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Tea and Theology

Focus

Most of this week I have accompanied a parish retreat with the Community of Saint Mary the Virgin in Wantage. It is always a privilege to take time out of the busyness of life, but even more so when supporting others in that. It has been a wonderful opportunity to explore or embrace a focus which allows for concentration on finer details of God’s calling, where everyday parish life encourages a bigger picture approach.


Focusing in on fine details has to begin with a scan of the overall picture, before considering where to hone your attention.


How close you focus depends very much on God’s leading, and it can be about trying a few things before truly reaching the place where the light leads…


Even when these initial steps seem irrelevant, it can be so important to notice our feelings and thoughts through this process of discernment.


Very often I have found that the destination is the journey itself, observing the intricacies of God’s character through the beauty of creation can only leave us in awe of God as creator, redeemer and sustainer. That awe leads us on.


Sometimes it leads to a change in focus before we fully realise where the light is drawing us.


When drawn deeper into a place of solace with God that is when the focus can really begin to deepen.


As well as becoming more centred on Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, and focusing on the importance of the Eucharist as a spiritual meal through which we are transformed into the likeness of Christ, I began to experience the cross in a new way.


I was drawn to this particular cross which rested above the altar. Right at its heart was the world, the whole world, drawn in by one huge final sacrifice. Having also been afforded the luxury of reading Mindfulness and Christian Spirituality by Tim Stead, and putting some of that into practice, I began to notice the absolute comfort which came from this powerful symbol, which represented the sacrifice given for the whole of creation through the death of Christ on the cross – and it’s that simple! This is such good news…do we always present it in this way?

Try focusing on one small object or symbol that you feel drawn to – where does it take you?

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The Little Ribbon Tin
As my eyes fixed on the little ribbon tin
Transfixed on the beautiful, paled pattern
I wondered who, before me, had it chosen
Whose fingerprints had been embellished
by the vibrant colours here once settled
on this worn, mesmerising, little ribbon tin.

How long ago had they walked the earth
What sort of person, was there any mirth
vibrance and creativity or more of a dearth
of all that we respect, admire and hold dear
How did they come to lose it, through fear
disregard or death perhaps…and thenceforth?

And what was the purpose of this beautiful
receptacle, before it became slightly dull
Did it always house ribbons, always so full
or was it sat empty? Money, buttons or tea?
Bills, cotton, sugar or another commodity
Something meaningful or insignificant, little…

Where and when did it originally come alive
Somewhere familiar or foreign, with a vibe
clearly oozing opportunity, vitality and life
A world far from our time and knowledge
Yet one which may say much about dredge
and call us to be content with what we have.

And these hands, have they been embellished
Or rather influenced, shaped and moulded?
Positively, gently…maybe abused, oppressed
With expectation; demands to be, say and do
Things fitting for a woman, to have and to hold
Still content to be contained and constrained?

S.E.E. God

This week I’ve been thinking about how we see God; that is how we STRUGGLE alone, before having some sort of EPIPHANY which allows space to ENCOUNTER God.

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A few weeks ago I wrote about the art of encounter and the need to look into the eyes of the person we are speaking with. This week I’m inclined to take that idea even further – when we actually look into the eyes of the other, that is when we actually see God. God works through each of us in unique and special ways.

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“Christ has no body but yours; no hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which his compassion looks out upon the world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands with which he blesses all the world.”

St Teresa of Avila

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I photographed the eyes of each person I encountered in one day – well over 30 people. I saw so much beauty in the eyes of each person, with so many stories to tell, so much wisdom. Some lacked that wisdom, but had that youthful determination which is so admirable. Our eyes tell so much about us. They sometimes communicate things that we don’t want them to.

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Looking into the eyes of another can make each of us vulnerable, but it can also be where growth happens.

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Some months ago I met a woman in a petrol station, as she struggled to put air in her tyres. I went to help her, but it was a good five minutes before I actually saw her. And it was a few minutes later still before she saw me.

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That encounter was one not just with each other, but with God through one another, as the poem below further explores.

