the strangest absence in Rev, is God himself.  Yes, I know Liam Neeson tried to put that to rights in the beautiful last episode of the series, but, bizarre cameos aside, he is largely absent.  People talk to him, but there is very little sense that he has any kind of purpose, agenda or opinion on anything.

My experience of the church (which for many years was Anglican, and in London) is chequered, but when I reflect on its strongest characteristics I come back to the extraordinary truth that in whichever congregation I have worshipped – and I am thinking not just of inner-city London but of churches in African villages, Thai slums, South American favelas, Australian suburbs – I have encountered crowds of people with stories about encountering God.  And I have heard countless talk of the different ways in which these different believers were committing themselves to pursuing God’s agenda of love and service and hope and change in a very broken world.  Not everyone’s story involves healing and voices and crazy supernatural things (although plenty do); there are other quieter stories of peace and grace and restoration.  But there is always someone alive at the centre of it all – a beating heart – setting the agenda.

Am I frustrated that Rev is bad PR for the church?  The positive reception the show has had in the media would suggest that the opposite is true.  In Rev the church is not portrayed as oppressive, repressive and anachronistic…..it’s benign and well-meaning and anachronistic.  It is still irrelevant, just not so dogmatic or legalistic.

Giles Fraser wrote an interesting article about the show for the Radio Times, picking up on a similar observation.  He wishes that Adam had a bit more backbone when it comes to some of the big issues in his parish – be it gay marriage, poverty, or female clergy:

This is what Rev doesn’t quite get, perhaps because it is hard to play for laughs. Because inner-city clergy deal with the daily consequences of poverty, they inevitably get sucked into the political. Rev suffers under the moral illusion that you can be there for the poor and vulnerable without asking how and why they got into that condition. It depicts the clergy as kindly but politically inert. Some are. Most are not.

…In the English imagination, it’s better to have a weak-minded, kindly priest, even if that means he’s slightly foolish, than a strong-minded certain one…

In Rev we recognise the archetypal weak-minded, kindly English priest, in a challenging modern setting.  There is plenty to laugh at and little to despise because there’s really no harm being done.  There’s not a not of anything being done.  Instead, well-meaning ineffectiveness is sentimentalised.  Angus Ritchie (Director of the Contextual Theology Centre in London) wrote a challenging reflection on the show, going as far as to say that “meaning well” is essentially “to focus entirely on ourselves”, and no real hope to anyone.  Which is the antithesis of the Christian message, which claims to offer something life-changing to everyone.

I’m not saying Rev should look different – whatever its creators make of the church is a valid perspective, and it offers sharp social comedy.  I know the team behind it have done some research within the Anglican church.  But for all the humour, pathos and beauty of the stories, Adam Smallbone’s church is disappointingly empty.  

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I’m a Jesus Feminist because…

To tie in with the launch of her first book, Jesus Feminist, the Canadian author and blogger Sarah Bessey has invited anyone who identifies with the label themselves to blog about why.  So even though the book doesn’t get released over here until the end of the month (actually this timing is better for me given I will have a newborn babe by then); and despite the fact that we don’t get the cool yellow cover, I’m joining in from afar because I’m too excited not to. (If you haven’t read Sarah’s blog, go now, seriously, don’t feel bad about leaving mine, she’s a beautiful writer…)

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I’m a Jesus feminist because of God and my mother and my education; because of a crazy American lady-pastor, because of Elaine Storkey, because of Walter Brueggemann and because of Germaine Greer.  They’d probably all be horrified to know how their influences have intertwined.

First there was God, because it really all started there, however fractured and tiny my perception of him was and is.  It was so early that he loved me and made me believe my life had a purpose and a value; and convinced me that he had sown stuff in me that others couldn’t see; and that he had some ideas for how we could walk it out together.  That was really all that mattered then, and probably still the only thing that does.

But then there was also my mother whose indomitable spirit and fiery independence I’ve written about before.  I could never have grown up timid in her orbit.  She made me a fighter.  She would not let me shy away from the world, or become less than what she saw me to be.  Sometimes it was exhausting.

And then when you’re in single sex education for 13 years, you get taught a lot about women’s potential and why it matters that you contribute (‘There aren’t enough women engineers!’).  I got so angry in university classes as the men waded in constantly with their opinions and the women sat quietly listening, waiting until they had something brilliant before they’d share it.  How I fumed in silent frustration, wishing I had something amazing to say.  You hear a lot, in a girls’ college, about how you have something to give to the world and that it matters that you give it.  I was convinced by the theory; just sometimes too cowardly to speak out.

I heard some different messages as the years went by, but really I was indoctrinated.  At church a man and wife pastored together.  Nothing was off-limits for me because of my gender.  There was little chance I could have grown up believing I should be less than a whole person with as much to offer as any man.  I had a voice and wanted to use it.

I could go on through the books I read, the arguments I had, the mentors who inspired me, the people who opened doors for me and invited me to speak and lead.  I grew in the doing.

But some days I was overly zealous and aggressive.  I had a couple of comical dates that ended with men running in the opposite direction, or expressing innocent surprise at the number of strong opinions I held.  There have been uglier moments when I have rebelled unnecessarily, refusing to help with Sunday School (‘you’re only asking because I’m a woman!’), feeling demeaned when I became a PA (‘a secretary?!’), shutting down debates without listening (‘I will never take a man’s surname!’).  I too easily make feminism into a platform for independence, when what I actually desire is partnership.  Inter-dependence.  Working together to our different strengths.  All of us choosing to serve and champion others.

