What Dobby the House Elf can teach us about John 15:9-17…

…or, how JK Rowling convinced me to have confidence in the angle I wanted to take on this passage.

Usually, if I upload the text of a sermon here, I just copy & paste it – making only a few amendments. This time, I want to tell the story of how I came to preach the sermon I gave on May 6th.

***

Firstly, let me take you back to Sunday April 29th, when I was rudely awakened from a deep sleep by my phone ringing at 7.20am. (It was rude only in the sense that my alarm wasn’t set till 8am, a perk of not being on duty at the 9am service. The person on the phone was as lovely as ever.) My colleague was ringing to inform me that our guest preacher was seriously unwell and couldn’t make it to preach & preside at our morning services. We needed an alternative sermon, and fast! Within minutes we decided to congregational lectio divina on the Gospel reading – handily the very appropriate for lectio purposes John 15:1-8 – and I raced to get ready to lead two services. [As an aside, some frantic googling revealed a congregation in the States who’d used it to great effect, along with some prayers they’d formulated for the occasion – really helpful and a great resource to have up one’s sleeve.]

It went down well with the congregation (which was fortunate), and as I prepared the following week’s sermon, I reflected that Lectio Divina is actually very similar to the process that I go through when I begin preparing a sermon. I read through the passage and see what grabs my attention. I read it through again and think about how it relates to my life, or our community. I read it through again and ask for the Holy Spirit to speak to me through it. I might not do it quite in that order, but those are some of the questions that I ask myself.

[As an aside (and because Harry Potter is a theme of this post), I’m a particular fan of lectio as a spiritual practice because of its prominence in one of my favourite podcasts: Harry Potter & the Sacred Text.]

Here’s the thing, when I sat down and did my multiple readings of the passage in order to begin preparing my sermon, the verses that stood out – verses 12 and 13 – weren’t necessarily what I felt comfortable preaching on:

 “My command is this: love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

***

I knew that one of the reasons why verse 13 stood out to me was because of its use on war memorials, particularly following the First World War. I wanted to include something in my sermon about the need to redeem that particular verse – but I didn’t want it to seem as though I was undermining the huge loss of life that had taken place.

But then I had a sign.

I was on the bus, browsing Twitter, when a tweet from JK Rowling caught my eye:

As is her custom on the anniversary of the fictional Battle of Hogwarts, JK Rowling apologises for killing off one of her characters. [Personally, I’m still not over Remus Lupin.] This year, she invoked the language of John 15:13 in her apology for killing off Dobby the House Elf and in doing so, she led me down a path of discovery at what this fictional character can teach us about this Bible passage.

If you’ve not read the books or watched the films, you’ll have no idea what a house elf is. In summary, it’s a mythical creature enslaved to serve the wizarding community. Dobby appears in the second book of the series, determined to keep Harry Potter safe from forces that seek to do him harm. In the final book of the series, Dobby reappears in a scene where Harry and his friends are held prisoner. He succeeds in bringing them all to safety, but in the process is mortally wounded.

Quite by chance, Dobby was very fresh in my memory as just a week earlier I’d been at a screening of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets accompanied by live orchestra, at the Royal Albert Hall. When Dobby appeared there was a massive cheer. He is a beloved character. In fact, when I then came to look up the passage in the final book where his death and burial takes place, it brought tears to my eyes.

Dobby laid down his life so that his friends could live. It was a selfless love that had a huge impact upon his friends. Their survival meant that they could go on and win the Battle of Hogwarts. I think that’s why so many readers/watchers of the films have formed an attachment to this elf. It’s an incredibly powerful image of love and sacrifice.

Sermon prep via Instagram story.

But, that’s not where the Dobby – John 15 connection ends. The important thing about Dobby is that he is a free elf – it’s what Harry inscribes on his grave marker. Dobby is free as a direct result of Harry’s actions at the end of book two, and by the time we reach the final volume, they are friends. Dobby is no longer a slave, he is Harry’s friend.

