A Room with a View

 

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Dear Readers,

I’ve moved! I’ve officially moved house and am settling into my room. I’m currently ignoring the chaos behind me and looking out at my new view. The last rays of the setting sun have back-lit the trees and the lake; everything is glowing in peace. It will be an inspiring place to write and I am thankful to be here.

As well as having a new home for myself, I’ve got a new home for my words, too. I’m going to be blogging here from now on. So come and have a look around and read about something beautiful that happened in my classroom at the end of the year.

Stories of hope seem more important than ever today, don’t they?

PS: Just click on follow if you’d like to be notified when I publish a new post on Medium.

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Summer reads for the soul

 

summer reads (2)Whenever I recommend books to people, I feel like the proverbial Jewish mother – ‘read, read!’ I say, with the sincere intention of feeding people’s hunger. So pull up a chair and see if you can find something tempting here.

Daring Greatly, by Brene Brown
In Daring Greatly, Brene Brown explores the nature of vulnerability and its role in helping us to stay emotionally healthy. In the interests of honesty, I hate being vulnerable, and it’s been a pretty vulnerable year for me. So this book has been an invaluable guide in helping me to process some of that. Throughout the book, Brown offers research-based strategies for how to show up and stay emotionally engaged even when we’d rather run a million miles and how to handle it when things go wrong. I badly need to learn these lessons and suspect this book might turn out to be a life-changer.

The Listening Day, Vol. 1, by Paul J. Pastor
This is a series of short reflections, written as conversations between God and the author, that are wise, profound, poetic and deeply rooted in the words of the bible. Reading them puts me in mind of C.S. Lewis’s words about Aslan: ‘…he isn’t safe, but he is good.’

As an aside, Paul sent a free, signed copy of this book to a friend of mine as part of a giveaway. He is a kind man, which just makes me want to read his books even more.

Never Unfriended, by Lisa-Jo Baker
Women have the enormous capacity to either heal or hurt each other and so our friendships can be tricky to negotiate sometimes. In this book, Lisa-Jo Baker explores different aspects of friendship, helping us to persevere through the bumpy moments and giving practical advice on how to avoid some of the pitfalls that can cause female friendships to flounder. I found the parts of the book that talked about how to support friends who are grieving particularly moving. It’s worth reading for that section alone.

Wearing God, by Lauren Winner
I’ve loved everything I’ve read by Lauren Winner and this book is no exception. In it, she examines some of the more overlooked biblical metaphors for God, such as clothing, smell, flame and laughter. She skilfully draws on a range of resources to broaden our understanding about the rich nature of God and how we relate to him. I particularly enjoyed her discussion around how we almost exclusively use masculine pronouns and male constructs for God. This leads us to imagine that God is male, when in fact God is neither male nor female. Winner examines her own practice of trying to avoid using third-person singular person pronouns for God, but also using ‘he’ or ‘she’ on occasions when it feels appropriate. She explains: ‘calling God “She” sometimes feels very uncomfortable to me, but I persist with it because I believe it is the Holy Spirit doing the uncomforting, and that the uncomforting is holy and blessed.’

Flee, Be Silent, Pray, by Ed Cyzewski
I wrote about Butterfly Soup recently, that stage of development when the caterpillar disintegrates into mush and is held together by its cocoon. Reading this book about the contemplative disciplines of the early church mothers and fathers reminded me again of that image. The repeated spiritual practices of centring prayer, silence and solitude can help to spin a chrysalis around us, creating a place where we are held safe as we undergo our own metamorphosis.

Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson
This beautiful novel details Woodson’s childhood as an African America in the 1960s and 1970s. It is written as a series of poems, forcing you to linger over the text and savour every captivating word and phrase. If you need to find a more unhurried pace of life this summer, Brown Girl Dreaming is the perfect slow read.

Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson
Set in small-town Iowa, in the 1950s, Gilead takes the form of a letter written by the preacher, John Ames, to his young son. It is part  a memoir of his life and part an account of how he explores the interplay of his faith with the various circumstances of his family and friends. The book is written with the insight of an old man who has spent decades in philosophical and spiritual contemplation; a man who resists the futility of easy answers and who has the self-understanding to acknowledge his own struggles with an honesty and vulnerability that is deeply moving. There is much profound wisdom to be found in these pages, and there are many quotes I have underlined and written in my journal. But this one is my favourite: ‘Hope deferred is still hope.’

How about you? What’s feeding your soul this summer?

The Vulnerable Teacher

I burnt out this year.

I remember the precise moment the flame finally sizzled out. It was a Wednesday morning. I can vividly recall the feelings, the waves of panic and distress rising in my chest, the deluge of tears that wouldn’t stop.

I was signed off work for three weeks…

I’m writing the story of my year in teaching over at Primary Musings, my education blog, today. Click here to read more. 

Smiling into the fire

“She has been through hell, so believe me when I say,
fear her when she looks into a fire and smiles.”
E. Corona.

I watched Wonder Woman last night. I loved the funny secretary, the ragtag bunch of friends, the historical setting, the community of Amazonian warrior women. I loved the male characters who were secure and weren’t threatened by Wonder Woman’s leadership or abilities but, on the whole, just let her get on with things.

