The Curates Calling… Turning Aside

What does it mean to turn aside?

This has been a question I have been pondering since our midweek Communion service, earlier today. It stems from God’s command to Moses, in Exodus 3, to turn aside and see why the bush is not burning up (vs. 3). And the reason those few words struck a chord with me today, I think, is because, as a newly ordained Deacon, life feels rather full-on. My diary over the last few weeks has been full, to overflowing, with lots of meetings, committees and different groups to attend; lots of people to meet as a result; as well as the, somewhat regular stuff which, I am required to do, by being in the very role I am in. And, if I’m not careful, this busyness, can become my rule of life, something which I simply accept, and settle in to, as my ministry progresses. And, it’s so easy for that to happen. Having come from a busy parish, into another one, I know what its like. You spend so much time racing through things to get where you need to be, that it’s so easy to miss out on what’s right in front of you. What’s going on in the present moment.

This is something I think we can all learn from the story of the burning bush in Exodus 3, since, like us, Moses’ too could’ve walked straight by, thinking it odd, but being so focused on where he was going, that he didn’t take the time to ‘turn aside’. And thus, would’ve missed out on his encounter with God. Turning aside then, means we must stop, even just for a moment, to look for our own burning bushes – the place where God is, and where God wants to meet with us, because, without those moments, without those times of encounter, we can’t do any of the things we are called to.

So, the challenge for me, in these first few months, is to ensure that in my busy schedule, there is time for me to ‘turn aside, take off my sandals’, and stand in the presence of God, asking him to reveal to me that which he is calling me to at that particular moment, not what he might be asking of me in 6 months time.

May we be people who recognise the burning bushes in our midst, and be brave enough to stop, turn aside, and meet with the living God, who is our strength and life.

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Ash Wednesday Reflections

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

These are familiar words. Words which I’ve heard again and again. Words which have been spoken over me every year, since starting at a Catholic secondary school. Words which, haven’t had much significant, personal meaning too me… that is until today… As I stood and the cross-shaped ash marked my face, these words cut me like a knife – “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Four months ago, along with my family, I stood in a garden at the crematorium, as we scattered the ashes of my late grandmother. And, as the ashes hit the ground, I remember thinking, is that it? Is that all that becomes of us in the end? How could my grandmother, who had lived a very full life, amount to a small amount of dust, which was now scattered on the ground?

And this morning, it hit me. The dust, or ash, that we use to mark our heads today is a sign of life and death, all at the same time.

The dust, or ash that we mark on our foreheads today, reminds us of our mortality, which causes us to examine our lives – which is why we are encouraged to either give things up, or take new things on. Yet, it also calls us to take hold of that life, which really is life (1 Tim. 6. 19). It’s so easy for us, as I did, to look at the dust and see nothingness. To see the end of something. Because, in our hands, dust disintegrates and disappears. But, in Gods hands, dust is how he reveals his glory. It was from dust that God created and formed us. It was from nothing that God put flesh on dry bones, and life in a dry womb. Those things which we dismiss as nothing, as insignificant, as worthless, they are the very things which God uses to reveal his glory. Which is why, I can look at the dust scattered next to my feet, and see life, not death; see a beginning, not an ending. Because, in Christ we know that life which really is life. That life which goes beyond our limited life here on earth. And with that knowledge, we have never been more fully alive!

 

 

Ordinand Adventures… Finding your voice

Tonight, I picked up my trumpet for the first time in over 3 years. A friend had asked me if I’d consider joining the band she was a part of, as they were desperate for trumpet players, and I reluctantly said yes. Reluctantly because there was so much fear. Fear of what it would sound like. Fear of not being able to play. Fear of not being good enough. But after being encouraged to just give it a go, I did. And it wasn’t anywhere near as bad as I thought. It wasn’t perfect, but it wasn’t awful either. And as I played, as I fumbled my way through the dark, I was reminded of what it was like when I was first learning to play over 10 years ago. Memories came flooding back of times when I played on my own in my room at home, times when I played at school, times when I toured parts of Europe with the county wind band. And I realised none of that would’ve happened without the gentle encouragement of those closest to me.

Confidence has always been something I’ve lacked. Something which I’ve had to work hard on over the years. And as I look back, I noticed that my confidence grew in those places where people encouraged me to either give something a go, for the first time, or to just keep going with something that I’d tried but wasn’t sure about. As I played those first few notes on my trumpet this evening, I was reminded of one of the first times I played. In the living room of my parents house, with my grandparents sat patiently listening. And as I played, I was reminded of my grandparents encouragement to me – encouragement to stick with it, encouragement to keep going.

