Thrice Created

[Poetry is an unusual form for me to write, but inspiration came for this while sitting in the cloisters of Durham Cathedral at the end of a retreat day last autumn spent largely in the Galilee Chapel the cathedral (which is stunning)]

I sit inside this house of stone
Listening to talk of creation;
And I want to get outside:
To see the trees in their traffic light autumnal splendour,
To hear the river and smell the leaves underfoot.
Outside to the greenery, and nature. That’s creation.
Not cooped up here in this man-made edifice.

Then I look, and my eyes are opened
To see that the stones, that seemed so dead
Are alive with colour.
Swirls of orange and ochre, browns and creams
Dance across their faces.
Faces once uniform, now weathered
By rain and wind and cold.
Created stone, altered by creation’s power.

Or these vast doors;
Dark ancient planks, hewn, joined and adorned.
By man, yes, but man is but creation too.
Created in the Creator’s image,
To mould and shape, adorn and build.

So far from being merely ‘man-made’
This cathedral is thrice created;
Creation’s elements, stone and wood
Raised up by created beings
And weathered, given character, by creation’s power.

All to the Creator’s glory.


End of the (prayer) line

I have trouble praying for healing, specifically healing for terminal illnesses. There, I said it. It may surprise some of you to hear me say that, it may hurt some. After all, don’t I want people to get better?

Yes! Of course I do! But I can’t quite bring myself to pray for it. It’s not like I am not sure that praying for healing makes a difference. I have friends who have been supernaturally healed (and not so supernaturally, medical science is after all a wonderful gift from God). A year ago I was blessed to be sat next to a man as he got up and ran around the room as his torn cruciate ligament miraculous healed. I know God can, and does, heal, though I do not understand why it doesn’t always happen.

So why do I not pray for those who are dying? Well I certainly do pray for them: I pray for relief from pain, for good medical care, for courage, for emotional and spiritual healing and above all I pray their faith (whether they have it or not) grows and deepens, and they know God’s loving presence with them. But I don’t tend to pray they are healed.

I guess there are a number of reasons for it: a few years ago I started to realise just how bad we are at dealing with death in Britain. Our society is obsessed with not ageing (it’s a sign of getting closer to death), with creating for ourselves a slice of immortality through fame or at least our families remembering us. I don’t think this is particularly healthy and it felt that me praying for people to avoid death (i.e. be healed from terminal illness) was just burying my head in the sand about the fact that everyone dies. Sometimes I’m not sure it’s the most loving thing to do anyway; there are people who are in huge amounts of pain, or who’s age has made them weary of the being in the world, or who aren’t really here mentally any more anyway, for whom death can be a release. Sometimes I think our prayers for healing are more about our desire to keep people here, and our unwillingness to deal with their loss, rather than their best interests.

This is particularly true in the case of people who are Christians. Why would I pray that they remain in this world of pain and sadness and brokenness? I believe that they have the assurance that when they die they go Home; to a place where there is no more pain or tears, to a place where they are able to be fully the person they were created to be, where they will see face to face Love in all His Glory and wonder. Why would I want to stop them going there? A friend of mine said recently that ‘Death is a gift in this broken world’. That’s not to say that those who are not Christians won’t also go to that place, but for me there is not the same guarantee that faith provides.

That’s the pious reason for not praying for healing. I think there is another reason at work too: if I don’t pray it, I can’t be disappointed when it hasn’t been answered. Perhaps that lies more at the heart of things than I’d care to admit. Because essentially I am saying that this prayer, this request is too big for God. After all, a terminal diagnosis is the medical profession saying there is nothing that can be done about it. Prayer in this circumstance is asking for nothing less than a miracle.

Perhaps too I don’t want the uncertainty. So much of our lives are uncertain, but with a terminal diagnosis, even though there are many unknowns about that, the end result is known. We all know what the patient is heading towards. If they were healed, you’d just be put into a situation when you’d be wondering how long until it returns, or until something else kills you. Better the devil you know than the one you don’t?

