Today is the first Sunday of Advent…a time where we begin to watch and wait for the light and hope that the Christ-child brings as God with us. It’s a time of anticipation and expectation; a time of journey with change around the corner…these themes seem to be important for such times as these.
As part of the Advent journey we have set an Advent Photography Challenge in our benefice. Each day there is a word which will people will hopefully inspire people to be attentive throughout the day, and take a photograph which visualises the theme around the word for the day. Day one is PATH…
This Advent, amidst so much difficulty and uncertainty, I invite you to take time to journey and anticipate God with us as hope and light…something which we desperately need during these times.
This week I have been humbled and encouraged by the vast number of #BeautifulStories people have shared on Twitter. These are not just stories though; rather, they are testimonies to the ways in which God has created them, and how they have flourished once they realised that.
“Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire!”
St Catherine of Siena
As a new doctoral student, I am interested in these stories of flourishing; our love stories with God, and God’s love stories with humanity. I am really struck by the idea of torii seen in Japan, pictured above, and how these gates mark the space in a journey where one travels from this world to the sacred. The particularly iconic torii at Fushimi Inari above stretch for a few miles, repeating over and over. With each step there is a sense of coming closer to the sacred – it is a truly mesmerising experience.
It struck me that the many #BeautifulStories I have read this week are similar to these gates; each one is unique, there is no one story. Neither are they all necessarily happy: we mustn’t forget the stories which are excluded because they don’t feel very ‘beautiful’, or are too painful or costly to tell, as well as those that have been prematurely cut short. However, each individual story brings us slightly closer to understanding God.
The more we see of the great diversity of God’s creation, the better our view of the glimmer or shimmer of God’s image in and through each of us.
My sadness is that these stories were shared as a response to the Church of England (CofE) Evangelical Council’s (CEEC) video, titled The Beautiful Story, and released following the launch of the CofE’s Living in Love and Faithbook and resources earlier this month. The video takes viewers through a series of conversations about sexuality from an evangelical Christian standpoint. Whilst regret is expressed in relation to how evangelicals have been posited as homophobic, there remains a clear stance on sexuality, and sex, only being appropriately expressed in marriage between a woman and a man. As a side point, it also suggests that a shift away from this evangelical sexual ethic is responsible for the #MeToo movement. It is also communicated that any change to the CofE understanding of, and teachings on, marriage would lead to people within the CEEC being out of communion with the CofE.
What is deeply concerning about CEEC’s The Beautiful Story is that it expresses minds already made up. It seems to be a battle cry, or a warning, of the red line which cannot be crossed in the eyes of CEEC, regardless of where Living in Love and Faith takes us as a Church. These resources have been offered to help all of us to pray, study and learn together and play our part in discovering what God’s call is to the CofE today. It is the beginning of (yet) another opportunity to listen and to share and to seek to understand those who are different from us – yet this video undermines that spirit and process of discernment.
I was deeply moved by one account of a fellow and much valued priest who, despite being slightly weary from so much listening and so little change over the years, wanted to engage with #LLF. Equally moving was a blog post from another colleague in response to The Beautiful Story – it expresses wonderfully the challenges of growing up, and living, within the margins. I commend both pieces to you.
I too have spent much of my life on the margins. This has been most enduring through my experience of being a lesbian in the church, where the theology espoused in The Beautiful Story at times jeopardised my own love story with God and held me back from seeing myself as “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139: 14). Secondly, I think back to living as a foreigner in Japan for four years in my twenties ; and in more recent years, spending five weeks on placement at St Alban’s Anglican-Episcopal Church in Tokyo. I learned so much from this community who were on the margins of the society they lived within because of their status as foreigners in Japan, or their Christian faith which was incongruent with the beliefs of the wider Japanese society.
Whilst being on the margins can feel painful and uncomfortable, there is huge treasure in the realisation that Jesus never fully fitted either. Jesus modelled living from the margins. Jesus, therefore, offers us much as LGBTQ+ Christians who are so often outside, looking in. Yes, it is exhausting, but Jesus, who saw the woman at the well, who healed the lepers, who gave sight to the blind, who did not condemn the woman caught in adultery, Jesus sees you and me. Jesus knows you and me. Jesus loves you and me. Jesus calls you and me to be who we were meant to be and set the world on fire – this is our beautiful story!
