Beyond Church

My bedtime reading is keeping me awake. Not because it’s a dark Swedish thriller or a family saga with a sinister twist. It’s keeping me awake because it’s a book that constantly pushes me up against the question: ‘If this is what I believe, what difference does it make to the way that I actually live?’

I can’t remember a time when questions of faith didn’t shape my thinking. I grew up in a Vicarage, I was nurtured by a Christian community; from being 14 years old I knew that I wanted to spend my life accompanying people on their own exploration of the Christian story. I didn’t even rebel at university: my mis-spent youth was mis-spent in the Chaplaincy. I have always understood that belief is not just something that happens in your head, or even your heart and soul. It has to be lived out. In order to mean anything at all it should influence everything you are, everything you become and, crucially, everything you do.

For the ten years when my day job was that of a fulltime parish priest it was easier to convince myself that I was shaping my life around what I believe. I could point at things which seemed to prove it. Now that I’m living the ‘portfolio’ version of priesthood and spend a lot of time not-in-church I find it harder to be sure that what I believe makes any real difference to what I do. This is not, emphatically not, because I think that to be a real, authentic fulltime Christian you have to work for the church. I’m continually challenged and inspired by people living out their faith effectively and visibly in all sorts of contexts. It’s just that it’s easier to make it look as though you’re walking the walk if you’re wearing a clerical collar all day and spending a lot of time doing ‘churchy’ stuff.

So here I am, struggling with the same issues, I guess, as any Christian-who-happens-not-to-work-fulltime-(or-even-at-all)-for-the-church. Wondering whether the way that I live really is formed by the Gospel imperatives of grace, justice, forgiveness, generosity, nurture, right relationships and a bias to the marginalised and disempowered. The latter is particularly taxing me, I think.

I don’t know the answer. I’m a work in progress. And so is my reading of the disturbing book: eighty pages to go and more sleepless nights to come. I’ll keep you posted. I have a feeling this one’s going to run and run …

Separate Lives

A couple of weeks ago the broadcaster, writer and academic researcher Vicky Beeching tweeted the question: ‘What do u think of people having multiple Twitter accounts; a personal/private one & public one? Fair enough, or creating multiple ‘selves’?’

I recognise the dilemma. I started my one Facebook account some years ago with the sole intention of promoting my books online. But once the page was in existence and many of my real life friends had become Facebook friends too, the content and conversations became at least as personal as professional. With the original purpose in mind I’ve accepted ‘friends’ requests from people who know me only through what I write, so the page is a bit of a melting-pot of my different selves. Sometimes the obsessively tidy part of my brain would like to unpick it all and start again: perhaps being more social-media-savvy this time and setting up two separate sites.

Most of us would recognise that different aspects of our personality come to the fore as we inhabit multiple roles, engage with people for a range of reasons and purposes, explore relationships with varying levels of intimacy and belong to groups in a different way and for different reasons. We would also recognise, though, that there’s something that ties all of that together, called ‘me’.

Some who responded to Vicky Beeching’s question believe that it’s useful and appropriate to maintain boundaries between business and personal use of social media, even to have separate accounts relating to different areas of interest. One person questioned why ‘multiple selves’ is necessarily a bad thing and another claimed to have more than 35 Twitter accounts, whilst someone else worried that if he had two accounts he would always confuse them.

We are highly complex creatures. Not only do our personalities have many perfectly compatible aspects that are magnified or submerged depending on where we are, who we are with and what we are doing: we are also full of seeming contradictions, and probably some very real ones.

How much of this we reveal to whom and in what context is a constant negotiation within ourselves; it always was, long before social media came into being to point up the issues. Decisions around Facebook privacy options, Twitter presence and with whom we want to be Linked In simply underline the age-old question: How much of myself is it healthy and helpful for me to reveal to whom?

Thank goodness we can be naked before God without either causing offence or risking someone trampling on our vulnerability. A God who, being three in one and one in three, is unlikely to suggest that we unpick ourselves in an attempt to start again and create something more tidy.

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.

007 (2)

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.

On Mute During Airtime

Many column inches have been filled on the subject of writer’s block but in a refreshing twist on the theme of being lost for words The Observer’s Eva Wiseman has been musing instead on how it feels to be tongue-tied. Describing the experience as ‘a physical reaction to something invisible’, she puts it down to a momentary confluence of forgetfulness, hesitation, insecurity and the ‘fear of being found out’. It’s a relief to see a professional communicator admit that she struggles with the ‘red-faced muteness’ that afflicts most of us at one time or another.

I admit that ‘tongue-tied’ is not a phrase with which I’m often associated. When I first started blogging and shared with my brother the fear that I would run out of things to say, his response was: ‘Sis, you’ve never had a problem filling a space with words’. Similarly, those present when I chair meetings frequently see me wrestle with my own tendency to run-at-the-mouth at the expense of other people’s airtime.

Yet in spite of all this I sometimes find myself involuntarily on mute.The process of articulating something heart-felt can leave me red-faced and faltering. No matter how passionate we are about our subject, no matter how much we trust the biblical promise* that even in extremis we will be given the words to say, a sudden sense of complete inadequacy can turn eloquence to ashes.

Wiseman reflects on all this embarrassment, confusion and adult shyness then inverts the problem. She rejects the solution of teaching everyone to articulate their thoughts seamlessly and without hesitation. Instead she reminds us that life is a dialogue not a TED talk: therefore ‘something is lost when only those who speak well are heard’.

If we’re overcome by muteness and embarrassing blushes it could be because what we’re trying to say is too important to be left unsaid, no matter how painful it is to find a way of saying it. And when we witness someone else struggling to express themselves it might be that what they are longing to articulate goes right to the heart of who they are and what they believe. Wiseman is right. It’s worth persevering in our speaking and our listening. Let’s not lose each other’s deepest insights because we lack the patience to listen. Nor because we give up before we’ve said what we really wanted to say.

*Matthew 10:19; Mark 13:11; Luke 12:12

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.