Monday, 25 June 2012

Zambia bound

As of this time next week I’ll be getting ready to board a plane bound for Zambia so there will be a bit of a moratorium on the ol’ blog posts until the end of July (unless I happen to stumble across a PC somewhere on my travels!).
The last time I visited Zambia with Tearfund about seven years ago it was a memorable and life changing experience. It was where I first started to write as I was overwhelmed on every front by new senses and experiences that begged to be recorded somehow. It was where I caught a whiff of my future as we read these words by the prophet Amos (from the Old Testament) writing in about 750 BC.  Speaking as an oracle from God he says:
“Do you know what I want?
   I want justice—oceans of it.
I want fairness—rivers of it.
   That's what I want.”
Read that and see yet another child begging by the side of the road and you will be changed.
I was blessed with capable, confident and insightful leaders on my trip. They facilitated our experiences, noted our reactions and spent the rest of the year encouraging us as we put our experiences into practice back in the UK as youth and student workers in our towns. And now the time has come around for me to be the leader. I can’t wait (and I can’t quite believe it!)!
In Zambia the first time around with my two pals who invented a brillaint game called 'Scary Monsters' which basically involved jumping on my and screaming 'Scary Monsters, arghhhh!'
The group of students we are taking are already remarkable. They are only 16 but I’ve heard statements come out of their mouths that wouldn’t be out of place being spoken by a forty year old. They are shiny with potential and at the start of an exciting journey onto further study or first jobs. It’s a privilege to be trusted with them at such a formative stage.
I’ve mentioned before that I’ve been surprised by my lack of anxiety about the trip (minus a stolen passport fiasco – THAT I was majorly stressed about). It has made me realised that all the ups and downs and many unknowns of the journey to ordination training might have had an effect. Hurrah!  Dare I say it, I think I’ve become more comfortable in the unknown than I have been before.
I’m more comfortable staring a challenge in the face and more confident that, scary as it might seem, the resources will be there when I need them. Even the news that our expedition leader for our mountain climb is dubbed ‘Hardcore Colin’ and wants us to abseil down the side of a mountain hasn’t COMPLETELY done me in. They should start offering the Church of England ministry selection process as a bootcamp for the nerves!
The last few years have been challenge after challenge after challenge and this pattern shows no sign of letting up any time soon. The enormity of the challenges coming up even this year makes me catch my breath when I think about them. But I’m also enjoying it. Immensely. Learning to drop the need to be in control of everything, even a tiny little bit, is hugely liberating. It leads to adventures, unexpected joys and an ability to be more where you are, right now, and enjoy it. I want more, more, more of it!
So I haven’t really thought that much about Zambia. Short of ordering a mozzie net online and sewing some gifts for the ladies we’ll be staying with in a local village I’m going as I am. Taking just the sweet expectation of watching some great kids get a little greater and coming back a little changed for the better myself by the many fantastic people I know I’ll meet. So I’ll see you on the other side!

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

In which I paint too much furniture and get a bit high

The quest for second hand furniture has reached new, dizzy (literally) heights. I have had several pieces furniture sitting around waiting to be transformed from sad brown creatures into gleaming, shiny multi-coloured wonders for some time now. The last few weeks have seen our little flat turned into somewhat of a furniture restoration yard and me into a hunchbacked purveyor of Satinwood.
Some particularly desperate pieces have been salvaged from, in my opinion, the worst of all furniture crimes, bad shabby chic-ing. Now I understand that to some there is a great allure in slopping on paint and then bashing a piece of furniture with chains but not for me. I have just restored a nest of tables sanding off a union jack theme (Yes. Really. Think ‘The Apprentice’) and turned them gleaming, classic cream. Beautiful.
In my quest for second hand heaven I have come across an absolutely brilliant resource that, if you are in Oxford, you absolutely must go to. No excuses. It’s amazing. The place in question is Orinoco, basically a big storage space at the back of a community centre in a suburb west of Oxford that takes in leftovers from DIY jobs and anything else that people are chucking really and re sells them to crafty types.
Think boxes full of old jars, scraps of fabric, rows and rows of half empty paint tins in every colour of the rainbow, plugs, books, paper – EVERYTHING! By redistributing what people would otherwise throw away tons of rubbish is saved from landfill every year. The price is deliberately kept low to keep scrap from landfill so I left with two litres of paint, some tile grout and sandpaper for three pound!
 You have to be willing to climb over boxes and get a bit dirty but that really is part of the fun eh? Ideally coerce someone to come with you and hold your basket by promising them a lunch at Jacob and Fields deli after which is just up the road in Headington. My technique of saying to my husband ‘I have a plan that ends at Jacobs and Field but you have to agree to all of it to get the food,’ worked a treat and is highly recommended!
Tile grout was on my list so that I could try this brilliant idea by Lulastic -  homemade chalkboard paint. The result is a row of little jars with brightly coloured chalk board labels for all my stationary. So brilliant! These will sit proudly on my mini shelves saved from a charity shop  and painted very middle-class but very lovely duck egg blue, lush!
One will never need search for pins again
I have also created this with an old frame my parent were chucking, some blue satinwood and some scrabble tiles left over from my handicraft sale. The idea is that it contains words that sum up God for me. I’m going to hang it over my desk and when I’m staring at another essay or feeling overwhelmed by the task ahead of me I can look at it and remember why I signed up for this crazy lifestyle in the first place.

