Saturday, 28 November 2015

7QT: The Black Friday edition


I've seen posts from the USA and heard sentiments in the UK about how we should reclaim Black Friday and make it a time of peace, self-care and space rather than rampant consumerism. I can understand this sentiment. However, at a local supermarket early this morning - a supermarket that had advertised being open at 5am with sale items available - I peacefully shopped for cards and wrap, purchased my Christmas dress, and listened to festive music. The shop was busy, but not overly so, and I'm quite glad I had a little shopping to fit into my last free day before Christmas.

Because why would you need downtime from
 this calm and collected creature?


It's true! There is no more time for me to scoot off by myself and get things sorted. So Black Friday is inadvertently a bit of a panic time for me. Yes, in a week's time I'm visiting Lincoln Christmas market and Cathedral with my husband, and having a company dinner at a good restaurant. And in two weeks' time (a fortnight, for the British) I am taking church friends to a Christmas carol concert at Southwell Minster because they bid for this trip at a church auction. And then a Quiet Day, for the last Friday before the school holidays, at a local convent, to truly prepare. Three Fridays of luxury, in different ways - but no chance for self-care or shopping!


I am being forced sorry, encouraged to practice self-care though, regardless, because I have AquaZumba in the pool later which means the long-overdue razor is coming out as soon as I hit publish on these takes!

AquaZumba you say? Basically Zumba in the swimming pool for 45 minutes, which basically means mad cod-African dancing and jumping up and down as far as I can tell. But it's aerobic, and I'm trying to do it every Friday I don't have a date with my husband or a Quiet Day.


And as well as procuring my Christmas frock (it's red! and Christmassy! But mainly, it fits! Pretty much!) I have my 8-weekly trim and colour today because unlike others before me (my Mum and Kendra) I am hiding my hair greying behind pretty colours. Today could be the day I boldly go for a lighter undershade and coppery highlights. Or not. (Do you think they would clash?)

New. Christmas. Tablecloth, Sorry - Frock.


But I truly hope that, wherever people are, whatever people doing, if they are buying gifts to celebrate the greatest gift, they are able to fit in something, whether it's shaving their legs, having a haircut, having some quiet time to pray or sitting having a cup of coffee with a friend. I know lots of people are clamouring that we should remember the reason for the season, and I think this starts with slowing down and realising that we don't have to get everything done today tomorrow....


For example, last year I didn't give a single Christmas card to anyone I didn't see. But last night I sat and spent a couple of hours writing cards and even writing little notes in some of them, to people I wanted to write little notes to. It felt like a chore in a way, because I hadn't rested at all in the preceding days before doing it, and I would have much rather been in a dark room lying down with my eyes closed. But I did it because it is important to me to maintain connections with friends and family who don't live nearby. I didn't do it because I felt I had to. And I hope that this is something we can take from today, as we get ready to move into Advent - let's focus on the important things, that feed us and build up the Kingdom; let's take a while to love ourselves, in practice for loving our neighbour; let's sprinkle a few fun festive traditions in amongst the serious and sacred preparations, as we remember that we are excited about celebrating a special birthday, which heralded a radical message about how we should live our lives.


And I really, really also think you should spend five minutes looking at what my priest friend (whose blog you should check out) posted on Facebook last night: 50 Nativity Sets you will be wanting to buy! (But not on Black Friday. No.)

The reason for the season. (Not vegetables.)

More (and possibly less preachy!) Quick Takes can be found at This Ain't the Lyceum.

Saturday, 21 November 2015

7 Quick Takes: The Advent of Advent


There are tons of signs I am getting ready for Advent. Firstly, I have gifts to wrap and cards to write and post, and in my head this is the thing I do before Advent, so I can participate fully. So guess what? Everything is just sitting there, with no time scheduled in to do these things. What a good starting point to reflect on my humanness and await the divine....


