Brief post in which I talk about #adventbookclub

Or, in reality, I point to Pam’s post in which the idea is described properly.

Under Pam’s patient leadership we will read Maggi Dawn’s Beginnings and Endings this Advent.

Who is ‘we’?

We is anyone. We is you, if you want. No qualification is needed, you don’t have to know us, or be a special friend, or even like us. We don’t have to comment, although it would be nice if you did – even if it’s just to know you’re reading along and lurking. We can be reading every day, or cramming in a couple of days at a time. We can be reading ahead, and writing a post for us to come to when we catch you up. We is open to all.

Will we see you there?

Over 1,000 words, mostly ranting

Today, I got really fed up with the Current State of Things. And if it’s OK with you, I am going to have a little rant about it. What I also want are concrete suggestions about how I go about changing some of this…

I’m fed up with the narrative that casts any benefit recipient (except those ‘entitled’ to child benefit) as a scrounger. That says Disability Living Allowance is a drain on the public purse, when it’s the payment that allows people to live a full life. I’m fed up with a system that decides on a tick box list whether you’re fit for work or a scrounger, regardless of the fact there are very very few employers that would make the ‘reasonable adjustment’ needed for someone with, say, a mental health problem, when there are non-ill people out there also looking for work. And that says it’s not OK to be ill, and looked after. I’m fed up with hearing that food banks are expanding, because that means we are failing miserably both individually and collectively. And we are standing around watching people have their safety net removed, because job centre sanctions are enforced – sometimes for trivialities, by people who do not seem to understand what having no money is like. I don’t. I can pay my rent, I can go to the supermarket, make choices about what to buy, drink wine on a Monday. That makes me extremely fortunate. I’m fed up with people who do not understand that the bedroom tax is unfair and that £14 is a lot for some budgets. I’m fed up with zero-hour contracts and minimum wage jobs being seen as good enough. I’m fed up with contradictory noises – we should all be out working hard, but at the same time looking after our relatives?

I’m fed up with the phrase ‘affordable housing.’ We’d never talk about ‘affordable food’ like it was a good thing. I’m fed up with tenants being viewed as second class citizens. I’m fed up with housing benefit going to line private landlords’ pockets when the narrative suggests the claimants are raking it in.

I’m fed up with MPs denying cost of living increases to others whilst demanding more for themselves. They knew the pay rates when they stood for election, they should get over it. Live a bit more simply. Like the rest of us have to.

I’m fed up with a society that doesn’t care about taking more and more from the earth’s resources. We don’t need ‘green’ energy, they say, laughing at the tofu-eating environmentalists. We’ve got fracking! Take that jumper off, turn your thermostat up – we’ve got more gas to burn! But what happens after that’s run out? Why is no-one talking about investing in long term reductions of demand – making sure we have decently insulated houses with efficient heating systems, using solar or wind power where we can? Oh, that’s right. We just cut the green taxes that might have paid for that kind of stuff, rather than dent the foreign-owned energy companies’profits.

I’m fed up with our infrastructure being under the control of overseas states. As the Now Show put it – a socialist government is being funded by a communist regime to build us a nuclear power plant, so we can enjoy the free market. That same free market that means my train service is run by the Dutch government. Not to mention the utilities that are private-equity owned, taking money from the taxpayer to make rich people richer or fund investment by other states in *their* infrastructure.

I’m fed up with tax avoidance – and I am fed up with people not realising how privately-owned so many of our retailers are, and missing the point by focusing on one or two culprits.

I’m fed up with people’s need to buy more, consume more, to care about their shiny shoes, gadgets, clothes – when our consumerism locks other people into poverty. How long did people’s revulsion at the conditions the Bangladeshi workers were living with last? Or have we, 6 months on, forgotten – and sneaked back to the cheap clothes, no questions asked?

I’m fed up with a society that decides teachers needn’t bother learning how to be teachers, and under the guise of ‘choice’ siphons off money to private academies.

Actually I’m fed up with ALL the siphoning off of my tax money into private hands. I am a hard-working person – and I want to see my tax spent on things that make this country a better, fairer, cleaner, nicer, hopeful place – not a system that drives a further wedge between the haves and have-nots, whilst blaming the have-nots for their predicament.

Is the BBC biased? Probably. But not anti-Tory, not anti-right wing – not from where I’m standing. Where is the coverage of the sell-off of the NHS? Why does unelected UKIP get a voice when the Green Party doesn’t? But you know what? Despite that, despite the fact the Today programme makes me shout at the radio, I still love the BBC and its provision. I’d pay my £11 a month for R4 and its podcasts alone. It’s damned cheap when you compare it to almost any other major media provision.

