Uganda, two years on…

This time two years ago, I was sitting in Entebbe airport, killing a lot of hours before a flight home to London. Thanks to Tearfund’s media team, a small group of Christian bloggers had the privilege of spending a week visiting initiatives supported by Tearfund via their Ugandan partner, PAG. Dave Walker, Bex Lewis and I, plus the fabulous Katie Harrison from Tearfund [follow her on Twitter for insights into the world of international development] travelled together, with the aim that the bloggers would tell the stories of their encounters, pretty much in real time. Evenings were spent writing blogposts, editing photos and generally trying to make sense of all we’d experienced.

The team at JinjaOdiira (& Shane), Katie, Dave, Bex & I.

I would have remembered the anniversary without the help of Timehop (memory of an Elephant…), but re-living tweets, blogposts and photos through the canny app has brought back some very specific memories. For example, that final day visiting a village that had participated in the PAG’s PEP initiative, supported by Tearfund, was a fascinating insight into the misunderstandings that can occur with NGO funding. But, while we waited for the misunderstanding to be resolved, we got to play with some very entertaining children…

Baby & bubbles

The tweets and blogposts have reminded me of names I had forgotten. [If you ever go on a trip like this, write down the names of the people you meet and whose stories you hear, don’t let them become another nameless face.] That final day we met John Julius who had successfully funded his children’s higher education with his ground nut crops – two years on I’m wondering whether he ever did find the money to pay his youngest’s final semester’s fees.

John Julius & ground nutsJohn Julius & his ground nut crop.

In the last two years, I have had updates on some of the stories we heard. Just last month, Tearfund shared an update on the story of Lucy, a grandmother caring for her grandchildren. I’m Facebook friends with Odiira, our PAG guide who travelled with us and earlier this year, it turned out she was the guide on another Tearfund visit that a friend of mine was part of. Every so often, I get surprise glimpses of life in Ogongora and other communities around Soroti – like a video in a college seminar last year that may have moved me to tears.

Collecting LunchNursery school children lining up for lunch in Ogongora

It’s a place that feels very far away, on a sunny but chilly Tuesday in London. The red dust (which gets EVERYWHERE – I had to dye a white shirt blue on my return because it just wouldn’t come out),  the dry, relentless heat and the sounds – children laughing; roosters crowing; churches singing – made it like another world.

Communities like those we visited around Soroti are very much in the public eye at the moment. Every episode of Comic Relief does Bake Off features a segment about projects the charity funds in Uganda. When I watch them, I think of the people I met, and the amazing transformations that have taken place. It shows these communities are by no means hopeless.

We live in a world that, despite modern technology, can be very insular and ignorant of all that takes place outside our own neighbourhood, city, or nation. Charities like Tearfund help provide a window on societies beyond our boundaries – that’s why our visit was part of the ‘See for yourself’ campaign. We’re part of a global church, but it’s very easy to forget that Sunday by Sunday, especially if you live in a community that’s not particularly diverse. Get informed and don’t make assumptions about what those elsewhere in the world might need, or how your occasional giving to a good cause should be spent.

Unseen stories

One of the mysteries of ministry is that we often don’t know how the stories we encounter end. The people we pray for at a particular moment of their life, but never see or hear from again; those we are close to for a time, but drift away from; members of churches we were once a part of; people who are only part of our lives for a moment – it’s a perennial feature of life.

21st century life helps with this a little. Facebook keeps me somewhat up to date with a friend made during one of the darkest times of their life, who I met because she asked me to pray for her son after church one Sunday. It lets me know when friends with serious illnesses are doing better or worse. And this week, YouTube has given me an insight into the spiritual life of a member of my former student group. [That is, the student group I used to run – it wasn’t a group of ex students!]

My memory is a little vague, but I’m virtually certain that this student was the first to arrive to the very first student group session I led at St George’s, back in September 2011. He had just started studying at my alma mater, and was keen to tell us that he didn’t consider himself a Christian, but wanted to spend time with Christians to build up his justification for not believing in God. He wasn’t always around, but come his second year, he got involved a bit more and was a key part of the close band of friends that formed amongst the students. In the third year, he came weekly to church and to my house for student gatherings, and got stuck into discussions. I can’t remember quite when it was last year that he turned up on Sunday and announced that he now believed in God (thanks to reading Kant – of all things), but it was a joyful day!