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So often I find myself struggling alone, not wanting to ask for help. A recent BBC news article shows how little we as a nation know those who live closest to us, and how unwilling we are to ask for help from them.

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I wonder what would happen if we did begin asking for help more freely…

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Would neighbours get annoyed with one another?

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Or would we find something new in the experience?

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Would it lead to an epiphany whereby we discover that our neighbours are quite nice people really?

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Might it in turn lead to us encountering God in one another, as we look into each others eyes?

The Faceless Woman

Saturday afternoon. Miserably bleak.
Incomplete mundane tasks creep upon me;
fuel gauge beeps, warning lights flash.
Fuel station! Reluctantly I pull in.
Frustration looms and I wait,
as she stops me in my tracks.

I fail to see this faceless woman in my hotheadedness.
At least I don’t really see her and her need;
the pain and upset which she bears are also invisible.
Do I even want to see such brokenness?
Much easier to ignore, or rather simply not address.
Yet, as if prompted, I get out of the car
to draw closer to the bereavement of which we never speak.

Her agitation is plain. That I see.
Yet I don’t see, she is faceless to me.
Or perhaps my eyes distort.
Exaggerated facial contortion
mixed with masked humanity –
I fail to look as I ought.

Indeed something is wrong, it needs fixing…
It takes time to see that is me not her
‘It won’t work,’ cries her despair.
Temporary success seems lost on her
’I must be off to London.’
Expressionless, listless stare.

Finished I bid ’take care and drive safely.’
And then I see her, this faceless woman;
old, frail, weary and distressed.
Embodiment of human brokenness,
and yet beautiful in her
vulnerability, exposed.

For this faceless woman, her unnamed grief, I feel compassion
as never before – it brings me to my knees.
Evident in my eyes, she seeks to claim it for her own;
she flings her arms around me and we embrace.
This moment, as a sacrament, shows us God’s unending grace.
On release, we look at each other anew
God’s love brims over for the other, we turn and leave transformed.

With thanks to all who were willing to allow their eyes to be photographed!

Invitation to Abundance

As I prepared my sermon for today around the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand, I was prayerfully transported back to Cuddesdon. Only months earlier we had used this passage for a Eucharist with children. They had designed, or at least had a say in, most of the service; they had chosen to focus on the abundance of God. All week I have been pondering God’s abundance, and signs of that abundance, across the parish.

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If we’re considering material abundance, then perhaps the parish in which I serve does not offer a life of plenty. This week Church Times have included a few articles on the need for the Church of England to become more relevant to people who live in parishes just like mine. Whilst I absolutely support the sentiment behind this thinking, I would also question whether people in more deprived areas are withdrawing from church, or just withdrawing from organised church services. In a little over a month I have encountered so many people who wish to share deep aspects of their lives with me and be prayed for. Material abundance is something that they may be able to see but is completely out of reach, much like these blackberries which grow behind bars, impossible for anyone to reach and benefit from.

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A life of plenty is something in the distance that many will fail to see because they are too busy or too preoccupied with the here and now.

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And yet even in these places where hope is difficult to find, there are small reminders of this abundance springing up in very unlikely places and flourishing on very little nourishment.

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I am inclined to believe that it is not material abundance which God offers, neither is it an abundance which we can see but is far out of reach. Instead God offers a rich abundance which may at first be difficult to identify or describe.

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As Isaiah 55:1 says, “You that have no money, come, buy and eat…without money and without price.” Isaiah and the feeding of the five thousand offer an invitation from God to this abundant life where, in sharing the little that we have, what we have grows beyond all recognition.

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What we have to share may not be material; it might be our time, hospitality, friendship, care and prayers. As small as these may seem, when we offer them out they grow in our hearts and the hearts of others.

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When we don’t offer out the gifts that we have, or share what we have, the imagery of “The Old Shopping Bag” can soon become a reality.

