Finding a spiritual ‘home’ stateside

In two days we will have been away from our longtime home of London for a month. It’s been a month of visits to the swimming pool, niece’s birthday parties, road trips and catching up on American food (in place of American TV which is awful!). Our health insurance through Obamacare has finally come through, though we haven’t been told how to pay (and my word will we pay, even in spite of the subsidy – I miss you NHS!). Our daughter is on the list for Medicaid (didn’t ever think we’d be applying for that, but grateful it’s an option while we get settled) which will hopefully come through soon. I’m so thankful that the people behind her medical coverage are actual people and are willing to go off the usual script with us as our circumstances are a little irregular.

wild goosing.JPGWe have gone to three different Christian gatherings in an attempt at finding a Christian community who meet regularly. One was the Wild Goose Festival, set in the beautiful mountains outside Ashville, alongside the French Broad River where I got to dip my toes. It’s inspired by Greenbelt, a UK festival we love. Having returned to the southeast – I still think of it as the SOUTH – at a time of such turmoil politically and with so many injustices being made glaringly obvious, it was a priority of ours to get together with Jesus followers who were more along our wavelength. Having been brought up conservative Baptist by Southerners I had no idea, honestly, that you could be a Democrat/liberal and be a Christian. So returning to the states as the black sheep with my new identity, finding a people group to feel at home with was at the top of my list. And it was a great experience.

Wild Goose was much more basic than Greenbelt, with less on offer during the evenings, but the daytime talks were second to none. Unfortunately what was lacking was a clear space for meeting new people and hatching new plans. It was very program heavy, and the only open space we found was a lovely cafe providing cheap food for volunteers and others. Otherwise, unless you were going to sign up to theology school you really had to work at the networking. Still, the talks did inspire.

The next available Sunday we visited a church that has stripped its language back so completely to get rid of references to God, adopting a language that would not cause people who have had terrible and oppressive church experiences to have heart palpitations. I get that. But I miss the connection to the millennia-old faith, and this makes me feel disconnected to the greater story. We haven’t ruled the community out as a possible home for us as the children’s service was brilliant and our kiddo loved it. And being summer it’s hard to get a full picture of much of anything with people being away. So we’ll come back to that.

This past Sunday we visited a Baptist church. Yup. But get this – the minister was a woman! And get THIS: she was a lesbian. The church has a banner outside welcoming refugees and they regularly take part in campaigns promoting equality across the board. There were grey heads all over that place, listening to this queer woman talk about Jesus. It was paradigm shifting. They have taken their hymns (which I can only take so much of generally) and written new ones that talk about gospel social justice themes. They are much more of the church I grew up with, minus the divisive and judgemental garbage that saw so many of us leave. We will have to see what this means for our family however, as they didn’t have a children’s program for 4 year olds, and while G did really well sitting through the service it may not last. Rob also misses a more enthusiastic worship style. So again, we’ll see where we are led to settle for now.

Overall, it has been good to see glimmers – not glimmers really – more like beacons of hope here in my mother’s state of birth. I have my own prejudices against the south which I will readily admit to, but I also love the south, much like my complicated relationship with my mom I guess.

I’ll leave this video link here for anyone interested in one of these beacons of hope I’ve encountered. He happens to be pastor of a church in my mom’s hometown. I’m sure she’d have diverging ideas about him, but he gives me hope for a movement I can link arms with here in this time to see the Kingdom come. Check it out if you’re interested.

Finding a spiritual ‘home’ stateside

New blog! Journeying through the Christian Calendar

I’ve learnt, mostly thanks to this adventure of parenthood, that we humans are hard-wired for routine, both diurnally and seasonally. Being from southern California where the seasons are slight (I enjoy celebrating Christmas in a tank top and flip flops at the beach, thank you very much), seasons aren’t something to which I’m accustomed. We seldom benefited from a true rainy season even. Santa Ana dry winds and heat versus milder overcast days are what have forged my weather (in)tolerance for the most part.