John 15:15 reads: I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” Jesus now considers his disciples as friends, not servants. That’s why the love between them is so deep.

It’s easy to see the parallel with the love and friendship between Dobby and Harry et al.

***

Bringing up Dobby as an illustration in a sermon may seem like an odd thing to do. The Harry Potter series is *not* scripture – obviously. But one of the points I had wanted to make is how pervasive some of the gospels’ language in our modern society, despite secularism. A lot of people know a form of: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” They might be more familiar with the King James’ Version: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

This is, in part, because of the verse’s use on the war memorials that were built across Europe following WWI. It has become synonymous with the sacrifice of war and the language of remembrance. Many of those whose names are etched below that verse literally did lay down their lives for their friends.

However, its use in this way runs the risk of people misunderstanding Christ’s sacrifice for us on the cross. Love should not justify violence. Christ’s atonement for our sins on the cross does not begin a cycle of violence that we should participate in.  It also contributes to an image of a violent God, who may love us, but asks for death in war in return – and that is not the Father that Jesus is referring to in this passage.

That’s why I wanted to have a focus upon John 15:12-13. But it’s an intense theme for a sermon on a spring Bank Holiday weekend, and had the risk of offending people if I wasn’t careful. So I’m grateful for JK Rowling’s tweet for spurring me on and for giving me a light-hearted counterpoint.

***

I don’t know how well the Harry Potter illustration worked with the two congregations who heard the sermon. (There was positive feedback, but I’m sure I baffled some of the older members of the church.) For many in my generation and younger, the characters and themes of Harry Potter run deep in our lives. It’s not just a series of children’s books (in fact, beyond book three it gets really dark and really unsuitable for children), and it features at its heart the battle of good versus evil – complete with bucket loads of Biblical imagery and themes.

The podcast I mentioned at the start – Harry Potter & the Sacred Text – demonstrates this week after week. Using Judeo-Christian spiritual practices like Lectio Divina, Floralegium, Havruta & PaRDeS, they delve into a specific theme each chapter. It resonates with people of all spiritualities and none. I highly recommend the podcast (and the books too, if you’ve never read them) as a way of enriching your life!

And no, I won’t be looking for more Harry Potter themed sermons any time soon, but I really like it when God aligns things in a particular moment!

Where recognition takes place…

Luke 24:13-35 The Road to Emmaus

Christ Church Highbury, April 15th 2018

The story of the Road to Emmaus is probably my second favourite resurrection appearance – after Mary’s recognition of Christ in the garden. I can place myself both in the pain and grief of the two walking away from Jerusalem; and in their joy at the moment when Jesus reveals his identity to them. It also provides us with an encounter with Christ that we can emulate when we break bread and drink wine – as we’ll be doing later this morning.

****

One of the things that has surprised me about ordained ministry is how easy it is for people to not recognise me when I’m not wearing my dog collar. Even more so if I’m wearing especially casual clothes, on my way home from the gym for example. (Or at the gym!) We all struggle with recognising people out of context. Even more so when we simply don’t expect to see that person – like the time I saw an old friend on the tube, who, as far as I was aware, was living in Singapore!

Jesus was the last person the two men on the road to Emmaus expected to see. He was dead. They were grief-stricken. Their hopes had been dashed. They’d witnessed the brutal killing of the man they’d believed was their messiah. No wonder they didn’t realise who Jesus was!

But the revelation of his identity was saved for a particular moment. At the Last Supper Jesus had called his disciples to remember him in bread and wine, using the words that we hear every time we receive communion – this is my body, this is my blood… But in Emmaus, it wasn’t remembrance that took place, it was revelation.

I don’t know how much time you’ve spent thinking about how you might go about telling people about Jesus and the message of the Gospel? Perhaps you’ve been involved in an Alpha course, or suggested that someone else do it? Or lent someone a book? Or been alongside someone in their darkest moments and offered to pray? There’s countless courses and books out there designed to train us as evangelists, as sharers of the good news, and revealers of Christ.