The Old Shopping Bag

Do you remember the time when we met
I was new, vibrant and perfect without blemish
You were much younger then
You hadn’t yet met your man
And the children were mere stars in the sky
Those were the good old days
You would meet your friends and take me too
We would go to all kinds of places
You would give me items for safe keeping
Far more than I could carry – I didn’t mind though
I was just happy to be by your side
Sharing in the joy feeling alive

Do you remember the day the pennies ran out
You had met your man by now
I could see how much you loved him and he you
But things were different
We didn’t go out together so much
You didn’t see your friends often
Giving me items for safe keeping
Almost never led to a day out
It tended to result in a visit to one place
The same place again and again
My sides were rarely bulging when we left
And I was beginning to show signs of neglect

That debt came shortly after your first child
How beautiful she was and so very placid
You spent your days loving and mothering
And he would bring home the bacon
Your man the bringer of happiness and laughter
Came home in the middle of the day
He slung his boots hard on top of me
It was miserable and wet anyway
Yet his return seemed to bring
More anguish and distress
I had never seen you like that before
Little did I know it was to become the new normal

The trips out became fewer and fewer
I was now looking positively shabby
With threads dangling and my once vibrant print
Now scuffed and barely recognisable
To add insult to injury one of my straps hung loose
Even the lighter loads that you now entrusted
Into my care were too much to bear
I was tired but that was nothing
In light of your sheer exhaustion
Desperation and insatiable hunger
You asked and you received but never enough
Kind as people were…it was never enough

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Impatience is a Virtue…

I’ve been reminded of an advert from about ten years ago which claimed that patience was for yesteryear, now impatience is a virtue. This advert has come back to me a number of times as I have thought about how telling it is of our society in some ways. The immediacy of communication has made us impatient for news and information, as well as for material items – why wait when we could have it now? I am beginning to realise how ingrained this perspective has been in my own attitudes, despite understanding myself as a fairly patient person…well, with some things!

As I walked around part of the parish earlier in the week, I felt the impatience of others so keenly, and it began to surface in me as well.

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Impatience of parents, trying to get through the tasks of the day with children who are also impatient as they would much rather be doing something else; older children playing out, struggling when things do not go their way; the impatience of many with a welfare system which affords them very little, despite hard work or ill-health and; even the impatience of those providing services because it is the twentieth time someone has complained to them about x, y or z this morning. These are just some examples…

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My own impatience manifested itself through a deep desire to act now, to do something –  anything – for those who were struggling. Why wait on God when I could just roll up my sleeves and get cracking? I could do some practical things to make a real difference in some people’s lives here and now…. But what about tomorrow, when I couldn’t do those things, when I wasn’t around?

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This building site as a symbol of the early stages of building and the need for strong foundations reminded me that those things that are worthwhile cannot happen overnight, as well as giving an echo of the impatience that those waiting for their houses to be built may feel!

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Ministry is not like a game of pool, when whoever pots all of their balls followed by the black wins. I was thinking about how much easier that would be, as I played pool with our 13+ group (not that I was so skilled, sadly!).

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There are times when the phone rings, and it is appropriate to drop everything to be where you are needed. It is a real privilege when that happens and people let you into their lives in all of their grief and sadness, and I am so grateful for the times that that has happened this week.

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More often though, I wonder whether ministry is like ironing shirts – it takes time and patience to do it properly, and even when it is done another shirt will not be far behind!

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I perhaps had not realised how impatient I can be sometimes, and there has been much to reflect on around my approach to ministry this week. No longer am I an ordinand, in one place for a very short time. I am not chasing ideas for portfolios, essays and presentations. This is the long haul, and it is essential to wait on God and capture God’s vision and God’s ministry in this place. Afternoon tea on my day off stopped me in my tracks and reminded me of this…God did promise the Israelites a land flowing with milk and honey!

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So what does God’s place, or the Kingdom of Heaven, look like? People running to catch buses, frustrated when they miss them, children screaming at one another, people shouting at one another? Or people showing love, care, joy, peace, patience and kindness? How can we encourage this, rather than reacting to the impatience in our communities and wider society?

