Risky Business

On New Year’s Eve, a question was asked of the table at which I was seated: “What did you learn in 2016 and what would you like to master in 2017?”

As reflective, end of year questions go, it was a pretty good one. Not too cheesy;  not uber-religious (given as it was a mixed crowd); and it could be interpreted in a few ways.

I probably could have answered it multiple times over. Looking at my list of 2016 Firsts [yes, I still do this – less intentionally, more reflectively realising what I’d done for the first time in the past year], there were plenty of things I’d learned. Including:

  • How to take a funeral.
  • A huge number of film-related factoids, thanks to regular attendance at the BFI’s monthly MK3D nights – when Mark Kermode shares his wisdom.
  • How to lead a Transformational Index workshop on my own. [Now a significant part of my freelance income.)
  • More about gin. Specifically, which gins I like. (Still not found many that I don’t like!)
  • That it’s possible to walk from Gare du Nord to Gare d’Austerlitz and really is the best way to combat French strike action in Paris.
  • How to preside at the Eucharist.

Some lessons were simply the natural course for the stage of ministry I’m at. Some were delightful happenings. Other lessons were less of a joy and more of a necessity. But I’ve learned a lot all the same.

However, it wasn’t anything from that list that came to mind on New Year’s Eve. In fact, it wasn’t a specific event or experience, it was an attitude. In 2016, I learnt that I can take risks and it will be ok. And if it doesn’t turn out ok, that can be fine too.

I’m not a natural risk taker. My Myers-Briggs profile is ISTJ (some readers will at this point nod sagely and understand exactly what this means…) I am an introvert and a planner. I don’t do spontaneity well. I like to know what’s next. Someone once commented that my love of walking across London is indicative of my personality type: it’s time alone with my thoughts (or podcasts) and I always know exactly how long it will take to reach my destination because traffic/other people won’t interfere with my journey time. They were pretty spot on.

It’s not that as 2016 dawned I decided to become a risky person. It just sort of happened and it was good.

The example I shared on NYE was from my adventures this year at the BFI. Back in February I went to my first MK3D event. I knew that in the room were people who I’d communicated with on Twitter, but I didn’t intentionally set out to meet any of them. When I returned in March, I noticed that a few of them were sitting together and so, with all my extrovertedness mustered, I approached them in the bar afterwards and asked if I could join them for a drink. I don’t do that sort of thing – ever! But it worked. We’re now a committed foursome and sit together at each event. We all agreed in December that becoming friends was a definite highlight of the year.

It may not sound that incredible, but as friends who heard about it at the time commented, it just wasn’t something I’d usually do.

Fast-forward to the summer and the planning of a holiday to the States. I discovered a while ago that my sister has coined the term “Doing a Liz”, to describe my habit of jetting off to some semi-exotic location simply on the premise that I have friends there. She has never travelled alone. I thrive on it.

Usually, these trips are pretty well planned. I know where I’m going, where I’m staying, who I’ll see and when I’ll get there. Over the last few years, my trips have increasingly involved friends who are my MBTI opposites. There’s less planning, more spontaneity. I’m getting better at having a flexible schedule (to a degree). But on that October trip to the States I left a whole weekend blank. I was hopeful that it would be spent in Virginia, but I’d not been able to lock down the details. I’d told the friend I was staying with in New York that I’d probably be with them on the Monday, but that there was an element of uncertainty around it – if things went wrong, perhaps I’d end up there sooner.

I took a risk. A previous version of me may well have said that it was a ridiculous plan (or non-plan) and booked to go straight from DC to NYC. It all worked out. In fact, it worked out better than I might ever have been able to plan it – including a car-ride from Northern Virginia all the way to Brooklyn (what are the chances that someone will need to make an 8 hour drive to your destination on the same day you need to be there??). I had a great time and returned home so thankful that I had *not* planned the trip to within an inch of its life.

