It’s been a while

Having said that I’d carry on blogging beyond (slightly extended) Lent, I have miserably failed to write anything more! My initial excuse is that life kind of got in the way – moving house, being busy at work, etc. I think if those things were allowed to get in the way then I’d never blog!

So, what have I thought about in the past few months… well many things. Working in reasonably close proximity to politicians (about 3 floors away!) has meant that I watched the MPs expenses debacle and the related coverage with particular interest. I think I’ll write a post ‘in defence of politicians’ some time soon…

I’ve just returned from Greenbelt where my highlights included seeing friends who I’d not seen in a while, the always excellent Maggi Dawn talking about giving up and encouraging us to look again at the fasting seasons in the Christian calendar and Sarah Jones talking about the importance of context. Sarah’s a particular favourite speaker of ours since we heard her at this year’s SCM conference. But without a shadow of a doubt, the best speaker I heard this year was Bishop Gene Robinson. I went to hear him speak about being calm in the eye of the storm and have nothing but admiration for the man. He is an engaging speaker who speaks with sincerity, honesty and conviction about his faith, his life experiences and his views. I could quite clearly see why the good Anglicans of New Hampshire thought it was worth all the hassle to elect him their Bishop. He’s the closest thing I’ve seen to a prophet, leading the church into the future by his example.

Reflecting on Greenbelt this year made me realise quite how little Christian-thinking I do in my everyday life. Most of my brain power is taken up with work, with a bit spared for political thinking. It’s been a while since body, mind or soul has been engaged in godly matters outside of church on a Sunday. I’m hoping that joining a class (olde Methodist speak for a mix of a pastoral care group and a discussion group) at our new church home will help a bit with that.

That’s a bit of a ragbag post to re-start my blogging career, maybe my next one will be a bit more focussed or coherent.

Where am I now?

So, the last 12 posts are pretty much a whistle-stop tour of my journey to date but where has it taken me?

Well, in geographical terms, I’m in London. Sarah and I are mainly attending the same church my grandmother attends (and where my mum went as a teenager). I’d only ever been there once or twice before I moved down here (including for my grandfather’s funeral) but I’m starting to feel at home there. The worship is comfortably familiar and the preaching is stimulating and interesting. As we relocate to London properly, I hope we’ll get more involved either at this church or somewhere else.

I’m still slightly involved with SCM, attending a couple of events a year. But SCM feels very much like the past – an important part of my life and something that’s gone a long way towards making me who I am today but still the past. That said, I found this years conference as challenging and stimulating as I have found events in the past, if not more so. I’ve heard lots of SCMers say that they struggle to find something to replace it – I guess like them I now have to find a new source of nourishment for my faith.

As for where this blog will go… well, right now it’s taking a rest! This week I’m off to Shrewsbury to help Sarah pack but after that… I’m going to keep blogging. I’d like to talk about how I’ve found my job (as much as is appropriate), my views on the world and the random things that occur to me. So… once moving’s out of the way, I’ll be back!

Taizé

Like a lot of people, I’mfamiliar with the chants that stem from the Taizé Community and have been for a number of years. I also went to the Community as a child. My only memory of the trip is spending what felt like hours in silence during a service in the church. Apparently I wrote a plea for help in escaping on a piece of a tissue box that I had on hand…

With that memory, I decided to join a trip from Sheffield in the summer after my second year there. It came at a rather interesting time in my mind as I’d just had my first date with Sarah and so had a lot to think about!

My first impression of the place is that it was beautiful. As well as the church, just off the campsite there was a lake with in a very pretty setting. It was encouraged as a place to go and think and pray. I liked it, even if I didn’t make as much use of it as I should.

The main thing that I really liked about life at Taizé was the pattern of 3 daily prayer services. It provided a good rhythm to the day and made sure I had plenty of space to think/reflect/pray (as each service includes 15 mins silence). To start with the silence was intimidating, a vast expanse that needed filling with meaningful prayer and reflection.

