The weight of the thing. 

I’m a compulsive collector of stones. Every beach I go to, I pick up at least one. There are stones on my mantelpiece, my chest of drawers, my kitchen nooks, in my bag, in the pockets of jackets I haven’t worn for a while, and my car. 

My Dad has been known to remove stones from dashboards before driving a vehicle belonging to (or even just being borrowed by) me. 

I took a trip up further north, to spend a day on beaches (yes in April in scotland. I took lots of layers too), sampling ice cream, and pottering about in antique shops. I collected a few new stones too. Some of which have only made it as far as the back seat of the car. 

I forget how heavy stones are, individually they’re not a big deal, but get two or three together and it starts to weigh you down. More than that and you really feel it as you’re walking to your destination. 

So often I collect things in my life the same way. Stones ground you, and sometimes I let the experiences and conversations and idle chit chat so the same. I ignore the meat of the thing, I hold right to the piece that makes me feel safe and refuse to let go, even if it would be good for me, or for you. I get to choose to put things down, and yet so often I choose not to. This lent was supposed to be about letting go of some of the physical clutter that is surrounding me, and to a degree, yes, that happened. On a much broader scale, no – i cling to the clutter. 

I’m not sure what this collection of stones says about me, but it’s a habit I’m more mindful of than ever before. 

praying in colour

this morning, the second day of lent, I was thinking about a line that I’d read in ‘Wearing God’ as I went to sleep the night before. ‘We asked the students what they imagine their relationship with God would look like after if they adopted doodling prayer for five years, ten years. One student says this: “I think I would laugh with God more.”‘

Lauren Winner goes on to talk about the Laughter of God, and it’s an interesting meditation on a God who is not always pleasant but takes the side of the oppressed. A God who shakes Gods head at our actions and choices, but who, in God’s laughter, ‘appreciates that I cannot do any better but wishes that I could.’ This God knows that laughter fills a host of purposes- not only the communication of joy.

In any case, it was the practice of doodling with God that caught my imagination. I want to root myself ever more firmly in who God is and be willing to hear what God might be saying to me at the same time. Strictly speaking, this morning wasn’t about doodling, instead, it was a beginning place to centre on God.

It’s a start, and one I hope to carry through lent.

I’d highly recommend reading Wearing God by Lauren Winner too.

storms

Storms are magnificent and frightening beasts, sometimes they’re over and gone before you know it, and other times they last so long you get used to it. When a storm comes, it comes because of atmospheric instability- humidity, warm and cold air meeting, the build up of pressure. The storm creates a release; the rains clean the ground, the air clears, the lightning discharges some of the built up electrical charges.

A storm isn’t always pleasant to be in, and sometimes, there are unexpected casualties- a tree might be felled, even part of your house might cave in. If it’s a sustained storm, and there’s a lot of rain, there could be flooding. These things all change the landscape of your area and in some ways your life.

Our metaphorical storms function in a lot of the same ways. I’ve been thinking and ruminating on this for a couple of weeks now. A few emails I received one day all referenced storms, and the fact that they will pass. That often, storms clear up some of your mental landscape. That storms will come, and storms will go, and all we get to decide is how we deal with them. A storm won’t pass you by just because you run away… in fact, it usually chases you. I know that when I face storms head on, I have a much higher chance of creating a positive outcome- if the lightning strike hits a relationship I thought was solid, I had my eyes open, and I can deal with it. If the rain floods the basis of what I thought was true about my theology, I can get the sandbags out and examine the cracks, strengthen it for the next storm (because it will come). If the dark clouds seem to obliterate the light in my life, I know that behind them is the sun, waiting to break out, and for now, I have people to sit in the darkness with.

One of the greatest things about a good storm is that it gives us a new vision. The dust is cleared away, everything is sparkling, and you get a new perspective. The broken things can look beautiful, a way is sometimes cleared where there wasn’t one before. There’s a freshness to the air that speaks of new beginnings, new promises. Of course, sometimes it seems like the storm just created more problems, but in that moment- when it’s all blown away and you get to breathe in fresh breaths… It feels like maybe anything is possible.

You know that moment, though, when everything is calm, and the storm is over, except the light is still kind of weird? Or that relationship still feels a little off… like there’s more to come? That feeling of relief followed by oh, no- this isn’t over. The eye of the storm is a tricky place, one that almost has the promise of a new beginning, but in fact is just a temporary respite. It’s easy to get caught here (metaphorically) because facing the rest of that storm sometimes feels like too big a task, with a payoff too small. (It’s pretty good here, there’s been some clearing and cleansing. The catalysts that caused the storm are almost burnt out, and they’re certainly changed. There’s been some resolution, it’s not perfect, but it’s okay.) I know, I kept myself there for too long. Yet, my experience has been that stepping out of the eye, back into the storm, letting it finish its work is way better in the long run that sitting with something not quite right. That weird pressure just makes you sick.