Britain has introduced me to changes in weather, trees colouring then losing their leaves in a noticeable manner, distinct differences in light levels, and yet even here the seasons aren’t dramatic. Even so, I’ve come to identify more with annual changes both in myself and in the world around me. Come spring my body begins to unfurl like a new shoot, reaching towards every minute of sunlight (past 7am at any rate; I do not approve of 4:30am sunrise any time of year), feeling that invitation to grow more and achieve more in the long days. Winter can send me reeling a bit with the draw to the indoors, yet this has been helped by an energetic child who needs fresh air every day possible.

We can reflect on our days, when we work best, when we begin to tire. Times for creativity and times for hard labour. As a woman I can see changes in my monthly energy cycle and where I can best channel my efforts either looking towards a creative week or a more reflective few days. As a Mom I see these cycles most clearly on a minute scale from my child. She is a schedule stickler.

We’ve come to protect sleep times as otherwise the fallout is dangerous and has a knock-on effect for days to follow. We learned early on that children respond best to routine as they feel comfort in knowing what to expect next. When changes approach they need fair warning. I thought I’d be much more of a hippie free spirit when it came to parenting but she has taught me that there can be freedom in structure.

What’s the point. One of my biggest struggles for my whole life and most definitely on a spiritual level for the last few years since I’ve begun sharing my life with one other and now two other humans, has been discipline with my time. Spiritually this has meant that I’m feeling rather disconnected from the larger community of Jesus followers as I am particularly wired for community when spiritual practices are in question, struggling with an individualistic or personal faith, and also that I feel a disconnect with God. It’s been further impaired by being unable to find a church group where I have felt I could fully dig myself in for a variety of reasons.

My church background is varied. I’m a great friend of and critic of the church. As a community of people owning up to their own brokenness and enveloping others who have that same realisation, brilliant. As an institution of power, not so much. I grew up in an American Baptist church where my fondest memories are of the youth group which I got into nothing but trouble with and of the assistant pastor during my childhood who always gave me gum. I quit going to church when I was 16, basically as soon as I could get out of it, then I returned when I was 18 and my boyfriend started treatment for an aggressive cancer. You probably could have knocked my Mom over with a feather when I asked her to buy me a Bible. What I received was a lilac women’s devotional Bible. I marked it up most memorably when I read Paul’s seemingly misogynistic comments about women and that there would be no sea in heaven. Way to insult an aspiring marine biologist and opinionated woman. Again, future post.

In university I started going to an ’emergent church’ service which was part of a rather Baptisty congregation. People danced a bit and moved. They clapped. I could close my eyes and see angels, it was so fresh and gave me so much hope that following Jesus could be creative, fresh and fun. Unfortunately my college friends left when the annually cyclical nature of the messages became a bit tiresome, and they went to a Reformed congregation which could not be more different. It was staunchly Calvinist, violently homophobic, obsessed with having answers to prove our faith. Ah, yes and women were to remain perfectly silent, except perhaps for in childbirth which they seemed to think you should definitely partake in. It was the homophobia that sent me running for the hills when they laughed about a local gay-welcoming church burning down. I went to the next most obvious place: a charismatic megachurch congregation an hour away.

I was the least positive person in history about spiritual gifts including tongues and healing. It offended every inch of me, even though I had dabbled in witchcraft as a teen and welcomed spiritual manifestations like this where that was involved. It took time to break down my walls and open me up to something like this happening in a church and in Jesus’ name. Eventually I came around and spent the next several years seeing legit miracles and a lot of hype which I fell for hook line and sinker. Then humans worked their own dis-miracles on me and my entire construct of church crumbled. The pain of betrayal,fakery and harsh judgementalism rocked my faith, coupled with burnout thanks to some personal stuff which the church did not help me through and my exhausting efforts to assemble a bunch of wounded Christians who hated church but loved Jesus. And here we are.