Brother Paulo was the English Brother who was looks after visiting groups of young people from the UK. One afternoon he invited our group to come and have ‘tea’ with him. (I put tea in inverted commas because what they call tea in Taizé is actually a sweet lemony drink that can be served hot or cold.). While we had tea, Paulo talked to us about what led him to where he was. Among the many interesting things he said that resonated with me (and I think the others in the group) was his description of how he sees prayer. He described it as creating a space deep inside of him for God to enter. He would put things in that place that he wanted to pray about. I liked the image and found it really helpful in using the silent times during the daily services.

I structured my silent prayer times, partly to ensure I didn’t spend all my time thinking about my blossoming romance back in England! I spent one day on family, one day on life in Sheffield, and so on. Not only did I get very useful time to think about the things that were important to me, it was also one of the very few times I can say I have felt a real connection with God. I was able to feel a presence which I don’t think I’ve felt anywhere else – it was definitely one of the ‘thin places’.

I have intended to go back ever since – I thought about going down for a weekend during my year in Paris and Sarah and I have talked about going for the last couple of years. Hopefully we will do soon.

SCM

I would not be a practising Christian if I had not found the Student Christian Movement. Full Stop. I came to this realisation a couple of years ago and think it quite accurately sums up my level of attachment to SCM. But let me start at the beginning…

I found Sheffield SCM by accident as it just happened to be based at the church I started to attend. I’d scoped out its website before I got there but to be honest, all I knew is that it wasn’t the Christian Union (which I’d been told by peope I trusted, wouldn’t be for me). So I went along and almost instantly felt at home.

The group was a rag bag of people, many of whom could best be described as having quirks… The first thing that struck me was the active inclusivity. What do I mean by that? Well, during the discussions that took place in the first few weeks it became clear to me that most people there were not only tolerant of the different opinions of others but were actively interested in them. They acted as if they were enriched by them. It wasn’t the ‘spoiling for a fight’ approach, where people look for any differences they can, it was a thoughtful exploration of how other people saw the world differently. And there were many different views of the world in that group – politically, theologically, socially very different views (left wing, right wing, conservative evangelical, catholic, fluffy liberal and many more).

I think what I loved about this group is best illustrated by describing a discussion from  my second year there. We were talking about life after death and how we perceived it. One of the group said that she wasn’t sure she believed in a literal life after death. This fascinated most people there and she was bombarded with questions about it (being a scientifically minded person, she was struck by the thought of where the molecules that made up our bodies end up – and how they recycle into who-knows-what -and not particularly fussed about what happens to a soul). The questioning wasn’t accusatory but curious. And actually I don’t think I was the only one who left that session thinking she didn’t actually see life after death that differently from me.

During my first year in Sheffield, I went to national SCM’s annual conference on ‘Prophets and Profits’. It was a fantastic experience – the mix of worship, stimulating talks and warm fellowship that I still appreciate from SCM events today. The mix of politics and faith appealed to my political nature.

After some personality clashes with people in the Sheffield group, I devoted quite alot of my time to the national Movement – becoming its Convenor of General Council (the chair of trustees). I spent a lot of time working on the ‘business’ side of the organisation but also attending every national event. During the 3 years following my election, I made some fantastic friends, met my partner and gained a large amount of experience that helped me get the job I’ve got now.

Aside from the business skills and friendships I made, SCM has shaped how my faith. It confirmed for me that Christianity can be inclusive and welcoming and that it is not strange to see politics and religion as inseperable. It made me feel like I belonged in a community of Christians for the first time in my life. It gave me space to explore my faith, to challenge myself by exposing myself to different perspectives and ideas.

As you can see… I’m quite a fan! One of the most rewarding things for me during my final year in Sheffield, being part of the committee that ran the group there, was to hear someone new describe how much they valued the SCM group. For exactly the same reasons I had when I first came to Sheffield. And over the past few years I’ve heard that same thing from so many people. I pray SCM will keep providing that space for years to come.