My best storms have been weathered right next to people. It’s the reason (well, one of) that K is tattooed on my thigh as a storm cloud. She’s sat with me through the storms, laughing into the darkness. (There’s also a seagull in that tattoo which makes sense, because M pulls people together, like gulls circling tightly during a storm. She helps us seek safe places, spaces and people.) I think God teaches me through my storms and allows me space to question and to rail against who God is during them. I’ve become more and more aware through weathering storms that God is big enough to deal with all my questions, my doubts, my fears, my inarticulate ranting. It’s a lesson that I needed to learn in order to sit with others, friends and young people. It’s a lesson I was slow to learn, that took many conversations on kitchen floors, more than a few arguments, many tears and a lot of grace to learn.

I’m grateful that I had folk beside behind and ahead of me in that process.

contained      controlled      a mass gathering
the liturgy is well known, we gather
darken 
and slowly roll into place. 
our huddled gathered selves split open. 
the noise of the trumpets and 
the sound of the cymbals

this mass is noisy
to us it is joyful
to you
         perhaps not. 
we split ourselves
we divest ourselves of extraneous weight- 
(that which creates our darkness)
we pass to you
(in clearest crystal)

our darkness feeds your hunger
our darkness waters your fields
(our divestiture maintains your livelihood)

and though we, gathered, low-lying darkness
bring premature night
and loud cymbals
and cracks of golden light 
(might obscure your sight, 
                 your vision
                   blot out today's plans)
we also bring you cleansing 

a fresh start

see, when we gather, we pull everyone together
we bring in all the [various] pieces like us in 
your atmosphere
we reset
we
restore. 

our rages do not last long, and we go
where we are needed. 
to bring nitrogen
  hydrogen and oxygen
to replenish and regenerate the soil. 

we are artistry and we are the artist.

home

I just spent two weeks away from my flat.

The first week I was up North with my family, celebrating Christmas. It was a lovely time of game playing, food eating, walk and photo taking, book reading and as much sleep as we could fit in. It was also a week where I felt rotten, switching immediately from work to holiday mode usually gives me the lurgy, and this time was no different. As lovely as this trip was, I was glad to be home again, in a place where I’m familiar.

Two days later, after some fun celebrating a family turning 100, and weather-related flight delays, I was in another place that I call home. This time I was taking 8 days in New Jersey to celebrate one of my favourite humans turn another year older, and also to join in with a big group of friends as we celebrated the marriage of a couple of precious humans.

Going back to South Jersey is always a bittersweet experience, and this time was no exception. On the whole, everyone is healthy, happy and well. There are always a few who are not, but they’re working towards the light. It’s trips like this that make me consider anew what it means to be ‘home’.

The dictionary has a range of definitions, centring around the idea that home is

1- One’s place of residence

2- the social unit formed by a family living together.

So, home is either a place or your people- living together. There’s a narrowness to these definitions that is both helpful (when we can describe what we do and do not experience) and exclusive (when we are bounded only by these definitions without space to stretch).

Though I no longer live with any of my family, my home is in one way defined by them. In the decade since I moved out, my idea of family has taken on a certain fluidity too. My definition has expanded to include the friends with whom I am doing life.

If my home is my place of residence, then it is a place of shelter, a safe haven. As I was leaving New Jersey in 2014, when I moved back to Scotland, one of my friends quoted Emily Dickinson to me: ‘I felt it shelter to speak to you’. When we talk of shelter, generally we’re talking in the physical. When we get the chance to discuss this in the metaphorical, we expand our hearts. If I experience ‘home’ just as the four walls in which I reside then I might be very stingy indeed with how I allow others to experience it. I am enriched, however, when I open up my life to others at the same time as opening my doors. When you’re living with people, you know their mess, you know how it feels to fight, you know how to pull them out of their black, blue or orange moods. Emily Dickinson, I think has the right of it here- our words become shelter; the first invitation to home. That invitation allows us to know and be known. It’s in that exchange that we become family to one another.

I am forever blessed and heartbroken to call multiple places home. I hope that’s true for many of us, and that we can continue to open doors and hearts to one another, in the midst of the not-perfect, the messed up, the broken. My prayer is that we continue to do that, when it’s hard and doesn’t seem worthwhile, when it might cost us something extra, when it feels like going too many extra miles.

May we be people of shelter, who bring each other home.

lamenting and rejoicing

although we are weeping, lord help us keep sowing the seeds of your kingdom for the day you will reap them. (psalm 126. and sung by Bifrost Arts)

When I’m stuck, as I found myself yesterday, in the mire of the pain that the world is creating, I tend to forget what God is doing.

I get stuck in the weeping. I forget to keep sowing. This week, however, I’ve been doing the Christmas assemblies at the Academy, and they’re a perfect mix of that- recognising the brokenness we see around us and also the fact that Jesus came at a time like this, for a time like this.

I didn’t know until recently that almost 1 in 113 people is currently an asylum seeker or refugee. (source) The UK isn’t as friendly to these people as we should be. The space that we make for each other is important, it’s a recognition of how much space we think we deserve. (yet these ‘others’ are people too, why do they not deserve as much space as we take up?) My talk every morning this week has focused on how we Christians have a secure hope to base our lives on (Hebrews 6.19, 10.22) and so we are secure in knowing that we have ‘enough’. Enough allows, calls, demands generosity of us. This is what I’m telling the students every day, and what I’m reminding myself of every day. It’s timely, that’s for sure.

