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!

Ashed

This morning, I did an exceptionally British and Anglican thing:
I was 3 minutes late for the Ash Wednesday service I’d planned to go to, so I didn’t go in – just in case I looked foolish.

(My flatmate got up an hour earlier than usual and was in the shower when I got up. Then a lost tourist asked me for directions…)

Utterly ridiculous, but in retrospect, a good thing.

For one week only, Wednesday was a study day, not a working day, and I’d decided to make the most of it by attending an Ash Wednesday service at a church I’d never been to before. [Also, my church doesn’t have one, but I’m rather fond of the tradition. This would be yet another example of my excellent, high church Methodist upbringing…]

Having missed the 8.30am eucharist with ash at St James’s Piccadilly, I decided to stick around in the area and get on with my work until the 1.05pm service. As a direct result of this decision, I had a very productive 3-4hours of studying (Amos and Hosea essay notes are very, very nearly done) in a lovely Starbucks and the giant Waterstones (always good to have a change of scenery in between books), knowing that I had a set end time. After all, I didn’t want to be late again.

It was a good decision. No, an excellent one. I was at a table studying far earlier than I would have been at home (8.40am); I didn’t get distracted by household chores; and most importantly, I didn’t give up on my plan to get ashed.

AshedBrilliantly, I’d taken this before I realised that #ashtagselfie had become a thing this year.

For the unfamiliar, as a way of marking the start of Lent, on Ash Wednesday, the previous year’s palm crosses are burnt, mixed with oil and used to make a cross on the foreheads of those at the service – known as the ‘imposition of the ashes’. As the ashes are imposed, the following words are spoken:

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.”

No, it’s not the cheeriest bit of liturgy, but it’s important. As we all know, life isn’t all joy and laughter. We get things wrong; stuff goes badly; we don’t understand why – we are dust and to dust we shall return… Lent is a season of remembering this; of being penitent of our sins; and remembering the importance of Christ’s death and resurrection.

A lot of Christians get a little over excited about Lent. Social media becomes full of people declaring what they’re giving up (especially if they’re fasting social media itself, I’ve ranted about that one before); what books they’re going to be reading; or what good deeds they’re going to be taking on. I sometimes wonder if we make too much noise about it – after all, isn’t our fasting meant to be done in humbleness? Or perhaps it’s just many people’s way of being accountable and marking Lent in solidarity with others?

Lent has been a long time in coming this year (hello, Easter on almost the latest date it can be in the year…) so we’ve had plenty of time to work out our plan for it. So, as a means of staying accountable, here’s mine:

  • Read the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent book. Obviously, this decision was in no way influenced by the fact that the author of the book (Graham Tomlin, Dean of St Mellitus College) gave me a signed copy back in December…
  • Give up chocolate. I’ve NEVER done this for Lent before (I gave up meat for years, chocolate always seemed too obvious) and I know it’s the archetypal Lenten fast, but I suddenly decided yesterday that it would be a good thing. Partly because it’s a go-to comfort when I probably ought to be praying; but also because I’m preaching on fasting in a few week’s time and I figured I ought to practice what I preach – literally.

As a season, it’s a pretty important time for me. Academic deadlines are looming (two big pieces before March is out); decisions need to be made regarding curacies (this may be the root of my current emotional connection to chocolate); and by the end of Lent there will only be a few short weeks left of Vicar School. I get the feeling that Lent 2014 is going to be a time of preparation in several, rather important, ways!

Lent, lent, lent, lent, lent

I think it starts around the same time that Cadbury Creme Eggs appear upon supermarket shelves. It’s occasional at first, but by the end of January, or early February, it’s a veritable avalanche.

I talk of course of the onset of lent – which we are celebrating/commemorating today. (Can you ‘celebrate’ Ash Wednesday? It’s categorically not a feast day.) My Twitter feed has talked of little else than lent books, giving ups, taking ons and social media absences for weeks. [You might be thinking I need to follow different people. You might be right.] People are going veggie, giving up booze, abstaining from tweeting, reading wholesome spiritual tomes, not buying things or eating out…as usual, it’s enormously varied.

Lent, Dave Walker styleLent, Dave Walker style.

Back in my youth, I used to be quite good at the lent thing. Several years of vegetarian lents have created an adult who rarely eats meat (I’m a flexitarian these days); once I gave up fizzy drinks (no idea how this was a big deal – we rarely had them in the house!); I’ve certainly never given up alcohol or chocolate. To be honest, I’m a bigger fan of taking something on for lent. After all, Jesus may have fasted in the wilderness, but he also took on the challenge to live in the desert in the first place…

However, I struggled to think of something. It’s a little like my antipathy towards new year’s resolutions. Why now? Why just for 6 weeks? But, over the weekend, a challenge fell into my lap and I’m seizing it with both hands. I’m retreating.

Well, not literally. At vicar school, there’s an annual retreat weekend (last year I went up north for ‘finger painting with God’ and created what everyone else decided was a golden boob). This year, I opted for a ‘retreat in daily  life’ instead of a weekend away, and this takes place over lent. Initially, at our induction on Saturday, I was hugely dubious; but yesterday I met my spiritual director for the period and she’s super lovely and encouraging. We’ve worked out what my pattern of prayer will be and I’ll meet with her regularly to see how it’s going.