On Sunday, I checked into the Whatsapp conversation that this student group uses to share news/prayer requests and made a discovery. (I had to turn off notifications, as there are only so many multi-people conversations I can allow to make my phone vibrate at all times of day and I already have a very active one for another group of friends! So my discovery was a fortnight old already.) This student had shared their testimony with their church as part of its project to share the stories of members of their congregation. As I watched it (sitting in a busy Starbucks), I was moved to tears.

“They never let me go…” Those were the words that got me. Would others have given up where our church persisted? Those little things we did – listening to him; discussing queries and arguments; and, in my case, ensuring that there was always plenty of garlic bread and dessert on a Tuesday night – kept him searching, until he had his moment of realisation.

I knew that Ollie had become a Christian – I’d been there for that bit. But I hadn’t heard him talk about what had kept him going. It’s a testament to persistence, both on his part and the church’s. All we did was demonstrate love the best ways we knew how.

It struck me that we know very little of the impact our actions can have. A simple act of letting someone be themselves, caring for them and showing them love and hospitality can have a massive impact that we may well never hear about.

This week, I’ve been reminded that it’s ok not to know how the stories end – it’s knowing stories like Ollie’s that demonstrate how important it is to keep doing what we’re doing, what God’s called us to do, and to never let someone go because they haven’t quite ‘got it’ yet.

Smashed

One of the criteria I like to apply to my present purchasing for family and friends is “is this something I would like to borrow in the future?”. For example, my sister, mother and I have very similar taste (and actually my Dad too, but to a lesser extent as his wishlist usually consists of very weighty biographies), and therefore we tend to do a certain amount of inter-family loans as far as books and DVDs are concerned.

[In case you think I’m too self-centred, other criteria I use include: “I love this, therefore my sister/mum/friend will probably love it too”; “they’ve mentioned wanting this in the past”; and “this is random…they’ll love it!”.]

This year, I bought my sister Miranda Hart’s live DVD with the express purpose of borrowing it at a later date (actually, that sounds a little too mercenary – I actually thought it would make for quality Christmas family viewing, had we got around to it while in Belfast). Last year, I spotted a TV series on her wishlist which sounded intriguing – something about a musical being staged on Broadway – and figured that giving it to her could only benefit me in the long run. Sure enough, once she had finally got around to watching it, it was then passed on to me with enthusiastic recommendation!

smash-musical-drama-nbc-poster

Smash is effectively Glee for grown ups. Now, I know that Glee is for grown ups too, but it is set in a High School, which gives something of an indication of its intended audience. Smash is set on Broadway, featuring the kind of people the students in Glee aspire to be – members of the chorus ensemble; divas; directors; and composers/lyricists. The first season revolves around the writing a brand new musical based on the life of Marilyn Monroe, beginning with a workshop process, just like many a Broadway or West End show.

Those that know me and my penchant for musicals should begin to see why Smash was an instant hit with me. To be honest, I probably would have sped through its first 15 episodes regardless of its cast. The tunes are catchy [the soundtrack for season one is playing as I type this], the acting excellent, and they play the Glee trick of bringing in exceedingly appropriate guest stars. For goodness sake, Bernadette Peters plays the mother of one of the wannabe Marilyns!!

The icing on the cake is that the main cast is fabulous. I sat down to watch the first episode with no idea of who was in it, and practically yelled when I discovered that Debra Messing (aka Grace in Will & Grace) was a lead. The mean British director who appeared later that episode seemed familiar too, but it took a bit of Wikipedia-ing to discover why. Turns out Miles from This Life did good. So good, he was playing a Broadway director and looking like he had aged very well! [Incidentally, it turns out most of This Life is on YouTube. If you can handle the realisation of just how long ago 1996 was, I highly recommend the nostalgia trip!]

Most of them have a background in Broadway, so it’s real. As is my custom, I hit Wikipedia hard to discover some juicy factoids about the cast (well, initially to work out who the dishy Brit was), while avoiding plot spoilers. It turned out that the composer to Messing’s lyricist had originated the role of Emmett in Legally Blonde. Most of the ensemble had been on Broadway in some shape of form. If you watch the documentary in the DVD extras (yes, I am *that* person), you discover that the real-ness of Broadway depicted in the show was a motivating factor in them getting on board with the project. (The fact that Spielberg is Executive Director can’t have hurt either.)

