Singing the praises of C. Jane

When you blog, it pretty much comes with the territory that you also read blogs. Blogging can’t work in isolation. Sure, it’s not so much about community as Twitter or Facebook are (perhaps it was once upon a time, at least pre Twitter), but writers have and will always be influenced by other writers, particularly those of the same genre as them.

At the start of my particular journey, I was influenced by friends who were also engaged in this peculiar pursuit. Along the way, I discovered bloggers who were friends of friends, and then became fans of total strangers’ work. Of these, the one that I will always check first in my reader is C. Jane Kendrick.

I’ve read Courtney’s writing for years, probably since early 2008, and definitely prior to her sister’s near fatal air-crash later that year. In many ways, I think we’re quite similar – which is probably why I enjoy her work so much. She’s just a few years older than me; has insecurities about the narcissistic nature of blogging, her body shape, her faith and her writing; she writes honestly and movingly about her relationships, her journey through infertility and life as a family of five.

Over the last year, she’s set about writing her life story, which she concluded in the final days of 2012. The last post in the series brought the reader full circle, to the point in her life when her blog began. Even though I was fairly sure I’d read most of her archives, I clicked the link and went right back to the start. Courtney’s archives got me through a slightly rough start to the year, and became a major tool of procrastination during my essay crisis. (Going through a difficult time? Find an excellent blog and read it from start to finish, you’ll be absorbed and will forget all your woes.)

C. JaneThis is one of my favourite photos of Courtney. As it’s the one Hannah used in her post, hopefully she’ll be happy with me using it too!

As I read, I was struck by how much her writing had developed over the years and how her character and faith had been shaped. But I was also shown something of me, which I hadn’t quite expected. I read post by post, which meant that I had to scroll through the comments in order to get to the ‘next post’ link. Every so often, I’d come across a comment I had left. Sometimes it was on a post that I had remembered commenting on, other times I’d totally forgotten and my words were a literal blast from the past – an indication of how I was feeling on that particular day in 2009, or whenever.

Read through some of the comments, and you’ll also witness some of the ridiculousness that a popular blogger has to deal with. Negativity, trolling, downright rudeness – it’s a wonder that anyone puts anything on the internet! According to more than one commentor last summer, a post in which Courtney revealed that she’d gone bra-less for an entire holiday was the final straw and resulted in them abandoning the blog! To be honest, who needs readers who would be offended by such things – I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t last very long around here! Despite – perhaps in spite – of these comments, Courtney continued. Sometimes comments would be turned off, sometimes she leaves them on. Her choice, as it should be.

I know of several other fans in the British blogging circle. In fact, a few weeks ago Hannah Mudge published an interview with Courtney on her own blog. [Confession: I may be slightly jealous of Hannah. She and Courtney tweet each other. Courtney has no idea who I am. I should get over this. On the plus side, I finally get to meet Hannah at a meeting later this week.] That post focused more upon Courtney’s development as a feminist and it’s worth a read, but also highlights the ways in which her readers respond to the issues she raises.

Some might think it’s odd that many Christian Brits are fans, given that Courtney’s a Mormon. I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I’ve been genuinely touched by several of her posts about her faith and spirituality. Yes, there are major doctrinal differences between Mormonism and Christianity, but the relationship an individual has with God has the same importance. [Incidentally, in case I’ve offended anyone by differentiating between Mormonism and Christianity, in Britain, it’s not a Christian denomination.] Yes, her posts are often hilarious (try watching one of her regular Friday vlogs), but they’ve also had me in tears – like when she took the incredibly brave step of sharing the story of an abusive relationship she was trapped in. (Despite him sending threatening messages after she’d begun her life story.) God is crucial in those stories, it’s where she got the strength to leave, to say no, to refuse to be treated the way she had been. God is there in her birth stories (the most recent of which – ‘Squishy’ aka Erin’s birth just over a year ago – is one of the most beautiful in the genre you will ever read), and in stories of loss, confusion, or every day life.

As I read post after post, I was inspired. I might be blowing my own trumpet, but I sometimes feel that our writing styles are similar – particularly in our relating of ridiculous every-day happenings. But, for a start, she is a lot more skilled than I. Plus, she is way braver than I am. In her writing is true vulnerability and true honesty about where God is in that.

I think bloggers can learn a lot from that. Is there much point in writing a blog that is just a sanitised window into your life? A version of events that has been edited and passed through a filter? Perhaps there is, if all you want is high stats, regular readers and glowing comments. The reason why Courtney’s comments get so divided is because she says what she thinks and feels, she doesn’t sit on the fence and to try and please everybody. I know that I sometimes refrain from being controversial in my writing because I’m scared of negative comments, but am I just kidding myself? There are things I don’t write about because I’m nervous of revealing parts of my life I keep private. (Although I think it is also helpful to make good decisions when your life and the things you might write about relate to other people who may not want to be featured on your bit of the internet.)

The moral of this post?
If you write, read.
If you’re not going to be put off by a writer who sometimes goes days without wearing a bra, read C. Jane.
Simple.