That memory has been particularly helpful to me today. My grandmother passed away suddenly a few weeks ago, and there have been times in these past few weeks where I’ve wondered how we as a family are to ‘just keep going’ without her. When she passed away, one of my greatest sadnesses was that she wouldn’t be at my ordination next year. My grandmother was a woman of deep faith, a woman who’s example I had not fully recognised, or at the very least perhaps taken for granted while she was alive. It was both her and my grandpa (who passed away a few years ago now) who encouraged me to find my voice in church. I wrote some time ago of the memory of standing on my chair between them at the back of church, loudly singing ‘alleluia’.

All of us at different times in our lives need the gentle encouragement to either try something new, or stick with something that seems difficult, but which we know (even if not at the time) will be a fruitful experience for us. And from thinking about my grandma, I later thought about all the people who have done that for me over the years. People, without whom I would not be where I am today. And I realised how easy it is for those moments, for those people, for those encouragements to pass us by, without ever fully appreciating them, or letting them sink in and speak to our daily lives. Hindsight is a wonderful thing isn’t it? But wouldn’t it be great if we took a moment, in the midst of the unknown, in the midst of the fear, in the midst of our daily lives, to stop and give thanks for those Barnabus’ in our lives, for those who encourage us.

And though my grandma won’t physically be in the cathedral, on July 2nd next year, she’ll be there in my memories, and she’ll also be there as a part of that great cloud of witnesses, which the writer of the Hebrews talks about. And that gives me confidence to ‘just keep going’…

 

 

Ordinand Adventures… Go back to the moment of truth

This past week, Calum and I have been at a Christian conference called Momentum. It was great to be with 3000 or so others, in their 20s and 30s, to worship Jesus, to meet with God and to be changed by his Spirit. There was great teaching. Great worship. And plenty of opportunities to meet with God. But there was something inside of me that wasn’t really there. That, though I was physically there, I wasn’t spiritually, or emotionally there. I’ve been reflecting on this since being home, and I couldn’t quite put words to it. That was until I read Calum’s clergy letter for his parish magazine. He talked about how he witnessed so many people, like us, who are involved in Christian ministry, arrive at this conference completely exhausted. And I wondered how I’d managed to get myself in this state. I’d been working hard, yes. But I’d also been taking my day off, and looking after myself as best I could. But I haven’t been looking after myself in the way which is most important in this whole process… I hadn’t been looking after myself spiritually. My prayer life felt stagnant. I’d slotted into a particular way of worshipping, and struggled to move out of that… something not like me! And I felt alone, even to the point of feeling far from those who love me most.

God challenged me about this one night. As I sat amidst thousands of people worshipping their hearts out, God brought to my mind the story of Mary and Martha in Luke’s gospel. If I’m honest, I’ve always struggled with Jesus’ total disregard of Martha’s efforts. As surely,  by serving, she was also worshipping? She was also ascribing worth to Jesus? After all, that’s what we do when we have visitors don’t we? We spend hours getting the house ready. Making sure the cupboards are full. Making sure everything is ready. But I realised that night just why I had felt uncomfortable. It was because that was me. I am naturally a practical ‘hands on’ kind of person. I always look for things to do, and have a need to be kept busy. Even to the point of remembering why I am doing what I do. And Jesus was asking me to be more like Mary. To simply sit at his feet in worship.

This past year has stretched me. Challenged me. Grown me. All of which is fantastic, and I wouldn’t trade the experience for the world. But the thing I have learnt most, after having some time away to reflect and pray… It is so easy to get caught in a cycle – to go through the motions.

The Lord opened my heart that night, as I sat and surrendered myself to him once more. The challenge now… to not lose momentum, but to keep coming back to the feet of Jesus. To keep coming back to that ‘moment of truth, when I first talked to Jesus, and he reached out for me’, as the song lyric goes.

My prayer is this – to lift my eyes, even just a little, so that I can always see the face of Jesus in my midst. And with that, I can do anything!

Ordinand Adventures… Finding Sanctuary

Endings are significant. They mark something. A change? A close? Maybe even a new beginning? The first half term of my theological training has come and gone by so quickly, and over the course of my ‘break’ I have been reflecting on all that has taken place over the last 6 weeks. What God has been saying to me. And where I see the Spirit moving in my life.

