God the Father,have mercy upon us. God the Son, have mercy upon us. God the Holy Spirit,have mercy upon us. Holy, blessed and glorious Trinity, have mercy upon us.
From superficial sentiment and painful platitudes about the plans you have for us, good Lord deliver us From sleepless nights and the dread of the ‘if only’, good Lord deliver us From kale smoothies, snake oil and the friend of a friend’s miracle cure on Facebook, good Lord deliver us.
For friendships forged in pixels and in person, we praise you O Lord For communities created in festival fields, workplaces and conferences, we praise you O Lord For Facebook updates, Opinion Minutes and the documenting of a life, we praise you O Lord.
For hospitals, hospices, consultants and nurses, respiratory physiotherapists, radiographers, phlebotomists and cleaners, we give thanks to you O Lord For #waitingroomfeet and the inspiration to others to share their stories, we give thanks to you O Lord For mail order, wish lists, Pokemon and cheese, we give thanks to you O Lord For researchers, clinical trials, hypotheses and all the knowledge of our bodies, we give thanks to you O Lord.
For faith in you the Creator and knowledge of your loving kindness, we give thank to you, O Lord For the fellowship of the Holy Spirit and the love of Christ, we give thanks to you, O Lord For the the rooms you have prepared for us, we give thanks to you, O Lord For the ending of pain and the gift of eternal life, we give thanks to you, O Lord.
In righteous anger and protest at lives undervalued, strengthen us, O Lord In campaigning, teaching and understanding chronic illness, strengthen us, O Lord In living on without our daughter, sister, cousin, colleague and friend, strengthen us, O Lord.
Holy God, holy and strong, holy and immortal, have mercy upon us.
There are some chance encounters in life that turn out to have the power to change the trajectory of a life. I am deeply and profoundly grateful that I met Bex just over a decade ago, when I was in the first few years of my part-time PhD. Something happened in the way that Bex connected me into her network of Christians working in or with digital media and culture that changed the way the next few years turned out.
That conversation led to me presenting at the 2010 New Media conference, which had a knock-on effect of meeting lots of people that I’d known via Twitter, which had a knock-on effect of adding a few more Church of England priests into my social circle.
I’m not saying that Bex was entirely responsible for me finding the path to ordination, but I wonder what would have happpend if I’d not made those contacts. I have always been grateful for the friendship and encouragement Bex offered (she was the first person to cite my thesis anywhere, for example). Along with many others I was gutted to hear of her sudden death on 18 February.
I only have one photo of Bex where she isn’t smiling. This was a Serious Phone Call: standing in a bus stop in Salford in the summer of 2015 as she was offered the job at Manchester Met. I was on placement in Manchester that summer and we’d spent the afternoon waiting for that call…
Many others have written more, and will write more, about Bex’s extraordinary personality and heart. Her generosity, kindness, capacity for networking, enouragement, laughter, and ability to find time for adventure was rooted in a deep faith. We shared a real dislike for the glib use of Jeremiah 29:11 and the superficiality this is sometimes associated with (God’s got a plan! It’s fine! You’re *meant* to have cancer/get divorced/lose your job…)
There’s a line in L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of the Island that has been sitting with me this morning, thinking over the suddenness of Bex’s death. Ruby Gillis, one of Anne’s classmates has died, and her mother gives Anne (of Green Gables) the last piece of embroidery Ruby was working on.
“There’s always a piece of unfinished work left.”
There’s no last blog post, no last Cancer Update or Opinion Minute. No more retweets, Facebook comments, useful links to follow up. She’s gone, and we are sad. And even yet, I find hope in the unfinished work finding completion as her friends take to heart the call to Be More Bex. Smile more. Learn, question, teach, pray, play. Embrace friendship and connection and LIFE as far as you possibly can.
Not wanting to outstay my welcome in the sermon slot today, I rattled through about half of these 3,000 words – so I thought some folk might like to be able to revist, at a more leisurely pace, the words I spoke quickly; and to fill in the gaps from the parts I left out.
There is so much to say! I am really only going to be able to share some highlights with you this morning.
First, let me set the scene.
Why did we go?
Five Dioceses in the Mt Kenya East region, & Chelmsford Diocese have been in partnership for 40 years.
Every two years, curates given chance to see what Anglican Church in Kenya is – its people and projects
Personal contact important to strengthen relationships
Why did I go?
Never been to any part of Africa before. So it was sheer curiosity!