And that’s how I got my calling…

…pretty much.

It struck me last week, while preparing a sermon for Sunday night on Hearing God’s Call, that I’d never written anything about how I ended up on the road to vicar-dom. Sporadically, I’ve been writing a series of posts loosely collated under the heading: ‘Irreverent Guide to Becoming a Reverend’. [Which is what my satirical Church Times column would be titled, should it ever happen.] It’s been a rather haphazard collection, but altogether it shows something about the interesting journey that is the route to priesthood.

Through the gates of St George's

If you wanted to, you could just listen to the sermon. (There’s also a video of it floating around as it was my assessed preach for Vicar School.) Or, you could read this post, which is likely to include substantially fewer than the 3,500 my sermon consisted of!

Let’s start at the very beginning – with some singing nuns. I’ve always said every lesson in life is aided by songs from musicals…

When I preached on Sunday, I quoted two verses of the song. Sadly, I couldn’t play the whole thing to the congregation as it gets a little unsuitable-for-church near the end.

If I remember correctly, when I left this performance I felt strongly called to join a convent. That call soon dissipated when a friend informed me that most convents don’t have gospel choirs.

Anyway, this is less about the nuns and more about me. The point I’m trying to make with the nuns is that we are all called in different ways. Some of us see God’s call in junk food, others in natural disasters. God works in many, mysterious ways. (One of the points I also wanted to make at church was that we are ALL called by God – just to different things, places and situations. It’s not just those people who take up traditional ‘vocations’ like teaching, medicine or ministry.)

Also, for those of you reading this who are not amongst the Christian masses, this applies to you too. Vocation is a common word in our vocabulary, even within secular society. (Though I sometimes wonder if that’s because it refers to jobs that no sane person would want to do, unless a higher being made them do it!) Everyone wants to have a purpose in their life (there’s a musical reference for this too, thanks to Avenue Q), and I think anyone who said otherwise would be kidding themselves.

Often, the most frustrating thing about calling is that it can be difficult to work out what it is. I spent most of the last decade, in common with most aimless graduates, trying to work out what on earth one does with a degree, or specifically in my case, a MA on a rather obscure bit of history. Who might be interested in the activities of missionaries in New Zealand between 1845 and 1853? Very few people… I ended up working for a few different Christian organisations and, in fact, working with a lot of missionaries (I guess my MA wasn’t quite so useless!), but this only served to make my lack of purpose all the more obvious and my desperation to work out what my calling was all the greater. When you work for a mission agency, a commonly asked question is: “so, would you like to be a missionary?”. I emphatically did not!

Looking back, it’s clear to me that God put me in those jobs and places for a reason. They were the right place for me to be at that time, and they helped shape my future. I have confidence in my calling today because of the countless people I’ve met who have been faithful in listening to and following the calling they’ve received from God. But how did I hear God call me into ministry?

It sounds a little lame, but my first inkling was just a feeling. A feeling that I needed to be doing more with my life and that the things that energised me most weren’t found in my desk-job, but in the relationships and activities I was involved with outside the office. The problem was that this feeling pointed towards the same vocation as my parents, so I battled for quite a while as to whether this was a genuine calling, or simply an inability to think of something different and original. It took questions and comments from friends to finally get me to admit and acknowledge that this is what I thought God was calling me into. Specifically, it was a simple question asked by someone who turned into one of my wisest friends, on a train from Reading to Paddington. “Do you feel called to lead a church?”

I was actively hunting out my calling. I spent ages trying to work out what it was, what God might be saying, praying about it, asking friends about it – the thing was, he kind of had and I was ignoring it, thinking I was wrong!

Once I stopped ignoring this, and accepted God’s words, I felt peaceful. Well, not all the time. At times it was – and still is – flipping scary. But it comes back to trusting that God knows best. Personally, I think the biggest clue that you’ve got it right is how it makes you feel. At the beginning of the week in which I left my last job and moved out of my flat of over five years, I preached a sermon in my last church about calling. I was scared of all the changes that starting training would involve – but it’s turned out ok. More than ok, in fact. I think it was noticeable – actually, friends did comment that in my first weeks at Vicar School I looked the happiest they’d known me. That is peace at work.

It’s got to be said that having reached the half-way point of training, and having the first pieces of curacy paperwork sitting in my inbox, my calling’s feeling rather scary again. But it’s ok. I will just keep repeating that mantra to myself until it feels like it is…

[Over the next couple of weeks I’m planning on writing a bit more about the selection process, vicar school and life as an ordinand generally. If you’ve got any questions or ideas for a post, do let me know. I’m always happy to share my experiences!]

Perfection in an afternoon

I adore swimming at the best of times – throw in sun, warmth and naturally occurring water and I am like a fish in, well, water…

An idyllic spot discovered on Sunday.

The Texan hill country has all three of these, in abundance. Oh to live in a land where you can pull up by the side of a river and swim to your heart’s content! To be told that the programme for a Saturday afternoon was an afternoon by the river was delightful news – discovering that the precise location was a Christian conference centre was less delightful.