But something that the Road to Emmaus narrative tells us is that sometimes revelation happens without any of those things. Instead, Jesus a moment in which to reveal himself.

***

Some of you are aware that once or twice a year I go on holiday to France in order to work with friends to renovate an old farmhouse. In fact, I just returned from our latest trip on Tuesday. We’ve been going for nearly 7 years, and the initiative is managed by the missional community of which I’m part. Over 13 trips, around 80 adults from the UK, US and a handful of other countries have helped turn a tumble-down barn into a space that – as of last weekend – can now be inhabited.

The ‘chateau’, Easter 2018.

One of the main features of our community is an open-table meal at our building in Limehouse every Thursday evening. When in France, the gathering around a large table is the focus of every evening. It’s no mean feat cooking and seating 20-30 people in one go!

In London, these meals are a place where relationship is built week upon week. There isn’t any explicit Christian content, apart from a prayer before the meal, but it has become a safe place for some who are exploring their relationship with God. In France, we often only have a few days in which to build relationships with those from places other than London, but the same principles apply.

Last summer, a family from Colorado joined us at Chateau Duffy (it is not a chateau, but it is owned by a guy called Duffy!). When they returned home, their father spent some time reflecting upon this rather peculiar European vacation that they’d been on. Jim wrote:

“It’s hard to explain the community-building work you’re doing through Chateau Duffy, but it seems to me a bit like that walk along the road to Emmaus. Strangers come together, get a little dusty, and talk about the things that matter most – by which I mean both their personal concerns and life’s biggest questions. 

Jesus is there in those conversations, but he’s not jumping up and down saying, “Hey! Look at me!” He seems rather to content to follow the road, and to let it—and the conversations—lead where they will.

But then there are these moments, and of course they tend to happen around a shared table, where something more is revealed, and deeper connections are made.

There seems to be a deep trust that whether we recognize it or not, God is on that round and around that table. He will reveal himself as and when he sees fit.”

Gathered around the Chateau Duffy table, summer 2017

In the years that this project has been a feature of my holidays, I’ve seen what Jim described over and over again – but had never put it together with the story of the Road to Emmaus. But as I read his words, I thought back over the years…

  • I thought about the conversations atop of a scaffold rig on a hot summer’s day, discussing relationships while trying to make mortar stay in between stones.
  • I remembered the late nights staying up drinking good whisky and getting to the types of conversation that only ever come up when you’ve been drinking good whisky!
  • I remembered the American interns who returned home with a new appreciation of what a diverse community can look like.
  • I think of atheist friends who’ve found a welcome and a place in which questions could be asked.
  • I think of the friendships which are deepened purely because we shared a week in a gite together, and have some brilliant stories about the ridiculousness of learning to tile a bathroom.
  • And I marvel at the deep friendship formed with a British family who live around the corner from our house, in this tiny village, who have opened their home to us time after time and who are now a firm part of our family.

We’ve been practising hospitality through meals for years, and if you asked me or Shannon (who founded our community) what our theological objectives were, I’m not sure that we would have articulated them as clearly as Jim managed to after his trip to France. But, the more I’ve reflected on this passage, the more I see it as a calling to all disciples of Christ to give him the space in which to encounter those who have not recognised him for who he is.

***

I believe that we have a role to assist in Jesus’ revelation to others. After all, in our passage today, the two men tell Jesus the story of his ministry – but it is Jesus who provides them with the other half of the story, the prophecies that have been fulfilled, and the all-important punchline of realisation.

It brings me back to thinking about communion. Every time we share in the bread and wine here, we re-tell the story. Each Eucharistic prayer tells the story of who Jesus is; what he came to earth to do; and of the meal he shared that last night with his disciples. Then we receive the bread and wine, a tangible reminder and a physical encounter with the body and blood of Christ. It’s then up to Jesus to do the rest – to fill in the punchline.

Someone who has really inspired my personal theology of the Eucharist (which was the subject of the MA thesis I was finishing up when I arrived at Christ Church), is a woman called Sara Miles who lives in San Francisco.

