Author Archives: My Father's Child

In Defence of Shopping in Shops (or It’s not just about you) 

I cannot emphasise strongly enough how essential it is that we consume less. But as we do that, we can also engage positively and, when we do consume, we can use our consumer power for good.  Ruth Valerio ‘Just Living’

Recently I’ve been reading a lot of challenging books and articles; among them Ruth Valerio’s ‘Just Living’ and Erin Loechner’s ’Chasing Slow’ (both of which I highly recommend). I also have a number of friends who are much more active in making environmentally and ethically conscious decisions than I am, and I’m part of an Ethical Living facebook group. The combination of all these is that ethical living has been on my mind quite a bit recently.

Because of my faith, I think it is important to live well, treating people and creation with respect and stewarding resources well for future generations. But my question has been, and continues to be, what does that actually look like? There are so many competing definitions of what ‘ethical’ might include. If you shop somewhere like Ethical Superstore (an online retailer), you can filter products on the basis of different qualities: is it fairtrade, vegan, bee-friendly, paraben free (I don’t even know what a paraben is, let alone why it is something to avoid!). It can all become overwhelming quite quickly.

One common thread seems to be that of reducing consumption. We (in the West) need to corporately use less energy, eat less food, buy fewer things. We have far more than we need, and use far more than the Earth can sustain long term.

Seems simple enough, right? I just don’t buy anything I don’t need and make sure I turn off lights as I go.

The problem I find (of course it’s not that simple!) is how does this work in a consumer society? And what are the things I ‘need’? Food is obvious, but what about craft items or books for study?

An example that brings this close to home. The Husband works in retail, specifically in a Christian bookshop. I probably do not need to tell you that many bookshops in the UK are struggling to stay open. Christian bookshops are having an even tougher time of it. People are reading less in general, but they have not stopped buying books completely, they just tend to use Amazon.

Say I need a book for my studies. I am in town and go into the bookshop, but they do not have it (because it is a specialised title and they have limited stock space). They can order it in, but I can’t be bothered to go back into town the next day to pick it up, so I go home and order it online.

What’s the problem in that? Surely it is my choice to order online? After all I will get my book faster (not necessarily) and cheaper (not always).

Now I’m not saying that internet shopping is in itself a bad thing. There are plenty of times that I buy things online, and sometimes there is no choice. The problem is that it isn’t just about you, or me. We consume as individuals, but our choices affect many others.

If I buy mainly online, and most other people buy mainly online, then the bookshops will disappear from our streets (along with the games shops, craft dens, emporia of random plastics, tailors etc). Then, the old ladies who don’t have the internet but buy cards to faithfully write to friends and those in need of support will have less access to cards to buy; the church leader or youthworker who wants a resource on a particular issue won’t be able to browse as easily; those who need a book with a particular font, or particular feel can’t test options out in person; those with mental health issues have one less place to while away some time and find a sympathetic ear; those who don’t really know what they are looking for but want a gift for a friend will lose the access to a wealth of personally tailored advice.

And that’s before we take into account the jobs lost in the shops and the distribution firms (though I reckon delivery drivers would still be needed); the tax lost to society from businesses that don’t make use of tax avoidance schemes; and in the case of many Christian bookshops, support for projects around the world.

So it’s not just about me, and my desire for instant acquisition, whether caused by lack of forethought or just impatience.

Maybe shops have had their day, and it is just a matter of time before all retail is online, but I want to put up a fight before that happens.

So back to the ‘What is ethical?’ question: Husband and I have decided that if we want shops to exist, we need to support them. So that actually means occasionally buying more things than we ‘need’, like expansion packs for board games, and books, (of course), as well as veg from the grocers. They might not be ‘ethical’ retailers themselves, but this is the decision we’ve made.

There is more to be said of course on the topic of ethical shopping, but for me, it boils down to this: making a thought-through decision that remembers others not just yourself, rather than just being swept along in the current of consumerism.

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From convent to Kigali

A couple of weeks after my stint in a convent, I spent a fortnight in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda in central Africa. I was there to do a placement in the wonderfully named Kibagabaga parish. As you might expect, there is a lot I could write about as I visited slums, learnt about agricultural training, preached with an interpreter, attended a dowry ceremony, wedding and funeral, amongst other things. What I want to focus on though was the unexpected cross-over between two radically different contexts.