I’m fed up with car drivers being prioritised over pedestrians and cyclists. I’m fed up with bus networks being pruned back, leaving those who rely on them isolated. I’m fed up with public transport being seen as an inconvenience to the freedom of the motorist – the idea that parking restrictions are a restriction on freedom only makes sense if you have never been stuck on a bus behind a stupidly parked car.

I’m fed up with libraries being closed by people who have no idea what happens in one.

I’m fed up with immigrant-bashing, rape culture, lads’ mags, the sexualisation of everything, the polarised debates about religion, discrimination, the ideology of the free market and…and…and… you know – that might be everything. For now. Until tomorrow, and the next announcement on the Today programme that makes me angry.

Running (well, thinking about running)

This blog purports to be about running, but it’s a long time since I posted anything on that topic.

It’s a year since the truly awful Royal Parks half marathon that more or less stalled any progress I was making. It also coincided with finishing writing the thesis, and for several years weekend running and writing had been part of my routine. I’ve just today repeated what used to be fairly standard – church at 8am, then a run straight away, then back to my desk.

This morning I ran the 10k loop that I used to be able to do at the drop of a hat. I know I am slower, because my playlist ran out half a mile from home. It’s the first time in a long time that I looked at the weather (wet) and didn’t find an excuse to stay indoors.

So I think I am challenging myself. There’s a  couple of half marathons I’d like to do, looming after Christmas. I have already not run two races this autumn that I perhaps could have done. Moving jobs means that my routines have changed – no more 06:30 running when I am already on the train by then, for example. I wonder what else needs to change so I put the sanity-saving, fitness-maintaining firmly back into my week?

Quick post about Greenbelt when I ought to be getting ready for work

6:30am on Tuesday 27 August and I’m back in the real world, checking train times and packing my handbag ready for a day at work. 6:30am on Monday 26 August, I was making tea and looking forward to my last day at Greenbelt 2013.

I’ve had another amazing – splendid – marvellous – inspiring – busy – weekend at the festival..

What did I do? Beer and Hymns in the Big Top. Beer without hymns in the Jesus Arms. Blesséd Big Bash where I knew more people celebrating that I did in the congregation. Sunday morning communion – the event that always makes me imagine what it’d be like sitting on a hillside listening to something important going on but not being sure quite what. Morning Prayer with the Franciscans. Cooking bacon sandwiches. Falling asleep watching clouds and birds during a talk on ‘Finding Sanctuary.’ Eating pie and mash. Praying in a tiny near-silent chapel site. Bolting from a service that started with being given playdough. Singing (on purpose). Talking, talking, talking – probably about a month’s worth of conversations in one weekend with new and old friends (no wonder I am tired). Giving my own short talk and listening to others (coming soon to a website near you…)

This year I camped on site with Teresa who had provided a camper van (and trusted me with driving it). I felt a bit like I was introducing her to my best friend – hoping they’d get on and find some common ground. I’d already got her roped in to help with Blesséd mass via Twitter before we left and I think she thought that was fun.

Greenbelt has for many years been a short pause at the end of summer, a chance to take a deep intake of breath before the autumn shows up as my year draws to a close. It was perhaps a busier pause than other years! I missed ‘Soul Space’ – a quiet prayer room – and I didn’t, at any point, feel the need to sit and write reflections on what was going on in my head. I didn’t cry for a couple of days and Greenbelt is normally a place where I do. So at some point I will have to reflect on that difference – because I am intrigued to find an explanation. It’s been an interesting year…

Work, faith, world: what do I think?

I’ve been thinking about this lately. I’ve got some questions about my own career path: where next? What do I want to do between now and retirement? I enjoy the challenge – mostly – of being a professional research librarian and I’m grateful for the opportunities I have had in the various law firms and via the SLA. But is corporate law the best place for me to be?

That’s a question that’s been simmering away for a little while. And then today I saw the criticism of the speakers invited to HTB’s Leadership Conference. Folk from Goldman Sachs and Serco were invited to talk about leadership. I had a good, thorough think about this because I wanted to know what my opinion was. Do I agree on learning from leaders wherever? Or not? So here’s a bit of thinking about how following Christ might affect what choices we make.

