In God’s Image … All of Us

I should have known it was foolish to write about not being busy. I haven’t given up on my pursuit of spaciousness and ‘time wisdom’, but it seems to be three months since I last found the time to write a blog post!

However, I can’t let this week pass without a huge ‘shout out’ for the Church of England as celebrations take place of the twenty year anniversary of the ordinations of the first women priests.Twenty years which were preceded by decades of struggle on the part of those men and women, lay and ordained, who consistently and courageously held out a new vision for the church: a vision of the possibility of priests of both genders, together reflecting God’s image in the world. Twenty years during which the ongoing un-recognition of the full gifts and potential of women has caused many people to slip away from the church uncounted by the institution, but deeply grieved by many who remain. Twenty years during which the ministry of ordained women priests has built, inspired, shaped and enlivened countless communities and congregations, and people and places that might otherwise have remained untouched by the church’s mission.

This Saturday, 3rd May, at 1pm in Dean’s Yard, Westminster Abbey, people will gather to celebrate these two rich decades and to honour those whose courage and tenacity made it possible, whilst lamenting the loss of those who have felt compelled to walk away, and remembering friends who are no longer with us.

At 2.15 we will set off to walk to St Paul’s Cathedral, where at around 4.30pm the Archbishop of Canterbury will greet everyone from the steps. The cohort of women who were ordained priest in 1994, together with representatives from all the dioceses of the Church of England, will go into the Cathedral for a service at 5pm. The Eucharist will be celebrated and – via a live link to a screen in Paternoster Square – the crowd outside will share in the thanksgiving and celebration and will also be able to receive communion.

If you’re free and can get into London do come and join us for the walk or in Paternoster Square. As a gathering of women and men of all ages, lay and ordained, from diverse ethnic, social and cultural communities, we will reflect the breadth, vibrancy, generosity and grace of the God in whose image all of us – all of us – are made.

I’m not busy … much

My mid-40s have definitely brought with them a new consciousness of time’s ‘ever-rolling stream’. Yesterday I found myself thinking: after February half term it’s only seven weeks until the Easter holidays, four until May half term and seven until the summer holidays, which always fly by. Then it’ll be autumn and Christmas will be here before we know it … 2015’s only just round the corner’.

I’m not joking. I genuinely had those thoughts and believed them. When we live busy, task-filled, deadline-driven lives this is how it feels. Of course being very busy some of the time is probably inevitable for most of us, and we can be satisfyingly and fruitfully busy, even in a crisis. But extreme busyness is like an extreme sport: not to be undertaken 24/7/365 if you care about your mental and physical health.

Which is why I’m reading Stephen Cherry’s book ‘Beyond Busyness: Time Wisdom for Ministry’. I came to it via one of those unexpected and enticing journeys through the ether. First I noticed Twibbons proclaiming ‘I’m not busy’ on some people’s Twitter accounts and had a dual reaction which went something like this: ‘How lovely, I wish I wasn’t’ and ‘How sad for them, not to be in demand’! Then I saw a Tweet which led to a beautiful and provoking sermon by Michael Sadgrove, Dean of Durham, which talks about the slow work of Love and says, of God, that ‘most of the time he is so slow his movement is undetectable except to those who stay still for long enough’. Next I discovered the I’m not busy website and before I knew it I was reading the book.

And it’s good. It’s helping me to see time in a different way. It’s challenging me as I’ve been challenged many times before about my unhealthy reliance on busyness and ‘being in demand’ to prove my worth: both to others and also, sadly, to myself. It’s encouraging me to hope that beyond the mechanics of good time management there really is such an enriching thing as ‘time wisdom’; wisdom that frees us up to experience time as a good thing, even a spacious thing, as we did during those long summer holidays of our youth before we learned by misadventure to allow time to diminish us.

I know very well that my relationship with ‘spaciousness’ is ambivalent. I long for it in the busyness but fear it when it comes unexpectedly upon me or, scarier still, within me. Stephen Cherry offers what is effectively a (re)-entry level tool for people who have forgotten, or never learned, how to find and relish spaciousness and live deeply in the moment. Helpfully it’s written in bite-sized sections for those of us who think we’re time-poor.

I’ve not finished it yet, but I already taste a little freedom.