Wanted to see what Anglicanism looks like in a very different context
Wanted to see what I felt like in a very different context
Wanted to feel part of something Diocesan – bigger than just curacy.
But – a caveat – we are visitors. We couldn’t always ask the questions we wanted to, directly. So I was left with questions as politeness trumped curiosity in some places.
We flew to Nairobi, then drove north to Embu. My group stayed in Embu diocese, others went to Mbeere and Meru.
This was the pattern of our travels:
Embu, Isiolo, Archer’s Post, Samburu, Embu, host families, Nairobi.
Our driver was Julius, and he was a highlight of the trip.
The questions I had in the back of my mind were “what does it mean to flourish, to live life to the full in this context?” and “what is Christian life like on a daily basis?”
Rather than a narrative of what I did and where I went I shall pull out key instances and what they have left with me.
More tea, vicar?
We flew overnight, landing in Nairobi about 5am. After fighting our way out of Nairobi’s rush hour we stopped at a place called Thika for breakfast.
Tea in Thika
Tea in the tea factory
Mungania tea factory
I had a cup of tea, and it struck me that this was the first time I had drunk tea that hadn’t been imported. That really brought home to me that what can feel like a very British tradition – putting the kettle on and making a cup of tea – depends on global trade. Kenya supplies about half of the UK’s black tea. I had no idea it was so much; but I know now that market is shrinking because of competition from other African countries.
I learned quite a lot about the tea trade during the course of the trip. On the second day we visited a tea factory in Mungania – seeing the whole process from fresh leaves arriving to the final product being tasted. I then went on to try picking tea – and with an awareness I was probably in someone’s crop, it was quite hard! Later, on my parish visit, I went back to the same area and saw a tea selling point. Each farmer brings their crop to a place where it is collected by the vans from the factory.
We saw the work that goes into the growing of tea; the kind of factory jobs that are available. It gave me a glimpse of what daily working life might be for some – but not whether this counts as a good job, a stable job. Certainly the tea farmers are dependent on getting their crops to market.
Embu diocese is in one of the most fertile parts. On the slopes of mount Kenya, it is cooler, and wetter. The soil is red clay – very sticky when it gets wet – but great for tea and bananas.
For all the theme of tea during our visit, Kenyan teamaking is not quite my – well, cup of tea. As one who is happy with teapot dregs and a dash of milk, tea that was made with only milk and a hint of tea was a bit of a challenge at times.
We prayed a lot. That might seem an odd thing to say – you might expect us to, as we were a party of priests. And we did say Morning Prayer and Compline together on most days. But it was during the day that we noticed the difference. Kenyan Christians showed us a way of prayer that is about unselfconscious gratitude for the things of daily life – for food and drink, for visitors, for safe travel, for rest, for conversation – everything and anything.
I’ve been reflecting on this, and the number of times the Bible uses the phrase “all things.”
All things come from you, O Lord, and of your own do we give you. 1 Chron 29.
Allthings came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being. John 1.
We know that allthings work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. Romans 8.
For in [Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. Colossians 1.
So rightly, the Kenyan Christians give thanks for all things – the things we might overlook – the connections we might not make.
I wonder, how easy is it to give thanks for all things when we take so many of them for granted?
I have never knowingly been thankful for the sanitation in my house – but I was when I arrived home. I was fortunate that I didn’t pick up any bugs – some of the others were unwell for a day or so – but even so, the basic sanitation was something that opened my eyes to that which I take for granted.
We used an African prayer once or twice during Morning Prayer and I think this helps show the sense that all is God’s – that he has dominion over all the world – that we might tend in the UK to acknowledge God in some parts of life, but that there are parts where we can manage just fine by ourselves, thank you very much. And that is one of the things I took away from the Kenyan approach – the understated and ever-present integration of prayer in daily life.
An African Canticle
All you big things, bless the Lord.
Mount Kilimanjaro and Lake Victoria,
The Rift Valley and the Serengeti Plain,
Fat baobabs and shady mango trees,
All eucalyptus and tamarind trees,
Bless the Lord.
Praise and extol Him for ever and ever.
All you tiny things, bless the Lord.
Busy black ants and hopping fleas,
Wriggling tadpoles and mosquito larvae,
Flying locusts and water drops,
Pollen dust and tsetse flies,
Millet seeds and dried dagaa,
Bless the Lord.
Praise and extol Him for ever and ever.