All the above feels like a confession, and worse, it feels like a betrayal of those who are terminally ill. Why would I not help them if I could? That question is hard enough when it’s friends’ families affected, but right now it is more pertinent than ever as it is affecting those I care most deeply about. I yearn that they would be healed, so we have longer with them and so loved ones are spared the pain of loss. I am deeply grateful for the prayers of those who are able to pray in this way, I’m just not among them. Maybe it betrays a lack of faith in me, but maybe it is fine, and what I need to do at the moment to process what is going on. I do know that for all those who are currently facing terminal illnesses, I believe God is with you, closer than you can imagine, even if it doesn’t feel like it at the moment.

I Used to Write Stories

[This was first performed at Bow Storyslam in April 2015]

I used to write stories. Great sweeping epics, at least in my mind. ‘George and the dragon in the playground’, that was one of mine.

And plays; I loved writing plays. I guess I particularly liked formatting them. Making sure it was clear who said what, when and what everyone is meant to be doing and where they’re meant to stand. Says a lot about me I guess, that need for order.

I dramatised a whole novel. I got onto the second draft, though I hadn’t learnt the art of editing at that point so it would have been an epically long play if it had ever made it to the stage.

I wrote my own play too. Many a long physics lesson was spent scribing lines. Maybe that’s why I struggled with science- my mind was elsewhere, in another land.

I don’t think they were necessarily any good. My play was the classic boy meets girl, families don’t approve (though there was a talking tree involved). But the stories and plays gave my brain space to fly, lands to explore. Something a bit out of the ordinary, a different way of looking at the world. Space to dream.

But gradually the sheaves of paper with script and storylines on got replaced by page after page of class notes, book summaries, dates and facts to remember. Facts, dates and hard data. No room anymore for frivolity or fiction: “You’re growing up Caroline. You need to knuckle down, take life seriously. You’ve got a good mind, use it well; reason, think scientifically, work hard, get a good degree, get your dream job”.

So I did. I worked hard, got my degree. But it’s hard to write a story with empirical data and academic references (open brackets comma Butler comma 2015 close brackets). I got my dream job too, as an archaeologist. Only it turned out to not always be a great dream. Digging holes doesn’t take much brain power (who’d have thought?!). Honestly, my colleagues and I would find ourselves having debates over whether a ditch fill was mid yellowish-grey sandy-silty-clay, or mid yellowish-grey sandy-clayey-silt. (Important distinction don’t you know!?).

Between the tedium of yet another blank trench, the threat of redundancy, the mind and bone-numbing cold, it felt at times like the words were leaking from my head. Somedays I’d go to use a word which I used to know to find I’d forgotten it and my vocabulary had…dee…something beginning with di-. You know, ‘got less’.

You can’t write a story with a flow chart or a formula. They aren’t scientific or reasoned. I’d stopped writing stories, on paper or in my head; and the world had got a little harder. Lines a bit sharper, colours more muted or just turned to grey. And with them my heart a bit harder and my soul more cynical.

I wonder what I’d think now if I dug out those old stories and scripts? They’re still tucked away somewhere, in a box or under a bed. Would I be embarrassed by their childish naivety or entranced by the different world I see there? The freedom and colour.

Maybe I should write stories again. I don’t know if I’d write about dragons or talking trees now though. I don’t know if my imagination stretches that far for now. Maybe I’ll start with reflections of sunset in skyscrapers or grass piercing concrete. Real, measurable but also containing something ‘other’. Hope and colour to thaw a cynical heart.

Sent, not Leaving

It’s time to say goodbye, but I think goodbyes are sad and I’d much rather say hello. Hello to a new adventure. Ernie Harwell

Tomorrow I will be driving north away from London, up to Durham where I am going to start training for ordination (to be a vicar). I finished at my previous job as an archaeological consultant at the end of July, so I have had a good amount of time to tie up loose admin ends in London, and spend time with friends before I move hours away.

