Gulp! Writing and delivering my first sermon (and why it was a great experience)

On Sunday, I climbed into the pulpit to deliver a sermon for the first time. Having been involved in public speaking in the past (I was the head of the Student Forum (student council) at secondary school, which involved a good amount of public speaking) my confidence was knocked when I started university, to the extent that I felt unable to raise my hand to answer a question in lectures. So having had very little opportunity for public speaking since, the prospect of finding myself stood in a pulpit about to share my thoughts and musings on the Bible passages of the day was a daunting prospect. But it was also an exciting and humbling prospect: the opportunity to share how God was speaking to me through these passages with two congregations who have welcomed me warmly since I arrived just 9 months ago was a huge privilege. Thankfully the event wasn’t captured on any sort of recording, but I thought that I’d share the ‘script’ that I used to encourage others to consider having a go at giving a talk, homily or testimony in their own churches, home groups, or other setting – if I can do it, anyone can

Readings: Ezekiel 17:22-24; 2 Corinthians 5:6-17; Mark 4:26-34

Opening prayer: May the words of my lips and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord our rock and our redeemer.

Now unfortunately for you all, [incumbent] has decided to let me loose in the pulpit today, so I hope you’ll bear with me as I share some of my thoughts about our readings today.

I’m sure you’ve all noticed that there was a lot of talk about seeds in our gospel reading today.  You may have heard the parable of the mustard seed plenty of times before, but perhaps haven’t heard the first parable as often.  Unlike the parable of the mustard seed it doesn’t have an official title; instead, it’s referred to by many different names, my favourite of which is “the parable of the seed growing secretly” – I think it’s the element of mystery in this title that I’m drawn to!  I’m sure that you all remember planting cress seeds as children: sitting a little pot on the windowsill with your seeds in it, and – if you were anything like me – overwatering it in your enthusiasm! – then watching with amazement as over the next few days it sprouted, and green shoots emerged from the tiny little seeds. No matter how many times I planted these seeds, the result never failed to amaze me.  There’s something about the life and growth of seeds into their various forms that sparks a childlike curiosity within me, a curiosity which is always amazed to see that the seeds have grown while I wasn’t looking, and which is always fascinated by the mysterious workings of seeds as they grow secretly.  So just for fun, as I had seeds on the mind this week, I decided to replicate the cress seed experiments of my childhood with mustard seeds, and grew this little pot over the past week.  It serves no purpose other than to confirm that I am still fascinated by the mystery of seed growing!

But as well as seeds, there’s other talk of life and creation in our readings today.  In our epistle we hear St Paul trying to explain what Christ’s death means to him, and encouraging the Christians in Corinth to change their perspective on life, love, and creation.  We read,

“For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died.  And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.  From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way.  So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”

For me, this passage speaks about two things: the first is the “new creation” that comes through Christ, his actions bestowing love on all creation and making everything new.  Nothing is regarded “from a human point of view” any longer – there is a unity between all of creation, a unity which we are a part of.  Thomas Merton, a monk and great spiritual writer, describes this unity in one of his writings as follows:

“There is in all visible things an invisible fecundity, a dimmed light, a meek namelessness, a hidden wholeness. This mysterious Unity and Integrity is in all things an inexhaustible sweetness and purity, a silence that is a fount of action and joy. It rises up in wordless gentleness and flows out to me from the unseen roots of all created being, welcoming me tenderly, saluting me with indescribable humility. This is at once my own being, my own nature, and the Gift of my Creator’s Thought and Art within me, speaking as Hagia Sophia, speaking as my sister, Wisdom. I am awakened, I am born again at the voice of this my Sister, sent to me from the depths of the divine fecundity.” (“Hagia Sophia,” Emblems of a Season of Fury, p61.)

This unity with creation is what leads me to reflect on the second aspect of this reading: which is that this unity serves as a reminder that Christ died, rose, and ascended because God loves us and all his creation.  It is this love that urges St Paul on and to which we are called to respond, living as if we have been born into a new life, urged on ourselves by Christ’s love.  So how do we respond to such a powerful act of love?

For some, like Merton, this “urging on” comes in the form of desiring to know God in a deeper, more intimate way – he writes of the “yearning for the simple presence of God, for a personal understanding of his word, for knowledge of his will and for capacity to hear and obey him.”  For others, responding to God’s love means doing new things, giving up old things, or adopting a radically different lifestyle.  But I’d like to suggest that our response to God’s love may begin simply with our accepting life as a gift bestowed on us by our loving God, and allowing ourselves to be guided by love, seeing God’s creation the way that he does.  When love becomes our driving force, urging us on, we allow it to govern our thoughts and actions.  Love works in us, and through us, in ways that we don’t often understand or see happening – just like the seed growing secretly in Mark’s gospel.  We may make a conscious decision to do a good deed or to say a kind word, but just as the seed grows in the soil as the sower gets on with his life, love works in us in the same way, unseen, constantly growing and developing, always at work even when we can’t see it happening, as we too get on with our lives.