But most of all, I loved Wonder Woman herself. I loved the non-sexual depiction of a strong, female character. I loved watching her throw off the restraints of what society deemed appropriate so that she was free to carry out her mission. I loved watching her get thrown to the ground only to get back up again, stronger. I loved watching her silence everyone who told her it was impossible by going out and doing the very thing they said she couldn’t do. I loved watching her fix her gaze and stride purposely through no-man’s land and the firestorm of bullets and explosions, determined to help others and fulfil her destiny.

*****

According to the bible, there is a time for everything. There’s a time for peace, but there’s also a time for war. There’s a time to embrace, but also a time to refrain from embracing. There’s a time to be silent, but there’s also a time to stand up and speak out.

The time comes when you have to draw a line in the sand and say no more. Sometimes that happens within us. It’s that refusal to be complicit with the lie that we’re not good enough, that we can’t do it, that our culture or society deems us and our dreams inappropriate, that it’s time to give up.

Sometimes the fight is outside in the world. It’s the willingness to stand up against injustice. It’s the refusal to believe that increased use of food banks is inevitable; that people’s worth is determined by the amount of wealth they create, their gender or their skin colour. It’s the perseverance to keep fighting against poverty, violence and war.

*****

A few months ago, in my home city of Birmingham, a far right organisation called the English Defence League organised a demonstration. One of the group began to racially abuse a woman in a hijab, when Saffiyah Khan stepped up and drew her line in the sand. She fixed her steely gaze on that firestorm and smiled, because she knew a secret. Just by standing there, she had already won.

Photo Credit: Joe Giddens, Press Association

Butterfly Soup

Now these three remain: faith, hope and love.
But the greatest of these is love.
1 Corinthians 13:13


Betsy butterfly pic 2

Apparently, when caterpillars begin their transformation into butterflies, they don’t just snuggle up in their chrysalis and grow some wings. Most of what they are dissolves into a kind of mushy pulp, so that their DNA can rearrange itself into something completely different.

Becoming butterfly soup is not such a comfortable feeling. All the old, familiar ways of being have to disintegrate before something new can be formed. It’s hard emotional work when the narrative arc of your life is unravelling and the core of who you are is in flux.

But here’s the question I’ve been living with:

Where is your cocoon?

What is it that surrounds you and holds you together and keeps you safe during this process of deconstruction?

The answer comes in a half-remembered song lyric:

All I know, all I know, love will save the day.

Love is the cocoon spun tightly round us when our world is disintegrating. It’s the safety net that gives us permission to feel our feelings through all the turmoil of change. It’s the shelter that gives us somewhere to rest when we’re falling apart.

We create these spaces for each other when we’re consistent and trustworthy; when we show up for the big occasions and the daily grind; when we listen to each other, honouring our different stories.

Love becomes our refuge. It is a tent spread over us, a sanctuary where we may wait together in hope that eventually, something beautiful will emerge.

 

Photo Credit: Betsy McIntyre

When you’re feeling a bit grubby

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Have you ever noticed how grubby some things can get in the summer?

Shoes, feet, soul.

The close of the school year has them all feeling a bit frayed round the edges, a bit scuffed up and battered, a bit past their best.

I’ve imagined that God hates all this dirtiness and disarray. I’ve thought of him as a perfectionist that likes me better if I’m scrubbed up, sweet-smelling and clean. I assume that in the messy moments he distances himself so he doesn’t have to put up with me while I’m not at my best.

But this week I remembered those precious words, that nothing can separate us from the love of God. Not bad attitudes or frayed tempers; not thoughtless words or mean thoughts; not battered souls or doubtful hearts.

And I remembered the story of Jesus humbling himself  to tend to his disciples’ dirty feet.

When everything is in a mess, he doesn’t leave but gets down there in the dirt with us. He takes those vulnerable, strange, often aching parts of us, that get so grubby in some seasons, and tenderly washes them clean with his own two hands.

 

Surviving the waves

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Matthew 5:4

When you’re swimming in huge waves, the best thing is to dive straight into them. You take a deep breath and make the conscious choice to go under the water, trusting you will find your way back up again. If you don’t, the current will pull you under anyway, dragging you along the seabed until it spits you out, battered, bruised and breathless on the shoreline.

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There seems to be wave after wave to negotiate sometimes. Westminster, Manchester, London Bridge, Grenfell Towers. Poverty, injustice, grief, loss, heartbreak, disappointment. How can we face such a deluge without drowning?

Maybe it starts with being honest and telling the truth about our own stories and the story of our society, even the hard parts. It’s so tempting to present only the best, most faith-filled versions of ourselves. It’s so easy to jump straight to an automatic ‘just-trust-God’ response. It seems so much more sanitary for everyone if we numb our pain instead of expressing it.

But the Bible is full of lament and we do ourselves and our communities a damaging injustice if we refuse to allow people to feel their feelings in the name of staying strong, or having faith.

Even so, there are no easy options. Choosing to make yourself vulnerable can be terrifying. Other people’s anguish is a weighty thing to carry. Challenging years of systemic neglect and injustice is painstaking, difficult work. But every wave of the terrible brings with it the possibility of the beautiful. Relationships are formed and deepened; communities are knit together more closely; generosity swallows up scarcity whole. Tidal waves of suffering and compassion rush in together, inseparable as the salt from the sea.

Perhaps this is what it means to be baptised.
Perhaps this is the way to redemption.

 

Picture Credit: Wave, Craig Bennett