move

IMG_0144People say that moving house is one of the most stressful events in life.  Having been through this 3 times in the last 18 months, I can vouch for this.  Somehow, much more than the huge physical and mental tasks of packing everything up and moving all your possesions and on top of all the logistical details that have to be remembered, there is a weight of emotional exhaustion that just can’t be explained by aching muscles alone.

 

So although we couldn’t have done our last move without the practical help of the people who turned up to lift boxes and furniture or to deliver meals, and although those physical things were very welcome indeed, I was aware that it was the ‘ministry’ of their company that they offered and of their generous hearts that was the most amazing gift of all.

 

Ruth, Jon, Yvonne, Peter, Tim, Paul, Robyn, Greville, Tim, Sam, Narinder, Pat, Nigel and Rosella:  your help was fantastic, but just sharing the huge burden with us was even better.  We feel like we have learned a lot about how brilliant it can be to just have people with you when facing something big.  We hope that we remember it when we have a chance to do the same for someone else.

 

During the lovely surprise snow last month, I came across an AA van rescuing another AA van stuck in the snow and it seemed to me to be a beautiful image of Christian community.  We all need help getting unstuck from time to time, so that we can get back on the road to help others.

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At a conference where I was due to lead a seminar a few weeks ago, I had a momentary panic before my bit began, feeling unsure of what I was doing there or what I could offer, until I ran into some friends that I had hardly seen for the last 20 years who ministered grace and encouragement to me that I can only describe as miraculous and God-sent.  Another friend, who has been unwell for many months, texted me throughout the day to say that she was praying for me.

 

I don’t think that what I am trying to describe here is simply human kindness; although human kindness is a wonderful and powerful thing.  The word that I think would describe it better is ministry (although I realise that this word might not appeal to everyone).

 

Some of the earliest Christian writings describe this mystery as being ‘in Christ’. We are in Christ and Christ is in us and when we offer self-giving love to one another we are Jesus to them as they are to us.  This is what ministry is.  If you have experienced the grace and beauty of this, I think you will know what I mean. If you haven’t, try asking some friends to help you move house.

 

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true

IMG_7062I was at the filming of BBC 1’s The Big Questions at Bath Spa University this morning, where one of the questions was whether or not ‘social media is out of control’. The conversation soon turned to ‘fake news’.

 

I think most of us have picked up that in both the US elections and in the Brexit debates many people were unable to distinguish between stories or statistics on social media that had a basis in reality and those that didn’t.

 

And I suppose most of us have realised that we create our own social media bubbles where most of the people with whom we are connected, by and large, share most of our own views. This makes us feel like our own opinions are right, but probably isn’t a good approach to finding truth.

 

Even realising these things, I was a little bit taken aback during the filming this morning when a student a few seats away from me said something like

‘there is very rarely any kind of fundamentally absolutely objective truth underlying any news story, and it’s not clear that it is something that can be obtained simply, quickly or efficiently by anyone.’

(Basically, I think he was saying that it is impossible to know if something is true.)

 

If he speaks for his generation (and I suspect that he speaks for a lot of them) we really are living in a different world, and this will have an effect even on those of us who grew up in a slightly different era.

 

I’m concerned about the effect that living in a ‘fake news’ environment will have on my compassion. When I read about horrific things happening in South Sudan or Syria, will I be tempted to think ‘that couldn’t possibly be true’, that it is too awful to be true?

 

What about information fatigue? It’s possible to go onto ‘fact-checking’ websites and these are really important, but will we have time and energy to keep doing that?

 

I’m worried about images that pretend to be ‘true’ but in fact are filtered and edited to project a false self.

 

What kind of world are we living in where people can claim things that they and we know are false, but there are no repercussions? In some cases, not only are there no negative repercussions, but they can use the distraction of ridiculous stories for their own ends.

 

Is it possible to fight back?