However, happy times, Presbyterian Mo Ranch turned out to be nothing like Swanick or High Leigh (destination for many a Christian conference I’ve attended in the UK). For a start, it was big; there was a river; a waterslide; canoes; and possibily the most idyllic place in which I’ve ever swum [excluding Pacific islands].

The afternoon began with the women swimming in the deep water – floating around in tubes and treading water. It was chilly, but not unbearable, which was perfect given the warmth of the sun. While we floated and swam, the men picked up canoes and headed upstream. Just as I was about to lose my dignity (and my swimsuit) attempting to climb upon a floating raft, one canoe returned and one of its occupants insisted that I jump in the boat to experience what they’d just found.

Three of us paddled upstream (with varying degrees of success and several bank-crashing incidents) and pulled the canoe up onto a smooth beach, beyond which we found streams of fast moving water, shallow pools heated by the sun and basically, a beautiful spot. Rapids carried me down a natural waterslide (well, once I gave up resisting the pull of the current having been shamed by several small children) and I then cautiously stepped over slippery rocks to get to a natural jacuzzi. There the three of us sat, watching buzzards fly overhead in a perfectly blue sky, hearing nothing but running water and occasional snatches of laughter.

We took it in turns to have a natural jet bath and ponder the world. I had a deep and meaningful with a new friend – putting the world to rights, praying and generally meeting with God in the midst of awesome surroundings. I think each of us experienced something profound in that place of peace and beauty. With regret and longing we headed back to the canoe and paddled back. The others must have wondered what on earth had happened to us – days later it was still being cited as a highlight.

The thing with open water, swimming and canoes is that it’s not particularly camera or iPhone friendly, so we have no photos with which to remember the afternoon. That’s one of the reasons why I had to write it down, so I couldn’t forget it. But I left with memories that I’ll treasure for a long time to come – oh, and some physical reminders…

…the thing with rocks is that they can be both smooth and rough. When you’re sliding down a stream you can’t always tell what you’re going to hit and at what speed. Thus, I left that beautiful place with rather beautiful grazes across my posterior (I guess I should be thankful that my swimsuit remained intact). For 36 hours afterwards, sitting down was something of a trauma, not to mention foolishly climbing onto some rocks while swimming the following afternoon.

And the thing with the internet is that sometimes you can find other people’s photos of special places. This is the view looking back down the river, at the top of the natural water slide.


Lower yourself into that pool by the rock and whoosh! 
Driving back to the ranch, there was only one possible soundtrack, or really song, that we could listen to –  O Brother Where Art Thou and As I Went Down to the River to Pray. Apt music at its best.

Eating humble pie

I’ve not quite beaten the introspection bug yet, but this evening I’ve truly been humbled and it might help me snap out of it. (Normal service will probably return on Monday.)

Catching up on some Facebooking after a very busy day, I was just about to log off in a fit of “this is all stupid and who cares”, when a friend started chatting with me. A ‘friend’ who, I have to confess, I’ve given very little thought to since we happened to live together over 4 years ago.
My usual instinct in such situations is to shut down Facebook. If I’m not in the mood to chat, I just don’t. It feels like an invasion of my privacy and I resent it! I left it for a few moments and then read the messages she’d sent…
It turned out that she was going through a really rough time, had just returned from a year overseas that hadn’t gone the way she’d hoped, was struggling to see the point in it all and wanted to know if she could talk to me about it and if I could recommend a church for her to go to.
Humbled actually doesn’t even begin to describe how I felt. I’d been sat there in a fit of feeling sorry for myself and was more than ready to ignore this person for no good reason other than that I wanted to wallow in my own mood.
I’d been looking for someone to pay me some attention and cheer me up, when in fact what snapped me out of my ridiculous frame of mind was the fact that actually, there are other people who are finding things difficult for much better reasons than me. Plus, in asking me questions like ‘how do you keep your faith when you’re struggling with life?’, I remembered all the things I tend to ignore when I’m in a mood.
This is not me boasting of how I managed to share lots of Godly wisdom with a random friend (I’m not sure that I did really), I’m just trying to make the point that often it’s the things that come at us from leftfield that can actually make all the difference.

Journalling


This is what you get when you become a lazy journaller. The above is the pile created on my bed this evening as I got on with the massive task of updating my ‘God Book’. (The pile consists of: Bible, 2008 diary, 2009 diary, little notebook, big notebook.)

In theory, all my notes are in a little A6 notebook (handbag pocket sized) and every so often I write them up neatly, with many colours of pen and cutting & sticking, into a larger notebook. Problem is (despite a session sometime in June) I began today confronted with October 08. Almost 4 hours later I’ve got to March 09…there’s a lot still to be done.
Note to self: this exercise is always inspiring, but the impact of such inspiration is somewhat minimised when it becomes a slog! Do not let electronic past-times get in the way of some good quality pen and paper action.