But it has been Bonfire Night. I know in the USA that the holiday season – and Starbucks squabbles – hit as soon as Halloween was done, but here in England we had the death of a revolutionary to celebrate. Guy Fawkes’ Night meant two weeks of pretty incessant fireworks. We had spontaneous firework and bonfire craft at home, and FabDad took the three eldest sisters to a firework display. 4thSister and I watched one from the window.

Tissue paper bonfire and fireworks


Speaking of dead revolutionaries, everyone in our house is being made to listen to Hamilton: The Musical which 1stSister picked up on even before I realised Hallie Lord had. My life may be complete – a historical musical with rap. It sounds terrible written down, but listening to it, it is amazing. The rhyming couplets and cheeky references (Gilbert and Sullivan operettas anyone?) are MAKING ME SO HAPPY.


 It is another sign that I am ‘getting ready for Advent’ when I start to procrastinate and listen to musicals rather than actually doing much.


Thankfully despite being on placement at a different church for the next month or so, I am helping with a Songs of Praise service on the 1st Sunday of Christmas so I’ve just spent a couple of hours absorbed in Jesse Tree stuff, Bible readings, prayers and poems to celebrate Christmas – and if that isn’t getting Advent-y I don’t know what is J


When my 5 year old asked whether we were going to get the candles of all different colours out and light them, I didn’t ask her seven times whether or not she meant the rainbow candle 1st Sister had made, I straight away piped up “you mean the Advent Candles, don’t you?”


Finally – there is an extra compline service at church for Tuesdays in Advent which is in my diary. I am finally back on my feet fully post-op and scheduling in time with friends, the outdoors, playtime with small children and enjoying dates with my husband. It is requiring A LOT of self-discipline to balance everything within our domestic unit so I am relying on a lot of prayer. Advent gives me an opportunity to revisit my rule of life, in a way that’s slightly less penitential than Lent and slightly more about delayed gratification (mustn’t eat the Christmas goodies before it’s time, now.) I don’t really want to wait to get my act together this year, because I want to make the time to wait on Him properly. It’s inevitable in my humanness that there will be things that slip through the net. I know regular prayer won’t get the gifts wrapped. But it gives me a starting point, the very best starting point of all.

Friday, 13 November 2015

Mulch, mulch, glorious mulch

"They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for a display of his splendour." - Isaiah Ch 61 V 3 (part)

I’ve always found the metaphor of a tree to be both personally and professionally important to me. On an Ignatian Quiet Day in Sheffield, I first really, really thought about my role in the Church, in Christianity. I was starting to put down roots, both in the church I attended and my developing faith. As I watched an oak tree outside, I could almost feel those roots hooking into the ground, being nourished. Like my roots. But there was also growth –  not only a tree growing upwards and outwards, but also producing fruit, launching acorns into the world, to start new life.  I knew God wanted me to give something back; this helped me see it fully. And this oak tree image has resonated with me in a variety of situations just when I needed it – acorn d├ęcor in the moulded plaster on the ceiling as I waited to be interviewed about my vocation to the priesthood, for starters.

As with that small acorn, in the Gospels we hear about how it only takes a mustard seed, a teeny tiny wisp of faith, to start a transformation. (I remember leading the Pram Service with under 5s and actually taking in some of those teeny tiny seeds.) As church, we are often brilliant at planting seeds and starting a chain reaction in people.  We are less practised, I believe, at following up and sustaining new Christians. We may think about that first spark of life, but not support the spiritual sapling that is making its way in the world, trying to put down strong roots in the earth.

A little while ago I mused about the wonder of leaves – their role in the life of trees, and in our lives, as they engage our senses in their colourful death. This past week, however, I was thinking about ow dead leaves become mulch (and not just because my Dad subjected me to no end of gardening programmes on TV as a child!) I remembered that although it is the seed of the tree that makes a beginning, in the death of the leaves something also happens; the soil in which seeds grow is fertilised. Leaves decay; in doing so, they enrich. They retain moisture. They stop the weeds growing. As such, spiritual mulch can help provide a nurturing environment for people wherever they are on their faith journey. They ensure that the plant will put down strong roots and grow fruitfully.