But maybe that’s why Jesus Feminist feels like a better label than Feminist for me.  I don’t shy away from the latter, although I know how complicated, compromised and divisive it has become as a label.

I’m a Jesus Feminist because it starts for me with Jesus and how he loves me.  How he created me and invites me to express that in the world.  How he dignified and loved women when he walked the earth.  How he calls us together as a body rather than as lone rangers.

And because God is constantly teaching and inspiring and leading the world through women and he doesn’t even ask permission.  Ha! the very thought! He just goes ahead and does it.

 

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To the left, to the left (on politics)

It might not seem like the most likely moment to talk about politics, when my natural instincts are all driving me to dig a big deep hole somewhere and hide away, all mammal-like, to give birth in peace; but for today at least, that’s where my mind is.  So I thought I’d tell you the whole unlikely story of how I got to be a bit of a lefty.

I wasn’t raised that way.  My parents are avid Telegraph subscribers and huge Thatcher fans.  I was brought up thinking that the Iron Lady was the bees’ knees.  Our home was a happy place that day in 1992 when John Major was re-elected Prime Minister.

Well, at least our home was politically aware.  Dad likes to read aloud to us all from The Daily Telegraph comments’ section.  I remember my mum’s seemingly weird obsession with us always knowing who the Chancellor of the Exchequer and Foreign Secretary were at any one time (I may have known their names but I didn’t know what they actually did).  My education taught me next to nothing about politics or economics: the concept of having to pay tax on my earnings was first introduced to me by a friend when I was about 20, and I was horrified.  But at least I knew who was in the cabinet.

I can understand how Thatcher bred such loyalty in my parents.  Political ideology aside, they, (we), belonged to a segment of society that did pretty well under her leadership.  We worked and saved and prospered.

It did of course help that we weren’t miners.

In John Smith’s day, my mother’s working class loyalties were re-awoken and there was political tension in the household.  I think she might even have voted for Tony Blair once, but don’t quote me on that.

But still, I just wasn’t that interested in politics.  Hardly anyone around me was.

When I turned up at university and gravitated towards all things theatrical, I encountered for the first time a group of people who read The Guardian, and laughed at my Tory-graph-reading (“Seriously? These papers have a political bias?”).  My new, cool, lefty, arty friends started me on a bit of a drift leftwards, but conviction was still pretty thin on the ground.

So I guess it was really in my 20s that I finally started thinking about politics, and reading things, and working out where I stood.  Justice started to matter to me when I looked at the world and read more of the Bible; my work at Tearfund meant I kept confronting horrendously unfair systems and laws that were locking people in poverty both here and overseas; it became obvious to me that charity was never going to be enough to change the world.  And yet the God I worship seems to always be asking big and awkward questions about what we’re all doing to make things fair and look out for the weakest.  It brings you back to politics pretty fast (boring and messy and compromised as it is, Russell Brand).

But why lefty politics?  One glance across the channel to the US would have you believe that Christian faith is practically synonymous with right-wing politics.  I’ll save that rant for another day; but here’s why that’s not the case for me.

I loved how Peter Ormerod put it in The Guardian this weekend:

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain, and after he sat down his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, not saying: “Blessed are the rich, because your wealth trickles down and everyone’s a winner.

“Blessed are those who are full, because that means you’re not scrounging off the rest off us.

“Blessed are you who are laughing now, because you’re obviously hardworking, responsible, decent people.”

It would be reductive and misleading simply to describe Jesus as a leftie… But it’s safe to say that, in terms of the left’s usual causes célèbres, Jesus does pretty well: nonviolencesupport for outcasts and outsidersthe redistribution of power and wealth in favour of the powerless and poorforgiveness,taxationreconciliationfigs.

Leaving aside the question of figs, he summarises things pretty well.  I don’t believe in the nonsense of the trickle-down effect; I think that serious work needs to be done to reduce the shocking (and increasing) divide between rich and poor because it makes everyone more miserable as well as just being unfair;  I have even become a huge fan of tax – I love that we all have to contribute to free education and healthcare and roads for everyone.

I am far from an uncritical supporter of all the Labour party has done in the past decades, but their policies and values sit closer to my justice-seeking heart than any of the alternatives, and that’s why I’m a member.  Also, being a member means they have to listen to me.

Yes, things are a little depressing for my parents now, politically.  First I joined the Labour party and then I married a man who actually works at a desk in Labour HQ, with Labour MPs.  I’ve even been to their staff Christmas do.  (It’s fair to say that we don’t talk a lot about politics with the family).

And the reason my mind has turned to all this again this week is because the lefty political organisation which Andy leads, and of which I am a member, is relaunching.  The Christian Socialist Movement has now become Christians on the Left, and relaunches in Parliament tomorrow night.  We are a group of Christians affiliated to, but not owned by, The Labour Party, who care passionately about social justice and believe that we need to pursue it from within politics as well as outside of it.  Oh, and we have this small dream of rewiring the global economic system.

If you are intrigued, baffled, fascinated or just a little bit curious, check out the new website, watch the snazzy new intro vid, and come along tomorrow night:

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And I’d love to hear where the intersection of faith and politics leads you, or how you ended up where you are politically.  You can be right-wing and still my friend.

 

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