 

If this world we are living in can’t compute ‘objective truth’, then I guess we are left with trust and experience. This makes choosing who we trust supremely important. It also means that we have to pay a lot of attention to the stories of our day-to-day lives and make the point of sharing those stories with others.

Relying on trust and experience to fight ‘fake news’ might not sound like a battle cry or manifesto but I wonder how counter-cultural it might be?

 

 

book

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I had a good birthday yesterday, with lots of messages from friends and family but it started off with a mysterious ‘appointment’ in the diary.

It turned out to be a book consultation with a ‘bibliotherapist’. A local bookshop offers a book subscription service where they ask you about your reading preferences and general interests and likes and dislikes and then, based on what you say, send you a surprise book each month.

How would you describe the books you like? Which is more important to you: plot, character, atmosphere or setting? Are there any books that you love? Any books that you hate? These were hard questions to answer on the spot.

The day before I’d been thinking about a related question: can a sentence sum up an entire book? I wondered this when I spotted a bus hoarding with words from the Bible on it that got me thinking. It was one of those times when something familiar suddenly jumps out in a new way and catches you off guard.

I’m guessing that John 3.16 might be the most famous sentence in the Bible and if a person was going to recognise any bit of the Bible, this would be the part they would know. I’m sure it has informed my own imagination and understanding, but does it sum up the whole story?

John 3:16

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

Seeing those words on a bus made me think about them in a new way. Could you read those words and think that following Jesus has nothing to do with dying? Because although Christians believe that God’s love, seen in Jesus, is stronger than death and that life in Jesus includes life forever with God; Jesus also taught that we have to die. (It’s a bit like a seed being buried in the soil, ready to sprout up in the Spring.)

It’s easy for me to forget that God’s love is ‘cross-shaped’. Following Jesus requires small deaths all of the time; dying to pride, to judgement, to selfishness. The way of the cross can be hard and in my 49th (!) year, it doesn’t feel like it’s getting any easier.

As a recent ‘parkrun’ participant, I asked a triathlete student about ways to make the experience less painful. My heart sunk a bit when Ted said it wouldn’t ever get any easier. ‘Running 5K is just hard’, he said. ‘It will always be hard, but you will get faster.’ I only hope.

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ridiculous

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Christmas is pretty ridiculous, when you think about it. The season brings out all kinds of things in people; lots of spending and eating and decorating and card-writing and many acts of generosity and kindness. All because it’s December? Or because it taps into our childhood memories and imaginations?

The grown men who are working on our house put a huge Father Christmas in the window even though the freezing conditions must have made work a bit less comfortable that day.

In Bath, I’d guess that close to 2,500 University students attended Christmas carol services this December.

Neighbours that we don’t know have invited us into their home for drinks.

As an experiment, I left a piece of sequined cloth on a table in the chaplaincy centre during Advent with a little note suggesting that people could use their fingers to draw or write a prayer on it. (If you haven’t come across this material on a cushion before, it is made up of tiny two-sided discs that can be pushed in different directions to create a simple image.)

I wasn’t sure that anyone would use it and had concluded that, although festively sparkling, it was probably too childish and illogical to appeal to people in a University setting. That was until I popped in when the Vegetarian Society were using the building and saw them beautifully and painstakingly creating a map of the world on the material. A prayer for peace.

Just a few days before, I joined some students who are part of a group called Just Love. They were sharing about some things that they had been involved in this term. Quite a few of them had been to training to become ‘dementia friendly’. In fact it was so good, that some of their friends wanted to take part so they ran the training again. They’d also spent a week ‘living below the poverty line’ spending a total of £5 for their food for the week and raising a substantial amount of money for those in need.

Ridiculous, isn’t it? Young adults taking time out of their studies to learn how to best relate to those with dementia? People choosing to live a life of poverty for a week?