Recently, I have felt overwhelmed, and yet somehow alone. And I’ve been reflecting recently on the fact that offering yourself for full-time ministry can be a very lonely place indeed. Yes I have a wonderful husband, a supportive family and a core group of friends who have stuck around to journey in this season with me, but I somehow still feel isolated, out on the edge, away from it all – whatever it all is! I remember when I finished school, someone said to me ‘it is here that you will have friends for life’, and I didn’t. I moved to a different college, made new friends, and lost contact with nearly everyone from school. And then in college I thought ‘it is here where I will find friends who I will have for life’, and though I had some deep, valuable friendships, even they fizzled away after we all went in our different directions. And then university came. This time, I thought to myself, this time it will be different. This time I will find friends who will be friends for life. but, 2 years out of university, I sense that though there are still some in my life who I met at university, my relationships with them aren’t quite the same, nor are they quite how I envisaged them being once I entered adulthood.

But there is something inside of me that longs for deep friendship. There is something inside of me that longs for a community to belong to. There is something inside of me that wants to find a place where I can fully be me. Because, if I’m honest, there aren’t many places where I can be me. I’m either the Parish Ordinand, or the Curate’s Wife (both of which I love being). But I often wonder, how much I can just be ‘Jess’ in those places. The further into ministry I go, the less space there will be, for me to be fully myself. I will have particular responsibilities. There will be people who want me to be particular things for them. And though I offer something of myself to the role, I cannot offer all of myself to it. And yet, I know I need those spaces, those spaces to fully be myself because otherwise, I couldn’t fully do what God has called me to do. I am so thankful to those who have chosen to walk this path with me, but I am aware that this path isn’t easy. I am aware that this path isn’t ordinary. And I am aware that this path sometimes takes me away from the things and the people that I love.

When I was at University, it was easy to form friendships, and maintain them; it was easy to be a part of a community, because it was intentional. But post-university, I have come to discover that that’s not so easy. That your friendships and the community you belong to are what you make of them. And so I am constantly searching for sanctuary. For a safe space. For a sacred space. For a space where I can be fully me, but in a space where I can be fully me with others. I need people. I know that I cannot walk this path alone. I wonder where those spaces might be for you? I wonder whether you know who those people are in your life with whom you can fully be yourself? I’ve learnt that the hard way. I have loved, and I have lost. And I wonder what role God has in all of this? Is this stripping back or honing in for a purpose? Will those who are so actively involved in my life now, always be so actively involved in my life? And will I be able to find those places of sanctuary, those places of safety, the further into ministry I go?

Formation (the official term the Church of England like to use when talking about training) isn’t easy, but its necessary. Over the past 5 years, I know that God has been creating me to be the person he has called me to be. And that has meant letting go of some things, and walking away from some things. And that has been hard. And I know over the next 2 years, and for the rest of my ministry and Christian life, God will continue to change, form and shape me into the person he wants me to be. And so it is all the more important that I can find those places of sanctuary and safety, those places I can belong, be known, and be loved. And its surprising where and with whom that is…

Jesus said: For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.

Ordinand Adventures… ‘Where you go I go’

“In all truth I tell you when you were young you put on your belt and walked where you liked; but when you grow old you will stretch out your hands and somebody else will put a belt around you and take you where you would rather not go.” (John 21:18)

Watching my husband prepare to lead a Young Vocations Conference the other morning made me think about my journey toward ordination. My journey can only be described as an adventure. It’s had its ups, it’s had its downs (and believe me, the majority of this adventure was downs!) I have seen great blessing and great joy, but I have also known great struggle. Jesus’ words to Peter (after he has asked him if he loves him, and commissioned him to be a shepherd of his people) speak something of my journey toward ordination. It speaks themes of obedience, of sacrifice, of an openness to God’s leading. All of which are required of you when discerning your vocation.

A really significant step for me on my journey toward ordination came at the end of my time at University. Like any 21-year-old, drawing toward the end of their formal education I was anxious; anxious about what lay ahead, anxious about whether I would find employment, anxious to ‘find’ my calling. And I found myself at a crossroads. One way was safe, the other was costly… For those who know me, you’ll know that I like things that feel safe, things that are familiar, things that are comfortable. And so I took the road that was safe. I so desperately wanted to stay in Chester (or the North-West at the very least!) and so I remember searching for jobs, any jobs in that area! I went through a season of struggle, where applications were either rejected or completed ignored, or where if I got an interview, that was as far as it got. But then came a post which really suited me, but which was over 200 miles away! I wrestled. I wrestled with myself. I wrestled with my friends. I wrestled with God. How could I have found my dream job, but it be 200 miles away?