But what role do we play in the life of the seed?  If our response to God’s love is to share that love with others, allowing ourselves to be guided by the spirit of love, then we may become like the sower in the first parable, scattering seed on the ground whilst getting on with our lives.  We may find ourselves prompted to do and say small things in love, whether it be donating to a food bank, speaking kind words to a troubled friend, giving a homeless person the change in our purse, choosing to buy eco-friendly products, or any number of things.  In doing so, small acts of kindness become seeds, which in their very sowing share the good news of God’s love for all, and we become the sower, scattering the seed and getting on with our lives whilst “the earth produces of itself”.  We are told nothing of the sower, or of the progress of the seed – all that we know is that the seed was scattered, and “when the grain was ripe” it was harvested.  Perhaps what this means for us is not to be concerned with the progress of the seeds we sow, but to continue to scatter them anyway, and be ready for the coming harvest.

We all know that harvest is a time of great celebration, particularly in the days when a good harvest meant security through the harsh winter months, and was traditionally celebrated by both peasants and gentry.  Cornwall is renowned for its harvest celebration, known, and probably pronounced incorrectly, as Guldize.  This was a celebration at the end of the harvest, which began with a tradition known as crying the neck, to celebrate the gathering of the last neck of corn.  After this, the celebrations would continue with a feast at the landowner’s home where he would sit down to celebrate with his workers.  This scene may sound familiar to Poldark fans, when Francis marks the end of the harvest season (in series 2) with this celebration.  All of this gives me the impression of a big celebration where the whole community comes together to celebrate the harvest.  So, when our first parable tells us that the sower returns to the grain “because the harvest has come”, I think that we should add to that “and it’s time to celebrate.”  We can be the sower who scatters the seed, sharing the news of God’s love with others through simple but meaningful actions and words, but we are also invited to the harvest celebration, to be the workers sitting down at God’s table to eat, drink and celebrate with him.  We may not know what happens to the seeds once we’ve scattered them, but I think that it’s important that, encouraged by the spirit of love, we continue to scatter those seeds of love on as much ground as possible.

But why the mustard seed?  Jesus describes the mustard plant as “the greatest of all shrubs”, but the people listening would’ve considered sowing mustard seeds as likely as we would consider planting knotweed in our veggie patches!  It’s not a seed that most people would sow; it grows, spreads and is hard to eradicate; it’s a seed which is unlikely to produce a good harvest, is hardly as magnificent as Jesus makes it out to be, and gets blown in the wind and stuck to hikers’ shoelaces so that it grows where it wills.  To humans, it’s a nuisance, but to the birds it’s a place to nest in and make their home.  This then, is the metaphor for the seeds that we are sowing: seeds of love and good news which do as they please, spread far and wide, and produce an unlikely harvest.  The earth produces of itself the fruit of the seeds that we scatter in its own time, and I hope that as we continue to sow seeds of love, we are eagerly awaiting the harvest celebration.

And so, I end with some questions to think and reflect on: What does it mean for you that God welcomes you to his table to celebrate the harvest with him? How might you sow seeds of love and kindness with the people you meet? And what is the harvest that you’d like to see in your community?

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Writing and Purpose

I hate writing. Always have.

I remember being genuinely and unstoppably excited about learning to read and do maths in primary school. I was like a sponge soaking up information. Books were a revelation. I remain genuinely grateful to people who write them, so that I can read. I am sorry that I will not ever return the favour.

The worst bit of primary school, maybe apart from painting pictures, was having to write stories. I really struggled to come up with ideas. I did not see the point in trying to make my stories vivid and exciting – they just weren’t, I knew that, so why pretend? I put great effort in trying to convince my poor Mum that homework tasks like turning a comic into a written story were really stupid and futile, since surely everyone could work out from the pictures what was happening and therefore writing any further words would be a great waste of time. She was unimpressed…

My growing interest in maths and natural sciences thankfully helped me to avoid writing as much as possible in my later school and university career until it got to the point of writing dissertations. That was no fun. I pushed myself through writing up my Master thesis, but the perceived futility of spending months of my life writing a PhD dissertation that I knew nobody apart from the two examiners would ever read eventually got the better of me. I gave up on that one.

And then somebody quite seriously suggested I should be a priest. I had no problems at all coming up with lots of reasons why that was a stupid idea. That fact that most priests have to write a sermon every single week, or – horror over horrors – even more than just one, was probably one of my better excuses. It didn’t work though: Here I am, six weeks after receiving a recommendation for training towards ordination from the Bishop’s Advisory Panel, preparing to go to theological college this summer.

Preaching has, of course, happened in the meantime. As part of our internship, we are given plenty of opportunities to be involved in leading worship in various ways, and so I have, helped along by advice and feedback from the ministers I was working with, written an all-age talk as well as a handful of sermons and short reflections – and there are a few more in the pipeline. Surprisingly, I really enjoyed the process. Maybe it is because, for the first time, I feel that I have something important and relevant to talk about. When I sit down to write a sermon, I know what I am doing this for. I picture the people I am writing for and ask myself how I can help them relate to the passage of Scripture I am speaking about. My words matter as soon as there is the slightest chance that they can build a bridge for someone towards a clearer understanding or a closer relationship with God. It seems worth putting in effort when I have the genuinely exciting story of God’s love to tell.