I’m reminded that in the suffering of the world, people are working hard to see justice come, to set the captives free, to restore sight to the blind. If all we can do is give money, that’s enough. There’s no perfect answer. There’s just generosity, and enough.

I work with a student on a Wednesday afternoon, and today we took the time to interview a friend from an older generation.  The time and care that was given this afternoon just warmed my heart. If nothing else, the way my friend and student interacted is an example of sowing kingdom seeds that I will not forget quickly.

He who goes out weeping, 
    carrying seeds to sow,
will return with songs of joy, 
    carrying sheaves with him. 
                      psalm 126.6

How…!

How deserted lies the city, once so full of people! How like a widow is she, who once was great among the nations! She who was a queen among the provinces has now become a slave. Bitterly she weeps at night, tears are upon her cheeks. Among all her lovers there is none to comfort her. All her friends have betrayed her; they have become her enemies.

Lamentations seems like the only place to go this morning. I spent the first part of the day reading Micah, where God promises to rise up the destroyed. They will become the destroyer. I had a Christmas assembly at the Academy, and I talked about how Jesus is our hope, and how Jesus being in the story, on the scene, means Christians get to be generous, get to be hospitable.

And then I got on Twitter, after some frustration formatting Christmas party invites for kids at my lunch club, and was overcome with the grief that the world is facing. Aleppo, the death penalty (and those facing it), Trump…

How…!

That’s all I had in me to respond. So I opened Lamentations. Those are the first two verses.

and pieces of this prayer from the Northumbria community:

Teach me to hear that story, 
through each person, 
to cradle a sense of wonder 
in their life, 
to honour the hard-earned wisdom 
of their sufferings 
to waken their joy
that the King of all kings
stoops down
to wash their feet, 
and looking up 
into their face
says, 
'I know - I understand.'

 

The Great British Bake Off

Candice’s tearful chat at the end of the Bake Off this year made me feel all the feels. Not just because she won the coveted cake stand, but because of what it meant to her: ‘I’m good. I’m good enough’. (I couldn’t find a clip of that moment, but the Telegraph records it, so close enough)

Last year Nadiya said, ‘I’m not going to say I can’t do it. I can. I can do anything.’

Even just those two statements together make me angry/sad/frustrated/other feelings. Our internal monologue gets set so early.

What has happened in our society that it takes impressing Paul and Mary with an insane amount of baking to feel like you’re actually enough? Knowing that we place our self-worth in what other people think about us has been a cornerstone of British culture for too long. When we believe in ourselves, we do better in life- studies show that young people who have self-confidence do better in maths and sciences. (Telegraph, 5th March 2015) Typically girls outperform boys academically- except it seems in these areas. Another article from The Independent states that based on Future Foundation research, 1 in 4 girls has low self-esteem. The knock on effect of this is the loss of these girls in high powered positions, in government, in athletics.

Our self-esteem tells us what we can (and cannot) achieve. Our lack of self-esteem tells us only what we can’t. Yet, no-one can build your self-esteem for you- Candice admits that in the first interview, saying ‘I have low self-belief, even though my friends and family constantly build my confidence up’. It’s got to be something that we have internalised, something that we know, independent of what another person says.

As Christians, our faith gives us this basis, the place to come back to, the firm foundation of our worth: Ephesians 1 tells us that God, in love, chose us for adoption into the family of Jesus. We’re sons and daughters of God. More than that, we get a role, a job, a calling, ‘but you are a royal priesthood’ (1 Peter 2.9). We’re adopted, and we’re commissioned. This is where we need to rest, this is the foundation for everything that we tell ourselves.

How have we messed this up? We’re called to be the light of the world (Matthew 5.14) and to be a place that the sick and weary and downhearted can find rest. Jesus said ‘it’s not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners’ (Mark 2.17). Our churches should be hospitals (and I just recognised the link between hospital and hospitable – they both come from hospes in Latin, meaning host, guest, stranger. There’s a notion of making space, of welcoming the other) and they should be hospitable to those who are other and who need our care. We often forget that the church is a place for the needy and scared to meet with the sacred. It’s a place for healing, which can only come when we admit that we’re broken.

The church can’t function as a Hospitable (ha! I did it again. I meant Hospital), though, because people aren’t walking through our doors anymore. Last year 52% of Brits said that they were non-religious. (survey) This speaks to a culture shift and people who are less and less  likely to hear about and access the life-changing message of Jesus. What do we do? We get out, open the doors, invite people in, sure, but also be present in the rest of the world. We are the church.

The Hollywood handshake shouldn’t be the most exciting and encouraging thing that we can aim for.

 

(My sister and I made a Marjolaine cake at Christmas in 2014. It was delicious.)

(I wouldn’t say no to a Hollywood handshake though.)