The basis for my pattern – or what will form the morning bit of it at least – is Sacred Space, a website run by Jesuits. I discovered it a couple of months ago, courtesy of a seminar at a vicar weekend, and it’s been brilliant. One of it’s key elements is colloquy – conversation – with Jesus, as if he’s sat next to you on the sofa. [Amusingly, when I told my vicar about the conversation aspect, he asked “who with?”, I replied “Jesus!” and he looked relieved – I then asked if he’d imagined there was a phone number you could ring in order to speak to a Jesuit. Though I rather like that idea!] Obviously, there’s some Bible reading too as well as an evening reflection upon the day.

Given that I’m a trainee vicar, a routine of daily prayer might not seem like much of a challenge. After all (as one friend takes peculiar joy in reminding me frequently), once ordained we’re obliged to say the Daily Office daily. (The clue’s in the name.) However, it’s immensely challenging to find a pattern that works, stick to it, and stay accountable during the process. So personally, I think this is a pretty good lenten activity and I’m genuinely looking forward to seeing how it goes – particularly as this year’s lent will be rather more interesting than other years.

But that, quite literally, is a story for tomorrow…

Twittering religiously

Research published today by Tearfund shows the ways in which people are communicating their faith via social media. Of those surveyed, 74% had welcomed ‘the opportunity to reveal their faith on digital platforms’ and nearly half had used Facebook (specifically) as a forum for sharing prayer requests. An average of 80% of respondents (across the age-groups who responded) also said that Facebook and Twitter inspired them to pray for others and specific situations.

It’s a relatively small (212) and self-selecting (the survey was advertised via social networks) sample, but it does show that social media is having an impact upon the way in which people live out their faith online and offline. Two days into Lent, this is a particularly relevant survey given the number of people who have decided to give up social networking for the duration.

It’s not something I particularly agree with – partly because of the results of this survey. Sure, if social networking is distracting you from working, studying or living in the ‘real world’ to the point of unhealthiness, then create boundaries, but will a 40 day fast really change your long-term attitude? But what about the role it has in our spiritual lives? Nurturing relationships; being challenged; asking and receiving prayer; staying up to date with international situations; learning new things – all of this now happens via social networks. Vicky Beeching spoke my mind on this subject in a blogpost yesterday entitled: Why I disagree with giving up social media for Lent’.

One of the things I’m becoming increasingly passionate about is the importance of churches and Christians using social media effectively. (Actually, I’m passionate about everyone using it effectively, it’s just that most of the time I’m talking about this within church-y circles. Most of what follows will apply to the rest of the world too.) I don’t simply mean in a marketing sense, but primarily in a building community way. I’d almost go as far as to say that a Facebook/Twitter presence is as essential to a church as a decent website is.

So I thought now might be a good time to share a few tips for individuals and groups on why they should care about their social media presence – and why, possibly, they should join Twitter. [Disclaimer: I am a massive Twitter fan. It isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, but it is worth a go – honest!]

1. Cross-platform consolidation
Let’s start with something that sounds pretentious, but is actually very sensible. If you’re a church/organisation, then create social media presences that work well together. Just like an individual might have Facebook, Twitter and a blog, so might a church have a Facebook page, Twitter feed and website. Make sure that you put the same information through all of them. You may think it’s pointless because it’s the same audience, but it’s not and the information can be used in different ways on each. On Twitter, for example, a church member might choose to retweet a church announcement so their followers can hear about it – something that’s harder to do with a Facebook status.
NB: If you’re going to do an auto-feed from one platform to another, make sure you do it from Twitter to Facebook, not the other way round. Feeding Facebook to Twitter doesn’t always work, because if the update exceeds 140 characters, you’ll be directed to a Facebook page – fine if you have a Facebook account, rubbish if you don’t. 

2. Save time by setting up auto-updates
There’s plenty of ways of doing this – some Twitter apps enable scheduled posting, so you can decide when you want something to go out. This means you can set things up even if you’re going to be on holiday, so Sunday services announcements can still go out, even if you’re not online one week. Our church’s website automatically sends out a tweet whenever new sermon audio is uploaded. [If you’re wondering about what a church Twitter account could post, the themes of Sunday talks and links to their audio would be a really good place to start.] Other platforms, like Flickr, will auto-Tweet whenever you add new content too.

3. Have a small team of people with access to your social media accounts
It’s kind of a simple rule of delegation really, but also means that it’s all dependent upon one person being at everything and online all the time. Mobile devices are particularly useful for this as it’s much easier to switch between Twitter accounts on an iPhone than on a computer (I currently have 4, this may be excessive…). This can also work by an individual person following lots of church people on Twitter, and being on the ball enough to re-tweet their stuff when relevant. You can also add specific accounts – so I now have a student Twitter in addition to the main church one and we complement each other, re-tweeting as appropriate.