Here’s hoping that that will carry through for a while when the volume of writing work increases. Then I’ll only have to figure out how to extent that new-found enthusiasm to other areas of writing. Essays are relatively fine, actually, because I do appreciate how having to express myself in ways that other people can follow helps me to clarify my own thinking.

But blogging, for example? Why do people blog (unless they are told to) and what for? I have no idea if anybody reads this, who reads it, why you are following our blog, and thus what would be helpful or interesting to you. Blogging feels like writing into a vacuum: Are my words disappearing into the endless depths of the internet or have just convinced a bunch of strangers that I am a complete weirdo? And yet, there might be other weirdos like me out there who can draw something useful out of this. So here you are, help yourselves.

My mini monastic experience

As many reading this will know, at the beginning of this month our interns, warden and deputy warden went away for a retreat-come-monastic experience. We spent a full week in the beautiful setting of St Mary’s Abbey, West Malling (Kent), living alongside the community of Benedictine nuns who calling Malling Abbey their home. In this post, I’m hoping to answer some of the FAQs as well as reflect on my time there.

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Rear view of the cloister, as seen from the nun’s private garden.

Firstly, thank you very much to everyone who shared their questions on social media! I’ve tried to answer as many as possible, so I hope that you enjoy reading and learning about my experience. If you have any other questions, please do keep sharing them! I will try to answer them either in another blog or Facebook post, or respond directly (and quite possibly dreckly…)

Q: What was the best thing about your stay? And what did you find the most challenging? A: Two things were the best part of the experience for me: getting to know all of the sisters and discover the person behind the habit – how they came to be there, why they felt drawn to it, what they do to entertain themselves etc. – as well as using the time to reconnect with God without all of the worries of the outside world to distract me. The most challenging part was spending so much time with other people! As an introvert, I need plenty of time by myself to regain my energy. Luckily after a couple of days I knew my schedule well enough to know when I could get away for a few minutes by myself!

Q: Do the nuns have a television? A: The nuns themselves don’t own a TV, but there is a TV in one of the conference rooms on site (used by St Augustine’s College of Theology) which the sisters use to screen big events such as royal weddings or (as when Tess was there as a novice nun) the opening/closing ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics.

Q: Are they [the sisters] escaping from reality or changing our reality? A: Good question! I would say that whilst the sisters are separated from the wider world (they have all chosen to join an enclosed order which has little interaction with the wider world) they are not escaping from reality, but instead creating a distance between themselves and the distractions of the world to focus on their way of life which revolves around prayer, work, and study. I think that it is about removing themselves from distractions rather than escapism. As for changing our reality, they certainly changed mine!

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The Sisters of Malling Abbey and the Way2 Community

Q: Was it a silent retreat? A: It wasn’t a full week of silence, but we tried to keep to the greater silence (complete silence) at the same times as the sisters as much as possible, which was from after Compline (7:30pm) until after the Eucharist the following morning (8am). Apart from that, we chatted as normal in our kitchen but kept talking to a minimum when in the cloister.

Q: How does the experience compare to the Way2 Community life? A: It is similar in the sense that the life of the community at Malling Abbey centres around the seven daily offices (prayer times) and Eucharist in the same way that our day revolves around our two daily offices (morning and evening prayer). There was also similarity in the sense of community, of coming together for meals, and having a sense of self whilst seeing your identity as a member of your community. I would say that the experience was similar to the Way2 Community life, but on a very different scale!

Q: Did you miss social media? A: No! Given that I check Facebook and Twitter multiple times a day, it seems odd that I had absolutely no desire to check out either whilst I was there (especially given the number of notifications that I had accumulated by the end of the week!) but I actually enjoyed having a week away from social media. (This also answers another question: “what surprised you most?” – that I was so utterly unconcerned about the things that usually distract me in my daily life!)

Q: Has this experience changed your view of ‘rule of life’ in Christian community, and if so, why? A: I would say that this experience has shown me the value of living by a rule of life for the harmony of a community, and how rules don’t necessarily restrict and restrain people but can set them free.

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The family of moorhens whom we spent many an hour watching from our kitchen window

Q: Do you think that you could ever settle into a routine of early morning prayer/getting up so early? A: If I’m honest, no. I really enjoy and depend on beginning my day in prayer (both my personal prayer time and our corporate morning prayer which it precedes), but I enjoy lie-ins too… and my idea of a lie-in isn’t 4:30am!!

Q: Were there any young nuns there? A: The two youngest sisters are aged 60 and 64 respectively, so the answer depends on your definition of ‘young’!