Today, Sara is an internationally respected practical theologian, who leads a ministry that is shaped by her experience of the Eucharist and what that means for the community in which she lives. Sara came to faith while eating the bread and drinking the wine. This is how she tells her story…

“One early, cloudy morning when I was forty-six, I walked into a church, ate a piece of bread, took a sip of wine. A routine Sunday activity for tens of millions of Americans – except that until that moment I’d led a thoroughly secular life, at best indifferent to religion, more often appalled by its fundamentalist crusades. This was my first communion. It changed everything.

Eating Jesus, as I did that day to my great astonishment, led me against all my expectations to a faith I’d scorned and work I’d never imagined. The mysterious sacrament turned out to be not a symbolic wafer at all but actual food – indeed, the bread of life. In that shocking moment of communion, filled with a deep desire to reach for and become part of a body, I realised that what I’d been doing with my life all along was what I was meant to do: feed people.

And so I did. I took communion, I passed the bread to others, and then I kept going, compelled to find new ways to share what I’d experienced.” 

‘I found [righteousness] at the eternal and material core of Christianity: body, blood, bread, wine, poured out freely, shared by all. I discovered a religion rooted in the most ordinary yet subversive practice: a dinner table where everyone is welcome, where the despised and outcasts are honoured.’ 

Sometimes, for Christ to reveal himself to others, all we need to do is to welcome people in and let Jesus meet them in that place – whether that’s communion; or a shared table; or a chance conversation; or any number of spaces in which revelation is possible.

Quote from Take This Bread. [Picture Credit.]

***

Today, I have two thoughts for you to ponder:

Firstly, how well do you recognise Jesus in the world around you? If you’re not sure, ask the Holy Spirit to open your eyes and reveal Christ to you.

Secondly, where might you make spaces where Jesus can reveal himself to others? Inviting someone to a meal, or to church could be a simple action that leads to an encounter with Christ. Ask the Holy Spirit to encourage you and show you what to do.

A love letter to a Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

As 2017 drew to a close, I began drafting a post of TV recommendations & discoveries – I never got around to finishing it, but there’s no doubt what #1 on that list would have been: the sleeper hit Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. [Available on Netflix.]

I think I first tried episode one in late 2016, and turned off half-way through. The fact that it is now one of my most favourite TV series ever is fairly incredible. What can I say? The whole series is grounded in the premise of a high flying lawyer (Harvard & Yale trained) leaving their job in NYC and moving to a small town in California after a chance encounter with her summer camp boyfriend. I have a sneaky suspicion that I over-identified with the main character, and couldn’t fathom her actions…

Fast-forward to mid 2017 and a sense that a buzz is growing around Rachel Bloom – her appearance on a Hamilton fan podcast suggests that her taste in musicals and its influence upon her tv show (which she created and stars in) would make it something I would really enjoy. So, I went back and got stuck in. And, my goodness, I am SO glad that I did! My life is all the richer for it.

I rave about the show on a semi-regular basis, and what follows are some of the (genuine) reasons I’ve given to friends, family, colleagues and even virtual strangers as to why they *must* watch it. [There are a lot of links included – you owe it to yourself to follow them…]

“The women look normal!!”
Specifically, the two leads – Rebecca & Paula. It took me just a little while to realise that Rebecca not only looks like a regular human woman, but also makes a thing of it on the show. (Going as far as to dedicate a whole song to her “Heavy Boobs” and the pain of getting ready for a hot date…) It is so refreshing!