I expected the two placements to be utterly independent from each other, each a stand-alone experience. There were huge differences, of course, but what I had not anticipated was how the convent turned out to be unexpectedly good training for my time in Kigali. I spent long periods of time either waiting for something to happen, or surrounded by people speaking another language. The Rwandans were hugely accommodating in language, often opting for English if I was present, but it was not always possible or appropriate to use English over Kinyarwandan, nor was translation always possible.

What this meant was I had a lot of opportunities to practice an attitude of silence. This applied to the times I was waiting in the pastor’s study, unsure of quite what was happening next or when it might happen, but also to church services and a 5 ½ hour prayer meeting which was about as far from quiet as it is possible to be! While I wanted to engage with what was going on, that is hard to do when you do not understand the language, so cannot follow what is being said.

Looking at these times as opportunities to practice stillness and internal silence meant that it did not feel like ‘wasted’ time. It made me less fidgety (I’m not keen on not knowing what is going on), and gave my mind a break from the constant stimulation that a different culture brings. It meant I could relax much more into long services and similar, because there was a way that I could engage. Not all this time was spent in contemplative silence, but by not having to fill the time with writing, or social media or any of the other things I normally use to keep myself busy, I found I was much more likely to pray in general. It made me wonder how often I forget to pray because I simply to not give myself the space to remember it as an option?!

An Unsilent Silence

This is why most people do not stick with a contemplative discipline for very long; we have heard all sorts of talk about contemplation delivering inner peace but when we turn within to seek this peace, we meet inner chaos instead of peace. But at this point it is precisely the meeting of chaos that is salutary, not snorting lines of euphoric peace. The peace will indeed come, but it will be the fruit, not of pushing away distractions, but of meeting thoughts and feelings with stillness instead of commentary. This is the skill we must learn. Martin Laird ‘Into the Silent Land’

I recently spent a week with the Sisters of the Love of God in Oxford as part of my vicar training. This particular convent is in the contemplative tradition, so their primary focus is prayer (rather than ‘mission’ type convents which might be more engaged in offering a service- such as the nuns in Call the Midwife).

I learnt a huge amount in the week I was there, along with a fellow ordinand (trainee vicar). We tried hard to fully engage in the life of the community, and were given an unusual amount of access to the community. Visitors are normally sat in the side chapel, separate from the nuns and only eat one meal a day with them, whereas we had a key that gave us access to the main convent buildings, sat with the nuns in the main part of the chapel, ate with them, and worked alongside them during the day.

The day had a set rhythm, which, though it initially seemed very prescribed, actually created a lovely simplicity. We started with matins at 6am, and there were 5 other services throughout the course the day, punctuating any other activity. Meals were eaten in silence, though at lunch someone read aloud. There were periods of work in the morning and afternoon, which for me meant shelling vast quantities of broad beans, and cleaning enormous brass candlesticks. The general rule was if you did not need to speak, you didn’t. From 8pm to 9am was ‘the Greater Silence’, where, except for services, the silence was stricter.

There was actually more talking than the above description might suggest: we had to be given instructions as to what to do, and each afternoon we had time with one of the sisters who told us a bit more about an aspect of community life. There was also a feast day while we were there which included a ‘talking lunch’ and afternoon tea which included chatting with the sisters. Nevertheless, there were considerable periods of quiet, and certainly a greater amount of silence than I am used to (not hard given that I very rarely have silence in my life).

I can confirm that the day goes slowest between 6.30am-9am. Following matins, we would grab some breakfast (in silence) in the guest house and then had well over 2 hours to dedicate to prayer. In the spirit of the convent, I tried to engage in contemplative prayer, which is less about presenting a list of requests to God (called ‘intercessory’ prayer- and my usual type), and more about sitting quietly. It is not even really about actively listening for God, more about cultivating an understanding that even sitting in silence is dwelling in the presence of God. Martin Laird’s ‘Into the Silent Land’ is an excellent guide for this particular type of contemplative prayer.

It turns out that silence is not just about being quiet. In those morning hours, sat in the beautiful garden of the convent, I may have been not making noise externally, but there was no way you could describe me as internally silent. It wasn’t even remotely quiet inside my head! Quietening my external environment, by not listening to music, and having a technology fast (so no facebook, whatsapp etc), meant that I was able to hear just how loud my mind is. For a start, my tinnitus, which I do not normally notice much, became deafening. But more significant was recognising the internal chatter that is my constant companion. Sometimes it is fairly benign- reminders of an email I should send, or mulling over something I have read recently. At other times the internal monologue becomes more demanding, reminding me of the list of things ‘to do’ and guilting me about what I haven’t yet achieved in the day. Sometimes it is downright critical, whispering insidious messages about my inadequacy as a student/friend/wife, how I must be a disappointment to others, why I’m useless, and other such life-eroding messages.