Anyway, the point of this post is that I’d have never known about Smash, were it not for my sister’ wishlist. [It was on Sky, which I do not have.] I can’t bear the thought of other musical theatre nerds being without this gem, so felt the need to share the love. It’s not on the streaming services of choice in the UK, so you may need to go old school with DVDs, but it’s SO worth it.

Don’t you need a duet between Monroe and DiMaggio in your life?

[I actually wrote this post a month ago and left it sitting in drafts. Since then, series 2 has wound its way to me. Having resisted the temptation of opening it for a few weeks, last week it became the ideal remedy for a season of life that featured frustration; big freelance projects; and essay writing. A couple of episodes of Smash at the end of a long day is exactly what this soul needs!] 

The Theology of Power – and a Tube map

[An earlier version of this post appeared briefly after my clumsy fingers accidentally published my draft while writing in on the bus home. Ignore it, read this!] 

MA studies continue apace – we’re half way through term two now and have just five official teaching sessions left. [This has literally just dawned on me and is TERRIFYING!! Next term is electives, which are more informal and in small groups.] This term’s main module is “Theology of Power” and it may be the most fun/intellectual stimulation I’ve had in theological college thus far…

Today, our seminar consisted of Show & Tell – that infant school staple. Students with surnames beginning A-H were asked to bring in an object, text or song that they could unpack in the context of ‘power’. The class would then discuss the item and we’d see where it took us. It resulted in 90 minutes of discussion that, quite frankly, were highly entertaining and the epitome of a great grad-school seminar.

There was the Hozier song that contrasts church & sex; a US passport belonging to a child; two syringes; and a couple of tube maps. Yes, I may have been responsible for the final items…

It was fascinating. The discussion from the song was probably fairly predictable from the lyrics (but was really interesting nonetheless, especially as I’d heard the song many times but misheard the words!). The passport prompted debate as to the nature of the USA’s power; the role of passports & citizenship; and whether nationality is a result of fallen humanity. Were the syringes powerful in and of themselves, or only when full of a substance & with a needle attached? How did they have the power to make some of us downright queasy? Vaccination versus drugs & the power of survival. The student who brought them in was a vet pre-theological college and raised the question of euthanasia – she’d used needles like these to end animals’ lives.

1950s Map

And the tube maps? You might think “well, that was predictable!”, but it wasn’t necessarily logical. (For a while I’d contemplated Celine Dion’s version of The Power of Love!) But I’d thought about my 1957 map and how it compared to the current version and how often we Londoners feel powerless in the face of London Transport.

[An example of this is contained in this tweet from late Friday night, post rugby watching.

We were stuck on a dark bus for at least 15mins with a potentially terrifying announcement blaring out across Stratford bus station, all thanks to a moody bus driver and a system that means a person with cash can’t board a bus…]

We have little control over TfL. Our weekend plans are moulded by engineering works. We feel like we can gain power through little victories – like knowing where to stand on a platform so that you alight your train at the exit. The tube map also demonstrates the influence it has had on the city – the Met line resulted in “Metro-Land” and new housing. It also demonstrates the influence on the map that is changes in power bases within the city –  compare 1957 with 2015 and you instantly spot the massive change in the east, with the growth of a financial district in Docklands.

The discussion also went off in tangents that had never even crossed my mind:

  • The merits of walking & cycling and the power they give us by escaping the tube.
  • The way the map demonstrates divisions within society – the power we attribute someone able to afford a zone 1 property.
  • That the tube can demonstrate power dynamics within society, particularly along ethnic lines. How you can see things about the communities above ground based upon the social make-up of the passengers below.

(You might be wondering where the theology comes in. I’m getting there, but it’s important to understand that the theology of power is in part to do with how we, as God created beings, relate to the powers and principalities of earth and heaven.)

The tube discussion took place immediately before lunch and on the stroke of 1pm, I was given the chance to have the final word. This have me the opportunity to share my last thought on the power demonstrated in the tube map – the lasting legacy of religion.

I’ve mentioned it here before, but a significant number of tube station names (and London place names) relate to the church. When we read the map, we get an insight into what has had power in the city throughout history.

Highgate in North London was the “high gate” marking the border of the Bishop of London’s land. The amount of London’s land still owned by the church (I’m guessing) is now significantly less! There are no longer black-cassocked monks praying by the river in Blackfriars. You could argue that, by stealth, the church still has power through its historical legacy on the tube map.