Some of the big things were in evidence during the two nights we spent at Samburu Lodge. That was a real contrast to the “normal” Kenya we’d seen in Embu and Archer’s Post, and that which was to come in the Nairobi slums.
I won’t pretend I didn’t really enjoy this part! A safari holiday is way out of my price range and so is the kind of hotel with a turn-down service and a dedicated room steward. We went out into the game park four times, and all were exciting – one afternoon we saw two lionesses and four cubs just crossing the road. The next morning there was an Eden-like view of giraffe, warthog and deer all grazing as elephants walked past on their way to the river. The views were glorious even without animals and birds to see.
This is the only Kenya that some people will visit – the animals are the attraction, not the people. The stories and challenges of daily life go un-noticed. The day after blessing a water bowser, a swimming pool, garden sprinklers and baths feel like incongruous luxuries. But, tourism is a source of income and employment reminding me again that everything relies on some other part of the economy.
Back to real life, and one unexpected discovery for me was the role and significance of the Mothers’ Union. The women really are a force for good and for change. In Embu, they’re building a hostel for female university students. That means women can study away from home, when their families might not have let them. So a new generation of educated women can help build the future. And, it gives income to the church. Genius.
That’s just one project; our trip included several others.
We met children in different contexts – some joyful; others heartbreaking.
First, in a children’s home in Embu.
Then, we heard about children that are being cared for by grandparents supported by the Mothers’ Union.
We visited a school for the deaf whose buildings are crumbling, where parents don’t always collect their children at the end of term, and the school sometimes has to ask the church for money for food.
We met children in villages
We talked with children in St Barnabas school
We saw children on the streets and in the slums of Nairobi.
HIV/AIDs is a real problem in Kenya. The stigma of being HIV+ means people won’t seek treatment; there is a cost to treatment; and so there is a generation of children who have lost one or both parents.
It was hard not to feel like a cliché around some of the younger children we met on our day in villages near Archer’s Post. Some of them hadn’t seen white skin before – and were duly fascinated. We had lots of smiles as we took pictures and selfies with them.
The Mothers Union in Marsabit is working to prevent FGM and child marriage – the extent of their challenge is clear. The first child, a seven year old, that we met in Daaba village in Marsabit has already been “engaged” – she no longer goes to school, and will be married in a few years’ time.
The day we spent in the villages created more questions than it did answers.
It did provide one of the most joyful moments. We were welcomed by the women of the village into their church. We danced with them but we were doing what felt like a version of the hokey cokey. I had no idea what was going on. But we laughed. And as we prayed, we gave thanks to God for the universality of the language of laughter.
What does it mean for the church to build a brick church in a place where there are few other facilities? How does a fixed building affect the lives of pastoralist people? What does it mean to flourish – to live life to the full – when your possessions fit in a box, your home is a temporary hut, and your existence is dependent on rain? What is progress, or growth? How do you balance respecting tradition with ending abusive processes like FGM?
These villages are in the southern end of Marsabit Diocese – this extends right up to the Ethopian border, several hours’ drive away. They have solar-powered boreholes and so their water supply is relatively stable.
The next day Bishops Roger and John, and Qampecha from Marsabit, blessed and commissioned the water bowser that was bought through the Lent appeal. This was a fun moment – with a serious undercurrent – but it was lovely to see the concrete result of the appeal.
That day I had been in church in Archer’s Post – a small church, with around 50 people. I had nothing to do but introduce myself – and try to pick up some of the songs being sung in both English and Kiswahili – and to enter into the joyfulness of worship even if the volume and musicianship weren’t quite what I am used to.
You might have seen on Facebook that my attempt to introduce myself a week later hadn’t gone entirely to plan with my Kiswahili being interpreted. I am not terribly confident in other languages, so the first time I greeted the congregation in Archer’s Post with Bwana Asifiwe and they responded Amen was fabulous. Bwana Asifiwe means, Praise God. We say “praise God,” and anyone in earshot replies “Amen!”
The final weekend meant staying with Margaret and Paul. Margaret is the priest of Katangariri, near Embu, on the slopes of Mount Kenya.
On Saturday the Sunday school teacher Irene and the evangelist Ephlantus took me on several pastoral visits – to a woman who had recently lost her husband; someone recovering from a stay in hospital; one caring for her grandchildren. We chatted, sang, and prayed with them and I was very grateful for translations back and forth into English. I was asked to give them the word of God – I found myself using psalm 139 in many ways – because the one thing I knew about the people I met was that God loved them and knew them.