Silence, it turns out, is not about not speaking, but is about developing the ability to quieten inside yourself. Laird speaks of cultivating an attitude of silence, which means that you are internally quiet, even if there is noise around you.

It is hard work! Stilling the internal monologue doesn’t just happen, but takes real effort, over along period of time. A week in a convent was a good introduction, but I also realised that if I am serious in wanting to develop in my ability to be silent, it is the work and discipline of a lifetime. I’m not about to abandon all other types of prayer for silence, but I can also see the benefit of it in slowing myself, albeit temporarily, and calming my mind down. How often am I operating out of anxiety generated by constantly racing thoughts? Silence might be as important for my mental health as it is for my spiritual health. Important too is to not see it as ‘wasted’ time, but as an important activity in itself. Mind you, ‘wasting time’ is an important thing to do as well as we are not machines to be constantly productive.

If you’ve never tried sitting in silence, I’d recommend it, but it comes with a warning; you may find it is harder work, and less peaceful than you might expect as you discover things about yourself you hadn’t stopped long enough to realise.

Defiant Hope

(this is my contribution to a community creative project called 20one17, this time with a loose theme of defiant hope. If you are reading this before 5pm GMT on 20/1/17 then feel free to get involved. Contributions can be as simple as a photo. For more details see 20one17 Defiant Hope ).

We can destroy ourselves by cynicism and disillusion just as effectively as bombs. Kenneth Clark

I am by nature something of an optimist. I tend to assume the best about people (at least when it comes to others). But yet there is this constant pull towards a glass mostly empty approach. Cynicism and disillusionment draw me like an old armchair, comfy and cosy and far easier to sink into than get out of. 

By contrast remaining positive feels like trudging up a hill with a heavy pack on my back. Each news article read adds a stone to the bag. Each friend going through a difficult time covers my shoes in sticky mud.

It would be easier by far to just rest a while in ease.

But that will not do. Because one of the untruths I choose to believe as I sink into that armchair is that I will not be changed. If I spend my time assuming the worst, pointing out all that is bad in the world, do I really think that my heart will not shrink, that my eyes will not be downcast? And if my eyes are downcast, then how will I be able to see the good? Especially when the bad is often louder, brasher and more in your face, while good keeps a lower profile in the shadows. 
Is it any surprise that nothing changes, as I spend my time pointing out ills from my chair?

The thing with cynicism is it sucks all the joy out of life. Disillusion paralyses.

So today I choose to lift myself up out of that chair. To stretch muscles that have not been worked for a while, to lift my eyes and peer into the shadows. Because the more bad, the greater the shadows. But there is more good there than I think if I choose to look and to see. 

I want to live with naive optimism, doggedly determined idealism, and most of all, defiant hope. Hope is more than just wishful thinking, or denial of reality. Hope is choosing to believe there is inherent good in people, that systems can be changed, that the world can be better. Hope is the power that will clean the mud from my shoes, and grind stones to dust. It will strengthen my muscles, so though the walk will still be uphill, and there will still be stones and mud, it will be achievable. Hope is the strength to keep my head up, my eyes looking towards the horizon, and hope is the faith that for all of the effort, for all of the trials, the views at the top, and on the way up, will be staggering, full of beauty and wonder.

It’s best not to confuse optimism with hope. Optimism is a pyschological attitude towards life. Hope goes further. It is an anchor that one hurls towards the future, it’s what lets you pull on the line and reach what you’re aiming for and head in the right direction. Hope is also theological; God is there too. Pope Francis

Being Still

Too many voices it won’t take long
which one’s right and which one’s wrong
and yours is most likely to be misunderstood…

and I am contemplating matters
all this cling and clatter
in my head and what you said
is ringing, ringing faster.
Lifehouse- Cling and Clatter

We are told we need silence, away from all the distractions- from the TV, computer hum, vibrating mobile, chatter around, music in my ears.

So I still myself, sit down for silence
And I find noise:
Cars racing past outside, a whispered conversation, creaking chairs, the scratch of a pen on paper.
And louder than all that, the chatter in my head.
New to do lists, new to don’t lists. A new year, new resolutions- about attitude, character, action, aspirations. There is never enough time, there will never be enough time. And so like a constant backdrop the question of ‘Is this a waste of time?’.

Is it a waste of time to sit, still, in silence when there is so much to be done?