It’s a shame that only four people got chance to share their item this morning – it was a brilliant way to have a discussion that went off on numerous tangents and that everyone got on board with. In a couple of weeks time, the second half of the alphabet get their chance and I have high expectations of another fascinating 90 minutes. In the mean time, I’ll be trying to work out if there’s a way I can write a 5,000 word essay on the theology of the tube…

On tiles and fake houses

Leinster Gardens text

This text conversation took place on a Friday night, just over a week ago. It caused great excitement, much to the consternation of my companion at the time. It took rather a lot of explaining to help her understand the cause of my glee, and to be honest, I don’t think she ever got it entirely.

You, my lovely readers, will have understood though, surely? Leinster Gardens is famous and has been previously featured on this blog at least twice. I first discovered its secret during the tube’s 150th anniversary celebrations, courtesy of the fabulous 150 Great Things About the Underground blog. Then, thanks to Sherlock, the rest of the world discovered it this time last year. [In case you don’t remember, the location was one of Sherlock’s bolt holes.]

Sunday dawned bright and chilly – perfect conditions for some geeky exploring. It got off to a great start before I’d even joined my fellow geeks for brunch. My destination was Baker Street, and as I emerged from the Jubilee Line platforms (something that until three and a half years ago I had done six days a week), things felt different. Cleaner. Lighter. I thought perhaps the walls had undergone a deep-clean. As I reached the top of the escalator I realised that it wasn’t a lack of dirt, it was entirely new tiles. Not a big deal, you might think, but this part of Baker Street station had previously featured tiles reminding passengers of its most famous (yet entirely fictional) resident. Surely they hadn’t got rid of the Sherlock Holmes tiles??

Well yes, and no…
The tiles had gone, and been replaced by some classy, antique style tiles very much in keeping with Baker Street’s status as one of the oldest stations on the underground. BUT, one patch had been preserved – so sense had prevailed!

Baker St Tiles

Brunch over, we set off towards Paddington in search of Leinster Gardens. Should you want to find them yourself, they’re only 10 minutes walk from Paddington, so it’s very easy to do. So easy, I’m bemused that it’s taken me this long to get there!

Still unaware of the terraces’ secret? Take a look for yourself. Spot anything?

IMG_3891.JPG

How about from this angle?

Leinster Gardens

Got it? There’s something fishy about number 23. Did you spot the different roof in the first photo? The peculiar ‘glass’ of the windows in the second?

If you walk to the end of the road, turn right and then right again, you soon discover what’s behind the windows:

Behind Leinster Gardens

That would be nothing. Well, not exactly nothing – the District & Circle lines run along here (although originally it was the Metropolitan Line). The line’s first trains were steam powered and needed space to let off steam (don’t we all??), but residents apparently didn’t want their lovely white terrace to have a massive hole in the middle of it. And thus, the facades were erected and the residents were happy. Until, presumably, lots of geeks turned up to take photos of it…

Getting back to the fun

I’ve been very lax on the fun front of late. I still note the fun, it’s just that these posts are probably the most finickety to compile and take forever – it says something about my respect for my time that it’s taken a back seat recently! But, I feel remiss, and there is fun to be had…

First off, obviously, would be a little bit of London fun. I had my own, real-life transport fun last weekend (more on that anon), but there is also fun of a virtual nature. Namely, maps. Bearing in mind that I’ve haven’t Friday-Funned since way before Christmas, there’s some catching up to do. I assume we’ve now all seen Londonist’s Medieval Tube Map? [No fewer than 10 people sent that gem to me! It’s utterly genius!] What about a tube map from the 1920’s? i.e. a pre-Beck map

1920 Tube Map

Away from the fun of city living, some music based data analysis. (What do you mean, this doesn’t sound fun??) The most popular lyrics/words of the Billboard chart have been visualised so we can explore the way in which lyrics have changed over the decades. My favourite discovery? ‘Christmas’ was a top 5 word in the 40’s and 50’s – to be replaced by ‘U’ in the 90’s and 2000’s, and profanity in the 2010’s… Fascinating stuff!

Billboard Lyrics Visualisation

On a totally different topic, we’re now firmly into awards season. Hurrah for pointless red carpets and meaningless recognition! [Seriously, HOW is The Lego Movie not nominated for Best Animated Picture at the Oscars??] But most of all, hurrah for excellent awards hosts. Next month, Neil Patrick Harris takes on the Oscars, which, if his Tony Award hosting is anything to go by, should be full of hilarity. Last weekend saw Tina Fey and Amy Poehler’s final outing as the hosts of the Golden Globes and were fabulous – their opening monologue deserves watching, should you have been living in Outer Mongolia for the last week and unaware of their extremely witty brilliance. 