We all have to make a living (well, everyone I know does – you might have richer friends than me). And we’re all called to different things. If we work in places that are not obviously good (nuclear arms manufacture might be an extreme example of that…) then perhaps our role is to be salt and light in a difficult, pressured workplace. Perhaps by supporting colleagues who are being stressed into a small ball, we get to show love to that person, and be Christ’s light to them.

I understand that reasoning. And indeed when I had a bit of a wobble, I rationalised that wobble using just that argument. The job I was in used my skills, knowledge, intelligence and willingness to teach, help and support others. Personal relationships, and showing people how much they matter to God, help others understand that Christianity is more than just being anti-gay or boring. So all round, that’s a good thing, right?


Ultimately: should I use my skills, knowledge, intelligence and willingness to help in the service of a company or an organisation that is inherently destructive? Or that is actively causing the increase in the gulf between rich and poor, have and have not? Am I not then directly contributing to the dark side, for want of a better shorthand?

I don’t think so. I don’t think you can separate how the profit is made to pay my salary – and the effect that profit has on my world – from my faith, because Christianity is a 168/hr week commitment. I could be the saltiest salt, and the shiniest light: but working for a company that builds arms, removes services, causes recession means that my skills and energy are making things worse. And I want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. And yet. The rent needs to be paid. The bills don’t go away. So how does one square the circle… maintain integrity? Answers on a postcard…

Two candles short of a joke?

Dave Walker - Evolution of a Worshipper

image courtesy of Dave Walker

On Sunday, I’m going to do something strange. (All right, I’ll allow that since going to church is not run-of-the-mill for lots of folk, it is slightly more strange than usual).

I shall wander into church. Then I shall ‘frock up’, into a white robe, and proceed to carry a candle about the place in a choreographed but fairly contrived manner, attempting to remember which bits I’m meant to lift the thing up during, which holders need the candle stand to be wiggled into, and other such things whilst hoping the blasted thing doesn’t blow out and I don’t forget to look suitably serious and reverent. (Current record for continual ‘looking suitably serious’ is about the same duration as ‘staying quiet in a conversation,’ i.e. about three minutes).

What is most likely to discombobulate is me remembering this cartoon of Dave Walker’s. For it perfectly describes where I’ve been and I’ll be laughing at what the 2003 version of me would have made of all this. I grew up in a house with a bag of tambourines hanging on the coat pegs, ready to take to church on a Sunday. When I first moved to Colchester church was a hands-down-for-coffee kind of place. Then I found – not necessarily by choice, more happy accident – that a different kind of church was a better kind of place for me to be.

I recently re-read some of my journals from 2006/7/8. Interesting to note that I felt awkward, out of place, alienated from a style of worship with an emphasis on losing myself/ abandonment of self – yet in an obvious way (unselfconscious dancing, anyone?). So much as I found some of the candle-waving weird, it made a lot more sense.

And so finally, after running out of excuses not to try something new, (although ‘writing a PhD’ is a fairly reasonable excuse, I contend) I’ve joined the server team, and Sunday’s my first run as acolyte. You see – Sara from a decade ago would never have even have used that word…

Marathon effort?

No, not mine. I have no desire to run a full 26.2 miles ever again. But I do like watching others, so I had a splendid Sunday out in London on 21 April cheering on runners – hundreds in general, two in particular.

I’ve been the runner, trying to keep left-foot-right-foot-left-foot going. I know how much it can help to have someone spot you, shout your name, just the teeniest bit of encouragement. Even if I know their ‘looking good, Sara’ is a massive lie – it still helps. Just by the 22 mile marker yesterday a group of lads were watching from a first floor flat. They would spot someone walking, pick their name up as a chant, and if that runner started running again gave a huge cheer. The kind of noisy, raucous cheer that only ten lads can make after a few beers. And the crowd on the pavement joined in – loving the reaction from the runners. Some waved – some were oblivious – some looked confused as if they’d forgotten that was their name – some really seemed to find new energy.

In between times – and then as the first floor folk quietened down, and those coming past were slowing – we shouted encouragement at random people. People I’ll never see again; but for a few seconds I helped encourage them on their quest to finish the London Marathon. It’s a great way to spend an afternoon. All those stories – all those individuals logging the training miles, looking for sponsorship, preparing, travelling and then finally making the distance. It’s the stock-in-trade of the commentators, talking about the ‘human interest,’ tugging our heartstrings and making us reach for our purses to donate to the charities. But honestly, up close, in the reality of the blisters and the sweat and the grimaces and the sheer determination – it’s bloody awesome.