Q: How did you feel that the life of a nun fitted with modern life? Did you find it difficult or refreshing to step away from modern life into the routine of an Abbey? A: I found it really refreshing – I could liken my experience at Malling Abbey to taking a breath of fresh air after being in a room that I hadn’t realised was stuffy and claustrophobic. But it did feel like I was entering a space where the rules of time didn’t apply in the same way as they do for most of us! I think that some elements and practices of the community’s way of life can be brought out into the wider world (this is what their oblates, extended non-resident members of the community, do as they seek to say the offices and live the life in the outside world) but the whole way of life within the enclosure walls felt very different to modern life.

Q: Are you going to be a nun? A: No! To quote myself in a journal entry that I wrote whilst on retreat: “This week has proved both fascinating and hugely thought-provoking, and whilst I believe that my calling lies in drawing others into deeper relationships with God, coming alongside people of all walks of life and journeying with them, and sharing the good news of God’s love with those who are yet to perceive it, the time that I have spent here at Malling Abbey has given me a greater appreciation for the monastic life and those called to it, has given me the space and time to draw near to God, and given me tools, resources and techniques to bring into my daily life.”

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Myself, Melissa and Sophie enjoying some recreation time in the garden

My time at Malling Abbey was insightful, eye-opening and profound. I learnt much about the monastic life: its rules, quirks and habits (pun intended!), as well as its sense of deep-rootedness, its prayer life that seems as easy and rhythmic as breathing, and the people who are drawn to it. I entered the enclosure thinking that I understood the monastic life in theory but unsure as to why so many people are drawn to it… I left a week later realising that I could not truly know the monastic life unless I experienced it fully for myself, but wiser about why some people are drawn to it! I found my time at Malling Abbey very moving, but cannot yet put into words why or what exactly I felt whilst I was there – was it a sense of peace, of being drawn closer to God, of realising that my worries are insignificant in the grand scheme of things, of knowing that I am on the right path, of contentment, or all of the above?! I cannot yet say because for me the experience was an emotional one, and emotions are often so hard to put into words; all that I can express now is that somewhere in my being I felt that I was where God had intended for me to be at that time. I end with the final words of my journal entry written whilst I was sat in my favourite spot in the abbey grounds (which can be seen in the photo below) and which follow on from the quote in the final question above: “I hope and pray that it will not be long before I return here.”

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My favourite spot in the abbey grounds was this bench beside the stream which runs from one side of the abbey grounds to another. I was drawn to this bench day after day

More than just a roast dinner

When people think about a Ministry Experience Scheme (as the Way2 Community is), I imagine that they picture we interns hard at work in our parishes and on our external placements, or perhaps – given the focus on community living that is so important to us – our communal work and prayer times. In short, the picture is formed of a person growing in their ministry, faith and relationship with one another. But another equally important part of the internship is growing into yourself, learning new life skills, and developing personal skills… such as cooking your first roast dinner!

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A key part of living as a community is the sharing of household responsibilities. We divide between us the cleaning tasks on a rota basis, and share responsibility for cooking dinners (this is less predictable as once a week we sit down to decide who is cooking on which night, and what they will be cooking, based on who is available on any given evening). Having never roasted a potato or made proper homemade gravy before I moved here in September, I have learnt how to do these things gradually over the past few months and have built my way up to cooking full roast dinner two weeks in a row! As well as learning an important life skill (cooking, baking, and coffee making are top life skills in my book), I’ve also discovered a real joy in cooking food to share with others – something that previously only applied to baking, for me! When I started this internship, I expected to develop my spiritual life, learn more about myself, and further discern what God might be calling me to, but I didn’t expect to learn to love cooking roast dinners! I feel that I’m ready and raring to face the greatest challenge of all later this year… cooking Christmas dinner!

Reflecting on my sense of calling

When I first made contact with the Way2 Community (on the 3rd April last year) I described my sense of calling as such: “I am at a stage in my life where I feel strongly that I am called to ordained ministry, and wish to do something proactive about this calling!  As I finish off my degree and prepare to graduate this July, I feel that the doors are open for me to seize any opportunity I can to explore what I believe God is calling me to.” Now, 9 months on, I reflect on this sense of calling and how it has developed.

So, am I still “at a stage in my life where I feel strongly that I am called to ordained ministry, and wish to do something proactive about this calling?” In short, yes! Nine months ago my sense of calling was to ordained ministry as a general concept, having felt for a number of years that I was called to be a priest but not having considered what this might look like after I was (potentially, and God-willing) ordained. However, this sense of calling has developed as I – during the course of my internship so far – have had a great number of experiences, learnt more about myself and innumerable other things, and reflected on how my calling fits in to what I have done and learnt. In my regular chats with Tess, our Warden, I am asked “how is your sense of vocation?” At first, this seemed a very strange question to me because my answer was “the same as it was before!” But in being asked this question, I have found myself thinking about it on occasion, asking myself “is my sense of vocation the same as it was last week/last month/yesterday/6 months ago?” and have – to my surprise, at first – found that the answer is no longer “the same as it was before” but “it has developed from what I thought it was last week/last month/yesterday/6 months ago.” One way in which it has developed has been in regards to the area of ministry I feel called to. When I first contacted the Way2 Community, I felt called to the role of priest and had a particular interest in rural ministry, so naturally thought that I must be called to be a vicar in a rural parish. Now, my sense of calling is not just to some vague notion of one day being ‘The Priest’ or ‘A Vicar’, instead I have been able to pinpoint certain elements of my calling and feel confident in saying that my calling is to ordained parish ministry, and to identify areas of priestly ministry that I both feel particularly called to and others that I do not. I have realised the need to look beyond ordination as an ‘end goal’, viewing it instead as a step along the path of my future ministry. As for the doing something proactive about this calling, that I have taken up this internship and continue to throw myself into every available opportunity is answer enough!