I love craft!

Friday, 15 June 2012

Poverty, responsibility and not hacking phones

I’ve been thinking this week about responsibility. When the news about phone hacking first broke I remember feeling really alarmed for the people caught up in that culture of journalism. It’s not that it’s not despicable to hack people’s phones, of course it is, but how easy is it to enter a culture like a work place and just tow the line? What everyone is telling you is normal and acceptable become normal. Now we are seeing these people, and their PAs and chauffeurs, facing jail sentences. It is right, they did the wrong thing, but the thought keeps ringing in my ears – how easy was it to end up there?
It’s all a matter of integrity, of course, and taking responsibility for your own choices. A couple of nights ago I was at a talk run by the aid and development charity Tearfund. It made me wonder if the dramatic inequality in the world that we accept as normal is comparable. As an entire nation have we been caught up in a culture where inequality has been accepted and our responsibility abdicated?
I don’t think of God as an angry disciplinarian hauling you up before a cosmic court for every wrong decision you make. That wasn’t the kind of God shown in the life of Jesus who forgave when others were ready to throw stones. But I am absolutely certain that God is justice itself, particularly when it comes to the cause of the weak and the poor.
So I tread a careful line, knowing full acceptance but remembering the standards of the one to whom I appeal. What does he make of our communal acceptance of starvation when we throw yet more food in the bin? Of polluting the earth and allowing the poor to pay for it when their harvests fail and villages flood? So that’s the situation, what of the answer? That’s where it gets tricky eh?
And this brings me back to personal responsibility. Were the people who hacked phones any less responsible because it wasn’t there idea in the first place? Or was the error in colluding with something that they knew, really, was wrong? Standing up against a dominant culture is hard, there is no doubt about it.
And when it comes to global poverty it is even harder. Rather than just NOT hacking a phone we don’t know what to do. We encounter so much suffering through the news or charity campaigns that the sheer volume of it becomes a barrier to acting. Trying to single handily deal with the crises of the world is, like the Tearfund rep last night said, ‘like turning up to an earthquake with a dustpan and brush.’ We can’t change the climate or get clean water to everyone in the world on our own.
My thoughts on this over the last few days can be summed up in the phrase - ‘circle of influence’. I can change everything but I can change what goes on in my ‘circle’. I know I can reduce my own impact on the earth. I can urge the decision makers to hear the voice of the poor. I can grapple with the issues of my day, think things through, seek out opportunities to act. Most of all I can question, is this right or have I just accepted 'normal'?
Rather than living with startled rabbit syndrome brought about by the vastness of the situation I’ve found that accepting that the only thing I can change is myself to be hugely empowering. And more successful. Rather than being startled into inaction, recognising personal responsibility liberates into action. Rather than waiting for the world to change, I change. So there it is, my little contribution to the debate. What’s your take?

Monday, 11 June 2012

Confidence 101

I’m reading a great, if rather ominous sounding, book at the moment called ‘The Seven Deadly Sins of Women in Leadership.’ No, it’s not some hideous diatribe against women leading - in fact it’s quite the opposite. A no holds barred account of the issues common to women taking on leadership roles in male dominated environments (so basically, everywhere in middle/upper management!)
A pretty scary cover!!!
The author of the book, Kate Coleman, is clearly an exceptional woman. Not only did she have to tackle sexism as she went forward as a church leader but also racism as she is a black. No wonder she has developed such an excellent understanding of the obstacles and challenges for women leaders. The book proposes that the issues men and women face when taking on leadership roles are different. Whether this is to do with genetics (I’d argue largely no to this…) or the social expectations that shape girls and young women the book argues that there are certain self-defeating tendencies in women that can sabotage our leadership or our chances of ending up in senior roles.
Unsurprisingly, the book covers seven areas that the author has found particularly affect women. It’s quite sobering reading. A lot of the areas are to do with self-esteem, or rather lack of it. I suppose it’s not a great shock, given that women have been treated as second class for the majority of history, that we should still have a few hang ups about ourselves. And of course there are still a lot of social pressures on women to behave in certain ways and the leadership theories and manuals have historically been written mostly by men and so tailored towards the needs and issues of men in leadership.
From a Christian perspective the book raises some interesting points. The most powerful of these for me has been appealing to Genesis 1 and the account of Adam being alone as ‘not good’. The image of God was only complete in humanity when both male and female were created and worked together to ‘rule over’ (they were commanded to rule, rather than he) and care for the earth. Where one half is missing the image of God is incomplete.
There is also a raft of statistics about how women at senior levels improves the performance of companies and even that recent studies in the Church of England have shown that churches most likely to grow are run by young, female Vicars. When we were looking for our new Vicar it was a constant battle to pull people away from the male vicar, gaggle of kids, Volvo and a Labrador picture.  Ironically this is what we got, minus the Labrador, and he is brilliant - there is nothing wrong with any of those things - but there is another picture. And it can be a darn good one if we take these studies seriously.
When I was on placement recently I worked with a brilliant church warden who told me he had no problem with me being female and leading a church but he did have reservations about me being young. By the end of my placement he sent me a letter with his heartfelt hopes that I would be successful in getting into training for ministry and even said ‘I want you to be my Vicar!’ Perceptions can change but we need to stand up and stand tough to do it. This book is an excellent tool for doing that.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Homemade Home – the challenge triples!!

