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.

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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.

 

 

legacy

I’m afraid the following incident doesn’t make Americans look very good – and it even happened on the 4th of July. Sorry about that.

Because there were 12 University of Bath graduations happening this week, my colleague asked if I would stand in for him in the procession of one of them. I’m not really a pomp and circumstance person, but arrived at the Guildhall with my academic gown and hood to gather with academic staff and dignitaries to process to the Abbey where the graduations were happening. Because I was a bit worried about wearing the right thing and knowing where I should stand in the procession, let alone where I was meant to end up sitting on the stage in the Abbey, I didn’t take a great deal of notice of those gathered in the Guildhall, getting ready for the ceremony, apart from a few friendly people nearby.

I enjoyed watching the 250 students in that ceremony walk across the front and shake the hand of the Chancellor before collecting their certificate. I couldn’t see his face or hear what he was saying to them, but I noticed that whenever students approached the Chancellor without eye contact, he paused to say something, so that they were almost forced to look up and acknowledge where they were. I liked that. I liked that these students who had achieved so much were being reminded to stop and look up and receive the moment.

It was only after the ceremony that my own lack of observation was pointed out to me. Did I not realise that the Chancellor was Prince Edward, the Earl of Wessex? I’m afraid I didn’t. That would explain the high security then. Now that they mentioned it, I guess I could see a family resemblance…

Apart from a feeling of deep relief that I’d been spared a potentially very awkward social situation, I was glad that my impression of the way he interacted with students wasn’t prejudiced in any way by knowing who his family were.

A couple of weeks before, at a bus stop, I’d met another person from a famous family: the great-great granddaughter of Joseph Rowntree. What was it like to be a part of that family, I asked her, with that amazing legacy of faith-based commitment to social reform and with charities that he founded still making a difference today? (She said that people normally just ask about the sweets.)

Some of us may come from families with inspirational legacies that we want to keep alive, but I think that mostly we are free to choose the mark that we want our lives to leave. I was reminded of this when I went to a thanksgiving service for someone I deeply admire this week. During the service I had a powerful sense of a prayer welling up inside me. Lord, I want to follow in her footsteps, into increasing joy and hospitality and acceptance. What we desire shapes us. May it shape me. May it be my legacy, too.

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tenant

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This was my coffee last week at our local coffee shop, The Grumpy Baker. I have to confess, the first time I went there, it took me a few seconds to realise that the face on top is part of their logo and not a personal message directed at me. The coffee underneath was good.

Last year has been a bit of an adventure for us and we’ve felt blessed by the house we’ve been renting for the last 5 months. It has charmingly crooked walls, high ceilings and beautiful old fireplaces and is big enough to have lots of people over for meals and to stay overnight. It’s also on a road with a great view and friendly neighbours. We’ve loved it.

Sad face time; we’ve just been told that we can only live here for another 2 months so we are praying for another house to fill the gap until, hopefully, we can move into a house of our own. We wish we didn’t have to move, but we’re trusting there is some “good coffee” beneath the apparent sad face in this turn of events.

Now I know this is a bit predictable, but there is a story that Jesus told about a landlord and tenants that I have seen in a new way this week because of our circumstances. (It’s in Mark 12, if you want to see it yourself.)

Once there was a landlord who lovingly planted a vineyard, putting up supports for the young plants, pruning and watering them. He built a wall round the vineyard to protect it from the wind, and in anticipation of a brilliant harvest, dug out a hole to serve as a wine press.

Soon, however, he needs to travel to another country and so has to trust this precious crop to tenant farmers. It feels a bit risky.

The tenants settle in and begin to work. There is watering and pruning and harvesting to do. But once the owner has been away for a while, they start in small ways to act as though the vineyard is theirs.

When the landlord sends servants to collect his share of the harvest, they think ‘how dare he? We’re the ones slaving away.’ They beat them up and send them away.

The landlord sends his son instead, but by that point they are so caught up in their own importance that they convince themselves that it makes sense to kill the son so that they can legally inherit the vineyard (which in their minds is already rightfully theirs).

It ends in disaster for the tenants. What went wrong? We’ve got no reason to think that they weren’t working hard, that they weren’t looking after the plants in their charge.

What went wrong was that they allowed themselves to believe that the vineyard was theirs. What do you have to do to be a good tenant? Remember that the fruit isn’t yours.

There are some things that are good about being a tenant. For example, we don’t have to worry about leaking pipes, the mortgage or re-roofing. We don’t have to decorate or think about fluctuating house prices. We’re free from all those hassles.

In a similar way, love sets us free from anxiety and fear. Love is the opposite of the need to control. We are set free to joyfully respond to what God is doing in this moment. If everything is God’s and I’m only a tenant, what do I have to fear? If God loves the people I care for more than I do, why do I worry? Being God’s tenant makes me free.

 

 

 

 

alien

IMG_5952We’ve recently had his ears tested again and it turns out our younger son’s hearing is perfectly fine. It was his request to have the test, because he felt like he wasn’t catching everything that was being said in school.

What is both endearing and sometimes frustrating about our son is that he is a bit of a dreamer and often caught up in his own thoughts and so he misses things sometimes. The other day he said he thought that his nickname should be ‘alien’ because he is often on another planet.

So this is why it isn’t really surprising that he has got through 10 ½ years of life without knowing any swear words (although he has been curious about what they might be). Today on the way to school, Alien said, ‘I’ve heard some weird things at school and but don’t know if they are swear words.’