I’m not sure whether this is just me, but I have began this week so weary, tired beyond that which sleep can remedy. Earlier in the week I picked up my camera and put on my wellies to walk, pray and meet God, in need of a refreshment which only comes from God. I felt I needed the extra encouragement of somehow seeing God.
God is so gracious and God allowed me to see that Divine, holy presence with me, with us….
…In the gift of a bench which so many sit on and gaze out to the beautiful view across the fields, alone or with others.
…Within the complexity of creativity, where spider’s webs house the refreshment of the early morning dew.
…Within the refreshing nourishment which God provides for all creatures.
…Peeking through the fog as rays of sun bringing warmth to the day.
…And in the colours of the changing, falling, leaves highlighted by the sun reminding me of the beauty to be found in endings as well as beginnings.
It was a truly wonderful walk with God, and has sustained me well since. I realised that I had not made time to walk with God for a number of months!
How about you? In the difficulties of our daily lives amidst a pandemic, when did you last walk with God? Or where have you encountered God over the last few days?
“He leads me beside still waters; He restores my soul.”
This week I have been reminded of the importance of stopping and being attentive, noticing the echoes of God in the world around. The last few weeks have been somewhat hectic as I have tried to get settled into my new parishes, and get to know people, amidst the strange times of social distancing. Amongst many other things, one of my tasks was to think with a few others about what we might be able to ‘do’ over the coming months. A number of conversations and penned plans later, I watched the unfolding announcement of a second national lockdown.
I’m not sure why the news of this discombobulated me so much…perhaps it was a greater awareness, compared to March, of the great many losses that lockdown seemed to claim, whilst also recognising that it seemed that we had reached the point where it was, once again, necessary.
After that news we witnessed the US presidential elections, more aware than ever perhaps, of the importance of one decision for the lives of so many.
As I watched this unfold, in the midst of the leaves falling, I have become aware of our fragility…we have to shed in order to grow. As I led a Burial of Ashes service last week I heard the words of 1 Corinthians 15:36 for the first time, it seemed: “Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies.”
I always love autumn, watching as the leaves turn and fall, but I have been really struck by the colour that the leaves seem to turn, or the colour of their veins – the red of hurt, pain, blood, conflict…and yet there will also come a time to notice the budding of new growth, green shoots, and a vibrancy of life. It is my hope and prayer that this will be the time to recollect all that we share, rather than to concentrate on what divides us.
This year Remembrance has taken such a different form. Those we wish never to forget have been remembered through online services, or with very small numbers gathered….
And yet, “They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old; Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, We will remember them.”
I have been reminded this week of the importance of dwelling in God’s world, of taking time to be aware of God’s presence among us, and yielding to that, rather than the pressures we so often put on ourselves. It has been a re-membering of who I am called to be…and what I am, along with all of God’s people, called to do…in all things, and at all times; be bearers of light and hope!
In the spring, after being signed off as a curate and given permission to discern where God was calling me to next, my partner and I found ourselves driving round the villages of Yardley Hastings, Denton, Castle Ashby, Whiston and Grendon. This was surprising on a number of levels, not least because I had not expected to be embarking on rural ministry within a multi-parish benefice…I’m not sure what I had expected, and I definitely should have learned, by now, to expect the unexpected!
A few weeks later I walked around three of the villages, and I became a little more confident that this may well be where God was calling me to be.
In order to invite others from the diocese and local area into the process, I applied for the post, and some time later was interviewed for, and offered the post of, Rector of the Benefice of Yardley Hastings. It was such an affirming experience and I was, and still am, ecstatic to be embarking on serving these communities.
As we look to the future, and indeed begin to move towards it, the need to shed – or move away from – something in order to make room for the next step becomes more and more apparent. As I prepared for my last services in the Holy Spirit parish in Leicester, it felt pertinent that the leaves were beginning to fall.
Just as leaves fall gradually, so were these endings gradual. I felt the celebration with me of the many wonderful people who I have had the very great privilege of walking alongside, as well as the lament of loss. Parting is painful, even when we know it is right. I was truly humbled by the kind words of so many who have shared a part of their journeys with me.