Impatience is a Virtue

Impatience is a virtue
Did no-one tell you
Patience is so yesteryear
Just for those who fear
All that is exciting or taboo

What good can come
From a patient hum
A steady stroll through life
Avoiding fun and strife
You might as well be numb

Get out there and live
You have to give
All of yourself to the cause
Sing until you are hoarse
Let go of all that is negative

Then you are caught
In a cycle fraught
With danger and dis-ease
Ceasing to please
All around who thought

Impatience is a virtue…
Patience is a virtue
Possess it if you can!

Attend…properly!

This week has felt rather busy, and as I look back I can see that I have definitely been guilty of cramming too much into my diary and therefore failing to give real time to anything. It has struck me that this is very much the way of our modern world: fit as much as you can into as little time as possible to prove how productive you can be! And yet, I’m not sure ministry is a business of productivity or a measuring of success…if it was, as the Church Times article about Broken asserts, many of us would be failures!

The week began with a baptism in our first service…

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…and the revival of a worship band with me on cajon in our second service.

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On Monday morning I decided to walk around a part of the parish: collar, rucksack and trainers on! This is becoming something of a routine, which I love! It gives me the space to respond to whatever comes my way…to attend! I was also combining the walk with a short photo shoot in each church, as setting the churches up on social media was also on my list of things to do for the week! It was lovely just to spend time alone in God’s presence as I worked.

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When I arrived at the second church, there was a lot of activity. We also had a young offender working with us. As I looked at him, whilst he had nothing to do, he looked completely bored and disinterested. God took over as I hauled him into the church, showed him how to use the camera and encouraged him to get lost in it. He certainly did, and there was a huge sense of pleasure as I watched his attention to detail develop, and his eye fine-tune to the potential of the camera. He took some beautiful photos with particular focus on light.

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The real reward came when I asked him whether he had enjoyed it, to which he replied, “I did actually”, and his whole face lit up as a broad smile crossed it – what a privilege! Yet it was one that I didn’t see until I was half a mile up the road, lamenting on how few people I had encountered that morning! I had been responsive, but completely unaware that God was with me in that whole encounter!

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A candle to remind me that Christ is with me was a bit of a theme this week in my encounters! One particular encounter really humbled me, as a woman asked me to address an envelope for her as she could not spell very well. She insisted on sharing every detail of the letter with me, which was a real privilege, and came with great responsibility. I would have been happy to just address the envelope, but I realised that she needed to share.

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Other encounters reminded me of the need to not only attend with people, but also to be mindful of ways in which they might practically need help. Gardens are beautiful, but can become extremely burdensome to someone who is housebound. Whilst they might not ask, can we do something to help as a church?

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That tied in with a brief exchange I had with STAR (Supporting Tenants and Residents) when thinking about how we could support their work in the parish. They said the one thing every agency struggles to provide at the moment is time…Attend!

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Lectio Divina also reminded me of how Ruth attended her mother-in-law, refusing to leave her side despite being given permission.

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Then I was reminded about the need to attend to the community – where is God already working? What is going on that we can join in with? This was part of an art exhibition of prisoners’ work, and was one of the most amazing drawings I have ever seen!

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Again and again I have come back to thinking about attending, being fully present in the flesh, being pervasive, almost, in our world.

Attend!

Attend! Listen! Watch and wait but what will I see? What will I hear? What am I even waiting for? A miracle, a bolt of lightening, the transfiguration or Jesus coming on a cloud in glory? Maybe one day, be prepared as they say; but no, that’s not what I mean. I’m talking about attending in the here and now; immanence rather than transience…being God with skin on or the hands and feet, eyes and ears of Jesus. Attend! Listen!

There is something in the saints saying God is with us come what may; God incarnate in you and in me. So attend, listen to that voice deep inside the soul.

Take care not to attend so much that you fail to see what is right in front of you though. Gazing up to the heavens, desperate to hear God’s guidance I almost didn’t see the hope offered through an exchange with an offender; the woman struggling to cross the road; and the man desperate to talk and be heard, had I not heard the pervasive plea from God, “Me in them not me for thee!”