What you might notice has not featured in my spiritual practices is tradition or liturgy. I could tell you, of course when it was Easter and Christmas, otherwise every day was the same. We had our own routines in church services but they seemed more spontaneous than scripted (although most were in fact quite timetabled). I could not get my head around sitting in a service and saying the same words each and every week or singing, God forbid, prayers from some heavy book. Now, I can see the poetry in it, and I can sense the comfort of the expected. My last two churches have been a crazy, fairly liberal Anglican church with an incredible sensation of peace and a fairly ethnically and theologically diverse United Reformed Church. Both welcome you with service sheets full of prayers and responses.

I’m not sold 100% on the rigid liturgy of these churches as they impose a hierarchy on who can do and say what when. They don’t allow everyone to contribute equally and on the spot. But there’s room for premeditated worship in my heart now. Knowing people through the ages have said the same words and that someone will say those words in another language on the same day bring me joy and that connectivity I’ve been missing. I just wish there was a contemplative, charismatic, left-leaning church for me and my like-minded pals. Too bad we’re rather scattered or we could form one.

This brings me to the crux of the post today. Finding myself a bit lost in the scale of the year, aside from the warm sun on my back, I am lacking the fluid connection to the larger gospel story as celebrated year-round. This is not something I’ve ever been good at. Lent? What the heck is that?! Do not, I repeat, DO NOT touch my chocolate! Pancake day? Sounds good to me, but what is the story behind it? I can’t help but feel that I’m being robbed of a reflective and mighty tool to keep me woven into the story of Christ and Christians throughout history and worldwide by not observing the seasons of the Christian Calendar. I am human, and therefore I am habitual, governed by seasons, by the sun and the moon.

So for the next year I’m going to endeavour, hopefully not too pitiably, to follow the Christian Calendar and to blog about it. I hope to explore it in relation to my spirituality, to creativity, to womanhood, to activism and whatever else tickles my fancy when the time strikes. I’d like to invite you to join me. Follow these new adventures via my new blog which I’m drawing a complete blank on for a creative title… I feel all grown up and exposed having a blog bearing my actual name! Please follow me on over and let’s see where this goes!

New blog! Journeying through the Christian Calendar

Beyond Sunday School

The thought of Sunday School for me evokes memories of white-skinned flannel figures wearing robes and cloths over their heads hung on a board perched haphazardly on a wooden stand. We children would gather around and look at the figures moving around the board stiffly as the teacher gave us a lesson based on some Bible verse or story. Zacchaeus would haunch over in a tree, Jesus would hold his hands to the sky, Paul would always look wise with his grey long beard. Did I mention they were all white? I also vaguely recall making crafts though I could not detail what was made nor what it represented even once. A lasting impression Sunday School left on me: an impression that it was boring and I’d rather have been sleeping.

There was a BBC documentary not long ago looking at the history of feminism (a subject that would have undoubtedly been derided within the walls of my former Sunday School, given their theology on the subject), visiting societal happenings involving women within Britain over the course of the years, touching on slavery, suffrage, representation and outright women’s rights. The presenter visited a working town set up in the Midlands in the 1800s or so where the workers spent long days in one mill or another, starting employment at an early age. The presenter began to tell of a woman whose name escapes me now who set up a society to ensure that children were granted an education during the great Victorian era of charity. From the presenter’s point of view, while it was not a strike for women’s rights intentionally, the organiser and the other women involved in this community activism made gains for the rest of us as they began to step out of the shadow of their husbands, to become figureheads in communities and social classes. They were empowered themselves as they began to perform charity for the poor around them.

The presenter, obviously not coming from a church background herself or just not that interested for the purposes of this documentary, didn’t dwell long on the ins and outs of these charitable organisations, however, she did make mention that these schools were the beginnings of Sunday School. The thought had never once occurred to me what the history of dull flannel graphs might be, but as a person greatly interested in the social justice side of my Christian faith and that of the church as a whole I found this provoking, particularly given my misgivings about Sunday School.