As I wrote that last line the traffic stopped, just for a few seconds and there was no noise- just for a moment.

Long enough for me to hear my heart beating- too fast for one sitting still
Long enough to hear the clamour of accusing voices internally ‘not good enough’
Long enough to hear God?

I am not one to think that one cannot hear God through music, or through the noise of a city. I am an urban dweller, a millennial, my life has had a soundtrack. I have had to learn to hear God above the din of everyday life.
Surely that should be within the din of everyday life?

And who says everyday life should be full of din anyway? Perhaps I have got so used to noise- external and internal that I can’t conceive of it any other way.
But there is a yearning for quiet, that makes itself felt whenever I find myself, rarely, in a quiet place. Mindfulness, I guess some would call it. A desire for internal quiet if not always external quiet. The Bible talks of peace and being still.

Perhaps it was easier for them then. But I don’t imagine I am so different from them. Perhaps their world was quieter, but I’m sure their hearts were just as capable of noise and din.

Be still,
and know that I am God.

Perhaps the yearning isn’t for quiet but to know God, to allow myself long enough to focus back on the One who sustains me, to be reminded that it doesn’t depend on me.

 

So this year I will try 15 minutes a week of silence. Perhaps doing something like writing, or colouring in; indoors or outdoors. But silent, no background music and in a quiet place (though inevitably there will be background noise).

 

[this was written during a reflective service last week, so it is in a slightly different style than my normal writing. I wanted to post it as a form of accountability to this intention]

Death’s Sting

Where, O death is your victory?
Where, O death is your sting?

The sting is in the dying:
in stolen mobility
and robbed speech;
in the multiplication of wires and tubes
and the reduction of dignity;
in words not said
and sentiments unheard;
in unrealised hopes, unrealised.

The victory is in relationships
strained and unfulfilled;
in sage advice that could not be heeded
because it was never given;
in jokes not told and laughter not shared.
The victory is in the loss
of a father, a brother, a husband, a friend.

And it may be that we have the last laugh
for Death has been swallowed up in victory,
And there is confidence to say you are going Home,
and you will be free of pain and hurt,
Free to live utterly complete,
Totally fulfilling your designed purpose.

But for now we face dying, not death,
And the sting is in the skin.
It’s poison in our veins,
Slowing movements, clouding perspectives
Filling the internal pool
so it overflows in tears.

[This was written a few weeks ago after visiting my Father-in-law in a palliative care unit, and later in a hospital ward. On the 5th December 2016, he went to his eternal Home.]

To love, cherish….and obey?

I, (name), take you, (name)
to be my wife/husband,
to have and to hold
from this day forward;
for better, for worse,
for richer, for poorer,
in sickness and in health,
to love and to cherish, [and obey]
till death us do part,
according to God’s holy law.
In the presence of God I make this vow.
from The Marriage Service, Common Worship (Church of England) 

I got married a few weeks ago, and we opted to go for the more traditional wording of the vows. While the man says “to love and to cherish”, the woman’s vows say “to love, cherish and obey”. It’s funny how a single word can cause so much angst, but this one does. Not particularly because it is in there, but because, while the rest of the vows are the same for men and women, only the woman ‘obeys’.

I am sure that, if they noticed it, some of my feminist friends will have gasped (internally- I didn’t hear any out loud gasping, so well done) at the inherent inequality of it. But it wasn’t a mistake, I haven’t lost my mind, and it wasn’t a decision I took lightly. This blog is an attempt to explain to those who find it surprising my rationale behind making that decision. You may well not agree with me at the end of it, but at least you will hopefully understand more why I chose that route. (It will also act as a reminder for me on the days I am feeling disobedient why I made the promises I did.)

Firstly, and very importantly, it was my choice. Part of my understanding of the importance and role of feminism, is that it gives women the power to make choices in decisions that impact them, rather than decisions being made on their behalf. Of course, I discussed it, at length, with Husband and I was aware of his preference. Of course that influenced my decision; the opinions of those we love always do. But Husband was also clear that it was entirely my choice as to the final decision. These are vows that we have made before God and each other, and we intend to take those promises very seriously. Husband certainly didn’t want to  make me promise something that I didn’t agree with and didn’t intend to stick to.