As if to cement 2016 as something of a risk-taking year, I celebrated New Year’s Eve back in Virginia on a trip that ranks as the most spontaneous bit of international travel I’ve ever undertaken. Friends were heading out there before a work trip to North Carolina and I had unexpectedly secured Sunday January 1st off work – cue space for a decent length holiday. But the actual trip booking? The week before Christmas. That is decidedly uncharacteristic Liz behaviour – but my goodness, how much did I need that trip!!

Thinking about this theme of risk in the early days of the new year, I’ve been struck that actually, riskiness has been a bigger part of my life since I got ordained. Not so much because of ordination, but because I took up a half-stipend job, trusting that I’d be able to muster enough freelance work to make up the difference. Financially I’ve not quite managed the other half of my stipend, but every time I’ve finished a piece of work a new piece has shown up pretty quickly. As 2017 dawned, I’ve got two pretty exciting projects on the table and the prospect of more to come. The risk is paying off.

A dear friend who was with me on both my American adventures in 2016 has told me more than once how proud she is of me. (Each time emphasising very sweetly that she doesn’t mean it in any kind of a patronising way!) It’s not that she wants me to live in a particularly risky way, but that taking certain risks is demonstrative of confidence – confidence in myself and perhaps most importantly, confidence that God has got this.

It’s not the first time in my life that I’ve taken risks, but I think in 2016 I realised how important it can be – even when the risks don’t quite work out how you expect them to. In fact, especially when they don’t!

Appropriately enough, on January 4th, in Durham NC, I discovered this print in the rather fabulous Parker & Otis:

The plan is that it’ll hang on the wall and help me face the risks of 2017. I will not be afraid. Even when I get stuck into the thing I said I was looking to master…

…driving. Yep. 2017 could actually be the year I knuckle down, feel the fear and do it anyway. God help me and all other road users!

2016 Firsts

As has been traditional since 2010, I’m beginning 2017 by attempting to chronicle all the things I did in the preceding year that were ‘firsts’. These days, instead of keeping a running list, I use my iPhone’s camera roll as a memory jogger and compile the list at some point in the first days of the new year. I’m really only posting it so that it’s stored somewhere. Plus, it came up in conversation on New Year’s Eve, so it seems appropriate to still keep up the habit.

So, 2016’s Firsts:

Celebrated Epiphany with port.
Experienced London Lumiere.
Attended my first burial.
Toured behind the scenes of St Paul’s Cathedral.
Passed a Theology MA.
Listened to the Hamilton soundtrack. [And become obsessed.]
Facilitated a TI workshop solo.
Watched the pancake races at the Guildhall on Shrove Tuesday.
City hacked London.
Drunk gin at a gin palace.
Taken chums to Belfast.
Attended MK3D at the BFI.
Attended the installation of a priest.
Lived in Highbury.
Walked the New River Path.
Met (and joined) the ‘Blimey Charlie’s Angels’.
Watched the BBC’s Pride & Prejudice.
Led Good Friday meditations.
Waterboarded a bathroom.
Travelled by bus in Paris.
Seen Sunset Boulevard.
Watched Glenn Close perform live.
Visited a prison.
Eaten afternoon tea on a bus.
Hung out at the London Aquatics Centre.
Played in the Highbury Fields playground.
Watched someone have radiotherapy.
Been a judge for an awards ceremony.
Walked from Gare du Nord to Gare d’Austerlitz.
Owned steel toe capped wellies.
Visited a strawberry festival.
Tiled a bathroom.
Drunk Lynchburg Lemonade.
Plastered a ceiling.
Swum in Lac St Helene.
Visited Eymoutiers.
Bought a book at Shakespeare & Company.
Owned an iPhone SE.
Stayed at St Neots retreat centre.
Ordained priest.
Drunk at the East London Gin Distillery.
Presided at the Eucharist.
Listened to the You Must Remember This podcast.
Used the secret railway to Moorgate.
Voted in an EU Referendum.
Attended a memorial in Trafalgar Square.
Worshipped in Chelmsford Cathedral.
Joined Snapchat.
Attended a rally in Highbury Fields.
Owned a Kenwood.
Lost a grandparent.
Helped lead a funeral.
Hot tubbed in Forest Gate.
Made Lynchburg Lemonade.
Broken a toe.
Watched a play on the Camden Fringe.
Made raspberry gin.
Listened to Harry Potter & the Sacred Text.
Climbed to the top of St Paul’s Cathedral.
Hunted for Dream Jars.
Visited a parishioner in a hospice.
Watched Groundhog Day, the musical.
Explored the Hampstead pergola.
Hunted for rhinos in Exeter.
Baked raspberry & dark chocolate scones.
Experienced Friends Fest.
Slept in my parents’ new home.
Drunk a Pumpkin Spice Frappaccino.
Explored a tube station covered in cats.
Visited the Museum of the Docklands.
Stayed in Capitol Hill district.
Shown an American their capital city.
Run in DC.
Had a gel manicure. (By a male manicurist.)
Shared a cocktail served in a fish bowl.
Toured DC monuments by night.
Travelled through DC by bus.
Explored the National Cathedral.
Ridden on a double-decker train.
Stayed in Fredericksburg, Virginia.
Kissed in America.
Eaten Sprelly.
Brunched at a Cracker Barrel.
Road-tripped from Virginia to NYC.
Travelled through NYC by car.
Visited the Tenement Museum.
Watched Jimmy Fallon rehearse.
Drunk at the Boat House in Central Park.
Assisted at a confirmation.
Graduated with a MA in Theology.
Watched Harry Potter & the Cursed Child.
Attended the fireworks in Victoria Park.
Visited Leicester Cathedral.
Made a cake in the shape of Thunderbirds 2.
Sous-cheffed Thanksgiving.
Conducted my first funeral & burial.
Watched In The Heights.
Played Mission Possible.
Heard Rowan Williams speak.
Baked Maids of Honour.
Presided at Midnight Mass.
Hosted family Christmas.
Flown into DC.
Celebrated New Years in a different country.

When God shows up…

Genesis 18: 1-15 When God Shows Up. Christ Church Highbury, October 2nd 2016

This was the second in a series of three sermons on Abraham, grounded in a book by Meg Warner. The book and the sermon series focuses on discerning God’s call in our lives. The reading for this sermon is the one that Meg uses in chapter three – the three visitors to Abraham and Sarah.

The visitors:

The reader of this passage is let into a secret that Abraham was unaware of: that his visitors were in fact God. We know, because the first verse of the chapter makes it perfectly clear: “The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day.”

You might not notice this immediately on a first reading of the passage, because of the way in which Abraham responds to the presence of these visitors. He provides water for washing; urges Sarah to bake bread; calls for a calf to be slaughtered; and offers a feast for his guests.

He also refers to his guests as “lord”, but this is an example of the importance of punctuation! Note the difference between the ‘LORD’ of verse one, and the “my lord” of verse three. Abraham is simply using a form of address that was full of respect for these unexpected visitors.

I don’t know how you would respond to the unexpected arrival of visitors? In these days of mobile phones, it’s quite rare for someone to just turn up on the doorstep – at the very least you might get a warning half an hour ahead if a friend happened to be in the neighbourhood. My response would usually be a frantic few minutes of cleaning and tidying, followed by the filling of the kettle and checking to see that I had milk in the fridge. Because, of course, the classic British response to any visitor is the making of a cup of tea! But would I do this for a total stranger who turned up at my home? I don’t know…

In Abraham’s society, the equivalent of the British cup of tea was the hospitality that he offered these guests. Meg highlights in this chapter that this hospitality was given because it helped to convert into an ally what might actually be a dangerous stranger, and there was an expectation that some form of gift would be offered in return. Often, because strangers would be from another region, this would take the form of news or a story.

We, the readers, know that these visitors are not dangerous. They are the Lord God of Israel! But they conform to cultural expectations by providing news following their receipt of Abraham’s hospitality. In verse 10 we read: “Then one of them said, ‘I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.’”