Sunday Schools were put into place as a means to educate an illiterate public of poor working class children and adults. It did have at its heart the aim of creating a more ‘moral society’ as people would learn from the scriptures themselves and cultivating ‘Christian behaviour’ was to be part of the classes, so there was a strong agenda of conversion which I’m personally not all that keen on given the way it’s been abused in the past and presently (homeless people should never have to sit through a sermon in order to eat). However, a new endeavour as set up by Jesus-followers to ensure that every individual is granted the access to knowledge equally is powerful in my estimation. It evokes in my mind the Genesis story where God puts Adam and Eve in a garden with a multitude of trees to eat from, perhaps here representing paths of life-giving choices they could make. They were also offered the opportunity to throw it all away and take a (mis)adventure into the unknown. They were given equal access to each choice, and Sunday School as originally established also gave children and adults who were never granted an education the opportunity to have more choice in life. It’s beautiful, it’s hopeful, and it’s risky. Unlike modern Sunday School, by the way.

Let’s ditch Sunday School as we know it. Not to recreate some whimsical, formulaic achievement from our past, but to achieve something greater.

May the church remember its spirit of adventure in investing itself fully and hopefully in the lives of others. May the church embrace creativity rather than stifling and boxed-in religious practices. May the church find new and exciting ways again to release the world we are part of from oppression, whether through giving us all equal access to knowledge and truth or doing something else equally empowering, both for the deliverers of such charity and recipients alike.

Beyond Sunday School

Paul wasn’t the only Christian jail bird

If you Google ‘Paul in prison’ and check out the images you’ll see a host of inspired artwork of a pensive, well groomed man, frequently gripping a quill as he stares off into the distance recalling stories which he then presumably scribes for you and I to read in our Bibles today. You’ll also find colouring book pages for those of us with less artistic prowess to indulge our creativity. I wonder if it was really like that.

Rembrandt's Paul
Rembrandt's Idealistically Imprisoned Paul

My thinking about Paul was spurred by my husband’s arrest a couple weeks ago for supporting striking public sector workers in London, merely with the intention of distributing tea and biscuits. As Christ-followers involved in the activist scene locally, we have friends from both spheres who have supported us via text messages, emails and social media in this time. Rob’s activist friends who have a great deal more familiarity with the process of being arrested, either having been there themselves or having supported others before were unflinching in their ability to provide information and ensure that we were well looked after.

Our Christian friends, while very good at sending message of support and offering prayer were not so great at offering practical help. I hope that this experience of ours will serve to enlighten our Christ-following friends in ways that they can help out in a more hands-on way where possible, but that’s for another day and another post.

Along with offers for prayer we were overwhelmed with statements comparing Rob’s arrest and 12ish hours in jail to the apostle Paul who was also imprisoned and wrote much of the New Testament letters during that time. I wondered why with every new message sent comparing Rob to Paul I went from shaking my head in good humour, knowing that this was an example of Christians taking experiences totally out of context, to becoming increasingly frustrated with the comparison. I just couldn’t put my finger on why I was so annoyed as I know that every person who sent such a message did so intending to give encouragement and identify with the experience in possibly the only way they knew to do so.

We escaped to the seaside the weekend after the ordeal and sat on the beach talking about why I felt so miffed. As we talked on, I realised that my issue with this comparison stemmed from the fact that Rob was arrested with 36 other people also doing good in their community. Maybe they weren’t doing it as an act of love for their neighbour explicitly following Christ’s example, but nevertheless they were doing it equally. It seems like a real double standard to select the Christian for a biased pat on the back, neglecting the others who were unjustly repaid for the same good deeds.

This is one of the real problems we’ve got with the church right now- the near inability to see or acknowledge Jesus values that are embedded all around us. Perhaps if we did so others would feel a closer kinship with Jesus rather than an increasing sense of alienation.