I watched a fascinating performance last week (available on the iPlayer for those of you who have access to the BBC) of children doing a nativity play. The only difference was that this play took place in actual Bethlehem near the Israeli West Bank barrier underneath sniper watchtowers. Called ‘Alternativity’, it was the location that made the story especially poignant and the addition of artificial snow that showed what silly sentimentality we sometimes add to the simple story.

But the story itself is ridiculous and no amount of sugary carols or nostalgic cards can really disguise the ludicrous love of God for humanity, shown in a baby born in a barn. So I wish you a Christmas of ridiculous love and hope that the new year will bring us even more opportunity to explore what that means.

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speak

I got back late last night from a weekend for young people and when our youngest came in to give me a hug this morning the first thing he said was ‘What happened to my real mum?’ I think tiredness was showing even more than usual in my face this morning.

A major focus of this sleep-deprived weekend was for young people to ‘get their voice heard’.  This has got me thinking. I believe in the values of participation and inclusion and I’m generally against people feeling left-out or silenced, but I wonder if getting voices heard is a good starting point?

Perhaps more than ever before, we all face a barrage of many voices; both on social media and off it. Most of us feel little need to tow any kind of party line (as on Twitter profiles, ‘all opinions my own’).  I think this is mostly good in principle and certainly makes life more interesting.

But how do we learn to navigate all of this?  If all of us are speaking, who is doing the listening? If lots of people are speaking at the same time, how can you pick out the voice that you want to hear?

I’m imagining a youth weekend that reflected Victorian values instead. The tagline might be: ‘Be seen and not heard’ or ‘Don’t speak until you are spoken to’. It doesn’t sound like much fun (but I might have got a bit more sleep).

Weird though it may sound, Christians believe that God sometimes speaks to us through other human beings. In ancient history, the prophets called people back to God, to remember who they really were, as beloved children. From the early days of the Christian movement, people have spoken in holy words and pictures and even strange languages to build up one another and to praise God, especially when times were hard.

We all know that listening is as important as speaking but perhaps some of us are drawn more naturally to one more than the other. Certainly our world needs more deep listeners and wise speakers and both of these require us to have roots that go down deep.

I love this song and its image of inviting us all to join in the endless song of creation, even when we are feeling discordant or disjointed, even when it feels like the whole word is clamouring around us. Into this noise comes the quiet message of God’s peace. And we are invited to join the improvised alleluia.

As I walked around the beautiful grounds of Bath Spa University with a friend last week, we noticed this mysterious installation at the base of a tree. Made up of plastic bottle caps, it reflected a real rainbow in the sky and the soft tapping noise it made seemed like a holy sound. All those bits of plastic, which on their own would just fill a recycling bin, made a beautiful clatter in the wind.

I wonder if having a voice is like singing our part in the beautiful endless song; there may be solo parts from time to time but it is mostly about sharing with others in this life of improvised alleluias and enjoying the noise we make.

 

 

The Voice

 Does my voice really matter?

Can you hear the song I sing?

Does my worship make sense to you?

Does it match the sound I bring?

When my sound is loud or heavy,

when my sound is cold or bleak,

if my song becomes discordant will my song be what you seek?

In this world so many voices, many sounds rise to compete.

Does my voice really matter? Does God hear me?

Angel voices sang the news of peace to all: your God is pleased.

Jesus said come to me all who labour find your rest in me.

Mothers, daughters, sons and fathers,

lived the sound of love come down.

Song of heaven, God in Jesus –

help me sing with all I am.

Alleluia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

abide

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I wasn’t sure what to expect but I found Freshers Week lots of fun. Thousands of new students turned up and moved in and the excitement and openness to conversation was infectious. I was part of some organized activities, but the best bits were just meeting people everywhere I went.

On the first weekend of new arrivals, I’d decided to just take the bus up to one campus to be around as much as possible. I’d been thinking about some words of Jesus that week where he tells his followers to stay joined to him, in the same way that a branch needs to be connected to a vine in order for fruit to grow. So my prayer on the bus and throughout that day had been, ‘help me to be connected to your love’.