Again, questions of flourishing and development came to mind. Everyone in the village, it seems, has their own shamba – small farm. I was trying to explain to Irene that it wasn’t usual in the UK to keep a cow or a goat – that we are very removed from our farming history.
On Sunday I went to the church of the Good Shepherd for two services – the first in English for th young people, the second in Kiswahili. I preached at both.
Now, all along, the organisers had been saying that we could choose what we preached on. I’d looked at the lectionary and seen that one option was Bible Sunday, so I had prepared a sermon on this. You might imagine my squeaks when Margaret said they had organised a service around the dedication of the church… so I had about half an hour on Saturday evening to pull together some thoughts about that! Fortunately the passage in John 10 is one I’m very familiar with; and as Jesus talks of himself as the Good Shepherd – and I was in the Church of the Good Shepherd – I think it was OK. I nearly cried in the Kiswahili service; the sermon was heralded by a verse of “this is the day that the Lord has made,” followed by “this is the preacher that the Lord has made” – no pressure then!
Staying by myself in Margaret’s home was the one thing I had worries about. British reserve and wanting to be a good guest in a different culture contributed to the worries. I did find it hard – there were practicalities – like how using bug spray or hand gel was part of the routine as we got on and off the bus together – that became intrusive when it was me alone performing the rituals. I wasn’t always quite sure when we were going to eat or what we were going to do – and Margaret’s grandson didn’t really start talking to me until we were driving away from church on Sunday. Suddenly in the car his reserve fell away, too!
And then, suddenly, we’re all gathering back again at Embu Cathedral heading south to Nairobi for the last two nights.
Our final day was spent in groups in the slum parishes.
I have no photos from there, because we were advised cameras were too much of a target for pickpockets.
It was grim. For one family to live in the conditions we saw is bad enough. For there to be thousands, in one slum, in one part of one city in one country – knowing that according to the UN, one billion people live in slums – is truly horrific.
That day we visited two churches. One has been built on land the church does not own. The idea was that they’d build it in the month when local elections were taking place, so all the politicians and the council were busy – then they’d ask for the land. A risky strategy and one that made Archdeacon Vanessa twitch! One was in the heart of the slum – accessible after rain only with wellington boots. The scale of population and of the fragility of life was brought home after we heard there had been baptisms the week before. 31 babies baptised, but it should have been 32 – one child had died overnight.
In some ways the church buildings felt wrong – surely there were more needs that could be met? But perhaps – if Christ was anywhere, would he not be here, with the marginalised and the oppressed? So perhaps the very permanence of a brick church is a beacon of hope, of love, of the value of all people as God’s children. Psalm 139 is true in the slums as it is in the villages.
Such a huge challenge.
I confess that my reaction on returning to the guest house was to scrub myself clean. I felt guilty about that – that I could walk away from the families, the poverty, the insecurity and the danger – yet those we had met, who had welcomed us into their homes – were stuck.
And in another of the contrasts that Kenya gave me, we discussed how we had all felt something of this – the need to be clean – whilst we drank imported wine in the four-star hotel near our guest house on our final night. That was a good wind-down, with alarms set for 0430 the next morning for the flight home.
I still have only scratched the surface of the two weeks. So when you’ve asked me how I got on, and I’ve spent a minute telling you it was awesome – consider that you got off lightly!
One of the things that affected me personally was the community that was built up on the bus. Two weeks’ travelling is a lot of bus time – we sang, laughed, shared sweets and biscuits, asked deep questions of life to one another. I don’t feel welcome in new places unless I am invited; I don’t feel part of a group without encouragement – and yet I did; I was just one of the gang on Julius’ bus and that sense of belonging was a lovely rarity for me.
I certainly know more about what Anglicanism looks like in a very different context. We are definitely related in our liturgy; the expression of it is entirely different. There were some aspects I wasn’t totally comfortable with. I think there’s a bit too much American influence – I think the prosperity gospel has a hold in some obvious and some insidious ways. I’m definitely not a fan of Kenyan amplified music – unaccompanied singing is beautiful – electronic backing beats and uncertain keyboard chords are not.
I have renewed my commitment to fair trade – because of the tea growers, but also because the low-paid, insecure jobs that keep people in slums are the sharp end of global capitalism and consumerism. Kenya doesn’t export much that is manufactured to the UK, it is mostly tea and flowers; but the starkness of the deprivation and the scale of the problem shows us how we are all interconnected.
And I hope that I will continue in the habit of praying for All Things.