I believe…

It would appear that blog posts are like busses: you don’t get any for weeks, and then two turn up at once! This is a copy of my most recent blog post on my personal blog, so if you have read that one then you won’t find anything new to read here I’m afraid!

I decided that it would be good to reflect upon my day today, which has been particularly thought-provoking. You might remember from my earlier blogs that I am currently on a placement with the Coordinating Chaplain of the Multifaith Chaplaincy Team at Exeter/Falmouth Universities. This week the team are leading a campaign/exhibit to celebrate Interfaith Week, which celebrates the diverse range of faiths and beliefs on campus, as well as the ways in which people of differing beliefs can – and do – work together and alongside one another. The campaign that the Chaplaincy team are running is a simple but, I think, highly effective one: students and staff alike are asked to have their photograph taken with a Polaroid (who knew they were still around?!) and then write below it one sentence to complete the opening statement “I believe…”

Day one was a great success – there were 33 images on the board after just four hours, and it appeared that once a few images went up others were intrigued to find out more and join in themselves. The statements ranged from deep, philosophical statements about the nature of humanity through to statements of faith, to more lighthearted statements such as “I believe in guacamole/sharks/superheroes/myself”! But the greatest measure of ‘success’ (I’m reluctant to use such a loaded word) came in the form of the first person to make their ‘statement of faith’ coming back a few hours later to add more to her statement; to me it seemed to show that the question of “what is it that I believe?” had been stewing in her mind as much as it had in my own, and I hope that it had the same impact on many more. My prayer is that many of the people who took part today, those who will take part in the coming days, and those who just stop to read the statements, will go away asking themselves that same question, and that they will either come to an answer which reflects the very core of their being, or will be motivated to go in search of that answer.

The difficulty of completing this simple task took me by surprise – it took me over an hour to settle on my one-line statement of belief! Given that my housemates/fellow interns have just finished (or are in the process of finishing) writing 2500 word essays in response to the question “What is the Gospel?” – an essay which is intended to get the writer thinking about what it is that they believe and is the core message that they wish to share in their ministry – I found myself wondering how on earth I could condense the various elements of my own gospel/core belief into one simple sentence. But I found it a very rewarding challenge, and asked myself “What is one thing that I want to tell others about my faith/beliefs? What is my belief when it is stripped back without any extra padding to ‘bulk it out’, a statement of faith that says “forget all of the theological reasoning and explanations”, the statement at the very core of my being and my relationship with God and others?” There were a good handful of photos/statements from Christians stating their faith in God and Christ, none of which were the same as another, but I realised that for me there could only be one statement that summarises my gospel, my ‘good news’ that I want to share with others. I believe…

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Living in community: expectations vs. reality

Not too long ago, I was sat in my home in Somerset looking through this website and reading this blog, wondering what life in the Way2 Community was like. Do the interns really (I mean, really) say Morning Prayer at 8am every day? Do they rush around from one meeting to another? Do they get thrown in to preaching in their churches straight away? Do they ever get any time to themselves away from their housemates? I thought that it would be good to use this blog post to reflect on what my expectations were prior to starting the internship in comparison to what life in community is actually like.

Question 1: Do the interns really (I mean, really) say Morning Prayer at 8am every day?

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Candlelit Evening Prayer in our community chapel.

Answer: yes… and no!  We do say Morning Prayer at 8am five days a week, and at 8:30am on the days when we are joined by Tess, Melissa and others. When I first heard that this was a part of the internship, I wondered how I would cope with waking up before 8am every day, but in reality I have found myself adjusting to this quite easily (with the help of a mug of coffee beside me in the chapel…!) We each cope in different ways – the early birds amongst us like to be in bed by 10:30pm, whereas our night owls go to bed later and nap during the day! We all feel that maintaining a regular schedule of communal prayer is a vital part of community life, and so we make the effort to be in the chapel for 8 o’clock each morning (even if our minds are still asleep in our beds upstairs!)

Question 2: Do they rush around from one meeting to another?

Answer: When reading the community blog, I got the impression of the then-current interns rushing around from one meeting to another – meetings with clergy, DDOs, wardens, parishioners and so on. But in reality, there aren’t as many meetings as I thought! We have individual meetings with Tess once a fortnight, and I personally meet with my supervising incumbent (the priest whose parish I am placed in) once a fortnight, sit in on team meetings with the clergy team of my placement parishes once a week, and have only met with the DDO once so far! It varies week by week, but I feel that I spend much more of my time ‘doing stuff’ then sitting in meetings.