Going With Life’s Ebb and Flow

I’ve never been an acute political analyst or social commentator. But there was a time when I was reasonably aware of what was going on in the world and had a half-formed opinion about some of it. I’ve been concerned, then, in recent years to notice that my preaching and writing has featured fewer global references and addressed less social issues than it once did. I have wondered whether my theologising is gradually coming adrift from its essential bedrock of life-in-God’s-world: perhaps I’m slowly disappearing into my own head? For someone who has always held that belief is inseparable from action this is worrying. 

So what have I been on about for the past few years? Well, for a while I pondered birth, doubt, perfectionism and risk. Then I reflected on change, equilibrium, loss, fragility and mending. Followed by busyness, depression, calling, mid-life and happiness. And there’s been an interweaving thread that binds these themes together: the belief that we can discover the divine in the weft and warp of every aspect of the world and our lived experience: there is nowhere that God is not, and in the end it’s all connected.

There are themes that insistently draw me back and I was reminded of one of them by a wonderful sermon (someone else’s!) preached for a baptism on All Saints’ Sunday, just a couple of days ago. We were told that our vocation is always, from the beginning to the end of our lives, to be as fully as possible our unique selves. No-one else, as I have often said and written, has the same gifts, relationships, circumstances, foibles, passions and opportunities as we do. No-one else can reflect the light and character of God in the world in quite the same way as we can. Insofar as we are driven by envy or misadventure or a mistaken sense of not-being-good-enough to try to live someone else’s life, the world misses out, irretrievably, on our singular contribution.

So if my writing and speaking have taken a different direction in recent years that’s because my words come from the soil of my own life, which has changed. There’s no other way that I can communicate with passion and authenticity. Our context – or what I’ve come to think of as our hinterland – shapes our message and what it is that God needs us to bring to the party. Where we live, who we love, how we spend our time: these things will evolve, shift, ebb and flow with the unfolding of our days. Our life today is not less real, less significant or less sacred than it was last month or last year. It might feel unfamiliar, but it holds just as much holiness and potential if we can embrace it, nurture it, pick over its possibilities and begin to live it differently to the full.

Reflections in Time

One of the reasons I failed to blog last week was the disproportionate amount of time I spent staring at a spreadsheet. Not, thankfully, one that required financial analysis, but a list of women who were ordained priest in the Church of England in 1994, the first year in which that was possible. All 1474 of them. Thanks go to the Crockfords clerical directory, its patient administrators, and my forensically determined Dean of Women colleagues for ensuring, we hope, that the list is accurate and complete.

The other task which eclipsed the blog post last week was the need to gather contributions from friends and family for a birthday speech for my husband; and to scan a selection of photos from the past five decades into an album. Whether poignant, hilarious, proud, embarrassing or just simply happy, a big birthday calls forth memories.

Both the spreadsheet and the party have deepened my awareness of the passing of time. Of those first 1474 female priests, 173 have died in the past 19 years; some died within a year or so of ordination, literally having waited a lifetime for the church to affirm their calling. The rest have nurtured communities and chaplained hospitals, prisons and universities; they have enlivened cathedrals and done pioneering work in places that the church doesn’t usually reach. Next year the Church of England will celebrate two decades of women’s priestly ministry, hence the poring over spreadsheets to gather names.

As the pages of the birthday album were turned and the speech delivered – on a barge on the Grand Union Canal, surrounded by the lights of Little Venice and blessed by an almost-full moon – I was conscious of all the water under the bridge: the school days receding yet vivid in memory, the hedonistic freedom of student life, the seismic family events of love, birth and loss, the classic comic moments and new discoveries shared with friends. Accompanied by the inevitable realisation that we don’t look as young as we did thirty, twenty, even ten years ago, because we’re not.

It wouldn’t be healthy to spend all of our time reflecting on the past: being transported back to those moments that seem as vivid as this one and yet seem to have slipped, like sand, through our hands. As one version of Morning Prayer reminds us, ‘The day lies open before us’*, with all its new potential: and that means this day. But every now and again it’s good to recognise that we are what we are because of what has gone before. In the same way that those of the 1994 cohort who will celebrate together next year were shaped in relationship with the 173 who will not be there.