This is both news to Abraham and Sarah, and a repetition of the promise the Lord had already made Abraham when he first called him and his family. This promise originates in Genesis 12, and is then repeated three chapters later, when Abraham complains that he still has no children. ‘The Lord took him outside and said, ‘Look up at the sky and count the stars – if indeed you can count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’

 In chapter 17, the Lord makes it clear that Sarah is to be the mother of the descendants that will become the people of Israel. In verse 16, the Lord says to Abraham: “I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.’”

I wouldn’t have been surprised if Abraham and Sarah were not a little frustrated by this point! Promises had been made again and again, but so far they hadn’t seen them come to fruition and it now, thanks to their age, seemed impossible despite God’s words to them.

But this visitor’s words about Sarah finally gives a timeframe for this momentous event. Within a year Sarah would have given birth to the long promised son who was to be the first in this line of promised descendants.

God shows up – where & how we least expect it:

God’s renewal of his promise to Abraham and Sarah came out of their actions towards the unknown visitors. They had behaved in the way that God expected of them, and had been rewarded with the most concrete news they had had so far regarding their promised son.

It’s a brilliant example of the way in which God still works through his people today. God shows up in the most unlikely of places, and it’s up to his disciples to respond appropriately. In return, we receive a renewal of his promises to us: our salvation through Christ and our place in the Kingdom of Heaven.

I loved Meg’s closing remarks on this passage: “It is therefore important that we don’t try to limit God, but keep ourselves open to what he may choose to accomplish in us. The first aspect is tempered by a second, which is that God works within the everyday order and activities of our lives. Our part of the bargain is to undertake our lives and our work faithfully, extending hospitality, generosity and kindness to others, not because of what we might gain, but because loving others is part of loving God.”

Seeing this at work with Mickey & Christ Church:

As I was preparing for this sermon on Monday, the news of the death of a parishioner came through. [The following paragraph wasn’t in the sermon, most of the congregation were well aware of who this fabulous person was!]

Mickey was no ordinary member of the congregation and has made a lasting impression on me – and probably everyone he’s met! When I met him on my first Sunday at Christ Church, he introduced himself as “the dodgiest looking choir boy” and proceeded to sing (beautifully) a song he’d written himself. Mickey would often pop into the church office for a chat, and was always a fun person to talk to – even if he did occasionally make comments that were perhaps not that appropriate for a parishioner to make to a curate. [He once commented, mid-winter when I’d swapped my black DMs for winter boots, that I “should wear the DMs more often because they made me a much sexier vicar”!] Last year, Mickey was diagnosed with cancer. By this spring, it was confirmed as being terminal. The way in which both he and the congregation was phenomenal…

Mickey, 2015

Mickey was very much in my thoughts as I read Meg’s words, and read again the story of Abraham’s visitors. It struck me that in the short time that I knew him, Mickey embodied what God calls us to do in this passage – he was open to what God could accomplish through him. He may not have realised it, but it was most certainly the case.

Those of you who didn’t get to know Mickey really missed out! He had a charismatic personality and made friends wherever he went. He was in St Joseph’s hospice in Hackney for the last five weeks, and the first time I visited him there – when he’d been their patient for all of three days – he told me how the day before he’d walked to a Sainsbury’s down the road and had got talking to a woman behind the checkout. When her shift finished a few hours later, she popped into the hospice to say hello to him. That kind of thing was typical Mickey.

When Micky became ill, this congregation responded in a way that is testament to the amazing people who are part of Christ Church. People bestowed love, care and hospitality upon Mickey in a way that embodied the call God gives us to demonstrate his love. Because, as Meg put it in that quote, “loving others is part of loving God.” Those who gathered around Mickey weren’t doing it to get noticed, or to receive a reward, they were doing it because it was what they felt God calling them to do. Just as one day, a few years ago, God prompted Mickey to enter this building and start building relationships here.