Finally, for some fun of an utterly ridiculous (yet strangely captivating) nature, how about a compilation of ‘Jessica Fletcher’s many epiphanies from Murder, She Wrote’? Yes, it’s nearly an hour long, but the first 10 minutes (before I realised how long it was) scored at least 6 chuckles. Who doesn’t love Angela Lansbury??

Communing with film

One of the things in life I wish I did more of (of which there are several!), is watch films at the cinema. Going alone, in the middle of the day, preferably to the Curzon Soho [which deserves saving from Crossrail 2], with a sneaky G&T in a can in my handbag, is quite frankly my idea of an excellent afternoon off.

Yet, it’s something I managed just once in 2014 – for the exceptionally wonderful Boyhood. [It was available on the plane on my way home from Texas and I watched all 3 hours of it all over again; wanted tell everyone around me to watch it too; and applaud those I spotted watching it while waiting for the bathroom. It’s awesome – watch it!] Instead, I remain loyal to a steady stream of DVD rentals to my door – old school, but the best way of getting new releases without having to pay through the nose for London cinema tickets.

Being an introvert, solo film watching is the epitome of a re-vitalising activity, but even I have to admit that cinema benefits from being viewed within community. I’m lucky, in that I have a number of cine-literate friends who can be relied upon for a good discussion after the event, or for the odd group trip. For a little while, we even had a monthly film club going. Being a member of the Church of Wittertainment also helps – a weekly dose of film recommendations (or warnings); regular rants; plenty of opportunities for listener contributions; and enough knowledge to make it sound as though I have watched every film released since September 2010 (the day I first entered the church).

Ultimately, cinema works best in community. Everyone reacts differently to films (just like books) and the range of subjects covered by the cinema in a year is huge – but, it can be difficult to know where to start. That’s why I was rather pleased to discover an organisation that does the hard work for you – by which I mean they get the discussion going – you still have to watch the actual film!!

Damaris Logo

I discovered the work of the Damaris Trust thanks to a friend offering me her +1 for a screening they had organised for a preview of Unbroken a film chronicling the real-life WW2 experiences of Olympian Louis Zamperini. I love the Olympics and have a long-standing interest in Japanese POW and intern camps (I’d love to say this was a result of my modern history degree, but it’s actually thanks to Tenko), so I was definitely up for it. Also, free film? No brainer!

Damaris have two elements to their work:
(i) Film Clubs where communities can come together, watch a film, eat food that connects with its theme, then engage in discussion and activities that relate to the film too.
(ii) Providing stand-alone discussion and activity guides for many of the biggest films.

Having watched Unbroken, I had to wait a week or two before the resources came online (it wasn’t released till Boxing Day), and I have to say, I was impressed. Unbroken was a hard watch – as most WW2 films are – featuring Zamperini’s 47 days in a life raft after being shot down over the Pacific, followed by his brutal treatment in POW camps. It took me a while to process what I’d watched – its first 30 minutes is not dissimilar in its intensity to the opening of Saving Private Ryan.

Unbroken-poster_1-1024x557

It’s a story that deserves being committed to film, but as my friend and I reflected as the credits rolled, the film could almost be said to have told the wrong story. Having not been broken by the persecution he received at the hands of a Japanese camp commander [you can see where the title came from], after the war Zamperini’s life was transformed by a Billy Graham rally he attended in 1950. Having dedicated his life to God, he decided to set about forgiving all those who had persecuted him – an embodiment of “as we forgive those who trespass against us”. And that’s the story I would have liked to have seen on film!

Maybe the war could have been the first third, and the rest his transformation and subsequent journey through forgiveness? 2013’s The Railway Man is similar in theme (POW, mistreated, traumatised, goes in search of his persecutors…) but that real-life story went in different direction at the war’s end. It’s a shame that the film about a lack of forgiveness got made, and the one with it did not.

However, the story is there before the credits – albeit in subtitles – and it packs a punch. And this is where the Damaris resources come in. Forgiveness is something that it’s easy to talk about, but hard to enact. We mean well, but ultimately it’s one of the hardest things we mere mortals can do. Therefore, it makes for a great discussion starter. How would you have coped in his position? Who might we need to forgive? Although there is a Christian slant, it’s by no means the primary focus – forgiveness is a concept that’s relevant to everyone. (And if that fails, there’s also a sport section in the resource!)