Except that they will. Because God’s perspective on time has always been a bit quirky, and the past, the present and the future are thrown gloriously into the mix, not only on the days of celebration, but in every moment of our lives.

*Celebrating Common Prayer

In Real Life

My friend and I laughed ruefully over pizza about our envy of other people’s lives-on-social-media: ‘They’re all re-tweeting each other, why aren’t they re-tweeting me? … everyone follows his blog, how does he do that? … their Facebook pages are Wall-to-Wall with photos of themselves partying … I texted her and I knew she’d seen it, so why didn’t she reply straight away?’.

Conclusion: everyone else is in the middle of the action and we’re waving from the edges.

Of course we realise it isn’t true. That’s why we’re able to laugh at ourselves. We know that people’s tweets and posts are a partial account of their story. IRL – which my friend reliably informs me means ‘In Real Life’ – most people are as complicated and imperfect as we are, with more beneath the surface than showing above. The best social media communicates the fun and achievements of people’s lives alongside their fragility and questioning.

I go through phases, IRL, when I spend a fair amount of time noticing the daily niggles, racking up the comparisons and worrying at the question ‘what have I actually achieved today that will change the world for anyone?’ It makes me very grumpy. It doesn’t enhance the lives of those around me. It’s probably a relief to everyone when I suddenly notice once again the wonder of being alive and safe in an amazing city, with the profound blessings of family and friends and the privilege of working on projects that excite and inspire me.

I suspect that I’m not the only one who needs to use periods of grumpiness more creatively. So when the dissatisfaction descends, perhaps we can use it to connect with the deeper restlessness within: the persistent longing to discover more of the Love that creates, sustains and reinvents the world.

As St Augustine famously said, ‘We are made for Thee, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee’. It’s okay to be restless. It’s okay to desire more. Because at heart the ‘more’ is about longing to dwell more fully in the Love which in turn spills over into a deepening of our relationships with others and with the world.

This kind of restlessness is creative and good. We just need to recognise that the dissatisfaction induced by comparing our Facebook pages and re-Tweet scores is too closely related to envy to be fruitful. Let’s kick the habit of comparison, notice the giftedness of our own lives, and intentionally exchange the envy for a restlessness that will drive us more deeply into love of God, others and the world.

Zoning Out

I wasn’t looking for homespun wisdom but it leapt out at me during an innocent browse in a Cornish gift shop. Those little plaques and over-decorated plates proclaiming one-size-fits-all clichés are not my bag. But the beautiful piece of stone and tasteful carving must have lured my eye. ‘Life begins,’ the piece proclaimed, ‘where your comfort zone ends’. Successfully tipping me out of mine.

I’ve always had an instinct for pushing the limits. All through my twenties and thirties I deliberately challenged myself to do things that felt a bit scary. I walked the Inca Trail, parascended in Mexico and transplanted my life to South Africa for nine months. I was the wild card on the shortlist for the job of my dreams, presented Radio 4’s ‘Thought for the Day’ and agreed to chair a school governing board without ever having been a governor. Taking the risk of marriage twice and pregnancy four times should also get a mention, as should the many aspects of parenting three children that constantly push me to places, both literal and within myself, that I’ve never visited before.

Then a combination of circumstances caused a gradual shift somewhere deep in my soul. I don’t mean I shut myself away from life or its challenges and opportunities: I doubt anyone, even now, sees me as someone who needs drawing out of her shell! I just stopped saying yes to suggestions and requests that demanded a significant stretch beyond my previously tested horizons. Unless, of course, they involved affordable luxury or culinary delights.

Sometimes it really is the case that life begins when we risk the unfamiliar and untried. I’ve been there and I’ll go there again: possibly later this week when I stand in front of a large group of bishops and formidably able women clergy and attempt to deliver a homily.

But there are times when beyond-the-comfort-zone is not where we need to be. Days, months, perhaps even years when we dig deep in a different way, for a new sort of courage: the sort we need in order to adjust to change, to face loss, to give more time to nurturing those closest to us, to discover the different wisdom of a new phase in life, to find ways to engage with the brevity, poignancy and depth of the human adventure, to slow down and smell the coffee and to figure out what we really want to do next.

It’s the courage needed to wait on God for purpose and direction rather than running after them with an ever-decreasing sense of who we might be. I think I can say from experience that in these times we don’t stop living. For a while we just make surprising decisions about exactly what that means.