“It’s a musical theatre nerd’s dream! There are SO many parodies of musicals & genres!”
The first season includes a brilliant Les Mis parody about water pressure (much better than it sounds – “Rivers of Justice”), as well as a clear nod to Gypsy (“After Everything I’ve Done For You (That You Didn’t Ask For”). Frequently, musical numbers parody music videos or dance routines – there’s references to everyone from Backstreet Boys, to Astaire & Rogers, via Katy Perry. Oh, and a recent episode featured an ABBA parody on the theme of male genitalia

“I could add SO many songs from it to my ‘inappropriate songs to listen to while writing about the church playlist’!”
Yes, that playlist is real (it was a collaborative effort many years ago, but still comes out on an occasion). The songs are, how shall I put it? Earthy? Don’t hold anything back? Downright dirty? All of those. But done brilliantly in context! Sometimes the gag is in the lyric, sometimes in the performance – which is how I found myself on a train to my grandparents watching two grown men tap dance on a giant bottom (during a musical number entitled “Tap that Ass” – obviously).

“It’s become my go-to playlist for running to. Though lip-syncing the lyrics could get me into trouble.”
As above, great songs, questionable lyrics. I returned from a particularly excellent run in rural Vermont a couple of months ago unsure as to which had been more motivating – the fall foliage and fresh air, or the joy of matching my running rhythm to “I gave you a UTI” and “Oh my God I think I like you”. What can I say, it’s strange what gets me motivated…

“There’s a priest in it!”
As a priest, you have to cling to good depictions of priests in the media where you can find them. (It says a lot that I know another two curates who are huge fans of the show!) Father Brah is a Filipino, youthful, basketball playing and bubble tea drinking priest. His methods are a tad unorthodox sometimes, but his influence does result in a main character going to seminary later in the series – which in turn results in brilliant depiction of what someone thinks the ‘Holy Ghost’ is!

“It does religion *really* well!”
In addition to the priest, there are countless Jewish references, as Rebecca is a self-styled Jewish American Princess from Westchester NY. Hands down, my favourite song relating to this is “Remember That We Suffered” – if only for the lyrics:

Nights like these are filled with glee
Noshing, dancing, singing, whee!
But we sing in a minor key
To remember that we suffered

All the while, sung in a minor key (obviously) and thoroughly going to town on the Jewish tradition of telling the story of Israel and its times of suffering. It’s probably the only time in the whole series that I’ve thought “My Dad would love this!” – because I’m really not sure that he would love the rest of it!

“It’s not really about the ex-boyfriend…”
Josh is the reason Rebecca leaves NYC, but honestly, my loyalty has been with other men in the series – Greg, largely. (Possibly because the same guy voiced Prince Hans in Frozen…) But I’ve also found myself rooting for Nathaniel lately. [Though, tbh, this is largely due to one of those curious instances of art imitating life, thanks to a musical number that weirdly emulated a scenario I’d faced in a field in France not 12 hours prior to catching up on the episode on a plane home.]

“It doesn’t make ‘issues’ issues.”
I’m not sure if this makes sense, but things that would be major plotlines elsewhere, because of their ‘controversy’, are just part of the deal with this show. An early episode featured a major character realising that they were bisexual – there was a musical number, and that was it, it was part of that character and the series carried on. I’m pretty sure I used “Gettin’ Bi” as a way of getting one friend into the show. Similarly, feminism and the current reaction to #MeToo is also continually in the background. It’s very much of its time, in a good way.

“It does an excellent job of depicting mental health.”
I think some have been critical of the show because of the use of the term ‘crazy’ in its title, but as the series has worn on, it makes sense. There’s a deliberate arc that plays out over the planned 4 seasons (season 3 has just 4 episodes left to be broadcast), and it’s the current season that has really bitten the bullet in terms of showing someone in the depths of a mental health crisis. And still managed to write songs about it – like the brilliantly true to life “A Diagnosis”. I’m not terribly qualified to speak to this – but plenty of other people are, and have. I’m deeply curious as to where it will go next. It does a fantastic job of making the lead character both immensely likeable and unlikeable, while unpacking all the reasons why she behaves the way she does.

“Josh Groban’s in an episode!”
This might seem like a curious thing to include in a tribute to a series that will soon total 44 episodes, but it has genuinely been a reason I’ve given to more than one person as to why they should watch it! That particular episode while I was in the States recently, and I managed to persuade my host to watch it with me on the basis that the delightful Groban appeared in it. [Honestly, if I was to create my perfect man, he would tick many of the boxes – a singing beardy man with an excellent sense of humour, who supports Murray in the tennis!] Who doesn’t need a guest appearance of Groban in which he does a fabulous job of singing his own name?!?