To be honest, discovering Damaris is something of an answer to prayer. I’m always keen to legitimise fun activities as ‘work’ and in a church context, community film watching and discussion would be a valuable tool! In fact, come the first day back at college after Christmas, I found myself recommending Damaris to a friend, after they’d mentioned a trip to see Exodus. And, having spent a sizeable chunk of the last few months writing a mammoth resource full of activities, I appreciate it when someone else does it for me!

Universal Screening

NB: I was under no obligation to write this post – I got to see a film for free in Universal’s private screening room, with wine and popcorn, but a blogpost wasn’t required in return. As usual, I only write about stuff that I think is worthy of it! 

2014 Firsts

2014 Firsts

Had a wisdom tooth removed [Possibly the best way to begin a year, ever!]
Baked bread from scratch
Eaten at Five Guys
Visited Wendover
Watched Billy Elliot, the musical
Taken tea at Tea & Tattle
Visited the Twinings Tea Museum
Made skiers out of pipe cleaners
Appeared in an article in The Independent
Played Twilight Imperium
Worshipped at St James’s Piccadilly
Visited Postman’s Park
Received a review copy of a book from Bloomsbury Publishing
Watched The Commitments musical
Received a tweet from a West End actor
Visited Pickering, Lastingham, Old Bydale and Rievaulx, while on the least retreating retreat ever!
Met very newborn lambs
Owned a pink hard hat
Watched a service at St Paul’s on a big screen in Paternoster Square
Sung Sing
Watched The West Wing [still got two and a half series to go]
Explored the abandoned Aldwych tube station
Been in the studio audience for a recording of QI
Had a commissioned article published in The Church Times
Achieved a First in a degree. [In fact, if I can be allowed to wallow in this special ‘First’ for a moment, this is the first First in my immediate family. It made me very happy!]
Eaten Scoop gelato
Sat on Centre Court at Wimbledon
Set foot inside the Shard and drunk cocktails there
Visited the Cabinet War Rooms
Watched the Tour de France live
Hunted for book benches
Travelled to Paris on an overnight coach
Lived in Newham
Worshipped at St Peter’s Bethnal Green
Made my own Magnum (ice cream, not gun)
Watched Miss Saigon
Studied for a MA at St Mellitus
Attended an outdoor wedding
Participated in Big Cottage
Received a tweet from Zoe Williams
Led an undergraduate reading seminar (& assisted with a tutor group)
Visited the Texas State Capitol
Visited a Presidential Library
Explored the campuses of Baylor, SMU and UT Austin.
Eaten a Snowcone
Consumed breakfast tacos
Travelled to Dallas
Watched a High School football game
Travelled on the DART
Worked in an office next door to the Texas School Book Depository
Eaten Chick Fil-A
Used Dallas Fort Worth airport
Had a layover in Minneapolis
Hunted for Paddingtons
Lectured on the Beginning Theology course
Made soup from scratch
Attended an international rugby match
Owned a Fitbit
Watched Made in Dagenham, the musical
Watched tennis being played at the Royal Albert Hall (Staliol Masters)
Visited the Geffrye Museum
Attended a private screening at Universal Pictures
Been to a production at the Royal Opera House
Watched the Royal Ballet perform

2014 – Blogging: Could do better…

I don’t need to check my statistics to know that my blogging productivity has been low in 2014. I could provide you with lots of excuses, but I won’t. I’d like to improve on my frequency somewhat in 2015 [this is not a resolution – I do not do resolutions!], but have come to the conclusion that quality is better than quantity and that certain changes to my lifestyle could up my productivity a bit.

So, 2015 is two days old and the media is full of retrospectives. The handy thing with blogging is that it acts as a memory jogging device as to all the year held, so I don’t have to wrack my mind too hard. Here are some highlights that spring to mind…

TRAVEL
2014 may not have included thrilling trips to new, exotic locations (unlike 2013), but it did see two returns to Chateau Duffy and a second trip to the great state of Texas.