All Good Things …

Our eldest child leaves primary school next week. And the loveliest thing about that is that she very much doesn’t want to. After seven years of being nurtured, humoured and challenged by some wonderful teachers and support staff, she and her year group don’t want to go to school anywhere else, ever!

Many a person has been bored senseless in a bar by the endless prattling of parents caught up in the maelstrom of schools admissions. I know that I have prattled unforgivably in the past. So please un-forgive me as have so many others before you, whilst I explain that we moved into a new area of London at precisely the time when we entered the schools fray as novices, negotiating a bewildering world of admissions policies, OFSTED reports, local rumour and urban myth.

We would happily have sent our children to a community school, but we’re too far away from any of them for that to be an option. So on paper it was a tussle between two Church of England schools: the first being of the flagship, ‘Outstanding’, SATs-busting variety, where at reception level only churchgoers get in; the second having a good, solid, but less jaw-dropping academic record, and what was arguably a much more inclusive intake, among other factors in terms of faith background.

Enquiring about a visit to the flagship school we were told firmly that the head teacher was ‘too busy’ and the caretaker ‘too new’ to show us around. Then came the rather breath-taking line: ‘If you’re fortunate enough to be offered a place for your child we’ll give you a tour of the school then’, and as final encouragement a warning (contrary to the published policy) that ‘You do realise this is a church school which only takes children from Christian families?’.

Chastened and bemused, we nervously approached the other school. There we were swept up by a purple-clad and wonderfully warm admissions officer who smiled broadly and chatted to our daughter whilst showing us into the Hall. Everyone left that Open Morning fully reassured that this school would welcome as many of our children as it could accommodate. ‘I want to go to the school with the lady in the purple jumper,’ declared our 4 year old. And so she did.

I completely understand why people spend every last ounce of energy and emotion on getting their children into league-topping schools. Come the end of Year 6 the likelihood is that they too will be relieved that they made the right choice. Seven years into the game, I no longer make any judgment of any parent making a decision about their child’s education.

I do, however, rail against some aspects of the system. In particular, the churches and governors who ring-fence their resources for Christian children alone, only to wax indignant against the culture of strategic church-going which they themselves have created.

But that’s for another blog post and another time.

This week I rejoice in the deeply welcoming and inclusive culture that has shaped the past seven years of our daughter’s life. God bless that school, its staff, its pupils and its parents. I’m profoundly relieved that with two younger children still in their care I’m not the one who, next week, will leave the playground for the last time.

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Distracted by Envy

I’ve been thinking a lot, recently, about envy. This is not a new theme for me: which is a sad and sorry thing for someone with so many blessings in her life to admit. I don’t envy people’s smartphones, or holiday destinations, husbands, houses, handbags or lack of thread veins (actually that last denial is probably a fib). But I envy their gifts, skills, social capital, spheres of influence; and of course their impressive Twitter following and blog statistics.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m sufficiently conflicted to genuinely rejoice in other people’s achievements and successes whilst simultaneously wanting some of what they’ve got. I’m energized by the new wave of younger female clergy who are articulate, well-educated and formidably able. Yet I do sometimes envy their confidence. I love to see women of my own, mid-life generation, beginning to occupy senior roles with a combination of gravitas and refreshing new perspectives. I absolutely do not want their jobs: I would much rather be part of the way in which they are equipped and encouraged to get there. Yet I do sometimes envy their achievements.

There are, of course, people who are so (enviably) comfortable in their own skin that they can rejoice in other people’s successes without even a slight twinge of ‘wish that were me’. But there are also many, I think, who share my tendency to the distraction of envy.

I think it’s time we got a grip on it. Even if it’s only a small part of ourselves, and a deluded one, that thinks it wants to be someone else, it distracts us from the unique and wonderful project of exploring our own God-given gifts, strengths and opportunities. It disables our thinking and our doing. It diverts us from the things-about-the-world-that-only-we-can-change-for-the-better.

None of us has the same combination of knowledge, wisdom, understanding and experience as another. We have access to different places. We relate to different issues and individuals. Our passions and interests, our social background, where we’ve lived and what we’ve seen, our particular competences and strengths and, yes, our fragility and mistakes: all of these things put each of us in an entirely unique position.