To conclude, try it out! It’s routinely described as one of the best, yet lowest rated, shows on TV. Despite being nominated last year, this year’s Golden Globes decided that it wasn’t deserving this time (yet The Marvellous Mrs Maisel, which has been out all of two minutes and is neither as funny nor musical as Crazy Ex Girlfriend is, won ‘best comedy or musical tv show’. Ridiculous.) I’m paranoid it could be cancelled before they’re properly done!

If you watch just one of the songs from the show to whet your appetite, go with this one. This is what I went with first while on a road trip with a friend who I was trying to convert. It’s not rude, it’s not particularly weird – it’s just an excellent parody of a classic power ballad. Start here, and see where it takes you…

The year a Gilmore Girl inspired my Lenten fast

It started with an armchair. A gorgeous armchair that I had spotted a year ago, but didn’t buy immediately – which was lucky, as it went on special offer during February. As of a couple of weeks ago, I now have an awesome reading corner in my lounge:

Ikea’s Strandmon armchair & footstool. (As the chair was on offer, obviously it made sense to buy the footstool too…)

The first book I read in my new, fabulously comfortable, reading nook was no weighty theology tome. Nor was it a classic novel, worthy of awards. Nope. It was a celebrity autobiography – star of Gilmore Girls, Lauren Graham’ Talking As Fast As I Can, to be specific. It’s not at all trashy (and includes a diary of the Gilmore revival, a must for all GG fans), but nonetheless I was surprised when something Lauren mentioned provided a seed of an idea that has blossomed into my Lenten challenge for 2017…

One chapter of the book chronicles Lauren’s efforts to write and her determination to get some discipline into her routine. A friend suggested to her the ‘kitchen timer technique’ – otherwise known as Pomodoro. It’s pretty simple (although the explanation goes on for several pages): turn everything distracting off; set a timer; write or journal until it goes off; and repeat. In fact, this wasn’t my first encounter with Pomodoro – regular alarms and noises go off in the Matryoshka Haus office, indicating the passing of time for our resident graphic designer.

It’s a useful tactic to have in one’s arsenal. I’ve been trying to get more disciplined in my writing this year, so it was something to file away. Then I thought about my reading corner, and the pile of worthy books I currently have sitting in my office at church, desperately needing to be read. And I put a few things together. What better way to mark Lent than by ploughing through my To Be Read theology pile?

So, here’s the plan: I pledge to spend half an hour a day in my armchair, reading theology. There’ll be a notebook, a pencil and a timer and an ambition for quality rather than quantity. Read, ponder, wonder – any of those are fine. The important thing is making the time. (Ideally this will happen after my morning prayer on the balcony slot, but that might be too ambitious for mornings when I also need to be at morning prayer at 9am.)

Grateful to my favourite inhabitant of St Denis des Murs for the London Tube themed notebook!

My first book is Rowan Williams’ Being Disciples, which everyone says is simply marvellous. Plus, I’ve committed to read it with one of my oldest friends, so I need to get a wriggle on. Next? Who knows – I need to have a search through my shelves and see what takes my fancy. I’ve recently acquired a stash of feminist theology and missiology thanks to my Mum having a clear out, so some of that needs to be included too. [The ABC’s Dethroning Mammon will be read in regular work time – we’re using it for our Lent series, so it’s an essential – before anyone suggests it.]

Hopefully, my Lenten pledge will turn into a regular habit. I’ve gotten out of the habit of reading theology regularly since I left college. (In part, thanks to my tutor actually telling me that I should take a break for a while because I’d been working so hard.) I’ve read it for research work (when I get paid to read), but the books that come out that everyone says I should read? Not so much.

Here’s to Ash Wednesday, and all that Lent will bring!

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!