The Art of Encounter

This week I had felt drawn to walk the parish. Having been given boundary maps and a Leicester A-Z last week I was fully equipped! Not being fully sure what I would find I set off on Monday morning after Morning Prayer, rucksack and camera in hand. It would be wonderful to have been able to walk the whole parish in that day, but one of the first things I became aware of was the sheer scale of it – this was a project not a small task!

This tree was my first encounter. I smiled to myself as my attention was drawn to it, wondering whether it would be a symbolic theme of my journey – I could not have seen at that point just how insightful that fleeting thought was! There was something about this dead tree which drew me…

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Continuing my walk I began to pass people on my way. Each time I passed someone I greeted them – it seemed like such a simple act and yet it led to so many different responses. I am still not really used to wearing a clerical collar; it’s comfortable but as I don’t see it, I often forget I am wearing it. I think the quick return greeting whilst continuing to stride ahead was a response to the collar – polite, but without a plan to engage as you never know what might happen next! A few people who were approaching me crossed the street well before we were at a safe distance for me to greet them, which made me more aware of being perceived to be part of an establishment as a cleric, someone to be avoided! Others just ignored me completely. Only one or two were happy to pass the time of day. This led me to think about what we have lost in our communities which has led to such mistrust even of a friendly smile…?

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Whilst thinking about our losses I began to wonder about the art of encounter. It seems relatively easy to encounter community en masse, but how can we begin to see individuals again?

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What needs to happen for one to trust another enough to allow them to look into their eyes, and know that they care?

Amongst other places on my walk I came across the local crematorium and cemetery. I became aware of the ways in which death can surround us so much that we fail to see the life.

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Perhaps it is little wonder when life can be so difficult, and lives chaotic. This view of society is often seen by the Police, which I learned something of as I met with a PCSO from the area.

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Later in the week I spent time with the food bank. There I found those with a desperate need for encounter, for someone just to listen to them, as they were given precious food items that I take for granted.

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I also joined a Knit and Natter group who wanted to encounter and share in each others lives as they knitted.

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Weekly pastoral visits bring welcome encounters to individuals who are otherwise housebound, and what a privilege and joy it is to be someone who brings light and laugher into someone’s day, whatever they are facing.

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When invited to a local school summer fair, encounters seemed slightly easier, especially when introduced by a trusted member of their community.

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Here people were willing to show their skills and pass the time of day with me – my henna tattoo was evidence of that!

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As I look back over the week I find myself concluding that the art of encounter is so complex. Some eagerly await and welcome it. Others absolutely turn away from it, perhaps even fear it. On ordination retreat we had the opportunity to have our feet washed by our Bishop, which I took. As Jesus washed his disciples’ feet he said “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me” (John 13:8) and this tradition has been passed down, where those who are to serve must also be willing to be served. It is such a humbling act, but what really pierced deep into my heart was the way that Bishop Martyn intentionally looked into my eyes, into my soul, and encountered me in a way that few people do. It made me realise how necessary and yet difficult encounter is – you never quite know what the other person is seeing. That said we are made in the image of God to be relational beings – we need encounter.

I am completely convinced of the need to just be present in community, willing to greet, be ignored or verbally abused, to walk alongside or to stand alone, to be the hands and feet, eyes and ears of Jesus.

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My challenge to you, should you choose to accept, is to walk around your community this week and greet all those who you meet. It is a tiny act, but it may well make a huge difference to some.

The Art of Encounter

“Death is nothing at all”
Can we really say this
When death and decay
Drain life day after day
Little by little leaning on
All that we know and own
Sapping all that we are
Hour by hour
Minute by minute
Death destroys
Something
Someone
Loved
Tick tick tick

Yet, like corn in a field
That grows and matures
Over the seasons
With sun and rain
In equal measure
Its fruit ripens and hardens
Then dries and dies
Seemingly useless
Yet within a small seed
Lies potential for new life
Nestling
Watching
Waiting
Tick tick tick

New life born perfect
Thrives in community
Love relationship
And solidarity
One encounters the other
As they look
And really see
Into the soul
The heart
As God in all glory
Encounters
Sees
Admires
This beautiful creation

First week in parish…

My first week in the parish has been amazing, wonderful and varied, whilst also providing challenges expected when getting to know new people and a new area – I only got lost once, thanks to the SatNav! I’ve been hugely blessed with people’s kindness and generosity and have ended the week so thankful for the experiences I have had.