Question 3: Do they get thrown in to preaching in their churches straight away?

Answer: No! I have been with my placement churches for 8 weeks now and, after discussion with my supervising incumbent, have agreed that preaching is something to focus on in the future, but not a priority for now.

Question 4: Do they ever get any time to themselves away from their housemates?

Answer: This was the question that was most on my mind until the day that I moved in to the community house. I am an introvert, which means that I need time alone in order to regain my energy and be able to enjoy spending time with others. I was worried that living in community might mean that the only time I get to myself is when I go to bed, a thought that horrified my highly-introverted self (how on earth would I cope with constant socialising?!) But I have found that I have plenty of time to myself, enough for me to relax and re-energise ready for the next event/day. After dinner we often head straight for our own rooms (especially after we’ve had a long and tiring day) which is when I like to catch up on TV shows, and during the day if we are not on a placement we have time to spend preparing for/writing essays for the discernment process or taking some free time to relax (I like to spend free moments during the day reading novels). I also find time to myself between my commitments during the day – whether in the house or out and about. But time alone is always balanced with time spent together as a community – whether that be in Morning and Evening Prayer, at mealtimes, or in time set aside to socialise together. And despite the fact that I definitely need ‘me time’, I also find the time spent together as a community vital for both my own well-being and for our ability to live together effectively. I am learning to appreciate board games (even if I don’t love them yet!), found great value in the day we spent arranging our bookshelves together, and really enjoyed our trip to Chapel Porth a few weeks ago. So for an introvert such as myself, community life is not as terrifying a thought as it might seem!

 

22549754_824944851018384_4696094607150104995_nAnd a final thought that I would say is critically important for anyone wondering what life in the Way2 Community is like: we drink a lot of tea (and coffee!) Despite having a proportion of mugs to community members and wardens of at least 3:1, we have been known to run a dishwasher cycle early because we have used up all of our mugs! Life in community is challenging but hugely beneficial, structured but with lots of flexibility, and centred around three communal activities: prayer, meals, and hot drinks!

A welcome, some waffle and… a wedding?!

To all reading this blog for the first time: welcome!  To all who have read it before: welcome back!

My name is Natalie, and I’m the newest recruit of the Way2 Community.  Having attended a lecture given by David Horrell (professor of New Testament studies at the University of Exeter) less than 48 hours ago, about how we might understand the identity of the early Jews and Christians – in which he suggested that what you choose to share about your identity is often ideologically charged – here are the aspects of my identity which I would like to share with you (ideology and all!)  I am proud to hail from the county whose name means ‘Land of Summer’ and is home to the best cheese and ciders around (Somerset), am an avid dog lover, a Harry Potter nerd, a fan of baking (and eating) cakes, and have recently graduated from the University of Exeter with a degree in Theology.  So, how did I end up relocating deeper into the West Country than I ever thought I would?  Upon nearing my graduation, having begun to explore my calling with a Vocations Advisor in my Diocese, I realised that a great decision lay before me: do I continue to discern my calling ‘on the side’ of my other commitments, or do I take the opportunity to give it my all and throw myself into a completely new way of life which seeks to serve and listen to God?  That I am writing for this blog is answer enough!

Since moving to Falmouth 12 days ago, I have begun settling into community life.  I am developing new routines, meeting lots of people (trying desperately to remember their names!), figuring out how to negotiate the quirky Cornish road junctions, and doing all of the other things that go with moving to a new place.  Our first week in Falmouth was very relaxed, as we set up our house and settled in.  I learnt that my non-parish placement will be with the Chaplaincy team at Penryn campus, which is shared by Falmouth University and the University of Exeter, and after meeting some of the staff and seeing the chaplaincy building I’m very excited for this placement to begin.  I have also met the incumbent who I will be working with for my parish placements, have been to one of the two churches that I will be based in and attended my first evening class with the SWMTC third year ordinands.  While no two days will be the same, there are important parts of each day that are consistent: our coming together as a community to share Morning and Evening Prayer, and eating meals together.  We feel that it is important for us to share fellowship, and to sustain a steady rhythm of prayer that brings us together as a community.

My time in Cornwall has also been used to undertake some self-reflection.  A few events have instigated this, such as my first evening class.  Thus far, my experience of theological studies has been from a purely academic perspective, in which my personal faith has played little part.  It was, therefore, a surprise to me when in my first lecture we were asked to choose a few verses from the chapter we were studying which we might base a sermon on and to identify the key points that we would wish to convey in that sermon.  I found this task extremely difficult (which is not particularly surprising, given that I have never written a sermon before!) and felt rather foolish when I fumbled my way through an explanation of the verses which I had chosen.  Upon later reflection, it occurred to me that my approach to reading the Bible has always been to see what I, personally, can learn from the passage that I am reading – rarely has it occurred to me to consider questions such as “what might someone who is [in a particular situation] think of this text?” or “how might this passage be misinterpreted?”  My approach to the Bible must – and shall – change, as I am now aware of my tendency to read and study it for my own interest and growth rather than for others’.