We are now back in Embu, and a lot has happened since we left our first hotel last week.
Marsabit Diocese is something I have heard a lot about. The Bishop’s Lent Appeal this year raised money for a water bowser for areas of drought. All through this year’s long hot rain-free weeks my thoughts were drawn to those who were not so assured as we British were that sooner or later we would have rain again. Travelling north from Embu we could see the change in terrain – from lush green tea bushes and banana trees, to scrub, acacia, and dust.
Based in Isiolo for three nights the first thing was a visit to the ADS-run school for the deaf. This was a hard visit. The school is falling down: built on soft ground, one large classroom had been condemned as unsafe. This means the children are being taught in smaller spaces which don’t allow them to have proper sight of the teacher and each other.
The school sometimes has to ask for food – but has never missed a ration. The teachers sometimes have to take pupils home because their parents don’t collect them at the end of term. The Chalet School this isn’t.
The next day our established bus groups were re-ordered and we dispersed in smaller groups to visit rural parishes. Rural as in, we turn off the highway and offroad for half an hour before we get to the first village. Not just five minutes off the A120 which has been my rural experience to date!
The day began at Archers Point, with Kenyan tea and a snack. We visited three communities of Turkana people. At times this felt a bit like being in a cliché – children who had never seen a white face before – and I was reminded of the Goodness Gracious Me sketch about young Indian backpackers in London. But, cliché aside it was true that remote pastoral communities wouldn’t have seen many white people, and our selfies were a source of amusement for us all.
Women from Daaba village welcomed us with song and dance which we joined in where we could. We then heard from the leader of the women what the challenges were that they faced. One – which is familiar at home – was the lack of men in church. But others – polygamy, child marriage, FGM – are less routine in Coggeshall. There is a primary school – children walk 8km to get to it. It is a tough life in a beautiful but unforgiving place. I noted that the leader had a very traditional dress on, but with a mobile phone neatly tucked inside. This began a thread of questions for me about what progress, flourishing and sustainability look like for a pastoralist tribe.
It felt a bit odd to be praying and discussing church life whilst English was translated into Swahili, and Swahili into Turkana, and back again. This is the sharpest reminder of what it looks like to be part of the same family I will probably encounter!
Greetings from Kenya. I am writing from Philadelphia Place guest house in Embu, a town about an hour’s drive north of Nairobi. Composing this on Wednesday evening although I don’t know when it might get uploaded!
We landed on Tuesday morning at about 5am…it is hard to remember that was only two days ago. ‘We’ are a group of 19 Bishops, Archdeacons, incumbents and curates here visiting people and institutions with which the Diocese of Chelmsford has partnerships. We curates are the newest people joining in the link between five Kenyan dioceses and Chelmsford.
We’re mostly split into smaller groups. So far the group I am in have visited a tea factory, four churches, two projects looking after vulnerable children, the cathedral in Embu and a nearly-complete hostel for female university students. This last was the brainchild of the Mothers’ Union. Today we all travelled together to visit the ACK hospital, and St Andrew’s Theological college in Kabare.
So already in less than 72 hrs we have had a very mixed set of experiences. Here are some things I want to share so far:
The wonderfulness of worship and Holy Communion at St Andrew’s today. Joyful singing and dancing, a warm welcome, laughter and prayer. So very different from home – so wonderful to be children together of the same Heavenly Father.
The bittersweet time in the maternity ward at ACK hospital. Seeing newborn twins, but hearing of the cramped space for expectant mothers. There is no space if things go wrong. Alongside that, viewing a new building opening soon which was supported by Chelmsford diocese.
Drinking tea grown and processed right here in Kenya. All my life I have drunk tea. Never before have I drunk local tea. It’s always been imported. So it was an interesting moment to notice the tag on the teabag and a privilege to then see tea leaves created. I shall never see making a brew in the same way again. Touring the factory gave us an opportunity to see a different side of Kenyan life.
A joyful welcome by the Caregivers at a project supporting families looking after vulnerable children. This lady has a daughter named Sara!
*NOW CLOSED – BOOKS ALLOCATED* I’ve been collecting EBD’s Chalet School series for about twenty years. Like many other collectors one has dreams of wandering into a charity shop and finding a shelf-ful of hardback books. This week that became a reality…
The McCann family are returning to Cambodia as missionaries with OMF and no longer want to store a box of hardbacks and paperbacks. I have offered to sell them to help with their living costs.