I’m not very good at goodbyes. I never quite know how to act, but I do know they are important. They are strange though. I am certain I will keep in contact with the most important people in my life, and I am old enough now to know that my most solid friendships can survive months, and even years, of not seeing each other in person. So why is there still sadness in the goodbye? I love London, and I will miss it’s vibrancy, busyness and diversity, but it is not that alone. I guess it is the recognition that even if our friendships continue, they will look different. Geography alone will change the dynamics. As I go through the training, which involves academic study but also importantly formation and refinement of my character, I will change. Of course my friends left in London (and elsewhere) will also be changing as they respond to events and circumstances in their lives. No longer will a be a direct observer to those life events in the same way I have been. I am now engaged too, and as I prepare to be married to a fiancé based in Newcastle next year, my identity and priorities will change in response to this too.

All in all, it’s quite a big deal!

One thing that has made it easier so far is that my church, All Hallows Bow (AHB), is adamant that I am not leaving, but I am being sent. This isn’t them living in denial but rather a liberating attitude which says that though I may be living somewhere different, I am still family. I will continue to have their support, prayers and love. Being ‘sent’ means that they are releasing me into the ministry they, as well as I, believe God is calling me into. It means I am commissioned, affirmed and encouraged in that choice. It means it is not my individual choice to go, but the decision of the whole church congregation.

They (and the leadership in particular) could have chosen to try to hold onto me to grow the ‘tribe’ of the church congregation. Then either they/I would have reached the point of choosing to ignore God’s call on my life, or I would have had to leave. Fortunately they did not do that. They have a bigger picture of God’s kingdom than their own church congregation.

There are no words to really express the importance of AHB in my life. Being part of the motley crew that is the church family there has brought me into contact with people, ideas and situations I never anticipated coming across. It has given me confidence to be more truly myself, and helped me discover what that looks like, warts and vulnerabilities and all. AHB has shown me a faith full of colour and joy, and re-acquainted me with the God who takes great delight in blowing apart the boxes we try to construct for Him, and has grace upon grace for everyone around, and for me as well. When I arrived I had somewhat reluctantly resigned myself to the thought that I would probably be called to ordination at some point. My time at AHB has made me want to be ordained.

Within the AHB family is a group who deserve a particular mention, because they have a special place in my heart. They are the Eden Bow team, which I have had the privilege over the last few years of being a part. We have eaten many meals together, spent many hours serving the young people of our community through a dazzling array of activities, laughed and had our hearts broken together. They have been, and continue to be, a huge inspiration to me as they selflessly and faithfully obey God’s call to be examples of His love, mercy and grace to the community of the Lincoln Estate. They are ordinary people, with fears and frailties like everyone, but with an uncommon obedience and servant-heartedness. They too are cheering me on my way, sad to see me go, but excited to see where God takes me.

‘Leaving’ suggests turning your back on a place, putting down the things associated with that time and moving on. I am fortunate to have been ‘sent’. I can go, sent with love and encouragement, and the memories and friendships of my time in Bow. These things are part of me, and can travel with me as I step into this next phase of life. The goodbyes remain bittersweet, but are made that much easier by being ‘sent’.

Imagination: Crucial for Faith

What happens if we can’t imagine a reality that runs under the surface of all things? What happens if we believe that the mundane, everyday world is all that exists or can exist? Maybe we can’t see a deeper reality even if it is there. Susan Snook

As humans we have the unique capacity to imagine things. We can picture and invent alternative realities to the one we physically exist in. This isn’t that surprising if we consider that we are made in the image of a Creator God.

As I was thinking about this, a quote from a missionary called Ash Barker came to mind. He said “If you can’t think of something different, you can’t have hope”. He learnt this in the context of working in the slums of Thailand, where poverty traps people and robs them of opportunities to dream, but he applied it more generally. The more I thought about it, the more I realised that imagination is crucial to faith as a whole.

Hebrews says “Faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” [Heb 11:1]. There are many aspects of Christian belief which require faith; for example, we believe that Jesus has defeated the Devil, but we still live in a world of sickness and death. The ‘Now and Not Yet’ of Christian faith requires imagination to hope for things to be resolved in a way we do not yet see.

We may be in the Post-Modern era, but we are still very strongly influenced by the Modern era’s focus on reason, measurement and proof. Functionality and efficiency are paramount, and so it is easy to starve our imaginations.

I used to love writing stories when I was in Primary school. Then I got to Secondary School and it became functional essays which talked in facts, backed up with evidence. I have only recently re-discovered how enjoyable I find writing for leisure. The creativity I had was squashed, and my ability to create stories diminished.

What happens when we starve our imaginations, when we lessen our ability to “envision that which is not” [JK Rowling]? I think the Pharisees of the Bible are a good example, though not the only ones. They were sure they knew what the Messiah would look like, and how God acts. When Jesus came along healing on the Sabbath (a rest day), giving sight to the blind, preaching freedom to the captives, they missed the point and looked past God. They could not conceive of God operating outside the ways and means that they had thought He would, so they missed it and saw instead a rule-breaker and a rebel, rather than the Messiah they had been hoping for.

I don’t want to miss God because I expect Him to only work in certain ways, and I can’t imagine Him doing anything outside of that box.

Maybe you are not at the level of missing God completely. Maybe you are able to spot where He is at work, but perhaps there is more for you. A couple of years ago I was at a youthwork conference and we did an exercise which involved writing what our neighbourhood would look like if the gospel really started transforming the lives of the people in it. As people fed back their ideas I remember thinking how small-scale, predictable, and dare I say it, dull, many of the responses were (mine included). I wondered how this group of motivated, passionate and faithful people had come to have such low expectations of an all powerful, creative, and loving God.

Maybe as adults we are more prone to focus on the impossibility of a situation, or the obstacles in the way, than focussing on the God with whom all things are possible.

You may be familiar with the verse from Ephesians 3 which says “Now to Him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we can ask or imagine” [Eph 3:20]. In recent months that has come up a number of times, sounding like a challenge from God. It is like He is saying “Come on. What can you dream? I can go further, do more, reach deeper, transform wider than you can imagine. Dream your biggest. Try me!”

I want to be able to imagine better for God. If I can’t even conceive of something as a possibility, I am unlikely to pray for it, or act in a way that might enable it to occur. If we can’t imagine a world of justice, we won’t act justly. If I can’t imagine the joy of the Holy Spirit bringing a smile to a particular person’s face, how will I be able to pray with any conviction for them to know Jesus?

I would suggest that imagination, the ability to see a deeper or alternative reality to the one we inhabit, is crucial to having faith and hope. We live in society that is often starved of imagination. I don’t want to miss what God is doing because I can’t recognise it when it looks different from what I was expecting. I don’t want to limit what I dream and pray for because I can’t think of something better. I hope you feel the same. So what can we do to feed our imaginations?

Trusted to Talk

Throughout my life I have been involved in ‘mission’ (demonstrating Christian faith to people) primarily with children and young people in the East End of London. This has been done through a life-long involvement with Longbarn East End, a residential camp run by Scripture Union for 8-11 years olds from East London, and, in the past 4 years, with Eden Bow. Eden Bowis a team of Christians committed to living on the Lincoln estate in Bow for the long term in order to do youthwork and see the community transformed through the gospel.

Both of these groups focus on reaching those who are growing up in deprived areas. While many of the families are not themselves ‘deprived’, the areas are, and so the young people within them daily face the challenges of growing up in communities shaped by poverty, dysfunctional relationships and low aspiration.

One attribute that is frequently encountered when spending time with young people from the East End of London is wariness of adults, specifically a mistrust of what adults say. Young people may be willing to come to sessions put on for them, or have superficial conversations, but as soon as you start to go deeper in conversation, or to suggest future plans, the young people get dismissive. Sadly, this is all too often understandable as many of them have been repeatedly let down or looked over by many adults in their lives, from teachers and youthworkers to police officers and parents. They simply don’t trust what adults say.

This obviously has implications for speaking to them about faith. Simply telling the gospel message to a group of young people will often meet with the attitude ‘Why should we believe what you say?’ This attitude is rarely stated, but more frequently demonstrated through disinterest, disengagement or mocking. While frustrating, given their collective experience of adults being untrustworthy or disappointing, this is a justified question (even if there are some adults in their lives who are good).

However, this situation provides an opportunity for Christians and the Church to markedly stand out from the prevailing surrounding culture by being people of integrity, who keep their word. Proving integrity and gaining trust takes a long time, and is earned through small steps, but if we can be trusted in the small things, like following through on a promised game of Fifa, or a trip to the zoo, perhaps we can be trusted when we are talking about the big messages of God’s love and grace. It is high praise indeed, and a sacred position of trust, to be told by a group of teenagers “We know you will do what you say”.

The adage ‘It’s got to be seen to be believed’ is true. Simply telling young people about God’s love and grace is often inadequate. In areas where ‘love’ is often fleeting and conditional, and grudges are held for generations, such extraordinary claims are dismissed as unrealistic or are simple incomprehensible. However, if these young people are able to trust those telling them the gospel, and experience that love and grace as demonstrated by Christians around them, the gospel good news becomes accessible to them. This goes hand in hand with earning the right to speak to them about faith; if we demonstrate ourselves to have integrity through our persistent loving of people, we open the doors to being able to have a conversation about what motivates us.

Yet, even if these young people never ask about our faith, even if they remain untrusting and unlovely, we are still compelled by the example of Jesus to keep loving them. We may never gain their trust enough to be able to speak to them about faith, or what we say may seem to have no impact. But our behaviour is still observed, and in the same way that words that start a feud can be remembered for years, so too can words that speak of hope.

Are we able to follow the example of our God who loved us despite our mistrust and dismissal of His good news, and who demonstrated that love not just by His words, but by his actions and attitude?

Choosing a Balloon

Recently I joined the world of online dating. I finally decided that it was worth a shot, and I didn’t have anything to lose.

Well, this is a whole new ball game! They say that the rules of online dating are the same as offline dating (at least in terms of staying safe). That’s all very well but what if you don’t know what the offline dating rules are?

It’s opened up a whole world of new questions on social interaction and etiquette which I had never considered before. So hear are some random thoughts about it all.

The Set Up

I very nearly didn’t click ‘submit’ on my profile. Having answered the basic questions, and written a description about myself, I found that old fear rearing its head, ‘What if no one responds?’

How mortifying would it be to have no one interested at all, out of the thousands of people on the website? It didn’t seem such a ridiculous thought- out of all the men I’ve met in real life, virtually none of them have expressed any lasting interest.

Fortunately that didn’t happen. Instead you have the rush of being a newbie on the site; a new profile for others to investigate, and hundreds of profiles for you to look through.

At first I felt very judgemental, flicking through profiles mentally going ‘no/no/maybe/looks promising/no/interesting/never/yes/perhaps’. That feeling of judging people increased when I started to add filters to my searches. The site I am on has the ability to refine searches on quite specific criteria, such as height and geographical location but also levels of smoking or drinking, church background etc. It felt a bit odd though to discount people on the basis of tick boxes- isn’t that a bit narrow minded? But the more I though about it, the more I realised that it wasn’t judgemental. I wasn’t saying that those people who smoked (for example) were inherently bad, the process was just forcing me to vocalise what my preferences are. We all have preferences. Some have long lists of specific criteria, others have a vaguer wish list, but when we meet people in person we will be considering whether we think they are a suitable partner based on how well they meet these mental lists. In online dating, those preferences get written down in black and white.

 Settling In

As I’ve explored different people’s profiles, I’ve become more aware of my personal preferences, not just in people’s interests and so on, but also the things that I look for in a profile and the things that really put me off. Here are some emails I would never send, but mentally think:

Dear Cardsclosetochest. You say “email me to find out more” but you have hardly put any info on your profile. How am I supposed to know whether I want to find out more if you don’t give me anything to go on?! All I can assume is that you are either so lazy that you can’t be bothered to spend any time answering the questions, so arrogant that you think I will want to know you without any information, or so vain that you think your physical appearance is enough.

To Nodiktonary. call me a grammar snob but its just hard to read a paragraph that has no punctuation and ur speling is all wrong. i dont care so much in emails but ur profile is the first impression ppl have of u u cld at least attempt to write well

Hi there Uaskedfirst. You emailed me, and I looked at your profile and thought you seemed interesting, so I replied with some info about me and some questions for you to get to know you more. You answered them, but with one word answers, yet you signed off in a way that suggests you still seem keen. Conversation not your thing? It’s going to take a long time to get to know you from 2 line emails, and I’m not sure I have the patience.

To justlookingjohn. The site tells me you’ve viewed my profile 3 times this week, twice last week, and 3 times the week before. Yet you’ve not sent an email, or even a ‘smile’. Quite frankly, it’s getting a bit creepy. I’m not keen on a virtual stalker!

Dear pilotpedro. We seemed pretty compatible, with lots of shared interests, and some good messages. Then you disappeared. Something I said? Or just a realisation the distance and job combo wouldn’t work? Would have been nice to have been told though.

Getting to the nitty gritty

I’ve had to learn to be comfortable with saying no, or being told no (whether that be explicit or implied). If I took to heart every ‘smile’ or email that hasn’t been returned I’d be a quivering heap of rejection already.

One thing I’ve found odd with online dating is the (generally) unspoken agenda. In ‘real life’ when talking to someone, you will know your own agenda (I want to go on a date with this person), but theirs might not be clear to you. Online the agenda is clear; every email is sent with the purpose of working out whether a romantic relationship is possible and desirable with a given person. Again, it pays not to dwell on this fact too much (especially if you tend to be over-analytical) or you sink into paranoia about the minutiae of every message.

Additionally, I’m on a Christian dating website (as that is a fundamental preference for me), which means that the majority of people on it are not only looking for a date, but are looking for a spouse. Despite the understanding that this is the agenda, it can seem odd when it is explicitly stated, especially if it’s within the first couple of messages. Messages which read along the lines of “I hope to progress in my career and settle down. Maybe you will be the one” shouldn’t be odd, as that is what we are all wondering, but woah! Steady on there.

Another question is that of etiquette. How many people is it acceptable to be emailing at any one time? Or if you are regularly emailing one person, is it OK to send smiles/waves/thumbs up to new people? [for those unfamiliar with online dating, most sites have a feature like ‘wave’ which are short automated messages which are good ice-breakers]

The analogy that I use is that of being at a balloon seller. There are hundreds of balloons to choose from. As you are looking, some drift off, others get bought, some just don’t interest you. Maybe you end up holding a few, trying to decide between them. Eventually you pick one, and have to hand the others back.

How much do you give away by email? How do you find the balance between giving enough information so that you can learn about each other, but not so much that you create a bond that is unhelpfully emotionally intimate too early on? Give too much of yourself away, and you can’t get it back. There is always this niggling thought at the back of my mind with every email I send which says ‘Maybe this email will contain the information about me that means he decides he doesn’t like me after all’.

How do you really judge if someone is compatible (or even telling the truth) without the body language and vocal tone which are normally so key for our interaction with each other? That’s one of the oddest things about it; trying to work out what’s going on just from words on a page.

Lurking demons

I’ve realised that online dating is not a place where you can hide from your insecurities. You might be able to delay facing some of them (such as appearance), but it is still a place where your insecurities can have power; the fear of rejection, being boring, disappointing people and so on still lurk.

I’m also battling my cynicism. Despite knowing a number of people who have had successful relationships (including marriages) from online dating, in fact more success stories than disasters, there is a part of me that is just not convinced it will work. Maybe I’ve been too influenced by the Disney/Romcom paradigm of ‘eyes meeting across a crowded room’, maybe I’m just more jaded than I realised.

I guess that’s why I decided to give it a go. It’s an exercise in hope for me: Choosing to risk, choosing to make myself vulnerable, even though it might hurt along the way. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll find a balloon I want to choose, and who wants to choose me.