It felt as though that prayer was answered in many different ways: encountering students who were feeling anxious or finding it hard, being around to chat and help people to feel welcome, even pulling suitcases to accommodation blocks. Because I had no other agenda other than living in God’s love, it was easier than it sometimes is to respond.  I wish it was always like that.

I’ve also been paying attention to a passion fruit plant that is growing on a wall a few houses down from us. I’ve been watching it because I don’t think I’ve noticed passion fruit growing before. I asked a gardener about it and she said ‘it’s quite common to see passion fruit growing in Bath, but very rare for them to get ripe’.

For fruit to ripen, all that is needed is time and favourable weather conditions, and of course, staying connected to the main plant. It’s simple, really. It’s almost as if the most basic truths are right in front of our faces in the shape of the plants in our pots or the trees in our parks.

I’m struck that Jesus saying that we should abide or live in him, in the same way that he is connected to his father – has nothing at all to do with knowing exactly what we believe on every issue, or even attending church. It’s about knowing that our deepest desires are where God is and being open to how the changes things.

I met up with a returning student last week and she just happened to mention that this same passage is one of her favourite bits in the Bible (and she even has a bag to remind her of it). For her, it is about making her home in Jesus, not trying to look for security in anything else.

So I’ve been trying to imagine myself completely at home with Jesus as I go about my days, and also reminding myself to be like a branch- with the green sap of God’s love and life flowing through my veins. I think, for me, this is what joy feels like. But we’ll have to wait and see if any fruit manages to get ripe.

plenty

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We were away this week for a few days at one of our favourite places: Swanage.  While we were there, I did a quick shop in the local supermarket for some provisions and I was struck by the name of some kitchen towels on the shelf: Plenty. (I don’t always have philosophical moments on the Household aisle, I promise.) What a strange word it is. You can use it to describe both ‘enough’ and ‘more than enough’. It can mean both ‘abundant’ and ‘sufficient’.

Although we love Swanage for lots of reasons (the beach, the cliffs, the 2p machines, to name a few) it has become increasingly important to us as a family over the years. We all remember very well that we had a particularly good week there 6 years ago in the strange and uncertain time of moving from Hertfordshire to Yorkshire, for example. It’s a place of memories.

When we’re there we like to go down the beach at dusk, when almost everyone else has gone home. Sometimes we might throw a Frisbee or sometimes we just sit in silence and watch the stars come out.

Even though I know that it is a significant place for us, and a particular part of the beach, in particular, I was surprised when the boys at first refused to go back to ‘our beach’ in the evening this year.

‘I’m not going there’ one said. ‘You’re going to tell us that we have to move house again.’ The other one felt exactly the same way. It was completely fresh in their minds that a year ago we had told them on that same beach that we were going to have to move from our home in Yorkshire. There had been lots of tears on that beautiful beach.

They eventually relented and we wandered down, lost in our own thoughts. As we listened to the waves coming in and watched the lights of the town in the distance, our youngest started spontaneously singing..

 

The Lord’s my shepherd

I’ll not want

He makes me lie in pastures green

He leads me beside the still, still waters

His goodness restores my soul.

And I will trust in you alone

And I will trust in you alone

For your endless mercy follows me

Your goodness will lead me home.

 

No one else was around so we all joined in.

I remembered a conversation I had a few weeks ago with Barry, who is a former member of the Physics department at the University of Bath. I was a little bit surprised when he said that he thought that televised nature programmes did the world more harm than good because they make people travel the world in search of the exciting things they have seen on screen and in the process, ruin eco systems (not to mention the cost to the planet of air travel).

‘But what about the wonder of creation?’ I asked him. ‘What about lots of people being able to see how amazing the natural world is?’

‘There is enough to wonder about in your own back garden if you really looked’ he answered.

I was struck by that. There is plenty. We have plenty in this moment and in this place.