So. There are 19 hbs, and 17 paperbacks. You can see the full list here.
Now, here’s the thing. CS hbs are pretty hard to come by. Some can be quite pricey.
What we’d like to do here, though, is give folk a chance to own one who wouldn’t be able to afford the market rate. The current GGBP reprints are selling for £13 including p&p. So we reckon that would be a fair price to ask for the good hbs on the condition that you don’t sell them on at a profit. Think of it like we’re asking for a fee to adopt a book into your family, not selling an object to be profited from. I know there are plenty of people out there that would get the sentiment behind this.
Paperbacks that are good or acceptable are £4 including p&p. Make me an offer for anything in poor condition.
Here’s how it will work. Please email me or use the contact form below to let me know which book(s) you are interested in before 15th July. If there are more than one person interested, I’ll pick names from the hat. Payment by PayPal, and I’ll send those details out after the weekend.
Today, staffing the Christmas Market tombola, I watched people wait.
Young fingers, too excited to unfold the small pink ticket. Old fingers, arthritic, trembling; apologising for taking a long time to reveal the number. Pleasure at a win, however trivial. Mothers and grandmothers and Dads and granddads carefully helping toddlers count out their four goes. And children as happy with the consolation pick of a Quality Street as with a ‘real’ prize. Adults, too – perhaps surprised to be offered something they’d seen the children have.
The simple pleasure of anticipation as the winning or losing tickets are examined. Those who take one ticket at a time, inspect, then repeat. Those who dive in and take all four at once, with an grin or apology for the accidental fifth as it’s returned to the drum.
We all wait differently.
Today was quietly moving.
Tomorrow, we officially begin waiting. Not for a trivial prize but for the greatest gift of all.
How blessed am I to begin Advent with today’s experience of noticing fingers. Noticing people; seeing how different we all are as we approach the same game. Because in amongst the tombola and the raffle and the cakes and the bric-a-brac and the chutneys and the crafts and Santa and the brass band and the Brownies… there, right in the middle of the hustle and the busle, I see fingers moving. And through the young fingers and the old fingers and the friends’ fingers and the strangers’ fingers, Jesus reminds me why I am there.
Would a graveyard in Chingford be your first port of call for a breather from urban life? It’s been done before: as Anne of The Island says, it’s a place where one can get at trees.
On holiday in West Wales, I saw sparrows in ubiquity…a quarrel… in quantities I have not seen for years. I did not realise, until I moved to a house with a practically wildlife-free garden, how much I missed garden birds, their song, and trees! I was spoiled, of course, with Westcott House’s lovely Old Court, but even before that, Batty Towers II looked out onto garden-y areas.
Last week in the graveyard I saw squirrels, gulls, and a large gang of parakeets. In my garden, I have seen a heron, and been overflown by gulls and crows. I think I saw something bluetit like in a tree two houses away this morning, but that could have been wishful thinking. If I listen really hard early in the morning, I can hear snippets of birdsong over the noise of the A112 & neighbours.
Around me, if I remember to look, I see grass and plants springing up and surviving in unlikely places. I see the cultivated flowerbeds planted along Old Church Street, a defiant antidote to the litter-throwing car-driving population. A few days ago I saw ducklings and cygnets in part of the ancient forest, at Highams Park lake.
Somehow, I feel sorry for this urban wildlife. I wonder if these birds know the freedom and fresh air of their country cousins. Would their song be sweeter without diesel fumes? Are the bees I’ve rarely seen exhausted on their search for spaces not filled with neat shrubs, or covered in concrete? It feels wrong that we inflict traffic pollution, noise, litter and interference from unsympathetic humans on our urban wildlife. But, nature is persistent, and tolerant. Plants grow in small, unlikely spaces; birds find food and roosting places.
I’ve put a bird feeder up in my garden. It’s been there a week, and so far has had no visitors. I’m torn between knowing I need to be patient, to give the bird I think I saw next door (and its friends) a chance to find the food, and a sneaking and unpleasant suspicion that I look foolish to my neighbours.
That, however, may just be a metaphor for this life of faith. Sticking with something that needs patience, risking ridicule, waiting to see what happens.
(With thanks to @vivmendham who made me notice birds in the first place)
You make tea. You boil the kettle, lob a couple of teabags in the pot, add boiling water, and wait. Add milk now or later, pour tea into a mug, find a biscuit (in case the tea is a bit wet) and there you are. A cuppa. A very British thing, and something you’ve done thousands of times.
