Wednesday, 27 January 2010

You got to love a community with a sense of humour...

A still point in a turning world…

One of the (many) perks of being a minister is the expectation that we will spend a week each year on retreat…. indeed such is the expectation that many churches, including mine, contribute to the cost.

I was supposed to have the first week in January as for a retreat but my general inability to do anything well ahead of time meant that when I eventually got around to calling some retreat houses everywhere was full. As it turned out this was no bad thing as the weather being what it was there would have been little possibility of me getting there anyway.

Finally last week a combination of space in my diary, rapidly melting snow and spare beds at a retreat house saw me heading way up north to the mother house of the Northumbria Community.

I first came across the community at Greenbelt where they were running morning prayer in Soul Space. I fell in love with their liturgy and their community ethos and so welcomed this chance to go and experience it first hand. In fact so eager was I to go there that I must admit I turned up knowing little more than the title of the retreat “A still point in a turning world” – was there going to be organised sessions, guided prayer, spiritual direction?

The answer to that was no… what there was was the warmest of welcomes, evident in the pile of wellies, scarves, hats and gloves in the front hall available to be used by those daft enough to come to the wilds of Northumbria without and by the fact that there was always a kettle ready to boil on the aga in the kitchen.
what there was was the feeling of being totally at peace with the world. This house is really in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by the most beautiful and rugged countryside. There are comfy sofa’s, roaring fires, companionship or solitude as desired, and a gentle rhythm of community prayer.

What there was was freedom to just be. There are no expectations, no requirements, no obligations, just the company of fellow travellers.

And most importantly what there was was the chance to just stop.
I am 99% of the time a total Martha, always busy, always having a to do list a mile long and always feeling guilty that I am not doing more. Indeed I went on retreat with a pile of theological books I “needed” to read and several projects that “needed” planning…. and you know what I didn’t do any of it. Instead I drank endless cups of tea, had long conversations with wise and generous members of the community, lost myself in the beauty of the Celtic liturgy spoken out in their beautiful wooden chapel in the woods and allowed myself time to just breath…. it truly was a still point in my turning world…

We often talk about thin places, those places where the veil between God and mankind seems almost transparent – The Northumbria community is most definitely one of those places, and I thank God that I had the chance to experience it.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Rest in peace…

…. I was saddened to hear the news today that Miep Gies had died. Having reached the grand old age of 100 one cannot be sad for a life cut short but more for the loss of someone who was both a remarkable individual and the last surviving link to one of the most important stories to emerge from the second world war.

If her name is not familiar her story will be. Miep, along with her husband and 3 work colleagues, aided two Jewish families to hide in Nazi occupied Holland. One of those families was the Frank family and the diary of their daughter Ann is a worldwide best seller. It was Miep who rescued Ann’s diaries, left behind when the family were finally discovered. She kept it safe, never reading it, until she was able to give it to Ann’s father Otto, the only one of the hidden group to survive the war. She went on to aid with the publication of the diary and to spend her life working educating young people all over the world about the horrors of the holocaust.

Two things in particular strike me when I think of her. Firstly that she was, in her own words, a very ordinary person… and yet faced with an unimaginably difficult and dangerous situation she stepped up to the plate and gave her all. In an interview many years later she said “I am afraid that if people feel that I am a very special person, a sort of heroine, they may doubt whether they will do the same I once did. Not many consider themselves very talented or courageous and thus would refrain from helping endangered people. This the reason that I want everyone to know that I am a very common and cautious woman and definitely not a genius or dare-devil.I did help like so many others who ran the same or more risk than me. It was necessary so I helped."
“It was necessary so I helped “… it sounds so simple when she puts it like that, yet in reality she was risking her life, she lived in great danger for two years as day by day she kept the families going. Whatever she may say I believe it was a remarkable and courageous gesture for which I admire her tremendously.

Secondly, I admire the respect and dignity she gave to Ann. Miep never appears to have treated Ann as a child, even though the others in the house did. She talked honestly with her about what was happening outside the house, after their capture she retrieved the diaries from the hiding place. She understood their significance but never read them, respecting Ann’s privacy. It was only when Ann’s father gave permission that she read them and, recognising their potential, worked to get them published. It was through Miep’s work that Ann’s dream of becoming a published writer came true – a final act of love to the young woman who had come to mean so much to her.

I will always be grateful to Miep for bringing Ann’s story to the world and to me. She said a few years ago that "It surely is a painful experience to be the only survivor of the eight people in hiding and their five helpers, I miss them dearly, because I can no longer exchange memories and no longer enjoy their friendship." I pray now that she is resting in peace and can once again be with those she loved.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

10 things I have learnt in my first six months of being a curate…

1) When the bride and groom arrive so late for their wedding that there is only 25 minutes until the next church booking is right about the time when you learn which bits of the marriage service are optional.

2) Dave Walker cartoons are soooooo true.

3) Wearing a clerical collar around the parish leads to some startling encounters including the inebriated gentleman who when encountering me in the street looked me up and down with a shocked expression on his face and exclaimed “you’re a f*****g lady vicar you are, aren’t you?”

4) No matter how much previous experience you have had the first time you preach in front of your new congregation is very scary (as is the second and third…)

5) Hawaiian pizzas are not a good idea for a youth club pizza party – no one eats them

6) Deptford rocks!

7) Putting your feet up on a Sunday night after church is so sweet when Monday is your day off.

8) No one asks you the questions you have been taught answers to like “what are the eschatological implications of a Christian view of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights” but instead ask really complicated things that you don’t have a clue about like “Do you know how to deflate a bouncy castle?”

9) It’s amazing how much people are capable of if they are supported and encouraged well.

10) To be able to minister full time is an immense privilege, and in those rare moments when you forget that, God always sends someone along to remind you.