Sheffield

After a Gap year in Ghana, I headed off to university in Sheffield. In Fresher’s week, my flatmates took me to a Christian Union BBQ.  I have only two memories of that event: Firstly there was sausage rationing – only 1 each. Secondly, the speaker said to find a Church you liked (he also said one that preached the Gospel… as if there were churches that didn’t!). I found one and never went to a CU event again!

I found the local Methodist Church and went along on the first Sunday morning of term. It was fairly obvious from when I first arrived that this was not a ‘student church’. There were a couple of students but they stood out like a sore thumb in a sea of grey hair. Well… as much as 20-30 people can be called a sea. I liked this place and so I kept going back. In fact, I went to the same church for all of my time in Sheffield. I served as a Church Steward (member of a Methodist Church’s Leadership Team) and as Church Council Secretary. This Church was very much home for 4 years.

The congregation was a lovely collection of people – mainly those who didn’t fit in in other churches. They were unafraid to be different, in fact many of them were very proud of being different and of thinking differently. The worship on a Sunday morning was fairly traditional but with two notable elements. Firstly, the singing was dreadful. And I mean dreadful. It was often weak bordering on non-existant and lacked any real energy. On the other hand, the preaching was normally pretty good. Many of the local preachers came from the congregation and would provide an interesting, thought-provoking sermon on the readings set for the day. Both of the ministers who were there during my time were also particularly inspiring preachers.

As much as I like good preaching, I don’t think the worship is why I stayed at this church, it was because I felt like I belonged there. I felt encouraged to think and, perhaps for the first time in my Christian journey,  I felt like I was among other Christians who felt like me. They encouraged me to get involved with the running of the church which just cemented the feeling of fitting in.

As with most places when you stay long enough, a Church can drive you mad. People were difficult to work with – defensive about their ways of working, resistant to change, etc. When I left Sheffield, it felt like it was the right time to move on from Broomhill.

The university chaplain and minister to the church observed that this Church was very good at thinking about God but not so good at feeling God. I think that’s why I fitted in so well there but also why I was ready to move on. The other major part this church played in my life is that it is where I first encountered SCM but that’s for another post…

Lent is extended!

Well… Lent has come to an end but I’ve not covered half of the ground I wanted to in my reflection on my faith. I’m quite enjoying this blogging lark so I think I’ll hang around even when I do finishthe current series of posts.

As some of you will know life has been a bit hectic so I’ve not really had  the head-space required for reflective thinking. I hope you’ll bear with me while I extend my Lenten discipline a little longer.

Hymns

I like singing. There’s no escaping that part of the reason I love hymns (and by hymns I include worship songs/praise choruses/whatever else) is because I like to sing. But there’s something more to it than that, a spiritual dimension if you will.

 

I can express myself in hymn form much better than I can in speech. I can sing what it would make me uncomfortable to say (not because I disagreed with it but speaking the praises of God just doesn’t come naturally to me). I suppose it helps that the Charles Wesleys of this world have expressed in beautiful poetry so many glimpses into the nature of God.

 

It’s not just how I express myself though; it’s the effect it has on me. I often get a little shiver up my spine when singing something particularly fantastic. This isn’t the same one I get from performing in an orchestra or singing in a choir. It comes when singing Love Divine, And Can It Be or Thine Be The Glory. I think it comes from singing the Truth beautifully put.

 

Do all hymns do it? Of course not, there are many hymns old and new that drive me crackers because I find the imagery questionable (Onward Christian Soldiers), the message poorly expressed (Trust and Obey) or I just simply don’t agree with the theology (numerous very penal-substitution atonement heavy songs). There is also the bland pap – the so called ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ genre – that is to Christian song what most of the top 10 in the charts is to secular music.

Mum and Dad

When looking at influences on any aspect of my life, including my faith, it’s not surprising that my parents are pretty significant. My mum goes to church and my dad does not but both of them have had an impact on my faith.