4. Keep things private when they need to be private
The Tearfund research emphasises the ways in which Christians use social media for prayer requests. Some people are happy to share via very public forums like Twitter or Facebook, but others might want a safer space in which to do this. A church Facebook Page might work for certain things, but a closed group might be more appropriate for others – this worked brilliantly with my student group last year and I’ve just set up something similar for this year’s. I also belong to a brilliant women’s prayer group on Facebook which has become a place for sharing some really tough stuff, but also for reading truly inspiring stories. Having said that, it’s astonishing just how quickly a prayer request can get round the Twitter community – truly stunning and a really valuable asset of that network.

5. Use hashtags
This may sound solely Twitter related, but it’s not. For those not in the know, a hashtag is a way of grouping together tweets – placing ‘#’ before something on Twitter turns it into a hyperlink through which you can see all other tweets mentioning the same thing. For example, the Greenbelt festival usually goes with #gb12 (or whatever year it happens to be). This is useful for several reasons:

  • It can create a buzz for an event and help people see who else is there and what’s going on.
  • It enables people to bring together all the tweets from one event and store them for posterity.
  • It can be used to create ‘Twitter falls’ in other places. The Methodist Conference used this to startlingly good effect in 2011. Any tweets containing the hashtag #methconf were displayed on the conference’s main website, alongside the live video feed and papers – meaning that people could join in conversations in real time. [See, it’s not just for Twitter!]
6. Follow what you’re interested in and share what others might like
Treat your organisation like an individual (or, if you’re an individual – be individual!). Follow what you’re interested in – people, places, groups – and share what grabs your attention if you think it might benefit others. For example, social media has been a great place in the last few days to share what people are doing for Lent – I’ve discovered 24-7’s prayer spaces; Tearfund’s carbon fast; Christian Aid’s Count Your Blessings and myriad other initiatives via the people I follow and have passed them on in turn. If you have a church account, follow your members and engage with their lives (within suitable boundaries, obviously), but aim to inspire them too. With my student Twitter account I have two weekly aims – firstly, to keep student Twitterers informed on what we’re up to and share our doings; and secondly, to share at least one inspiring thought from our gatherings. The latter is something that often gets picked up by the people who follow us, so in turn (hopefully) inspires others.

I could talk for hours about the joys of social media and there’s plenty more to say on this subject, but I think this will do for now. In fact, friends have started booking me for personal social media surgeries, which I’m more than happy to do (though I apologise to those sat near me on Eurostar when the woman sat next to me grilled me about Twitter from London to Lille…). It’s well worth investing the time and effort – honest!

On the night of pancakes

So Lent’s rolled around again, as evidenced in the pancake displays in supermarkets across the land and the sudden deluge of church press releases on a variety of lenten campaigns.

People are doing the annual self-deprivation thing. Colleagues are giving up alcohol, connexional biscuits and taking on morning prayer, walking to work, making time to spend with God; my sister’s giving up shopping for unnecessary items; facebook friends are going veggie or even giving up facebook!

Two years ago in one of my early blog posts, I ranted on the subject of giving stuff up for lent, so I won’t repeat myself. I still feel quite strongly about the subject and I’m not giving up anything or taking something new on because actually I don’t think that’s the point, and I’ve got a lot of my own missions/resolutions going on:

I’m still continuing my ‘advent mission’ to give up free papers on my commute & read proper books. It’s going well so far, though the idea was to get through my pile of Christian lit, which hasn’t really happened yet, although I am alternating fiction & non-fiction. But I can recommend Dawn French’s biog Dear Fatty and Alice Sebold’s The Almost Moon. (Wasn’t quite so keen on Lionel Schriver’s The Post Birthday World, though probably just because its London geography was flawed.) My current read’s Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go which 40 pages in is holding my attention.

My new year decisions (not resolutions!) are going strong. I’m keeping up with the one year Bible, though inevitably there have been days when I’ve had to do 3 lots in one go. My mystery decision has been acted upon, though I’m still procrastinating about the next step. There’s also my random decision to not think about something from Feb 1st – April 1st. I’ll say no more, but it’s hard & it’s not going well!

However, despite my cynicism about the practice of ‘giving up’, there is sense in remembering why this season exists in the first place. The temptations in the desert were a time of testing, of getting closer to God and listening. So maybe it’s just time to get back to what Lent’s really about: prayer.

I’m not good at it. But, just as I’m gaining a new liking for daily Bible reading, maybe I can get better at the prayer thing too. I was quite inspired by something Carla wrote today about the power of prayer in getting on with work. It sounds so obvious, but we don’t always think of it – or, at least I don’t.

We should count ourselves lucky that prayer is at least something we all have the freedom to do. One of my vivid memories of the ‘holy sites’ bit of my trip to Israel Palestine was our experience of the monastery on the Mt of Temptations. In the very place where Jesus was tempted (or believed to have been), an orthodox monk forbade us from praying because none of us were orthodox. Therefore I prayed, hard, under my breath. Probably not best to pray in revenge…but I had to pray in that place, right then.

Anyway, my point is Lent = prayer. End of story.