‘Go ahead and say them and I’ll tell you,’ I answered.

They were.

When I asked a bit more about who had said them and what the context was, Alien was worried that I was going to ring the school and complain or maybe change him to a different school.

I wasn’t.

That’s because, of course, there will probably be 10 year olds swearing in most schools on the planet. But it’s also because I believe we are all called, and 10 year olds too, to shine as a light in the world.

It’s normal for parents to worry that their kids will have friends who will be a bad influence.  But holiness works the other way. God’s joy, and compassion and peace are as infectious as a child’s belly laugh.

I admitted to Alien that I also find it hard to stay true to what I believe and who I am and not to always copy those around me and I was reminded of some words in the Bible. In fact I was thinking about them so much, that I even got my Greek and English New Testament off of the shelf. In this bit of the Bible, called ‘Romans’ the early Christians living in Rome are reminded that they are living on the cusp of a new era- and that everything about them, their minds, their hearts and their actions should reflect the new time and new reality and not the old one.

It’s a ‘farther in and higher up’ time (as in The Last Battle when the humans and animals leave behind the Shadowlands and discover a more real and more beautiful Narnia than they could have ever imagined). What God has for us is more well-pleasing and perfect and good than we could ever dream up.

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broken

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We broke a bowling alley. A couple of weeks ago, ‘Mig’, ‘Edzster2000’ and I went bowling with some of their cousins on the first day of our trip to the States. Halfway through our game, the balls stopped rolling back.

We alerted the staff but nothing happened. We told them again. Perhaps because we were inexperienced, jet-lagged and young children were involved, we decided to just keep playing while we waited for things to be fixed.   So we searched the bowling alley to find any balls that weren’t in use and just kept playing. And getting more balls. Finally, the staff switched us to different lanes where the balls magically returned and where we also had a perfect view of the horror we had created: the entire floor of the lanes where we had been playing was being taken up to fish out all our bowling balls one by one before they could fix the machine. It looked like it might take some time.

This week I thought of something a teenager said quite a few years ago. I wonder if I remember it because I have been subconsciously trying to figure out how I could have responded ever since. ‘I think God is like a teddy bear sat in the corner of my room,’ the young person said, ‘I know he’s always there if I want him.’   It was a warm fuzzy kind of thought that expressed an understanding of God as a comforter. And that’s good, in a way.

But I can’t help but think that this picture of God is as passive as a broken bowling alley. I knew at the time that the particular young person had real-life troubles and serious tensions at home. Would a teddy bear really make a difference in that situation?

What I couldn’t find the words for then, and still struggle to do now, was to say: I know what it’s like to feel as if your prayers are bowling balls going down a lane without anything coming back. Sometimes God asks us to wait and sometimes God doesn’t do what we want or expect; but that isn’t because God is flopped in the corner like a teddy bear or because God is somehow defective; it is because God rules over all in ways that we don’t always understand. Yes, God is with us, bringing comfort and peace when times are hard, but God also disturbs us, challenges us and intervenes in the world. God-who-is also-the-Spirit stirs our hearts and our lives into action. God-who-is also-Jesus, loves us enough to rip through galaxies and take on our pain.

The mummy of King Tutankhamun, I recently read*, after many years travelling around museums and exhibitions, was put back in his tomb in Egypt. The extraordinary story of Easter is that Jesus is not in a tomb anywhere. Like this song has been reminding me, he is alive among us, giving us vision, wisdom and strength. Hallelujah.

 

*https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tutankhamun

lift

 

When I tell people that we have moved to Bath from York, they often say something like ‘well, they’re quite similar places, aren’t they?’ almost as if we have moved here because we only like living in cities that have been occupied by Romans and are loved by tourists and hen parties.

It’s a bit too early to early to make comparisons, but in general we are finding Bath to be a very friendly place. Last week, with some of my chaplaincy colleagues, I took part in an initiative organised by churches working together in Bath, inviting people to pray. Lots of people were happy to reach up and put a ball into one of the structures as a symbol of their prayer. Some people, including children, lingered. Bath felt like a very good place to be.

But one thing that I miss about York are the city walls and the gates.  In the months before we moved away, every time I passed one of the gates in particular (Micklegate Bar, for those who know it) some words from the Bible would leap into to my head:

Lift up your heads, O gates!

and be lifted up, O ancient doors!

that the King of glory may come in.

 Who is the King of glory?

The Lord, strong and mighty,

the Lord, mighty in battle.

 Lift up your heads, O gates!

and be lifted up, O ancient doors!

that the King of glory may come in.

 Who is this King of glory?

The Lord of hosts,

he is the King of glory.

Scholars think that these words (from Psalm 24) were used in worship in the ancient world – perhaps as people ascended the hill to Jerusalem, or they may have accompanied the Ark of the Covenant into the temple.

In a modern context these words make me want to lift up my head, lift up my heart, opening the doors for God’s glory. When I stop, even for a moment, to look above the turmoil that is around me or within me, my perspective changes.

We’ve got quite a long and steep journey to school with our youngest at the moment, but we’ve found a secret to keep him moving: get him to lift his head and look up, instead of trudging along looking at his shoes. When he is interested in the world around him and engaged in conversation, he hardly notices the climb.

Like the lovely people of Bath lifting up their brightly coloured prayers and the ancient words inviting us to be on the look out for God, I, too, want to lift up my head, expecting glory.

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