Being part of an ageing church population means that I have had several friends who I feel have “gone too soon” – they have seemed too young, too part of things, to take their place amongst the dying and dementia sufferers. But they set an example. They were themselves. They were accepting. They were caring. They didn’t engage in self-publicity. They met you where you were. Their hearts were big. They didn’t need to know you well to know you. They helped sustain the life of the church through the Christmas Bazaar and other behind the scenes work and oh so much more without ever inviting credit. Just for the love of God, the love of Jesus, the love of people. We can use their inspiration to continue this being alongside our congregation, following in the footsteps. Let the richness of their faith sustain the faith as others.

Gardeners don’t have to use fallen leaves as mulch, either. There are lots of other varieties now available, which have been created over time to meet a specific need. Does your church have multiple ways of encouraging children, new Christians, those who are challenged in their faith, struggling on their spiritual journey? How do we help them to grow? Do we make sure they are seeing enough light? That they are well fed and watered with prayer, music, the Word, pastoral care, us knowing their name, giving them love?

We need to be encouraging as congregations – without being overwhelming! – in part by not expecting perfection, conformity or people who know what they are doing and instead inviting humanity, creating a learning environment and dispensing grace. In order to establish strong roots there needs to be a soil that is safe and stable, yet is rich in breadth and depth, with occasional threads of absolute beauty and plenty of earth that is nothing special to look at on the surface but has itself been nurtured and inspired by the lives – the leaves? – of those that have gone before us.

New life. New wine. New Testament. And always, a newness of approach, where it is needed, to gently nurture new faith.

"You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you may bear fruit" - John Ch 15 V 16

Friday, 6 November 2015

7 Quick Takes: Saints and Sinners


1stSister is there underneath the make-up!

We definitely had a 'bit of both' last week. The kids were determined to show the devil who's really boss and wear their scary costumes. And were they scary! (Well I thought they were scary. Scarier than usual, anyway. Ahem.)


I know there are detractors against Halloween 'celebrations', particularly amongst some Christians I know, but it was a wonderful time of community and family where we live. So many of our

neighbours made such an effort to receive our littles and make a fuss of them, commenting on their costumes and sometimes dressing up themselves. It was lovely to see our girls working together to get ready, helping out.


Furthermore, some of us couldn't look scary if we tried!

Pumpkin Princess


And we had a fabulous Saints' tea party where we talked about relics (bowl of chicken bones), St Crispian and St Crispinian being tortured and beheaded (eating crisps), St Catherine and the breaking wheel (coconut ring biscuits), St Elizabeth of Hungary (a basket of bread for the poor), St Swithun (eggs that he made whole), St Peter and St Andrew (tuna fish) and St Rose (Cadbury chocolates)!

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I told the girls that the first step to sainthood could be taken by filling shoeboxes full of gifts for "the poor children" overseas for Operation Christmas Child.


And I had the privilege of attending Holy Communion on Tuesday, where we said the Collect for all the Saints, and the priestly robes and altar decorations were still celebratory red from All Saints and All Souls.


And finally, finally - the season is still all about the squash! As well as the fallback squash soup, there has been squash and vegetable curry, made entirely from scratch, and tonight I am going to attempt the squash and kale mix-up I didn't get around to last week. Slowly working my way through these beauties....

Thursday, 5 November 2015

A Pair of Pink Trainers: Thoughts on Family, Fertility and Fitting In

I had a pair of pink vinyl trainers, once. A university student during an amazing era of dance music and clubbing, I really wanted to be a part of it. I didn't always like the music. The drugs made me messy and panicky after a bit. But it was happening, my peers were part of it, I embraced it.

So I bought this pair of pink trainers. From Oxford Street in London. I think they were limited edition, imported from the USA. They were amazing. But you know what?

They didn't fit.