I posted a while back about how I’m trying to furnish (and decorate – naturally!) our new home near college with all recycled, homemade and second hand items. This is partly because I like the look of mismatched old items with a history (so nothing virtuous about that!) and partly because visiting a landfill site as a Biology student has left me permanently scarred. There’s also a bit of being keen on giving charity shops a boost and finally because I’m pretty cheap and don’t want to spend £100 on a table when I can spend £10. 

The original plan for college was to move into a two bed flat so I could have a study in the second bedroom. This was quite the lap of luxury as we’ve never lived in anything but a one bed. Though a lovely one bed it is. Since being broken into my priorities have changed a bit with houses. Double glazing and sturdy locks have shot to the top of the list so the new build flat was just fine (if a l little cosy!)

I had only just finished figuring out how to get the maximum out of the space and re acclimatize my herb plants to the indoors when a call came from college asking me to come and look at another house that had unexpectedly become available. This one is owned by them so living there would save a huge amount of hassle with a commercial landlord and agent (hurrah for THAT!) AND it had three bedrooms and, drum roll please, a courtyard garden. 

Now none of these things are essential and I really haven’t earned it in any way so I feel a bit jammy really. Jammy and bloomin’ giddy! I’m anticipating a busy and demanding time at college and to have a guaranteed home for three years where I can sip a martini and stare adoringly at my blackcurrant bush in my own garden is HEAVEN. Pure HEAVEN.

This has raised some exciting conundrums about decorating though. I now have a lot more space to fill and the place is totally unfurnished. A call round is being made for any unwanted furniture at the college from students who are moving on (that eclectic taste comes into its own again…!) and rather than a couple of rooms to think about I have a whole range of decisions to make. Just think of the many uses for old jam jars that I can concoct in a PROPER house! With stairs and everything!!

First things first it’s onto the sewing machine to make some new cushion covers and bunting (have we had enough bunting this weekend?! Nah!) and then it’s charity shopping galore. Yesterday uncovered a brilliant set of mini shelves that I’ve painted and am going to put jam jars on (see!?) full of stationary essentials and old school reference books. And that only cost £3.50, took half an hour to collect on foot and attracted only some odd looks from people in Starbucks when we stopped for coffee with our furniture. No worries eh? 

The quest for cheap furniture require a high embarrassment threshold!

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Cassock Woes

On Friday the letter from my college arrived complete with details of the items I need to purchase before the start of term. I'd been warned that some 'clergy dress' was required but I hadn't bargained on how expensive it was going to be. After a quick browse of stockists it quickly dawned that I was to be the Ron Weasley of the 2012 Cuddesdon intake and be bringing some decidedly dodgy looking robes with me as there is no way I can afford new ones. A desperate search for 'make you own cassock' unsurprisingly didn't yield many jems either.

Having been dressed up in a cassock and surplice (black coat with a big white sheet over it basically...) at one of my placements before my interview I knew what those were but was promptly lost when mention of a 'Cassock Alb' came up. Luckily my premier purchase of the year, nay decade, came into it's own again – The ABC of the Church. Think a child's dictionary but with all the obscure details that you can imagine coming up in a 2000 year old institution. And what is chapter 5, why a dictionary of Clergy Dress! This book is going to SAVE me!

I used to be unconvinced by special dress for ministers in church but I've changed my tune. Being part of a more traditional church has widened my perspective. It doesn't have to be jeans and t shirt to be relevant. In fact there is something about church being a bit different from what you encounter every day that appeals to me much more now than it did before.

Special dress is hardly required to stand before God, he takes us as he finds us I've found, but where it's used it's about reverence and respect, a nod to the amazing heritage of the church and a sign to the world (in my currently uneducated opinion!!). Like the dog collar its a statement about who you are and what you have been commissioned to do. It hints at the specialness, the majesty of God. I'll be proud to wear it. Proud and a little intimidated! It's often said that a bride is most likely to freak out when she puts on her wedding dress. The realization dawns of the huge commitment she is about to make. I'm anticipating the same feelings when my cassock (and alb!!) arrive.

The last few months have seen a number of amazing occurrences. Literally at the moment I've realised I need something (and usually can't afford it!) it has suddenly been provided for me. Within hours of receiving the letter from college I had an offer of an old cassock and surplice – for free! The kind benefactor is my size and height so I'll be in style rather than giving Ron Weasley a run for his money! Hurrah! Thank you God!