 

Tractor Girl asked a few posts ago for my reflections on the SCM Liberating Gender Conference. I re-realised during that conference quite how atypical my upbringing was in terms of looking at gender. My parents, my mum in particular, were very big on challenging stereotypical gender stereotypes. I was dressed in pink, given dolls to play with, read children’s books with strong female heroes (‘Rita the Rescuer’ was apparently a favourite) and generally being taught that there was no difference between what boys did and what girls did. This made the SCM conference very strange for me as I realised that, although I recognised the stereotypes people talked about really didn’t ring true for me. Whilst I could grasp the workshop which talked about boys toys being very muscly and full of big guns, that didn’t marry with my own childhood experience where I wasn’t even allowed a playmobil fort!

 

This I suppose has informed my understanding of God and of humanity. I was brought up to not really see gender roles, and so the idea of a genderless God wasn’t such a stretch. Obviously, I went to school in the ‘real world’ and became gradually more and more aware of gender differences and my parents influence was diluted. But the basic understanding remained – that there is not set difference in what girls and boys do.

 

Also, with the strong non-violent influence (I was given dolls were because many of the ‘boys toys’ were all too violent), peace and non-violent philosophies and theologies are also second nature to me. I was always taught violence solved nothing and that lesson applies now just as much to how I view global conflict resolution as it did when it was my Mum telling me not to hit my brother.

 

My mum and I are very similar in lots of ways and I think that’s reflected in our approach to our faiths. Like my grandfather, and like me, she places a lot of emphasis on a stimulating sermon but she also likes her quiet space for contemplation. It’s from her that I first got an appreciation for Taizé worship (even if I only properly got to like it when I left home to go to uni).

 

Dad describes himself as ‘spiritually blocked’ which I find quite a useful image. He says he just doesn’t get faith; he can engage with some of the ‘theory’ of religion and with the traditions and rituals but doesn’t believe in or understand God. He comes to church at Christmas and Easter and came whenever we were involved in services as children. But he’s coming for the rest of the family and the occasion rather than anything more. I think my Dad is one of the influences that make me sceptical about evangelism. It seems to me that some people just don’t see life in a way that involves God and I have a certain respect for that.

The Bible

I thought I’d take a short break from the trawl through the influences on my faith to look at how I think and feel about an important element of Christianity – the Bible.

I suppose in lots of ways I have mixed feelings about the Bible. I find it hard to read on my own– very few sections flow as a narrative and I don’t find much of what it says particularly ‘useful’ or relevant to my life. When reading lots of passages, I find it too easy to be put off by the ‘face value’ meaning of the passages.

I know enough about biblical studies/theology to know that the face value reading of a text, while sometimes helpful, is often only a small layer of the richness in a passage. I know there are interesting and illuminating contexts and cultural (and scriptural) references. The problem I have is that, I’m no theologian or biblical scholar and so know very little about the linguistic, historical and cultural context to what I’m reading. The result is I’m left unfulfilled by Scripture when I read it.

The main time the Bible comes alive to me is through preaching. To hear someone reflect on a passage and tease out meanings I’d not seen brings it to life for me. But I think, as preaching seems to be a running theme in my reflections, I should come back to it another time.

School Friends

Unlike most of my Christian friends, until I came to university I didn’t really have any Christian friends. I had a close group of schools friends who ranged from strident Dawkins-esque atheists to indifferent agnostics. It will not surprise people who know me that I have some fairly opinionated friends. We ‘discussed’ politics, religion and the meaning of life many times. It was during this time that I discovered what I believed, pretty much by deciding what I was not. I was not the Christian ‘straw man’ that they loved to criticise and/or mock. I was also not quite like my friends in how I saw the world. And as quite often happens when you’re a teenager, I started to define my faith by how I differed to other people.

My school friends are all wonderful people I admire each of them in lots of different ways. They are some of the most selfless people I know with very strong senses of justice. These atheist friends embody Christian values. These people who I grew up with shaped my vision of what is important to me, probably more than anything I learnt in church. It’s just that for me, unlike my friends, those values are linked to my faith.