There have been a number of threads running through the week, but the one which seems pertinent is that of #memory – memory making, memory lost, and memories to cherish as well as memories of how things used to be. My own memory making, and that of colleagues, has involved a number of celebrations following last weekend’s ordinations. It was just wonderful to share such special occasion with so many of my friends and family….

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The first few days in parish involved getting to know people who belong to the different groups which form part of our church community. I even got to play bingo with Tuesday Friends…although the competitive side of me was disappointed not to win!

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I had the privilege of witnessing the Pre-School Leavers’ Service, as they were presented with gifts to send them on their way. I’m not sure what was more moving; the performance or observing parents watching their child’s performance, keen to capture the moment. It was a beautiful example of memory-making and love.

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I also attended, and later led, my first Communion by extension in a Care Home – what a privilege to bring a breath of fresh air in the form of this sacred meal to people whose memory is perhaps not what it once was in some cases!

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Being present in the parish, as well as looking after my own needs at times, has meant that I’ve been wearing clothes that feel weird in public places, with a mixture of reactions. It’s amazing both how many people do and don’t notice!

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Nobody told me that the clerical collar would take some wearing in! I had been tugging at my collar for a few days, feeling a bit uncomfortable, before I noticed marks all around my neck where it had been rubbing!

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Sharing in Fr Clive’s first celebration of the Mass was a true privilege – and what a celebration it was!

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My interest in people and their stories has been fed this weekend, not least by one parishioner who invited me into his home where it became apparent just how dedicated to cherishing memories his late wife had been – each one encased in a ceramic thimble displayed around the house.

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My first Deanery Synod meeting led me to think about our churches, what purpose they serve today in our communities and how this differs from ‘how things used to be’… 

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Prayer for people, parish and world as a discipline is a habit which has been formed within me, but the sheer joy I have discovered this week in the silence of prayer as I bring situations and circumstances before God has been truly wonderful.

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On my day off I went into Leicester city to find schools congregating around the cathedral, having taken part in the big bike ride – the mixture of joy and exhaustion mirrored my own sentiments perfectly!

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I have witnessed just how precious memory is this week, how frightening it can be when it becomes hazy, and how threatening it can feel to challenge it. How aware of this are we as we interact with one another, with little idea of what each of us are really carrying?

Bringing all of these threads together I was reminded of a poem I wrote last year about memories:

The Echoing Tunnel

Complex journey; seemingly endless
tunnel, a tiny prick of brightness
in the distance – is this the holy grail?
Catch a glimpse of all that lay before…
nothing that darkness fails to obscure.
Of times gone by; experiences…
of people, places, words and faces.
Some are forgotten, distant and dim
whilst others continue to dwell within,
to haunt and taunt, calibrate to fail.
The eyes adjust, determination
over-rides defeat, condemnation
slips away slowly leaving room for
a hint of hope. Faint at first, still raw
from echoes of life lived long ago,
yet gradually it starts to grow.
Here, within the tunnel, a new pale
emerges – ceasing agitation
overwhelmed by anticipation.

Ordination

#700 Today marked my #ordinationceremony as #deacon. It was so beautiful to share this day with so many people who have walked with me and helped to shape me into who I am. It has been such an amazing journey so far, and yet “what feels like the end is often the beginning.” Thank you to all you beautiful people! Xx

Retreat

#699 #ordinationretreat begins here with #mixedemotions I am #signingoff from photographic reflections. Prayers for all on retreat and being ordained this weekend. May the Lord bless us and keep us, may he make His face to shine upon us and be gracious to us. Amen. 

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