Now imagine you are going to write a 3000 word pastoral reflection on making a cup of tea in the same way you would about a conversation or experience (an exercise we as first year ordinands are about to undertake). Suddenly, something you’ve been doing all your life (making tea, talking to people) needs to be pulled apart and scrutinized. Questions need to be asked as we attempt to describe our experience in terms of a reflective model. Something like this…
Why did you need the tea? What was the context? Were you making tea for yourself, or for other people? Who were the other people? Why did they need tea? Whose voice isn’t being attended to? Are there coffee drinkers who are being marginalised? Someone in need of a custard cream, who is too shy to speak?
You put water in the kettle. Reflect on the theological significance of water (Samaritan woman; baptism; water flowing from Jesus’ side; where we see water in church in the Eucharist). Where did the water come from? What does having clean tap water mean for us, versus the countries who struggle? What about bottled water, and consumerism?
The kettle. There’s an unseen power to the kettle. Is that like the Holy Spirit? What is the kettle made of? Where are those parts from, or made? What colour is it? Why is that colour important? Where is the kettle in the kitchen, and what does that choice say about the context in which you are operating? What other agencies are involved in the creation of the kettle?
Do you use a tea pot or a mug? What does the choice of teapot mean in terms of your understanding of Christian hospitality? What might be the theological significance of a large teapot, indicating generosity and hospitality? What Biblical resonances are there for you about tea pots? (shared meals, refreshment…) What about mugs? Does it have a picture or a happy slogan on it? What might that mean for the drinker?
Milk. Milk is from cows. Where do cows fit into God’s bounteous creation and our need for stewardship of resources? Is there a theology of veganism that needs to be brought into play here?
Then of course the very difficult questions. Milk in first or second? These debates have divided society and have a real power to speak to us about the need to live with difference. Indeed, we might consider the splits in the historical or contemporary church as analogous. After all, we have the same aim (tea) but are convinced our understanding of the mechanism by which this is obtained are correct.
Then there are the fringe groups, those who would eschew builders’ tea in favour of hot water and fruit concoctions. Is that really tea? Can we include this in our definition, or is their stance just so different they are drinking a different drink? How big is our tent? (metaphorical, of course, this isn’t a reflection about camping). What is your essential theology of tea?
What have we learned about ourselves, our spirituality and our ministry from this tea? What might we do differently in the future?
In September 2014 I went to Austria, thanks to a generous gift from my parents. I’d been reading the train options from the Man in Seat 61 for months, so was super-excited to be able to book a train-only option. (I tried to do it myself, but the combinations of Eurostar + sleeper + hotel were too complicated to risk a costly error – Railbookers were fantastic).
My route was London – Paris; Paris – Munich on the sleeper Cassiopeia; Munich – Innsbruck. I must go back and visit Munich though – it was raining on the way out, and late on the way back – so I’m afraid I rather stayed in the station whilst waiting for connections. Arriving in Paris, I had some supper, and then, the really exciting bit, finding my berth on the train.
The sleeping cars all have their own attendant, but the chap looking after us was less than forthcoming with information. Still, he handed me the key, showed me how the door worked, and left me to it. It was dark by this time, of course, so there wasn’t an awful lot to see, but I rather enjoyed sorting the berth out and marvelling at the various switches and cubby holes. I am easily pleased… Not the best night sleep ever, an alarm (still no idea what it was for) sounded at about 6am, and we were an hour or so late into Munich. That was OK, as it was still raining, and I had a three hour wait for the Innsbruck train. Oh joy for a coffee and a seat to watch the world go by, from that well-known German chain… Starbucks…
Innsbruck train was clean, comfy and quick. I was reading a bit, with half an eye out of the window, when I suddenly realised that the mountains had started and their tops were behind the cloud line. The rain had stopped, so it was pleasant walking to the hotel which was right in the centre of Innsbruck. I had decided not to ‘put up at the Europe,’ nor to reserve myself a suite there in case any long lost relatives arrived, but you can’t deny, it is a hotel that is very handy for the station.
The hotel was super-central in Innsbruck – a view of the Golden Roof. For once a single occupancy room had a nice view out the front of the hotel, not the bins or the car park which is what I seem to get (in Rome a few years ago, the room didn’t really have a window at all). On Friday afternoon I wombled around Innsbruck, getting the lie of the land, and acquiring picnic provisions. I think for some people the prospect of eating in a strange place by themselves is what puts them off travel. One does have to be in a good mindset for it – take a book, prepare to be looked at, and most of all – one has to do the conversation about whether you like the look of the restaurant or whether the one a few doors down might be nicer, by yourself! And it can look a lot like unseemly dithering, too. Anyway, once that hurdle was cleared supper was scoffed and then an early night and generally being Rather Excited.