We set out the boundaries in our discussions. In saying that I will obey Husband, that doesn’t mean anything he says I have to do. It is not a case that he clicks his fingers and I jump. In promising to obey, I have not surrendered my ability to discuss, disagree or express my opinion! For us, this bit of the vows is particularly pertinent to big decisions that we come across in life; for example, a decision on where any children we have go to school, not the colour of the curtains. We are taking about situations where a decision has to be made, but after discussing it, both listening to the other’s point of view, praying about it, discussing and praying some more, we still have different ideas of the best course of action.  A democracy of 2 simply can get stuck. In those situations, someone needs the casting vote. I guess this is my pragmatic side coming through in making this choice. We’ve decided that our default is for Husband to have that casting vote. Sometimes it might be me, depending on the situation. An obvious example is my work. Obviously Husband doesn’t have jurisdiction over my work decisions,  but it may well be that with other decisions we decide that it makes sense for me to have the final decision.

While we are talking about work, there was another aspect I had not considered before Husband raised it. He reminded me that in my future line of work (being a vicar), I am likely to be responsible for making a lot of decisions, every day. We cannot always predict the outcome of our decisions, but we all carry the weight of responsibility for the decisions we make. In a profession such as the priesthood (but also many other careers such as social work, teaching, nursing etc.), our decisions can have profound long term impacts on people’s lives, for good or ill. That’s a lot of responsibility. Husband’s job, on the other hand, while it involves decision making as all life does, doesn’t involve the same type of decisions. By taking on the role of lead decision maker in the family, he is also taking on the responsibility that carries, and taking it off me. He is not doing this to gain power over me, but to love and help me. (This again doesn’t mean that I am passive in decision making, nor does it mean I won’t take ownership of decisions we reach, nor that if it goes wrong I will ascribe blame to Husband, but he will still carry more weight of responsibility simply by having made the decision).

We would be foolish if we didn’t acknowledge that by me vowing to obey, I have handed power over to Husband. Not complete power, but there is still the possibility that he could abuse his position, demanding I obey in every decision, or make decisions that are in his interest, not ours as a family. In spite of all the other reasons above, this was the crux of it for me: Do I trust Husband? Do I trust him to make good decisions on our behalf, decisions which I can get behind and support because I know that they are made with love and thought and care? Do I trust him not to abuse this power? Yes, I do. If I couldn’t say yes to this, I couldn’t marry him at all.

The final part to my thinking, and possibly the most controversial, is that we want our marriage to model (as imperfectly as it may be) the relationship between Jesus Christ, and His bride, the Church. There is a really difficult and awkward passage in the New Testament which reads “21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. 22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. 25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy” (Ephesians 5:21-25. New International Version).

I don’t have space to unpack this passage fully now*. I find this a really uncomfortable passage, and it has been misused to cause great harm to many women down the centuries (specifically verse 22 “Wives submit yourselves to your own husbands”- those who misuse it tend to ignore the previous verse which is abundantly clear “Submit to one another” and verse 25). I might rail against the patriarchical society that first wrote it, but I can’t get away from it saying the wife should submit to the husband in the same way the Church submits to Christ. Admittedly, the Church (which is all Christians, not just specific denominations or groups meeting in a particular building), is in many ways terrible at submitting to (i.e. obeying) Christ Jesus. The list of ways in which the Church doesn’t follow Jesus’ teaching is shamefully long. But, for all its failings, the Church at its very core is trying to follow Jesus and be obedient.

I know that some of you will still be choking on verse 22-24, as do I (especially that “in everything” phrase). But remember the mutuality of verse 21 “Submit to one another”- the give and take of relationships, and when I keep reading I reach “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her”. Too often we never reach this verse, but quite frankly, having read this, I think I have the better deal. My Husband is meant to love me in the same way that Christ loved the Church: i.e. he is meant to show me the same self-sacrificing, costly love that led Jesus to set aside His own desires, comfort and well-being, and led Him to the cross. If Husband is making decisions with that attitude and approach, they are likely to be decisions which are in our best interests, and easy for me to agree with (though not necessarily easy to enact). I think husbands have the harder task in this passage.

When I started writing this blog, I didn’t expect to end up writing about Ephesians 5. I probably wouldn’t have started writing it if I had. Promising to obey is controversial these days, and talk of submission even more so. I expect may who read this will still disagree with my decision, but it is done, and though he will not always get it right, I trust Husband to love me well.

 

* Here are some blogs which look at this passage/the idea of submission in more depth. The first is from a writer whose book ‘A Year of Biblical Womanhood’ was one of the most liberating things I’ve read. The other two are written from a queer theology perspective.

Rachel Held Evans – Humility without Hierarchy

Queer Ephesians 5:21-6:9 – Guest Post Ben Allison

Queer Ephesians 5:21-33 – Wives be Subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord