When “If” becomes “When” again

Just over 3 years ago I started this blog. Various friends were encouraging me to try blogging as they knew I enjoyed writing, but the final trigger was me writing a piece called ‘When “When” becomes “If”’.  Click the link to read the full piece but in summary it was about me attempting to come to terms with the idea I might never get married.

Two years ago I wrote about my foray into online dating with ‘Choosing a balloon’. Well, much to my surprise, it went very well. (Letting you into a secret, my chosen ‘balloon’ helped edit that piece, though we hadn’t quite started dating at that time). Now I find myself no longer considering ‘if’ I will get married, but ‘when’.

In fact, the ‘when’ is imminent. In 8 days I will be standing next to the man I love, making my marriage vows in front of God, a vicar and a whole crowd of friends and family. And I am SO EXCITED!

I can’t wait till I get to legally commit my life to this wonderful man, can’t wait till we get to live together, till our daily patterns and routines are tied up and intermingled with each others. I am excited about getting to know him ever better, and being known by him more deeply every day (and yes, I’m looking forward to sex too). I’m also looking forward to seeing where God takes us and gets us doing in ministry together.

Married friends tell me it’s the little things that are the biggest things in a way. I know I am looking forward to being able to come home to a hug after a hard day, to having a sounding board for my concerns, ideas and visions (maybe that’s not a small thing), being able to curl up next to a human radiator on cold days, and having someone who will keep the DVDs and bookshelves ordered. I know he is looking forward to me making crumble (probably some other things too, my crumble isn’t that outstanding!). I’m enjoying the excitement in anticipating the wonderful ordinariness of doing life together.

 But I am also  terrified. Why wouldn’t I be? I’m about to make some of the biggest promises I will ever make. I mean, what if it’s all a terrible mistake? What if I am not enough for him? What if I hurt him? What if things go wrong? What if I am a rubbish wife?

Deep breath: it isn’t; I’m not; I will; they will; I will be sometimes; but that’s ok.

Let me unpack that a bit more. It is a lifetime commitment, and a lifetime is (God willing) a long time to be with someone if it’s all a terrible mistake. Except, if I had even the inkling that this was the wrong move, I wouldn’t be making it. I’ve had plenty of time to consider what I’d want in a husband, and God has provided it, and more. Husband-to-be and I have now had a couple of years of getting to know each other, and while that might seem fast for some people, we’ve approached this with prayer and openness and the support of friends and family (who would tell us if they thought it was an error of judgement on our part).

I won’t be enough for him. I never will, I never should be. Well not in the sense of being able to satisfy all his needs. He won’t be enough for me either. For both of us, our first priority is our faith and our relationship with God. God is the only one that would ever be enough for either of us. We will need other friends as well. If we only have each other our relationship will get claustrophobic and inward looking. We want to be generous in our marriage- and that includes hospitality, time, and love for others. Having said all that, Husband-to-be is more than enough for me in terms of a romantic partner- I won’t be looking anywhere else for romance.

I will hurt him. I have already, I will again. Because I am human, and flawed and will be selfish and misjudge situations. We have quite different points of view on some things, and I am convinced that one of the reasons God has brought us together is that we can show each other the world from a different viewpoint. My prayer is that I don’t him hurt deliberately. But when we hurt each other, I will work to forgive and restore anything we have lost in our relationship. That’s the same when things go wrong, which they will. We have already faced a number of fairly stressful situations in the past year alone, so I know that though they are hard work, we will work hard to keep communicating, keep loving, keep growing closer together. Sometimes the things that go wrong won’t be our fault, and then we will need to hold each other tight and support each other through it. When it is our fault we will still need to hold each other tight and support each other through it.

I am certain there will be times when I am not the wife that I think he deserves. Sometimes that might be because I am setting my expectations unrealistically high, and in fact am trying to be ‘super-wife’. I know then that he will remind me that I can’t do everything and remind me I am loved anyway. At other times I will get my priorities wrong, or let him down in some way and then I will need to apologise.

It is daunting, and I think that is right. After all I am about to step into the greatest adventure of my life. The adventure that all my other life adventures will be contained and framed by. It is also thrilling. I know that in amongst all the unknowns, all the highs and lows that the future brings, God will be with us. However much we fail each other, or hurt each other, or have reason to celebrate and rejoice, and however much we love; God loves us more, and He is faithful and will not leave us without support.


Into the Unknown

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

I’ve woken this morning to the news I didn’t want to hear- we have decided to leave the EU. This makes me incredibly sad, and judging by my facebook newsfeed there is an awful lot of hurt, disappointment, anger and concern about what this means. Given the opinion polls suggest that the youngest generations are those that primarily wanted to remain (and many of my friends are in London), it is unsurprising that I can name only 2 people who I know voted Leave amongst my friendship group.

However, this is how democracy works (and let us not forget that we are often deeply suspicious of countries that don’t do democracy like we think it should be done). So now I have a choice: I could sit back, and watch as a decision I disagreed with, but the majority wanted, starts to take effect. Basically, I could sulk and refuse to play because we are not playing the game that I wanted to play. I could hope it fails because then I can say ‘I told you so’.

Or, I can accept that this is the decision the country has made, the country I am still a citizen of, and desperately want to be proud to belong to. I can accept it, and fight to make it work the best it can for all citizens.

It is indeed a new day for Britain, and we have made a clear statement that we want to go in a new direction. Well let’s make that the best direction it possibly can be. Whether we voted Leave or Remain, we all will live with the result. So I want to say that I want to make Britain the best place it can be. I know those who voted Leave also want to make Britain better, and while I might have different ideas about what ‘better’ looks like, perhaps we can commit to putting the divisive nature of the campaigns behind us, and find ways to walk forward together.

I am probably being woefully idealistic, but I’d rather hold up the highest standard and attempt to reach it (and fail), than settle for less. So this is what I will try to do moving forward (you will notice it is entirely unmanageable and unachievable on my own- please join me).

  • I will try to remember that many who voted differently to me are rational, loving, generous and equally idealistic people. Just because their logic differs from mine as to how to go about achieving a better world, doesn’t mean I should dismiss it, but I must listen to concerns and ideas on all sides.
  • If in a few years’ time it has all gone horribly wrong, I will not blame those who voted Leave and thus cause more division.
  • I will fight misinformation
  • I will hold politicians and the media to the highest standards of honesty and integrity. I will encourage them when they are doing well, and refuse to play the game of letting personal attacks sway my political opinion.
  • I will fight for justice for all, not just those who are white, middle-class and British. I will fight to see the UK become a world-leading example on tackling head on issues such as climate change, environmental damage, and wealth inequality. I will encourage us as a society to do this by getting our own house in order before lecturing others, but also by walking the journey alongside other countries.
  • I will remain compassionate, generous and hospitable to those who are different from us, whether that’s differences in class, sexuality, race, faith etc and whether from inside our borders or not, and I will encourage those around me to do the same.

My faith drives a great deal of this, and while the above list is hugely optimistic, and probably entirely unrealistic, I believe in a God that has given us agency to affect change (both positive and negative), who can perform miracles (and that includes in changing complex structures) and who is the source of love. When I am feeling empty of love or compassion I can ask the God who freely provides to refill me.

I am sincere in my desire to want to see our country and our world become a better place. The sharp reality of that is that, whether inside the EU or not, I am in control primarily of my own attitude and behaviour, and that is where I must start with creating a better world.

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?