Long story short… I applied for the job. But I didn’t initially get it. Case closed I thought. Clearly that’s not what I’m meant to be doing, or where I’m meant to be. But nothing could have prepared me for what happened next. The person they had appointed pulled out, and so the job was offered to me. A month after hearing it was a ‘no’, a month of accepting that it wasn’t right, a month of continuing to search for jobs, I was faced with a new question. A new challenge. A new opportunity.

Jesus’ words to Peter couldn’t resonate more with my experience. I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to leave behind all that was safe, all that was familiar, all that was comfortable. I didn’t want to take the risk of taking the costly path. And yet, something inside of me said ‘go’. Something inside of me said ‘say yes’. I remember walking around the walls in Chester (a walk I would often do to get away from it all, to create some space to walk and talk with God) and hearing the story of Jonah. God sent Jonah to Tarshish, and instead of following the call of God, a call which was costly and sacrificial, Jonah played it safe, and ran away from God. I knew straight away… I was being like Jonah (this revealing of God was so uncommon to my experience that I knew it was significant!) God was asking me

to follow him completely. He was asking me to be obedient, to sacrifice that which was comfortable and familiar and follow him down a new road.

And that afternoon, I surrendered myself to God once again. Sat here reflecting on that experience, I am reminded of Susan’s words in ‘The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe’:

“Is he safe?”

“Safe” said Mr Beaver… “Who said anything about safe? Of course he isn’t safe. But he is good!”

Though moving to London wasn’t the ‘safest’ option. Though moving to London wasn’t the ‘easiest’ option. Moving to London was the best option. It provided me with experiences and opportunities I wouldn’t have had elsewhere, let alone in Chester, had I stayed. And Jesus’ words to Peter, here in John’s Gospel remind us of that.

Henri Nouwen says: “‘When you were young you were dependent and could not go where you wanted, but when you grow old you will be able to make your own decisions, go your own way, and control your own destiny.’ But Jesus has a different vision of maturity: it is the ability and willingness to be led where you would rather not go. Immediately after Peter has been commissioned to be a leader of his sheep, Jesus confronts him with the hard truth that the servant-leader is the leader who is being led to unknown, undesirable, and painful places.”

That’s what it means to truly follow Jesus. And though it isn’t easy, and though at times it doesn’t feel safe, it is definitely worth it!

Ordinand Adventures… The Start of Something New

“You already look the part” was one of many comments made to me as I stood by the front door, posing for a photograph on my first day at ‘Vicar School’. I’ve been thinking over that for the past few days now, and I wonder what it actually means? Does it mean that I need to think carefully about my wardrobe choices before I leave the house each day, for fear of looking like your stereotypical female priest? Or does it mean because I look the part, I must already have everything already needed to play the part? Or maybe, that someone could see something in me, that I have always struggled to see, something which I still struggle to see even today.

I am about to undergo two years of theological education which will (hopefully!) prepare me to be a priest in the Church of England. My journey up to this point has been far from easy. It’s been a long and winding road, full of ups and downs. I have resisted the call of God and said ‘no’ more times than I care to count. And when I walked out of my front door on Monday morning and made my way towards Liverpool Cathedral (where I will be based for my training), I still couldn’t believe that this was all actually happening!! God has called me. The Church has recognized that. And at the end of these two years, ready or not, I will (hopefully) have a white piece of plastic strapped to my neck. And I really will look the part then!

I have recently begun to study the book of Daniel. Daniel is often known for having exceptional courage, and great faith, even in the face of suffering. And above all else, he puts God first. Courage and faith are two things that I will certainly need over the course of these next two years (and beyond) – something the director of my college has been praying for, for all those preparing to train at St. Mellitus this year. For just like Daniel, just like Mellitus, just like Aidan (the other name my college has adopted) we are called to be faithful to God, we are all called to be light-bearers of his gospel, and we are all called to invite Jesus into our homes and families, our local communities, our nation [Matthew 28:19-21] – whether we look the part or not!

So, as I begin this new adventure, I ask you to pray with and for me (and for all those who have faithfully responded to the call of God) that I might have great faith and great courage; so that I might begin to see the priest God is forming me to be!