Another, much stranger, cause of my self-reflection has been my dreams – or, rather, one dream in particular.  I am no stranger to peculiar dreams, but since moving to Falmouth I have had vividly eccentric dreams every night.  Some are so bonkers that they can only be the result of my imagination going into overdrive, with no subconscious meaning to them!  One dream, however, stuck in my mind for some time.  In this dream, I was engaged to marry someone who I knew and liked well enough but wasn’t convinced that I wanted to marry.  I was anxious and dreading the wedding, and as the day drew closer I felt increasingly uneasy.  By the day of the wedding, I had made up my mind that I would not marry this man and did not go.  Some days later (I’m guessing – the passing of time is extremely unrealistic in my dreams!) our families came together to persuade me that I had made a mistake, and their convincing arguments swayed me to agree to marry this man… again!  Although my feelings towards him had not changed, the urgings of the two families convinced me the marriage was in my best interests.  I’m afraid that those of you wanting to know how the story ended will never know, as I woke up before my dream-self ever got to the (second) wedding day!  This certainly wasn’t the weirdest dream that I have ever had, but that it lingered in my thoughts for so long afterwards bothered me.  It occurred to me one day that the reason I was so bothered by this dream was that I could see a lot of elements of my real self in the dream version of myself.  Whilst I would never go so far as to marry someone just because I was told that it was the right thing to do, I can recall many occasions in my life when I have been persuaded to do things that I was not comfortable doing because others have said that I should.  I know that I am a people-pleaser, and often give the answers that I think people want to hear rather than admitting the truth, but could this willingness to please others ever be detrimental to my wellbeing?  What could I allow myself to be talked into, just because someone else makes a strong argument for it? How far would I get myself into a difficult situation before I said no?  As I discern whether I am called to a life of ministry and service, I need to be aware that I will be asked to do many things, likely with compelling arguments as to why I should do so, and that it is alright to say no if the wellbeing of myself – or others – is at stake.  My willingness to please others is a part of my character which I will now be more aware of, and reflect upon, as I go forward in life.  Who knew that a dream about ‘the wedding that never was’ could lead to such deep revelations?!

Faithful Connection

P1030333.jpgAs a self-confessed gadget geek who left my software career to spend a couple of years in a monastery, I was once asked to help create a retreat workshop on the benefits of giving up technology. Who are we when we’re disconnected from Google, Twitter and the rest? Leave your smartphones behind and experience life first hand!

Sadly, I knew I was a fraud.

During my time as a novice nun, the internet had only reached as far as an antiquated PC in the bursar’s office, and a tentative proposal to permit the sisters to use the internet during a one hour window on a Sunday afternoon was soundly defeated.

But I had come prepared.

Knowing that I was supposed to live in poverty with no access to money, I prepaid for a year’s data on my phone and hid it in my luggage when I came to stay. Since the sisters’ rooms are private and sacrosanct, I could lie in bed checking the news after lights-out with no fear of discovery… that is, until the week the whole community went sick with a vicious stomach bug and the infirmarian came into my room to treat me and discovered the gadget I was too sick to hide.

Once I recovered I was summoned by Mother Abbess who told me with a wry smile that I had “committed a grievous sin, sister”. I dutifully handed over my phone, promising repentance and conversion of heart. Of course, as a true addict I had a backup plan – my old Kindle with the always-free 3G connection and basic internet browser. What aging nun would suspect my innocent book-reader was also a window onto the outside world?

What compelled this need to be connected? I went to the abbey seeking silence in which to pray and learn to be a better person, and I’d really begun to appreciate how mental knots unravel and relax when there’s nothing to be done except the job at hand. When you’re spending the next hour ironing veils in silence, and there’s no benefit at all to getting it done any sooner, your senses open up and simple things like the smooth texture of the fabric and the smell of the steam iron and the light slanting through the laundry window and the clanking of the ancient pipework, all become elements of perfect satisfaction in the moment.

But as soon as you start wanting your task to end so you can do something more entertaining or more important, time gets slower, frustration increases, people seem more irritating, and life is something that gets in the way, rather than a source of joy and wonder.

My own fear was being left behind by the zeitgeist. In the summer of 2012, hidden in the abbey, I completely missed the London Olympics, and I felt like I was losing my identity. Everyone else had this profound shared experience and I stepped out of the room and missed it. I came to understand why the sisters were only allowed to read newspapers a week old: we can really get addicted to being ‘up to date’.

It all comes down to our sense of identity. Where is our treasure? The rich young man couldn’t give up his wealth to follow Jesus, but it’s not just wealth that gets in the way. It’s anything that’s so central to who we are that to let it go would be like tearing off our own limb. Jesus is ruthless. Just cut it off, he says, pluck it out. I’ve seen from the monastery that he’s right. But…

(This post was written by Tess, warden of the Way2 Community,
for the All Saints Highertown blog, while she was on placement there.)

 

I am the gate for the sheep

As part of our engagement with our placement churches we are given the opportunity to preach (with some coaching from our very helpful and encouraging clergy). So here is Christine’s attempt to make sense of Luke 10:1-10.