Because on Saturday… I went to Achensee.
Now, this is the bit where I talk about girls’ school fiction and everyone who isn’t a fan glazes over. I’ve been reading the Chalet School series as an adult for about 15 years.
…three months later, I finally finish the blog post.
Now, the whole point of the trip was to go to a place called Jenbach, get the rack and pinion railway to Achensee, visit Pertisau, and walk around the lake. It’s where the first books in the Chalet School series were set, and I have wanted to go see it for myself for at least fifteen years. As you might imagine I was a teeny bit excited… so the 6:30 start to get the train from Innsbruck to Jenbach didn’t matter at all. Nor did the slightly long wait at Jenbach as of course I had been on an earlier train than was technically needed… time to mosey around in the gift shop, though. Turns out I was the only keen person that particular Saturday, and therefore had the entire train to myself. It really is a curious clunky ride, up through forest to the lakeside. The weather wasn’t brilliant – low cloud – so at one point we were enveloped in mist. It didn’t rain, and in the end the day was pretty good for walking and being outside without worrying about sunburn.
Pertisau – EBD’s Briesau – is a short walk along the lake shore from the railway terminus. Chalet fans will not have needed to be told that. Along the way, though, I wandered through a rather marvellous prayer/ reflection trail. I’d seen this on the tourist authority’s website but not been able to locate any English information – so had spent a couple of hours with a friend, Google Translate and a Bible figuring out what the trail involved. It was a mile or so path, with wooden sculptures or resting places, and biblical references for reflection. At the end was a striking crucifix, with Christ with an outstretched hand.
Away from the reflective trail I walked down into Pertisau, and sought out the tourism office and the commemorative plaque marking the inspiration the village gave to EBD. After checking the lake steamer times, I set off along the path along the shore towards Geisalm and the dripping rock. I .loved that walk, with the path rising and falling, and the lake and the mountains. Clearly it was the end of the season, as other walkers were few and far between. That meant I could have plenty of time to marvel at the Dripping Rock! Lunch was the second part of the picnic, eaten on a bench at Geisalm. I had half a plan at that point to take the boat to the top of the lake, but was enjoying the walk a lot so decided to carry on. The clouds were gradually clearing throughout the day and although I never quite got to see the tops of the mountains I was more convinced they were there…
At the steamer stop I had a beer whilst waiting for the boat. Cold, but welcome after 7 miles or so! And a moment to look back down the path and see where I had been walking. Steamer to Achensee, back down to Jenbach on the steam railway (not alone this time) and then a proper train back to Innsbruck. I was shattered, but I had had a brilliant day!
Sunday was my day for exploring Innsbruck. There’s a discount card you can get, which gives free entry to the cable car as well as museums. The cable car gives brilliant views across the city and the valley, and I’m glad I decided to take the ride as I had been dithering a bit. Once back in the City I visited the folk museum, which more or less held my attention, and I had a picnic in the gardens for lunch. One rather nice random thing I found was an exhibition of maps and expeditions mapping various parts of the Alps; fascinating to see the way the maps were produced and used, and the kind of equipment the first mountaineers used (give me goretex and fleece any day…)
And that was it; the end of the trip was in sight. Train back to Munich would have been uneventful had I not managed to tip my glass of wine all over myself (oops) – hurrah for a handy suitcase and dry trousers. It was a bit of wait at Munich, so I had dinner in a fairly OK corner of the food hall, then found a bar for a beer. Then back on board the sleeper with a much more helpful attendant (she told me about the shower, which I hadn’t discovered on the way out). No early morning alarms on the return trip, so a much better sleep and then the ridiculous excitement of a shower on a train (see above re: easily pleased).
A British couple were in the compartment next to mine, and we’d had the kind of standard conversation you do in such situations (well, as much as possible when you know that your reality ‘I’m about to become a trainee vicar’ is a real conversation stopper…) and then horror of horror I realised they were on the same Eurostar back to London as me. So I did the only thing possible – hid round the corner to avoid having to have a conversation…
Eurostar back to London… on which I might have invoked European time to allow for a noon gin… and then all too soon I was back in London at the end of a brilliant break.