The pain of parting gave way to a flurry of activity related to moving house – packing and unpacking. This Sunday, after getting settled in the Benefice of Yardley Hastings, I was licensed as Rector via Zoom. In these strange times much of this discernment process has been conducted on line, and being physically present at various stages has affirmed God’s call on my life now. Clarity of God’s voice has been so important, yet I have wondered how patient life allows us to be to wait on God, to listen for God’s still small voice…? As I look to these parishes, in these strange times, I hope and pray that we can wait on God, notice where God guides us, in order that we can best be God with skin on in our small corner of the world.
Sometimes seeing through God’s lens means that we need to take time to discern where the focus needs to be…I guess it’s about being comfortable with seeing things a little out of focus, and yet still looking again to see what lies beyond the blur!
I blogged about arid land back in April, which I had found on a walk near my house and been somewhat captivated by.
I have walked through this field on countless occasions during lockdown, and semi lockdown, and been surprised when I saw something beginning to grow…this field has reminded me of hope in times of real struggle and pain through pandemic life….
I am reminded of God’s presence, provision and abundance….
I am also aware that sometimes God works through us in order to provide for those in need. How is God calling you to be God’s agent of hope this week?
I haven’t felt so inspired to go out with my camera recently, I think continued lockdown life has sapped something of my creativity. As measures were eased in Leicester a little, I was working with a colleague to gather a variety of photographs. I love this one as a small glimmer of God…a reminder of the hope that is constant, perhaps especially in the midst of struggle. For me it expresses all that I want to say in prayer, but cannot find the words…. Amen.
I took a long weekend off last weekend, just to spend at home as we remain in local lockdown. I had not realised how weary I have become…a weariness which does not seem to be cured by sleep, or even with a change of activity or (brief) change of scene. It seems little wonder that this is the case though: we have been living through a pandemic! Of course we are all experiencing this in different ways, but there is so much that we used to take for granted. Whilst masks, hand-washing, and limiting our travel have become common-place, they are not normalised.
The emotional energy it takes to get ready to go out, especially still in lockdown, is huge. COVID-19 had dealt each of us a significant shock to the system. I have spoken to a number of people who feel weary of this new normal – which is quite far from ‘normal normal!’ Navigating life within it, whilst also being aware of what can be gained from living more simply, and indeed the great costs that have come hand in hand with it, is exhausting. I have become aware over the last months that much of what I seem to do, or think about, relates to the future. At present, I feel quite immobilised; it seems impossible to think too far ahead! Just as we began to, we found ourselves plunged into local lockdown, in a way which hit harder because we dared to begin to move forward.
I have been truly inspired today by this article on Wild Church which seeks to encourage spirituality outdoors. Green, wild, spaces have been so sacred to me during lockdown…it has been much more difficult since those spaces have not been available, as they are outside the boundary. My heart has found God in the wild, wide open spaces over the last months, and I yearn to return!
In the meantime though, I recognise the need for each of us to be kind to ourselves as life fails to feel nearly normal, and navigation of the new normal continues to use too much of our reserves. I love that the photograph of this watering can shows both age and something of its failings as a watering can, whilst also showing that water continues to flow out of it – even in the face of challenge, it still has something to offer!
“In those dark days I found some support in the steady progress unchanged of the beauty of the seasons. Every year, as spring came back unfailing and unfaltering, the leaves came out with the same tender green, the birds sang, the flowers came up and opened, and I felt that a great power of Nature for beauty was not affected by the war. It was like a great a great sanctuary into which we could go and find refuge.”
Sir Edward Grey, Foreign Secretary at the outbreak of the First World War, from ‘Recreation’, speech to Harvard University, 1919
I love the quote above, which is how I have come to appreciate the seasons – especially this year. The last few days have been dark and dreary indeed, unceasing rain and all of the emotional feelings around living in a city still in lockdown. Yet, there is still hope to be found; the beans are growing, the birds continue to sing, and regardless of the weather, the heather will soon break out! I commend Lucy Jone’s Losing Eden which demonstrates beautifully and in a timely way, how we need wild spaces to maintain our emotional wellbeing. Where do you find your hope?