Accidental Saints

A few weeks ago, I spent an evening at St Paul’s Cathedral listening to Rev Richard Coles – the vicar who presents Radio 4’s Saturday Live – and Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Presbyterian minister from Colorado. The subject was ‘Accidental Saints’, which is coincidentally the title of Nadia’s most recent book, which I highly recommend if you’re looking for another book to read.

The premise of ‘Accidental Saints’ is that God can use even the most unlikely or ill-suited people. She writes: “I keep making mistakes, even the same ones over and over…I stumble into holy moments not realising where I am until they are over. I love poorly, then accidentally say the right thing at the right moment without even realising it, then forget what matters, then show tenderness when it’s needed, and then turn around and think of myself way too often.”

Sound familiar? But, Nadia concludes with a positive: “I simply continue to be a person on whom God is at work.”

As I listened to her speak on this subject, I thought about Mickey – I’d just been visiting him before heading to St Paul’s. It struck me that he was the epitome of an accidental saint. He was just bumbling through life, but God used him in exceptional ways. And of course, for God, it was no accident!

The important thing was that God equipped Mickey with his gifts – his humour, his charisma – in the same way he equipped those who cared for him. God had called Abraham to the specific task of being the father of the people of Israel – but it took a while for God to give him what he needed to complete this task: a son given birth to by Sarah.

Mickey & one of his angelsMickey & one of his fabulous ‘angels’ at St Joseph’s hospice.

God shows up at times, in places and in people where we would least expect to see him. He calls, and we, in faith, respond.

Our response does not need to be a dramatic one, but should be what is expected of us as followers of Christ – that in loving God, we love others too and see where God takes that…

One last thing about Mickey…

In June, when I was priested, Mickey came to the service dressed absolutely impeccably – I had never seen him looking so smart! He reckoned that he’d never been in a room with so many vicars before, and had a great time meeting my family and friends. At one point he chatted away to my parents and sang one of his songs to them. He made quite an impression! The next day he gave me a card, containing a poem about the day. When I couldn’t make his funeral, I shared his words on social media:

Mickey's poemRest in peace and rise in glory Mickey.

2015 Firsts

Totally cheating – I did write down my 2015 Firsts at some point in January 2016, but I neglected to post them on here. So I’m playing catch-up for posterity’s sake… (And back-dating so that no one really notices.)

Walked in Wanstead Park
Lectured for WTC.
Visited Leinster Terrace.
Swung on the swing in the Lambeth Palace garden.
Attended a humanist funeral.
Eaten tea at Wadham College.
Given up alcohol for lent.
Baked multi-coloured cakes.
Played in West Ham park.
Eaten at the Cereal Killers cafe.
Drunk gin from Vancouver.
Taken a Lewis Caroll walk in Oxford.
Owned a baguette box.
Visited Royston.
Taken a child to Messy Church.
Processed along Columbia Road with a donkey.
Participated in a lingerie shower.
Shown Eric the builder around London.
Paddled at Lac de Vasiviere.
Baked Picnic Slice.
Attended Citizens’ General Election Assembly.
Watched Carrie the Musical.
Invigilated an exam.
Watched Gypsy.
Worn a dog collar, cassock & surplice.
Attended a priesting.
Been mentioned on Wittertainment.
Ordained Deacon.
Worked at Christ Church Highbury.
Baked strawberry cake.
Received Boomf marshmallows.
Visited Winchester.
Made blackberry gin.
Baptised a child.
Attended a rugby world cup match.
Done mindfulness colouring in.
Stayed in Brooklyn & Vermont.
Rode an Amtrak train.
Visited the NYC Transit Museum.
Worshipped at St Lydia’s.
Drunk cocktails at the Rainbow Room, Rockefeller.
Had a blow-out.
Received flowers from a train company.
Carved a Jack O’Lantern.
Created a fire engine cake.
Visited the BFI.
Met the Good Doctors.
Eaten Lucky Charms.
Preached on Christmas Day.
Spent Christmas away from my parents.

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