I also realised that this is a great example of an unhealthy tendency I’ve seen the church charged with before – the tendency to align itself more with Paul than with Christ. Listen to Christians in Bible conversation and you’ll probably hear more reference to Paul than Jesus. We spend more time studying his letters than the gospels and life of Christ. I wonder why people felt compelled to compare Rob’s arrest to Paul instead of Jesus who also was imprisoned without cause. Who exactly are we following? A guy who, I have to be honest, at face value seems like a real sexist jerk sometimes* or a guy who we confess to believing lived a perfect life?

Not to seem thankless to those who have offered their support and been inspired by a fellow Christ follower who ended up charged with violence by following Jesus’ call to love his neighbour. Just to challenge and provoke thought.

* When I first started reading the Bible for real I actually crossed through some of what Paul said about women because it infuriated me. I could think of several things to call him before ‘apostle’. Having studied a bit more and getting a cultural context for what he said and looking into the way things were badly translated I know that he has been misquoted in most of our translations and isn’t such a bad guy after all and actually quite pro-women. But I have real empathy for anyone reading the Bible without this understanding.

Paul wasn’t the only Christian jail bird

Jesus wants to save gophers.

Recently I’ve found inspiration from the strangest of places. My only brush with these creatures in real life has been in the dreaded appearance of mounds of dirt in my parent’s garden while I was growing up. Caddyshack famously expressed most people’s loathing for these little furry beasts when the character Carl Spackler said, “In the immortal words of Jean Paul Sartre, ‘Au revoir, gopher'” as he attempted to dynamite the earth burrower’s hole. Yet while on holiday at my in-laws’ house I found myself strangely identifying with gophers- those of Mt. St. Helen’s to be specific.

While watching PBS a NOVA programme came on called ‘Mt. St. Helens: Back from the dead’. Being a bit of an ecology nerd (apologies to my fellow geek friends) I was consumed by the telling of the explosion that happened in 1980 resulting in death, destruction, and sweeping panoramas of ash and black. Scientists told how they wondered if anything survived and how on earth anything would ever make a comeback to such a desolate location. As the ground continued to shift and rumble while the volcano remained active for some time, brave scientists began walking and flying around in search of signs of life. Months and months in to this search with absolutely no hopeful glimmers, a man in a helicopter spotted something different- a fresh mound of earth. As the pilot landed and the researcher walked towards the soil which stood in stark contrast to the dense blanket of ash, fresh revelation hit: some little critters that had lived below the surface of the earth- pesky varments though they were- had survived the eruption and their lives continued on, though with fewer fresh roots to chew on.  Continue reading “Jesus wants to save gophers.”
Jesus wants to save gophers.

Agents of Future: Because life, love and faith are messy

I had the radical privilege last summer to spend some time with Portland, Oregon’s Agents of Future. The band is facilitated by Todd and Angie Fadel who have become awesome friends who I wished lived closer, and they’ve really inspired Rob and I in our living and our worship. They’re part of a killer church family in Portland called The Bridge.

When they were with us last August, the band did a collaborative worship thing with our collective (also called The Bridge). There were balloons being pulled out of a refrigerator, toilet paper enveloping everyone in the room, buckets and pots and pans serving as instruments, children playing, and a genuine ‘I have no idea what’s happening but it’s marvellous’ feeling amongst all of us involved. Things like that just don’t happen in London. You can check out the videos here: and here

Anywho, why bring this up now? Well I was just sitting and listening to the chunk of their material I’ve got on my iTunes and this group makes me love Jesus more like few do. They’re so honest and so real and so raw. No worshippy BS that ignores the real life muck. True, real, gut-wrenching faith. I love it. And you should too ;0)

You can download a lot of their stuff on Soundclick  but I would totally recommend getting a CD or two or ten off of them. If you happen to be one of my real-life friends, ask me next time you see me and I’ll give you one as they gave us a few to hand out. If you happen to be at Greenbelt this year, I think they just might be there again. Do come along and expect anything to happen.

Agents of Future: Because life, love and faith are messy