On a bright July morning, I found myself wondering deserted Parisian streets and had possibly the best views of the Arc de Triomphe and Eiffel Tower a tourist has ever had. I was en route to Chateau Duffy #6, which included what may have been my best birthday for quite some years. Surrounded by good chums and new friends, all were willing to celebrate my birthday according to ‘Liz Birthday Rules’ [from 4pm on July 29th, through to the end of the 30th, owing to being born in the Pacific]. There was a banquet in a barn, a quiz and possibly too many hours in a hot tub. (Is midnight to 3am excessive?? I was rather pruney, but hey, birthday privilege!)

Paris in July

Texas was awesome in a whole range of ways, not least because a fortnight of temperatures in the high 20s is quite a novelty for a Brit at the end of October! I will never tire of experiencing new places and cultures, and Texas is a even more of a joy now than it was back in 2012, thanks to the vast number of Texans who have crossed my path in the interim. Love y’all!

CHURCH
In June, I left St George’s after nearly three years of being their ordinand. The memories are plentiful and I’m very grateful to have made several friends there who I’m sure will be in my life for a long time to come. It’s been strange not being ‘officially’ attached to a church, but Christmas has proved that this can be a good thing and will serve as great preparation for all that’s to come in the future.

Celebrating Women at St Paul's

The Church of England did good too. In May, the 20th anniversary of the ordination of female priests in the CofE was commemorated with a fabulous celebration at St Paul’s Cathedral. Talk was full of anticipation of a yes to women in the episcopacy at the summer’s General Synod – and we were not disappointed. By the end of the year, we had the first female bishop. It’s amazing what can happen in a comparatively short space of time! [Obviously, I mean the stretch from July to December, not the twenty years since the 1994 ordinations!!]

LONDON
My love affair with the greatest city in the world continued throughout 2014. There has been London Transport geekery aplenty, including the achievement of a long-held ambition to visit Aldwych Station. My last few months of central London living were punctuated with trying to complete local(ish) Hidden London walks (which I nearly succeeded in, except for the shortest walk that was closest to my flat, ironically).

Lovely London

East London has now replaced Central London as my local neighbourhood, which at times has been a tough adjustment. (Especially when going home after a night out in town, or on my way back from a long journey. Living so close to several mainline stations for three years spoiled me for life!) But, it’s had a lot of plus points – its proximity to the Olympic Park and Stratfield being two of them; the fact that bits of Epping Forest are just at the end of the street (ideal for running and muddy walks); living with friends who have an insanely cute three year old; and the fact that aforementioned friends finally have their home sauna finished!

TV
I didn’t need Timehop to remind me yesterday that it was a year since series three of Sherlock premiered – and it still ranks as one of my TV highlights of the year. Of course, this is in part thanks to that first episode’s glorious tribute to the secrets of the London Underground, and largely owing to Mr Cheekbones Cumberbatch. In case you’re wondering, yes, I’m doing fine since THAT notice appeared in The Times. My smallest housemate’s request to watch “apples and oranges” (his name for Cumberbatch counting on Sesame Street) the following day was, however, a little too soon…

Sherlock’s disappearance for another year or two was slightly mollified by the fact that the following week, the BBC aired a week of celebrity Bake Off. This short series is something of a bright spark in the dark winter of time between competitive baking series, when GBBO fans are counting down until late summer and a new cohort. 2014 did not disappoint, and like many a review of the last 12 months, the Baked Alaska cannot be forgotten. I still feel for Iain.

FRIENDS
I wouldn’t have survived this year without my friends! Thanks to Matryoshka Haus, I found a new place to live and people to help me move. We had fun together in France and Texas, and continue to build community life in the unfriendly city. My Vicar School pals helped keep me sane during a very hard first half of the year, and I miss them terribly now I’m at college as a unique 4th year.

Two definite highlights of 2014 involved the same group of friends, a group that have now been a constant for over half my life. I think the Orchestra & Singers/OneSound reunion weekend brought home to us just how lucky we are to have had that organisation in our lives, and how much it’s impacted us. Four months later, we cemented a new tradition amongst our group, going away for a weekend on which the men amongst us were allowed to participate! Big Cottage 2014 was a roaring success, and the 2015 date is already in the diary.

Big Cottage 2014

Just like last year, the act of reflecting upon the year past has made me think about Firsts. No matter how hard I try, I can’t completely escape the pull of my 2010 decision to track all the things I’ve done for the first time, so another post on that topic will be imminent. After that, we’ll see what 2015 has in store!