So we do need to accept that God is calling us, not to be someone else, but to take the heady risk of becoming truly, madly, deeply, all that we, and only we, can possibly become.

Beneath Our Feet

I love those electric moments when somebody else’s writing echoes so deeply in my soul that I want to shout ‘YES’. I’ve just finished reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s An Altar in the World: Finding the sacred beneath our feet (2009 HarperCollins and Canterbury Press) and if I hadn’t been sitting on trains, buses and the steps of public buildings at the time I would often have exclaimed out loud. It made me laugh, it brought me to tears, it inspired new ripples of thought, it expanded my understanding of life.

And it’s all about ‘kissing the ground’. In twelve chapters we are offered twelve different ways of connecting more fully and deeply with the life of the world around us, including: getting lost, carrying water, feeling pain and pronouncing blessings. Each chapter contains countless suggestions and stories that give us many more ways of connecting spirit and flesh; ways, as Brown Taylor would put it, of practising our own priesthood at the altar of our own life and ‘finding the sacred beneath our feet’.

In the very last line of the book I discovered with delight that the title of this blog is an unconscious echo of the 13th century Persian poet and mystic, Rumi. In the absence of copyright permission I’m not able to quote the passage in full, but essentially Rumi makes a connection between beauty, love and motivation. He suggests that we should be guided in our actions by what we find beautiful; what we love most; whatever it is that awakens our passion. Which for each of us will be something distinctive and particular because there are many different ways, as Rumi observes, ‘to kneel and kiss the ground’.

Just back from a couple of days in the lovely seaside town of Whitstable on the Kent coast, I haven’t been to church this weekend. But I’ve found altars, practised my priesthood and kissed the ground countless times. Intricately-spiralling shells; individually painted beach-huts; pebbles with holes drilled through them by tiny sea creatures; deep-fried pillowy white cod; dogs with wind-blown ears; purple and yellow wild flowers at the beach edge; children balancing on the breakwater, leaning into the wind: the sacred in everyday life, beauty in the ordinary, there to be noticed, kissed, relished, embraced. As Brown Taylor wisely reminds us, we search far and wide for the ‘more’ than we long for in life. Sometimes the last place we remember to look is right here, beneath our feet.

Widening the Net

Every June a rather classy invitation drops through our letterbox. It entices me and my husband to the Victoria and Albert Museum for the annual Summer Party of a leading executive search company. There in the atrium, underneath the fabulous Chihuly sculpture (see above), we are plied with delicious canapés and equally delicious champagne in the company of people who have intriguing jobs in the public, commercial and not-for-profit sectors.

We’re not there because we’re job-hunting. The rather quirky reason is that several years ago I used to celebrate Holy Communion during the company’s annual Away Day at Hever Castle in Kent. An unlikely gig, but a lovely one, and it led to the summer party invitations.

The world is divided into those who love networking and those who hate it; those who work the room with consummate ease and those who would be far more comfortable if someone asked them to help with the canapés. And then some who, like me, fall into either camp depending on inclination, energy levels, what sort of day it’s been so far and, admittedly, how frequently the champagne is topped up.

But now a new generation of networkers has woken me up to something: that the game doesn’t have to be all about who can convey the most impressive professional achievements in the shortest time whilst pretending modest self-deprecation. Instead we can network in order to encourage one another to discover our particular gifts; to meet people who release new energy and purpose in our own life and work; and to connect those from different areas of our life whom we intuitively know will share one another’s passions.

I’m fortunate to know people who network in their varied professional contexts with an intentionally generous agenda. They don’t try to ring-fence the most prestigious opportunities for themselves. They aren’t particularly interested in hierarchies or limelight. They have a larger vision which is to do with uncovering and growing God’s Kingdom in the world: planting seeds of justice, creativity, poetry, communication, social awareness and all the other things that enable human flourishing.

These people want to use their own gifts to the full, and if that means senior roles or public exposure then they will take up that challenge. But they will quietly subvert any institutional culture shaped primarily by the selfish ambition of individuals, because their aim is to encourage every person’s unique contribution.

The creative and hospitable search company that invites us to the V&A declares on its website: ‘We exist to change the world’. In the same spirit, a new generation of generous networkers is beginning to do the same.