It’s even more fun when you’re there holding a 6’ beanpole with a mugshot of your friend’s face; when you have a pint at 10:30 because the pubs are open (well, it would be rude not to), when the sun’s shining and London has that friendliness about it that we saw in the Olympics. You know, when it was OK to talk to strangers, catch people’s eye on the tube and smile (see above re carrying 6’ beanpole about the place).

Sing alleluia, and keep on walking

I’ve been away from work since 20 March. I’ve had the most splendid time, staying right here at home and just getting on with things I wanted to do – having nearly enough time to follow the progress of Holy Week to the excitement that is Easter Sunday.

It’s been busy. I have…

debated social media, religion, authority and tradition with Premier & CODEC
run in the snow
said goodbye to the Alpha course participants and agreed to lead a new housegroup
laughed at a donkey in the snow
talked to the diocese and the C of E about my PhD
live tweeted from the top of the BT Tower to support Tearfund & the DEC’s Syria appeal
had lunch with my lovely friend Phil
drunk beer in the castle & laughed a lot with Teresa
run in the sunshine with Viv
made a plan
been late for Morning Prayer
had lunch in the jam factory with my mum and my aunt
been blessed attending Compline
made cake
made more cake
made some scones
made some cushion covers
had lunch with two students and learned about the pressures of undergraduate life at Oxford
read Enid Blyton with a 6 year old
chatted and laughed, both in church and not, with Susanna
been cross
been happy
been challenged attending Maundy Thursday Eucharist and Watch
been late for Evensong
read a bit
had lunch with my family & their guest
explored what my purpose in life might be
cried a bit
prayed a lot
confused a Methodist
had a foot washed
washed a foot
drunk tea
drunk gin
drunk coffee and been surprised by God
contemplated a large wooden cross
written lots in my journal
written lots on The Twitter
written a letter
written less of the things I was meant to be writing
read a bit more
seen a physio
had custom insoles made to fit my shoes to make me run better
found a new coat in a charity shop
listened to music
listened to radio 4
listened to people
listened to silence
been hugged
cried a lot
hugged back
prayed a bit
rejoiced at the resurrection
judged an easter bonnet competition
not rolled an egg down a hill but been immensely touched one was decorated for me
made a new plan
not tidied up
taught Twitter to Viv

…and at the time of writing I still have time with another friend to look forward to … as well as the mundane, like polishing my shoes and packing my bag for work…

so it’s not over yet…

And when I am back on the train in the morning and it feels like I have never been away I will take a deep breath and remember these this advice to actual pilgrims, for as long as I can before this peacefulness fades…

Doing the Actions.

Prior to my first visit to St Leonard’s for a ‘normal’ parish Eucharist I asked how formal the service was. “Is there a lot of processing about?” I asked. “No, hardly any at all,” was the answer. I can only conclude the question had been mis-heard… my first impression being ‘if that’s hardly any ceremony, I’d hate to be here for something really formal.’ My second thought was ‘there’s a lot of kissing of things’ and my third thought was unprintable. Once I’d really become more of a regular at the 8am and 6.30 services, the questions about why things are done faded into the background. Now I’m back to more 9.45 services, curiosity got the better of me.

Taking our ceremonial/ ritual aspects of a Parish Eucharist for granted is common. Surely everyone does it this way? (Ask me about my trip to Jubilee Church in Enfield). The variety of expressions of worship in the C of E is either one of its strengths or its biggest weakness, depending on who you talk to. The more I paid attention the more I noticed the details – and the more I wondered why those details were important – why do we do what we do? Some of them are easier to see and understand than others. I didn’t need to have an explanation of why the Gospel reading is done from the centre of the congregation, with its ceremony (although it was reassuring to later be told that my reasoning – that it’s all about the importance – was correct). I’ve never really just sat and watched a service. I’m paying attention to my own worship, thoughts and prayers, and trying not to be distracted.

So on Ash Wednesday, when I had been to church at lunchtime in London, I took the opportunity to sit and observe from the balcony. I think this did somewhat confuse some of the choir members.

I have been to a few different churches lately, and seeing people bow, or cross themselves and not knowing quite why or when was also interesting – at my lunchtime Ash Wednesday service I was the only one not, it seemed, and the order of service did not indicate where or why. What did they know that I didn’t?