This Christmas…

After years and years – in fact, pretty much a lifetime – of being heavily involved in the madness that is Christmas in the church, this year was the first time I really wasn’t that involved. In this year of being a ‘punter’ rather than a pulpit user, Christmas was always going to be a different experience…

On the one hand, I’ve missed the hustle and bustle of Christmas spent in the heart of a parish church, as the previous three years have been. The carol services prepared for; the Christmas sermons written; the community teas served at; and, most missed of all, Christmas dinner in my flat with the students. Marking the birth of Christ in seemingly every way possible.

But instead, I’ve had the gift of time. Time to celebrate Christmas in different ways and with different people. Like two consecutive Sundays late-lunching at the Giraffe in Spitalfields market – once with friends from Texas & Iceland, and the next week with Matryoshka Haus pals before we scattered for the holidays. Or a Thursday night with 30 Americans experiencing the joys of mince pies for the first time. (Note to self: next time, explain at the start that they don’t actually contain meat when I make them!)

And time to visit other churches too. Sundays have been the most different to previous years. When I’m free on a Sunday morning (which, this past term has been a terrifyingly rare occurrence thanks to globe-trotting; guest preaching; weekends away; & potential future church visiting) I’ve been worshipping at St Peter’s Bethnal Green. After a gap of some weeks, I felt thoroughly at home on my first Sunday back at their annual Christingle service – the first one I’ve been in the pew for since my very first experience at Westminster Abbey, when in year 7. Standing in a circle around the church, each of us holding a lit Christingle, in the dull light of a dark December morning, was very special.

Christingle at St Peter'sChristingle fruit & Dolly Mixtures – the Sunday breakfast of champions! 

A couple of Sundays later, on the final Sunday in Advent – when many London churches begin to suffer from what is known as the Mass Exodus – St Peter’s deviated from the traditional church carol service, and instead took its carols to the people. 10.30am found a throng of carollers, flasks of hot chocolate and trays of cake, accompanied by a piano rolled through the streets from the church, at the top of Columbia Road – which on a Sunday is home to the famous flower market. I was late, and followed the sound of singing from across Jesus Green (an appropriate location for an outdoor service, no?), and discovered that several residents along the Green had opened their doors and were joining in. It was a fabulous example of getting church out of the church building, and of the things clergy will do spontaneously – in this case, standing atop of a piano to read poetry. Impressive!

Adam on the piano(My favourite thing about this activity was that I found myself adjacent to two other descant singers, which made the carol singing even more fun. When you know you’ve got back up, you can really go to town.) 

Time also gifted me an experience I’d expected never to have again: a carol service at my church of seven years, St Mary’s Bryanston Square. My first ever service there was its carol service in 2004, and it resulted seven happy years worshipping there; becoming an Anglican; and ending up at theological college. Carol services are a big deal at St Mary’s – I sang in six of them and loved every single second of it – when I participated in my last one four years ago, I knew it would be one of the things I’d really miss about the church. Sitting in the congregation of the morning Christingle Service, tingles went up my back the moment the singing began (helped by the fact that the first number was my favourite Christmas song this season – Do You Hear What I Hear?) It was all so familiar. The children sang the same song I’d helped teach the under 6’s sing year after year (the gorgeous Love Shone Down); I caught up with friends I’d not seen in ages; children I remembered as infants had grown up; and all in all it was a fabulous treat. Nowhere does Christmas like St Mary’s, and it was a joy to get another chance at it.

St Mary's Christingle The singers in action at St Mary’s.

I’ve ‘done’ Christmas at a few different churches – there was also a more traditional carol service at Christchurch Spitalfields, supporting my singing flatmate, and a Christmas Eve making a first-ever visit to St Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast. Quite a change from only going to one, possibly two churches over the season.

Most of all, this Christmas of non-parish commitments meant that I was free to spend Christmas itself wherever I wanted. I had the option of either a curry Christmas in Tewkesbury (my sister and brother-in-law have long held a desire to go to a curry house for Christmas dinner), or a traditional-ish Christmas in Belfast. I opted for the latter, knowing that Christmas Day in Belfast will be impossible in future years. The siblings arrived on Boxing Day (although bro-in-law has had the lurgy for most of his visit) and a good time was had by all. Tomorrow, we return to England, leaving emptier cake tins and much wine bottle recycling behind.

Clutterbuck Christmas beach selfie #1

Clutterbuck Christmas beach selfie #3The family resemblance is uncanny…