“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.  They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

Well, I am a city girl. I grew up in an apartment block wedged in between the motorway and a busy high street, and the only little bit of green was the watercress and chives we grew in a flowerpot on the balcony. No sheep in sight – apart from the little cuddly toy I brought back from a holiday in the countryside, where at least I learned that real animals don’t have a lot in common with Shaun the Sheep.

But I have to admit that it wasn’t until I did a bit of research for this sermon that I learned that sheep stealing is a thing. And I am not talking about sheep stealing in the church here. Yes, there is that thing where the vicar of the newly founded church in the neighbourhood figures out that in order to boost their numbers it is much easier to invite your congregation over than to actually convert people to Christianity. But let’s not open that can of worms; let’s stick to four-legged animals for the moment.

Call me naïve – it never actually occurred to me that there is a lot of profit to be made by stealing actual life sheep from other people’s fields. It’s a big thing though. In the UK there are almost 90000 sheep stolen every year, at a cost of more than £6m to farmers. And apart from insurance, there is not a lot farmers can do about it. You mark your sheep and put a padlock on the gate, but that is not going to stop serious rustlers. So, it is an issue, and it seems it was just as much of an issue at Jesus’ time.

The circumstances were slightly different: Unlike in Cornwall, food and water were quite sparse in the arid climate in Israel, and therefore sheep needed to be moved much more frequently to avoid overgrazing. There were also a lot more predators around: Wolves, panthers, hyenas, jackals, possibly even bears and lions. So, leaving the sheep on their own in an enclosed field was not an option. Shepherds had to be in continuous attendance. During the day they moved the herd around, and to protect them at night they often penned them in in a stone wall enclosure. The only entrance to the enclosure was a simple gap in the wall, and rather than closing it with a gate, the shepherds would personally guard it by settling down for the night right in the gap. The shepherd himself quite literally was the gate – as if to say to any wolf or lion: If you want to get to my sheep, you have to go through me first!

This is the mental image that Jesus tries to evoke when he talks of himself as being the gate of the sheep. He is the sort of shepherd who in order to protect those in his care puts himself in the line of danger. He does not stand far off, but rather, when it comes to it, he leaps right into the breach. This is why he gave his life for us on the cross.

The other interesting thing about these sheepfolds is that they were often shared by several shepherds. The herds would freely mix and needed to be separated out again in the morning. This was possible because up to this day, in the middle east sheep are trained to recognise their shepherds voice. They are normally not herded by driving them from behind, but follow the calls of the shepherd who goes in front. Therefore, they are so used to walking towards their shepherd’s familiar voice, that they can easily be separated just by calling them. Mix-ups are unlikely because the sheep simply do not follow the call of a stranger.

It makes me wonder: Whose voices do we follow?

There is such a plethora of voices around, all of whom claim to lead us in the right direction. We hear of fake news, email scams, we are smothered in political campaigning and commercial advertising. There are differences of opinion on everything, even within the church. Whom can we trust and follow? How can we distinguish between a good shepherd and a thief? It is an age-old question: How do we recognise the voice of God and distinguish it from all the other voices?

Thankfully, wiser people than me have wrestled with this question, one of whom is Ignatius of Loyola. Apart from founding the Jesuit order, he developed an elaborate system of Spiritual Exercises that are designed for people to find their true purpose and calling. A lot of it boils down to the question: How do I know if my plans and desires are in line with God’s purpose, or whether I am being led astray? Ignatius says: you actually already know it. Deep down in your heart you can feel if your plans are good or not. Modern day Jesuits put it like this: “Ignatius realised that if you act in accord with God’s desires for you, you will feel a sense of rightness, tranquillity and peace, what Ignatius called consolation. The main feature of feelings of consolation is that their direction is toward growth, creativity and a genuine fullness of life and love in that they draw us to a fuller, effective, generous love of God and other people, and to a right love of ourselves.”

So note, this is not as simple as “Oh I just do what makes me feel good.” It is not about any sort of selfish short-term gratification. But neither should we make the mistake of thinking that following God has to be onerous and joyless. Because our God is a God of life and resurrection. In his parable, Jesus makes this distinction between himself as the good shepherd and the thieves: The thief comes only to kill and steal and destroy. I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

There is just one gate, Jesus Christ, but a variety of shepherd’s voices that might be calling us in Christ’s name but also thief’s voices that lead us astray for their own gain. So here is my challenge to you: When you are faced with a decision, when you are unsure what to do, whom to follow, which voice to trust, ask yourself: Does this make me listless and numb or does it fill me with joy and peace? Is it life-giving and life-enhancing, not only for me but also for others?

And actively look for this shepherd’s voice. When you have a moment of quiet, why not look back over your day or your week, and ask yourself: What have I done or experienced that has strangely warmed my heart, that just felt like the right thing to do, that has made me and others come to life? This is when you know that you are following the voice of the good shepherd who wants all his people to have life, and have it abundantly. Amen.