So it seems the simple principles are: one bows to acknowledge the name of Jesus. (As was pointed out to me, is foretold in Philippians 2:10). Cross whenever you acknowledge the Trinity and before receiving communion (and absolution). At the Gospel, touch (cross with thumb usually) forehead, lips, chest and think to self “God be in my head, in what I say, and in my heart”. I’ve only ever noticed the priest doing this last one, though (but that might be because I wasn’t looking in any other direction).

We are reminded by our leaders at various intervals that prayer and worship involve the whole of our selves – mind and body, all our senses. Last spring Teresa preached on this – and subsequent conversation meant I had ‘kneeling in church’ as something to try as Lent discipline. Kneeling had seemed to me to be overkill, an affectation, and surely unnecessarily formal. So I was surprised when the change in posture helped me focus more on both the corporate and personal prayers, (after the first few times when I had stopped feeling awkward and entirely too self-conscious). Now, it’s habit.

And for many although other actions are habit too, they have the same effect of focusing the mind. At worst, then, crossing oneself is instinctive as something learned in childhood. But at best it helps people refocus on what they are saying when using familiar liturgy. One friend said that the childhood teaching she’d received about this was all hellfire and damnation, that it was sinful not to follow suit and cross herself. Another was taught as a child that the “I” of downstroke is crossed out so ‘I’ become part of God’s love as shown on cross. I think I prefer the latter explanation…

But these explanations are just reminders and – do vary. Teresa says she was taught that “the downstroke represented God’s love in the incarnation (heaven to earth) and the horizontal reminded us that Jesus came to take us out of darkness into light (L to R) and the final touch in the middle was ‘for me.’” Someone else said ‘I was raised RC, and it is hard to stop your hands and body moving, even in low church settings. I am infecting others,’ and others were honest about how they felt these movements were too ritualistic, too anglo-catholic, and don’t see the point. Which I guess, just goes to show that there’s no right or wrong way of ‘being’ in church – that everyone’s approach is personal and what works for one person might leave another person completely perplexed..

For me the jury is still out. Increased self-consciousness would be counter-productive – thinking about me when the point is to focus thoughts elsewhere. I note though that I was never quite happy in a church where ‘spontaneous’ raising of hands in worship was the done thing, so maybe one day I’ll be able to – literally – get over myself and try new ways of being a more focused, more attentive worshipper.

Oh – and thanks to Richard Gillin for reminding me of this…

Birthday fun

Tuesday was my birthday. My 40th birthday.

I had a great day (and despite being rather under the weather, lovely times at the weekend). I have been reminded how blessed I am to have a supportive family and a bunch of intelligent, funny, interesting and different friends from all sorts of places… school, university, workplaces, churches. I need this reminder sometimes when I’m having
one of those lonely seasons.

I don’t think I am scared or challenged by the passing of a milestone.
Well, I suppose there are some things I don’t like – the way my grey hairs are increasing, the length of time it takes for my face to uncrease in the morning, the funny noises my knees are making – but they are just inevitable. If I knew at twenty what I know now at forty then I would have probably made some very different choices – but, as the adage goes, youth is wasted on the young…

Also, if I am honest, this isn’t quite the life I thought I’d be living when I marked my last decade change (understatement!) In fact in no way at all is this what I had imagined – never thought I’d still be single, or live in Colchester, or nearly have a PhD, or be a qualified law librarian, least of all be an antagonistic member of a church PCC and friends with a whole bunch of vicars. So the fact that in the last few weeks I’ve been thinking about other changes, and a different future from the way this current life might pan out, doesn’t really scare me either. The ideas I have are scary but the potential for change, or difference, in the years ahead doesn’t. I think what scares me more is the idea nothing would change.

I have been fortunate to receive gifts which have made me laugh, cry and think. Something from an old friend given with the tag line ‘this is such a Sara present’ made me remember the Sara I used to be – that I had forgotten a part of myself, almost. Not sure I am expressing that very well – may need to ponder that a little more. A parcel I had not rushed to collect – thinking it something dull I had ordered myself – retrieved on Thursday turned out to be a delightful box of 40 things. 40 little, trivial things; but 40 things wrapped and posted with love & friendship of the sort that makes my eyes leak and me feel terribly unworthy. A notebook for plans for world domination. I suppose I am so aware of the negative effect I have on people – being short tempered, grumpy, impatient and forgetful that I’m amazed to find I might have a positive side to offer too – affirmed by the bits of me reflected in the ‘ah, just the thing for Sara.’

So thank you everyone for the cards, tweets, kind words, presents and your presence. Here’s to the next decade.