Obviously that works as a metaphor, as culturally they weren't the right fit for me, like staying up late or loudly socialising (I could have been a part of the choir, the Chapel, I realise now, but that wasn't a right fit at the time either.)

But I mean, they didn't physically fit.

I wanted to have this pair of pink vinyl Converse trainers so badly; they symbolised the times for me. With my cute little plaits, original Adidas tracksuit top and flared Top Shop jeans I like to think I looked on trend. (This reminds me that I wore my Dad's big black fluffy 70's coat at this time, too. Oh I looked the bomb with a cigarette in my mouth. Or not. ) In the college bar and at parties, I looked the part. Or thought I did. And I so wanted these fancy trainers, that squeaked when I walked, that I spent a lot of money on them - even though they didn't come in my size!

They were always a little too big. So, if we're talking in metaphors here, it was the opposite of being too big for my boots. My shoes were too big for me. But it was a time of style over substance. Marlboro Lights. Tarantino films. Trainspotting. Good times. I found a lot that was good, and real, to hang on to. But I was always a little out of sync. Physically and metaphorically.

Twenty years on, I really feel for the young adult I was starting to become during those times. The things I thought I had to do, be, and of course wear, to enjoy myself. As someone who has never tried to lose weight by dieting, perhaps it's the equivalent of trying to lose a dress size; to fit the way you look to the way you think looks best to the world around you.

Now I'm forty, I've reclaimed a style of my own that's evolved over the last decade - I love what I wear, and it works for me. I don't even worry about being out of sync with the stylistic and cultural zeitgeist, because I'm past that. But it's funny, as yet another person today asked how I cope with having four children - my shoes are still out of step. I'm largely surrounded by families with two children or less. I think perhaps it shouldn't make a difference, but realistically, it does.

Not just practically, but that I made a conscious decision to have a 'larger' family - that I use and have used a fertility awareness method to both become and avoid becoming pregnant, because that is my moral, ethical and religious outlook. It's unusual amongst my peers, the people I was educated with, and the parents I know from the playground. And interestingly, it's out of step with the people with whom I worship. Although I feel that the Anglican setting I belong to is quite catholic, it's definitely not Catholic with a capital C. The only time I have seen another family of four in church is when I went to an ecumenical service at the Roman Catholic Church in our town.

I've stopped taking all of the children at once to our church because I find it too difficult to manage, rather than the fact that we stick out like a sore thumb - but at Christmas and Easter and other times we go as a whole family, we do! I don't think we are a talking point in particularly, and I would like to be a positive role model for having more than the average number of children; although, I probably do so badly trying to manage them that would never happen! But this doesn't cause me worry or concern; I just feel slightly out of kilter.

On the radio yesterday, however, I heard a debate about China's changing its policy to 'allow' couples to have more than one child, and I could literally feel my world grinding to a halt and my stomach start to churn. One of the participants was demanding that all people need is educating to see that having one or two children is enough, and the world would be a better place. A lot of economic, ethical and even moral arguments for population control were wheeled out and those who supported the Chinese government's position literally refused to see anyone else's point of view. I literally cannot comprehend this blinkered attitude. I understand all the rational arguments for limiting population size, and don't seek to dismiss them or nullify them. It's just that actually, humanly and spiritually, I feel that they not only destroy personal autonomy and choice (however 'selfish' these choices may be or are perceived to be), but equate to a political power assuming that they are greater than a natural one. I personally see the way the universe works in a spiritual way, but even if one doesn't - having another human being in control of your fertility doesn't sit right with me.

(My brother-in-law, his wife and children currently live and work in China. Our family might go and visit them in 2017. I suspect it may feel a little like wearing the wrong pair of shoes.)

I wonder what ever happened to that pair of pink trainers. And the girl that wore them. I don't mourn for them, though; I celebrate the opportunities they had. But I am thankful for the person that I have been allowed to become; the family I been allowed to have; and the constant process of personal change I am encouraged to undergo, as a person, as a political subject, and as a child of God.